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 of the Prophthasia/in Dragiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Areia (Herat, 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 - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)

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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Babylon, a victim of war

In nearly all cases, our heritage is suffering from wars and Babylon is no exception. I treated the subject already in “Poor Babylon” and it seems things are slowly moving in the good direction since the World Monument Funds (WMF) is presently assisting the Iraqis to restore their heritage. The WMF and the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH) have joined efforts and created a program called The Future of Babylon to preserve Babylon. On the long term, they aim to maintain and inventory the site and its content, and even to build a museum in order to attract tourists.

This historical city has been heavily damaged during the Iraqi War when the American army used the place as military camp, destroying part of the city in the process. The old paved roads leading to the different city gates have crumbled under the weight of heavy tanks. Much of the rubble (often precious archaeological material) has been used in the construction of airfields for helicopters and parking lots. Smaller archaeological material was also used to fill sandbags. The scanty remains of the Ishtar-Gate (the Gate itself is at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin) have also suffered. Underground or non-exposed pieces may have been damaged by the rolling tanks or leaks of combustibles and chemicals. To be fair, we cannot ignore that under Saddam Hussein Babylon has not been treated with much consideration either; the ruins were not guarded and the restorations were badly executed.

Babylon definitely deserves a place on the World Heritage List of UNESCO. Although its Hanging Gardens belong to one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the city strangely enough has not yet been officially added to this list. WMF is now helping the Iraqis to achieve this goal although this is quite a challenge since the Iraqi government will have to provide for maintenance, research and presentation of the site and that in spite of ongoing internal conflicts and the general unstable situation.

Over the centuries, Babylon has seen many conquerors entering through its city gates. We will remember that this is where King Hammurabi (1792-1750 BC) wrote the very first laws etched in stone, now one of the proud possessions of the Louvre Museum. This is the place where King Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562 BC), out of love for his homesick wife, built the famous hanging gardens; and where the biblical and historical Tower of Babel ruled over the complex including the Temple of Ishtar. It also is the site where from the sixth century BC onwards the Achaemenid kings lived in their luxurious palaces till in 331 BC King Darius III of Persia was defeated by Alexander the Great, who died within its very walls in 323 BC. After his death, Alexander’s kingdom was divided among his generals and successors. Babylon lost its mythical status in the centuries that followed and slid away in the margins of world history. The city was finally re-discovered in the 19th century but excavations were intermittent and slow due to the instability of Iraq.

I find it heartbreaking to see such a famous and once grand city being neglected while we live in times where modern technology can do wonders – except stop the wars and their inconsiderate destructions. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to resuscitate Babylon from the dust and rubble after 2,000 years of neglect and find the very palace room in which Alexander the Great died?

Friday, February 21, 2014

Exceptional views of Persepolis

It makes me extremely happy to see the recent efforts made in presenting the site of Persepolis. We generally have to do with the image of some lonely gates and columns on a deserted and windy Iranian high plateau, and that’s about it.

My previous find was a wonderful presentation of the site in 360 degrees that helps us walking through the many staterooms and others of this gigantic palace (see: Persepolis in modern technology).

This time, I found even better, a 3D presentation of Persepolis created thanks to the elaborate drawings and scale models made by Friedrich Krefter after his initial excavations in 1933. It is clear that he knows the premises as no other, as he worked together with E. Herzfeld and E.F. Schmidt in those early years of last century. They didn’t have the technology we have now but it is commendable that their work is still contributing to re-create today’s computerized images.

At this stage of the project, we are able to step back in time to the Persian Empire of the sixth century BC but the picture is far from complete and work is still ongoing. Archeologists still don’t agree whether the plans for this palace were envisioned by Darius the Great or by his son Xerxes, although the preference seems to go to Xerxes.

In this 3D presentation, several locations have been highlighted so far: the Gate of All Nations with its grand stairway; the Throne Hall also known as Hall of One Hundred Columns being the largest building; the Gate of Army that was still under construction when Alexander the Great arrived; the Apadana or Audience Hall, an architectural wonder that surpasses the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus; two Harems or Women’s Quarters, the Royal Treasury, and many others whose function is still under discussion.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Hellenistic Petra, an indirect heritage of Alexander

Historically, no mention is made of Petra ever being conquered by Alexander the Great but Nabataea of which Petra is the capital city inevitably became part of his empire after he swept through Greater Syria on his way from Egypt to Gaugamela in 331 BC.
Because of its strategic location on the crossroads of old trading routes, Petra lived off the taxes levied on the caravans that carried frankincense, myrrh, precious stones, silk and spices from Arabia Felix (modern Yemen) to the cities around the Mediterranean and bitumen from the Red Sea to Egypt for the embalmment of their dead. In exchange, they carried clothing coloured with the famous Phoenician purple and other luxury products the other way. Petra was a stronghold where these goods were stored in transit – and rightfully so as even today the only access road runs through a two- kilometres-long canyon that could easily be defended.

Petra is a true Hellenistic heritage although it is mentioned for the first time in 312/311 BC when Antigonus Monophthalmus, one of the successors of Alexander fighting for his share of the empire, attacked the city during what is called the Third War of the Diadochi. He was not successful and neither was his son Demetrios Poliorketes. The Kingdom of the Nabataeans managed to stay out of the hands of the Seleucids in Syria and the Ptolemies in Egypt, who both attacked wealthy Petra on a regular basis. This clearly proves the military capacity as well as the great economic prosperity of the kingdom which during the first century BC stretched all the way from Damascus in the north to the Red Sea in the south. Even the Romans had a hard time there for, in spite of Pompey’s conquest of Syria in 63 BC, the Nabataean Kingdom remained independent. The Pax Romana even worked in their favour and business boomed. Their prosperity reached its peak during the reign of Emperor Augustus when Rome’s demand for luxury goods was insatiable.  Most of what we see today in Petra was built during this era, including the unique piece of hydraulic engineering to bring water to the city. Most effectively canals were cut out of the rock over great length, and earthenware pipes, dams and storage cisterns still testify of these complex waterworks. When the Province of Arabia was annexed by Emperor Trajan, an imperial legate was installed in Petra making sure that trade kept on prospering. To stimulate conditions, Trajan improved the road connecting Syria to the Red Sea, now known as the Via Nova Traiana. In 130 the ever travelling Hadrian arrived in Petra, generously renaming it Petra Hadriana. But when Diocletian reformed the provinces in 293 AD Petra, although still the capital of Palaestina Tertia, became isolated and its decline set in. This was emphasized by the earthquake of 363, after which several of the main buildings were never reconstructed. The Byzantines occupied the city centre until the 6th century. Another earthquake hit the city in 551 after which the Arabs conquered what was left, but Petra slowly sank into oblivion and in the desert sands.

It was not until 1812 that a Swiss explorer J.L. Burckhardt, following directions from local Bedouins was able to rediscover Petra. Serious excavation started last century and since the 1990’s the city is on the list of Unesco World Heritage. During the last decennia, Bedouins who still lived in the old temples and grave sites have been relocated to new houses in the area in order to preserve the uniqueness of this ancient site.

The main entrance is generally announced as the Siq but before getting there, the intrepid traveler has to walk about 700 meters over a wide path next to a river bed. Past the first bend lies the first necropolis, the Obelisk Tomb, named after the four obelisks on the upper part of the façade symbolizing the soul of the deceased. The entrance at ground level shows hewn-out Doric columns topped with a ditto frieze – a true combination of Egyptian and Greco-Roman features. A little further down the same road, a rather simple square rock of approximately 3x4 meters catches the eye. It has entirely been hewn out of the solid rock and the hollow interior accommodated the deceased. This bare shape seems to go back all the way to the archaic gods that had no body or face but were rendered as a simple square or round stone.

Although Strabo doesn’t mention the Siq as being the only access to the heart of Petra, he was aware of the many water channels running along the rocky walls testifying to the ingenuity of the Nabataeans. Two main cisterns are known to collect the much-needed water for Petra and I’m not sure if the one I visited is one of them. The inattentive visitor sees nothing more than a huge rock alongside the road, but upon closer scrutiny there is a diagonally carved notch that leads the water from the top of the rock down and inside the concealed cistern. The obscure interior still contains water that is now being used to irrigate the surrounding fields and to water the cattle. I’m told that in its glory days its capacity would easily reach 1.2 million liters!

The Siq is a nearly two kilometers long narrow corridor twisting through pink-reddish cliffs of 80-meters-high. The water channel runs about one meter above the floor of the canyon and once carried the water in a natural gentle slope to the end of the Siq where it was collected in a reservoir. This channel is mainly carved out of the rock wall but also built of stone, clay, plaster and earthenware pipes. At intervals, small collectors help to break the water flow and filter the residue of sand and stones. Here and there the cover lid is still in place. Most people don’t even notice this ingenious system for the spectacle of light and shadow cast by sun and clouds is absolutely breathtaking. At times the passage is only two meters wide; some parts have been paved, a remnant of Roman practicality; and in other parts the ruts left by ancient carts are still visible. I definitely recommend a solitary walk (in winter) through these narrows to truly taste the atmosphere, which is otherwise totally lost by the crowds in high season.

Entirely absorbed by this spectacle, the first glimpse of the most famous monument of Petra, the Al Khazneh, better known as the Treasure House, takes me entirely by surprise. The closer I come to the end of the canyon, the more is being revealed. The Treasure House faces west, so timing is of the essence to have it lit up by the sun, which makes it glow from the inside like pink alabaster. Recently archaeologists have discovered another level below what is now the ground level, which means that the entire evaluation of the building has to be revised. This would imply also that the original bottom at the exit of the Siq lies, at least, four meters lower than now.

The Treasure House does justice to its name. To start with there is the entire colour range from ochre to reddish pinks which becomes translucent under the right light. Even the inside rooms undergo the mood of the outside sunlight with their larded walls of white and all ranges of reds. On the other hand, there is this unique architecture, pure Hellenistic of columns crowned with Corinthian capitals holding the pediment above which rises a lovely tholos with cone-shaped roof flanked on either side by two half-pediments supported by other Corinthian columns. Reliefs with figures like Castor and Pollux with their horses, Victories, dancing Amazons and Isis-Tyche have been identified. Behind the columns of the portico (still the entrance pending further excavations) particularly well-preserved doorways and round windows are framed with elegant leaf decorations. The desert climate has kept the rock as clear as on the day this Treasure House was made, i.e. in the first century BC.

From here onwards the valleys is filled on both sides with necropolis also called the Kings’ Tombs, simply because they are so majestic and not because any king was ever buried here. The rock-tombs are spread over several levels and each has its own style, shape and size. Their decoration is rather identical in the sense that they all show one or two carved staircases joining in the middle of the entrance or steps simply running upwards. It is said that the Nabataeans spent their whole life building these tombs for themselves and their family. These constructions were more important than their modest stone houses since life was evanescent while their soul should be safeguarded for eternity. Higher up on the right-hand side lays the striking Basilica, once a tomb which early Christians used as a church and still is in very good condition. The inside is wider than deep and the three vaulted entrances frame the unique view over Petra below.

In the bend of what turns out to be the Decumanus, you can’t miss the Roman Theatre which, like all other buildings has been cut out from the solid rock bed and was probably built during the reign of Emperor Augustus. After another bend to the right, we reach the clearly Roman part of old Petra, with its carefully paved Decumanus leading to the central Forum. Official buildings and temples, among which the well-preserved Temple of Zeus, line up on the left up to the monumental Temenos Gates at the end of the Decumanus.

The people of Petra lived on the opposite side of the street where the houses and stores were unearthed - now a labyrinth of low walls and foundations. Both sides of the Decumanus are delimited by a colonnade with a parallel running dry riverbed of the Wadi Mataha that brought water to the city and that was distributed at the fountain, the Roman Nymphaeum.

High up the hill behind the Nymphaeum are the remains of a Byzantine church, i.e. the outlines with low remaining wall but with full pavement: a marble floor in the central nave and mosaic floors in both aisles. The mosaics of the right aisle depict animals and people (saints?) and those of the left birds and floral motives. In the half circular apses, there are traces of the original marble slabs. Back at the entrance, you’ll notice a kind of atrium with the remains of a well surrounded by columns.

Across the Decumanus at this point lies the famous Temple of Zeus that has recently been cleared of all its rubble. This complex is much larger than I imagined with majestic steps leading to the entrance as if the god in person once sat there to welcome you. After all, this may have been the idea, who knows. Over the years the temple has repeatedly been rebuilt and enlarged, including a small theatre in the back with a real spindle to turn the stage around. All the way in the back there are still traces of coloured frescos and stucco on the walls, a unique inside view of how lavishly decorated these temples could be and were.

The Qasr el Bint Sanctuary with its yellow walls is to be found at the end of the valley just beyond the Temenos Gates. This was the only free standing building of the ancient city and it was probably dedicated to Dushara, the supreme god of the Nabataeans who was venerated as an imageless stone block. The walls are at least two stories high and the square holes halfway up indicate where the wooden beams for the upper floor were inserted. In front of this temple ran a colonnaded vestibule with Corinthian capitals topped with a frieze and metopes crowned with the standard pediment. The sacred area was covered with extremely rich plasterwork of which some coloured remnants have survived. It shows a combination of eastern architecture with Greco-Roman tradition and was built in the second half of the first century BC. It is thought to have been used till the 3rd century AD and it was finally destroyed by the earthquakes of the fourth and sixth century.

There are very many rock-tombs and so-called temples spread over the entire valley but it is simply impossible to visit them all, at least not in one day. A few examples are the Bab-es-Siq Tomb, the Triclinium of the Lions, the Silk Tomb, the Palace Tomb and the Sextius Florentinus Tomb (he was governor of Arabia under Hadrian in 127 AD), the Renaissance Tomb, the Garden Temple, the Roman Soldier Tomb, the Urn Tomb, etc. Most of them have suffered from wind and weather eroding the sandstone on these generally shallow carved facades.

The picture is, however, not complete without mentioning (and seeing) the El Deir Temple (the “Monastery”) which takes an extra worthwhile effort to reach. Travel brochures mention that you reach this necropolis after climbing a flight of stairs. This is a strong underestimate of the effort require to climb the 800 uneven stairs and inclined surfaces that have been polished by thousands of steps on grinding sand. But the intermittent stops to catch one’s breath are compensated by the grand views over gorgeous Petra in the depth. At the top of this hills awaits the El Deir that resembles the Treasure House at the Siq but without the elegant trimmings. The deeply cut façade counts two levels, each one supported by plain columns in a rather austere presentation. It is clearly Hellenistic with a central tholos surmounted by an urn and framed by two half-pediments. The deep niches on both levels must have held statues. Inside we find a rather plain rectangular room with benches on both opposite sides of the raised central platform. Some have suggested that rather than a tomb, this was a place of worship but no proof to this theory has been found. The Byzantines used the room for religious functions and until recently it housed a monastery – hence it surname. 

At the other end of this plateau lies the Wadi Araba, an extensive desert plain that reaches all the way to Israel. The Bedouin selling his trinkets under the nearby tent confirms that this is the most beautiful place on earth – nobody will contradict him.


In a way, I regret that Alexander has not stopped here for he would have valued the strategic location of Petra and its ingenious water household (which might have inspired him). Unfortunately, he never witnessed the Hellenization he set in motion. He would have loved it!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Thessaloniki's Temple of Aphrodite

The city of Thessaloniki was officially founded in 315 BC by Cassander and is now the second largest city of Greece with most of its past buried beneath modern buildings. From time to time, however, new remains are being discovered. 

Thessaloniki was a half-sister of Alexander the Great, i.e. the daughter of PhilipII by Nicesipolis of Pherae, whom he married to secure Thessaly. She was taken as a bride by King Cassander of Macedon in 315 BC who named the city after her. Cassander we know, was a son of Antipater who served as regent in Macedonia while Alexander was marching through Asia. Although Cassander belonged to the group that was educated by Aristotle in Mieza, he did not accompany Alexander and did not share in his glory, much to his chagrin. But Cassander was not really appreciated by his father either, Antipater, who did not allow him to lie on the couches with the men at his dinner parties but put him on a low stool because he never had killed his own boar as required by tradition. After Alexander’s death and Antipater dying from old age, Cassander crowned himself King of Macedonia and in order to support his legitimacy to the throne married Thessaloniki who was truly of royal blood.

The marriage cannot have been a happy one, but that was of no importance in antiquity. Cassander’s life cannot have been a pleasant one either and his reign was led by fire and sword. He besieged Pydna in 317 BC to capture Olympias, Alexander’s mother and had her executed. Roxane and young Alexander IV, Alexander’s wife and son, were later on also put to death upon Cassander’s orders.



But, to return to modern Thessaloniki,  an ancient temple, first located in the 1930’s and entirely forgotten, was exposed when an apartment block was being tore down. In the backyard of this building located in the modern municipality of Thermaikos were the poor remains of his temple half hidden under lots of garbage and wild growing trees. Apparently it belonged to Aphrodite, the goddess of love and dated from the late Archaic period, built in the 6h century BC. Some statues and other artifacts had already been moved to the Archeological Museum of Thessaloniki although the original seven meters high columns never could be re-erected in their full length under the low ceiling. But now the temple is threatened to disappear after the demolition of this apartment complex and the plans to build new housing on the very spot. 

The underlying sanctuary could be saved if the land were expropriated by the Central Archaeological Council, but the present owner refuses expropriation. It is a well-known situation all over Greece where urban development is fighting against cultural preservation. For the aficionados of Greek culture, the temple is a symbol of national pride and very much part of Greece’s rich history. For modern builders, these antiquities hamper the city’s development and modernization.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Egypt, land of the free for ancient Greeks?

The well-known Greek tradeing emporium of Naucratis was established as early as the 7th century BC in the Nile Delta where they lived in harmony with each other. 

So far it was accepted that these Greeks had fled the quarrels and wars at home to form a trade settlement in Egypt. The unexpected result being that although they came from different tribes and areas, they lived and worshipped together, which was a first but huge step towards the creation of a national Greek identity. As mighty Egypt allowed them to operate a lucrative business, even granting them special privileges, Naucratis eventually became a melting pot of Greek and Egyptian art and culture.

[Map from Wikipedia]

Recently, researchers have tried to explain what triggered these Greeks to move. At the time of the settlement, Eastern Greece suffered from the dominating power of Lydia that ruled over western and central parts of Asia Minor (today’s Turkey). The Greeks resented their forced tribute to these Lydian lords. Since the Lydians had a formal alliance with the Egyptian Empire, it is now thought that a group of smart businessmen used this alliance to set up a trading post in Egypt. They still paid tribute to Lydia but in exchange they enjoyed certain rights and liberties acting as their representatives. This way, they made the best of Lydia’s oppressive regime.

This latest theory overturns the previous idea of Naucratis being the land of the free for the Greeks. In spite of their new trading opportunities, they still had to pay taxes to the ruling Lydians. Greek trade, although controlled by the Egyptians and still mediated by the Lydians, contributed however to the ambitions of both allied parties. It makes one wonder how profitable this trade settlement really turned out to be.

It would have been interesting to know what Alexander thought of Naucratis which he must have crossed on his way to Siwah, but unfortunately no such comment has survived.   

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Still hope, though scant, for Libya’s cultural heritage

We have nearly forgotten about the war that raged through Libya to free the country of Kaddafi’s iron rule. Eventually Kaddafi was killed, the regime overthrown and what is left today is a rather lawless country without central authority. It does no longer make the headlines in the news bulletins and we can only guess about the fate of its unique and rich archeological patrimony.

Libya has many more historic treasures than we would expect at first sight. UNESCO has listed at least six of them on their World Heritage List: Cyrene, the Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone at Cyrene, Leptis Magna, Sabratha, Ghadames (an oasis in the Tripolitania on the Algerian border) and Tadrart Acacus in the Acacus Mountains (prehistoric rock art).

During the uprising, the main fear was about allegations of pro-Kaddafi’s troops operating from the ancient cities of Leptis Magna and Sabratha, using the ruins as a shield to hide their explosives. It seems they have not suffered major damages, but on the other hand since in the aftermath the country has been left more or less lawless, treasure hunters, criminals and opportunists were able to steal nearly 8,000 artifacts from a Benghazi bank vault among which a substantial number of ancient gold, silver and bronze coins that were easy to negotiate on the black market. As so often in the Near and Middle East, archiving and cataloguing was never carried out making it difficult to trace and estimate the loss of Libya’s cultural heritage. Damage however is considered to be less significant than the looting and vandalism that occurred in Iraq for instance, but then we have nothing to prove otherwise.

It has to be said that NATO’s airstrikes at the time of the revolt were well-directed and avoided sites like Leptis Magna and Cyrene. Museums are easier to protect from treasure seekers than the open antique sites of Sabratha, Leptis Magna or Cyrene, for instance. The biggest problem with cultural sites in Libya is the lack of training and resources of their safe-keepers. They often don’t even have the simplest and basic know-how. Smaller or lesser known sites are situated in isolated areas that can easily escape to any control. Those in the Cyrenaica like Ptolemais, Apollonia, and Qasr Libya falling more or less under the authority of Benghazi may be worse of than the cities of the Tripolitania.


I often wonder what is really happening to those historic places where archeologists have invested so many loving hours of their life. Each of the sites is absolutely unique and certainly deserves to be opened up to a broader public. Let’s hope for a better future, rather sooner than later.