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)

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Across the Hellespont by Richard Stoneman


Richard Stoneman’s approach to discover Turkey in his book Across the Hellespont (ISBN 978-1-84885-422-2) is quite unique and the subtitle “A Literary Guide to Turkey” in fact says it all.

Rather than a dreary sequence of texts, the author ably summarizes Turkey’s rich history inserting pieces of literature ranging from antiquity to modern writers. As history progresses, the author shares a panoply of documents, letters and poems written by the countless travelers who from the 17th all the way to the 20th century came in touch with the Ottoman Empire of which close to nothing had transpired to the West.

The main part of the book is centered on Istanbul (Stamboul or Constantinople as the city was known before) but also the western part of modern Turkey with the regions of Ionia and Lydia, Lycia and the now popular Turkish Riviera are widely illustrated by those early visitors.

Moreover, this book provides plenty of information to whoever wants to dig further into Turkey’s rich history. All the quoted texts are extremely well referenced and the most curious mind can certainly pick his choice from the elaborate Bibliography and Guide to Further Reading listed at the end of the book, from biographies to fiction, from modern accounts to guidebooks, from Turkish history to more specialized books about Istanbul

In spite of these bits and pieces, Richard Stoneman manages to write a coherent and captivating story about this land on the crossroad between East and West that fascinated and still fascinates so many of us.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Alexander’s army crossing Mount Climax

“Alexander now left Phaselis. Part of his forces he dispatched over the mountains towards Perga, along tracks made for him by the Thracians to facilitate what was otherwise a long and difficult journey. He himself marched with picked troops along the coast, a route which is practicable only in northerly winds – during southerlies the beach is impassable. It had been blowing hard from the south before he started; but (by the grace of God, as both he and his staff felt) the wind went round into the north and made the passage quick and easy.”  This is what Arrian tells us. Plutarch, however, only mentions a “heaven-sent stroke of fortune”. 

Well, whatever the case, I have been on the lookout for this mountain path taken by the bulk of Alexander’s army. The coastal road north from Phaselis to today’s Antalya is winding around the flanks of the mountains offering very few openings to the hinterland. Each year more and more tunnels are being built for the comfort of the many tourists driving west from Antalya to the many resorts and hotels that fill the narrow stretch of land at the foot of Tahtali Mountains. Somehow I had the feeling that if I looked close enough I would spot the army’s access road. 

Freya Stark (see: Alexander’s Path) did an excellent job crisscrossing these mountains over and over, exploring every single pass till she found a plausible route Alexander's army could have followed through eastern Lycia during the winter of 334/333 BC. She carefully studied all the possibilities and found his tracks all the way to Phaselis. From here, to reach Perge, Alexander chose the shorter passage along the seashore that turned out to be as difficult had not the winds and the gods played in his favor. Most of the army, however, as told by Arrian marched over the Tahtali Mountains following the tracks cleared by the Thracian engineers. 

This is fascinating territory as far as I’m concerned as for centuries the Tahtali Mountains served as separation-line where Greece occupancy ended and Persian rule started. The highest snow-capped peak was obviously claimed by the Greeks and appropriately named Mount Olympos – what else? With its 2,366 meters it is also known as Mount Climax and it still commands the scenery. 

One day in early January, I find myself at the embouchure of a half-dried up Kesme River looking inland at the ever changing moods of these mountains. The way upstream is lost behind a modern bridge at a tiny village with a minaret pointing to the mosque at the foot of the abrupt rising rock-wall. In the ever changing light I even discover odd rounded rocky knobs rising straight up from the valley floor. They remind me of the sugarloaf mountains around Rio de Janeiro. That is where Lycia begins. Clouds throw threatening shadows over the landscape giving the sun a chance to highlight details otherwise shrouded in the low hanging clouds or blending in with the overall view. 

Standing here on the banks of the river mirroring the mysterious snow-capped giants, my thoughts drift off to Alexander who had to march his troops over this rough chain of mountains while he himself would be wading through the water somewhere further north from here. The gods are said to have bowed to him, nothing less. I have seen that very shore from the gulet sailing from Phaselis to Antalya, and that left a deep impression as I in turn bowed to Alexander’s courage and determination!

It was nothing more than a gut-feeling that I thought this was the place where the Macedonians started their perilous climb, but afterwards I learnt I was right. I should have gone upstream to investigate the possible roads and paths for myself. The end of the Kesme Valley is still luring - maybe I’ll drive up there one day soon!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Izmir’s ancient city of Metropolis

For some reason (and I honestly don’t know how or why) I have missed all the excitement of the excavations of ancient Metropolis, located between the villages of Yeniköy and Özbek in Izmir. Work has been going on for many decennia and has intensified in the past twenty years – so how could I have missed this?

Anyway, my first awareness of Metropolis, which means the City of the Mother Goddess, came with the recent news when a 100 m2 Roman Bath was discovered (see article published in the Hurriyet Daily News). The excavations revealed mosaics and statues of both Zeus and Thyke, the goddess of luck, as well as several gladiators. Although this bath seems to be smaller than those found previously, it included a sports area also. Archeologists think that it was built by Emperor Antoninus Pius in the 2nd century BC, but the aficionados will find many interesting remains of monumental buildings, like the theatre, a Stoa lining the Agora, the Bouleuterion, the Gymnasium and several other baths.


[picture from The Hurriyet Daily News]


To my surprise, the history of Metropolis goes back at least 5,000 years since ceramics belonging to the early and middle Bronze Age have been found. The Hittites also have left their traces in this city as their Kingdom of Arzawa had its capital at nearby Apasas, the later city of Ephesos. Some seals with hieroglyphic inscriptions similar to the Hittites are to support this theory. 

Archaeologists generally agree that Metropolis is an ancient Hellenistic city, protected by Artemis – a unique and mysterious dedication in Anatolia.

Little is known of Alexander’s passage, except that there was a spring at which side he slept and dreamt about refounding and rebuilding the city! Well, we know how fond Alexander was of rebuilding old cities and founding new ones! In any case, Metropolis was a city of art, which reached its cultural and economic apogee under the rule of the King of Pergamon.

During Roman occupation, Metropolis covered a rather large area. The economy did not come so much from farming and agriculture but mainly from trade as it was set on the road to Ephesos.

The lzmir Archeological Museum is bursting out of its seams with the huge amount of artificats that have been removed from Metropolis. Another part of the treasures have found refuge in the Ephesus Museum, which is currently expanding.

High time to go back to that area for a more than close look!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Alexander de Grote. De strijd van een jonge man om de wereld te veroveren

The author of this book published in Dutch under the title “Alexander de Grote. De strijd van een jonge man om de wereld te veroveren” (ISBN 9789055139859) is not known or at least not mentioned although it somewhere says that the text is by Merit Roodbeen – why this mystery? In any case, this was reason enough for me not to buy it, but then I received it as a gift. I read it, of course, for after all this is about Alexander the Great and one never knows what treasure might still be hidden somewhere. Well, not here that is certain.

All in all, a decent effort is made to cover Alexander’s entire life, from his youth in Macedonia and his early years of kingship to his untimely death shortly after having lost his dearest friend Hephaistion. The key battles at Granicus, Issus and Gaugamela are treated, followed by Darius’ death, the capture of Bessus, the conquest of Bactria and Sogdiana till the King reaches India where his army doesn’t want to go any further. After crossing the Makran desert he arrives back in Babylon and deals with the Opis revolt. This is nothing new, simply the classical story of Alexander’s life.

As I expected, the book entirely lacks incentive, passion or personal approach. This is very sad for the person of Alexander the Great is terribly exciting, fascinating and mysterious at the same time, yet none of this transpires in this book.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Pergamon is simply huge

Pergamon, whose first settlement goes back to the 8th century BC, lies on a strategic hill above the modern city of Bergama in western Turkey. The location was so well chosen that even Alexander the Great did not consider attacking this fortified city, but marched instead around it with the purpose of isolating it. After his death, his general Lysimachus and by then King of Thrace chose Philetairos of Pergamon to secure his share of Alexander’s treasury and, as can be expected, this Philetairos used it in 281 BC to found his own kingdom. Twenty years later he left his realm to his nephew Eumenes I who ruled from 263 till 241 BC. After Eumenes, this splendid city fell into the hands of his heir, Attalus I (241-197 BC). The Attalid rulers were allies of Rome, much to the discontent of Philip V and Perseus of Macedonia who both fought over this wealthy territory during the three Macedonian Wars. Thanks to their support against the Seleucids, the Attalids were rewarded with extended possessions in Asia Minor. By 188 BC, Pergamon and with it the Pergamon Empire had grown considerably and outshone all others, certainly as far as Hellenistic art was concerned. The last Attalid ruler, Attalus III, surrendered Pergamon to the Romans in 133 BC, thus becoming the capital of their Provincia Asia.

During one of my very first and not too brightest guided trip, I sat on the bus pounding over the brilliant history of Pergamon trying to visualize Alexander's approach. We maneuvered through the narrow old and wide modern streets of Bergama, till we reached a smaller road that rose up towards the four kilometers long city wall above the steep slopes. Square bulges overgrown with grass revealed that there was still a lot of stone blocks hidden there awaiting excavation. This impressive wall is the work of Eumenes II (197-159 BC) who wanted to build an Acropolis that would even outshine that of Athens – nothing less. 

The size of Pergamon is simply huge and my misfortune was that I had to follow my unforgiving guide who just marched on, ignoring the streets, columns, and arches on our way – a very frustrating experience. It’s hard to get my bearings, maybe because excavations since 1875 were done by German archaeologists who like to leave things the way they find them unless they can take them apart as they did with the Altar of Zeus to bring the pieces to their museums. It comes as quite a shock to me when my guide points out the barren space once occupied by that very altar in the landscape. Not a single hint is left of that once so proud building! Such a pity since it is considered to be one of the most beautiful altars ever built and a very unusual one as well since it never served as a crepidoma to any temple at all. This enormous marble offer-table dating from 180 BC stood on a huge plinth that also supported the double row of Ionic columns. The Pergamon Museum in Berlin houses this great altar and the visitor has to use all his imagination to mentally transpose that building to this poor wind stricken hill.

I give up trying to locate where I am, running after my guide and secretly vowing to come back one day. I am impressed by the Temple of Trajan that was completed after his death by Emperor Hadrian, measuring 68 x 58 meters and easily recognizable by its Corinthian columns, with an extra colonnade running all around the outside of the temple.

The Library, on the contrary, needs some guesswork. In antiquity is was one of the richest in the world and its 200,000 parchment scrolls went to Alexandria, as Marc Antony’s wedding gift to his Queen Cleopatra. I think it is worth mentioning that until that time, all writing was done on papyri. It was only when Egypt decided to stop its export that alternative solutions had to be found. It was here in Pergamon that the idea was born to use sheep and goat skins instead. These hides were smoothened with pumice and cut into handy sheets. That is how our parchment, the name borrowed from the city of Pergamon, was born. A strange paradox of life to see parchments enter Egypt, the land of the papyri.

After passing a large marble column carrying the symbols of Asclepius, i.e. two intertwined snakes facing each other across a wheel, I reach the Asclepion Complex. It was believed that since snakes shed their skins to be ‘reborn”, the patients would shed their ailments and illness to recover their health. The Asclepion was founded by the great healer Galen (Aeleus Galenus), who was born in Pergamon in 130 BC, where he studied medicine. Asclepius, the Greek god of health and medicine, was known since the 4th century BC and Galen made great use of his knowledge not only as a doctor but also as a psychologist, although the very word did not yet exist. Galen had a thorough knowledge of human anatomy, physiology, and neurology. He had acquired his knowledge by studying wounded gladiators at the healing shrine of Asclepius. As the patients were led through a long vaulted corridor that had at regular intervals circular openings in the ceiling to let in the light, he may have resorted to the therapeutic use of water and music. Water from a nearby source runs down the stairs and follows the entire length of the corridor wall - the longest such passageway I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure if the echo under these vaults was beneficial to the patients and if I can believe my guide who suggested that the patients were drugged with opium in their drinking water, meaning that by the time they reached the end of the corridor they were so confused that they wandered around in the labyrinth that awaited them at the end of this dark passage. Of course, there were caretakers to guide them further to the Temple of Asclepion where the priests gave them psychoanalysis two thousand years before Sigmund Freud was born! Next to the temple lies the theater belonging to the Asclepion Complex, in front of which one can still see several sacred pools that even today are generally filled with water in spring. The entire complex was without any doubt a top notch spa in antiquity! Well, even now, it is quite rewarding to walk here and imagine what must have been going on. 


In the center of Pergamon one simply can’t miss the large theater, the steepest in the world. The oldest parts date from the 3rd century BC but, as always, it has been improved and enlarged several times, particularly under Emperor Caracalla. The portico of this theater measures no less than 246 meters and is approximately 16 meters wide. Unique is that this portico was removable since it covered the adjacent street. Strange however that it seated only 15,000 people, less than the theater in Ephesos although this theater in Pergamon looks much larger. 

It is frightening to walk down the steep steps for the precipice is luring below. From the top rows, however, the visitor has a commanding view over the land around this acropolis and easily can appreciate the strategic location of Pergamon. Undoubtedly the very location of this city must have impressed Alexander. I definitely have to come back one day, were it only to put the many remains of so many buildings on the map of my mind, and more so after seeing its treasures in Berlin.

At the Pergamon Museum of Berlin, the entire Altar of Zeus has been carefully reconstructed, meaning that all the friezes that ran around it have been put in their right sequence. However the visitor is looking at them inside-out for instead of actually walking around the altar, the elements have been placed against the wall surrounding the central part with the flight of stairs leading to the platform. Somehow I find it hard to figure this out properly. But then there is a wonderful reduced model in what looks like marble reflecting the full impact of what this famous altar must have looked like. Such a shame there is close to nothing left in Pergamon though …

[Click here to see all pictures of Pergamon]

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Was Hannibal superior to Alexander? No way!

There really is no way to compare Alexander and Hannibal, I know, but I lately watched a program about the exploits of Hannibal crossing the Alps with his elephants, in which it was mentioned that Hannibal achieved the greatest exploit ever by crossing the Alps. Is that so? How about Alexander crossing the Hindu Kush? This was simply too much for me and I went in search of some facts and figures to defend the case of Alexander.


I will not deny that Hannibal leading his army and most of all his elephants over the Alps in 218 BC (at the beginning of the Second Punic War with Rome) was a quite unique and daring undertaking, but there is no way this achievement could match or surpass Alexander’s march across the Hindu Kush roughly some one hundred years earlier.

The figures recorded by Polybius reveal that Hannibal travelled with 40,000 foot soldiers, 4,000 horsemen and 37 elephants. Alexander on the other hand, having left Macedonia with 40,000 soldiers and 1,500 cavalry, but lead an army of 100,000 men, an unknown number of cavalry and horses and no elephants over the unforgiving heights of the Hindu Kush. 

On top of that, there is no way to compare the Alps with the Hindu Kush. Once again I let the figures speak for themselves. The highest top of the Alps is the Mont Blanc reaching 4,810 meters, while the highest summit of the Hindu Kusch lies at 7,690 meters. Consequently, the passes over the respective mountain ranges are situated at quite different altitudes as well. Scholars have argued at length about the most probable route Hannibal could have followed. Based on the reports from Polybius and Livy, it is generally agreed that the lowest pass, the Col de Montgenèvre between Briançon in France and Susa in Italy was the most probable choice, located at 1,854 meters. Alexander on the other hand used the Khawak Pass at 3,848 meters in 329 BC when he moved his huge army from the Kabul Valley in Afghanistan to Bactria in the north. Two years later he crossed the Kindu Kush in the opposite direction to enter Pakistan, using the much easier yet more famous Khyber Pass situated at 1,070 meters.

Of course, crossing the Alps by itself was an exploit and the Romans themselves felt safe behind this solid natural barrier. Crossing them with elephants was absolute madness (Hannibal was probably driven by his deep hatred for the Romans) and in the end it seems that only two dozen of them survived the expedition. Yet, that by itself is not enough, in my eyes, to place him above the Macedonian King! Alexander's march is a heroic one in its own right, generally not stressed enough as it is very hard for us in the West to imagine the overall travel conditions through the Hindu Kush range and passes and what its challenges are. Alexander’smen suffered dearly, especially in 329 BC as winter lingered on much longer than usual and the troops were often caught in blizzards where men and beast froze to death if they dared stop moving.

More often than not Alexander is forgotten in our western history while he opened up much of Asia. For ten years, his amazing campaigns lead him all the way to India across unforgiving deserts, wide and fast flowing rivers, and daring mountain ranges of which the Hindu Kush definitely is the highest. The story of Hannibal’s elephants or the conquests of Julius Caesar in France, Germany and Britain are much more familiar to us than Alexander’s challenging and daring march through Asia. That is not fair!

[Pictures from Wikipedia]

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Via Egnatia, a road to remember

It was during my first visit to Philippi (Greece) that I noticed the inscription “Via Egnatia” next to what appeared to be a Roman road running a couple of meters below the modern road and parallel to it.

Till then I only knew about the main roads of Italy, like the Via Appia, the Via Emilia, Via Aurelia, Via Flaminia, the Via Trajana and the Via Ostiensis to name only a few, but the Via Egnatia?

Since it bordered the Roman Agora at Philippi it must have been important and I soon found out that it ultimately connected to Rome. Built in the 2nd century AD, it started back in Byzantium, running through Thrace, Macedonia (Philippi, Kavala, Amphipolis, Thessaloniki, Pella, Edessa, Florina) over the mountain passes to Lake Ohrid; from there over a difficult stretch along the Genusus River to the Adriatic Sea at Dyrrachium (originally Epidamnos), today’s Durrës in Albania opposite the port of Brindisi on the Italian Peninsula; hence the connection to Rome. Like most Roman roads, it was about six metres wide and in many places it was covered with large stone slabs. In total it covered a distance of 1,120 kilometres. According to Strabo it was named after Gnaeus Egnatius, proconsul of Macedonia who seems to have initiated its construction, although that has not been proven yet. The road was expanded and improved many times and for centuries it remained Rome's  vital link with its eastern provinces.

[picture from Wikipedia]

The Via Egnatia made history when Julius Caesar and Pompey marched over it fighting for supremacy during the Great Roman Civil war that lasted from 49 to 45 BC. Leading to the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC, the armies of Marc Antony and Octavian pursued Cassius and Brutus along the same road and several milestones have been recuperated recording the many crucial events of its life-span. By the fifth century AD large sections, especially at its western end fell in disrepair and the Via Egnatia became more a name than an actual highway.

The modern version called Egnatia Odos now links Igoumenitsa on the Adriatic coast to Greece’s eastern border with Turkey - a distance of 670 km and a worthy ode to the ancient Via Egnatia.

[Egnatia Odos]

Many portions of the antique highway have survived and the best known, I think, is to be found in Philippi. But this soon may change with the discovery of a marble paved road at a depth of three meters during the construction works for the metro in Thessaloniki. A great number of tombs and graves ranging from the fourth century BC to the fourth century AD once lined this road and yielded a great number of offerings that accompanied the dead. So far, 1,500 pieces of jewellery in silver, gold and copper, have been unearthed, as well as gold coins from Persia, glass perfume bottles, terracotta vessels and even eight golden wreaths.