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)

Monday, September 7, 2015

Alexander’s presence in Magna Graecia

A few weeks ago a friend of mine returned from a trip to Puglia in southern Italy and brought me a postcard showing a strange looking Alexander. It clearly was a mosaic showing a floating Alexander (at least that is what I thought for he is supposed to be seated) between two aisled griffons pointing their beaks upwards to Alexander’s hands. Above him the inscription reads Alexander Rex. The back of the postcard told me that the picture was taken at the cathedral of Otranto. Where was Otranto and what was Alexander doing there? My friend simply responded: this was still Magna Graecia at the time.

The Alexander mosaic is only a small detail of a monumental mosaic floor that covers the entire surface of the Otranto cathedral, 16 meters long from the entrance to the altar that is. It is reportedly the largest such pavement in Europe, created between 1163 and 1165. It shows the Tree of Life, its trunk running through the center of the cathedral and its branches cascading in parallel rows. There is a smaller tree in each of the side naves as well.

The Tree of Life is populated by a strange amalgam of figures and events. There are, of course, the biblical references like Adam and Eve, Noah and his Ark, Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel, Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. But the tree is also filled with random pictures referring to The Golden Ass by Apuleius, characters from the medieval tales that were created around King Arthur and Alexander the Great. There are also figures belonging to pagan myths like Samson, the goddess Diana and other figures from Greek mythology as well as referrals to Scandinavian mythology, and even the picture of a lion from Persian Sassanid times.

The twelve months of the year are represented in an individual circles with pictures of the pertaining seasonal activities. Another series of medallions gives us an impression of the current domestic animals together with fantasy creatures. In another spot we find pictures of Heaven and Hell directing us to the Next World.

An artistic work that raises many questions as the overall message is very hard to understand. Fact is that this mosaic was commissioned by Gionata, the local Bishop, and was created by a monk named Pantaleone. It tells us about the origin of Christianity, the battle between Good and Evil, virtues and vices set in a spiritual context – yet all is fitting the then ruling multicultural mixture of Byzantines and Normans at a crossroad between eastern Mediterranean and the western culture of Northern Europe of which most eludes us today. Usually a church mosaic was meant to “speak” to the church-goers, but this Tree of Life is totally beyond that since even the most erudite visitor could not have known all the references. Maybe it was meant as a mere dictionary holding our knowledge and its origins in a universal manner as fitting in the 12th century.

Whatever the general interpretation of this huge mosaic, the presence of Alexander the Great in such a prominent place does puzzle me. His awkward position with raised hands is being explained as that he is sitting on a throne, holding a piece of meat in each hand. The aisled griffons are said to be reaching out for the meat and by biting in it they are lifting Alexander up into the skies.

At this point, I wonder how Pantaleone knew Alexander. The influence of Magna Graecia lasted in southern Italy till the end of the Byzantine occupation in the 11th century, so the memory of Alexander can easily have been kept alive. Another possibility is the widespread literature of the AlexanderRomance that was very popular from the 4th till the 16th century. Interesting and intriguing, isn’t it?

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