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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Monday, January 12, 2015

Arbela, near the Battlefield of Gaugamela

Erbil or Arbil is the capital of modern Kurdistan, an independent province in northern Iraq. In antiquity the city was named Arbela, situated north of the Mesopotamian plain where the Battle of Gaugamela took place in 331 BC between the armies of Alexander the Great and Great King Darius III of Persia. Erbil claims to be the world’s oldest continuously occupied settlement (older than Damascus, I wonder?) going back at least 6,000 years.

To the naked eye, Erbil has very little to offer to the curious archaeologist as many houses from the 19th and 20th century are cramped inside the old city walls, right on top of previous constructions. Most everything that is known about this city comes from ancient texts and sporadic artifacts found at other sites in Mesopotamia.

Since last year, the first traces of the ancient city have been revealed thanks to ground-penetrating radar. Two large structures in the center of the citadel may be the remains of the well-known temple dedicated to the goddess of love and war, Ishtar, who was consulted by the Assyrian kings for divine guidance. The Temple of Ishtar is mentioned as early as the 13th century BC, although it may rest on a much older sanctuary. It is said that her temple was made to “shine like the day”, a possible indication that it was coated with electrum (a mixture of silver and gold) that reflected the Mesopotamian sun.

Slowly these new finds give us an insight into the history of Arbela and of its growth since the rise of the mighty Assyrian Empire. This old city was located on a fertile plain and was the local breadbasket for thousands of years. It occupied a key position on the road connecting the Persian Gulf to the Anatolian inland. It is obvious that this prime location was coveted by many of its neighbors, of which the Sumerians may have been the first invaders around 2,000 BC. It is here that Alexander the Great became King of Asia in 331 BC after defeating the Persian King Darius in nearby Gaugamela. Later invaders were the Romans, Genghis Khan in the 13th century, the Afghan warlords in the 18th century and the very recent occupation by Saddam Hussein. Yet, Arbela survived, unlike other great Mesopotamian cities like Babylon or Nineveh.

Unfortunately during the twentieth century much of ancient Arbela fell in disrepair as refugees from the region’s conflicts replaced the town’s people who moved to more spacious housing outside the citadel. Now that these refugees also move to more comfortable accommodation, efforts are starting to renovate the largely mud-brick dwellings. Conservation work enables archaeologists to dig deeper into the mound, meanwhile listed as a World Heritage Site. With the help of aerial photos taken by the British Royal Air Force in the 1950’s, American spy satellite images from the 1960’s, and Cold War satellite imagery, combined with the ancient cuneiform tablets help to pinpoint the best locations for future digging.

It is still difficult to have a good comprehensive overview of such a long history. As far as we know now, Arbela was first mentioned on clay tablets unearthed at Ebla (in modern Syria) dating to circa 2300 BC. A few hundred years later, rulers of Ur in southern Mesopotamia claim to have destroyed the city during repeated and bloody campaigns. By 1200 BC, it is known that it prospered as an important Assyrian trading post where copper, cattle, pomegranates, pistachios, grain and grapes were common goods. At the height of its power in the 7th century BC, Assyria was ruled by kings like Sennacherib, Esarhaddon and Assurbanipal. A court poem found in Nineveh praised the city as “heaven without equal, Arbela!”, and its power is supported by a stone relief from the 7th century BC found at Nineveh showing the formidable city walls and arched gate.

By 612 BC the Assyrian Empire was destroyed and the Medes (maybe the ancestors of today’s Kurds), spared and occupied Arbela, which was still intact when the Persian King Darius I came to power about a century later. Soon the Achaemenid Empire stretched all the way from Egypt to India till Alexander the Great defeated King Darius III in the fall in of 331 BC on the plains of Gaugamela. The Persian king fled across the Greater Zab River to Arbela’s citadel to seek refuge in the Zagros Mountains where he was eventually killed by his own men.

Arbela’s oldest fortification had a 20 meters thick wall with a defensive slope, not unlike the one found at Nineveh, for instance. While most fortifications were rectangular, the wall around Arbela was a round one, enclosing both the citadel and the lower town – something we do find more to the south, in cities like Ur or Uruk. As houses in modern Erbil are being abandoned, the archaeologists have a good opportunity to start their investigations. It is very rewarding to discover a tomb with vaulted chamber of baked bricks that can be dated to the 7th century BC and definitely is Assyrian.


Using modern technology, some 77 square miles have been mapped containing some 214 archeological sites going back as far as 8,000 years! It is not easy to account for a city’s history over such a long period of time, especially when that city is still being inhabited. After the Assyrians were gone came the Persians followed by the Greeks, and eventually Arbela became an essential outpost on the Roman frontier and the capital of the Province of Assyria. With the spreading of Christianity new communities flourished and the Sassanids ruled till the arrival of Islam in the 7th century AD.

Even today, Erbil makes the headlines with the conflicts in northern Iraq. Inevitably a great deal of the city’s heritage is doomed to disappear in modern warfare, but let’s hope for the best. Maybe, just maybe one day we may discover the treasures still buried underneath the old citadel and maybe even a small proof that Alexander and his army were here some 2,400 years ago.

[Pictures from Archaeology]

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