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)

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Useful graffiti from ancient Egypt

Not everything is negative when talking about graffiti and that is certainly not the case for graffiti from antiquity where we can use every single scrap of information.

One such interesting number of graffiti has been discovered on the walls of a building in Abydos, Egypt, near the tomb of Pharaoh Senwosret III (also spelled as Senusret III) who ruled from 1878 to 1839 BC. All 120 pictures depict ancient boats, complete with sails, masts, rigging, deckhouses or cabins, rudders, and oars, and in certain cases, even the rowers are there.

What makes this discovery even more special is that the drawings were made by different people over a short period of time. Some of them were more talented than others, but all are disclosing their intimate connection with the boats. The largest images are nearly 1.5 meters wide while the smallest one reaches only 10 cm. Originally, there would have been many more such drawings on the walls including also pictures of gazelle, cattle, and flowers. The reason why these graffiti were made remains, however, unanswered.

In ancient Egypt, it was rather common to place boats inside the royal tombs and archaeologists have found that this tomb has been broken into after the death of the pharaoh and the funeral boat has been taken apart in order to reuse the planks.

Beside the graffiti, archaeologists are also puzzled by the liquid that left traces at the very entrance to the tomb. A good number of jars were found there and their content may have been spilled on purpose to make it appear as if the wooden boat was floating.

Once again, we will have to wait for more in-depth analysis to determine the context of these graffiti and the burial procedure used in this tomb.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Exchange of antiquities between the Louvre and Iran’s National Museum

After Iran’s Presidential visit to France, an agreement was signed to renew cultural and scientific cooperation between the two countries. As a result, there will be exchanges of exhibitions, scientific visits and training and, believe it or not, archaeological digs! That will be the day!

Details have not been disclosed, but it seems that for a start various pieces from the Louvre covering different eras in Iran will go on display at the National Museum in Tehran and this could materialize as early as March. At a later date, certain artifacts will be sent to France in exchange. All expenses, including the insurances involved, will be paid by the Louvre – how kind!

In this early stage, 24 pieces from the Louvre have been selected from the heydays of Greece, Egypt and Mesopotamia.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A mental reconstruction of Alexander’s triumphal march into Babylon

For obvious reasons, I have not visited Babylon but I am terribly happy to have at least been able to see the next best thing, the city’s imposing reconstructions at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

In a way it may just be as well that I have not seen the remains of Babylon located less than 100 kilometers south of modern Baghdad in Iraq simply because this historical site has been so intensively damaged during the Iraqi War when the American army used the place as military camp, destroying part of the city in the process (see also: Babylon, victim of war). The old paved roads leading to the different city gates have crumbled under the weight of heavy tanks. Much of the rubble (often precious archaeological material) has been used in the construction of airfields for helicopters and parking lots. Smaller archaeological material was also used to fill sandbags. The scanty remains of the Ishtar Gate have also suffered. To be fair, we cannot ignore that under Saddam Hussein Babylon has not been treated with much consideration either for in 1983 he started building a city of his own on top of the fragile ruins of the dried bricks walls.
He inscribed his name in the bricks, just as Nebuchadnezzar had done 2,500 years before him and he made serious plans to erect a palace of his own atop of the ruins. The outbreak of the Gulf War put an end to these damaging plans but since then the modern bricks and mortar of Saddam’s megalomania are dangerously undermining the brittle ruins.

Peace has not returned yet. For several years, villagers, invading armies and fortune seekers plundered whatever they could. An ever increasing number of people settled in new villages on top of the ruins and rising groundwater threatens the ancient walls even further. To make matters worse, the Iraqi oil business is spoiling the precious grounds of this wondrous city tearing up the soil to lay down their pipelines 1.7 meters deep right next to two other pipelines that were dug under Saddam Hussein. The Ministry of Oil ignored the pleas from their own Iraqi archaeologists, stating that they didn’t find any artifacts during their digging works – as if they were experts in the matter!

Historians tell us that Alexander entered Babylon through the Ishtar Gate and proceeded over the Procession Way from where the Royal Palace, the Temple of Marduk and the Ziggurat came into full view. This is the first grand city Alexander encountered and as he approached it from the dusty Mesopotamian plain he must have been awed and impressed by the deep blue glazed bricks walls rising amidst the lush green grasses on the banks of the Euphrates River.

Over the centuries, Babylon has seen many conquerors entering through its city gates. This is the place where King Hammurabi (1792-1750 BC) wrote the very first laws etched in stone, now one of the proud possessions of the Louvre Museum. It also is the city where King Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562 BC), out of love for his homesick wife, built the famous hanging gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. And, last but not least, this is where the biblical and historical Tower of Babel ruled over the sacred complex including the Temple of Ishtar. Less obvious is that from the sixth century BC onwards, the Achaemenid kings occupied the luxurious palace rooms of Babylon, their most westerly capital.

The Pergamon Museum has done a great job in rendering the imposing Ishtar Gate, repositioning the original dragons and aurochs (symbolizing the gods Marduk and Adad) in alternating rows and filling up the background with modern blue glazed bricks that blend in very well. Even the original building inscription by Nebuchadnezzar has been artfully inserted. The entire wall is framed with a tasteful mix of original and contemporary yellow bands and sunflowers embossed glazed bricks.

After having passed this monumental gate, one arrives on the Procession Way reproduced over a length of 30 meters and eight meters wide. Originally, this avenue was 250 meters long and 20-24 meters wide, and it is not easy to mentally multiply the length by seven and the width by three to catch the true immense proportions – a tall order in this confined space. Yet the walls have been faithfully covered with some of the 120 striding lions, dragons and bulls, including the yellow and black trimmings at the bottom and top with flower motives symbolizing the goddess Ishtar.

Standing here, it is pretty obvious to see how close Oliver Stone has come to reality when creating Alexander’s triumphal march into Babylon. The Macedonians must truly have taken the utmost pride in polishing their shields and outfit to look their smartest on this occasion as they must have been very much aware of what their victory over the Persian Empire meant.

However, although Babylon was firmly in Alexander’s hands, Darius was still on the run further east. This meant that Alexander could not yet take the title of King of Kings and he settled instead for King of Asia, as he was called throughout the rest of his reign.

Truly, I praise myself lucky to have seen the precious remains of Babylon in Berlin, as well as those exhibited at the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul, although much less impressive.

[Bottom picture is from Oliver Stone's movie Alexander]

Saturday, February 18, 2017

When pillars with unknown writing were discovered in India

It happened in 1616 that an Englishman discovered a 13 meters tall pillar with unknown writing among the ruins of ancient Delhi. The pillar itself was quite unusual since it glowed like brass but turned out to be made of highly polished sandstone instead. The inscription seemed related to Greek and he assumed that the pillar had been erected by Alexander the Great after his victory over Porus – why not?

More such pillars were eventually sighted in northern India but we had to wait till 1830 when the British, much interested in the economic exploitation of India, were able to translate their strange inscriptions for the first time. The texts revealed to be written in Prakrit and/or in combination with Aramaic and Greek, all referring to King Piyadasi, who turned out to be another name for King Asoka who emerged as the first figure in Indian history to inform us about the country’s forgotten history.

King Asoka was the grandson of Chandragupta and the third king of the Mauryan Empire (see: Was Chandragupta inspired by Alexander?), and ruled from 269 until 232 BC. He made headlines when it was discovered that his life and deeds ran parallel with the historical Buddha about whom till now close to nothing had been documented. British orientalists uncovered the true identities of both Asoka and Buddha thanks to these inscriptions – some 150 of them - etched by Asoka onto stone pillars and rock faces across India. The pillars had been placed in strategic locations on trade routes as well as at the edge of cities.

The appearance of the Asokan pillars is still subject to discussions. These pillars often were crowned with one or more lions, an unknown element in India art. Some scholars like to claim that the lions were a Macedonian heritage left by Alexander the Great inspired by the lion of Chaironeia while others found many similarities with the Achaemenid columns like those used at Persepolis.

Asoka ruled over the entire Indian subcontinent, except for a small kingdom on the east coast, Kalinga, which he captured in 260 BC. This was an extremely bloody war that ended with the death of at least 200,000 men. From then onward (about 250 BC), he decided to embrace Buddhism and govern his kingdom peacefully.  At this time he started erecting pillars to incite people to live in harmony and give up violence. His name and deeds would have entirely disappeared from history had it not been for the records he left on pillars and rocks across the Mauryan Empire and beyond. This situation is not unlike that of the Egyptians who lost their history till the hieroglyphs were deciphered by Champollion in the early 1800s.

The intriguing part is, however, that pillars similar to those bearing Asoka’s edicts existed in India before the king’s time and were often moved and/or reused in spite of weighing as much as fifty tons. One known and documented such example dates from the 14th century when two pillars were moved to Delhi from about 90 miles away. It is thought that one of these pillars was retrieved from Topra (an important stop on the road from Pataliputra to the northwest) could have belonged to the Twelve Altars built by Alexander on the banks of the Hyphasis River after the mutiny of this troops. This means that this pillar was erected before Asoka’s time although it carries his Seventh Edict.

The pillars have become famous because of their inscriptions stringed throughout the reign of Asoka. Other edicts have been found on major rocks and in several caves. Asoka etched his insights and principles of the Buddhist religion together with their application by the people, the religious communities and the state in general. The various rock and pillar edicts are geographically widespread and have been found in India and Pakistan, but also in neighboring Afghanistan, Nepal in the north and Bangladesh in the east.

It is certain that diplomatic, commercial and cultural exchanges were maintained through Seleucid Bactria and Mauryan Arachosia. Arachosia, for instance, (southern Afghanistan and Pakistan) and its capital Gandhara (previously Alexandria Arachosia), came under the rule of the Mauryans after the Seleucids. Here the bilingual inscriptions left by Asoka (including combinations of Greek, Aramaic and Prakrit) confirm that educated Greeks had been willing to cooperate with him and that he promoted Buddhism. This is a very important result of Alexander’s policy to settle his veterans and garrisons south of the Hindu Kush. It did not take those settlers too long to realize that if they resented ruling the natives they would be displaced by those willing to do so. Alexander certainly had not subdued the entire area but he had left the natives under local control, a policy that was extended by Seleucos and that paid off when the Mauryan kings came to power.

Asoka’s missionaries, apparently fluent in Greek, were dispatched throughout the Hellenistic world left by Alexander and we find the names of many rulers of those foreign countries etched in stone, like for example 
- Amtiyoko who is nobody else than Antiochus II Theos of Syria, king of Greater Syria and as such also ruled over Bactria.
- Turamaye which is the name used for Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt, the son of Ptolemy I who after the death of Alexander the Great became king of Egypt
- Amtikini who refers to Antigonus II Gonatas, intermittently king of Macedonia
- Alikasudaro, meaning Alexander II, king of Epirus
- Maka who is identified as Magas from far away Cyrene 
The widely distributed edicts certainly were key in the exchanges between East and West and they provide a window into history that is otherwise unknown.

The main purpose of the edicts, however, was to establish justice or dhamma, which includes much good and little evil, kindness, generosity, fruitfulness, purity, and maybe most importantly that “a dialog between different religions is good”. A typical example is probably the rock inscription found at Shahbazgarhi (northwest Pakistan) listing a number of do's and don’ts: prohibition of needless killing and sacrificing of animals; provision of health facilities for humans and animals; digging of wells; prohibition of anti-social religious festivals; other aspects of good behaviour including an exhortation to the various religions to engage in a dialog; and obedience to parents. For all intents and purposes, it would have been impossible in the long run to implement all this goodwill and these peace-intentions without some kind of policing, meaning violence. Then as now, our freedom and peace do not come without a fight.

A comprehensive list of Asokas inscriptions with their full translation can be found in “The Edicts of King Ashoka, an English rendering by Ven. S. Dhammika”. This page reproduces all known edicts: 14 Rock Edicts, the Kalinga Rocks Edicts and Minor Rock Edicts, and finally the Seven Pillar Edicts and Minor Pillar Edicts.

[Picture of Lion capital from History Discussion Net ]
[Picture of the Kandahar Edict of Ashoka, a bilingual inscription (and Aramaic) by king Ashoka, from Kandahar. Kabul Museum.]

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The little known oracle of Claros

It is not common knowledge that Claros ranges among the three most important oracles in antiquity, together with Delphi and Didyma.

The first cult of Claros occurred at some time during the 7th century on a round altar, which a century later was replaced by a larger rectangular altar measuring circa 15x6 meters. At the same time, the foundations were laid for the marble Temple of Apollo at the nearby spring and another yet smaller temple was erected in honor of his sister, Artemis. This makes the oracle of Claros the oldest prophecy center in the ancient world.

The sanctuary remained overall untouched till the 4th century BC when plans were made to enlarge the monuments. These plans were, however, only realized in the third century BC with the construction of a new Temple of Apollo and a new altar. The temple seems to be inspired by the one in Delphi having a similar crypt-like adyton where the oracle delivered her prophecies. The vaulted corridors are still visible today, although the passage is more often than not flooded by the sacred spring.

It seems the renovation works were never completed and it is astonishing to learn that only a few years ago (2006) divers found eight drums for an entire ten-meter high column and its capital in Doric style in the nearby shipwreck of Kızılburun, about 40 miles from Claros (see: Sunken column finally delivered to the Apollo Temple in Claros). It clearly never made it to the temple.

Unlike most oracles in antiquity, the diviners in Claros were men. After fasting for 24 or 48 hours, the question was whispered in the ear of the oracle. He then drunk some of the holy water, reappeared from the cave room, washed his hands and face, and formulated the question to the god Apollo. Through either inspiration or revelation, he later received the answer which he delivered to the priest in the shape of a poem. These rituals were held at night and the messages were written on tables that were erected in front of the temple for all to see. Yet, their content travelled as far as Dalmatia, Rome, Sardinia, Algeria, and even Britain and Russia! With the spread of Christianity, the oracle was gradually abandoned.

In this sanctuary, one still can read many of the ancient inscriptions on walls and steps, even on a curved marble bench. It is the largest group of such inscriptions that have survived from Greek antiquity. It is also the only place providing us with a clear picture of the way priests could perform the hecatomb, i.e. a sacrifice to the gods in which as many as 100 cattle could be killed simultaneously. This ritual may have been performed at the end of the Claria Games which were held at Claros every fifth year in honor of Apollo (a similar ritual existed in Olympia at the closure of the Olympic Games).

Today’s visitor can still admire the remains of the Temple of Apollo with its vaulted adyton when it is not flooded. This happens generally in spring since Claros is located in the river valley and the temple itself is below the local water table. Yet, this adds to the charm of the place.

In front of the temple, archaeologists have painstakingly reassembled the fragments of three colossal sculptures, a seated Apollo holding his lyre, flanked by Leto and Artemis, standing 7 meters tall. 

It seems that even Alexander the Great consulted this oracle before building the fortress on the nearby hill of Pagos where the residents from Smyrna were resettled.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Last Will of Alexander the Great?

Alexander’s Last Will has been found? The thought alone triggers immediate widespread reactions of awe, incredibility, amazement, suspicion, curiosity, you name it!

David Grant, who has a masters degree in ancient history, has just published a book on the matter under the title “In Search of the Lost Testament of Alexander the Great”. He spent ten years and countless hours of research to reach the conclusion that Alexander’s last will was hidden in plain sight for centuries as it constitutes the last chapter of the Alexander Romance which is generally not taken seriously by scholars. It is indeed very difficult to sift out facts from fiction.

It will be interesting to read what David Grant has to say about this testament as found in the Romance and how he went about to conclude that those lines are trustworthy.

The Alexander Romance appeared during the 3rd century AD and was most popular during the Middle Ages. Originally written in Greek, it has been embroidered further when it appeared in Armenian in the 5th century and in Syriac in the 7th century. All of these versions have been translated into many languages as The Romance circulated through Europe, Asia and Africa, all with their own additional twists or deletion of passages.

Pending my conclusions on David Grant’s book, which I still have to read it transpires from The Romance that Alexander – if he did indeed write this will – was very lucid and was not confused by the fever that is said to have hit him. I have questions of my own about this will, but it is pointless to develop them while I do not know what this author’s conclusions are.

To be continued, not doubt …

Monday, February 6, 2017

Hoping to find traces of Alexander at Magarsus

After Alexander recovered from his illness in Tarsus, he firstly marched on Soli, located a few miles west of modern Icil. He imposed a fine of 200 talents because the city supported the Persian cause and, although they were allowed to keep their own popular government, he nevertheless installed a garrison of his own. After the Battle of Issus in November 333 BC, Alexander canceled the debt of fifty talents Soli still owed and he returned their hostages. This kindness was reciprocated to Alexander when he was laying siege on Tyre one year later and three ships from Soli joined the reinforcement fleet of eighty Phoenician vessels and several others.

Once his business was finished at Soli, Alexander returned to Tarsus. The time had come to set his army in motion and he marched to Magarsus the most southerly point between the Seyhan and the Ceyhan rivers, near modern Karataş, which served as a port to Mallus. The king then moved to Mallus, a few kilometers further inland (possibly near modern Kızıltahta) and exempted the town from paying taxes because it was a colony of Argos.

This is about as much as we know of Alexander’s presence in Magarsus, where excavations were initiated as recently as 2013. The city was named after the Magarsia sisters of the Temple of Athena founded at some date during the 5th century BC.

So far, the theatre offering seating for 4,000 people has been excavated. It is 150 meters high and 30 meters wide and is turned towards the sea. Authorities hope to open the theatre soon for modern-day performances.

Next season’s excavations that probably will start in March or April, will focus on Magarsus’ Cilician Stadium and many temples. Useless to say, that I have secret hopes that some traces of Alexander the Great’s passage will also be found.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Time to visit ancient Aiani in Upper Macedonia.

Few people ever heard of Aiani, a most lovely village close to modern Kozani, once surrounded by Kastoria, Florina, Pella, Imathia, Pieria, Larissa in Upper Macedonia. Aiani was the capital of the kingdom of Elimeia.

The ruling king in Macedonia was Perdiccas III, who had been forced to give his younger brother Philip (the father of Alexander the Great) as a hostage to Thebes. At some time during his reign (368-359 BC) Philip returned to Macedonia and Perdiccas gave him part of his kingdom, probably not to rule in his place but merely to rule on his behalf. According to speculations, he was entrusted with the territory of Amphaxitis, a strategic stretch of land between the Axius River and the Thermaic Gulf.

In 364 BC, Philip married his first wife, Phila, the daughter of King Derdas II of Elimeia, most probably a diplomatic alliance arranged by Perdiccas as was his right as king.

But Macedonia was faced with several threats to the kingdom’s security and in 359 BC the Illyrians, led by King Bardylis envious of the fertile lands in Lower Macedonia invaded Macedonia, killing Perdiccas and with him 4,000 brave Macedonian soldiers.  

Macedonia was on the brink of collapse and facing the problem of the king’s succession to the throne since his son Amyntas was still a youngster. The Athenians saw an opportunity to interfere pushing forward a certain Argaeus and the Thracians with a certain Pausanias already marched towards the capital city of Pella. Macedonia was in dear need of a strong leader and given all these threats, the Macedonian Assembly proclaimed Philip as king, granting him full power which he could not have received if functioning as regent for Amyntas. Philip, they knew had acquired serious experience in the years he ruled part of the kingdom under the wing of his brother.

In 359 BC, Philip II was elected king and the people of Macedonia swore their oath of allegiance. It is obvious that Upper Macedonia was at the core of Philip’s expansion and this included Elimeia. One year into his kingship, Philip managed to unite Upper and Lower Macedonia and he achieved it probably peacefully, consolidated no doubt by his success in crushing the Illyrians.

Presently, Aiani is in the news as restoration of the entire city nears completion and the site is now open to the public. The excavations have revealed a well-organized town that goes back to prehistoric times and flourished during the classical and Hellenistic era.

Aiani was built on top of a high imposing hill meaning that all constructions were made upon successive stepped terraces. Archeologists have exposed large portico structures belonging to public buildings, a water cistern and a number of private houses spread over several levels because of the slope of the terrain. At the foot of the hill, extensive cemeteries and graves have been located ranging from the late Bronze Age till the end of the 1st century BC. Beside the usual chamber tombs and cist graves, a heroon has also been found confirming the presence of the highest social class. The wealth of the grave goods proves that Aiani maintained successful commercial and cultural relations with the rest of Greece. Contrary to what one thinks, Upper Macedonia certainly was not an isolated area.

The landscape, it must be said, is very different from what we find near Pella, Vergina and Thessaloniki. This is a true high plateau swept by the wind, poor in agricultural land and only fit for herding sheep and goats.

Until now, Aiani only could offer its precious Archaeological Museum to visit, which is a true treasure trove with for instance the oldest pieces of matt-painted pottery in black and white in the world. Some of the museum’s artifacts date back to the Mycenaean era but most are from Greece’s archaic and Hellenistic times. This museum also holds some of the oldest samples of writing on archaic pottery which confirms that the inhabitants wrote and spoke Greek well before the 5th century BC.

It will be interesting to see this site now that it is has opened to the public!