Miniature Portrait of Alexander the Great Engraved in a Gemstone Discovered at Tel Dor

A binocular image of the miniature portrait engraved in the gemstone found at Tel Dor, IsraelAbout 30 kilometres directly south of Haifa, Israel, lies a very large tel (an earth mound containing ancient architectural and artefact remains) that tells a story crossing at least eight civilizations. It is there – at Tel Dor – that a rare and surprising archaeological discovery has been made:an engraved gemstone carrying a portrait of Alexander the Great was uncovered at an excavation area in the southwestern part of Tel Dor. It is surprising that a work of art such as this would be found in Israel, on the periphery of the Hellenistic world. It is generally assumed that the master artists – such as the one who engraved the image of Alexander on this particular gemstone – were mainly employed by the leading Hellenistic courts in the capital cities, such as those in Alexandria in Egypt and Seleucia in Syria. This new discovery is evidence that local elites in secondary centers, such as Tel Dor, appreciated superior objects of art and could afford ownership of such items.

“Despite its miniature dimensions – the stone is less than a centimetre high and its width is less than half a centimetre – the engraver was able to depict the bust of Alexander on the gem without omitting any of the ruler’s characteristics” notes Dr. Gilboa, Chair of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Haifa. “The emperor is portrayed as young and forceful, with a strong chin, straight nose and long curly hair held in place by a diadem.”

The significance of the discovery at Dor is in the gemstone being uncovered in an orderly excavation, in a proper context of the Hellenistic period. The origins of most Alexander portraits, scattered across numerous museums around the world, are unknown. Some belonged to collections that existed even prior to the advent of scientific archaeology, others were acquired on the black market, and it is likely that some are even forgeries.

The Macedonian commander was probably the first Greek to commission artists to depict his image – as part of a personality cult that was transformed into a propaganda tool. Rulers and dictators have implemented this form of propaganda ever since. The artists cleverly combined realistic elements of the ruler’s image along with the classical ideal of beauty as determined by Hellenistic art, royal attributes such as the diadem, and divine elements originating in Hellenistic and Eastern art. These attributes legitimized Alexander’s kingship in the eyes of his subjects in all the domains he conquered.

Aerial View of the Tel Dor ExcavationsThese portraits were then distributed throughout the empire, featured on statues and mosaics in public places and were engraved on small items such as coins and seals. The image of Alexander remained a popular motif in the generations that followed his death. The conqueror’s youthful image became a symbol of masculinity, heroism and divine kingship. Later Hellenist rulers adopted these characteristics and commissioned self-portraits in the image of Alexander.

Dor was a major port city on the Mediterranean shore from the Middle Bronze Age (2000-1550 BC) until the establishment of Caesarea during the Roman period. Alexander the Great passed through Dor in 332 BC, following the occupation of Tyre and on his way to Egypt. It seems that the city submitted to Alexander without resistance. Dor then remained a center of Hellenization in the land of Israel until it was conquered by Alexander Janneus, Hasmonean king of Judah in 100 BC. Finally, in the thirteenth century, a Crusader castle was built on the site. Few sites of the ancient world can boast a settlement history more varied and complex than this.