By: Abraham Ortelius
Date: 1595 (dated) Antwerp
Dimensions: 14 x 18 inches (35.5 x 48 cm)
This fascinating map by Abraham Ortelius depicts the vast territories covered over the years by Alexander the Great in his great incursion to the east; from his home in Pella, all the way to India.
The upper left quadrant of the map covers most of ancient Greece, the Black Sea and its entire coast with ancient toponyms identifying the regions depicted. Pella, the birthplace of Alexander on the east coast of Greece is noted, along with other cities of antiquity, the Mediterranean from Crete to its eastern shores is drawn with all major cities along its shores noted. Historical (from antiquity) place names identify these cities, names which are often similar to those by which they are known today.
Asia Minor is highly detailed, and Ortelius provides a key just below the upper left border which labels the cities along the western coast as they were called in Phrygian times. Ilium (ancient Troy) is numbered ‘5’, located in close proximity to Mons Ida (Mount Ida) of Iliad renown. Other cities along this portion of the Anatolian coast are identified in the key. In the interior of this region, place names, along with names of ancient events, civilizations and battle sites are denoted, and topography is shown in pictorial detail. Northern Africa, the Levant and Arabia are also included in this region. Another key is provided in the eastern end of the Mediterranean, which lists important Greek cities of antiquity along the southern Aegean coast of Anatolia and the north coast of the Mediterranean.
The map stretches eastward through the Middle East, also with names from antiquity labeling the various regions. It stretches beyond the Indus River, all the way to the foothills where the source of the Ganges is located, and southward to include much of India and the delta of the Indus. Alexander’s fleet headed by his admiral, Nearchus, is depicted by a number of seagoing vessels with sails at full mast. Their purpose was to sustain Alexander and his troops as they made their way back to Babylon through the coastal region of the Makran desert during the terrible forced march which cost Alexander so dearly. From a force of perhaps as many as 150,000 men (estimates vary), only a quarter survived.
An inset in the lower left quadrant of the map features an elaborate illustration of the place where one of the most important events in the short life of Alexander took place, the oracle at Siwa, to which he made his famous detour during his march eastward in late 332 BCE. The temple which housed the oracle is depicted much as it was described by ancient historians. Modern photographs of the ruins of the temple and inner sanctum could be said to lend credence to the representation of the site in this Ortelius map. The oasis itself is still heavily wooded, as shown in the map.
Ancient historians’ writings differ as to the purpose of his visit as do modern academicians. Indeed, there has always been speculation regarding his true purpose in visiting the oracle. Arrian of Nicodemia, great historian, philosopher and military wrote what is still considered one of the most authoritative accounts of Alexander. Arrian uses the Greek word pothos, meaning a violent desire, to describe motivation for various of Alexander’s undertakings.
Certain of his comrades in arms saw him as delusional in his desire regarding his divine lineage. However, political considerations must have also played a role as he was in need of grain to feed his troops, needed good relations with Egypt, a huge and rich country which could help him build a reliable supply chain. He had wrested control of the country without so much as a skirmish, and certainly would have wished to cement his control by obtaining positive omens at this important oracle.
Whatever his motivation, while in Memphis he consulted with priests, asking how to maintain a stable relationship with Egypt, so as to keep his army supplied with grain. It is possible that the priests there advised him to visit the oracle of Zeus-Ammon at the oasis of Siwa, where he might have himself declared Pharoah. Alexander already believed he was descended from sons of Zeus and through his mother’s line from his great hero Achilles. He was known to pay tribute to the gods and to have practiced religious ablutions each day throughout his life. He believed in the gods and thought that the oracle at Siwa might provide verification of his beliefs, and to help legitimize his rule in Egypt.
Leaving the bulk of his troops behind, Alexander undertook the 250 kilometer trek with a small group of young, able-bodied and trustworthy soldiers to accompany him. The story of this journey is well worth studying for it resulted in what would be a key moment in his life and in his changing perception of himself.
The temple to the Egyptian god Ammon which housed the oracle at Siwa had been built centuries before his birth, and much of it is yet extant. It was considered one of the most important oracles of ancient times and was the only (known) to not be Greek. The chamber of the sanctum in which Alexander posed his question still exists, and is one of only two or three places where we know for certain that he stood during his lifetime.
In antiquity it was believed that the priests at a temple’s oracle were interpreters who provided coherent interpretations of the divine responses to all questions posed by supplicants. This particular oracle was thought to be immune to corruption and was known for its prophecies concerning both governmental and military ambitions, and it attracted many foreign visitors.
Alexander arrived at the oasis as a prospective pharaoh with a list of questions for the oracle, to which he requested a written reply and an audience with the god in the temple’s inner sanctum. According to historians such as Plutarch the priests at the temple greeted him as Son of Ammon, and King, as they would have greeted a living pharaoh. The answers to his questions were provided in written form and then read aloud.
The key point in the oracle’s response was Alexander’s kinship with Ammon-Zeus and while his detour to Siwa was largely politically motivated, it is quite possible that on receiving these responses he came to think of himself in some sense as a ‘Son of God’. This oracle added yet another positive omen to those from Delphi, Didyma, Xanthos and Gordion, but seemed more important to Alexander, for years later when nearing death he is said to have given orders to an intimate friend to bury him near his father ‘Ammon’ at Siwa.
This marvelous map is embellished with three ornate strapwork cartouches, one for the title, one for the inset and another for a dedicatory inset in the lower right. Both sides of a gold coin from antiquity featuring Alexander are also depicted above an inset. The verso contains text describing the map and various events in the life of Alexander, with detailed commentary regarding his visit to the oracle at Siwa. It is also embellished, with both the front and back of six coins of antiquity represented.
For anyone interested in antiquity, the history of the eastern hemisphere, the impact of Alexander’s undertakings, this map provides a wealth of information and serves as a historical document of what cartographers knew of those events. A truly remarkable map.
Condition: This map is in A+ condition presenting a dark impression on clean paper with full margins on all sides. A superb original example!
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