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“Troy has perished, the great city. Only the red flame lives there now.”*…

Detail from a 4th-century B.C. Persian sarcophagus, thought to depict a Greek-Anatolian battle scene, found in a tomb near Troy

It wasn’t just a legend. As Joshua Hammer explains, archaeologists are getting to the bottom of the city celebrated by Homer nearly three millennia ago…

It has been nearly 3,000 years since Homer wrote the Iliad, one of the foundational works of Western literature. The epic poem describes, in gory and lyrical detail, 52 days near the end of the ten-year siege of Troy, the “well-fortified” city ruled by the kindly King Priam. According to the legend, Priam’s son Paris (sometimes known in Turkey as Alexandros) ignited the war by seducing the “lovely haired Helen,” wife of the Spartan king Menelaus, and spiriting her to the Citadel at Troy. In response, Menelaus’ brother Agamemnon, the “king of kings” who ruled from Mycenae on the Greek mainland, led a fleet of warships across the Aegean to recapture Helen and take revenge against the city. 

The question of which of these people and events, if any, are historical has captivated scholars for centuries, and though there’s little conclusive evidence that any scene happened as Homer described it, he invested his characters with such vitality and complexity that it can be hard to remember that much of the story is likely made up. His epic, based on centuries of oral tradition, plays out among the ships in the harbor, inside the walls of Troy, and on the plain in between… It was there, according to the legend, that the Greeks, led by “god-like” Achilles, confronted Priam’s son Hector and his Trojan force. With its stirring descriptions of martial pageantry, its dramatic accounts of close combat, its heroic but flawed characters, its sacrifices, betrayals, grieving lovers and parents, and its powerful descriptions of loss and human suffering, the Iliad shaped Western literature through millennia. “Poets must sing the story over and over again, passing it from generation to generation, lest in losing Troy we lose a part of ourselves,” the British actor and scholar Stephen Fry wrote in his recent best seller Troy.

Until about 150 years ago, it was widely believed that Troy was a fiction, a mythical city like Atlantis or El Dorado. And yet throughout antiquity there was a tradition linking Hisarlik to Troy. The classical Greeks, who lived hundreds of years after the events described by Homer would have taken place, believed that Hisarlik had been the site of the Homeric city of Troias, and they built a Greek settlement with a lavish temple, theater and city council building there. Writing in the first century A.D., Plutarch described a visit by Alexander the Great in 334 B.C. to celebrate the Mycenaean conquest nearly a millennium earlier—and to grieve at the supposed tomb of Achilles. The Romans, for their part, believed that they descended from the Trojan hero Aeneas, who fled to Italy after Troy’s destruction, as recounted by Virgil in the Aeneid; Julius Caesar was said to have visited Hisarlik in 48 B.C. to pay homage to Aeneas, Hector and other Trojan heroes. The emperor Constantine even considered making Hisarlik the new capital of his empire before choosing Byzantium, later to become Constantinople, then Istanbul. In the fifth century, a series of earthquakes led to the city’s abandonment, and its links to Homeric Troy were largely forgotten. Still, as late as the 15th century, a Castilian traveler and writer named Pedro Tafur visited a collection of ruins—apparently Hisarlik—and described it as “that place which they say was Troy.”

In the modern era, the first person to suggest Hisarlik as the site of Troy was the Scottish polymath Charles Maclaren, a one-time editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. But it would be nearly half a century before an amateur archaeologist named Frank Calvert began to explore the mound overlooking the Dardanelles that the Turks called the “Place of Fortresses.” A wealth of detail in the Iliad suggested to him that Hisarlik and Troy were one and the same. Homer had placed the city on a hill situated between two rivers, the Scamander and the Simoeis, which some modern scholars suggest correspond to the rivers now known as the Karamenderes and the Dumrek Su. The Iliad also contains dozens of references to mile-high Mount Ida, 20 miles south of Hisarlik, from which Zeus “the cloud-gatherer” and his “ox-eyed queen” Hera observed the fighting and intervened on behalf of favored warriors. And there is a tantalizing description of “two well-heads of lovely water,” one hot and one cold, around which Achilles pursued Hector toward the end of the Iliad. (In the late 1990s, archaeologists discovered an underground reservoir that some believe fed the wells described by Homer.) Calvert uncovered temples and other ruins from Hellenistic and Roman towns, but he ran out of money to dig further. When he met a self-taught German archaeologist named Heinrich Schliemann, who was in Turkey conducting his own search for Troy, he encouraged Schliemann to pick up where he left off… 

Follow the story of discovery at Hisarlik from there all the way to today: “In Search of Troy,” from @Joshuaiveshamme @SmithsonianMag.

* Homer, The Illiad

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As we ponder the past, we might recall that it was on this date in 861 that the Viking burned Paris to the ground (for the third time since the Siege of Paris, on this same date in 845).   The invaders also torched the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, which they pillaged again in 869.  In 870, King Charles the Bald ordered the construction of two bridges, the Grand Pont and the Petit Pont, to block the passage of the Vikings up the Seine.  In 885, Gozlin, the Bishop of Paris, repaired the city wall and reinforced the bridges, enabling the city to resist an attack by the Vikings, who tried again twice (in 887 and 888), but were repelled each time.

Paris then enjoyed 90 years of (relative) peace, until 978, when the city was laid siege by The Holy Roman Emperor Otto II.

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