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)

Friday, May 1, 2015

Ptolemais, heritage of the Ptolemies in the Cyrenaica (eastern Libya)

The origin of Ptolemais (or Barca) of the Libyan Pentapolis (see: Apollonia in Cyrenaica (eastern Libya) after Alexander) goes back to the middle of 6th century BC, but the name Ptolemais was probably given by Ptolemy III Euergetes, the grandson of Ptolemy I who in 322 BC added the city to his realm after becoming the ruler of Egypt as successor to Alexander the Great. When the Romans annexed Egypt in the first century BC, they granted Ptolemais the status of a separate province. Since the city had no local water supply, it were the Roman architects who managed to bring in water from the surrounding hills and store it in seventeen huge cisterns under the Forum. It was a flourishing city until it was hit by the destructive earthquake of 365 AD that caused the entire North African coast to drop about four meters. The invasion of the Vandals in 428 probably gave the final blow. The Byzantines moved their military governor to Apollonia and the Arabs made sure the city was entirely abandoned.

It still looks abandoned today, a mere flat site thrown with stones and rocks with a sporadic tree to bring in some color. The access road to ancient Ptolemais is not really inviting either as it runs through a solid row of abandoned houses which the Italians built last century – a true ghost town known as Tolmeitha. It is an eerie feeling to progress over this straight road flanked by colorful facades with cast iron decorations, which for some reason make me think of the Via Appia in Rome where the tombs are replaced by empty houses.

The city of Ptolemais is no more than a field on a gentle slope from the Mediterranean up to the mountains, in which even the Hippodamic plan is hard to figure out. I am happy to be pointed to the familiar Decumanus and Cardo once I’ve reached the crossroad where a piece of wall and a lonely column is all that remains of the Arch of Constantine from 312 AD. The Decumanus has been promoted to Monument Street or Via Porticata with on one side the Roman Baths and on the other the remains of a private house. It was on this road that the Edict of Diocletian from 301 was found setting the prices for the trade goods and now in the local museum.

At the next crossroad, marked with Four Columns, I make a right turn to visit the imposing remains of the so-called Palazzo delle Colonne, meaning the “Villa with the Columns”. Since this is about the only reconstructed building, it can hardly be missed. The Villa lies here in all its splendour and it is generally accepted that it was built according to the then prevailing fashion in Alexandria (Egypt). This theory is hard to verify since old Alexandria is still buried deep under the modern city and a good example of such a villa has never been found, but I like the idea. In any case, the owner was not a poor man.

We owe the qualification of Palazzo to the Italian archaeologists of last century who found that it covered an entire street-block (600m2) and counted two levels. The rear of the building, in fact the living quarters, is resting on a plateau from where the owner had a panoramic view over the city and I can see all the way to the sea front. This part had an upper level, probably the sleeping quarters. In front of these quarters below me there is space for eight shops opening into the street with in the back their own storage rooms. This storage lies next to a large patio and a complete bathing complex including a Caldarium, Tepidarium and Frigidarium, probably for the master of the house and his family. A separate staircase leads from the house directly to the patio below.

The re-erected columns are not too well restored with big blobs of cement in between, but they give an excellent idea of the past glory. Quite exceptionally are the leaves at the bottom of the columns, a subtle hint to Egypt – hence the name oecus aegyptius used to name this room. It takes some imagination to crown these columns with the capitals (now at the local museum) of Corinthian order with the heads of Jupiter and Mars staring down from in between the acanthus leaves.

Behind this room and in the very centre of this complex lies the Atrium including the series of earthen pipes that led the water to the bubbling fountain in the center of the pool. The Atrium was surrounded by a covered gallery resting on Ionic columns and paved with black and white mosaics, now carefully covered with plastic and soil, although the edges are still exposed here and there. Central in this Atrium is the summer dining room that offered a view over the inside garden and the water basin, once paved with magnificent mosaics. More protected from the elements lies, on the right hand side, the winter dining room and adjacent the so-called Medusa-room after the mosaic that was found here and that has also been moved to the museum.


I am quite impressed by this Palazzo delle Colonne, not only because of its location, which is striking by itself, but also by the entire combination of these unique columns with their decoration and paintings, the many mosaic floors in colour as well as black and white, and the many statues that enhanced these rooms because the Venus and Bacchus from the museum certainly were not the only ones found here. This villa, in my opinion, goes beyond what has been found in Pompeii or in Herculaneum, although they have other characteristics.

The next house-block is entirely occupied by the Forum, paved with small slabs of marble and surrounded by columns, a few of which have (not too well) been restored. Under this Forum from the second century AD (in Greek times this was a Gymnasium) the true treasure of Ptolemais lies buried: its water cisterns. There are eight of such huge galleries running north-south over a total length of 50 meters and nine running eat-west over 20 meters. I have seen such cisterns in cities like Termessos and Sillyum in Turkey, but not of this size. The oldest cisterns are from Hellenistic times and when I climb down the stairs in the centre of the Forum, I can clearly see the marks where supporting beams held the flat wooden roof of that period. The Romans later covered the entire system with vaulted ceilings, and in the process more than doubled the storage capacity to reach as much as six million litres! It is a quite unique experience to walk through these vaulted galleries, I can assure you!

Right behind the Forum, lays the Odeon – a rather controversial building it seems. Originally built as a Bouleuterion, this Odeon dates from the 4th-5th century but might as well be a small theatre since the half-circular orchestra could be filled with water. However, the water supply is too far away from the theatre to be used as such and even if this space could be filled with water, to what purpose was it used? Some archaeologists opt for miniature sea battles, while others think that the water would simply be used to improve the acoustics. For the time being, this remains a mystery.

At the far end to the left, that is on the west side, one can discern the contours of the Teucheira city gate from the 5th century AD, but the entire extend in between seems still in dear need of excavations. Ptolemais definitely was a most important city.

On my way back, walking over the westerly Cardo to the exit, I stop at the Roman villa where the mosaic of the Four Seasons was found (now at the local museum). Not much to see, except that this building deserves to be called a villa. Noteworthy is that the colonnade around the Atrium ends in a horseshoed shape – an exception to the standard square pattern. Simple smooth columns surround the central area, neatly restored without the blobs of cement the Italians used elsewhere.

The local museum is nothing more than a large storage room, but it is nice to have it so close to the place of excavation (Now, a few years after the fall of Kaddafi, I wonder what has become of this place). I marvel at the fine mosaics apparently imported from Alexandria that were framed by rougher mosaics laid by local craftsmen. The Medusa-mosaic from the Palazzo delle Colonne steals the show, next to two fragments with hens and fishes, and another large mosaic carpet showing the Four Seasons with two panthers underneath. True jewels!

Next to a beheaded Bacchus and an elegant Venus with the head of Demeter (a strange combination) both from the second century AD and found at the abovementioned villa, there are a number of painted and artistically carved Corinthian capitals revealing the heads of Jupiter and Mars. Interesting also are the aerial views of the villas I just visited. In a corner I find the remains of a sarcophagus with an image of Achilles, and standing behind him, his mother Thetis. An intriguing discovery although I fail to understand what they are doing here.

One of the masterpieces definitely is the slightly damaged panel found on the Via Porticata which shows a number of goods and their respective prices according to the Edict of Diocletian from 301 AD. That such legislation existed at all is quite amazing! Next to it, stands a particularly graceful relief with six dancing Maenads also found on the same avenue. The Maenads were a favourite subject in antiquity and this relief seems to have enhanced the base supporting a statue of the dramatist Euripides. The original statue was sculpted in Athens in 405 BC, but this is the best (Roman) copy. The ecstatic Maenads, followers of Dionysus, are particularly elegant in their floating robes, waving the thyrsus staff and shaking their tambourines. Such a pity that in later years the piece was used around a well, for otherwise it is rather well-preserved.

Once more, this is a city that owes its glory to Alexander the Great and his successors as it lived on for another 700 years. Ptolemais definitely deserves to be added to the list of Alexander’s achievements.

If we pay a little more attention than usual, we find much more than the sites and buildings we are pointed towards. It happened to me when we drove out of Ptolemais and I noticed the remains of a Hellenistic tomb, clearly inspired by the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. It is no more than a lonely square in the middle of an abandoned field used as garbage depot although fenced off with barbed wire, planks and corrugated roofing. The original tomb must have been much higher than the remaining 11 meters, but the floor-plan of 12x12 meters is still intact. This tomb belongs to the second century BC, Ptolemaic times, and still carries the alternating motives of triglyphs and metopes along the top edge although the friezes have since long disappeared just like the steps at the base. Here as elsewhere, it was common practice to dismantle old buildings in order to reuse the recuperated stone blocks in new constructions (spolia).

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