Alexandria-on-the-Tigris, also known as Antiochia-in-Susiana and Charax Spasinou-on-the-Tigris, is one of the lesser known cities founded by Alexander the Great in 324 BC. Pliny in the 1st century AD was still aware of this important harbor, although by then it was called Charax on the coast of the Persian Gulf at the point where the Tigris and the Karun rivers met. Today, it is much harder to pinpoint this once grand port that served as an entrepȏt to Alexander because since that time so much silt and alluvium has been carried down by both rivers that it is nearly impossible to find traces of this last of Alexander’s Alexandria’s.
[The wastelands of Charax Spasinou today, coated in salt and the remains of military hardware. Photograph: Mary Shepperson]
It seems that Alexander settled a number of his veterans in special quarters of Alexandria-on-the-Tigris, which he named
after this own hometown. Pella
Geophysical surveys revealed that entire districts were present and waiting to be explored and soon enough archaeological excavations revealed the presence of monumental buildings. It soon became clear that the heydays of Alexandria-on-the
Tigris occurred in the 1st and 2nd century AD and not during Alexander’s lifetime. Since the city was founded just one year before the death of the King of Asia, it may not have had the necessary support, more so since his successors had other things on their mind like their own rise to power. It was only when the Seleucids had secured their empire halfway the 2nd century BC that their attention went to rebuilding the city that had been severely damaged by repeated flooding. This is how it gained its new name of Antiochia-in-Susiana.
The major incentive came from King Hyspaosines who ruled from 127 until 124 BC after having functioned as a satrap earlier on under Antiochus IV Epiphanes, king of the waning Seleucid empire. Hyspaosines founded an empire of his own, Characene that flourished thanks to his naval superiority in the Gulf. At this time, the
island of Failaka was attached as well (see: Alexander's outpost in the Gulf). Charax survived, changing hands to the Romans who in turn were expelled by the Persian Sassanids in the third century AD. The last traces of occupation have been dated to 715 AD when it was part of Umayyad Empire, after which Charax was finally abandoned.
For centuries, Charax was a turntable on the trade routes to
Syria and the Mediterranean after passing through famous stops like Petra and Palmyra. Here the goods were transhipped from those ships sailing in from Arabia and even in exchange for those products traveling in opposite direction. In its heydays, Charax spread over 5 km2 and was home to a large cosmopolitan population. Alexander certainly had a good eye when it came to building new cities! India
Modern technology was brought in to the rescue; at least, that was the plan. A small team of geophysicists spent nine days trudging up and down the site with their magnetometers, hoping to find some remnants of this once so glorious city while at the same time they could test the possible presence of landmines. The results of their arduous efforts were beyond expectations as they were able to discover the Hellenistic gridded layout of the city and pinpoint many of the monumental buildings. Unfortunately, you don’t always get what you expect. In this case, the monumental buildings turned out to be mere layers of ephemeral phases and excavations were hampered by “inconsiderably-placed” dead bodies while what seemed to be a large city walls turned out to be nothing but a large ditch lined with pots. Test trenches have so far yielded only some pottery and a few badly weathered coins.
Alexandria-on-the-Tigris, Failaka and other towns in the Gulf area are clearly not going to disclose their treasures anytime soon for it will take many seasons of thorough excavations to get some indication about Alexander’s legacy in modern Iraq, yet again hampered by recent war situations.