Alexandria's founded by Alexander

Alexandria's founded by Alexander the Great (by year BC): 334 Alexandria in Troia (Turkey) - 333 Alexandria at Issus/Alexandrette (Iskenderun, Turkey) - 332 Alexandria of Caria/by the Latmos (Alinda, Turkey) - 331 Alexandria Mygdoniae - 331 Alexandria (Egypt) - 330 Alexandria in Areia (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Drangiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Ai-Khanoum OR Termez, Afghanistan) - 328 Alexandria in Margiana (Merv, Turkmenistan) - 326 Alexandria Nicaea (on the Hydaspes, India) - 326 Alexandria Bucephala (on the Hydaspes, India) - 325 Alexandria Sogdia - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria on the Indus - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)

Monday, July 15, 2013

Aspendos, the unfaithful

It seems that the people of Aspendos were not too happy with their Persian ruler for when in 333 BC they heard that Alexander  de Great was on his way, they set out to greet him and surrendered their city on the sole condition that Alexander would not leave a Macedonian garrison behind. Alexander agreed, but demanded payment of fifty talents and the same number of horses as they usually delivered to the Persian King.


Once this agreement was reached, Alexander moved onwards to Side and from there westwards to Sillyum that resisted. While he was in full siege, he was informed that Aspendos had no intention at all to keep their promises. They had called their citizens inside the city-walls and the gates were slammed in the face of Alexander’s ambassadors. The city was bracing itself for an attack. They evidently underestimated Alexander and never expected him to show up in person and so quickly – most probably being in a great state.

Entirely surprised and totally bewildered by their opponent’s quick action, Aspendos was forced to ratify the previously made agreement and promised solemnly to pay the fifty talents they agreed on before. Alexander was smart enough to accept this gesture of goodwill because the city was a strongly defended fortress that could stand a lengthy siege. But he claimed an extra fifty talents, hostages from prominent families, and the payment of a yearly contribution to Macedonia. No kidding!

The oldest name for Aspendos is Estwediiys, a city probably founded by Mopsus around 1200 BC. As early as the fifth century BC, the city minted its own silver coins – with Side the only ones in Pamphylia to do so. In the days of Alexander, Aspendos was flourishing and was best known for its horses. The Persians had the exclusive rights to these noble animals, but now it was Alexander’s turn to claim that contribution and four thousand horses were promptly delivered to his army – quite a stock, I would say.

After Alexander’s death, Aspendos was taken in turn by the Seleucids and the Egyptian Ptolemies, and in the 3rd century AD it became the third city of Pamphylia. Under the Roman Emperors, it was an important trade centre for salt that was collected from the nearby Lake Capria, which according to Strabo dried up in summer enabling an easy harvest. The commerce of wine and horses also flourished till the city finally shared the same ill-fate as its neighbors. The Byzantine Emperors organized and reorganized Asia Minor time and again, joining Lycia to Pamphylia and separating it again in the end, allowing each to be an independent province. Later we find the Arabs’ and the Crusaders’ conquests till the area was absorbed by the Ottoman Empire.

Nothing much is left to see of the old harbor of Aspendos. There is the Seljuk bridge over the Eurymedon River (now Köprü River) which is said to rest on old Roman foundations. You have to be very alert after leaving the D400 towards Aspendos to notice this bridge on your right, but if you can made a halt there it is definitely worth the visit. The bridge, restored as recently as 1996-1998, is about 225 meters long and reaches the opposite bank after a slight knick. Somehow it reminds me of the famous bridge in Mostar, the same vault-construction but here it is repeated seven times. It is the achievement of the Seljuk Emperor Alaaddin Keybatt (1219-1236) who saw the true value of this (re-)construction. You’ll easily find the Roman base in the fast flowing water and it is as easy to imagine how in antiquity ships passed under this bridge (which was higher then) to deliver their goods in Aspendos before the harbor silted up.

The absolute highlight of Aspendos is of course the theatre, one of the best preserved in the world. Like most of the buildings it dates from the 2nd century AD, probably built during the rule of Marcus Aurelius. According to the inscriptions, the side entrances were mandated to architect Zenon by two brothers, Curtius Crispinus and Curtius Auspicatus. Officially the theatre offers seating for at least 20,000 visitors but rumors have it that at times twice as much were crowded inside! It is quite unique to see the well-preserved stage-wall, which somehow may remind the visitor of the Theatre of Herodus Atticus in Athens, but this one is in much better condition. I walk the entire width of the podium that originally was much wider because it had a wooden extension, staring up at all the decorations, garlands and figures around the niches framed with slender columns and which once held statues of important citizens. Under the baldachins of what could be the second level, I discover a series of lovely faces all different in expression and appearance. It’s like the past staring back at me. In the middle of this back-wall a relief of Dionysus fills the triangle of a pediment. On a previous visit the entire stage was hidden because the theatre was still used for performances, now luckily forbidden. So these details are quite a revelation!

This theatre is definitely Roman, a perfect half-circle with a wide gutter at the feet of the lowest row of seats that could be filled with water to enhance the acoustics. I wonder about the need for increased acoustic effect for I’m deafened by the cacophony of people of all nationalities and several busloads of children from local schools. I climb the stairs to the diazoma, the walkway separating the lower and upper part of the theatre and from here the staircases are doubled. It’s lovely to visit the connecting corridors in the back which only served to support the construction and had no specific function – still in such good condition. Back in the blazing sunlight I have an entirely different look at the stage-wall as some of the features are now at eyelevel. I clearly can see the holes that once served to hold the wooden beams for the roof, which covered the stage only and was meant to enhance the acoustics –so clever. Higher up are other holes that could hold the wooden poles used to fix the awning, which protected the theatre-goers from rain and sun. How dare we think that we invented the notion of comfort! Another exceptional feature is the stylish porticus that crowns the upper rows, behind the very last seats, which usually doesn’t survive in these ancient theatres. I walk underneath arches in near-perfect condition along a closed wall to the outside while on the inside the walkway opens into the theatre. Marble blocks and columns frame the separation between one arch and the next. About three of such arches have been carefully restored and blend in entirely with the surviving parts. It does not take a lot of imagination to taste the atmosphere that must have reigned here with so many Romans sandals scraping the pavement.

I also venture inside one of the corner towers that frame the podium. The basement was generally used as foyer for the audience, but the meaning for the staircase above it is not known. This is however a magnificent example of how the Romans built their staircases. In the very center of this tower a square pillar was constructed and all they had to do was to fit a large slab of stone, one for each step, resting on the outside wall and on the central column. It is so simple, yet you have to come up with the idea of course. The outside walls of the right hand tower still hold traces of painted plaster of white and red lozenges, I suppose from Byzantine times or maybe even from the Middle-Ages. Anyway, a clear sign that the theatre was used for a pretty long time.

Next to these towers, above an arched entrance, I find a “royal loge”. I wonder about the exclusivity of  this seating because it only offers a sideway view of the stage.

All in all this is a magnificent construction used till recently when summer opera festivals or performances of The Fire of Anatolia were performed here – now moved to a new theatre in Roman style built outside the town. A good alternative to spare this unique antique site.

For most visitors, this is where their visit ends, but I venture into the antique city over a path that starts between the theatre and the toilets. I walk over a paved road near one of the city gates where the city’s sewage is covered with broad flat slabs. Occasionally one such a slab is missing but that makes it even more exciting because spots like these offer an inside view and I estimate the cavity at about 1x1 meter, a sewage that will not easily clog up!

On the left I feel the shade of the large Basilica, the center of commerce that originally was more than 90 meters long. Only the walls’ fundament have been preserved but they allow a good estimate of the dimensions. The part I see from my path is only an annex but definitely a sturdy one with walls of 15 meters high and almost two meters thick. Next stands an Odeon, that is according to my map but because of the high overgrowth I cannot see it – such a shame, but inevitable I suppose. On the other hand I can access the 15 meters-high Nympheum in front, but it has lost most of its decorations and it takes quite a fertile imagination to picture this fountain in full glory. For those who have seen the Nympheums of Side, Perge or Sagalassos, the mental reconstruction is much easier of course. It now appears as a mere wall, although 37 meters long and 1,8 meters thick – not bad. The Basilica wall runs at right angle with this Nympheum, and in between we should picture the Agora, now entirely overgrown also. The two-storied shops on the opposite side of the Agora are however clearly visible.

After the Agora I can stare into the depths towards the gate through which Alexander entered the city. I scramble down and to my great surprise I discover that this gate also was round, exactly what I had seen in Perge and in Sillyum. I probably read that somewhere, of course, but seeing it with my own eyes is another ballgame altogether. Inside the curves I can still see the niches that once must have held important statues – quite plushy in those days. There are more remains of the Roman city-wall between the trees further down the slope. The archaeologists have still work to do, if they want to.

I get back to the level of the plateau and walk to the edge to admire the other attraction of Aspendos, its famous aqueduct that spans the entire once swampy valley. This is an ideal spot for a good overview of the entire project, but of course, I’ll visit the remains afterwards.

Returning on my steps I encounter a panel pointing to a “temple hill”. I have no idea what this means and decide to follow the general direction. At the top of the low hill I do indeed find remains that seem to refer to a temple, but these are mere foundations. Yet the view from here, now on the other side of the high plateau is worth the detour. The Basilica behind me commands the picture like a medieval fortress in front of which I can now clearly see the Odeon. Higher up lies the Nympheum I passed earlier with the shops belonging to the Agora to its right. Behind me, way down in the valley I discover the outlines of the Stadium and I decide to explore it. Without this eagle’s view I would never have found the vaults that carried the seating area among the exuberant blossoming trees and luscious bushes. The eastside seems to be the best preserved part but it is hard to get proper bearings, although I am sure that this Stadium can’t beat the one of Perge.

Time to turn my attention to the Aqueduct, a masterpiece of Roman architecture that can only compete with the Pont du Gard in France and the aqueduct of Volubilis in Morocco, both however much less dramatic. According to an inscription from the second century AD, a certain Tiberius Claudius Italicus presented it to Aspendos for the astronomic amount of two million denarii! Expensive water …

The water had to come from the other side of the valley and the aqueduct is a most impressive work of art and still a most impressive ruin in the landscape. The inverted siphon of this aqueduct was 1670 meter long and carried the water from two different springs at respectively 400m and 550 m height all the way across the valley to the acropolis of Aspendos situated at an altitude of 60 meters. This inverted siphon is unique because of its excellent state of preservation using three “venter bridges”. For the technical explanation of these bridges I quote Wikipedia: “Where particularly deep or lengthy depressions had to be crossed, inverted siphons could be used instead; here, the conduit terminated in a header tank which fed the water into pipes. These crossed the valley at lower level, supported by a low "venter" bridge, rose to a receiving tank at a slightly lower elevation and discharged into another conduit; the overall gradient was maintained. Siphon pipes were usually made of soldered lead, sometimes reinforced by concrete encasements or stone sleeves. Less often, the pipes themselves were stone or ceramic, jointed as male-female and sealed with lead.” In the case of Aspendos the pipes consisted of 3400 blocks of limestone that were sealed together with a mixture of lime and olive oil that expanded when wet. There are still plenty of these pipes lying around at the feet of the aqueduct, enough to kindle your imagination. At each end of the valley we still can see the thirty meters-high tower (without roof) in which the water would settle down and re-oxygenate itself before flowing onwards. Today a motor road runs underneath each tower, making a close look very tempting and highly rewarding. 


By the time I wrap up my inspection tour, the sun is setting. The entire valley is set afire with this natural floodlight and I feel privileged as if the performance is for me alone. I’m certain that the Romans would never understand my exaltation for these two thousand years-old ruins!

[Click here to see all the pictures of Aspendos]

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