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)

Thursday, April 19, 2018

A unique opportunity to witness Palmyra’s wealth

Those who are closely interested in the art that blossomed in Palmyra from the first to the third century AD are in for a treat at the newly rearranged Getty Villa in Malibu, California.

The Getty Villa opened on Wednesday 18 April 2018 with a chronological instead of thematic display of its precious artwork. At the same time, they will present a typical funerary sculpture from the collections of the Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen together with Getty’s own reliefs and photographs related to the once so wealthy city of Palmyra in Syria (see: The Glorious Days of Palmyra).

What started as a mere caravan stop-over became a major crossroad between the Roman an Parthian empires in which Queen Zenobia played a unrivaled role (see: The Dream of the Queen of Palmyra).

For the aficionados, remember that the entrance to this museum is free but that advance entry tickets are required (click here). This special exhibition will run until 27 May 2019 under the title Palmyra: Loss and Remembrance.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

A Median or Achaemenid rock-cut tomb in Iraqi Kurdistan

Iraq is rarely in the news when it comes to archaeology but here is an exception: a rock-tomb that has been spotted some 65 kilometers northwest of Sulaymaniyah. This modern Iraqi city in turn lies roughly 220 km to the northwest of the Bisutun Relief in Iran. In antiquity, both Iraq and Iran were in Persia. As always, it is a small world.

It is heartwarming, to say the least, to hear that this tomb of Ashkawt-i Qizqapan has been investigated and, what’s more, that its façade has been restored and even copied to find a place of honor at the entrance of the Sulaymaniyah Museum. So far, only two examples of rock-cut tombs have been listed in Iraq and this is one of them and its history is shrouded in mystery.

The entrance to the tomb lies approximately eight meters above ground level and the most striking element to the visitor are the two ionic inspired columns that are supporting an awning-like imitation wooden roof. The entrance wall has been filled with a number of reliefs. High up are three divine emblems. The right one shows an otherwise unknown star-bust that suggests the goddess Ishtar-Anahita or Artemis. The central emblem is round as well and appears to rest on a lunar crescent supporting a seated figure which may represent the moon god, Sin. The emblem on the far left brings Ahura Mazda to mind set on a square background. Yet this figure has two pairs of wings, each set being different in shape and size which may refer to Mithras, the upper god of the Medes.

The analysis of the central relief located between the columns raises other questions. We see two men facing each other over a stepped altar holding a double-convex Parthian-like bow. They wear a similar kind of headdress in Median style and have their mouth covered in order to protect the sacred fire burning on the altar.

According to the contribution made by Dr Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin on location and published in Ancient History Encyclopedia in January 2018, the following tentative conclusions were drawn: the depicted scene shows King Alyattes of Lydia who reigned from 610 till 560 BC on the right and the Median King Cyaxares who reigned from 625 till 585 BC on the left as they manifest the end of their war. Mediator in this conflict was King Nabonidus of Neo-Babylonia as represented by the crescent moon. The divine emblem on the upper right corner is the Lydian goddess Artemis who accompanied Alyattes whereas Ahura Mazda blesses Cyaxares.

Under the central relief is a doorway that leads into three separate burial chambers. All three graves have been dug out from the floor and were apparently covered with a now missing lid. However, no bones or artifacts have been found inside the graves and the walls of these chambers are void of any inscription or decoration.

Well, no solid conclusion can be drawn from the above analysis that leans towards labeling these tombs as Median and dating them to 600-550 BC. Other scholars are more inclined to conclude that the style of the reliefs is Achaemenid and generally date the tombs to the second half of the 6th or the 5th century BC. Nothing is certain as yet since no other excavations have been carried out in the region and this rock-cut tomb simply cannot stand on its own.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Restoration of the theatre in Perge

Perge, less than twenty kilometers northeast of Antalya is one of the must-see places of Pamphylia. Till now, unfortunately the grand theater that rises alongside the road to the site of Perge remained of limits in spite of the most promising statues that were taken from the theater to the Museum of Archaeology in Antalya.

In spite of the excavations carried out in the 1980s and 1990s, the theater remained off limits as it was dangerous to approach the weak and crumbling walls. It was even very difficult and almost impossible to simply walk around its outer limits because of the luxuriant and dense bushes that grows around it.

The restoration plans sounds very promising as the overall local economy will benefit from it now that the number of visitors to Perge have drastically decreased during the last decennium.

The Perge theater is a typical Roman construction counting 19 tiers of seats in its lower part and 23 tiers in the upper section. Most of the stage is still standing and its restoration would certain help to mentally place the statues from the museum back into their appropriate niches. As is so often the case, the theater has been adapted to host animal and gladiator fights.

Let’s hope that restoration work will start soon for the theater will certainly contribute to the beauty of the site and the wealth Perge knew in its heyday. We should not forget that this is where the bigger than life-size statue of Alexander the Great (now in the museum) once stood in all its glory!

Thursday, April 5, 2018

The Virtues of War by Steven Pressfield

The Virtues of War (ISBN 9780553382051) by Steven Pressfield is quite an unorthodox book. As opposed to so many history or fiction books, including novels, about Alexander this one lets Alexander speak for himself – a very challenging enterprise.

Steven Pressfield, who I learned to appreciate in his novel The Afghan Campaign clearly warns his readers in the introductory note that he does not follow history according to the strict reports but has arranged the events and facts to better suit his own interpretation, i.e. the true spirit of Alexander as he conceives it.

In this novel, Alexander is talking to Itanes, the younger brother of Roxane who has joined his ranks to be at this stage taken into his close circle of Companions.

It is not a sentimental tale, but a story told from the point of view of a general, a military leader who knows his men inside out. Alexander’s strategies and his awareness of what happens around him in battle without being able to actually see how events unfold outside his own narrow perimeter are almost palpable. Far from being a monotonous monologue, Alexander shares not only his battle memories in facts and figures but also relates other key moments of which there were many. He talks about his soldiers’ experiencing life in Babylon, the conspiracy of Philotas and the ensuing execution of his father Parmenion, the need to reshape his army facing guerilla war in Bactria, and how by the time he reaches India more than half of his Macedonian troops have been replaced by foreign entities. The character of Alexander that transpires is that of a king in all its complexity but also that of a man who realizes he is not perfect and often falls short. Besides, he is very well aware that the attitude and mindset of people in the East is very different from that in Greece and that he inevitably has to adapt – something his marshals cannot comprehend.

Hephaistion is well portrayed, always appearing at Alexander’s shoulder while historians generally tune his presence down simply because ancient writers have ignored him for whatever reason (perhaps his story was not juicy enough?). The description of the other commanders like Parmenion, Craterus, Black Cleitus, Ptolemy, Peucestas, Seleucos, Philotas and dozens others is very recognizable.

King Philip II of Macedonia remains Alexander’s great role model throughout the story as young Alexander kept his eyes open and clearly understood his father’s policy and tactics. The influence of Olympias, which is often impressed on the character of Alexander, is absent. This is a man’s world.

As in The Afghan Campaign, I marvel at Steven Pressfield’s knowledge of the military and the mindset of the troops in the field and on the march. Looking him up at Wikipedia, I read that his book Gates of Fire (which I have not read – yet) is being taught at Westpoint, the U.S. Naval Academy and the Marine Corps Basic School at Quantico. He is a man to my heart, knowing that Alexander’s Battle of Gaugamela is still teaching material at Westpoint as well!

I honestly don’t understand why this book is being underrated. This is not just another history of Alexander the Great but a very worthwhile attempt to crawl inside his mind and under his skin. Steven Pressfield made a superb effort to understand how the mind of a great man works. Since Alexander falls within the category of the geniuses, who among us dare criticize when the author lets a genius speak?

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Alexander and Citrus fruits

About four years ago, I posted a blog about citrus fruit being introduced to the West by the soldiers of Alexander the Great – a most gratifying idea (see: What Alexander did for us). Yet a very recent article published by Dr Dafna Langgut, head of the Laboratory of Archaeobotany and Ancient Environments at the Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University in ASOR is shedding a scientific light on the matter.

According to this study, citrus originates in Southeast Asia where it was cultivated as early as 2,000 BC. Eventually the fruit arrived in Persia and from there reached the eastern Mediterranean in the 5th-4th century BC, so well before Alexander the Great travelled through the area.

First to arrive was the citron (citrus medica), that had a thick rind and a small dry pulp as pictured in my abovementioned blog. The citron and the lemon (citrus limon, a crossing of the citron and the bitter orange) travelled to the western Mediterranean and made their way to the gardens of the wealthy Romans living around Rome and Mount Vesuvius in the 3rd-2nd century BC. The fruits were appreciated for their healing powers, their pleasant odor, and of course, for their rarity since only the rich could afford such luxury.

In time, limes, sour or bitter oranges, and pummelo (a variety of grapefruit) were added to the varieties and all spread westwards thanks to the Muslim conquests of Sicily and Spain. Our sweet orange was a latecomer as we had to wait for it till the 15th century, and the mandarin was only introduced in the early 19th century.

Well, so much for the history of citrus fruits but it is clear the it was known to the Persians when Alexander conquered their Empire. He must have been confronted with some variety of citrus as soon as he marched along the eastern basin of the Mediterranean but that is something we will never know.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

A treat for those who love maps: Pompeii

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology we can now have a look at ancient Pompeii set in today’s town. Its layout looks amazingly modern.

This Pompeii Bibliography and Mapping Project (PBMP) is pure magic. To quote their explanation on the use of these maps: 

You can start to explore Pompeii in the map embedded below, or go to the full site for more space and options. If you want to customize the map or make a presentation from it, sign in to / sign up for your ArcGIS Online account and save a copy to your own webspace. The link is at the upper right of the embedded map page. Below the map is additional information about the files, the information they contain, and their display.

Have fun!

Friday, March 23, 2018

The fame of elusive Pelusium

When in 333 BC Alexander took possession of Pelusium situated on a branch of the Nile that has shifted since, it was a wealthy settlement as it contributed to his treasury with 800 talents (20 tons of silver and gold). It was his first stop in Egypt as it was for all conquering armies before and after him.

Pelusium was not only the point of entry for invaders but also the departure point for Egyptian expeditions to Asia. In short, it was a place of huge strategic importance and the second port of Egypt after Alexandria as it served as a transit station for the goods coming from and going to the lands around the Red Sea.

Yet, in spite of its fame and importance in antiquity and the many sources among which Herodotus, Polybius, Diodorus, Curtius Rufus, Arrian, Strabo, etc. the site of Pelusium, associated with modern Tell el-Farama has never been properly excavated. Antique sources describe the city as a bustling harbor with magazines and customs offices trading in salt, textiles, potteries and fish. On the site which is believed to be almost six kilometers long, we find the remains of a fortress and marble columns from a possible Roman Theater that closely resembles the one in Alexandria. There are remains of several necropolises, a hippodrome, fish tanks for garum, Roman baths with mosaics from the 3rd century AD, a stadium, many temples and even a military installation.

However, the little we know about Pelusium is now under thread by the construction plans for a massive canal through the northern part of the Sinai Desert. This waterway is meant to bring fresh water to the city of El Arish, 60 kilometers from the border with Israel. Unfortunately, in that part of the world nothing is simple. As early as 1991, archaeologists launched a project to survey the course of this canal in order to pinpoint any site that may be worth recovering before being destroyed by the dig works or if possible, divert the route in order to save important remains. It is no surprise that by 2010, both the canal and the archaeological project have been put on hold.

It seems that ancient Pelusium will not resuscitate from its ruins any time soon.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Cheesecake, Olympian style

Even in antiquity, appropriate nutrition was part of the Olympic Games as the competitors expected that it would improve their performances. After their strenuous efforts, however, they felt – like our modern athletes – that they deserved some indulgence. One of these was what we would call nowadays, a cheesecake, i.e. a kind of flour cake layered with cheese and honey, the best of which came from Attica.

[Picture from the Quarzy Newsletter of Feb 2018]

As early as 250 BC, Archestratus of Gela wrote a gastronomic guide “Life of Luxury”. Unfortunately only fragments of his book have survived but one such scrap is recommending the cheesecake made in Athens as being the best, although the recipe is not being disclosed.

As always, the Romans were keen to copy the Greeks, including their cheesecake recipe which Cato the Elder in 160 BC included in his “De Agri Cultura” in five different variations. There was the vaillum, a sweet version and a savory one called libum often made as an offering to the gods. Both types were made with a simple mixture of flour and cheese that could be eaten with a spoon.

A fancier version was the placenta cake, alternating layers of dough, cheese, and honey and spiced with bay leaves. Occasionally this cake was sprinkled with black poppy seeds. Out of curiosity, we may want to experiment and create this placenta cake according to Cato’s original recipe:

Shape the placenta as follows: place a single row of tracta [a type of dough] along the whole length of the base dough. This is then covered with the mixture [cheese and honey] from the mortar. Place another row of tracta on top and go on doing so until all the cheese and honey have been used up. Finish with a layer of tracta…place the placenta in the oven and put a preheated lid on top of it. (with thanks to the Quarzy Newsletter of Feb 2018).

Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Canal of the Pharaohs, the Suez Canal of antiquity

The Canal of the Pharaohs in Egypt’s Tell el-Maskhuta located northeast of Cairo was already known in the 1800s but was never properly documented until now.

Excavations started around a partially visible wall that belonged to a square fortress at nearby Wadi Tumilat, a valley that was an important turntable for commercial and cultural exchanges with Palestine and Syria, all the way into Mesopotamia. An enormous wall of 22 meters length and a height of eight meters leads to the fortress with its two twelve meters long walls. The complex measures 200x300 meters and was part of the city Tell el-Maskhuta that is still hidden underneath the desert sands over a distance of at least one kilometre.

Excavations have revealed that the settlement was built by the Hyksos as far back as 1,500 BC and  was used during the Ptolemaic era (3rd-1st century BC) as the foundation for this fortress. So far, it has been established that this was one of the largest fortresses in the Nile Delta before the arrival of the Romans.

The very first canal to connect the Red Sea to the Nile and ultimately to the Mediterranean ran past Wadi Tumilat and was built as early as the 19th century BC! Although it was difficult to maintain because of the ever shifting desert sands, it was still functioning during the reign of Ramses II in the 13th century BC. When Darius the Great conquered Egypt in the 5th century BC, he was keen to optimize the use of the canal for his imports of wheat and the transport of his troops. The first stone for this canal was laid around 520 BC and has been retrieved in 1866 during the construction of the modern Suez Canal. The precious stone and inscription can be seen at the Louvre in Paris.

This is more than sideline information as the very existence of the canal so early in history was a fact known to Alexander when he entered Egypt.