The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

Browsing Posts tagged Alexander

Ancient Babylon Rebuilt!

At first glance the Babylon site is a strange Disneyland vision of what Babylon ought to look like, with impossibly pristine new brickwork and fanciful towers and ramparts.  Just as though some Wizard has cast a magical “rebuild” spell.  But much of this fanciful reconstruction is built on original foundations.  Our site guide pointed at various pieces of the lowest levels of the walls as original, including the now mostly buried upper arches of old gates.  But while the bricks may be original, even those sections had clearly suffered extensive reconstruction and renovation.

We started at a small scale replica of the original Ishtar Gate.  This is good fun, but it’s a surprisingly low quality painted brick affair and is not a fair advert for the very impressive (albeit aggressively restored) original version now in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.  Then we moved to the heavily renovated original gate foundations, mixing old and new bricks.

The grand Processional Way is mostly new, but includes a few old bricks, some with the original Babylonian cuneiform stamps.  The embossed brickwork dragons and lions are entirely modern, plain replicas of the colorful glaze brickwork originals now mostly in Berlin.

Many larger interior sections are similarly reimagined, with a grand new temple and several vast rambling palaces.  But, at least in theory, this is all rebuilt on the original site groundwork.  To add even more confusion, some of the surviving original brickwork sections have been given modern overlays to both protect and prettify them. We saw one spot where the modern plaster had peeled away, revealing ancient bricks.

Our guide led us to a palatial Throne Room and told us this is the exact spot where Alexander died, in 323 bc.  Maybe true, maybe not, but a big “gulp” anyway.

We entered one section that was supposedly a reconstruction of a defensive maze.  Here occasional bricks are grandly stamped in Arabic with Saddam Hussein’s name.

Further in, past the Disneyland rebuilds, there is a large area of (apparently) authentic undisturbed original ruins, with large chunks of mud brick walls and buildings.

On a rise next to the site is one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces, with good views over the Euphrates.  This is a finely built palace, now much decayed, with grand reception rooms, now vandalized and covered with Arabic graffiti.  Two of the bigger rooms had been adopted as convenient skating rinks by groups of in-line skaters.

I’m traveling in Iraq on a private tour with Babel Tours. It’s been good fun. I recommend it! (Tour notes.)

The Oracle at Siwa

The stunningly green Siwa oasis is in the outer Sahara, in Western Egypt.  I got there after about 470 miles and ten hours by bus from Cairo, with a change of buses at Marsa Matruh on the Mediterranean coast. The first sign of Siwa was hills off in the distance and then an abrupt terrain transition from Saharan sand to tall wild grass.  Then we entered the oasis proper, with its many acres of lush green palm trees.

The oasis has a population of around 10,000, with much local agriculture and a good scattering of tourists.  At the bus stop I was ambushed by some local kids, who carefully declined to give me directions to my hotel, but instead sold me a ride there on their fine donkey cart, for a whole 5 Egyptian Pounds (about a  dollar).

Now palm trees and donkey carts are all very charming, but Siwa’s main claim to fame is that it was the site of the great Oracle of Amun.  Among many other visitors, Big Alex came by here in 331 BC.  We don’t know what question he asked, but we know the gist of the wise answer he received: “Alexander is the son of Amun and destined for Great Things!”

The Temple of the Oracle is about 2km East of the modern town area.  It is easy to spot, as it is inside a ruined mudbrick town on a prominent hilltop.  The Temple is fairly modest, and has suffered from some aggressive modern reinforcement of the ancient structure.  But yes, it is the original structure, built in the 6th c. BC and visited by Alexander himself.  The inner sanctuary is blocked off by a modern iron gate, but that was open when I was there, so I could stroll into the heart of the ancient Oracle.

I had arrived early, so I had the site to myself.  After traveling so far, how could I resist asking the Oracle for guidance?  A long pause and then the exasperated braying of donkeys in the distance.  A fine and fitting answer.

From the hilltop there is a fine view over the oasis, with its many square miles of green palms, and its two large (salty) lakes to East and West.

The ruined Temple of Umm Ubayd is about 500 meters SSE of the Oracle.  (Note that the map in Lonely Planet Egypt 2008 seems to have mixed up the locations for the two temples and is quite misleading on this point).   The humble road between the two temples is decorated by giant green lamp posts.  Follow the lamp posts through the various forks and you’re on the right route.  Unfortunately there isn’t much to see at Umm Ubayad: a lot of large collapsed blocks and a restored wall with a few faded ancient Egyptian inscriptions.

If you follow the green lamp posts about another 700 meters SE, you’ll find a large modern bathing pool, allegedly fed  by the ancient “Cleopatra’s Spring”.  A little further on, there is an older, but still modern, circular deep pool, with a little water bubbling up, which also claims the “Cleopatra’s Spring” title.

Khojand (aka Khujand) is a sleepy industrial town in Northern Tajikistan. In an earlier age it was Leninabad. And in an even earlier one, it was Alexandria-the-Furthest.

Yes, Big Alex was here, pursuing a Scythian army. In 329 b.c. he re-founded the existing city as Alexandria Eschate (“Alexandria the Farthest”) on the Jaxartes River. Unfortunately there isn’t much surviving from his visit.

There are the remains of a medieval mudbrick fortress, which is probably the latest descendent of fortresses on the same site from Alexander’s time. Nowadays there is a small Tajikistan army post on top, presumably a leftover from the Tajik civil war.
The Soviets left a giant polished metal statue of Lenin, which LonelyPlanet assures us is “the largest Lenin statue in all of Central Asia”. It’s on the North bank of the river and is a suitably impressive sight against the Tien Shan mountains.

Another Soviet relic

The Regional Museum is housed in a splendid building, modeled on a Medieval Castle. The basement rooms are beautifully decorated with heroic classical scenes in inlaid marble showing Alexander and other Gods. Unfortunately, the actual exhibits are relatively prosaic.

The following day I took a long-distance taxi over the long bumpy road from Khojand to Dushanbe. This is slowly being rebuilt by a Chinese construction team, but right now many sections are in extremely bad shape, especially on the Northern half. The section over the 11,500ft Shakhristan pass is basically a dirt track with many pot holes, cut into the side of steep slopes. The taxi driver, who appeared to know the road well, was veering from side to side to avoid the worst of them, while driving quite briskly, on the edge of long sheer drops. After some good road, we then took another long windy pot holed dirt road over the Anzob pass. I had been expecting us to use the Anzob tunnel, but I guess that is closed right now. We did see about a dozen short avalanche shelters being built over the main road. (We needed to detour around them.)

This disaster of a road is the only link between the (relatively) industrialized North of Tajikistan and the more agrarian South. Seeing the road helped me understand why the Northern factions were unable to intervene effectively in the civil war, which was mainly fought in the South around Dushanbe.

Of course, Big Alex led an army over that same route, long before there was any kind of paved road. Those Macedonians were a tough bunch.