Leader of Battles (V): Medraut by David Pilling

Thursday, 13 March 2014

The wonder of Troy

I'm back from my twelve-day break in Turkey, complete with a surfeit of amazing memories and a nasty cough that is proving very difficult to shake off.

Rather than bore readers of this blog with a 'What I did on my holidays'-style post, I would like to talk a little about one of the many incredible historical sites I visited - namely Troy, or the ruins in northwest Anatolia generally (but not conclusively) identified as the site of the historical city made famous in Homer's Iliad.

It is strangely difficult to describe my feelings when I visited the site. I had read the Iliad at university, and have been generally aware of the story of Hector and Achilles, Helen and Paris etc for as long as I can remember. The story itself has never filled me with any great passion - for instance, I always wanted Hector to beat the crap out of Achilles - and the 2004 film Troy, starring Brad Pitt, struck me as a campy load of nonsense.

That said, Homer's epic is deathless, and I was filled with a strange sense of awe while exploring its ruins: it was a bit like being informed that here was the historical Camelot, and over there were the remains of the Round Table, and over there was where Queen Guinevere used to take her bath...etcetera. I wandered about in a kind of daze, patting the ancient walls and trying to listen intently to the guide as he explained the site's complex history.

More than just a pile of rubble

Anyone visiting the site and expecting to find the vast, glittering city of Homer's imagination is doomed to disappointment. Compared with the ruins of other settlements in the region, such as the great Roman hilltop city of Pergamon, Troy was never very big, and at its peak probably never housed more than 7000 people. Some of my companions were dismayed by this, but for me it only made the place seem more genuine and exciting: the Camelot of the historical Arthur, assuming he ever existed, would have most likely been a rough timber hill fort rather than the splendid medieval palace described in Malory and Tennyson.

There is no space here to describe every stage of the city's existence, but I'll attempt a quick summary. Troy was founded in roughly 3000 BC, and flourished thanks to its control of the Dardanelles, through which merchant vessels had to pass. A series of migrations and earthquakes took their toll, and at some point early Troy appears to have been burned to the ground. It is possible that the story of the 'Wooden Horse of Troy' was inspired by some natural disaster hitting the city: the horse was apparently one of the symbols of Poseidon, god of the sea.

Ancient ramp leading to the royal hall of early Troy
The Trojans were a resilient bunch, and kept rebuilding their walls almost as quickly as they fell over. Troy VII, as the archeologists term it, is reckoned to be the one immortalised in the Iliad. This version of the city flourished from about the mid-13th century BC to around 1184, when it was all but destroyed by war and fire. Exactly who was fighting who and why is a bit unclear, but it seems most likely that the Greeks wanted to break the Trojan stranglehold on the Dardanelles (nothing to do with abducted princesses, sadly), while the Trojans were supported by peoples like the Hittites. Whether any of Homer's characters existed is also unclear, but there are debatable references in ancient accounts to various kings of Troy, one of whom is called 'Priamos' (possibly the King Priam of the Iliad).

Despite various disasters, Troy continued to endure into the classical Roman period, when it benefited from the patronage of figures such as Sulla, Pompey, Julius Caesar, Augustus and Hadrian. This extremely long and complicated history means that the surviving ruins are a mosaic of different eras: the remains of Hadrian's odeon sit beside a roofless council chamber probably used by Bronze Age Trojan kings and their councillors; the stump of a fortified tower built in 1300 BC overlooks a wide ramp leading up to the foundations of a royal hall dating from a thousand years earlier. And so on. The only false note is struck by the massive wooden horse erected outside the grounds for the benefit of tourists, though it was fun to climb around inside.

Possibly not the original wooden horse...
So what at first looks like a scattered and not terribly impressive pile of rubble is really one of the most fascinating sites anyone could hope to see. Thank God - or the gods - that I was lucky enough to do so...

8 comments:

  1. What a great post! I spent 11 years in the research and writing of The Guinevere Trilogy--in its day one of the first to look at Camelot as a realistic place, and now that Sourcebooks have reissued them it's finding a whole new appreciative audience.

    More recently have invested six years in Troy with the same thought in mind. Two years ago had to call off a research trip due to illness, so your notes and responses to the place have been a delight. Thanks so much...will be back again.

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    1. No problem, Persia, glad to be of help :) Troy is an incredible place to visit, I hope you can get there soon. Shame the original archeologist looted all the treasures though!

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  2. Oh, I was just going to ask if the site had a museum. I love Homer and taught the Iliad/Odyssey for nearly 20 years. What a surprise to find that this Troy exists! Definitely on my to see list.

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    1. I don't recall a museum, though there is a shop selling guidebooks etc. Most of the artifacts found on the site found their way to German museums!

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  3. Also would love to hear about the logistics of your trip: hotel, food, transportation.

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    1. Maybe a future post :) I went with a travel company called Travelsphere.

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  4. It's great to read an up-to-the-minute account of the site and your impressions. It's many years since I visited Troy, at that time it was a hotch-potch of digs, no towers, very low walls and some little boys popping up from behind the bushes shouting 'Antika', holding out fascinating objects but all fakes. The site was spellbinding in its solitude and wildness, so I wonder if it would spoil the charm for me to return now. Is it crowded?

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    1. Hi Beth. Not too crowded, no, though I went early in the season. I imagine it will be crawling with tourists come the summer!

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