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, 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 - 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)

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Macedonia’s gold and silver mines today

Macedonia’s gold and silver mines are once again making headlines. Whoever would have thought that King Phillip II of Macedonia had exhausted the mines that became part of his kingdom after conquering Thrace and Chalcidice is entirely wrong.

We know that in 357 BC Philip watched the Chalcidice very closely since it thanked its economic importance to the mines of Crenides, just above the port of Neapolis (today’s Kavala), a valuable naval base in the region. Philip marched in and defeated the Thracian forces. He was determined to stay and in order to put his stamp on this place he changed the name of Crenides to Philippi. These newly acquired mines provided Philip with a reliable and steady inflow of money, Crenides being the largest and most profitable mine. By 356 BC money was flowing in steadily from these recently acquired mines and it is said they yielded more than 1,000 talents a year, more than enough to cover his military expenses and provide regular pay to his soldiers.

At about the same time, Philip had kicked out the Athenians from the Chalcidice where they had established settlements at Potidaea (on the neck of the Cassandra peninsula), close to Olynthus, and fought with them over Amphipolis on the trading route with Thrace, including abovementioned mines of Crenides. In the process, Philip obtained control over the mines of Stratonici, Skouries and Olympiade on the east side of the Chalcidice peninsula.

The Chalcidice is one of the most beautiful regions of Greece, least spoiled by tourism and rich with forests of oak, beech and pine and a main producer of wine, honey and olive oil. This is exactly where today’s big mining companies face each other to bring them back into production.

Canadian Eldorado Gold and Australian Glory Resources want to turn Greece into the biggest producer of these precious metals by 2016. A very ambitious and controversial project in a country desperately needing fresh currency. The projects are not exactly new but until now they were stopped by environmentalists because of the inevitable pollution, especially in the case of gold mining. Yet, in a region where unemployment hits 25% of the population it is understandable that conflicts between opposing parties arise. The companies promise to create 1,500 new jobs but local environmentalists argue that their present jobs will become obsolete: fishermen, beekeepers, lumberjacks, all those working in the woods and in the tourist sector will be hit.

What disturbs me personally is to read for instance that the contract between the Greek state and Eldorado’s subsidiary Hellas Gold stipulates that they are not liable for any “historic environment liabilities”. Is nobody paying attention to the consequence for our heritage, I wonder? As always, politics and money are the winners. In this homeland of Aristotle, plans are being drawn to create an open pit mine of approximately 700 metres in diameter together with a subterranean mine, and the first trees have been felled already. By 2016 the combined locations of Skouries, Olympias and Stratoni  are expected to  produce about 345,000 ounces of gold.

[picture from www.eldoradogold.com]

Another “hot-spot” is the Sapes mines located northwest of Alexandroupolis in today’s province of Thrace, also once actively exploited by King Philip, which is expected to have an annual output of about 80,000 ounces of gold. In this area also, 24% of the population is without a job; together with the other three mining sites mentioned above, these rates are higher than Greece’s average.

But there is still another factor to consider, and that is how much profit these enterprises will yield to the Greek treasury. Glory, for instance, based on the current estimated lifetime of the project will pay about $80 million in taxes and approximately $22 million in royalties. However, there is no law regulating taxes on royalties from the mining activities in Greece and in the end, the gross of the profits will not end up with the Greeks themselves.

Gold miners predict Greece could soon be the biggest European producer. Yes, could be, but will it work to boost the economy?

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Philippi, Macedonia’s gold and silver mines

Philippi is one of the milestones in the life of King Philip II but maybe even more so in shaping the history of Macedonia. An exciting place to visit in order to visualize its importance.

Today Philippi lies within easy reach from Thessaloniki thanks to the freeway Thessaloniki-Amphipolis-Kavala, roughly 160 km. From there the road North to Drama and Serres leads you straight to Philippi after less than 15 km. It is a lovely drive, in spite of being on a freeway for the road offers impressive views over Lake Koroneia and Lake Volvi along which King Philip II of Macedonia as well as his son Alexander the Great must have marched eastwards. Between Stavros and Amphipolis, the road runs close to the sea as it crosses the delta of the River Strymon, which before Philip’s reign was the eastern frontier of Macedonia. From Amphipolis to Kavala, the road runs a little more inland but right around the foothill of the Pangaeon Mountains, rich in gold and silver mines. And that is what Philippi was all about.

The antique city of Philippi was situated at the top of a hill, overlooking extensive marshlands that ran all the way to the seashore. On the east we find the gorges of the Sapaeans and Corpileans, while in the west we discover the beautiful fertile plains that bordered the River Strymon. There is another nearby hill called the Hill of Dionysus, rich in gold. The remains we see today are mostly from the Roman city located at the foot of the ancient citadel, but that is a different chapter in history.

Let us start with King Philip, who was the one to put the place on the map, starting the early years of his kingship. At that time, the place was called Crenides because of the many springs bubbling up around the hill, and it was a colony of the island Thasos. Towards 357 BC the king of eastern Thrace besieged the strategic and precious city of Crenides, just above the port of Neapolis (today’s Kavala), a valuable naval base in the region. Philip immediately marched in and defeated the Thracian forces. He was determined to stay and in order to put his stamp on this place, he changed the name to Philippi. He fortified the city walls and towers of this strategic location from where he could control the entire Strymon valley and beyond that all the way to the Danube hinterland. Beside that, he had access and control over the port of Neapolis.

These newly acquired mines provided Philip with a reliable and steady inflow of money, Crenides being the largest and most profitable mine. To improve the situation further, he had the marshy plain drained and cultivated, adding another boost to the local economy. 

The city prospered in Hellenic times thanks to the Via Egnatia which passed through Philippi in the 1st century BC, making it even more important. Philippi turned out to be a major center, connected through this Via Egnatia with Amphipolis, Thessaloniki, and the ports of the Adriatic Sea in the west, and to Neapolis and Byzantium in the east.

Things changed dramatically when the plains of Philippi became the theater of an important battle in 42 BC. Two Roman armies approached each other: Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar and defenders of the Roman Republic, arrived from the east, and a bit later, the triumvirs Marc Antony and Octavian moved in from the west, wishing to avenge the murder of Caesar. This was not just a battle between rival factions, the future of Rome depended on it. Because Brutus and Cassius had occupied the best positions on two hills approximately 4 km from Philippi, Marc Antony tried to circumvent Philippi by building a causeway through the wetlands to the south of the city, but Cassius discovered the plan and built a transverse dam. But then, Marc Antony unexpectedly stormed Cassius' camp. This was a great maneuver for it made Cassius believe that all was lost, and he committed suicide. That was a far too hasty decision for at the same time Brutus had defeated Octavian and captured his camp and that of Marc Antony. In other words, both sides had won a victory and suffered a defeat.

A second clash occurred a few days later. This time, Marc Antony and Octavian were able to lure Brutus into a battle he should not have accepted and the triumvirs ended up victorious. As we know, eleven years later Octavian defeated Marc Antony at the Battle of Actium and took on the surname Augustus. Veterans of these battles were settled in Philippi, which became a Roman colony (Colonia Augusta Julia Philippensis). The city expanded and became an economic, administrative and artistic centre, the result of which we can still see in today’s remains.

An important visitor of Philippi was Apostle Paul, who spent time here in 49 or 50 AD establishing the first Christian Church of Europe, making Philippi a metropolis of Christianity.

The city slowly was abandoned in the early 7th century AD due to repeated earthquakes and the invasion of the Slavs. However it survived the Byzantine era as a fort on top of the acropolis but was entirely deserted after the Ottoman conquests of the 14th century.

All the road-signs are in place and ancient Philippi welcomes the visitor with a spacious parking space and an even more spacious park where school children seem to have gathered today for a special outing. I hope they are not screaming like this around the site!

They are not, I even seem to have the excavation site all to myself, except for a bus or two with Chinese tourists who move with a discipline of their own.

• The very first building I encounter is inevitably the theatre. It was probably built by King Philip II around the middle of the 4th century BC and was improved in the 2nd/3rd century when the Romans made rearrangements and additions to meet the needs of that time.

The walls and the acropolis. The line of the walls begins at the top of the hill and it surrounds the foot of the hill and part of the valley below. The structure has two architectural phases: the first was built by Philip II and the second by Justinian I in A.D. 527-565. Inside the acropolis there is a tower dated to the Late Byzantine period.
The Agora (Forum). The Agora built during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, was the administrative centre of Philippi. The public buildings are arranged around a central open square (100x50m). It is bordered on the north side by the Via Egnatia, and on the other sides by steps and porticoes leading to the main municipal buildings. Parallel with the Via Egnatia were fountains, a rostrum and commemorative monuments. The west side is bordered by traces of a temple and administrative buildings. In the southwest corner stands an unusual upturned marble table, the cavities of which are thought to have been used for measuring, and holes in de the ground of playing marbles.

The Palaestra. The largest part of the monument is now covered by Basilica B. The Palaestra comprised a peristyle central court, rooms and a small amphitheatre.
The prison of Apostle Paul. The structure is actually a Roman water cistern which was later converted into a cult place.

Basilica A. Large, three-aisled basilica (130x 50m) with transept aisle on the east side, a square atrium and gallery over the aisles and the narthex. Fragments of the luxurious pavement and part of the ambo are preserved in the middle aisle. Particularly impressive are the frescos that imitate orthostates (dados) in the porch of a chapel. Dated to the end of the 5th century A.D.

Basilica B. Three-aisled basilica dated to ca. 550 A.D. It has a narthex and annexes to the north and south (phiale, vestry). The almost square in plan, central aisle was covered with a vault supported by huge pillars composed of ancient drums. A second vault roofed the sacred Bema. Its sculptural decoration is under the influence of Constantinople.

Basilica C. An impressive three-aisled basilica with narthex and transept, and a double ambo. It had luxurious marble inlaid floors and rich sculptural and architectural decoration. Dates from the 6th century A.D.

Octagonal church. The building is square in plan as seen from outside and octagonal inside. The nucleus of the whole structure is the vaulted tomb-heroon of the Late Hellenistic period. The octagonal church was built in ca. 400 A.D. and replaced the first small church dedicated to Apostle Paul.

• In the area between the Via Egnatia and the cult buildings of the Octagon, we find one of the Baths of Philippi. The complex also includes the phiale, a baptistery and a monumental gateway towards the Via Egnatia.

[Click here to see all the pictures of Philippi]

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Experiencing the perfection of a Greek temple

It was back in the early 1970's when I saw my very first Greek temple and that happened in Paestum, Italy. Until then I had only seen spare pictures, mostly black and white and some rare color illustrations on luxury calendars as were fashionable back then. Today this is hard to believe we once lived without digital photography or even color TV. As I traveled to southern Italy in mid-winter I was about the only tourist there and I could take all my time to mentally reconstruct this magnificent city, once part of Magna Graecia.

Walking in and around Paestum, I couldn't escape the main landmarks, i.e. the three temples that were absolutely mind-blowing! The oldest temple (c. 550 BC), the so-called Basilica, was labeled as an odd one since it counted nine columns on its small side (width), a rare exception since their numbers are supposed to always be even. Next, there was the splendid Temple of Poseidon (c. 450 BC) with on the inside two rows of columns one on top of the other – I couldn’t believe something like this existed at all. The Temple of Ceres (c. 500 BC) was more austere and did little to trigger my imagination, but overall I couldn't get enough of the sun and shadows playing with the columns and their projection against the blue skies although I perfectly realized that I was marveling at something the ancient Greeks would probably have torn down. In their eyes it would have been nothing more than an empty skeleton as the sacred naos of the temple was gone and none of its decorations had survived. Yet, my curiosity was awakened and the foundation for my enthusiasm for Greek architecture, especially temples, was established once and for all.

Only a couple of years later, I was lucky enough to make it to Greece and I rushed straight to Athens, which for me was the very core of everything that was Greek, the city crowned by its unique Acropolis that reigned over the Greek world for eons.

This was a trip which I had thoroughly prepared, writing to the various tourist offices, museums and other institutions to obtain their catalogues and informative guide-books as we did in times before the internet. I had studied the pictures and maps, and I knew exactly at what time of the day this or that monument would stand out to give the best perspectives and evidently the best photos. I remember how nervously excited I was, striding upwards through the Propylaea and setting eyes for the very first time on the huge complex with the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, the Temple of Niké and others. My legs were shaking and I felt dizzy, not knowing where to start or how to properly take in this amazing site. It was like a meeting with the gods. The place was crowded of course, but that was nothing compared to today's hordes led by yelling guides in scores of languages. On one occasion I was there in the very early morning with only a dozen of other early birds, a rare opportunity to let myself slide back in time.

The crown-jewel of the Acropolis is evidently the Parthenon (c. 440 BC), which we oddly enough meet from the wrong side, yet in all its majesty. What amazed me most and still amazes me is the sheer perfection of this temple – a perfection that has never been surpassed in later Greek sanctuaries. In my mind, it is clear for instance that there are no Roman temples, they are all Greek but built by the Romans since every copy, Roman or other, can only compete in beauty when this same Greek perfection is being met.

Strangely enough, the true secret of this perfection lies in the fact that the eye is being tricked for there is not a single straight line in the entire construction! Well, maybe this is an over-statement on my part but still not too far from the truth. To start with, the very crepidoma (base) of the temple is not entirely flat but slightly bulging in its centre; the architrave (the part running just above the capitals of the columns) is bulging also. The walls of the cella (the actual heart of the temple) and the outside columns are leaning a fraction inwards. These same columns slowly taper off towards the top in a slight inward curve and the fluting is deeper at the bottom than higher up. Most mysterious of all is the inter-relationship between its height, width and depth. I am not familiar with architecture but there seem to be lots of arithmetic and geometric correlation in the calculation of the proportions. The love of the Greeks for these proportions will certainly have contributed to creating such perfect measurements. In any case, it took us more than two thousand years to figure this out. It is hard to believe that in those heydays of antiquity architects knew how to make these complicated calculations or had the tools to do so! But once you give them the credit they deserve, you'll look at a temple with greater respect and higher consideration – I can assure you!

But returning to my visit of some forty years ago, there was another surprise awaiting me: I could walk freely inside the Parthenon and the other monuments of the Acropolis – a unique opportunity to let my mind and imagination run back to the days of Pericles, Demosthenes and evidently Alexander the Great. I could take all the time I wanted to uncover every corner, every single frieze and every sculpture still left in situ. It felt as if I were sharing the Parthenon's intimate secrets as I looked up to this fabulous masterpiece, just like the people of Athens had done over the centuries and with them all of Greece and the rest of the known world.

The absolute climax was my calculated visit by full moon, a feast that is no longer available to today's pilgrim. For three consecutive nights you could stroll over the entire Acropolis! All the floodlights were extinguished and after buying my entrance ticket at the poorly lit booth, I was plunged in this surreal moon-lit stone island. I thought I was seeing the Acropolis just like the ancient Greeks did by full moon, but at the same time, I was aware that the temples and other sanctuaries must have looked quite different in their full glory. The reflection of the moonlight on the pure marble was absolutely breathtaking, more from an alien planet than from the real world. The handful of people who shared this timeless moment with me moved like shadows and spoke in low whispering voices.  I walked over to the southern edge of the plateau, right above the Plaka with its many restaurants and bars. The sounds must have been familiar to the ancient Greeks, with the people talking, laughing and singing to the music streaming out of the local taverns. It came and went in waves, carried by gentle summery winds into the darkness of the night. It was pure magic … My steps then led me past the very entrance of the Parthenon to the northern edge of the Acropolis from where I had a plunging view into the Theater of Herod Atticus and that of Dionysus. No memories here of the common people chatting and chanting but instead a performance even older than this sacred area, that of a Greek play in a perfect setting and performed as only the full blooded Greeks can. What a thrilling and timeless experience this was!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Miletus' Museum reopened

Great news, at last! It is so frustrating to know there is a museum full of interesting artefacts but to find it closed when you get there. It happened to me when I was exploring Miletus in 2007 and headed straight to the museum. It was closed “for restoration” they said, and I couldn’t help having my doubts for it is such an easy excuse if the guardian doesn’t feel like opening the doors to the sacred treasures in his care. Yet, there is nothing one can do about it.


After countless years, they finally managed to make their finds accessible to the general public and not just in a “restored” museum but in an entirely new building as it appears. The news has been keep rather quiet for even the Hurriyet Daily News, which is always eager to advertise this kind of information, simply lists it as one item among other museums that have finally reopened after restoration and/or renovation.

I owe the information to the Travel Blog of Peter Sommer Travel where it was published at the end of November 2011. The brand new museum contains items found in the wider Miletus area, spanning a long period of time, from to the Neolithic (about 3500 BC) up to the 16th century.

Today’s visitor to Miletus doesn’t see much beyond the Roman remains of the city, based mainly on the reconstructions after its total annihilation by the Persians in 493 BC. It is very inspiring to discover remains from as early as the Bronze Age when Miletus had close ties with Crete and mainland Greece as well as from the 6th century BC when the city was a leading centre of Greek culture. On display are finds from the nearby site of Priene as well as from the Temple of Apollo in Didyma. Comments inside the museum are graciously provided in English, which is a true bonus for any local exhibition. To give the prospect visitor some idea of what to expect, Peter Sommer's Travel Blog also includes some interesting pictures.

Reason enough for the sun worshipping tourist to move just a little further inland in order to see all these beauties for himself!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Birth of a Legend - In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great

This is a new tour organized by Peter Sommer Travels, meant to replace their previous (longer) trip From Boy to King. From what I understand, many people found it difficult to take a three weeks vacation to complete the original thorough pilgrimage in the homeland of Alexander the Great. As a result, the plans have been revised and redrawn and PST has come up with a brand-new tour of eleven days for 2013, Birth of a Legend.


It is obvious that all the key locations where major events in the life of Alexander took place had to be preserved. The starting point is the Greek province of Macedonia with Alexander’s birthplace Pella and the site of Aegae with the tomb of his father, King Philip II, at today’s Vergina, followed by Mieza where Aristotle taught the young prince and a look at the spectacular site of Aiani. Several museums here in Northern Greece are as a matter of fact included beside the Archeological Museum of Thessaloniki.

Another important stop is made near Mount Olympus, the residence of the Greek gods, at the nearby site of Dion, Macedonia’s religious sanctuary which Alexander visited in great pump before he crossed over to Asia.

Further south, PST will stop at the battlefield of Chaironeia where the 18-years-old Alexander annihilated the Theban Band and where his father gained the hegemony over all of Greece. From there the route runs further to the oracle site of Delphi and onwards to Olympia where King Philip ordered the construction of his famous Philippeon to house the family statues, including that of Alexander.

Homer is never far away when it comes to Alexander and tribute is paid to this great writer at the site of Mycene, once at the heart of the myths of Troy so much admired by Alexander. Corinth is another key location since it is here that both King Philip II and, after his death, Alexander the Great were recognized as leader of all the Greek cities and states.

The tour ends in Athens, as a matter of course I would say, with a visit to the Acropolis and its newly built museum, as well as to the National Archeological Museum.

As usual, there are plenty of relaxing moments with wine-tasting and a free day to be filled with interesting sites and more sight-seeing. All in all, a wonderful opportunity to grasp the essence of young Alexander and to realize how this environment has helped to shape the greatest conqueror the world has ever known.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Alexander the Great by Arthur Weigall


Arthur Weigall’s book about Alexander the Great (ISBN 2228897531) is about the only book one can find at the bookstore of Brussels’ Museum of Art and History (MRAH-KMKG), so I was tempted to buy it in pocket format. A bargain, I thought.

Now I have second thoughts about my purchase, which for once I got in a French translation while I generally make a point of reading a book, and more so when it comes to a book about Alexander, in its original version. So it may be the translation that doesn’t carry the deeds and campaigns of Alexander as they should, but I’m more inclined to blame Weigall himself. It is, of course, slightly outdated since it was written in 1934 (reviewed in 1976), and lots of discoveries and updates have come to light since (for instance the location of ancient Aegae thought to be still under the waterfalls of Edessa).

What annoys me most of all is Weigall’s tone. I have the strong feeling he simply wants to ram his vision of Alexander down my throat and I find this entirely unacceptable. He is evidently entitled to his own opinion about Alexander’s personality and conquests, but so am I and with me, any other reader.

But then, numerous descriptions are simply grasped out of the blue. He states, for instance, that Alexander is a bad-tempered young man and that when he became a man, he needed wine to calm his nerves! He speaks of Alexander’s wish to free the Greeks trampled under the feet of the Persians in Asia Minor (very lyrical!) and that he acted upon the orders of the gods (why not?). When he visits King Darius’ mother in her tent after the Battle of Issus, he paints a lovely picture whereby the young princesses in a flow of tears kiss Alexander’s hand. But worst of all, he relates very strange anomalies, like stating that Alexander had himself proclaimed King of Babylon and King of Asia when he first arrived in that city; or how on his deathbed he leaves his throne “to the strongest” (kratisto), which is true enough, but adding that he might also have said “to Heracles”, his only son (by Barsine)! Where he gets this information from is anyone’s guess.

All in all here is a history of Alexander the Great, but I wouldn’t bet on it. There are better and much better books than this one.