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 Dragiana/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, June 30, 2014

Bactrian Gold, the Hidden Treasures from the Museum of Kabul

Bactria to me is Alexander country, the lands of Central Asia where he spent two years of his life in 228 and 227 BC. The exceptional exhibition “Afghanistan, hidden treasures from the National Museum, Kabul” covering this period is travelling around the world. It centers on four excavation sites covering a period of roughly 2,500 years, i.e. from two thousand BC to the third century AD.

[Map from National Geographic showing Alexander's Route]

I knew that over the years French and Russian archeologists have been working in the area, entrusting their treasures to the National Museum in Kabul. That is till 1979 when the troops of the USSR invaded Afghanistan. Archeological diggings by Frenchman Paul Bernard at Ai Khanoum for instance had to be interrupted abruptly and when he returned to the site recently, it was thoroughly plundered and destroyed. Most damage was however done a few years later when the Taliban considered it their duty to obliterate every single image of people wherever they found it: on frescoes, mosaics, paintings, reliefs or statues. We all have witnessed what happened to the giant Buddha statues in Bamyan but not too many people are aware that the Museum of Kabul was one heap of rubble after the Taliban had thoroughly ravaged it – a frightening experience! A precious heritage that survived for centuries is being totally destroyed with just one single blow!

Bactria, to use the old name, is located in Central Asia right on the crossroads of old caravan routes, later the Silk Road, the meeting point of all trade routes between east and west. It is not surprising that Alexander the Great put so much time and effort in the conquest of this area for it not only meant a way to secure his back while heading for India, but also an economic asset precisely because of the geographic location of Bactria. Maybe his marriage with Roxana, the daughter of the local chief, was after all a high political move rather than real or impulsive love as some are suggesting? Who knows?

The first objects I am confronted with as I enter the exhibition, are three statues from the Musée Guimet in Paris, dating from Buddhist times but showing a definite Hellenistic influence. You can’t miss them, the way they are presented in full floodlights against a black background, they immediately give your a taste of what to expect. There is this marvelous high relief of a Genius with Flowers from the 4th-5th century AD found in the Buddhist monastery of Hadda in remote northern Afghanistan, yet still magnificently Hellenistic.

At a right angle, in fact right in front of me, stands a showcase filled with one hundred Buddhist heads, sorted by size, i.e. the smaller ones on the lower steps and the bigger ones at the top. This is a fascinating group for all the heads are different and as I take a closer look at each and every one of them either at eye level or from the side, I see how they stare back at me or just ignore me looking away in an absent glance. I take my time to inspect and admire each face, some more Hellenistic than others, with a more elongated or rounder face, longer ears, closed eyelids or just peeping at us visitors. All in all, an amazing group!

From here, the way leads into the movie theater where this French documentary is shown about their exploration and excavations in the magnificent Afghan landscape. It is well documented with clear maps and a captivating view behind the scene – absolutely worth watching. 

The oldest finds (2,000 BC) come from Tepe Fullol. There is only a handful gold bowls and beakers made of thin beaten gold that somehow remind me of old Mycene and the death mask of Agamemnon. Archeologists disagree about the origins of this form of art and the link to other cultures remains obscure. To complicate things, most of the treasure have disappeared, first because the gold was split up between the local tribal chiefs of Northern Afghanistan when it was discovered, and secondly because the entire collection at the Museum of Kabul fell apart. These pieces are exhibited a little out of the way. That is rather unfortunate for they deserve better after being hidden for four thousand years, don’t they?

The section about Ai Khanoum is the most important one, at least in my eyes for it is in fact the very reason of my visit as this city was built in the wake of Alexander the Great’s conquest of the area in 328-327 BC. I am very much impressed by the very idea of discovering this Hellenistic city at the banks of the Amu Daria River (modern Oxus River), complete with Gymnasium, Citadel, Theater and temples. It is not as obvious is it would seem! The Greeks even built a Palace here, much unlike anything else for they never had a king to build a palace for. This one is based on the Persian model but decorated in Greek style with monumental Corinthian capitals on top of the columns and flat roofs with the so-called antefix decorations at the edge. A capital and several antefixes are on display here together with objects like a water jet in the shape of a theatrical mask; a couple of sun dials (which I didn’t expect to find here at all); a Hellenistic Hermes pillar of high quality from the Gymnasium; a face of either a man or a woman; bronze decorative elements; etc.

Eye catcher is the Disk of Cybele from the 3rd century BC made of gilded silver picturing the goddess Cybele on a chariot in Greek style mixed with several eastern influences featuring the fire altar and Helios.

What really excites me is the stone pedestal bearing the Delphic precepts. This wisdom comes from 5th century Delphi and teaches us something in the line of “As a child, learn good manners. As a young man, learn to control your passions. In middle age, be just. In old age, give good advice. When you die, do so without regret.” Can you imagine the impact of this old text, this old wisdom that travelled all the way from Greece to resurface unexpectedly 2,500 years later at the very edge of the desert steppes! That leaves me utterly speechless for a while!

Next comes the collection from Begram, a small town north of Kabul, where in the years before WWII two sealed chambers were uncovered still containing their treasures of ivory furniture from India, plaster medallions and most strikingly an extensive collection of glasswork of clearly Hellenistic origin. Here too each archeologist seem to have his own theory whether these chambers were set up as storage area (since all the ivory was put together, and so was all the bronze and all the glass), or as religious offerings, or maybe this simply is a hidden treasure. 

In any case, the glass-work alone is absolutely fabulous and unique in shape and color and decoration. There are for instance these three goblets (they look more like vases to me, so tall). The countless pieces have been glued back together but just by looking at the colors of these fishing and hunting scenes, you would swear they were painted only yesterday – so vivid and lively! Now try to imagine the impact of such a find, for these drinking beakers were produced in Alexandria in the first century AD and travelled all the way from Egypt to Kabul.

You have to admit that you are looking at something very exceptional. We all know there was an active exchange of goods in antiquity and it comes to us like a simple statement from a history book but here you are faced with the very product of such trade! I keep staring at this glasswork with wide open eyes. Wow! Next to these painted glasses, there are a couple of glass drinking goblets or vases in the shape of fish, blue and off-white with shiny eyes and sharp fins, I’ve never seen anything like this. There are glass-blown vases with honeycomb motives or wrapped in a net of glass lace; an elegant black glass vase with high handle next to a translucent one covered with designs applied with gold leaf; for me an unprecedented variety of delicate, colored and painted glass that makes the cut crystal bowl look rather primitive and dull. Amazing!

In another showcase, all the ivory artifacts have been brought together.
These objects from the first century AD originally all come from India but again are drenched in a Hellenistic sauce. Unique are the ivory River Goddesses of approximately 45 cm high, clearly from Buddhist background, among the exquisite openwork ivory panels showing Indian ladies in exotic gardens with fountains and temple-like buildings, a few monster figures, etc. Strange is the odd shaped earthenware jar with blue-green glaze representing a bird-woman for I cannot tie this style or shape to anything I have seen before.

The bronze artifacts somehow don’t add anything new. I only remember the cute figurine of Amor carrying a lamp and the young rider who seems to refer to Alexander the Great because of the way he is sitting on his horse that is lost from underneath him.

I stop to admire the row of plaster medallions, each about 15 cm in diameter, also dating from the first century AD. They look like oversized molds for the production of coins but were used to create the bottom motives for silver plates and goblets as the silver was poured and hammered around these molds. There are a few striking designs, like the Winged Amor or the high relief of a youth. Just imagine these portraits staring back at you from the bottom of your silver goblet filled with water or wine. I certainly would love to give this a try, wouldn’t you?

Finally, there is the gold treasure from Tillya Tepe, a tomb hill just outside the Greek Bactrian city of Emshi-Tepe in the oasis of Sherberghan. The content of these six tombs was barely rescued when the Soviet-Union entered Afghanistan in 1979 and it was safely transferred to the Museum in Kabul. There was a seventh tomb in that hill at the Turkmenistan border but Viktor Sarianidi, the Russian archeologist who had led these excavations together with his Afghan colleagues ran out of time, and when he recently returned the tomb had been thoroughly plundered. Such a shame! Luckily for us, Sarianidi managed to travel to the Museum of Kabul in the 1980’s in order to take pictures of all 20,000 excavated objects and he published an impressive book. So at least we know exactly what was found at Tillya Tepe.

What followed were uncertain times for the art world and we owe it to a handful of brave Afghans that this treasure was rescued, safely locked away in the vaults of the Presidential Palace. They managed to keep the place a secret. The Museum itself has suffered a great deal from the civil wars as it was repeatedly plundered and artifacts were stolen, and in 1994 it was hit by a rocket setting it on fire. How dreadful! The worst however was still to come when in 2001 the Taliban decided not only to destroy the huge Buddha statues at Bamyan but also to annihilate the 2,500 statues and reliefs of the Museum. We had to wait till 2004 when the government of Afghanistan decided that the situation was safe enough to bring the gold treasures out in the open again, but as the Museum in Kabul cannot shelter this precious collection yet, they contacted the Musée Guimet in Paris. Together they agreed to send these rich finds on a travelling tour. After Paris and Turin (Italy), the collection can presently be seen in Amsterdam, moved on to the united States and is now touring Australia.

The tombs are beautifully presented in high rectangular boxes covered with a glass plate showing the contours of the deceased with underneath each piece of jewelry in its original place. They unearthed one warrior and five women, the man lying at the top of the hill between the two most beautifully dressed women, the other three women being found in the hillside which should have looked like a kurgan according to the nomads’ rituals.

This part of the exhibition clearly states that Northern Afghanistan was the melting pot of different cultures where the influence of China and Greece are interwoven with the lifestyle of the steppe people. Each tomb is an exploration by itself, where all kinds of artifacts of different origins keep each other company in breathtaking harmony.

Of course they all have gold bracelets and anklets inlaid or not with semi-precious stones, but I notice how some women hold a Chinese mirror, from the Han-dynasty apparently; gold pins with on top a gold flower with open petals and vibrant pistils; hairpins as I know them from Japanese geishas but executed in thin flaky gold and tiny pearls; a ring engraved with an Athena figure and Greek inscription, and rings inlaid with precious stones; ornaments for the neck of the robe laid out as a necklace made of gold, turquoise, garnet, carnelian and pyrite; gold earrings preferably inlaid with turquoise; pendants like those of the Dragon Master with turquoise, garnet, lapis-lazuli, carnelian and pearls in a rare symbiosis of Greek, Indian and Chinese elements; a set of gold clasps showing Amor riding a dolphin with turquoise and mother of pearl; even gold foot soles! 

The warrior, supposedly a prince, carries an iron dagger with gold covered handle depicting animals and inlaid with turquoise. His belt made of braided goldthread-strings connecting nine gold medallions showing a warrior riding a lion is an exceptional masterpiece. His head rested on a phial, a plate used for offerings, made of pure gold and measuring nothing less than 23 cm in diameter!

The list seems endless for beside the most striking objects, the collection contains numerous coins, pendants and various decoration items. As the most recent coin found in these tombs is that of Emperor Tiberius (who ruled from 14 to 37 AD), they could be dated with certainty to the first century AD. What we see here is a true amalgamation of art from the steppes (I would personally call this Scythian art), Greek, Indian and Chinese art.

I am terribly excited when I finally catch up with the Aphrodite of Bactria, a five centimeters high gold appliqué inlaid with turquoise. I know the piece from pictures and references but here she is. I go down on my knees to have a closer look and for an instant she is mine alone. The piece de resistance however seems to be the gold crown with gold spangles and flowers. This is in fact a travel crown that can be taken apart as it consists of five separate pieces mounted around a tiny stem holding flattened branches that fit into the band of the crown itself. The spangles are gently shaking as people walk by, so imagine this crown out in the open steppe where the wind can play freely with every tiny detail! A true gem!

It is still unclear to which nomad tribes the tombs of Tillya Tepe belong and how far this melting pot of civilizations reached out. It is generally admitted that these steppe people came from northwestern China or from Parthia (now part of Iran and Turkmenistan), but who knows? Further investigations will tell us some day. For the time being we have to accept that this territory is huge for we have jade from China, garnets from India, turquoise from eastern Iran and lapis lazuli from the mines of Badakhsan (today’s Afghanistan), all found together in this area. And yet we have not mentioned the traders and artists who were on a constant move between China, India and the Roman Empire to produce these beautiful artifacts. It’s a small world – or is it not so small after all?

Anyway, I am convinced that this wide exchange of art and knowledge would not have been possible without Alexander the Great conquering these territories and organizing his Empire as he did.

[Pictures from The Australian by Ollivier Thierry]

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Pella, the birthplace of Alexander the Great

Pella became the capital of Macedonia in the early 4th century BC. The choice for the location is, as always, made with great care. Situated at the mouth of the Axios River the city had a direct access to the sea, although till now the harbor has not yet been located. That is not surprising for today’s Pella lies 25 km land inwards as over the past two thousand years the river has silted up and has covered the remains of the settlement. The land was fertile however sloping up gently towards the mountains which now are part of the Republic Macedonia. Standing here, it is not difficult to mentally erase the houses and roads and imagine what it may have looked like in Alexander’s days with fields of barley, wheat and oats, or rows of olive trees followed by fruit trees, mainly peaches and pomegranate – a garden of Eden.

Any first time visitor to Pella will be struck by the American lay-out of the street plan, all house-blocks of the same size and all streets crossing each other at right angle. The east-west roads were nine meters wide while the north-south streets a mere six meters. A wider ornamental road 15 meters wide ran through the city center to the Agora. Pella knew an excellent water supply and a close look will reveal the underlying functional system with at the crossroad a special earthen urn that collected the dirt and could easily be removed for cleaning. The city counted many wells and fountains, combined with an efficient drainage system.

Excavations are ongoing, with the ups and downs that typically go hand in hand with finances. When I was here the first time in 1973, there were only a few pebble mosaic floors amidst a handful of slender Ionic columns; the most precious mosaics leaning against a shack covered with a piece of roofing. Since then the excavated surface has expanded steadily, and a first small museum housed the earlier exposed mosaics together with marble and terracotta statues among which a head of Alexander as a young prince and a statue representing him as Pan. Most recently a new museum has been built where many more artifacts have joined the collection, now exhibited in chronological order.

The true eye-catchers at the Archeological Museum of Pella are of course the pebble mosaics: a Lion Hunt featuring Alexander and Craterus; Dionysus Seated on a Panther and Carrying the Thyrsus Staff; a Griffon Attacking a Deer; and a couple of centaurs. As always, I’m entirely taken by the Tanagra statuettes among which those of two ladies playing the lyre; a couple of playful cupids and several heads with ladies showing all sorts of hairdo. From the potters’ quarters there is a wide selection of pots, vases, and other vessels, very representative for their period in time. Striking are the ivory and bone elements from now perished wooden kline or couches that have partially been reconstructed. Further, several golden crowns, a wide choice of silver and gold coins; remains of a frescoed wall from the second century BC; a small marble horseman although decapitated still carrying a proud posture; a marble inlaid round table; etc.

The mosaics of Pella are quite unique since they are mainly made with pebbles of different sizes ranging from white to grey to bluish-grey collected from the nearby beach and arranged in patterns. Here and there a touch of yellow or red is added to enhance the picture and the contours are accentuated using bronze strips. The large mosaic of the Rape of Helena has remained in situ under a protective roof. Such dynamics with the horses in full gallop and the dashing dresses; the edges of the panel are trimmed with palmetto and acanthus motives. The next room is paved with a mosaic showing a Deer Hunt, also in full action. This house alone covers a surface of 3,000 m2. The private houses varied in size and the rooms were arranged around a central courtyard, generally framed by colonnades. Many mosaics have been covered up with sand to protect them, an understandable precaution but very sad to find them hidden from view.

The Agora covering 700 m2 in the heart of Pella underwent thorough restoration, making the lay-out easier to understand with the six-meters-wide surrounding Stoas that gave access to a wide array of workshops and shops selling food, pottery, jewelry and more. On the north side, official buildings have been identified like the Temple of Aphrodite and others supposedly serving the city’s administration. The southwestern side may have housed the archives since many seals used to secure the papyri have been retrieved. More houses were uncovered on the south side of the old main road which now runs right through the middle of antique Pella. It is here that the intriguing round Sanctuary of Darron has been identified whose striking mosaic floor has been transferred to the Museum. 

The Royal Palace of Pella where prince Alexander grew up is located further uphill to the north - still within reach of the city. The Palace alone covers an area of 6 ha and was divided into five separate complexes, including beside the living quarters, the necessary storage rooms, rooms reserved for entertainment, service rooms, and even a swimming pool and a pallestra. These complexes were, of course, interconnected by corridors and staircases. The royal family must have occupied the most central part, counting four large buildings around a large open courtyard. It would be interesting to figure out how close Philip’s wives lived to each other, how much space was occupied by the official administration and military management, where the many visiting delegations were lodged, which rooms the King used to receive his guests, etc. 

The Palace was supposed to open to the public in 2011 but at the last moment it was decided to restart more archeological work on the premises. I was not allowed inside but could at least walk all the way around it, taking in the view over the city of Pella and the sea beyond. Behind me the Macedonian landscape was covered with bright spring flowers from the white chamomile and pink hollyhock to the deep red puppies and purple wild onions – an explosion of colours over the rolling hills. It felt like a homecoming, in an intoxicating excitement. The land is pleasantly green, cut through by refreshing clear streams tumbling down from higher elevations under the blue sky filled with fleets of puffy clouds. This is truly the place where Alexander spent his youth!

Like other boys and young men his age, Alexander would have been hunting boar, foxes, lions (who have since long gone) probably in the hills to the north. We have the above-mentioned mosaic of the Lion Hunt with Craterus to illustrate the hunting parties and also the fresco above the Tomb of Philip at Aegae (modern Vergina). Hunting was a way to train for war and to develop physical and mental skills. If it were not for his friends, I think Alexander would have had a rather lonely youth since his father was constantly fighting the neighbouring tribes and cities in order to extend and stabilize Macedonia. The young prince grew up with the stories of his father’s campaigns that must have fuelled his imagination based on the legends of Troy he treasured all his life. Around age twelve, Philip invited Aristotle to teach the young prince and even found an appropriate location at the temple of the Nymphs in Mieza.  These probably were the years when Alexander learned the most in many fields, like literature, topography, biology, zoology, botany, ethics, and even meteorology – a knowledge he shared with his boyhood friends such as Hephaistion, Ptolemy and Nearchus [see: Mieza, Alexander's schooling]. Alexander’s interest for medicine must have come from these days with Aristotle, a skill he used throughout his life to treat his sick friends.

Macedonia was not an isolated “Barbarian” country as so often stated, but the court had long been a centre for culture where envoys, refugees, artists, actors and delegates from all around the Mediterranean spent time. Alexander’s knowledge of the world extended thus far beyond his homeland and immediate neighbours and he must have had quite a broad insight of what was going on in other parts of the ancient world. Theopompus of Chios who later on wrote a History of Philip was one of the visitors. Envoys from Sparta, Thebes, Thessaly and Phocis found their way to Pella. Athens sent several ambassadors to the capital to end the successive Sacred Wars and we know that negotiators like Demosthenes, Aeschines, Philocrates and Nausicles participated in these missions. More significantly was the presence of Artabazus II, satrap of Hellespontine Phrygia who revolted the Persian rule and found refuge at Philip’s court. He spent several years there with his wives and children, among which his eldest daughter Barsine. She was about seven years older than Alexander and we know how they met again many years later when she became his mistress and even bore him a son, Heracles

When Philip appointed his 16-year old son as Regent while he went fighting in the east, Alexander must have realized how much his father trusted him and at the same time that he recognized him as official heir to the throne. These feelings were stressed again two years later during the Battle of Chaeronea where Alexander not alone proved his leadership and capability in military matter at the head of the cavalry but he crushed the Sacred Band of Thebes that was known to be invincible; this must have boosted his ego to an even higher level. Alexander must have felt ready to take command, not only of the army but maybe also of the kingdom. Realizing, however, that his father was “only” in his mid-forties and that he would have to wait a very long time to take over his tasks must have been hard to accept. He would have to live in the shadow of his powerful father for another twenty years at least.

Shortly afterwards, some worrying situations developed. Philip married for the seventh time, this time with Cleopatra, the niece of one of his leading generals, Attalus, who during the wedding feast proclaimed that Macedonia would at last have a legitimate heir to the throne! Alexander’s mothers was from Epirus which meant that Alexander was only half Macedonian. Alexander was enraged by Attalus’ remark and asked his father to reprimand his general. He did not and Alexander promptly left the Macedonian court with his mother. He trusted her into her brother’s care, Alexandros of Epirus while he joined the Illyrians, making Philip worry about his earlier peace-treaty with them. When the King sobered up, he realized that he had to recall his son, which he did through the intervention of Demaratus of Corinth, a common friend. He also had to make up with his brother-in-law to avoid a possible revolt in next door Epirus. To this purpose he offered his own daughter in marriage to his wife’s brother, meaning that Alexander’s sister was to marry her uncle. It was during this wedding feast that King Philip II of Macedonia was murdered. 

By the time Alexander celebrated his twentieth birthday, another drama unfolded at the Macedonian court. Philip was approached by Pixodarus of Caria for a marriage alliance. Philip put his eldest (half-witted) son Arrhidaeus forward to marry Ada, the younger daughter of Pixodarus. When Alexander heard the news he felt overlooked and secretly sent the tragic actor Thettalus to renegotiate the deal presenting himself instead of Arrhidaeus. When Philip got vent of this plot behind his back, it was his turn to be furious for he was still King and ruler of Macedonia, not his son. As a punishment, he exiled a group of Alexander’s closest friends – among them Nearchus, Ptolemy, Harpalus and Erigyius – and warned his son not to interfere in his plans ever again. It is known that Alexander rewarded his friends later on for their loyalty with high positions in his army. 

A few months later, the wedding of Cleopatra and Alexandros of Epirus was to be celebrated at Aegae in great pomp. This is when King Philip II was murdered. Alexander became the new king of Macedonia. This story will be tackled next under the title, Aegae, where Alexander's world changed forever.

[Click here to see all the pictures of Pella]

Sunday, June 22, 2014

What Alexander did for us?

Sounds like the BBC program “What the ancients did for us”, right? Well this is a little different for it is about food. 

Oh yes, I read this article about citron, a citrus fruit that has its origins in India. It is a small thorny tree of 2,5 to 4 meters high that grows in the region between Bhutan and Myanmar, along the Brahmaputra River.

It happens that around 300 B.C. soldiers of Alexander the Great brought the fruit back to the West. Meanwhile there seem to be several varieties and the oldest orchards can be found in southern Italy in the region of Calabria, where there is an entire coastline called Riviera dei Cedri. The pulp from the citrons in Calabria and Sicily is rather sour, while that from the trees in Corsica and Morocco is sweet.

Never heard of citrons? Of course, you have! It is the candied peel that we add in our cakes and cookies, or that we coat with chocolate to create the orangettes or citronettes. The French word for it is cédrat, in Dutch cederappel (literally apple from the cedar tree), which in turn is close to cedre the Italian word for it.

Strangely enough, the Italians still serve the fresh fruit in slices with a sprinkle of salt to accompany their aperitifs. We should give it a try, shouldn’t we?

Friday, June 20, 2014

A plea for Macedonia

Just watch this short film that appeared under the label “A country without Pella is not Macedonia” – it should be enough to convince anyone …


More of the kind can be found on this same site “History of Macedonia”, a proud Macedonian true to his roots.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Haggling over the silver hoard of Morgantina

The main treasures exhibited at the Museum of Morgantina are, strangely enough, the result of illegal diggings that found their way via clandestine channels to museums in the United States. The Ladies of Morgantina which I discussed earlier were eventually located by experts at the University of Virginia Art Museum

Yet, that is not all for through the same channels a 15-piece silver hoard was smuggled from the so-called House of Eupolemos on the site of Morgantina in Sicily to show up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Evidence for the looting goes back to the 1980’s but discussions back and forth with the Italian authorities dragged on for years. Finally in 2006 an agreement was reached between the Metropolitan Museum, the Italian government and the regional government of Sicily to restitute the treasure under condition to return it to New-York Metropolitan this year for a period of four years. Since it was beyond doubt that the vessels came from the site of Morgantina, the treasure arrived back where it belongs in 2010.

Of course, considering the American point of view, the above deal makes some sense. The Met put down nearly three million dollars during the years 1981-1982 for this Hellenistic silver believed to come from Turkey and wants to cash in on the money spent. But then the Sicilians rightfully say that these unique vessels belong to the place where they were found and should be exhibited at the Museo Regionale di Aidone next to the site of Morgantina. Since November last year, difficult negotiations are taking place to keep this hoard of Eupolemos where it is now in exchange for a possible loan of other artifacts to the Metropolitan. The Met is not commenting on this suggestion although they are at least open for further discussions. Diplomatic responses are being expressed but nothing conclusive so far (See this article in The Art Newspaper).

Thanks to a coin found at the House of Eupolemos, the silverware can be dated to 214-212 BC. These were turbulent years when Carthage and Rome fought each other in the Second Punic War over the supremacy of Sicily. According to Livy, Morgantina was attacked in 211 BC and conquered by the Romans, events that coincides with the time the hoard was hidden. An inscription on a lead-tablet reveals the name of Eupolemos, who is either a high-priest, or the owner or keeper of this precious silverware.  It is probable that when the Roman army entered Morgantina, the silver was buried in the basement of Eupolemos’ house. 

The most striking piece may well be an 11 cm-high miniature silver altar weighing as much as 370 grams and decorated with an Ionic dentil and a Doric frieze of metopes and triglyphs; four ox-heads crowned with a gold star hold the surrounding gilded garland. This altar probably was used for offerings at home, but that is not certain. (More details in this interesting article: “Another thing: Recovered loss – altar from the Morgantina Treasure”).

Beside this special altar, we can admire two large oval bowls for mixing wine; three drinking cups with in their bottom a relief of flowers and leaves; a small cup with fishnet motive (looks like a modern football); a pitcher; a kylix (wide drinking cup with two handles); a phiale (offering-dish) with sunrays; a ladle; two pyxides (round box) one showing a cupid carrying a torch on its lid and the other a lady holding a child on her lap; a magnificent medallion with a picture of Scylla; and two slender horns that probably were part of a leather priest-mask. Several of these objects have inscriptions with dedications to the gods, leading to believe that they were used for libations. 

A closer examination of this silverware has revealed that the vessels were made by artists from Syracuse, making them the only examples of the fine silversmith’s art during the second half third century BC when the city was at the top of its power and prosperity. 

Can you imagine the craftsmanship that existed already in Alexander’s days? Hard to fathom. 

[Click here to see all the pictures from the Morgantina Museum]

Monday, June 9, 2014

Syracuse rivaled with Athens to be the most powerful city

Syracuse always had a magical sound, tucked away down south of Italy on the island of Sicily that like no other was and still is at the cross-roads between east and west, between north and south.  This strategic location not only shows on the map of the Mediterranean but more so when you actually visit the island. That is exactly what I finally did after dreaming about it since my teenage years. Finding myself in the very heart of Syracuse, it is hard to describe what I feel or expect. I’m totally overwhelmed as if I were floating on some imaginary sea, the currents taking me to the core of its great past.

It may come as a surprise to learn that Syracuse at one time rivaled with Athens for the power over the Greek world, but as part of Magna Graecia, this was Greece away from Greece which we have to approach from a totally different angle. Syracuse was the very first city to be settled in Sicily and it were the Corinthians who in 733 BC disembarked on the small island Ortygia just off the coast. Pretty soon it was attached to the mainland by a causeway, creating two practical harbors, one on the southwest and one on the northeast side. Syracuse grew quickly and then created colonies of its own like Akrai, Kasmenai, Heloros and Kamarina.

With its expansion came the need for some form of government and not being happy with the Corinthian aristocrats who imposed themselves from the onset, Syracuse turned to Gelon, tyrant of neighboring Gela, a colony of Rhodians and Cretans that had settled as early as 688 BC. Gelon took his task seriously and moved the larger part of Gela’s population to Syracuse, which became his capital in 485 BC. The Syracusans must have felt they made the right decision for Gelon was able to defeat the Carthaginians at nearby Himera five years later, though it must be said he did so with the help of his father-in-law, Theron of Akragas (modern Agrigento). This at least kept the matter in the family. The victorious Gelon had taken thousands of prisoners of war which he now used as slaves and the finest craftsmen among them were employed to build a temple at the summit of Ortygia, dedicated to Athena to thank her for his victory. It probably was finished in 480 BC.

This is the temple we can still admire in the old town of Syracuse as an integral part of the cathedral (Duomo), whose façade was rebuilt in 1728-1754 in Sicilian-Baroque style after several earthquakes had damaged the Norman entrance. Isn’t it amazing that a place of worship is being used and re-used continuously for 2,500 years? This temple was erected in the Doric style, six columns wide and fourteen deep, with doors inlaid with ivory and gold. The larger than life statue of Athena would have ruled over the inside, an imposing figure made of Paros marble with her face, hands, feet and weapons of pure gold. The tympanum of the temple was enhanced with a golden shield that reflected the sunlight, serving as a landmark to the sailors. A pure statement of the city’s wealth, no doubt, till it was taken down by a too greedy Roman politician, Caius Verres some four hundred years later.

In Byzantine times the temple was converted into a church and the cella-walls were pierced to create open arches while the space between the columns was walled up. Under the Arabs the church became a mosque, and traces of this period can be seen on the outside walls where the Muslims added crenellations above the Greek triglyphs and metopes. With the arrival of the Normans, the roof was raised and narrow windows were inserted. The chestnut ceiling is a later Spanish addition (using the hard chestnut wood from the Etna region). I read all this information but still have no idea what to expect from this sanctuary that actually is right around the corner of my hotel.

The Baroque façade flanked by statues of the apostles Peter and Paul carved in pure Carrara marble doesn’t betray what the inside has in store for me. Once I cross the threshold of the Duomo, I am stepping into another world. It literally takes my breath away as I’m immediately confronted with the interior of a Greek temple – or at least as close as one can come to it. I’m actually standing in the temple’s opisthodomos, looking into the north apse between the outer columns (now walled) and the wall of the cella that has been opened up by the Byzantines to let the light flow through the inner sanctuary. The narrow windows the Normans inserted near the capitals of the Doric columns filter the late-afternoon sunlight. There are more windows above the vaulted walls of the inner cella where stylish chandeliers add to the eerie atmosphere of this church. It is hard to figure out what is Greek, Byzantine or Norman but the end-result is absolutely superb and harmonious. Along both sides of the modern nave we can read the Latin inscription “Ecclesia Syracusana prima Divi Petri filia et prima post Antiochenam Christo dicata”, meaning “The church of Syracuse is the first daughter of divine Peter and the first to be dedicated to Christ after Antioch”, in other words a confirmation that this is the oldest Christian community in Europe.

Two columns from the original opisthodomos of the cella are flanking the entrance door, and another twelve columns on the north side and nine on the south side are still in situ, sturdy Doric fluted columns almost nine meters high and two meters in diameter! On the Via Minerva, around the corner of the piazza, the twelve columns of the north side are also visible from the outside including their architrave and triglyphs above which the Muslim crenellation has been added.

The floor of the Duomo is covered with colored marble and I wonder about the dating of the different designs, interrupted by colorful tombstones that carry coats of arms. The main altar is typical 16th century with a painting of the Nativity of the Virgin, which I find somehow out of place, as much as I am absorbed by the antique Greek remains. In the eastern corner is a chapel, the Cappella del Crocifisso, with ceiling fresco’s that remind me of the Sixteen Chapel at a very early stage. There are two more chapels along the south wall, but these are unfortunately closed at the time of my visit.

Walking back to the entrance, I get an unexpected glimpse of the north aisle and notice three commanding statues optically in the perfect place between the columns and the openings in the cella-wall. They could well be antique gods or goddesses as far as I am concerned but on closer look they are 15th century’s statues of St Lucy, a Madonna with Child, and St Catherine of Alexandria, made in pure white Carrara marble.

Amazing how the eye and the mind can be tricked by this amalgam of architectural styles and religions. A true jewel though …

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Who is Alexander?

Good question, especially since most people have no idea. The answer, however, is not that easy. Alexander the Great was the greatest general ever and he was one of the greatest conquerors of the world creating an empire that reached from Greece to India and from the Caspian Sea to Egypt. His exploits have been handed down over the centuries and are still fueling heavy discussions 2,500 years after his death. Yet his fame among the general public is overtaken by people like Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan or Napoleon to name only a few – a very unfortunate fate for such a great man!

Alexander was born as the son of King Philip II of Macedonia and Queen Olympias, meaning that on his father’s side he was a descendant of Heracles and on his mother’s side of Achilles. He ascended the throne at age twenty after his father was murdered in 336 BC. It took him two years to secure the borders of Macedonia and to obtain recognition from the other Greek city-states to act as their leader in his campaign to free the Greek cities of Asia Minor still under Persian rule. By capturing all the harbors of the eastern Mediterranean he inevitably made the Persian navy inoperative and obsolete. He faced the Great King Darius III during the Battle of Gaugamela and came out victorious although he had not captured the king. That happened only after a wild chase ever further east in the heart of Central Asia. Having acquired the title of King of Kings he pursued his dream east to the Indus where his army mutinied and refused to march eastwards any longer. Alexander had no choice but to turn back. He died in 323 BC in Babylon from an unconfirmed illness – not the heroic death he evidently must have wished for. During his years of kingship, he outdid and outshone every king before him and after him.

His life and exploits have reached us only second handedly as the original texts by his court historians Callisthenes, the nephew of Aristotle, and Eumenes, his father’s secretary, were lost in time. King Ptolemy I Soter of Egypt, from Macedonian stock and one of Alexander’s generals, wrote an Alexander biography which although lost was still available at the time Plutarch, Arrian, Diodorus and Curtius wrote their history. There exist, of course, other less complete literary sources to which we must add information provided by archeological excavations and discoveries – an ongoing business.

Unfortunately, there is no easy way to summarize Alexander’s all too short life that is cramped with battles, sieges, campaigns and endless marches over hills, across rivers, deserts and steep mountain ranges. The further east he moved, the more challenging his operations became as he ventured through generally unchartered territories. 

So, it may be best to illustrate his life and exploits piece-meal, just as I discovered it over the years. A good place to start is obviously Pella in modern Greece, the city where Alexander was born in the early summer of 356 BC. In fact, his birth coincided with the fire of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesos and it is said that the goddess was too busy helping Alexander into this world neglecting her temple duties. Legend or not, the fact remains that Alexander made quite an entrance on the stage of life!

We know very little about his youth which is told nearly exclusively by Plutarch. Every schoolboy, however, is familiar with the story of Alexander taming the wild horse Bucephalus. It happened during the yearly horse-market where King Philip was presented with an unusual Thessalian horse. The horse reared up ignoring all commands and Philip found it unmanageable and vicious, not the kind of animal he would trust in the heat of a battle. But the ten years old Alexander had other ideas and wanted to have this horse at all costs, much to Philip’s annoyance no doubt as he was himself a connoisseur in this matter. Anyway, the King gave his son a chance. Alexander had noticed that the horse was afraid of his own shadow and turned him to face the sun, whispered sweet words in his ear and was able to calm him down. This is how he won his confidence and managed to ride him to the greatest joy and probably relieve of his father and all those present. This may have been the time when Philip exclaimed: “look for another kingdom, my son, Macedonia is too little for you”. Alexander called his horse Bucephalus, meaning Oxhead after the white blaze on his head. Since that day, Alexander and Bucephalus were inseparable. When his magnificent mount died of old age in India, he even named a city after him.

Plutarch also tells us another anecdote about young Alexander who, apparently in his father absence, received a group of ambassadors from Persia. The prince impressed them by asking the right questions which were not childish at all. He inquired, for instance, about the roads leading to the heart of Asia, about their King and how he carried himself towards his enemies, what size of army he could muster and things like that. Useless to say that the Persian delegates were very much impressed and full of admiration for the son of Philip.

Alexander’s first preceptor was the austere Leonidas, a kinsman of Queen Olympias, followed by Lysimachos the Acarnanian who called himself Phoenix and Alexander Achilles. When the young prince was about twelve years old, his father sent for Aristotle, the most learned and celebrated philosopher of his time and decided that the temple of the Nymphs near Mieza was the appropriate location for his teaching [see: Mieza, Alexander's schooling]. With boys his age, he received not only the doctrine of Morals and Politics but also those theories which the philosophers professed for oral communication only to the initiated. Alexander’s interest in medicine must have come from Aristotle also, a skill he used throughout his life to treating his sick friends.

Even King Philip must have noticed and recognized how bright and intelligent his son was as he trusted him with the seal of Macedonia while he led an expedition against Byzantium. Alexander was only sixteen years old at the time and proved up to his role of Regent when he even fought the rebellious Maedi, founding his first city in the process. 

At the Battle of Chaeronea opposing King Philip’s forces against an alliance of the Greek city-states led by Athens and Thebes, who felt that Macedonia under Philip was gaining too much power, he entrusted his son with the command of the left wing.
At eighteen years of age, the young prince and his cavalry killed the unbeatable Theban Band to the last man, eliminating the centuries-old entity for good. Athens who had not willingly faced Macedonia as their equal in the repeated peace negotiations was now ruled by the master of all the free city-states that so deeply had believed in their own freedom. That winter, Philip summoned them all to send their delegation to Corinth and soon The League of Corinth was born. This meant that each state individually had to swear not to harm any other member of the Common Peace (or Philip or his descendants for that matter) and not to interfere in their internal affairs. They also swore not to become an ally with any foreign power that could damage any member of the Treaty. No member could undertake any operation that might endanger the peace or overthrow its constitution.

This is, in a nutshell, the baggage Alexander had accumulated when his father was brutally murdered during the wedding of his daughter Cleopatra, Alexander’s sister, in the summer of 336 BC. Alexander, now twenty years old became King of Macedonia and Hegemon of all of Greece, except Sparta which always wanted to stand apart. His task was now to continue in his father’s footsteps who had already made preparations for an expedition to the east in order to free the Greeks of Asia Minor.

[Picture of Philip and Alexander from Oliver Stone's movie Alexander]