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)

Monday, October 24, 2016

Tracking Alexander from Tyre to the Euphrates

When reading any of the Alexander histories, the routes he followed seem to be clear-cut and leave no room for any doubt at all – that is until we actually try to walk in his steps with a map in hand. Many stretches are quite obscure while others are, let’s say, not too obvious. Historians have a tendency to stick to the facts and when nothing noteworthy is happening between point A and point Z, they simply skip every step or stop in between. This is the case when Alexander leaves Tyre for Thapsacus and Arrian simply states that he marches “inland”; a straightforward route until you try to figure it out.

In antiquity, the traveler would generally follow rivers, skirt mountains and deserts, look for arable lands able to provide enough food, and spot wells for drinking water when there is no river on the way. When this is not possible, one has to be inventive. A good example of such creativity is, for instance, when Alexander has his fleet accompanying him along the desert of the Sinai; another one when he returns from Egypt to Tyre and where his army had widely depleted the rare agricultural provisions on their way south a few months earlier and he made use of his fleet once again.

From Tyre, scholars are generally torn between two possible routes leading the army inland. The first would retrace Alexander’s steps north to near Antioch-on-the Orontes along the coastline and from there turn east towards the Euphrates as Cyrus the Younger and Crassus had done, using the fleet to support his provisions. The other possible road, which I prefer because the region was more fertile in antiquity, runs east to Damascus and from there north to Homs, Hama, Apamea, and Aleppo. Or, after all, Alexander may have used a combination of both routes – why not?

Damascus is incontestably the oldest inhabited city in the world and against all odds, I am looking for traces of Alexander but find none. That is not surprising since he only passed through the city in 331 BC; there was no siege or resistance apparently. In fact, there is nothing left that could refer to Hellenistic times, as all traces generally have been erased and supplanted by Roman constructions anyway. The Romans, however, used Greek and Aramaic foundations when they laid-out Damascus, covering an area of approximately 1,500 x 750 meters, inside its protective walls. Damascus counted seven city gates, but only the Bab Sharqi on the east side has survived. This city has been discussed in detail in my earlier blog, Damascus after Alexander.

Even the modern road north from Damascus skirts the eastern flanks of the Lebanon Mountains. The countryside looks uninviting and a pretty barren stretch of some 200 kilometers that Alexander must have tackled stubbornly as always, although the land may have been more fertile in his days.

Beyond Homs, he must have aimed for Hama which lies on the Orontes River and is today one of the largest cities in Syria after Aleppo, Damascus and Homs and an obvious stop for anyone traveling between Damascus and Aleppo. Under Hellenistic rule, the city prospered since it laid on the trade routes between Greece and Asia. Hama is best known for its spectacular large wooden waterwheels – a Roman/Byzantine invention so ingenious that you have to see them in order to fully grasp their significance (see: Hama and its ingenious norias). Known under their Arabian name as norias, their earliest traces are found in a mosaic dating from 469 AD but they may have been used earlier on.

From Hama, the modern road heads straight for Aleppo without being hampered by the desert but Alexander must have stayed closer to the floodplains of the fertile Orontes River for the first stretch of his route at least and would, inevitably, have come to Apamea (see: Apamea, heritage of Alexander).

Leaving Apamea, Alexander must have veered to the northeast across a mostly desert landscape to reach Aleppo, almost one hundred kilometers away. It is not impossible that previously to his march, he organized water depots along the way.

The modern city of Aleppo has been built right on top of its antique remains, meaning that there is very little to see from when Alexander was here in 331 BC. His successor, Seleucos called it Beroea in memory of the city by the same name in Macedonia. It became the center of gravity of the Hellenistic colonization till it was conquered as the rest of Syria by Pompey in 64 BC.

The most striking feature in Aleppo is unmistakably its Citadel situated at the center of the old city that was surrounded by a five kilometres-long wall counting seven entrance gates. To my knowledge, no Greek/Hellenistic remains have been uncovered although excavations have reached the layers of the neo-Hittite period. Yet it seems that friezes belonging to a temple dedicated to the god of storm Hadad dating from the third millennium BC have been discovered.

This partially manmade hill that is crowned by the famous Citadel rises some fifty meters above the city and measures respectively 450 and 325 meters across since it has an elliptical shape. Originally the entire hill was covered with large blocks of whitish limestone that were very difficult to climb; some of these slabs are still in situ. The mound is surrounded by a moat, 22 meters deep and 30 meters wide, which has been added in the 12th century. The inside of the Citadel is a town on its own with a hammam, a number of mosques, a palace occupied by the sons of Saladin and even a theater that is still being used. All this is obviously a very far cry from what Alexander may have found, but the panoramic view over the roofs of Aleppo cannot have been too much different, except for the presence of minarets and mosques.

Alexander arrived at Thapsacus by mid-summer 331 BC and had two (pontoon) bridges constructed over the Euphrates which, according to historians was a good 700 meters wide at this spot. There have been endless discussions about the location of this city, which has been placed at Al Raqqa, Dura-Europos and even at Deir-Ezzor further downstream. Based on the facts related by Xenophon and Eratosthenes, however, all evidence points towards Carchemish on the Turkish-Syrian border. It seems that, except for a few towering walls, there is very little left of old Thapsacus because after the construction of yet another dam the river has turned into a lake and the scant remains are nothing more than an island in the middle of the Euphrates. It is so sad to find such a historical place swallowed by the waters after centuries of survival!

It so happened that my first view of the Euphrates River was near Birecik, Turkey, on the road from Gaziantep to Sanliurfa, i.e. about 30 kilometers north of the place that has been identified as Thapsacus. Crossing this majestic, wide, blue and fast flowing river over a modern bridge, confirmed that I was truly entering Mesopotamia, the land between Euphrates and Tigris from my history books. The depiction of this being the Fertile Crescent eludes me, for the land is desolate and barren and the houses on the eastern river bank are nothing more than square colored blocks piled up against a sandy hill.

Based on Darius’ earlier crossing of the Euphrates before the Battle of Issus, it may have taken Alexander five days to move his entire force to the eastern bank. The logistics of such an operation are never discussed in detail, neither here nor at any other major river like the Nile, the Tigris, the Oxus, the Jaxartes or the Indus for that matter, but the operations much have been colossal and terribly well organized!

The modern flow of the Euphrates cannot be compared to what it was in Alexander’s days, mainly because of the many barrages that interfere, but it remains a very rewarding experience to follow the river further downstream along the Lake of al-Assad to Rasaffa, Al-Raqqa, Halabia, Deir Ezzor and finally to Dura-Europos. These basically were all Roman forts at the edge of the empire but most probably were first settled by Seleucos a few decennia earlier. Contemplating the river from among the reed fields in the near silence on an early winter evening was one of my greatest experiences. In the tiny villages in between, time has come to a standstill.


Another memorable moment was at Halabia where I climbed up to the remains of a Roman fort. From this strategic location, I could look up and down the Euphrates beneath me as the soldiers had done some 2,000 years ago. From this vantage point, I was reminded of Alexander when the occasional car crossed the rickety pontoon bridge with a resonating sound in the quiet evening air. History was simply unfolding at my feet! I was wishfully thinking to look for Thapsacus around there. 

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