Major tourist site restored in Herat, Afghanistan. Please send me there!

Herat, Herat citadel, Afghanistan
While Afghanistan may not be high on your places-to-go list, the government is trying hard to offer more sightseeing opportunities.

A giant citadel overlooking the city of Herat has just reopened after several years and $2.4 million of restoration. The citadel dates back to when Alexander the Great’s armies marched across Afghanistan on their way to India in 330 BC. It was used by a succession of dynasties and cultures before being destroyed by the Mongols. Most of the current citadel dates to the 14th and 15th centuries.

The restoration was done with the help of the U.S. and German governments and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. The National Museum of Herat has opened inside the citadel, showcasing artifacts from the region’s long history.

The citadel was a favorite stop on the old Asian overland hippie trail in the 1960s and 70s popularized by Lonely Planet. While Afghanistan is courting tourists once again and a few hardy adventure travel companies such as Hinterland Travel are offering tours, only a trickle of visitors are coming to this ancient region.

Afghanistan has always been at the top of my list of places to go. I visited Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province in the 1990’s and spent several pleasant weeks among the Afghan communities there. Afghanistan’s long history and varied cultures would make a great Gadling series. I gave you Ethiopia, I gave you Somaliland, and I’d love to give you Afghanistan. . .

. . .but I can’t afford it. So I’m asking for your help. If you’d like to see a boots-on-the-ground series on Afghanistan written by yours truly, say so in the comments section and tell AOL to be my sugar daddy. I really want to go, and if enough of you vote, maybe they’ll send me! Tell your friends to vote too!

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Macedonia: what’s in a name? A major controversy!

Macedonia, Alexander the Great
The erection of a giant statue of Alexander the Great in the Macedonian capital of Skopje is the latest round in an ongoing controversy with neighboring Greece.

The statue, erected on Tuesday as part of an ambitious urban development plan called Skopje 2014, drew criticism from some Greek politicians and nervous mutterings from European diplomats. They say it’s deliberate provocation because Greece objects to the name Macedonia. Using this name, some say, implies a claim over the Greek province of Macedonia, where Alexander the Great was actually born. Of course neither country existed at the time, the land being divided up into a patchwork of ancient city-states. When history is used as a propaganda tool, historic accuracy goes out the window.

Macedonia, officially the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, broke off from Yugoslavia in 1991 and has been in a row with Greece about its name ever since. This isn’t some minor squabbling. Greece successfully blocked Macedonia’s entry into NATO and is stonewalling the country’s attempts to join the European Union. With Macedonia being one of the poorest countries in Europe, this argument over a name is costing them a lot.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Egypt’s newest public wonder: the temple of the crocodile god

Egypt, SobekLast week a new ancient site opened to the public in Egypt–a temple of the crocodile god Sobek.

Medinet Madi is located in Egypt’s Faiyum region, a fertile area around a lake at the end of a branch of the Nile called Bahr Yusuf (“The River of Joseph”).

The temple features a long avenue lined with sphinxes and lions, plus an incubation room for hatching the eggs of sacred crocodiles. You’d think these crocs would live the good life, splashing around the swamps and gnawing on a sacrificial victim or two. Instead they were mummified and sold to pilgrims. Check out the gallery for a couple of photos of crocodile mummies.

Sobek was one of the most important gods of ancient Egypt. He’s generally pictured with the body of a man and the head of a crocodile. He’s said to have created the Earth when he laid eggs in the primordial waters, and the Nile is supposed to be his sweat. He’s the god of the Nile, the Faiyum, and of course crocodiles.

In ancient times the Nile and the lush wetlands of the Faiyum were full of crocodiles. The people prayed to Sobek to appease them. Because he was a fierce god, he was one of the patrons of the ancient Egyptian army.

Sobek’s temple at Medinet Madi was built by the pharaohs Amenemhat III (c.1859-1813 BC) and Amenemhat IV (c.1814-1805 BC) during Egypt’s Middle Kingdom and expanded during the Ptolemaic period (332-30 BC) after Egypt was conquered by Alexander the Great.

The temple is also dedicated to the cobra-headed goddess Renenutet, who in some traditions was Sobek’s wife. Despite her appearance, she was a much kinder deity than Sobek, a sort of mother goddess who nursed babies and gave them their magical True Name. Farmers liked her because cobras ate the rats that would eat their crops.

%Gallery-123603%The new tourist site was funded by Italy, which coughed up €3.5 million ($5 million) to clear off the sand and restore the temple. Italian archaeologists have been working in the area for decades and in addition to the Sobek temple they’ve found a Roman military camp and ten early Coptic Christian churches dating from the 5th-7th century AD.

Medinet Madi isn’t the only crocodile temple. Not far away stands Crocodilopolis, where Egyptians honored the sacred crocodile Petsuchos by sticking gold and gemstones into its hide. There are several other Sobek temples along the Nile, the most impressive being Kom Ombo far to the south near Aswan.

Kom Ombo is one of Egypt’s most fascinating temples. It’s rather new as Egyptian temples go–being founded in the second century BC by the Ptolemaic dynasty. Carvings of Sobek and other deities adorn the walls and columns. There are also some scenes from daily life. On the inner face of the outer corridor keep an eye out for a carving showing a frightening array of old surgeon’s tools. Also check out the small shrine to Hathor in the temple compound where piles of sacred crocodiles from the nearby necropolis are kept.

[Photo courtesy Hedwig Storch]

From myth to Empire: Heracles to Alexander the Great

Alexander the great
Today’s royals have nothing on the ancients.

Alexander the Great and his predecessors enjoyed a sumptuous lifestyle that beats anything William and Kate will ever enjoy, not to mention real power as opposed to lots of TV time. Now an amazing new exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, gives an insight into the life of the royal family of Macedon.

Alexander the Great conquered much of the known world before his death in 323 BC, but he didn’t come out of nowhere. He was the second-to-last king of a proud royal lineage that traced its roots to the legendary Herakles. Heracles to Alexander the Great: Treasures of the Royal Capital of Macedon, a Hellenic Kingdom in the Age of Democracy looks at the development of one of the ancient world’s greatest royal families. Their palace was almost as big as Buckingham Palace and what remains shows it was much more luxurious. There was gold, silver, ivory, and jewels everywhere, and plenty has made it into this exhibition. There’s everything from ornate golden wreaths to tiny ivory figurines like this one, which graced a couch on which a king once quaffed wine and consorted with maidens. It’s good to be the king.

The displays focus on more than 500 treasures from the royal tombs at the ancient capital of Aegae (modern Vergina in northern Greece). Three rooms show the role of the king, the role of the queen, and the famous banquets that took place in the palace.

%Gallery-122395%Especially interesting is the gallery about the role of the royal women, who are often overlooked in all the accounts of manly battles and assassinations. Women had a big role to play in religious life and presided at holy festivals and rites alongside men. They also wore heaps of heavy jewelry that, while impressive, couldn’t have been very comfortable.

The banqueting room shows what it was like to party in ancient times. Apparently the master of the banquet diluted the wine with varying proportions of water to “control the time and degree of drunkenness”!

There are even items from the tomb of Alexander IV, Alexander the Great’s son with princess Roxana of Bactria. Alex Jr had some pretty big shoes to fill, what with dad conquering most of the known world and all, but he didn’t get a chance to prove himself because he was poisoned when he was only thirteen. At least he went out in style, with lots of silver and gold thrown into his tomb with him.

This is the first major exhibition in the temporary galleries of the recently redesigned Ashmolean. Expect plenty of interesting shows from this world-class museum in coming years.

Heracles to Alexander the Great: Treasures of the Royal Capital of Macedon, a Hellenic Kingdom in the Age of Democracy runs until August 29, 2011. Oxford makes an easy and enjoyable day trip from London.

[Image © The Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Tourism – Archaeological Receipts Fund]

Siwa Oasis: site of Alexander the Great and a holiday feast

On Thanksgiving Day Heath Cox, his family and a friend headed to the Siwa Oasis for a long weekend and to cook a turkey in a sand dune. He left this detail in the comment feature of a “What did you head this Thanksgiving?” post. Intrigued, I looked up the place. I already knew it is in Egypt since he mentioned this.

If you are going to Egypt, I’d say the Siwa Oasis is one place to put on your must see places list. Sure, take in the pyramids, but don’t stop there. According to Egypt Voyager.com, the oasis is the place Alexander the Great went to in order to meet up with the Oracle at Aghurmi, the site of the Temple of the Oracle of Amun. The Oracle pronounced Alexander a god. This must have given Alexander the umph he needed to continue his conquests. Off he went to take over the Middle East.

There are other oases in the area besides Siwa, but Siwa is the place to find a thriving cultural center. I lit up when I read you can buy baskets that are typical of this area here. I collect baskets. Those of you who are fond of silver jewelry, it looks like this is the place for you.

If you do go here, bring a turkey. According to Heath Cox, drive 10 miles out of Siwa to a sand dune, dig a big hole, put coals in it with a stuffed, foil-covered turkey, add more coals, cover it up and when the steam escapes, the turkey is done. (Okay, I hope that’s when it’s done.) Sounds yummy.