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 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)

Monday, March 30, 2015

Sardes, the capital of ancient Lydia and a key-city for Alexander’s Successors

My last visit to Sardes goes back several years and it seems that Turkey is finally promoting this unique site. Tourism is definitely on the rise, but whether that is a good thing or not, depends on how we want to look at things. The tourists bring in the badly needed cash but too many people treading the ancient floors is not necessarily a blessing.

Sardes is being praised as the capital of Lydia ruled by wealthy King Croesus from 560 until 546 BC when the envious Persians conquered the city. We will remember that the first gold coins ever were issued by Croesus. Yet I have not seen any traces of the Lydians in Sardes itself – maybe one day something will surface, who knows? What we see today is mainly Roman but the place has been occupied from about the 7th century BC till the 7th century AD and has seen Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans occupying its houses and streets. One of the highlights definitely is the Temple of Artemis, the fourth largest Ionic temple in the world that was converted into one of the seven holy churches of Christianity. There is evidently a lot to see and to explore.

Wherever I go, I always automatically look for Alexander the Great simply because he has been in so many places, and that includes Sardes. I already followed Alexander to Sardes in a previous article “Heading for Dascylium and Sardes”, but since the city is in the news once again it may be worth to elaborate a little more about its important role.

To begin with, Sardes was the start of the main road built by the Persians to connect it with Susa in the heart of the Persian Empire. That shows how important this city in Asia Minor was. Seleucos, Alexander’s successor in Asia, later had palaces all over his kingdom since it was simply too large to have a fixed center. This means that his capital was wherever he happened to be, which was either at Susa, Seleucia-on-the-Tigris, Antioch-on-the-Orontes, Celaenae or Sardes. I wish there were some remains to confirm Alexander’s passage or Seleucos’ palace at Sardes.

Closer to Alexander, there is the role his sister, Cleopatra played. She was Queen of Epirus after her husband Alexandros had died and she was an excellent match for anyone aiming for more power after her brother’s death. She first was ready to marry Leonnatus, but he died while fighting on Antipater’s side during the siege of Lamia. On Olympias instigation, Cleopatra moved to Sardes to marry Perdiccas, who was preparing his wedding to Nicaea, Antipater’s daughter. We know that Antipater was Olympias constant enemy and she would have loved to see her daughter married to Perdiccas. This general had led the Babylon Conferences (see: What if …?) and was on his way to Macedonia escorting Alexander’s corpse, accompanied by the two kings (the simple minded Arrhideus/Philip and the infant Alexander IV) at the head of the veteran’s army that had campaigned on Alexander’s side. As a matter of course, Perdiccas was tempted by Cleopatra for through this marriage he would rule the empire, but on the other hand, he could not ignore Antipater; so, he went ahead to marry Nicaea. Shortly thereafter, however, he sent Eumenes, once Philip’s and Alexander’s secretary and presently Olympias’ messenger, to Sardes loaded with gifts for Cleopatra and a marriage proposal. At this stage, Perdiccas even instated his bride-to-be as satrap of Lydia.

Perdiccas was moving at a slow pace, escorting Alexander’s body to Macedonia and the entire train  and army. Events took a sharp turn when Ptolemy “hijacked” Alexander’s corpse and took it to Memphis, leaving Perdiccas no choice but to set in the pursuit to recuperate the body. Ptolemy was ready to meet Perdiccas, whose attack ended in disaster as part of this army drowned in the Nile. He failed his duty to his troops and a group of his senior officers decided to simply murder Perdiccas.

Now the road was open for Ptolemy, who approached Cleopatra soon after, asking for her hand in marriage. She agreed, and they soon saw themselves as king and queen on the throne of Macedonia. But this time, it was Antigonus-the-One-Eyed, who by now ruled over most of Asia Minor who thwarted the plan by preventing her from leaving Sardes and eventually had her killed so she would not fall in the hands of any of the successors who would use her to rise to higher power.

Poor Cleopatra, she was widowed while in her early thirties and ended up being a pawn in the Successors’ fight for legitimation. She cannot have been much older than forty-five when she died. Love and/or happiness were no issue in those days, and in a way, I am glad Alexander did not live to witness this.

The last time Sardes was in the news in connection, although remotely, with Alexander, happened during the final confrontation between Lysimachus and Seleucos, the last two of the Successors. This was in 281 BC during the battle of Corupedium, the “Plain of Plenty”, just west of Sardes. It was here that Lysimachus was killed. Seleucos became the last of the Successors still alive.

Well, much of this part of history will most certainly be ignored by the guides taking the tourists around Sardes. King Croesus and King Alexander III are certain to steal the show, but even …

Friday, March 27, 2015

Alexander in virtual images?

Soon there will be no excuse for those who still don’t know Alexander the Great. 

By the end of 2015, Greek archaeologists will have put together a virtual museum for Alexander to present his personality as well as he legacy to our world today. From our back-chair we will be able to watch this five hour documentary in which over the three hundred artifacts will illustrate aspects of the Hellenistic world accompanied by enough explanations to lead us through the centuries, from early Macedonia to our times.

So, keep your eyes peeled! Even after so many centuries, Alexander will always fascinate us, that’s for sure! 

Monday, March 23, 2015

Afrasiab excavations: remains of a monumental public building

To my surprise, excavations at Afrasiab (ancient Greek Maracanda or modern Samarkand in Uzbekistan) by the Franco-Uzbek Archaeological Mission have revealed the burnt remains of a monumental public building from the early Hellenistic period. Based on the charred remains of millet and barley, it has been established that this must have been a granary for the Greek garrison of Samarkand.

This square building made of mud-bricks is characteristic for Hellenistic times. Archaeologists have determined that it was destroyed by a violent fire, which has baked the bricks and the cereals stored inside, transforming the content in a multicoloured ash dust. The heat was so fierce that the bricks have intensively hardened and at the same time has vitrified the soil as well as the lower parts of the walls, which at the same time led to their excellent preservation.

This granary was found at a depth of 8.5 meters, underneath successive occupation layers all the way to the mosque that was under construction in 1220 when Genghis Khan massacred a great deal of the population and destroyed Samarkand’s irrigation canals. This vast complex was divided in eight separate rooms of 11.5x5.5m each set in two rows of four. Much attention was given to the construction of these storage rooms, whose walls were made of mud brick squares of 38x38cm and probably stood 2.5 meters high of which today some 2 meters are still preserved. It seems that the roof of this granary simply collapsed at the time of the fire, together with the now parched remains of the supporting beams.

It is clear that this building was used to store perishable food. Remains of millet and barley have been identified in four of these rooms, where millet was simply thrown on the unpaved floor. Analysis have shown that this was the so-called panicum miliaceum, i.e. a common millet generally found between northern China and western Europe and is grown on irrigated land. It is a cereal that does not germinate, meaning that it could easily be stored for up to ten years. This millet played a fundamental role in people’s food staple in Central Asia and would have been ideally used in garrison life or as a life-saving food in case of siege. It is evident that barley and millet were the major food supplies for soldiers, although in Achaemenid times the barley-gruel was eaten by soldiers and slaves as well as horses, and the rations were counted. The barley, however, is thought to have been used more as fodder for the horses rather than to feed humans, and it seems to have been stored in sacks. In many places the floors and the walls were covered with ashes in shades of green, blue, orange, red, yellow and grey, which may refer to other kinds of food - yet unidentified. It has been calculated that the granary of Afrasiab could hold as much as 75 tons of cereals.

Further investigation has established that the fire was a very fierce one and researchers don’t exclude a possible explosion caused by a high concentration of gas as we know to happen in modern grain-silos. There are also indications that attempts were made to extinguish the fire or to contain it; by letting the roof collapse they hoped to kill the fire – to no avail as the blaze devastated the entire storage building.

Typical for early Greek occupation in Afrasiab is the use of square bricks as in the granary which matches similar bricks found in the inner gallery of the ancient rampart and the posterns of the so-called gate of Bukhara. Till recently no traces of Greek residential houses have been found although their presence has been suggested by Greek ceramics found on different locations surveyed by previous Soviet research. In fact, this granary is the first proof of the earliest Greek inhabitants of Afrasiab. Future excavations will certainly contribute to a better understanding of Hellenistic Samarkand.

This information is completing my earlier post: Afrasiab, ancient Samarkand where I’m concentrating on Alexander spending the winter of 328/327 BC within these walls and on the circumstances leading to the murder of Cleitos.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Dividing the Spoils. The War for Alexander’s Empire by Robin Waterfield

Dividing the Spoils (ISBN 978-0-19-964700-2): at last a book where I’m not getting lost amidst the many successors and everlasting wars!

When Alexander died in 323 BC there was no heir to the throne and he had not appointed any of generals to rule his empire. This situation only led to chaos, and the chaos turned into war since all the commanders in Babylon felt they were equally qualified and entitled to take charge. Until now, I always had swept these fights into one big heap labeled “the War of the Diadochi” or “War of the Successors”. The author clearly underscores that this was in fact a civil war in which Macedonians fought against Macedonians. At the same time it was a world war considering that Alexander had conquered nearly all of the known world. These succession wars lasted forty years until Alexander’s empire was finally shared by four remaining contenders: Ptolemy in Egypt, Seleucos in Asia, Lysimachus in Thracia, and Cassander in Greece.

But blessed be Robin Waterfield, who has managed to relate the succession wars as seen through the eyes of each individual general, projecting the events against the wars and ambitions of the other players in this game for power. Thanks to the clear lay-out and additional sub-chapters, it is quite amazing to realize that you are able to keep track of all those intricate events where sides were taken and exchanged, where treaties were signed and discarded, and where territories were won and lost again. Sons succeeded to their fathers, daughters were given in marriage to secure a temporary agreement and wives were negotiated for their titles or influences.

When you consider the crowd of powerful men that were gathered in Babylon to discuss Alexander’s succession, it is no wonder that we are so easily losing track. For a start, we have all members of Alexander’s Bodyguard: Aristonous, Leonnatus, Lysimachus, Peithon, Perdiccas, Peucestas, and Ptolemy. Were also present, Seleucos, one of his principal commanders over the past seven years; Nearchus, the admiral of his fleet; and Eumenes, his secretary and archivist. Missing were Craterus (still in Cilicia bringing the veterans home to Macedonia), and Antipater the Regent of Macedonia. These men and more battled among themselves. Quite a crowd, and yet Robin Waterfield manages to follow the reasoning and campaigning of each of them. In between, he even finds opportune moments to share pertaining information about the rise of Hellenism and its consequences in politics, religion, philosophy, warfare and art.

This makes thrilling and captivating reading material as the author keeps his audience’s attention alive all the way to the end.

Also available as ebook, click here.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Along the Via Egnatia: from Ohrid to Elbasan in Illyria

The Via Egnatia entered Illyria at Ohrid in the east, then ran through Elbasan from where one arm connected directly to Dyrrhachion (see: Along the Via Egnatia: Dyrrhachion in Illyria). Another one diverged to Apollonia (see: Along the Via Egnatia: Apollonia in Illyria) and Antipatrea (Berat) to end also in Dyrrhachion on the Adriatic coast where ships ferried people and goods to Brundisium (Brindisi) on the Italian side. As mentioned earlier the Via Egnatia was built by the Romans in the 2nd century AD and served as a major connection between Byzantium and Rome (see: Via Egnatia, a road to remember).  

The first traces of Ohrid go back to the conquest by Philip II of Macedonia, Alexander’s father, when the city was still called Lychnidos. After a first truce with the Illyrian King Bardylis that was sealed in 360 BC by marrying his grand-daughter Audata, Philip attacked in force in 357 BC, killing some 7,000 Illyrians. The outcome was that Philip extended the power of Macedonia all the way to Lake Ohrid, a territory that Alexander inherited. After the tumultuous and unstable centuries after Alexander’s death, the Romans arrived in 148 BC. By the end of the 3rd century AD most classical and Hellenistic temples were torn down by the early Christians who built their colossal churches right on top. The very name Ohrid, however, appears for the first time in 879 AD.

Today Ohrid is part of the Republic Macedonia (FYROM) and a pilgrimage site because of its many early Christian churches. The city counts as many as 365 of them and the monastery of Saint Naum (established in 905) may well be the oldest.

Well, this takes me too far away from Alexander’s days, of which close to nothing remains. There is however the ancient theatre, built in 200 BC which is the only one from Hellenistic times, since all others in FYROM are Roman. The location of this theatre is as always, sublime, gently nestled between two hills with a breathtaking view over Lake Ohrid. Unfortunately only the lower section of this theater has been preserved and we have no estimate about its seating capacity. It was initially used for gladiator fights but soon served as execution place for the early Christians. The locals resented these practices and after the demise of the Roman Empire, they buried the theater under a thick layer of soil. This is actually the part we are seeing today which was discovered by accident in the 1980’s during construction works.

However, I have not seen any traces of the Via Egnatia here at Ohrid. It is almost impossible to enter the city without passing through one of the two gates in the defensive walls from the 10th century which the Ottomans continued to use, so this may be a place to look for this famous road?

I had more luck at Elbasan, where the route of the Via Egnatia has been clearly picked up and is even signposted as “The Rehabilitation of the Egnatia Road was funded by the European Union”. It runs right through the center of the city and I wonder whether someone did search for its original pavement. It now blends in with the neighboring streets although it has been established that it matches the Roman Decumanus of Elbasan. Well, exciting anyway to find some traces!

Luckily Elbasan has more to offer. Outside the city walls, one cannot miss the remains of a Byzantine Basilica from the 5th-6th century where mosaic floors and painted walls were found. Today it is a park where the locals linger in the shade of the trees and drink from the adjacent well decorated with slabs recuperated from the basilica. The city walls here are quite impressive and in a good state of conservation. The first to protect the city were obviously the Romans, who in the 3rd or 4th century built a substantial fortress with towers. Later Emperor Justinian improved the fortifications which were however of no use against the repeated attacks of the Huns and other invaders from the north. Reconstruction started under Sultan Mehmet II in 1466 and Elbasan remained a main Ottoman center for the next 450 years or so. This means that these sturdy walls were maintained till early 20th century and it shows.

So, in the end, there is still a lot of work to do in order to map this famous Via Egnatia. I hope that in time more of its itinerary and pavement will surface.

[Click here for pictures of ancient Ohrid and here for views of Elbasan]

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Apollonia in Cyrenaica (eastern Libya) after Alexander

In 322 BC, the year after Alexander’s death, Ptolemy I who had established himself as ruler of Egypt conquered five Libyan cities. They are collectively known as the Pentapolis and include beside Cyrene, the cities of Apollonia, Ptolemais or Barca, Arsinoe or Taucheira (modern Tocra) and Euesperides or Berenice (near modern Benghazi). In those days, Cyrenaica was part of greater Egypt and often simply assimilated to Egypt itself. The region was very fertile and produced wheat and barley, as well as olive oil and wine; the orchards in turn were filled with fig and apple-trees; sheep and cattle roamed widely; and above all, this was the only place in the world where silphium grew, a natural medicine, a contraceptive and aphrodisiac.

In an earlier post, I already wrote about Cyrene (see: Cyrene, founded by the Greeks), so this time I’ll concentrate on Apollonia, now renamed Susa in today’s eastern Libya, the most obvious choice since it was the harbor for majestic Cyrene only some twenty kilometers further inland.

Apollonia was founded by Greek colonists as early as the 7th century BC and during the fourth century BC the harbor facilities were widely improved, sheltering the berths against the strong northern winds. On the west side a new inland port was constructed, protected by two towers while on the most eastern island a lighthouse was installed. It was only in the first century BC that Apollonia became a city in its own right. Not for long, however, since upon Ptolemy III’s death in 96 BC the entire Pentapolis, including Cyrene and Apollonia was bequeathed to the Romans who just moved a step closer to Egypt itself …

Today’s visitor to Apollonia will only find half of the antique city as the other half lies under water. Northern Africa has suffered badly from a devastating earthquake that occurred in 365 AD, causing the entire coastline to drop by four meters. The phenomena is clearly visible here in Apollonia where the old harbor is entirely drowned and the three off-shore islands is all that remains of the northern pier. This explains why the city doesn’t have the appeal of a harbor, and certainly not one to serve a city as important as Cyrene. Apparently shipwrecks from the fourth century BC have been located in the antique harbor where French archeologists were diving during my visit in 2010. I hate to think about what has happened since.

Anyway, Apollonia’s remains are mainly Byzantine, with three Basilicas: the western Basilica with three naves; the central Basilica with five naves; and to the far end the eastern Basilica, the largest, from the 6th century with an exceptional Baptistery because it counts six steps instead of the normal three. My local guide tells me that in the Byzantine era the purpose of this Baptistery was not to baptize people in order to convert them but to receive forgiveness for their sins. One submersion would cleanse the believer from small sins, but for more serious offenses five or six submersions would be required. I never heard of this theory but it may be a logical explanation for the great number of baptisteries in these churches.

Next to the central Basilica are the remains of a Roman Bath, whose lay-out, except for the entrance gate, is rather confusing. That is no surprise when you think how the Byzantines liked to re-model Roman buildings or re-use their stones elsewhere.

Alongside the Byzantine city wall and approximately across from the Roman Baths, lies the Palace of the Dux, the Byzantine governor Hekobolius from the 6th century, i.e. the time when Apollonia was the capital of the Pentapolis. The palace itself has not much to offer but the story that goes with it is rather interesting. For nearly six years, this Hekobolius kept an extremely good looking mistress called Theodora. One day she happened to be dancing in Constantinople for Emperor Justinian who fell in love head over heels and married her soon after. This is how Empress Theodora arrived at the imperial court where she lived happily ever after … Well, this marriage lasted about twenty years and Theodora died before Justinian, on 28 June 548.

There are more remains of Apollonia that have not yet been excavated, including the Acropolis at the far end of the site. Outside the city-wall lies the inevitable Roman theater (although built on an earlier Greek one) that now lies near the shoreline. According to an inscription found near the podium, it was built in 92 AD during the reign of Emperor Diocletian. This is the best preserved theater of the Cyrenaica in spite being used as a quarry by the Byzantines.

A last glance over Apollonia makes me realize that the restored columns of the different Basilicas are the most notable features, but that is primarily because of their texture. All these columns are made of cipolin marble, imported from the island of Euboea before the coast of eastern Greece. Cipolin is the Italian name for onions and is used to describe this kind of marble which, like onion skins, appears in green-greyish streaks – a very appropriate name, I must say.

Walking back along the coastline, my attention is drawn towards four large round pits carved in the rock. These pits were used to marinate fish in order to make the famous garum or fish paste, a delicacy for the Romans. How interesting!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Miletus, more than a city

When writing about Miletus it is obvious to tackle the remains of that once so great city and to place them in their historical context – in my case especially around Alexander the Great (see: Miletus, Alexander's first siege in Asia). But Miletus is much more than just a city of stone; it actually produced many of the brightest brains of antiquity.

Miletus greatly surpassed the other cities on the Aegean coastline of Ionia, and founded as many as thirty cities around the Black Sea, the Hellespont and the Sea of Marmara. The city also possessed a trading post in Naucratis, the Greek settlement on the Nile delta dating from the seventh century BC. This created envy with the Persians who after the defeat at Plataea in 479 BC took their revenge by thoroughly destroying Miletus.

The city bounced back and was flourishing once again by the middle of the fifth century BC. Thanks to its busy and prospering harbors, Miletus came in touch with older and more advanced civilizations like that of Egypt from where they copied the idea of dividing the year in twelve equal parts. From Mesopotamia they obtained the gnomon or shadow marker, which led to the first sun dials that divided the day in twelve parts as customary in Babylon. Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of fertility was recognized by the Greeks as Aphrodite and used to identify the bright Venus star we all know. This means that there was a wealth of knowledge available to Miletus and to the rest of the Greek world, the extend of which we can only guess.

But returning to Miletus, the best known citizen is probably Hippodamus of Miletus, a town planner but also physician, mathematician, meteorologist and philosopher, who lived in the fifth century BC. As opposed to confusing and chaotically built cities like Athens, Hippodamus introduced us to city-planning with order and clarity creating wide and straight streets crossing each other at right angles. Many cities around the Mediterranean were built by him or according to his grid plan, later to be known as the Hippodamian Plan. The harbor of Piraeus was one of his first works, but he was also involved in the new city of Rhodes and the reconstruction of Miletus after the Persian destruction. Examples of later date are for instance the cities of Olynthus and Pella in Greece. Hippodamus’ ideal city would be inhabited by 10,000 male citizens, which would correspond to a total of 50,000 people when including women, children and slaves. It would typically have a large central area that soon became the Agora, surrounded by neighborhoods of 240 m2 blocks of houses with an upper floor and separated by an outer wall, all facing south. Aristotle tells us that Hippodamus’ cities were meant to be divided into three classes: for the soldiers, artisans and common citizens, just like the land was divided in sacred, public and private. Yet Hippodamus must have been the hippie of his time with his long hair (not shown on his picture), expensive ornaments yet wearing the same clothes in winter as he did in summer.

Isn’t it amazing that today, 2,500 years later modern cities like Manhattan or Denver were built based on the same principles of what urban architects meanwhile call the checkerboard plan?

Another great name is Thales of Miletus, one of the Seven Sages of ancient Greece who lived a good century earlier, from ca. 625 to 547 BC. He is considered as the father of philosophy and is supposed to have calculated the height of Egypt’s pyramids by pacing off their shadow at the moment when their height was equal to their shadow. Thales is credited for inventing geometry, literally meaning “land measurement” but actually a branch of abstract mathematics. He also was a philosopher, mathematician and astronomer, reaching into theology with his concept that all things are full of god. Thales speculated on the nature of matter; he believed there was an arche or fundamental substance that always endured. He claimed that the principle was water simply because the earth rests on water (the general belief was that the earth was surrounded by an ocean).

His friend, Anaximander of Miletus (ca 610-ca 545 BC) declared however that the arche could not be water because it could not give rise to its opposite, fire. He even went so far as to state that none of the elements (water, earth, fire, air) could be arche for the same reason. Anaximander seems to have been the first to publish a treatise on nature. He also wrote about astronomy as he apparently was the first to use the gnomon to determine solstices, time, seasons and equinoxes; he also published a work on geography with the first map of the inhabited world. According to Anaximander, the earth had a cylindrical form and was at the centre of the universe.

Anaximenes of Miletus was a younger contemporary and pupil of Anaximander. His theory was that the prime substance was pneuma, i.e. breath or air, which assumes various forms through its eternal motion. He provided a theory of change which was supported by observation. Rarefied air becomes fire, condensed it becomes first wind, then clouds and after further condensation water, then earth and eventually stones. Anaximenes thought that the earth was flat and floated upon the air like a leaf.

These four men by themselves alone prove that Alexander not only took walls and buildings when entering Miletus but many bastions of knowledge, and I am sure that these were not the only ones that were available at that time for there is still so much of that knowledge that has not come to us.

[Pictures of the personalities are from Wikipedia]
[Click here to see the full picture album of Miletus]

Sunday, March 8, 2015

How Syria is Loosing its Precious Heritage

Looting, bombing and overall destruction of antique sites, even those listed by UNESCO as part of our word heritage hurt me deeply. They are part of our history and part of our culture that is being lost for ever – and for what!

In previous posts I have tried to draw the world’s attention to this problem, although this will not help in any way to protect these precious treasures.

For those who share this sorrow with me and want to be kept updated, there is this collection of wonderful articles assembled by ASOR Syrian Heritage Initiative on their Facebook pages. Near-weekly reports are being published there providing full information and illustration of what is happening in that beaten country.

Syria is immensely rich in history going back all the way to the Bronze Age (Mari, Ebla, Qatna, and Ugarit) and was occupied by great civilizations like the Sumerians, Egyptians, Hittites, Assyrians and the Babylonians. It saw the rise of the Phoenicians. It suffered invasions by the Persians till Alexander the Great arrived and his empire was in turn taken over by the Seleucids. During the first century BC it became a Roman province and lived a moment of glory under its own Queen Zenobia till it declined under Byzantine expansion. Let us not forget the rise of Christianity (Aramaic) and Islam (Arabs), the repeated attacks by the Crusaders and the conquest by the Ottoman Empire. I perfectly realize that this kind of summary is absurd for it is impossible to rush with such giant steps through so many centuries and civilizations, but at least I tried to draw a picture of the country’s unique past.

I am certain that whoever visited any of the grand sites and cities of Syria will look on with a bleeding heart and tearing eyes. The absurdity of war – still questioned after so many centuries …

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Along the Via Egnatia: Dyrrhachion in Illyria

Except for the significant remains in Apollonia which I discussed earlier (see: Along the Via Egnatia: Apollonia in Illyria), the other cities along the Via Egnatia have little remains to offer, merely indications of where to find its course. As poor as those remains are, I am trying to gather as much information as possible in this corner of Illyria (today’s Albania), stopping this time at Dyrrhachion.

As mentioned before, the Via Egnatia (see: Via Egnatia, a road to remember) was built by the Romans in the 2nd century AD and was the main road between Byzantium and Rome. As far as Illyria, the road came from Ohrid (FYROM) in the east and then ran through Elbasan from where one arm connected directly to Dyrrhachion (Dürres). Another one diverged to Apollonia and Antipatrea (Berat) to end also in Dyrrhachion on the Adriatic coast where ships ferried people and goods to Brundisium (Brindisi) on the Italian side.

This time, I’m stopping at the most western end of the Via Egnatia on the Illyrian side of the Adriatic Sea, i.e. at the city of Dyrrhachion situated at the narrow in the Adriatic Sea right across from Brindisi, some 200 km to the west. The only significant testimony from antiquity that is left for us to see is the Roman amphitheater from the first half of the 2nd century AD, and even this is incomplete since there are still modern houses sitting on top of it. Yet it is rather interesting to wonder through the vaulted corridors, discovering even a small Byzantine chapel. The oval amphitheater reached at its longest diameter 120 meters and stood originally 20 meters high. It offered seating for 15,000-18,000 spectators who watched gladiator fights, animal combats or other artistic shows. It is sad though to see that all the seating material has been removed – most probably reused somewhere else. Yet is spite of its bareness and partial excavation it is a most impressive construction.

As early as 627 BC the first colonists from Corinth and Corfu founded the city of Epidamnos, named after the Illyrian King Epidamnos, its co-founder. The king’s daughter had a son who received the name Dyrrhachion and it was this name that stuck. Dyrrhachion was the ideal location for a city, built around a natural harbor with high cliffs and protected on the land side by swamps.

Obviously, the envious Romans had their mind set on this prosperous city and after a fierce fight with the Illyrians in 229 BC, they took possession of the city, which they renamed Dyrrhachium, modern Dürres.

Dyrrhachium was the site of a battle during Caesar’s Civil War on 10 July 48 BC. He faced Pompey who came out victorious, although not for long. The decisive battle of the Civil War was fought at Pharsalus in Central Greece on 9 August of that same year. This battle eventually led to the assassination of Pompey on 3 September 48 BC. Another waste of lives in history …

Emperor Augustus turned the city into a colony for his veterans after the Battle of Actium, proclaiming it to be a free town. By the fourth century Dyrrhachium became the capital of the Roman Province of Epirus Nova but it was soon hit by a severe earthquake that destroyed the city’s defense walls. They were almost immediately rebuilt to a height of 12 meters and were wide enough for four horsemen to ride abreast on them. Remaining portions of the wall from the fifth century are still in place but have lost most of their strength and were first reshaped by the Byzantine Emperor Anastasios I after the catastrophic earthquake of 345 AD. He defended the city with three rows of walls guarded by consecutive fortification towers every 60-65 meters. During later occupations, the walls were modified several times. Dyrrhachium did not escape the repeated attacks by the Huns, but in Byzantine times, the city gained importance as a major link with western Europe once again. 

There are no traces of the Via Egnatia to be found in Dürres, but I am pointed towards a tall apartment building near the beach that supposedly stands on top of it. The nearby lonely Venetian tower from the 15th century is said to be built over an earlier Byzantine construction while reusing its stones. It stands nine meters tall with a diameter of 16 meters and is surrounded by intriguing modern pebble mosaics with birds and fishes moving around in a black and white pattern.

[Click here to watch all the pictures of Dürres]

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Earthquake in Sagalassos!

Earthquakes were the cause why Sagalassos was abandoned. Noticeable was the earthquake of 518 AD, but mainly those of 644 and 661 separated by seventeen years only (see: Sagalassos in Alexander’s campaign).

Of course, Turkey is prone to earthquakes and Sagalassos is no exception, but for the archaeologists working there in the summer of 2014 is must have felt as an experience from past history. It happened during the night of 24 August 2014 while they were asleep in the nearby town of Ağlasun. The entire area was hit by two successive earthquakes. Those who ever experienced such a tremor of the earth will know that a magnitude of 5.2 is enough to shake your bones! There were two successive shocks, the last making the sound of a massive explosion. Several aftershocks followed – they always feel less threatening because one is much more aware. Interesting detail is that the faultline running through Sagalassos itself moved!

The report from the field team at Ağlasun is very lively and the reaction of the villagers could have been that of the Sagalossians some 1500 years ago. Everybody was wide awake and poured into the street to inquire about their neighbours’ well-being and that of the archaeological team from Belgium. Once it was established that there were no injuries and that buildings had suffered only small damage, the community decided to make up their beds in the open and that included the archaeologists. Two members of the team decided, however, to drive to Sagalassos to inspect their restoration projects. They found no sign of any damage, neither did they the next morning by daylight.

Strangely enough the water from the late Hellenistic well that is used by the entire team for their work and as drinking water was very turbid. In our 21st century they could drive their pick-up truck back to the village for bottled water, but the lack of drinking water must have had more serious consequences in antiquity, even in such cases when people and buildings were unharmed.

Monday, March 2, 2015

A tentative visit of Tralles

Today’s name for Tralles is Tralleis nearby the city of Aydin where signposts point me in the right direction. Tralles  seems to have reached the level of Ephesus or Pergamon, but so far only basic excavations have been undertaken. This makes the visit more challenging for I have no idea what to expect.

My road ends at a T-crossing, where mini signs point left towards the city walls and the Roman necropolis or right to the Gymnasium. I make a right turn and after some turns and twists, I’m driving along some ruins carrying a sign “Roman theatre” and another one “no photographs”. I don’t understand neither inscription and the many big stones don’t make sense since I cannot make out the contours of a theatre in the landscape, only a short vaulted passage way next to the road gives me a hint. The view from here over the rolling hills where olives, figs and cotton are grown is, however, superb; in a distance, I can see a quarry of red marble in the green landscape. Far below me lay an imposing ruin with vaults that reminds me of an aqueduct. Getting closer by driving in the opposite direction, I discover that this is the Gymnasium from the 4th century BC and I realize that Tralles must have been huge. There is some parking space and not a single soul in sight. Never mind, I love this!

A large billboard welcomes me showing the rough layout of mainly Roman Tralles, with the theatre and the adjacent Stadium and further on the Gymnasium. Then some houses and much further west, the Acropolis. This Acropolis may go back to Hellenistic times. Tralles  was founded by the Hittites in 2500 BC and obviously occupied a strategic position. In later centuries, the city was ruled by the Phrygians, the Lydians, Persians, Greeks and Romans till it was totally destroyed by the severe earthquake of 26 BC. Emperor Augustus rebuilt the city, blessing it with his imperial name Caesarea. When the Byzantines arrived, they re-baptized it again to Tralles. Then followed the Seljuks and the days of the Ottoman Empire, till in 1922 the city burnt down to the ground. A new city was built nearby, today’s Aydin, now famously reputed for its fine figs

There is no indication of any scale or size, probably to discourage illegal digging in this remote countryside.

The three vaulted arches with thick walls, which the locals call “the three eyes”, are clear evidence that this is where the Roman Baths once stood. It seems that excavations are in progress, exposing a literal maze of water conduits running more or less parallel to each other but on different levels. This must have been quite a construction! Between the olive-trees further down, I distinguish some low walls and more to right a wide straight passage that could refer to a road. What a place to let my imagination run freely!

I can only guess how far Tralles spreads out in this landscape, but I am certain that Alexander must have been very happy with its surrender! (see: Alexander’s presence in Ephesus).

Overall very little is known about Tralles, except maybe the renowned Anthemius of Tralles, an architect who worked together with Isidorus of Miletus to build the Haghia Sophia in Constantinople. Anthemius also worked there as professor of geometry and his brother, Dioscorus, took over his father’s career as physician in Constantinople while another brother, Alexander practiced in Rome to become one of the most celebrated medical men. He wrote a major work on pathology and therapy entitled Twelve Books on Medicine which was used for many centuries in Latin, Greek and Arabic. As to works of art, the only testimony I came across so far is the head of Aphrodite of Tralles at the Louvre, a free copy of Praxiteles’ famous Aphrodite of Cnidos from the 5th-4th century BC (see: What did Alexander the Great know of Cnidos?). It was taken by Kaufmann in 1885, who also seemed to have found her upper thigh and pelvis, now at the Staatliche Museen in Berlin.