Alexandria's founded by Alexander

Alexandria's founded by Alexander the Great (by year BC): 334 Alexandria in Troia (Turkey) - 333 Alexandria at Issus/Alexandrette (Iskenderun, Turkey) - 332 Alexandria of Caria/by the Latmos (Alinda, Turkey) - 331 Alexandria Mygdoniae - 331 Alexandria (Egypt) - 330 Alexandria in Areia (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Drangiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Ai-Khanoum OR Termez, Afghanistan) - 328 Alexandria in Margiana (Merv, Turkmenistan) - 326 Alexandria Nicaea (on the Hydaspes, India) - 326 Alexandria Bucephala (on the Hydaspes, India) - 325 Alexandria Sogdia - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria on the Indus - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The gem of Pasargadae: the Tomb of Cyrus the Great

Visions of Pasargadae are automatically linked to the tomb of Cyrus the Great, somewhere on a rather lonely spot in the broad flat valley of the Pulvar RiverThe setting is unreal yet a commanding one, undisturbed by the more than 2,500 years since its construction, except for the surrounding grove with all sorts of trees mentioned in antiquity that has disappeared.


Cyrus the Great was king of Persia from 559 BC till approximately 530 BC. He is generally seen as the founder of the Achaemenid dynasty as he united Media and Persia to form the mighty Persian Empire. In his days his realm comprised today’s Afghanistan and Uzbekistan; Lydia and Babylonia, which included modern Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Israel/Palestine. He finally led an expedition into Central Asia where he was killed in a battle against the Massagetae at the Jaxartes River. Well, this is what Herodotus tells us in his Histories. There are several other versions: Ctesias tells us that Cyrus was wounded in a battle against the Derbici and was brought back to camp where he appointed Cambyses as his heir; Diodorus’ story is that Cyrus was taken prisoner and crucified by a Scythian queen; and Xenophon has Cyrus dying at home. In the end nobody offers a decent explanation why or how he was buried here at Pasargadae.


Pasargadae, the oldest capital of the Persian Empire, was founded by Cyrus – maybe the reason why he was buried here. Unlike the tombs of later Achaemenid Kings that were hewn in the cliffs around Persepolis and Pasargadae, the Tomb of Cyrus is a rather unique construction. The monument has the shape of a small house measuring 13x12 meters and is set on a base about five meters high. Inside the low tomb chamber the gold coffin containing the embalmed corpse of Cyrus was placed with next to it a couch with gold legs. A Babylonian carpet and purple rugs formed the bedding upon which the Median coat with sleeves and other Babylonian dresses were spread out, i.e. the royal cape that every new ruler was supposed to wear for his inauguration. The Median trousers and robes were dyed the color of hyacinth; others in purple and other colors; there also were collars and sabers, earrings of gold and precious stones. Next stood a table dressed with precious tableware. When Alexander visited this tomb in 330 BC while collecting the treasury at the Palace of Pasargadae he must have been amazed by its richness.

However, on his return from India in 324 BC he did stop here to pay his respects and instructed the tomb to be unsealed. As Alexander stepped inside the small chamber, he found the remains of Cyrus scattered over the floor, his purple mattress, his clothes and the precious grave-gifts were gone; the lid of the sarcophagus was broken. Alexander is known to have had a special veneration for Cyrus and we can easily imagine his anger, maybe more so since no real culprit could be found in spite of torturing the Magi who were supposed to guard and maintain the tomb. The Greek historian, Aristobulus, was appointed to repair Cyrustomb. It is said that he managed to replace the royal clothing but I wonder how; then the entrance door was sealed with stones and clay stamped with the king’s seal.

Alexander considered himself as Cyrus’ heir and he had hoped that this standpoint would be appreciated by the Persians and the Greeks alike since both people showed great admiration for the founder of the Persian Empire. The disturbed grave-site must have hurt Alexander deeply, and not only for the damage done but for its symbolic meaning. He certainly was aware of the crowning ritual as explained by Plutarch in his history of Artaxerxes II who became king in 404 BC, nearly 150 years after Cyrus’ death. The king would be initiated in a nearby temple dedicated to a war goddess not unlike Athena. To this purpose he had to drop his own clothes and wear the dress which Cyrus wore at the time he became king, apparently a rough leather uniform. He then had to eat a ritual meal of figs and terebinth leaves with a bowl of sour milk. After this ceremony, he then would assume Cyrus royal cloak to finally access to kinghood. It was clear to Alexander that since the tomb was stripped of the meaningful clothes the crowning ceremony as he had imagined in Cyrus’ footsteps was impossible.

Today the Tomb of Cyrus is being protected by a discreet Plexiglas screen but the entourage has been entirely stripped of whatever columns and other remains that appear on photographs taken last century, for instance by Ernst Herzfeld, the German archaeologist who in the 1930s spent most of his life excavating the site of Persepolis. Because of the security screen, no one is allowed to climb the six steps leading to the very entrance of the tomb on the western side. The doorway is very narrow and very low, but it would have been terribly gratifying to step inside the funeral chamber knowing that Alexander had been there before!

Nearby are the pretty stripped remains of the Palace of Pasargadae that was built by Cyrus the Great (see: Cyrus the Great who made Pasargadae the capital of Persia) but the lay-out definitely inspired Darius the Great some fifteen years later when he drew the plans for his palaces of Susa and Persepolis.

[The black and white Photograph of the tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae with remains of a more recent cemetery, probably taken in 1923, © Photograph by Ernst Herzfeld, Freer|Sackler Archives

[Click here to see all the pictures of Pasargadae]

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