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 of the Prophthasia/in Dragiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Areia (Herat, 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, Afghanistan) - 329 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)

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Alexander’s real face

Whatever its history and its origin, what we have here is a superb gold coin showing Alexander on the obverse and a tiptoeing elephant on the reverse.

This may well be the best-kept secret about Alexander for the past ten years or so, a golden coin showing us Alexander with the elephant headdress, the horns of Ammon, the Gorgon around his neck and the coiling snakes worn as an aegis, but with an unfamiliar face. With his wide-open eyes, crooked nose and wild curls he reminds us of the picture on the mosaic from Pompeii. For once his image has not been idealized! This is believed to be the only portrait actually created during the lifetime of Alexander the Great to survive into modernity. The reverse of the coin shows a cute dancing elephant; this image together with the elephant skin on Alexander’s head connects the coin immediately to his battle against Porus on the Hydaspes in India that took place in 326 BC. This is Alexander as he saw himself - invulnerable, verging on godhood, immortalized in the moment of his triumph.

We have to go back to the small ivory head found at the Tomb in Vergina and said Pompeian mosaic to find another picture of Alexander-true-to-life, and this has been kept away from us?

Well, not entirely, it seems, although I personally have had no knowledge of its existence until now. A dear friend of mine sent me an article from the Sunday Times “Getting hold of the Alexander Medallion” dated 25 September 2011. How could I have missed such important news? After further investigation, I found a similar article in the Greek Reporter which in turn is dated 4 April 2014. What has happened here?

Both articles are pretty detailed and refer to the famous hoard found at Mir Zakah in north-eastern Afghanistan, a village located along the ancient road from Ghazni in Afghanistan to Gandhara in Pakistan. The hoard had been hidden in a well for more than two thousand years and contained an estimated 550,000 coins together with hundreds of other objects in silver and gold. The oldest pieces date back to the 5th century BC and the most recent belong to the 2nd century AD.

Osmund Bopearachchi was the first to recognize the medallion in 1993. It has since then been evaluated and discussed by many scholars and ended in the middle of a fight about it being authentic or fake. For this study and scrutiny, Bopearachchi luckily called in the help of Frank Holt, famous for his study of the Elephant Medallions (see: Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallions). With Frank Holt in the picture, my own skepticism soon ebbed away.

Digging in further I discovered that Osmund Bopearachchi and Frank Holt have co-written a book on this very medallion, “The Alexander Medallion, Exploring the Origins of a Unique Artefact”. The bottom line is that there should be no doubt about the authenticity of this coin. It is not because it is unique that one should automatically label it as being a fake. Picking it by chance from among the countless bags of coins is the proverbial needle in a haystack of nearly 4 tons of gold. The hoard had been stuffed in sacks of about 50 kg each which found their way to the obscure bazaars of Peshawar where they were sold by the sack. Bopearachchi came to see what he called “a rain of coins” and tried desperately to sort the coins out by their origins, Greek city states, Seleucid, Indo-Greek, Indo-Scythian, Indo-Parthian, Kushan but the task was colossal! Were there any more Alexander Medallions? Who knows.


In their book, both men examine the authenticity of the medallion and also very effectively attack and eliminate the many critics contesting it. The medallion is, of course, being compared with other existing Alexander coins minted in the wake of his victory over Porus, with and without elephants, made of gold or silver. The gold has been tested to determine its origin which could be traced back to the area where the medallion was found. Typically, gold does not oxidize when it contains no impurities and that certainly was the case here. It has been determined that the Alexander Medallion contained 97.7% of gold; 1.8% of silver; 0.4% of copper; and traces of other elements (no wonder it looks brand new!).

The entire context of this hoard and the Alexander Medallion, in particular, is largely complicated by the fact that it was found in a war zone. Where initially Afghan authorities could stamp some influence on what was excavated, things ran soon out of hand after the invasion of the Allied forces and the growing power of the Taliban. Located on a vague border between Afghanistan and the northwest of Pakistan where warlords impose and apply laws of their own, nobody really knows what is going on. Any treasure quickly moves from hand to hand and is ushered out of the country to potential buyers in America and Europe. The case of the Mir Zakah hoard was no exception and the coins were sold by the sack without any qualified investigation.

Bottom line is that both Osmund Bopearachchi and Frank Holt accept the medallion as being authentic and that it was minted during Alexander’s lifetime after his invasion of India in 326 BC. As Holt puts it: Since we cannot prove this is a forgery we can only assume it is genuine. Let’s not forget that for a forger to “create” this otherwise unknown coin, he has to be extremely well trained in ancient coin making, knowledgeable in the history of Alexander to include so many of the recognizable elements of this medallion (headdress, Gorgon, Ammon horns), as well as in minting gold, which I honestly think is impossible.

Meanwhile, some three tons of these valuable coins are stashed in the vaults of a bank in Basle, Switzerland awaiting a multimillionaire buyer in spite of repeated calls (including UNESCO) to at least allow numismatic scholars to study the content.

[Bottom picture is from The Greek Reporter]

4 comments:

  1. Alexander as he wished to be seen - that is a gift from heaven, Argyraspid - and your dear fríend Oxyathres feels sure this must be an authentic portrait, for those wide-open eyes show us Alexander's most característic: his never ending intellectual curiosity!

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  2. Yes, you are right. I so often wonder what he would think of our modern world - not a pretty picture.

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  3. The Medallion has the Chinese character for "King"(Wang 王)written over the Elephant's head.
    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1d/%E7%8E%8B-order.gif
    I am not sure this a hoax or real, and if it's real whether the "King" character refers to the Man or the Elephant. Moreover, since that writing style of "King" only appeared at the 2nd century BC, I doubt whether the Man depicted here is Alexander or another Greco-Bactrian King/ Emperor, or later imagination of later coin minter of Alexander.
    Too many "if" I know.

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    1. You really took a very close look at this coin, far beyond that of the average onlooker. How interesting to read your interpretation and link to the Chinese character for King from the 2nd century BC.
      As far as I know, the mark should correspond to the Greek letter "xi". Its meaning, however, is far from clear cut. Some scholars like to attribute it to Xenophilos, satrap and commander of the garrison Alexander left at Susa, but then there are as many who reject this link. Personally I think Xenophilos is too far searched, but then I cannot offer a more credible or appropriate alternative.
      Even in Frank Holt’s book Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallions where several coins carrying this “xi” engraving are treated, I could not find a conclusive answer.

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