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)

Friday, July 29, 2016

Hidden treasures in northern Pakistan

It is beyond doubt that Alexander marched through northern Pakistan after crossing the Hindu Kush to India. His exact route has not been established mainly because little or no excavations have been undertaken in that part of the country. From time to time, however, some spectacular and less spectacular finds trickle to the outside world, like the enormous hoard of coins retrieved from a well at Mir Zakah (see: Alexander’s real face).

At Barikot in Pakistan, ancient Bazira, archaeologists recently discovered a large amount of weapons and coins from the Indo-Greek period (2nd century BC to 1st century AD), as well as earthenware that had been imported from Greek Bactria and even from as far away as the Mediterranean at some time during the 2nd century BC.

It is evidently not a direct legacy of Alexander’s passage, but the successive layers of occupation of Bazira could clearly be identified. Beneath the Indo-Greek remains that included a defensive wall from the 2nd century BC, archaeologists exposed the Mauryan settlement from the 3rd century BC. Outside the defense wall, they found remains from the Gandhara culture going back to the 8th and 7th century BC. These excavations confirmed that all the pre-Greek layers have been purposely destroyed in order to build the defensive wall and a fortress that could be Greek. Only one tenth of the fort has been excavated so far and the work will take at least another thirty years or so to be completed.

During these operations, a large late Kushan temple from the 3rd century AD has also been located at the northern end of the site. It is a little surprising to hear about this Buddhist temple considering that today’s inhabitants are either Muslim or share the Kalash belief of multiple gods.

The Swat Valley is still shrouded in mystery and the most recent excavations reveal that several towns were built one on top of previous settlements. Archaeologists are hoping to gather more information about the origin of the mysterious Kalash people. The most recent studies seem to indicate that their forefathers came from Europe and it remains to been proven whether these people arrived in the wake of Alexander the Great or were traders passing through the Swat Valley.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Royal Palace of Vergina to reopen soon

This is great news! After many years of (re)excavation the Royal Palace of Aegae will soon be open to the public again.

This complex will finally occupy the place it truly deserves since after the Parthenon in Athens this is the biggest building in classical Greece. It was built by nobody less than Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great, meaning that as a young prince Alexander must have walked through these many rooms and corridors.

In its days, it was a unique construction and quite innovatory. It was probably built by Pytheos who also contributed to the construction of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus and to the development of urban planning, all leading to the full blossoming in Hellenistic times. The architectural conception of this palace is quite ingenious and unique. The large central square peristyle that was accessed through an impressive propylon was surrounded by porticos shading the underlying rooms. All these elements were totally unconventional at that time.

The palace floors were covered with marble inlays and elegant mosaics now exhibited at the nearby Museum of Vergina. Many luxurious materials like bronze and rare pigments were used all over the premises. Philip clearly wanted to make a statement and did so lavishly. 

More news comes from the Museum of Vergina that has now expanded its premises with the construction of a separate auditorium. This building will be used for different purposes ranging from the services and activities related to the museum itself to educational programs and all kinds of events.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Happy Birthday Alexander!

Today, it is exactly 2372 years ago that Alexander was born in Pella. His mother was Olympias of Epirus, who had recently married Philip II of Macedonia. The Macedonian kingdom was at the rise and Philip made sure to create one to be reckoned with.

[Incense burner of the god Men or of Alexander the Great found at Amisos, TK.
 1st century BC-1st century AD. MRAH, Brussels]

Unknown at that time was Alexander’s destiny. However, he was meant to conquer the then-known world in only twelve years and truly deserves to be called Alexander the Great.

Who else in history has achieved so much in such a short timeframe and who else has left such an everlasting legacy?

Friday, July 15, 2016

Was Chandragupta inspired by Alexander?

Chandragupta went down into history as King of India, founder of the Maurya Empire and ruled from 322 till 297 BC; he was the first to unify India as we know it today. His Greek name was Sandracottus or Sandrokottos as is reported by Megasthenes, the Greek envoy of Seleucos Nicator, Alexander’s successor in that part of the world.

Yet Chandragupta’s appearance in history started much earlier when as a youngster he spent time at Alexander’s camp either as a fugitive or as an exile. He was born in 340 BC, making him only sixteen years younger than Alexander. How and under what circumstances both men met is told in different ways. Some say that after his victory over Porus, Alexander had been approached by Chandragupta to help him overthrowing the neighboring Nanda Kingdom which extended from the Punjab to the Bay of Bengal and whose capital was Pataliputra (the Greek Palimbothra), modern Patna. Another theory presented by Plutarch is that Chandragupta, being of lower birth on his mother’s side, sneered at the base origin of his King Xandrames of the Nanda Empire whose father was a barber. The pot calls the kettle black! Dad had murdered his king in order to marry the queen with whom he was romantically involved although Curtius claims that the queen killed her husband with her own hands. Well, if his father did indeed murder the king, this led evidently to the exile of Chandragupta. Whatever version is true, Chandragupta ended up spending time at Alexander’s camp. He must have been 14 or 15 years old at the time, which means that he was about the same age as Philip, Alexander’s father, when he was taken to Thebes as a hostage – in other words, the right age to be influenced to accomplish great deeds (and Chandragupta did not need much conviction, it seems!)   

The fact is that the last king of the Nanda Dynasty was Mahapadma Nanda and that the collapse of his empire – just east of Porus’ realm - was imminent. It seems that Alexander was informed of this situation while he was at the Hyphasis River (modern Beas). The prospect of including this important and powerful country to his conquest may have been the true reason for Alexander’s decision to march further east and not his dream to reach the end of the world as is generally assumed. The mutiny of his army changed the course of history. This is, however, where Chandragupta takes over. As soon as Alexander leaves India, Chandragupta manages to unify the northern tribes and to assemble a formidable force and since Alexander had not overthrown the Nanda Dynasty he decided to do it himself.

When Alexander dies in 323 BC, Chandragupta seizes his chance and sets out to throw the Macedonians out and to successfully conquer the Punjab. The Macedonian successors were too busy and too late to realize that they had neglected India in their cutting up of Alexander’s empire at the Partition of Babylon. Besides, Antigonus, as self-proclaimed master of Asia, showed little interest in the eastern part of his empire and left it pretty much to rule itself.

Chandragupta needs no further encouragements to dethrone the Nanda king and he exterminates every member of his family. As a result, he becomes the first king of the Mauryan Empire in 322 BC. He inherits Nanda’s huge army which, increased with his own forces brings it to a total force of 30,000 cavalry, 600,000 infantry, 9,000 elephants, and a multitude of chariots. By now, there is nothing to stop Chandragupta from further expansion, which is favored by the conference of Triparadeisus held by the Diadochi in 321 BC where they once again fail to make clear provisions for the Indian satrapies. By 317 BC, Chandragupta effectively controls all of northern India, reaching from the Khyber Pass to the Ganges delta, and he then concentrates on a further expansion, becoming eventually the absolute ruler of this new empire that reaches from the Himalayas down to the Arabian Sea.

In 309 BC, Seleucos enters a pitched battle with the 70-years-old Antigonus, who is defeated and withdraws to Syria, leaving Seleucos as sole ruler of Bactria, Sogdia, and India. Four years later, Seleucos attempts to re-conquer the territories west of the Indus which Alexander had occupied some twenty years before, but he obviously lacks the time and the resources. The best he could do was to reach a diplomatic agreement with Chandragupta, along the same line as the settlement he had previously reached with the Sogdians. This happens after both parties faced each other in a fierce battle in 304 BC from which Chandragupta emerged victoriously and where Seleucos ceded the provinces of Arachosia, Gandaris, Paropamisadae, as well as parts of Areia and Gedrosia in exchange for 500 war elephants and their handlers; a marriage alliance completed the compromise.

This settlement of 303 BC could well be inspired by Alexander’s earlier agreement with Porus, and since Antiochus the Great renews this very treaty a century later, indicates that is was the most practical solution for all parties involved. It is important to note that the treaty included a guarantee of connubial rights meaning that the rights of those children born from mixed marriages of Greeks with natives were protected – a small detail but an important one.

None of Alexander’s easternmost territories were ever recovered by any of the Diadochi and after Seleucos’ attempt to that end, nobody ever contemplated it again and all Seleucid kings from Seleucos Nicator I to Antiochus III simply accepted India as semi-independent. This may, in fact, be exactly what Alexander had in mind when he left Porus to rule his own territory and more. Besides, we should not forget the role played by the substantial number of Greek colonists who had to live alongside the native population. The growth of Mauryan power did not mean that the Greek settlers were exterminated or expulsed. It was a matter of simple judgment, they either adapted to local conditions and native rules to become independent from Macedonia and part of India, or they saw themselves purged.

At this point, the Hindu Kush Mountains, the Greek Paropanisos, became Chandragupta’s western frontier, an inglorious end to Alexander’s eastern conquest it may seem. Yet all those who ever fought at Alexander’s side had learned his lessons very thoroughly. Seleucos was one of his outstanding pupils and immediately after the conclusion of the treaty, sent an envoy to the court of Chandragupta. This was Megasthenes, who spent many years at Palimbothra, the capital of the Mauryan Empire. We owe him some excellent reports about the geography, products and institutions of India, for he was a unique source of information from that part of the world. His work about Chandragupta’s civil and military administration is considered to be accurate and trustworthy, although only fragments have survived. Strabo interestingly tells us that Megasthenes said we should not believe the old stories about the Indians simply because they never invaded any country outside India and no foreign army ever invaded India till Alexander. Megasthenes must have been a fine diplomat for he not only had to comply with Chandragupta but also with his capable advisor and minister Kautilya (also named Chanakya) who wrote down the very first laws and the constitution of the Maurya Empire which were strictly enforced. This handbook for effectively running an empire, the Arthashastra, contained extensive information about diplomacy and military strategy, but also careful recommendations on taxation, irrigation, coinage, agriculture and mining, manufacturing and trade, and many other useful topics.

It was this Kautilya who was responsible for the administration of Palimbothra which was headed by a Municipal Commission divided into six boards or committees of five members each entrusted with specific duties. The administration of the distant provinces was in turn placed in the hands of viceroys, usually members of the royal family. The matter of land irrigation was extremely important in India and Chandragupta made sure that everyone got his fair share and a special department was created to oversee the land measurements and the sluice regulations. The roads were well maintained and milestones were set up at regular intervals of ten stadia; a royal road is said to connect the northwest frontier with Pataliputra, 10,000 stadia long! The general honesty of the people was high on the list of duty of every citizen and Megasthenes tells us that crimes like theft or giving false evidence were severely punished. Arrian already reported that elephants, horses, and camels were only used by the king, the wealthy and those pertaining to the king’s entourage. All in all, an organization that is very different from that known in the west or even in Persia.

At the summit of his power, Chandragupta had eliminated all his opponents and ruled over an empire larger than what British India ever would be! He owed his power and empire to his enormous army that was organized and equipped in such a way that it became extremely efficient. Not unlike Alexander’s forces, it was a standing army where each man was on a regular payroll and the government provided horses, arms , and other equipment. From his Nanda campaign, Chandragupta acquired 8,000 cavalry, 200,000 infantry, 8,000 chariots and 6,000 elephants. Just imagine what Alexander would have done with such an army force that exceeded his own by far. He definitely could have marched to the end of the earth!

Reality was that the impressive number of troops from the Nanda Dynasty increased Chandragupta’s own troops, totaling his infantry to 600,000, some 30,000 cavalry and a staggering 9,000 elephants beside an unspecified number of chariots. His men were very well equipped and sources tell us that each cavalry carried two lances (saunia) and a small shield (buckler). All infantrymen were equipped with a broadsword and would additionally have javelins or a bow and arrows. Each elephant, beside his mahout, would typically be manned by three archers – implying a force of 36,000 men. Each chariot, as we have seen during Alexander’s fight at the Hydaspes (see: The Battle of the Hydaspes and the genius of Alexander) would accommodate two soldiers next to the driver – requiring 24,000 men. If we add up all these numbers, Chandragupta’s army would have reached at least 690,000 men, and that is without counting its followers in the baggage train.

It is obvious that no battle could or would be fought implying the whole of this huge army, but portions of it must have been distributed all over the many provinces of Chandragupta’s newly conquered empire.

In spite of such a great achievement, or maybe just because of it, Chandragupta decided to spend his final years in religious devotion as a follower of Jainism. In 298 BC, after a reign of 24 years, he left his throne to his son Bindusara. Chandragupta died shortly afterwards as he starved himself to death; his empire, however, would live on for more than a century.

History or legend has it that Chandragupta liked to tell his Greek guests “I watched Alexander when I was still a young man. Alexander had been within an ace of seizing India because its king was so hated and despised, both for his character and his low birth”. Yes, Alexander might have strolled through Palimbothra’s gardens, admiring its fish-ponds which were not far from the silt-brown fields along the Ganges River. Alexander was only three months away from taking all of India but his soldiers refused to follow him, not realizing how much this would have meant to their king and eventually to their own conquests.

[Picture credits and links
Young Chandragupta from
Map of Nanda Empire
Head of Seleucos from Pompeii
Statue of Chandragupta from Wikimedia
Map of Maurya Empire
Place where Chandragupta died]

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Handbook of Greek Art by Gisela Richter

Greek art is a very vast subject that cannot be explained in just a few words, meaning that inevitably most authors become far too technical and dry to capture our attention. This Handbook of Greek Art by Gisela Richter (ISBN 978-0714824963) is the most appropriate book to get a clear and concise, yet complete overview of everything that is meant by “art”. It is written in a very pleasant and fluent style whereby both the first time traveller confronted with Greek art as well as the more experienced aficionado will not be disappointed. 

The book starts by tackling the Greek architecture by taking a close look at the temples, from early archaic and classical times all the way to the Hellenistic period, detailing the styles (Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian) and the general ground plan of several of the main Greek temples. Then follow buildings like the Treasuries, Theatres, Stadiums, Nymphaea, Palaestras to conclude with the tombs and private houses.

The next chapter is devoted to larger statues, again sorted by period ranging from the archaic period down to the heydays of Hellenism. The same applies to smaller statues and reliefs made of different kinds of material, except the terracotta statues that are treated separately.

Other separate chapters provide details about gems, coins, and jewellery, followed by a chapter on frescoes and mosaics, and another one about earthenware and painted vases from all over the Mediterranean. The book concludes with a separate chapter discussing furniture, one about textiles and one about decoration. Truly all facets of art are being covered here.

Many pictures, although in black and white illustrate the detailed explanation and a unique table with drawings of every shape of vase and beaker completes the overview. 

The book is not recent, but the pertaining information is still very much up to date.  

Friday, July 8, 2016

Roman mosaics, another Hellenistic legacy

The Romans did not “invent” the use of mosaics to embellish the floors of their houses and public buildings, as this art made its first appearance during the Hellenistic era. The invention of mosaics is generally attributed to the Phrygians during the 9th or 8th century BC who used abstracts patterns. The art slowly spread west and  classical Greece used pebbles to create a sort of mosaic flooring as we can still admire in Alexander’s hometowns of Pella and Aegae. The natural pebbles came in all possible shades of gray ranging from black to white, the only true colors being sparingly used on details like for the eyes, lips, hair, sword hilts or brooches.

Yet is were the Romans who truly mastered the art, creating intricate patterns and vivid scenes to embellish their luxurious villas and lavish temple floors and walls. Since the majority of the surviving sites are Roman and generally date from the second century AD, most of the mosaics we know today can be dated as belonging to that era.

The art consisted in creating images by setting small pieces of stones, marble or glass (tesserae) into walls and floors of private houses for the rich and famous, but also in public buildings like temples and bath complexes. As the Romans occupied the entire Mediterranean, their mosaics can be found from Italy to North Africa, and from France and Spain to Turkey and Syria. The art was so popular that it was copied by the Byzantines who kept using it till the 6th century AD, but by then the stones were larger and the pictures were much rougher and less refined.

It is clear that local craftsmen developed their own style, some of them becoming specialized in creating scenes using the tiniest pieces of stone and tesserae. Here Alexandria springs to my mind, where the finest and most expensive mosaics were made to be exported to Libya where they constituted the focal point in larger mosaics like those that still can be seen at Sabratha, for instance.

Last but not least, we should be aware that there is a noticeable difference between floor and wall mosaics in the way the pieces are placed on their support. Unfortunately, that is not evident when admiring mosaics in a museum where they are put randomly on the floor or against the walls. 

The fact is that the floor mosaics are laid out as a flat surface on which we can walk without tripping and which can easily be cleaned. The wall mosaics, on the other hand, are there for the pleasure of the eye only. The most striking example may be the mosaic of Emperor Constantine IX Monomachus and Empress Zoe at the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul where the gold background is truly sparkling because the tesserae are unevenly applied. Another example can be found in the two mosaic medallions now at the Museum of Antakya (Turkey), each framing the portrait of a man who keeps looking at you wherever you are in the room.

For those who want to learn more about mosaics in general and Roman mosaics in particular, the Getty Villa in Malibu, California, is organizing a special exhibition Roman Mosaics Across the Empire that runs from 30 March to 12 September 2016.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Alexander crossing the Indus at Ohind

In spite of the continuous tribal wars in Pakistan, archaeologists seem to say that they were able to carry out excavations at the village of Hund (Ohind in antiquity) in the north-western region of Kyber-Pakhtunkhwa, in modern Pakistan – the “land of the five rivers”. It is said that Alexander the Great stayed at this village before moving to Taxila. This is a known fact, but I wonder in how far there is truth to today’s excavation story (see this article published in The Statesman in March 2016) as it sounds rather vague.

The town of Hund (also known as Odabandapura) is where Alexander crossed the Indus River in 327 BC over a bridge built by Hephaistion, who together with Perdiccas was sent ahead with part of the army to subdue the lands on their route. They had marched from the Cophen River (modern Kabul River) through the Khyber Pass down to the Indus, taking Peucelaotis in the Peshawar on the way. Hephaistion had constructed a fleet of thirty-oared galleys and a pontoon bridge of linked boats spanning the Indus River, which at this point is at least 400 to 500 meters wide. This operation is not to be underestimated for although the bridge was constructed far upstream in the Punjab region, the river is fed by snow and glacial meltwater from the Karakorum, the Hindu Kush and the Himalaya Mountains and its annual flow is known to be two times faster than that of the Nile or three times that of the Euphrates and the Tigris combined.

Alexander together with Craterus and Coenus in the meantime, campaigned against the Aspasians and the Assacenes north of that road to consolidate their rear in order to avoid being cut off from their line of supplies. Both Macedonian units united near modern Hund from where the entire army crossed the Indus River.

Beyond the preparations for the crossing, little is told about the traverse itself. The local king, Omphis had provided supplies to the Macedonians working at the river but he had not met any of them in person. Omphis (also called Mophis in some sources) was the son of Taxiles whom Alexander had met whilst in Sogdiana. King Taxiles had promised to join his forces to those of Alexander in his upcoming Indian campaign. After his father’s death, Omphis had sent notice to Alexander inquiring whether he would approve him reigning in the interim at Taxila or if on the contrary, he preferred to appoint a viceroy pending his arrival – a gesture that Alexander highly appreciated. For the time being, Omphis could continue to rule but should not yet carry the title of Taxiles as was reserved for the king in power, till Alexander’s arrival.

When the Macedonian army reached Taxila, one of the smaller states in Punjab,  they were met by Omphis, pleased to come forth with his army and elephants. Watching the approach, Alexander became suspicious because the Indian king’s display looked as if he was ready for battle with his elephants distributed evenly between the formations of soldiers. To be on the safe side, Alexander immediately sounded the call to arms and the entire army took their position with the cavalry deployed at the wings, all facing the foe in silence. Noticing this sudden change, Omphis realized the impact his approach had had on the Macedonians.

Omphis ordered his men to raise their lances and stop their advance. He himself moved forward to meet Alexander escorted by only a few of his cavalry. Alexander followed suit and when both men met face to face, it became immediately clear that this was a friendly meeting. The expression on their faces said it all pending the arrival of an interpreter.

When the interpreter arrived, Alexander wanted to know why Omphis had mobilized his entire forces to meet him. The Indian responded that he had brought his army in order to place his men at Alexander’s disposal. On hearing this good news, both men shook hands as a token of friendship and fidelity. Omphis handed his fifty-six elephants over to Alexander, together with an impressive herd of livestock including 3,000 bulls dressed up for sacrifices.

Then Alexander granted him the royal insignia together with the permission to bear his father’s name, Taxiles, as he was known henceforth by his people.

The newly appointed king hosted Alexander as his guests for three days, allowing the Macedonians a time of rest. On the fourth day, Taxiles announced the amount of grain he had provided to Hephaistion while building the bridge over the Indus and at the same handed gold crowns to Alexander and each of his Friends, plus eighty talents of minted silver and a number of unspecified strange jungle beasts. Alexander was evidently delighted but returned all the gifts to Taxiles and in addition gave him 1,000 talents together with an array of gold and silver vessels and thirty of his steeds equipped as his own.

It is under these circumstances that King Taxiles joined his forces to those of Alexander as they headed further east to challenge Porus who was waiting for them on the opposite bank of the Hydaspes River.