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Alexander Sarcophagus

The Alexander Sarcophagus, c. 312 B.C.E., Pentelic marble and polychromy, found in Sidon, 195 x 318 x 167 cm (İstanbul Archaeological Museums). Speakers: Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Steven Zucker and Beth Harris.

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Video transcript

(relaxing piano music) - [Voiceover] We're in Istanbul at the Archeological Museum looking at one of their great treasures, the Alexander Sarcophagus. - [Voiceover] Now, a Sarcophagus is a thing in which you bury a body. - [Voiceover] So, a really big stone coffin and this stone happens to be the marble that the Greeks love to use. - [Voiceover] Yeah, this is Pentellic marble. One of the highest quality marbles valued for its clarity, its strength and its ability to carve up very well. - [Voiceover] It's like a soft stone. You can really get fine details and one of the most incredible things about this Sarcophagus is just how crisp it is. It's in incredible condition. - [Voiceover] It was found quite late in Sidon, in a royal nacropolis. Now, nacropolis is basically a city of the dead and a royal nacropolis is a city of dead kings and their families. - [Voiceover] This city, the city of Sidon, which is in present day, Lebanon had been a major Phoenician city. It was a major trading port. They've been very wealthy. Now, Phoenician city states have controlled much of the eastern and southern Mediterranean. - [Voiceover] And the Phoenicians, they may not sound familiar to you but one of their most famous colonies will and that's the colony of Carthage in modern day Tunisia. - [Voiceover] Which we know because of their famous war against the Romans. - [Voiceover] The Punic Wars. Particularly, the second Punic War with Hannibal who crossed the Alps with his elephants. - [Voiceover] Now, archeologists have tried to figure out whose tomb this was and there is some consensus that this tomb belonged to the King of Sidon. It's just a spectacularly large and expensive and beautiful tomb. - [Voiceover] Quality of workmanship is extraordinary and it's interesting that this Sarcophagus is actually in the shape of a Greek Temple. - [Voiceover] Greek Temple or Greek Treasury. One can think about the massive temple structures across Asia Minor, Greece or in the classical period, one can think of the Siphnian Treasury in Delphi. It has a lot of architectural details. We can see the egg and dart motif. We can see meanders and akroteria. Those are the decorative elements on the ridge of a temple we normally get. Someone's taken a lot of care to make this look very architectural. It's highly intricate in detail before you even get to the friezes - [Voiceover] But let's get to the friezes because those are the stars. - [Voiceover] The friezes are remarkable. Now, they're outstanding leaf carving and they have two stories. One is a battle scene. - [Voiceover] Let's start there. What we see is this incredibly complicated interlacing of figures that are carved with a tremendous naturalism. - [Voiceover] Incredible emotion and pathos, One figure that immediately jumps out is the man on horseback and his head is covered with a lion's skin, which makes him almost immediately identifiable to us. - [Voiceover] This is Alexander the Great. The man who conquered pretty much all of the known world. Alexander the Great starts off by conquering the Greeks, consolidating his power and then turning that combined force against the Persians in the east. - [Voiceover] The Persians were still this remarkable empire despite the defeats that they had suffered at the hands of the Greeks in the 5th Century. They were still this empire that controlled large parts of Asia and they were a force to be reckoned with and Alexander against all odds, took on the empire and attempted to conquer it, which he did. - [Voiceover] And art historians have speculated that the scene that's being represented in this frieze is the Battle of Issus, which was one of the most decisive battles where Alexander routed a much larger army of the Persians. - [Voiceover] First of all, you have Alexander in a very prominent location. He had been fighting Persians but it's also the central figure that's led many art historians towards this interpretation. - [Voiceover] And that central figure would be the King of Sidon and he was appointed to that position by Alexander after that battle. - [Voiceover] Also we clearly have Persians here. - [Voiceover] Now, how do we know they're Persians? - [Voiceover] Oh, that's always a good question. Because yes, we have to plain name that barbarian or how do you identify the barbarian? Greeks or Macedonians who are also dressed like Greeks. They look very particular. They generally have a lot of drapery but they have exposed legs. Anyone who's wearing trousers is generally, a good tip-off. If you've got trousers on, you're a barbarian. - [Voiceover] The other hint is their headwear. They're wearing Phrygian hats. - [Voiceover] Exactly, these Phrygian caps, which are kind of floppy are very well known. We'll see them throughout all of ancient art. Also, you notice their arms are covered. They're wearing much more clothes and they also even seem to have identifiable shoes. - [Voiceover] The other issue is of course, they're losing but before we go any further, let's go back to Alexander and figure out how it is that we can recognize that this is him. He's wearing a lion's hat. That's a reference back to claims that he had descended from Herakles. - [Voiceover] The other reason why people often identify this figure as Alexander is because of the Alexander Mosaic. - [Voiceover] And art historians believe that that Mosaic and possible this frieze had a common source. That is a famous painting that is now lost to us. - [Voiceover] And so that has allowed scholars to feel quite comfortable in identifying this figure as Alexander. - [Voiceover] The other issue is simply the nobility with which Alexander is represented and with which the victors are represented here. If you look closely to Alexander, he is large on his horse. The horse is rearing back and he holds his hand back. Clearly, he had originally held a spear. That spear was probably made out of bronze. It like all of the horse's bridles and other weapons, have been removed but we can see that that spear would have been slaying the man who is desperately trying to get off his horse, which has fallen. But Alexander's horses are not always in the dominant position. Look at the nude figure that is coming up against an enemy on horseback. - [Voiceover] He's got his right arm thrown back over his forehead and his left arm is reaching up. You can see his enemy, the Persian on the horse, his right arm back, ready to strike him. You almost feel it's inevitably that this Greek is not going to survive this battle - [Voiceover] But his bravery is extraordinary. I can just make out a shadow in between his fingers. I think he must've originally been holding a sword of some sort. - [Voiceover] And so, the Greeks who've fallen are also remembered in a heroic manner. - [Voiceover] Now look at the figure that's just below him. That's an archer. You can see him drawing back a bow, pointing with his left hand. He's taking aim but what's really remarkable is if you look at his leggings, there are clear traces of the original paint. This is such a great reminder that the pristine white marble that we take for granted as being Greek is absolutely inaccurate in a lot of cases. These sculptures were painted. - [Voiceover] We know that there was yellow, red, purples and blues and a bit of violet and variations within those major colors but what you can see here is this pattern almost of a harlequin design on his trousers but his shoe also has a red tint to it. You can start to visualize colors back in and that would have made the composition even more dynamic, the strife, the struggle in the battle even more real to the viewer. - [Voiceover] If you look at the dead body just to right of the archer, you can actually see the wound in his side and red paint that has been used to express the blood. - [Voiceover] And that's something we also see on the other side in the hunt scene where the lion is being pierced and we can see red, also his blood pouring down. - [Voiceover] Let's go look. On the reverse side, we see instead of a battle, a hunt. - [Voiceover] Hunting scenes are very well known in the ancient Near East. You can think of major Assyrian reliefs, some Ninevah, things that are in the British museum. - [Voiceover] And at the center of the hunt, is this massive lion that is attacking a horse. - [Voiceover] Lion hunts were very significant parts of kingship, including a hunting scene would be very typical of a monument that was created for a king but there's something else that's very striking. We have Greeks and Persians but they don't seem to be fighting each other. - [Voiceover] No, they're working together. - [Voiceover] That's rather odd, isn't it? Considering what we've just seen? - [Voiceover] It is so central to the political aim of Alexander's enormous empire. - [Voiceover] Alexander does aim for something that's very different for many of kingdoms in the past in this part of the world. He wanted to create an empire where the Greeks soldiers and his army, the Macedonian soldiers would intermarry with local women along the way to solidify the base of the empire. - [Voiceover] And this must've been important to the Phoenicians who wanted to be on an equal status with the Greeks. - [Voiceover] It also shows that people who are not specifically Greek use Greek iconography, Greek motifs, clearly, the sculptural traditions of the Greeks, what we often see to be clear ethnic boundaries or political or cultural boundaries are actually a bit more fuzzy. - [Voiceover] But this sculpture is not fuzzy at all. There is a clarity that reminds us that this is not long after the high point of Greek classicism in the 5th century. There is a kind of drama. There is a kind of energy that is new and we know with hindsight that this is moving towards what we will call the Hellenistic style. - [Voiceover] You really see the movement particularly, by looking at the cloaks and the capes. We have a Greek figure here on a horse and you can see yellow paint would have been there but the cape is waving back and so it really adds this phenomenal movement. - [Voiceover] Or look at the way that the Persian sleeves are rising up. I can really get a sense of the movement of his body and the way in which the cloth is responding just a moment later. - [Voiceover] Exactly, and he also has his arms pull back, so you can reimagine the bow and arrow, which would have been made of metal. You can see that tension that's being created in his arms to almost send the arrow out towards the lion to help in this great hunt to kill this amazing beast. - [Voiceover] One of the details I find most compelling in terms of energizing the scene and giving a sense of time and movement is the rider of that central horse. The horse is moving up and down quickly and you can see that his shirt is wafting up because his body has moved down very quickly. - [Voiceover] And that continues all the way across the relief even to this final figure at the end. We have this isolated group of a Greek and a Persian fighting a stag. Greek is pulling back on the stag's massive horns and you feel the movement coming actually less from the Greek figure. Almost looks a little bit static with his arm and his upper body but in fact, through the Persian figure, he has an axe and he is about to swing it down and hit the stag right in the chest and that kind of movement helps your eye come all the way back in but it also conveys the dynamic nature that permeates this entire side. We can see how these two sides are related in terms of their organization but also the two stories that they're telling. We see the Persians going from the enemy to being allies, to being incorporated into a larger world. - [Voiceover] This larger narrative is important because it may give us insight into Alexander's larger political aims but this sarcophagus itself is also just a treasure. It is so rare that we have early 4th century Greek carving at this level that is in this kind of pristine condition. - [Voiceover] Often art historians have held up 5th century Athens as the pinnacle of artistic creation in the Greek world but I think at looking at something like this, you can see that there is no element of what art historians might have traditional in term, decline. What you have here is a changing ethos, a changing aesthetic, which will come to be fully developed and defined during the Hellenistic Period. (relaxing piano music)