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 of the Prophthasia/in Dragiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Areia (Herat, 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)

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Friday, November 13, 2015

Gordion, a name with resonance

The very name Gordion, capital of ancient Phrygia, automatically raises images of King Midas’ Tomb and of Alexander cutting the famous knot making him the king of the world according to the legend.

Today Gordion (approximately 58 miles southwest of modern Ankara) makes the headlines because a wooden tomb has been unearthed in a new tumulus where treasure hunters had started illegal diggings. This is the second wooden tomb ever found, the first being the one attributed to King Midas, but both are dating back to the 8th century BC. Serious excavations started here by the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara and hopes are high to find the remains of an eminent personality.

Fieldwork carried out in 2014 and 2015 has revealed the presence of 21 new tumuli in the area, bringing their total number to 124. I find this not really surprising for when I drove up to Gordion a few years ago I had been wondering about the many man-made hills in the otherwise flat landscape. A recent article in the Hurriyet Daily News discloses sites at the following locations: Yassihöyük, 87 tumuli; Şabanözü, 12 tumuli and 2 mounds; Çekirdeksiz, 4 tumuli and 2 mounds; Kiranharmani, 7 tumuli and 1 mound; Beylikköprü, 10 tumuli, Ömerler, 2 tumuli; Sazilar, 1 tumulus; and Beyceğiz, 1 tumulus. Enough work for future generations, I’d say.

Gordion was the capital city of the land of the Phrygians who settled here in the early 9th century BC and reached their peak a century later. Yet the country remained under constant enemy threat and it has been reported that the Cimmerians destroyed Gordion in 690 BC. When the Lydians in turn arrived, they rebuilt the city, but it was destroyed once again by the invading army of Cyrus the Great in 547-546 BC. From then onward, Gordion once again became a commercial and military center, this time as a satrapy in the Achaemenid Empire. The Persians even installed a garrison at Gordion, which was eventually overthrown by Parmenion, one of Alexander’s generals who spent the winter of 333/334 BC here with part of the army.  At the same time, Alexander marched through Lycia in the south to regroup with Parmenion the next spring. In 278 BC however, the city was destroyed by the Gauls and totally abandoned by 200 AD.


The most famous king of Phrygia is beyond any doubt King Midas, best known from Greek mythology and famous for his ability to change everything he touched into gold. The story goes that one night he met the satyr Silenus and hoped to learn from his wisdom. He gave him food and drink, and returned him to his companion Dionysus. To thank the king for his kindness, Dionysus granted him a wish. Although he was already famous for his wealth, Midas obviously wanted more and received the ability to turn any object he touched into gold. The wish worked to perfection and consequently all trees, flowers, fruits and even the soil the king touched turned into gold. When trying to mount his horse, it too turned into gold. The worst happened when sat down for dinner and all the tasty food instantly was transformed into gold. He realized his fate too late and suffered from hunger and thirst; his bed became hard as stone now it was made of gold. Sick with misery, he sought out Dionysus again asking him to reverse the gift. Luckily, Dionysus was very understanding and told him to wash in the Pactolus River in Lydia. As soon as he arrived, he jumped into the water washing away his curse. Part of the legend lives on as gold is still being retrieved from the river bed of the Pactolus.

On my tour In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great with Peter Sommer, I visited the tomb of King Midas in Gordion although some sources say that it is too old to belong to this king, although he might have built it for his predecessor, maybe his father. It is housed inside a huge tumulus, 53 meters high and approximately 300 meters in diameter. I didn’t know what to expect here, but once inside I saw walls made of wooden beams in the style of a log cabin in which an opening had been cut to access the burial room. The beams have been heavily studded on all sides shortly after being discovered, originally because the tomb was flooded and later because the wood was being attacked by fungi and insects. In fact, the visitor only can see the thick wooden beams and is sadly not allowed inside the actual burial chamber.

That burial chamber measures 5.15x6.2 meters and is 3.25 meters high. Thanks to an analysis of the timber, the tomb has been dated to about 740 BC. Beside the bed on which the skeleton of a man of about 60 years was resting, the room was filled with bronze and brass vessels varying from huge cauldrons to smaller plates and beakers, ladders, fibulae and exquisite inlaid wooden tables and stands. Of typical Phrygian origin are the bronze belts, wooden and bronze animal figures and the geometric pottery. All the artifacts have been moved to Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara and the Archeological Museum in Istanbul.

So far no traces of the city have been dug up. Strabo describes Gordion’s location close to a river, but over the centuries the nearby river has shifted and today’s level is about eleven meters higher. Yet, I do visit a site that might be Gordion – if not, evidently another important Phrygian settlement. There was a big outer city here, something in the style of Troy. The city gate had timber walls on the inside, which should help in dating it. The city’s ramparts on the other hand were made of two parallel stone walls and the inside space was filled with wood. The Cimmerians destroyed Gordion in 696 BC and the ensuing fire preserved these walls and were later covered with mud up to four meters deep. A new city was built by the Lydians in the same pattern on top of the existing remains. Otherwise, it’s difficult to figure out what has been excavated in spite that one of the large buildings could be the royal palace. The only recognizable features are the grinding stones that are nicely lined up for the occasion.

At the small local museum I marvel at the Phrygian pebble mosaics from the 9th century BC, tiny pebbles skillfully arranged in geometric patterns. There is also a collection of Phrygian terracotta roof tiles, gutters and decorative plaques. It seems that the technique was invented in Greece around the middle of the 7th century BC and that the idea had spread in Anatolia in the early 6th century BC – an interested way to date these architectural elements.

Upon his arrival at Gordion, Alexander joined up with Parmenion who had spent the winter in this area with part of the army. Also, the newly married men from Macedonia who had been sent home last winter arrived together with extra fresh troops to increase Alexander’s forces.

There is no trace of the place where Alexander cut the Gordian knot, of course. It just could be anywhere in the region. Why didn’t the ancient writer mention Midas’ Tomb in connection with the knot that would have made things so much easier for us! 

I find myself in one of the strangest landscapes of Turkey, so flat, so barren, yet dotted with so many perfectly shaped cones, i.e. the tumuli that are still under investigation. It is hard to picture Strabo’s description of this being a natural fertile land with many woods of pine trees and juniper.

Whether Alexander stopped purposely at Gordion to cut the knot is not certain, but he certainly could not have resisted taking up the challenge! According to the legend Phrygia in ancient times was without king and an oracle had predicted that the first man entering the city with an ox-cart would become their king. It turned out to be a peasant farmer, named Gordias. Out of gratitude, his son Midas decided to dedicate the ox-cart to their main god Sabazios. He tied the cart to a post using an intricate knot of cornel bark and it stood there at the palace for the next four centuries till Alexander arrived in 333 BC. Sources from antiquity do not agree on the way he “untied” this knot. Alexander must have had a very close look at it, but since the ends of the ropes were hidden he could not figure this out. Well, he was not going to give up and certainly didn’t want to lose face in front of his men and the newly conquered citizens. Some claim that Alexander simply pulled the pin securing the yoke to the pole of the cart, thus exposing both ends. A less plausible (but more theatrical) theory is that he simply sliced the knot with a stroke of his sword. It seems that the prophecy announcing that whoever untied the knot would become the king of Asia was born at that time. True or not, it does not really matter. At any rate, that very night a violet thunderstorm rumbled over Gordion and Aristander, Alexander’s soothsayer, said this was a sign that Zeus (generally accepted as the counterpart of Phrygian Sabazios) was blessing the king with many victories.

[Click here to see all the pictures of Gordion]

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