Review: Le Portrait d’Alexandre le Grand

Osmund Bopearachchi and Philippe Flandrin. Le Portrait d’Alexandre le Grand: Histoire d’une découverte pour l’humanité. Monaco: Éditions du Rocher, 2005. Pb., 270 pp., 8 pls., ISBN 2-268-05476-4, € 18.90

Amidst the chaos of the Afghanistan War, a massive coin hoard was found in 1992 at Mir Zakah, an area in eastern Afghanistan. Mir Zakah is situated some 50 km northeast of Gardez and is not far away from the Khyber Pass Highway leading from Kabul to Peshawar, Pakistan. The hoard allegedly contained three to four tons of gold and silver coins and roughly 200 kg of jewelry, silver vessels, gemstones, and votive plaquettes. Another hoard had been found in 1947 at the very same site, which had been partly rescued by Afghani authorities and French archaeologists. Because both the Mir Zakah Hoards contained roughly the same range of coin issues, it is rather obvious that they were parts of one and the same deposit. The mixture of coins and objects most likely composing a temple treasure is reminiscent of the famous Oxus Hoard. The Mir Zakah Deposit, however, is much larger than the Oxus Hoard, and might have included several war chests, with Greek Bactria well represented and the Indo-Scythian king Azes II making up the lion’s share. The most recent coins are those of the Kushan rulers of the late second and early third century AD.

Osmund Bopearachchi, a renowned specialist of Bactrian and Indo-Scythian numismatics, was among the first drawing the public’s attention to this notable discovery. After coming across hoard specimens by the thousands in the Suq of Peshawar, he published his first report in the International Numismatic Newsletter 24 (Spring 1994). Subsequently, he kept his colleagues updated about his investigations. Almost all we know about the Mir Zakah Deposit we have learned from his writings. Indefatigably searching for the hoard’s specimens all over the world, he found many unedited types and varieties—some even of unknown rulers—and some overstrikes elucidating chronological issues. Furthermore, Bopearachchi traced the trail of the so-called Bactrian Treasure in the Miho Museum, Shigaraki. According to him, that collection of Persian and Bactrian gold and silver objects is the “temple’s share” of the Mir Zakah Deposit. Another view was held by the late Igor Pichikyan, the Russian excavator of the temple at Takht-i Sangin, who thought the Miho Treasure might belong to the Oxus Hoard rather than to the Mir Zakah Deposit. In order to prove his case once and for all, Bopearachchi courageously traveled abroad in Afghanistan last year. He was accompanied by the French war correspondent Philippe Flandrin, who is familiar with the countries, peoples, and customs of the Hindu Kush. Flandrin has already published several books on the lost cultural heritage caused by the Afghanistan conflicts of the past twenty-five years. Bopearachchi and Flandrin tried to meet and interview as many witnesses of the hoard’s dispersal as possible—villagers, officials, and military officers. Now, after only a few months, the report of their journey has appeared.

Though the purpose of the journey was to establish the provenance of the Miho Treasure from Mir Zakah, the scope of the book goes far beyond that. The authors have something to say about the political background not only of the Mir Zakah affair but also of the ransacking of the Kabul Museum in May 1993. The second main topic of the book, however, are the coins of the Mir Zakah Deposit. Bopearachchi’s hunt for new numismatic evidence fascinated his companion, and a spectacular gold coin (Fig. 1), the obverse of which figures on the front cover, plays the main role in the book. From my point of view, the authenticity of the coin (and of others dealt with in the book) is questionable. So I am afraid the authors’ merits in checking the provenances of many items kept by the Miho Museum will soon be superseded by a debate about whether these items are genuine or not. I cannot help entering into the matter.

Fig. 1. Gold double daric allegedly from the Mir Zakah Deposit.

The book has two parts. The first one, written by Flandrin, gives a colorful, sometimes dramatic description of his involvement in Bopearachchi’s investigation. All who loved reading Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of the Four will enjoy it, and anyone who is interested in the provenance of the Miho items will have to read it as well. It must be said, however, that Flandrin does not know much about numismatics. He confuses darics with staters (43), he thinks the late Martin J. Price was an American (95), and he is serious in asserting that the famous “Poros Coinage” was minted the day after Alexander’s battle against the Indian king (15). More reliable in that respect is the second part, written by Bopearachchi, who gives a detailed account of what can be told about the Mir Zakah Deposit, both its numismatic contents and its historical consequences. Unfortunately, this over-view is blurred by Bopearachchi’s discussion of some novelties he adds to the hitherto known contents. The first one is the gold coin just mentioned, and the second and third ones are a tetradrachm and a gold stater of the Bactrian satrap (or ruler) Sophytes, whose authenticity should also be questioned. Still worse, Bopearachchi argues that some debates about authenticity are superfluous, for some specimens from the Mir Zakah Deposit (which have not yet been published) proved their types are genuine (219, 236). At this point at the latest, the reader wonders if Bopearachchi wants him to refrain from scientific principles and to put good faith in everything Bopearachchi tells him. Perhaps it would be easier to trust Bopearachi’s judgment were he more skeptical toward the coins he figures on the plates.

Turning to the problem of the authenticity of the coins, I begin with the gold coin (Fig. 1) that gives the book its title. It is a double daric (16.75 g) with a 6:00 die axis. Bearing a portrait of Alexander the Great in elephant headdress on the obverse and the image of a walking elephant on the reverse, the coin connects two hitherto separated points in early Hellenistic numismatics. Having a Xi above and the monogram AB beneath the elephant, the reverse seems to belong to the famous Poros Group of the Alexander Coinage. The obverse is related to Alexander’s earliest coin portraits issued by Ptolemy I and Seleucus I. The Alexander portrait on Ptolemy’s early tetradrachms is the closest parallel (Kraay and Hirmer, Greek Coins, pl. 217). Some darics and double darics that Seleucus minted at Babylon, Susa, and Ecbatana, respectively, show a similar but less detailed portrait (Houghton and Lorber, Seleucid Coins I, 1, 48ff., nos. 101, 183, 219). As far as the metal and the denomination are concerned, the Seleucid coins are closer to the new coin, but they were issued about a decade later than the Ptolemaic ones. However, from Bopearachchi’s point of view the new gold coin precedes its Ptolemaic and Seleucid analogues, thus being not only their model but the earliest coin portrait of Alexander and the only one minted in his lifetime. If so, the coin would revolutionize our knowledge of the Alexander portraits. However, before we engage in discussing chronological issues, we should ask: Is that hybrid coin ancient at all?

What troubled me first is its impeccable preservation. The coin is said to come from a hoard containing thousands and millions of coins ranging over five centuries, among which it is one of the earliest, but it looks as fresh as a coin that has left the anvil only a few days ago. There seems to be some wear at the feathers of Alexander’s aegis, but that part of the relief is not the highest one. At any rate, the questions of provenance and authenticity must be separated from each other.

Both the images of the coin have some unusual features, to say the least. Turning to the reverse, we see an elephant dancing ballet. Far from having the phlegma known from all other ancient depictions of pachyderms, this one’s toes are raised as if it were up on point. Obviously, the engraver knew little about the animal’s physique. Elephants are animalia unguligrada, which do not walk on their soles. In fact, elephants are always walking on their tiptoes, and thus cannot raise their feet any further. It is true that the engraver of the Poros double shekels did not know much about elephants either. As Barclay Head observed, he rendered the elephant’s hind legs incorrectly (Numismatic Chronicle [1906]: 8; Hill, British Museum Quarterly 1 [1926]: 36). However, the elephants of the Poros Coinage are well within the range of Greek realism, whereas the elephant of the new gold coin is nearly ridiculous.

Turning to the obverse, we have a portrait of Alexander which is surely a tour de force. Even considering the small size of the coin (1.9 cm), the portrait is rich with thrilling details. Everything protrudes: the forehead, the eye, the orbital, even the swelling lips. However, the parts do not harmonize. Comparing a specimen (Fig. 2) of Seleucus’s double darics side by side with the new coin, one observes at once that the Seleucid engraver designed the portrait as one throw, while the engraver of the new coin put pieces together. Consequently, there are gaps—places where one element of the face thrusts against another without organic transitions. Note the bow of the upper eyelid, which does not correspond to the heavy orbital; the hanging lower eyelid (Alexander’s look is entirely inexpressive); the lifeless surface of temple and cheek; and the clumsy engraving of the ear. This engraver is not a sculptor but merely a draftsman; his work is not plastic but graphic. In fact, he uses border lines, a feature entirely unknown in ancient coin engraving (note the outline of the elephant skin, and further, Alexander’s eyelids, lips, and auricle).

Fig. 2. Gold double daric of Seleucus I.

Numismatists are wise to place more weight on technical features than on stylistic impressions. Without having performed an autopsy, I should like to mention four technical anomalies, although none of them might be decisive. First, note the border of dots on the obverse, which is not attested among the Poros coins nor among the Seleucid gold coins mentioned above. Among the comparisons, it occurs on Ptolemy’s tetradrachms only. Second, observe the coupling of the Xi and the AB monogram on one side of the coin, whereas the Poros double shekels have them on two sides. Third, this coin has a 6:00 die axis, whereas the Poros Group, like the mass of the Alexander coinage, is random. Finally, it is hard to explain why the trunk of Alexander’s elephant headdress suddenly disappears before reaching the flan’s edge. There are indications of a double strike (note the shadow of the dotted border between 3:00 and 6:00), but they do not explain this.

I have a very bad feeling about this coin. My suspicion is not assuaged by the way the coin came to Bopearachchi’s attention. In collecting intelligence about the Mir Zakah Deposit, Bopearachchi relied upon an Pakistani informant. This homme de Peshawar who calls himself un pauvre journaliste pakistanais (but lives in the Marble Arch District) has in the past acted as an intermediary for a Peshawar dealer; today he seems to act in charge of the London Afghani dealers. According to him, he had seen the deposit before it left Mir Zakah. His recollection of details is astonishing: after a lapse of more than ten years he recognizes specimens from a hoard weighing three or four tons. Although he does not claim to have played the main role in the hoard’s dispersal, he was clever enough to single out the most spectacular coin of the whole deposit.

The Sophytes coins mentioned above have a different story but similar problems. Bopearachchi found them on the market (commencent à paraître dans les catalogues de vente, 196). Allegedly, they are derived from a hoard discovered at Aqtcha, near Balkh. The tetradrachm might be genuine, although its portrait has unexpected features: Sophytes’ helmet obviously copies that of Athena of the Eastern owls. Bopearachchi argues that Sophytes’ borrowing of it from Athena is a symptom of superhuman pretensions (199). That tetradrachm looks better than one that Bopearachchi had published earlier (Nomismatika Khronika 15 [1996]: 30, no. 1) and much better than the new gold stater (197). The gold stater repeats the image of Sophytes’ didrachms: his portrait wearing a Hellenistic helmet ornamented with an olive wreath on the bowl and a bird’s wing on the side flap. The engraving of the gold stater is very poor (note the failed ornaments on the cheekpiece) and does not deserve further discussion.

The Poros double shekel in the Hirayama Collection, however, is certainly genuine (180-181). In fact, it is one of the finest specimens of its group, for it is the first one showing the whole reverse image. According to Bopearachchi, it is one of fifteen specimens found in the Mir Zakah Deposit. Unfortunately, these wonderful coins might have stimulated the imagination of some crooks.

—Wolfgang Fischer-Bossert