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, Afghanistan) - 329 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)

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Ephemerides of Alexander’s Expedition by C.A. Robinson

The History of Alexander the Great and the Ephemerides of Alexander’s Expedition by C.A. Robinson (ISBN 0-89005-555-6) is a most precious source of information for whoever wants to dig further into the literature related to Alexander that has come to us through authors from antiquity.

This is by no means an easy coherent reading for it has taken me some adjustments to get a hold of the pattern that F. Jacoby established in his Die Fragmente der griechischen Historiker edited in 1929 and which Robinson translated into English.

Robinson starts explaining that all we have about Alexander the Great are the stories told by “Extant Historians” like Arrian, Diodorus, Justin, Curtius and Plutarch followed by a great many “Fragments” from the Royal Journal kept by his court historian Callisthenes of Olynthus and later by his secretary Eumenes of Cardia. Also included are surviving parts from the books written by Alexander’s contemporaries like Ptolemy, Nearchus of Crete, Onesicritus of Astypalacea and Archias of Pella as well as from many later Greek and Roman historians.

This book respects Jacoby’s scheme, including the numbering of the authors (which does not really make sense in Robinson’s book but probably does in Jacoby’s), the references to them and the way in which he splits the texts in “Testimonies” and “Fragments”. Once I got used to juggling around in this wealth of information, I found it terribly exciting to discover all those bits and pieces of history that I came across occasionally not knowing if they were based on true existing sources or if they were the simple imagination of some modern writer. Afterwards, it is entirely understandable that these bits and pieces are not mentioned in the average book about Alexander, simply because they don’t add much if anything to the story or would not fit in Alexander’s conquests proper.

Personally, I found Nearchus’ naval expedition along the coast of the Indian Ocean highly interesting and also the wide-ranged reports about Alexander’s death in Babylon, including the last days leading to his untimely death.

A handy Itinerary of Alexander is attached, showing names and places in a comparative table aiming to match many of the events and locations mentioned by Arrian, Diodorus, Justin, Curtius and Plutarch, placing them in the same time frame. The names are not ranged alphabetically as one would expect but chronologically, meaning that you need to know enough about Alexander’s campaign to start your search. 

And finally, there is an Appendix, in which Robinson tries to make sense of the confusion about Alexander’s whereabouts in the winters of 330-329 and 329-328 BC and his crossing of the Hindu-Kush. I remember how difficult it was to match the accounts of Arrian and Plutarch during my trip through Central Asia where in the end I was not able to sort out these dates. It looks like Robinson made an extremely useful analysis that is absolutely worthwhile reading.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Dura Europos, last stop on the Euphrates

After Deir Ezzor, Rasaffa, and Halabia, I am now heading for Dura Europos, the most southeastern frontier garrison on the Euphrates in Syria. The landscape is as barren as the northeastern desert corner of Jordan and it is hard to imagine that Mesopotamia once was so fertile and consequently so prosperous. Rather suddenly I see a row of sand dunes, but so straight that they must be manmade. And they are indeed for these are drift-sands that accumulated against the walls of Dura Europos, the only original Hellenistic fort in the abovementioned series. Approaching from the land side, it is not obvious to appreciate the unique location as the Euphrates only reveals itself once you have penetrated to the very heart of the city.

Like Apamea and Deir Ezzor, it was founded around 303 BC by Seleucos, one of the generals of Alexander the Great. He wanted to build a reliable control post on the Euphrates, on the trade routes with his newly founded cities of Antioch and Seleucia on the Tigris. He must have remembered the lessons of his master, Alexander.

Being Hellenistic, it is no surprise to see that Dura Europos is set up according to the Hippodamian plan with right-angled streets around the large central Agora. By the end of the second century BC, the city was conquered by the Parthians who stayed till the arrival of the Romans in 165 AD. People of different origins lived in Dura Europos as testified by inscriptions on papyri and parchment written in Greek, Latin, Aramean, Hebrew, Syriac, the language of Hatra, Palmyrene, Persian, and Pahlavi. But I think it is mainly the Macedonians who left their indelible imprint on this place.


The main entrance is through the Palmyra Gate which, although only partially preserved, gives an excellent idea how this stronghold was conceived. The surrounding massive nine meters-high ramparts are interrupted by a series of defense towers built, like in Halabia, with the same pink crystal-like gypsum. But it is difficult to get a good overall picture of the site since most of the city is half buried under the sands. Over on the far left however is the area where the Roman military camp from the third century is located, complete with the commander’s palace.

Following the main street in the direction of the Euphrates, I am pointed to the right where most of the sixteen temples were situated, worshipped by Christians and pagans alike. Among them is the oldest synagogue of Jewish origin, dating according to Aramean inscriptions to 244 AD. Every single inch of its walls and ceiling were covered with wonderfully well-preserved frescos depicting scenes of the Last Judgement. Men and animals from the oldest bible stories are illustrated here in vivid images and colourful pictures. The inside of this synagogue has been entirely dismantled and moved to the Archaeological Museum of Damascus which is worth a visit were it only for this synagogue!


Beside the synagogue, there are temples dedicated to Mithras, Baal and Adonis, a proof that Jews, Christians, and pagans lived together in this multicultural city. The first traces of the Mithras Temple go back to the period 168-171, i.e. Roman times, but the wall-paintings clearly show Parthian influences because Mithras wears Parthians trousers, boots, and pointed bonnet. It is known that, although the Mithras cult originated in Iran, this god was very popular with the Romans. More interesting finds were made in other buildings, like mural frescos, inscriptions, military outfits such as painted wooden shields and a complete horse-harness also exhibited at the Museum of Damascus.

At the bottom of these temples, a small museum has been set up and although the best pieces are in Damascus, I’m happy to see the mural marriage ceremony with priests wearing their funny looking Phrygian hat – in fact, a copy of the original in Damascus but here, at least, I’m allowed to take a picture! Interesting also is the graffiti from the Palmyra Gate, enabling a better mental reconstruction.


A last attempt to save Dura Europos was made during the siege of the Persian Sassanids led by King Chapur I in the year 256. The local museum proudly exhibits the copy of a relief from Bichapour, Iran, portraying Chapur in full state riding his horse - a man with presence. He devised a masterly strategy during the siege when he dug tunnels underneath the city walls in order to undermine them. In a desperate attempt to increase their chances of survival, the Romans filled all the buildings and spaces immediately behind the city walls with sand to reinforce them. At the same time, they worked with might and main to fill the Sassanids’ tunnels underneath but there were simply too many corridors and ramifications causing the ultimate defeat of the Romans. This is how Chapur conquered Dura Europos. He razed the city to the ground and sold its population as slaves. Part of the destroyed walls is still visible in the southwest corner. The good news, however, is that thanks to the Roman operation by which all the buildings close to walls were choked with sand, many of them have survived - including the synagogue with its famous frescos.

Dura Europos was never rebuilt and disappeared from history till it was rediscovered by chance in 1920. Serious excavations started only in 1932 when said frescos from the synagogue were brought to light. It is quite unique that the wall-paintings show animals as well as people, together with a Torah-shrine in the western wall, i.e. the direction of Jerusalem.


Close to the Euphrates one cannot miss the elongated remains of the fine Seleucid Citadel, strategically set on its own outcrop guarding the bend in the river. Such great builders!

Walking back to the Palmyra Gate I believe I recognize a square Bouleuterion, but the only information I can find mentions a Baptisteria on this spot; this square is supposed to be a shallow pool which Christian believers crossed to be baptized. The public was evidently seated on the tiers around.

And then, in January 2009, sensational news from Dura Europos made the headlines as new research confirmed that during the Persian invasion poison gas had been used for the first time in history against the Roman defenders. This conclusion was made based on twenty remains of Roman soldiers that were found at the foot of the city walls. Apparently, the product used was a mixture of bitumen and sulphur crystals that was set afire. Using several bellows and underground chimneys, the gasses were directed towards the enemy. Previous speculations about this technique existed, for instance with the Spartans during the Peloponnesian War (400 BC) and from Chinese texts about warfare (500 BC), but the theory never could be proven till now. Quite unbelievable, isn’t it?

[For more pictures click on the album Cities along the Euphrates]

Friday, July 19, 2013

Alexander, founder of Gerasa

Gerasa, known today as Jerash in Jordan, rises in the broad and fertile valley of the Chrysorrhoas River. It is said that Alexander the Great founded a Greek colony on this spot in 331 BC, although there have been previous occupations on and off, as far back as 3,000 BC.


Close to nothing is mentioned about Alexander’s visit to Gerasa by ancient historians. Only Curtius vaguely points into this direction when he tells us that the Samaritans rose up and burned Andromache, the Greek governor of Syria, alive. This happened while Alexander was in Egypt and based on Eusebius’ Chronicles, he set out immediately with Perdiccas to raze Gerasa and Samaria, Alexander avenged this murder, executed all those who had slain his general and appointed a new governor, a certain Menon. The inhabitants were slaughtered and enslaved, after which he resettled the site with Macedonians. It seems he must have saved much of the city after all and not really razed it as Eusebius leads us to believe.

After the death of Alexander, Gerasa and the neighboring territories were annexed by the Ptolemies in 301 BC. At some time during the third and second centuries BC, the Seleucids took hold of the area and undertook a thorough Hellenization contributing greatly to developing Gerasa into a busy urban center. Antiochus III renamed the city Antiochia-on-the-Chrysorrhoas or Antiochia of the Gerasenes, and by 64-63 BC it became a Roman province.

In order to properly govern Judea and Syria situated on the eastern frontier of their empire, the Romans created a Decapolis, a group of ten cities that shared the same language, commercial relations, and political status. Each city enjoyed a certain degree of autonomy with their own Semitic, Nabataean, Aramean and Jewish culture. We owe it to Plinius for reporting the full list of the member cities:
Damascus (in Syria)
Philadelphia (modern Amman in Jordan)
Gerasa (now Jerash in Jordan)
Scythopolis (now Beisan in the Jordan Valley, North Israel)
Gadara (modern Umm Qays in Jordan) and once the capital of this Decapolis
Hippos (on the banks of Lake Tiberias in Israel)
Dion (probably near Irbid in Jordan, but not yet discovered)
Pella (in the Jordan Valley, northwest of Amman in Jordan)
Canatha (now Qanawat in Syria) and
Raphana (probably north of Umm Qays in Jordan, but not yet discovered either).

In 106 Emperor Trajan added the rich lands of the Nabataeans to the province Arabia and in the years 112-114 a new caravan route was laid out in the tracks of the 5,000 years old existing one. This Via Nova Triana connected Syria to Aqaba and today’s main road from Amman to Aqaba still follows the same route as the King’s Highway. Business with the Nabataeans flourished as they guarded the important trade route through Petra, and consequently, Gerasa grew – also thanks to the fertile agriculture lands around the city and the minerals that were dug in nearby Ajloun. Today’s remains of Gerasa date back from those prosperous days, i.e. 2nd/3rd century, when the city counted 20,000 inhabitants living mainly on the east side which is still hidden underneath modern Jerash. Gerasa was one of the most thriving cities of Palestine.

By the end of the 3rd century, however, most of the trade went overseas and the role of Gerasa became superfluous. Emperor Constantine introduced Christianity, which was wide-spread by the fifth century as is proven by the many churches that were built here: 13 churches for the years 400-600 alone. The earthquakes of 747 severely damaged the city and the population decreased to about 4,000 and Gerasa became no more than a small village by the time it was incorporated into the Islamic world shortly thereafter. Slowly this once so proud city entirely disappeared under layers of sand till it was rediscovered in the 19th century.

This summarizes my historical baggage when I’m about to visit old Gerasa, with its fascinating round forum that is advertised in every single tourists’ brochures.

I’m happy to enter the city through (in reality next to) the Arch of Hadrian who honored Gerasa with a visit in the year 129. The world-traveler, Hadrian! There hardly is any city that his emperor has not visited and curiously enough every single one of them built an Arch in loving memory it seems. The monumental arch of Gerasa is in very good condition and small restorations are not really obvious. As is customary, it counts three gates and the middle passage is no less than eleven meters high. Both facades are practically identical and richly decorated with acanthus leaves. The now empty niches originally held statues, of course. Strangely enough, this arch stands about half a kilometer away, outside the city walls because at the time of its construction Gerasa had plans for expansion and building new walls – plans that never materialized.

The modern asphalted road runs more or less on top of the Chrysorrhoas River that divided Gerasa in two and the Roman ruins of all the official buildings occupy the left (west) side. A modern paved road squeeze between this asphalted road and the impressive remains of the Roman Hippodrome leads to the modern entrance gate. I walk the entire length of the Hippodrome (260 meters) where pseudo-Romans are now in full action with their horse-races. The east side of the Hippodrome is best preserved with a complex system of vaults that was supposed to carry the weight of the 16 or 17 rows of seating above. I stop a moment to take a close look at the impressive length of the field, trying to picture how in the third century as many as 15,000 people filled the tiers.

Once inside the old city walls, I almost immediately stand in the middle of the Great Oval Forum bordered with high Ionic columns, the iconic image of Gerasa. It’s not only the oval shape that captures the attention but also the size of this entirely paved piazza that is no less than 90 meters long! Behind the columns runs a two meters wide sidewalk. I stand here in awe for quite a while, trying to realize that I am really here and not staring at a picture of some kind. I could have spent much more time on this unique spot, so wondrous. Although this space is generally referred to as a forum, the archeologists are not certain about the true function of this space. The significance of the two square podiums in the middle are also still unclear since they could either have served as an altar or simply as a base for some statues. Underneath the forum, the remains of a drainage system have been discovered – how ingenious!

Over my left shoulder lies the large Roman Theater and ahead of me runs the Cardo, the north-south axis along the river. My view over the straight road stops at the first Tetrapylon that marked the crossing with the southern Decumanus. A second Tetrapylon stands further down the Cardo where the northern Decumanus crosses, and beyond that, approximately 800 meters further, I can see the Northern City Gate. Almost the entire length of the Cardo is framed with slender Corinthian columns behind which the sidewalk, probably once covered, leads to the entrance of the many temples of the Forum, but when the Cardo was enlarged in the second century, it was decided to replace the Ionian capitals with Corinthian ones – a matter of fashion probably.

I start my walk over the Cardo and turn left into the southern Decumanus, sensitive as always to the fact that I am treading over two thousand years old pavements. Standing at the very crossing where once the Tetrapylon stood as a crown jewel is another of those impressions you cannot easily forget. To my right, the road disappears under modern Jerash but I’m intrigued by what I’ll find on the left-hand side.

The most impressive building here is the Temple of Artemis but it takes a while before I can figure out the lay-out among the walls and stairs that also belong to later Byzantine and Umayyads’ additions. Many churches have been built and there was even a cathedral with a shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Since the Temple of Artemis was set on top of a hill, I have to cross many corridors, jump many ditches and climb many stairs to get there. As always, the choice of the location is sublime for the temple commanded the view and was the most important building of Gerasa. Considering the enormous dimensions (the temple occupies a surface of 34,000 square meters) and the grand setup of the different parts, this does not come as a surprise. It was actually built during the second century when the entire city underwent a face-lift.

To be correct, I should have approached the temple complex from the east, where the Via Sacra on the other side of the Cardo starts at a central court surrounded by columns (later holding a Byzantine church) to join the Cardo flanked by two fountains. On the opposite side of the street lies a 120-meter-long portico with four huge columns, crowned with richly decorated architraves, the Propylaea. This part was lushly decorated and the two still existing side-gates are proof to that. To the left and to the right, there once were a number of shops, spread over two levels. After entering the Propylaea I have to climb a set of wide stairs interrupted by broad terraces which provide rewarding views over the complex and the city. In the middle of the first terrace, I find the foundation of a large U-shaped altar according to eastern traditions. It is possible that an earlier Temple of Artemis stood here.

A second flight of stairs leads to the terrace on top of the hill. Access to the central court of 161 x 121 meters was through one of the surrounding porticos. The Temple itself was framed by Corinthian columns, six on the short side and eleven on the long sides. A wide set of stairs led to the cella, the heart of the temple. The inside walls were covered with marble and in the back stood the statue of the goddess guarding the temple‘s treasury. Two more sets of stairs led to the supposedly flat roof where, according to eastern traditions, some rituals were carried out. It is a strange combination of Hellenistic and Roman construction elements, mixed with eastern traditions, but this certainly is one of the largest and most impressive temples I’ve ever seen – more so than Didyma for instance that kept me in awe.

Loose blocks of columns, capitals, and architrave have been re-used over the centuries for the construction of surrounding churches and buildings. From the fourth century onwards, entire parts of the crepidoma were re-used and re-worked in the surrounding workshops. So it is no surprise to discover a huge saw in the depth next to the temple. Huge stone blocks and slabs of marble could be sawn in small plates to build and decorate new constructions. This machine is evidently a reconstruction with a wooden water-wheel that was activated by a nearby source, i.e. the power to bring the four saws in motion. Quite an unexpected surprise!

It is while walking back down to the Cardo that I fully understand how impressive and unique the location of this Temple of Artemis must have been. Because I approached the temple from the side instead of from the Via Sacra, my first impression was entirely different, of course. It’s only now that I walk over the different terraces, surrounded or not by colonnades, to end on the staircase running over the entire width of the complex. This is how the pilgrim must have looked up the steep stairs and must have felt pretty small. The view from the Propylaea towards the Cardo is beautifully framed and although I now stare at modern Jerash, it does give an excellent picture of what once was. Back on the street, I turn around for a last glimpse but I can’t even see the very temple from here. It definitely shows an unsurpassed grandeur, one of those absolutely unique settings. My thoughts go back to Pliny and Meleagros who compared Gadara (Umm Qays) with Athens, but I wonder what they had to say about Gerasa. As far as I’m concerned, the only comparison I can make is with the Acropolis in Athens where you approach the Parthenon after climbing the stairs of the Propylaea about in the same way.

When I think having reached the end of the city at what looks like an arch or a gate, I discover that I have arrived at the Northern Tetrapylon and that the Cardo still runs on towards the northern city Gate. The land on either side has not yet been excavated and is used at present as grazing grounds for the goats.

I make a left turn to follow the northern Decumanus to the Small Theatre, which was probably conceived as an Odeon. It looks in a pretty good state but upon closer examination it has been thoroughly restored. From the top row of seats, I can see as far as the Oval Forum, the Hippodrome and the Arch of Hadrian – a very rewarding view in the floodlights of the late evening sun. I climb down, walk behind the huge Temple of Artemis where I find a beautiful mosaic floor that once belonged to a Byzantine Basilica, behind a row of six special churches that filled the back-garden of the Temple of Artemis. From this spot, I once again enjoy a breathtaking view over Gerasa now that the colonnades and streets catch the last sunrays and in particular the fascinating circle of the Forum. There must be around 230 columns still standing! What a city! What an eye-catcher!

Retracing my steps to the long Cardo, I pass by one of the several Nympheums that are spread all over the city. This fountain from the 2nd century is not exceptional big but very gracious. The colonnade alongside the Cardo has been interrupted here for the 22-meters-wide entrance. Originally, this fountain was covered with slabs of colored marble and the niches held a number of statues. It must have been a dazzling work of art which we can hardly imagine.

The large Southern Theatre is much better preserved than its smaller brother at the other end of the city, meaning that much more of the original stones have survived. Its construction started during the reign of Emperor Domitian, between 81 and 96 AD and was financed by the people of Gerasa. It has been revealed that a certain Titus Flavius spent the sum of 3,000 drachmas for one single row of seats! The theater still boasts 4,000 seats, with a podium and the two-storied paraskenia in relatively perfect condition. The four times three niches just underneath the border of the podium are very well preserved also. I always feel very privileged to walk up and down a theater and through its vaulted corridors, whether leading to the podium or running behind the seating area used by the theatre-goers. Still today people use these corridors, treading in the same footsteps as those from ancient times.

I walk back, past the poor remains of the large Temple of Zeus. It is said that the oldest part of Gerasa lays underneath this sanctuary, maybe even the original Macedonian settlement. It would be very exciting to have a confirmation of this theory one day. This Temple of Zeus, however, is pure East-Roman since it was consecrated in 162-163 during the reign of Antoninus Pius. The general plan is hard to recognize were it not for the proud Corinthian columns. According to an inscription, a certain Theon would have paid a huge amount of money for the construction of the temple and for the bronze statue it once sheltered. The name of the architect of the first temple terrace has also been found, an inhabitant of Gerasa called Diodorus who financed this monument during the years 27 and 28 AD. It is information like this that brings the stones to life, isn’t it?

On this wintry day, the sun sets shortly after 4 pm and it becomes difficult to take any more pictures but this is the time when nature turns quiet and the spirits of times past come alive, isn’t it?

[Click here to view all the pictures of Gerasa]

Monday, July 15, 2013

Aspendos, the unfaithful

It seems that the people of Aspendos were not too happy with their Persian ruler for when in 333 BC they heard that Alexander  de Great was on his way, they set out to greet him and surrendered their city on the sole condition that Alexander would not leave a Macedonian garrison behind. Alexander agreed, but demanded payment of fifty talents and the same number of horses as they usually delivered to the Persian King.


Once this agreement was reached, Alexander moved onwards to Side and from there westwards to Sillyum that resisted. While he was in full siege, he was informed that Aspendos had no intention at all to keep their promises. They had called their citizens inside the city-walls and the gates were slammed in the face of Alexander’s ambassadors. The city was bracing itself for an attack. They evidently underestimated Alexander and never expected him to show up in person and so quickly – most probably being in a great state.

Entirely surprised and totally bewildered by their opponent’s quick action, Aspendos was forced to ratify the previously made agreement and promised solemnly to pay the fifty talents they agreed on before. Alexander was smart enough to accept this gesture of goodwill because the city was a strongly defended fortress that could stand a lengthy siege. But he claimed an extra fifty talents, hostages from prominent families, and the payment of a yearly contribution to Macedonia. No kidding!

The oldest name for Aspendos is Estwediiys, a city probably founded by Mopsus around 1200 BC. As early as the fifth century BC, the city minted its own silver coins – with Side the only ones in Pamphylia to do so. In the days of Alexander, Aspendos was flourishing and was best known for its horses. The Persians had the exclusive rights to these noble animals, but now it was Alexander’s turn to claim that contribution and four thousand horses were promptly delivered to his army – quite a stock, I would say.

After Alexander’s death, Aspendos was taken in turn by the Seleucids and the Egyptian Ptolemies, and in the 3rd century AD it became the third city of Pamphylia. Under the Roman Emperors, it was an important trade centre for salt that was collected from the nearby Lake Capria, which according to Strabo dried up in summer enabling an easy harvest. The commerce of wine and horses also flourished till the city finally shared the same ill-fate as its neighbors. The Byzantine Emperors organized and reorganized Asia Minor time and again, joining Lycia to Pamphylia and separating it again in the end, allowing each to be an independent province. Later we find the Arabs’ and the Crusaders’ conquests till the area was absorbed by the Ottoman Empire.

Nothing much is left to see of the old harbor of Aspendos. There is the Seljuk bridge over the Eurymedon River (now Köprü River) which is said to rest on old Roman foundations. You have to be very alert after leaving the D400 towards Aspendos to notice this bridge on your right, but if you can made a halt there it is definitely worth the visit. The bridge, restored as recently as 1996-1998, is about 225 meters long and reaches the opposite bank after a slight knick. Somehow it reminds me of the famous bridge in Mostar, the same vault-construction but here it is repeated seven times. It is the achievement of the Seljuk Emperor Alaaddin Keybatt (1219-1236) who saw the true value of this (re-)construction. You’ll easily find the Roman base in the fast flowing water and it is as easy to imagine how in antiquity ships passed under this bridge (which was higher then) to deliver their goods in Aspendos before the harbor silted up.

The absolute highlight of Aspendos is of course the theatre, one of the best preserved in the world. Like most of the buildings it dates from the 2nd century AD, probably built during the rule of Marcus Aurelius. According to the inscriptions, the side entrances were mandated to architect Zenon by two brothers, Curtius Crispinus and Curtius Auspicatus. Officially the theatre offers seating for at least 20,000 visitors but rumors have it that at times twice as much were crowded inside! It is quite unique to see the well-preserved stage-wall, which somehow may remind the visitor of the Theatre of Herodus Atticus in Athens, but this one is in much better condition. I walk the entire width of the podium that originally was much wider because it had a wooden extension, staring up at all the decorations, garlands and figures around the niches framed with slender columns and which once held statues of important citizens. Under the baldachins of what could be the second level, I discover a series of lovely faces all different in expression and appearance. It’s like the past staring back at me. In the middle of this back-wall a relief of Dionysus fills the triangle of a pediment. On a previous visit the entire stage was hidden because the theatre was still used for performances, now luckily forbidden. So these details are quite a revelation!

This theatre is definitely Roman, a perfect half-circle with a wide gutter at the feet of the lowest row of seats that could be filled with water to enhance the acoustics. I wonder about the need for increased acoustic effect for I’m deafened by the cacophony of people of all nationalities and several busloads of children from local schools. I climb the stairs to the diazoma, the walkway separating the lower and upper part of the theatre and from here the staircases are doubled. It’s lovely to visit the connecting corridors in the back which only served to support the construction and had no specific function – still in such good condition. Back in the blazing sunlight I have an entirely different look at the stage-wall as some of the features are now at eyelevel. I clearly can see the holes that once served to hold the wooden beams for the roof, which covered the stage only and was meant to enhance the acoustics –so clever. Higher up are other holes that could hold the wooden poles used to fix the awning, which protected the theatre-goers from rain and sun. How dare we think that we invented the notion of comfort! Another exceptional feature is the stylish porticus that crowns the upper rows, behind the very last seats, which usually doesn’t survive in these ancient theatres. I walk underneath arches in near-perfect condition along a closed wall to the outside while on the inside the walkway opens into the theatre. Marble blocks and columns frame the separation between one arch and the next. About three of such arches have been carefully restored and blend in entirely with the surviving parts. It does not take a lot of imagination to taste the atmosphere that must have reigned here with so many Romans sandals scraping the pavement.

I also venture inside one of the corner towers that frame the podium. The basement was generally used as foyer for the audience, but the meaning for the staircase above it is not known. This is however a magnificent example of how the Romans built their staircases. In the very center of this tower a square pillar was constructed and all they had to do was to fit a large slab of stone, one for each step, resting on the outside wall and on the central column. It is so simple, yet you have to come up with the idea of course. The outside walls of the right hand tower still hold traces of painted plaster of white and red lozenges, I suppose from Byzantine times or maybe even from the Middle-Ages. Anyway, a clear sign that the theatre was used for a pretty long time.

Next to these towers, above an arched entrance, I find a “royal loge”. I wonder about the exclusivity of  this seating because it only offers a sideway view of the stage.

All in all this is a magnificent construction used till recently when summer opera festivals or performances of The Fire of Anatolia were performed here – now moved to a new theatre in Roman style built outside the town. A good alternative to spare this unique antique site.

For most visitors, this is where their visit ends, but I venture into the antique city over a path that starts between the theatre and the toilets. I walk over a paved road near one of the city gates where the city’s sewage is covered with broad flat slabs. Occasionally one such a slab is missing but that makes it even more exciting because spots like these offer an inside view and I estimate the cavity at about 1x1 meter, a sewage that will not easily clog up!

On the left I feel the shade of the large Basilica, the center of commerce that originally was more than 90 meters long. Only the walls’ fundament have been preserved but they allow a good estimate of the dimensions. The part I see from my path is only an annex but definitely a sturdy one with walls of 15 meters high and almost two meters thick. Next stands an Odeon, that is according to my map but because of the high overgrowth I cannot see it – such a shame, but inevitable I suppose. On the other hand I can access the 15 meters-high Nympheum in front, but it has lost most of its decorations and it takes quite a fertile imagination to picture this fountain in full glory. For those who have seen the Nympheums of Side, Perge or Sagalassos, the mental reconstruction is much easier of course. It now appears as a mere wall, although 37 meters long and 1,8 meters thick – not bad. The Basilica wall runs at right angle with this Nympheum, and in between we should picture the Agora, now entirely overgrown also. The two-storied shops on the opposite side of the Agora are however clearly visible.

After the Agora I can stare into the depths towards the gate through which Alexander entered the city. I scramble down and to my great surprise I discover that this gate also was round, exactly what I had seen in Perge and in Sillyum. I probably read that somewhere, of course, but seeing it with my own eyes is another ballgame altogether. Inside the curves I can still see the niches that once must have held important statues – quite plushy in those days. There are more remains of the Roman city-wall between the trees further down the slope. The archaeologists have still work to do, if they want to.

I get back to the level of the plateau and walk to the edge to admire the other attraction of Aspendos, its famous aqueduct that spans the entire once swampy valley. This is an ideal spot for a good overview of the entire project, but of course, I’ll visit the remains afterwards.

Returning on my steps I encounter a panel pointing to a “temple hill”. I have no idea what this means and decide to follow the general direction. At the top of the low hill I do indeed find remains that seem to refer to a temple, but these are mere foundations. Yet the view from here, now on the other side of the high plateau is worth the detour. The Basilica behind me commands the picture like a medieval fortress in front of which I can now clearly see the Odeon. Higher up lies the Nympheum I passed earlier with the shops belonging to the Agora to its right. Behind me, way down in the valley I discover the outlines of the Stadium and I decide to explore it. Without this eagle’s view I would never have found the vaults that carried the seating area among the exuberant blossoming trees and luscious bushes. The eastside seems to be the best preserved part but it is hard to get proper bearings, although I am sure that this Stadium can’t beat the one of Perge.

Time to turn my attention to the Aqueduct, a masterpiece of Roman architecture that can only compete with the Pont du Gard in France and the aqueduct of Volubilis in Morocco, both however much less dramatic. According to an inscription from the second century AD, a certain Tiberius Claudius Italicus presented it to Aspendos for the astronomic amount of two million denarii! Expensive water …

The water had to come from the other side of the valley and the aqueduct is a most impressive work of art and still a most impressive ruin in the landscape. The inverted siphon of this aqueduct was 1670 meter long and carried the water from two different springs at respectively 400m and 550 m height all the way across the valley to the acropolis of Aspendos situated at an altitude of 60 meters. This inverted siphon is unique because of its excellent state of preservation using three “venter bridges”. For the technical explanation of these bridges I quote Wikipedia: “Where particularly deep or lengthy depressions had to be crossed, inverted siphons could be used instead; here, the conduit terminated in a header tank which fed the water into pipes. These crossed the valley at lower level, supported by a low "venter" bridge, rose to a receiving tank at a slightly lower elevation and discharged into another conduit; the overall gradient was maintained. Siphon pipes were usually made of soldered lead, sometimes reinforced by concrete encasements or stone sleeves. Less often, the pipes themselves were stone or ceramic, jointed as male-female and sealed with lead.” In the case of Aspendos the pipes consisted of 3400 blocks of limestone that were sealed together with a mixture of lime and olive oil that expanded when wet. There are still plenty of these pipes lying around at the feet of the aqueduct, enough to kindle your imagination. At each end of the valley we still can see the thirty meters-high tower (without roof) in which the water would settle down and re-oxygenate itself before flowing onwards. Today a motor road runs underneath each tower, making a close look very tempting and highly rewarding. 


By the time I wrap up my inspection tour, the sun is setting. The entire valley is set afire with this natural floodlight and I feel privileged as if the performance is for me alone. I’m certain that the Romans would never understand my exaltation for these two thousand years-old ruins!

[Click here to see all the pictures of Aspendos]

Friday, July 12, 2013

Fire of Anatolia – Troy

It definitely is worth to attend the world famous Turkish dance group Fire of Anatolia performing their version of “Troy”. It is a quite festive, captivating and convincing show that leaves a deep impression on my poor soul. It so happens that I come across a few videos on YouTube, a good reason to share them with the people of this world.


I expected that only the Greeks were born with the genes of Homer in their blood, but I discovered that the Turks share this same heritage. Using projection texts and live-voices they cite lines from The Ilias so that the audience can easily follow the story told in both Turkish and English.

The artists are simply awesome! Magnificent dancing, perfect movements of the dancers in splendid costumes, moving in a unison that is quite exceptional! It feels as if there is some invisible figure pulling strings to coordinate every single jump and movement as one. Absolutely unbelievable. I heard that people from Asia and Eastern Europe have a natural sense for rhythm, something we lack in the west – and it definitely does show here. There is no hiatus nor any boring moment. A successive alternation of fast and slow dances, romantic scenes like Helen and Paris, fighting actions of the Myrmidons against the Trojans or single handed battles between Hector and Achilles, it all evolves on the exact beat of the music. It simply leaves you breathless at times! As to the costumes, they reminded me very much of the movie with Brad Pitt and it is easy to recognize who is playing or dancing which role.

All in all very much worth to be seen wherever you are on this planet. Before the show started and during the intermission they presented a list of the countries and cities where they performed and still will perform their shows Fire of Anatolia and Troy. There simply is no excuse for not attending any of these venues since there is a bit of everything for everyone, no matter is you are looking for dance, ballet, folk music or history, you’ll love it!