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, June 29, 2013

Rasaffa, Syria – a Border town on the Euphrates

“All the land west of the Euphrates and his daughter in marriage” is what King Darius III promised to Alexander the Great in exchange for his family which had fallen into the hands of the Macedonian King after the Battle of Issus. I can’t help remembering these words when I stare at the fast-flowing waters of the River Euphrates on my journey along the many remains of mainly Roman forts on the Arabian Limes in Syria.

The first such fortification I meet after leaving Aleppo southwards is (Al-)Rasaffa in the middle of a flat monotonous desert landscape. The first settlers here were the Assyrians in the 9th century BC, who set up a military camp. During Roman occupation, it became a desert outpost whose role was mainly to keep out the Sassanids from Persia. Rasaffa flourished as it was an important link on the caravan routes linking Aleppo to Dura Europos and Palmyra. After the Romans, it turned into a destination for pilgrims in honor of Saint Sergius, a Roman officer who had converted to Christianity and had been martyred in 305 because of his beliefs. This happened during the reign of Diocletian who persecuted everybody who refused to sacrifice to Jupiter.

According to early Christian documents, Sergius and Bacchus were Roman officers and favorites of Emperor Maximian (who co-ruled for a while with Diocletian) till they openly admitted that they were Christians. The punishment for such an insult was horrible. Sergius and Bacchus were ordered to dress up as women and march through the streets. They were chastised so severally that Bacchus died. Sergius’ agony wasn’t over yet and it is reported that boards were nailed to his feet to force him to walk to his beheading.

By the fifth century, these martyrs were so famous that the church above Sergius’ grave was restored and Emperor JustinianI changed the name of Rasaffa into Sergiopolis, which is still used alternatively. In 616, Rasaffa succumbed to the Persian Sassanids and later on to the Umayyads. One of their Caliphs, Hisham, was very much interested in architecture and he took care to rebuild the city and elected it as his summer residence. Like its neighbors, Rasaffa was ultimately destroyed by the Persian Abbasids, and the Mongols completed the job in 1247. The only people we see here today are the local Bedouins tending their sheep.

The layout of Rasaffa is typical Roman, mainly thanks to the Byzantine Emperor Anastase: a large walled square of 300 x 500 meters sitting on the hard steppe soil at the edge of the desert. What makes Rasaffa so special is the use of local pink gypsum crystal rocks which looks very much like quartz. The effect is sublime as its particles reflect the sunlight into millions of sparkles.

The entrance gates are located in the middle of each wall, the northern gate being the principal one with three arches guarded on each side by a square bastion. This is where the Cardo Maximus starts with its houses, shops, storage areas and even the so-called “Tetraconch” church, which is a cruciform church that was very popular in Byzantine times inspired on the Byzantine cross. The origin of this kind of church is to be found here in Syria, it seems. This church is also being referred to as the Martyrium, a marvelous construction with capitals and arches that look like lacework. Further, down the Cardo, I come across three enormous underground water cisterns with its adjacent water distribution system – extremely ingenious! The largest cistern measures 58 x 22 meters and the water level could rise to a height of 13 meters. The inner walls are still covered with their waterproof coat of cement. Based on these reservoirs, scholars were able to calculate the size of Rasaffa’s population. As the city had no spring and no access to running water, it was totally depending on these large cisterns to collect the rain that fell mainly in winter and in spring.

From here, I make a left turn towards the Great Basilica dedicated to Saint Sergius dating from 559, where the bodies of Sergius and Bacchus were interred. This church is also shining in its exquisite quartz-like stones. The triple-aisled Christian church is intermingled with the large square hall that was used in the 13th and 14th century as a mosque. Two alcoves of the church were promoted to mihrab. It is quite interesting to see how the Christians and Muslims lived side by side during the Middle-Ages as an inscription tells us. Curiously enough I miss these mihrabs altogether, fascinated as I am by the oval-shaped bêma in the very middle of the Basilica, hardly a few steps higher than the surrounded floor – a rather unique feature. This church became a major pilgrimage site in the East. The Byzantine army considered Sergius and Bacchus as their protectors and many more sanctuaries were dedicated to them. Today, these saints are still the patrons of the Christian nomads.

Close to this Basilica and the breach in the southeastern corner of the city walls, I find the remains of the palace which Caliph Hisham built for himself, a square building in which all the rooms opened to the central courtyard. Unfortunately, consecutive destructions have destroyed most of the palace.
Otherwise, not much remains today to testify to Rasaffa’s grandeur. The city looks pretty desolate with deep pits all around you: craters that testify of unfortunate vandalism. Treasure hunters always managed to find a way to possible hidden fortunes.

To make the story about Saint Sergius complete, I also visited the Monastery of Mar Sarkis  (i.e. Saint Sergius) on the way from Damascus to Homs, just before Maalula, where the Aramaic language is still very much alive. In the fourth century, this monastery was built as so often, on top of an earlier pagan temple perched high on top of a nearby gorge. The access door roughly hewn in the crude rock is a low one, meant to impose humility on the visitor and is said to be “very old” – just how old remains vague for everything inside looks timeless. The church is divided into three aisles and is definitely Byzantine. Its walls are reinforced by wooden beams that are incorporated horizontally in between the layers of stone in order to make the construction earthquake-proof. So smart! Thanks to these wooden beams and carbon-dating technology, is has been established that the church is 2,000 years old. Originally these walls were enhanced with frescos and a few exposed parts reveal scenes with wonderfully fresh colors.

A striking element is a central altar in the shape of a horseshoe dedicated to Saint Sergius, entirely made of marble with a 7 cm high border which is known to be typical an early Christian example. In fact, it has all the elements of a pagan altar except that there is no gutter to evacuate the blood of the sacrificed animals. I find this terribly exciting – never heard about it and certainly never seen any! The northern altar is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, a simple square shape with an edge of 4 cm high but again without the pagan gutter. Otherwise, there are several original Byzantine icons representing the Mother of God; a double icon of the Crucifixion of Christ and the Last Supper; and one of a sitting John the Baptist who is smiling – quite unusual. Well, so much for Saint Sergius or Mar Sarkis anyway.

[Click here for more pictures of the cities along the Euphrates]

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Latest e-Book - Updated June 2013

It is time for an update of the e-books for those listed so far under the Category From my Bookshelves” on Megas Alexandros.
This is an addition to the list previously issued in June 2012.
City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish: Greek Lives in Roman Egypt by Peter Parson. For my comments, please click on this link.
Olympias, Mother of Alexander the Great by Elizabeth Carney. For my comments, please click on this link.
Foreign Devils on the Silk Road: The Search for the Lost Treasure of Central Asia” by Peter Hopkirk. For my comments, please click on this link.
Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallions by Frank Holt. For my comments, please click on this link
Lost World of the Golden King: In Search of Ancient Afghanistan by Frank Holt. For my comments, please click on this link.
All Alexander’s Women” by Robbert Bosschart, now published in an updated 3rd edition.  
For my comments on the 2nd edition, please click on this link
The Death of Alexander the Great. A Reconstruction of Cleitarchus by Andrew Chugg. For my comments, please click on this link

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallions by Frank Holt

Unconventionally I read Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallions (ISBN 0-520-23881-8) after Frank Holt’s Lost World of the Golden King, although the book waited on my bookshelves for several years. I simply had not mentally reached Alexander’s conquests in India. After my trip to Uzbekistan and reading up seriously on Bactria in general, I finally picked it up.

The Elephant Medallions book is entirely true to Frank Holt and a great credit to his immense knowledge of Bactria, or should we say Afghanistan. Based on his scrupulous research and in-depth study of all the facts and legends that have transpired, he tells a most captivating detective story following the trail of these medallions from the time they were discovered to today’s conclusions.

Basically, it handles about two coins.

The first is a large silver decadrachm that surfaced in the mid-19th century from somewhere around Khullum Bokkara, but that is not a certitude. The obverse shows an elephant with two riders turning their head around to look at the horseman behind them. It is not clear whether the elephant warriors are attacking the horseman or vice-versa since both hold spears ready to attack. On the reverse, we see a standing figure which may represent Alexander the Great crowning Niké with a laurel branch. A few more such medallions have surfaced over the years, but only five have been labeled as original, the others are probably fake.

The second type is a smaller silver tetradrachm with a sole elephant without riders on the obverse and a hunter on the reverse side. This hunter may simply be a fourth century BC Indian soldier because of the typical man-high bow he is carrying. Only six such tetradrachms have been considered as original.

In his study, Frank Holt includes all the assertions and speculations made over the decennia. Is one of the elephant riders Porus or Darius or Taxiles? Is the figure on the reverse Zeus or Alexander? Since none of the medallic coins carry any inscription, he concludes that they were struck in Persia according to their customs and probably even during Alexander’s reign. This is one of the reasons why he talks about medallions instead of coins. They never circulated in Greece and have been found mingled is different large hoards found all over Bactria, but the furthest west was Babylon.

All these elements lead Frank Holt to conclude that the large decadrachm was issued by Alexander just after his victory over Porus at the Hydaspes River – a battle that by far surpassed that of Gaugamela. The only time that Alexander celebrated his victory was after the Hydaspes battle, and it would be obvious to issue the magnificent medallion in a gesture to thank his soldiers for this success. As to the smaller coin, the elephant tetradrachm, it may have been issued to hail the power of Porus after he was appointed to rule over India, i.e. after Alexander gave him back his kingdom and, even more, territory.

As I said, a true detective story with lots and lots of information. This book definitely should be read together with the Lost World of the Golden King!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

As Rich as Croesus

The wealth of King Croesus has become proverbial and still today, more than 2,500 years after date, we all know the expression “to be as rich as Croesus”. But who was Croesus? When and where did he live? And was he really that rich? These questions arise after the latest news that a gold brooch from his treasure is returning to Turkey.

But first the brooch story. The piece is a winged seahorse looted from tombs in Western Turkey in 1965, which by the 1980’s found its way to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. In 1993, the brooch came home as a show-piece at Uşak’s Museum but the good news didn’t last as in 2006, thanks to an anonymous tip, it was discovered that the brooch on display was a fake. What had happened?

An investigation revealed that the director of the museum had accumulated serious debts by gambling and couldn’t think of a better solution than to sell this famous brooch together with other artifacts. Now the brooch itself is said to be cursed since ancient times, meaning that whoever touched it would meet misfortune or even death. This might explain the strange behaviour of said director.

Luckily the original brooch could be traced back in Germany and the Turkish Minister of Culture has meanwhile confirmed that the precious piece will soon return home. Home is the Archaeological Museum in Uşak that will be housed in a new building and is expected to open its doors by the end of 2013 to show off the four hundred and fifty pieces from Croesus’ treasure (also known as the Karun Treasure) – that is, if the curse is broken!

The news made headlines, of course, although it has not been determined whether the artifacts ever belonged to Croesus.  However, it is generally accepted that they are from about the same time period. The largest part of the Croesus-treasure seems to come from a tomb chamber belonging to a Lydian princess that was blasted by looters in the 1960’s to gain access. Later on, looters added other precious items from neighboring tombs to the collection.

King Croesus (born about 595 BC) ruled over Lydia (in Asia Minor, today’s north-western Turkey) from 560 till 547 BC when he was defeated by the Persians. He is known to have ended the old wars with the Greeks and taken possession of Aeolia and Ionia. He failed to occupy Miletus but established his authority in Ephesos where he rebuilt the famous Temple of Artemis, something he could easily afford as his court is said to live in splendid luxury. Yet, the relationship with Ionia was an uneasy one especially since he was pressed by the Persians who gained ever more power in Anatolia. It must be said that the Persian King at that time was nobody less than Cyrus the Great – later to be a raw model for Alexander the Great! Cyrus was an enemy to be reckoned with and so Croesus consulted the oracles of both Delphi and Amphiarion. The responses from the oracles went down into history for they were typically double sided: if Croesus attacked the Persians he would destroy a great empire. Croesus evidently thought he would conquer the Persians while in the end the Persians came out victorious taking the Lydian capital city of Sardes and Croesus.

Important is to know that Croesus was the first king to issue gold coins with a standard purity. In fact they were made of electrum, a natural alloy of gold and silver that was found in the alluvial deposits of the Pactolus River running through Sardes. It is after Croesus’ defeat that the first gold coins appeared in Persia.
[Gold coin picture from Wikipedia]

Friday, June 14, 2013

Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea. Why the Greeks Matter by Thomas Cahill.

Quite astonishing what Thomas Cahill has to reveal in Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea. Why the Greeks Matter (ISBN 0385495544). I wish my history lessons at school had looked something like this, but maybe this knowledge is rather reserved for the advanced and intrepid readers – in all modesty! As much as Arrian’s book on the Campaigns of Alexander the Great is the key reading for everybody interested in Alexander, this book by Thomas Cahill is the one to get an overall view of our Western civilization, including an in-depth understanding of Alexander, of course.

This book is in fact Part Four of Cahill’s series published under the global name of “The Hinges of History”, comprising:
1. How the Irish saved civilization – The untold story of Ireland’s heroic role from the fall of Rome to the rise of Medieval Europe
2. The gifts of the Jews - How a tribe of desert nomads changed the way everyone thinks and feels
3. Desire of the everlasting hills - The world before and after Jesus
4. Sailing the wine-dark sea - Why the Greeks matter.
5. 6. 7. Are still under construction.

So many aspects of Greek life are being treated here that I can only mention a handful of the most striking or pertinent elements, like for instance Herodotus’ remark that “No one is so foolish as to prefer war to peace: in peace children bury their fathers, while in war fathers bury their children”. Nothing new under the sun, you’ll say as it applies to today’s circumstances as it did thousands of years ago.

One aspect that is being examined is that for the first time in history the Greeks invented an alphabet containing vowels meaning that reading was no longer a gamble, as opposed to the old Phoenician, Persian and even Arab words that had no vowels. This new written Greek language was so clear that even women (!), children and slaves could learn to read and write. The “secrecy” of written language suddenly disappeared, the curtain was lifted and suddenly a whole world became available to everybody. As a consequence, the centuries old oral communities (not knowing writing) that needed to do things together and required much more imagination, is now thanks to the written text replaced by individuals able to think for themselves, which in turn leads to rational analysis. All very logical, but I never thought of it …

And then there is the Iliad! Cahill states that it was a very daring enterprise for Homer to write a book that covered only the last four days of a war that lasted ten years! Yes, that is what surprised me too when I first read the Iliad, but it is even more amazing to find that the feeling of a ten-year-long war is so much alive in the book. After Homer we have to wait several centuries for new books to appear, especially longer works and extensive writings. This is simply due to the fact that it took a long time to import enough light-weighted papyrus from Egypt, so that the new texts could be “transported”.

Another aspect that is being highlighted is the Greeks’ thrive for competition, one that is still running through the blood of today’s population, I feel. Their need for competition arose in many different fields and not only during festivals or games. It was a way to catch the attention of the general public. This meant that one potter would take it up against an other, one stone-cutter against the other, and also the one poet against the other. The choruses singing the background tale during a theatre performance needed poets to write their partitions. Athletes paid fortunes to have their prowess praised by a good poets. The burial ceremonies of important men needed poets to perform “funeral games” to sing hymns of praise that would surpass any previous one.

And then there is the subject of music in old Greece. It seems they knew something called “moods”, what we in our modern Western world limit to minor (sad) and major (happy). The old Greeks seem to have known five of such moods: Doric that was warlike, Phrygian that expressed contentedness, Ionic that sounded tempting, Eolian and Lydian. For the ancient Greeks, to live without music meant as much as being dead – that is what Sophocles said anyway. Looking at it from that point of view, it is evident that theatre with its choruses is only a stone’s throw away.

Thomas Cahill also spends time to explain the Greek “symposia”, the event where men with the same interests met in order to philosophize and drink together. [The Greek symposion, became the Latin symposium, the plural in both cases being symposia – literally “a joint drinking”]. Clearly a happening that was not exclusively known in Macedonia, although they may have been and probably were rougher than what happened in civilized Athenian circles… These kinds of banquets were held in someone’s home, in a special room called andron, literally “men’s room”, while the idea was more that of a men’s club from the upper-class. The gentlemen were stretched on comfortable couches, wide enough to accommodate two or three guests together. They wore floral crowns (Oliver Stone must have had a very close look to portray the banquet held in honor of Philip’s wedding with Cleopatraate from tables loaded with all kinds of food, and were treated to music while wine was carried around by servants – usually teenage boys or female heatairai, literally “companions” in the style of geisha’s or call-girls. Young girls were generally kept away from these parties, at least in good society.

From the overall stories, one would expect the Greeks to eat lots of meat because meat was always used in the sacrifices to the gods, either sheep, goat, pork or beef. Yet nothing is further from the truth as the daily meals were simply fish (including shellfish) and bread. In fact nothing has changed much over the centuries since then and now the Greek cuisine produced artichokes fried in olive oil, or spitted fowl, fresh greens, fruit, nuts and even fat Sicilian cheeses (if they were lucky). It all was washed down with diluted wine – the amount of water to be added was the responsibility of the host.

On these occasions, beside the contribution of each individual guest, professional entertainers were called in to set the tone for a diverting and enjoyable evening. Soon the guests would rise from their couches to dance through the night, arm in arm, pounding their feet in a fashion not too remote from Zorba the Greek’s dance. This is described in a lyric way as if “there was a soul struggling to carry away his flesh and cast itself like a meteor into the darkness”. By the way, the word “lyric” was first used by Homer because this poetry was usually sung to a lyre.

Well, these are only a few facets of the many which Cahill is treating in his book which is in fact a true and thorough analysis of the Greek way of thinking and being. Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea is composed of seven distinctive Chapters:

The Warrior – How to Fight, examining the “Iliad
The Wanderer – How to Feel, treating the “Odyssey”
The Poet – How to Party, mainly centred on the poetess Sappho
The Politician and the Playwright – How to Rule, handling politics and theatre plays with Solon, Aischylos, Sophocles, Euripides, etc
The Philosopher – How to think, a scientific chapter with geniuses like Thales, Socrates, Pythagoras, Plato, Herodotus, Thucydides, etc
The Artist – How to see, about Greek statues starting with male figure to which female figures were added in a later stage
The Way they went – Greco-Roman Meets Judeo-Christian, which evidently treats religion.
To summarize, this is the ultimate book handling all facets of the Classic Greek world – extremely captivating reading!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Halabia on the Euphrates

To see the Euphrates is one of those lifetime experiences that leave a deep impression. For me the very name is forever associated with the Bible and visions of old Mesopotamia, the land of milk and honey and, of course, with Alexander the Great.

Unlike my previous trip when I crossed the famous river by bus over a modern bridge, I now have the opportunity to take a much closer look. The late wintry sun stands low above the horizon, wrapping the entire landscape in gold adding a touch of indescribably mystical to the Euphrates. And then there is the omnipresent silence. All I hear is the murmur of the current and the sweet rustle of the wind through the high reeds. The picture is timeless, eternal even. For me, a moment to let my thoughts drift back to Alexander the Great who crossed this very river with his army on the way to his confrontation with King Darius at Gaugamela to conquer Persia. I venture through the high grasses, carefully avoiding the marshy edges to get as close as possible to the fast flowing water that reflects the moods of the sky and the riverbanks. I deeply savor the moment before boarding my van and drive down the winding road alongside to the river.

The villages and settlements I encounter are from another world with houses assembled from large blocks of cement; cube-shaped piles of harvested cotton secured under patches of tarp; a lonely donkey tied to a pole; women carrying bushels of dried cotton-stalks on their head (fodder for the sheep); etc.  In what appears to be the heart of the settlement, hollow square rooms line the street where shops are set up displaying their colorful wares on the sidewalk: bananas, leek, oranges, potatoes, lemons, cauliflower, tomatoes and all kinds of fresh herbs. Even the bakery shows off with his bread and buns for everyone to see. Further down, stacks of crates filled with soft drinks; plastic jugs and tubs; brooms and cleaning products; drying racks for clothes; shoes and slippers are waiting for potential customers. Men pass by on bikes, mopeds and scooters in all possible shapes and sizes enhanced with the strangest accessories. The women’s dresses are more colorful than in the west, more like what I have seen in eastern Turkey. The taxi ahead of me is crammed with six men in black wearing their typical red-and-white scarf around their head. The local vans, comparable to the Turkish dolmuş, seem to take more people on board than there are seats. This local folklore is very welcome for otherwise the road is rather uneventful.

In fact, I’m on my way to Halabiye, old Halabia, one of those garrisons founded by Queen Zenobia of Palmyra in 266 AD.  Time is of the essence in the fast failing daylight. Except for the sturdy city walls there isn’t much left to see of Halabia, only the Pretorium that occupies a very strategic place high above the Euphrates valley. The old city was located on the Silk Road and flourished till 273 AD when Emperor Aurelius added the city to the Roman Empire. However, Emperor Justinian (527-565) judged it useful to restore the city and built these mighty defense walls to withstand possible invasions from the Persians.

It is a strenuous climb up to the Pretorium and a run against the failing daylight but I’m determined to make it in time. It is hard to believe that these remains are at least 1,500 years old. The strong walls are cracked in many places due to repeated earthquakes in the area which the three-stories-high arched rooms have survived. Deep niches around arch-shaped windows remind me of Medieval castles and look in fact quite cozy with a stone bench on either side that may have been covered with some cushions or covers. This is a great spot for the lookout to scrutinize the river upstream as well as downstream. The quietness of late evening is disturbed by a rattling sound, that of a car crossing the Euphrates a few hundreds of meters away using a pontoon bridge – a system that was very well-known in antiquity and used repeatedly by Alexander on his march east.

It feels as if I’m looking over Alexander’s shoulder, a special glance into the past.

[Click here for more pictures taken along the Euphrates] 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Is Myra still hidden underneath modern Demre?

Archeology is such a captivating activity that may lead to many surprises, some good and some not so good, but in the case of Myra, it sounds very promising as a huge mudslide may have preserved the city secretly over the past 700 years.

Until now only the Roman theater framed by the rock-cut tombs in the hills behind it and the church of Saint Nicholas are visible (read further: Myra, the city of Saint Nicolas and Ancient Myra from Finike).

Using new radar technology, archaeologists have now traced walls and buildings under today’s Demre and since 2009, they have been excavating a small chapel dating from the 13th century. In the eastern wall, a cross has been carved allowing the sunlight to filter inside as if it came back to life. A highly unusual fresco has also been discovered. It seems to be built with recycled stones from older buildings and tombs.

This discovery sounds very promising because if this chapel is so well preserved, hopes are high to find more intact buildings, maybe even a city comparable to Pompeii. This chapel leads the researchers to believe that Myra was quickly entombed by the mud because, except for some damage to the dome, the entire construction is very well preserved.

Time for me to go back and have a fresh look!