Alexandria's founded by Alexander

Alexandria's founded by Alexander the Great (by year BC): 334 Alexandria in Troia (Turkey) - 333 Alexandria at Issus/Alexandrette (Iskenderun, Turkey) - 332 Alexandria of Caria/by the Latmos (Alinda, Turkey) - 331 Alexandria Mygdoniae - 331 Alexandria (Egypt) - 330 Alexandria in Areia (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Dragiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Ai-Khanoum OR Termez, Afghanistan) - 328 Alexandria in Margiana (Merv, Turkmenistan) - 326 Alexandria Nicaea (on the Hydaspes, India) - 326 Alexandria Bucephala (on the Hydaspes, India) - 325 Alexandria Sogdia - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria on the Indus - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The ancient city of Phaselis is sinking

It is a well-known phenomenon that the southern coast of Turkey is sinking and this can easily be seen off the coast of Andriake where tourists take tours in boats with a glass bottom to visit the remains of the sunken city of nearby Kekova. This is due to the fact the African platonic plate is pushing against and sliding over the Asian plate.

In antiquity, Phaselis was a privileged anchoring place since sailors could profit from the sheltered Southern Harbor which is generally used by today’s tourists or the Northern Harbor that was and is accessible under all weather conditions, either by southwesterly and northeasterly winds. The Naval Harbor, in turn was located deep inside the Northern Harbor, and clearly was extremely well protected. The harbor slowly silted up creating marshy lowlands where mosquitoes thrived and, in turn, caused health problems. Today, this is a field of waving reeds populated by loud croaking frogs (see also: Phaselis and its three harbors)

Thanks to recent studies, geologists now have determined that almost two meters of ancient Phaselis have sunken under sea level over the past 2,000 years. This is best seen is at the entrance of the Northern Harbor where two islets near the entrance are all that remains of the pier that once connected the lighthouse at its far end to the mainland.

Turkey southern coastline is slowly submerging with averages between three and nine centimeters each year. Once you know what to look for, you can easily find many examples of sunken houses and sarcophagi all along the Mediterranean from Caunos to Patara, to Simena and Side, including Phaselis.

The movement of the tectonic plates generates earthquakes which have hit the areas of Lycia and Pamphylia since antiquity. Especially catastrophic was the earthquake of 141 AD (well-documented because Opramoas of Rhodiapolis donated large sums for the reconstruction of more than 30 Lycian cities between Telmessus in the west and Phaselis in the east) and the one that occurred on the 5th of August 240 AD when the same cities were destroyed once again.

This means that Phaselis is only one such example, but the phenomenon is worth noticing when walking among the beautiful remains of these once so proud and prosperous cities!

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Porus vs. Alexander, the Indian Way

There have been serious discussions on Facebook and other media about the new Porus TV serial presenting history from the Indian point of view. This is a far cry from our Western view of Alexander’s campaign in that part of the world and most probably will come as a shock to us. Besides, a TV series of 260 episodes is far beyond our pace and concept of things.

But then, it may be worth watching at least some of these episodes which are set in grand Bollywood style as after all they may not be too far away from what Alexander found when he arrived in India and met Porus and the other opulent rulers in India. If this kind of pomp and opulence may seem exaggerated to our eyes, just imagine the effect it had on Alexander. It is so much beyond our vision of the world, even today and we easily tend to forget the impact this must have had on Alexander and his Macedonians. It is something to think about when watching this series. The teaser is an excellent introduction to the feel of the setting:


It is obvious that the Indian producers are not following Greek historians literally but the main story line of Alexander winning the Battle of the Hydaspes over Porus is respected. Also, Philip and Olympias are easily recognizable and the Macedonian part – as opposed to India's flamboyant colours and opulent glitter - is tuned down to single coloured clothes and set in classical decors. The actor playing the role of Alexander has been chosen with light eyes and his hair has been discoloured to match the picture we generally have of the Macedonian King (although his body language is not).

Little of Porus exploits have been recorded in Indian history, meaning that there is little information to go by. As a result, the Indian film producers let their imagination flow freely and did not shy away from creating a pretty extravagant setting in which they feel very comfortable, no doubt. The Alexander part, on the other hand, is following a pretty faithful storyline.

So let’s brush aside our prejudices and look at history from a different angle altogether. This is the first episode:


All following episodes can be watched on this link of Sony Liv.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The story of a Thracian Chariot

Speaking of chariots, our thoughts automatically go to Egyptian, Assyrian, Scythian, Greek and Roman examples but hardly any Thracian. The picture of one such Thracian chariot including the skeleton of two horses was a recent top hit on Reddit.

Thracia was Macedonia’s northern neighbor and roughly covers today’s Bulgaria, Eastern Greece and western (European) Turkey. The Thracians were fierce fighters and it took King Philip, Alexander’s father, several battles to finally subdue them. When Alexander crossed the Hellespont into Asia, a contingent from Thracia was among his troops.

In today’s Bulgaria, a tomb of a Thracian nobleman was discovered in 2009. His brick tomb also contained a chariot and the man in armor was buried with precious gifts of gold rings and coins, together with a silver cup depicting a Greek inspired Eros. Typically, this kind of burial was popular 2,500 years ago and continued far into Roman times. To the Thracians, chariots meant prestige, power and authority and they evidently wanted to carry these values with them into the afterlife.

The splendid chariot and its horses seen on the photograph were discovered in 2008. The wooden chariot was covered in bronze but unfortunately the decoration scenes from Thracian mythology are difficult to make out. It is estimated to be 1,800 years old.

The dead horses were not part of the animal sacrifices that accompanied such a burial but pigs, sheep and deer were. It is assumed that the horses pulled the chariot into place and were killed on the spot before being buried together will their owner and all the rich burial goods.

Such tombs are very much sought after by looters who get good prices for the precious sacrificial gifts on the black market. In our present case, luckily, the tomb was excavated before the looters got there and the finds will go to the museum for all to enjoy.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

An Alexandria in Kurdistan - Iraq?

Two and a half thousand years after his death, the name of Alexander is still making good PR. As soon as some ruins or artifacts are being found somewhere near the presumed route the conqueror took during his campaign through Asia, there is a rush to connect them to Alexander. Maybe wrongly, maybe rightfully so – time will tell.

The spot this time is situated in northern Iraq, actually in the Kurdish region near the city of Qalatga Darband which according to some daring researchers could be a city founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BC. Qalatga Darband is located a good one hundred kilometers east of the battlefield of Gaugamela, meaning that the assumption is not entirely improbable. Other theories link the site to the late Hellenistic era or even to the transition period from Hellenism to Parthian rule. The very name translates into Kurdish as “Castle of the Mountain Pass”, a strategic location where the Little  Zab River cuts through the mountain range to empty eventually into the Tigris River.

Qalatga Darband was discovered in 1973, but excavations in this troubled region started  first by the French in 2013 followed by the British in 2016 who used the terrain to train Iraqi archaeologists. Unfortunately the latest unrest after the Kurdish referendum for independence has forced the last foreign experts to leave.

The once so proud archaeological tradition in Iraq is in a very poor state after the Iran-Iraq war, the Gulf War and more recently the invasion of IS. Many sites have been looted or simply bulldozed, meaning that history has been obliterated altogether. Others remain inaccessible and based on aerial and satellite surveys there are still many more to be explored. But the days of excavations by foreign nations are no longer acceptable and the Iraqis will have to do it themselves – hence the training mission of the British Museum that is set to run until 2020.

In the meantime, the discovery of two statues at Qalatga Darband seem to indicate that the site was once a thriving hub on the route from Greece to Mesopotamia and Persia – possibly linking it to Alexander because one of the unearthed statues could be his portrait (a second statue looks like Aphrodite). Of course, it will take far more research and excavations in order to confirm the link with Alexander as there are many gaps in the facts and figures that came to us.

The grass-grown walls of Qalatga Darband, running down to Lake Dokan
The fortifications defended the western border of the young Parthian Empire. In the foreground is one of the square towers under excavation. 

The Kurdish region seems to be rich in archaeological sites as satellite images have found some 354 sites! One of the images taken near Qalatga Darband  and shared in the article from The Guardian shows an overgrown fortification wall interrupted every twenty meters or so by a square projecting tower – a very tempting project!

In the end, I’m afraid that Qalatga Darband is not high on the list of researchers and archaeologists as bigger names from history will claim priority once the staff is properly trained. After all, Iraq is home to rich historical sites like Nimrud, Ctesiphon, Nineveh, Ur, Uruk, Babylon, Borsippa, Hatra, and Seleucia-on-Tigris to name just a handful.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

What about sundials in antiquity?

Until recently, I associated sundials with castles and palaces for the rich in the 16th and 17th century and it never occurred to me that they already existed in antiquity. Meanwhile I learned that they were known in Egypt around 1500 BC and after that in Babylon!

My first encounter with an antique sundial happened when I visited the site of Cnidos in southwestern Turkey. Here, I found such a sundial from Hellenistic times still in place. This was a most thrilling experience. Imagine standing in front of a time-telling-mechanism that is more than 2,500 years old! It was missing the gnomon, the metal needle that is supposed to project its shadow onto the concave dial surface but some creative visitor had inserted a thin twig instead to reproduce the very principle. This type of dial is known as spherical or hemicyclium.

My next encounter with a sundial happened at the exhibition about Carthage that was organized in Leiden (Netherlands) in 2015. This sundial was made especially for the city of Carthage after 8 AD when the month of sextilis was renamed August in honor of Emperor Augustus. This example is, however, of an entirely different kind called scaphe or bowl sundial. The bowl is resting on its side and the sun is shining through a hole in the bowl’s top side highlighting one of the eleven timelines drawn on the inner side of the opposite part of the bowl. The fan of eleven lines marks the twelve hours of the Roman day, which were longer in summer than in winter.

After all, it seems that sundials are not entirely uncommon to the Greeks who saw them as an object of prestige mainly for public use. They were remarkably precise and very accurate, particularly those found on the island of Delos. The Romans seem to have merely copied the Greek models and used them in private life. They cared more for the philosophical attributes rather than for reading the time and they used the dial’s inscriptions and iconography as symbols.

These days, an intact and inscribed sundial has been discovered at the edge of the theater in Interamna Lirenas, near Monte Cassino, in Italy. This was not its original place as researchers believe that it was left behind by people who looted the area in search of building materials.
The lettering and the style of the inscription indicate that the sundial dates from the mid-first century BC or later, in any case at a time when the city of Interamna had acquired Roman citizenship.

The Latin text tells us that the piece was commissioned by a certain M(arcus) NOVIUS M(arci) F(ilius) TUBULA [Marcus Novius Tubula, son of Marcus], who held the office of TR(ibunus) PL(ebis) [Plebeian Tribune] and paid for the sundial D(e) S(ua) PEC(unia) (with his own money). The otherwise unknown Marcus Novius Tubula may have used the sundial to celebrate his election a Plebeian Tribune of Rome.

The Interamna sundial very closely resembles the Hellenistic one from Cnidos, which confirms that the Romans did not add much if anything to the existing Greek examples.

Friday, December 8, 2017

To protect and preserve archaeological sites in Turkey

Recent articles published in the Hurriyet Daily News clearly underscore the problems Turkey’s archaeological sites are facing. The reasons for this concern are many, generally political ones, but the result is that in the end these antique sites do not receive the care and attention they deserve.

The most recent target is the beautiful city of Ephesus in western Turkey where serious plans exist to build a more than six kilometres long canal that will connect the ancient harbour which has silted up over the centuries with the sea. A 600-meter-long channel will allow yachts to access their anchor space near the entrance and a bridge will connect both banks enabling pedestrians and cars to cross. The price to pay (moneywise) for the first phase of the 30-meter wide access channel is 30 million Turkish Liras, money that does not add anything to the beauty or the archaeological value of Ephesus. The canal will have a concrete foundation and the mud from the present swampy area will be dredged up to a depth of four meters. Construction is planned to start early 2018 and should be completed one year later – a very daring statement!

The Hurriyet Daily News luckily warns for the ensuing damage both to the environment and to the precious remains of ancient Ephesus. Each spring, water levels are already rising in front of the Vedius Gymnasium which makes one wonder about the consequences of opening the waterfront even more. Besides, the alluvium accumulated over the past 2,500 years holds the remains of many “sunken” ships as well as Ephesus’ necropolis. Will they be rescued in the process? If so, this means more work and higher costs that may not fit within the one year time-frame for this invasive construction.

Let’s not forget that Ephesus is on the UNESCO World Heritage List and over the past 120 years excavations were carried out by the Austrians who also made preliminary research in the area that is now under threat. However, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry has stopped the Austrian team on 31 August 2016 (that is last year), i.e. before the end of the normal excavation season. Their decision is based on Austria’s attitude towards the AKP government in Turkey. This means that people with in-depth knowledge of the place are pushed aside.

The ancient city of Ephesus covers a huge surface that has not yet been explored or excavated, while those parts that have been unearthed and carefully restored definitely require maintenance. Who is going to do the job with the Austrians gone? And should this not have priority over the construction of a harbour and even an airfield!

Yes, to make things worse, the plans to build an airport for “small” planes has been revived as well! The vibrations of the planes taking off and landing nearby have destabilized buildings in the ancient city and the project was stopped in 2013. After an internal squabble, work was, however, restarted and at present the taxiway, the runway and the connecting roads have been completed.

The Turkish government wants to attract more foreign tourists to Ephesus (and to other places as well). Today, the number of the visitors that come to Ephesus is only one quarter of that reached in 2011 but those numbers cannot be compensated by those expecting to arrive by boat or small planes as their budget is of a different order. Besides, access of foreign visitors by air and water will require larger infrastructures for customs, cars (parking) and buses (to transfer them to Ephesus), which in turn will lead to air and water pollution that will damage the fragile stones of this ancient city.

Unfortunately, Ephesus is not the only city under threat. There is, for instance, the case of Hattusha, the capital of the Hittite Empire in Central Anatolia which is also on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Members of the German Institute of Archaeology have been excavating the area since 1906 but due to the diplomatic tensions between their government and Turkey, their permit was withdrawn last year and the site is no longer maintained. The Germans contributed to the local economy in the region as they spent up to 900,000 TRY during their yearly stay and provided a job to a workforce of at least 60-70 people.

This has very serious consequences for the Hittite restoration project, a 65 meters long stretch of the 6.5 kilometre-long city walls. The Hittite style was reproduced carefully by building adobe bricks on top of the stone foundation. The archaeologists took pride in implementing the same procedure as the Hittites to make the 64,000 adobe bricks as they mixed 2,400 tons of adobe soil, using 100 tons of straw and 1,500 tons of water. The reconstruction of this seven-meter-high wall was started in 2013 but had to be stopped three years later. Without proper yearly maintenance, the wall is now crumbling down due to the erosion of rain, sun and snow.

The number of visitors cannot be compared to the figures of Ephesus for the obvious reason that Central Anatolia is far away from the tourists’ centres along the Aegean and Mediterranean Sea, but even so, only 2,000 tourists walked over this great site last year as opposed to the usual 25,000.

Another dramatic situation is unfolding in Perge, one of the most frequently visited sites by the tourists that used to flock into the Antalya area. The figures quoted by The Hurriyet Daily News say it all: 190,000 visitors in 2014, 112,390 in 2015 and only 60,000 in 2016. Here too, it is the local people who have invested in their souvenir shops and snacks/cafeterias who are suffering the most.

There certainly are many, many more such examples, unfortunately. For the past decennium foreign archaeologists and researchers have been kept away in favour of Turkish scholars. This looks like a nice way to put the native scholars at work but it is a loss of long-term foreign expertise and certainly not a good money deal. In 2016, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism spent 28 million Turkish Liras on a total of 560 excavation sites, meaning that the average budget for each site was 50,000 TRY. Remember that the Austrians spent 700,000 TRY in Ephesus and the Germans 900,000 TRY in Hattusha each year.

To make things worse and probably in the wake of the arrest of an employee from the American Consulate in Istanbul with alleged links to the Gülen movement, Washington announced it was suspending the processing of all visas in Turkey. The response from Ankara followed almost immediately and it stopped issuing visas in its embassy and consulate in the US. Well, the number of American visitors had already fallen drastically to 37,000 in 2016, whereas the year before there still were over the 88,000 visitors (read this article in Fortune for more details). *

The Guardian meanwhile has figured out that the Turkish tourism sector has encountered devastating losses. The Association of Turkish Travel Agencies has estimated that this year’s loss might be between GBP 2bn and GBP 2.5bn. They give the example of Antalya, a city whose economy relies mainly on the revenue from tourism and where visitors have dropped by over 50% in the first eight months of 2017. Even Russian visitors have decreased by 95% and although Turkey’s ties with Moscow have been mended its citizens have not yet returned en-masse.

Not much light at the end of the tunnel, it seems. The Hurriyet Daily News is drawing some cynic conclusions of this tasteless situation, reminding us that 27 million TRY were spent on the restoration of one mosque, the Abdulhamid II’s Hamidiye Mosque in Istanbul to be compared with 28 million TRY spread over 560 excavation sites!

* Update: As of 28 December 2017, the United States and Turkey have lifted the mutual restrictions on issuing visas for each other's citizens. Normal service has resumed and American citizens can once again go to Turkey.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Temple of Artemis lost and found in Euboea

Well, a temple never is totally lost, of course, we just have to find its exact location after some two thousand years. This was the case for the Temple of Artemis Amarynthia in Eritrea on the island of Euboea.

In antiquity, this open-air sanctuary was the end point of the yearly procession that was held in honour of Artemis, the goddess of hunting in Greek mythology. Her additive name of Amarynthia comes from a local man who was totally besotted by the charms of this goddess.

It turns out that the site of the Temple of Artemis is about ten kilometres away from the place where archaeologists had been looking for it. They have now found parts of an imposing wall from the classical era, which is believed to belong to a Stoa next to the temple.  More artifacts like vases have been recovered and among them was a shard with the inscription connecting the location directly to this temple.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The hidden treasures of Babylonian clay tablets

We all have heard of the huge amount of clay tablets that were found over the centuries in the Near East and more specifically in the area of ancient Babylon. While a great number of them are still resting in the vaults of museums all over the world and an unspecified number is still waiting to be excavated from known and unknown archaeological sites, we do have an impressive collection at hand to work with. Unfortunately, scholars capable of reading and/or deciphering the cuneiform tablets are limited meaning that significant texts from these tablets only surface occasionally, sometimes with very revealing results.

At present, we have a 3,700 years-old tablet from the collection of Columbia University proving that dear old Pythagoras was not the true inventor of his famous theorem. Pythagoras was born in Samos, probably around 570 BC and lived till the old age of 75 or even 80 years. His theorem has become common knowledge over the centuries and we may never have heard of this mathematician, scientist and philosopher otherwise.

The tablet mentioned above, however, is proof that Pythagoras’ theorem existed already some 1,000 years earlier. Also, the same tablet contains a series of trigonometry tables which according to scientists are more accurate than our modern counterparties. Trigonometry as such is said to be invented by Hipparchus of Nicaea, an astronomer, geographer and mathematician who lived probably from 190 till 120 BC. The abovementioned cuneiform, however, shows that the Babylonians were totally familiar with trigonometry more than one thousand years earlier. Besides, this tablet reveals a greater accuracy with clear advantages when compared to our modern trigonometry.

A team from the University of New South Wales in Sydney concluded after an in-depth study that this tablet is the world’s oldest and the only completely accurate trigonometric table. This little but important tool could effectively be used in surveying fields as well as in the building process of constructions like temples, palaces and pyramids. It seems that even in our modern world, the tablet could have practical applications in computer graphics and education as well.

What eluded researchers till now was the true purpose of this tablet but today they established that the Babylonians used a novel kind of trigonometry based on ratios instead of angles and circles. Using the number 60 instead of our 10 (decimal) as base for their calculations enabled the Babylonians to reach more accurate fractions and in the present case the system proves to be an absolute genius.

Nothing new under the sun, one could say. I am often itching to see more of these cuneiform tablets to be deciphered although they have already revealed some key moments in history (see also: The Cyrus cylinder and ancient Persia: a new beginning; Alexander the Great and the Magi; The troops of the King deserted him; and Two key Afterthoughts on Gaugamela).

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Some thoughts about mudbrick city walls

Alexander did not go as far west as Khiva when he was in Central Asia but these city walls perfectly illustrate what construction using mudbricks means. In fact, they helped me to understanding how he was able to build the wall around Alexandria-Eschate in only twenty days.

There are many reports of Alexander besieging cities and taking down its walls but till now walls for me were straight vertical constructions made of rocks and stones piled up in such a way that they could withstand the forces of an enemy attack. Yet in Asia, stones were often not available and mudbricks widely replaced them as construction material as seen already in the palaces of Babylon, Susa and Persepolis, for instance. Yet I had no mental image of what a city wall made of mudbricks would look like and I could not even imagine how it truly served its purpose – that is, till I saw Khiva.

These huge walls shine in all their glory and are only interrupted by their entrance gates. The first such examples I see is the Tash Gate, which is flanked by two robust but slender towers crowned with a crenellated lookout post. This gate immediately blends in with the clean swept earthen city wall – as imposing as I have ever seen. The wall of Khiva forms a two-kilometers-long square and is ten meters high. The lower part is sloping upwards to the foot of the wall proper which is also slightly tilting inwards. At regular intervals half-round towers strengthen the fortification, one tower in two being thicker and sturdier than the other. I am told that this wall is between five and six meters thick. No picture can compete with the effect it has when standing at the foot of this towering defenses. It makes you wonder how on earth anyone could launch an assault and be successful in the process. Of course, this wall dates from the 17th century but the foundations go back to the 10th century, no doubt inspired by similar earlier constructions.

At this point, I remember how Alexander built Alexandria-Eschate in about three weeks’ time according to Arrian. Staring at these walls in Khiva, I am once again in awe for Alexander who rammed and catapulted very similar walls during his years of campaigning.

The city of Khiva is certainly worth a visit although its remains fit in a time-frame far beyond antiquity. Legend has it that Khiva arose around a well that had been dug by Shem, son of Noah but the city started to flourish from the 8th century onwards as an important stop on the Silk Road to China. Endless caravans of camels loaded with goods passed through these streets from morning till night and this is nicely illustrated on a lovely tiled wall which also mentions Bukhara and Samarkand as major stopovers.

One of the first landmarks along the main street is the grand Minaret of Kalta Minor, a short minaret of remarkable design and shape. It is a little fatso, 30 meters high and 15 meters in diameter at its base but it was meant to be 110 meters tall at the time of its construction in 1855. This minaret is clad with glazed bricks and majolica whose colors are a distant reminder of the walls of Susas palace although their design has been replaced by Islamic ones. It seems nobody ever made this link but standing here it is quite obvious how the very idea of glazed brick coatings survived 2,000 years and travelled this far east.

Each building in Khiva has its own rich history to tell: the Madrassa of Muhammad Amin Khan was the largest in Central Asia; the Mausoleum van Sayid Allauddin, a famous saint and Sufi was family of the Prophet Mohammed; the 44 meters high Islam Kodja Minaret covered with bands of glazed bricks, mostly blue and turquoise was the highest construction of Khiva. Another remarkable construction is the Mausoleum of Makhmud Pakhlavan with its glazed turquoise cupola, the only one in town. Even today this is a place of pilgrimage where people come to drink the water from the sacred well. The inside of the burial chamber is entirely covered with blue tiles and women still slide their banknotes under the door of the shrine. This is my first encounter with the typical wooden columns, shaped like elongated teardrops resting on a wooden base, all artfully carved. Amazingly, there are many more such examples around – the grandest collection being at the Djuma Mosque.

The Djuma Mosque or Friday Mosque is quite a peculiar construction without portals or cupolas, without galleries or gardens, but with a forest of columns. It is an impressive rectangular space of 55x46 meters filled with 215 wooden columns supporting a wooden ceiling – a concept that prevailed worldwide some ten centuries ago. This is truly a trip back in time! The oldest columns date from the 11th-12th century and combine designs from different periods, including geometrical and organic ornaments with Arabic writing. Some columns are resting on their appropriate decorated base but others are simply studded with a rough block of wood or even concrete. Some columns are shorter or have only partially survived in which cases they are supported by a taller base.  Looking more closely, you’ll see that many of them carry a date, 1316, 1510, 1788, and 1789, probably linked to their restoration. Capitals are almost nonexistent but some columns are crowned with a wooden chiselled circle while other tops are squeezed between two or four digressive blocks vaguely inspired by the bullheads from Persepolis’ columns.

These wooden columns are indeed a far reminder of Persian art since the ceilings of the palaces in Susa and Persepolis were supported by wooden columns that were plastered and painted as well. They rested on a stone base which often is still in situ and were crowned with bulls or lions supporting the very ceiling. Somewhere down the line of time, it seems logical that we end up with the present shape and carvings. Well, this is my own reflection on the matter as scholars claim that the motives in Khiva belong to the Khorezm art going back to 1200 BC but that does not explain the origin of the idea.

The Citadel, the Ashikh-bobo is worth a visit on its own for it offers a grand view of the entire city and in particular over the city walls which fully reveal their unique pattern. From this observation post the entire city lays at your feet with its many mosques, minarets and madrasas. The simple square clay houses of today’s citizens add to the impression that time has come to a standstill.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Bridge of Amphipolis used by Alexander

Amphipolis lies on the Strymon River, which Alexander crossed in 334 BC when he set out from Pella towards Asia. When history books mention a river crossing, I automatically picture the army wading through the water unless a bridge of some kind is specifically mentioned. This is not the case at Amphipolis as far as I know so it comes as a surprise to learn that the remains of an ancient bridge were found there in 1977.

Successive repairs and maintenance works of the bridge have been documented during the Roman and Byzantine occupation and the last of such a report dates from the Ottoman period around 1620. A Byzantine extension of the bridge and the construction of a dam survived amazingly till 1929-1932 when works were carried out to shift the bed of the Strymon River. This means that it existed in one form or another for nearly two thousand five hundred years!

[Picture from Ancient History]

The remains we can witness today are mainly petrified wooden piles that supported the bridge on the south bank but there are also some stone masonry and marble blocks around the south abutment of the bridge that led to one of the city gates. The piles are between 1.5 and 2 meter high with a diameter varying between 70 and 290 mm. A timber deck composed of horizontal beams -  the longest one measures 4.5 meters - covered the bridge that was 13-meters wide and 275 meters long.

History mentions this bridge for the first time during the Peloponnesian War in 422 BC when Amphipolis played a key role in controlling the access to the gold and silver mines in the hinterland, as well as to the oak forests used in shipbuilding. On the other hand, carbon dating has revealed that the first bridge was constructed at some time between 600 and 550 BC.

More details about the bridge and its historical background can be found in this article by Spyros Kamilalis that was published in Ancient History.

Friday, November 17, 2017

More traces leading to the origins of winemaking

After discussing the origins of Greek wines (see: Greek wine, not so Greek after all), connoisseurs are now concentrating on the origin of Italian wine. After all, the Mediterranean is a relatively small pond crossed by countless trade routes from early times onwards.

Until now, it was generally believed that the production of wine in Italy went back to the Bronze Age (1300-1100 BC) but the recent discovery of ancient pottery indicates that the process was known as early as 4000 BC, i.e. the Copper Age.

A team of archaeologists working at Monte Kronio in Agrigento on the southwest coast of Sicily found remains of wineries, seeds and ancient storage jars. After analyzing the residue inside the jars, they discovered traces of tartaric acid that occur naturally in the winemaking process. This led them to conclude that wine was produced here more than 6000 years ago.

The analysis of the residue is generally impossible because the ancient pottery has to be excavated intact which was the case here. The next step will be to determine whether the wine was red or white – while I automatically assumed (erroneously?) that ancient wine always was red.

An earlier find near Philippi in Greece (see: News about Greek (Macedonian) wine), dated the earliest winemaking to 4200 BC. This once again proves – if proof needed – that trading around the Mediterranean Sea was extremely dense and lively.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

About the Death of Alexander the Great

Alexander’s death is shrouded in mystery. From antiquity until today, scores of historians, admirers, archaeologists, authors and philosophers have written about it and each and every one has developed his own theory and his own point of view.

It is useless to retell the story – or the many versions of the story – as I certainly cannot add anything sensible to that. Like everybody else, I have, however, my own thoughts and own reflections on the matter.

Alexander’s death most certainly was first recorded in his Royal Diaries, but is the account that reached us truly reflecting what was written down at that time or has the original report been manipulated to suit his courtiers and successors? That is hard to tell, certainly 2,500 years onwards.

We have a very detailed, day-by-day account of  Alexander’s whereabouts and health during the last days of his life. I find this rather strange as it sounds more like a justification than an actual report of the events. Alexander’s life has been in the balance before but not so many details were reported or at least have not survived. The first time the troops feared for the king’s life was at Tarsus after he plunged into the cold waters of the Cydnus River and the remedy of his doctor Philip was being questioned by Parmenion, in those days his trusted general. We have no day-to-day account of Alexander’s condition at that time although it must have been quite critical none the less as it kept him pinned down for several weeks.

Another life-threatening experience was during his attack on the Malian town in India when Alexander was hit by a poisonous arrow while scaling the city wall. The soldiers had been slow to follow their king, exposing him to the full force of the enemy’s attack. Alexander had to be carried away and for three days he fought between life and death. At the cost of enormous superhuman efforts, he eventually showed himself to his troops and even hoisted his battered body on top of a horse to prove them he was still alive. No day-to-day account of his eating and drinking pattern has been recorded, and none of the worries and treatments by his doctor have been documented. All we know is that he floated down the Indus in full view of his men. He needed much rest to help the healing process but the march to the mouth of the Indus went on as planned.

So, why this detailed list of activities in Babylon? If Alexander had been straightforwardly sick, there was no need to document his eating, drinking, or sleeping pattern during the days preceding his death.

The question that arises more often than not is, was Alexander poisoned? Attempts to take his life had occurred before. The first one mentioned in our sources is Philotas attempt to at least cover up the plot to kill Alexander in 330 BC. In Central Asia, the king survived the Pages’ conspiracy said to be planned by Callisthenes. There may have been more attempts to take his life that are not necessarily recorded and the next occasion may well have arisen here in Babylon.

If Alexander was indeed poisoned, which I doubt, then Hephaistion would have died of poisoning also. Had his dear friend still been alive, the murderer(s) would have had less chance and could expect the full wrath of Hephaistion. He not only was the most intimate and dearest friend of Alexander, but also the second-in-command, the only one ever to be promoted to the title Chiliarch and as such the obvious person to replace and take over from Alexander. Many people must have envied his privileged position.

With Hephaistion no longer in the way, the main question is, however, who would or could benefit from eliminating the king? It is not only about killing Alexander, it is also about providing a good and approved replacement. So, who would be eligible? Not Ptolemy since he withdrew soon enough to his beloved Egypt and didn’t interfere much in the matter of succession. Not Nearchus, who was happy to keep his admiralship of the navy. Not Peucestas who made the effort to learn the Persian language and must have been quite happy in his role as satrap. Not Seleucos, who had married the daughter of Spitamenes – the only marriage that survived the big Susa wedding. Not Eumenes who had faithfully served both King Philip and Alexander for years as secretary and archivist. Not Craterus who was halfway to Macedonia with strict orders to replace Antipater. Antipater has been named as possible beneficiary as he sent his son Cassander to Babylon in his place carrying a very potent poison according to some sources. If so, the poison was not very potent since it took Alexander almost ten days to die. Besides, Antipater did not hold Cassander in high esteem for he did not allow him to recline with his guests during the Symposia but had to sit like a little boy on a chair at the end of his father’s couch. When Antipater died, Polyperchon was appointed as his successor and not his own flesh and blood. That tells enough. Perdiccas may be a suspect as, after all, he helped Roxane to poison Alexander’s Persian wives after the king’s death, but that may be simply because he was still a Macedonian in heart and soul. Besides, in my honest opinion, I think he was far too loyal to Alexander to harm him in any way.

Cassander, however, may have acted on his own, ceasing the opportunity of being delegated to Babylon. Not impossible. Although he had shared the early years at Mieza with Alexander and his Companions, he stayed behind when Alexander went east probably as persona non grata. He must have resented this denial. Fueled by his father’s attitude, he developed a deep grudge against Alexander and his clique. Life at the Babylonian court was totally alien to Cassander and he cannot have operated without inside help, possibly that of his younger brother Iollas who was one of the king’s Pages. All this is based on speculations, although eight years later Olympias accuses Cassander of murdering her son – perhaps not entirely unfounded.

At the time of Alexander’s death, all Alexander’s Bodyguards and other powerful men like Aristonous, Leonnatus, Lysimachus, Meleager, Pytho, Stasanor, Asander, Olcias, Philip the physician and Peithon were present in Babylon, but none of them really stood out to replace Alexander. If we follow Pseudo-Callisthenes, only Ptolemy, Perdiccas, Peucestas, Lysimachus, Asander and Olcias are beyond suspicion. Whatever the plan, either it was ill-conceived or whoever was supposed to gain from it was facing unexpected opposition from the other contenders. After all, the Succession War lasted for almost forty years and even the rising star of Antigonus-the-One-Eyed only made waves many years later.

If Alexander had indeed been killed with poison without involving his Bodyguards and his other faithful generals (I cannot imagine they were not), then why don’t we hear anything about an investigation to find the culprit? This was certainly the case when Philotas’ plot was discovered and also after the conspiracy of the Pages. These were, of course, led or instigated by Alexander but in his absence, the army certainly expected that much from their commanders and there was no way anyone could avoid the Macedonian legal machine.

Another possible cause of Alexander’s death could be his excessive drinking which would immediately make any investigation superfluous. The heavy drinking is at least what the Royal Diaries in all their elaborate details want us to believe, although some twenty-five years after the facts Aristobulos casually remarks that Alexander sat for hours over his wine for the sake of conversation. The drinking theory, however, has been widely developed in the Alexander Romance. On one such occasion, Alexander is spending a drinking night with twenty other guests, toasting to their health in turn with unmixed wine creating the ideal circumstances for the poisoning theory. But as we know, the Alexander Romance is to be taken with a large pinch of salt, maybe a shovel full.

Less often highlighted but very real are the prophecies made by the Chaldean diviners who advised Alexander not to enter Babylon. Their warning was recorded on cuneiform tablets and predicted Alexander’s death in these words “ When in the month Ajaru, during the evening watch, the moon eclipses, the king will die. The sons of the king will vie for the throne of their father, but will not sit on it” (see: Alexander the Great and the Magi). Alexander is not being mentioned by name, just as “king”. In our modern world we no longer believe in prophecies but maybe we should. After all, facts and figures do not explain everything.

Alexander simply dying of exhaustion and of the consequences of his near-fatal wound in India is not a heroic way to end his life that evolved between myths and reality from the beginning. But if he was indeed suffering from his chest wound, why did he not name his successors? Was he hoping and waiting for Roxane to give birth to a boy? His Persian wife Stateira is said to be pregnant as well, meaning that is was not beyond reason for Alexander wanting to live long enough to see his heir(s). Another possibility is that he was in denial and did not take his declining health seriously but that is very much unlike Alexander. His succession, I think, was a problem even for him. He was surrounded by very capable men and generals but none of them had the vision of his greater world. The only one who ever shared that insight with him was Hephaistion and he was dead.

When on his deathbed Alexander gave his signet ring to “the strongest” he may have meant just that: the man who would be strong enough to keep his empire together but they had to work it out for themselves. A poor legacy one may say but under the circumstances, this was the best he could do for even had he indeed named Perdiccas as some sources pretend, he probably lacked the capabilities and vision to pursue Alexander’s goals? Well, time has given us the answer and Alexander was right one last time.