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)

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Some thoughts about mudbrick city walls

Alexander did not go as far west as Khiva when he was in Central Asia but these city walls perfectly illustrate what construction using mudbricks means. In fact, they helped me to understanding how he was able to build the wall around Alexandria-Eschate in only twenty days.

There are many reports of Alexander besieging cities and taking down its walls but till now walls for me were straight vertical constructions made of rocks and stones piled up in such a way that they could withstand the forces of an enemy attack. Yet in Asia, stones were often not available and mudbricks widely replaced them as construction material as seen already in the palaces of Babylon, Susa and Persepolis, for instance. Yet I had no mental image of what a city wall made of mudbricks would look like and I could not even imagine how it truly served its purpose – that is, till I saw Khiva.

These huge walls shine in all their glory and are only interrupted by their entrance gates. The first such examples I see is the Tash Gate, which is flanked by two robust but slender towers crowned with a crenellated lookout post. This gate immediately blends in with the clean swept earthen city wall – as imposing as I have ever seen. The wall of Khiva forms a two-kilometers-long square and is ten meters high. The lower part is sloping upwards to the foot of the wall proper which is also slightly tilting inwards. At regular intervals half-round towers strengthen the fortification, one tower in two being thicker and sturdier than the other. I am told that this wall is between five and six meters thick. No picture can compete with the effect it has when standing at the foot of this towering defenses. It makes you wonder how on earth anyone could launch an assault and be successful in the process. Of course, this wall dates from the 17th century but the foundations go back to the 10th century, no doubt inspired by similar earlier constructions.

At this point, I remember how Alexander built Alexandria-Eschate in about three weeks’ time according to Arrian. Staring at these walls in Khiva, I am once again in awe for Alexander who rammed and catapulted very similar walls during his years of campaigning.

The city of Khiva is certainly worth a visit although its remains fit in a time-frame far beyond antiquity. Legend has it that Khiva arose around a well that had been dug by Shem, son of Noah but the city started to flourish from the 8th century onwards as an important stop on the Silk Road to China. Endless caravans of camels loaded with goods passed through these streets from morning till night and this is nicely illustrated on a lovely tiled wall which also mentions Bukhara and Samarkand as major stopovers.

One of the first landmarks along the main street is the grand Minaret of Kalta Minor, a short minaret of remarkable design and shape. It is a little fatso, 30 meters high and 15 meters in diameter at its base but it was meant to be 110 meters tall at the time of its construction in 1855. This minaret is clad with glazed bricks and majolica whose colors are a distant reminder of the walls of Susas palace although their design has been replaced by Islamic ones. It seems nobody ever made this link but standing here it is quite obvious how the very idea of glazed brick coatings survived 2,000 years and travelled this far east.

Each building in Khiva has its own rich history to tell: the Madrassa of Muhammad Amin Khan was the largest in Central Asia; the Mausoleum van Sayid Allauddin, a famous saint and Sufi was family of the Prophet Mohammed; the 44 meters high Islam Kodja Minaret covered with bands of glazed bricks, mostly blue and turquoise was the highest construction of Khiva. Another remarkable construction is the Mausoleum of Makhmud Pakhlavan with its glazed turquoise cupola, the only one in town. Even today this is a place of pilgrimage where people come to drink the water from the sacred well. The inside of the burial chamber is entirely covered with blue tiles and women still slide their banknotes under the door of the shrine. This is my first encounter with the typical wooden columns, shaped like elongated teardrops resting on a wooden base, all artfully carved. Amazingly, there are many more such examples around – the grandest collection being at the Djuma Mosque.

The Djuma Mosque or Friday Mosque is quite a peculiar construction without portals or cupolas, without galleries or gardens, but with a forest of columns. It is an impressive rectangular space of 55x46 meters filled with 215 wooden columns supporting a wooden ceiling – a concept that prevailed worldwide some ten centuries ago. This is truly a trip back in time! The oldest columns date from the 11th-12th century and combine designs from different periods, including geometrical and organic ornaments with Arabic writing. Some columns are resting on their appropriate decorated base but others are simply studded with a rough block of wood or even concrete. Some columns are shorter or have only partially survived in which cases they are supported by a taller base.  Looking more closely, you’ll see that many of them carry a date, 1316, 1510, 1788, and 1789, probably linked to their restoration. Capitals are almost nonexistent but some columns are crowned with a wooden chiselled circle while other tops are squeezed between two or four digressive blocks vaguely inspired by the bullheads from Persepolis’ columns.

These wooden columns are indeed a far reminder of Persian art since the ceilings of the palaces in Susa and Persepolis were supported by wooden columns that were plastered and painted as well. They rested on a stone base which often is still in situ and were crowned with bulls or lions supporting the very ceiling. Somewhere down the line of time, it seems logical that we end up with the present shape and carvings. Well, this is my own reflection on the matter as scholars claim that the motives in Khiva belong to the Khorezm art going back to 1200 BC but that does not explain the origin of the idea.


The Citadel, the Ashikh-bobo is worth a visit on its own for it offers a grand view of the entire city and in particular over the city walls which fully reveal their unique pattern. From this observation post the entire city lays at your feet with its many mosques, minarets and madrasas. The simple square clay houses of today’s citizens add to the impression that time has come to a standstill.

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