Ancient Alexandria Exhibit: Murder, Mayhem and Mystery on Display

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Part 2: Part II: Licentiousness, Inbreeding and Collapse 

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, archaeologist Franck Goddio and German President Horst Köhler opened the Alexandria exhibit at the Martin Gropius Building in Berlin on Thursday.
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Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, archaeologist Franck Goddio and German President Horst Köhler opened the Alexandria exhibit at the Martin Gropius Building in Berlin on Thursday.

The first ruler, Ptolemy I, one of Alexander's former generals, still valued discipline and order. Instrumental in the expansion of the city's large harbor, he lived by the motto: "No one has the right to do as he wishes, but everything is completely under control." His subjects included about 7 million Egyptians.

His successor, Ptolemy II, was also viewed as a "successful statesman." He warded off four attacks by foreign armies and led his own forces into Arabia. From a technical standpoint, his was an era of expansion in an old-fashioned Egypt. About 40 new towns were built in the Faijum oasis, where Greek architects built a reservoir, an engineering marvel that supplied enough water for a second harvest in the spring. It almost seemed as though Plato's legacy of the levelheaded state was coming to fruition, as the rational spirit of the Greeks merged with Egypt's piousness to form a new, magnificent union.

But it was a fatal mixture. The Ptolemies, backed by pugnacious mercenary armies, were soon as arrogant as the pharaohs and, like the pharaohs, they pursued an appalling cult of personality. Even worse, the dynasty worshipped the club-footed wood gnome Dionysus. The deity, which Alexander (who drank up to five liters of wine at banquets and presumably succumbed to an inflammation of the pancreas caused by alcohol) had brought along from the East, became popular in the Nile delta and eventually developed into the central figure of a new state religion. The Ptolemies adorned themselves with garlands of ivy and horns of Ammon and carried around the "Thyros," a rod wrapped in ivy and grape leaves, with a pinecone at its tip.

Mass pleasure

In 275 B.C., the Alexandrians gave the god of wine a parade, the likes of which the world had never seen -- a procession attended by crowds from as far away as Athens, Thebes, Crete and Ionia. Some 57,000 soldiers and 1,600 boys carrying costly vessels marched at the head of the procession, followed by 24 elephant-drawn carts and an assortment of exotic animals. At the center of the caravan, 180 men carried a statue of the god Dionysus wrapped in a purple embroidered coat. Bringing up the rear was a rolling wine press where 60 satyrs pressed grapes and served wine to the masses through a giant hose.

It was a display of pure joie de vivre, or what historian Michael Grant calls an "escape from earthly cares."

Unhampered by inhibitions, the cult of Dionysus was an expression of mass pleasure, the dissolution of the self and large-scale sex orgies. The kings hoped to use the universal power of Eros to forge unity among their jumbled and religiously confused, multicultural subjects.

But the plan failed just as miserably as did the dynasty's effort to make itself unassailable through deification. The sacred fog with which these rulers enveloped themselves soon appeared inane and vulgar. But a third innovation was even worse. In 278 B.C., Ptolemy II married his sister Arsinoe II, who was eight years his senior. It was incest, a scandal of the highest order. "You are pushing the prong into an unholy fleshpot," wrote sharp-tongued poet Sotades. As punishment, the poet was encased in lead box and thrown into the sea.

As repulsive as this incestuous alliance may seem, Grant believes the ruler's intentions were in fact praiseworthy. "He wanted to keep the number of heirs to the throne as low as possible," the historian says -- a strategy aimed at averting infighting. Only brothers and sisters could produce full-blooded princes. This policy of self-fertilization resulted in bizarre familial relations in the royal quarter. Eventually this merging of the blood of the Walsungs released an unhindered aggression -- as the taboo against incest waned, so too did other taboos, including that against murder.

"It's like diving into coffee"

But despite the fact that they are portrayed with sheep-like eyes on coins, these monarchs were not genetically marred. The last of their offspring, Cleopatra -- "the product of more than a generation of unrelenting incest," as Grant calls her -- was the picture of health. Indeed, perhaps the dynasty's only real shortcoming when it came to matters of physical well-being was a tendency toward obesity.

Ptolemy III Euergetes ("the Benefactor"), whose began his reign in 246 B.C., embarked on another military campaign, sending his army all the way to India. Sources write that the 265 warships lay at anchor in the harbor of the capital at the time, as Alexandria rose to prominence as a leading seafaring power.

Nowadays the waters off the Corniche, modern-day Alexandria's harbor promenade, are the color of murky sewage. "It's like diving into coffee," says team photographer Christoph Gerigk. But the harbor once sheltered a commercial fleet flying a rainbow of flags. Workers dragged sacks and amphorae into storage bins. The king held the global monopoly on papyrus and imposed a 300 percent tax on bitter cucumber oil.

Confident of his powers, Ptolemy III became increasingly convinced of his divine connections, even decreeing that he was descended from Hercules and Dionysus. A statue found in the mud depicting Ptolemy III in the form of powerful god Hermes-Thot is on display in the glass-covered atrium at the Gropius Building.

When this last great dynasty, the self-proclaimed "Conquerors of the World," died out in 221 B.C., the country had reached its most expansive borders. But the dynasty went downhill from there. The dead father had hardly been committed to the earth in his gilded coffin before his successor, Ptolemy IV, had his own mother, brother and an uncle killed. Sosibios, an artful courtier, assumed control of the state's business. Ancient texts refer to him as a "killing machine."

Before long, the court's heavy-handedness resulted in a national revolt with the Egyptian priesthood launching a partisan war. Between 206 and 186 B.C., the high priest of Thebes even anointed a pharaoh as a rival king.

Anti-Semitism in ancient Alexandria

Tensions also mounted along the coast, as the fourth Ptolemy found himself embroiled in recurring clashes with the Jews. Accustomed to a lavish lifestyle, the moral rigor of the Hebrews irritated him. When they refused to worship him as the "new Dionysus," he threatened the Jews with forced tattooing, ordering the image of an ivy leaf, a symbol of his cult, etched into their skin.

The themes of Alexandrian anti-Semitism are already clearly evident in the works of historian Manetho, an Egyptian priest who lived around 250 B.C. He described Jews as foreigners with absurd religious convictions and bizarre customs. Most of all, the Jews were accused of arrogance. To preserve their kosher dietary habits, the chosen people isolated themselves from their supposedly impure environment -- so much so that sharing a meal with non-Jews was practically inconceivable.

The Bible's portrayal of Egypt only made matters worse. When the Old Testament was translated into Greek in around 250 B.C., everyone could read about how the land of the Pyramids was no "gift of the Nile," as Herodotus had once pleasantly noted, but a region cursed by locust plagues and fed by the stinking waters of the Nile. To add insult to injury, Jewish scholar Philo described the Egyptians as "wicked, worthless men, who had imprinted the venom and evil disposition of their native asps and crocodiles on their own souls."

The differences led to unrest. The people from the Egyptian quarter, Rhakotis, parodied the holy Sabbath of Moses's disciples as "sabbatosis" -- an expression that, in their language, referred to a tumor in the groin region. The Greeks, who were widely viewed as drinkers, were just as unpopular. And then there were the bearded Persians who allowed their dead to be eaten by vultures, the Syrians, considered born slaves, and the supposedly lazy Bedouins from Libya. All of these hatreds soon developed into a power keg of contempt, held together by greed and the profits gleaned from trade in the city's large harbor.

Things finally came to a head in the summer of 145 B.C. After the death of Ptolemy VI, his widow tried to place her underage son onto the throne. But her younger brother objected and forced her to marry him. Ancient author Justin writes that the usurper had the young heir to the throne murdered during his wedding and then, his body smeared with blood, married his sister. The people called the man, who was fond of wrapping his bloated body in shrouds, Physkon ("Potbelly").

"Carnal, bloody and unnatural acts"

When Cleopatra's father mounted the throne, the country had long since declined into a plaything for the Romans -- a land of misery. Ptolemy XII sought to forget his country's dismal prospects by immersing himself in dazzling banquets, where he would invite beautiful transvestites to perform erotic dances in rooms lined in purple stone. He himself was master of the Aulos, a sort of flute. This powerless twit preferred to be addressed as "our God and Master, the King" -- only a few kilometers from the Jewish quarter, where any form of religious idolatry was frowned upon.

The exhibition in Berlin shows the "flute player" as a sphinx with the body of a lion and a soft, friendly face. The figure was buried deep in the mud and covered with chunks of lime. It took restorers weeks working laboriously with toothbrushes and scalpels to clean the sculpture.

Cleopatra was born into this den of iniquity in 69 B.C. She spoke seven languages, including Arabic, and wrote books about cosmetics and gynecology. Unlike her father, who had bowed to the Romans, Cleopatra was defiant. Historians describing her first encounter with Caesar, write that the 21-year-old had herself smuggled into the palace of the then 52-year-old general in a laundry sack while he was staying in Alexandria. Suddenly she emerged from the sack, her eyes shining and her eyelids lined with lampblack. He named her "Queen of Egypt."

A short time later, she ingratiated herself with Marc Antony, who soon moved to Egypt, where the couple had three children. Before long, she became a true threat to Rome -- "Boundlessly, hoping for everything, drunk with sweet happiness," Horatio wrote. Cleopatra convinced her new friend to support a bold idea. She wanted to create an "Athens of the South," a greater Greek empire with its capital at Alexandria.

But her dream went up in smoke. At the sea battle of Actium, in 31 B.C., Octavian (the later Emperor Augustus) crushed his opponents. Many of Marc Antony's soldiers had switched sides, and the losers committed suicide.

The underwater ruins that are now on display in Berlin are reminders of all this bloody turmoil. The cases hold gold rings and pearls, side-by-side with the severed heads of statues -- silent witnesses "of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts," to quote Shakespeare's "Hamlet." A visit is well worthwhile -- the exhibit breathes life into the dramas stage by history so long ago.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.

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