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, 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)

Monday, February 2, 2015

Alexander’s influence reached all the way to China?

It is high time to look at Alexander’s conquest of Asia in a much wider context than we usually do. By now, his legacy in Central Asia is generally accepted thanks to the many artifacts found in Sogdiana and Bactria (modern Afghanistan). Ai-Khanoum, one of the many cities founded by Alexander and now on the far northern border of Afghanistan, is a clear proof of a new Hellenistic city as illustrated by the travelling exhibition Bactrian Gold, the Hidden Treasures from the Museum of Kabul. Because of this, stating that Greek art has led to the making of the famous Terracotta Army in Xi’an, China does not come as a total surprise.


Looking at the map of Eurasia, Ai-Khanoum’s position is quite central as it is separated from China only by the Pamir Mountains. The passes across that mountain range will not have been crowded with people, but some definitely must have made it across. Alexander’s death occurred hardly one hundred years before the First Emperor of China came to power and built his famous mausoleum. Over the Silk Road and the high mountain passes, people will definitely have moved back and forth, carrying their goods and their ideas between 323 BC, date of Alexander’s death and 221 BC when Emperor Qin came to power.

Several months ago, I saw this documentary on TV about an Achaemenid silver bowl or box with hollow drop motives that was found in China and how an expert from Germany was called in to examine the piece. It was dated 3rd-2nd century BC and I remember how it was established that the box had been casted and not hammered as expected, meaning that this piece was truly made in China and not imported from the west. It was a rather exotic-looking luxury article that only a happy few could afford. Yet, I didn’t think more of it till I attended a lecture entitled “Sculpture and the question of contacts between China and the Hellenistic East" presented by Dr Lukas Nickel from SOAS, University of London. The same silver box was the first piece of evidence presented here as the Nanyue silver box and I learned that about ten more of such unusual treasure boxes were found on different locations throughout China. Dr Nickel has my undivided attention!

From here, he moved to China’s most famous Terracotta Army, stating that it very well could have been inspired by the Greeks living on the eastern border of the Seleucid Empire, the successors of Alexander in Asia. Until that time, no large statues were ever created in China, leading Dr Nickel to think that the making of this army was inspired by ancient Greek artwork.

Emperor Qin was the first to unify the country. He died in 210 or 209 BC after building a huge mausoleum for himself surrounded by scores of life-size terracotta statues of infantrymen, cavalry, archers, charioteers and generals - all meant to protect him in his afterlife. They are the result of a mass-production although each figure is apparently showing its own personality, but only in their facial features; the body, arms and legs are lifeless as if made of wood. Although the largest part of this impressive army is still buried, it is estimated that there are over 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots drawn by 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses. According to Dr Nickel, it is perfectly possible and very likely that these statues are the result of early contacts between Greece and China.  

Not far from this army, other pits have revealed sculptures of half naked acrobats, strongmen, dancers and servants, which in turn are very realistic – men of flesh and blood, who were supposed to entertain the emperor in his afterlife. Dr Nickel concludes that the artists who made these statues of people in action must have learned their craft from Greek masters in order to render their bone structure, muscles and skin. This kind of understanding of the human body is typical for the Hellenistic period (the time after Alexander the Great) and Dr Nickel argues that making such realistic statues is not something that could be learned overnight or without practice; after all it took the Greeks several centuries to attain such results.

And then there is the tale about twelve giant statues “clad in foreign robes” that surfaced in Lintao (or in the general area of Lintao), i.e. the most western city of China. This information comes from a text translated by Dr Nickel, which, however, does not mention the origin of the statues or who commissioned them. All we know is that they stood about 38 ft (11.55m) tall with feet that were 4.5 ft long (1.38m) – they must have been colossal and very impressive! Indeed so much so that the Emperor ordered to have twelve copies made to be placed in front of his palace. For this purpose he collected all the bronze weapons that were previously used in war, and had them melted. Each duplicated statue received an inscription stating that the original giants appeared in Lintao. This was recorded by a certain Yan Shigu who lived in the 6th century AD and had access to earlier written sources. These “giants” are long gone as they were destroyed some time after the First Emperor’s death.

Anyway, this translation is one way to prove that a certain contact between ancient China and a Greek kingdom in Central Asia did actually exist, and that their inhabitants had a tradition of making statues.


As I said earlier, I’m not really surprised by this statement since Hellenistic influences have been found in art and architecture in Central Asia (see: Bactrian Gold, the Hidden Treasures from the Museum of Kabul) and also in India (see: Indo-Greek art or the influence of Hellenism on Buddhist art). Although I was aware that the first statues of Buddha appeared only after the death of Alexander the Great, I didn’t know till now that no statues at all were ever made before this time. To take this knowledge to a wider area like China is moving one step further.

In my wildest dreams I often wondered what would have happened if Alexander the Great and Emperor Qin had met – what is one hundred years after all. I developed this theory already after visiting the wonderful exhibition about the First Emperor at the British Museum in London (see: The First Emperor, China’s Terracotta Army and Alexander the Great).

I wonder why Dr Nickel's revolutionary news didn’t make headlines before. Why is it that we still want to keep West and East separated? Why are we still keeping ourselves so jealously inside our own comfort-zone? Alexander would have told us that we can learn from our enemies and I would like to add that we still can learn from people across our borders – our planet earth is not that big after all!

[Picture of the Map and the Terracotta Army are from Live Science; the acrobat is from Megan Mitchell China; the strongmen are from Far East City Shopper]

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