Showing posts with label Alexander the Great. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Alexander the Great. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Greece | Thessaloniki | Alexander the Great

The train left Athens on time at 7:18 a.m. and arrived at the train station on the western outskirts of Thessaloniki forty-six minutes late at 1:27 p.m. According to my GPS my hotel near the center of the city was nine-tenths of a mile away. I had planned to walk, but that morning in Athens I had checked the weather forecast and discovered that temperatures were expected to reach 100º F. by mid-afternoon. The forecast for the next day was 105º F., which would tie the highest temperature on record for the date. There was a long line of taxis at the train station,  and after being staggered by the heat when I stepped off the train I was sorely tempted to take one, but I finally decided to stick to my original plan and walk. I had this fantasy of entering the city on foot through one of gates in the fourth-century walls around the city, as if I was a humble pilgrim wandering through the domains of Byzantium. Of course if I started feeling queasy from the heat I could always hail a taxi.

Following the arrow on my GPS through several side streets and alleys I finally arrived at the Letalia Gate, which was one of the four major entrances to the ancient city. The monumental tower that housed the gate is long gone, although the ruins of the old fourth century walls can be seen to the north and south. 
Fourth Century walls to the south of the old Letalia Gate (click on photos for enlargements)
Fourth Century walls to the north of the old Letalia Gate
Busy Agiou Demetrioui, one of the main east-west trending streets through the city, now runs  through the gap in the city walls. Just inside the walls, to the south, can be seen the domes of the 14th century Church of the Apostles, one of the fifteen or so Byzantine-era churches in Thessaloniki that have survived to the present day. Had I been a fourteen century pilgrim I probably would have headed straight to the church to give thanks for my safe arrival in the city, but now I was more concerned with getting to my air-conditioned hotel. I will return however. I am visiting Thessaloniki not on business nor because, as one web site claims, it is the “hippest city” in Greece, chock full of boutique hotels, chi-chi cafes, trendy restaurants, and overflowing bars and discos, but instead to wander at random and daydream among the city’s Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman-era monuments and ruins. In short, I am an unapologetic antiquarian and an unrepentant flâneur.

I proceed east along Agiou Demetrioui until the arrow on my GPS veered sharply to the right, then turn south on Ionos Dragoumi. After a few blocks I arrive at the Pella Hotel, named, presumably, after the town of Pella, the birthplace of Alexander the Great, located twenty miles west-northwest of Thessaloniki. Reviews on the internet damn this place with faint praise; it is “adequate”, “acceptable”, “simple but clean”, “good for an overnight stay”, etc. Back in the 1950s it may have been a pretty ritzy joint. Now it appears to be the haunt of lower-tier traveling salesmen, down-market tourists, and grubby backpackers splurging on a bed, shower, and air-conditioning. The receptionist was certainly cordial. I was a bit taken back by her effusiveness; for a second I had the strange sensation that I had been here before and that she were welcoming me back. Unusual for a hotel in the Eurozone, she did not ask for any ID. Despite the warm welcome I am exiled to the seventh floor, but I heave a sigh of relief when I see the perfectly adequate desk and chair and the nearby electric outlets. At least I can work comfortably on my computer. The narrow single bed is, in a word, acceptable, and the pillow is firm and chunky and can do double duty as a meditation cushion. The air-conditioning works and there is even a small balcony. After storing my portmanteau in my room I walk down Ionos Dragoumi to the harbor area and then turn left on the esplanade along the sea.
Aristotelous Square, which extends north from the Esplanade
The Esplanade
Finally I reach the statue of Alexander the Great (356 b.c–323 b.c.) One of Alexander the Great’s generals, Cassandros, founded  this city in 316 b.c. and named it after his wife Thessalonica, who was the daughter of Philip II of Macedonia and Alexander’s half-sister. Alexander was the son of Philip and the notoriously snake-loving Olympias (so memorably played by Angelina Jolie in the 2004 epic Alexander), while Thessalonica was the daughter of one of Philip’s other wives. Alexander the Great had, of course, died seven years earlier in Babylon, so he never got to see the city named after his half-sister Thessalonica.
Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Uzbekistan | Nurata

From the Caravanserai of Qarakhanid Khan Shams-al-Mulk Nasr I wandered northward and soon crossed the Zarafshan River. This is of course the river which feeds the Bukhara Oasis; without this river the area would be desert and desert-steppe and the Bukhara conurbation would not exist. The Zarafshan River begins in the Pamir Mountains to the east, in current-day Tajikistan, and flows westward between spurs of the Pamirs known as the Turkestan and Zarafshan ranges before emerging onto the flat plain of Mawarannahr. Its name is derived from the Persian zar afshan, "sprayer of gold", a reference to the gold-bearing sands found in the riverbed of its upper reaches. For thousands of years the river has supported a dense population, the three major cities being Panjikent, in current-day Tajikistan, and Samarkand and Bukhara in current-day Uzbekistan. The river was once probably a tributary of the Amu Darya, but even by the time of Alexander the Great in the third century BC it was already petering out in the sands of the Kyzyl Kum Desert southwest of Bukhara. 

The Zarafshan River
North of the fertile strip of irrigated fields along the Zarafshan River the country abruptly turns into steppe and begins ramping up towards the crest of the the east-west trending Karatau Mountains. In January or  early February of 1220 Chingis Khan, his youngest son Tolui, and the Mongol army came this way after sacking the town of Nur (Nurata) to the north. Mongol horses must have felt right at home here. Even if the steppe was covered with snow in late January or early February the horses would have had little trouble pawing down to the dry grass, which they must have craved after passing through the bleak Kyzyl Kum Desert.  
Steppe ramping up the crest of the Karatau Mountains
In the rocks along side the road can be seen numerous petroglyphs, probably dating to the Bronze Age (very roughly 3000–700 BC). They are almost identical to Rock Drawing Found Throughout Mongolia.
Rock drawings of goats or perhaps ibex 
Rock drawings of camels
The road to Nur then crosses a 2641-foot pass through the Karatau Mountains: Nurata is fifteen miles to the north.
View north from the pass.
The ancient city of Nur (now Nurata), eighty-five miles northeast of Bukhara, had long served as a strategic outpost on the northern borders of Mawarannahr, a gateway between the nomad-dominated deserts and steppe to the north and the cultivated lands of the Zarafshan River basin to the south. Alexander the Great arrived here in 327 BC and either built or enlarged and strengthened an already existing citadel on a hilltop on the edge of the city, apparently hoping to use the area as a base for further advances into Mawarannahr. His men also built a network of underground water pipes, parts of which remain in use down to the present today. One of Alexander’s generals died here and was buried near the base of the citadel, where his tomb can still be seen. The town was also famous for its prodigious Chasma, or spring, at the base of the citadel. According to legend the spring was created when the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, Khazrat Ali, struck the ground with this staff and water gushed forth. This story is no doubt apocryphal, but the spring—apparently because of its alleged association with family of the Prophet, would by the tenth-century become an important pilgrimage site. Writing in the 940s, the Samanid historian al-Narshakhi, noted: 
Nur is a large place with a grand mosque. It has many ribats [caavanserais, especially in border areas). Every year the people of Bukhara and other places go there in pilgrimages. The person who goes on the pilgrimage to Nur has the same distinction as having performed the pilgrimage (to Mecca)  . . . many of the followers of the Prophet are buried there (May God be pleased with them until the day of Judgement).
Having left the Siege of Otrar to his sons Chagatai and Ögedei, Chingis Khan and the rest of the Mongol army made a perilous crossing of the Kyzyl Kum Desert and approached Nur in January of 1220.  A Mongol commander by the name of Dayir led the Mongol vanguard to to the city. On the outskirts of town they stopped in some groves of fruit trees—now barren, as it was Januaryand camped. That night they cut down trees and used the wood to fashion scaling ladders. The next morning they rode up the city walls holding the scaling ladders in front of them The sudden appearance of this Mongol vanguard via a route thought to be known only to merchants caused the watchmen on the walls to mistake it at first for a trading caravan. As the horsemen got closer the watchmen saw the ladders and realized that that the mounted men were invaders. The gates of the city wall were thrown shut and the city fathers commenced debating among themselves what course of action to take. After much argument it was decided that they had no choice but to throw in the towel. In Juvaini’s account of the fall of the city no mention is made of the Citadel. Either it was not longer an active fortification by the thirteenth century or the local panjandrums decided to surrender it without a struggle. 

An envoy was sent to Chingis Khan, who was still advancing across the desert with the bulk of his army. Accepting the city’s surrender, he ordering the city fathers to submit to his general Sübetei, who had already arrived at Nur in the wake of the vanguard. Sübetei herded the inhabitants out of town, allowing them to take along only “what was necessary for their livelihood and the pursuit of husbandry and agriculture, such as sheep and cows . . .” He further ordered that “they should go out on to the plain leaving their houses exactly as they were so that they might be looted by the army.” In return for this acquiescence the Mongols agreed not to inflict bodily harm on anyone. 

When Chingis Khan finally arrived in town he ordered the city’s inhabitants to cough up 1500 dinars, the same amount they paid in taxes to the Khorezmshah each year. Half of this sum, we are told, was paid in women’s earrings. The fact that the locals still had dinars to pay, and women earrings to hand over, would seem to indicate that individuals had not been robbed of the possessions on their persons, even though the town itself had been sacked and looted. As usual, young men were dragooned as levies, although according to Juvaini only sixty were taken.

Compared with the devastation the Mongols would later inflict on cities which resisted them, Nur got off rather lightly, even if the women did lament the loss of their earrings. The city was essentially а sideshow. The big prize was Bukhara, eighty-five miles to the southwest. 
The city of Nurata (Nur) with the Chasma pilgrimage complex in the foreground
The prodigious chasma, spring, which attracts pilgrims from all over Inner Asia  (see Enlargement)
The pool fed by the spring
Fish in the pool. They are fed by pilgrims; hence their prodigious numbers. Fishing is of course prohibited. 
The purported tomb of one of Alexander the Great’s generals
On the hilltop behind the Chasma can be seen the ruins of the fortress either built or reinforced by Alexander the Great c. 327 BC
Ruins of the fortress
Ruins of the fortress
Ruins of the fortress
View from the top of the fortress