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 Dragiana/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)

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Conquest and Empire. The Reign of Alexander the Great by A.B. Bosworth

Strangely enough, Conquest and Empire. The Reign of Alexander the Great by A.B. Bosworth (ISBN 0-521-40679-X) is on my bookshelves for years and it is one of those books that I consult on a pretty regular base when I need to elucidate a particular aspect of Alexander’s life. High time to add it to my blog-library!

The book is in fact split in two distinct sections.

The first part The Gaining of empire (336-323 BC) tells us about Alexander from his accession to the throne to his final year, i.e. his death. It is written in Bosworth’s unique style, crisp and clear, using sentences in which each word plays its role avoiding confusing or superfluous adjectives or descriptions.

The second half of the book, which appears under the title Thematic Studies, gives a detailed and extremely useful analysis of Alexander’s campaigns and the many facets of his life that have to be taken into consideration. Bosworth has divided these studies into four separate chapters:

A.  Mainland Greece in Alexander’s reign, generally covering the events in Greece while the king is marching east;
B.  Alexander and his Empire, shedding some light on the financial administration and the government of his newly acquired empire;
C.   Alexander and the Army, concentrating on the changes he has to implement in his armed forces as the clashes with the enemy move from organized battle formations to guerilla warfare;
D.    The divinity of Alexander, discussing divinity as perceived by the Greeks in general as well as Alexander’s self-proclaimed divinity.

Speaking for myself, I widely use this book as reference material and I’ve never been disappointed by Bosworth’s expert explanations and background research. Everybody wanting to learn more about Alexander than a mere succession of fights and battles should get a hold of this quality reading material.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Water laws, still unchanged after nearly two thousand years

The year is 144 AD, the location the city of Laodicea near Hierapolis (modern Pamukkale), the lawmaker Aulus Vicirius Matrialis who was State Governor under Emperor Antoninus Pius, and the law regulating the use and misuse of water is still very current. 


It reads as follows:

Those who divide the water for their personal use should pay 5,000 denarii to the empire’s treasury. It is forbidden to use the city water for free or to grant it to private individuals. Those who buy the water cannot violate the Edict of Vespasian; those who damage the water pipes will pay a fine of 5,000 denarii. The water depots and water pipes of the city should have a roofed protection. The governor’s office will appoint two citizens as curators every year to ensure the safety of the water resource. Those who have farms close to the water channels cannot use this water for agriculture.

These are the explicit does and don’ts as can be read on a marble inscription recently unearthed in Laodicea. It regulates the use of water running down the nearby Karci Mountains that was channeled through the city and that fed many of its fountains. The text was presented by the Laodicea Assembly to the proconsul of Ephesos for approval. This proconsul in turn approved the law on behalf of the Roman Empire. The fact that the law was supervised by Rome proves how important water management already was 1,900 years ago – maybe earlier than that.

Water was vital for Laodicea as it was (and still is) for any other city and it is not surprising that the fines were pretty steep. The basic amount of 5,000 denarii would represent more than 16,000 Euros in today’s money. Those who polluted the water, damaged the water channels or broke the water seals of the pipes could be fined 12,500 denaii, i.e. 40,000 Euros. The same penalty would apply to senior staff that overlooked the illegal use of water. It would make you think twice before tampering the water conduits! There was a system of justice in place also, for whoever denounced the polluters would receive one-eight of the penalty as reward.

The discovery of this law tablet is part of the ongoing excavations in the ancient city of Laodicea, exposing some 2,300 artifacts retrieved from among the monumental columns of the Sacred Agora, the Central Agora and the Stadium Street. It looks like one of those must-see places in Turkey!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Traces of the Ptolemy’s at Paphos, Cyprus

Because of its copper mines, Cyprus occupied a prominent position in de production of armoury, swords, and other objects in bronze since early antiquity. The quality of those arms was already praised by Homer and we know that Alexander’s sword, a gift from the King of Kition (modern Larnaca), was extremely light and of excellent quality. Another richness of the island was its shipbuilding and its navy that made it the envy of many nations and kings. Alexander was no exception as he called upon a sizable fleet from Cyprus to assist him during the siege of Tyre in 332 BC.

Cyprus is also the birthplace of Aphrodite, so the legend goes. Nobody can visit the island without being taken to the very beach where Aphrodite rose from the sea, a spot that is forever marked by a boulder on the seashore. True or not, it is indeed a lovely place to enjoy in the quietness of a sunset.

This is not far from Paphos, not my first choice destination but the place has lots of interesting sites worth visiting, especially since it was founded at the end of the fourth century BC as the first capital of Cyprus. When the island was annexed by Rome in 58 BC, Paphos kept this privileged status till it was destroyed by the successive earthquakes of the fourth century and the capital was subsequently moved to Salamis.

One of the most appealing sites of Paphos may well be the so-called “Tombs of the Kings” although the name is very misleading. No king has ever been buried in any of these underground tombs, but the place is impressive all the same. I stumbled on this peculiar site quite by accident, surprised by the name and by its location, hardly two kilometres from today’s town of Paphos.

The “Tombs of the Kings” is a series of underground tombs and burial chambers that create the feeling of a small city – a city of the dead, that is. It started to be used as early as the 3rd century BC by Ptolemaic aristocrats and remained in use till the 3rd century AD. The burial practice was continued by early Christians who even turned one of the tombs into a chapel. Today it has been declared a World Heritage Site. The tombs are carved out of the solid rock and show a definite Greek if not Macedonian influence. This is not surprising since Cyprus was part of Ptolemy’s heritage after the death of Alexander the Great and has been fought over for decennia by his competitive Diadochi time and again.

Some tombs appear like miniature houses with a central courtyard surrounded by Doric columns shading frescoed walls. Not all columns are fluted but the architraves and door lintels often are crowned with the typical frieze alternating triglyphs and metopes, including the regulae and guttae. The walls around the courtyard and along the corridors are punctuated by empty niches that once contained the remains of individual corpses. Some of the spaces in between have been enhanced with interesting reliefs. The costly grave goods and jewellery have long since been looted, but it is not difficult to mentally recreate a lively picture. Some of these villa-like constructions are rather elaborate with arched passages and staircases running up and down. Originally most walls and tombs were covered with stucco and decorated with frescoes of which many traces have survived. It was customary to celebrate the anniversaries of the deceased loved ones with a ceremonial meal, sharing the food with the dead as so often was the case in antiquity, but here it creates a rather homely feeling.

One of the tombs has a large stone block left in the middle of the atrium, creating space for extra niches. Archaeologists have counted 18 burial sites here, all from Hellenistic times and three of them were still intact when located. One of these three contained the remains of a child buried in a terracotta pipe, while the two other tombs revealed precious gifts like a gold myrtle wreath and a fine amphora from RhodesA highly unusual site and most definitely worth a visit!

In the city of Paphos there are many more antiquities although it takes some walking around to find them.

There is, for instance, a very large basilica with seven naves that was built using spolia from antique buildings destroyed during the severe earthquakes of 332 and 342 AD. Excavations of this Panagia Chrysopolitissa have revealed a number of geometric mosaics and remains of columns in different types of marble including cipollino. At some time during the 6th century the basilica was reduced in size, probably because of the dwindling population. By the 11th century a small Byzantine church, the Agia Kyriaki, was built in the apse of the old basilica. Here we also find a stub of a column which reportedly is the column where St Paul was flagellated while on his missionary tour of the island. The small church we see here today dates from around 1500 and still functions as an Anglican Church.

Another intriguing place is a large pistachio tree covered with hundreds of white pieces of cloths that belongs to the church of Agia Solomoni. The tree is said to be sacred and is still being used by those seeking help with their health problems; it will cure whoever hangs a personal votive offering on its branches, in particular those having eye problems. It is a sign-post for ancient catacombs, used by Christians in the second century or, as believed by others, originally dug out during Hellenistic times. One of the tombs has been turned into the Chapel of the Seven Sleepers that was particularly popular during the Middle-Ages. It is dark inside but there are still remains of the 12th century’s frescoes, including graffiti left by the Crusaders. Interestingly, the locals refer to this cavern as the Tomb of Ptolemy, without specifying which one of the pharaohs is meant.

The Agora, in turn has not much to offer except some foundations giving shape to the open space and the surrounding four porticos. The West side is best preserved and it is here that we find the Odeon, which has undergone some restorations so it can be used for various cultural events. This section dates from the second century AD.

The theatre in turn was built around 300 BC and remained in use till the end of the 3rd century AD. It has gone through several stages of remodelling and renovation over the centuries, but knew its heydays in the second century AD when the stage façade was entirely clad with marble. It could seat as many as 8,000 spectators. Excavations are underway and I am looking forward to what new information the Australian Archaeological Mission may bring to light.


Most popular in Paphos is the impressive collection of mosaic floors unearthed among the houses located south of the Agora. It is not often that we see so many of them still in situ. They all clearly belong to the villas of the Roman rich and famous living here between the 2nd and 5th century AD. They generally show compositions from Greek mythology and were created using a combination of tesserae and glass paste. These mosaics really stand out and are of much better quality and finesse than what we usually find in Roman buildings after the second century AD.

The first villa I encounter is the House of Aion, only partially excavated but it treats the visitor to a most spectacular floor mosaic from the fourth century. It is divided in several panels and shows The birth of Dionysus, Leda and the Swan, the beauty contest between Cassiopeia and the Nereids, Apollo and Marsyas, and the Triumph of Dionysus. Each and every composition deserves our full attention!

Next stop is at the House of Theseus built at the end of the second century AD on top of earlier Hellenistic and Roman buildings. This large villa that was occupied till the 7th century counted at least one hundred rooms, leading scholars to believe that this was the residence of the governor of Cyprus. Most of its floors have mosaics with geometric patterns, but three rooms are most remarkable since they show human figures.

The oldest and most striking mosaic depicts Theseus and the Minotaur, a very well recognizable labyrinth with Theseus at its centre. It dates from the end of the 3rd/early 4th century AD with obvious restorations probably carried out after the repeated earthquakes. The mosaic showing Poseidon and Amphitrite was created about a century later and seems to belong to a bedroom. At the beginning of the fifth century a new mosaic floor was laid out in the reception area where only the scene of Achilles’ first bath has survived. Another typical floor has a geometrical pattern with at its centre a picture of The Three Horaes, goddesses of the seasons.

Last but not least, there is the Villa of Dionysus also built at the end of the second century AD and abandoned after the severe earthquakes that destroyed so much of Paphos in the fourth century. The construction is Greco-Roman with the rooms arranged around a central courtyard. One quarter of the 2,000 m2 floors is paved with mosaics in very lively colours and there is one blue vase that truly catches my eye. There is a large collection of lovely hunting scenes with tigers, bulls and boars; and a collection of figures set in round and square frames; and, of course, several mythological figures.

In the end, although I was very sceptic about visiting Paphos, I was in for many unexpected but pleasant surprises. It really pays off to venture out and about instead of following the beaten path of organized tours.

[Click here to see all the pictures of Paphos]

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Symposium by Plato

The Symposium by Plato (ISBN 0-14-044024-0) is not exactly my kind of reading, but must be for those persons really interested in philosophy. I found the book on a fair for second-hand books and bought it because the subject is quite intriguing and I hoped to find out more about it. Beside that, Plato was the tutor of Aristotle who in turn was called to Macedonia by King Philip to teach young Alexander. Reason enough to have a close look.

The stage is set in Athens of 416 BC where a group of people from the upper-class are coming together to eat, drink and talk at the house of the poet Agathon. The other guests are Phaedrus, an aristocrat; Pausanias, the legal expert; Eryximachus, a physician; Aristophanes, the great comic poet; Socrates, the philosopher and Plato’s teacher; and towards the end of the Symposium enters Alcibiades, a prominent statesman, orator and general – quite a mixed company.  It is being decided that, since they all recently have been drinking heavily, they will amuse themselves with talk in the form of a speech instead of the usual entertainment with flute girls and wine. Each participant will take his turn and the subject that is chosen is Love.

Each character evidently develops his own vision and opinion. Love as expressed during this symposium is mostly homosexual love between men as was current in classical Greece at that time. The one before last speaker is Socrates who asserts that the love of wisdom is the highest level of love, introducing the bases for what is to be known later on as platonic love. At this stage, Alcibiades bursts in with some drunken companions and takes the lead. He sketches the character of Socrates and his own love and admiration for the philosopher. A last drunken party erupts and mingles, and in the end, some of the guests go home while others stay put and fall asleep. In the early morning hours only Agathon, Aristophanes and Socrates are still awake, talking and drinking. The last “survivor” is Socrates who leaves the house as sober as when he arrived.

So much for the story itself, the philosophy has to be taken as it comes by those who want to linger on these deep reflections about the human soul. In Socrates’ speech, the question is clearly asked whether Achilles would have died to avenge Patroclus if he had not believed that his courage would live on in men’s memory. The desire for immortal renown and glory is the incentive to his action; he is in love with immortality. This book definitely leads to some deep reflection on the subject.

What I find interesting is the general concept of what we call today homosexuality and the intensity of the shameless drinking. This is, of course, seen through the eyes of our modern society. True love between men prevailed and was accepted without question, something we should seriously consider when talking about Alexander’s love for Hephaistion. The heavy drinking that could go on for hours is another aspect of ancient life that we should take into account in Alexander’s life. He probably wasn’t drinking more or any less than his companions or his army buddies. Judging facts that happened more than two thousand years ago is extremely hard and I think in this aspect we could be a little more tolerant towards Alexander as a man. 

Friday, November 13, 2015

Gordion, a name with resonance

The very name Gordion, capital of ancient Phrygia, automatically raises images of King Midas’ Tomb and of Alexander cutting the famous knot making him the king of the world according to the legend.

Today Gordion (approximately 58 miles southwest of modern Ankara) makes the headlines because a wooden tomb has been unearthed in a new tumulus where treasure hunters had started illegal diggings. This is the second wooden tomb ever found, the first being the one attributed to King Midas, but both are dating back to the 8th century BC. Serious excavations started here by the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara and hopes are high to find the remains of an eminent personality.

Fieldwork carried out in 2014 and 2015 has revealed the presence of 21 new tumuli in the area, bringing their total number to 124. I find this not really surprising for when I drove up to Gordion a few years ago I had been wondering about the many man-made hills in the otherwise flat landscape. A recent article in the Hurriyet Daily News discloses sites at the following locations: Yassihöyük, 87 tumuli; Şabanözü, 12 tumuli and 2 mounds; Çekirdeksiz, 4 tumuli and 2 mounds; Kiranharmani, 7 tumuli and 1 mound; Beylikköprü, 10 tumuli, Ömerler, 2 tumuli; Sazilar, 1 tumulus; and Beyceğiz, 1 tumulus. Enough work for future generations, I’d say.

Gordion was the capital city of the land of the Phrygians who settled here in the early 9th century BC and reached their peak a century later. Yet the country remained under constant enemy threat and it has been reported that the Cimmerians destroyed Gordion in 690 BC. When the Lydians in turn arrived, they rebuilt the city, but it was destroyed once again by the invading army of Cyrus the Great in 547-546 BC. From then onward, Gordion once again became a commercial and military center, this time as a satrapy in the Achaemenid Empire. The Persians even installed a garrison at Gordion, which was eventually overthrown by Parmenion, one of Alexander’s generals who spent the winter of 333/334 BC here with part of the army.  At the same time, Alexander marched through Lycia in the south to regroup with Parmenion the next spring. In 278 BC however, the city was destroyed by the Gauls and totally abandoned by 200 AD.


The most famous king of Phrygia is beyond any doubt King Midas, best known from Greek mythology and famous for his ability to change everything he touched into gold. The story goes that one night he met the satyr Silenus and hoped to learn from his wisdom. He gave him food and drink, and returned him to his companion Dionysus. To thank the king for his kindness, Dionysus granted him a wish. Although he was already famous for his wealth, Midas obviously wanted more and received the ability to turn any object he touched into gold. The wish worked to perfection and consequently all trees, flowers, fruits and even the soil the king touched turned into gold. When trying to mount his horse, it too turned into gold. The worst happened when sat down for dinner and all the tasty food instantly was transformed into gold. He realized his fate too late and suffered from hunger and thirst; his bed became hard as stone now it was made of gold. Sick with misery, he sought out Dionysus again asking him to reverse the gift. Luckily, Dionysus was very understanding and told him to wash in the Pactolus River in Lydia. As soon as he arrived, he jumped into the water washing away his curse. Part of the legend lives on as gold is still being retrieved from the river bed of the Pactolus.

On my tour In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great with Peter Sommer, I visited the tomb of King Midas in Gordion although some sources say that it is too old to belong to this king, although he might have built it for his predecessor, maybe his father. It is housed inside a huge tumulus, 53 meters high and approximately 300 meters in diameter. I didn’t know what to expect here, but once inside I saw walls made of wooden beams in the style of a log cabin in which an opening had been cut to access the burial room. The beams have been heavily studded on all sides shortly after being discovered, originally because the tomb was flooded and later because the wood was being attacked by fungi and insects. In fact, the visitor only can see the thick wooden beams and is sadly not allowed inside the actual burial chamber.

That burial chamber measures 5.15x6.2 meters and is 3.25 meters high. Thanks to an analysis of the timber, the tomb has been dated to about 740 BC. Beside the bed on which the skeleton of a man of about 60 years was resting, the room was filled with bronze and brass vessels varying from huge cauldrons to smaller plates and beakers, ladders, fibulae and exquisite inlaid wooden tables and stands. Of typical Phrygian origin are the bronze belts, wooden and bronze animal figures and the geometric pottery. All the artifacts have been moved to Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara and the Archeological Museum in Istanbul.

So far no traces of the city have been dug up. Strabo describes Gordion’s location close to a river, but over the centuries the nearby river has shifted and today’s level is about eleven meters higher. Yet, I do visit a site that might be Gordion – if not, evidently another important Phrygian settlement. There was a big outer city here, something in the style of Troy. The city gate had timber walls on the inside, which should help in dating it. The city’s ramparts on the other hand were made of two parallel stone walls and the inside space was filled with wood. The Cimmerians destroyed Gordion in 696 BC and the ensuing fire preserved these walls and were later covered with mud up to four meters deep. A new city was built by the Lydians in the same pattern on top of the existing remains. Otherwise, it’s difficult to figure out what has been excavated in spite that one of the large buildings could be the royal palace. The only recognizable features are the grinding stones that are nicely lined up for the occasion.

At the small local museum I marvel at the Phrygian pebble mosaics from the 9th century BC, tiny pebbles skillfully arranged in geometric patterns. There is also a collection of Phrygian terracotta roof tiles, gutters and decorative plaques. It seems that the technique was invented in Greece around the middle of the 7th century BC and that the idea had spread in Anatolia in the early 6th century BC – an interested way to date these architectural elements.

Upon his arrival at Gordion, Alexander joined up with Parmenion who had spent the winter in this area with part of the army. Also, the newly married men from Macedonia who had been sent home last winter arrived together with extra fresh troops to increase Alexander’s forces.

There is no trace of the place where Alexander cut the Gordian knot, of course. It just could be anywhere in the region. Why didn’t the ancient writer mention Midas’ Tomb in connection with the knot that would have made things so much easier for us! 

I find myself in one of the strangest landscapes of Turkey, so flat, so barren, yet dotted with so many perfectly shaped cones, i.e. the tumuli that are still under investigation. It is hard to picture Strabo’s description of this being a natural fertile land with many woods of pine trees and juniper.

Whether Alexander stopped purposely at Gordion to cut the knot is not certain, but he certainly could not have resisted taking up the challenge! According to the legend Phrygia in ancient times was without king and an oracle had predicted that the first man entering the city with an ox-cart would become their king. It turned out to be a peasant farmer, named Gordias. Out of gratitude, his son Midas decided to dedicate the ox-cart to their main god Sabazios. He tied the cart to a post using an intricate knot of cornel bark and it stood there at the palace for the next four centuries till Alexander arrived in 333 BC. Sources from antiquity do not agree on the way he “untied” this knot. Alexander must have had a very close look at it, but since the ends of the ropes were hidden he could not figure this out. Well, he was not going to give up and certainly didn’t want to lose face in front of his men and the newly conquered citizens. Some claim that Alexander simply pulled the pin securing the yoke to the pole of the cart, thus exposing both ends. A less plausible (but more theatrical) theory is that he simply sliced the knot with a stroke of his sword. It seems that the prophecy announcing that whoever untied the knot would become the king of Asia was born at that time. True or not, it does not really matter. At any rate, that very night a violet thunderstorm rumbled over Gordion and Aristander, Alexander’s soothsayer, said this was a sign that Zeus (generally accepted as the counterpart of Phrygian Sabazios) was blessing the king with many victories.

[Click here to see all the pictures of Gordion]

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Astrology and Astronomy, one and the same in antiquity

The subtitle could be: What a coin could tell us, for this is about a Greek coin minted around 120 BC showing King Antiochus VIII of Syria on one side but on the reverse we find the unusual picture of Zeus with a crescent of the moon above his head while his right arm is reaching out to a star (maybe the planet Jupiter?) hovering above the palm of his hand. It is a one-of-a-kind iconography, meaning that is was worth investigating further.

Antiochus VIII was king of the Seleucid Empire, which in his days had its capital in Antioch-on-the-Orontes at the border of modern Turkey and Syria. His empire was threatened by the expansionism of the Parthians in the east and that of the Romans in the west. He started his kingship at the side of his mother, Cleopatra Thea, a very domineering woman who had gone so far as to kill her oldest son so Antiochus could be the ruler of her choice. This did not reassure Antiochus who decided to put his mother to death in 121 BC.

The abovementioned coin is indeed out of common; maybe there is a meaning beyond the simple picture of Zeus. Dr Robert Weir, a classic professor with an interest in astronomy and ancient coins started to make some calculations to see what the sky of Antioch-on-the-Orontes would have looked like in Antiochus’ days. He found that on January 17, 121 BC, the planet Jupiter was blocked out by the moon, a phenomenon that today is called an “occultation”. When this occultation happened, the moon was in the constellation of Cancer, a very significant constellation. This was explained as a sign that a great king was coming, or would be born in Syria since the Cancer constellation governs that part of the world according to the ancient astrologers. 

Yet, there was more happening in the night sky at that time. Dr Weir discovered that another occultation of Jupiter happened within the year and just one week after the first one, there also was an occultation of Venus, considered to be a very good omen too. This was especially well received by King Antiochus ruling over his ever shrinking Seleucid empire barely delivered from his murderous mother.

But appearances are deceptive and the following years did not favour the king. His half-brother and cousin, Antiochus IX, claimed the throne and in the end what was left of the once proud Seleucid Kingdom was split between the two of them. Over the next few years several bad luck eclipses of Mars and Saturn lit the night skies. The final blow came in 114 BC, shortly before the coin was stopped being minted: the Moon eclipsed Mars and Saturn at the very same time. Such an eclipse happens only once in 2,000 years and is recorded as being about the worst omen one can get.

The death of Antiochus VIII was all but glorious; he was killed by one of his ministers in 96 BC. The Seleucid Empire was doomed. In 64 BC Pompey conquered Syria that became part of the Roman Empire.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Oxus Treasure, pieces Alexander must have known

There is still a lot of guesswork about what Alexander knew about the world in general and of the Persian Empire in particular. To me, this is one of the most fascinating subjects and I keep trying to find answers. During my recent visit to the British Museum, I concentrated more closely on the so-called Oxus Treasure, the most important surviving collection of Achaemenid artifacts.

Evidently these objects were created when the Persian Empire was at its peak and roughly covered the same territory as Alexander would conquer shortly afterwards.

The Oxus Treasure probably belonged to a temple and was gathered over a longer period of time. It contains all sorts of objects like gold and silver vessels, a rich collection of coins, figurines, a model chariot, a gold scabbard, finger rings as well as miscellaneous personal objects – all found on the banks of the River Oxus, modern Amu Darya, the natural border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan with Uzbekistan. It is thought that the precious pieces were found at the site of Takht-i Kuwad, a major ferry point across the river in modern Tajikistan.

The story of this treasure seems to emerge from the Tales of 1001 Nights. It goes back to 1880 when a British officer in Afghanistan rescued a party of merchants that had been captured by bandits who took possession of their rich collection of gold and silverware. The officer helped them to recover their precious cargo and even purchased a gold bracelet from these merchants, but other pieces travelled all the way to India to surface at the bazaars of Rawalpindi. The Archaeological Survey of India and the curator of the local museum also acquired some of these objects, which eventually made their way to the British Museum.

Let’s have a closer look at some of these artifacts, which mainly belong to the 5th-4th century BC.

For a start, there is this slender cast silver statuette represented in a rather static pose closely related to early classical Greek statues. The man is wearing a typical Persian hat, but his naked body may indeed indicate a Greek influence. This is not surprising considering that the Persians invaded and occupied Greece under Darius I in 490 BC and again under Xerxes in 480 and in 479 BC. 

Next to this statuette stands another one made of cast silver as well. This one, in turn, is dressed and is holding either a bundle of sacred rods or a flower. It may represent a king as there is much likeness with the stone reliefs found at Persepolis.

More true to life are two heads made of beaten gold, one much larger than the other but both with lovely well-combed hair. The larger head shows, in fact, a beardless youth with holes in his ears and was probably wearing earrings. It may be part of a larger statue, perhaps made of wood that has disintegrated over the centuries.

Typical Achaemenid is the gold jug with a handle ending in a lion head at them rim. It has raised the possibility that the Oxus Treasure may not have been a temple dedication but should rather be considered as a source of currency. It was not an uncommon practice in antiquity to exchange goods against silver or gold objects which were simply valued according to their weight.

Also very recognizable and typical for the Achaemenid period are the different gold bracelets and armlets, especially those with the griffon heads. Often the eyes or other spaces were inlaid with precious stones. Many examples of such armlets have been reproduced on the walls of Persepolis and according to Xenophon they were among the most precious gifts exchanged at the Persian court. 

Noticeable are the coiled bracelets among other more elaborate examples. There is more jewellery, of course, but also an entire collection of gold knobs or buttons.

Another common item is the collection of bowls, particular the gold one with embossed lions walking on their hind legs and separated by drop motives.

Rather exceptional is the gold ceremonial scabbard for the short Persian sword known as akinakes, also represented in the reliefs at Persepolis. Only the thin gold layer that once covered the wood or leather support has survived, including its sublime scenes of a lion hunt. It also shows horsemen who curiously wear trousers in Persian fashion but hats that remind us of the Assyrians (although Assyrian art had disappeared for decades at the time this scabbard was made).

A true gem and eye-catcher is the tiny gold chariot pulled by four horses or ponies. Inside the chariot are two figures in Median dress, one seated on a little bench while the other is holding the reins. It is a very delicate and intrinsic piece of craftsmanship. Strangely enough, the front of the chariot shows the Egyptian protecting god Bes. How civilizations intermingle!

A gold vessel in the shape of a fish also catches my attention because of its elaborately carved scales. It probably was used to hold expensive oils. The loop on the side may have been used to hang it or served to attach a stopper now lost. It seems that the fish could be a carp.

Last but not least there is an entire series of about fifty gold plaques engraved with human figures in different positions and different dresses. They vary in size from less than 3 cm to nearly 20 cm and may have served as votive objects left in a temple or shrine. On one of the largest plaques, we recognize a Mede who seems to be involved in a religious ritual.

There are many more objects here at the British Museum from the Achaemenid period, all the kind of vessels and decorations Alexander must have found at any of the Persian palaces, from Susa to Persepolis to Pasargadae. I wonder how he would have reacted to this kind of art and to this wealth.

[Click here to watch more pictures from the BM]

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Another Macedonian tomb open to the public in Pella

Another Macedonian tomb is being revealed, this time in ancient Pella. Sadly it opens to the public only until November 2015. Macedonia, as I found out over the decennia, is extremely rich in tombs and very well preserved ones for that matter. Yet since the financial crises started in 2011 most of them are closed to the public, so maybe you should rush out to see at least this new one while it is accessible?


This new tomb definitely stands out as it is the largest rock-hewn tomb in all of Greece and counts as many as eight chambers, whereas usually there are only one or two chambers. It has been determined that this was a family tomb used without interruption from the 4th century BC till the second century BC.

It seems to be a very moving place to visit as the lighting inside gives the visitor the impression that he is descending into Hades. The entrance leads into a central rectangular chamber surrounded by openings in the walls where the dead could be laid to rest. These walls are plastered and painted in bands of black, blue, red and white, whereas the ceiling is in white.

It is not surprising that this tomb has been looted several times in the past, but it is not entirely stripped. Archeologists recovered for instance three inscribed stelae, several clay vessels and figures, jewelry, as well as bits of a gold-plated wreath; copper coins, the usual fare of the dead to the underworld, were also found.

Archaeologists even deciphered the name of “Antigone, daughter of Aeneas” on a relief in the hallway. The additive ΗΡΩΙΣΣΗ after the name of the deceased indicates that we are dealing with a hero, a very common qualification in Hellenistic times. The relief shows Antigone with her maid holding a jewelry box and has been dated to the first quarter of the third century BC, although the inscription seems to have been added at a later date, probably in the first half of the 2nd century BC.

More information about the occupants has been discovered as in the western wall, where an altar stone reveals the name of Nikostratos from Boeotia, daughter of Pythonos. This means that people from other regions had settled in Pella. The top of another marble stele carries the name of Kleonikis, daughter of Nikomachou. Some of the small figures that were unearthed here seem to indicate that one or more children were buried here. It can be concluded that the tomb belonged to a wealthy family, although the bone remains are too scant and in a too bad state of conservation to confirm their relationship.

Towards the end of thee third century BC Macedonia was economically on its decline, a tendency that is clearly reflected in this tomb.