Travel - Alexander's Footsteps - Pilgrimage World Travel Guide
This paragraph is intended to provide you with a brief "Where to go?" when you have a holiday or some free time to spend and you would like to visit places in memory of Alexander.
The Siwa Oasis is the very place were the Oracle of Ammon confirmed Alexander's divine origins and so it is probably the premier spot on the world for his afficionados to visit. Siwa is located in the north-west of Egypt, approximately 200 miles inland from the Egyptian seaside resort of Mersa Matruh (ancient Paraetonium). If you travel overland by public transport, there are two or three local trains from Alexandria to Mersa (six hours) and one daily express from Cairo to Mersa (eight hours). Stay overnight to catch the morning bus to Siwa (six hours) and enjoy the local atmosphere. Mersa caters to Egyptian holiday makers rather than to Western package tourists. Especially for richer and well-educated Egyptian Coptic (Christian) families it is a favorite summer outing.
Alternatively, take one of the two daily buses (West Delta Company) that leave from Sidi Gaber station in Alexandria. The journey takes a gruelling nine hours and costs E£25. Siwa town is extremely compact and most places can be reached on foot but consider hiring a bike (E£10 daily). The Palm Trees Hotel (E£10) is recommended. Restaurants throng the other side of the square and are all much of a muchness, though you might consider the aptly-named Alexander the Great Restaurant.
The idyllic and lucious Siwa oasis is very significant in understanding Alexander. Apart from the Oracle, there is the Temple of Amun, and Dhul-Qarnain’s tomb in Bilaad ar-Ruum, famous for its Roman Catacombs. From Bir Wahid on the edge of the Sea of Sand the view is probably the same one as Alexander saw. Liana Souvaltzis of Greece made headlines in February 1995 when she announced that she had found traces of Alexander the Great's tomb in the Siwa Oasis. But Souvaltzis appeared to be an archeologist of dubious standards and her 'discovery' proved to be a hoax. What is still there is that famous Water of the Sun, mentioned by Arrian, Curtius Rufus and Diodorus. The small well is called Cleopatra's Bath nowadays and has bright blue waters mysteriously emerging from deep beneath the desert sands. However, during summer Siwa is extremely hot, so take precautions. Also beware of the mosquitoes that could cause serious illness. Siwa is a most exotic place, but it is very conservative and you must respect local customs. The oasis is safe and the people are a friendly Berber-Bedouin mix. But to spoil the entire picture, Siwa is nowadays geared up to Western ‘adventure’ tourists. And there are many.
Alexandria is still a vibrant port on the Mediterranean coast of Egypt. Although the design was Alexander’s own, and the plan was implemented by architect Dinocrates, most monuments of Alexander's age are either submerged below sea level or buried beneath the streets of the modern city. No trace has so far been found of the famous Sema that once contained Alexander's mummified body. At first sight the city might feel disapointing. But there have been excavations around Kom al-Dikka and it is possible to see the walled up crypt of Nabi Daniel Mosque, traditionally thought to lead to Alexander’s sarcophagus. The wily imam and rickety green ladder give it an Indiana Jones feel.
You must see the Archeological Museum (artworks from the Hellenist era - most notably sculptures of Alexander's face), the Qaitbey Fort and the Kom ash-Shuqqafa catacombs. Also, the somewhat eccentric new library is now open. And Alexandria has preserved that very cosmopolitan feeling that was the hallmark of this capital of Hellenism around 300 BC. Do not be surprised if the hotel you are staying in happens to be run by a Greek family. Although some local 'scenery' echoes the confusing chaos of many Egyptian cities, modern and liberal, clean and cool Alexandria is quite a relief from the hustle and bustle of dusty Cairo.
Hotels in all price ranges and all categories of luxury abound in Alexandria and even without a reservation it is quite feasible to find a comfortable room for the night. With a 20 km seafront, trams are the best way to get around town. New Hotel Welcome House is the best value place to stay at E£20 for a single overlooking the harbour (off Midan Saad Zaghloul). Cheap koshari/fuul joints line Midan Ramla, but head to Anfushi for fresh fish, particularly Mohammed Hosni. One or maybe two overnight stays might generally be sufficient to explore the city. If you have arrived at Cairo international airport, please use the good intercity trains that depart from Cairo Ramses Square to Alexandria, approximately hourly. The trip takes two hours on the fastest trains and travel in first class is a delight. Without a pre-booked seat chances are you will need to wait an hour or two before there is some free space aboard. Sadly, all international ferries to Alexandria have been suspended. The international Alexandria airport is just a E£10 taxi journey away.
JH / NW
No matter how deep your interests in Alexander go, a visit to the stunning underground exhibits at Vergina might leave you breathless. Seeing the tombs of Philip II, Alexander's father, and of Alexander IV, Alexander's son, warrants any expenditure you have made for your trip including fuel emissions and aircraft contrails. The displays in the dark underground vaults of the reconstructed grave hill are shockingly impressive. (Video and photography are prohibited inside.)
The tombs are located right in the center of the modern village of Vergina, surrounded by the usual chain of small tourist shops and restaurants. The official museum shop offers high quality souvenirs. Try to arrive as early as possible, preferably before the first tour groups drop in around 10:30 a.m. The remains of Aigai (Aegae), the old Macedonian capital, a mile's walk outside Vergina, are not half as impressive as the actual tombs. Very little is left of the theatre where Philip II was stabbed to death by Pausanias. The combined entry fee for the tombs and the excavations is € 8.
You should not rush your visit to Vergina. Chances are you want to spend at least two or maybe three hours gazing at the splendid underground exhibition, enjoy a light lunch to contemplate on your impressions, and then take a leisurely afternoon stroll through the excavations of Aigai. Vergina only has a few simple pensions. The village is located some 12 kilometers southeast of the large, less attractive town of Veria. Veria has hourly busses to Thessaloniki and up to ten daily trains. From Veria Vergina is probably best reached by taxi; there is also a local bus service.
The Grove of the Nymphs, where Alexander was taught by the famous philosopher Aristotle, is three kilometers outside modern Naoussa. There is a road sign directing you to the "School of Aristoteles" immediately at your right hand as soon as you enter the village. The school of Aristotle is a quiet place, hidden in nice surroundings, and chances are you will have the groves to yourself except for holiday peak periods. A visit of one hour is possibly enough to fully soak yourself in the serene atmosphere. The few tour groups stopping here spend only five to ten minutes. There is usually no entry fee (or just a small one when the lonely gatekeeper's house is occasionally manned). There are no tourist shops or bars. If you want to have a picknick, bring your own food and beverages.
The excavations of the ancient city of Mieza are located elsewhere, approximately four kilometers north of the junction of the main Veria-Edessa provincial road and the side road to Naoussa. Mieza has the remains of a theatre and four Macedonian tombs. The sites are well sign posted. This is also the heart of the Macedonian wine producing area and you might want to ligthen up your mood with visits to a few wine estates. Naoussa has busses to Thessaloniki and Veria and a railway station (located outside of town). To reach the actual archeological sites you might need to use a local taxi.
Walking around in Dion, in the shade of OlympusThe excavations at Dion are not as well known as Vergina or Pella and are rarely mentioned in most mainstream travel guides. But this is a splendid historical spot and certainly one not to be missed. On clear days Dion offers magnificent views on Mount Olympus. It was here that Macedonian kings brought offers to Zeus. Before the march to Persia Alexander assembled his army at Dion, made sacrifices and held performances at the beautifully located theatre with sacred Olympus as its natural backdrop. Remains of the altar of Zeus and the theatre are still there.
Dion's excavations cover quite a large area. Walking around is a pleasant experience. Dion has lush, green scenery with small rivers and ponds and shady benches along the winding paths. Bring your favourite Alexander book and indulge in re-reading your preferred chapters in this unique, captivating setting. If you want to experience Dion at leisure, a satisfying visit could easily last a full morning or full afternoon.
Dion has two places of interest: the museum inside town and the excavation area just outside town. Both are connected by a straight road of approximately one kilometer. The museum area has its usual share of small tourist shops and friendly restaurants where you can eat "beef and lamp", as the Engrish signs claim. The pretty museum has a decent souvenir shop. The entry fee covering the museum and the ancient city is € 6. There is little or none public transport to the small village of Dion. The site is probably best reached by taxi from Litochoro, Katerini or Leptokaria.
Ancient Pella is, sadly, the least attractive archeological site in northern Greece. The excavation area is cruelly bisected by the busy and noisy E86 provincial highway that separates the museum from the remains of the old Macedonian capital. Serious traffic accidents involving pedestrian tourists crossing the main road are not uncommon. You might have wished you had brought ear plugs to enjoy your visit, but that would not have added to your personal safety. No wonder there aren't any comfortable tourist facilities like little shops or restaurants at this rather unpleasant location. Future development plans involve a projected bend of the E86 in order to reunite the excavation sites.
What you would like to do in Pella is to pay your € 6 admission fee, gaze at the famous lion hunt mosaic in the museum (Alexander and Craterus killing an Asian lion, presumably during the Sidonian hunt) and leave as soon as possible. A one hour visit might be fair enough. The museum shop is well stocked with literature. And Pella is of course easily reached by public transport: board any Thessaloniki-Edessa bus an drop straight at the museum entrance.
This part of northern Greece is definitely not the enchanting Greece of dazzling white villages and perfect azure seas as you will see it in most holiday brochures. The purple contours of distant mountains are always there and the panoramic views from higher altitudes are utmost rewarding. But the densely populated, cotton growing, agricultural plains of modern Macedonia are generally ugly and uninspiring. Since the treasures from Vergina were relocated from the Thessaloniki museum to their original finding place in 1998, there is little need to visit Greece's second largest city. Congested Thessaloniki is lively and vibrant, but it lives for its own hard working population and doesn't really cater to tourists and visitors. The charmless mile long seafront of central Thessaloniki is an underdeveloped concrete waste of space.
You probably don't want to use Thessaloniki as your base to explore the region, unless you depend on public transport. Bus schedules can be found at ktel.org and for railway services check ose.gr ("EN" English section in the top right corner). Alexander's relics are best visited with your own rental car, if you can afford one. Greek traffic is not for the inexperienced or the feeble minded. If you don't mind driving longer distances, mountain villages at the slopes of Olympus like Litochoro or Paleos Panteleimonas might offer the finest choice of accommodation. The Olympic Aegean coast caters to high season summer holiday domestic tourism, but it has a desolate and abandoned feel in other times of the year. Leptokaria might be the only beach town with some genuine charm.
If you really want to complete the full circuit of your Alexander pilgrimage, you should include Stageira on Halkidiki (the birthplace of Aristotle) and Amphipolis (the harbour of Alexander's fleet). Most archeological museums sell the € 8 booklet "Network of Archeological Sites of Macedonia". Get hold of this in order to plan your trip. Car drivers will want a detailed, preferably scale 1 : 250.000 road map. Most maps of Greece sold outside the country won't do. The best map is Road Editions Macedonia, ISBN 960-8481-18-X, sold at Greek highway petrol stations. (No road map of Greece appears to be entirely accurate.)
Alexander never went to Italy, but the archeological museum in Naples which houses the amazing mosaic of Alexander confronting Darius at (presumably) the battle of Issus makes this Mediterranean port city a major destination for those walking in the footsteps of Alexander. The Issus mosaic dates back to 79 BC and was discovered in the so-called House of the Faun during the excavations of 1828-1835 in famous Pompeii. The museum has the mosaic on permanent display and you are free to take pictures. (Unlike paintings, mosaics are not damaged by flashlights.) The museum sells postcards and posters of the mosaic, but supply is erratic. They may have run out of stock when you arrive.
Naples certainly has the atmosphere of a city way past its prime. Be prepared to stay in a hotel that is not quite as fancy as you had hoped for. The many sights around the city make up for that: Pompeii is just an hour away by suburban rail, you can climb the Vesuvius volcano or you might want to escape the city smog and daytrip to the charming tourist island of Capri by ferry. Though Capri tends to be overrun by visitors in high season, it is a delightfully small place and the local restaurant Da Gemma has a status of world fame. You should not miss it.
Aerial view of Tyrus / Sour. Source: thebtr.comThe town of Tyre in southern Lebanon is now a peninsula, but it was an island city before Alexander's engineers constructed their famous mole during the long siege of 332 BC. This is the very place where Alexander altered the surface of the earth. The original mole has grown over the centuries and is now a broad landbridge with roads and buildings on it. Tyre is a town interesting enough to stroll around for a day or an afternoon. It has a characteristic Arabian market ('souq') and near the seashore you will find some minor excavations from Roman times. The proximity to the Israeli border might be a point of concern: before you set out, check in Beirut if the safety situation is considered OK.
Tyre has only modest hotels and you might want to daytrip from Beirut. Public transport is by fast, economic shared taxi's (always a Mercedes Benz). They leave every fiftheen minutes or so from the Beirut Cola area and take just two hours. Lebanon is an urban country with a worldly feeling. Before the civil war Beirut was nicknamed the 'Paris of the Orient' and the city is slowly but steadily reclaiming that status. Beirut hotels tend to be pricy and comfortable, catering to businessmen rather than the occasional tourist. Hamraa is the liveliest district in central Beirut. Lebanese dishes belong to the finest of the Mediterranean and Arabian cuisines. Other highlights include the majestic Roman ruins at Baalbek (Heliopolis), the tourist resort of Jbail (ancient Byblos), the beautiful monastry of Beit ed-Dine and the last surviving cedar trees near Bcharré. Bcharré also has a small museum dedicated to its famous poet Khalil Gibran (1883-1931).
En route from Rawalpindi to Gilgit, on the Karakoram Highway that connects Pakistan to China, travelers will pass a road sign indicating the location of the Rock of Aornus - where Alexander made his incredible mountain assault during the Indian campaign of spring 326 BC. Occasionally a tour group will stop there, gaze at the lush mountains for a minute, and continue their journey northwards. This alleged site of Aornus was pointed out by sir Aurel Stein in 1926 and though many have serious doubts about his claim, nobody has turned up with a better candidate.
Called Pir-Sar nowadays, the mountain is located near a bend in the upstream Indus river in the foothills of the Hindu Kush. It is just a few kilometers before the village of Thakot and approximately 250 kilometers from Rawalpindi. Besham is the only town in the vicinity with some facilities for travelers.
Other than the road sign, there is nothing to be seen. Those who are determined to climb Aornus are in for a rough time. You might be able to hire a local guide on the spot and make it to the top and back in two or three days. You are way off the tourist trail and your safety is not guaranteed. There are no lodges or guesthouses, except for one just next to the road sign. Pir-Sar is not a high mountain, just reaching an altitude of some 2500 meters, and in summer heatstroke is a serious danger. I did the trek myself in 1999 and came back with scabies and severe dehydration. On the summit of Aornus there are no wells nor any other regular water supply, which made me suspicious of the correctness Stein's identification after all.
The dusty town of Taxila still bears the same name as in Alexander's days. Located just 30 kilometres from Rawalpindi and Islamabad, it is by far the most convenient place in Pakistan to visit in search of Alexander. The ancient Indian and Hellenistic cities have been excavated, but as large as they are, they are unimpressive. Nothing remains but the bleak contours of houses and temples. The site museum is the main highlight and displays mainly Buddhist artworks, some dating back to the days of the Graeco-Bactrian Hellenistic kingdoms. The museum shop, run by the official Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC), claims to sell genuine ancient coins. I bought my souvenir of what they said was a Hellenistic coin - with the image of a Companion cavalry horseman on it - for 40 USD. Everywhere around the museum and the excavations local hagglers deal in much cheaper fake coins.
The nearest international airports are Islamabad and Lahore. Both Rawalpindi and Lahore are among the nicest cities to stay in Pakistan and the modern capital Islamabad is maybe the place where the Western tourist will feel best at home. Avoid traveling all the way up from Karachi by surface transport: even in the premier trains the 24 hour journey might turn out to be a tiresome experience. In Taxila itself the museum, the quality PTDC hotel and the simple youth hostel are pleasantly located a few kilometers away from the grumpy town center. Animal lovers might want to avoid the local horsecart taxi's to get there.
Malakwal and Mandi Bahauddin are the main rail stations near the river Jhelum where the Hydaspes battle was fought in 326 BC. There are no tourist sites here, the exact location of the battlefield is unknown and the busy small towns only provide very modest accommodation. The land is green and fertile and you might want to ride one of the few local trains across the Jhelum bridge from Malakwal to the village of Haranpur, where allegedly the Macedonians set up their base camp prior to the battle. Alexander is believed to have founded the cities of Nicaea and Bucephalia in the area, to commemorate his victory and his beloved horse Bucephalas which died soon after the battle. But no remains whatsoever have been found or excavated (although a small hamlet near Mandi Bahauddin bears the name Phalia, which I found tempting).
Multan in central Pakistan was once believed to be the infamous city of the Malli, where Alexander had his lung pierced by an arrow during the assault. Michael Wood used Multan as the decor for his enactment of the incident in his tv-series. However, modern scholars doubt whether Multan and the city of the Malli are identical. Multan is a very characteristic city, with a wide range of hotels and with good rail connections to all major centers in the country. It has the frightening reputation for being the hottest place in Pakistan during summer.
Soon after the Battle of Issus (333 BC) Parmenion took the surrender of Damascus and secured Darius' war chest. Alexander took Barsine, Memnon's widow, for himself and freed four Greek envoys. Little of the Alexander legacy is left, but there is a feeling of timelessness when wandering through the bustling markets of the ancient walled city. Capital of the first Caliphate, there are many architectural gems: the Ummayad Mosque, Souq al-Hamediyya and Saladin's tomb. From Damascus, Krak des Chevaliers and Palmyra are easy journeys and this is the terrain Alexander would have passed through, following the course of the Orontes. The Syrians are wonderfully hospitable and proud, qualities the Macedonians would admire.
Damascus has an excellent transport system, a hub for major bus, road and air routes. The airport is 35 km from the centre. Don't use the metered taxis (S£500); buses are frequent and cheap (S£10). Old Damascus is very compact and everywhere is reachable on foot. Cheap accommodation is found around al-Merjeh square - I recommend al-Rabie and al-Haramein hotels, a single is S£200. Shwarma/kebabs are sold in every street, but look in Ummayad Mosque area for atmospheric eateries. Syria is politically stable, has low crime and feels very safe. As a foreigner you might find the touts in Souq al-Hamediyya annoying but it is not nearly as bad as other Middle Eastern countries. You might enjoy yourself immensely whilst there and you might even start considering living in 'ash-Shams' later in life.
The coast around ancient Issus - where Alexander once scored his major upset against the massive forces of King Darius - might very well be the most depressing and disappointing piece of shore of the entire Mediterranean. There is nothing that will remind you of the white beaches and blue seas you have seen in the glossy Turkish tourist brochures. Present day Dörtyol is the town closest to the site of Issus. If there happen to be those requisite symbols on your travel map indicating ruins, excavations or monuments, you might as well ignore them.
To the south, the nearby city of Iskendrun is a polluted industrial port. It is part of the Hatay province of Turkey (claimed by Syria) of which Antakya is the principal city. Antakya, the ancient Seleucid capital of Antioch, is an enchanting and relaxed place well worth a stay of a day or two. The Antakya museum has a superb collection of Roman mosaics. The beaches at nearby Samandag (ancient Seleucia) however, can hardly warrant a visit. North of Dörtyol you enter the plains of ancient Cilicia. But the modern commercial centers of Adana, Mersin and Tarsus offer little of interest. Those intending to visit Antakya might want to use the excellent Turkish long distance buses. An overnight sleeper train connects Adana with Ankara or Istanbul.
When Alexander marched towards Gordium in the winter of 334/333 BC he had to deal with the resistance of the militant Pisidian tribes. Reckoning their strongholds would prove difficult to conquer, Alexander simply pushed his way through their territory, not interfering with the Pisidians' independence. After Alexander the Pisidians were enlisted as levies in Hellenistic armies and they were still treated as allies rather than subjects even in the days of the Roman Empire. Today the Pisidian citadel of Termessos is an easy daytrip from the holiday resort of Antalya.
If you are not on a cramped budget the easiest way is to arrange for a full day taxi tour from Antalya. Taxi's are plenty and the tariffs are fixed. Your driver will wait for you at the car park near Termessos while you hike to the top and back. The ruins of Termessos date from Roman times. The mountain vistas provide for a memorable climb. Antalya is a pleasant city with lots of hotels, pensions and restaurants in all price ranges. It has excellent long distance bus connections. To the south of Antalya lies ancient Mount Climax, famous for the myth that the sea withdrew while Alexander passed along. Demre, 120 kilometres south of Antalya, has Byzantine churches, rock tombs and a Roman theatre. Just east of Antalya the Roman theatre of Aspendos is one of Turkey's most popular tourist attractions.
The Travel Guide is far from complete. New entries will be welcomed, especially more about Greece, Iran, more on Turkey and - I hope for - Iraq. Please use my e-mail to add your contribution. Some images are directly linked from www.livius.org by Jona Lendering. This travel guide is compiled by James Holmes (JH) & Susan Holmes (SH), Nick Welman (NW). Last update: October 23rd 2005.