Alexandria's founded by Alexander

Alexandria's founded by Alexander the Great (by year BC): 334 Alexandria in Troia (Turkey) - 333 Alexandria at Issus/Alexandrette (Iskenderun, Turkey) - 332 Alexandria of Caria/by the Latmos (Alinda, Turkey) - 331 Alexandria Mygdoniae - 331 Alexandria (Egypt) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Dragiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Areia (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Ai-Khanoum, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria in Margiana (Merv, Turkmenistan) - 326 Alexandria Nicaea (on the Hydaspes, India) - 326 Alexandria Bucephala (on the Hydaspes, India) - 325 Alexandria Sogdia - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria on the Indus - 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)

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Finding Cassope in Epirus

Epirus is not often in the news and most people cannot even locate it on a map. That is not really surprising for the country as such existed only in antiquity and today it is split between Greece and Albania. Yet it was the country where Queen Olympias, Alexander’s mother, was born and as such it is worth mentioning.


Recently Epirus has been in the news with the well-preserved remains of Orraon or Horraon, in north-western Greece. Today it is the turn of Cassope, which is overlooking the Ambracian Gulf on the slopes of the Zalongo Mountains. Amazingly, Cassope is one of the best examples of a city built according to the Hippodamian Plan in Greece and could easily compete with Olynthus.

Cassope was founded in the 4th century BC, but flourished one century later as testified by the many public buildings that we can still find there today. The most striking remains include those of the Cyclopean walls, the Agora, the Bouleuterion and the Theater, as well as the Prytaneion (meeting place for the officials of the city). The city was not to enjoy a long life for it was destroyed by the invading Romans in 168-167 BC and disappeared from history in 31 BC when the remaining population was moved to nearby Nicopolis, just like what happened in Orraon.

Today, Cassope is making headlines because a crowdfunding campaign has been launched in order to restore the city’s ancient theater that could seat at least 6,000 people. The target is set at 80,000 Euros and the purpose is to make this theater fit to be used again for modern events. Additional amounts may go to the restoration of the Bouleuterion and the Stadion of Cassope

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Ingenious Tower of the Winds in Athens

The Horologion of Andronikos or best known as the Tower of the Winds is an octagonal tower built from Pentelic marble by the architect and astronomer Andronicus of Cyrrhus in Macedonia. It stands near the eastern Propylon on the Roman Agora and dates from Hellenistic times, probably from the 2nd century BC (although some are inclined to date it to around 50 BC).

It is one of those buildings that proves – if proof is needed – the highly developed knowledge about wind and water in antiquity.

The Tower of the Winds has just been cleaned and restored (2016) and is truly worth the visit. The tower is 12 meters high and measures eight meters in diameter. The top of its conical roof that is still in place was topped in antiquity by a bronze weather vane like we know from our own church steeples. Each of the eight sides of the tower faces a specific wind direction that is illustrated with appropriate friezes: Boreas for the North, Kaikias for the Northeast, Eurus for the East (but according to some it is the god of the southeastern winds), Apeliotes for the Southeast (although he is the god of the rising sun and thus East), Notus for the South, Lips for the Southwest, Zephyrus for the West, and finally Skiron for the Northwest. Underneath each relief is a sundial, eight in total, making it the first clock tower in history.

Inside the tower, a mechanism powered a water clock or clepsydra driven by the water coming down from the Acropolis. The mechanism has recently been compared to that of Anticythera. It functioned thanks to water pressure created by the interior of a cylindrical space situated on the south side of the monument. The water channels are clearly visible in the tower’s pavement.

The construction has been preserved over the centuries as the tower was converted into a Byzantine church and during Ottoman rule, it was used by the whirling dervishes. It is hard to imagine that by then the tower had sunk into dust and dirt, meaning that only the upper half was still visible.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Aphrodisias, the city of Aphrodite (Turkey)

The city of Aphrodisias was founded in the 5th century BC and was built on top of a settlement from the Bronze Age. It developed as a Hellenistic city to reach its heydays under the Roman Empire, between the 1st century BC and the 4th century AD. Aphrodisias became known as Stavropolis in the 6th century AD and as the capital of Caria it was called Caria, which in turn became Geyre in Turkish. The ancient city disappeared after the 13th century when it was buried after repeated earthquakes.

After its first excavations in 1904, steady diggings were carried out from the 1960’s onward exposing a great part of Aphrodisias. The Temple of Aphrodite is still in good condition, thanks to the fact that it was converted to a Christian Basilica. Over the years, the Tetrapylon (200 AD), the entrance to the great temple, was re-erected; and the Bouleuterion (2nd-3rd century AD) as well as the Stadium that could receive as many as 30,000 spectators belong to the best-preserved examples in the eastern Mediterranean. As so often, the Baths of Hadrian have survived in pretty good condition together with a wonderful Sebasteion.


The main feature and a quite unique one, however, is the huge pool, which is set amidst a park. It is 30 meters long and 1.70 meters wide, with an overall depth of one meter. The park is the only one ever recovered from Roman times and stands out with its mixture of trees, architecture and water. This pool was a true statement to show the power of Aphrodisias, even if the city was not that big. Research has revealed many inscriptions and graffiti with religious motives and mind games which the people left around the pool as they met and socialized. A water channel ran around the pool to ensure the water circulation and thus to keep the pool clean. Palm trees stood inside this channel as well as around the pool itself. This special pool has been placed on the World Heritage List of the UNESCO, although the excavations will not be completed until next year.

Aphrodisias was known, above all as a center for the arts. Its School of Sculpture followed a style of its own and statues from the city’s workshops have been found all over the Roman world, from as far as Spain to modern Germany.

[Picture of the Tetrapylon is from Wikipedia; the picture of the pool from the Hurriyet Daily News] 

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Bello come un dio

Right, “Bello come un dio”, as beautiful as a god – only this actually is a god and what’s more the father of all gods, Zeus.

This statue of the seated Zeus was found in Soluntum, the Greek Soloeis on the north coast of Sicily. Soluntum was one of the three main Phoenician settlements on the island. Together with Panormus and Motya, Soluntum was able to hold its position against the advancing Greek colonies till it eventually fell into the hands of the Carthaginians.

The considerable remains of the city, which are visible near modern Solanto, are clearly from Roman times although Soluntum’s origin seems to go back to the 7th century BC. The remains, however, have never been totally explored.

The statue of Zeus that was found inside a sacred building was broken into many pieces. It has just recently been restored and is now on display at the Archaeological Museum Antonio Salinas in Palermo, which itself is undergoing in-depth restoration and reconstruction works.

This rather impressive image of the seated Zeus reminds us very much of the one that once stood inside the temple of Zeus in Olympia, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The father of the gods is sitting on a throne which is decorated with reliefs of Ares being crowned by Nike, Aphrodite, Eros and the Graces. His head is carved in white marble while the rest of the statue is made of local soft limestone. It has been dated to 150-100 BC.

It is indeed a true beauty!

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Battle of Gaugamela

The Battle of Gaugamela is Alexander’s best-known battle and some have even labeled it as being his biggest battle since it was a turning point in his conquest of the Persian Empire.

After the inconclusive confrontation with Darius at Issus, both kings were well aware that another battle was inevitable to establish their supremacy. There was too much at stake for the King of Persia was not ready to give up his throne and Alexander was most determined to make Persia pay for their repeated invasions and destructions of Greece and for occupying the Greek cities in Asia Minor. As we know, Alexander was, however, in no hurry and made sure to safeguard his rear by taking possession of the coastal cities and territories of the eastern Mediterranean first. After being recognized as Pharaoh in Egypt, he marched back through Syria, ready to meet his opponent in Persia.

Alexander was in Harran (today in southern Turkey) when his scouts reported that the massive Persian army was marching north from Babylon. Allowing his army a few days rest, Alexander then ordered a forced march of 350 km to the Tigris as he aimed to reach the river before any enemy force would stop him from crossing as he was told by the Persian scouts he had captured.

Darius had had two years to prepare this decisive battle and he may have learned from his mistakes (or shall we say misjudgments) at Issus. The King of Kings chose his battlefield with great care and took position in the wide plain on the eastern bank of the Tigris River, above the Boumelus River (modern Khazir), a tributary of the Great Zab, called Gaugamela. His total force has often been over-estimated but it is generally accepted that he had about 35,000 cavalry and 250,000 infantry, as well as two hundred Scythian chariots. The Persian forces were six times larger than Alexander’s and these sheer numbers alone must have caused our conqueror some headaches.

The news of Gaugamela reached Alexander before crossing the Tigris at Abu Dahir (nearly 80 km north of modern Mosul), from where he could follow the Persian Royal Road towards the battlefield.  On the fourth day of his easterly march, some stragglers informed him of the precise position of the Persian army some 25 km away. He decided to allow his troops a four days’ rest and to prepare them for further action while he would reconnoiter the layout of the battlefield. Once this was accomplished he moved his army to a base camp and the following night he took his fighting forces across the intervening hills where he rested his men. So far, there had not been any visual contact since a ridge of high ground separated both armies and it was only after passing this last ridge that Alexander had the first view of his opponent stationed about four miles away. He immediately sent for his staff and commanders to discuss the plan of action. They agreed that a careful inspection of the terrain was imperative and with a group of Companions Alexander spent a full day on valuable reconnaissance. Meanwhile, his 47,000 troops were to stay where they were. By the evening, the king summoned and briefed his senior officers again as he had decided to proceed with the attack the very next morning.

Alexander’s address to his soldiers was quite different from his constant encouragements at Issus, for here everyone knew how important a victory over the King of Persia was from the onset. Nevertheless, he stressed that every soldier should preserve his discipline in the hour of danger, that all orders must be obeyed promptly and that all officers, whatever their rank, were to pass their commands to their subordinates without hesitation or delay. Most importantly, Alexander stressed that the conduct of each of his men was crucial to the fate of all. In other words, if everyone did his duty as expected their success was assured, but if only one man neglected it the entire army would be in peril. Strong talk! If this is not a pure example of leadership, I don’t know.

Just like at Issus, Alexander then ordered his troops to rest and eat; the men had time to discuss their commander’s words and to mentally prepare for the upcoming battle. The Macedonians, at least, got more rest than the Persians who, fearing a night attack were in a constant state of alert.

For once, we know the exact date on which the battle took place thanks to the recorded eclipse of the moon on 20 September at 9 pm, predicting disaster for the Persian army and good omens for Alexander. The actual fight took place eleven days later, on October 1, 331 BC and by dawn, Alexander appeared at the head of his men wearing his resplendent ceremonial armor – ready as he ever could be!

On this wide plain, which had been cleared by the Persians of any obstacle that might hinder their chariots and their cavalry, the enemy must have felt pretty confident. Darius had placed his strongest forces on his left wing, the one that would be facing Alexander’s right. These were the best horsemen to be found, the Bactrians and Scythians with in front of them half of the scythe chariots; 50 more chariots were posted near the Royal Squadron of Darius’ cavalry and another 50 in front of his right wing. Darius took up his position at the center of his line, flanked by his Greek mercenaries followed by individual units of cavalry. Darius’ right was put under the orders of Mazaeus, his most capable general who would be facing Parmenion and his troops.

Alexander, as usual, commanded his right wing with his Cavalry Companions, linked by the 3,000 Shields Bearers to the 10,000 strong phalanx that occupied the center. In front of the cavalry, Alexander had posted his archers, slingers and javelin throwers who were his long-range weapons. The Thessalian cavalry was posted on the left under the command of Parmenion. The disposition seems to be the same as the one displayed at Issus, with these exceptions that Alexander added on both flanks a series of block formations, a mixture of heavy cavalry and light infantry in a downward line from his main front and making a near junction with his reserve line of some 20,000 mercenary infantry in the rear posted in parallel with his main forces. It obviously shows that Alexander was well-aware that he would be outflanked by the more numerous Persian forces but at the same time, he was also ready to meet an attack from any direction.

Once his forces were in place, Alexander rode up and down his frontline to lift the spirits of every man and every squadron with a last word of encouragement. Everything depended indeed on the commitment of each and every one of Alexander’s troops to maintain the line and avoid any gap in the formation that could be exploited by the Persians.

With the Persian army stringed out far beyond that of Alexander, he immediately started to advance obliquely, leading his Companions forward but as he came closer, he suddenly turned the entire force to the right in a sideways movement. He knew that by doing so he would expose Parmenion to a more serious encirclement threat but at the same time, he also knew that if he pressed on beyond the end of the Persian left the enemy most probably would follow his momentum. Consequently, the Persians would eventually leave a gap in their line and this was exactly what Alexander was aiming for. 

Darius was quick to respond to Alexander’s move by ordering his horsemen to start a flanking maneuver in order to envelop Alexander and his right wing. The operation seemed successful but as Alexander stopped his spurt, the Scythian and Bactrian horsemen fighting for Darius rushing straight for Alexander were attacked by his concealed troops, his mercenary cavalry, his infantry flank guards and several thousands of his veteran mercenaries hidden among them. As the rest of the Persian left rushed to support the Scythians, the chariots were also commanded forward (while Alexander was still within the leveled ground), but these were made useless by a joined action of the javelin throwers and archers. All these movements on the Persian left had created the effect Alexander expected, an opening towards Darius’ chariot at the center.

It makes you wonder how amidst this commotion and heavy clouds of dust Alexander was still able to order his Companion Cavalry into their customary wedge formation, leading his foot brigades to the offensive against the Persian center. The Shield Bearers, at this point, rushed forward followed on the double by the massive phalanx, probing their sarissas into the enemy lines. Alexander now plunged forward and threw a spear at the Great King (see also: Breathtaking, Alexander the Great at Gaugamela). He missed but killed his charioteer instead. It is probably at this moment that Darius turned his chariot around and fled, closely followed by his Immortals and rather shaken Royal guards.

Parmenion, from his end, must have fought a nearly impossible battle in order to keep his squadrons from being encircled and/or dislodged by the Persians under the capable command of Mazaeus. He was outflanked only by a charge of some 3,000 enemy cavalry who rushed through to the Macedonian baggage camp where the Queen Mother Sisygambis and her grandchildren were still held in Alexander’s custody. It is unclear whether she refused to accompany her rescuers or if they simply didn’t reach her as the attackers had not reckoned with Alexander’s line of mercenary reserves that made short work of the enemy forces.

Parmenion being pinned down and hopelessly outflanked left an inevitable gap on the left of the phalanx. A few units of Persian cavalry took their chances and broke the Macedonian line of defense. Their success was short lived as the disciplined phalanx soon pushed the Persians back.

Although the battle was not over, the news of Darius’ flight traveled quickly through his ranks and must have demoralized his troops. In the end, it is not clear whether it was Alexander’s supremacy that won the battle or if the Persians lost their drive as their commander in chief had fled. With bits and pieces, the Persian army turned its back to the battlefield and even Mazaeus felt he could not desert his king.

Amazingly and against all odds, Alexander had been able to maintain his line of defense. His men had not let him down!

The details of this battle are very complex. Nobody, not even Alexander, could have a comprehensive overview on how the fight unfolded and the historical accounts tell only a very partial story. The battlefield was too vast and too dusty to make any sense of what was going on beyond anyone’s immediate space. The main conclusion is that the battle was won, but with Darius on the run Alexander could not yet claim his crown of King of Persia.

[Pictures from Oliver Stone's movie Alexander, except the picture of Harran which is mine]

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Hippodamian plan, not so Greek after all

Where does an idea originate? Who is the first to “invent” this or that concept? In our modern world, we often hear that the true inventor is not the one who claims the invention to be his, either because the initial creator did not have the means to promote his idea or because he simply didn’t protect it with a copyright.

In antiquity, copyright did not exist, of course, and ideas traveled back and forth in the baggage of the merchants or in the minds of the craftsmen sold as slaves or moved from their homeland for whatever reason.

The grid plan of city building is largely attributed to Hippodamus of Miletus, a Greek mathematician, meteorologist, philosopher and physician from the 5th century BC, who also was known as a town planner. He planned the building of many cities around the Mediterranean, the first of which could be the harbor of Piraeus. He also was involved in the reconstruction of Miletus after the Persian destruction, to be followed by the construction of cities like Olynthus and Pella in Greece. His ideal city would be inhabited by 10,000 male citizens, which would correspond to a total of 50,000 people when including women, children and slaves. It would typically have a large central area that soon became the agora, surrounded by neighborhoods of 240 m2 blocks of houses with an upper floor and separated by a wall, all facing south.

Digging a little further into history, it turns out the layout of Babylon  was equally following the same grid plan with right-angle streets and the city must have looked very familiar to Alexander when he arrived there in 331 BC. Although Babylon  is much older, the city was rebuilt by the Assyrians who made it the capital of their Neo-Babylonian Empire between 609 and 539 BC. King Nebuchadnezzar II, who reigned from 605 to 562 BC, added the famous ziggurat and the Ishtar Gate, one of the eight entries to the city. The Hanging Gardens, which counted among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, were also constructed by him. Based on the available descriptions of Babylon, the grid plan was already known in Asia over a century before Hippodamus claimed his “invention”.

Yet, there is more to the ancestry of the so-called ideal Greek city layout. We have to go back 4,500 years in time and all the way to the Indus Valley where cities like Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa were founded using the very same layout. These cities had a central agora, large public baths, a large central well and many small wells serving individual houses or a cluster of houses; the sewage was led to drains running under the main streets and many houses had their own bathroom. Both cities were large settlements belonging to the Indus Valley Civilization and located on the banks of the now dried up Ghaggar-Hakra River, west of the Indus River.

With the coming of the Islam and the general decline of the Middle-Ages, we in the west lost this marvelously well-organized city planning till it was revived in the 20th century all over the globe, from Asia to the America’s. Pending whatever discoveries will be made in the future, for now, Hippodamus “invention” is just some two thousand years older than generally accepted.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

An unexpected encounter with Alexander at Delphi

Speaking of Delphi, the pictures that come to mind are those of the great Temple of Apollo, the reconstructed Treasury of the Athenians and the impressive Stadium, but who will notice the scanty walls labeled as Offering of Craterus?


Squeezed between said Temple of Apollo and the Greek Theatre is an inconspicuous rectangular building measuring 15x35 meters, probably a portico with columns in the front not unlike the Treasury of the Athenians. Thanks to the inscription on the back wall it appears that this was a Pan-Hellenic sanctuary, known in antiquity as the ex-voto of Craterus, one of the generals and friends of Alexander the Great. These ten verses also reveal that this monument was dedicated by Craterus’ son with Phila, the daughter of Antipater, who was Regent of Macedonia while Alexander was campaigning in Asia. This dedication dates probably from around 320 BC, i.e. after the death of general Craterus.

Inside stood a bronze sculpture, now lost, representing Alexander the Great and Craterus on a lion hunt. Plutarch tells us that this bronze group was created by Lysippos and Leochares, the most famous artists of the 4th century BC, while Pliny only mentions Lysippos.


The theme of the lion hunt commemorated the incident when Craterus saved Alexander’s life during such a hunting event in the East.

The best-known lion hunt is the pebble mosaic floor that was found at the House of Dionysus in Pella and which is now exhibited at the local museum. Here both Alexander and Craterus are on foot attacking the lion at the center of the picture. Another depiction of the same scene was found in Messene and is now on display at the Louvre in Paris. Here we see Craterus on horseback and Alexander on foot attacking the lion caught between them. It is not documented which of the two compositions was cast in bronze here in Delphi, but it is quite exciting to locate the very building where this special monument once stood!

[Click here to see more pictures of Delphi]

Friday, December 2, 2016

Putting Archaeological sites on the Map of Afghanistan

Archaeology in Afghanistan has known its ups and downs more than any other country in the region. Over the years, French and Russian archeologists have been working in the area, entrusting their treasures to the National Museum in Kabul. That is till 1979 when the troops of the USSR invaded Afghanistan. Archeological diggings by Frenchman Paul Bernard at Ai Khanoum, for instance, had to be interrupted abruptly and when he returned to the site recently, it was thoroughly plundered and destroyed. Most damages were, however, occurred after the Soviet troops were replaced by the Taliban followed by the IS who considered it their duty to obliterate every single image of people wherever they found it: on frescos, mosaics, paintings, reliefs or statues. We all have witnessed what happened. A precious heritage that survived for centuries has been totally destroyed for posterity.

In recent years, the work of archaeologists in Afghanistan, ancient Bactria, has been taken over by looters in the confusion of the ravaging wars. The country’s cultural heritage is in dire straits but luckily an international team has started putting its numerous sites and monuments on the map using satellite imaging. These results have been brought together in a huge database. Initially, authorities were afraid that this kind of mapping would encourage local looting, but since most of the sites have already been looted the project is going ahead since overall these looters are better informed than the professional archaeologists.


By now, DAFA (The French Archaeological Delegation to Afghanistan) have pinned down the country’s heritage sites on their map making a clear distinction between the sites that have already been excavated, those that have been simply identified or only recently discovered. When DAFA had to leave the country in 1982 under pressure from Soviet invasion they had identified as many as 1,286 heritage sites but today that number has tripled.

Yet it remains extremely difficult to pinpoint the exact location of many of these archaeological sites since they have been destroyed by looters and illicit antique dealers or simply by people tending their fields. In urban areas, recent houses have been built right over existing ancient remains.

A new threat comes from the mining companies aiming to exploit the rich gold and copper mines, as well as the precious stones of which the lapis-lazuli is the most favorite since it is entirely unique to Afghanistan. The government is presently distributing concessions and this year alone they numbered 25 contracts already. Whether these mines are endangering archaeological sites or not remains rather vague; the mine operations or oil drillings are often more profitable than digging for the country’s past history.

The situation becomes quite tricky when a Chinese mining company hits a huge historical site with thousands of Buddha’s while drilling for copper.

DAFA hopes that when the map is complete and made available to everyone, they can participate in the protection of Afghanistan’s precious archaeological sites. Let's wish them luck!

Monday, November 28, 2016

The tempting site of Kibyra

It was only by chance that I noticed the name of Kibyra on a sign-post but since I was running out of time I never visited the site, which I deeply regret.


Kibyra seems to be mentioned for the first time in 189 BC, which is during Roman expansion, but it must have been a rather important city since it had two votes in the Lycian League. After the major earthquake of 23 AD, nobody less than Emperor Tiberius financed the city’s reconstruction and renamed it Caesarea Kibyra. It is not surprising that it thrived under Hadrian but suffered about a century later from the invasion of the Goths after which it was largely deserted.

One of the main buildings is, of course, the theater offering a wide view over the surrounding plain and the mountains further south. With a diameter of 81 meters, it is one of the largest theaters in Anatolia. It is rather well preserved with up to fifty tiers of seats where a two meters wide diazoma could have led to another ten rows. The total seating capacity of this theater is being estimated at 7,400 spectators.


South of the theater, we find the Odeon that has recently revealed a rather unique flooring of eleven meters in diameter, entirely covered with fine mosaics representing Medusa - the sole such example known in the world. This Odeon has been dated to the middle of the third century AD.


Further to the east of the theater, there are several larger buildings, including the agora and the surrounding stoas. The streets are paved with limestone slabs covering the antique sewage system and lined with stubs of columns.

The Stadion is another striking element in the landscape. It is about 198 meters long and 7.5 meters wide with on the hillside 25 tiers of seats that are particularly well preserved, especially at the upper end.

Today, Kibyra is tentatively put on the list of the UNESCO, while excavations are ongoing since 2006. Recently, close to the agora, a round-shaped Nympheion has been exposed. This fountain plays a key role in understanding the city’s water management. With its conical roof, it is one of the most magnificent structures and archaeologists are hopeful to restore this Nympheion to make is working again by 2018. 

The site will open to the public at some time in 2017.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Olympie, the daughter of Alexander

The other day, while tuning in on my car radio, I heard the announcement for an opera involving Alexander the Great. My brain-computer went immediately to work, screening all possible sources and composers who could have produced such a work. Händel for sure had written an opera Alexander’s Feast, but the singing was in French. Händel in French? Impossible. So what was this opera about and who wrote it?

Back home, I started my investigation and found that this particular station had broadcasted the opera Olimpie (or Olympie) composed by a certain Gaspare Spontini. The piece was based on a play by Voltaire (well, well, …) and was performed for the first time on 22 December 1819 by the Opera de Paris. The opera has been translated in Italian and in German and was renamed, Olympia.

It is obvious that the story is pure imaginative for there is no known daughter of Alexander and no historical Olympie.

The story is set after the death of Alexander when his successors are fighting for control of his empire. The two main characters in the play are Cassandre, the son of Antipater, and Antigonus, one of Alexander’s generals. The fiction starts with Stateira, daughter of King Darius and Alexander’s widow who in reality was killed upon Roxanes orders. In the opera, she survives incognito as a priestess of Diana in Ephesos.

The opera implies that both Cassandre and Antigonus were involved in the murder of Alexander in Babylon. After fighting each other, they finally agree to make peace but then they both fall in love with the same girl, Aménais, who is nobody else than Stateira’s daughter by Alexander, Olympie. Aménais/Olympie is in love with Cassandre but Stateira accuses him of murdering Alexander. Aménais/Olympie pleads for Cassandre who saved her life, while Stateira turns to Antigonus for revenge. The armies of both men clash and on his deathbed, Antigonus confesses that he is responsible for Alexander’s death. The happy end is that Olympie and Cassandre get married.



A soundtrack of the opera can be found on this Youtube link but no live images exist because Spontini’s opera success was short-lived due to his competition with Gioachino Rossini.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Cyrus the Great, venerated by the Iranians today

A fact that seldom reaches the outside world is the deep admiration and pride that the modern Iranians have for their founders. They cannot avoid remembering the great Achaemenid Empire that started under Cyrus the Great in 560 or 559 BC and ended with the arrival of Alexander the Great in 331 BC. It is not surprising that Alexander is considered as “the cursed” since he terminated a dynasty that had ruled over Persia for two hundred years.

I was aware of the Nowruz festivities, Iran’s New Year that also is the first day of spring, when everybody goes en masse to the ruins of Persepolis, but the celebrations for the “Day of Cyrus the Great” are new to me.

Based on historical records, Cyrus the Great is being remembered on October 29, the date on which he entered Babylon in 539 BC. Since this city was the ancient capital of the world that included modern Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Israel, the Persian King Cyrus was soon recognized by all these countries as their legitimate ruler.

Since Cyrus the Great is buried at Pasargadae, this is where the Iranians come together. This year, the gathering was moved back one day to compensate for the leap year in the Iranian and Gregorian calendars. October 28 fell on a Friday, the weekend in Iran, and people from near and far flocked to Pasargadae. They started gathering around Cyrus’ tomb on the night before, creating unknown traffic jams on the roads which eventually had to be closed down. Social media, however, shared images of the devotees shouting slogans praising the king. Every Iranian still knows the words of Darius’ prayer for his people: “May Ahuramazda protect this country from invaders, famine and lies!”, although some historians doubt the authenticity of these words.

President Rouhani of Iran kindly commented that Persepolis is one of the invaluable and unique remains of the ancient history and had appreciative words for the ingenuity, the wisdom, and the management skills of his ancestor. However, the most senior Ayatollah in the holy city of Qom harshly criticized these gathering because Iran has so long been oppressed by kings, adding that the Iranians today live in a revolutionary and Islamic country.

Poor Cyrus, who respected the customs and beliefs of all nations, and truly deserved to be called “Great”. Translated in today’s vocabulary, we should say that he was famous for his achievements in human rights, politics and military strategy. After all, he laid the foundations for a central administration and a government that worked to the benefit of his subjects. It is sad to see how his great principles have been turned into a political and religious discussion, something he definitely did not want.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

The siege of Sangala (in modern Pakistan)

It is one of those fights that hardly catches our attention and is generally ignored among the greater battles of Alexander. Yet it is another of those gems among his incessant conquests pushing ever further eastwards.


As soon as Alexander had set foot on the eastern bank of the Hydraotes River, modern Ravi (see also: Alexander marching beyond the Hydaspes), most of the Indian tribes surrendered without resistance and those who did not were, of course, subdued by force. Sangala, however, was another story. Although the city has not yet been located, we are told by Arrian that it stood on top of a hill. The tribes that resisted Alexander in the immediate surrounding of the city had sought and found refuge inside its walls. Three consecutive circles of carts were set up around the hill by the defenders to function as individual obstacle walls. They felt pretty comfortable behind their defenses from where they could easily venture out to face Alexander - or so they thought.

Alexander is a master when it comes to adjusting his tactics to any given situation and upon arrival, he immediately instructed his archers to ride along the enemy front line while shooting their arrows at long range in order to pin them down inside the city. This gave Alexander enough time to put his men into position so he could start the advance towards the outer line of carts. The Indians advanced and climbed on their carts, attacking with bows and arrows at long range. Clearly, the cavalry was of no use here and Alexander rapidly dismounted to lead his infantry to the assault. The enemy was soon driven from the first line of carts and rallied behind the second line where they could better defend themselves as they fought in closer ranks. Although the Macedonians had to push and maneuver their way through the outer ring of carts to reach the Indians, the enemy was once again forced to withdraw. They did not make another stand behind the third ring of carts but retreated rapidly inside the city instead.

This was enough fighting for one day and Alexander instructed his infantry to string out around Sangala. However, he did not have enough troops available at this time to allow a complete encirclement. The break in his defenses was opposite a shallow lake so he took the precaution to post his cavalry around the lake. Alexander’s guess was that the Indians would try to slip out of Sangala under cover of darkness. How well he understood what warfare was all about, for his supposition turned out to be correct. In the dead of night, the Indians left the city but fell in the arms of the patrolling cavalry. Many were killed, others returned to the relative safety of the city walls.

At this stage, Alexander built a double stockade around the city and made sure that the lake itself was more efficiently guarded. He even made arrangements to bring in his siege engines when he learned from stray Indians that the people of Sangala planned to escape that very night through the opening in the stockade at the lake.

Ptolemy was put in charge and he collected all the Indian carts that were left behind and placed them across the line of the Indian’s escape route to stop or at least slow down their flight. He also instructed his men to collect the wooden posts that had not been used for the construction of the stockade and pitch them as a barrier on either side between the lake and the city. Since most of this work had been done in near darkness, the people of Sangala had no knowledge of this barrier. As soon as the Indians opened their city gates and speeded down to the lake, Ptolemy sounded the alarm and soon his men were on top of the Indians who tried to find their way between the carts and the newly erected palisade – to little or no avail and once again they withdrew inside the city.


At this time, Porus who had been called in to reinforce Alexander’s troops arrived with his elephants and some 5,000 Indians, and Alexander had erected his siege engines. The Macedonians, in the meantime, had been able to undermine the city wall and climbed the scaling ladders they set all around the town. Sangala was taken by assault and up to 17,000 Indians were killed in the process while over 70,000 were taken prisoner. Alexander also captured 500 cavalry and 300 war chariots. His own losses did not reach more than one hundred men but strangely enough over 1,200 of his troops were wounded – a remarkably high number. These figures can be explained when reading Curtius’ account of the battle. He tells us that the Indians had tied the chariots together and standing on their platforms were able to rapidly leap from one cart to the next, attacking the Macedonians with lances and axes from above. In the ensuing chaos, Alexander soon ordered that the bonds that held the chariots together should be cut first after which his troops could attack the enemy on the individual carts. It must have been quite a bloody affair.

After having buried his dead with the proper rituals and ceremonies, Alexander sent his secretary, Eumenes, with a small detachment to convince the two neighboring towns which had joined in Sangala’s resistance with offers of peace if they surrendered willfully. The embassy was useless for the bad news had traveled ahead of them and the people of both cities had fled by the time Eumenes arrived. Alexander tried to catch up with them, but they had had enough time to get away. He then returned to Sangala and razed it to the ground.

Porus was sent to back to the cities that had surrendered with instructions to garrison them. Alexander himself resumed his march east towards the Hyphasis River, modern Beas.

[Picture of the Hydraotes River from Wikipedia By Vjdchauhan - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0]
[Map from Travel, Tourism, Transport and Maps of Pakistan]

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Euromos, just a bowshot away

Several years ago, while driving down from Kusadasi to Milas I was intrigued by a signpost pointing towards Euromos. I had never heard of this city that showed on my map with three dots, typically telling me these were ruins of some kind.


I was in for a shock when this bunch of tall Corinthian columns rose up from a clearing amidst the pine trees. I was utterly speechless and dying to know more about this hidden treasure!

As it turned out, these columns belonged to a temple dedicated to Zeus, which with its 17 columns still standing is one of the best-preserved temples in Anatolia!

Wind and weather had definitely left their marks on this building dating from the 2nd century BC. As so often, I was the only visitor but I had a ball stepping onto the crepidoma of the temple, trying to figure out its layout and the sacred cella. I even found a strange relief of a double ax, which I learned, later on, belonged to the Carian Zeus.

Since 2011, excavations have started again at Euromos. These will involve cleaning of the blackened columns but also a more extensive analysis of the site. There are still many blocks pertaining to this temple lying around and they hope to use them for a better understanding of this wonderful place.

When I walked away from the temple, there was very little else to see, except for a few tiers from what must have been the theater and a flat that could have been the agora with a round tower. In recent years, more excavation work has been carried out exposing more of the theater and the agora, but also a bath and some city walls.

As usual, the purpose of these restorations is to draw more tourists to the area but for me, nothing can replace that very first approach simply frozen in time!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Latest excavations at Cnidos

The theater of Cnidos is in a precarious state and it is nearly impossible to climb the rows of seats because of their unstable condition.


Finally, new excavations have been started, exposing the seven or eight-meter high main wall of the theater, including two arched structures right next to it. The largest structure may have been a water source for the theater-goers while the smaller one seems to have served as a storage area.

In the process, also the VIP area has been cleared exposing a special ceremonial tribune where people were awarded in front of the theater public whose numbers could reach 5,000 people.

Cnidos was, of course, especially known for the famous statue of Aphrodite who was worshiped as Aphrodite Euploia, de goddess of Good Sailing. It was Praxiteles who dared putting his first nude women ever on display here – a favorite and much-loved tourist attraction in antiquity!

More information about Cnidos can be found under the title Was Alexander the Great aware of Cnidos?

Sunday, November 6, 2016

A debate about Alexander – just for the fun of it

How often has Alexander the Great been at the center of a debate during his lifetime and more so during the 2,400 years following his death? No computer could keep track, I am sure!

Yet, today, just for the fun of it, I’d like to share one of the most recent debates that is centered around a mosaic that was found at Huqoq in Israel among the ruins of a synagogue dating from Roman times – not the first area that comes to mind when talking about Alexander but very much worth the argument.

Going by the picture, this mosaic looks rather confusing at first glance.


It has been dated to the fifth century AD and it obviously shows a meeting of two high-ranking figures, one of which can be defined as a great general leading his troops. The scenes include elephants equipped for battle, which either could refer to Alexander the Great or to one of his Seleucid successors who often used elephants in their armies. Unfortunately, this mosaic, unlike most antique and Byzantine examples, does not carry any inscription. This basically means that your guess is as good as mine for even scholars cannot agree among themselves who is who or what is what. The reason for the absence of labels may simply be that everyone at that time knew exactly who was depicted here – an evidence that is lost to the modern viewer.

Theory No. 1
Reading the mosaic from bottom to top, the leader of the army is none other than Alexander the Great meeting with the high priest of Jerusalem – an event that never took place but that emerged in historical fiction in later centuries. It is a widespread tale that almost naturally resulted from the conqueror’s fame and many people, including the Jews, liked to associate themselves with his fame and greatness. The central part of the picture shows the high priest of Jerusalem (the bearded man in the center) surrounded by other priests or nobles who are at the city gates to welcome Alexander.  In the top part, the high priest and his retinue meet Alexander and his army that includes battle elephants. Alexander wears the attributes of a Greek king and military commander, i.e. a purple cloak and a ribbon in his hair that equaled the royal diadem.

Theory No. 2
The bottom part of the mosaic depicts a Seleucid attack led by Antiochus VII in 132 BC. Among the soldiers, we see an elephant and a bull killed by spears hurled down by Jerusalem’s defenders onto the invading army from atop the city walls. The middle part tells us what is happening inside Jerusalem during the battle with young men grasping their swords, ready to fight. The two leaders in the top part are John Hyrcanus I on the left and Antiochus VII on the right as both are negotiating a truce in the presence of their troops. As a true successor of Alexander the Great, the Seleucid leader wears a purple cloak and the royal Greek diadem. It should be added that the day of the truce is a Jewish feast, meaning that we see Antiochus offering the Judeans a bull to be sacrificed in their temple.

The theory about Alexander the Great reminds me of Alexander’s Mausoleum in Alexandria, Egypt that is not mentioned by any traveller in antiquity, simply because everybody knew it was there…

So, why or to what purpose this mosaic at Huqoq was made remains a mystery and so far, there is no watertight explanation that could fit all the details of the mosaic.