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)

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Xanthos, the greatest city of Lycia

Xanthos is another of those cities whose name has a magical sound to it. The city takes its name from the nearby river, now called the Eşen Çayi and lies less than ten kilometers away from its sister-city Letoon. Today both cities have been put on the list of the Unesco World Heritage sites, and that is not without reason of course.

Xanthos is most famously known for its Nereid Monument that has been nearly entirely moved to the British Museum by the not infamous Charles Fellows in the 19th century. This monument is a very large and most elaborate tomb created around 380 BC in a mix of Greek style and Lycian portraying. It could well have been commissioned  by the local dynast Arbinas and his family since his name has been found on several monuments in Xanthos and also in nearby Letoon. The Nereid Monument probably shows scenes from Arbinas’ life. Architecturally speaking, there is a close resemblance to the Temple of Nike and even to the Erechtheion on AthensAcropolis. The reconstruction at the British Museum gives a splendid view of the east side of the building and the sculptures that could not be inserted in their appropriate spots are arranged elsewhere in the room. This is one of the must-see pieces at this museum, especially considering that Alexander must have seen this monument when he conquered Xanthos in late 333 BBC. Today we only have the foundations to remember the location.

Alexander must also have known the bloody stories about the pride and strife for independence of Xanthos’ citizens, especially since the earliest recorded event dates from 545 BC. That year they were attacked by the Persians, but instead of accepting their defeat the men of Xanthos decided to retreat behind the walls of the acropolis and set fire not only to their goods but also to their wives and children, elderly and slaves. Then the men hurled themselves on the enemy and all perished. Only about 80 families that were absent from Xanthos at that time survived and slowly rebuilt the unfortunate city.

A very touching poem about this mass-suicide has been recovered during the excavations of Xanthos and this is how the translated text reads:

We made our houses graves                             And our graves are homes to us
Our houses burned down                                  And our graves were looted
We climbed to the summits                              We went deep into the earth
We were drenched in water                              They came and got us
They burned and destroyed us                          They plundered us
And we,                                                          For the sake of our mothers,
Our women,                                                    And for the sake of our dead,
And we,                                                          In the name of our honor,
And our freedom,                                            We, the people of this land,
Who sought mass suicide                                 We left a fire behind us,
Never to die out...

It is clear that this patriotism left deep scars on the people’s memory, and we can be assured that Alexander was not welcome here!

A major fire entirely destroyed the acropolis at some time between 475 and 470 BC, but it rose from its ashes once again and expanded rapidly. The gruesome suicidal episode was, however, repeated in 42 BC when Brutus attacked the city. Even he was shocked by the voluntary suicide of these people and went as far as to offer his soldiers a reward for every citizen they could save – only 150 people survived.

Today the hills around Xanthos are richly dotted with Lycian pillar-tombs and sarcophagi, a unique insight into this kind of architecture one cannot easily forget.

The best-known pillar-tomb is the eight-meters-high Harpy Tomb named after its decorating relief. It is a 5th century BC pillar holding a grave-chamber and crowned with marble slabs on all four sides. The Persian (Median) influence is rather obvious on these reliefs, because of the depiction of the ruler sitting on the throne. Another theory points towards Persephone as queen of the Underworld represented between Demeter and Persephone. Many of the figures are holding a pomegranate, a widely spread symbol of fertility used all over Asia Minor. At the corners of these 7.5 meter-high slabs are reliefs of harpies, mythological figures with the body of a bird and the head of a woman carrying the soul of the dead. The original panels are now on display at the British Museum but copies have been put in place at the site.

Next to the Harpy Tomb stands another pillar-tomb dated to the fourth or third century BC. This construction is pure Lycian, consisting of a pillar topped by three reverse steps supporting the sarcophagus. It is, in fact, a double tomb, one inside the pillar and one inside the sarcophagus.

Lycian sarcophagi are quite unique as the tombs are crowned with a roof shaped like the hull of a boat turned upside down. This top lid generally has two knobs on each side, often carved in the shape of a lion’s head, used to lift the lid when another family member had to be added. Some of these lids are enhanced with reliefs, as well as some of the side panels. The entire landscape around Xanthos is thrown with such sarcophagi. The many rock-tombs that share the setting have stone lintels holding up a stone imitation of wooden roofing. All the entrance doors are broken open - some of which are sliding – giving access to the burial chamber with three beds along the inside wall where the dead were laid to rest. It is quite exciting to stroll around and to take a closer look at the different shapes and sizes of tombs!

Another magnificent example is the richly decorated Payava or Lion’s Tomb from 360 BC that originally stood at the southeast corner of the city’s acropolis. It now can be admired at the British Museum together with other precious monuments from Xanthos.

The so-called Xanthian Obelisk is another remarkable monument. It dates from 450-400 BC and is, in fact, a tall pillar tomb covered with the longest Lycian inscription known to date. All four sides are covered by the 250 lines written in both Lycian and Greek. It must be said that at first glance the Lycian writing looks very Greek but upon closer examination it appears that some letters do not exist in the Greek alphabet. This inscription has helped in deciphering the Lycian language much like the Rosette stone, although not entirely. In any case, it has been determined that this monument was built to commemorate the victorious battles of Kherei, a Lycian prince. This eleven-meter-high obelisk once stood at the corner of the Agora which during the 2nd or 3rd century AD was replaced by a Roman Agora. Originally, the Obelisk rested on a two-stepped krepis and was crowned by a funerary chamber decorated with a relief on all four sides very much like the Harpy Tomb; this relief, in turn, was protected by upside-down steps and crowned by the statue of a prince seated on a throne in the shape of a lion. The tomb has been badly treated for the funerary chamber has been moved to the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul.

The abovementioned Harpy Tomb and Pillar Tomb were left untouched by the Romans when they expanded the underlying Hellenistic theater in the 2nd century AD. I find it rather significant that the Romans left these tombs intact – maybe some reverence for the dead, who knows. Except for a few top rows much of the theater, however, has survived. Access is still possible through one of the vaulted parados, as always a thrilling experience.

The Roman Decumanus has also been excavated, a wide paved marble street with colonnades on either side. Among them is a special column dedicated by Emperor Trajan in 100 AD carrying the inscription “father of fathers, emperor, ruler of Xanthos”, just to make sure he’d be remembered. The broad sidewalk is covered with mosaics, now hidden underneath a protective sheet. The crossing with the Cardo is marked by an archway of two bows instead of the usual three and here also the sidewalk in front of the shops whose facades are still visible is covered with mosaics. In the sixth century AD, these mosaics became the floor of the Byzantine Basilica. Another Basilica to the east of the Agora was built over an earlier Roman Temple, and several mosaics have been cleared for the visitor to see.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

An update about Naucratis

So far, Naucratis has been put on the map as a trade emporium which the Greeks established in the Nile Delta as early as the 7th century BC (see: Egypt, land of the free for ancient Greeks?)

Where earlier excavations led to believe that Naucratis occupied only a small area, it has recently been established that the city was at least twice the original assumed size.

[A stele from the site of Thonis-Heracleion (picture) matches one from Naukratis]

Herodotus in the 5th century BC tells us that Naucratis was the main link in the trade between Egypt and other countries around the Mediterranean. In its heydays, it was home to at least 16,000 people who appear to have lived in high-rise buildings of three to six floors, not unlike the mud-brick houses we encounter today in Yemen. It was a cosmopolitan city with Greek temples and sanctuaries (Herodotus even mentions a Hellenion).

Thanks to its lively trade, goods but also different cultures mixed and mingled. Grain, papyrus and perfumes from the Egyptian hinterland were exchanged for silver, wine and oil from mainland Greece, Phoenicia and the isle of Cyprus. Amphorae, cooking pots and statuettes in both Egyptian and Greek fashion have been recovered, generally dating to the 5th and 4th centuries BC. Ritual terracotta figurines  deposited during the local festival related to the inundation of the Nile have been found, as well as statuettes of Hathor, the Egyptian goddess of the sky, women and love.

Major digs have unearthed a wide range of objects among which rare wooden remains of Greek ships. Further archaeological research has found proof that the Canopic Branch of the Nile was navigable all the way down to the heart of the city, although Herodotus gave us the impression that the freight from the ships arriving from the Mediterranean was to be transhipped into barges which would sail the river to reach Naucratis.

As a comparison for its importance, Naucratis has been called the Hong Kong of its time. I guess that says it all.

It will be interesting to visit the British Museum later this year as they’ll feature a special exhibition Sunken Cities, Egypt’s lost world, a way to give us a better insight it that underwater world. The exhibition will run from 19 May until 27 November 2016.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Plans for an underwater museum in Alexandria

The idea is not new for the first plans to build an underwater museum in the eastern harbor of Alexandria arose in 1996. Today the project is being revived as Egypt dearly needs a fresh cash inflow from the badly hurt tourists’ industry.

Because of the repeated earthquakes over the centuries, part of Alexandria has sunken underwater and archaeologists-divers have located remains of old palaces and temples in the bay of Abukir, some five meters below the water level. Turning this site into an underwater museum would not only attract visitors but most of all protect the valuable remains of antique Alexandria which are presently threatened by pollution in the bay, poaching by illegal divers and physical damage by fishing boats. It is evident that the political situation in Egypt over the last decennia is not in favor of such a project and that substantial money contributions are needed.

In 2008, the French architect Jacques Rougerie has submitted his concept to the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities featuring a building on the shores of the Abukir Bay harbor that would connect with a submerged structure. Fiberglass tunnels would lead the visitor to the sea floor where more than 2,500 objects from antiquity are still laying around. Just imagine walking in this huge aquarium-like space and admiring the grand collection of statues and other relics coming alive through the filtered sunlight. Among those remains are massive blocks, some half-buried in the sand, that belonged to the 130-meters-tall Pharos, the lighthouse that stood here till the 13th century and ranked named among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The magic of an underwater museum will be to see these remains in situ, and that applies to what is believed to be the Palace of Cleopatra, as well as busts of Caesarion (her son with Caesar) and Ptolemy XII (her father). I still have hopes that one day more of Alexander’s city will be brought to light!

The architect’s ambition goes beyond this underwater museum, envisioning an underwater archaeology school to be attached to the museum enabling them to work while the visitors look on from their protective glass corridors! He estimates that the construction of such a museum would take more or less two years, not counting the time involved for surveying and the planning.

It is not certain where the money would be coming from and so far private entities are willing to contribute as well as Chinese corporations. The Chinese, as a matter of fact, have built their own underwater museum at Baiheliang in Fuling along the Yangtze River, which opened in 2009. Here a concrete tunnel with portholes allows the visitors to catch a glimpse of the 5-ft long relief of a fish and rare inscriptions used in measuring the river's level that dates from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and were flooded after the construction of a nearby dam over the river. 

When or if the museum in Alexandria will ever materialize is another story, but it certainly would change the way we look at our underwater heritage because for the first time everybody will be able to see the artifacts and ruins as until now only divers could. However, the leaders and the financiers of the project have not come together yet. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

In honor of Palmyra

As it turns out I am not the only one to pay a tribute to Palmyra and more in particular to the great Temple of Bel (see: The temple of Bel at Palmyra – In Memoriam).

A wonderful initiative has been brought into existence with the purpose to recreate full-size replicas of the arch that stood for nearly two thousand years at the entrance to the Temple of Bel in Palmyra and was blown to pieces by the IS who consider this temple as idolatrous.

Using the world’s biggest 3D printer, a copy-conform archway will be created to be placed at Trafalgar Square in London and at Times Square in New York in April 2016 to celebrate a special world heritage week. The 50 feet tall monuments are meant for temporary display in order to make a statement and to draw attention to what is happening in countries like Syria, Iraq and Libya.

The arch will also be reproduced in different sizes to be installed in schools and museums all around the world, as well as in other prominent public spaces.

The world definitely must be made aware of the enormous symbolic and cultural value of sites like Palmyra, once the Pearl of the Desert.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Philip’s tomb at Vergina, is it or is it not?

How often are we going to solve and refute the many theories that circulate about the owner of the bones contained inside the gold larnax at Vergina? Can we make sure they are those of Philip II of Macedonia, the father of Alexander the Great, or not?

The latest conclusions were drawn in May 2015 but as explained in my article Inconclusive Analysis of Philip’s Tomb at Vergina they are far from being watertight. Before that, in 2009, Eugene Borza, Professor Emeritus of Ancient History, The Pennsylvania State University, wanted to prove that Tomb II was that of Alexander the Great (see: Questioning the Tomb of King Philip II, father of Alexander the Great), so what’s new?

A more recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science in August 2015 is stating that Philip is to be found in Tomb I and not in Tomb II as generally accepted till now – a theory based on Philip’s leg wounds.

The tumulus of Vergina contains in fact three Tombs, but only two are of particular interest. Tomb I contains the non-cremated remains of a man, a woman and those of a newborn baby. Tomb II contains the remains of a man and a woman inside two gold larnakes together with an array of armory and grave goods. Because of this content, but also the fact that according to history Philip had been cremated as common in Macedonia, led to conclude that this tomb was Philip’s.

Researchers now have done a bone examination of both tombs. In Tomb I it has been established that the baby was 41-44 weeks old, either newborn or still unborn; the woman was around 18 years old, being the age given by historians for Cleopatra, Philip’s last wife; the male skeleton was judged to belong to a 45 old (which matches Philip’s age) who suffered from a severe knee wound received three years before his death. This latest information can be tied to Philip’s last injury suffered during his campaign against the Scythians. The leg bones contained in this tomb show a stiffened knee joint, a knee ankylosis as we would diagnose today, together with a bone hole caused by a lance, which matches King Philip’s lameness.

The skeleton in Tomb II bears no leg injury and is therefore attributed to Philip II Arrhideus, Alexander’s half-brother and successor as co-king together with Alexander IV, the son of Alexander the Great and Roxane born after Alexander’s death.

The above story has appeared in the International Business Times, but does unfortunately not tell us in how far the remains in Tomb II do indeed match up with Philip III Arrhideus and does not explain the presence of a long and a short greave, for instance. It only mentions that the skull found there does not belong to King Philip (a rather obvious remark in the entire context).

The article is based on an interview with Antonis Bartsiokas, Democritus University of Thrace, Komotini, who has been working on the identification of the Vergina tombs for over 15 years. He seems to be an authority, so why do I still have my doubts? I find it a rather shortcut to state that “Philip was assassinated with his wife Cleopatra and newborn child” since Cleopatra and her child were murdered by Olympias after­ her husband had been killed, although we don’t know how long afterwards but certainly not together with him. Another point that raises questions is that he is accepting that Philip II was wounded during his fight against the Scythians but why does it take priority over his burial according to Macedonian rites where the body was cremated. Alexander may have been in a hurry to bury his father but certainly not to the extend to go against old Macedonian tradition – I’m sure the entire army would have revolted. So, how conclusive can such an analysis be?

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Feneos, one of the many sanctuaries of Asclepius

Feneos lies close to Corinth at the foot of Mount Cyllene, the mythical birthplace of Hermes. Yet the village’s reputation was made when a temple as part of an Asclepion was discovered in the 1950’s. Now a good fifty years later, new excavations have confirmed the importance of Asclepius’ presence at this site.

The original sanctuary seems to date from the end of the fourth century BC and the town reached its peak about 200 years later when the main hall was rebuilt and new statues were added. Archaeologists have found a pedestal carrying an inscription referring to the statues of Asclepius and his daughter Hygeia made by the sculptor Attalus. Asclepius, the god of medicine, was depicted three times larger than life and seated next to the standing Hygeia represented only twice life size. The center of the hall was covered with a mosaic floor in geometric patterns. In the room behind this hall the base for two bronze statues was found and it seems these statues were replaced by stone ones at a later date. In front of these now vanished effigies stood a marble sacrificial table. At the entrance, a ramp led to a courtyard that once was lavishly decorated and plastered with colorful mortar.

So far, we don’t know what really happened here but supposedly the healing sanctuary was destroyed by an earthquake at some time during the first century AD and rebuilt to serve Roman imperial worship instead.

Isn’t it striking that beyond the renown Asclepion of Epidaurus with important branches on the island of Cos and at Pergamon in modern Turkey (see: Pergamon is simply huge), there are also several smaller sanctuaries where Asclepius was venerated like for instance in Trikka or Trikala, Gortyn, Tegea, Messene, Athens, Piraeus and Titani in Greece or Cnidos in Turkey (see: What did Alexander the Great know of Cnidos?) or Butrint in modern Albania (see: The surprise of Butrint, ancient Buthrotum in Epirus), and there probably are many more. The cult also moved to the Italian mainland in early antiquity, but we know for sure that in 293 BC the sacred snake was taken from Epidaurus to the Tiber Island to cure a plague.

All these sanctuaries were erected in places of great natural beauty, where the physician-priests practiced a healing ritual centered around a dream therapy. After a preliminary treatment, the patient underwent a series of cleansing baths and purgations, and had to follow a special diet for several days. When entering the inner sanctuary the patient had to make some kind of offering (gold, silver or a marble statue) after which the priest would put him in the right frame of mind, probably using some narcotics like opium made from the poppy seeds. He was then ready to receive a healing dream from Asclepius.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

In search of the Forum at Serdica (modern Sofia)

As mentioned in an earlier blog (see: Ulpia Serdica, the Roman name for Sofia), today’s capital of Bulgaria is sitting right on top of old Serdica whose history goes back to 5000 BC. It seems that the Thracians were the first to settle in this valley where they built the first city which they named Serdica. During the fourth century BC it was conquered by Philip II during his expansion of Macedonia’s frontiers. Around 29 BC, the Romans took possession of the city and renamed it Ulpia Serdica. Emperor Trajan established his administrative centre here and started an extensive building project. Serdica is said to be the favourite residence of Constantine the Great, who qualified the city as “my Rome”. Unfortunately, the city was destroyed by the Huns in 447 AD, but was apparently rebuilt by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian who protected it with sturdy fortress walls that are still visible today. It was in the 14th century that the city changed its name to Sofia, as a homage to the St Sofia Basilica.

Excavations seem to be carried out on a more or less steady pace, although spread randomly over different locations around Sofia. The most recent digs occured on the parking lot of the Sofia Hotel Balkan and under the square next to the Holy Sunday Church (St Nedelya), a favourite of the Bulgarians. This is where archaeologists hoped to uncovered the Roman agora of Serdica. Instead, they found a building from the 3rd century AD with exceptionally thick foundation walls of more than 1.5 meters thick. As this is three times the average wall-thickness, it leads to believe that it had to support extra weight, maybe two floor levels. The house stands along a stretch of the old Decumanus that is particularly wide at this point, measuring about six meters.

In a way it is disappointing that the Roman Forum has not been found, but on the other hand not all cities had one although there must have been some kind of a meeting space to centralize public and religious life. So far, of all the cities excavated in the Roman Province of Thracia, only Philippopolis (modern Plovdiv) had a Forum. Archaeologists are not giving up their quest at Serdica as the next possible location may be the underpass of the St Petka Church. Next year’s excavations may shed new light on this theory.

Meanwhile extensive restoration works have been carried out here as well as at previously uncovered sites and once they are completed, the remains will be covered with glass to allow the passer-by to have an intimate look at the city’s history. The different locations will be connected in order to create a large open-air museum.

Beside remains of buildings and streets, a hoard of silver coins was discovered at St Nedelya Square in September 2015, hidden in a ceramic pot. The 13 kg weighing treasure counts 2,976 Roman coins from the 1st and 2nd century AD and was the prized possession of a certain Silvius Calistus who carved his name on the pot. This is the largest collection ever found in Serdica and was gathered over a period of one hundred years as the earliest coins were minted under Emperor Vespasian (69-79 AD) and the last under Emperor Commodus (180-192 AD). So far, the coins were identified with the effigies of the Roman Emperors Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian and Antonius Pius, but also of some Empresses or rather wives of Emperors like Vibia Sabina (wife of Hadrian), Faustina the Elder (wife of Antonius Pius), Faustina the Younger (wife of Marcus Aurelius), and Bruttia Crispina (wife of Commodus).

Archaeology in Bulgaria (click on the link) has published a number of photographs showing the excavations sites of Sofia as discovered in 2010 together with a picture of the same spots in 2015 after cleaning and restoration works were carried out.

[Picture were taken from Archaeology in Bulgaria]

Friday, January 1, 2016

Amos, an addition to the Loryma Peninsula

It is not really surprising to hear that no previous excavations were ever carried out at Amos – after all, there are so many antique sites on the west and southwest coastline of Turkey. But having stopped at Loryma a few years ago (see: Loryma, a Rhodian fortress, a source of inspiration), Amos pops out as a new city to be added to the list of territories ruled by Rhodes on the mainland, although the inhabitants never became Rhodian citizens. In any case, at the end of the 2nd century BC the Romans gave all of Lycia and Caria to the Rhodians whose control lasted until the 2nd century AD – making up the so-called Rhodian Peraea. The rocky and steep Loryma Peninsula lies at its very heart and this is where we find Amos, near the modern town of Turunç.

Excavations are planned to start in autumn 2016 and are estimated to be spread over three years.

Amos, meaning “the goddess temple” was known as Samnaios in Hellenistic times, and its history dates back to at least the 2nd century BC based on a rental agreement unearthed by nobody less than George Bean (see: Turkey Beyond the Maeander) in 1948. The text is very detailed as it contains precise instructions regarding the payment of the rent, the provision made by the guarantors, as well as the rules regarding the development of the property. It further specifies among others that the tenant must plant a minimum of vines and fig trees, and dig a drainage canal. In case of non-compliance penalties will apply, but fines are also claimed for cutting wood on the property, burying a corpse or encroaching on the public road.

Yet this will be the first time that serious archaeological digs will be carried out and they sound quite promising. Today we can see the half buried remains of a theatre and a good stretch of the ancient city walls that are 1.8 meter thick and stand 3.5 meter tall built in a style that is characteristic for the early Hellenistic period. The ramparts are punctuated with fortified towers and a gate on the northern side. There is also an acropolis where remains of a small temple have been located.