Antony and Cleopatra: The update!

Well the archaeological world has been a bit quiet lately, but the big news here at the LA office (…and by office I mean the one I work at for my normal full-time job…) is that I will not be going to Tunisia this summer. I will instead be going to Rome!! Let the festival of romanitas commence!

Here’s a neat video of Zahi Hawass telling us all that Antony and Cleopatra are somewhere in the lovely Taposiris temple area! It’s not exactly anything new or definitive, but it’s still exciting! I’ve still got my fingers crossed and a party invitation ready to send out should they be found. Seriously, I’m that excited. It is a known fact that Cleopatra is my homegirl and my only archaeological hope is that should there be bodies, there should naturally be some of the fiercest facial reconstruction to ever hit the archaeological world. Naturally. I will also accept the finding/locating of Cleopatra’s descendants in Morocco.

I promise I’ll do a REAL post sometime tomorrow!


Alexander and the AFG

Oh! Why hello there gentle readers! I didn’t hear you sneak up on me. Well, since you’re here, perhaps you’d like to hear a story of Alexander the Great? Let us begin at the middle/end of his story. I will include here a handy map of the mighty empire of Alexander (The Greatest Alexander) for your reference needs.

At the Eastern end of Alexander’s empire were the mysterious lands of Bactria and Gandhara. Gandhara is of particular importance as it lies in what is now known as Afghanistan. This land is important for several reasons: it is the farthest East anyone in the Classical Mediterranean (or the ‘West’ if you prefer) had ever been (except for that one odd Roman guy who ended up in India and discovered that Buddhism was actually pretty nifty), it is home to several Alexandrias (Alexandria in Arachosia, Alexandria on the Caucasos, Alexandria on the Oxos and Alexandria in Aria respectively) and it is a superb example of what happens when cultures meld. I refer specifically to the art of the area. Artifacts found in the area that used to be Gandhara are mostly Asian in design but with a very disctinct Greek influence. For example, a cute little Buddha head in the LMU Archaeology Museum’s collection is very much a typical depiction of the Buddha, but it has some subtle Greek (yes, even though Alexander was Macedonian) touches in the design. The shape of the facial features hints at the Classical culture that was brought East by Alexander and his massive army and entourage. Pay close attention to the mouth and hair.

What’s left of Alexander’s mighty Eastern empire? Well…not much. There’s mostly bits and pieces and every so often some structural ruins show up in the more remote areas.

-Alexandria on the Oxos became the town of Ai Khanum. The site was excavated by the French and was home to all kinds of cool Greek/Macedonian goodies befitting a decently-sized citadel. Sadly, it’s not there anymore. Why? Taliban. The city had the misfortune of being in the way during some pretty heavy fighting the first time around. *sigh*

-Alexandria in Arachosia is now the modern city of Kandahar! Granted, there’s a new city on top of it, but it’s still there! Kind of! Woo!
(*This is a rather old picture. Kandahar doesn’t look like this today, but it was the only photo option for ancient things and Kandahar in the same photo. Deal.)

– Alexandria on the Caucasos is now better known as Kabul. Again, there’s some delightful (not) Soviet architecture going on on top of it now, but it’s still there! Every so often a wall peeks out of the modern city, like in this photo at left. That is totally an ancient wall heading up that hill/small mountain. Let’s hear it for continual habitation of ancient cities!

Alexander also built a mean fort in Herat that is actually…wait for it…still standing! Granted, it’s been reinforced a bit since he left, but that fort is still there. To celebrate this fact, we shall look at a picture of it’s marvelous beauty.

Well, there you have it. A brief overview of cool stuff in Afghanistan from a rather cool period of history. Why is this important? You know why.

Ubar, the Lost City of Brass

Greetings gentle readers! Today we touch upon a subject that is very near and dear to my heart: Ubar. If you are not familiar with the strange word that just happened in that last sentence, allow me to tell you the tale of Ubar, the Lost City of Brass.

One of the many tales in ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ is of a fabled city in the desert, Ubar. It had once been a dazzling city in antiquity, a city of wonders and riches and all the things fabled lost cities have. Inevitably, a sultan sends out a party of adventurers to find this lost city and retrieve said riches so he may add them to his current collection of pretty shiny things. The small caravan sets out into the desert and encounter all manner of fantastical and mythical entities. Their way is pointed by a brass horseman. They meet a djinn who is buried up to his armpits in the sand for eternity as punishment for a long-forgotten deed. Further trekking finally leads them to the legendary city. The city has sparkling white walls, beautiful palaces, and is paved with tile so like water that the men actually slip when they walk on it. The city is silent. There are no inhabitants. However, in the center of the city in its grandest palace is the long-dead queen, frozen in time surrounded by her wealth in her dead city. She looks as though she is simply staring, momentarily lost in thought and not as one who has been dead for centuries. Near her is an inscription warning those who dare to enter of the dangers of greed and wealth and of what will befall them if they too choose to follow the greedy life she and her citizens did. Like Aladdin in the Cave of Wonders, it was a ‘Look but for the love of your supreme deity do NOT touch!’ situation. Of course, someone had to go and try to take a giant ruby (or something very similar…) and his head was swiftly removed but one of the queen’s bodyguards and fleeing promtly ensued. The city was later swallowed by the sand and lost to the desert forever. You know how it goes.

Now the REAL Ubar is a tad different (booooo!) I will momentarily bury my bitterness towards Ranulph Fiennes and his crew since they already went there apparently (grr) and present what we know now. The fabled lost city was rediscovered when the supremely awesome folks at JPL compared Ptolemaic maps of the Arabian peninsula with recent LandSat maps in 1992 and saw trails leading into the desert. These trails were old caravan routes and they all intersected at one place. No visible ruins could be seen on the ground, but from space and with ground-penetrating radar, ruins could be seen under the sand. The spot, Ash Shis’r, is known to have an oasis and a 16th century fort. The previously mentioned expedition went forth and discovered a much older structure that appeared to have sunk into the sand when a subterranean limestone cavern (previously filled with water thanks to the nearby oasis) collapsed into a fairly epic sinkhole. Needless to say, that put a swift end to the city and the oasis. So in a nutshell, the excavation found evidence of an older structure and trade artifacts however…the whole settlement was much, much smaller than a grand city of legend. Sure, it was a decently-sized stop along major trade routes (due to the oasis), but I would think a city like Ubar should have been a bit bigger. Well-behaved forts rarely make history. Books were published about the expeditions in the early 90’s, but there has really been no firm evidence naming Shis’r as Ubar or anywhere else for that matter. Know what that means? More for me to find!!! 😀
I’ll keep scanning Google Earth until I can get in on a proper expedition out to the sand! In fact, I found something pretty nifty in a northeastern bit of the Arabian peninsula. Follow the roads in the sand…

Iram of the Pillars
Islamicity (Check out the sinkhole!)

(The photos that started it all–>)