Alexandria's founded by Alexander

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

Friday, July 28, 2017

Extending digital database for threatened archaeological sites

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

[Clik here to open the EAMENA map]

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

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

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

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Lost World of the Aegean by Maitland A. Edey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It makes fascinating reading!

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Happy Birthday!

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

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

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

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

[Picture from Pinterest]

Friday, July 14, 2017

Archaeological research resumed at Pasargadae

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 8, 2017

From Afghanistan into Bactria across the Hindu Kush

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Sunset Oasis by Bahaa Taher

Basically, my reason for buying Sunset Oasis by Bahaa Taher (ISBN 970-0-340-92488-4) was because the story was set in the Oasis of Siwah which was visited by Alexander nearly two thousand five hundred years ago. It also was warmly recommended by Olaf Kaper at the conclusion of his lecture in 2010 (see: Alexander the Great in Egypt. Lecture of 24 November 2010) - better late than never.

The scene of the novel evolves at the end of the 19th century when Egypt is under British rule. The main figures are Mahmoud, who is appointed to replace the previously murdered District Commissioner at Siwah, and his Irish wife Catherine, who is very well versed in ancient languages and has a great interest in antiquities, particularly in Alexander the Great.

The book gives a fascinating description of their trip through the desert from Cairo to Siwah during which they are caught in a sandstorm, not unlike Alexander’s experience. Their welcome in Siwah is hostile and as if that were not enough, the locals themselves are split between Easterners and Westerners causing friction and problems of their own.

Bahaa Taher interestingly tells the story alternatively from the point of view of Mahmoud, that of Catherine, but also from that of the two main leaders Sheikh Yahya of the western clan and Sheikh Sabir of the eastern clan. There even is an entire chapter where Alexander the Great is giving his thoughts – not entirely without merit. As each person relates his own experiences and thoughts, we also get more information about what happened earlier in their lives and how they feel about it. It is striking to follow their “eastern” way of thinking and reacting (no wonder it collides with the British and in Mahmoud’s case with his Irish wife).

This is all fiction and we should remember that this is a novel, but nonetheless, it makes good reading and gives an excellent insight into a period of time about which little is known otherwise and certainly not from such a remote location as Siwah, close to the Libyan border. It is quite fascinating to follow.

An interesting chapter of Egypt’s history is being told here and for me, a not uninteresting approach to Alexander’s visit to the Oasis of Siwah.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The unique mosaic from Apamea

During clandestine excavations on the site of Apamea in October 2011, a mosaic with a very rare and unusual scene was discovered as it represented the foundation of Antioch on the Orontes by Seleucos in 300 BC. The work is obviously Roman and has been dated to the 4th century AD. What makes the picture so unique is that it shows the religious sacrifice as performed by Seleucos I and his son Antiochus I.

The name Apamea appears in 300 BC when Seleucos, a successor of Alexander, created one of the grandest cities in the east. At the Susa mass-wedding of 324 BC, Seleucos married Apame, the daughter of Spitamenes of Bactria. Apame accompanied her husband during all of his expeditions and campaigns and after conquering the east, Seleucos established another capital of his empire at Antioch on the Orontes, today's Antakya in Turkey. The region pleased him so much that he built another beautiful city further inland which he named Apamea (see: Apamea, heritage of Alexander) after his wife. Together with Antakya, it became his most important city of his wide empire that reached from the Mediterranean to the Indus. Seleucos truly moved in Alexander's footsteps and like him, he built many cities, which are said to be all named after family members. One city was named after his father, Antioch; five after his mother Laodicea; four after his two wives Apamea and Stratonikea; and last but not least nine were baptized Seleucia after himself.

After being incorporated into the Roman Empire, Apamea had grown to harbor 250,000 people and became very rich. It was a military base and renowned for breeding military horses. This explains the monumental remains of private and official buildings we still see today on both sides of the colonnaded Cardo.

The abovementioned mosaic was created when the city reached its peak of refinement between the 3rd and the 5th century AD. The alarming fact is, however, that the mosaic has disappeared, probably sold on the black market to some art collector. It is quite peculiar that we have a photograph of this beautiful composition made by an unknown author even if it is not the best shot. The mosaic may have been decorating the floor of a house belonging to some high official as it covers about 10 m2.

[Picture downloaded from Pinterest]

A Greek inscription identifies the sacrifice attended by five standing figures above which floats an eagle, representing Zeus, holding a bull’s head in its claws. We see Seleucos I Nicator (the Victorious) and Antiochus I Soter (the Savior) standing on either side of an altar with a fire burning on which a bull is being sacrificed. Seleucos wears a blue tunic underneath his parade cuirass and a purple cloak; his head is crowned with a golden tiara. Antiochus, in turn, is dressed in a white tunic trimmed with two black stripes covered with a purple cloak as well; he wears some jewels. Next to Seleucos, we recognize Heracles and the Muse Calliope and next to Antiochus we find Ktisis, the female personification of the city holding the tools of the architect. The two women are clad in a belted chiton and show their jewelry.

Interpol has now launched an official search for this so out of common mosaic. Unfortunately, this is not the only one that has disappeared from the site of Apamea that has been badly damaged when the IS occupied the region. Please keep on the look out!

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Olympia, in the footsteps of Pausanias

How about walking through a city with a 2,000 years old guidebook in your hands and still finding your way around? That is actually possible in Olympia where you are able to walk in the footsteps of Pausanias who visited and described the city in the second century AD (see: Pausanias - Fϋhrer durch Olympia). Back then, Olympia shone in all its glory some of which we still can find today although we need to put our imagination to work as well.

Olympia is the very place where the Olympic Games were born in 776 BC, a four-yearly event that was celebrated until 393 AD, spanning twelve centuries. The city definitely has something to tell if you listen closely!

According to tradition, the Olympic Games were held at the first full moon after the summer solstice. The high priestess of Olympia would mark the start of these games by lighting the Olympic flame. Participating individuals and city-states would bring offerings to ask for the favor of Zeus and Hera in their respective temples. Among such expensive gifts, some of which made it to the local museum, we find shields, helmets, money, weapons, and statues by the greatest artists of the time. Many cities, in order to raise their prestige, built their own treasuries to house their valued offerings.

From a simple foot race over the entire length of the stadium (192m), the Olympic Games grew into a five-day event with 18 different competitions. These included wrestling and boxing, foot races over longer distances, discus and javelin throwing, chariot and horse racings, and the pentathlon. To allow the participants to travel unharmed through bellicose city-states, a three-month truce was called all over Greece and Olympia attracted as many as 40,000 visitors. The prize of the victors was meager in our modern eyes: a crown of olive leaves and an olive branch cut from the nearby sacred grove. True to Greek idealism of that time, the real prize was eternal glory and fame reaching a sense of immortality.

Like Pausanias, my first stop is at the Temple of Zeus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that was completed in 457 BC. It is impossible to follow his detailed description of the roof, the pediments, the metopes, the votive offerings; there is not even an inkling of the famous statue of Zeus created in 432 BC by nobody less than Phidias, whose workshop is nearby. All I find are massive foundations, the steps of the stylobate, with tumbled down drums from the archaic Doric columns one of which has kindly be re-erected for us to visualize. Originally this temple measuring 64x28m was the largest in Greece, six columns wide and 13 columns long, reaching a height of almost 11 meters. It is hard to imagine the beauty and the glory of this building staring at these weathered gray limestone elements which were coated with a thin layer of stucco. The impressive east and west pediments of this temple have been retrieved and are now exhibited in their full splendor at the local museum. They are facing each other over the entire length of the room, set at eye level enabling the visitor to closely witness the mythical chariot race of Pelops and Oinomaos on the east pediment (the fundamental myth of Olympia) and the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs on the west pediment with a three-meter tall Apollo at its center. Just try to imagine these pediments when standing in front of the remains of the Temple of Zeus with the huge loose drums of the columns lying on the ground. It must have taken the breath away from any visitor to the Games!

At the museum, there is also a splendid light-footed Nike of Paionos (424 BC) that once stood on a triangular base at the southeastern corner of Temple of Zeus, still in situ. Her waving cloak combined with the opening of her wings gives the impression of her flying descent from Mount Olympus to proclaim her victory. The Nike itself is 2.10 meters tall and the base puts her nearly 9 meters up in the air. The inscription “The Messenians and the Naupactians dedicated to Olympic Zeus a tithe of the booty taken from their enemies” refers to their victory over Sparta probably around 421 BC.

The very statue of Zeus in the inner temple is beyond imagination although descriptions from antiquity mention that it basically was an acrolith, i.e. a wooden frame covered with ivory and gold (see also my earlier blog: The ladies of Morgantina), with inlaid eyes. Zeus was crowned with an olive wreath; in his right hand, he held an elephantine statue of Nike, the goddess of Victory, also crowned with a wreath and holding out a ribbon, while in his left hand he was holding the divine scepter. Although the father of the gods was seated, the statue stood 12.4 meters high meaning that his head nearly hit the ceiling. A recent study has revealed that the slabs of 2.8 to 3 cm thick Pentelic marble used for the temple roofing, let through more light than marble from Paros used for the sculptures in the pediment and apparently lit up Zeus’ features (especially the eyes) once the visitor’s eyesight became accustomed to the darkness inside the temple. In order to preserve the ivory body parts of Zeus, these were regularly rubbed with oil that was kept in a special shallow reservoir in front of the statue that may have acted as a reflecting pool as well.

For obvious reasons, Pausanias next stop and mine is at the nearby workshop of Phidias. Since this building was converted into an early Christian church in the 5th century AD, the overall construction and layout have been preserved – enough, it seems, for scholars to recreate the scale model of this workshop that occupies a prominent place at the Museum of Olympia. It was built especially to house this work of art and it was lit by rows of windows on three different levels. Phidias’ workshop measuring 32x14.5m  could be identified at the hand of the many tools and terracotta molds that were found inside although the solid proof came from a small terracotta cup that was unearthed within its walls carrying the inscription “I belong to Pheidias” and is now exhibited at the museum. The artist’s house must have emitted a certain prestige and elegance when judging by the corner antefixes retrieved on the premises. But then, he was a renowned and accomplished artist, reputed for having worked closely with Pericles at the reconstruction of the Acropolis in Athens. All the sculptures of the Parthenon are by Phidias or were made under his guidance, and his masterpiece certainly was the chryselephantine statue of Athena created some eight years earlier.

The Temple of Hera (the wife of Zeus) was the very first large building in Olympia, built between 650-600 BC making it the oldest known Doric temple built of stone (earlier sanctuaries were made of wood). It is also the first well-preserved peripteral temple, meaning that the columns ran all around the inner sanctum, sixteen deep and six wide. Inside the Heraion was the table on which the garlands for the victors in the Olympic Games were prepared. The museum hosts a wonderful well-restored terracotta acroterion in the shape of a disk that stood on top of each pediment. It may represent the sun or another heavenly body and is unique for its size as well as for the variety of its painted decorations. Better known is certainly the gorgeous Hermes by Praxiteles (late 4th century BC) that was discovered among the ruins of the Heraion. This perfectly rendered Hermes is holding the infant Dionysus who as the future god of wine reaches out for the now lost bunch of grapes which Hermes probably held in his raised right hand. The finely polished 2.13 meters high statue is made of Parian marble and fills the room with its very presence.

At the Philippeon, built by Philip II and finished under Alexander the Great, Pausanias witnessed the statues of both Macedonian kings together with those of Amyntas and Eurydike, Philip’s parents and of Olympias, his wife – all executed by Leochares in ivory and gold. This circular building finished around 338 BC and built to commemorate Philips victory at Chaeronea, has been partially restored to give at least some idea of this exceptional monument although the grand statues are since long gone. For a full description of the Philippeon and its historical context, please refer to my earlier blog: The Philippeon at Olympia.

On the way to the Stadium, then and now, the visitor inevitably passes by the large Nympheion donated by Herodes Atticus and his wife Regilla. The fifteen niches of the circular, two-story high back wall were populated with statues of Herodes Atticus himself, together with those of several Roman Emperors like Antoninus Pius, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius and their family members. Several of these marble effigies have been recovered and can be admired at the Museum of Olympia. To name just a few, we find Athenaides, daughter of Herodes Atticus; Annia Faustina or Lucilla, daughters of Emperor Aurelius; Marcus Aurelius himself; the emperors Hadrian and Titus. On the edge of the pool separating the circular part of the rectangular basin in the front stood a life-size bull, also moved to the museum, which carries an inscription left by Herodes Atticus’ wife reading: “Regilla, priestess of Demeter offers the water and appendices to Zeus”. Each end of this rectangular basin was decorated with a small tholos.

Next to this grand Nympheum twelve Treasury Houses of which only five have been identified line up before reaching the Stadium. Today, it is difficult to separate the outline of these buildings from the 6th and 5th century BC but this lack of insight is largely compensated by the 16 basis of Zanes (the plural form of Zeus), whose bronze statues ranging from the 4th century BC to the 1st century AD lined up the way to the entrance of the Stadium. One of these statues even represented Alexander the Great as Zeus! They were actually built using the fines which athletes had to pay for cheating at the Games. The athlete’s name and infringement were recorded on these basis for all to know. They stood here as a warning to future competitors. I find it quite amazing to learn that so many statues were made of costly bronze, silver, and even electron; some even were also chryselephantine sculptures with their hands and face made of gold or ivory (beside the famous Zeus). The wealth of Olympia is far beyond our imagination.

The Stadium is, of course, the piece the resistance standing for all what Olympia was about, the very core of the Olympic Games. An inspiring portion of the vault that originally covered the entire entrance way, the Krypte, added in Hellenistic times is still visible today. Emerging from this tunnel into the blasting light of the Stadium must have added to the athletes’ sense of expectation. The Stadium area was 212.5 meters long and 28 meters wide, but the race field proper met the standard length of 192 meters. Even today, it is quite exciting to stand on the stone departure line facing the challenge of the entire length of the track. In antiquity, some 40,000 spectators from all over Greece would have cheered their favorite figure from the sloping sides, simply sitting on the grass. The only benches were those reserved for the judges, the so-called Exedra set halfway on the south side of the Stadium. Opposite this Exedra and still visible today stood the altar of Demeter Hamyne.

Whether Alexander ever visited Olympia or attended the Olympic Games is uncertain but we do know that the news of his birth in 356 BC was brought to Philip together with the news that his horses had won. This competition was held at the adjacent 780 meters long Hippodrome.

It makes one wonder where all these guests and spectators stayed during the games and it is surprising to find a large guesthouse inside the precinct of Olympia, known as the Leonidaion. It was built around 330 BC and entirely financed by Leonidas of Naxos. It is said to be the largest hostel of antiquity and with its 74 x 80 meters, it is indeed very impressive. What’s more, it must have been a quite pleasant place to stay. The rooms were located on all four sides of the buildings around a central atrium trimmed with 44 Doric columns, imitating the Greek fashion of the time. The rooms on the west side were larger and more luxurious than those on the three other sides. A gallery counting 138 Ionic columns, 5.5 meters tall ran around the outside of the Leonidaion. In Roman times the building was converted into living quarters for their dignitaries and a wavy pool complete with a central island was added. The ornate terracotta sima from this building is particularly handsome with its leave motives and lion head spouts which can be admired at the Museum of Olympia.

The last complex of importance is composed of the Palaestra and the Gymnasium where all the competitors trained for at least one month before the start of the games. The Palaestra was conceived in the 3rd century BC for the pugilists and wrestlers to exercise. The building was almost square, 66x77 m with a central courtyard surrounded by a colonnade giving access to spaces for practical use like the cloakrooms, teaching rooms, bathrooms, the rooms where athletes could rub themselves with oil and sand, etc. Adjacent on the northern side is the Gymnasium built about a century later. This building is much larger, measuring 120x220m and is entirely closed off. Like the Palaestra it is set around a vast central courtyard with porticos on all four sides. The roof of these wide Stoas was supported on the inner side by a double row of Doric columns. The Gymnasium was appropriately used for those sports requiring more space like running, javelin and discus throwing, etc. By bad weather, the athletes could still exercise under the covered Stoa. Behind the Stoa on the west side were the rooms dedicated to the athletes, while on the east side the Stoa was closed off by a solid outer wall (see also: Olympia, an ongoing excavation project).

It is evident that Olympia cannot be seen without its museum and vice-versa. They truly complement each other.

[Click here to see all the pictures of Olympia]

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Intriguing pyramid in Rome

Many years ago, I remember how this “piramide” (in Italian with the accent on the “ra”) was my beacon to find my way to my lodgings on the road to Ostia. Back then, I did not investigate its origins and just dismissed this dirty monument as one of those extravagant imitations we may encounter anywhere.

This being said, I was truly surprised to hear that this pyramid was an iconic landmark dating from the first century BC and that a Japanese businessman made funds available for its restoration in gratitude for his flourishing business in Italy. The world is certainly full of surprises!


This steep Pyramid was built around 18-12 BC over the tomb of Gaius Cestius measuring at its base 29.6 meters over a height of 37 meters. The tomb itself was a barrel-vaulted chamber of 6x4 meters and 4.8 meter high, once richly decorated with frescoes that were still visible in 1660 when the tomb was opened for the first time since antiquity. Although the tomb had been sealed after construction, it has, as so often, been looted in antiquity. Today it is empty and only scant traces of fresco survived.

Once the place was cleaned up, it appears that this once grim and obscure pyramid is covered with Carrara marble, which evidently has suffered much from physical, chemical and biological decay over the centuries. Thanks to the use of innovative materials and techniques, which will benefit future conservation projects as well, the restoration team was able to deal with Romes pollution issues.

As a bonus, we now can even read the inscriptions carved on the east and west flanks of the pyramid reading Gaius Cestius, son of Lucius, of the gens Pobilia, member of the College of Epulones, praetor, tribune of the plebs, septemvir of the Epulones. On the east side only, this inscription is followed by these lines: The work was completed, in accordance with the will, in 330 days, by the decision of the heir [Lucius] Pontus Mela, son of Publius of the Claudia, and Pothus, freedman.

The shape of the pyramid is a close reminder of those found in Nubia, which had been conquered by Rome in 23 BC. Because of this similarity, it is possible that Cestius somehow participated in the Roman campaign in that country where the idea caught on. It seems that there were other examples of pyramids built in Rome at that time, like the Pyramid of Romulus that was taken down by Pope Alexander VI who used the marble for the steps of St Peter’s Basilica. Before the Roma hype, these pointed pyramids were already favored by the Ptolemy’s in Egypt, a country that fell to Octavian in 30 BC with the dead of the famous Queen Cleopatra.

What a shame that such an odd construction has been taken out of its context and now sits in the middle of the city’s heavy traffic. But there is good news too as the Pyramid is now open to the public every second and fourth Saturday of the month.