Aleksander den Stores visitkort


  • Erling Albrectsen


tell, byhøj, sa'aid, greeks, grækere, Alexander


Alexander the Great's Visiting Card.

On 10th February 1958 excavation began on the island of Failaka of the eastern coast off the state of Kuwait. The excavations were conducted with the permission of His Highness the Emir Abdullah Al-Salim Al-Sabah of Kuwait, and were financed by that state, whose government assisted the expedition in every possible way. Under the leadership of Professor P. V. Glob the following team worked for six weeks until the 24th March at the sites named: T. G. Bibby, M. A., assisted by the Kuwait Government representative, Mr. Imran Abdo, and by two ethnographers, T. Lundbæk and P. Rovsing Olsen M. A., at the tell of Sa'ad (fig. 1), the present writer at the tell of Sa'aid lying 200 yards further to the east, and Dr. Aage Roussell at a house site near the shore between the two tells.

The excavation at Sa'aid is the particular subject of this article.

Sa'aid rises above the surrounding flat desert to a height of about 3.5 meters and is 125-150 meters in width. lts square central area is surrounded by four low, almost obliterated, mounds, each between 60 and 70 meters long.

On the very first day of the excavation a massive wall was encountered in the northern­most mound, consisting of roughly shaped limestone blocks set in puddled clay (cf. fig 2, which shows the wall excavated to a length of 8 meters). lts surviving height is about 1.75 meters. That it has originally been higher, however, is shown by the presence everywhere on the outer side of stones which had fallen from the crown of the wall and now lay on the sand deposited by wind at the foot of the wall. The original wall height must thus have been at least 2.25 meters or possibly somewhat more. The thickness is 2.10 meters, and it is here constructed as a double wall consisting of two walls built close together (Fig. 3, upper left).

Some meters further to the east lay a large heap of stones in no sort of order. It proved to be the ruins of the partly collapsed gate complex of the rampart. When the upper layer of these stones was removed, our spades struck a smooth oblong limestone slab, and thereafter another of the same size, 79 cms. long by 59 cms. wide, with slightly convex edges. But this latter slab bore on one side an ornamentation, a garland hung on a stick (cf. Figs. 4 and 5). One side was curved slightly in and showed signs of wear. It was undoubtedly a surprise to find here a decoration motif which is well-known in a Classical European milieu. We christened the stone "Alexander the Great's visiting card", and could do so with some reason. For among the loose stones was found in addition a little limestone figure of an owl (Fig 6). In the course of excavating the wall a large number of potsherds were recovered of clear Greek type, while in the course of Dr. Roussell's excavation clay moulds were found for making Greek terra-cotta figures in Classical style, as well as one producing a portrait head of Alexander. Could there be a connection between these remarkable discoveries and the voyage made by Nearchos at the bidding of King Alexander from the River lndus to the mouth of the Euphrates? We shall return to this question.

In the course of deeper digging here the portion was uncovered which can be seen in Figs. 7 and 8. Two massive gate-walls were built out at right angles to the north wall, and have enclosed a gate-room 3.50 meters in width. In the cleancut section in the background of the photograph shown in Fig. 7 can be seen a cushion of sand overlying a layer of fallen stones, clearly the remains of a collapsed domed roof. The length of this entrance passage was 9.10 meters, but its termination to the south was not reached this year. At the opposite end the entrance is narrowed by two short crosswalls, which form a little entrance hall, and at the same time restrict the width of the door to 85 cms. The frame of the door is formed by two limestone slabs standing on end. Between them lies a threshold stone, 40 cms. thick, and in front of this again a narrow approach path or gangway of irregularly shaped stones. Unfortunately only the lower portion of the door frame is preserved, and it cannot be stated with certainty whether the lower pair of stones were topped by a second similar pair, or whether perhaps three further slabs, which were found out of position, originally lay horizontally flanking the gate in the same way as the one slab which can be seen lying to the left of the opening. In any case the ornamented stone must have been positioned visibly and freely projecting by the gateway, as three of its surfaces are decorated. As one side furthermore shows signs of wear it is possible to imagine that the little owl figure (Fig. 6) originally stood upon the worn surface together with other figures which have not been recovered.

The actual door appears to have been of wood. On Fig. 8 a flat hollowed stone can be seen, in the centre of which there were clear traces of iron rust. Two massive iron nails lay here also. The doorpost appears thus to have been shod with iron to counteract wear against the stone.

Once the layout of the entrance to the fortified town was clear, it was decided to follow the onward course of the wall to the east. Here it appeared that the wall bends at an angle in the centre of its course, and was differently constructed here than in the western portion. To the left centre on Fig. 7 a lower platform can be seen, which in the plan (Fig. 3) is marked b. This limestone ramp followed, for as far as we excavated to the east, a somewhat higher limestone wall, a, and at the two points where we followed its outer face, extended downwards into the sand for more than 1.30 and 1.70 meters. It rested upon a rough foundation of projecting slabs, as did the ramp shown in Fig. 9 from the northwest corner of the wall-system. At no point was there any trace of a ditch in front of the wall.

Everywhere where we came into contact with this stone ramp it was surmounted by clay. At first we did not understand the significance of this hard clay layer, until, in a cleancut section in the northwest corner of the fort, we were able to observe faint vertical and horizontal stripes (Fig. 10). They mark the gaps between sundried unbaked bricks. The builder of the fortification had perhaps used these mud-bricks in some places in order to economise on the difficult work of quarrying the limestone blocks.

The same methods of construction were apparently used in building the west wall of the fortress, though the situation here is not yet quite clear, as we were only able to dig three small trial trenches across the line of the wall, o-q in Fig. 3.

Before we leave the description of the construction of the fortification it is necessary to glance at one further detail. The corner where the north and the west walls meet had been strengthened by a bastion, intended to provide flank coverage to the long walls in case of attack. The plan of the bastion is approximately square (cf. Fig. 3 d). Close to the inner corner the limestone wall, a, is interrupted by two lower sections, e, clearly the thresholds of doorways opening from the interior of the fortress out to the broad limestone ramp which bore along its edge a further wall of sundried bricks. Beyond that a further low and roughly formed stone footing along the edge of the bastion was designed to prevent the mudbrick wall from collapsing in damp winter weater (cf. also Fig. 11).

The excavation of the course of the walls occupied the greater part of our effort and almost all our time. We were, however, naturally obliged to take up and register in addition all the smaller objects which were found. These comprised for the most part potsherds, which had been thrown out from the wall in large numbers and now lay in the desert sand. As pottery is one's best ally in dating a site, it was necessary to attempt by means of detailed excavation to identify stratified series at suitable points.

With this object in view two sondages were made. The first was laid in association with the outer face of the north wall (marked 1 in Fig. 3). There the undisturbed layers from the foot of the wall down to the original desert surface were excavated by hand. It was thereby shown that the 1.37 meter depth of earth here contained four distinct and two quite thin occupation layers, separated by sterile layers of sand without the potsherds and animal bones which were found in the occupation levels. The sherds from the individual layers have not yet been subjected to study in detail, but, as in the upper layers, the pottery is clearly of Greek origin and apparently of an earlier character.

The second sondage was laid inside the fortress in the northwest comer (cf. the squared area in Fig. 3). Here somewhat under 35 square meters were excavated. Along the centre a flimsy stone wall, which must be regarded as a party wall between rooms, was followed. To the west of this wall thick layers of potsherds were discovered at several levels, particularly in a burnt level 1.00-1.20 meters under the ground surface. This layer would suggest that the room in question, and perhaps the whole fortress, had here been ravaged by conflagration. Traces of several cross-walls running towards the south from the north wall suggest a succession of rooms along the inner face of the wall, and further excavation may well show rooms running along the whole length of the inner side of the four main walls, surrounding a courtyard in the centre.

This account has covered the most important of the archeological results achieved by the preliminary excavations, and the result can be briefly summarised as follows: a fortified township which, to judge by the objects discovered, must have been inhabited by Greeks. An astonishing conclusion, as one would have expected in advance a Babylonian or Islamic­Arabic settlement. The stone with a Greek inscription, discovered some years ago and illustrated in Fig. 13, had already given an indication of Greek influence in some form. And to this can now be added the other indications: the portal stone, the owl statuette, and the large quantities of unpainted pottery, locally made but nevertheless showing Greek influence of the 5th or 4th centuries BC. In addition there is Dr. Roussell's interesting discovery of terracotta moulds, which produced a Nike and a portrait head of Alexander. Without doubt we are here face to face with an interconnected series of Greek discoveries, and it is necessary to look for the historical background for it.

And it can be found. Precisely in the period when the Greek settlement on Failaka was an actuality, one of the most remarkable events in world history took place. The young king Alexander crossed the Hellespont in 334 BC and led his Macedonian soldiery on an expedition of conquest through the immense Persian Empire. With his victorious troops Alexander reached the River lndus and conquered the lndians there. He personally returned with his army by way of a land campaign through southern Persia, but at the same time his admiral, Nearchos, led a fleet of a thousand ships successfully along the Persian coast from the lndus, and in 325 BC the forces of Alexander and Nearchos were reunited near Susa. The sea route to India was secured.

The main sources for Alexander's campaign are two books, the Anabasis and the lndika, written about 170 AD by the Greek author Arrian. The latter of these two deals with events in India and the voyage of Nearchos. Both works are distinguished by an objective evaluation of good older sources which are now lost, and his description attains thereby an appearance of great trustworthiness. Although Arrian makes the motive for the king's campaigns the lust for conquest and adventure, he is not completely unaware that Alexander had also given thought to the peaceful progress and economic stability of his empire. As illustration of this a quotation from Anabasis, Book 7, chapter 19, can serve 3). Here is described the equipping of a large fleet near Babylon, and Arrian goes on:

"For Alexander planned to settle and inhabit both the coastal regions of the Persian Gulf and the islands lying there, as he believed that this land could become no less rich than Phoenicia. His purpose 4) in equipping the fleet was that it should make a campaign against the mainland of the Arabs. The pretext given for this was that the Arabs were the only people who had not sent emissaries to him or shown him friendship or tokens of respect ... "

In chapter 20 he goes on to describe the religion of the Arabs, and tells how the riches of the land attracted the king, as he had heard that it was the source of myrrh, incense and cinnamon. It was reported to him that harbours were to be found throughout the land which were suited as anchorages for his fleet, while there were also suitable sites for the foundation of cities close by.

"It was in addition reported to him that out to sea in front of the mouth of the Euphrates lay two islands. The first of these, which was not far distant from the mouth of the Euphrates, as there was only a distance of about 120 stadia (22 kms.) to it from the seacoast and the river mouth, was the smaller; ... on it was a shrine sacred to Artemis; ... on its pastures were to be found wild goats and deer 5), and these were protected and sacred to Artemis .... Concerning this island Aristobulos 6) says furthermore, that Alexander ordered that it should be called Ikaros after the island of Ikaros in the Aegean Sea7) .... Of the other island it is said that it lay at such a distance from the mouth of the Euphrates as a ship, running before the wind, can sail in the course of a day and a night. lts name was Tylos, and it was said that ... it was very suitable for the growing of fruit and all season's crops." In accordance with this very detailed geographical description-and taking into account the actual geography-there can be no doubt that lkaros must be identical with Failaka, and Tylos with the Bahrain group 8). It is extremely remarkable that to this day there exists on Failaka a little, outwardly insignificant, shrine, sacred to the god Al-Khidr. lf a woman who cannot conceive rests here a Thursday night, preferably at the new moon, it is believed that her wish will thereby be granted. The worship of Al-Khidr is still popular among the people of Failaka, and Al-Khidr is believed to be a personification of the ancient Babylonian goddess of fertility, Ishtar. It is not impossible that the temple of Artemis mentioned by Arrian is identical with the shrine of Al-Khidr. And certainly it is significant that one of the three Greek divinities named on the stone in Fig. 13 is Artemis. The Greek seamen and soldiers have also thought it proper to express their gratitude to the particular patron deity of the island.

In the description given by Arrian of the two islands in the Persian Gulf he does not mention specifically the foundation of a town. But at the end of the following chapter 21, after having told of the great canal, Pallakopas, which regulated the flow of the Euphrates to the east, he writes as follows: "For the purpose of these works Alexander then sailed both as far as Pallakopas and down it to the lakes 9), as far as to the land of the Arabs. There he found a favourably situated place, where he caused a fortified city to be founded, and in that he settled a portion of the Greek mercenaries, those who were willing to live there, and those who, on account of age or some physical disability, were no longer capable of serving as soldiers."

Even though Arrian does not give an accurate location of this town, nor its name, it would nevertheless be reasonable, as the testimony on the whole agrees, to bring the written sources into agreement with the archeological information, and to see in the newly excavated town site an archeological confirmation of Arrian's statements. We have thus here the Macedonian king's newly founded city, and this presumably received the name of its founder, in the same way as the many other cities which the king caused to be founded during his campaigns, that garland of townships, of which the Egyptian Alexandria flourished richest and longest.

A problem which is still unsolved is provided by the settlement levels under the city, which in the section by the north wall here described were found to a thickness of 1.37 meters under the wall. These layers are still insufficiently investigated and their pottery insufficiently studied for any definite conclusions to be drawn concerning them. All indications, however, point to the pottery here too being Greek, and it is, of course, older than the fortified town beneath which it lies. But here too it may well be that continued excavation will provide a link between the archeological material and literary sources. For Herodotus tells, in Book VI, chapter 20, how the king of Persia, after the capture of Miletus in Caria in Asia Minor, exiled the surviving Greek population of the town in 490 BC to the town of Ampe, which lay by the Persian Gulf and by which runs the River Tigris. This geographical description given by Herodotus is to a high degree indefinite, and certainly not so precise that we should dare to identify Ampe in the settlement which laid down the lower occupation deposits at Failaka. But in the course of the future investigations it would do no harm to keep the possibility in mind.

Unexpectedly rich results were achieved by these preliminary excavations on Failaka in 1958. But much still remains to be done. In the case of Sa'aid the town site should be fully excavated, the four walls cleared and careful detailed excavation carried out in the interior, both in breadth and in depth. The plan of the town should be recovered, and the possibility of later settlement in the higher portions of the mound investigated.

The success of the opening season promises well for the future.

Erling Albrectsen.





Albrectsen, E. (1958). Aleksander den Stores visitkort. Kuml, 8(8), 172–190. Hentet fra