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 of the Prophthasia/in Dragiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Areia (Herat, 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)

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Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Battle of Himera, a major confrontation

The history of Sicily is a very complicated one. To simplify things, I like to state that the Greeks colonized the island starting as early as the 8th century BC and that their success was such that it raised the envy and jealousy of the Carthaginians, which led to repeated quarrels and battles. Of course, this is a very simplistic explanation because “the Greeks” came from different cities and city-states in the motherland where they fought among themselves: Corinth, Athens, and Sparta; or from the islands of Rhodes and Crete. By the fifth century BC, mainland Greece suffered from two nearly consecutive invasions by the mighty Persian army, the first in 492-490 BC which ended with the Battle of Marathon under Darius I and the second led by King Xerxes I in 480-479 BC that was settled with the Battle of Plataea and the naval Battle of Mycale. At the same time, the Carthaginians had reached an agreement with the Persians to reduce the Greeks in Sicily, meaning that Persia was, although indirectly, attacking simultaneously on two fronts.

The Carthaginians may have seized the opportune moment now that Sicily was divided among their allies (Selinus (Selinunte) and Himera) and their enemies (Syracuse and Akragas (Agrigento)). They had already conquered several cities on the west and north coasts of the island like Motya and Panormos (Palermo) and now saw their chance to extend their power further eastward. Carthage had a powerful general Hamilcar, who led both military and naval forces on his warships across the Lybian Sea.

Terillos of Himera was his ally against Syracuse, a tyrant who lacked popular support. In 483 BC the situation changed as Theron, tyrant of Akragas, deposed Terillos and added Himera to his own realm. Himera was now in the adverse camp and it is not surprising that Terillos asked the Carthaginians for help to fight against his enemies. He had, however, to wait almost three years before Hamilcar decided to organize an expedition against Sicily.

I am being taken to the very heart of this decisive battle by Michael Metcalfe as I am travelling around Sicily on a tour organized by Peter Sommer TravelsExploring Sicily”. Before arriving at Himera, I was captivated by Michael’s lively re-enactment of entering the Castle of Eurialo; and I took in the reasons for the solid defenses against the Carthaginians at Motya and Gela. As the tour moved on, the rich historical remains of Syracuse and the sacred area around the sanctuaries of Agrigento, Selinunte and Segesta have all been mentally reconstructed – even the quarry of Cave di Cusa abandoned since the Carthaginian invasion looked very real. With my fellow-aficionados, we now flock around Michael to hear how this major battle between the Sicilian allies and Carthage evolved.

As so many times before, Michael is quoting from Diodorus Siculus, a Sicilian historian who lived in the first century BC, and he is voicing the full action. We are actually standing opposite Himera inside the remains of a Doric temple, believed to be the Temple of Victory built as a celebration just after the war. On the left was the encampment of the Carthagian navy and on the right the one reserved to their landforces. As always, the figures in antiquity were very much inflated and Diodorus is no exception when he mentions that 300,000 men and 200 warships went underway together with a fleet of 3,000 and more merchantmen to transport the supplies. Modern historians have calculated that 200 ships is a fair amount and since they could never have held 1,500 men each they concluded that 150 men per vessel is about right. This would bring the total number of soldiers to 30,000, i.e. 1/10th of what is being reported. The same logic can be applied to the merchantmen which would reach 300 instead of 3,000.

Holding Diodorus’ account in hand, Michael tells us how the army had suffered badly from a storm during which Hamilcar lost the vessels carrying his horses and chariots. He first made a halt in the harbor of Panormos (modern Palermo) where he spent three days to repair the storm damage and to rest his troops. From here he marched towards Himera, with the fleet escorting him along the way. Here the warships were hauled ashore and the encampments were surrounded by a deep ditch and wooden palisade. After the army supplies were unloaded, the merchants were sent back with orders to bring in more grain and other goods from Libya and Sardinia. Hamilcar then marched on Himera located on the slope ahead of us with the pick of his troops, killing many of the Himerans who had ventured out of the city walls. Hamilcar’s daring action scared Theron, the ruler of Akragas whose role it was to protect Himera, and he decided to send an urgent message to Syracuse for help. Gelon of Syracuse had a huge army in readiness and as soon as he received the call from Theron, he marched from Syracuse with 50,000 infantry and over 5,000 cavalry according to Diodorus, although 10,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry sounds more reasonable – a large force anyway. Watching the arrival of Gelon’s men must have been quite comforting to the Himerans which I picture standing on the roofs of their houses or on a safe spot on the city walls.

While setting up his own encampment outside the city (and Michael points to the plain behind us), Theron sent his cavalry out against the Carthaginians roaming the countryside in search of easy plunder. At least, 1,000 men were rounded up and made prisoner. At this stage and as strange as it may seem, the inhabitants of Himera came to respect Gelon and to despise the Carthaginians.

Gelon, who by now was generally accepted as a man of outstanding generalship and clear insight, started to look for an easy way to outwit his enemy without having to sacrifice the lives of his own men. He knew that Hamilcar was preparing for a lavish sacrifice to the gods and he felt that this was his chance to set the enemy’s fleet afire. Luck was on his side when horsemen reached him with a message that was intercepted from a courier on his way to deliver letters from the people of Selinus to the enemy camp. These letters mentioned that they would send their cavalry on the day Hamilcar had asked for them. A chance opportunity for Gelon since that day was the same as the one planned for the Carthaginian sacrifices. The tyrant of Syracuse sent out a cavalry of his own, ordering them to take a wide loop and made it look as if they were the couriers coming from Selinus. Once inside the Carthaginian stockade, their instructions were to kill Hamilcar and set his ships afire.

From our vantage point inside the temple, it feels as if we can overlook the entire operation and we hold our breath together with the people of Himera, who are living between hope and fear. Scouts had been posted high up the surrounding hills for they would signal when the horsemen arrived inside the enemy’s camp.

At sunrise, the fake friendly cavalry rode up to the Carthaginian’s and was admitted inside the camp by the guards as their supposed allies. They rode straight up to the place where Hamilcar was holding his sacrifice, killed the general and set fire to the ships. At this point, the scouts in the hills gave the signal and Gelon advanced with his entire army in close order. The Carthaginians were entirely taken by surprise, trumpets sounded the alarm and a fierce battle developed. But when the flames of their burning ships rose high into the sky and the news of Hamilcars death started to spread among his men, most Carthaginians got disheartened and the Greeks took courage. Gelon had given instructions that no one should be taken alive and the carnage of the fugitives must have been horrendous. Since the heat of the battle was probably fought at the very spot where we are listening to this vivid story, I stare at my feet, realizing the soil must have been soaked in blood – an uneasy feeling to say the least, even after so many centuries. Reasonable figures mention that 30,000 men were killed or wounded, and certainly not all casualties fell in the enemy camp. Wow, what a place to be standing!

The temple that is our vantage point was in fact built by the Carthaginians taken captive on the orders of Gelon of Syracuse. Its dedication to Niké/Victory is uncertain for it may as well have been built in honor of Athena. In any case, it was destroyed and burnt to the ground soon after its completion and most likely in 409 BC when the Carthaginians attacked the city of Himera again.

After his victory, Gelon rewarded the brave cavalry that had killed Hamilcar and gave out decorations to other valorous combatants. The prisoners were shared proportionally among his allies, who employed them as laborers on public works. Akragas got most of the workforce, mainly because many of the Carthaginian soldiers had fled into the interior and inside Akragas territory in particular. They were the men who quarried the stones (like at Cave di Cusa) and who worked on the construction of many temples, the biggest being the Temple of Zeus (see: The Valley of the Temples at Akragas, Sicily). They were also forced to dig out the extravagant swimming pool in Akragas, which served as a water reservoir and a pond for fresh fish. This pond did not last long since it was drained approximately one century later to eventually become a garden where the Arabs cultivated their oranges, the Kolymbetra Garden.

Peace had returned to Himera but it was short-lived. The Carthaginians had not forgotten their bitter defeat and they attacked again in 409 BC when Sicily was torn apart by internal conflicts. This time, Himera was rased to the ground and never rebuilt.

So much for the proud city of Himera and so much for this unique experience: Thank you, Michael!

[Click here to see all the pictures of Himera]

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Interesting artist’s reconstruction of the tomb in Amphipolis

Archaeology News Network published an interesting hypothetical reconstruction of the tomb in Amphipolis.


The latest official news is that thorough tests will be carried out on the bones found in the burial site. If DNA examination will lead to anything conclusive is very much debated since a comparison with the remains found in the Vergina tumulus and believed to belong to King Philip II is not really an option since those bones have been cremated.

More interesting news comes from Andrew Chugg who has been following the Amphipolis operations very closely (see also: A wonderful analysis of Amphipolis by Andrew Chugg). One of his first conclusions is that this tomb definitely doesn’t belong to Hephaistion who was named among the many possible occupants, simply because we know for certain that he was cremated in great pump which is not the case for these bones at Amphipolis.

I also agree that it is most unusual in those days for a Macedonian of high status to be buried without being previously cremated. The entire monument of Amphipolis is pointing towards a burial site of an important person and it is indeed very strange to find such a “simple” cist tomb inside – a shear contrast with the high standards of the rest of the monument.

By reading further in Andrew Chugg’s latest article in the Greek Reporter, it is clear that he is still convinced that Queen Olympias is the most plausible candidate and his argumentation is rather convincing (for the full story read: Is the Mother of Alexander the Great in the Tomb at Amphipolis? Part 7: The Skeleton). We know that Cassander was capable of many intrigues that fitted his cause, so I would say this theory is one among many but not impossible. We have to wait for the results of further research to draw more substantiated conclusion. Besides, we still don’t know whether the bones belong to a male or a female.

Yet, I do share Chugg’s hopes that if this truly is the skeleton of Olympias, her DNA could be compared to that of the bones kept inside the sarcophagus at the San Marco Basilica in Venice which he believes are Alexander’s and not those of the evangelist St Marc (see: The Lost Tomb of Alexander the Great by Andrew Chugg)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Diodorus Siculus, Library of History – Volume VIII on Alexander

Diodorus Siculus, Library of History (ISBN 0-674-99464-7) is probably best known as published in the Loeb Classical Library version, with the left page in original Greek and the right page translated in parallel into English by C. Bradford Welles.

Diodorus was a Greek historian from Agrigento in Sicily, who lived ca. 100-30 BC and who wrote a world history covering forty books. His history was divided in thee parts: the mythical history of peoples, non-Greeks and Greeks till the Trojan War; the history till Alexander’s death in 323 BC; and finally the history until 54 BC.  Not all books have survived, but we do have Books I to V where Diodorus writes about the Egyptians, Assyrians, Ethiopians and Greeks, and Books XI to XX handling Greek history from 480 till 302 BC. Of the other volumes we only have fragments.

In general, Diodorus used good and reliable sources, most of them now lost like Ephorus, Apollodorus, Agatharchides, Philistus and Timaesus. Although I personally have a preference for Arrian’s accounts when it comes to Alexander, it is always interesting to cross-reference the events and figures with Diodorus’ version.

Alexander is treated in Loeb’s Diodorus Siculus Volume VIII, containing Books XVI.66 to XVII. Just like all Loeb’s books, this one contains a detailed index at the end and also interesting maps of Sicily, Greece and one showing Alexander’s conquests.

For whoever is interested in Alexander the Great, this definitely is a faithful reading companion together with the histories written by Arrian, Plutarch and Curtius Rufus.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Issus lived on after Alexander defeated King Darius

It is very rewarding to hear that excavations at the site of Issus are still ongoing since I last was there in 2007. Issus is situated near the Pinarus River (modern Payas River) where Alexander the Great faced King Darius III for the first time, although this was his second battle against the Persians (that occurred at the Granicus). This significant battle took place in 333 BC and we know how Alexander came out of it victorious.


Today’s appearance of Issus is non-impressive, a mere hill in the middle of an oil refinery guarded by an overseers with a gun. Excavations have been carried out over the past eight years and so far we know that the city lived off trade and was already important in 545 BC.

Beside a Roman road lined with shops, archaeologists have unearthed a Roman amphitheater and the seats have already been cleared. Work is now concentrating on exposing the stage. Another important feature is the Odeon that seems to have served as a music room. It has been suggested that people suffering from certain ailments were brought into this room to enjoy the relaxation of music. Why not?

Issus is only slowly revealing its secrets as a multicultural city occupied alternately by the Romans, Byzantines, late Hittites, Persians, Greeks and Ottomans. For me, it will always be connected with Alexander and his famous battle, and maybe one day some signs of his passing through will be exposed.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Unlooted tomb found in Vergina

After the continuous game at Amphipolis’ tomb “looted or not looted”, at least here in Vergina it is clear that the newly discovered tomb dating from the time of Alexander the Great has not been looted! That deserves a sigh of relieve and a big applause!


The find came as a surprise since most of the tombs in the Aegae necropolis were brutally destroyed and robbed in 276 BC when Gaul mercenaries at the service of King Pyrrhus thoroughly rampaged the site. 

This is a box shaped tomb containing the remains of a man who died somewhere between the 350s to 320s BC. The many burial gifts that accompanied the deceased will be restored and are meant to be on display at the new Archeological Museum of Aegae that will open soon. Among the many items there is a gold-plated bronze wreath and a wonderful gilded bronze krater, a vessel used for mixing wine and water whose handles show high quality craftsmanship.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Climax turned into an anti-climax at Amphipolis?

A large cist grave has been revealed underneath the floor of the third chamber, with inside the grave proper. Inside and outside this grave are the scattered bones of the deceased, mingled with remains of a wooden coffin i.e. bronze and iron nails, apparently decorated with glass and bone or ivory.

This news should make the headlines right away and make everybody happy, yet the excitement is seriously tuned down by an offsetting comment that “the genetic material will be transferred to a special lab”. Well I hope so, to say the least, but nothing is being said if there are indications as to whether this is a male or female, if there are any grave goods that surrounded the remains as we would expect from any sizeable tomb. The only comment is: wait.

It is obvious that this tomb has been looted in the past, yet I find it strange that so much effort has been taken to refill the three chambers after robbing this tomb from its supposedly wealthy gifts. Considering the size of the mound (larger than the tumulus at Vergina), the precious marble from Thasos used for its construction and the tall lion of Amphipolis that once stood watch over it, I find this newly discovered tomb quite disappointing. To have such a majestic entrance with the two sphinxes, the elegant caryatids guarding the next chamber and the superb pebble mosaic floor, one would expect something more than a bare grave of simple porous stone.

On the other hand, in its official communiqué, the Greek Ministry of Culture states that geophysical studies will be carried out to determine whether there are other tombs hidden under this mound as was the case for the tumulus at Vergina.

This still leaves the matter of the staircase mentioned only yesterday unanswered; and the possibility or not to find a fourth chamber behind this third chamber remains anyone’s guess.

Once again, the official communiqué raises more questions than providing answers. Maybe the interviews planned for November 22 and 29 will shed more light on this mystery? Let’s hope so.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Is there a fourth chamber at Amphipolis?

It may take much more time before archeologists can confirm whether or not there is a fourth chamber in the Tomb of Amphipolis.


Work in the third chamber is progressing very slowly. They have now reached a depth of 8 meters and still don’t know how much deeper they should be digging as they find no trace of any organic residue (from ash or bones) or any inorganic remnants (a sarcophagus or some urn, for instance). The artificial trench is very instable and constantly needs better and more elaborate support, which is very time consuming.

The excavation team still hope, of course, to find some clue about the person for whom this monumental tomb was built, but under the present climatic conditions excavations will come to a halt. Temperatures underground are already below 10 degrees Centigrade and humidity has reached 80%.

It is very likely that after all, we all will have to wait till next spring for further news. Our patience will be severely tested but there is nothing we can do for now but wait and hope for the best.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Battle of the Granicus

Strangely enough the Persian army had made no effort to stop Alexander and his army when crossing the Hellespont, a missed opportunity no doubt, but they now awaited the Macedonian king near the Granicus River in Hellespontine Phrygia, a satrapy that stood under control of Persia.

With my travelling companions of Peter Sommer’s In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great, we head in that direction. The landscape is monotonous and uninspiring. After parking the minivan we walk a short distance over a local asphalted road to the wooden railing of a bridge. It is here that I lay eyes on the Granicus River for the first time, a river like so many, a good 25 meters wide and probably not deeper than one meter. I find it hard to believe that such a decisive battle was actually fought on this lazy rivulet. I am itching to go down to the edge of the water in an urge to get as close as possible to the thick of the fight. Meanwhile locals have stopped by to investigate what we are doing here. I wonder where they all come from, so sudden out of nowhere. They disagree about the location of the fight [a proof that even today Alexander is still being remembered!] and point us further upstream near the remains of a Roman bridge, but Peter has done his research and proves his right based on ancient descriptions of the terrain. At the horizon I can see the wedge in the mountain range through which the Persians had marched to their position.

Alexander arrived at the Granicus late in the spring afternoon in 334 BC, but it is not clear whether he attacked the Persians right away or if he waited till the next morning as Parmenion cautioned him. Alexander’s reply that he would not be stopped by this trickle of water after crossing the Hellespont does not explain either decision. I personally like to think that Alexander attacked immediately as the afternoon sun would shine in the faces of the Persians and might hamper their perception of the enemy – but that is only a personal opinion, of course.

[YouTube with thanks to Jim Cleary]

Both riverbanks are very steep and we scramble down about four meters to the water level. The grass stands high and is very slippery. It’s easier to slide down that to get a good foothold and I wonder how the hypaspists managed with their leather sandals or boots to keep on their feet, let alone in formation! To actually stand here, however, is absolutely thrilling! Peter opens Arrian’s Campaigns of Alexander and starts reading out loud how the fight evolved. It’s a story we all know, but hearing it here on the very spot where both armies clashed is quite unique. There are many frogs jumping around the edge of the river and for some reason they all join in as a loud croaking audience. More frogs have heard the signal and move in, drowning Peter’s voice. The louder he speaks, the louder the croaking. When he stops, they stop. It is great fun, but a very unusual deafening chorus. Spirits from the past, I wonder?

Anyway, here I’m facing the entire Persian army lined up along the opposite river bank and it takes my breath away. They are about 20,000 cavalry having taken position on a very broad front while the infantry (probably not as many as 20,000 as reported by Arrian) behind them – a strange and incomprehensible strategy for the cavalry had no space to charge and the infantry didn’t have the opportunity to fight until it was too late. Peter’s reading is so lively that I can almost feel the Persian presence. With Alexander and most of the Companion cavalry I am standing at the head of the right wing alongside the phalanx that is flanked on the left by the Thessalian and Thracian cavalry under Parmenion’s command.

Arrian writes that there was “a profound hush as both armies stood for a while motionless on the brink of the river”. Everybody’s adrenaline must have risen to an unbearable level! Who was going to shout the battle-cry first? Right, the Macedonians of course, and hell broke loose! Alexander first sent a small battalion across, a new stratagem known as the pawn sacrifice whereby a small detachment was used as a pawn to split up the enemy ranks. This distraction maneuver kept the Persians occupied while Alexander and the right wing set out to cross the river. I look up and down the bank where I am standing. Surely not here? It is too steep! But Alexander’s front spread out over one mile, meaning that he was positioned further upstream where the slope of the riverbank was gentler. The crossing was done diagonally, expanding the Macedonian frontline and enabling them to ride up the opposite riverbank in a continuous formation once again. Parmenion at the other end had moved in much the same way. The Persians defended their precious position and in a hand-to-hand struggle Alexander’s troops ferociously forced their way out of the water while the Persians did all they could to prevent them from getting there. It is impossible to put this clash in a time frame, but once Alexander himself was on the Persian bank he was immediately taken in the thick of the fight and charged straight for the spot where the Persian commanders stood surrounded by serried ranks of their cavalry. Meanwhile the Macedonian infantry was making steady progress and company after company made their way across the river. A fierce fight developed, man against man, horse against horse, each side being determined to take the upper hand. Alexander’s men had been well trained by his father and most had years of experience. Armed with their long sarissai they had a clear advantage over the light lances of the Persians.

In the heat of the fight, Alexander’s spear broke and he called one of his grooms for another one, but the groom had only a stub of his own spear left which he showed to Alexander. He then has to call for one of his bodyguards who luckily could help out his king. At the same time Alexander caught a glance of Mithridates, Darius’ son-in-law riding ahead of a squadron of horse in his direction. He did not hesitate and instantly galloped forward and hit his opponent in the face with his freshly acquired spear. At this point Rhoesaces (satrap of Ionia) rode up to revenge Mithridates and hit Alexander on the head with his scimitar, seriously damaging his helmet but that did not stop Alexander to kill him. Then Spithridates (satrap of Lydia) rode up to him with raised scimitar but was intercepted by Cleitus (the Black) who chopped off his arm with scimitar and all. By now nearly all of the troops had come across and were fighting fiercely. The Persians were pinned down between the push of the Macedonians and their own infantry that was mingling among their horses. Their rout was complete.

The foreign mercenaries fighting for the Persians under command of Memnon of Rhodes had been kept aside and were still holding their original position, apparently struck by the suddenness of the Macedonian attack. Instead of pursuing the fleeing Persian army, Alexander focused on these mercenaries instead, ordering a combined attack of cavalry and infantry to butcher them all. He deeply resented the fact that men from Greece were chosen to side with the Persian king and against him!

Persians losses evidently were high. As for the Macedonians, Arrian mentions that no more than 25 Companion cavalry were killed during the first assault for which Lysippos was ordered to make bronze statues. The group stood in Dion (Greece), the Macedonian religious centre at the foothills of Mount Olympus, till it was moved to Rome in 148 AD by Metellus Macedonicus, having made Macedonia a Roman Province. All in all about sixty cavalry and thirty infantry are said to have fallen at the Granicus. These figures are subject to debate as logically they must have been much higher, but the dead were buried in style with their arms and equipment, and their direct family was exempted from taxes. No records of the wounded were kept; I guess that they must have run in the thousands. It is however, recorded that Alexander visited them all, talking to them about their fight and their injuries, and even examining their wounds.

Alexander then made an offering to Athena and in a gesture to let the Greeks participate in the honors of his victory; he sent 300 full suits of Persian armor to Athens. The inscription that accompanied his gift read as follows: Alexander, son of Philip, and the Greeks (except the Lacedaemonians) dedicate these spoils, taken from the Persians who dwell in Asia. The other spoils, including purple garments were sent as a present to his mother, except for a few items he kept for himself.

This was Alexander’s first victory over the Persians, but he must have realized that although he had won the battle he had not yet defeated the King of Persia. Another confrontation with Darius was inevitable, but when or where was only known by the gods. For now, he had to take advantage of his momentary supremacy and move on to deliver the Ionian cities from their Persian oppressors.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The site of Amphipolis put in perspective

Interesting and intriguing is this 3D video in which the Tomb of Amphipolis is being compared size-wise with the Parthenon in Athens, the Sphinx in Egypt and the Taj Mahal in India.

I couldn't help seeing the lion on top of the Amphipolis mound look like a doggy next to Egypt's Sphinx. See for yourself.