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 Drangiana/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 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)

Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Oxus Treasure, pieces Alexander must have known

There is still a lot of guesswork about what Alexander knew about the world in general and of the Persian Empire in particular. To me, this is one of the most fascinating subjects and I keep trying to find answers. During my recent visit to the British Museum, I concentrated more closely on the so-called Oxus Treasure, the most important surviving collection of Achaemenid artifacts.

Evidently these objects were created when the Persian Empire was at its peak and roughly covered the same territory as Alexander would conquer shortly afterwards.

The Oxus Treasure probably belonged to a temple and was gathered over a longer period of time. It contains all sorts of objects like gold and silver vessels, a rich collection of coins, figurines, a model chariot, a gold scabbard, finger rings as well as miscellaneous personal objects – all found on the banks of the River Oxus, modern Amu Darya, the natural border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan with Uzbekistan. It is thought that the precious pieces were found at the site of Takht-i Kuwad, a major ferry point across the river in modern Tajikistan.

The story of this treasure seems to emerge from the Tales of 1001 Nights. It goes back to 1880 when a British officer in Afghanistan rescued a party of merchants that had been captured by bandits who took possession of their rich collection of gold and silverware. The officer helped them to recover their precious cargo and even purchased a gold bracelet from these merchants, but other pieces travelled all the way to India to surface at the bazaars of Rawalpindi. The Archaeological Survey of India and the curator of the local museum also acquired some of these objects, which eventually made their way to the British Museum.

Let’s have a closer look at some of these artifacts, which mainly belong to the 5th-4th century BC.

For a start, there is this slender cast silver statuette represented in a rather static pose closely related to early classical Greek statues. The man is wearing a typical Persian hat, but his naked body may indeed indicate a Greek influence. This is not surprising considering that the Persians invaded and occupied Greece under Darius I in 490 BC and again under Xerxes in 480 and in 479 BC. 

Next to this statuette stands another one made of cast silver as well. This one, in turn, is dressed and is holding either a bundle of sacred rods or a flower. It may represent a king as there is much likeness with the stone reliefs found at Persepolis.

More true to life are two heads made of beaten gold, one much larger than the other but both with lovely well-combed hair. The larger head shows, in fact, a beardless youth with holes in his ears and was probably wearing earrings. It may be part of a larger statue, perhaps made of wood that has disintegrated over the centuries.

Typical Achaemenid is the gold jug with a handle ending in a lion head at them rim. It has raised the possibility that the Oxus Treasure may not have been a temple dedication but should rather be considered as a source of currency. It was not an uncommon practice in antiquity to exchange goods against silver or gold objects which were simply valued according to their weight.

Also very recognizable and typical for the Achaemenid period are the different gold bracelets and armlets, especially those with the griffon heads. Often the eyes or other spaces were inlaid with precious stones. Many examples of such armlets have been reproduced on the walls of Persepolis and according to Xenophon they were among the most precious gifts exchanged at the Persian court. 

Noticeable are the coiled bracelets among other more elaborate examples. There is more jewellery, of course, but also an entire collection of gold knobs or buttons.

Another common item is the collection of bowls, particular the gold one with embossed lions walking on their hind legs and separated by drop motives.

Rather exceptional is the gold ceremonial scabbard for the short Persian sword known as akinakes, also represented in the reliefs at Persepolis. Only the thin gold layer that once covered the wood or leather support has survived, including its sublime scenes of a lion hunt. It also shows horsemen who curiously wear trousers in Persian fashion but hats that remind us of the Assyrians (although Assyrian art had disappeared for decades at the time this scabbard was made).

A true gem and eye-catcher is the tiny gold chariot pulled by four horses or ponies. Inside the chariot are two figures in Median dress, one seated on a little bench while the other is holding the reins. It is a very delicate and intrinsic piece of craftsmanship. Strangely enough, the front of the chariot shows the Egyptian protecting god Bes. How civilizations intermingle!

A gold vessel in the shape of a fish also catches my attention because of its elaborately carved scales. It probably was used to hold expensive oils. The loop on the side may have been used to hang it or served to attach a stopper now lost. It seems that the fish could be a carp.

Last but not least there is an entire series of about fifty gold plaques engraved with human figures in different positions and different dresses. They vary in size from less than 3 cm to nearly 20 cm and may have served as votive objects left in a temple or shrine. On one of the largest plaques, we recognize a Mede who seems to be involved in a religious ritual.

There are many more objects here at the British Museum from the Achaemenid period, all the kind of vessels and decorations Alexander must have found at any of the Persian palaces, from Susa to Persepolis to Pasargadae. I wonder how he would have reacted to this kind of art and to this wealth.

[Click here to watch more pictures from the BM]

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