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 Drangiana/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, March 23, 2018

The fame of elusive Pelusium

When in 333 BC Alexander took possession of Pelusium situated on a branch of the Nile that has shifted since, it was a wealthy settlement as it contributed to his treasury with 800 talents (20 tons of silver and gold). It was his first stop in Egypt as it was for all conquering armies before and after him.

Pelusium was not only the point of entry for invaders but also the departure point for Egyptian expeditions to Asia. In short, it was a place of huge strategic importance and the second port of Egypt after Alexandria as it served as a transit station for the goods coming from and going to the lands around the Red Sea.

Yet, in spite of its fame and importance in antiquity and the many sources among which Herodotus, Polybius, Diodorus, Curtius Rufus, Arrian, Strabo, etc. the site of Pelusium, associated with modern Tell el-Farama has never been properly excavated. Antique sources describe the city as a bustling harbor with magazines and customs offices trading in salt, textiles, potteries and fish. On the site which is believed to be almost six kilometers long, we find the remains of a fortress and marble columns from a possible Roman Theater that closely resembles the one in Alexandria. There are remains of several necropolises, a hippodrome, fish tanks for garum, Roman baths with mosaics from the 3rd century AD, a stadium, many temples and even a military installation.

However, the little we know about Pelusium is now under thread by the construction plans for a massive canal through the northern part of the Sinai Desert. This waterway is meant to bring fresh water to the city of El Arish, 60 kilometers from the border with Israel. Unfortunately, in that part of the world nothing is simple. As early as 1991, archaeologists launched a project to survey the course of this canal in order to pinpoint any site that may be worth recovering before being destroyed by the dig works or if possible, divert the route in order to save important remains. It is no surprise that by 2010, both the canal and the archaeological project have been put on hold.

It seems that ancient Pelusium will not resuscitate from its ruins any time soon.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Cheesecake, Olympian style

Even in antiquity, appropriate nutrition was part of the Olympic Games as the competitors expected that it would improve their performances. After their strenuous efforts, however, they felt – like our modern athletes – that they deserved some indulgence. One of these was what we would call nowadays, a cheesecake, i.e. a kind of flour cake layered with cheese and honey, the best of which came from Attica.

[Picture from the Quarzy Newsletter of Feb 2018]

As early as 250 BC, Archestratus of Gela wrote a gastronomic guide “Life of Luxury”. Unfortunately only fragments of his book have survived but one such scrap is recommending the cheesecake made in Athens as being the best, although the recipe is not being disclosed.

As always, the Romans were keen to copy the Greeks, including their cheesecake recipe which Cato the Elder in 160 BC included in his “De Agri Cultura” in five different variations. There was the vaillum, a sweet version and a savory one called libum often made as an offering to the gods. Both types were made with a simple mixture of flour and cheese that could be eaten with a spoon.

A fancier version was the placenta cake, alternating layers of dough, cheese, and honey and spiced with bay leaves. Occasionally this cake was sprinkled with black poppy seeds. Out of curiosity, we may want to experiment and create this placenta cake according to Cato’s original recipe:

Shape the placenta as follows: place a single row of tracta [a type of dough] along the whole length of the base dough. This is then covered with the mixture [cheese and honey] from the mortar. Place another row of tracta on top and go on doing so until all the cheese and honey have been used up. Finish with a layer of tracta…place the placenta in the oven and put a preheated lid on top of it. (with thanks to the Quarzy Newsletter of Feb 2018).

Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Canal of the Pharaohs, the Suez Canal of antiquity

The Canal of the Pharaohs in Egypt’s Tell el-Maskhuta located northeast of Cairo was already known in the 1800s but was never properly documented until now.

Excavations started around a partially visible wall that belonged to a square fortress at nearby Wadi Tumilat, a valley that was an important turntable for commercial and cultural exchanges with Palestine and Syria, all the way into Mesopotamia. An enormous wall of 22 meters length and a height of eight meters leads to the fortress with its two twelve meters long walls. The complex measures 200x300 meters and was part of the city Tell el-Maskhuta that is still hidden underneath the desert sands over a distance of at least one kilometre.

Excavations have revealed that the settlement was built by the Hyksos as far back as 1,500 BC and  was used during the Ptolemaic era (3rd-1st century BC) as the foundation for this fortress. So far, it has been established that this was one of the largest fortresses in the Nile Delta before the arrival of the Romans.

The very first canal to connect the Red Sea to the Nile and ultimately to the Mediterranean ran past Wadi Tumilat and was built as early as the 19th century BC! Although it was difficult to maintain because of the ever shifting desert sands, it was still functioning during the reign of Ramses II in the 13th century BC. When Darius the Great conquered Egypt in the 5th century BC, he was keen to optimize the use of the canal for his imports of wheat and the transport of his troops. The first stone for this canal was laid around 520 BC and has been retrieved in 1866 during the construction of the modern Suez Canal. The precious stone and inscription can be seen at the Louvre in Paris.

This is more than sideline information as the very existence of the canal so early in history was a fact known to Alexander when he entered Egypt.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

An insight into Ancient Greek Music

What ancient Greek music truly sounded like remains generally shrouded in mystery. Only occasional finds and inscriptions shed some light on the matter.

As developed earlier in the post Another reconstruction of ancient Greek music, I inserted a soundtrack composed by David Creese, a classist from the University of Newcastle.

Today, I traced what is called the “pre-final edition” of the first choral performance with aulos of a composition by a certain Athenaeus’ of his Delphic Paean from 127 BC and another one written by Euripides for his chorus in Orestes from 408 BC.

The explanation is given by Armand D'Angour, whom I quoted in my earlier post Reconstructing ancient Greek Music, an impossible task?  Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Discover the Temple of Mithras in London

Believe it or not, London can boost on its own Temple of Mithras built by the Romans in 240 AD on the bank of the small river Walbrook that once flowed through the city.

Today’s visitor has to go Bloomberg’s new European Headquarters and descend the steep stairs to the Roman street level, some seven meters under our modern roads. Admission is free but advanced booking is recommended (For all information, click London Mithraeum).

Mithras the bull-slayer is a young god who came from the east and was much loved by the soldiers who used to worship him in underground temples where the blood of the sacrificial animals mingled with the mud floor. Its mysterious rites have been reconstructed as faithfully as possible with the sound of shuffling sandals in the background. A recording of a choir recites in Latin the names of the different levels of initiates as found among the graffiti in a similar temple in Rome. The cult itself is otherwise still shrouded in mystery and the secret remains very well guarded. No records on the subject have reached us.

The Roman temple was discovered in 1954 when the ruins of London after the raids of WWII were being cleaned up. The head of the young god found among the rubble was identified as Mithras and provided the clue. The discovery was, however, not appreciated at its right value and for years the temple foundations were stored in a builder’s yard. In 1962, the walls were partially but badly reconstructed some 30 meters from their finding place but much of the original material like the timber benches were lost or thrown away.

It appears that Bloomberg’s European Headquarters stand on one of the richest archaeological sites in London. Sadly much was destroyed by later constructions. But there is good news too as the soggy ground contributed to the startling preservation of hundreds of wooden tablets carrying faint inscriptions – the oldest handwritten testimonies from Roman Britain on which the name of Londinium is mentioned for the first time.

The Mithraeum has now returned to its original place where an art gallery on ground level is hosting more than 600 objects found on this site, like a wooden door, a sandal with hobnails, or a wooden tablet containing the oldest financial transaction in Britain. The head of Mithras mentioned above has been moved to the Museum of London together with other beautiful carvings.

Until now, all the representations of the god Mithras I have seen were fragmentary and usually limited to the very god in his dominant position above the bull which was often missing also. To my surprise, I recently saw a large and nearly intact high relief of Mithras at the Louvre-Lens Museum, a dependence of the Louvre in Paris exhibiting a most interesting collection of artifacts in their Gallery of Time which ranges from the Assyrians all the way to Napoleon. Judge for yourself:

It is a great example of the artistic way to picture this god who was so popular with the Roman soldiers and has strangely enough kept his secrecy alive.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

About Alexandria-on-the-Oxus

It is not always easy and often even impossible to match antique cities with modern names and locations and Alexandria-on-the-Oxus or Alexandria Oxiana is one such an example. The city was, as the name says founded by Alexander the Great on the banks of the Oxus River (modern Amu Darya) in 329 BC.

Since the discovery of Ai-Khanoum in northeastern Afghanistan by Paul Bernard and the French archaeologists in 1964, many scholars believed they had found Alexandria-on-the-Oxus on the confluence of the Kokcha and the Oxus Rivers. At the time of the excavations, France had reached an agreement with the Afghan government, according to which the French were allowed to keep half their finds which were eventually moved to the Musée Guimet in Paris whereas the other half had to remain in Afghanistan together with all the jewelry and the objects made of silver and gold (see: De Kaboul à Samarcande (From Kabul to Samarkand)).

Unfortunately, these archeological diggings had to be interrupted abruptly when the USSR invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The Taliban who arrived shortly afterwards, thoroughly plundered and destroyed the precious work done by the DAFA (French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan), both on the site and eventually also at the Museum of Kabul where the treasures had been kept “safe” (see: Putting archaeological sites on the Map of Afghanistan). It seems that all we have left today are the artifacts that were entrusted to the Musée Guimet in Paris but this is the subject for another blog since we are focusing at present on Alexandria-on-the-Oxus.

The first known candidate for this city, Ai-Khanoum, was a large city of approximately 1.5 km2 founded by Alexander but really developed by the Seleucids ruling over that part of the empire after the king’s death. The city thrived for a good five hundred years till the death of King Eucratides, the last king of the Graeco-Bactrian Empire that had blossomed here (see: Bactrian Gold, the Hidden Treasures from the Museum of Kabul). Altogether, a city worthy of Alexander.

Before his arrival, the settlement already knew an irrigation system with a network of canals that was expanded by the new Greek settlers. True to their origins, they built a city where they felt at home and included a large theater with loges, a gymnasium, an agora, many so-called mansions as well as a Heroon dedicated to a certain Kineas considered as being the founder of the city. Ai-Khanoum became a Hellenistic city by excellence with an exceptional “royal” palace erected in a mixture of Greek and Achaemenid styles. It made headlines when inscriptions containing Greek lyric poetry were found together with a precept from the oracle in Delphi.

In later years, this Alexandria changed name several times to become Diodoteia or Diodotopolis, Dionysopolis, Ostobara and eventually Eucratidia after the last Graeco-Bactrian king who expanded the palace complex and even added a treasury. In this treasury, archaeologists found numerous artifacts among which a throne and inlaid plaque from India which led them to believe they were deposited here after Eucratides’ conquest of Taxila and other cities. In and around Ai-Khanoum many large hoards of coins were retrieved most of which were from Greek and Bactrian origin but others were minted in India. In any case, the most recent specimens date to the rule of Eucratides, linking the end of Ai-Khanoum to this king. After the sudden departure of its inhabitants, the city was destroyed by fire. Although the locals returned after their hurried departure, they simply squatted in the remaining storeroom until they were expelled by yet another wave of nomadic attacks. The city was abandoned in 146 BC.

Ai-Khanoum rose from its ashes for a short while when the French started the excavations as mentioned above but was thoroughly destroyed again by modern invaders and treasure hunters – unfortunately.

Recently, another candidate for Alexandria-on-the-Oxus seems to be Kampyr Tepe situated some 30 kilometers from Termez, very close to the place where Alexander crossed the Oxus after his perilous march through the desert in 329 BC. (see: Alexander crossing the Oxus River).Today, this site lies in Uzbekistan and is separated from Afghanistan by the modern Amur Darya River. Kampyr Tepe was discovered in 1979 just before the Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan. Soon afterwards, it became a very sensitive and tightly guarded military zone at the border of the two countries until finally excavations were started about two years ago, in 2015, by the renowned archaeologist Edvard Rtveladze.

It certainly makes sense to find an “Alexandria” on this strategic river ford, populated by some of Alexander’s veterans together with Sogdian farmers and nomads. This lower city probably occupied the plains near the river bank and was inevitably destroyed at some point in time by the meandering Oxus River.

The ruins of the upper city can be found on a ridge overlooking the lowlands and appear rather like a citadel surrounded by powerful walls meant to protect the first Macedonian settlers, followed by the later Graeco-Bactrians.

Unlike Ai-Khanoum, Kampyr Tepe lacks the typical Greek buildings like a theater or an agora, but these may have stood in the lower part right on the Oxus. The upper city, in any case has been laid out in a grit plan in which the streets are lined with large comfortable houses for about six hundred families. They were built using dried bricks just like for the city walls – the only construction material available in this desert void of trees. The main city gate leading to the harbor offers a phenomenal view over the plains created by the river, now flowing several miles further south on the very border with Afghanistan.

The most striking find in Kampyr Tepe is the huge amount of dolia, large terracotta pots. This leads scholars to believe that the city had mainly a logistical function. Besides the usual ceramics and sculptures, some unique Bactrian manuscripts have been found as well which amazingly were written on papyrus. The diversity of the finds suggest that different cults and religions coexisted side by side for centuries. Beside the obvious Greek gods, relics of Zoroastrian, Buddhists and several local cults have been discovered mainly as images stamped on coins. The ruins of an imposing Buddhist monastery with Zoroastrian influences proudly stand outside the city walls.

These days, scholars are inclined to link Alexandria Oxiana to Kampyr Tepe rather than to Ai-Khanoum but so far they have found no evidence to substantiate either city.

[Picture of the necklace from The Australian. Picture of Kampyr Tepe from Caravanistan]

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

At last, the Palace of Aegae reopens to the public.

The opening date of the thoroughly restored Palace of Aegae has been set for May 2018.

The project was started in 2007 and after encouraging updates in 2012 (see: The latest news about the Palace of Aegae) and in 2016 (see: The Royal Palace of Vergina to reopen soon) the true splendour of Philip’s royal palace will be revealed very soon now.

It has taken stonemasons countless hours to patiently reassemble almost thirty columns belonging to the palace’s courtyard and façade. The peristyle promises to be exceptionally spectacular since sixteen columns and the frieze on the south side have been reconstructed to a height of eight meters offering a unique picture of the palace.

Overall, the walls of the palace have been restored to a height of 1.6 meters, which will help us to mentally recreate the feeling of the interior. Moreover, the mosaics that have not yet been moved to the nearby museum will remain in situ. They include, beside the simpler patterns, the mythological rape of Europa and several scenes of nature. It remains uncertain whether the grand round mosaic floor of the Tholos at the Palace entrance will be exposed to daylight also.

Using ancient techniques, craftsmen have hand-cut a huge number of blocks measuring on average 100x70x50 centimetres to shore up the palace foundations.

It is most unfortunate that many of the original blocks as exposed by the French excavators in the 19th century have been reused by local settlers since – a current practice in those days.

Yet, enough remains of the Palace’s upper floor that ran over the entire length of the entrance (the so-called Propylon) have been moved to the Museum of Vergina to reconstruct a 30-meter section of the colonnade. This reconstruction and more will be made available to the visitors in another two years’ time (2020).

Friday, February 23, 2018

Playing practical jokes in antiquity

Isn’t it strange that we believe that people in antiquity were always serious? Well, nothing is less true for recent discoveries reveal that our ancestors had a great sense of humor indeed!

I remember that the Getty Museum had this terracotta goblet with a thick rim that contained a small pebble. Consequently, each time the guest brought this goblet to his lips the pebble started rolling making a distinctive noise. Your drinking habit did not go unnoticed, of course.

Just recently a funny drinking cup was excavated in Vinkovci, eastern Croatia, which belongs to a series of so-called Tantalus cups. The inner center of the cup is occupied by Tantalus, a Greek mythological figure who was doomed to stay in sight but out of reach of food and water. The Tantalus figure of this cup has holes hidden in its design and as soon as the cup is tipped, the liquid leaks onto the tunic of the unsuspecting guest. The following picture from the Daily Mail clarifies the system.

The example found in Croatia dates from the 4th century AD and could have belonged to Emperor Valentinian I and/or his brother Valens who were born in Vinkovci.

Another trick is played by the Pythagorean cup which allegedly was invented by Pythagoras of Samos. The principle here is that when the cup is filled beyond a certain level, a siphoning system causes the fluid to be drained through its base. The silver vessel has a central column through which the wine “leaks” from the cup and spills over the unsuspecting drinking guest. This drawing from Wikipedia says more than any description would.

The siphon principle is in fact the granddad of our modern flushing toilets!

Fun is ageless and timeless, and it is pretty reassuring that our ancestors appreciated practical jokes just as much as we do. Keep smiling! 

Monday, February 19, 2018

Alexander moved to Abu Dhabi

The recent opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi has been widely advertised in the media and although this is far from the usual tourist destination it certainly seems to be worth the visit.

It is clear that the name “Louvre” is a temporary publicity for which Abu Dhabi paid $1.15 billion and their agreement will run for the next thirty years. During the first ten years of its life, the Louvre Abu Dhabi will receive artwork on loan from four Parisian museums, the Louvre, the Musée Quai d’Orsay, the Bibliothèque Nationale and the Centre Pompidou. This should allow them to constitute their own collection in the meantime.

Among the six hundred or so artifacts on display (half of them coming from France), I was pleasantly surprised to find a statue of Alexander the Great. It is the bust of Alexander Inopos from around 100 BC recovered from Delos. However, some scholars disagree and believe it to represent Mithradates VI who was a great admirer of Alexander and tried to emulate him.

I like to see this statue as a homecoming of Alexander in the Persian Gulf. So far, there is no knowledge that he himself ever went as far as the Strait of Hormuz near today’s Abu Dhabi, but his admiral Nearchus certainly passed that narrow when he brought his fleet from the Indus River to Babylon. As far as we know, Alexander himself sailed from the gulf up the Tigris River all the way to Opis (read: The Conquests of Alexander the Great by Waldemar Heckel).

Alexander’s presence in the Gulf area is generally overlooked. We know, for instance that he founded the city of Alexandria-on-the-Tigris, also called Antiochia-in-Susiana or Charax Spasinou-on-the-Tigris at the spot where the river emptied in the Persian Gulf some 2,500 years ago (see: Excavations at Alexandria-on-the-Tigris). There are traces of Alexander’s presence at Failaka, an island off the coast of modern Kuwait (see: Alexander’s Outpost in the Gulf).