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.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Alexander and Hephaistion side by side

It is absolutely thrilling to find these two great men side by side at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.


I often wonder why there are so few images of Hephaistion, but one should consider that none of the men in Alexander’s entourage were ever depicted while the king was still alive. We do have pictures – mainly coins – showing the members of his bodyguards (somatophylakes) but only when they became king in their own realm after Alexander’s death simply because it was a king’s privilege to be portrayed.

The most obvious example is beyond doubt Ptolemy who started ruling over Egypt immediately after Alexander’s death. Lysimachos had to wait a little longer in the ensuing battle of de Diadochi to be recognized as king of Thrace and to be represented as such on his coinage. The same applies obviously to Seleucos and Antigonus-the-One-Eyed. Yet none of the king’s Bodyguards like Aristonous, Peithon, Leonnatus, Peucestas or even Perdiccas have ever been carved in stone, hence we don’t know what they looked like.

This being said, I should not be ungrateful for the few images we have of Hephaistion, i.e. the head (probably reworked in antiquity) now at the Getty Museum in Malibu, California, and the smaller than life-size marble statue at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens where he is standing next to Alexander.

Alexander looks rather shabby but in my eyes Hephaistion is exactly how he is supposed to be. However, I struggle with the label at the museum, which states "Marble statue of Hephaistion. Possibly a group erected in Alexandria honouring Hephaistion, 1st century BC". Why would Alexander show up next to an honorific statue for Hephaistion? And how come Alexandria is (still) honouring Hephaistion in the first century BC when the Ptolemaic dynasty is reaching its end with the famous Queen Cleopatra fighting for Egypt’s survival? When Hephaistion died in 324 BC, Alexander would have loved to see him deified by the Egyptian priests, who tactfully promoted him to hero instead. So a cult in honour of Hephaistion is not surprising but I find the time-frame and this kind of association with Alexander rather disturbing.

When I wrote my “Ode to Alexander and Hephaistion” I had completely forgotten to mention this group of statues. Shame on me! But then I also had omitted to mention the portraits of both men on the famous Alexander Sarcophagus from Sidon, now at the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul.

This sarcophagus in fact deserves a closer look, of course. To start with it does not belong to Alexander the Great but most probably was made for King Abdalonymus of Sidon who was put on the throne by Alexander (with the help of Hephaistion) after conquering the city in 332 BC. It has been dated to some time between 325 and 311 BC and was discovered in 1887 at the Royal Necropolis of Sidon, i.e. when Phoenicia was still part of the Ottoman Empire.


One of the long sides of the sarcophagus definitely shows Alexander fighting a Persian, probably King Darius (but this is not certain) at the Battle of Issus that occurred only a few months earlier and where the Persians were defeated by the Greeks. The other long side represents two hunting scenes, those of a lion and a deer in which both Greeks and Persians participated as well. The short sides of the sarcophagus show respectively a panther hunt and a battle scene.

Alexander is the only figure that has been identified with certainty since he is wearing Heracles’ headdress and the Amon ram’s horn. Hephaistion is probably depicted in the hunting scene where he attacks a lion together with a Persian. It is most unfortunate that the other personages cannot be tied to a name although Perdiccas and Abdalonymus have been suggested. It is a wonderful historical document that sadly has not been entirely deciphered.

Although the appearance of these high reliefs is very Greek, the craftsmen were masters in the Eastern art of decoration. This is based on the use of eagles in the upper row of the acroteria, who according to ancient Syrian believes carried the souls of the dead to heaven. The heads of women added at the bottom refer to the worship of the mother goddess as known from prehistoric times in Mesopotamia. The acroteria above the pediments on the sides represent Persian griffons. Also, there is a lion lying on each corner of the sarcophagus, symbolizing protection. These meagre beasts look more like dogs and seem to be from Ionian origin.

The attentive eye will notice subtle traces of paint all over this marble sarcophagus. Colours range from purple, blue and red to violet and yellow and it is thought that the figures themselves were slightly varnished. Thanks to the intensive work carried out by Vinzenz Brinkman over the past 25 years (see: Ancient Greece in full Technicolor), we can now have a very vivid image of what this sarcophagus must have looked like at the time of its completion.

This being said, we owe a great deal to the owner of this masterpiece. King Abdalonymus is definitely displaying immense gratitude towards both Alexander and Hephaistion since without them he would never have ruled over his city. When the people of Sidon heard of Alexander’s victory over Darius at Issus, they decided to deposit their ruling king, Straton II who was a friend of Darius and opened the city gates to Alexander whose task was then to appoint a new king. He instructed Hephaistion to find the appropriate candidate. It is said that he discovered this distant relative of the dynasty of Sidon, living in the countryside. Abdalonymus, his name meaning “servant of the gods” in Persian, clearly took his task seriously. What an honourable tribute he paid here to both Alexander and Hephaistion!

Monday, December 21, 2015

Alexander’s Tomb by Nicholas J. Saunders

I don’t remember why exactly I purchased Nicholas J. Saunders’ book “Alexander’s Tomb, the Two Thousand Year Obsession to Find the Lost Conqueror” (ISBN 978-0465072033). As far as I am concerned, everything has been said by Andrew Chugg (see: The Lost Tomb of Alexander the Great and The Quest for the Tomb of Alexander the Great) and to my knowledge no new elements that definitely would have made headlines, have surfaced.

It probably was the name of the author that caught my attention more than my search for any new development about the tomb of Alexander the Great, and I was not disappointed. Facts are facts and it does not matter by which author they are expressed, and Nicholas Saunders has projected the known facts about Alexander’s tomb against the political situation in Egypt and the rest of world over the past two thousand years in which people have been venerating the person of Alexander and his achievements.

His tomb remains enigmatic and although it has been mentioned repeatedly in ancient history, nobody seems to have taken the trouble to describe the tomb or its exact location. It seems it was so obvious that it didn’t need to be recorded.

Ptolemy, once one of Alexander’s generals and later founder of the Ptolemaic Dynasty in Egypt, treated Alexander’s remains with due reverence, and so did his son, Ptolemy Philadelphus who deified his father as Soter (savior god) and established a religious festival in his honor known as the Ptolemaia. By glorifying the Ptolemies he emphasized their connection with Alexander, whose memory was still very much alive in the ancient world, especially in Alexandria, the city he founded.

For the first time, I’m reading this description of the Ptolemaia, apparently reported by Callixeinus of Rhodes, which throws a unique light upon the flagrantly expensive celebrations held every four years. When Queen Cleopatra, the last of the Ptolemies died the Roman emperors were more than happy to follow suite and to continue the Alexander cult till the early Christian leaders felt threatened fearing that Alexander would be more popular than Jesus. Then the Arabs conquered Alexandria and built their own mosques, maybe above or near Alexander’s tomb.

But after that, Alexander and his tomb slowly sank back in time, although his name and great exploits remained forever etched in people’s memory. In the 18th century Napoleon and his entourage tried in vain to retrace the burial site, followed in the 19th century by the famous Heinrich Schliemann and several Greek and Italian archeologists. And in 1995 the Greek Liana Souvaltzi made headlines by declaring that Alexander’s tomb had been located at Siwah; the building she was referring to was, however, an already excavated Ptolemaic temple. So, we are back to square one as far as Alexander’s Tomb is concerned.

The only “trail” we have till now is Andrew Chugg’s suggestion that Alexander may lie in the Basilica of San Marco in Venice, Italy. In the end, Nicholas Saunders is nowhere closer to finding Alexander’s tomb and his remains, but the background information makes his book interesting reading.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Petra is revealing precious wall paintings

In a previous article (see: Hellenistic Petra, an indirect heritage of Alexander) I explained how Petra, although it was not explicitly conquered by Alexander the Great, the land of the Nabataean 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.

The Hellenistic influence is everywhere and it is not surprising to hear that recently Hellenistic-style wall paintings have been found in a cave complex in what is called Little Petra, about five kilometers away from the main site of Petra that draws busloads of tourists. The pictures were hidden underneath layers of black soot and smoke that covered the walls and ceilings after many people like the local Bedouins lived there for centuries.

This discovery is even more significant since only very few Hellenistic paintings survive today and we have only hints of lost masterpieces. With great care, the Petra National Trust (PNT) has restored the paintings which slowly emerge from the blackened layers of dirt.

The uncovered and cleaned paintings are of exceptional artistic quality and it is clear that the Nabataean artists found their inspiration in earlier Hellenistic work. The frescoes that are brought to light were found in a dining area, a main chamber and a smaller alcove apparently used for ritual dining. The best quality frescoes are found on the vault and the walls of this niche. They all are very naturalistic and so far three different kinds of vines – grapes, ivy, and bindweed – have been identified, all referring to the Greek god Dionysus. As for the birds, a demoiselle crane, and a colored Palestine sunbird have been recognized. Also exposed are scenes with cupid-like figures picking fruit and chasing birds. It is important to note that the quality of the paintings is enhanced by the use of gilding and glazes; they provide a rare insight into the lifestyle of these still mysterious Nabataeans.

Little Petra was home for the affluent Nabataeans and the paintings probably date from the first century AD, although they may be older. From a historic and artistic point of view, they are very important and represent a unique synthesis of Hellenistic-Roman culture.


So far, the paintings in this cave complex are the only surviving figurative frescoes from the Nabataeans still in situ. A good reason to include Little Petra more often in future visits as the site is very much at a human scale where one can get the feeling that the ancient Nabataeans have just left the premises.

[Click here to see all the pictures of Little Petra]

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Alexander in Athens

Alexander’s visit to Athens is one of those events that is generally overlooked when reading about his exploits, even by ancient historians.

After the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC where Alexander annihilated the Theban Band at the head of his father’s left wing, the young prince went to Athens together with Alcimachus and Philip’s weathered general and most probably senior diplomat, Antipater. Their goal was to negotiate peace with Athens, a highly sensitive matter that required serious political skills. They took with them the ashes of the cremated Athenians from the battlefield, as well as the two thousand Athenian prisoners made at Chaeronea for which no ransom was demanded. They only requested that an Athenian embassy would go to Philip to discuss a mutual peace.

For Antipater this was not his first mission as envoy of King Philip and not his first mission to Athens either. During earlier negotiations for peace in 346 BC, Athens had sent a heavy embassy of ten men to Pella that was answered by Philip’s usual confusing diplomacy. What Philip really wanted was a treaty of peace and alliance where he and the Athenians were equals, something that probably did not sink in with the Athenians. As soon as the delegation that included Philip’s sworn enemy Demosthenes left, the king set off for Thrace. In order to keep Athens on their toes he sent Antipater, together with Parmenion and Eurylochus to the city. Demosthenes however convinced the Assembly to go for a Common Peace in which every state was free to join. Antipater bluntly refused, because these were not his king’s terms. In the end, the Athenians and their allies had to comply and they swore their oaths to the peace and alliance to Macedonia.

Now, in 338 BC after the Battle of Chaeronea had ended all parties’ uncertainty whether to side up with Philip or with Athens, these two main players finally agreed on a treaty of friendship and alliance. The Athenians went even as far as conferring citizenship to Philip and Alexander, which by itself was not an exceptional gesture but it shows that they set a step forward in order to please the King of Macedonia. They even erected an equestrian statue of Philip on the Agora.


Unfortunately we don’t have any details about Alexander’s visit. Was Alexander, only 18 years old, merely accompanying Antipater? Or was Alexander put in charge, upon instructions of his father and coached by Antipater? Or was Alexander’s presence at the negotiations simply part of his education, or maybe his presence added more weight to Antipater’s argumentation? We can speculated at length about any of these theories, but no answer will be conclusive, I’m afraid.

I also wonder where Alexander, with or without Antipater, met the Athenian delegation. The Pnyx is not a likely location for this is where the Athenian people gathered for their own democratic elections, which have nothing to do with foreign policy. The Theater of Dionysus sounds an appropriate place in my eyes but it may be too large for the assembled company, so the smaller Bouleuterion on the Agora would offer a better alternative. Who knows?


It is pretty safe to assume that while in Athens Alexander walked up the Acropolis. The Parthenon, the Temple of Niké and the Ereichteion would have shone in their freshly painted flamboyant colors. From there the young prince would have looked out over the harbor of Piraeus only 12 km away and beyond that all the way to the island of Salamis, just as we can today. And whether or not the meeting with the Athenian delegation took place at the Theater of Dionysus, I’m sure he will not have missed the opportunity to attend a play by one of the most popular protagonists at that time.

It is very difficult to look at Athens through Alexander’s eyes, simply because we hardly have any fact to go by. So, I just keep on wondering and dreaming …

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Hierapolis, stepchild of Pamukkale

Tourists flock by dozens of busloads to visit the thermal springs of Pamukkale, which in Turkish means  “cotton castle”, hardly aware of the existence of Hierapolis

As the spring water is cooling in contact with the air, it leaves behind a thick coat of travertine that sets in the shape of basins cascading all the way downhill. It appears like a giant white scar in the landscape. Visitors loved to wade through these basins, trampling the fragile formation and polluting the mineral waters, with catastrophic results as even hotels were being built right on top. Luckily the government put a stop to these practices and hotels have been dismantled while visitors are now generally ushered over wooden boards laid over the inviting basins.

For me, this is the first time I hear of Hierapolis, an ancient city half swallowed by or integrated into the travertine deposits of Pamukkale. Upon arrival, I catch a first glimpse of the many impressive sarcophagi alongside the road, the largest concentration of Anatolia.

Hierapolis, meaning “sacred city” was founded by Eumenes II, King of Pergamon in 190 BC, and was famous for its woven fabrics, mainly wool. Like so many cities in the area, it surrendered to the Romans in 133 BC. However, a large part of the city was destroyed during the earthquake of 60 AD but most of it was rebuilt afterwards, and Hierapolis prospered once again reaching its apogee between 196 and 215 AD. By 395, The Byzantines took over and it was still known for its gladiator fights till it was abandoned in the 6th century and a good part of the buildings disappeared under the travertine formations.

The necropolis I saw upon arrival is huge and counts no less than 1200 sarcophagi and tombs built in the shape of Roman houses mostly, but others date from earlier Hellenistic or later Christian eras. I’ve never seen such a large concentration! A city by itself!

Old Hierapolis is a little further down the road, where the Arch of Domitian leans against a thick round fortification tower. From here the 14 feet-wide colonnade street, the so-called Plateia, runs straight ahead for about 1,500 meters. To the left are the remains of the Agora leading to the antique theatre with high crooked walls ready to tumble down any moment since the earthquake of 60 AD. The large Theatre at the other end of town dates from 2nd century AD and once seated 20,000 people. Although only about thirty tiers of seats remain, it is worth to admire the Baroque stage that has been recently restored. In the upper part of the stage reliefs of Septimus Severus and his wife Julia were found. It seems this Roman Emperor loved Hierapolis and contributed to building this very theatre whose architecture is said to be unique.

Nearby we find the poor remains of the Nymphaeum with the adjacent pool which might be the only testimony of the Temple of Apollo. This site was abandoned after the earthquake of the 7th century and the marble portico collapsed into the spring waters. Today’s visitors are welcome to swim between these idyllic marble columns among luxuriant flowers and bushes of pink laurel. What a setting!

Because of the hot springs, Hierapolis was a popular health centre in Roman times when literally thousands of people bathed in one of the fifteen baths, each seeking one that was appropriate for his/her health problem.

From down here I try to take in the site. There is still a lot of excavation work to be done in this large city. Lots of antique artifacts must be simply for the taking as I see no fence or surveillance, while the locals freely swarm out over the site with their embroidered pillow cases, crocheted napkins, postcards and booklets as if they own the place. Well, in a sense they do, of course, but I would expect some stricter control over an archaeological site.

I climb to a higher point among the ruins, basically to get away from the noisy crowds. I reach the sturdy walls of Philip’s Martyrium, a church built in de 5th century on the alleged spot where Apostle Philip was stoned and crucified upside down in 80 AD. All along the outside of the church runs a corridor where the pilgrims could find a room for the night. The square Martyrium measures no less than 20 x 20 meter and in its centre lays an octagonal rotunda surrounding a crypt that for years stayed connected with the apostle. Excavations in 2014, however, have located Philip’s gravesite in a 1st-century Roman tomb at the centre of a new Christian church, some 40 meters away. This church was built around the very tomb in the 4th/5th century.

[This picture is from Archaeology News Network]

Excavations are still ongoing at Hierapolis and in 2013, a unique head of Aphrodite was found, clearly dating from the Hellenistic era based on the hairdo and the facial features. More marble sculptures were unearthed and all have been moved to the nearly Hierapolis Archaeology Museum.

About the same time, the statue of a 1.5 meter-high marble Cerberus was found. He was the mythological three-headed dog who guarded the entrance to the underworld or Hades, the so-called Gate of Hell. It was discovered thanks to the remains of small birds that appeared to have fallen dead at the mouth of a cave spewing deadly carbon dioxide fumes. Apparently Cicero visited this very cave in the 1st century BC and reported the phenomenon. Sparrows but also bulls fell dead at the entrance of the cave. Beside this Cerberus, archaeologists found a huge marble serpent, another mythical guardian of the entrance to the after-world.


Wait and see what else the archaeologists will discover in the future.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Ecbatana, where Hephaistion died

Hephaistion died in Ecbatana  in October 324 BC after being seriously ill with high fever for about seven days. His symptoms may indicate a case of typhoid. When he seemed to have been over the worst and his appetite returned he is said to have consumed a whole chicken and a large bottle of wine. This was against his doctor’s orders, but Glaucias had left his patient to attend the games at one the festivals organized for the entertainment of the troops. Alexander himself was at the theater when the news reached him that Hephaistion had fallen into agony and by the time he arrived at his friend’s bedside he had already died. The city was in mourning and its crenellations were shorn.

Today the city of Ecbatana has changed its name to Hamadan, literally meaning “the place of gathering”. It seems very few people remember Ecbatana’s name and fame from antiquity, once the capital of the Medes founded as early as the 8th century BC. After the conquests of Cyrus the Great in 549 BC, the city became part of the Persian Empire. After his death, it was re-conquered by the Medes but not for long since the new Persian king Darius I took it back in 521 BC (this victory is depicted in the large relief at Bisutun). Since then, the Achaemenid kings used Ecbatana as their summer residence, a custom that was imitated by later Seleucid and Parthian kings alike.

If we consult the Greek historian Polybius, we are told that Ecbatana was the richest and most beautiful city in the world. It had no walls, only the palace that was set on an artificial terrace had its fortifications that were approximately 1,250 meters long. This means that the palace stood on a plateau of approximately 300x300 meters (as compared to Persepolis’ 450x300m). Five hundred years earlier, Herodotus, on the other hand, wrote that the city was surrounded by seven concentric walls in different colours with the most inner walls plated with gold and silver. People were dwelling around the wall, meaning outside the palace walls on the fertile plain. These are apparently the only ancient texts we have to go by, and in the contradictory and confusing descriptions, we may wonder whether they are talking about the city walls, the palace walls or maybe even the walls of the citadel. It all seems to be jumbled together.

Polybius does mention, however, that most of the precious metals were stripped off during the invasion of Alexander, but I can hardly believe this especially if he means the palace walls. Further stripping is said to have taken place by Antigonus-the-one-Eyed and by Seleucos, which is more plausible in my eyes.

Arrian, in turn, mentions the citadel of Ecbatana where the captured Persian treasure was kept under the watchful eye of Harpalus.

I was quite surprised to hear that there were ruins of old Ecbatana left at all and I only see dusty hills behind a fence. It seems the French dug here first, but since 1995 Iranian archaeologists are excavating the site with unclear results so far. They may have found only the Parthian level, meaning that the Achaemenid and the Median levels are to be sought much deeper – or as suggested in 2007, at another nearby location. The problem is that part of modern Hamadan is built right on top of the ancient site. Good luck to the future archaeologists!

Alexander visited Ecbatana twice. The first time was when he dismissed his Greek allied contingents, sending them back home will full payment for their services and an additional 2,000 talents as a gratuity. He was, however, willing to hire any of these soldiers in his service and put them on his regular payroll, and a great number of volunteers did indeed enlist. Those who returned home were escorted by a mounted guard and once they reached the Aegean they were shipped to Euboea. At this stage, it is clear that Alexander having conquered Persia considered the League war as ended; from now on his campaigns were a Macedonian affair.

Alexander’s second visit took place six years later after the lavish mass wedding ceremony at Susa when he was on his way to Babylon. This is when Hephaistion fell ill and died. His body was transported by Craterus to Babylon where the funeral ceremony was held in November 324 BC, hardly seven months before Alexander’s own untimely death.

At Ecbatana are the poor remains of a lion that is connected to Hephaistion, either once part of a monument built in his honor or his mausoleum. I had seen pictures of this lion at its present location, high on an appropriate pedestal but the monument was not part if our visiting program. I pleaded my cause with the local guide, who agreed to make a small detour.

The Lion definitely is Hellenistic, apparently one of a pair that was still lying around in the late 1800s and a favourite toy for the local boys who climbed on it for a ride on its back. The prospect of having to leave Hamadan without a proper tribute to Hephaistion was simply beyond me after having travelled thousands of miles to get here. So I was lucky after all. I am now at peace with the place they have granted this poor shapeless lion. Hephaistion definitely deserves better but this is all there is although the lion may date from Seleucid or Parthian times.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

City with no name – yet.

How unlikely to find an unknown and unchartered city, but this is what happened just recently high up Mount Pindos in Northern Greece!


At first glance and based on the coins, ceramics and some metallic equipment it has been established that the city dates from the 4th century BC. Some fragments of inscriptions have been recovered, one of which reading IEP… and could refer to a sacred place. Archeologists tend to believe that this was an important place of worship for ancient Macedonians.

The scattered remains and the geographical location of this city in the area of Kastri prove that it occupied an important place in the ancient Macedonian kingdom. So far, large portions of the fortified acropolis have been excavated which leads to conclude that the city had “a religious character”. A large amount of copper arrows and traces of fire indicate, however, that the city was destroyed after a violent war at some point during the 2nd century BC.

Further excavations are needed, of course, but it is extremely exciting to come across such a new archeological site and ancient city of which nothing is known so far. Being located in Macedonia it may even be a city connected to Alexander the Great, who knows?