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)

YOU CAN ALSO FIND ME ON MUSEA-LEONIDAS (in Dutch) FOR MUSEUM NEWS.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Latest e-Book news

It is high time to add a few more books to the list of e-books that have come available since my last post.

I’m very happy to see that for instance all three novels by Mary Renault are now on the list:
Fire from Heaven”. For my earlier comments, please click on this link.

The Persian Boy”. For my earlier comments, please click on this link.

Funeral Games” For my earlier comments, please click on this link.


Other interesting titles are:

For my earlier comments, please click on this link.

Dividing the Spoils” by Robin Waterfield
For my earlier comments, please click on this link.

The Conquests of Alexander the Great” by Waldemar Heckel
For my earlier comments, please click on this link.

For my earlier comments, please click on this link.

The Macedonian War Machine 359-281 BC” by David Karunanithy
For my earlier comments, please click on this link.

The Sieges of Alexander the Great” by Stephen English
For my earlier comments, please click on this link.

Who’s Who” by Waldemar Heckel
For my earlier comments, please click on this link.

More will follow in due time, of course.

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Origin of the Macedonian star was Thracian?

Recent excavations at Apollonia Pontica, modern Sozopol (Bulgaria) on the Black Sea has revealed a leaden bucranium with an eight-ray star, which possibly served as model for the well-known Macedonian star.

[Picture from Novinite, National Historical Museum]

A bucranium is a special kind of amulet in the shape of an ox-skull known as early as the 5th century BC in Greece and the above-mentioned amulet-bucranium entirely fits the picture. Yet the sun symbol with its eight rays placed on the forehead of the ox is peculiar simply because it is so terribly close to the star used on the coat of arms and on the flag of Macedonia.

It seems that the sun symbol was used in Greek art long before the Macedonians adopted it. Pictures exist of hoplites bearing 16- and 8-pointed sun symbols on their shields and armor as early as the 6th century BC; coins from Corfu, for instance, bore a sun with the same number of rays in the 5th century BC. Both variants were also frequently represented under Macedonian rule in the 4th century BC as we know from the tomb of Philip II of Macedonia at Vergina where it is enhancing the lid of the larnax. Yet other examples of suns with 12 rays have been found also. And recently the fragment of a shield carrying the inscription “King Demetrius” (apparently referring to Demetrius Poliorketes (300-285 BC) was put up for sale by Christies’; this shield features 24 sunrays in its center, a quite unusual number.

The so-called "Vergina-Sun" and the modern flag of the Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) shows a sun with 16 rays.


Is the number of sun-rays really important? Maybe not but the fact that this bucranium with its starry sun has been found in Bulgaria seems to kindle a fight over its legitimacy and from what I read in the article published by Novinite, the present Director of the National Historical Museum, wants the municipality of Sozopol to sue FYROM for using the star that should be Bulgarian property. What will they come up with next!

Friday, September 25, 2015

The glorious days of Palmyra

My first view of Palmyra was at nightfall when the entire city bathed in the floodlights. My eyes could not take in this fascinating scenery; it was a mere flash, a snapshot of columns and arches, of waving and fluted lines, of temples and streets whose warm tones strongly contrasted with the black velvet night sky. The mirage disappeared with a blink of the eye, but tomorrow looked most promising!

This city, which the Arabs called Tadmor, is not mentioned in Alexander’s history and was strangely enough ignored by the succeeding Seleucids who ruled over Greater Syria from 305 BC till it was annexed by Rome in 63 BC. Even at that time, it already had a long history going back to the second millennium BC as mentioned in the clay tablets found at Mari as well as in the Bible as part of Solomon’s realm. The oasis of Palmyra was generally an independent city, ideally located at the heart of the Syrian Desert, an important crossroad of several trade routes on the Silk Road. In other words, a strategic place that was most envied by the Roman Emperors.

For the next one hundred years, business boomed thanks to Palmyra’s intensive trading with Persia, India, and China and even with the Parthians who for many years were the enemies of Rome. The well-travelled Emperor Hadrian inevitably visited Palmyra in 129 AD and he was so much taken by this city that he renamed it Palmyra Hadriana and declared it independent. Unfortunately the good days did not last and in 212 it became a Roman colony. From then onward it played a mere military role and its trading regressed, especially when the Sassanids occupied the lands between Tigris and Euphrates in the third century AD.

However, in 256/257 Palmyra’s King Odenathus (Septimus Edeinat) was held in high esteem by the Roman Emperor Valerian who appointed him Consul and Governor of the province Syria-Phoenicia that belonged to Palmyra since 194 AD. A few years later, Valerian was killed by the Sassanids (see: Sassanid reliefs tell a story oftheir own in Persia) and apparently Odenathus felt morally obligated to revenge the emperor’s death. He pursued the Sassanids to their capital Ctesiphon, situated on the Tigris River, on the opposite bank of Seleucia, but failed to take the city.

At this period of time Palmyra had reached its glory, much to the chagrin of Rome and Odenathus was murdered under obscure circumstances. His wife, Queen Zenobia took over and ruled in the name of her minor son Vaballath. Zenobia was a tough lady who caused quite a stir in history. Classical as well as Arabic sources describe her as handsome and intelligent, with a dark skin, pearly-white teeth and sharp black eyes. She is said to be more beautiful than Cleopatra, yet very chaste. Zenobia could ride a horse like a man, and on hunting or drinking parties she stood her man. She also was very learned, being fluent in Arabic, Greek, Aramean, and Egyptian and had a good knowledge of Latin. She was a sophisticated hostess and entertained philosophers and poets, among whom the famous Cassius Longinus. This Longinus wrote especially for her one of his masterpieces in which he integrated now lost parts of love poems by Sappho of Lesbos, who composed them in the 6th century BC.

Zenobia also was very ambitious and extended her territory to the west, occupying Bosra, and in 269-270 she even marched all the way to Egypt; on the way back she took the harbour of Antioch. She even managed to annex a big part of Anatolia including Ancyra (Ankara) in her empire. As can be expected, the Romans were not grateful for her interference and in 272 Emperor Aurelian took Antioch back, followed by Emesa (Homs) and finally also Palmyra. Zenobia tried to escape by fleeing across the Euphrates but she was captured and taken to Rome, together with her son, Vaballath.

Vaballath probably died on the way to Rome. In 274 Zenobia appears in golden chains during Aurelian’s triumphal march through Rome. Out of pity but also taken by her beauty and pride, he granted Zenobia her freedom and installed her in an elegant villa at Tibur (today’s Tivoli, Italy), where she lived under her Roman name of Iulia (or Julia) Aurelia Zenobia. She spent her days in wealth and became a prominent philosopher, hostess and Roman matron. She married a Roman governor and senator whose name is not known, giving him several daughters who all married into prominent Roman families. Some sources mention that Zenobia committed suicide after Aurelian’s defeat, but that is not very credible. A great number of her descendents have been traced to far into the 4th and 5th century.

In the meantime, Palmyra had not been entirely forgotten. Emperor Diocletian enlarged the city in order to install his Roman legions in all comfort and built a city wall to protect them against a possible invasion by the Sassanids from Persia. Later the Byzantines constructed several churches, but after the conquest by the Arabs Palmyra played only a marginal role.

It is still early and bone-chilling when I arrive at the site of Palmyra on this November day in 2009. The blistering wind chases freely through the colonnades and ruins but strangely enough the surrounding hills remain shrouded in a low foggy veil – an eerie scenery. For a moment I pause to get my bearings and it all seems too much to take in, so many columns, stones, arches, walls, streets, remains, etc. I am totally overwhelmed and have to kick myself to move on.

My visit starts at the eastern city gate, very appropriately called the Monumental Arch, consisting of three Roman arches of which the middle one is the largest and leads immediately unto the unpaved main street. We owe this arch to Septimus Severus (193-211 AD) who ingeniously built it with a twist to cover up the 30-degrees-angle between the Decumanus on one side of the arch and the Temple of Nebo on the other side. Nebo or Nabo was the Mesopotamian god of oracles, later assimilated with Apollo – hence the importance of this temple. The remains are still imposing with its columns along the temenos in reserved Doric style, while the columns of the temple itself are enhanced with Corinthian capitals.

With wide open eyes I set foot on the Great Colonnade Street or Decumanus with its wonderful 10-meter-high monolithic columns crowned with Corinthian capitals. Each column has an empty pedestal where rich or prominent gentiles could place their likeness against payment that is. Public Relations even in those days were an important tool!

Then I come across the Baths of Zenobia, a rather large bathing complex where the Frigidarium as well as the Tepidarium and the Caldarium are clearly recognizable. At the entrance there are four remarkable pink granite monolithic columns, which with their Corinthian capitals stand in pleasant contrast with the white-pinkish stones used for the construction of the Baths.

On the opposite side of the street, I find the remains of the theatre which looks too small for a city like Palmyra. Appearances are deceptive for originally this theatre from the 2nd century AD must have counted at least 30 tiers of seats but only nine have survived. The stage with the entire scaena however is still in excellent condition. The theatre has obviously been restored to be used for local festivals. The high stone wall around the orchestra indicates that it was also used for wild animals’ fights, a favourite sport of the Romans.

At an angle lies the Agora, also from the 2nd century, complete with its annexes. The market area is well preserved as are a number of the surrounding shops and buildings. It is always exciting to discover that beside the original columns, the 2,000 years-old walls of the building have survived, including their windows and doorframes.

Elegant typical Roman arches are still marking the crossroads along this Great Colonnade Street, and that’s how I reach the Tetrapylon, a group of four times four columns. Only one of the sixteen pink granite columns is original, imported all the way from Aswan in Egypt. The other columns are modern copies but clearly illustrate the key position of this Tetrapylon at the bend in the Great Colonnade Street. This 1200-meters-long street or Decumanus although very impressive, is however shorter than the main street at Apamea (see: Apamea, heritage of Alexander), which I found more impressive. It may seem strange that this street was never paved but the reason therefore is that the camels needed a comfortable passage through the city – an animal friendly consideration! With its porticoes and sidewalks this Decumanus was exceptionally wide and measured nothing less than 23 meters! This avenue alone would be worth the visit.

On this sidewalk, I discover a long row of connecting pipes belonging to an aqueduct. An awkward place, but not so when you realize that this aqueduct ran on top of the colonnade along the Decumanus. The image brings back memories of the grand aqueduct of Aspendos (see: Aspendos the unfaithful) in Turkey where I saw these elements for the first time.

And that is how I reach the columns carrying the inscriptions of Zenobia, a bilingual text in Greek and Palmyrean. On one columns one can read that it was dedicated by the rulers of Tadmor to their king and master Odenathus. The other column was dedicated to Septimia Bath-Zabbai (in Greek, Zenobia), their religious and saintly queen.

From afar the Citadel with the Arabian fortress probably built in the 13th century by the Mameluks controls the landscape. However, what we see here dates mainly from the early 17th century when Emir Fakhr-ud-Ding-ibn-Ma’ani occupied what is now Syria and Lebanon, and constructed a number of strongholds as a defence against the Ottomans. It is a constant backdrop in between the columns and streets of Palmyra, and a photogenic one for that matter.

Walking northwards, I stop at the Temple of Baal-Shamin, the god of rain and fertility. It was built around 150 AD and is very well preserved because the Byzantines converted it into a church. It is a cosy temple that somehow reminds me of the Temple of Nike high on the Acropolis in Athens, except that is has Corinthian columns and a window in the sidewall. The inside is very inviting with the antique naos in the back, now a semi-circular apse with slender columns. It is a lovely spot, in the shade of a young tree that grows within its sheltering walls.

Keeping the best for last is a visit to the magnificent Temple of Bel that I treated in a separate blog (see: The Temple of Bel at Palmyra – In Memoriam).

A visit is, of course, not complete without a stop at one of the many tower tombs with their underground Hypogea. I have never seen anything like it, but there always is a first time for everything. After the Valley of the Queens in Egypt, this is the largest and most impressive collection of tombs. Surprisingly the entire landscape between the city walls of Palmyra and the surrounding hills is dotted with square towers or remains thereof, containing burial sites underground as well as above ground. They generally can be dated to between the 9th century BC and the 2nd century AD. I am told there are as many as 150 tombs, a significant number. Yet I have no idea what to expect.

The tower-tomb of the Elahbel Family from 103 AD seems to be the most popular, and that is no wonder. I step inside a rather large rectangular room, deeper than it is wide and pretty high as well. The ceiling is still intact and is made of colourful starry caissons with in its centre four portraits of the founders set against a bright blue background. What a beauty! The long side walls are meant to receive the remains of the dead in one of the four stories high slots. In this way there was enough space for future generations, at least 300 family members. The vertical pillars separating the rows are fluted and crowned with a Corinthian capital. To the left of the entrance door is a staircase that leads to the upper floor, meaning that access to the superposed niches was easy enough.

Unfortunately I am running out of time and I have to skip the less impressive remains on the north-western side of Palmyra with the Temple of Allat, the Temple with the Emblems, the Grave Temple, the Camp of Diocletian and especially the Oval Forum – although I was curious whether it was as big as the one at Gerasa (Jerash) in Jordan; probably not since I haven’t seen any picture so far.


Yes, I am one of the lucky few to have seen this great and glorious city with my own eyes. The famous Temple of Bel (see: The Temple of Bel at Palmyra – In Memoriam) survived wars and conflicts for nearly two thousand years to shine in all its glory. This glory is gone now in 2015 as this great sanctuary and many other precious buildings have been blasted to dust. A part of the world’s history has been annihilated and obliterated. Our ancestors deserved a better fate.

My story and my pictures are a praise to Palmyra’s rich memory and to all those brave forefathers and fellow citizens who have lived there and lead the city to its greatness.

[Click here to see all the pictures of Palmyra]
[The picture of Odenathus comes from Wikipedia. The picture of Zenobia from Zenobia, empress of the East]

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Sassanid reliefs tell a story of their own in Persia

Travelling through Iran, you simply can’t miss these many reliefs. The Sassanid kings definitely were not modest and took pride in advertising their investiture and their conquests on several cliff-walls, generally located close to a water source. Yet, you’ll ask, what is their connection to Alexander the Great?

Well, it may be far fetched but whatever you think, Hellenism and today’s way of living are all a consequence of Alexander’s conquests anyway; so why not include the Sassanids to start with? Another reason is that the Sassanid kings tried to recreate the Achaemenid Empire and repossess the territories that fell under their rule some five hundred years before.

As we know, the Achaemenid Empire ended when Alexander the Great conquered Persia, his first step being his victory at the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC and his final move being the execution of Bessus, the self-appointed successor of King Darius III in 329 BC. After Alexander’s death in 323 BC, his empire was eventually cut up among his leading generals. Seleucos I ruled over the eastern part of Alexander’s Empire from 312 BC onwards and his realm included Persia. But soon the Parthians from northern Iran would revolt against the Seleucids and by 171 BC their King Mithridates the Great really put his new empire on the map to include beside modern Iran, Iraq and Armenia, parts of Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Turkey as well. The Parthian empire collapsed when the Persians of the Sassanid dynasty took over in 224 AD. That’s it in a nutshell, of course.

The Sassanid kings in turn ruled for more than four hundred years and it is not surprising that they left a heritage of their own. Overall they wanted to emulate the Achaemenids in their art and the figures in the reliefs are still rather stiff and emotionless, although the flow of their dresses hints to a slight Greek influence. A noticeable difference also is that some of the personages are shown facing the onlooker or at least in a three-quarter’s position and not in profile as the Achaemenids did.

It does come as a surprise to find the far-reaching impression Hellenism has left in Sogdiana, Bactria or India while here in Sassanid Persia it hardly shows. Looking at their silver tableware or at their coinage, it is even very hard to tell them apart from similar Achaemenid artifacts.

Taq-i Bostan
The first Sassanid reliefs I came to see were those of Taq-i Bostan, an idyllic place set along a reflecting pool fed by several sacred springs not too far from the city of Kermanshah in western Iran. The main features are two arches. The largest one and most lavishly decorated is showing the investiture of King Khosrow II who ruled from 591 to 628 AD. On the upper level he is standing between Ahuramazda and the goddess Anahita (see: The powerful goddess Anahita in Persia) and on the lower register the king is on horseback. Both side-walls are richly decorated with hunting scenes of wild boars on the left and deer on the right side. The carved angels floating above the iwan stand for victory.

The smaller arch or iwan contains a relief of King Shapur III (reigned from 383 till 388 AD) facing his father Shapur II (the Great) who ruled from 309 to 379 AD. Next to each king is an explanatory inscription in Pahlavi giving the names of their respective father and grandfather, specifying that each king worshipped Ahuramazda and ruled over Iran and “non-Iran”.

Past these two arches is another relief, this time cut into the very cliff-wall itself. This is the oldest relief  and represents the investiture of King Ardashir II (379-383 AD) on foot. He is receiving his crown from Ahuramazda standing next to him while on his other side we recognize the god Mithra who is carrying the sacred barsom (bundle of small rods) symbolizing power. This investiture includes Ardashir’s triumph over the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate in 363 AD who is lying at his feet.

Bishapur
The next reliefs I’m encountering are those of Tang-i Tchogan at Bishapur, located between Kazarun and Shiraz, along the Shapur River glorifying King Shapur I, who founded Bishapur in 266 AD. From this new capital with its unique and awkward Temple of Anahita (see: The powerful goddess Anahita in Persia), we have to cross the river for a closer look at the six Sassanid rock reliefs in the cliffs facing us.

It is at Bishapur, that Shapur I (reigned from 241 till 272 AD) inaugurated the Sassanid imagery of the king's investiture, which would be copied by his successors: the king and the god are face to face, often on horseback, and the god - usually Ahuramazda - is handing the royal diadem over to the sovereign. Shapur I is represented on three separate reliefs, commemorating his triple triumph over Rome, having killed Gordian III (in 244 AD), forced Philip the Arab to surrender ( also in 244 AD), and captured Valerian (in 260 AD) – no small matter, of course.

The largest relief is nearly 12.5 meters long and 4.50 high and is divided into several distinctive parts. At its center we see the investiture of Shapur I riding his horse whose left hoof is resting on the head of the defeated Emperor Gordian III lying at his feet. At the same time, the king is grasping the wrist of Emperor Philip the Arab standing next to him. Facing him we recognize the kneeling Emperor Valerian begging for mercy while two Persian dignitaries are standing behind him. Above King Shapur’s head we notice a winged Nike (a Greek influence after all!) holding the crown of victory. The left panel is split in two registers one above the other in which five Persian horsemen are depicted in profile. The right panel, also split in two rows, shows five smaller scenes that cannot be identified properly but where we recognize the Persian army and possibly mercenaries from different parts of the empire.

The next relief is set in a concave part of the cliff and is 6.80 meters high and 9.20 meters wide. Surprisingly, it has been inspired by the Column of Trajan in Rome. In the centre we find King Shapur I in the same traditional composition as seen in the previous relief with Emperor Gordian stretched underneath his horse and the king holding the wrist of Philip the Arab. The panels on either side are very elaborate and detailed. Unfortunately during my visit the view was impaired by a heavy scaffold and it wasn’t easy to make out the crowded scenes. To the left, the Persian cavalry is approaching in two rows, one above the other, with only the top body of the riders and the front of the horses visible. On the right hand side much more is happening in the five small panels depicting Persian soldiers and Roman prisoners bringing in the booty, as well as mercenaries from all over the empire.

To the right of this concave relief, there is a flat one 7.5 meters long showing King Bahram II (276-293 AD) receiving a delegation of Bedouins. Bahram II is on horseback holding the reins with his right hand and his bow and arrows in his left. A Persian officer on foot leads the Bedouins in their typical dress; in the back of the picture there are three more men with horses and camels.

This brings us to the relief with the investiture on horseback of Bahram I facing Ahuramazda on an identical horse handing over the crown with ribbons. The figure on the floor underneath the king could be Bahram III and was added later by King Narseh (reigned 293-302 AD) who also wrote the Pahlavi inscription.

This relief is followed by a large one (11 meters-long and 4.5 meters high) divided by cross-shaped beams representing the victory of King Shapur II (reigned from 309 till 379 AD) over the Romans and the Christians. This picture is totally different from the previous scenes; it looks rough and unfinished, probably because originally it was plastered and painted. The top central figure is the king in person in a sitting position looking rather frightful. In the presence of his nobles on his left he reviews the prisoners and the booty. On the bottom left quarter we find Persian warriors following the king’s horse that is being led forward. To the right of the king Persian soldiers are bringing in the captives, while on the bottom right quarter soldiers are carrying decapitated heads surrounded by Persian warriors and nobles carrying vases. I wonder if this is meant to frighten his people.

A last relief along this peaceful river is around the bend and less well preserved. It is in fact a repeat of an identical previous picture of Shapur I, enjoying his victory over Emperor Gordian III, Emperor Philip the Arab and the best preserved Emperor Valerian kneeling in front of him.

Nasq-i Rajab
Close to Persepolis there are two more sites with rock-reliefs. Here again, we  find the investiture of Shapur I as represented above, where the king on horseback is receiving his crown from Ahuramazda facing him and sitting on an identical horse.

On the opposite wall in this loop there is another relief of Shapur I (reigned from 241 till 272 AD), this time showing the king on horseback surrounded by nine court dignitaries. Four of these nobles are more or less hidden behind the horse and the first man behind the king. In his direct suite three muscled men occupy a prominent position, with a hand on their long sword; the two others are mere busts. On the rear of the horse there is a trilingual inscription in Parthian, Pahlavi and Greek. This is the last known Greek inscription in Iran.

From an earlier date is the adjacent investiture on foot of Ardashir I, the very founder of the Sassanid Dynasty who reigned from 224-241 AD. He is receiving his crown from Ahuramazda facing him. In between them we see two smaller figures; the dressed one is believed to be King Bahram I, the oldest son of Shapur I facing the naked god of the same name who was later identified as the Greek Heracles. Behind Ardashir I stands a courtier holding a fan and next to him we recognize crown-prince Shapur I. Exceptional is the presence of two women on the right, undoubtedly members of the royal family and the one on the far end could be Ardashir’s spouse and sister Denak.

It is here that we find the highly unusual representation of the Zoroastrian high-priest, Katir, mentioned in the context of the Zoroastrian Tower at nearby Naqsh-i Rustam (see: The Cube ofZoroaster or the Ka’bah-i Zardusht at Naqsh-i Rustam) with a Pahlavi inscription.

Naqsh-i Rustam is within walking distance from Nasq-i Rajab and has by far the greatest number of rock-reliefs, both Achaemenid (see: Achaemenid Tombs at Naqsh-i Rustam and Persepolis) and Sassanid. These Sassanid reliefs have been etched in a lower register beneath the Achaemenid tombs and there is actually a series of seven such reliefs carved some five hundred years after the tombs for the Achaemenid kings.

For Shapur I, his triumph over the Romans is a repeat, although less elaborate of what I have seen at Bishapur (see here above).

Most popular figure here is, however, King Bahram II who reigned over Persia from 276 till 293 AD. We find this king three times:
- with family members and court dignitaries bringing homage to their king:
Here the king is larger than life-size (2.5 meters) set at the centre of the relief, his hands resting on his long sword. Among the five members of the royal family on the left we see the high priest Kartir and the queen. On the right are the busts of three courtiers.
- in a cavalry fight (located below the Tomb of Darius II, see: Achaemenid Tombs at Naqsh-i Rustam and Persepolis)
Here the king is fighting a mounted Roman soldier, clearly hitting his adversary.
- in a double cavalry fight (located below the Tomb of Darius I, see: Achaemenid Tombs at Naqsh-i Rustam and Persepolis) :
This scene is split in two panels. In the upper panel the king in a scaled armour is meeting his mounted Roman enemy in full gallop, while on the lower panel a helmeted prince is facing his enemy in the same fashion as the king above. In both cases the dead enemy is lying under the horse’s hooves.

Like at Naqsh-i Rajab, there is another investiture of Ardashir I, the founder of the Sassanid Dynasty, receiving his crown from Ahuramazda, both on horseback and facing each other. This panel carries a trilingual inscription in Parthian, Pahlavi and Greek.

The rock-relief depicting the investiture on foot of King Narseh shows how he is receiving his crown from Anahita, although this is being disputed since his posture does not the appropriate one to meeting a goddess; it is thought that the lady is a relative, maybe Queen Shapurdokhtak. In between them stands a smaller figure and it is suggested that this could be Narseh’s grandson and the son of Hormizd II. King Narseh succeeded to Bahram II in 293 AD and his successor in turn is Hormizd II.

King Hormizd II comes to power in 303 AD and is shown in the cliff-wall underneath the Tomb of Artaxerxes I. He is riding a galloping horse, forcing his opponent from his horse with his lance.

And finally, the last relief is that of King Shapur II, who ruled from 309 till 379 AD, sitting on the throne.

In between this relief and the Tomb of Artaxerxes is a badly damaged and hardly recognizable relief of what is thought to be Shapur II surrounded by his courtiers.

It is clear that the Sassanid kings intended to leave their imprint on their empire of which they were very proud. For me, the history of Persia would not have been complete without talking about the Sassanids as they were the last of the long lineage of rulers that started with Cyrus the Great (see: Cyrus the Great who made Pasargadae the capital of Persia). The rise of the Islam spreading along the trade routes ever further east put a final end to the Sassanids and to the grandeur of Persia.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Two more cities of Libya’s Pentapolis: Taucheira and Euesperides

The Libyan Pentapolis included Cyrene, Apollonia, Ptolemais (or Barca), Arsinoe (or Taucheira) and Euesperides (or Berenice), all situated in Cyrenaica in eastern Libya. The region was very fertile and produced wheat and barley, as well as olive oil and wine; the orchards, in turn, were filled with fig and apple trees; sheep and cattle roamed widely; and above all, this was the only place in the world where silphium grew, a natural medicine, a contraceptive, and aphrodisiac.

I previously developed the history and roles of major cities like Cyrene, Apollonia, and Ptolemais, so, this time, I’ll concentrate on Arsinoe or Taucheira (modern Tocra) and Euesperides or Berenice (near modern Benghazi) to make the story complete although I have not personally visited these sites.

Ancient Taucheira lies 70 km to the east of Benghazi and was probably the smallest city of the Pentapolis. It was founded by colonists from Cyrene not too long after Cyrene’s own foundation. It was Ptolemy II Philadelphus who changed the city’s name into Arsinoe after his sister and wife. Unfortunately, Justinian gave orders to build a new wall around the city for which stones from earlier constructions were used – in accordance with the typical Byzantine fashion. As a result, not many ruins are left to see although the general layout is still recognizable in spite of the overgrowth. A good viewpoint is the tower erected by the Italians who occupied Libya early last century.

Euesperides, on the other hand, was founded around 525 BC, probably by people from Cyrene or from Barca, on an edge of the lagoon opening towards the sea. The name Euesperides is thought to refer to the mythological gardens of Hesperides. After Ptolemy III married Berenice, the daughter of the governor of Cyrene in 246 BC, the city was named Berenice after his wife. But that was not enough in Ptolemy’s eyes for he moved the entire city to the present location of Benghazi, although the move may have been triggered by the silting up of the lagoon.

The oldest coins minted in Euesperides are from 480 BC and carry an engraving of Delphi with on the reverse a picture of the now disappeared silphium plant. This is a sign that the city enjoyed a certain independence from Cyrene at the time. The constitution of Euesperides was similar to that of Cyrene, meaning that it was ruled by a board of chief magistrates and a council of elders.

After the death of Alexander the Great, the city knew uncertain times and even the Ptolemaic dynasty was not able to keep a true hold on the Pentapolis. It later became a bishopry and was taken by the Ottomans in 1540. Modern Benghazi is built right on top of Ptolemy’s city, meaning that there is only a slim chance to find any tangible remains from antiquity.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Conquests of Alexander the Great by Waldemar Heckel

Based on previous books written by Waldemar Heckel (see: Macedonian Warrior by Heckel and Jones; Historical Sources in Translation by Heckel and Yardley; and Who’s Who in the Age of Alexander the Great by Waldemar Heckel), I expected to find his same thorough analysis in The Conquest of Alexander the Great (ISBN 978-0-521-60323-2), but I was disappointed.

His knowledge of Alexander and everything related to the great conqueror is beyond doubt, but this book did not reveal much that wasn’t known already. In his Preface, Heckel mentions that his purpose is not to relate Alexanders campaigns once again but that he aims to highlight the impact of his conquests and the political consequences of his actions. If so, I find the title of this book misleading; it simply doesn’t match his intentions.

For instance, he underscores events or situations which Alexander exploited for propaganda purposes, but I can’t help wondering if this was Alexander’s purpose. Scrutinizing and summarizing each and every gesture, act, battle, response or confrontation of his twelve-years-long battle career in 150 pages inevitably leaves space for more discussions and more theories. Where is the ultimate answer, I wonder.

One word, however, caught my attention and that is “battle fatigue”. It has, by my knowledge, not been mentioned by any historian before, but battle fatigue must have hit Alexander and his troops sooner or later. It is generally wrapped up in the idea that his men wanted to go home, but battle fatigue must have played a deeper role than we would think at first sight.

Waldemar Heckel loves his lists and tables, and this book is no exception. For those wanting to look up certain facts and figures, the book includes a Chronological Table of the Events, a List of the Kings both Achaemenid and Argead, a list of literary sources and, of course, a set of adequate maps. In the Appendixes we find a List of Alexander’s Officers, the Number of Troops, and a note about the Administration of the Empire.

This is certainly not a book for a first time reader of Alexander’s conquests, but it may add to the way we look or want to look at the achievements of this great man.

Also available as e-Book (click here).

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The powerful goddess Anahita in Persia

Anahita is a water goddess whose origins go back to Central Asia from where her worship spread through Persia all the way to the Middle-East. Anahita literally means “the moist, strong and pure one” and embodies the qualities of water, especially the fertilizing flow of water. Over the centuries her role increased and came to include that of “patron goddess of royalty”.

Her very name is not familiar to most of us and that is not surprising since over the centuries she has been assimilated to the Babylonian Anaitis, the Greek Aphrodite and Athena, the Roman Diana, and even the Egyptian Isis. The Armenians, who once were part of the great Persian empire, still call her the “Great Lady Anahita, Life-Giver of our Nation, Mother of Sobriety, and Benefactress of Humanity”. In 1997, the Central Bank of Armenia –an orthodox Christian nation- saw fit to issue a gold coin with her image.

Anahita, however, lived a long and complex godly life. The earliest known records go back to Artaxerxes II who ruled over Persia from 404 till 358 BC and who was the first to make a statue of Anahita to be placed in temples at Babylon, Susa, Ecbatana, Persepolis, Damascus and even Sardes. It was this same king who put the name of Anahita directly after that of Ahuramazda and before that of Mithra – a clear sign of her importance. The inscription left by Artaxerxes II at Susa confirms this: “By the will of Ahuramazda, Anahita and Mithra, I built this palace”. We should remember that Artaxerxes II was the father of the later Queen Sisygambis, mother of Darius III who was defeated by Alexander. Through his close contact with the Queen-Mother, Alexander must have been well-aware of the role Anahita played in the realm of the Persian gods. Like so many other Greeks of his days, he may have assimilated her with Aphrodite.

After a period of relative obscurity, the cult was revived by the Sassanid kings. One example is visible on the relief at Naqsh-e Rustam where King Narseh (ruled 293-302 AD) is receiving his crown from Anahita in person and not from Ahuramazda as was customary till then. She is seen on the right of this relief holding the crown in her right hand while the king at the center receives the diadem with his right hand as well.
Anahita also appears in the largest cliff-wall of Taq-e-Bostan, next to King Khosrow II (early 7th century) who receives his crown from the high-priest under the protection of Anahita as guardian angel of the waters (on his right side, left looking at it).  The founder of the Sassanid empire, King Ardashir (mid-3rd century), venerated Anahita also as his Goddess of War and would, for instance, send the heads of the petty kings he defeated to be displayed in her temple. Unfortunately, the Romans destroyed Anahita’s temples, and a few centuries later the Islam erased what was left of her rich legacy – yet her spirit lived on. 

It was a pleasant surprise to discover that at least two of her temples have survived and this led me to start my own investigation of Anahita. Till then my knowledge of her was minimal and even my local guide in Iran had not much to tell about her except that he linked her to the Sassanid rulers, actually more than thousand of years after her origins in Central Asia.

My first encounter happened at Kangavar, situated on the antique highway between Ecbatana and Ctesiphon, close to modern Hamadan. It is a quite amazing site which I knew only from pictures, mainly columns belonging to a temple set in Hellenistic style. On the billboard at the entrance I read that this site is 220 meters long and 210 meters wide, that the columns were 3.45 meters high but nothing about its time-frame or its construction. Information from the internet is scant and often unreliable and even contradictory.

Some say (Dr Kaveh Farrokh) that this temple of Anahita was built during early Parthian occupation, at some time between 248 BC and 224 AD. Yet others (The Zoroastrian Education Institute) mention that it was built by Artaxerxes II between 404 and 359 BC based on the shape and carving of the columns which is similar to those of Persepolis and Susa, but adds that the temple was plundered by Alexander in 335 BC which is utterly impossible since the new Macedonian king was still crushing the rebellion in the lands around Macedonia that arose after his father’s death one year before. Robbert Bosschart on the other hand devotes an entire chapter of his book “All of Alexander’s Women” to Anahita and the role this goddess played in Persian religion, but he only refers her “main temple” in Istakhr near Persepolis, and says nothing about the temples I visited in Kangavar and BishapurDigging in further, I find that both Polybius and Plutarch mention a temple of Anahita at Ecbatana, once a most glorious sanctuary. Just remember that Ecbatana is the old name for Hamadan and could thus be linked to nearby Kangavar. On the other hand, Arrian tells about a temple at Ecbatana that according to local lore had been razed on orders of Alexander because it was considered a sanctuary of Asclepius, and Alexander was furious at this God of Health for not having saved the life of his dear friend Hephaistion in Ecbatana. However, Arrian explains why this local lore is not at all believable. Anyway, it is clear that in the Successor Wars after Alexander's death, Macedonian troops more than once plundered the Anahita temple. This is confirmed by Polybius who tells us that when Antiochus III arrived in Ecbatana in 209 BC he found much of the temple’s wealth scattered around: columns covered in gold, silver tiles, and many gold and silver bricks. Yet, all of this doesn’t reveal much if anything about the appearance of the temple or its origins. It is, however, clear that I am confronted with an edifice of Hellenistic character with Achaemenid architectural elements and that it is not impossible that Alexander visited the place..

Excavations from 1968 match the comment made by the geographer Isidore of Charax that this temple is set on a high platform (32 meters high actually) and has Ionian columns (which, of course, must have been much taller than the 3.45 m mentioned on the entrance billboard). He obviously attributes this temple to Artemis, who was associated with Anahita in his days (1st century BC/1st century AD). It sounds very plausible that the temple underwent some later adjustments and/or modifications by the Parthians and even by the Sassanids. However, a team of archaeologists from the University of Tehran tend to attribute the ruins as those of a Sassanid Palace. Not much to go by, except my own instinct, I would say!

Upon arrival here at Kangavar, my attention is immediately drawn by a stone wall with a staircase on either end that reminds me of the Apadana at Persepolis. The theory that this is the location of an Achaemenid Palace is not unfounded because of this typical stairway and the superposed platforms, one of which is being supported by a smooth wall in Achaemenid style and the one above it being older and rougher but very strongly built of large rocks alternating with horizontal rows of smaller rocks. Many broken columns and capitals are lying around and the only recognizable structure that I could associate with the Temple of Anahita is located at the far left end where I see a rather well preserved row of columns overlooking the landscape below – now a modern street with houses. A small mosque is apparently set on a corner of the temple floor; otherwise I cannot make out much from these ruins resting on top of this straight stone wall. To the far right of the site itself I find remains of earthen walls or some kind of fortification dotted with more bits and pieces of columns. The place definitely is in dear need of some archeological clean up.

The second Anahita Temple is located at Bishapur, some 100 km west of Shiraz. This temple is said to be built by Roman prisoners captured by the Sassanid King Shapur I in 260 AD. The city of Bishapur was founded by Shapur I after his impressive confrontation with the Romans when he killed Gordian III, captured Valerian and forced Philip the Arab to surrender. These glorious facts are commemorated in the reliefs he etched in the walls on the other side of the nearby Bishapur River

The city-walls of Bishapur are still very strong and look rather Roman because of their rectangular shape. Originally they were ten meters high and punctuated with round towers, suggesting that they were designed as a battery for catapults. Interestingly, at the northeastern side, the remains of a city gate are still standing. Bishapur was clearly designed to hold a population of 50,000 to 80,000 people.


The so-called Palace of Bishapur is still a puzzle to the archaeologists with its four half vaults that are closely related to later mosques with four iwans, and its walls with 64 niches that supposedly were decorated with freestanding statues – a rather rare occurrence in Sassanid art. Close to the center there is a fire altar that is however often interpreted as a shrine to Anahita. This association may be the consequence of an iconoclastic movement launched by Bahram I (272-273 AD), who had the statues of divinities removed from the sanctuaries that were consequently either abandoned or converted into fire altars. According to a recent report published in a Bulletin of the Georgian National Academy of Sciences, it seems that in early Sassanid times water and fire were being worshipped together.

To the north of this complex are the remains of the Temple of Anahita, which draws the attention because of its plain white wall built with regular ashlar blocks. It looks like another puzzle for this building has no parallel so far. The temple is deeper than any other part of the palace and can only be accessed by descending a vaulted straight stairway that ends in a small square area measuring 14x14m surrounded by 14-meters-high walls that each has a doorway in the middle. 
These doorways with lintels not unlike those of Persepolis lead to a corridor that runs around the patio and connect to an aqueduct. It is said that the central square must have been a pool. If so, the water must have ran through the hole in the threshold into the surrounding corridors that have a gutter on either side of the floor. It is assumed that the water flowed only on certain days of the year, so this could be related to ceremonies venerating Anahita as the goddess of waters. Going by the abovementioned report, it seems that the northwest and the northeast corridors were used to bring in the water while the southwest corridor was exclusively used to expel the water. To add to the many questions this temple creates, we can wonder about the two outer walls that top in a triangle. Since the sanctuary had no roof, scholars believe that these triangles were crowned with a large bull impost. Yet others speculate that there was a roof and that its wooden beams were supported by those bull-heads.


The goddess Anahita certainly deserves more attention as she excelled in her godly realm for centuries. According to the Avesta, the water goddess Anahita was the mother of the god of Victory known as Mithra. Zoroaster, a Bactrian reformer, turned Mithra into the Saviour and Anahita consequently was venerated as an immaculate virgin, the Mother of God. Nothing new under the sun, I would say.

[Click here for Pictures of the different Anahita sites]