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, Afghanistan) - 329 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)

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Pergamon is simply huge

Pergamon, whose first settlement goes back to the 8th century BC, lies on a strategic hill above the modern city of Bergama in western Turkey. The location was so well chosen that even Alexander the Great did not consider attacking this fortified city, but marched instead around it with the purpose of isolating it. After his death, his general Lysimachus and by then King of Thrace chose Philetairos of Pergamon to secure his share of Alexander’s treasury and, as can be expected, this Philetairos used it in 281 BC to found his own kingdom. Twenty years later he left his realm to his nephew Eumenes I who ruled from 263 till 241 BC. After Eumenes, this splendid city fell into the hands of his heir, Attalus I (241-197 BC). The Attalid rulers were allies of Rome, much to the discontent of Philip V and Perseus of Macedonia who both fought over this wealthy territory during the three Macedonian Wars. Thanks to their support against the Seleucids, the Attalids were rewarded with extended possessions in Asia Minor. By 188 BC, Pergamon and with it the Pergamon Empire had grown considerably and outshone all others, certainly as far as Hellenistic art was concerned. The last Attalid ruler, Attalus III, surrendered Pergamon to the Romans in 133 BC, thus becoming the capital of their Provincia Asia.

During one of my very first and not too brightest guided trip, I sat on the bus pounding over the brilliant history of Pergamon trying to visualize Alexander's approach. We maneuvered through the narrow old and wide modern streets of Bergama, till we reached a smaller road that rose up towards the four kilometers long city wall above the steep slopes. Square bulges overgrown with grass revealed that there was still a lot of stone blocks hidden there awaiting excavation. This impressive wall is the work of Eumenes II (197-159 BC) who wanted to build an Acropolis that would even outshine that of Athens – nothing less. 

The size of Pergamon is simply huge and my misfortune was that I had to follow my unforgiving guide who just marched on, ignoring the streets, columns, and arches on our way – a very frustrating experience. It’s hard to get my bearings, maybe because excavations since 1875 were done by German archaeologists who like to leave things the way they find them unless they can take them apart as they did with the Altar of Zeus to bring the pieces to their museums. It comes as quite a shock to me when my guide points out the barren space once occupied by that very altar in the landscape. Not a single hint is left of that once so proud building! Such a pity since it is considered to be one of the most beautiful altars ever built and a very unusual one as well since it never served as a crepidoma to any temple at all. This enormous marble offer-table dating from 180 BC stood on a huge plinth that also supported the double row of Ionic columns. The Pergamon Museum in Berlin houses this great altar and the visitor has to use all his imagination to mentally transpose that building to this poor wind stricken hill.

I give up trying to locate where I am, running after my guide and secretly vowing to come back one day. I am impressed by the Temple of Trajan that was completed after his death by Emperor Hadrian, measuring 68 x 58 meters and easily recognizable by its Corinthian columns, with an extra colonnade running all around the outside of the temple.

The Library, on the contrary, needs some guesswork. In antiquity is was one of the richest in the world and its 200,000 parchment scrolls went to Alexandria, as Marc Antony’s wedding gift to his Queen Cleopatra. I think it is worth mentioning that until that time, all writing was done on papyri. It was only when Egypt decided to stop its export that alternative solutions had to be found. It was here in Pergamon that the idea was born to use sheep and goat skins instead. These hides were smoothened with pumice and cut into handy sheets. That is how our parchment, the name borrowed from the city of Pergamon, was born. A strange paradox of life to see parchments enter Egypt, the land of the papyri.

After passing a large marble column carrying the symbols of Asclepius, i.e. two intertwined snakes facing each other across a wheel, I reach the Asclepion Complex. It was believed that since snakes shed their skins to be ‘reborn”, the patients would shed their ailments and illness to recover their health. The Asclepion was founded by the great healer Galen (Aeleus Galenus), who was born in Pergamon in 130 BC, where he studied medicine. Asclepius, the Greek god of health and medicine, was known since the 4th century BC and Galen made great use of his knowledge not only as a doctor but also as a psychologist, although the very word did not yet exist. Galen had a thorough knowledge of human anatomy, physiology, and neurology. He had acquired his knowledge by studying wounded gladiators at the healing shrine of Asclepius. As the patients were led through a long vaulted corridor that had at regular intervals circular openings in the ceiling to let in the light, he may have resorted to the therapeutic use of water and music. Water from a nearby source runs down the stairs and follows the entire length of the corridor wall - the longest such passageway I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure if the echo under these vaults was beneficial to the patients and if I can believe my guide who suggested that the patients were drugged with opium in their drinking water, meaning that by the time they reached the end of the corridor they were so confused that they wandered around in the labyrinth that awaited them at the end of this dark passage. Of course, there were caretakers to guide them further to the Temple of Asclepion where the priests gave them psychoanalysis two thousand years before Sigmund Freud was born! Next to the temple lies the theater belonging to the Asclepion Complex, in front of which one can still see several sacred pools that even today are generally filled with water in spring. The entire complex was without any doubt a top notch spa in antiquity! Well, even now, it is quite rewarding to walk here and imagine what must have been going on. 


In the center of Pergamon one simply can’t miss the large theater, the steepest in the world. The oldest parts date from the 3rd century BC but, as always, it has been improved and enlarged several times, particularly under Emperor Caracalla. The portico of this theater measures no less than 246 meters and is approximately 16 meters wide. Unique is that this portico was removable since it covered the adjacent street. Strange however that it seated only 15,000 people, less than the theater in Ephesos although this theater in Pergamon looks much larger. 

It is frightening to walk down the steep steps for the precipice is luring below. From the top rows, however, the visitor has a commanding view over the land around this acropolis and easily can appreciate the strategic location of Pergamon. Undoubtedly the very location of this city must have impressed Alexander. I definitely have to come back one day, were it only to put the many remains of so many buildings on the map of my mind, and more so after seeing its treasures in Berlin.

At the Pergamon Museum of Berlin, the entire Altar of Zeus has been carefully reconstructed, meaning that all the friezes that ran around it have been put in their right sequence. However the visitor is looking at them inside-out for instead of actually walking around the altar, the elements have been placed against the wall surrounding the central part with the flight of stairs leading to the platform. Somehow I find it hard to figure this out properly. But then there is a wonderful reduced model in what looks like marble reflecting the full impact of what this famous altar must have looked like. Such a shame there is close to nothing left in Pergamon though …

[Click here to see all pictures of Pergamon]

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