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 Drangiana/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)

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Looking for Illyrian remains in Albania

Albania sounds to be right place to find traces of Illyria, if there are any to be found that is. 

We know that Alexander spent time in Illyria but not where. There were no cities of importance, but people scattered around in small tribes fighting among themselves and invading Macedonia on a regular base in search of fertile land. The borders of Illyria were not clearly drawn, those of today’s Albania are but don’t match neither with old Illyria although roughly in its center, nor with Epirus in the south where it is shared with Greece.

Honestly, I don’t know what proof of Illyria I can find or will come across for they had no alphabet, no cities or any art of their own – at least to my knowledge. Albania is not making things easier either since the country has been locked away for half a century with a totalitarian regime that only can be compared to Northern Korea. It is now trying to emerge in the hope to meet western standards although the Albanians have only scant notions of what that means, especially those living in the eastern mountains where time has come to a standstill it seems. I am on a general tour of one week which is supposed to touch base with the key periods of Albania’s history, the Macedonians and Greeks, the Romans and Byzantines, the Ottomans and Skanderberg (National Albanian Awakening), the Slavs, King Zog with WW1, the many foreign rulers during WW2 and the severe communist regime under Enver Hoxha. An extremely long and varied timeline while I am interested only in the very first centuries. Whatever I’ll learn about the Illyrians themselves and about the Macedonian occupation is a welcome bonus.

In a previous blog about the Illyrians (see: A closer look at Illyria) I summarized the roles played by King Philip II of Macedonia and his son Alexander the Great in putting Illyria on the map. After becoming king of Macedonia, Philip’s priority was to sign a treaty with the Illyrians which included the marriage with Audata, King Bardylis’ granddaughter. This was only a way to win time for one year later, Philip marched north and met the Illyrian army near Lake Ohrid where he was victorious and demanded that the Illyrians pulled out of Upper Macedonia all the way north to Lake Lychnitis. Alexander in turn sought refuge in Illyria after the brawl during his father’s wedding to Cleopatra, Attalus’ niece in 337 BC. Attalus brought a toast to a lawful successor of Macedonia, implying that Alexander was a bastard. We know how Alexander reacted, especially since his father took Attalus’ side. This is when Alexander left for Illyria, taking his mother Olympias to the safety of her brother’s court in Epirus.

Peace with Illyria lasted while it lasted for as soon they heard that King Philip was assassinated in 336 BC, they felt free from any obligation towards Macedonia. Alexander could not afford to have these troublesome tribes raiding his northern borders while he was getting ready to cross over to Asia. So, as soon as the most urgent matters were settled in Pella, Alexander took his army north and not only defeated the Illyrians but mopped up all the resistance as far as the Danube River. In the end, the Illyrians become faithful allies and fought at his side all through his Asian campaign.

Basically I am very curious to see the kind of landscape that Alexander crossed in order to get a feeling of where he may have been during his self-imposed exile. I’m soon to be rewarded when we drive over the most horrible road from Pogradec to Gjirokastra through the mountainous region of southeastern Albania.

Pogradec lies on the crossroad linking Tirana, the Albanian capital, to Elbasan and Korce, but also on the southern bank of Lake Ohrid where King Philip made history. In antiquity this was an important stop along the Via Egnatia that connected Byzantium to Rome. Today Lake Ohrid is shared between Albania and FYROM, the Republic of Macedonia, and is one of the three geological wonders in the world harboring endemic species that cover the entire food-chain. As we drive down to the shores of the lake, the views are superb and I am impressed by the shear size of the lake; it must have looked like a sea to people in antiquity. Our stop in Ohrid has a very Mediterranean feeling, very much unlike the more inland parts. But Alexander has not been forgotten in these parts for I find restaurants and wine carrying the name Aleksandrija.

Next day we pick up the main road from Korca south to Gjirokastra, but our maximum speed on this bumpy, degraded, deteriorated, and unmaintained road is 25 km/hour. It takes us all day to get there, but nobody is complaining for the landscape is absolutely breathtaking! There are no cities or town, hardly an occasional cluster of houses, recent constructions next to dilapidated shacks that may be stables or housing, who knows. Small gardens, a few fruit trees, a couple of cows and donkeys and that’s about all that people have to live. I am told that in winter the snow is two meters deep in these parts, making it impossible for cars or buses to get through. Even today there is no regular bus service in those parts – how isolated can one live? Was it like this in Alexanders days, I wonder. It cannot have been much better, if any, for the land is still what is was and the weather conditions also. No wonder that the Illyrians were envious of the fertile plains of Lower Macedonia! Overall the landscape is green with a wide assortment of trees and low bushes between patches of rocky grassland, framed with high barren peaks. Here and there an occasional river or stream meanders through the valleys, reflecting the sunlight or threatening clouds. The productive patches of land along those waterways are thriftily cultivated, a pleasant sign in this otherwise austere land.

Then we reach Gjirokastra, whose Greek name is Argyropolis (meaning silver castle), which must have been a fortified place in Epirus (yes, we are in Epirus here!). The oldest finds so far are the city walls from the 3rd century AD. The remains of today’s citadel built between the 6th and the 12th century still command the otherwise Ottoman city.
It is funny when I come across a Rruga Antipatrea, which is the old name for Berat, and most probably this street and city was named after Antipater, or a restaurant proudly showing off with the name Antigoni. What a shame that there are no written records in Illyria and that the Macedonians or the Greeks didn't bother to write about them.

The most rewarding moments of my tour were those when I faced Illyrian artefacts in the local museums. In Apollonia I saw my first Illyrian shield from the 4th century BC that looked so very much like a Macedonian one. I was told that the difference was to be found in its curving, whether that is true or not I don’t know for it had the same semi-circles and the Medusa head in the center, complete with shiny inlaid eyes that intensified her glance. Another shield was shown at the Skanderberg Museum, with the same semi-circles but carrying the Macedonian star in its center, together with an Illyrian helmet and some arrows and spearheads. More helmets were exhibited at the Archeological Museum of Tirana where a mould for an Illyrian shield was also on display.


Yet, the most unexpected highlights are the Royal Tombs of Selca e Poshtme, a place in the middle of nowhere as there is no decent road leading to it. This is supposedly the ancient city of Pelion, perched high on an acropolis that overlooks the river Shkumbin. In the middle of the 4th century BC, the Illyrian city was protected by a wall and its life seems to have been intensive. They made pottery out of grey clay imitating Greek shapes and decorations, created metal and bronze tools and traded their goods over the roads along the river, which would later become the Via Egnatia. It was the residence of the Illyrian kings but excavations are still in an early stage and the role Pelion played is mainly based on the coins found in cities like Apollonia and Dyrrhachion (modern Dürres). The main discovery are four royal tombs right under the cliff of the acropolis, definitely Illyrian but at first glance very Macedonian. More about these great tombs in my next post, Alexander’s psychological warfare in Pelion, Illyria.


Last but not least, I should focus on the route followed by the Via Egnatia although I have not come across any visible pavement like in Philippi, Greece, for instance. From Ohrid it ran through Elbasan where it split in two, one arm connecting directly to Dyrrhachion (Dürres) and another one crossing Apollonia and Antipatrea (Berat) to end at Dyrrhachion on the Adriatic coast where ships ferried people and goods to Brindisi on the Italian side. I just regret that I have not seen an actual remnant of this famous road, but have only be pointed to the line it followed through the cities. Maybe next time?

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