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 Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene / Alexandria on the Indus (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 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, February 12, 2015

Miletus, Alexander’s first siege in Asia

While Alexander was still in Ephesos, the Persian governor of Miletus, Hegisistratus, made his appearance at the court. He came in peace, offering the surrender of the city. At that time, Miletus was the largest Greek city on the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea.

Its origins go back to Mycenaean times in the 11th century BC. In 670 BC Miletus started colonizing the coast of the Black Sea, the Mediterranean and the Sea of Marmara. Just like Priene and the other cities belonging to the Ionic League, Miletus suffered from the repeated Persian invasions and occupations, the most memorable of which happened when Cyrus defeated Croesus of Lydia causing the fall of Miletus. In 499 BC, however, this city led the Ionian Revolt against the Persians, who in turn punished Miletus and destroyed the powerful city, but it soon recovered.

So, by the time Alexander arrived in 334 BC, Miletus was in the hands of Persia were it only because its excellent harbour was their main base, ideally situated to control the other cities of Asia Minor or to launch a counter-attack on mainland Greece. Miletus was surrounded on three sides by the sea and had strong fortifications on the landward side. It is not surprising that Alexander welcomed Hegisistratus’ offer.

In this context, Alexander marched towards Miletus with only a small number of troops in his entourage. Yet at the same time, news reached Hegisistratus that a 400 warships strong fleet of the Persians was only three days away. This gave the governor new hope and a good reason to resist the Macedonian king, who found the city gates closed upon arrival.

Meanwhile Alexander’s own fleet of 160 ships commanded by Nicanor (brother of Parmenion) had anchored on the island of Lade, just off Miletus. The island was fortified with 4,000 men strong garrison ready to make it difficult for the Persians to use the harbour for their operations. Consequently, the Persian fleet was forced to land off Mycale, some 15 km south of Miletus. The situation at sea seemed locked for the time being and Alexander decided to begin besieging Miletus from the land side, confident that the Persians were in no position to help or reinforce the city from the sea.

For the time being, Alexander made himself comfortable in nearby Priene and directed the siege operations from there. It is here that he was approached by an unexpected embassy led by Glaucippus, a well respected citizen of Miletus. His proposal was that Miletus would become a free city, meaning that both Persians and Macedonians could use its harbour at will. It is clear that Alexander would not allow such an important port as Miletus to remain available to the Persians who from there had access to the entire coast of Asia Minor.

Early next morning Alexander moved his siege engines forward, including probably his stone-throwing catapults. Artillery was used to chase the defenders from the walls and then the battering rams and scaling ladders were brought in. The wall crumbled soon enough and the city quickly was taken. The Greek fleet which had positioned itself as a ring around the city successfully prevented the Persians from giving Miletus any assistance.

Panic broke out among the citizens of Miletus who immediately offered to surrender to Alexander. Most probably Alexander accepted their plea but he slaughtered nearly all the Greek mercenaries who had defended the city for the Persians. Only about 300 of these mercenaries managed to escape, using their shields as makeshift rafts to peddle to safety on one of the many rocky islets off Miletus. Of course, Alexander was not going to leave it at that and mounted scaling ladders to the front of his triremes to be used by his men to land on the islet. The mercenaries, on the other hand, did not ask for mercy but were prepared to fight to death. At this point Alexander showed clemency and in the end they were included in his army.

With Miletus taken, Alexander could now concentrate on eliminating the threat of the Persian fleet. He did not want to get involved in a naval battle because his fleet was much smaller and the men on board were not really trained in naval warfare. Instead, he sent Philotas by land to Mycale, preventing the Persians from landing and getting new provisions and fresh water from the River Maeander. The fleet withdrew, seeking protection on the island of Samos instead. Eventually the Persian fleet moved south to the safety of Halicarnassus, which was still in Persian hands.

This being settled, Alexander elected a democratic leader, cancelled all taxes and boosted commerce – in short, he started a new period of prosperity for Miletus. This prosperity ended with the arrival of the Romans in 133 BC who imposed high taxes now that the city was part of their Provincia Asia. By the third century AD, Miletus’ decline set in as its harbours silted up and marshes were formed.

Today the antique city is to be found 10 km inland and in springtime the once so busy port is covered by extensive marshlands filled with reed and blooming irises. In a way this helps to imagine what this huge harbour must have looked like. There is the old rotunda that was part of the Harbour Monument built in honour of Pompeus in 31 BC, still surrounded by water. This Monument must have been at least 7.5 meters high and may have carried a huge iron pot on top, part of which is now on display at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Maybe after all it was a beacon? Although the marshes are omnipresent in springtime, the land is entirely dry in autumn, meaning that the visitor gets quite a different view of Miletus in either season.

In historical literature, Miletus is being described as less impressive than Priene, but I think that is rather cliché for it is just different.

The most striking building is of course the theatre sitting on the hilltop commanding the entire city of Miletus. It is one of the most splendid constructions one can imagine, not only because of the many tiers of seats that have been so well preserved but also because of the entrance gates and the near-intact vaulted corridors. This theatre clearly illustrates the high level of architecture reached by the Romans; the very concept of the theatre is extremely efficient. Easy walking steps take the visitor to the cool entrails with fascinating views over the surrounding landscape and the interior of the theatre itself. The first theatre was evidently Greek, built in the 4th century BC and counted approximately 5,300 seats; the Romans extended it in the 2nd century AD to hold 25,000 people. The façade by itself is impressive enough, being 140 meters long and 30 meters high. It is hard to imagine the full impact of this theatre since the stones of the upper tiers have been taken to build of the Byzantine church on top, leaving a merely seating space for 15,000 people.

From up here, one can easily see the lay-out of the entire city. Following the marshy water line from the harbour, I find the Delphinium, the open air Temple of Apollo Delphinius, protector of the seafarers and the ships. The four remaining columns of the Ionic Stoa next to it quietly reflect their image in the still waters covering the North Agora. Sitting in the shadow of these columns I discover an ancient graffiti of a fish and the Greek word IΧΘΥΣ, both symbols that were used by early Christians – what a rewarding moment!

The remains of the adjacent Hellenistic Gymnasium are rather poor and the colossal Nympheion from the 2nd century AD that flanks it on the other side requires lots of imagination to picture it. Across from the Nympheion are the remains of the Bouleuterion, built between 175 and 164 BC. But here as elsewhere, the parts belonging to the Hellenistic period blend in very harmoniously with those that were added later on by the Romans.

Further south, past the South Agora, the Baths of Faustina, Marcus Aurelius’ wife, are visible; rough brick arches and walls that don’t do justice to the once so lavish building whose ornamental statues are now in the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul. These baths date from 43 AD and I’m not surprised at all to hear that they served as raw model for the Turkish baths, the hammam. This South Agora belonging to the 2nd century AD measures an impressive 196x164 meters and must have been dwarfing. The southern entrance gate to this Agora has been entirely moved and reconstructed at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin (unfortunately it was under restoration when I visited the museum).

It definitely is worthwhile to visit Miletus in spring and again in fall when the water level has receded and the Agoras show their large slabs of marble flooring. At that time the outline of the different buildings is much more recognizable, which truly helps to get a comprehensive view of the city.

Between the Baths of Faustina and the South Agora lies the Temple of Serapis from the 3rd century AD. Not much is left except the re-erected pediment showing a relief of the god Helios Serapis wearing a crown of sun rays. The rectangular buildings seen on the right hand side are warehouses.

That brings me to the most exciting location in Miletus, the Sacred Road that led all the way to Didyma, the city renowned for its oracle. The first road must go back to the 6th century BC at least but has been improved and embellished over the centuries. In 100 and 101 AD, Emperor Trajan, for instance, raised the level of the road and made the necessary repairs. From the early days onward, this Sacred Road was lined with statues of the Branchidae (priests and priestesses attached to the temple of Didyma); crouching lions and sphinxes; votive fountains; and even monumental tombs and sarcophagi belonging to important persons. None of these features are to be seen anymore since all were moved to the British Museum in London, the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul, or to the local Museum of Miletus. This 16.5 kilometres long road was entirely paved and had a width varying between 5 and 7 meters. Both in Miletus and in Didyma it is still pretty easy to locate a sizeable stretch of this Sacred Road, just have a close look. I was so lucky to be put on the right track by Peter Sommer during my travel on his tour "In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great" - a most rewarding experience! 

I have not found any indication about the road used by Alexander on his way from Miletus to Didyma, but I like to believe that it is rather obvious that he would have followed this Sacred Road. For me, this is another place where Alexander’s presence is still tangible. 

[Click here for more pictures of Miletus]

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