Boarding the ferry at Gallipoli and gliding across the Dardanelles towards the Troas peninsula (now known as the Biga peninsula), you leave behind the concrete memorials dedicated to the fateful World War I campaign – almost in its centenary – and approach a land of ancient wars and legends. After this short boat ride, you’ll find an Aegean port town bustling with activity: cargo ships now unload their steel containers where, Homer tells us, 1,000 wooden ships once floated, waiting for Achilles’ war with the Trojans to end. Pitted with archaeological sites, the Troas Peninsula has been a major centre of ancient-world excavation for more than 100 years.
Stay in ancient Troy Our first stop is the city of Troy or, rather, Troys. The city made famous by Homer and Brad Pitt is in fact thought to be the seventh of nine cities to have been built on the same spot, each one successively destroyed by earthquake, fire or war. As a foundation myth of Western culture, Homer’s epic poem ‘The Iliad’ is buried at our deepest layer of storytelling, and continues to inform the modern epic imagination from Tolstoy to Hollywood. To recap the archetypal winning formula: boy meets girl, boy steals girl, horse-partial Trojans fall for the oldest trick in the oldest book, girl is retrieved and 1,000 comparative literature courses are launched. Classic.
Some 150 years ago, the story also inspired amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann to go searching for a city then thought to be fictional. With a determination that would have driven him to unearth the city of Oz if he’d put his mind to it, Schliemann fixed on the Troas peninsula, swung his pickaxe and struck the foundations of what he thought was Troy. He was partly right: scholars argue that what Schliemann came across was not exactly Homer’s Troy, but a former settlement on the site.
The good news is that all this revelatory rubble is just as available – and as fascinating – to the untrained eye. Thanks to the efforts of Manfred Korfmann, a German archaeologist who was head of the excavation until his death in 2006, the site has become increasingly tourist-friendly. There are walking paths that lead through the ruins as well as tour guides on site. The Excavation House serves as a provisional museum, with plans unveiled this year for a larger complex to be built on the site.
Aristotle’s Assos As I was standing on the marble steps of a high temple 60 kilometres south of Troy, I could see an island to the south and the shadow of a great mountain to the east. The isle was Lesbos, the mountain was legendary Mount Ida, where the Olympian gods gathered to watch the Trojan War, and my vantage point was Assos, once a prosperous port town that was home to many important (and, of course, bearded) Greek philosophers.
In the fourth century BCE, Assos prospered greatly under the rule of King Hermias, who was known for inviting philosophers from mainland Greece to come and stay in his city. One of many who heeded his call was Aristotle, who settled in the city, married Hermias’s adopted daughter and set up the famous Academy of Assos. Another famous visitor was St Paul, who came to Assos in 53-57 AD during his third missionary journey, making the town a Christian pilgrimage site (and helping Turkish tourism in the process).
Sitting in the amphitheatre where perhaps Aristotle and Paul once sat and contemplated the prime mover while watching similar sunsets, it dawned on me why Greek theatre didn’t bother with set decorations. The precipice behind the amphitheatre framed the panorama of the Aegean Sea as a sweeping, dramatic backdrop. After visualising a production of ‘Oedipus Rex’ on the empty stage, I trod up the ruins to the temple on the acropolis. Looking down at the sea from the temple, I was careful not to rest against its precarious looking columns. Who was I kidding? They had been standing there, unshaken, for 2,500 years.