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)

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Alexander crosses the Hindu Kush a second time

After two years of intense guerilla fights throughout Sogdiana, Alexander had finally caught Bessus, eliminated Spitamenes and restored a relative peace in Bactria by marrying Roxane. The time had come for him to head for India.

Until now, I was convinced that Alexander returned from Bactria via the Khyber Pass but when I tried to trace where the idea came from, I was in for a surprise. There is no excuse, I should have taken a closer look at the map to realize that the Khyber Pass lies in fact on the way from Kabul to Peshawar and not between Bactria and Afghanistan.

With that question solved, I needed to find out which pass Alexander had used leaving Bactria. The antique authors are disappointingly scant in reporting this part of his campaign. Plutarch, Justin, and Diodorus do not mention the crossing of the Hindu Kush – a formidable barrier under all circumstances - on Alexander’s return and Curtius simply states that Alexander set out for India in order not to foster idleness. Arrian seems to be the only one to be more specific telling us that by the end of spring Alexander began his march for India, that he crossed the Indian Caucasus, and ten days later reached Alexandria(-in-the-Caucasus), the city he had founded during his first expedition into Bactria. Strabo merely tells us that Alexander crossed the Hindu Kush and settled his veterans and mercenaries together with natives at Alexandria-in-the Caucasus.

This meant that I had to rely on modern historians and their research on the matter. Unfortunately, they do not agree among themselves about Alexander’s route and it seems that they all have a theory of their own.

Frank Holt (Into the Land of Bones) has come to the conclusion that Alexander marched his army over the Shibar Pass. With the winter snows gone, the trek went smoothly and without great logistical problems.

Robin Lane Fox (Alexander the Great) says that Alexander used the same pass as earlier, meaning the Khawak Pass (see: From Afghanistan into Bactria across the Hindu Kush). This time in June, the march was at a leisurely pace and took only ten days. The snows had melted and Alexander could rely on food stored in the Sogdian fortresses on the way and on the high grazing grounds for the animals. The army spent a pleasant summer at Alexandria-in-the-Caucasus (Begram) thus avoiding an invasion of India in appalling heat.

A.B. Bosworth (Conquest and Empire) simply mentions that Alexander crossed the passes of the Hindu Kush into the Paropamisadae in ten days and reinforced the city of Alexandria-in-the-Caucasus.

Michael Wood has concluded that Alexander crossed the Hindu Kush via Bamyan, which implies that he took the Shibar Pass.

Donald Engels (Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army) in turn sticks to the Salang Pass since this pass is shorter and has often been used by armies in a hurry. Engels states that the army re-crossed the Hindu Kush in late spring but could not forage for grain along the route because harvest at these high altitudes does not occur until July or August. They had to rely on supplies collected by Hephaistion throughout Bactra before departing.

In a footnote, the author refers to the optional Kushan Pass, just east of the Salang Pass, that has been put forward by other historians, but then this Kushan is seldom used because it is precipitous and treacherous – not exactly recommendable for an army. The Salang Pass, on the other hand, although as fast as the Kushan is much safer. He rules out the Shibar Pass which is longer than the Khawak. Given the ten days it took Alexander to cross the Hindu Kush, Engels’ choice is narrowed down to either the Salang Pass or the Kushan Pass.

All these theories take me back to the map of Afghanistan and of the Hindu Kush in particular. Based on the above, it comes down to choosing between the 3,878 meter-high Salang Pass and the Kushan Pass rising at 4,370 meters located due west of the Salang Pass. Interestingly, this pass is less than one kilometer away from the modern Salang Tunnel built in 1964 with the financial and technological support of the Soviet Union. This meant that traveling time is cut down drastically although repeated avalanches tend to trap the vehicles inside the tunnel, making the voyage still a dangerous one.

Glancing at Google maps provides another quite impressive image of the landscape the Macedonian army crossed. Even with enough food and fodder, we have to admire these sturdy men trudging over narrow paths, through deep ravines, across icy rivers and over rocks of all sizes and shapes. Nobody, not even Hannibal comes close to Alexander’s exploits in the Hindu Kush. In the end, I have to agree with David Engels and agree on the Salang Pass.

We should remember that Alexander’s Asian campaign is much and much more than a series of battles and sieges. Marching often through forbidding landscapes, coping with extreme heat, thunderstorms, crosswinds, dust, rain, sleet and ice, the Macedonians have seen it all but the king set the example by leading his troops over each and every obstacle. The Hindu Kush is just one of these obstacles, although a major one that cannot be stressed enough.

[First picture shows the Shibar Pass by František Řiháček -original prints, CC BY-SA 3.0, - The two other pictures show the Salang Pass by Scott L.Sorensen - My Personal Picture, CC BY 3.0 and by Spc. Michael Vanpool (U.S. Armed Forces) respectively.]

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Minor damage at Cos’ Archaeological Museum after earthquake

What a relieve to hear that the damage at this museum is minimal after the 6.6 magnitude earthquake that hit the island earlier this month. The building itself did not sustain any damage, although it was built in 1936.

The inventory inside the museum revealed that out of the 43 sculptures exhibited on pedestals, only three headless statues and one bust came down, suffering minor chips and mainly to those parts that had been restored with plaster earlier.


Renovation works that were initiated last year, do luckily include earthquake provisions in order to be better prepared in the future.
 
Meanwhile the museum has reopened to the public, a major attraction for tourists to Cos.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Magnificent Alexander statue found in Alexandria

Recent excavations in Alexandria have revealed remains of a building from Ptolemaic times as well as a bridge.

This is part of an ongoing project directed by the Hellenic Institute for the Research of Alexandria Culture which in the past 21 years is working in the Shalallat Gardens area. In 2015, a large public building belonging to the Ptolemaic era was found and archaeologists believe that it had an arched ceiling. Recently, a carved tunnel was exposed from underneath this massive building at a depth of ten meters.


This is exciting news because these remains are part of the Royal Quarters of the Ptolemies, which have been documented in antiquity. So far, the site has exposed some extraordinary finds of pottery, mosaic floors and coins. The most important find is, of course, this unique marble statue of Alexander the Great, executed in pure Hellenistic style which has been transferred to the National Museum of Alexandria for us to see!

The museum is a treasure trove exhibiting artifacts from old Egypt, as well as from Hellenistic, Roman, Coptic and Islamic eras, including underwater finds. It is the only museum that tells the history of Alexandria through antiquity and it is not surprising that the lovely head of Alexander the Great is kept here.


It seems that bit by bit we are getting closer to getting a picture of the very heart of ancient Alexandria – although there still is a very, very long way to go.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Alexander’s eloquence

Eloquence is a highly interesting aspect of Alexander’s personality that only transpires on certain occasions and is hard to figure out as it automatically raises other questions. Was Alexander a born orator? He may well have been. Was Alexander inspired by his father’s eloquence? Not unlikely since Philip was a shrewd manipulator in words and deeds and this ability cannot have been lost on his son. Was Alexander a good pupil of Aristotle? No doubt and certainly when it came to learning those skills which truly mattered to him.

The art of rhetoric is lost in our 21st century of mass communication where fast phonetic language is the rule, but there were times when people would meet to talk for the sake of argumentation. It was an art to use our language effectively in order to convince and to impress our interlocutor with the tiniest of nuances. The fashion was popular with ancient Greeks who liked to elaborate their topics during their Symposia.

Historians like Arrian and Curtius often seem to be quoting Alexander verbatim when he addresses his troops or responds to certain situations. Generally, these words are considered as created by the authors rather than actually pronounced by the king. Maybe so, maybe not. Unfortunately, we have no original texts from Alexander’s journals or from the memoirs written down by his contemporaries like Onesicritus, Callisthenes, Ptolemy or Aristobulus. Therefore it seems too easy and even unfair to dismiss the idea that their accounts could have contained true original quotes and even speeches made by Alexander.

There are many examples of Alexander addressing his troops to motivate and encourage them at the onset of a battle, but he probably spoke to his audiences on many more occasions. It is said that he knew more than one thousand of his men by name and I am certain that he used every opportunity to talk to them in person. In modern vocabulary, he would qualify as being a good communicator.

We generally tend to accept the one sentence quotes that are reported in history, like:
-    when young Alexander sees that Bucephalus is being led away because the horse is judged to be beyond training and exclaimed: “What an excellent horse do they lose, for want of address and boldness to manage him!”
-   when Alexander visits Diogenes in Corinth (that is, IF that meeting did indeed take place) he would have said “If I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes”
-    when after the Battle of Issus Darius offers Alexander all of Asia to the Euphrates and the hand of his daughter in marriage, Parmenion encourages his king to accept this offer but Alexander drily responded with “So would I, if I were Parmenion”
-    or the plausible remark making Alexander say “sex and sleep alone make me conscious that I am mortal” or the one showing his bleeding wounds stating that this is not “ichor” flowing through his veins (golden blood of the gods).

It is beyond doubt that Alexander addressed his troops just before battle for he had an excellent personal antenna to gauge the morale of his men and he knew exactly how to motivate them. Very modern is the openness with which Alexander tells his army what they are to expect, embellishing the truth in his favor whenever opportune. But we cannot blame him for that as after all the trick is used by every politician then as now. The art consists in making the message clear and credible. “We are free men and they are slaves” is one such a quote.

The encouraging words he spoke just before crossing the Pillars of Jonah over which Alexander would have to retrace his steps to the Pinarus River where the Battle of Issus was to take place are very telling. Both Arrian and Curtius spend many lines describing Alexander’s speeches and personal addresses to his commanders and even to individuals of lower ranks, making sure to touch every man’s pride and to get their mind ready for the battle to come.

Like a fine psychologist, he plays the cord that touches the soul of every man. He reminds his Macedonians of their victories in Europe including that at Chaeronea rekindling their old-time valor; he reminds them of the Granicus and the many cities of Asia Minor they have already taken. When he faces the Greek allied forces, he brings up the brutal invasions of the Persians who burned their temples and homes adding that now was the time for revenge. To the Thracians and Illyrians accustomed to a life of plunder, he tells them to focus on the gleaming gold and purple of the enemies and the booty they would yield. Of course, he needs all these soldiers since according to the League of Corinth they joined forces to fight against Persia; they need to be motivated as well. When he tackles the subject of the Greek mercenaries fighting in Persian service, he points out that they fight for pay while Alexander’s own foreign troops – Thracians, Paeonians, Illyrians, Agrianes – are the best and stoutest soldiers in Europe. Enough to kindle every man’s pride!

Arrian concludes by putting these words in Alexander’s mouth: “The enemy of Persians and Medes have lived soft and luxurious, while we Macedonians went to the hard school of danger and war. You have Alexander – they Darius!”. We know the outcome of that battle!

At Gaugamela, Alexander addressed his soldiers in quite a different way since each and every one of them knew how important this victory over the King of Persia was going to be. Nevertheless, he stresses 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 are to pass their commands to their subordinates without hesitation or delay. Most importantly, Alexander emphasizes that the conduct of each of his men is crucial to the fate of all. In other words, if everyone does his duty as expected their success is assured, but if only one man neglects it the entire army will be in peril. Strong talk.

Once his forces are arranged according to his plan, Alexander once again rides up and down the lines to lift the spirits of every man and every squadron with a last word of encouragement. Everything depends indeed on the commitment of each and every one of Alexander’s troops to maintain the frontline and avoid any gap in the formation that could be exploited by the Persians. Amazingly and against all odds, Alexander has indeed been able to maintain his line of defense. His men did not let him down!

Of an entirely different caliber is Alexander’s earnest appeal to his Macedonians in the case of the Philotas Affair in which his trusted general and boyhood friend is suspected of treason in an attempt to take the life of his king. This is a most threatening and highly alarming situation that can be compared to attacks on the lives of modern leaders like JF Kennedy or King Hassan II of Morocco. Thorough investigations followed these attentats with more or less success.

In Alexander’s case, he had to lead the investigation himself and present the case before his Macedonians in accordance with the prevailing laws. Alexander’s exposé is worthy of the plea held by the most accomplished lawyer. He starts by telling his men how closely he escaped to death. He then shares his deep sorrow when learning that his longtime friend Philotas, and Parmenion his and his father’s most trusted generals conceived a plot to take his life. The informants are then praised for their courage in bringing the bad news to Alexander while he was bathing. Philotas in his efforts to keep the matter quiet must have had goods reasons to do so, he says. He even reads aloud a letter Parmenion sent to his sons, Nicanor and Philotas, which he had intercepted and in which Parmenion advised them to look out for themselves “for thus we shall accomplish what we have planned”. A sentence that had no meaning had the conspiracy not been disclosed. Alexander takes his plea a step further by confiding his hitherto personal skepticism about Philotas who had joined Amyntas (Alexander’s uncle who was under age when his father was killed on the battlefield, upon which Philip was chosen as Macedonia’s new king; with Philip’s death he could claim the throne) to make an impious plot against his life. He tells his soldiers how these acts have torn him apart – working on their sentiments.

Alexander continues by reminding his soldiers that he had put Philotas in command of his elite cavalry, entrusting his life, his hopes and victories to him. He had elected his father, Parmenion, to rule over Media with all its richness, a position that required integrity and respect for his king. Now his trust has been broken and he has fallen victim to such a shameful scheme! Alexander in his speech seeks refuge with his troops, going as far as to state that his own safety lies in their avenge.

Philotas’ defense, which I will not detail here, is not less flamboyant and another example of good rhetoric which, in my eyes, can only be traced back to Aristotle’s teaching.

Most significant and more difficult was the plea Alexander held in India when his Macedonians refused to march beyond the Hyphasis River. He called a meeting with his officers hoping they would agree on going forward, however, without success. He then gathers his troops and reminds them of what they had accomplished so far. Working on their sentiments, he asks them if they were afraid (a sensitive note, no doubt) and then exposes the great prospects that lay ahead. Alexander has shared all his men’s hardships, suffered the same wounds, the cold, heat, thirst and famine. After these words, his men stood there in utter silence as nobody dared to respond or contradict any of the king’s arguments till Coenus courageously stepped forward to verbalize the thoughts of the Macedonians present. They were determined not to go any further – all they wanted was to go home after too many years away from their loved ones. We know that Alexander sulked in his tent for several days after that but even he could not accomplish a miracle and had to give in and lead the army back west.

Probably the most famous and best documented is the discourse Alexander pronounced at Opis in 324 BC. Here, Alexander called his Macedonians together and announced that he was discharging the veterans among them as well as the wounded and those unfit for further service so they could return to their homes. They would collect their pay and their bonus would make the envy of their family and friends at home. The king expected that his decision would please his Macedonians (who wanted so badly to go home when they were in India!) but instead, they resented his words and told him so with loud shouting. They felt pushed aside in favor of the Persians and other foreign troops and cavalry. It hurt them deeply that the very people they conquered were to take their place.

Although Alexander was taken off guard, he immediately rushed into the rebellious mob to arrest the ringleaders of this mutiny. Then he made a fiery speech addressing his troops that had contributed to his success over the years. He started by referring to his father who brought the mountain people and goat herders to the rich plains of Macedonia and told them how to be victorious in battle. He, Alexander, had led them from victory to victory, adding all of Asia Minor to Macedonia, reaping the riches of Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia. They conquered the cities of Halicarnassus, Babylon, Persepolis and Bactra. He took nothing for himself while they all lived in luxury. He shared his soldiers’ toil and fatigue, hunger and thirst, freezing cold and scorching heat, even their wounds. None of them was killed in flight and those who fell in a glorious death were honored with a splendid burial and their parents were released from taxation.

Finally, Alexander makes a defiant statement: “if you wish to depart, depart all of you!” He tells his Macedonians to go back home to report that when they returned to Susa after all those years of conquests – and he names the peoples, lands, rivers and mountains they conquered – they deserted their king, leaving him under the protection of conquered foreigners. Do they expect their homecoming to be glorious in the eyes of their kin when they hear that they left their king behind? Very strong words, much more fierce than those used in India.

Alexander retires to his quarters for three days. By the third day, he has drawn new plans appointing Persians to occupy the hitherto Macedonian commanding posts, which include his Companions and even his Silver Shields! That was just too much for the Macedonians to bear! The very thought of having those Persian Barbarians commanding them was inconceivable. They thronged around the entrance of Alexander’s quarters begging for admission and offering to give up the ringleaders of the mutiny. Once again, the army conquered the heart of their beloved king but it was Alexander’s eloquence that brought them back to reason.

“Every man of you, I regard as my kinsman, and from now on that is what I shall call you” are the words Alexander used to close the matter. I think this says a lot about the magnanimity of Alexander but we should not forget that his eloquence widely contributed to his success.

[The picture of Alexander at Gaugamela is from Oliver Stone's movie Alexander]

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Andriake’s Museum has opened

The opening of this museum in Andriake inside the walls of Hadrian’s Granary (131 AD) has been announced a while ago (see: Time to revisit Andriake, the harbor of Myra) and is now a fact.

It has been baptized as The Lycian Civilizations Museum as it not only contains local finds from Myra and Andriake but from the entire region of Lycia, roughly situated at the southern coast of Turkey between Fethiye and Finike. Except for the coastal cities, Lycia has been very little explored but offers a great number of sites which flourished when they joined hands in the Lycian League founded in the early days of the 2nd century BC. The League had a Parliament of its own, the first ever in history, that was located at Patara. This kind of government may well have inspired modern democracy.

More than one thousand artifacts excavated in cities like Myra, Andriake, Patara, Xanthos, Tlos, Arykanda, Pinara, Antiphellos and Olympos have found a home in one of the seven rooms of this former Granary. Among the exhibits, there are statues, vessels and other kitchenware, glassware and jewelry.

The site of Andriake itself has been cleared further and has become part of the open-air museum with its harbor, the agora with underground water cistern, a Roman bath and boat, as well as the remains of several churches and even a Jewish temple.

More information about the Lycian League can be found in my earlier blog: A short history of Lycia.

[Click here for more pictures of Andriake]

Friday, July 28, 2017

Extending digital database for threatened archaeological sites

Recently, there have been several initiatives to revive threatened archaeological sites and to compensate for lost antiquities in war zones. Our precious historical sites face damage from looting (mostly tied to wartime conflicts), mining, and construction projects and to a certain degree from agriculture and natural erosion.

[Clik here to open the EAMENA map]

In an earlier blog, Will a Digital Library of the Middle East compensate for the war losses I highlighted the joint efforts of the CLIR (Council on Library and Information Resources) and the DLME (Digital Library of the Middle East) to create an online inventory of artifacts from our cultural heritage, including otherwise undocumented or uncatalogued items. A separate blog, A Way to Revive the Museum of Raqqa in Syria underscored the initiative of the DGAM (Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museum) together with that of the Section Archaeology of the Near East from the University of Leiden, Netherlands. They may be a mere drop in the ocean but every single effort to preserve our heritage is most welcome, hence worth mentioning.

This means that the latest database created by the EAMENA (Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa) is no luxury. The search can be filtered in several ways and is very user-friendly. Since 2015, they have cataloged over 20,000 archaeological sites at severe risk and the information is constantly being updated. Initially, the team created a wide aerial photographic collection to document the archaeological sites especially in the Middle East (APAAME, Aerial Photographic Archive for Archaeology in the Middle East) that is also accessible.

The easiest way to start your search is by clicking on the EAMENA map and follow the instructions.

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Lost World of the Aegean by Maitland A. Edey

In the series The emergence of Man, Time-Life has edited this book, The Lost World of the Aegean by Maitland A. Edey (ASIN: B000SZQWW2) in the mid-1970s but the subject and the results achieved are still very current.

At the time of my purchase, I was introduced to the Minoan civilization which is nicely developed and pictured in this book. In fact, the package offers much more than this slice of the history of mankind and is a wonderful introduction to the history of the Greek people and their origins. There are many theories but nobody really knows who the people were who would become the Greeks, where they came from or when they arrived. In his book, Maitland Edey refers to a great study made by a British archaeologist specialized in the Bronze Age Aegean and more specifically the Cyclades, Colin Refrew.

The thorough study based mainly of shards of pottery has lead to dividing those early ages into three distinct periods:
- The Early Bronze Age (3000-2000 BC) with a parallel comparison of Early Cycladic, Minoan and Helladic vessels;
- The Middle Bronze Age (2000-1500 BC) with a similar comparison between Middle Cycladic, Minoan and Helladic; and finally
- The Late Bronze Age (1500-1100 BC), showing parallels between Late Cycladic, Minoan and Hellenic which is also known as Mycenaean

The Bronze Age in the Cyclades is carefully examined with their enigmatic and typical marbles. An evolution in the art of these statuettes can be established ranging from the violin-shaped females with their long necks to the figurines with stumpy arms and legs with minimal facial features to figurines standing with crossed arms and showing prominent noses.

This culture was gradually absorbed by the Minoans of Crete and the author details the vestiges of the Great Minoan Royal Palaces discovered and excavated by Arthur Evans. Strangely enough, although the Minoans knew how to read and write as early as 2000 BC their language remains an enigma as it has not been deciphered. However, the many frescoes and vestiges that were recovered from palaces at Knossos, Malia, Kato Zakro, Haghia Triada and Phaistos turn out to be very helpful to create a picture of daily life and the overall organization of this civilization. Unfortunately, these palaces met dramatic and mysterious fates and the Minoan culture suddenly disappeared.

Inevitably, history leads us to the Lost Atlantis, once an island empire that sunk into the sea after the catastrophic eruption of the volcano on which it was built. What remains is the island of Thera (modern Santorini) and it has been established that its fate is linked to that of Crete. The volcano ashes buried Crete under a thick blanket which destroyed crops and fields for years. Among the cities recently unearthed from its ashes is the site of Akrotiri – a situation not unlike that of Pompeii. Thera itself has disclosed a great treasure of lively frescoes depicting people and animals, even an entire 20-ft-long maritime scene of the Libyan coast and a pastoral scene including a series of soldiers marching off towards the battlefield.

As one civilization disappears, another is on the rise and in this case, it are the Myceneans who are taking over the power in the eastern Mediterranean, confirmed and illustrated by the masterpieces recovered from the Royal Graves by Heinrich Schliemann. Beside cities like Tiryns and Mycenae, attention is given to the beehive shaped tomb known as the Treasure of Atreus which Schliemann took for belonging to Agamemnon. The many, mainly gold treasures found at Mycenae are well documented.

When this period of glory crumbled, Greece slumbered into the dark ages which lasted for three or four hundred years and are said to have been darker than the Middle Ages in Western Europe. Rooted in the once so glorious Mycenaean civilization, eventually, the Age of Pericles and Socrates emerged, laying the foundations of our western civilization.

The book concludes with a great chart entitled The Emergence of Man (the actual subtitle of the book, and rightfully so) putting Geology, Archaeology, Time (in millions, then thousands, then hundred of years ago) and Places/Inventions on one line.

It makes fascinating reading!

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Happy Birthday!

Today, we are celebrating Alexander’s birthday. This is very unusual because we have only rare dates from antiquity that we can pin down and match to our modern calendar. Luckily for us, Alexander’s birthday is such an exception.

Unfortunately, we have no picture of the baby or of young Alexander. In fact, we only have one single picture of Alexander made during his lifetime, i.e. the tiny ivory head found in his father’s tomb at Vergina. All other statues, busts, reliefs, mosaics, intaglios, medallions and coins of Alexander the Great are either copies of contemporary works or creations from later centuries. His favorite sculptor Lysippos has transpired through later copies but none of Apelles paintings have survived. Imagine what it would mean to have just one of those originals!

The same goes for Alexander’s historians as nearly all contemporary literature is lost and we have to be content with “second hand” information gleaned by later authors who still had access to the original texts. My secret hope is that one day some of those original documents may be discovered among the Oxyrhynchus papyri that are still being deciphered.

Alexander truly keeps us busy, and rightfully so. Many happy returns, dear Alexander, may you live on forever in the memory of the world!

[Picture from Pinterest]

Friday, July 14, 2017

Archaeological research resumed at Pasargadae

It is always a pleasure to hear about new and update archaeological research anywhere, but that is especially the case for Pasargadae where French and Iranian scholars have joined hands.


Pasargadae, founded by Cyrus the Great in 546 BC,  was the first urban settlement of its time and as such became the prototype for a Persian city, implemented less than a century later by Darius I for the city of Persepolis, as explained in an earlier blog (see: In Search of the City of Persepolis).

There are no doubts about the presence of water channels and dams in and around Pasargadae, as well as about the location of the stone quarries. Moreover, some 300 graves have been identified belonging to different eras ranging from the Neolithic to the Achaemenid period. Latest excavations have even unearthed remains of a 20 km-long wall belonging to the Achaemenid era.

It has been established that the different royal buildings at Pasargadae were not united as a single palatial cluster but spread around in a royal garden of several hectares crossed by several stone waterways. This garden turned out to be only a small parcel in a larger park where houses for the general public, craftsmen and nobility lived in quarters of their own. This park included the Tower of Zendan (also called Salomon’s Prison) as part of a larger complex and the wide basin to the southeast that has suffered from eons of agricultural activities. The vast plateau that rises to the north is generally called “the Citadel” or Tall-i Takht and commands the site. It is in this area of approximately two hectares that about a dozen of sites have been located, one of which was clearly identified as Achaemenid, associated with an ancient canal of more than two kilometers long.

The water needed for the entire population and for irrigation purposes was skillfully led through the many stone channels, some of which have already been exposed. The exact working of this water system has not been clarified yet, neither do we know whether the water was diverted from the nearby Pulvar River or from another source.

Recent excavations have also revealed the foundations of a city gate, which apparently was inspired by similar constructions in Babylon since elements of its typical glazed walls with bas-reliefs of a dragon have been unearthed. It is thought that this gate was built before Darius I came to power, probably by Cyrus the Great in order to celebrate his victories.

More geophysical measurement and physical excavations are required to draw a coherent archaeological map of the entire area of Pasargadae. Let’s keep a close watch on future excavations!

Saturday, July 8, 2017

From Afghanistan into Bactria across the Hindu Kush

Before winter made the high passes of the Hindu Kush impassable, Bessus crossed the mountains north into Bactria, applying the policy of scorched-earth in an attempt to make it impossible for Alexander to follow him. But evidently, he underestimated Alexander's determination and stubbornness!


The ancients thought that the Hindu Kush Mountain Range was a continuation of the Caucasus Mountains and used that name alternatively. They also called it the Paropamisadae, as derived from the Persian word meaning as much as “peak over which the eagle cannot fly”. The Hindu Kush is a nearly 1,000 km long barrier of high mountains running from Afghanistan to India with the highest peak reaching an elevation of 7,708 meters. This range, in fact, separates Central Asia from South Asia or India. In other words, it is a colossal barrier that cannot be underestimated.

It is late November 330 BC when Alexander marches through the narrow ravines that run from Gandhara (modern Kandahar) situated at 1100m via Ghazni to Kabul at 1791 m. The modern road, which certainly takes shortcuts compared to Alexander’s advance, tells us that the distance is a little less than 500 km. Climbing in altitude to 3000 meters at times, the thin air and deep snow make progress very difficult. Under these circumstances, camp is made above the clouds where the nights are ungodly cold and the land is covered with snow. The army suffers from snow blindness and frostbites. In the murky light, many lose their way and get stuck in snowdrifts as the wind howls through the narrows. Food, especially during the last leg of this journey, becomes a daily preoccupation and the meager contribution of the natives hardly supports the Macedonian forces.

Alexander realizes that it is too late in the year to march across the Hindu Kush and settles his army near Begram at the junction of two rivers, the Cophen (Kabul) and the Panshir overlooking a broad plain framed by snowy peaks. Eventually, this city will become one of the many Alexandria’s that patch the world map and will be called, very appropriately Alexandria-in-Caucasus. The army gets a breather of several months with abundant food and fodder available. Meanwhile, the snow falls heavily over the Hindu Kush and in the heart of winter, the mountains are covered with a layer of twenty meters of snow.

Once again, one can only marvel at Alexander’s highly skilled preparations and logistics. Of course, these lands were part of the Achaemenid Empire and as such, they were well-documented and organized but we cannot underestimate Alexander’s own intelligence and scouting parties. He had a choice of passes to pursue Bessus into Bactria and it is generally agreed that he opted for the Khawak Pass. Although this road was the longest (75 kilometers) it also was the lowest (3,550m) and provided the best chances for forage. Here, he outsmarted Bessus who had expected his enemy to take the shortest route where he burnt all the local winter provisions behind him.

In spite of his careful planning, Alexander and his army approaching the Hindu Kush from the south had a strenuous journey. The column is being divided into four sections and the vanguard – the army engineers - had the toughest job of clearing the way. They set out in early spring (sources vary from March to June) marching up the Panshir Valley, some 150 km north of Kabul, suffering from cold and lack of food. As soon as they entered the sheer walls of this gorge, they were confronted with thick crusts of frost as the sun hardly touches the bottom for a mere few minutes this time of year. For many parts of this one hundred-kilometers-long valley, they had to hack their way through the ice. With the first melting of the snow, rivers turning into torrents thunder down the gorges, making treacherous crossings. On top of that, scores of tributary valleys filled with debris and icy waters descend with deafening fury into the Panshir Valley.

It is said that the Macedonians carried a ten-day ration for an expedition that should take four days. Instead, it took Alexander and his army a full week to reach the summit and another ten days to descend into the fertile plains of Central Asia on the other side, i.e. seventeen grueling days in all.

It was not so much the distance that commanded the army’s progress but the terrain itself. The mountain path varied considerably in width. At its narrowest parts, only three men could walk abreast: two infantrymen or one cavalry horse could pass at one time as the baggage train and pack animals formed a file alongside as that was the best – and probably the only – way for the men to access supplies in such a confined space. These were true bottlenecks that held up the entire marching line. It is highly probable that the cavalrymen would dismount their horses to lead their mounts, especially on the ascent.

What is not being recounted in our history books but has been reported by British troops who invaded Afghanistan in 1838 and 1878 are the extreme weather conditions in these parts. Steven Pressfield in his book The Afghan Campaign paints vivid pictures of the Macedonian’s fight with the elements, which come very close to reality.

There seems to be an intensity in the sunrise and sunset in these mountains that is quite unique. The light throws patches of blue and violet on the melting snow, which is being described as a purple veil as misty as a breeze. Worse are the sudden storms that strike, alternating hail and snow. Hail stones rattle the soldiers’ shields and helmets. The men seek shelter against the elements but soon the trail turns into ice making each step slippery and treacherous. The drenched army must have felt the frigid wind cutting right through their bones. They have to sleep where they are on the trail, sheltering against each other and their pack animals as best they can.

When finally the sun breaks through, men and mountains are shrouded in vapor and sweat. The danger of avalanches is very real. Rills and runnels turn into torrents plunging to the depth of the valley. At times, the sun blazes so fiercely that the men take off their cloaks. Yet, one hour later the mild temperatures suddenly plummet as a new load of sleet and hail thunders down on them. Their path is then covered with scree and shingle, making each step a precarious one. Nearer to the top of the pass, they are confronted with glaciers strewn with fissures, crevasses, and cracks in between the upheavals of ice. Whatever part of their upwards trek, the underfoot is unstable and dangerous. On top of that, mountain sickness hits the men who get disoriented and unable to keep any of the scarce food down. Every movement demands a monumental effort and many go snow-blind. The companies start falling apart while the winds howl relentlessly and the icy cold hits the men to the core of their souls.

The Macedonians are far from realizing that the Panshir Valley is a beautiful valley that provides the locals with rich harvests of rice, barley and beans. But all that is now hidden under the thick coat of snow, burrowing even the orchards of pistachios, apricots, pears and mulberries. There is no wood to light a fire and the men have to settle for cold goat meat, frozen onions and iced curd. 

Halfway up in the mountains there was a rock, half a mile high that became identified with Prometheus, a hero from the greatest of all Greek legends that had always been placed in the Caucasus. Here, the legend was conveniently assimilated to the ancient Persian myth in which the eagle Sena had saved the hero Dastan. The story may well have been a good incentive for the army to feel more at home instead of plowing along through these god-forbidden frozen mountains.

Alexander’s army has been estimated at 64,000 troops and 10,000 cavalry horses with an additional number of followers of approximately 36,000, making it a total of 100,000 men to meander over these snowy paths. Donald Engels in his Logistics of the Macedonian Army gives detailed calculations of the space occupied by each soldier, horseman and camp follower which enables him to match the marching time of seventeen days as mentioned by antique authors. A highly interesting and trustful analysis.

From the summit of the Caucasus, one could see all the way to the eastern edge of the world according to Aristotle. Alexander and his Companions who had shared his teaching knew this story very well but what they witnessed instead was not the end of the world but ridge after ridge of endless high mountains. How did this influence their opinion or esteem for Aristotle, I wonder.

If the ascent was steep and difficult, the sufferings of the army reached intolerable heights during its descent. On the northern slopes of the Hindu Kush, the snow still filled the crags and masked all the features. Finding and following a trail was a nightmare. The horses had been fitted with snowboots of their own to cope with the deep snow and slippery drifts. The men’s clothing and footgear was not fit for these harsh winter conditions. They trudged on with empty bellies, chewing on wood and wax as they struggled with chronic fatigue. The well-drilled and disciplined Macedonian army falters as avalanches break their column formations into many separate sections.

Famine spread throughout the army and the few remaining amphorae of wine – a mere drop in the ocean – were sold at exorbitant prices, as was the honey. In the lower valleys, the soldiers could supplement their diet with brown trout from the rivers and some herbs but there was no fodder for the animals and orders were issued to slaughter them. However, since the scant scrub bushes were still buried deep under the snow, there was no firewood available and the meat had to be eaten raw.

Descending from the foothills in early June, Alexander made it without trouble to Kunduz and from there to the local capital of Bactra (Balkh in Afghanistan). Here, he allowed his troops to refresh themselves in this relatively generous oasis. The spirits of the army must have revived when terraced fields of rice and barley unfolded in front of them and they could relish at the sight of pear and plums trees. Here the days were warm and pleasant and they found plenty of provisions stored within the city walls as ordered by Bessus to fit his scorched earth policy and now serving Alexander. This evidently was a true bonus as the city opened its gates to the new conqueror!

[Pictures are from Mountains of our Mind and from Place and See except the first one which is clearly from Oliver Stone's film Alexander]