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Alexander the Great and the opening of the world at Reiss-Engelhorn

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  • Alexander the Great and the opening of the world at Reiss-Engelhorn

    Alexander the Great and the opening of the world at the Reiss-Engelhorn Museum in Mannheim

    October 30, 2009

    Alexander the Great continues to be relevant today, more than two
    thousand years after his death. That his origin is presently so hotly
    contested is testament to his legacy. Alexander's campaign changed the
    culture of Asia. Alexander also became a model for Roman rulers and
    ultimately had an impact on European ideals. On the 3rd of October the
    Reiss-Engelhorn Museum in Mannheim opened an exhibition under the
    title `Alexander the Great and the opening of the world' subtitled:
    Asia's cultures in transition. Already by the end of the first week
    the exhibition had attracted three thousand visitors.

    Archaeologist Michael Tellenbach, vice director of the Museum, was
    very kind to comment extensively on both the exhibition and on
    Alexander. `The exhibition is not just about Alexander. It starts with
    his person, his campaign and his conquest of what was then most of the
    known world. However, it is also about what resulted from it: Eastern
    Hellenism. His campaign was also an expedition. Alexander brought with
    him scientists, biologists, engineers, surveyors and geographers. He
    was going to the end of the world.'

    Indeed he was going to change the world. As a result of the influx of
    scholars and the use of a common Greek language in the new empire,
    Alexander's conquests were destined to bring about big changes in
    Asia. This exhibition also aims to make archaeological discoveries
    from Hellenistic Asia better known. According to Dr Tellenbach, much
    of that material is very badly published. Until the end of the Soviet
    period, finds from the former USSR were not available for study and
    were rarely published even in Soviet journals. Some of the areas where
    Alexander went in modern Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Tadjikistan have
    been inaccessible. This was an opportunity to display for the first
    time under one roof an extremely diverse sample of about 400
    Hellenistic and related artifacts from the regions of Alexander's

    What were the changes Alexander caused? Some of them were long
    lasting. There had been a currency in Persia before. However the
    Greeks brought monetarism. Once Alexander took over the Persian
    administration, Greek coinage and monetary administration spread
    throughout the new empire. Indeed even centuries afterwards the Kushan
    rulers of Central Asia issued Greek-style coins with Greek letters
    which they had adopted as an alphabet for their own language.

    Dr Tellenbach was quick to add that the Greek influence went beyond

    `The exhibition is about the opening of the world. By `opening' we
    mean communication. The use of Koine Greek as the lingua franca of
    Eastern Hellenism meant that a lot of cultures could interact. The
    interaction was in a variety of ways. The exchange of Greek thought
    and iconography with those of the Orient continued to have a strong
    effect well beyond the Hellenistic period. In Central Asia, this
    legacy had repercussions on the religious iconography of India and
    even China and the whole of East Asia. As an example, before Alexander
    the Buddha was represented simply with footsteps on the ground. After
    the influence of the Hellenistic kingdoms, the Buddha started to be
    represented in statues with human form. In fact gods of Asia became
    for the first time represented in human form probably after
    Alexander's campaign. The influence indeed went beyond the conquered
    lands. The Buddha statue in Nara, Kyoto, is adorned with vine
    leaves. Vines cannot be found in Japan or anywhere in that part of
    Asia, it is a Greek decorative motif.'

    There were many other ways in which Asia changed: `For his new empire
    Alexander is said to have founded over thirty new cities modeled on
    the Greek polis. In the case of Ai Khanum in Bactria on the upper
    Oxus, the new Polis incorporated not only a Greek street system, a
    great agora and palaestra, but even a theatre and an acropolis. Greek
    theatre became commonplace in the Hellenistic cities. An account by
    Plutarch of the defeat of Roman general Crassus by the Parthians at
    Carrhae in 53 BC mentions that Crassus' severed head was brought to
    the Parthian and Armenian kings then at a royal wedding. A Greek actor
    who was in the midst of Euripides's Bacchae took hold of the head and
    incorporated it into the play while reciting a verse' - `We bring from
    the mountain a tendril fresh-cut to the palace, a wonderful prey.' The
    Greek influence in the form of Greek language and in this case Greek
    theatre lived on for centuries.

    Alexander the Great © Verwaltung der Staatlichen Schlösser und
    Gärten Hessens, Bad Homburg The exhibition is organized approximately
    thematically. It begins with busts and statuettes portraying
    Alexander, some of them Roman copies of originals. Alexander
    considered himself a descendant of Heracles from his father's side and
    of Achilles from his mother's side and was a student of one of the
    greatest Greek philosophers, Aristotle. So next there is an area about
    Greece with a copy of Aristotle's head and a backgrounder on
    Alexander's mission to find the end of the world based on the
    geographical beliefs of the time. There is also much Greek armour, an
    interactive area with replicas of a sarissa and helmets of the
    Macedonian soldiers as well as maps, dioramas and animations about the
    campaign of Alexander. The Greek section ends with copies of the
    famous Alexander mosaic from Pompei.

    The rooms that follow contain exhibits from the various conquered
    regions: Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt, Persia, Mesopotamia, Bactria and
    the Indian subcontinent. Among them is a statuette of Aphrodite from
    the temple of Artemis at Dura-Europos in Syria (1-2nd C BC). It bears
    the influence of a lost statue of Aphrodite Uraneia by Pheidias. Below
    is a sketch of it. The Greek influence is unmistakable.

    The exhibits from Egypt include a golden medallion of Alexander from
    Aboukir, c. 220-240 BC (Berlin Muenkabinett SMB PK Obj Nr 100016) D18200016. The reverse is in
    some respects more interesting: Winged Nike gives a shield to
    Eros. Next to them a tropaion with two prisoners. The inscription says
    in Greek BASILEOS ALEXANDROU (King Alexander's). Through Alexander,
    the Greek civilisation was being spread to the far corners of the

    There were several interesting, curious small items with Greek
    writing: coins, pottery sherds (ostraka) that had been used for
    writing notes and a royal seal. Even sling projectiles have been
    recovered from the battlefields.

    One had been signed by the shooter: Î`ΣΣÎ=9AÎ= 9B& #xCE; - Î
    Î=99Î=9FÎ'Ω(&#xCE ;¡Î=9FÎ¥). There is a touch of humour in the misspelled
    soldier's signature: `a present from ssssclepius'. Allegedly some
    projectiles were taunting their enemies and entertaining their friends
    with inscriptions such as Î'Î=95Î=9EÎ` (take this!) inscribed on
    them. The declension is neither Attic (Î'Î=95Î=9EΩ) nor Koine
    (Î'Î=95Î=9EÎ=9FÎ&#x A5;) but Doric (Î'Î=95Î=9EÎ`). Spartans, a Dorian
    people, did not join Alexander's campaign. The peltast who fired this
    slingshot was possibly a Macedonian. According to Herodotus and some
    archaeological evidence the Macedonian dialect was Doric.

    After their victory at Gaugamela the Macedonians arrived in
    Babylon. Herodotus had described it as the biggest city in the world.

    Babylon © CES für rem/ FaberCourtial Alexander's men must have been
    greatly impressed, some by the size and splendour of Babylon but
    others by the civilization. The Greeks apparently became interested in
    the astronomical and astrological texts they found. The ancient
    religious, literary and scientific traditions, in particular astronomy
    and its interpretation, made a big impression on Alexander and his
    successors. Cuneiform clay tablets with texts on astronomy, geometry
    and mathematics are among the exhibits in this section. Cultural
    influences became bidirectional. Hellenistic art spread to
    Mesopotamia. A small statue of Heracles Epitrapezios from Nineveh is
    included in the exhibition. There is a votive inscription in Greek at
    the base: Î'Î=99Î=9FÎ`Î=95Î =9D Î - Σ Î=95Î Î=9FÎ=99Î=95Î=99 ΣÎ`ΡÎ`Î
    &#xCE ;=99Î=9FÎ'ΩΡΠ=9FΣ Î`ΡΤÎ=95Î= 9C& #xCE;=99Î'ΩΡÎ=9F&# xCE;¥ Î=9AÎ`Τ Î=95ΥΧÎ
    - Î=9D -'made by Diogenes Sarapiodoros upon the wish of Artemidoros'.

    >From the ruins and sherds of Babylon and Persepolis the exhibition
    moves to novel territory. Indeed the high point of the exhibition is
    Hellenistic Central Asia. According to Dr Tellenbach, an awareness of
    its historical significance is only now emerging. In Seleukos's
    kingdom, which extended from Syria to the Indus, the Central Asian
    lands had been of great importance, but around 250 BC, the
    Graeco-Bactrian realm in the East had been split off. With the
    expansion of the Parthians, who drove a wedge between the two
    entities, it increasingly turned into a Hellenistic enclave isolated
    from the rest of the Hellenistic world.

    Graeco-Bactrian gold coins are splendid. They show ruler portraits and
    =80` on the reverse - their divine dynastic patrons, such as Apollo,
    Zeus, Heracles, patrons of the Seleucids and Graeco-Bactrians. King
    Demetrios I presents himself as the conqueror of India by wearing an
    elephant helmet. Only in the last 50 years - due to the archaeological
    excavation of French and Russian archaeologists on the Oxus in
    Afghanistan, in Ai Khanum and at the Oxus temple Takht-I Sangin in
    Tajikistan - has it been realized that the Graeco-Bactrian Empire was
    not a phantasy. Today we know that it included Soghdia, Bactria and
    areas all around the Hindukush as well as expanding all the way into
    Central India and to the banks of the River Ganges.

    Archaeological evidence that charts the beginning of the Greeks in
    Bactria was provided by German-Uzbek excavations ahead of the
    Alexander exhibition. These were supported by the German
    Archaeological Institute and the Curt Engelhorn Foundation, which is
    also responsible for this exhibition. Bactria was a large and populous
    region conquered by Alexander. In Kurgansol near Baysun in
    Transoxania, the archaeologists unearthed one of the first fortresses
    Alexander built for his campaign beyond the Oxus towards the northern
    steppes of Central Asia, Maracanda (Samarkand) and Ferghana. The fort
    of Kurgansol was built in the late 4th C BC and was guarded until the
    2nd C BC.

    It is situated on a ridge above the Oxus valley through which an
    ancient road leads to the pass known as Alexander's Gates, the Iron
    Gates at Derbent. Six bastions protect the fortress on the side of the
    high plateau. Among the simple remains a fired-clay bath tub was found
    connected to water pipes and a drainage system. Fired clay bath tubs
    were a traditional element of Greek civilization. The existence of a
    bath tub at this location in Central Asia can be best explained by the
    presence of bearers of Greek culture. Further finds included a set of
    drinking vessels, a wine strainer, a distillation set and a variety of
    ceramic vessels of Persian and Hellenistic style.

    Kurgansol fort © CES für rem/ FaberCourtial Another group of
    Graeco-Bactrian artifacts displayed in the exhibition were found in a
    temple on the river Oxus in modern southern Tadjikistan: b1f14a127240017f0000011_de.html
    They include various statuettes with a Hellenistic influence, an Ionic
    style decorative pillar capital and other items. An inscription on a
    2nd C BC mould for casting contains a Graeco-Bactrian reading in Greek
    letters: Î=95ΣÎ=9FÎ=9EÎ=9 F&# xCE;=9D Î=9AÎ`ΤÎ`Φ &#x CE;¡Î`Î-Î¥Î=9CÎ =95Î=9DÎ`
    Î`Î=9DÎ=95&#xCE ;=98Î=95ΣÎ=95 Î=99ΡΩÎ=9C&#xCE ;=9 FÎ=99Î=9FÎ=99
    Î=9DÎ=95&#x CE;=9CÎ=99ΣÎ=9AÎ=9F&#xCE ;¥ Î=9CÎ=9FÎ=9BΡΠÎ`Î=9BΡΠ- Σ
    ΧÎ`Î=9BÎ=9A Î=99Î=9FÎ=9D Î=95Î` ΤÎ`Î=9BÎ`Î=9D&#x CE; ¤Î©Î=9D Î=95ΠΤÎ`:
    Esoxon Kataphrazymena (or Esoxon the son of Kataphrazymenas - a
    Hellenised Bactrian name) dedicated this copper vessel valued at seven
    talents to `Iromoios Nemiskou Molrpalres' (possibly the Hellenised
    name of a local deity or hero).

    The Graecobactrian Hellenistic kingdom lasted until about 150 BC. It
    was eventually replaced by the Kushan kingdom. The Kushan rulers
    continued to issue Greek style coinage with Greek letters adapted to
    the Kushan language. The kings issued coins with their names
    Hellenised. One reads: Î'Î`CÎ=99Î=9BÎ=95&#xCE ;&# xA5;C Î=9AÎ`Î'ΦÎ=99C&# xCE ; - C -
    Basileus Kadphises. Hellenistic influence did not end there. A
    palace-like building at Khalchayan was built by Kadphises and was
    filled with a great number of statues not only of Kushan rulers and
    warriors but also of Greek mythological figures including Athena,
    Heracles, satyrs, representations of Eros and while also showing the
    influence of Gandhara art from India. The Kushans indeed ruled over
    part of India and controlled trade routes with China. Finds from the
    Kushan sites at Begram and Hadda in Afghanistan included beautiful
    ivory ornaments from India and China, glassware and Hellenistic or
    Roman items of very high quality.

    The Hellenistic influence touched also the north Indian regions
    between Gandhara and the Ganges. Here, for decades to come, Greek rule
    continued under King Menander, celebrated in Buddhist literature as a
    patron of Buddhism and an ideal ruler. In his realm, Graeco-Bactrian
    culture came into close contact with Indian religion and art. The
    exchange between Bactria and both, Gandhara in northwest India as well
    as Mathura on the Ganges led to a groundbreaking change in the
    iconography of Buddhism during the first centuries AD. Originally, the
    person of the Buddha was symbolized by footprints or evoked by the
    empty space under a Bodhi tree. In Gandhara art we see a new
    phenomenon of life-size statues and smaller statuettes of Buddha and
    of Bodhisatvas, the saints of Buddhism. The fact that he was now
    represented in human form would not be conceivable without the
    artistic discourse with the Graeco-Bactrian tradition.

    It is evident that many different cultures and peoples had been
    brought into closer contact with each other through Alexander's
    conquests and the new common language. What was the problem in
    communication until then? Were there no written languages? Dr
    Tellenbach explained that there was the cuneiform script of the
    Babylonians in Iraq, Phoenician, Aramaic (Persian), Sumerian, the
    Karoshti of India, the scripts of Asia Minor such as Lycian, Phrygian,
    etc. The problem was rather too many different alphabets and
    languages. Babel was perhaps not just a myth.

    There are also languages that seemed not to be represented in the
    ancient world. Was there for example some evidence in any of these
    various scripts and alphabets of a Slavic-like language? Did the Slavs
    leave something behind in one of those alphabets, did they write
    something in Greek perhaps, using the Greek alphabet? Could one say
    Slavs lived somewhere in this vast empire? In Dr Tellenbach's view `It
    is difficult to say what the Slavs, the Germans, the Scandinavians
    were at that time. Their ancestors must have existed but as a people
    they cannot be easily identified. The Russians would say the Skythians
    were Slavs. Some scholars take that view. There are, however, no known
    examples of Slavic in the languages, texts or scripts of the
    Hellenistic empires.'

    Apart from the geographical spread of Alexander's influence, his
    reputation remained alive through the Middle Ages and up to our own
    time. Illustrated manuscripts from Persia and the West contain
    references to Alexander the Great, portrayed as a warrior and an
    emperor. The Alexander of these legends - a glamorous young conqueror
    of an empire, a ruler who died at the height of his fame, a hero in
    myths and fairy tales - changed the course of the history of intellect
    and culture in Europe and the Orient.

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