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)

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The tomb of King Philip II of Macedonia in Vergina

The pride of Macedonia lies under the large tumulus of Vergina where the intact Tomb of King Philip II of Macedonia was found in 1977. Today’s visitor to the 13 meter high grave site will discover that it contains a splendid museum of nearly one hundred meters in diameter. To walk around under this artificial hill is an absolutely unique experience as you make one discovery after the other. Main attraction and my main purpose is to visit the tomb of Alexander’s father, King Philip. 

It is dark inside the tumulus as only the artifacts in the showcases and the tomb entrances are lit up. A wide wooden staircase leads down to the impressive entrance door to Philip’s tomb. The facade shines in the spotlights and I feel a magnetic attraction, like a moth towards the light. A huge Plexiglas wall separates me from the majestic entrance door with its delicate colors. For a moment I’m disappointed that I am not allowed inside but it makes sense to keep out the crowds that might influence the conservation and preservation of the structure and its decoration. I stare at the bright colors that have defied so many centuries. The closed door is flanked by two half Doric columns which in turn are flanked by a flat pillar trimmed with a red and blue band at the top. Above the doorway the triglyphs have been painted dark-blue with ditto guttae, resting on a bright-red regulae. As a crown above it all runs a 5.6 meter long fresco of a hunting party, in full action and set in a wooded area. This is high quality work executed in magnificent pastel colors. One of the boys on horseback is thought to be Alexander. This landscape is framed at the top and bottom by a line of egg motives alternatively colored in red and blue, and the cornice above looks as if it were painted just yesterday. I’m totally taken by this richness in color, having my vantage point all to myself for a moment – as if I am being received on a special audience. Climbing back the squeaking steps it all feels so unreal, more like a dream. No description or picture can prepare you for such a lavish decoration on such an impressive monument!

According to Macedonian customs, the King’s body had been cremated and the remaining bones washed in wine before being wrapped in a purple cloth which in turn was carefully placed inside a golden chest or larnax, together with his royal crown made of gold oak leaves. This larnax is on ostentatious display proudly showing its 7.820 kilograms of pure hammered gold. The Macedonian sun with 16 rays can be seen on the top lid and a band of rosettes filled with blue enamel run around the box between reliefs of palmettos and lotus buds. The vertical ends of the chest are also decorated with rosettes and end in legs of lion paws. What a beauty!

The oak-leaves of the crown catch the light of all the spots and is the heaviest and most impressive crown ever found in Greek antiquity. For those interested in fact and figures: the crown counts 313 leaves and 68 acorns, and weights exactly 714 grams. Together with the larnax, this crown is the eye catcher and the visitor cannot miss it. But there is more, like for instance Philip’s cuirass made of iron and inlaid with gold; his gold gorythos (bow and arrow case) depicting fights in full action reminding us of Scythian examples; his inlaid sword and his enormous shield (nearly one meter in diameter). He must have been a very strong man! Beside his personal armor there also is a great number of utensils on display like bronze bowls, plates and vases, silver wine jugs and even strainers, bronze lamps, etc. Most of the objects truly look as if they were made just yesterday.

Not much remains of the wooden kline (banquet bench), except for the well-preserved glass, gold and ivory decorations. Over the long side ran the story of a royal hunt in which Philip himself participated, but also his son Alexander and other Macedonian noblemen. As far as Alexander is concerned, this is the only picture we have for which we are certain that he posed. An attempt is made to reconstruct this kline and to put the remaining pieces in their rightful place. Much patience must have been involved in this reconstruction! 

Thanks to a scale-model, the construction and layout of the Tomb of King Philip II of Macedonia is further explained: a large double door gives access to a rectangular portal, behind which the actual burial chamber is located. Still, it is not easy to picture how the interior would have looked like with the larnax resting inside a marble sarcophagus and the many burial gifts displayed around it. Taking a last walk around all these treasures it is hard to realize that these artifacts are more than 2,500 years old. What a privilege to see this with my own eyes!

It is unfortunate that we don’t know much about Alexander’s role in his father’s funeral or how much time he spent on the construction of the actual tomb and/or the huge covering tumulus. In-depth research made mainly by the leading archaeologist, Manolis Andronicos, indicates that at least some aspects have been rushed, like for instance the plastering of the inside walls of Philip’s tomb. We know that Alexander’s priority number one was to eliminate all claim to the Macedonian throne and to avenge the murder of his father. Yet, on top of that, he had to cope with the Greek revolt and face his northern neighbors being on the warpath again, which may very well have reduced the time he would otherwise have spent to proper funeral rites. For now this question remains unanswered.

As an extra piece of information, I am including this Youtube view of the Tumulus of Vergina. Inside there was enough room for more tombs: the Tomb of a young Macedonian prince (perhaps that of Alexander IV, the son of Alexander the Great and Roxane) and the so-called Tomb of Persephone that owes its name to the vivid frescoes on the inside walls. In fact, this last grave which is not exactly a big hit is however of rare artistic quality: strong brush strokes, color combinations, and the depth of the image are absolutely sublime. You would nearly expect it to be modern the way the scene is depicted with a few simple lines yet at the same time with firm and decisive movements.


  1. Thank you for your description and your blog. I find I can be right there with you as you describe nearly every breath you take within the complex. Thank you for creating / continuing such a rich resource of Information on a man whom I admire and continue to soak my mind into! So inspiring and fascinating...

  2. I agree with you: Alexander keeps fascinating and inspiring over the centuries. He would be very pleased, don't you think so?