Is ‘The Lost City of Alexander the Great’ Actually Alexander’s?

This new discovery also brims with historical potential—but none of the evidence released so far proves that Alexander the Great founded the city.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

The archaeological world is abuzz this week with the news that a “Lost City of Alexander the Great” has been discovered in Iraq. As if this news enough weren’t interesting enough, the archaeological team of researchers from the British Museum made the discovery when they were reviewing declassified American spy footage obtained by drones during the 1960s Corona Project.

The images appeared to show the outline of a square building—possibly an ancient fort—on the banks of Lake Dokan. Ground inspections uncovered limestone blocks that may have served as part of an oil or wine press. The innovative use of drones by the researchers, led by John McGinnis, made it possible to see the outlines of buildings and get the bigger picture that a close-up of the landscape obscured.

Alexander the Great (less commonly known as known as Alexander III of Macedon) is well known not only as a prodigious military ruler who was able to create one of the ancient world’s largest empires by the time he was thirty, but also as a cultural innovator. His military campaigns brought the Greek language, literature, art, aesthetics, education, and athletics to every part of his empire. Those who lived in his empire were not only subjects; they were Hellenized (Greek-ified). The long lasting effects of this program can be seen in the fact that there were Greek-speaking settlements in Anatolia (Turkey) as recently as the 1920s. As part of his program of political and cultural conquest, Alexander founded numerous settlements named after himself, of which one might be this lost city.

The city itself is located in the Qalatga Darband settlement, a naturally fortified plateau that overlooks a natural lake (which has been enlarged since ancient times by the addition of a dam). Dr. Robert Cargill, an archeologist at the University of Iowa, told The Daily Beast that the city guards “strategic pass between two mountain ranges that separate the ancient territories of Assyria and Media, both of which later became part of Alexander the Great’s vast empire. A naturally-defended fortress with fresh water in the mountains overlooking two strategic plains is an important site.” McGinnis, who headed up the excavation, describes that the site as “a bustling city on a road from Iraq to Iran… You can image people supplying wine to the soldiers passing through.”

Some archaeologists have dated the founding of the city to 331 BCE, the height of Alexander the Great’s conquest of the ancient Mediterranean world. Dr. Diane Cline, an associate professor of classics and history at George Washington University told The Daily Beast, “The location in northern Iraq suggests that the date of the foundation of this site must be in 331 BC. The battle of Gaugamela was fought close to Erbil on October 1, 331—we know that date because of an eclipse recorded 11 days earlier—and Alexander might have created the town as an outpost, a place to leave his wounded men and older veterans.” It must have been founded around then, Cline adds, because “by the end of October 331 Alexander had moved on to Babylon.”

The closest other Alexandrias to this one, Cline told me, are the famous Alexandria of Egypt, which was founded on April 7 331 BCE, and the colony under Heat in Afghanistan, founded in September 330 BCE. The Alexandria in Egypt, of course, is famous to this day for its lighthouse and library. It was not only of importance to Hellenistic (Greek-speaking) Egyptians, it was the home of the famous first century Jewish philosopher Philo and in the second and third centuries would later house one of the most influential early Christian “schools” (a cross between a university and a think tank).

This new discovery also brims with historical potential. The only reason we haven’t heard of this city before, Cargill told The Daily Beast, “is because it is not mentioned in the Bible and it is smack in the middle of a contested desert border in the Middle East.”

That the site was inhabited by Hellenistic-era Greeks is beyond a shadow of a doubt. The archeological team has released the details of distinctive coins, Greco-Roman architectural elements, marble figures, and bronze vessels that demonstrate this. But none of the evidence released so far proves that Alexander the Great founded the city or dates it earlier than the second century BCE.

As a result, some scholars are cautious about the claims being made about this site. Dr. Christopher Baron, associate professor of Classics at the University of Notre Dame, told The Daily Beast that there is no evidence linking Alexander to the site. The city is located about 60 miles east of the present Kurdish capital Erbil (ancient Arbela), near where Alexander and his Macedonian army defeated the forces of the last Persian king Darius III on October 1, 331 BCE (the Battle of Gaugamela). So far so good, says Baron.

This is where things get tricky. Baron told The Daily Beast that after the battle, according to our ancient sources, Darius fled first to Arbela, then east through the mountains toward Ecbatana (modern Hamadan, Iran). “This would have taken Darius through the pass where Qalatga Darband sits. But Alexander, rather than pursue Darius, marched south along the Tigris River in order to capture the magnificently rich cities of Babylon and Susa.”

From then Alexander moved on to Southern and, later, Northern Iran. “Just about every report on the new find gets this wrong,” says Baron, “they have Alexander pursuing Darius through the pass between Erbil and Hamadan, where Qalatga Darband sits. But Alexander did not go further east from Arbela/Erbil… So, most likely, Alexander himself never set foot in Qalatga Darband.” Add to this the fact that the only datable archeological evidence that we know about from the site (the Parthian coin) is first century BCE and the connection with Alexander weakens. As Baron puts it, “As far as I can see, the only direct connection with Alexander is that he won his most important battle nearby.”

The problem, Baron notes, may be an issue of reporting. The archaeological project’s website does not mention Alexander the Great at all, and original analysis of the site dated it to the second or first century BCE to the Seleucid or Parthia empires. McGinnis himself, a highly talented archaeologist, has remarked that it is “early days” for research into the site and does not seem to have made the connection with Alexander himself.

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Whatever the origins of the site, its location and what Baron calls the “magnetic” connection with Alexander the Great may help raise public interest in the conservation of heritage sites in general, and in neglected regions like this one, in particular. The dig at Qalataga Darband is part of a larger Darband-i-Rania Archeological Project that is run under the auspices of the Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme. The scheme was started by the British Museum in response to the destruction of heritage sites in Syria and Iraq by ISIS.

As Cargill put it, “it is a fascinating discovery in a highly contentious part of the world.” In addition to the traditional Iran-Iraq ethnic, religious, and border disputes, he notes that this particular area is in de facto Kurdistan. The Kurdish independence referendum on Monday promises to make this region and ownership of this site and its artifacts all the more contentious. Whether this is a Lost City of Alexander or not, it’s an important contribution to our understanding of the ancient world, and a humiliating moment for a terrorist organization that thought it could obliterate the past.