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)

Monday, May 21, 2018

Close encounter with an ancient Water-Organ

Several years ago, I was browsing through the Archaeological Museum of Dion after having explored the nearby Macedonian sanctuary and Roman city. It is a lovely little museum but what truly impressed me was the water-organ that stood on the first floor and was visited by only a handful of tourists. It was so recognizable as an organ that I even suspected that this reconstruction could be too far away from reality.

It was during excavations outside the beautiful Villa of Dionysus at Dion in 1992 that archaeologists discovered a row of pipes together with large copper slabs bearing the imprints of pipes. After further examination in the on-site laboratory, they were able to establish that these pipes belonged to a water-organ. It turns out to be the oldest surviving musical instrument of its kind and it has been dated to the 1st century BC, making it 2,200 years old!

The ancient Greeks called it a ‘hydraulis’ which made its first appearance in Alexandria. The first ‘hydraulis’ was built by Ctesibius and operated by compressed air that was channeled through a container of water to equalize the pressure. A row of pipes of different length produced the sound and by adding more pipes a polyphonic effect could be obtained. What an invention!

The arrival of the water-organ was received with great success because of the powerful and pleasant sound it produced, making it a favorite instrument in theaters, hippodromes, and at other public gatherings. Eventually, it entered into the Roman Imperial court. The Byzantines improved the organ and managed to make it function without using water. The amazing fact is that this ‘hydraulis’ is the ancestor of our church organ since the Middle-Ages.

Ancient music and more specifically Greek music is an intriguing subject which I tackled in earlier blogs (see: Reconstructing ancient music, an impossible task? and An insight into Ancient Greek Music). The history of this ‘hydraulis’ as another interesting contribution to this chapter.

The good news is that we will be able to listen to ancient Greek water-organ music at a live event - that is, if you have the opportunity to travel to Athens this summer. The Acropolis Museum is organizing a free concert with quite an interesting program that looks as follows:

An introduction to the history of the ‘hydraulis’ and the discovery of the elements in Dion will be given by Professor Pandermalis. After that, the audience will be treated to a virtuoso recital on the ‘hydraulis” by the famous Greek organist, Ourania Gassiou. The concert will end with a special harp recital by harpist Thodoris Matoulas.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Roman “Villa of Alexandros” in Northern Greece

No, the villa did not belong to Alexander the Great, but to his namesake who lived in Amyntaio near Florina.

With a total of 96 rooms, this majestic villa whose construction started in the 2nd century AD is one of the largest and most luxurious ever found in the area. The inscriptions with the names of Alexandros and Memmia refer to the successive owners who occupied the premises in the middle of the 3rd century AD. The town of Amyntaio, which covered 25 hectares, flourished around that time since it was strategically situated along the ancient Via Egnatia.

The owners are thought to be wealthy Roman officials with a pronounced preference for everything Greek. The numerous floor mosaics cover an area of some 360 m2 and have much to tell about Greek mythology. The mosaics of the Europa Hall are the best preserved and include scenes like the Abduction of Europa, the Abduction of Dione, Pan with the Nymphs, and Apollo on a Griffin.

The co-called Nereids Hall is with its 90m2 the largest room and served as a reception hall for the guests. They must have been impressed by the elaborate mosaics arranged around a central fountain picturing sea nymphs seated on sea horses, cupids riding dolphins, a number of fishing scenes among birds and fish, and framed with the personification of the four seasons in the corners. This room also featured statues of the gods that did not survive in the best condition but are still recognizable as Hermes, Athena and Poseidon. The remains indicate that these statues were of exceptional quality for Roman copies of Greek originals made in Attica.

A number of smaller items were also recovered from this room, such as statuettes, bronze and silver jewelry and fragments of clay, bone and glass objects.

Another room has been labelled as the Beast Warrior Hall after the floor mosaic showing a male figure being attacked by a lion. It is thought that the subject could refer to an actual fight that celebrated the emperor.

Excavations are still ongoing since only one third of the complex has been exposed so far. Work will continue this summer and hopes are high to make more fascinating discoveries.

[Picture Credit: Thessaloniki Ephorate of Antiquities]

Sunday, May 13, 2018

A peep inside the storerooms of the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki

As a matter of course, only the most beautiful or most telling artifacts find their way to the exhibition space of the museum, here as well as elsewhere. However, my hands are often itching to take a look inside their basement and browse the dusty shelves in search of forgotten or overlooked treasures.

Take, for instance, the collection of sarcophagi accumulated over the past two hundred years or so, some of which still contain the untouched bones and grave goods of their owners.

One such an impressive marble sarcophagus decorated with Amazons in battle was deterred in 1929. Inside are the bones of a woman, probably of Athenian origin as her gold signet ring carries the name of Ellada (ΕΛΛΑΔΙ). The grave goods belonging to the 4th century AD were gathered and recorded to be stored away in the basement of the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki.

The same fate was shared by a series of 300 other marble sarcophagi collected from several cemeteries and excavation sites. Most of them belong to high ranking Roman citizens who died between the first and the third century AD. Common grave goods were gold rings, jewelry depicting the god Asclepius, pendants with the effigy of Tyche/Fortuna and a pendant in the shape of an oil lamp.

The only exception seems to be a couch-shaped sarcophagus that was discovered intact in 1837 near the Kalamaria Gate. It contained the bones of a couple, a wooden box holding gold jewels and a magic inscription on a gold sheet. This precious tomb was “acquired” by the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna. I hope that it found a worthy place in that museum at least?

Another rare artefact is the gold ring with a sardonyx stone in which the joined hands of a man and a woman have been carved out and enhanced with the inscription OMONIA. In Roman times, the image symbolized the handshake to seal an agreement or a contract but in this case since it was used on a ring it is thought to be a wedding ring. It was the custom for the bride to wear such a ring on the middle finger of her left hand as the Romans thought that the vein from that finger ran straight to the heart.

Recently, the Thessaloniki storerooms have been opened in order to digitize their archaeological content and this is obviously a proper opportunity to study these earlier finds. Who knows what exciting discoveries there are to be made!

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Danake or Obol?

Some ancient sources mention a small silver coin that is labeled as a “danake” and this calls for further investigation.

The Greek word danake is copied from the Persian danak, a small silver coin more or less equivalent to the Greek obol (1/6 of a drachma). The danake, together with the silver half-danake seems to be a provincial coinage used mainly in Asia Minor. It was probably linked to coins from Sidon and Aradus, but in later years it was used by Greeks elsewhere and also in other metals like gold.

Gold danakes were often found in graves and examples are known from Lemnos, Euboia but also as far as Epiros – some of them stamped with a picture like for instance that of a Gorgon. A case is known from a tomb of the 4th century BC in Thessaly where the lips of the buried woman were sealed with a gold danake. It is speculated that this idea is related to Orphic or Dionysiac mysteries.

The danake often replaced the obol and their names were used alternatively. The obol was given to the dead enabling them to pay the ferryman Charon for their voyage into the underworld and it seems that on certain occasions the danake was used to the same end. On the other hand, numismatists established that the Greeks used the label danake for small foreign coins without fixed denomination.

The above leads me to the most remarkable find of all, the double gold danake with a picture of Alexander the Great. This coin, interestingly, is being described as showing the head of Alexander on the front and a nude Alexander sitting on a rock and Bucephalus on the reverse. Based on the picture of the danake published by the Archaeology News Network I cannot match this description as it looks as if this side shows Alexander on horseback.

It is striking that in the 3rd century AD a gold coin of some value was no longer used in burials. Charon’s obol was often replaced by the danake among which those depicting Alexander the Great - a way for the ruling class to remember their glorious past. This means that seven centuries after Alexander’s death, he was still very much revered! 

I am certain that Alexander himself would never have dreamed of being useful to this point!

[Picture from Archaeology News Network]

Saturday, May 5, 2018

All Alexander’s Women by Robbert Bosschart (3rd edition)

This is the third edition of All Alexander’s Women by Robbert Bosschart (ASIN: B07B4HSQ1B). It is rare and rather exceptional to find a book on Alexander the Great looking at this world conqueror from an entirely different and unusual angle: the women that were part of his life in one way or another. This is what Robbert Bosschart has accomplished.

The role of these women was widely developed in his previous two editions in which he stated that Alexander the Great would have introduced equal rights for men and women had he lived long enough! This status of women’s equality was not something Alexander created but existed already in the Persian Empire he conquered. It is said to go back to the Zoroastrian doctrine backed by Cyrus the Great and even before that in a matriarchal era. The leading power was the goddess Inanna, equaled by Anahita and blended later on with Ishtar, Isis, Cybele and the entire Greek female pantheon; she was still venerated in the Sassanid era.

In this third edition, Robbert Bosschart talks us through the relations Alexander had with women, the best known being his own mother Olympias and his sister Cleopatra, Queen Ada of Caria and Queen-Mother Sisygambis of Persia, who both had adopted him as their son. This  was not a small matter for in the case of Persia it meant that Alexander was accepted to rule “by the power of Ahuramazda” together with that of the goddess Anahita.

It is a vast topic hardly mentioned in our western literature since ancient Greeks generally treated women as mere trade goods. It is easy to understand why this concept of equality - which must have looked very “Barbarian” in their eyes – was willfully left out of their literature. The macho Roman writers did the same and as a matter of course our western world was unaware of the customs and habits of the East.

Robbert Bosschart is taking us a step further as he develops the Persian point of view on the matter of equality, which he only touched superficially in his previous versions. He is digging even deeper into the subject exploring a number of oriental sources. One of them is the Persepolis Fortification Tablets, an archive of thousands of clay-tablets containing over 15,000 texts from the Achaemenid Period which are only partially translated till now.

Another aspect highlighted in this book is the Persian version of the Alexander Romance, the Darab-Nama and the Sikandar-Nama, a mixture of Old Persian tradition with Hellenistic and Muslim themes. Also discussed is the Liber de Morte, a fictional last will which is often but not always attached to the Alexander Romance. Last but not least, the author reminds us that Alexander is elevated to the status of prophet in the Koran, hence his nickname the “Two-Horned”. The book also includes an interesting chapter about the “King’s Eyes”, integer secret keepers that were responsible for reporting to the king (a kind of Persian Intelligence Service avant-la-lettre) and to control the implementation of his laws and orders all through the King’s huge empire.

To complete his extensive research and to take it to a level to be comprehended by all, Robbert Bosschart has added a number of helpful lists and tables: Historical Dates/ Facts in Alexander’s Life; Chronological list of Persian kings; The Classical sources on Alexander’s era; Reference works; Biographical/Geographical Index (alphabetical); and an extremely useful list of Where Alexander’s Women appear in the Classical Sources”.

I find the subject of this book truly fascinating! The Persian view point for one, is unique. And just imagine what our world would have looked like had Alexander lived long enough to realize his “merging” of East and West as he undoubtedly planned when he celebrated the mass wedding in Susa. Not only would our world have known one single ruler, one single currency and one single vehicular language (Greek), but we also would have lived in a society where men and women were each other’s equals.

P.S. For those who can’t wait, a select extract of good 50 pages of this book is available (free of charge) at

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The restoration of Ostia Antica, the harbor of Rome

Would it not be a great experience to travel from the heart of Rome to the site of Ostia Antica by boat just as the ancient Romans once did? Well, the good news is that the project is taking shape with a departure from Ponte Marconi on the Tiber River where the works on the dock are in progress and expected to be finalized in the summer of next year (2019). Meanwhile, Ostia still can be reached by train.

The restoration carried out at Ostia Antica is not centered on specific buildings but comprises 187 structures on the left of the Decumanus, the main road running from the Porta Romana to the Porta Marina.

Among the buildings involved, there are the so-called Republican Area, the Collegiate Temple and the Seat of Augustals. Also along this road, restorations were carried out at the Caseggiato del Sole, a residential building, and at the Mitreo dei Serpenti whose frescoes have now been protected with a roof. More extensive work was done in the thirty-one rooms of the Terme dell’Indivioso, including the large mosaics of sea creatures.

One of the main problems in Ostia – also current in Pompeii, for instance – is the maintenance of the many monuments, warehouses, arcades, taverns and private houses. Archaeologists are hoping that private funds will be made available in order to clean up more of the constructions. Over the past four years, however, they were able to clear the heavily overgrowth of vegetation but also to treat and eliminate the surface deposits and organic residues on the stones.

I imagine that this face-lift is long overdue and the city should finally attract the many tourists it deserves. We will remember that Ostia was Rome’s access to the Mediterranean. Situated on the mouth of the Tiber, it was one of the most important ports in antiquity. In its heydays in the 2nd and 3rd century AD, the city counted 100,000 inhabitants but from the 3rd century onward most of the activity shifted to the larger and newly constructed harbor of Portus, leaving Ostia to the rich aristocrats who turned it into a seaside resort.

[More pictures can be seen on The Archaeology News Network, courtesy of La Repubblica]

Friday, April 27, 2018

The harbor of Roman Naples uncovered

Metro works are ongoing in many larger cities all over Europe and Naples (Napoli) in Italy is one of them. Here archaeologists found the port of Roman Neapolis, now located three meters deep and some 200 meters inland.

The history of Naples goes back at least four thousand years but when it became part of Magna Graecia in the 6th century BC, it gained in importance and thrived for almost one thousand years. At some time during the 5th century AD, however, the harbor started to silt up and it is exactly this sand and mud that has preserved the wood of the ships that were uncovered during the subway constructions.

The archaeological team has exposed the hulls of two 11 meters long Roman ships from the 1st century AD and partial remains of five others. In the process, they recovered many personal belongings in the process like shoes, tools, dice, baskets and ropes.

The only way to preserve these vessels was to move them to a safe location in the suburb of nearby Piscinola. Here all the finds from the metro works are being stored and carefully labeled. The ships occupy a temperature controlled space of their own as they are kept submerged in cold water that is being renewed every two weeks. The smallest vessel from Neapolis has been selected for restoration at the Central Institute of Rome.

Beside the harbor, excavations have enabled to locate the exceptional temple complex that underscores the importance of the Isolympic Games instituted by Emperor Augustus in the year 2 AD. Other parts of the construction areas have yielded marble friezes and capitals, terracotta artifacts and simple everyday objects like combs, bowls, bags, spoons – all from Greek and Roman times. But the successive layers also revealed previously unknown aspects from medieval, Byzantine, Norman and Angevin times which all contribute to the rich history of Naples.

Next question is obviously what to do with the 3.3 million artifacts that have so far been accumulated in the Piscinola warehouse and how to make the remarkable ship remains accessible to the general public. This is a delicate matter as far as logistics are concerned and also financially. One of the options is to incorporate some of the objects into the metro stations proper, as has been done in Athens, for instance.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Traces of Philip III Arrhidaeus in Egypt

As strange it may seem, archaeologists have discovered a number of inscriptions praising Pharaoh Philip III Arrhidaeus and the crocodile god of the Nile, Sobek.

Since Alexander the Great had not made any arrangements for his succession, the Macedonian army elected his half brother to be their new king. As we know, the succession of Alexander led to many years of lengthy bickering and fights among his generals, the Diadochi, turning into hopeless wars that lasted for nearly forty years.

Philip III Arrhidaeus was only king in name since he was retarded and hence unfit to rule Alexander’s huge empire. Not much literature or artwork is known and traces of his “rule” are scant.

Strangely enough, a relief showing the face of Pharaoh Philip III Arrhidaeus has been discovered at the unusual double temple of  Kom Ombo dedicated to both the god Sobek, god of fertility, and the falcon god Haroeris. The archaeologists also found his name inscribed in hieroglyphs on a slab measuring 83 x 55 cm.

Although the temple is resting on a much older structure, the remains we know today with its twin entrances and symmetrical layout was probably started by Ptolemy VI. The Ptolemy’s remained present over the centuries as we also find a fine relief of Ptolemy XII, the father of the famous Cleopatra VII.

Another trace of Philip III Arrhidaeus is to be found in the Temple of Amun at Karnak, which beside a peristyle court of Thutmosis III contains a barque sanctuary filled by his granite naos. This may well be the picture Olaf Kaper showed during his lecture in 2010 (see: Alexander the Great in Egypt. Lecture of 24 November 2010).

The island of Samothrace, finally, proudly displays a joint dedication of Philip III Arrhidaeus and Alexander IV. It was part of a marble Doric building that carried the inscription “King Philip [and] Alexander to the Great Gods”, a confirmation that both the son of Alexander the Great and his half brother “officially” ruled on equal terms (see: A Dedication of Philip III Arrhidaeus and Alexander IV).

Thursday, April 19, 2018

A unique opportunity to witness Palmyra’s wealth

Those who are closely interested in the art that blossomed in Palmyra from the first to the third century AD are in for a treat at the newly rearranged Getty Villa in Malibu, California.

The Getty Villa opened on Wednesday 18 April 2018 with a chronological instead of thematic display of its precious artwork. At the same time, they will present a typical funerary sculpture from the collections of the Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen together with Getty’s own reliefs and photographs related to the once so wealthy city of Palmyra in Syria (see: The Glorious Days of Palmyra).

What started as a mere caravan stop-over became a major crossroad between the Roman an Parthian empires in which Queen Zenobia played a unrivaled role (see: The Dream of the Queen of Palmyra).

For the aficionados, remember that the entrance to this museum is free but that advance entry tickets are required (click here). This special exhibition will run until 27 May 2019 under the title Palmyra: Loss and Remembrance.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

A Median or Achaemenid rock-cut tomb in Iraqi Kurdistan

Iraq is rarely in the news when it comes to archaeology but here is an exception: a rock-tomb that has been spotted some 65 kilometers northwest of Sulaymaniyah. This modern Iraqi city in turn lies roughly 220 km to the northwest of the Bisutun Relief in Iran. In antiquity, both Iraq and Iran were in Persia. As always, it is a small world.

It is heartwarming, to say the least, to hear that this tomb of Ashkawt-i Qizqapan has been investigated and, what’s more, that its façade has been restored and even copied to find a place of honor at the entrance of the Sulaymaniyah Museum. So far, only two examples of rock-cut tombs have been listed in Iraq and this is one of them and its history is shrouded in mystery.

The entrance to the tomb lies approximately eight meters above ground level and the most striking element to the visitor are the two ionic inspired columns that are supporting an awning-like imitation wooden roof. The entrance wall has been filled with a number of reliefs. High up are three divine emblems. The right one shows an otherwise unknown star-bust that suggests the goddess Ishtar-Anahita or Artemis. The central emblem is round as well and appears to rest on a lunar crescent supporting a seated figure which may represent the moon god, Sin. The emblem on the far left brings Ahura Mazda to mind set on a square background. Yet this figure has two pairs of wings, each set being different in shape and size which may refer to Mithras, the upper god of the Medes.

The analysis of the central relief located between the columns raises other questions. We see two men facing each other over a stepped altar holding a double-convex Parthian-like bow. They wear a similar kind of headdress in Median style and have their mouth covered in order to protect the sacred fire burning on the altar.

According to the contribution made by Dr Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin on location and published in Ancient History Encyclopedia in January 2018, the following tentative conclusions were drawn: the depicted scene shows King Alyattes of Lydia who reigned from 610 till 560 BC on the right and the Median King Cyaxares who reigned from 625 till 585 BC on the left as they manifest the end of their war. Mediator in this conflict was King Nabonidus of Neo-Babylonia as represented by the crescent moon. The divine emblem on the upper right corner is the Lydian goddess Artemis who accompanied Alyattes whereas Ahura Mazda blesses Cyaxares.

Under the central relief is a doorway that leads into three separate burial chambers. All three graves have been dug out from the floor and were apparently covered with a now missing lid. However, no bones or artifacts have been found inside the graves and the walls of these chambers are void of any inscription or decoration.

Well, no solid conclusion can be drawn from the above analysis that leans towards labeling these tombs as Median and dating them to 600-550 BC. Other scholars are more inclined to conclude that the style of the reliefs is Achaemenid and generally date the tombs to the second half of the 6th or the 5th century BC. Nothing is certain as yet since no other excavations have been carried out in the region and this rock-cut tomb simply cannot stand on its own.