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)

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Cleopatra VII and her children, the last of the Ptolemies

Cleopatra was not only the last queen to rule over Egypt before the country fell in Roman hands; she also was the last of the Ptolemaic Dynasty founded by Ptolemy I, a prominent general in the army of Alexander the Great.

After Alexander’s death in 323 BC, his empire was divided among his generals after a long feud and endless wars that lasted for forty years. From the onset, Ptolemy had his eyes set on Egypt and apparently none of his competitors contested his territory. The Ptolemies ruled Egypt for about three hundred years, putting Alexandria as its glorious new capital on the world map.

In 53 BC, the 17-year-old Cleopatra VII co-reigned with her brothers Ptolemy XIII Theos Philopator and Ptolemy XIV, whom she both married following the Egyptian tradition and she desperately tried to keep Egypt out of Roman grip. It is known that Cleopatra was ambitious and she arranged for her brothers to be eliminated in order to become sole ruler.

So, when Julius Caesar arrived in Alexandria in 48 BC, Cleopatra went through great efforts to gain his support. They became lovers and she bore him a son, Caesarion in 47 BC. Three years later she left for Rome with her son, but within a year Caesar was murdered by a group of Roman senators. At this stage, Rome was divided by supporters of Octavian and Marc Antony and since the later was more popular Cleopatra concentrated on gaining Marc Antony’s favours. This chagrined the Romans, and more so when Marc Antony gave away parts of his empire to Cleopatra in 34 BC. Meanwhile, they became lovers and Cleopatra gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl, Alexander and Cleopatra in 40 BC. Their names were changed to Alexander Helios (Sun) and Cleopatra Selene (Moon) three years later when the queen joined Marc Antony in Antioch (modern Turkey). This name-giving happened on the day of an eclipse, which may have led to choosing a mythological name for the twins. Another son was born in 36 BC and he received the name of Ptolemy Philadelphus.

Meanwhile in Rome Octavian declared war on this foreign queen and he won the Battle of Actium over Marc Antony. A year later, in 30 BC, Octavian landed in Alexandria to face Marc Antony personally, but rather than being killed by his adversary Marc Antony committed suicide. With Cleopatra at his mercy, Octavian refused negotiation of any kind and Cleopatra, feeling that there was no way out killed herself – allegedly using poisonous snakes. With her death the Ptolemaic Dynasty came to an end.

Caesarion or Ptolemy Caesar was then 17 years of age and he was killed by Octavian only ten days after his own mother. From now on Egypt became a province of the Roman Empire ruled by Octavian who promoted himself to Emperor Augustus.

The three children of Cleopatra and Marc Antony were spared by Octavian and taken to Rome instead. By then the twins were 10 years of age and the little brother four. Their care was entrusted to Octavia, Octavian’s sister who was ironically the widow of Marc Antony. The boys disappeared from history a few years later but the girl, Cleopatra Selene went on to marry King Juba II of Mauretania. As far as we know, she had at least one son whom she called Ptolemy Philadelphus, probably in memory of her little brother. It seems she ruled as an equal with her husband since both their images were minted on the local coins.

Fate has added a little twist of its own. Recently an Italian Egyptologist has dusted off a statue from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo portraying Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene as small children. The sculpture was discovered as early as 1918 near the temple of Dendera on the banks of the Nile and was acquired by the museum to be stored away. The ten meters-high statue shows two naked children of identical size, one male and one female, standing within the coils of two snakes. They are holding each other with one arm around the shoulder of the other, while with their other hand they are grasping the snake. They were identified thanks to the sun-disc around the head of the boy and the lunar disc and crescent held by the girl. On each disc we also find the Horus eye, a typical symbol in Egyptian art. The faces are not very clear but the boy appears with curly hair and a braid on the right side of his head as was customary. The girl’s hair is cut according to the fashion of the Ptolemaic dynasty and of Cleopatra in particular.

It is nice to see that at least a picture of these poor children has survived for 2,100 years onward. What history they could have written!

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Cappadocia Guide by Turgay Tuna and Bülent Demirdurak

There are countless books and picture books about Cappadocia, but I found it difficult to get a practical or handy guide with clear overviews. This Cappadocia Guide by Turgay Tuna and Bülent Demirdurak (ISBN 978-6055488055), however, is exactly what I was looking for.

The book is starting with a distinctive topography of Cappadocia, without which the very site, now part of the UNESCO World Heritage, would not exist. Its role in history as “country of the beautiful horses” is then summarized and special attention is given to the monastic life in those protected valleys and to the many churches that were cut out the soft tuff walls.

The main part of this guide then takes the reader through the successive regions:
From Göreme to Avanos, with the Fairy Chimneys, the churches of Göreme, the underground cities, the Cappadocia “citadels” and caravanserais;
From Ürgüp (one of Cappadocia’s oldest settlements) to Soğanlı, including the antique city of Sobessos;
From Aksaray to Ihlara with Güzelyurt, the cradle of monastic life, and the magnificent canyon of the Ihlara Valley;
From Nevşehir (actually located at the very center of Cappadocia) to Hacibektaş.

The guide concludes with some extra information about Cappadocia’s rich fauna and flora, including useful details about the delicious Cappadocia wine.

Whether you visit the site on your own or on a guided tour, this book definitely helps to mentally place the huge amount of fresco’s from the many churches in their rightful context. It may not show on the picture but the guide is available in English.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Cube of Zoroaster or the Ka’bah-i Zardusht at Naqsh-i Rustam

The Cube of Zoroaster or the Ka’bah-i Zardusht or the Jail of Solomon, whatever its name is and whatever its function was, this building remains unique and enigmatic.

Fact is that we are looking at a tower-like construction set in front of the Royal Achaemenid Tombs and the victory reliefs of the Sassanid Kings at Naqsh-i Rustam near Persepolis. So far, it has been determined that it dates from the 5th century BC (it is generally believed that it was built either under Darius the Great or Artaxerxes II) and is not a Zoroastrian shrine. A similar tower, but in worse state of conservation, can be found at nearby Pasargadae and is being referred to as the Zendan-i Suleiman translating to the Jail of Solomon. Not that Solomon ever was here but the name may arise from a Persian tactic when the Arabs were invading the country in order to protect the Tomb of Cyrus the Great (calling it the tomb of Solomon’s Mother) and the tower (calling it the Jail of Solomon).

The square tower constructed with white limestone blocks is 12.5 meters high and the sides are 7.25 meters wide, making it look rather sturdy. It stands on a 3-stepped plinth of 1.5 meters. A staircase of 30 steps leads to the stone entrance door, 1.9 meters high. The inside chamber of 3.7x3.7 meters is 5,7 meters high and has no windows as may appear at first glance on the outside walls; they are in fact blind windows. The roof has disappeared but was made of four slabs of stone set as a pyramid on top of the tower.

The tower walls carry inscriptions related to events of the reign of the Sassanid King Shapur I (241-272 AD). It is as so often, a trilingual inscription in Sassanid and Parthian dialects of central Persia and in ancient Greek, referring to the war with Rome when Shapur I defeated Emperor Valerian in 260 AD. There is also a Sassanid inscription suggesting that the structure was used as a fire altar or housed an eternal flame in memory of the nearby kings but the lack of cross-ventilation in the tower kills this theory. Another suggestion is that it served as a safe place to keep the royal flags and other memorabilia, but how safe is such a building? Other experts believe that this monument was the place where a complete copy of the Avesta (the sacred texts of the Zoroastrians) was kept, written on 12,000 sheets of parchment. More recently, an Iranian archaeologist has described the monument as a unique calendar and astronomical observatory, but that seems rather far fetched.

Separately there is an inscription of 19 lines in Middle Persian believed to be written by the highly influential high-priest Kartir in the third century AD, commenting on the first two texts and describing Shapur I’s victories.

The tower at Naqsh-i Rustam was surrounded by a wall from Sassanid times and it probably stood in a garden laid out at the foot of the nearby tomb reliefs.

Although both towers originate in Achaemenid times, they have undergone repeated modifications and improvements by the Sassanids. Still, it remains a very enigmatic construction that is raising more questions than it is providing answers. I also wonder what they must have looked like when Alexander was there, no ancient writer bothers to mention it.

[Click here to see more pictures of Naqsh-i Rustam]
[Click here to see all the pictures of Pasargadae]

Friday, October 23, 2015

The dream of the Queen of Palmyra

We can’t stress enough how important the site and the location of Palmyra was in antiquity, reaching its absolute heydays under Queen Zenobia in the second half of the 3rd century AD.

Luckily I am not the only one to awe at this grandeur that has now been destroyed (see: The glorious days of Palmyra). I recently came across this great article published in the Mediterraneio Antiguo under the title Palmyra: The Dream of the Queen of the Desert. Unfortunately the attached PDF-report is in Spanish but that should not be a problem to those who are really interested. Note the reverence to the great archaeologist Khaled el-Asaad at the end.

Thank you Mario Villanueva Agudo for sharing this with the world.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Temple of Zeus in Agrigento in all its glory

When visiting a temple, it is never easy to imagine how it once looked with all the columns and walls intact and all the painted friezes and reliefs. That’s why these short 3D reconstructions come in so handy.

The Temple of Zeus in Agrigento (ancient Akragas) is the largest ever built in Italy – once Magna Graecia – and one of the largest in antiquity after the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus and the Temple of Apollo in Didyma (see: The Valleys of the Temples at Akragas). 

It was built in 480 BC to celebrate the Battle of Himera when the Carthaginians were beaten once and for all by the Greek colonists.

The most remarkable feature of this temple is without doubt the huge Telamone figures (male caryatides) that stood in between the colossal columns of which only a rubble of drums has survived since most remains have been re-used for other constructions like the western pier of nearby Porto Empedocle in the 17th century.

Thanks to the efforts of a local architect we now have images of what the Temple of Zeus looked like in the fifth century BC, outside and inside. The composition is based on the description left by Diodorus and on studies made by great archeologists like Pirro Marconi.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Thracian treasures from Bulgaria

Information about archaeological finds in Bulgaria filters through only piece-meal, and it is hard to stay up-to-date. Not many details are provided either, but at least there is some progress.


The news is that some massive ancient stone anchors have been found in the Black Sea near Sozopol, suggesting by their shape that they were used by Mycenaean, Phoenician or Carian ships during the 15th-12th centuries BC, i.e. much earlier than generally accepted. Also in the Sozopol area, a temple dedicated to Demeter and her daughter Persephone has been located. It is near a monastery complex from the 14th century known as St. Apostles and 20,000 Martyrs. In the same city, the long-sought East Gate of Apollonia Pontica has finally been found. Scientists hope eventually to recover the entire fortification system of the ancient city.

In Odrysia, one of the most powerful Thracian settlements in the fertile plain of the Hebrus River, excavations have revealed the residence of the rulers evidencing the sacking by King Philip II of Macedonia. A 13-meters-all wall has been preserved to a height of two meters.

Near the town of Opaka in north-eastern Bulgaria, a Thracian tomb has been discovered and seems to be one of the latest burials in ancient Thrace. Among the treasures, archaeologists have found six gold leaves that once were part of a golden wreath, as well as other gold and bronze decorations, and some glass and bronze vessels.

And in the Bulgarian capital city of Sofia, new sections of the Roman Decumanus have been exposed as well as a unique mosaic floor of 30m2 together with a stylized laurel-wreath from the 4th century AD. The excavations are ongoing and go hand in hand with the construction of Sofia’s subway.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Alexander’s Prison?

Walking through the narrow streets of Yazd (Iran), I was surprised to find a sign-post pointing towards Alexander’s Prison. What does it mean? Alexander never was in Yazd as far as I know but he may, of course, have sent one of his generals here with explicit orders; this would make the connection with Alexander plausible – but still.

The formal explanation I received from the local guide is that during the reign of Alexander a number of Persian nobles resisting his domination started a revolt in Rhagae, near modern Tehran. Alexander had them arrested and on his way to Yazd, he imprisoned them in this fortress with a deep well in its courtyard.

Who knows what really happened, but it is a strange story since Alexander marched from Persepolis past Isfahan to Ecbatana, and from there via Qazvin to Raghae. Yazd is, however, located some 300 km east of his route Persepolis-Isfahan, which contradicts the local story that he was on his way from Raghae (Tehran) to Yazd in the south. In any case, the so-called Prison of Alexander in Yazd is still standing and has been converted into a school.

The Lonely Planet relates a story similar to that of my guide but mentions that it might have emerged from a poem by Hafez, who, together with Saadi is one of the greatest poets Iran has ever known. Today Hafez is till the most popular poet in Iran and everyone can sing or recite one of his poems.

Whatever truth is hidden behind this tale, I never heard of this prison in Yazd or of its connection with Alexander, but then the same story or fable is told about Balkh in Afghanistan whose origin would also be a prison established by Alexander. One thing is certain, the King of Asia is still very much alive in those parts of the world. There are many other examples like the one about the Alexander Fort at Nurata, the ancient city of Nur, which he founded in 327 BC. Uzbek sources relate that Alexander instructed one of his generals, a certain Farhangi-Sarhang to build a fort that even he could not take, and he was successful at that! (see: Sogdian Rocks and Alexander’s Fort near Nurata). Another of those legends is about the Alexander River (Iskander Darya) that flows out of an Alexander Lake (Iskander Kül), also in Uzbekistan. It is believed that he built a golden dam to create the lake and that gold particles can still be panned further downstream. Another story tells how Alexander and his trusted horse Bucephalus rise from this lake every full moon to cross the sky (see: March to Maracanda).

These are all fascinating anecdotes that are being told over and over, keeping the name and the memory of Alexander the Great alive.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Zagros Mountains and the Persian Gates in Alexander’s footsteps

Upon arrival in Tehran, my first thought was: can I see the Elburz Mountains from here? Tehran is known to be rather polluted, hence my question. But I was very lucky because on this early spring morning the wind had swept the skies clean and from a vantage point near the Azadi Tower or Freedom Tower I was widely rewarded with a magnificent panorama of the snow-capped Elburz Mountains. This is what Alexander must have seen and I could almost feel his yearning to cross this barrier to discovering the lands on the other side.

A while ago I read the book, The Road to Oxiana in which Robert Byron describes how refreshing that part of the country was after having travelled for weeks in a row through dust and desert. He compares it to Austria till the rolling hills turn into the marshy reed fields around the Caspian Sea. I was itching to see all this for myself, but my itinerary was to take me south.

I picked up Alexander’s route in Susa which he reached in 331 BC on his way from Babylon to Persepolis, a distance of some 800 km. Somewhere south of Susa the Macedonian army crossed the Pasitigris River, known today as the Karun River, which was and still is navigable all the way down to its confluence with the Tigris River which in turn empties into the Persian Gulf. I feel quite excited when spending the night in the city of Ahwaz I can see this river from my room. As by magic and in spite of all the oil plants and other polluting industries on its banks, this river in my imagination returns to its “natural” setting from antiquity.

We all know that Alexander was unstoppable but being here makes me realize the huge distances he had to cover with his entire army and the inevitable baggage train - an exploit by itself. Travelling here in the comfort of an air-conditioned bus for three long days is hard enough but it is only when I get out of this protective shell that I can taste a little of what he had experienced. On this journey, we were hit by a heavy sandstorm for a full day. Visibility was very low; the sands from the Mesopotamian Valley in modern Iran were carried through the air and hit my face and body. My clothes flapped around me as if they were to be torn away any moment; the wind whistled through the lunch place and the sand battered the windows. Alexander must have known days like this but weather conditions are not a topic for a history book.

Like Alexander, I was skirting the Zagros Mountains as the modern road generally follows his route and I just can’t get enough of it! These mountains are very rugged and barren, hostile if compared to the Taurus Mountains, for instance. When the road bends away it is not uncommon to see the snow on the highest peaks; driving through these foothills I see lots of loose rocks ready to be rolled down on the enemy in the canyons below as mentioned by our writers from antiquity. I was truly moving through history!

When still preparing for this trip I got rather confused between Arrian’s description of Alexander’s crossing the Zagros at the Persian Gates as opposed to what is told by Diodorus and Curtius making me wonder if there were three separate skirmishes in these canyons. Since these stories are vague, I wondered how I could figure this out. Apparently, I was not the first to be taken by surprise here and I am grateful to A.B. Bosworth (see:”Conquest and Empire. The Reign of Alexander the Great”) for having tackled the problem. He is certain there were three separate encounters with the Persians in the Zagros Mountains.

Once Alexander had crossed the Pasitigris, he entered the territory of the Uxians. Their lower fertile lands were occupied by agriculturalists and were governed by a satrap, a relative of Darius to keep matters in the family. The mountain-lands, mainly grazing fields for cattle did not fall under Persian rule, except that the Great King would pay a passage-fee when he crossed this territory. Alexander first encountered the lowlands’ satrap blocking the highway. He attacked these forces head-on while a detachment of his army circumvented the enemy using a side path leading them to a higher position above the enemy. The satrap withdrew to a fortress from where he negotiated terms involving the Queen Mother Sisygambis to mediate – successfully so.

Alexander’s next encountered the mountain people who demanded money for his passage through their lands. He invited them to meet him at the canyon entrance, but unknown to his enemy he force-marched his troops to sack and loot the nearest Uxian villages. At the same time, Alexander himself occupied the canyon entrance before the Uxians could man it; Craterus with his men held the heights above the pass. The Uxians were trapped on all sides and the majority of them were killed; the survivors were condemned to pay a heavy annual tribute of livestock to Alexander.

This tactic against the mountain-Uxians is indeed the very same as applied by Alexander when forcing the Persian Gates further south. I cannot take my eyes off the road and the landscape, fully aware that Alexander and his troops must have marched around here.

Parmenion with the heavier units and the baggage train took the long paved road around the mountains and must have followed the natural terrain of the modern road to reach Persepolis. Alexander being in a hurry to reach the capital before the treasury would be looted by the satrap of the province Persia took a shortcut through these mountains, a passage known as the Persian Gates. At some point, and certainly not exactly where Alexander turned off the highway, my road enters the Zagros Mountains through deep cuts between the narrow towering walls. When the walls recede the hillside is strewn with heavy loose rocks at times only held in place by precarious bushes that could easily be cut or uprooted. In my mind, I am in the thick of the fight!

But let’s go back to our history books that give a far more detailed description of the king’s strategy at the Persian Gates than during his fights with the Uxians, were it only because the stakes were much and much higher in the case of Persepolis.

The ruling satrap Alexander had to face was Ariobarzanes, who had already built a defense wall across the pass and manned it accordingly. Alexander tried to assault the pass but had to give up because the place was too well defended and he lost too many of his men. From his prisoners-of-war, he learned of another way round – a mere track, rough and narrow, but that’s all Alexander needed. Craterus remained behind with instructions to attack after receiving the trumpet signal from Alexander when he was safely round. For the king and his troops, this must have been quite an exploit, scrambling over this terrain at night (seeing it by daylight is bad enough!). At a certain point, he directed Philotas over a different road towards the Persian defenses to lead the second assault. Ptolemy was left to the north of the passage to deal with stragglers trying to evade Alexander. The masterly plan worked to perfection. Alexander led the front attack, destroying two advance fortifications and forcing the Persians to retreat behind the third one on the mountain side. He then directed his attention towards the Persian camp proper while trumpeting Craterus into action from the other side. The Persians were caught in between the two armies and tried to flee to the south, but this is where Philotas was waiting for them. Ptolemy swept up the remnants of the Persians, although Ariobarzanes managed to escape with a small party seeking refuge at Persepolis. The city’s garrison refused to let him enter and eventually he was killed by the advancing Macedonians.

To me all these canyons look alike and for many years scholars discussed the possible location of these Persian Gates, without much success. Until Jona Lendering was finally able in 2004 to confirm that Alexander had actually fought through the Tang-e Meyran Pass not too far from Yasuj, based on earlier reconnoitering carried out by Henri Speck.

Most travelers will find this long drive along the Zagros Mountains rather boring and very dusty, but for me, it brought Alexander’s genial attack to life when he outwitted and annihilated the Persian forces who were supposed to defend Persepolis.

[Click here to watch all pictures of the Zagros Mountains]

Friday, October 9, 2015

Amphipolis, a Heroon for Hephaistion?

With my deepest respect for all archeologists involved in the work at the Tomb of Amphipolis, I can’t help wondering how much of their comments are based on true facts or are mere speculations. Of course, they have to consider every possibility and examine each and every hint, but at this stage I personally feel that we have had enough speculations when it comes to dating the tomb or to identifying its occupants.

[Picture from the Ministerio de Cultura Grecia as published by Mediterraneo Antigo]

The latest headlines are made by three inscriptions in which the word parelavoni (received) is found next to the monogram of Hephaistion. This leads archeologists to believe that this very tomb could actually be a Heroon dedicated to the worship of Hephaistion. But then, as early as the 1970, other monograms have been found on the stone blocs scattered around the Lion of Amphipolis, all belonging to Macedonian and Thracian soldiers.

Both Andrew Chugg and Nicholas Saunders have expressed their reserve about this latest statement about Hephaistion as formulated in this article published by Mediterraneo Antiguo. Couldn’t we wait till we have more substantial elements on which to base our theories?

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Seleucid and Parthian rock-reliefs

The Achaemenid rock-tombs and the rock-reliefs of the Sassanid kings are known to most travelers in Iran, but Seleucid or Parthian reliefs and inscriptions are pretty rare.

It is always interesting to see how one civilization copies from a previous one or is inspired by its contemporaries. What I find here at Bisutun, for instance, is quite surprising to say the least. For some reason (our western look towards history?) I expected Hellenism to transpire through art in the days following Alexander’s conquests. It has happened in Sogdiana/Bactria and in India, but not here in Persia. Seleucos and his successors seem to have made greater efforts to integrate Persian customs than we might suspect at first sight.

The idea occurred to me when I was staring at this relief of a fatso bearded Heracles at Bisutun. He poses as a naked athlete holding a bowl, seated on a lion pelt underneath an olive tree; his heavy club rests at his feet and his bow and quiver with arrows hang from a nearby olive tree. The composition has all the Greek ingredients but this scene was definitely not created by a Greek artist, nor was it inspired by Hellenistic heritage.

Next to Heracles’ head there is a temple-like facade carrying an inscription in Greek telling us that this picture was created by Hyacinthos, son of Pantauchos, and carved in honor of Kleomenis, the local Seleucid governor in 148 BC. It is important to remember that Heracles was considered as the ancestor the Seleucid dynasty.

Not far from this Heracles is another more elaborate rock-relief in honor of the most powerful of all Parthian kings, Mithridates II. This was made after the collapse of the Seleucid Empire and when this part of the country was taken over by the Parthians, who ruled for almost four centuries.

The entire panel is more than 12 meters long. The key position is now occupied by a framed Persian inscription added in 1684, obliterating a considerable chunk of the Parthian relief. The original relief was made for King Mithridates II, who ruled over Persia from 123 till 88/87 BC. On the left-hand side we discern two figures in profile; above them there is a Greek inscription and a Nike in Greek style. Thanks to a drawing reconstruction, we know there were four dignitaries approaching their king. The central person caries the Nike and another one seems to raise a cup. To the right of the 17th century’s niche we see two men on horseback fighting each other. This relief represents the Parthian King Gotarzes (38-51 AD) subduing his enemy Meherdates. Above them hovers another Nike holding a diadem.

Well, both panels have suffered serious damages from the weather elements and the later Safavid inscription, but they are proof that the Parthians tried to integrate the Persian culture at least as much as the Seleucids before them.

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Bisutun relief of King Darius I

The most important rock-wall relief and certainly the best known is that of Bisutun in which Darius I celebrates his victory over Gaumata and eight more pretenders to the throne in 518 BC.

Bisutun or Behistun was located on the well-travelled road connecting Babylon to Ecbatana (modern Hamadan) and it was obviously an ideal place for Darius I the Great to advertise his military victories, although the relief is perched some one hundred meters above the valley floor. I find it terribly disappointed that I am not allowed to climb up the scaffold to the platform to have a closer look at the scene. Instead, I have to step back as the platform is blocking the relief from view when standing at the foot of the cliff. From down here it is impossible to see the trilingual inscriptions and I wonder how travelers in antiquity were supposed to read the exploits of their king.

Unlike the rock-wall reliefs of Naqsh-e Rustam and Persepolis, there is no tomb at Bisutun, just a victory scene – but what a victory!  To clearly understand what has happened, we have to go back to Cyrus the Great, who was succeeded by his son Cambyses II known for having lost his army in the Egyptian desert. When Cambyses died, he had no direct successor and it seems that a man posing as his brother Bardiya, a magian and/or Gaumata, a Zoroastrian priest, seized the throne.

Darius, the later Darius I the Great contested the legitimacy of this new king and claimed his rights as being the great-great-great-son of Teispes, just like Cambyses II. Here at Bisutun Darius I provides a lengthy sequence of events. Within the year he fought no less than nineteen battles, murdering Gaumata and Bardiya (also known as Smerdis). After that, he marched against several other pretenders to the throne choking several revolts in Media, Elam,  Babylonia, Armenia, Parthia, Margiana, Scythia and even in the heart of Persia. This is what is being related on the Bisutun relief where a row of nine prisoners, their heads locked in a collar and hands tied behind their back, are led in front of Darius standing in a commanding posture. Above the group floats the emblem of Ahuramazda by whose will Darius receives his kingship.

The trilingual inscriptions relating the king’s conquests are basically written in five columns in Old Persian, Babylonian, and Persian. Unfortunately, from the valley floor, one cannot even see that there are any cuneiform signs up there!
[Click here to see all the pictures of Bisutun]

To my greatest surprise I am confronted with another inscription left by Darius I and his son Xerxes. This happens at a place called Ganj Nameh, some five kilometers southwest of Hamadan. There are no pictures here, just two clear-cut frames in a granite wall, each written in three languages: Old Persian, Neo-Babylonian, and Neo-Elamite. As is customary, they both start by praising Ahuramazda and continue by describing their lineage and deeds, Darius on the left panel and Xerxes on the right one. It reads: "The Great God [is] Ahuramazda, greatest of all the gods, who created the earth and the sky and the people; who made Xerxes king, and outstanding king as outstanding ruler among innumerable rulers; I [am] the great king Xerxes, king of kings, king of lands with numerous inhabitants, king of this vast kingdom with far-away territories, son of the Achaemenid monarch Darius." Again the entire setting is quite spectacular in the landscape close to a fast running mountain river and lovely waterfalls.
[Click here to see all the pictures of Ganj Nameh]

This about closes the subject of Achaemenid rock-reliefs and tombs (see also my previous post: Achaemenid Tombs at Naqsh-i Rustam and Persepolis), which I feel certainly deserves our full attention since Alexander must have seen them all, even if historians do not mention them. 

Saturday, October 3, 2015

The role of benefactors in antiquity

Before any of our modern-day’s government set up a help and assistance plan in case of emergency or catastrophe, the only help any citizen could get was from his neighbor. For more serious matters like fire, flooding or earthquake where more substantial help was needed, the role of a benefactor was of the highest importance.

Even today, we still have millionaires and billionaires who donate all or part of their fortune to a good cause, and in some cases, it may be the only help the recipients are getting. The role of benefactor has not really changed over the course of history, but we seldom connect it to antiquity. This thought hit me while traveling through Lycia in southwestern Turkey where time and again I came across the same names, more particularly in connection with the devastating earthquake that hit the region in 141 AD.

The main benefactor or maybe the best known is Opramoas of Rhodiapolis who contributed approximately 2 billion denarii for widespread activities, an enormous amount considering that the wage of a shepherd or manual worker was about 10 denarii. This man deserved a post of his own. (Please read: Opramoas of Rhodiapolis).

But there are several others, who definitely merit to be mentioned as well:

A wealthy man from Lycia who donated large amounts to the city of Myra. Following the earthquake of 141 AD, Licinius Langus donated 10,000 denarii for the rebuilding of the theater and its portico. 
Another Lycian philanthropist and a contemporary of Opramoas and Licinius Lanfus, said to have contributed to the development many cities; 16 Lycian cities issued honorific decrees for him. He is said to have given handsome monetary gifts to the city of Myra. He was an important man and became the Lyciarch (the head of the Lycian League).

Junia Theodora
Theodora was a lobbyist for Lycian interests at Corinth in the mid-1st century AD and a Roman citizen.  The Lycian Federation issued two decrees in her honor and presented her with a crown of gold and her portrait was painted on a gold background and five minas of saffron. Myra, Patara, and Telmessus also honored her with decrees of gratitude for her assistance. According to the decrees, she did excellent work in gaining favor with the authorities for Lycian interests. She also provided hospitality for ambassadors and private citizens from the Lycian Assembly and from Lycian cities at her home. Upon her death, her will favored the Lycian people. Sextus Julius, her agent, and heir assisted her in her work.

Diogenes of Oenoanda was a philosopher and prominent citizen who lived in the second century AD and is famous for making one of the most extraordinary inscriptions of ancient times. He had found peace of mind in the teachings of Epicurus and in order to show the people in Oenoanda the road to happiness, he commissioned an inscription 80 meters long and more than 3 meters high which set out Epicurean doctrines* in about 25,000 words.  The huge inscription was placed in the agora and its large inscribed letters were painted - nobody could miss seeing them. This inscription is one of the most important sources for the philosophical school of Epicurus. Today it is broken but its fragments are being studied. Many of its blocks were used for building houses, paving streets, etc. – most probably during the early Christian era. They are being discovered one by one since the late 19th century.

This list is about Lycia alone and only covers the first and second centuries. It makes you wonder how many more benefactors, known and unknown, must have contributed to the well-being and even the survival of so many people at any time BC or AD. All those great men and women deserve a commemoration and a commendation, like the one just granted to Opramoas of Rhodiapolis who became an honorary member of the Antalya Industrials and Businessmen Association (ANSIAD) nearly two thousand years after his death (see: Opramoas of Rhodiapolis, posthumously businessman of the year?). Paul Getty and Bill Gates did not come up with a new idea; they only put it in a new context.

* Epicurism assured people that there was nothing to fear from death, for the reason that there is no afterlife: death is the end of us because the only reality is physical reality.  It conveyed the ultimate conviction that individuals can live in serene happiness, fortified by the continual experience of modest pleasures.