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)

Thursday, July 30, 2015

A splendid collection of Greek bronze masterpieces

Bronze sculptures from Hellenistic times are pretty rare, at least when it comes to larger pieces and life-size statues. So, here is a unique opportunity to admire a whole bunch of them, collected among the best examples from museums around the world: the British Museum in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, the Louvre in Paris, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the Museum of the Vatican and the Archaeological Museum in Naples and several others.

The first display was organized this spring at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, Italy, under the label “Power and Pathos, Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World” and I can assure you that the collection was worth the trip all by itself! Considering that there are less than 200 large bronzes from Greek and Roman antiquity left worldwide, you’ll have to admit that this is a unique opportunity to see so many gods, athletes, heroes and other figures together – the crème de la crème, no doubt. Most antique bronzes have been melted down over the centuries as the precious metal was reused for other purposes, mainly in warfare.

The priceless artifacts date from Hellenistic times, roughly from right after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC to the ascent of Rome in the first century AD. Without Alexander Hellenism would not exist and it is no surprise to find the great man in person at the center of the very first room in Firenze. It is the magnificent Alexander riding his beloved Bucephalus from the Archaeological Museum in Naples and dated to the first century BC. Such detailed work, I can’t get enough of it.

Nearby is a slightly larger than life-size bust of Seleucos, still with inlaid eyes – a magnificent piece! In fact each and every statue is worth to be mentioned. There is for instance a remarkably well preserved Head of an Athlete from the second century BC-first century AD; an arresting portrait of a poet, the so-called Arundel head, from the second/first century BC; the wonderful Head of a Man from Delos, also called the Worried Man also from the 2nd/1st century BC; the splendid Statue of a Young Man from the 4th-3rd century BC; the Head of the Thracian king Seuthes III with penetrating eyes from the third century BC; a lovely life-size Head of a Horse ready to turn its ears towards the visitor to pick up his scent dating from the second half of the fourth century BC; the statue of an Athlete (Apoxyomenus) from the first century AD; a rather archaic looking Apollo (kouros) with inlaid eyed form the first century BC/first century AD; and another pure Hellenistic Apollo Head this time from the same period; the Bust of an Ephebe, the so-called Beneventum Head, from ca. 50 BC;  a young man from Cyprus made of bronze with a very particular and unusual patina; a slender life-size Athena or Minerva di Arezzo from between 300-270 BC; a very muscled statuette of the Weary Hercules from the 3rd century BC/1st century AD; and many, many more. Absolutely amazing the Terme Boxer from the third century BC from Rome; he is placed on the floor like an occasional visitor, totally at rest after the intense fight he just put up showing his scars all over his body, with still oozing cuts and wounds. He is so life-like that you expect him to look up at you at any moment! A very tempting set of pictures has just been published on this site of the Getty Museum in California.

Unfortunately I wasn’t allowed to take pictures, so I have to work from memory and with whatever photographs available on the internet, but, of course, there is nothing like meeting these masterpieces “live”. With a little luck, you can still visit this unique exhibition at the Paul Getty Museum at Malibu, California, from July 28 till November 1, 2015, and at the National Gallery of Art at Washington D.C., from December 13, 2015 till March 20, 2016.

[Pictures are scans from the leaflet available in Florence, Italy]

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Persepolis by A. Shapur Shahbazi

Don’t rush to the bookstore next door to find “The Authoritative Guide to Persepolis” by A. Shapur Shahbazi (ISBN 978-964-91960-5-6), you won’t find it.

I actually purchased my English copy at one of the many stalls at Persepolis where it is available in Farsi, French, German and Italian as well. Yet this book is a true gem for whoever wants to study this wonderful site beyond the picture books generally proposed to the tourists.

Iranian born A. Shapur Shahbazi received his M.A. and Ph.D. in Archaeology from the University of London and founded the Institute of Achaemenid Research at Persepolis in 1974. He taught at several universities worldwide but he also participated in many excavations at the site of Persepolis. In short, he is an authority intimately familiar with every corner and every detail of all the buildings on this wonderful location.

For those visitors who want to look beyond the mere palaces and reliefs as commented upon by their guides, this book truly helps to put everything in its right place. Each palace and each building is treated separately and attention is given to every detail. The book is generously filled with many excellent pictures but also with plenty of useful drawings and maps.  A. Shapur Shahbazi provides full translations of the many cuneiform inscriptions in Elamite, Old Persian and Babylonian, highlighting the differences in text where applicable. Extremely handy are his extensive lists of all the kings, servants, soldiers and gift-bearers that are carved on the many walls and door-jambs throughout Persepolis, complete with facts and figures.

At the end of the book, there is a number of interesting Appendixes: Stone, Methods and Tools; Measures and Numbers at Persepolis; and Restoration of the Column in “The Gate of All Lands”.

In short, it is a true companion for whoever wants a better and more in-depth understanding of the site of Persepolis.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Alexander amidst the pomp and circumstance of Persepolis.

From our history books, we often get the impression that Alexander rushed to Persepolis, set the place ablaze and left right away to his next destination. Nothing is less true. Alexander arrived at Persepolis about the first week of February 330 BC and Tiridates, its commander, must have received him with the appropriate protocol and deference. Alexander spent about four months in Persepolis which he left by late May or early June 330 BC, and it is obvious that he did not sit there idle.

Curtius seems to be the only one to write about Alexander’s expeditions into the interior of Persia some time in April where he was troubled by heavy rain and “almost intolerable weather” (hard to imagine since I was troubled by a serious heat wave that same time of the year). He even was stopped by heavy snow that had frozen solid; not for long though as he immediately started making his way breaking the ice with a mattock, an example that was promptly followed by his men. The frightened inhabitants he encountered in these pathless forests cannot have offered much booty which the soldiers had to find in the villages further down across the valley floor. Then Alexander reached the Mardi, a warlike people that lived off their flocks in the mountains. Curtius mentions that on the thirteenth day after setting out from Persepolis, the king returned to share his trophies with his friends and those who had merited it.

In Persepolis Alexander held games in honor of his victories and performed lavish sacrifices to the appropriate gods, but he must also have received couriers from home and delegations from far and abroad, although I find no such record in history. The appropriate place to receive his guests was evidently the Apadana, the Audience Palace, the most imposing building of Persepolis and one that defies our most daring imagination. With its approximately 100x100m it was by far the largest palace on the plateau and widely surpassed and outshone all others. It could hold as much as 10,000 guests!

It definitely was an extremely rich building but rather difficult to figure out today. The Apadana lays three meters above the rest of the plateau, hence the two stately staircases, one on the eastern side and one on the northern side. They are both identical in as far as the northern side is generally a mirror of the eastern side, meaning that the figures’ profiles on the reliefs are shown in reverse.

The main hall of the Apadana is a central square of 60x60m and counted six rows of six columns, totaling 36 splendidly fluted columns resting on a square base and crowned with the ever-present floral decorations just underneath the double-headed bulls that supported the ceiling. At the western, northern and eastern side of the main hall huge double-leaved doors in the 5.32 meters, thick wall led into a rectangular portico with twelve columns set in two rows of six. Together with the columns of the main hall, the Apadana totaled 72 columns, thirteen of which are still standing 19 meters high. The ceiling was made of wood, most probably cedar from Lebanon although cypress may also have been used. On the southern side of the main hall, lay several small chambers used for storage or connecting to the adjacent Palace of Darius.

The wall of the main hall was made of individual mud bricks of standard size of 33x33x13cm joined together with lime-and-clay mortar and covered with a greenish stucco made of gypsum and clay as used all over Persepolis. The guests and delegates would enter through the north-eastern door, ushered by a Persian or Median guard posted at the Gate of Nations from where they had an unobstructed view of the Apadana; the gift-bearers however would have entered separately through the north-western door.

Alexander, and the Persian Kings before him would enter the Audience Hall through a small corridor in the most southerly corner linked to the Palace of Darius. It is obvious that in this ostentatious setting he could not appear in his Macedonian clothes. Anyone with some sense of etiquette could see that it demanded a statelier outfit, but his victorious troops were convinced that only their laws and customs applied. Not so for Alexander who showed respect for the newly conquered land and lords. We ignore, however, what the Persians thought of Alexander’s “adjusted” Persian dress. It would be interesting to travel back in time.

At each corner of the Apadana a sturdy tower had been erected, a square construction with a three-meter thick outer wall while the inner walls measured 2.5 meters. The towers were four stories high, i.e. 22 meters. It was here that the gold and silver foundation inscriptions written in Babylonian, Old Persian, and Elamite were buried in an adequate box by Darius the Great. Two of these boxes have been retrieved intact (two others were looted in antiquity). One set is now safely exhibited at the National Museum of Tehran and the other pair was eventually transferred to the Azadi Museum in Tehran. Based on Darius’ details about the extend of his empire the construction of the Apadana can be dated to about 515 BC.  

Today’s visitor is immediately drawn to the lavishly decorated stairways leading into the inner Apadana. The eastern stairway is being sheltered under a protective roof to preserve its unique original reliefs. This is a true gem where I spent most of my time, figuring out the many scenes, and it is definitely worth it! As I said, the northern stairway is almost identical but not in such a good condition as this one.

To begin with, the main wall of this eastern stairway is 81 meters long and could be divided into three equal parts of 27 meters each. Access to the Audience Hall is possible over the central double reversed staircase (at the center of the wall) or over the staircases at either end of the wall on the right and on the left side. The projecting central outer staircase stands in front of the long back wall although attached to it by its wide steps. It shows symmetrical reliefs of four soldiers (apple-bearers), alternatively two Medes with round hats and two Persians, facing each other across a blank space in between them. Either side is flanked by the ever-recurring image of a lion-bull fight. The entire group is crowned by a winged circle in the very middle of the panel (Ahuramazda), flanked on either side by a seated sphinx with a human head and winged lion’s body raising his right hand in a gesture of adoration. A row of nine palm trees fills the remaining space towards the end.

Originally, instead of the four apple bearers and the open space, this place was occupied by a relief showing an audience scene of King Darius I with his heir Xerxes standing behind him (although recent research is indicating that this is King Xerxes with the later King Darius II behind him). This relief was moved to the Treasury, possibly by Xerxes when he became king and he didn’t like his place as crown-prince behind his father’s throne – a theory that is not applicable should the king on the throne indeed be Xerxes, in which case another historical background applies. Opposite the enthroned king, stands an official of the empire doing obeisance to his king by throwing him a kiss with his hand. Right in front of him stand two incense burners. This relief meanwhile has been moved to the National Museum of Tehran.

My attention then goes to the reliefs on both sides of the central panel. The northern wing (to the right when facing the stairways) is also 27 meters long and shows three rows of soldiers, i.e. three files of guards standing at attention with the butt of their spears resting on their foot. This butt has the shape of an apple or a pomegranate which gave the guards the name of “apple-bearers”. They closely resemble the guards from the glazed-brick walls in Susa (now at the Louvre Museum), clad in the same Persian dress. The top right row ends with royal grooms who also lead in horses (probably the famous Nicean horses) and two chariots. Just underneath we find two rows of royal dignitaries, alternatively a Mede representing the military officer and a Persian identified as the court official. The 32 pairs of officials stand for the 32 nations as mentioned in an inscription found at Persepolis. On each steps leading up to the Audience Hall itself, a single soldier is standing at attention, probably duplicating the live soldiers lining up on great occasions.

The southern wing (to the left when facing the Apadana’s stairways) covers the last 1/3 of the entire length, another 27 meters. This is where we find delegations from all nations, each being introduced by an usher either in Persian or in Median costume. Going into details is a great pass-time but would take far too long to explain although it is a terribly exciting occupation. I will, however, limit myself to merely list the different nations. 
They are:
Medes (from Azerbaijan and Kurdistan), 

Susians (from Khuzistan),
Armenians (from Armenia and eastern Turkey), 

Arians (from Herat in Afghanistan),
Babylonians (from around Babylonia),

Elamites (from around Susa)
Lydians (from modern western Anatolia), 

Arachosians (from central Afghanistan),
Assyrians (from northern Iraq and Syria),
Cappadocians (from eastern Armenia and north-eastern Turkey), 

Scythians (from Iran northeast of the Caspian Sea), 

Ionians (modern western Anatolia),
Bactrians (from the Balkh region in Afghanistan),
Gandarans (from the Kabul area in Afghanistan), 

Parthians (from modern Khorasan), 

Assagartians (or Sagartians from southeast Media), Saka Haumavarga (Scythians living east of the Jaxartes),
Indians (from the Northwest Frontier), 

European Scythians (from modern Macedonia and Ukraine), 
Arabs (from Jordan and Palestine), 
Zarangians (ancient people of Seistan),

and Ethiopians. 

In fact these nations cover the entire map of the Achaemenid Empire, which is not too unlike the territories that Alexander ultimately conquered. Here too, a soldier is standing at attention on each step leading to the entrance of the Audience Hall.

We should remember that all these walls were painted in brilliant colors. Above this colorful spectacle rose the 19 meters columns, also colored as mentioned above with their double headed bulls staring down on the visitor. Quite particular is the fact that the columns of the western portico (the one opposite this luxurious entrance) had capitals of double-headed lions. Once inside the main hall of the Apadana, the walls were tiled with colorful bricks with pictures of lions, bulls, and flowers.

One must admit that Greece had nothing comparable to offer, in spite of the splendour and the grandeur of the Acropolis in Athens. Persepolis is of a totally different proportion and majesty, making me wonder what impression it must have made on Alexander and his troops. Unfortunately the surviving ruins do no justice to this once enormous wealth.

The last building that deserves attention is the Tripylon, so named because of its three entrances, allowing access to the Apadana on the north side, the Hall of the One Hundred Columns and the Harem on the east, and the Palace of Xerxes on the south side. Although it was added after the completion of the Apadana and the Hall of the One Hundred Columns, its function is unclear. The Tripylon occupies the very center of the Persepolis plateau and may have served as a Council Hall or as a monumental corridor linking the abovementioned buildings. It occurs to me that it may have functioned as a separation between the huge official halls and the most private palaces of Xerxes and Darius, and the Harem.

The reliefs on the jambs of the doorways are generally parallel images from other buildings and that is also the case for the reliefs enhancing the different stairways, including the delegates from 28 subject nations. Of particular interest is the small staircase that has been moved to the Museum of Tehran with on the outer side reliefs of Persian lancers and archers; on the inner side, each step depicts a member of the Persian and Median clergy sharing the step as they carry food and animals for religious rites. Unique are also the capitals of the four columns of the Tripylon’s main hall which, unlike the usual double-bull, lion or griffin are double man's heads with a bulls’ body. This mythological figure originates in Babylonia and Assyria and is called Iamassu. It usually served to ward off evil and was placed at a gate entrance, hence the theory that this Tripylon might have served as an entrance (to what I wonder though). One such an Iamassu is on display at the Tehran Museum.

The Achaemenid Empire was founded by Cyrus the Great, King of Kings of Persia, King of Anshan, King of Media, King of Babylon, King of Sumer and Akkad, King of the Four Corners of the World. The Achaemenids ruled for approximately 500 years and they must have felt that their power was eternal by the grace of Ahuramazda. Yet, their reign ended quite dramatically with the arrival of Alexander, King of Macedonia, who managed to defeat the Great King Darius III at the battle of Gaugamela three years after he had left his homeland. However, Darius was still alive, fleeing ever further east with Alexander at his tail. Was Persepolis going to pay the price?

Food for thoughts in “Fire over Persepolis”.
[Click here to read about Alexander's arrival at Persepolis. the previous post]

[Click here to see all the pictures of Persepolis]

Monday, July 20, 2015

A picture worthy of Alexander

A picture worthy of Alexander, or should I say: a picture worthy of the gods?

It appeared quite a while ago on the site of Dave Cullen and I think it very well reflects the entire being of Alexander.

Happy birthday, Alexander!

Friday, July 17, 2015

Priene, a virtual tour

Our imagination is always very much put to the test when visiting an antique site for we have mentally to reconstruct the buildings and the streets with all their trimmings and decorations. In some cities with enough temples and theaters still standing the task is much easier than in the places where we have to work with scant remains.

So, bless the modern technology enabling 3D reconstructions of those ancient places. Today Priene is put in the limelight, offering a superb look of the general layout of this unique Hellenistic city!

Of course, this is not exactly how Alexander experienced Priene, but it is close enough.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Desperation of the archaeologist

The situation of the archaeological sites across Syria is pretty desperate. It is a fact that some of the country’s highest-profile historic sites are being compromised by fighting and as if that is not enough, by looting.

It is heartwarming to hear that local volunteers are risking their lives to preserve and protect as much as possible Syria’s irreplaceable monuments and mosaics. Like earlier in countries as Afghanistan and Iraq, civilians have turned over thousands of ancients artifacts for safekeeping.

In their despair, curators and experts have recently set up workshops in Turkey, close to the Syrian border, in order to teach the Syrians some basic emergency conservation techniques. There are different ways to secure objects and collections, and one of such a procedure is simply wrapping ceramics and mosaics in Tyvek, a tough plastic used in construction, before burying the precious pieces.

Aleppo as it was in 2009

Of course, this kind of salvation cannot be applied to buildings and cities. The famous Crusaders’ castle of Crack des Chevaliers was shelled while it was used as a rebel stronghold. The historic center of Aleppo was sadly devastated in the early days of the fighting and now even the walls of its grand Citadel have been blown to pieces. Meanwhile, all eyes are fixed on Palmyra in the hope this magnificent city will be spared.

Looting is a thriving business and the satellite images of Apamea and Dura-Europos, for instance, speak for themselves as the cities look like a sequence of bomb craters. Classical objects, i.e. those belonging to ancient Rome and Greece are rather easy to sell on the black market as their provenance is hard to track down.

In a desperate attempt to limit the damage, the American Schools of Oriental Research is going to document the museum collections and the cultural sites of Syria in the hope that law enforcement officials can spot looted items more efficiently. Every little bit helps.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Translucent roof to illuminate Zeus’ face inside his temple at Olympia

What will they come up next, you’ll ask. Yet the theory is not as crazy as it may seem.

[Reconstruction of the statue of Zeus at the Hermitage Museum, Credit: George Shuklin/WikiCommons]

Descriptions from antiquity give us details about the eyes and the hair of the 12-meters-high statue of Zeus that occupied the temple at Olympia after Phidias completed it in 432 BC. We know that the statue was an acrolith, i.e. a wooden frame covered with ivory and gold (see also my earlier blog: The ladies of Morgantina), but its beauty and uniqueness made it one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.

The Temple of Olympia has no windows and the door was not of exceptional size but still, people were able to describe Zeus’ looks. There must have been a trick, right?

In a recent study, a team of researchers has concentrated on the marble roof of the temple testing the translucency of different types of marble. It turns out that slabs of 2.8 to 3 cm thick Pentelic marble, the kind found in the mountains behind Athens, let through more light than marble from Paros and probably just enough to discover Zeus’ features once the visitor’s eyesight became accustomed to the darkness inside the temple. Special light meters and a spectrophotometer have revealed a high transparency level in the yellow-red of the spectrum, meaning that the thin slabs of Pentelic marble were capable of illuminating objects made of ivory and gold. In a natural way, the roof could have let enough light through to discern the face (especially the eyes) and the head of this tall Zeus.

An additional argument to support this theory of using Pentelic marble may be found in the fact that the Greeks replaced the original Paros marble plates of the temple by plates of Pentelic marble – a coincidence or a preference for cheaper construction material, we’ll never know for nothing has remained of the great sculpture. After the temple of Olympia was destroyed by repetitive earthquakes, the statue was moved to Constantinople (now Istanbul) where it went up in flames in 475 AD.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Opramoas of Rhodiapolis

Opramoas was a very wealthy Lycian citizen who lived in the first half of the second century AD in the small town of Rhodiapolis in eastern Lycia near present day Kumluca (Eskihisar).  He is well-known for his philanthropy and lived during a period when the Roman Empire provided peace in Anatolia and public works in cities were highly developed.  It is not known exactly how Opramoas became so wealthy, but it is known that the rents he received from his lands and the interests he received from commercial ventures and banking operations made up a portion of his wealth.

Not much is left of Rhodiapolis besides a theatre, but the remains of Opramoas’ mausoleum were found there and among the rubble long inscriptions were discovered which once decorated the walls of his tomb.  These long inscriptions describe the good deeds Opramoas performed during his lifetime, letters from the emperor and records of the assembly.  They are the longest known inscriptions in Anatolia in the Greek language where information is provided regarding administrative, social and economic activities and relations.  Other inscriptions found in other Lycian cities give other details about this esteemed man.

Based on inscriptions it is known that Opramoas:
-  Was promoted to prominent posts from 110-155 AD and acted as an administrative, military and religious leader in the Assembly of the Lycian Federation and in important cities of the region.  He was honored many times in the Assembly of the Federation, many of which were approved by the Roman emperors.
-   Donated much money for the rebuilding of more than 30 Lycian cities following the catastrophic earthquake in 141 AD in which they were demolished.  At Myra he donated 200,000 denarii to repair the theatre, the Artemis Eleuthera temple and the gymnasium, assuming the marble decoration of the gymnasium and adjacent peristyle. 
-  Donated money for civic buildings, such as baths and certain oracular shrines.  Many cities received money such as Choma, which received 7,000 denarii towards a stoa and a temple for Augustus. He is also known to have funded the construction of the theatres of Xanthos, Tlos, and LimyraAt Tlos, he donated 60,000 denarii for the "exedra in the baths" and towards the amphitheatre.
-    Distributed wheat to needy citizens and donated money for the education and nourishment of needy children.
-    Provided dowries for some government employees and young girls, and funeral expenses for some elderly.
-     Assisted in the funding of festivals and ceremonies organized in honor of the gods and emperors and held festivals in his name every four years to help pay for these expenditures.
-    Owned lands in many Lycian cities, some of which he donated directly for charitable purposes and others from which he donated the income. 

Researchers have determined that during his lifetime Opramoas contributed approximately 2 billion denarii for these activities - an enormous amount, considering that the wage of a shepherd or manual worker was about 10 denarii.

A man to my heart, one who deserves at least a statue on a high pedestal!

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Lysippos, Alexander’s personal sculptor still popular after 2,500 years

Unearthing a new statue is always exciting but when it can be tied back to Lysippos, Alexander’s personal sculptor the find is even more exciting!

Milas, ancient Mylasa, is a very prolific area for archeological finds and continuous excavations reveal more and more artifacts that have been dormant for so many centuries, thanks to Zeus! This time a Roman copy of a Hellenistic athlete has been brought to daylight, although he is missing his head, his right leg and both arms but that doesn’t make him less appealing.

It has been determined that he looks very much like the work of Lysippos who lived in the 4th century BC. The 1.43 meter-high marble was made in Roman times but the early Hellenistic influences have left their everlasting stamp on this statue. Archaeologists estimate that they will also find the missing body parts to make this athlete “whole” again. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Alexander the Great: Shah or Satrap or Shah of Shahs? A game of words.

Today we are still familiar with the title “shah” as the rule of the Shah of Persia is not in such a distant past although it has originated in the days of Parthian rulers. The word “satrap” on the other hand has been used since antiquity to designate the governor of a Persian province.

[Picture from]

A highly informative article has been published by Monique L. Cardell, “Shah, Satrap and Alexander the Great” on this subject offering a thorough linguistic analysis of the very roots of these titles.

“Shah” is a Persian word for “king”, with tight links to the Sanskrit for “king” and “noble warrior”. The root word in both languages applies to the power itself as well as to the kingdom, but it also contains a reference to the Old Persian word for “satrap”. This word is in turn very closely related to its Ionian translation meaning “to exercise the power of a satrap”, hence the Greek word “satrap”. By extension, the title of satrap means “the one who guards the kingdom”, i.e. a referral to the highest official charged with the administration of the provinces or satrapies. To put himself above the satraps or “small” kings, the rulers of Persia adopted the title of “King of Kings”, which through Greek would translate as “Emperor”.

From the Arabs who also used the word “shah” we got a different heritage that is to be found in our chess-game. A slight deformation in the pronunciation led to “check-mate”, literally meaning “the king is dead”.

The Indians on the other hand considered Alexander and his officers as “noble warriors”. In this country, however, “shah” has become a common name used as a first name as well, which is standing for ‘force” just as “Iskander” (from Alexander) means “invincible”.

Well, this is a linguistic approach, of course, but not unfounded since all these languages, Greek, Persian, Latin, and Arabic, belong to the same Indo-European group.

In short, this means that Alexander had several titles to go by. He was King of Macedonia, Pharaoh of Egypt, King of Kings in Persia or, putting it in modern words, he was Shah of Iran!