Hellenism in the Orient or the spread of the Greek civilization in Asia

Dr. Potitsa Grigoratou – Parnassos

(Paper from the Proceedings of the International Conference “Hellenistic Culture in the East”)

hellenisminasia photo

The ancient Macedonians followed Alexander all the way to India and assisted him to build his empire which survived -divided into smaller ones- for three centuries after his death (in 323 B.C.) These three post-Alexander centuries are called by scholars as the German Droysen, Hellenistic Era, to distinguish it from the Greek classical period.

Excavations of archeological sites in Asia, from Syria all the way to Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and India, bring recently to light the post-Alexander world. As reported by ancient historians and proved now by the archeologists, the Hellenistic era is characterized by “the spread of the Greek civilization to the Orient”, as Tarn said, achieved by the Macedonian successors of Alexander and resulting from two main factors: the many Greek cities built by Alexander and his successors and the ecumenism of the Greek language. What was the force that propelled it?

The excavations also demonstrate the influence of the Greek culture on the arts and civilizations of Asia and vice versa.

The findings reveal also that the elements of the Greek civilization were voluntarily adopted by the local people for many centuries after the Greeks left Asia, as for example the Kushan art and especially the Gandhara art, named by the French specialists, Graeco-Buddhist.

After many years of excavations and studies, only recently, the last 15 years, have we begun to realize how historically important are the archeological findings in Asia, especially those done by the French archeologists, who keep excavating systematically since the beginning of 1900. Today those who are mostly known are Professors Paul Bernard, Pierre Leriche, Osmund Bopearachchi, Jean Yves Empereur, Edward Rtveladze and several others of different countries, Mrs. Souvaltzi among them, who operate excavations in Asia and Egypt.

The seed of Hellenic civilization brought about a sort of renaissance in Asia that changed the cultural identity of the Asian world. The archeologists have lightened up the persistent use of the Greek language in Asia that made the civilization universal for many centuries (ten in the Middle East), until Islam arrived and beyond.

Professor Mostafa El-Abbadi of the University of Alexandria writes in his book “The Ancient Library of Alexandria” (UNESCO, Paris 1992) that more than a century after the Arab conquest, Damascus and Alexandria continued to use the Greek as the official state language (from 331 B.C. to 750 A.D.). This remarkable persistence was mainly due to the post-Alexander Macedonian kings and little reference is made to this.

Picture No 2 – the map of Alexander’s expedition and the main Alexandrias

According to Plutarch, Alexander built seventy cities named “Alexandria”, (Picture No 2) nine of which were in Bactria (today’s Afghanistan, south Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan) at the East end of his kingdom. Originally they were built as fortresses, but some of them were developed later as great commercial and cultural centers spreading the Greek civilization to the peoples of Asia. Many more cities were built later by King Seleucus 1st the Nikator,  Alexander’s general who established the Seleucid Empire in Asia after Alexander’s death, and by another general, Ptolemy and his heirs in his kingdom in Egypt (total, about 200 Greek cities). (Picture No 3).

Picture No 3 – Map

Some of them are known well, a few only by name, and others have been excavated without the archeologists knowing their names.

Certain cities became large commercial and cultural centers in the long east-west routes in Asia, later known as the Silk Road, and greatly affected their surrounding territories. The many stretched routes, created to facilitate communications between cities (Picture No 4), increased the commercial and cultural exchanges between various people from the Mediterranean to India, making the Greek language a necessary tool of communication among people and a channel for spreading the Greek civilization.

Picture No 4- Map

Other Greek settlers migrated to the new cities, bringing with them knowledge, new ways of life and Greek art. Many indigenous people who were Hellenized also contributed to the perpetuation of the Greek culture. A good example is the architect Apollodor from Damascus who built the Rome’s Forum. Other examples of Greek influence on local cities are the Arab city of Petra with Greek architecture, the Aramaic city of Palmyra of the Roman period, with Greek architecture and Greek official language (Pictures No 5 & No 6).

Picture No 5-Petra 
Picture No 6- Palmyra

The most important characteristic of the Greek civilization in Asia, which was disseminated by the Hellenistic cities, was the fact that it did not replace or abolish the local civilizations. Preserving their own culture, the people of the Orient adopted the Greek civilization to a degree that was desirable or necessary for their intellectual or commercial exchanges. The presence of large theaters excavated in the Hellenistic and Greco-Roman cities, for instance,  the theater in Gerasa (Picture No 7 ) show that the local people understood Greek and the Greek plays since there were no translations at those times.

Picture No 7 – Theater in Gerasa

Also, many local cities had adopted Greek as their official written language, example the coin of Petra (Picture No 8). The universality of the Greek language also helped the spread of Christianity later.

Picture No 8 – Coin of Petra

The best known Greek cities in the Middle East are: Alexandria of Egypt, rich capital of the Ptolemy’s kingdom (the most important commercial and cultural center of the Hellenic world, where Alexander was buried, as Dr. Souvaltzi developed and where the two cultures, Greek and Egyptian melted) (Pictures No 9 & No 10) Other important Greek cities are Ephesus, Antioch (the “Paris” of the Middle East according to Gibbon, both cities rich, glamorous and illuminated at night), Dion, Pella, Edessa, Veria, Laodiceia, Doura-Europos, Philippoupolis (today Aman), Apamea, Chalkis, Herakleia etc. Many of them have names of cities in Macedonia, or of other Greek cities, of Greek gods or of king’s family. The Greek language in these cities was used until the arrival of Islam and beyond.

Picture No 9 – Alexandria in 3D
Picture No 10 – Venus-lsis

The Greek presence was so strong, especially in Syria -where so many Hellenistic cities had been built-that Strabon calls it “small Macedonia” in his description, as Professor Lerichementioned. Some of these cities are excavated by him personally.

During the Roman period that followed the Hellenistic Era, the cities continued to maintain their Hellenistic identity, some of them became rich, and exhibited grandiose architecture with graceful Corinthian pillars, wide streets and beautiful mosaics. (Pictures No 11, No 12 & No 13).

Picture No 11 – Columns of Apamea
Picture No 12-Mosaics of Zeugma
Pictures No 13 – Columns of Gerasa

The second great center of Hellenistic civilization was Bactria, in Central Asia. The Greco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek kingdoms developed there, with forty Greek kings ruling the region in succession, as far deep inside India, for three centuries. The Greek kings (Picture No 14) established some Greek cities and introduced the Greek coins in these areas (some of the attic type) with Greek gods on the rear.

Picture No 14 – Coins of Greek Kings

Thousands of coins were discovered showing the Greek cultural influence, the high level of civilization, the wealth of the area and the Hellenic influence on the cultural and economic life of the local people, as ProfessorBopearachchi reported in his taped speech. Ex. a Kushan coin (1st a), with Greek inscription and Greek goddess on the rear. (Picture No 15).

Picture No 15 -Coin of King Kanishka with goddess Selini

Ai Khanum in north Afghanistan, near the Tajikistan border, is the only Hellenistic city excavated almost entirely, by the French archeological expedition, under the supervision of the Academician, Professor Paul Bernard. Its Greek name is not known. It is an impressive and very characteristic city that furnished archeological precious information relative to the Oriental Hellenistic cities. (Pictures No 16 – Ai Khanum, No 17 – Theatre, No 18 – mosaics with Verghina’s sun, a Macedonian symbol).

Picture No 16 – Ai Khanum
Picture No 17 – Theatre
Picture No 18 – mosaics with Verghina’s sun, a Macedonian symbol

Built on the strategic passage to Tatzikistan, Ai Khanum is an example of genuine, solid Hellenistic city with Greek architecture and institutions, a huge majestic structure with the characteristic central avenue, an Acropolis, Temple of Zeus, Palace, Theatre, Gymnasium dedicated to Hercules, Library, public fountains, statues, Greek pillars, and philosophical epigrams carved on the city’s monuments, based on Delphic Maxims. The city cleverly blended the local elements with the Hellenic civilization.

The Kushan Empire of local people, who replaced later the Graeco-Bactrian kingdoms in the region, adopted the Greek alphabet and elements of the Greek art and themes. (Pictures No 19, No 20, No 21 & No 22).

Picture No 19 Kushan art:, Ring with Athena
Picture No 20 – Kushan art:, Venus
Picture No 21 – Kushan art:, Dionysos and Ariadne
Picture No 22 – Greek inscription on Rock edict

Also, the Graeco-Buddhist Art of Gandhara, that followed, showing statues of Buddha with the face of Apollo, and Hercules and Alexander on his sides (Pictures No 23, No 24, No 25 & No 26). All of these arts prove the liking of the local artists for Hellenistic civilization that lasted five centuries after the Greeks left the area. Unfortunately, the Ai Khanum archeological site, like so many other sites and museums, have been plundered during the last few years.

Picture No 23 – Buddha with Apollo’s features and Greek chiton
Picture No 24- Buddha with Hercules on his side. Photos and restoration of Prof. Z. Tarzi
Picture No 25 – Detail, Buddha with Hercules on his side
Picture No 26 – Detail, Buddha with Alexander the Great on his side

The grand epoch in Asia and Egypt, named Hellenistic Era or Hellenism of the Orient as French Professor Sclumberger called it, with its special civilization, was created by the power, resiliency, and spirit of the Hellenic civilization that was easily and peacefully amalgamated with the Asian and Egyptian ones. A remarkable result of this amalgamation was a new art, the Hellenistic Art whose creation was the Greco-Buddhist Art of Gandhara, expressing the Buddhist theme with Hellenic style. (Picture No 27).

Picture No 27 –  Head of a Kore from Uzbekistan with Praxitelian plasticity

The spread of the Greek civilization in the Orient by the Macedonians demonstrates their Greek cultural identity, the proof of which lies in the excavated cities in Asia and also in the strong memories of Alexander the Greek and the Greek civilization, which are still alive in Central Asia, especially among people in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan. Example this recent Afghan currency with a Graeco-Bactrian king’s emblem and Greek inscription EYKPATIΔOY MEΓAΛOY BAΣIΛEΩΣ (Picture No 28).

Picture No 28

Some populations in the region still wear the Kausia, the Macedonian hat, revere Greece and the Greek culture and claim they are of Alexander’s descent.! Even Marco Polo reports it in his book in 1200.

The Hellenistic Era would not have occurred had not been for the contribution of Alexander’s Macedonians, who were Greeks. The Seleucids, the Ptolemies have worked to establish it. The force that propelled it was Hellenism, a concept expressed by Droysen, wrapped within a single word: Hellenismus. If Alexander and his Macedonians were not possessed by the power of Greek pride, there would have been no Hellenistic Era, no matter how many experts from other Greek cities-states followed the Macedonians to the depths of Asia.

The expressed view that the Hellenistic civilization was spread by the other Greeks and not by the Macedonians cannot be correct. Despite the fighting among the post-Alexander kingdoms, their solid Hellenism remained intact. There was not a single voice in or for any other language than Greek. Despite Demosthenes’s rhetoric, the pan-Hellenic spirit followed the Macedonians to the Orient.  In Ai Khanum they lived with philosophical Delphic maxims while in Luxor in Egypt they carved their names on the columns, all of them in Greek.

Some people in Central Asia still think of Alexander the Greek and his Greeks from Macedonia who brought to them the Hellenic civilization. Some towns in Uzbekistan add the name Iskenderia (Alexandria) to their own (Odil Saidikramov, “Uzbekistan”), proud of having been on Alexander’s way to India and of having received elements of the Greek culture which they still greatly respect. They say Hair for hello, the Greek word Haire, among many others used in these regions.

In Asia, the Greek civilization spread by the Macedonians enriched and influenced the local cultures and finally blended with them. It is a great achievement and besides, it proves the Greek cultural identity of the ancient Macedonians.