Troy is the legendary city of Homer’s Iliad, the location of the fabled Trojan War which provided the literary bedrock for the Classic Greco-Roman civilisation. Did at least some of the events transcribed in the Iliad actually occur? The best answer historians and archaeologists currently have is: maybe. The city, though, did exist. And on a cold windy day in April, I visited the remains of Troy to have a look for myself.
I got married in the end of February, and my wife and I finally got around to going on our honeymoon: thus we took a flight to Istanbul via Dubai and were in the mesmerising city of the Sultans. On our first full day, we did the touristy things and saw the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, the Hagia Sophia and the Grand Bazaar. As the day was Friday, I was able to offer my Jumma prayers at the Hagia Sophia, once the grandest cathedral in Eastern Christendom, which was converted into a mosque after the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II, who subsequently assumed the title of Fatih or Conqueror. Istanbul has so much to see and do that one can easily spend two weeks just exploring the city and enjoying its delicious cuisine. But the place I really wanted to see lay a few hundred kilometers to the southwest at the mouth of the Dardanelles.
After a drive across the European part of Turkey along the Sea of Marmara we turned South along the Dardanelles, which is the narrow strait between Europe and Asia which leads into the Sea of Marmara, then the Bosphorus and ultimately the Black Sea. Along the way our path took us on the Gallipoli Peninsula, the site of the epic battle of the First World War which was one of the last military victories of the Ottoman Empire and the place where a young Turkish Officer named Mustafa Kemal would rise to prominence. As there is no bridge as yet across the narrowest part of the Dardanelles we had to take a ferry to the city of Canakkale where our guide Mr. Baris was waiting for us.
The ruins of Troy are only about twenty minutes outside Çanakkale and along the way our guide told us stories from the Iliad to build the mood for a visit to this most legendary of places. It is the Troy of the Iliad that holds the imagination. The same Iliad which inspired Alexander to outdo its hero, Achilles, and conquer the world. Alexander carried a copy of the Iliad with him on his journey of conquest across our part of the world – from the high plains of Asiatic Scythia to the frozen heights of the Pamirs in Sogdia and finally down to the Indus. Before setting out to take Anatolia from the Persians, Alexander visited Troy, which was by then a religious and touristic site known throughout the Greek world and sacrificed at the Altar of Athena. Although it is this link to Greek mythology that is its claim to fame, Troy started off far before Greek or even Indo-European culture reached Anatolia.
Troy had been a flourishing settlement since the early Bronze Age and its Anatolian inhabitants built their homes in the style of the late Neolithic cultures exemplified by Catal Huyuk, with houses built closely alongside and on top of each other with the entrance being via an opening on the roof. These large houses were known as megarons and they characterise the earliest layers of Troy. I had always thought of Troy as only the site of the Trojan War and a part of the Mycenaean world, but Baris enlightened me about its continuous story from the late Neolithic all the way to the days of the Byzantines when the site of Troy became forgotten as the Olympian religion, upon which the cultural importance of Troy was based, finally gave way to Christianity.
The site of Troy was eventually rediscovered in 1873 by a colourful character named Heinrich Schliemann, a German millionaire whose passion was archaeology. Schliemann’s legacy is a mixed one. The jewelry and other artifacts he discovered in the oldest layers of the ruins were about a thousand years too old to belong to the era of the Trojan Wars, and represented the ancient indigenous Anatolian civilisation that first founded the city. In his excavations, he used dynamite in a haphazard way and destroyed much of the later levels. This, together with his reputation as something of a conman, has tarnished his image.
As we walked around the ruins with Baris explaining everything in great detail, I was fascinated and was dutifully taking notes in my head. The day was a cloudy and windy one and it had been raining earlier in the morning, freezing cold. In my mind, I had always associated Troy with a hot, sunny and dry Mediterranean climate but for much of the year the location is affected by winds from the North coming off the Black Sea, making it rainy and cold. As the site is right at the mouth of the Dardanelles where it meets the Aegean Sea, it has served as a center of trade since the Bronze Age. Artifacts from as far away as Afghanistan and Italy have been found at Troy, showing that intercontinental trade was an established phenomenon even that far back in time. It was perhaps this wealth that led the Mycenaean Greeks to attack and destroy Troy, by then inhabited by an Indo-European people called the Luwians who were related to the far more famous and predominant Anatolian power of the time, the Hittites. There is some archaeological evidence for this as the site of Troy 6 – the level belonging to the late Bronze Age – shows signs of fire damage. This event could have been part of what is known as the Bronze Age Collapse when civilisations across the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean imploded due to a mixture of political instability, war and famine.
Of the several layers that have been excavated the citadel and gate of Troy II, the parts excavated by Schliemann, are perhaps the most impressive – with the latter ones being less so, perhaps due to Schliemann’s dynamiting! After the dark age following the Bronze Age collapse, Troy was repopulated by Ionian Greeks and it is during this time that the Altar of Athena and the well preserved open air auditorium, the Odeon, were built. Later, in Roman times,
Troy gained even more significance as many prominent Roman families, including that of Julius Caesar, claimed descent from the Trojans who fled Troy after the war and supposedly settled in Italy. Many elaborate columns from the Roman era are scattered around the site and statues of the Emperors Augustus and Hadrian from Troy are now housed at the nearby Troy Museum.
After seeing the ruins and nearby museum, which in itself is quite an attraction due to not only its collection of artifacts but also its cube like modern design, Baris took us around the city of Çanakkale before we got back on the ferry and drove back to Istanbul. For a history and archaeology enthusiast, the ruins of Troy are a must-visit.