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)

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The treasures of the Anticythera shipwreck

When I visited AthensArchaeological Museum for the first time in the 1970’s, I was fascinated by a group of marble sculptures gathered in the downstairs garden. Their provenance was off the island of Anticythera, rescued by sponge divers in the early days of the 20th century. The parts of the marble statues that sank into the sandy seabed had been well preserved but those that had been exposed to the salty water had suffered seriously from erosion. As a result, some statues had turned into grotesque shapes that still suggested their noble origins.

Key finds, however, were a life-size bronze statue of a young hero or god possibly from a Peloponnesian workshop made around 340-330 BC, the bronze head of a philosopher probably from a Cynic school created in the 3rd century BC and an intriguing lump of bronze gearwheels known as the Mechanism of Anticythera from the 2nd century BC. Other smaller items were evidence of daily life aboard the ship, such as cooking and storage vessels, ceramic tiles from the cabin’s roof as well as a number of bronze coins; also, some jewelry and fine glassware was found at the site. In 1976, Cousteau also explored the sea bottom and found more objects like small bronze statues but also bronze and silver coins, most of them minted in Pergamon.

All these objects were shipwrecked, apparently during a storm, near the island of Anticythera between 70 and 60 BC. The vessel, one of the largest of her time (twice the size of an average ship) could enter only a handful of harbors in Asia Minor among which Pergamon, Ephesos, Rhodes and Delos. This led, together with the abovementioned coins, to the conclusion that the ship must have sailed from Pergamon, heading for Rome. At that time, Rome ruled over the eastern Mediterranean and Greek art was very popular.

Yet the story behind the so-called Mechanism of Anticythera is far more complex. Altogether 82 separate fragments have been retrieved but it is mainly the cluster of the three largest pieces that holds the story. This sophisticated machine dates from the 2nd century BC and initially nobody understood what it was. A handful of reconstructions were built mostly in the second half of the 20th century but early research lacked the technology we have today to visualize the intrinsic elements such as the use of digital photography, Ct-scans, surface imaging called PTM and X-rays in 2-D and 3-D.

The technical details are far beyond my capabilities and my comprehension but I find it terribly exciting that such a complex mechanism ever existed two thousand years ago. The conclusion is that the mechanism was an astronomical calendar, a computer avant-la-lettre that enabled its user to track down the cycles of our solar system.

In-depth analysis of the dials and their dents has revealed that the mechanism is based on a 19-year calendar with 223 lunar months, including eclipse predictions. All twelve months of the year have been identified and recognized as belonging to the Corinthian calendar. This led to believe that the mechanism was either constructed in Corinth or in one of its colonies like Syracuse, home of Archimedes. Researchers also deciphered a small dial serving to indicate the four-year cycle of the Olympic Games, the two-year cycle of the Nemean Games as well as the Delphic and Corinthian Games. The other side of the mechanism portrays the interaction of the Sun, Moon, stars and all five planets.

Today it is generally accepted that this is an ancient analog computer and may well have been created by nobody less than Archimedes. After the Romans conquered Sicily, the mechanism was probably taken to Pergamon and finally lost at sea during its transfer to Rome in the first century AD.

There is this most interesting documentary posted on YouTube “Decoding the Mechanism of Anticythera” that shows a detailed approach to the entire research and its conclusions. It makes you wonder what would have happened if Archimedes had not been killed “by accident” by the invading Romans or if his heritage would have fallen into capable hands, i.e. somebody who could value – if not, understand - his inventions. It took mankind another thousand years to reinvent this machine!

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Phaselis and its three harbors

The city of Phaselis was colonized by the Greeks of Rhodes and that was not without reason for here their navy could find a safe shelter in one of its three natural harbors to load the wood they needed from the Lycian hinterland to build their ships. When the Persians took possession of Anatolia in 546 BC they automatically became master of Phaselis till Alexander the Great changed that in 333 BC. Ambassadors had met him already on his way from Xanthos and as soon as he arrived in Phaselis he was welcomed with a golden crown and other gifts as a gesture of friendship. His march through the rough country of Lycia of which very little is known must have been pretty heavy and it is not surprising that Alexander decided to spend the winter of 334-333 BC in Phaselis to rest his troops. Here he received envoys from Pamphylia which he planned to cross in the early spring before meeting up with Parmenion near Gordion with the other half of his army.

Meanwhile, the citizens of Phaselis tried to take advantage of their good understanding with Alexander to solve their own deep conflict with Marmara, whose people destroyed their crops on a regular basis and even kidnapped their women. When it came to friendship Alexander knew no half measures and the people of Marmara were well aware of that. On the night before the battle, the men decided to send their women, children and elderly to seek protection in the neighboring woods. The men defended Marmara to the last and when the end was near they set the entire city afire and perished themselves. A story for a book, no doubt.

After Alexander’s death, Phaselis remained in the hands of the Ptolemies until 197 BC when the city, like all of Lycia, came under the rule of Rhodes. After 160 BC the Lycian League collapsed and together with so many other regions around the Mediterranean, the city fell under the control of Rome. Then danger arose from an entirely different angle, piracy. Just like Olympos, Phaselis was under repeated attacks and in the first century BC both cities chose to join Zeniketes, the most powerful pirate of his time. Yet in 42 BC the Romans took Phaselis back as they managed to abolish piracy. This peace didn’t last very long either for in the third century the pirates were back. In the meantime, the entire region was struck by a series of very strong earthquakes, such as those that occurred in 141 and on the 5th of August, 240, causing widespread damage. When the Roman Empire was divided between east and west, Phaselis’ decline set in. The export of timber from the hinterland came to a halt, a major blow to the city’s economy. The harbor slowly silted up creating marshy lowlands where mosquitoes thrived and, in turn, caused health problems. Ports like Antalya, Side and Alanya were on the rise and by the 11th century, Phaselis was totally impoverished and virtually disappeared. We had to wait till the 1970’s when the first explorers were able to locate the site.

Today’s Phaselis is not the most exciting place to visit but its location is quite idyllic. A very rewarding approach is from the sheltered Southern Harbor which is generally used by today’s tourists. The Northern Harbor, on the other hand, is privileged because it was and is accessible under all circumstances, either by southwesterly or northeasterly winds. The two islets near the harbor entrance are all that remains of the pier that connected to the mainland with on its far end a lighthouse. It is difficult to imagine that this peaceful cobblestone beach once was a busy harbor, with almost hidden in its far end the Naval Harbor, extremely well protected – now a field of waving reeds populated by loud croaking frogs.

Further inland, to the left of the Naval Harbor, we find the remains of a Roman aqueduct that brought water from the 70-meter-high plateau down to the city.

From here, it is easy to find the 24-meter-wide Harbour Street which was entirely paved. On either side runs a sidewalk that can be reached via three steps. Cevdet Bayburtluoğu (see: Lycia) has speculated that there might have been an extra wooden step since the first one is pretty high. Statues of important citizens lined up the street, duly resting on a pedestal engraved with their name or the reason for the presence. The pedestals have been put back into place after the Byzantines had removed them to build the pier. Cevdet Bayburtluoğu recovered them from the depth of the harbour and put them back in place. This is the reason why some of these stones look so much worn. Importantly, this avenue is reserved for pedestrians as the three-step-staircase on either end makes access for carts impossible.

To the left are the latrines, next to a small bath establishment, the Bath of the Theatre, probably built after the earthquake of 240 since recuperation material from earlier periods has been used. The sewage of both complexes went straight into the Naval Harbour where traces of this system can still be seen. After these small baths, which functioned at least until the 8th century, one reaches the theatre, the inevitable eye catcher in any city. The old staircase to the entrance is still there but is not very recommendable. Instead, a rather comfortable wooden construction has been put in place. The theatre is typically Hellenistic, although the skene is a pure Roman addition. The walls of skene have been badly damaged, not so much because of age but because of a severe fire that caused many lintels made of porous stone to collapse. Such a shame for a building that withstood centuries. A theatre always touches a soft spot in my soul for this is a place where people gathered some 2,000 years ago, walked through its corridors and climbed its steps, with echoes of voices and sounds from times past under the watchful eyes of snow-capped Tahtali mountain.

The central square or Agora is rather puzzling because it is a shapeless space situated halfway the Harbour Street which continues further along the Agora of Domitian to the Southern Harbour. This Agora is neatly paved and opposite the theatre are the remains of a Nympheion – another of those monuments that a trained eye recognizes immediately. There are two more of such Nympheions on either side of the passageway to the Agora of Hadrian. The left and oldest one (mid-3rd century AD) is rather difficult to make out, as opposed to the one on the right dating from the end of the 3rd, beginning of the 4th century. In the prolongation of the Harbour Street, the stretch between the Agora and the Southern Harbour, that also ends with three steps, we find the Gate of Domitian, which is the entrance to the Agora by the same name. For some obscure reason, the name of Domitian was erased from all official buildings after his death.

It is in this part of the city that we find most of the shops, but since the streets were only accessible to pedestrians, the supplies had to be brought in from the parallel back streets.

At the end of this paved road, right next to the steps leading to the harbour, a number of marble blocks indicate the place where the large Triumphal Arch for Hadrian once stood. It was built in all its splendour after his second visit to Phaselis in 131 AD when the city reached its climax. It consisted of one very large vault resting on two square pillars decorated with lion paws. The busts of Faustina and Sabina have since long disappeared from the niches, and all we can find are blocks with reliefs of fancy vines and drinking vessels.

It is nice to meet my friend Opramoas of Rhodiapolis again, in stone that is. As mentioned earlier, he is the benefactor who contributed to the reconstruction of Phaselis after the terrible earthquake of 141 AD and in thankful remembrance the citizens erected a monument in his honour not too far from the Agora of Hadrian. A small part of the accompanying inscription is still visible on the lintel above the gate.

The Southern Harbor where today’s tourists anchor their boats is a most pleasant green oasis along the dark blue waters and crowned by the snow capped Tahtali Mountain in the background – a picture perfect setting! According to Cevdet Bayburtluoğu, this is where we should look for the Greek city. No serious excavations were ever carried out in these parts and the fencing is pretty random. Turkey simply has too many ruins and areas that are in need of thorough research, making it extremely difficult to set priorities. If this is indeed the site of the original Greek city, which will have to be confirmed by future excavations, we may have a chance to recover the remains of the Temple of Athena where Achilles’ lance was kept.

This being said, these parts of Phaselis have been recently (2008) threatened by a building project. The owner of the Rixos Hotels intended to build a new hotel “Dream of Phaselis” right on top of the ancient city. It was a hard fight, but environmentalists and archaeologists for once did win this battle and in 2015 the project was abandoned!

Walking back, it is worth to investigate the remains of the Large Baths and the Gymnasium along the Harbour Street, both from the 2nd century AD. A few mosaic floors from Byzantine times are still there as well as the piles of fireproof bricks that once supported the floors of the Caldarium and the Tepidarium. On the opposite side, a number of temples stood next to each other but the remains are vague and the thickets cover most of the walls from view. This is, however, the place to look for the Temple of Zeus with the inscription Dios Boulaios from the days of Nero and Antoninus Pius, and a little further one should be able to find the two temples dedicated to Leto’s children, the twins Artemis and Apollo who were highly revered by the Lycians.

The intrepid visitor may still find the energy to scramble uphill to the necropolis, nothing more than broken and crumbled sarcophagi, some of them submerged downhill. It seems that about three-quarters of the necropolis lies outside the fenced area and has not yet been excavated. But there are imposing remains of a large mausoleum which at first was labelled as a temple because of the stumps of columns but it is more likely that this was the tomb of a rich family from Phaselis.

Once again, it will interesting to return here at some point in the future and see what new excavations will have revealed and what additional information will become available.

[Click here to see all the pictures of Phaselis]

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Xanthus, Travels of Discovery in Turkey by Enid Slatter

Xanthus, Travels of Discovery in Turkey by Enid Slatter (ISBN 0-948695-30-7) is an absolute must for every lover of Greek antiquity and more particularly for those, who like me, fell in love with Lycia in southeastern Turkey.

The title Xanthus, although the main city and once capital of ancient Lycia, may be misleading as the book covers in fact, all of Lycia. The author mainly has reproduced the journals kept by Charles Fellows, who in 1838 and 1840 crisscrossed this unchartered territory looking for architecture worth of filling the newly founded British Museum in London. Occasionally Enid Slatter has added updated information about the whereabouts of certain artifacts.

The journal not only mentions the (generally phonetically spelled) Turkish names of the towns but also the corresponding name from antiquity. The book is further richly illustrated by a huge amount of drawings, some made by Fellows himself, but most of them drawn by young George Scharf, who accompanied him especially for this purpose.

It gives a great insight of the policy applied by the then ruling Ottoman government as well as that of the British occupying nearby Rhodes and Malta. The general landscapes with rivers, gorges, scant bridges and fording places are very detailed, but also the overall color pallet of blossoming trees, field flowers, and dresses of the local people. On top of all that, it is quite interesting to learn how Charles Fellows and his entourage traveled from England to Turkey and back, using ferries, carriages, an occasional new train track, steamers, ferries, to continue on horseback or on foot through the pristine Lycian countryside. They suffered from seasickness on many occasions and were thoroughly shaken during the bumpy rides in the stage coaches. In Turkey, they were dependent on the weather and often hit by fierce thunderstorms. The Lycian coast was still infested by swarms of mosquitoes, especially in summer when even the locals moved out en-masse to the inland mountains.

Xanthus was and is, of course, the focal point, but Fellows also put sites like Letoon, Tlos, Pinara, Myra, Limyra, Arykanda, Olympos and Finike on the map, which today are only one flight away for the many tourists.

While during his first trip Charles Fellows aimed to discover as much of Lycia as he could, his second expedition of 1840 was the one that enabled him to crate and ship the magnificent pieces of what is now called the Nereid Monument (or Ionic Monument), the friezes of the Harpy Monument, the entire Payava Tomb (or Horse Tomb), and several other pillar or box tombs now at the British Museum. He also made plaster casts of pertinent reliefs that could not otherwise be moved, which have sadly disappeared since.

The reading is never dull and Fellows’ love for this unique Lycian culture is one of a kind. His journal is truly filled with many exciting details, very much worth discovering.

Friday, March 18, 2016

A Dedication of Philip III Arrhideus and Alexander IV

Strolling through the temporary exhibition about Samothrace at the New Acropolis Museum in Athens, I was surprised to find two odd looking objects labelled as Dedications of Philip III and Alexander IV.

When Alexander the Great died in 323 BC there was no heir to the throne of the King of Asia and his generals had a tough time to agree on a successor. Alexander’s son with Roxane was not born yet and his earlier son with Barsine was never recognized by Alexander. After many flaring discussions, it was decided that Alexander’s simple minded half-brother Arrhideus would share the throne with Roxane’s baby-boy, under the respective names of Philip III Arrhideus and Alexander IV. It is obvious that neither of them was to rule as king, at least not at this very early stage.

Here at the museum, this is the first time I actually see artefacts that are tied to both kings and I even wonder whether these are the only ones. The dedication dates from between 323 when their co-kingship was implemented and 317 BC, the year in which Philip III Arrhideus was brutally murdered by Olympias.

Samothrace is, of course, the place where Philip II and Olympias, Alexander’s parents met during an initiation ceremony to the sacred rites of the most secret Mysteries, but why is this island so important that even young Alexander IV and his simple-minded uncle honour it with a dedication of their own?

According to Diodorus, an initiation at the Sanctuary of the Great Gods promised an opportunity to “become a better and more pious person”. Divine forces of earth, sky and sea played a fundamental role in the mysteries that shrouded (and are still shrouding) the island. From as early as the 7th century BC all the way down to the 4th century AD, the sanctuary provided insight in spiritual, political and cultural life. The intense activity is shown through the host of monuments that were erected here since they are all set in selective locations throughout the landscape in order to enhance the initiates’ experience.

The marble Doric building where the Dedication of Philip III Arrhideus and Alexander IV was found would have been the first major construction the visitor saw when entering the Sanctuary. It stood nine meters high and welcomed the pilgrims with the dedicatory inscription reading “King Philip [and] Alexander to the Great Gods”, a proof – if needed – that both kings ruled equally. I did not find the inscription itself at the museum; only a fragment of a monumental eagle’s head and a wing is all that remains from the two large eagles that once adorned the construction, probably as acroteria. The Dedication monument was the work of local craftsmen who used two different kinds of marble. For the façade, which counted six columns, Pentelic marble from Attica had the preference while the sides and back marble came from the nearby island of Thasos as was common elsewhere in Samothrace. The open chamber is said to have preserved its mosaic floor with a central panel unusually made of rhomboid marble tesserae, which I have not seen at the museum but may still be in situ.

The construction of such a major monument by the two kings or by whoever acted on their behalf certainly was meant to reinforce their rightful succession to Alexander the Great. Using Pentelic marble for its façade was an iconic reference to other great monuments in Athens and to Athenian dedications in other locations. To the visitors of those days this dedication would also be seen as Macedonia’s claim to power over mainland Greece.

After this exciting discovery, I spend some more time investigation the other artefacts in the hope to learn more about Samothrace. A nice reconstruction of the site and a clear map of all the pertaining buildings are most useful tools.

I find another intriguing testimony of Alexander’s heritage in one of the showcases: a small gold applique of a lion of Achaemenid origin once inlaid with precious stones. It has been dated to the 4th century BC and may be a trophy one of his soldiers brought back from Persia.

There also is the top part of a stele containing a dedication of King Lysimachus of Thrace from between 288 and 281 BC. Based on the surviving first fifteen lines, Lysimachus is being honoured for restoring sacred lands on the mainland originally granted to Samothrace by either Philip II and Alexander the Great or by Philip Arrhideus III and Alexander IV. Boundary stones for said sacred land have been found near Alexandroupolis in Greece. Lysimachus is also being honoured as friend and benefactor of Samothrace, hence his title of Lysimachus Euergetes as inscribed on the altar erected in his honour and used during annual festivals.

Just a few years later, between 285 and 281 BC, Ptolemy II built a Propylon, one of the most lavishly decorated entrance buildings from Hellenistic times. This must have been an impressive monument since the metopes were an elegant succession of alternating 100 rosettes and 104 garlanded bucrania or ox skulls. It makes you wonder about the richness of the other details.

To remain with the Ptolemaic dynasty, Arsinoe II built a splendid Rotunda at the Sanctuary. It is not clear, however, whether this Rotunda was built while she was married to Lysimachus of Thrace mentioned above and her first husband (288-281 BC) or after she became the wife of her brother Ptolemy II, her third husband (273-270 BC). The meaning of the dedication thus varies accordingly. If the Rotunda was built during her marriage with Lysimachus, it may stand for the alliance of Egypt with Thrace and the northern Aegean. If it was erected when married to her brother, it could be meant to thank Samothrace for sheltering her after fleeing from her second husband, Ptolemy Keraunas. This Rotunda was also decorated with reliefs of alternating rosettes and bucrania, a favourite theme, apparently. A lovely rosette is exhibited here as well as a very strange looking round and flat tile from the roof.

Much more recent is the Dedication to the Great Gods of Samothrace by the Thessalian League from 170-140 BC. It tells us that their embassy was led by Damothoinos, son of Leontomenes and a member of a prominent family from Pherae; he was the leader of the league in 161/160 BC. This Dedication shows the importance of the Thessalian League after being freed from Macedonian rule.

By far the best known sculpture from Samothrace is the famous Nike now at the Louvre and recently restored and cleaned for the pleasure of our eyes! It has been dated to the 2nd century BC and was a gift from the people of Rhodes to thank the gods who protected seafarers and granted them victory in war, maybe in commemoration of the Battle of Myonnissos or the victory over Antiochus III at Side in 190 BC.

Yet the Athens’ exhibition shows another Nike statue less flashy than this famous one which is said to be one of four that stood at each corner of the Hieron built between 325 and 150 BC.

Another piece that caught my attention was this lovely frieze of dancing girls. It was found in an imposing building of 34x23 meters that is neither a temenos nor a propylon and thus has been labelled as the Hall of Choral Dancers after the frieze that was discovered inside. Dating from the middle of the 4th century BC, this Hall is the first marble structure of the sanctuary, maybe even the oldest and the largest one. The frieze that we see here is only a small section of the continuous row of hundreds of dancing maidens that ran around the entire building. Beside the dancing figures, there were female musicians accompanying the long procession as well. The wealth exposed in this monument leads experts to believe that it was commissioned by an influential donor and the name of Philip II, Alexander’s father, has fallen since it was here that he met his Queen Olympias.

Because of Philip’s and Olympia’s early presence and the splendid monumental dedications made during the later Hellenistic period, it is generally believed that Samothrace played a key role in Macedonia’s legacy. I would even add a key role in Alexander’s legacy!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

A shipwreck located near Larnaca, Cyprus

Underwater archaeology is becoming more and more popular and the Mediterranean Sea situated at the core of many antique civilizations is a vast and favorite diving area.

The most recent news comes from Mazotos near Larnaca where a shipwreck from the Classical Period was discovered in 2007. It sits at a depth of 45 meters and dates from the 4th century BC.

Over the past ten years, the wreck has yielded many fascinating artifacts giving us a unique insight of the sea trade between the Aegean Sea and Cyprus. So far, it has been determined that the ship set sail in the days before Alexander the Great, most probably at the height of Classical Greek civilization. It is the kind of wreck that will provide information about seafaring, seaborne trade and shipbuilding in those days mainly because of its incredible state of preservation.

The main cargo was composed of wine amphorae, probably originating from the island of Chios, and an estimated 500 amphorae are scattered all over the nearly flat seabed. Since four layers of amphorae are still in their original stowage position and the fact that the wreck lies in the open sea led archaeologists to conclude that the ship did not capsize but that seawater filled the haul after a storm or high waves.

The wreck has also revealed a cargo of lead stocks; at least three anchors; a large number of olive pits; and even some structural timber, although most organic materials have disintegrated after so many centuries.

For now, archaeologists will continue recovering the cargo as at his depth and without the required conservation infrastructure, bringing up the vessel is not an option. We will have to wait for what else will emerge from beneath the old layers of silt and mud.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Around the theater of Paphos

In an earlier post about Paphos (see: Traces of the Ptolemy’s at Paphos, Cyprus) I mentioned that an Australian team of archaeologists started working at the city’s theater. Their main objective is to place this Hellenistic-Roman theatre within the general urban context.

Excavations have exposed a paved road, 8.5 meters wide, immediately south of the theater which served to access the venue. Yet this road also confirmed that the city of Paphos was built according to the typical Hippodamian plan. About 30 granite columns, the tallest of which reached seven meters have been found in the area, confirming the importance of this road. The granite came from the Troad and was widely used by the Romans all around the Mediterranean.

Said theatre is considered as being the oldest in Cyprus and was continually used from about 300 BC until it was destroyed by the severe earthquake that occurred in 365 AD. Right next to it a Nympheion from the 2nd century AD has been located as well. 

The Australian project is still on-going, so I do look forward to the next update.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Letoon, sister-city of Xanthos

In every ancient city, the gods are never far away and sooner or later we stumble upon their temples and sanctuaries, but I never felt their presence as explicitly as here in Letoon at the southern end of the fertile Xanthos Valley.

Letoon was the most important sanctuary of Lycia, dedicated to its three deities: Leto, who was the family goddess and guardian of the tomb, and her twin children Apollo and Artemis. The city was administered by nearby Xanthos (only 4 km away), closely linked together and often seen as a kind of double-city although the term “city” may not really apply to Letoon because no major settlement was ever found. Letoon was a sacred cult center and the spiritual heart of Lycia.

According to the legend mentioned by the Latin poet, Ovid Zeus fell in love with the nymph Leto, who gave birth to twins, Apollo and Artemis on the island of Delos. Hera, Zeus’ wife, was very jealous of this relationship and chased Leto and her twins away to Anatolia. That is how they arrived here at Letoon. Leto came to quench her thirst at this spring but local shepherds tried to prevent from drinking which annoyed her immensely; she became so fed up with them that she turned them into frogs (which still are croaking here today).

2. The theatre
3. Porticoes
4. Temple of Apollo
5. Temple of Artemis
6. Temple of Leto
7. Nymphaeum
8. Byzantine basilica

Based on an inscription found at Letoon, we know that monthly and annual sacrifices took place and that those who dared offend the goddess were found guilty before Leto, her children, and the Nymphs. This custom may go back to the earlier cult of Eni Mahanahi, a Lycian deity known from the 7th to the 5th century BC. This Lycian cult of mother-goddess was one of the many such influences that originated in Anatolia and spread throughout the ancient word. So it is not surprising to hear that because of this connection with the matriarchal customs of Anatolia even a woman was allowed to preside over the annual autumn assembly at Letoon.

What brought me here is a legend about Alexander. The story goes that when he visited the Sacred Spring, a bronze tablet emerged from the water carrying an inscription in ancient writing, which when translated announced that the Persian Empire would be destroyed by a Greek. The news obviously pleased Alexander and his entourage, and all rejoiced at the idea that the King’s campaign was favored by the gods.

Since ancient times, the Lycians used this Nympheum for their meetings in which the Sacred Spring occupied a very special place. During excavations, the well has produced hundreds of terracotta votive statues dating from the early Hellenistic days to the Roman times. It is lovely to see that even today the area around this well is very marshy and the remains are often submerged. It creates a very lively picture of the Hellenistic Nympheum that once stood here and to which the Romans added a semi-circular pool whose outlines are still visible. In those days, the sanctuary was surrounded by large porticoes where pilgrims and believers could stroll around and rest. Unfortunately, a large part of this building has not yet been excavated, although it is known that in Byzantine times a Basilica was erected on the altar’s terrace which winded up being flooded as well. 

The main features at Letoon are, of course, the three temples standing on a podium as was customary for Lycia. The most obvious one is the Temple of Leto from the 5th century BC which is basically Ionic and has been partially restored. Its particularity is that the inside Corinthian columns were integrated into the wall. It does not show at first glance, but this temple is said to be one of the best preserved Greek temples and a most exceptional example of Greek architecture. Secondly, there is the Temple of Apollo from the 4th century BC in Doric style, where a marvelous mosaic was retrieved showing a rose motive in its center and Apollo’s bow and arrows on one side and his lyre on the other – the god’s personal symbols. A copy now replaces the original that has been moved to the Museum of Fethiye. Thirdly, we find an Ionic Temple in between the two previous ones. This one, the smallest one and showing only its foundations, is dedicated to Artemis and also dates from the 4th century BC. Nothing much remains of the last two temples since over the centuries their limestone has fueled the then popular lime-kilns.

The pilgrims must have been awed by the spectacular view of these temples as they approached from the Sacred Road. With a little imagination, one can almost grasp that feeling when walking over these ancient marble slabs.

Near the Temple of Apollo, an important stela was found bearing an inscription in three languages, Greek, Lycian and Aramaic. This is a decree authorizing the cult of the deities and establishing the provisions for its officers. They are not verbatim translations but each version contains some information that is not mentioned in the other two. The Aramaic inscription with its 27 lines contains the most condensed text, as opposed to the Lycian language needing 41 lines and the Greek 35. Useless to point out that this stela helped to decipher the peculiar Lycian language. This unique document can be seen at the Fethiye Museum.

Another most attractive building at Letoon is the theater with imposing vaulted entrances on either side. Above the south vault, we find a series of masks separated by triglyphs. It definitely is a Greek theater that has been transformed by the Romans in the 2nd century BC. What makes it so special is that is was carved from the natural bedrock except for the aisles. It stood at the end of the road coming from Xanthos and is said to be one of the finest of Turkey!

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Sicily and the Sea, temporary exhibition in Amsterdam

The exhibition Sicily and the Sea is a real treat! It is presently running at the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam and can be visited till 17 April 2016.

It has, in fact, a collection of finds from several Greek and Roman ships that sank, generally during a storm, around the island of Sicily. The names of most of these places are not well-known, but there are plenty of maps to clarify the locations.

The objects retrieved from shipwrecks come from a wide area around the Mediterranean island: the Gela shipwreck is a Greek merchant ship of 17x6m, with a crew of 3 or 4, dating from 500-480BC, that sailed from mainland Greece to the Sicilian colonies; the Capistello shipwreck is an Italian merchant ship of 20m long, with a crew of 3 or 4, dating from 300-280 BC, that sailed from Campania to North Africa; the Levanzo shipwreck is Roman, with a crew of 3 or 4, dating from 275-300 AD, that sailed from North Africa to Rome; and the Scauri shipwreck is Sicilian,  with a crew of 2 or 3 crew, dating from about 450AD.

Exhibited are for instance a cargo of red colored vessels retrieved from the Panarea shipwreck, dated to 400-350BC; copper ingots found off Pantelleria dating from around 1500 BC; a bronze Phoenician statuette from around 1000 BC found off the coast of Sciacca; a Corinthian helmet found off Camarina and dated to between 600 and 500BC; a lovely Pyxis with a painted marriage ceremony from Centuripe and dated 3rd century BC. There is more, of course, like this Greek bowl with stamped decoration found near the Lipari Islands and dated to the 3rd century BC; a quite unusual Greek terracotta altar or incense burner recovered from a ship off the Panarea Islands and dated to the 3rd century BC together with some votive anchors; a marble male torso that could be either Greek or Roman, and might represent one of the Dioscuri found off Marsala and dated to 200–1 BC; a Sicilian-Greek Hercules found off Catania  from the 2nd century BC; and a rare Carthaginian hoard of bronze coins found off Pantelleria, dated 264-241 BC. The list is simply too long, for there are also some ship’s anchors and a choice of amphorae of all sizes and shapes, not forgetting the cute Phoenician or Egyptian glass beads with a human face.

The most remarkable pieces, however, are the three ships' rams, one Carthaginian, and two Roman. The Carthaginian ram is unique, the only one ever recovered from the bottom of the sea. They all belong to the fierce battle that ended the First Punic War between Rome and Carthage in 241 BC near the Egadi Islands, south of Sicily. Here, underwater archaeologists have recently recovered ten Roman battering rams and one Carthaginian. This means that the three battering rams that are shown at this exhibition are by themselves reason enough to go to Amsterdam. There is no way to distinguish the Carthaginian battering ram from the Roman ones; it seems to come down to their respective inscriptions. How unique to see this!

A full set of my pictures is available in my album Sicily and the Sea (please click).