The story of Troy is one of the most famous stories in Western literature, something that the ruins of Troy should be thankful for as it is a distinctly underwhelming site to visit, a site of barely standing walls, bricks and holes. All that is really here are memories of legends that have echoed down through the ages, legends only remembered because of a poem transcribed from the oral meanderings of a blind poet named Homer around the 8th Century BC. About 500 years separates the end of the Trojan War and the Iliad, the first book of Western literature with prose no doubt embellished by time and poetic license alike. It is a poem that means Troy is still a place worth visiting, to try and imagine it as Helen saw it, the city Achilles attacked, the city that Hector lost his life defending. Imagination rules here.
|The Trojan Horse from the movie Troy, standing in a park in Cannakale|
Troy lies about 30 kilometres from the city of Canakkale, also the base for seeing the Gallipoli peninsula. Troy is one of the major drawcards in this part of Turkey, the Trojan horse made for the 2004 movie Troy takes pride of place in a downtown park in Cannakale. We shared our trip with an Indian couple, maybe honeymooners, and an Afrikaans family. Our guide for the day was Ali, kind featured and soft-spoken, with a particularly strong English accent. He was also embarrassed as our bus was over an hour late. This led to a somewhat prickly environment. The guy from South Africa was obviously annoyed about having to wait, Ali obviously acutely aware of his company’s failure to pick up its clients on time.
Still apologetic after arriving, Ali leads us through the ticket booth. For such a famous site, the grounds are sparsely occupied, although we had been told that several million people come to the sight annually. A large wooden horse, a rethinking of the famous Trojan horse, guards the entrance to the sight. Before entering the grounds, Ali took time to briefly explain the history and re-discovery of Troy. Troy become a powerful city on the back of its location, which allowed for complete control of the Dardanelles (control of the Dardanelles is still important now, as it partially led to the Gallipoli campaign more than two thousand years later), which meant that every ship from the Aegean Sea heading to the Black Sea had to pass via Troy. Ships would have also had to stop here to wait for favourable winds, meaning that the success of Troy was likely largely based on the collection of taxes from ships.
|The Trojan horse at Troy itself.|
Troy actually comprises of at least 9 distinct cities. The first city, Troy I, was founded in the 3rd millennium BC, Homeric Troy (probably Troy VII) destroyed around 1200 AD. The city was rebuilt by the time of Alexander the Great and he prayed at the shrine of Achilles in 334 BC on his way to conquering Asia Major. The last reincarnation of the city was Troy IX or Hellenistic Ilium, which was founded by the Romans during the time of Augustus and was an important trading city until the establishment of Constantinople as the eastern Capital in the 4th Century AD. Constantine was believed to have initially strongly considered the possibility of making Ilium the new imperial capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, an idea swayed by the historical links Rome had with Troy but in the end decided against such a move because Troy’s large natural harbour was silting up, a process that eventually lead to its decline in later Byzantine times.
Surprisingly, given its historic place in Western literature and the fact that there was a city here until at least the 5th Century AD, the knowledge of the location of Troy was seemingly lost through the Middle Ages. The township that once thrived declined as the harbour silted up, taking away the key advantage and reason for the success of Troy, access and control of the Dardanelles. It seemed to many people of medieval Europe that the tale of the Trojan War was a collection of epic poems and folk tales of ancient people, framed in fiction rather than fact. Many doubted that Troy actually existed, comparing it to the lost civilization of Atlantis. Others placed Troy in other parts of modern day Turkey, Greece, Croatia, Scandinavia, Italy or England.
The 18th Century saw an upsurge in an interest of classical studies, and the re-discovery and identification of Troy was seen as the holy grail of classical studies, the legends still seductive after nearly 3,000 years. While its location and very existence were issues of discord, some were convinced of the existence of Troy and many searched for it using clues supplied by the Iliad and other historic sources. A Scottish journalist named Charles Maclaren used the geographical clues given in the Iliad and he placed the site of Troy somewhere in northwestern Anatolia. Recent research has confirmed that the geography talked about in the Iliad would have been representative of Troy 3000 years ago. For example, the fields that surround Troy now would have been a large harbour, fed by the river Scamander. Further geological findings have reconstructed the coastline as it would have been during the time of the Trojan War and the findings support the description of the Trojan coastline in the Iliad. Scholars have concluded that there is a consistency between the location of current day Troy and locations such as the Greek camp, the geological evidence, descriptions of the topography and accounts of the battle as described in the Iliad.
An Englishman, Frank Calvert, was taken by Maclaren’s findings and purchased land from a local farmer in 1865, land that he believed hid the ruins of Troy. Calvert shared his find and belief that this was the site of Troy with a rich German called Heinrich Schliemann in 1868. Schliemann was an interesting character. He married a snotty Russian in 1852, who withheld conjugal rights until she felt he had made enough money to deserve her affection. He managed to corner the trade in indigo (and presumably was granted rights by his wife), and managed to turn a tidy profit, enough to easily support his ambitious wife and a growing brood of children. In 1856, he managed to force another monopoly and gained control of the Russian market supply of saltpeter, sulphur, and lead, constituents of ammunition needed by Russia during the Crimean War. He proved to be such a successful businessman that he was able to retire in 1858 aged 36. He turned his attention to proving the historical accuracy of the Iliad, with the biggest pull being Troy itself. He dedicated his life to this task, divorcing his precious Russian wife in the 1860s and remarrying a Greek woman in 1869. He had two children with his new bride and reluctantly allowed them to be baptized, but solemnized the ceremony in his own way by placing a copy of the Iliad on the children's heads and reciting one hundred hexameters during the ceremony.
Schliemann upped the excavation effort although his techniques were rustic and rudimentary. Thinking that Homeric Troy must be in the lowest level, Schliemann and his workers dug hastily through the upper levels, reaching fortifications that he took to be his target, a tactic that Calvert strongly disagreed with. The site is acned by the rough trenches built by Schliemann to uncover Homeric Troy, with deep ruts still visible from where he cut down into the cities. Later archaeologists have condemned him as having destroyed the main layers of Troy VII. Some have even suggested that Schliemann did what the Greeks couldn’t do, by “destroying and leveling down the entire city walls to the ground”.
Because of this, Schliemann is a cowboy to some, a father of archeology to others. Both view- points are valid; archeologists of the time were almost always treasure hunters, intent on discovery but also on looting. Schliemann illegally smuggled out of the country many of the golden and other historic treasures he found. One collection of treasures are known as Priam’s treasures (named after King Priam, the King of Troy during the Trojan War, father of Paris and Hector) which are now housed in Berlin. The authenticity of the treasure has been questioned and it appears that they likely predate Homeric Troy and therefore Priam. Schliemann initially wrote that he had seen the gold glinting in the dirt and dismissed the workmen so that he and his wife could excavate it themselves, later removing it in her shawl. However, this was untrue. Schliemann later admitted fabricating it; at the time of the discovery Sophia was in fact with her family in Athens, following the death of her father.
Whatever his faults, Schliemann is readily acknowledged as the re-discoverer of Troy, although he was initially convinced that Troy II was Homeric Troy. His team found a large gate known as the Scaean Gate (part of what we know call Troy II, a gate he described as strongly resembling a gate described in the Iliad: "I have proved that in a remote antiquity there was in the plain of Troy a large city, destroyed of old by a fearful catastrophe, which had on the hill of Hisarlık only its Acropolis with its temples and a few other large edifices, southerly, and westerly direction on the site of the later Ilium; and that, consequently, this city answers perfectly to the Homeric description of the sacred site of Ilios". Unfortunately for him, Troy II was seemingly destroyed by catastrophe, not war and Troy VII is now considered Homeric Troy. This Troy dates to around the 12th Century BC, with a destruction layer at around 1190. Bodies broken by violence have been found, as have arrows, although not in the quantities one might have associated with a ten-year siege of a city. However, the timing does fit with the classical date of the sack of Troy by the Greeks that has been recorded as happening in 1183 BC.
|Wall from Troy VII.|
All that still stands of Homeric Troy are a few strong walls, walls that withstood 10 years of siege and warfare, until defeated by the trickery of the Trojan Horse (if the legends are to be believed). Ali pointed out to us the burnt walls of Troy II, the strong walls of Troy VII, the roman ruins from Troy IX. The great halls and palaces are gone, and the site is underwhelming and surprisingly small. New research using magnetic imaging, has shown a ditch that may have surrounded Troy VII, which suggests a much bigger city (maybe of up to 50,000 people) may have existed here, giving more support to Troy VII being Homeric Troy.
Helen of Troy may have been the face that launched a thousand ships but Troy is the city that has led to millions of words being written, many a great deal more eloquently than me. The legends and words will keep bringing people here and more secrets will be revealed. The key to Troy is to think about what was, not what is.