Ancient history

Abdalonimo, the gardener whom Alexander the Great made king of Sidon

One of the star pieces of the Istanbul Archaeological Museum is the one known as the Sarcophagus of Alexander the Great. Of course, the name is not due to the fact that it contains the body of the Macedonian conqueror, as was believed at first, but to the beautiful bas-reliefs that decorate it (the Battle of Issos on one side, a scene of the Macedonian during a lion hunt in the other). But the sarcophagus did not always have this attribution and until recently it was thought that its recipient was a curious Phoenician character named Abdalonimo, famous because Alexander named him king of Sidon despite being only a gardener.

In fact, it is significant that this stone coffin is located precisely in the gardens of the Topkapi Palace (the museum's headquarters, founded in 1891), as if it were a final tribute, although there is something of a trick in all this because, Abdalonimo was actually a gardener, yes, but he had royal blood in his veins. Life takes many turns and, sometimes, one discovers that the goal can also be the starting line.

Sidon is a city on the coast of Lebanon, a country that in ancient times was called Phoenicia. Along with Tire and Byblos, it constituted a trio of thriving cities enriched by trade, to the point that they founded numerous colonies throughout the Mediterranean. Obviously, Phoenician prosperity attracted predators and first Assyrians and then Persians took over their dominance in the 7th and 6th centuries BC. respectively, until the Macedonians arrived in the following century.

Having brought all of Greece under his command, Alexander undertook his famous campaign against the ancient common enemy of the Greeks, Persia. After crossing the Hellespont, his victory at the Granicus River in 334 B.C. It was the first of a long series of them that marked an unstoppable journey liberating all the cities of Hellenic culture in Asia Minor:Sardes, Ephesus, Priene, Miletus... King Darius tried to stop him again in Issos and not only was he defeated but he was about to be taken prisoner, fleeing at the last moment but leaving his family and treasure in enemy hands.

That was in 333 BC. Then the phalanxes turned south toward Egypt. Phenicia was on his way, where the most outstanding episode was the siege of Tyre, a city that denied Alexander access to the sanctuary of Melkart thereby symbolizing his will to resist. The Macedonian had commissioned Hephaestion, his right-hand man, friend and probable frustrated heir (and perhaps lover), to appoint a local monarch to replace the unfavorable Stratus at the head of Sidon, a port that had surrendered without a fight shortly before because its population he detested the Persians; Many of the triremes that participated in the aforementioned siege of Tire anchored in Sidon.

Hephaestion offered the Sidonian crown to two brothers in whose house he had stayed, but they rejected the proposal on the grounds that the laws required that the ruler come from royalty. So he searched among several candidates from the aristocracy without finding any fully satisfactory, since the condition imposed by his superior was that the chosen one be qualified for the position. The solution came by chance:during a walk, the general discovered a beautiful garden, so well cared for that he couldn't help but go in to ask about its owner.

He only found the gardener, who explained that his mistress had been absent for two years, when he left to fight against the invader; meanwhile he took care of his property, despite the fact that circumstances meant that he did not receive remuneration for it. Furthermore, he had had to defend it personally when a group of Persian soldiers tried to set it on fire. Hephaestion consulted with Alexander and they concluded that this man had the qualities they wanted.

All in addition, because it turned out that Abdalonimo, as the gardener was called, had an extra attraction:despite his humble behavior and trade he belonged to the extinct royal family, only that the situation had led him to such an anomalous situation. When Alexander asked him how he could bear his poverty and loss of status, Abdalonimo replied that his hands provided him with everything he needed and that since he had nothing, he lacked nothing. As happened years before when he questioned Diogenes, the answer pleased the Macedonian and convinced him that the gardener was the perfect person for the throne.

This is how Abdalonimo was crowned king of Sidon in 332 BC, according to Roman historians Quintus Curtius Rufus, in his Historiae Alexandri Magni Macedonis (written in the 1st century AD in ten books, of which the first two have been totally lost and the rest partially), and Marcus Juniano Justino in his Historiarum Philippicarum libri XLIV (an anthology made between the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD with fragments of the lost Historiae Phillipicae et totius mundi origines et terrae situs from Romanized Gaul Gnaeus Pompey Trogus).

Greek historians also picked up the anecdote. Diodorus Siculus, the closest chronologically (he lived in the 1st century BC) reviews the story in his Bibliotheca Historica though he calls the gardener Ballomino and says that he was made sovereign of Tyre, not of Sidon; Of course, then there was talk of kings of Tire and Sidon. The differences are even greater in Plutarch than in his Parallel Lives he moves the scene to Paphos (a city in Cyprus that was once divided into a religious center, Paleapafos, and an administrative-commercial center, Nea Pafos) and rechristens Abdalonimo Alonymous.

Returning to the sarcophagus, it was found in a burial chamber of the Royal Necropolis of Sidon in 1887. It is made of Pentelic marble (a mountain near Athens), presenting technical similarities with the style of Lysippus and thematic with the famous mosaic of Naples on the Battle of Issos, which leads us to deduce that both pieces were iconographically inspired by a common source, a painting of Philoxeno of Eretria commissioned by Cassander, a Macedonian general.

As we said at the beginning, the sarcophagus was attributed to Alexander the Great because of the polychrome reliefs on its decoration, especially the front, which is more than three meters long. Later he corrected himself, identifying the central character with Abdalonimo, who is seen on horseback and dressed in Persian fashion brandishing a spear against a lion that attacks his mount, flanked by two others who are believed to be Alexander and Hephaestion. On the short sides of the work Abdalonimo is also represented, in one hunting again and in another fighting (surely in the Battle of Gaza, which took place during the Third War of the Diadochi, in the year 312 BC).

However, it was shown that the sarcophagus is later, so the latest theory is that it is not the gardener who appears in the reliefs but rather Maceo, a Persian nobleman who throughout his life was a satrap of various regions of the Achaemenid Empire, such as Cilicia , Assyria and Babylonia, participating in the Battle of Gaugamela on the Persian right wing and ending up as advisor to Alexander, who confirmed him as governor of Babylon.