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 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)

Friday, February 23, 2018

Playing practical jokes in antiquity

Isn’t it strange that we believe that people in antiquity were always serious? Well, nothing is less true for recent discoveries reveal that our ancestors had a great sense of humor indeed!

I remember that the Getty Museum had this terracotta goblet with a thick rim that contained a small pebble. Consequently, each time the guest brought this goblet to his lips the pebble started rolling making a distinctive noise. Your drinking habit did not go unnoticed, of course.

Just recently a funny drinking cup was excavated in Vinkovci, eastern Croatia, which belongs to a series of so-called Tantalus cups. The inner center of the cup is occupied by Tantalus, a Greek mythological figure who was doomed to stay in sight but out of reach of food and water. The Tantalus figure of this cup has holes hidden in its design and as soon as the cup is tipped, the liquid leaks onto the tunic of the unsuspecting guest. The following picture from the Daily Mail clarifies the system.

The example found in Croatia dates from the 4th century AD and could have belonged to Emperor Valentinian I and/or his brother Valens who were born in Vinkovci.

Another trick is played by the Pythagorean cup which allegedly was invented by Pythagoras of Samos. The principle here is that when the cup is filled beyond a certain level, a siphoning system causes the fluid to be drained through its base. The silver vessel has a central column through which the wine “leaks” from the cup and spills over the unsuspecting drinking guest. This drawing from Wikipedia says more than any description would.

The siphon principle is in fact the granddad of our modern flushing toilets!

Fun is ageless and timeless, and it is pretty reassuring that our ancestors appreciated practical jokes just as much as we do. Keep smiling! 

Monday, February 19, 2018

Alexander moved to Abu Dhabi

The recent opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi has been widely advertised in the media and although this is far from the usual tourist destination it certainly seems to be worth the visit.

It is clear that the name “Louvre” is a temporary publicity for which Abu Dhabi paid $1.15 billion and their agreement will run for the next thirty years. During the first ten years of its life, the Louvre Abu Dhabi will receive artwork on loan from four Parisian museums, the Louvre, the Musée Quai d’Orsay, the Bibliothèque Nationale and the Centre Pompidou. This should allow them to constitute their own collection in the meantime.

Among the six hundred or so artifacts on display (half of them coming from France), I was pleasantly surprised to find a statue of Alexander the Great. It is the bust of Alexander Inopos from around 100 BC recovered from Delos. However, some scholars disagree and believe it to represent Mithradates VI who was a great admirer of Alexander and tried to emulate him.

I like to see this statue as a homecoming of Alexander in the Persian Gulf. So far, there is no knowledge that he himself ever went as far as the Strait of Hormuz near today’s Abu Dhabi, but his admiral Nearchus certainly passed that narrow when he brought his fleet from the Indus River to Babylon. As far as we know, Alexander himself sailed from the gulf up the Tigris River all the way to Opis (read: The Conquests of Alexander the Great by Waldemar Heckel).

Alexander’s presence in the Gulf area is generally overlooked. We know, for instance that he founded the city of Alexandria-on-the-Tigris, also called Antiochia-in-Susiana or Charax Spasinou-on-the-Tigris at the spot where the river emptied in the Persian Gulf some 2,500 years ago (see: Excavations at Alexandria-on-the-Tigris). There are traces of Alexander’s presence at Failaka, an island off the coast of modern Kuwait (see: Alexander’s Outpost in the Gulf).

Thursday, February 15, 2018

On the Iraq border archaeological digs are a minefield – in every sense

On the Iraq border archaeological digs are a minefield is the title of a highly interesting article written by Mary Shepperson in November 2017 and updated as recently as 14 February 2018.

The modern war between Iran and Iraq ended some thirty years ago and the conflict as well as its consequences have been pushed to the back of our memory and replaced by more recent (and apparently more dramatic) wars. But the fact remains that in the spring of 1987, 60,000 Iranians and 20,000 Iraqis were killed during the siege of Basra.

The reason I am pulling this out is because Mary Shepperson is looking at the damaged site of Charax Spasinou in the province of Basra, Iraq, that was founded by Alexander the Great in 324 BC as Alexandria-on-the-Tigris.

Excavations at that site are far more complex than I made appear in my previous blog Excavations at Alexandria-on-the-Tigris and the damage that was done during the conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries is beyond description. This is well illustrated by the drone picture published in said article:

In fact, the best thing to do is to read the full article by clicking on the link at the start of this page. It once again shows how little consideration people, entire populations even, have for their past. I believe everyone of us can draw his/her own conclusions.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Underwater archaeology reveals more Roman shipwrecks

More and more archaeological work is carried out under water and the Mediterranean is a proliferating source as new discoveries make the headlines on a regular base.

In the bay of Alexandria, three Roman shipwrecks have been discovered together with an Egyptian votive barge and a collection of small artefacts among which are gold coins from the reign of Emperor Augustus. Underwater archaeologists are expecting to expose a fourth shipwreck during this year’s mission (2018) as large wooden beams and pottery belonging to its presumed cargo have been located. Another interesting find is this crystal head which is probably representing Marc Antony.

Further north on a reef near the Cycladic island of Naxos, am underwater expedition located no less than eight shipwrecks from various periods of the Roman Empire. Diving teams are gearing up for the next exploration since these ships are lying at only 30 meter below sea level. In a first attempt, they have been dated between 100 BC and 300 AD.

More recently, scientists who were surveying the effects of climate change in the Black Sea discovered dozens of perfectly preserved wrecks from the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman eras. What makes this find unique is the fact that the water of the Black Sea below 150 meters contains no oxygen (anoxic) and thus cannot support organisms that usually thrive on organic material. This means that the wood and ropes are still in excellent conditions. The bulk of the wrecks are about 1300 years old but so far the oldest one is dated back to the 4th century BC.

Using two Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs), researchers were able to “see” these wrecks at a depth of 1,800 meters. So far, they have explored a distance of 1,250 kilometers! It must be quite exciting for them to discover that the ship’s masts are still standing, their rudders are in place, and the cargoes and ship’s fitting are scattered on the deck. As detailed features of the ships became visible, they found that the fittings and equipment matched the drawings and descriptions we had till now.

Leading Professor Jon Adams, of the University of Southampton, said it all: 'This assemblage must comprise one of the finest underwater museums of ships and seafaring in the world'.

[Picture of the crystal head is from Ahmra Online]
[Picture of the shipwreck is from Archaeology News Network]

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Legend about Alexander and the polo game

The polo game which is played on horseback using a ball and a mallet seems to be invented by the Scythians of Central Asia as early as 500 BC. The game soon was assimilated by the Persians who used it as a way to train their cavalry for battle. In fact, the warlike tribesmen played the polo game as a miniature battle.

In a recent TV program about the Silk Road, Alfred de Montesquiou, a French reporter and war correspondent, mentioned an interesting legend on the subject. The story goes that King Darius gave Alexander the Great such a ball and mallet with the intention to treat him as a mere boy, “here is a ball, so play!” But Alexander thanked him with the wise observation that the ball was the earth and the mallet represented himself, meaning that he was the master of the world!

This story may well come from one of the many versions of the Alexander Romance, who knows?

In time, polo was played in Persia by men as well as women and notably by the nobility. King Khosrow II (reigned 590-628 AD) and his courtiers are known to have played Polo just like the queen and her ladies.

From Persia, the game spread to Arabia and the Muslims, in turn, introduced it to India in the 13th century. Who would have thought that the polo game could boast such a long history?

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Le trésor perdu des rois d’Afghanistan by Philippe Flandrin

Le trésor perdu des rois d’Afghanistan (ISBN 2-268-03977-3) translates into The Lost Treasure of the Kings of Afghanistan and is written by Philippe Flandrin, journalist and war correspondent.

This book may well be the most complete work about the history of Afghanistan. In a most pleasant and comprehensive way, the auteur manages to mix Afghanistan’s recent history with that from antiquity. After an introduction to the times of Cyrus the Great and Alexander the Great, he seeks and finds the transition to the days of the Greco-Buddhist art.

The catalyst agent in opening up the country of Afghanistan in recent time was, in fact, its last king, Mohammed Zahir Shah who ruled for forty years. Unhappy about the British interferences in the 19th and early 20th century, he turned to France for archaeological expertise. He himself had studied in France and this created obviously a natural bond. The king was deposed in a coup in 1973 and soon afterwards the Soviets invaded the now Republic of Afghanistan. Political changes always prevail on the way of life in any country and in Afghanistan where tribal powers were still very strong the archaeological teams had soon to withdraw. Well, we all remember how the Taliban “liberated” the country from the Soviets and in the end imposed their own religious ideas.

Philippe Flandrin takes us by the hand and leads us through the mazes of Afghanistan’s stirring history as it has been forged over the centuries. People like Cyrus, Alexander, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane have left their marks, followed by Buddhist and Chinese travellers on the Silk Road.

He starts his book with the first discoveries of sites like Ai-Khanoum, Tillya Tepe and Hadda, including the hardships the archaeologists encountered and the opposition from the local people – generally strong Islamic believers who smashed and destroyed many of the human statues as soon as they were unearthed. Tribal elderly had their say as even the king could not overrule or control them. Many wondrous finds have thus disappeared before reaching Kabul. Half of the artifacts that made it were entered into the newly built Museum of Kabul and the other half was shipped off to France finding a home at the Musée Guimet in Paris. And luckily so for soon after the Soviet occupation the Museum of Kabul was plundered. The gorgeous statues from the Gandhara era were destroyed and the smaller pieces slowly but surely found their way to the illegal markets, mostly through Peshawar in Pakistan. This is being detailed in the second part of this book. A very sad episode indeed.

The third and last part of this interesting book discusses the world of legal and illegal art trading worldwide. The conclusion is that most of the precious finds from Ai-Khanoum, Begram, Tillya Tepe, Hadda and other key excavation sites of Afghanistan have simply vanished.  The sites themselves have been trampled or bulldozed and all that remains of the Museum of Kabul is a skeleton building; nobody really knows what became of its rich collection. The gold, jewels and coins from the excavations had been locked up safely in the vaults of the Central Bank in Kabul and it was a miracle to find these pieces intact when a team of local and international experts and archaeologists laid eyes on them in 2004. This treasure was luckily saved and is now part of an exhibition that is travelling around the world as it would not be safe in its homeland (see: Bactrian Gold, The Hidden Treasures from the Museum of Kabul).

It is a sad story that clearly illustrates how the Afghans have been nearly entirely stripped of their history – a story much less known than that of the destructive path the IS has left behind in neighbouring Iraq and Syria but the drama in Afghanistan is at least as devastating and radical.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

A sample of Caligula’s megalomania

Speaking of megalomania, I believe the Roman emperors of the first century AD excel in that domain with Caligula and Nero in prominent places.

The opulence that was common good to them goes beyond our most daring imagination and one such example is the two ceremonial ships which Caligula built for his eccentric pleasure on Lake Nemi, some 30 kilometers south of Rome. These ships were not meant for sailing as they were simply too big to maneuver for the size of the lake. But then, the lake was sacred to the Romans as confirmed by the presence of the goddess Diana Nemorensis and the god Virbius which were venerated in the towns on the surrounding shore.

Much speculation is shrouding these ships in mystery but it is thought that the largest vessel (73 meters long and 24 meters wide) served essentially as a floating palace with rooms whose floors and walls were covered with colored marble and lively mosaics. This residence had its own baths and pool equipped with the appropriate comforts of plumbing and heating. The other vessel was not much smaller with its 70 x 20 meters and seems to have been a floating temple for Diana. Both ships were built from cedar wood and carried sails made of purple silk. History further tells us that they were adorned with gold and precious stones as well as bronze reliefs. Somehow they even “grew” a number of fruit trees and vines on board. The example set by the Ptolemies in Egypt and the Hellenistic rulers in Syracuse certainly was not lost on Caligula!

It is known that Romans could make ball bearings out of lead and the story goes that this invention was used on the Nemi ships to move the windlasses and even to rotate the statues of the gods! Top notch technology was implemented like several hand operated bilge pumps that worked very much like modern bucket dredges. Piston pumps, in turn, supplied the hot water for the baths and the cold water for fountains and drinking water. It is hard to believe that this knowledge of piston pumps was lost in time until it finally was “rediscovered” in the Middle Ages.

Caligula’s pleasure vessels were short lived as he was assassinated about a year after they were launched and opposition parties soon stripped them of their precious content and intentionally sunk them. They remained at the bottom of Lake Nemi for almost 2,000 years during which time fishermen and treasure hunters regularly retrieved small treasures from the wrecks.

This is probably the origin of a square piece of inlaid marble which features a geometric pattern using green and purple porphyry, serpentine and molded glass that recently made headlines on the antique markets. The owners who acquired the piece in the early 1970s framed it and turned it into a small coffee table. The details of that story can be found in the New York Times of 19 October 2017.

The life of the two Nemi ships did, however, not end at the bottom of the lake. In 1927, Benito Mussolini (another megalomaniac) ordered to drain the lake in order to expose and retrieve the ships. The first ship was recovered in 1931 and the second one in 1932, and in 1936 he built a museum to host both vessels. Unfortunately, in 1944 fire destroyed the museum and its precious contents after several bombings. To this day, it is not clear whether the Germans started the fire or the allies caused it by their intense bombing. Today, a new museum can be visited on the site sheltering scale models of the ships and those rare artifacts that have survived. Let us hope that this “coffee table” will soon be visible at that museum also.

Lake Nemi, once hosting scenes of orgies, cruelty, music and sport is once again a place where the people of Rome can enjoy the clean air and cooler temperatures in the summer months. The lucky visitor may still witness the magical reflection of the Moon in the center of the lake during summer nights – a phenomenon the ancient Romans called Speculum Dianae, in other words, Diana’s Mirror.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

An original bronze by Praxiteles?

Who would not like to claim to be the owner of an original bronze statue made by Praxiteles?

Praxiteles of Athens, who lived in the 4th century BC, made a name for himself during his lifetime as he was the very first sculptor ever to create a nude woman and he made her life-size! To avoid a scandal, he labeled his lady as Aphrodite which was received gracefully by the people of Cnidos who had ordered a statue of this goddess although they had not expected her to be in the nude! (see: Was Alexander the Great aware of Cnidos?). Sadly, none of his original works have survived and all we have to go by are copies – yet what copies!

The most striking full-sized statue in marble is that of Hermes holding the infant Dionysus from the Temple of Hera and now exhibited at the Archaeological Museum of Olympia. Among the other masterpieces, we know the Diadomenus and the Apollo-Antonius at the Archaeological Museum of Tripoli (Libya), the Venus (2nd century AD) and the Apollo Sauroktonos (1st century AD) at the Louvre, the Venus(2nd century AD) at the Museo Capitolino in Rome, the Roman Satyr at the Altes Museum in Berlin, the head of Venus at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, the torso of Venus at the Cinquantenaire Museum in Brussels, the Bacchus or Satyr (2cd century AD) and the Tyche (early 2nd century AD) also at the Cinquantenaire Museum in Brussels, the Apollo Lykeios from Epidaurus at the Archaeological Museum of Athens and there must be many more in the museums around the world.

Yet all these statues are made of marble although the originals probably were created in precious bronze. Bronze, as we know, has been melted down time and again over the centuries, mostly for military purposes meaning that any bronze statue from antiquity is a very rare item.

Recently, the Cleveland Museum of Art has exhibited a statue of Apollo claiming that it is an original Greek bronze and made by the famous sculptor Praxiteles. You would expect this distinguished museum to base such a statement on solid grounds but it seems that it raised many questions instead.

The Apollo in question is also known as the Apollo the Python-Slayer or Apollo Sauroktonos (Lizard Slayer) that is being dated to about 350 BC. It is made of bronze with copper and stone inlay and stands 1.50 meters high. The statue is not complete as it misses part of his right arm, the tree and his left arm and shoulder that rested on it.
But luckily Apollo’s left hand has been recovered as well as a small reptile that looks like a lizard but is in fact a Python in reduced sized. It seems that it was made for the sanctuary of the Pythian Apollo in Delphi who according to the myth had to vanquish Python, the son of Mother Earth. It is thought that Apollo’s victory of the Python was translating Praxiteles’ idea of the triumph of order (kosmos) over disorder (chaos). Emperor Nero is probably responsible for taking the statue to Rome where Pliny the Elder described it as a bronze of the youthful Apollo about to stab a lizard with an arrow.

There are indeed several contradictory and conflicting stories that are circulating. One tells us how the mysterious Apollo was purchased in 2004 from Phoenix Ancient Art, an antiquity dealer for 5 million dollars. Originally it was recovered from an estate in Eastern Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The legal heir to this estate remembered having seen the statue on several occasions at the house of his great-uncle. This heir believed it was a 18th or 19th century work not worth much money and he sold the broken pieces. It was soon identified as ancient and appeared in 2003 at said art gallery where the museum acquired it a year later.

France-Presse, in turn, reported in 2007 that Greek officials had discovered the bronze in the sea somewhere between Greece and Italy but no clear evidence sustains this statement. Although the Greek government accepts that the statue comes from “somewhere in Greece” they refused to cooperate with the Louvre in their exhibition of the works of Praxiteles if they were to show this bronze Apollo. The Louvre complied.

Although there are international laws to prevent the trading of illegal and looted antiquities, there is no law to put the exhibition of objects from uncertain and undocumented provenance on hold till a full research can confirm their authenticity and origin.

It may be wishful thinking to have a true bronze created by Praxiteles, it may be a commercial tool to attract visitor to the museum. Who knows, after all we may be very fortunate to have an original Praxiteles saved by the art market.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

More news from Anticythera

The site of Anticythera remains a treasure trove for underwater archaeologists. In September 2016, they returned to the site of the shipwreck and brought back bronze limbs, the lid of a sarcophagus, parts of different marble statues and a mysterious bronze disk.

The ship, one of the largest for its time (1st century BC) was nearly 40 meters long and transported a rich collection of artworks that was meant to decorate the houses of wealthy Romans (see also: The treasures of Anticythera’s shipwreck).

It is so exciting to be able to share the divers’ experiences under water as they handle a lost bronze arm belonging probably to a philosopher or an intriguing bronze disk that carries the image of a bull. Let’s enjoy this little video:

Anticythera made headlines when the famous mechanism was brought to light early last century and has kept scientists and researchers busy ever since.

The most significant find of this season may well be the human remains. This is a great opportunity to examine this skeleton’s DNA, hoping that the bones do indeed belong to one of the seafarers who died when the ship went down and not to a later shipwreck.