Alexandria's founded by Alexander

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

Friday, May 19, 2017

Gold digging ants, legend or reality?

As always, it is not easy to separate the wheat from the chaff and in history, it is even more difficult to separate legend from truth. One of such cases is the fabulous story told by Herodotus in the 5th century BC about “outsized furry ants” that dug up enough gold to enrich the Persian Empire. Unless we find hard proof, such stories remain questionable even if Alexander the Great is said to have known about it.


The main problem may simply be that these “giant ants” live in the remote region of the upper Indus River close to the Himalaya Mountains. These creatures are said to be big marmots throwing up soil while building their underground burrows and this soil apparently contains gold. In more recent centuries, explorers were told by the indigenous people that they collected gold dust from these mounds of soil.

Gaining access to the area has been the major setback to expose the truth. The area has been pinpointed to the high plateau of Dansar which overlooks the Indus near the tense cease-fire line between Pakistan and India. Getting there from India is difficult enough but entering the Pakistani side is near-impossible. The high plateau is occupied by the Minaro villagers split up between the two modern countries living at an altitude of some 3,000 meters. Both sides share the same story but the marmots and their burrows can only be found on the Pakistani side of the border. Recently, a landslide had exposed a darker, gold-bearing soil from one meter below the surface and this is exactly the soil which the marmots throw up.

No big secret, but where does the description of “furry gold digging ants” come from? The answer is amazingly simple: Herodotus never visited India but in his days the country was under Persian rule and the Persian word for marmot is “mountain ant” – hence the confusion.

It is clear that this logical explanation needs to be supported by archaeological and geological surveys but the region is still a conflict zone and not safe for travel. Unfortunately, it seems that the population of marmots is dwindling rapidly because soldiers are constantly taking potshots at them.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Excavations at Alexandria-on-the Tigris also known as Charax Spasinou

Alexandria-on-the-Tigris, also known as Antiochia-in-Susiana and Charax Spasinou-on-the-Tigris, is one of the lesser known cities founded by Alexander the Great in 324 BC. Pliny in the 1st century AD was still aware of this important harbor, although by then it was called Charax on the coast of the Persian Gulf at the point where the Tigris and the Karun rivers met. Today, it is much harder to pinpoint this once grand port that served as an entrepȏt to Alexander because since that time so much silt and alluvium has been carried down by both rivers that it is nearly impossible to find traces of this last of Alexander’s Alexandria’s.


It seems that Alexander settled a number of his veterans in special quarters of Alexandria-on-the-Tigris, which he named Pella after this own hometown.

Geophysical surveys revealed that entire districts were present and waiting to be explored and soon enough archaeological excavations revealed the presence of monumental buildings. It soon became clear that the heydays of Alexandria-on-the Tigris occurred in the 1st and 2nd century AD and not during Alexander’s lifetime. Since the city was founded just one year before the death of the King of Asia, it may not have had the necessary support, more so since his successors had other things on their mind like their own rise to power. It was only when the Seleucids had secured their empire halfway the 2nd century BC that their attention went to rebuilding the city that had been severely damaged by repeated flooding. This is how it gained its new name of Antiochia-in-Susiana.

The major incentive came from King Hyspaosines who ruled from 127 until 124 BC after having functioned as a satrap earlier on under Antiochus IV Epiphanes, king of the waning Seleucid empire. Hyspaosines founded an empire of his own, Characene that flourished thanks to his naval superiority in the Gulf. At this time, the island of Failaka was attached as well (see: Alexander's outpost in the Gulf). Charax survived, changing hands to the Romans who in turn were expelled by the Persian Sassanids in the third century AD. The last traces of occupation have been dated to 715 AD when it was part of Umayyad Empire, after which Charax was finally abandoned.

For centuries, Charax was a turntable on the trade routes to Syria and the Mediterranean after passing through famous stops like Petra and Palmyra. Here the goods were transhipped from those ships sailing in from Arabia and even India in exchange for those products traveling in opposite direction. In its heydays, Charax spread over 5 km2 and was home to a large cosmopolitan population. Alexander certainly had a good eye when it came to building new cities!

Over the centuries, the coastline has changed dramatically due to the heavy silt deposits of the major rivers Tigris and Karun emptying into the Persian Gulf. Mud has covered most of Charax’s remains leaving only vague hints of its once so massive ramparts. Moreover, this area is now littered with debris from the recent conflict opposing Iran and Iraq. This is certainly not making the task any easier for any archaeologist daring enough to start digging in this utterly desolate flat.


Modern technology was brought in to the rescue; at least, that was the plan. A small team of geophysicists spent nine days trudging up and down the site with their magnetometers, hoping to find some remnants of this once so glorious city while at the same time they could test the possible presence of landmines. The results of their arduous efforts were beyond expectations as they were able to discover the Hellenistic gridded layout of the city and pinpoint many of the monumental buildings. Unfortunately, you don’t always get what you expect. In this case, the monumental buildings turned out to be mere layers of ephemeral phases and excavations were hampered by “inconsiderably-placed” dead bodies while what seemed to be a large city walls turned out to be nothing but a large ditch lined with pots. Test trenches have so far yielded only some pottery and a few badly weathered coins.

Alexandria-on-the-Tigris, Failaka and other towns in the Gulf area are clearly not going to disclose their treasures anytime soon for it will take many seasons of thorough excavations to get some indication about Alexander’s legacy in modern Iraq, yet again hampered by recent war situations.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

By the Spear. Philip II, Alexander the Great, and the Rise and Fall of the Macedonian Empire by Ian Worthington

In this book, By the Spear, Ian Worthington (ISBN 978-0-19-992986-3) gives a good concise narration of the career and power of Philip II of Macedonia and his famous son, Alexander the Great. It may be a good way to get acquainted with the conquests and accomplishments of both rulers but then it tells the story in a nutshell. This, in fact, may discourage anyone to read it to the end because it is cramped with so many facts and figures.

Sadly, Ian Worthington in this book merely confirms what he previously wrote in much more details about these two great Macedonian kings in Philip II, King of Macedonia and in Alexander the Great, Man and God. I was hoping to find more information about these rulers’ effect on Macedonia during their lifetime as well as their legacy after Alexander’s untimely death. Maybe my expectations ran too high, but I fail to see the value of rewriting (even in a summarized form) what has already been said in his two previous books, especially since the last part of the promising title “Rise and Fall of the Macedonian Empire” has not really been developed.

It is clear that the author relied on an immense bibliography, which is listed at the back of his book. This by itself is an excellent source of information. The added Timeline is rather condensed, and so is the Cast of Principal Characters. The maps at the beginning of the book are, however, excellent.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Laodicea, great works in progress!

Only recently, Laodicea was in the news because a tablet explaining the laws for the city’s water management dating from Roman times was discovered (see: Water laws, still unchanged after nearly two thousand years).


It appears that excavations have intensified and that a sacred agora, the only such example in the world, has been exposed and is undergoing serious restoration. This agora, the largest sacred area in Anatolia because of the adjacent temple, collapsed after the severe earthquake of 494 AD and was covered under a layer of up to seven meters of rubble. It is leaning against a 100 meter-long and eleven meter-high back wall that was covered with paintings. Over its entire length ran a Stoa and the columns – some 34 of them - that once held the roof are now being reassembled.

At the same time, work has progressed in reviving the Hellenistic theater planning to make it accessible again in two years time. The lower tiers of seats have been preserved but the upper tiers survived only partially. Most of the restoration apparently seems to be needed around the skene, which in the 5th century became part of the city wall.

Archaeologists are still sorting through the reliefs, sculptures, vessels and jewels found on the site, generally transferred to the local museum.

Laodicea, which is located only ten kilometers from Hierapolis (next to Pamukkale) was founded by Antiochus II Theos of Syria and named after his first wife, Laodike. This Seleucid king is the one who is mentioned on one of the Ashoka pillars as Amtiyoko, king of Greater Syria and Bactria (see: When pillars with unknown writing were discovered in India).

In 188 BC, the city was ruled by the kings of Pergamon until it fell to the Romans in 133 BC. At this point and because of its strategic position, Laodicea flourished thanks to the intensive trade in black wool.


As mentioned before, there is far more to discover at Laodicea beside the Agora and the theatre. The list contains buildings like baths, several temples, another theater and a Bouleuterion.  The Stadion is in good condition and still contains the original seating on both sides, taking advantage of the narrow valley in which it has been built. At its western end are the remains of an underground passage used by chariots and horses to access the arena. Many streets were lined with columns and pedestals and there are even traces of a city gate, the Ephesos Gate. North of the city, closer to the adjacent Lycos River, the necropolis has been discovered with many sarcophagi whose lids have been removed in antiquity by tomb raiders.

Quite exceptional, however, is the aqueduct of Laodicea since it is very similar to the one found at Aspendos (see: Aspendos, the unfaithful). In both cases, an inverted siphon carried the water from the summit of a low hill down the valley all the way up to the header tank at the edge of the city. This certainly is great news, as until now Aspendos claimed the monopoly for this kind of Roman architecture. 

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Legacy of Ancient Palmyra

The Getty Research Institute in Malibu, California, has put together an online exhibition about Palmyra with drawings made by the 18th-century architect Louis-Francois Cassas and the 19th-century photographer Louis Vignes.


Colonnade Street with Temple of Bel in background, Georges Malbeste and Robert Daudet after Louis-François Cassas. Etching. Plate mark: 16.9 x 36.6 in. (43 x 93 cm). FromVoyage pittoresque de la Syrie, de la Phoénicie, de la Palestine, et de la Basse Egypte (Paris, ca. 1799), vol. 1, pl. 58. The Getty Research Institute, 840011 

The Legacy of Palmyra gives a highly interesting look of what Palmyra looked like before it was so carefully and lovingly restored by archaeologists in the 20th and 21st centuries but was ultimately so savagely destroyed in the past decade.

It is a true ode to this once so grand and important city.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Time to Honor Emperor Hadrian

Emperor Hadrian was a true world traveler in the modern sense of the word. He understood Public Relations like no other and made sure all his subjects knew him whether in the far east or in remote Britain where he left his “Hadrian Wall”. It seems he was very much appreciated also since so many cities built arches in his honor and dedicated temples and baths to him. A rare exception on my travelling through Albania where I found no trace of him. Strange, to say the least!

Hadrian was born in 76 AD and died in 138 AD, after having reigned over the Roman Empire for twenty-one years. He belongs to the category of the five “good emperors”, joining ranks with Nerva, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius and Antoninus Pius. More importantly, he ruled at the height of Roman power in the middle of the Pax Romana which started under Augustus in 27 BC and ended in 180 AD. This Pax Romana, a two hundred years-long period of peace, was in great part due to Alexander the Great – a detail that is generally overlooked. Through his two years of fierce guerilla wars in Sogdiana and in Bactria from 229 to 227 BC, Alexander had scared the hell out of the Scythian tribes on the northern frontiers of Central Asia to such an extent that they did not dare interfere with the Roman occupation in the following centuries.

Hadrian comes to me as a good-natured and friendly person who liked his contacts with people. He is known to be generous to the soldiers under his command, making sure they were properly garrisoned; additionally, he implemented many military reforms and built appropriate forts. He was on good terms with the civilians of the cities he visited as well and is said to have defended the weaker population against the empowered ones, which may be one of the reasons why he was so popular. He loved everything that was Greek and that included his beautiful lover Antinous. He sought to make Athens the cultural capital of his empire and to this purpose he ordered the construction of many buildings all over the city. Best known is probably his arch in the center of Athens carrying two typical inscriptions reading on one side, Here starts the city of Hadrian and on the other, Here ends the city of Hadrian. Athens, in turn, honored the emperor with a bronze statue at the Theatre of Dionysus. According to Pausanias, Hadrian also built a gymnasium with columns of Libyan marble, a Temple of Hera, a large Library and a Pantheon dedicated to all the gods. We still can admire his life-size statue at the very heart of the Greek Agora. Another interesting feature of Hadrian’s legacy is the vaulted Eridanos River that has been exposed during the metro construction works at the Monastiraki station.

This emperor is also being remembered for his generosity and fairness, for changing the law generally to make sentences more humane and honest. In Rome, he restored many buildings, including the Pantheon and allowed himself the luxurious Villa Hadriana at Tivoli which he furnished with the most beautiful Greek statues he could find, if not the originals, then the best copies would do. During his travels, he often implemented public works projects and granted Latin rights to many communities.

Nothing much has transpired from his personal life, except his affair with the gorgeous Antinous (when you see the very recognizable Antinous in a museum, you can be sure that Hadrian is not far off). Whatever his relation with his wife Sabina was, she is often represented at his side. One such case that springs to my mind is Andriake, the harbor of Myra, where a bust of the couple enhances the entrance to the granary.


According to the latest news, the city of Antalya is renewing its appreciation for Hadrian by cleaning up the area around the gate built in his honor in 130 AD, known locally as the “Three Doors”. They are planning a rather fancy landscaping with lighting in the shape of the sun. The project is not too clear but it is nice to hear that this impressive city gate will gain in prestige after so many centuries of abandon.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

How we can be tricked into relying on the internet

The internet is a most wonderful source of information but once again I discovered how tricky and misleading some of this information can be. It happened recently when on Pinterest I came across these three magnificent heads, most likely terracotta’s, labeled as Alexander, Olympias and Philip. They were very lively and very lifelike, so much so that I could hardly believe the labels to be correct.




I questioned the different sources who had posted these pictures on Pinterest but got no reaction at all. Are people just swallowing anything these days? The doubtful labels, however, linked these heads to the Museum of Villa Giulia in Rome. That was another reason to raise my eyebrows since that museum is specialized in Etruscan art and I fail to see their connection with Alexander and his family.

Getting nowhere, I decided to contact the Museum of Villa Giulia in order to clarify this interpretation. It was not surprising to learn that they had no knowledge of this Macedonian royal family in their collection.

The picture of this so-called Alexander is, in fact, a representation of Apollo recovered from the Etruscan Sanctuary of Scasata at Falerii Veteres, modern Civita Castellana in the province of Viterbo and has been dated to the end of the fourth/early third century BC. It was part of a terracotta group that enhanced the front pediment of the temple dedicated to Apollo, an oracle shrine. Some sources imply that this Apollo was inspired by the Alexander head created by Lysippos – not entirely improbable, I’d say.

It appeared that another nearby temple had been excavated as well and it had been determined that it was dedicated to Minerva (Athena), Juno (Hera) and Jupiter (Zeus). This temple yielded stunning terracotta sculptures from the early fourth century BC among which a cult statue of Juno, the one that is apparently mistaken for Olympias.

As to the head that supposedly represents Philip, I have no further information but I could speculate that if it was found near the Juno terracotta it might depict Jupiter.

These three heads are absolutely superb and I believe they are well worth a visit to the Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia next time you are in Rome.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

"The troops of the king deserted him"

These are the words that appear on a clay tablet written by a contemporary eyewitness in Babylon after the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC.


This cuneiform clay tablet belongs to the Astronomical Diary that was kept in the temple of the Babylonian god Marduk. These diaries contain not only daily observations of the sky but also all kinds of information about the current political events, the level of the Euphrates and Tigris, the food prices and other various news, as well as the meteorological records. Over the past two centuries, millions of these tablets have surfaced from all over Mesopotamia and the majority has not yet been deciphered, leaving us with wide lacunas.

Yet, with bits and pieces, we are able to extract useful information from these tables, like, for instance, the exact date of Alexander’s death on 11 June 323 BC.

In the frame of Battle of Gaugamela, these inscriptions suggest that the Persian soldiers were demoralized and that “the troops of the king deserted him”. These lines shed a very different light on the battle as recorded by Greek historians who wrote that Darius left his soldiers. It makes us wonder whether instead of an act of bravery or military genius on Alexander’s part, the battle was won thanks to the bribes of some of Darius’ generals, including Mazaeus (see: Two key afterthoughts on Gaugamela).

Due to the complexity of the battle, the vastness of the plain and the heavy dust that whirled around, nobody could actually have a consistent view of the maneuvers and clashes. Yet at the end of the day, the Macedonians were master of the field. Callisthenes, a nephew of Aristotle who had been appointed by Alexander to keep his official diary, could hardly have actually seen any part of the battle. He too had to rely on the accounts given by the Macedonians at that time. Although later historians like Arrian, Diodorus, Curtius and even Plutarch had access to his records, we have no way to verify what and how he originally told the events since his books are lost to us.

The cuneiform tablet which started this post is in the hands of the British Museum and has been closely studied by specialists. For me, there are three lines that are important in the frame of the decisive battle of Gaugamela, which I reproduce hereafter in my own simplified version:

That month, the eleventh [corresponding to 18 September 331 BC], panic occurred in the camp before the king. The Macedonians encamped in front of the king [must be Darius at Arbela].

The twenty-fourth [corresponding to 1 October 331 BC], in the morning, the king of the world [meaning Alexander as King of Asia] erected his standard [lacuna]. Opposite each other they fought and a heavy defeat of the troops. The king, his troops deserted him and to their cities [they went] They fled to the land of the Guti.[meaning the road to Ecbatana]

On the eleventh [corresponding to 18 October 331 BC], in Sippar [this is just north of Babylon] an order of Alexander to the Babylonians was sent as follows: 'Into your houses I shall not enter.'

For the complete text and pertaining comments, please refer to the site of Livius at this link and/or this link.

Based on the above, the least we can say is that we know only part of history and certainly only a tiny portion of what really happened that day of the battle on the dusty plain of Gaugamela.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Alexander meeting Diogenes in Corinth

Diogenes was a cynic philosopher from Sinope in Ionia on the Black Sea born in either 404 or 412 BC and he died the same year as Alexander in 323 BC in Corinth. He had settled in that city where he passed his philosophy to Crates of Thebes (365-280 BC), who in turn taught Zeno of Citium in Cyprus (334-262 BC) who became the founder of Stoic School. Diogenes’ own writings have not survived and most of his anecdotes have been recorded by Diogenes Laërtius in the third century AD in his “Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers”.

Legend has it that Alexander visited Diogenes in Corinth when he was about twenty years old although this cannot be historically confirmed. The story may have been told by Onesicritus, a disciple of Diogenes, who joined Alexander on his eastern campaigns and was retold in an embellished form by Ptolemy from where it could have made its way to the later Alexander Romance. It remains questionable whether there was any ground of truth in the tale.

The best-known story about Diogenes is that he lived in a large barrel or jar and made a virtue of poverty. In that frame he lived a more than simple life and criticized the fashionable social values and institutions, accusing them of corruption. He was reputed for eating and sleeping whenever he felt like it. He certainly was a highly controversial figure and did not shrink back from embarrassing Plato, sabotaging Socrates’ lectures and even publicly mocking Alexander the Great. Well, this latest statement may not be true and only a legend. But the story goes that when Alexander found Diogenes lying in the sun, he greeted him and asked him what he could do for him. Diogenes answered with his famous words, “Stand out of my sun”. This response made everyone present laugh and Alexander may have picked up the humor, adding “Truly, if I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes”.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Let’s bathe in a 2,000 years old thermal bath

Would it not be great to know that the baths of Sarikaya will not only open to the tourists but would also allow us to actually bathe in these thermal waters?

This semi-Olympic pool at the foot of this sturdy Roman construction from the 2nd century AD is also known as “Basilica Therma”. Nearby, it seems that two more thermal pools have been located. The water temperature of 48-49 degrees Celsius is pretty high for bathing but is said to have healing properties. What are we waiting for?

The Roman soldiers found their way to these luxurious baths where they used to rest before setting sail from one of the ports on the Black Sea. The place must have met high standards since recent findings confirmed that the hot water sources were also used in the floor heating system.

It would not be a proper Roman Bath if it were not decorated with an adequate number of statues of gods and goddesses, and discovering a snake figure is evidently the symbol of Asclepius, the god of medicine and health. The premises were still in use during the Christian era since a large baptismal font has been excavated and some pools were even used in the days of the Seljuk and Ottoman occupation.

Sarikaya is situated less than 80 km north of Kayseri and 325 km southeast of Ankara.

For our own bathing and in spite of the six years of excavations spent already, we’ll have to wait a few more years till the project is completed. I am also curious to learn the name of this Roman town and the full role it played in antiquity.

[The first picture is from Sarikaya Muhabir and the second picture is from The Daily News]

Monday, April 10, 2017

Le Roman d’Alexandre, traduit du grec par A Tallet-Bonvalot

Just as there is not one Silk Road, there certainly is not one Alexander Romance

The oldest known version dates probably from the third century AD and its author is unknown, although it has been attributed to Pseudo-Callisthenes - not known otherwise. This version is generally called version α and served for all subsequent versions which appeared on a more or less regular base until the 16th century written in Latin, Greek, Armenian, Georgian, Persian, Hebrew, Arabic, Islamic, French, English, Italian, Spanish, Hungarian, Romanian, German, Ethiopic, Mongolian and many Medieval patois. Useless to say that each version added tales of its own fantasy and embellished the legend which Alexander became over the centuries.

Le Roman d’Alexandre (ISBN 9-782080-707888) which I read is the Codex Parisinus Graecus 1711 discovered at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris in the 18th century. This Greek text is entitled The Life of Alexander the Macedonian, badly copied, full of spelling mistakes and others and was composed in the 11th century. It is labeled as version A since it is so closely related to the original Romance.

The book has little to do with the historical Alexander and the chronology of his conquests is entirely incoherent and/or invented. To give it a credible resonance, we find familiar names in a utopian setting, for instance, Craterus of Olynthus as an architect in Alexandria or Parmenion lending his name to the Serapeum while Roxane is presented as the daughter of the king of Persia. Interestingly, Parmenion is being accused of planning the murder of Alexander by bribing the king's doctor Philip at Tarsus while he historically sent a letter to Alexander to warn him for Philip.

Alexander marches with a huge army to face enormous enemies without giving any detail on the battles or hardly a location but encountering one mythical or fabulous being after another. The book contains an amazing number of letters exchanged with the Athenians, Darius, Olympias, Aristotle, Porus, Kandaké king of Meroe, and even with the Amazons and the gymnosophists. This is not a heroic Alexander but a wise man who always does the right thing much to the awe and admiration of his audience. 

Le Roman d’Alexandre concludes with Alexander’s will, which is made to fit the tale of the book but can in no way be connected to historical reality. 

Friday, April 7, 2017

No progress in the Valley of the Thracian Kings

The Thracian presence in Bulgaria is best documented by the Tomb of Kazanlak, but there are hundreds and thousands of similar tumuli spread all over Bulgaria that remain unexplored. In 2002, there was an exhibition in Brussels about the Gold of the Thracians and the map with all the Thracian burial mounds was baffling. Experts estimate that there are more than 15,000 of these tombs in Bulgaria with the highest concentration in the so-called Valley of the Thracian Kings around Kazanlak.

In my earlier post from April 2013, Valley of the Thracian Kings, Bulgaria, I tackled the serious shortage of funds for the maintenance and repair of these tombs. Unfortunately, more than four years later it seems nothing much has changed. In Bulgaria, the revenues from entrance fees to the tumuli and other archaeological sites are not being converted into conservation funds. This means that archaeologists are not too motivated to explore new tumuli and tombs simply because there is no way to restore them, which in turn leads to serious neglect and degradation of the painted walls and ceilings.

As mentioned before, there are a few outstanding tombs that definitely deserve close attention. The Kazanlak Tomb is understandably closed to the public who can, however, visit a substitute replica next door. But there also is the tomb at the Shusmanets mound where a slim column is supporting the vaulted ceiling of the burial chamber and seven half columns adorn the inside walls. Another example is the nearby Ostrusha tumulus which contains a sarcophagus-like chamber hewn from a single granite rock of 60 tons. The ceiling is decorated with frescoes of people, animals, plants and geometric figures and the central room of this tomb is surrounded by six other rooms in dear need of restoration. The best-known king of Thracia is probably Seuthes III whose tomb has been closed to the public last summer pending the much-needed funds for emergency repairs.

We know pretty little about the Thracians because that they did not have a writing of their own and have not left any written record. They were a people of horse breeders, miners, and talented goldsmiths. What transpires through their art is that they believed in the afterlife and the immortality of their soul. Their kings were considered to be the sons of Mother Earth and after their death, they must return to her womb. This could explain why they built these artificial mounds around their burial site in which the deceased ruler was placed surrounded by his horses, dogs, weapons, drinking cups and playing dices. The burial sites proper were built from huge granite blocks and slabs. Generally, an entrance corridor led to one or more chambers and all the walls were covered with paintings revealing details of their earthly life.

In the Valley of the Thracian Kings, only about three hundred of the roughly 1,500 tumuli have been excavated. It is a shame that the rich heritage of the Thracian does not receive the attention it deserves, either in Bulgaria or abroad.

[Pictures from Australian News]

Monday, April 3, 2017

About spolia in Babylon

The word “spolia” is defined by Wikipedia as “the repurposing of building stone for new construction, or the reuse of decorative sculpture on new monuments, is an ancient and widespread practice whereby stone that has been quarried cut and used in a built structure, is carried away to be used elsewhere.” Well, that is what I thought also until I came across this article about modern day spolia in Babylon.

Saddam Hussein’s controversial reconstruction of the Palace of King Nebuchadnezzar is well documented but now it appears that bricks from ancient Babylon have been reused in buildings erected in Hillah, south of Baghdad. Elderly locals from the city remember how the bricks were transported by donkey or river barges, and this custom is thought to go back to the 12th century. In 1890 bricks from Babylon were used for the construction of the Hindiya Barrage on the Euphrates. Vandalism, for that is what spolia is, after all, continued far into last century with Saddam Hussein’s madness to rebuild the palace and the American Army setting up their camp inside the old walls and driving their tanks through ancient streets.


The damage cannot be undone but Iraqi authorities are now facing another problem and that is to recover as many Babylonian bricks from the old houses in Hillah and other neighboring towns by monitoring their demolition. As always, there are those who deny the problem and others who claim that the theft of bricks stopped in the 1940s.

Whatever the case, a group of journalists and activists created a social media campaign and hope that the UNESCO will consider reinserting the site of Babylon in their World Heritage List by the end of 2017. On the other hand, Iraqi authorities are aware that the restoration of the houses in Hillah should take place under the control of General Authority for Iraqi Antiquities.

King Nebuchadnezzar II built his city of Babylon in the 6th century BC and is said to have used as many as fifteen million baked bricks for the construction of his palace and surrounding official buildings! After all, Babylon was a huge metropolis covering 900 hectares of land. The square bricks used for this impressive construction carried Sumerian inscription and special regal seals.

It is heartbreaking to see remains from 2,700 years ago from such an important antique metropolis as Babylon disintegrate in front of our very eyes without being able to stop the damage.

Let’s hope for the best, as always.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Putting Halicarnassus on the (tourist) map

The Hurriyet Daily News recently published an article entitled “Mausoleum at Halicarnassus to be restituted” that made me raise my eyebrows. What did they mean with “restitute” for there certainly is no way to rebuild the Mausoleum since too many pieces have been lost over time.

On top of that, the rest of the article is pretty confusing with plans and projects that are very vague. What transpires, however, is that the Bodrum Municipality wants to put the city on the map and most probably on the tourists’ map.

Of course, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus is recognized as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and as I understand what the newspaper is trying to say, they intend to connect this monumental tomb built by King Mausolos in 353 BC to Bodrum harbor. I wonder how they can go about this for it would mean the destruction of a good part of today’s residential area.

It is also odd to read that a team composed of a professional tour guide, an underwater archaeologist, an architect, a businessman and a photographer had to be called to meet at the Bodrum Municipality in order to plan excavations to reveal more of Halicarnassus’ past. The projects that are discussed include more excavations of the eight-meter-long city wall and unearthing the 3,500-year-old hippodrome. The program also should tackle the restoration of the Jewish cemetery, the organization of a festival dedicated to Herodotus (International Herodotus Culture and Arts Festival), the illumination of the existing Myndos Gate and last but not least the collection of artifacts testifying of early Mycenaean occupation in the area (15th-12th century BC). By themselves, these are all excellent ideas but it seems that is all there is, ideas tossed on the table without any strong argument to back them up or plan to work them out.

Their intention to put Herodotus, the father of ancient history who was born in Halicarnassus in the 5th century BC in the floodlights may simply be an additional PR for Bodrum.

It will be interesting to see which part of these projects, if any, will ever materialize.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

In Search of the City of Persepolis

While the Palace of Persepolis is widely discussed and documented, the city that spread out of the foot of the dominating high plateau is hardly documented. Even in antiquity, the city of Persepolis is only mentioned by Diodorus who details the ferocious and bloody rampage of the Macedonian troops.

Until recently, archaeologists focused entirely and solely on the Palace built by Darius I and his successors but nobody had any idea of what the city of Persepolis must have looked like or even where to find it. Scrutinizing the surrounding land there is nothing to indicate the presence of a construction of any kind, but surely there must have been an important community there to support the needs of the Palace in provisions and services of all kinds.

Many cuneiform tablets have been unearthed in the area but as always, their translation and interpretation is a lengthy process. So far, however, some deciphered inscriptions are referring to business transactions specifying the quantity of goods that were produced or distributed.

Excavations based on recent geophysical surveys revealed that there were clusters of buildings, some of which were occupied by craftsmen, others by officials and still others were important enough to have belonged to the nobility attached to the Achaemenid court. The city of Persepolis was not densely populated but instead was spread over an area of several hundreds of hectares, leaving much open space in between the clusters of houses.

The surveys also revealed erratic straight lines all over the area which at places crossed each other at right angle. These lead scholars to determine that they belong to a pattern of canals that supplied the water necessary to the community and the maintenance of the fields, gardens and parks arranged in between the different settlements. It is obvious that for the Achaemenid kings this city layout was also a matter of prestige as they turned the desert into a paradise, their word for garden.

Since the construction of Persepolis was inspired by Pasargadae which was founded by Cyrus the Great less than a century before, the archaeologists took a closer look at the water canals of Pasargadae, which have been exposed over the years. Their pattern and gentle slopes are perfectly able to work for Persepolis as well. The next step was to locate the water source for Persepolis’ Palace and city. Satellite photography revealed the outline of a channel linking Persepolis to the Seyedan Mountains, some 15 kilometers to the east. The water is still flowing today and its quality is unique because all the other available water sources in the area are brackish.

The ensuing study of the soil had to provide information about the landscaping by extracting earth cores and examining the layer coinciding with Persepolis heydays. The results were quite revealing! At least five different types of trees were imported and grown successfully: plane trees, olive and walnut trees, cypresses and pine trees.


It is hard to imagine the luxuriant vegetation and the opulence that surrounded the Palace of Persepolis and witnessed by Alexander and his troops. Some parts of history definitely need to be rewritten, as far as I am concerned!

Some interesting views and reconstructions are available on this documentary aired by ARTE TV.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

New funding for the Tomb of Amphipolis

The Greek finances remain a doubtful and uncertain subject but it is now official: 2.5 million Euros will be made available for restoration works at Kasta Hill, better known as the Tomb of Amphipolis.

By now, the entire world is aware of this tomb were it only because of the many speculations that were fired into the media, especially in 2014 (click on the link Amphipolis to refresh your memory).

Since then, the wildest speculations have circulated about who would or could be buried in that tomb. The most fantastic suggestion was that it would be Alexander the Great in person simply based on the size of this tomb and the expensive construction. In the meantime, this theory has been luckily dismissed because of the number of historical records confirming that Alexander was buried in Alexandria in Egypt where his body was seen by many visitors for several hundreds of years. What a relief!

The fact remains that this tomb must have been built by a wealthy Macedonian nobleman or some member of the royal family after Alexander. Yet the theory linking this tomb to Hephaistion, Alexander’s closest friend, still survives because of the inscription ΠΑΡΕΛΑΒΟΝ that was deciphered next to the monogram of Hephaistion. History, however, has documented that Hephaistion’s funeral was held in Babylon at high expenses in the presence of Alexander, but that leaves the question as to what happened to his ashes.

By now, we know for certain that the Tomb of Amphipolis is a Macedonian tomb dating from the last quarter of the 4th century BC. It is far larger than the one ascribed to Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great, in Vergina. Excavations at Amphipolis have exposed the remains of five people, i.e. those of a woman of about 60 years old, two men aged 35-45, a newborn infant and a few fragments of a fifth person. These skeletal remains are presently undergoing DNA-examinations to cross-link them or to establish a relationship with skeletons found in the neighboring tombs.