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)

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]


  1. Caould you tell me who is the sculptor of the equestrain statue of Alexander in Pella?

    1. Sorry to say I have no idea. The question simply never occurred to me.