A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to visit the ruins of Troy in Turkey.
It’s a stunning site; an archaeologist’s playground full of ruined walls, towers, and houses, with beautiful views over the Trojan plain and the sea. Standing on the north-east tower, it was easy to imagine Helen as she is described in the third book of the Iliad, gazing out over the battle-plain, surrounded by Trojan advisors and speaking with the Trojan king, Priam.
First, though, a bit of historical background to give you some context. Troy was long thought to have been a myth. Scholars believed that the Trojan War, the epic ten-year battle which inspired Homer’s famous poem, the Iliad, was a poetic fiction; a story told to enchant the imagination, and nothing more. But one man thought differently. His name was Heinrich Schliemann, and he was a German businessman with a firm belief in the truth of the Homeric texts. When Schliemann travelled to the north-western coast of Turkey in 1868 in search of Troy, he met a British diplomat and archaeologist by the name of Frank Calvert. Calvert told him that he had unearthed several finds on the hill of Hisarlik, and that it might be worth starting there.
Schliemann took Calvert’s advice and began digging on Hisarlik. So desperate was he to discover the Troy of Homer, and so certain that it would be buried in the very deepest layers of the mound of Hisarlik, that he took dynamite to the hill and blew it up to get in faster! As the smoke cleared, Schliemann went in to take a closer look – and what he found was beyond his wildest dreams. Schliemann was ecstatic. He had discovered walls, a beautiful stone ramp, and, to top it all off, a treasure-trove of gold including stunning jewellery that he immediately dubbed “The Jewels of Helen”. He wrote at once to the major newspapers, declaring that he had discovered Homer’s Troy.
Unfortunately for Schliemann, however, it soon became clear that not only was he wrong – he was digging a thousand years too deep! It was a mortifying mistake, not least because he had unwittingly blown up most of the remains of Homer’s Troy in his hurry to get to the bottom of the mound.
What we have today, then, is not just the Troy of Homer, but all the cities that existed before it as well as some that were built on top of it later. Imagine a Victoria Sponge cake with lots and lots of layers. The earliest layers, built around 3000 BCE, were the first layer of the cake. Each successive layer was built on top of the previous city (it was much easier just to build on top than to remove all the buildings), until Homer’s Troy, which was the sixth layer (archaeologists call it Troy VI). After Homer’s Troy, there were four more layers, before the site fell out of use and it disappeared under grass and wildflowers. Schliemann’s trench, blown into the site with dynamite, essentially cut a slice out of the cake leaving only the very bottom layer behind. What we have now are bits and pieces of each layer which we have to puzzle together ourselves as we go around the site – a few remains from Troy VI, Homer’s Troy, as well as some very early remains from Troy I and II (the first two layers), and some later Roman remains (Troy VIII and IX).
So what are you waiting for? Let’s have a look around the site!
We began on the eastern side of the site, with what I thought was the most exciting part of all – the actual walls of Homeric Troy! Here you can see the well-built stones that Homer talks about, leading into the eastern gate just ahead of you. Note the slope of the walls – Michael Wood points out in his fantastic documentary, In Search of the Trojan War, that this could possibly be alluded to in book 16 of the Iliad where it is said that Patroclus tried to climb “the sloping walls of Troy”.
Here’s the view I was talking about from where the north-eastern lookout tower would have been. Only the bottom part of the tower survives (not visible from up here), but it makes for a beautiful view over what would originally have been one of the two Trojan bays (the river Simoeis has silted up the bay so that it’s now fields).
This is the ramp leading up to the early Trojan city, Troy II, which Schliemann mistakenly thought was the Troy of Homer but which actually dates to about a thousand years earlier. It is a great ramp though – can you imagine horses and carts trundling up it through the main gate to the city?
It’s difficult to make out in this picture, but this is the southern gate of Troy VI, Homer’s Troy. The wide strip of grass in the middle was actually the street leading from the gate, and the gate was in the entrance right in the front and centre of the picture.
In the background you can see the permanent covering that protects some of the earliest remains of the Trojan city.
Emily Hauser is an author, scholar and lover of all things ancient. She loves to tell stories and inspire young people with her passion for the classical world. For more information and for details about her new book, For The Most Beautiful, visit her website at www.emilyhauser.com.