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)

Monday, September 18, 2017

Looting of antiquities in Egypt

In recent years, we have been made aware of the widespread looting in war zones, especially in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq but looting in other countries has not subsided either and Egypt is no exception.

The Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities started with the good news that they were working on inventorying some 5,000 artifacts from their Alexandria seaside warehouses. Until now, countless antiquities were simply stored away in Egyptian warehouses but the artifacts never were studied or documented. What a shame! How on earth can they keep track of what they have and what is being stolen or displaced?


The problem is not new for the Archaeological Museum of Cairo started not so long ago with the inspection and sorting of their basement! Incredible but true. Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities has revealed that there are no less than 72 archaeological warehouses, 35 of which belong to a museum, 20 are labeled as expedition warehouses and another 17 are small on-site warehouses spread all over the country. So far, only 14 of these warehouses have been “inspected” – whatever that means.

It seems that a mere fraction of Egypt’s antiquities made it to a museum, all the other treasures resulting from decennia of excavations have simply been stored awaiting registration and restoration. Some speak of hundreds of thousands of neglected artifacts about which nothing is known and are making an easy target for thieves. This means that there is much more to see and to learn from these artifacts than there is in any museum. Who knows, there still may be some Alexander statue or cartouche hidden somewhere?

Of course, these warehouses are guarded but these people are unarmed and often they are unable to prevent theft. How authorities are still able to establish how many artifacts are being stolen from the different locations is quite amazing. The following is only a short list:
On September 12, 2013, 238 items were stolen from the Mit Rahina at Giza
On December 31, 2013, 96 small and rare antiquities disappeared from Aswan
On May 27, 2015, three fake lanterns replaced originals that were removed from Old Cairo
On December 23, 2015, nine antiquities from Pharaonic era disappeared from Buto
On February 11, 2016, 157 artifacts from the Saqqara era were stolen in Giza.
On April 30, 2016, a statue from the Middle Kingdom was replaced by a fake one at Mit Rahina in Giza

A decent security with modern means like camera surveillance has to be implemented, especially when you realize that some of these many warehouses have never been inspected. So it is no surprise to see treasures disappear to the black market. It is no news that when artifacts are documented in international libraries, it becomes much easier to recover them. 

One of the main problems, however, is the limited financial resources of the responsible ministries and the decline in tourism combined with the difficult economic situation is not helping either.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Philotas Affair – Part II – His judgment and execution


The following morning, all soldiers are called to assemble under arms. The corpse of Dymnus is brought in although out of sight of the army and finally, Alexander appears with a grave and sad look on his face. This is no small matter. He has to conduct the investigation and present the case before his Macedonians in accordance with the prevailing laws. Alexander’s speech is worthy any plea held by the most accomplished lawyer – a masterpiece in the art of rhetoric (see: Alexander’s eloquence).

He starts by telling his soldiers how closely he escaped death. He shares his deep sorrow to have fallen victim to a conspiracy led by Parmenion, the eldest of his friends who enjoyed so many favors and so much prestige. His tool was his own son, Philotas, together with Peucolaüs and Demetrius, and Dymnus whose body is then made visible to the crowd. Laments and sounds of indignation arise.

At this point, the informants Nicomachus and Cebalinus together with Metron are brought forward and Alexander praises them for their courage as they went straight to his tent to warn him of the conspiracy. Philotas in an effort to keep the matter quiet must have had good reasons to do so, Alexander says. He then reads aloud a letter Parmenion had sent to his sons, Nicanor and Philotas, and which Alexander had intercepted. In this letter, Parmenion advised them to look out for themselves “for thus we shall accomplish what we have planned”. A sentence that had no meaning had the conspiracy not been disclosed. Alexander takes his plea a step further by confiding his hitherto personal skepticism about Philotas who had joined Amyntas (Alexander’s uncle who was under age when his father was killed on the battlefield, upon which Philip was chosen as Macedonia’s new king; with Philip’s death he could have claimed the throne) to make an impious plot against his life. He tells his soldiers how these acts have torn him apart – working on their sentiments.

Alexander proceeds by reminding his troops that he had put Philotas in command of his elite cavalry, entrusting his life, his hopes and victories to him. He had elected his father, Parmenion, to rule over Media with all its richness, a position that demanded integrity and respect for his king. Now his trust had been broken as he had fallen victim to such a shameful scheme!

We should remember that at this time Parmenion is in Ecbatana, holding the army’s supply line and guarding the huge treasury reaped from the Persian cities of Susa, Persepolis and Pasargadae with a number of troops that equaled Alexander’s own manpower. Parmenion enjoyed great prestige while he served under Philip’s and leading Alexander’s left wing in many decisive battles at the head of the foreign cavalry and mercenaries. It is obvious that an uprise or a coup led by Parmenion would have colossal consequences for Alexander!

Philotas is then brought forward with his hands tied behind his back to stand trial before the army. One can imagine the reaction of the Macedonians who had seen this great general having dinner with the king only the night before standing there as a wretched prisoner. Sensing that the army started to feel sorry for Philotas, general Amyntas held a harsh speech against the culprit, followed by Coenus who spoke even more vehemently accusing him of being a traitor to the king, his country and the army.

The last person to speak was Philotas. Maybe he was dazed by the seriousness of the accusations, maybe he was truly weak after being questioned and/or tortured, and in any case, he burst into tears and fainted. When he was back on his feet, Alexander looked intently at him and reminded him that the Macedonians were about to pass judgment on him upon which he leaves the assembly. Philotas is on his own now.

It is clear that Philotas also reaped the fruits from Aristotle’s teaching at Mieza as his plea is as well constructed as Alexander’s. He starts working on the soldiers’ emotion right away by saying that it is easy to find words when innocent but difficult for a wretched man as he stands before them in fetters. He cleverly highlights the fact that none of the conspirators has named him, neither Nicomachus, nor Cebalinus, but in spite of that the king believes him guilty and the leader of the conspiracy. Dymnus, when he confided in Nicomachus named several men of great importance but left him out – how could that put him in charge?

In the depth of his own despair, Philotas presents his own defense by saying that he can only be found guilty for keeping silent about the matter when it was reported to him. Besides, Alexander pardoned him and gave him his right hand to restore their friendship. What made the king change his mind overnight? He, Philotas went to bed and was awoken by his arrestors from a sound sleep – not the sleep of someone whose conscience is tormented. After all, the report about the plot was revealed by a young boy who could present no proof or witness of his information, hence he believed that it was a lovers’ quarrel. And, supposing that he was really guilty of conspiracy, why would he have concealed the information for two days when he could easily have killed Cebalinus right away. After speaking with him, he nevertheless had entered the royal tent alone wearing his sword and yet he put off the deed?

His tone turns when he admits that he does not have the power of divination and pities those who have to live under a man who believes to be the son of Zeus – a serious hint towards Alexander’s latest godly descent which he obviously resents. He recalls the letter which Parmenion had sent to Alexander in Tarsus warning him that his doctor was ready to poison him with the potion to cure his illness – a warning that was not believed by Alexander. So why would Alexander believe him when he announces the plot reported by Cebalinus? What should I have done, he asks the assembly, when the king both dismisses a warning and accuses me of not warning him?

But the assembled soldiers give vent to their frustration about Philotas haughty conduct towards them and even accuse him of pretending not to speak or understand their very own Macedonian language. Tempers flare up high at this stage and they shout that the traitor deserves to be torn to pieces. At this crucial moment, Alexander reappears and adjourns the council to the next day.

Again, he meets with his friends who recommend that Philotas should be stoned to death in compliance with Macedonian law. Maybe that would be too simple, who knows, for Hephaistion, Craterus and Coenus want to get to the bottom of this affair and wish a confession by torture. After they set out to execute the torture, Alexander awaits the outcome in his tent till late that night.

As the appropriate instruments are laid out, Philotas admits immediately that he planned the murder – too afraid probably to undergo the torture, but Craterus is not impressed. They use fire and whiplashes till Philotas can no longer endure the suffering and concedes to tell everything he knows.

Meanwhile, unrest arose among those Macedonians more or less closely related to Philotas who fear for their lives as well. The commotion reaches the royal tent and Alexander makes a proclamation by which he remits the law providing the punishment of those related to the guilty party.

After yet another plea and to cut a long story short, Philotas confesses to the conspiracy. He even includes his father in the plan. Parmenion, being seventy years old, could not wait too long to take charge and that is why they decided to promptly carry out the design. By now, the torturers agree that all their questions have been answered and they return to Alexander who issues the order for Philotas’ words to be made public the next day in his very presence.

Philotas is put to death, either stoned or speared together with all those who had been named by Nicomachus. Parmenion had to be eliminated as well and Alexander writes a letter to three generals in Parmenion’s entourage (Cleander, Sitalces and Menides) with orders to put him to death.

Well, this is basically Curtius (probably dramatized) version of the facts although it is not entirely shared by Arrian, Diodorus and Plutarch. Their rendering of the conspiracy and the torture vary and it is unclear whether Philotas was only guilty of negligence or merely ignored Cebalinus’ information in the hope that the plot would succeed, which would work in his favor. In any case, Curtius gives an excellent assessment of the general mood in the Macedonian camp that remained seriously divided after this.

To remember that this treachery was brought to a good end – at least for AlexanderAlexandria in Drangiana is renamed Alexandria Prophtasia, appropriately meaning “Anticipation” since Alexander anticipated the widespread consequences of the plot and acted before others could attack him.

[Pictures from Oliver Stone's movie Alexander are from Movie Screen Shots and The World of Alexander the Great]

Friday, September 8, 2017

The Philotas Affair – Part I – How the plot was revealed

In 330 BC when encamped at Phrada (modern Fara in Afghanistan) also called Alexandria-in-Drangiana, Philotas is being accused of conspiracy against Alexander. A similar accusation had been brought to Alexander’s attention before when he was in Egypt by Antigone, Philotas’ mistress but at that time he had refused to believe it. This time, however, there was solid proof and one of the accusers included Coenus, who was married to Philotas’ sister.

Curtius, as usual, gives by far the most detailed report which by itself reads like the script for a thriller. The story starts with a certain Dymnus, a man of little importance, who was madly in love with young Nicomachus and anxious to bind him to his person. He lures him into the temple saying that he has something very important and confidential to share with him. Under the spell of his deep affection, Dymnus demands his lover to pledge under oath to keep silent what he is about to disclose and Nicomachus, not expecting anything incumbent, complies. Satisfied, Dymnus then tells him that a plot against Alexander has been arranged and will be executed in three days’ time, adding, in order to give himself more importance, that he shares the plan with some brave and distinguished men. The young man’s reaction, however, is pure horror and he immediately tells Dymnus that he cannot take part in such treason and cannot be bound by his oath to the gods to keep such a crime secret!


Dymnus is furious, hurt in his love and fearing betrayal he begs him to take part in the plot; if he cannot do this, at least he should not betray him for, after all, he trusted him with his life. As Nicomachus stubbornly continues to express his abhorrence of the crime, Dymnus tries to frighten him by saying that the conspirators would take his life before taking that of their king. To no avail. Dymnus then tries every trick of the trade to convince him. He goes as far as to pull his sword, pointing it to his lover’s throat, then to his own and in the end forces him to promise his silence as well as his support.

In reality, Nicomachus has not changed his mind; he just pretends to go along saying that out of love for Dymnus he could not refuse and then inquires about the other associates in this highly important matter. Dymnus congratulates him on his decision to join the other conspirators like Demetrius (belonging to Alexander’s bodyguard), Peucolaüs, Nicanor, and also men like Aphobetus, Iolaus, Theoxenus, Archepolis and Amyntas.

Imagine the load resting on Nicomachus’ shoulders at this point! He simply cannot ignore the information he has been entrusted with and shares it with his brother, Cebalinus. In order not to make Nicomachus suspicious of betrayal by going to Alexander, it is Cebalinus who enters the vestibule of Alexander’s tent where he waits for one of the king’s friends to appear. It happens to be Philotas and Cebalinus reveals the plot to him, insisting that he should tell Alexander at once. Philotas remains with Alexander for some time but does not mention the conspiracy. When Cebalinus meets Philotas later that night and inquires if he has done what he requested, Philotas simply states that Alexander had no time to talk with him and he walks away. The next day, Cebalinus once again is near Alexander’s tent when Philotas is on his way in and he reminds him of this most serious issue. Philotas answers that he is attending to it, but again does nothing.

At this point, Cebalinus becomes suspicious of Philotas and decides to talk to one of the king’s Pages. He approaches Metron who is in charge of the armory. Metron instantly understands the urgency and seriousness of the matter and goes to Alexander while he is bathing. Alexander immediately orders Dymnus to be arrested and walks into the armory where Cebalinus had hidden pending the king’s reaction. Alexander, of course, wants to know all the details and in particular when Nicomachus had given him the information. Upon learning that it was two days ago, Alexander puts Cebalinus in fetters upon which the poor boy shouts that had informed Philotas without any delay and that it was he who had withheld the news. Accusing Philotas, one of the king’s Companions and trusted friends was unheard of and Alexander keeps on questioning Nicomachus who time and again retells the same story.

At this point, Dymnus is to be brought before Alexander. Dymnus, however, as soon as he learned that he was called to Alexander's tent, had wounded himself with his sword and by the time he stood before his king his speech already failed him, he swooned and died. This certainly confirmed the man’s guilt.

Philotas too was summoned to the royal tent. Imagine the commotion that has risen by now! Alexander confronts him with the words reported to him by Cebalinus, adding that if he had indeed concealed the conspiracy for two days the man deserved the extreme penalty but since he insists that he immediately reported the information to him, Philotas, the general has some explaining to do. Philotas is in no way disturbed by these words and replies that Cebalinus had indeed spoken to him but that he had not given the matter any credibility and had dismissed it as a quarrel between a lover and his favorite. Yet the suicide of Dymnus proves otherwise.

At this stage, Philotas throws his arms around Alexander begging him to consider his past deeds rather than finding fault for his silence. It is uncertain at this stage whether Alexander believes him or not, in any case, he offers Philotas his right hand saying that the information seemed to have been rejected and not concealed. But clearly, Alexander didn’t take the matter as lightly as he made Philotas believe and shortly afterwards he calls in a meeting with his friends of which Philotas is excluded. Nicomachus is brought in and he confirms the story as reported by his brother before.

Craterus, an important rival of Philotas reminds the king of the general’s repeated bragging about his own valor and accomplishments and accuses him of arrogance. Taking advantage of this situation, Craterus underscores that Philotas would always be able to plot against him and Alexander will not always be able to pardon him. The other Companions have no doubt that Philotas would not have blurred evidence of the conspiracy unless he was closely involved. If truly a loyal friend, Philotas would have hastened to his king as soon as heard about this conspiracy. After all, Philotas had spent the whole day in amusement and allegedly had found no room to place a few words about the life and death of his king. Even if he had not taken Cebalinus seriously, why excusing himself by saying that there had been no opportunity to bring the matter to Alexander’s attention?

The charges were clear and all parties present decided that Philotas should be tortured in order to obtain the names of the conspirators. Alexander dismisses his Companions with instructions to keep silent about this plan. He then issues orders that the army should prepare for a march the next day, keeping everyone in a state of alert. As a masterly strategist and a true poker player, Alexander then invites Philotas to a banquet and entertains him and talks to him familiarly as usual.

That night, when the lights have been put out Alexander’s trusted friends gather in his tent. Among them are Hephaistion, Craterus, Coenus and Erigyius, as well as Perdiccas and Leonnatus. The order is given to those standing on guard at the king’s tent to remain on watch and under arms. The cavalry already was stationed at all the camp’s entrances with instructions to let nobody in or out. With these safety measures in place, a certain Atarrhias is summoned to the royal tent with 300 armed men and men-at-arms. The latest are sent out to arrest the known conspirators while Atarrhias and his men have orders to apprehend Philotas. With fifty of his bravest soldiers, he breaks into his quarters while the rest of them surround the house to thwart any possible escape. Atarrhias finds Philotas in deep sleep, puts him in chains and leads him to Alexander.

Sources do not concur on what happens next. It is not certain whether Philotas was tortured or not to extract his confession that he and his father wanted to kill Alexander

... to be continued in: The Philotas Affair – Part II – His judgment and execution

[Pictures from Oliver Stone's movie Alexander are from Movie Screen Shots]

Monday, September 4, 2017

Bringing Greek theater and Euripides back to life

The classical theater of the Getty Villa and the English translation of Iphigenia in Aulis by Euripides is for many of us the closest we can get to sitting in a real Greek theater and watching a true Greek tragedy.

Euripides was well-known to Alexander who could quote parts of his many plays. He was a prolific writer and about ninety of his plays are known to us, although only nineteen of them have survived.

It was only one year after Euripides’ death that his Iphigenia in Aulis was performed for the first time in Athens during the Great Dionysus Festival. Aristotle kindly referred to Euripides as “the most tragic of poets” which I find not surprising remembering how I couldn’t help weeping the first time I saw the film version of Iphigenia directed by Michael Cacoyannis with music by Mikis Theodorakis.


The scene is set on the shores of Aulis where Agamemnon, king of Sparta, is ready to sail his fleet to Troy in order to assist his brother Menelaus in recovering his wife, the beautiful Helena. Agamemnon’s ships are, however, waiting in vain for favorable winds to blow them east to Troy. The goddess Artemis is consulted and in order for the winds to return, she demands the ultimate a sacrifice from Agamemnon: he is to sacrifice his eldest daughter Iphigenia. It is a family tragedy played to the extreme that moved people then and still moves us now so many centuries onwards.

From September 7 till September 30, 2017, this tragedy will be performed every Thursday and every Saturday at the Getty Villa. For more information, please click on the Getty Villa site.

[Poster is from Getty Villa]

Thursday, August 31, 2017

There are maps and there are Maps

Maps are a most fascinating tool to use when travelling or simply when sightseeing from your own chair. They have been very useful for me when trying to retrace Alexander’s footsteps in a time when our modern roads did not exist and we had to rely on what the landscape had to offer with its rivers, deserts and mountain passes.

Finding our way back in time is particularly difficult when it comes to cities, most of all ancient cities that have been built and rebuilt over and over again. Such a city certainly is Rome and I find it quite exciting to learn that the best map of Rome was created in 1901 by archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani. His map is terribly detailed since it covers buildings from antiquity up to the 19th century. It is not surprising that it is huge, 5.20 x 7.30 meters and it has been published as 46 separate sheets over a period of eight years!


It makes you wonder why such a precious document together with all Lanciani’s sources of documents, photographs, and sketches has been kept behind closed doors at the National Institute of Archaeology and Art History in Rome. Luckily, times have changed and the Italian government has made the maps available for research and most of the material has been digitalized. The Maps of Rome can be consulted by everybody at MappingRome and the other pertaining documents are freely available online as well.

It is so clever that Lanciani color coded his maps. He used black for the antique and medieval constructions, red for the sections from before 1871 (unification of Italy) and blue for the additions made after 1871. It is always a puzzle to even imagine where ancient buildings stood and the space they occupied as we are walking through today’s Rome or any other city, meaning that his work is very meaningful.

The idea of creating a full map of Rome is not new, of course, but it is quite surprising to learn that such a map on grand scale existed as early as the third century AD. It was called Forma Urbis Romae – a name Lanciani kindly reused for his own map – and measured roughly 13x18 meters. Only fragments of that ancient map have survived, some 1,186 bits and pieces of marble.

It is important to realize that Lanciani lived at the time when Rome became the capital of the newly unified Italy. There was much open and unused space that quickly would be turned into profitable building projects, much to Lanciani’s dismay as surviving ruins from the old city would be destroyed in the process. As he witnessed how many of the newly excavated ruins were exposed, he had a unique opportunity to incorporate them in his map.

Another great and inspiring mapmaker was Giambattista Nolli, who in 1748 created a map showing Rome from a bird’s eye perspective. His work was so meticulous that modern satellite maps still line up with his outlines and basic floor plans.

The digital version of Lanciani’s map is not final. It requires a few corrections and several updates with those ruins that were discovered after his lifetime. Eventually the antique black layer of his map will be broken down to match subsequent historical periods.

As a result, we will be able to enjoy a picture of Rome as it was and evolved over the centuries to become what we know today!

Monday, August 28, 2017

There is more to Athens than the Acropolis and the Parthenon

In a recent article, Ancient History wrote about five ancient sites that are usually overlooked by the tourists visiting Athens but are very much worthwhile the short detour.

Most visitors rush to the Acropolis and hopefully include a tour of the New Acropolis Museum and the National Archaeological Museum as well but there are these little nearby gems that may be as exciting since you can have them almost all to yourself.

On top of the list, I would put the excavations underneath the New Acropolis Museum which are in plain view when you enter the museum. These remains are partly covered by glass plates and show the remains of a Township of Athens as it evolved in time. You can have a close look at some intricate mosaic floors or a round room with a circular pool or the entrance to a building from the 7th century BC. This underground is accessible from inside the museum.

Another interesting feature is the Township of Koile on the west side of Hill of Philopappou within walking distance from the foot of the Acropolis. Ancient roads with the grooves left by thousands of cartwheels are always an exciting feature and this road also has a water channel running alongside. Here, you can walk among the ruins of houses and even climb a staircase. Koile was protected by the Wall of Themistocles that ran all the way to the Piraeus but when Philip II of Macedonia arrived here new defenses were built to replace the walls taken down by the Spartans. This new wall put Koile outside the fortification and the town was soon abandoned. It became a burial site the remains  of which are still visible.

Particularly noteworthy is the nearby Tomb of Cimon, the athlete who repeatedly won the chariot races at the Olympic Games in 536, 532 and 528 BC. This Cimon was also the father of Miltiades, the general who led the victory over the Persians at Marathon in 490 BC. This tomb occupied a prominent position in its days and it takes some imagination to picture the spot where his winning horses were buried just opposite his own tomb.

Not too far away, there is a spot with three cave-like openings in the rock wall that have been sealed off with iron bars and are known as the Prison of Socrates. Whether or not this is true remains a subject of discussion as other, probably later sources say that the philosopher was executed by poisoning in 399 BC.

My own favourite is the Pnyx Hill where the Athenians gathered to listen to great orators like Themistocles, Pericles and Demosthenes and where their democratic votes were taken. The speaker’s platform is about the only original structure still standing but overlooking the now disappeared tiers where the audience took place is quite overwhelming. Set against the Acropolis in the background it makes truly a magnificent place to linger

Of course, there is far more to see and to enjoy around the corner of the Acropolis. To name a few, there is the Ancient Agora with the well-preserved Temple of Hephaistos or Theseion and a little further the great remains of the Roman Agora with the newly restored Tower of the Winds and adjacent Library of Hadrian. On the other side of the Acropolis and visible from its top, are the imposing remains of the Temple of Zeus not far from the Gate constructed by Emperor Hadrian carrying on one side the inscription that this was where the city of Athens began and on the other side where it ended. In between the Acropolis and the Gate of Hadrian, one automatically passes by the Tower of Lysicratos.

Practical information and details as to the road to follow to the five highlighted locations can be found in abovementioned article by Ancient History

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Greek theaters had moveable stages!

We thought that by now we knew everything about Greek theatres – well, not so!

Recent architectural research has led to believe that there was a moveable wooden stage in ancient Greek theatres. This has been determined in three separate theatres in the Greek Peloponnese: first in Messene, and later also at Megalopolis and Sparta.

Skanotheke plan of the Messene Theatre (scale 1 : 500), Inset: Skanotheke of east parodos. Adapted from R. Yoshitake, The Movable Stage in Hellenistic Greek Theatres. New Documentation form Messene and Comparisons with Sparta and Megalopolis, AA, 2016/2, p. 120, fig. 1 and 2. Credit: Associate Professor Ryuichi Yoshitake

Ancient Greek theatres were bowl shaped with seating around the circular orchestra and at the open end an open stage. After 31 BC, under Roman influence, the stage was elevated and decorated with columns and statues and all sorts of reliefs. Romans often reused and refurbished original Greek theatres but also built the semi-circular model of their own where this back stage was automatically attached to the seating area.

After excavations started in 2007, the research team from Komamoto University discovered three stone rows and a kind of storage room beside the stage of Messenes theatre. When a similar feature was found in Megalopolis and Sparta as well, they started questioning the function of these elements. Their conclusion was that the stone rows would have supported wooden background picture panels that could be wheeled into place and that the storage room would have held them when not in use.

This image shows the reconstruction of the wheeled wooden skene of the Messene Theatre. The wooden stage building (front) is drawn by solid lines, and the hypothetical scene building (back) by gray lines. Adapted from R. Yoshitake, The Movable Stage in Hellenistic Greek Theatres. New Documentation form Messene and Comparisons with Sparta and Megalopolis, AA, 2016/2, p. 123, fig. 6. (drawing by K. Oyama). Credit: Associate Professor Ryuichi Yoshitake & K. Oyama

The Greek theatres had a proskenion, i.e. a one-story building placed on the stage and that functioned as a stage background. Behind this proskenion was a two-story skene that was used as a dressing room for the actors but also as an extra stage background. Now the question arose whether these buildings were made of stone and fixed or made of wood and moveable. They opted for the latest and since moving the massive construction of proskenion and attached skene is highly improbable, they concluded that each building was rolled out separately, each using its own set of two stone rows to move along in and out of the storage room.

Ancient literature indeed mentions rotating devices, but the finds at Messene seem to confirm that they existed as early as the Hellenistic period although we still don’t know what they really looked like.

The research team of Komamoto University in Japan has even come up with two drawings explaining their theory – see above.

Monday, August 21, 2017

About Indo-Bactrian writing

How unfortunate that we can take in only so much when visiting places or exhibitions. I often regret that I did not look further into certain details and one of these missed elements is the Indo-Bactrian script. I have seen plenty of such documents at exhibitions about the Silk Road and at the Musée Guimet in Paris but I merely glanced at them without any mental connection to their writing or tenure. Well, I should have for after all the Bactrian Empire is a heritage of Alexander’s conquest of Central Asia.

Time to catch up!

The other day, I came across an article about the Kharosthi script, another name for the Indo-Bactrian writing that originated in the aftermath of Alexander during the 4th and 3rd century BC in what is now Pakistan. This Kharosthi was a form of Prakrit, an Indo-Aryan language that was used two generations after Alexander by King Asoka for his pillar inscriptions (see: When pillars with unknown writing were discovered in India).


For the good order, we have to go back to the Achaemenid kings who in the early 5th century BC introduced Aramaic, their official language, to their newly conquered territories in Gandhara and along the Indus. They wrote their Aramaic using a North Semitic script which was customized to suit the phonetics of Gandhara, a Prakrit dialect, and this resulted in the creation of Kharosthi. Kharosthi writing was also used for most inscriptions in northwestern India between 220 BC and 200 AD. Sogdiana and Bactria, at the very heart of Central Asia generally used the Kharosthi inscriptions in the days of the Kushan Empire (1st-4th century AD). Because of the flourishing trading along the Silk Road, Kharosthi writing is found all over Central Asia, particularly during Shanshan rule (starting during the 1st century BC) while further examples have been found more to the east in China during the reign of Emperor Ling (168-189 AD).

Kharosthi was not only used for inscriptions or for written documents but it was also stamped on coins during the short-lived Indo-Greek Kingdom when bilingual texts were frequent. A few rare examples showed Kharosthi on pottery found as far as Bengal.

Eventually and due to the increased influence of the Brahmi script, Kharosthi gradually was confined to specific regions till by the 4th century AD it disappeared entirely.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Alexander crosses the Hindu Kush a second time

After two years of intense guerilla fights throughout Sogdiana, Alexander had finally caught Bessus, eliminated Spitamenes and restored a relative peace in Bactria by marrying Roxane. The time had come for him to head for India.

Until now, I was convinced that Alexander returned from Bactria via the Khyber Pass but when I tried to trace where the idea came from, I was in for a surprise. There is no excuse, I should have taken a closer look at the map to realize that the Khyber Pass lies in fact on the way from Kabul to Peshawar and not between Bactria and Afghanistan.

With that question solved, I needed to find out which pass Alexander had used leaving Bactria. The antique authors are disappointingly scant in reporting this part of his campaign. Plutarch, Justin, and Diodorus do not mention the crossing of the Hindu Kush – a formidable barrier under all circumstances - on Alexander’s return and Curtius simply states that Alexander set out for India in order not to foster idleness. Arrian seems to be the only one to be more specific telling us that by the end of spring Alexander began his march for India, that he crossed the Indian Caucasus, and ten days later reached Alexandria(-in-the-Caucasus), the city he had founded during his first expedition into Bactria. Strabo merely tells us that Alexander crossed the Hindu Kush and settled his veterans and mercenaries together with natives at Alexandria-in-the Caucasus.

This meant that I had to rely on modern historians and their research on the matter. Unfortunately, they do not agree among themselves about Alexander’s route and it seems that they all have a theory of their own.

Frank Holt (Into the Land of Bones) has come to the conclusion that Alexander marched his army over the Shibar Pass. With the winter snows gone, the trek went smoothly and without great logistical problems.

Robin Lane Fox (Alexander the Great) says that Alexander used the same pass as earlier, meaning the Khawak Pass (see: From Afghanistan into Bactria across the Hindu Kush). This time in June, the march was at a leisurely pace and took only ten days. The snows had melted and Alexander could rely on food stored in the Sogdian fortresses on the way and on the high grazing grounds for the animals. The army spent a pleasant summer at Alexandria-in-the-Caucasus (Begram) thus avoiding an invasion of India in appalling heat.

A.B. Bosworth (Conquest and Empire) simply mentions that Alexander crossed the passes of the Hindu Kush into the Paropamisadae in ten days and reinforced the city of Alexandria-in-the-Caucasus.

Michael Wood has concluded that Alexander crossed the Hindu Kush via Bamyan, which implies that he took the Shibar Pass.

Donald Engels (Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army) in turn sticks to the Salang Pass since this pass is shorter and has often been used by armies in a hurry. Engels states that the army re-crossed the Hindu Kush in late spring but could not forage for grain along the route because harvest at these high altitudes does not occur until July or August. They had to rely on supplies collected by Hephaistion throughout Bactra before departing.

In a footnote, the author refers to the optional Kushan Pass, just east of the Salang Pass, that has been put forward by other historians, but then this Kushan is seldom used because it is precipitous and treacherous – not exactly recommendable for an army. The Salang Pass, on the other hand, although as fast as the Kushan is much safer. He rules out the Shibar Pass which is longer than the Khawak. Given the ten days it took Alexander to cross the Hindu Kush, Engels’ choice is narrowed down to either the Salang Pass or the Kushan Pass.

All these theories take me back to the map of Afghanistan and of the Hindu Kush in particular. Based on the above, it comes down to choosing between the 3,878 meter-high Salang Pass and the Kushan Pass rising at 4,370 meters located due west of the Salang Pass. Interestingly, this pass is less than one kilometer away from the modern Salang Tunnel built in 1964 with the financial and technological support of the Soviet Union. This meant that traveling time is cut down drastically although repeated avalanches tend to trap the vehicles inside the tunnel, making the voyage still a dangerous one.

Glancing at Google maps provides another quite impressive image of the landscape the Macedonian army crossed. Even with enough food and fodder, we have to admire these sturdy men trudging over narrow paths, through deep ravines, across icy rivers and over rocks of all sizes and shapes. Nobody, not even Hannibal comes close to Alexander’s exploits in the Hindu Kush. In the end, I have to agree with David Engels and agree on the Salang Pass.

We should remember that Alexander’s Asian campaign is much and much more than a series of battles and sieges. Marching often through forbidding landscapes, coping with extreme heat, thunderstorms, crosswinds, dust, rain, sleet and ice, the Macedonians have seen it all but the king set the example by leading his troops over each and every obstacle. The Hindu Kush is just one of these obstacles, although a major one that cannot be stressed enough.

[First picture shows the Shibar Pass by František Řiháček -original prints, CC BY-SA 3.0, - The two other pictures show the Salang Pass by Scott L.Sorensen - My Personal Picture, CC BY 3.0 and by Spc. Michael Vanpool (U.S. Armed Forces) respectively.]