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)

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Picking up Alexander’s traces in Cyrene (Lybia)

Cyrene, now part of Libya, doesn’t come to my mind right away when following Alexander’s track and I must admit that I didn’t expect to meet him there either – yet I did!
It happened at the local museum, although “museum” is a great word for the barren storage room, hidden behind a courtyard with heavy metal doors. There are only a handful of small barred window high up the walls but in honor of the visitors large flickering neon lights are being switched on. I walk among Roman sarcophagi and statues, meeting familiar statues of Apollo, Aphrodite, Heracles, Isis, Hekate, beside the Three Graces and even Marcus Aurelius. Grumpy Demosthenes is looking very sour and I suddenly realize why: Alexander is standing nearby, larger than life-size with poor remains of his beloved Bucephalus at his feet! Oh wow! I’m digging hard in my Alexander history to fit in Cyrene. Thoughts are rushing through my brain, tumbling helter-skelter, pushing each other aside – I have to straighten this out!

 So, I pick up Alexander after the siege of Gaza, when he arrives in Pelusium, his first stop in Egypt. From here he went to Memphis, the capital of Egypt in his days, where he received a delegation from Cyrene that brought him horses among their gifts. There is a beautiful relief at the Cyrene museum praising these horses for their stamina, especially on the battlefield – a quality that cannot have escaped Alexander’s awareness for this noble animal.

A couple of years ago, I attended a lecture by Olaf Kaper who speculated that the gift of horses may have been an invitation for Alexander to visit Cyrene, a Greek colony at that time and famous for its horses. He speculated that his intention was to visit the city but traveled on to Siwah instead. The full story of this lecture has been published earlier under the title “Alexander the Great in Egypt. Lecture of 24 November 2010. Fascinating stuff!
 
My visit to Cyrene was part of a tour of Libya (before the Arab Spring) and I knew that in antiquity it was one of the major cities of North Africa (counting tens of thousands inhabitant as early as the 5th century BC), together with Leptis Magna and Sabratha in Lybia, Volubilis in Morocco and Douga and El Jem in Tunisia. Yet I never made the link with Alexander or even with the Ptolemies who ruled over Egypt that included Cyrene. Besides, in spite of above information, I had no idea that Cyrene was that big – huge excavations works have been widely rewarded!

Before entering the city, I am confronted with the Temple of Zeus – a truly big and imposing temple. Strangely enough it feels very familiar, as if I have seen it before. The Temple of Poseidon in Paestum (Italy) comes to mind, followed by the Temple of Zeus in Olympia (Greece) and the Parthenon in Athens which are approximately both of the same size, yet this one looks less refined and more solid. The Doric columns date from the 6th century but the temple has suffered many restorations and reconstructions over the centuries, including the addition of Egyptian-style capitals. Just like in Olympia, the naos held a huge statue of the Father of all Gods, a seated Zeus with marble feet and arms attached to a plaster body, a copy of Phidias’ work known as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.  The temple was heavily damaged during the Jewish uprise of 115 AD but thankfully Emperor Hadrian rebuilt it, adding a smaller room inside the old complex. Eventually, the temple collapsed during the strong earthquake of 365 that drew a path of devastation all along the coast of Northern Africa.

I thoroughly enjoy this peaceful setting, walking over pavements scraped by scores of sandals in eons past and exploring every minute detail of which there are many: a marble threshold, a marble plinth, a Greek inscription between the regulae and the friezes but also on the architrave, the majestic steps inside the cella that must have led to the colossal Zeus, the tired marble floor-tiles of the peristyle between the cella walls and the outside columns, etc. Enough to trigger my imagination, an idyllic place were I could stroll on and on. In front of the entrance to the temple huge stone blocks have been assembled in an attempt to piece the oversized letters together to read the inscription Jovis Caesar that once framed the portal.


The most remarkable religious development in Cyrene was the introduction of a new god, Amon (with one single “m”), which we know from Siwah in Egypt. It didn’t take long for the Greeks to identify this divinity with their own supreme Zeus, calling him Ammon (with double “mm”) since “ammos” was the Greek word for sand, hence Sandy Zeus. From here, the cult spread all over Greece by the end of the 6th/early 5th century BC. It is here in Cyrene that the picture of Zeus with rams’ horns is born, the Ammon-Zeus as opposed to the later Zeus-Amon – an image that caught Alexander’s attention while he was in Egypt and eventually appeared on Alexander’s coins in later years.

[For further reading, click here: Cyrene, founded by the Greek]
[Click here to see all the pictures of Cyrene]

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