Lit Major Abroad

The (Ruined) Towers of Ilium


Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.

-Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus.

I’ve studied both literature and classics for many years. I’ve always loved pottering around ancient ruins, unsuccessfully trying to imagine what they would have looked like in their heyday. So when we decided to go to Turkey, my sister and I agreed we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit a site that had captured our imaginations years before, while we were still wide-eyed first-years at university.

The ancient city of Troy (or Ilium) features in one of the oldest surviving texts in the world; Homer’s Iliad. It’s one of the best-known legends of all time, although Homer doesn’t actually mention the most famous part; the Greek soldiers, after ten years of unsuccessfully besieging the city of Troy, leave a giant wooden horse on the beach where their camp was and sail away. The Trojans, quick to believe that after ten years of a mentally and physically gruelling siege the Greeks simply gave up (my psychology professors would chuckle at this bit), wheel the giant horse into the city. Celebrations ensue. The Trojans get ridiculously drunk. Night falls on the city and everyone lies fast asleep. The Greek soldiers hidden in the horse creep out and open the city gates to let in the rest of the army. Massacres ensue. Troy falls.

Trojan Horse. Complete with rampaging Greek soldiers.

It’s a great story, though I’m not so sure the Trojans would agree. In any case, nobody was sure whether the whole thing was made up, or based on real events, or if it was all true. The only thing we can say with absolute certainty is that the war did not start because three goddesses had a beauty contest and the one who lost got mad (although it’s probably a little more interesting than saying it was caused by complex geo-political developments in the ancient world).

It remained like that for a long time. Then, finally, archaeologists in the nineteenth century uncovered the ruins of a city in modern-day Turkey and, cross-referencing its location with the description in Homer, did a little leap of joy. (Actually, this was the nineteenth century, so between the coat-tails, the giant sideburns, and the attempt to maintain a dignified persona, they probably didn’t literally leap for joy. But they might have given each other a high-five or two.) They claimed they’d found the ancient city of Troy, and all those hours spent at Oxford memorising pages of the Iliad in the original ancient Greek had not, in fact, been a waste.

Unfortunately, their joy was slightly diminished when they discovered that there was not just one city buried under what had once been farmland. There were actually several, and nobody knew which one was the right one. Nine different cities were all built one on top of the other, because when you buy a piece of prime real estate by the sea, you don’t just abandon it every time your beach house catches fire or is destroyed by an earthquake (although you really should consider finding out what happened to the previous owners before you commit to anything).

Just your average fixer-upper.

So as you can see, Troy is an interesting place to visit. It literally has layers of history, and you can see just about all of them while you’re there. When we arrived, our guide was quick to inform us that they had no way of knowing whether this was the Troy of Homer’s Iliad or not, or even if it had been called ‘Troy’, which is just what you want to hear when you’ve just spent four and a half hours on a bus to get there. He gave us a quick rundown of the site’s history, including its most famous excavator, Heinrich Schliemann. Although Schliemann, a wealthy German businessman, is generally credited with discovering the site, it was actually an Englishman called Frank Calvert who began excavating in the area and convinced Schliemann to start digging at Troy.

Would YOU trust this man with your valuable archaeology? Heinrich Schliemann as a young man. (Image Source)

Schliemann came, he dug, he found lots of gold (many claim he actually planted it there), and promptly stole it away so he wouldn’t have to share it with the local government. It’s not an entirely inspiring story. Schliemann actually made a right mess of many parts of the site; our guide pointed out his main trench, which actually cut across some very important archaeology. He rejected it, thinking it wasn’t important, and ended up doing quite a bit of damage.

Trojan gold? A replica of the gold found by Schliemann at Troy (in the Neues Museum, Berlin).

Although we have no way of knowing if Homer’s Troy was real or not, the guides do try to fit the legend into the existing archaeology. Our guide pointed out a patch of soil where the Greeks might have left the Trojan Horse (once a beach, now flat, marshy farmland thanks to changing shorelines), the walls where Achilles and Hector might have had their fight to the death, and the spot where Cassandra, the daughter of the Trojan king, might have stood to predict the city’s doom. It makes for a very entertaining tour. Somehow, when faced with a jumble of rocks that was once a prosperous city, it helps to imagine characters we all know so well peopling the landscape and using the buildings that now lie in ruins. Or Brad Pitt in sandals, if that takes your fancy.

Troy’s current occupants are a little less warlike than their predecessors.

In the end, though, it almost doesn’t matter whether the events of the Trojan War were real or not. Visiting Troy might not help you when writing a paper about the Iliad, but what we know about the real Troy is interesting in a different way. The ruins tell the story of a tiny fishing-village that grew to prosperity and wealth and then declined as history gradually passed it by, until it was finally rediscovered by a bunch of men with a lot of money and impressive facial hair. There’s a lot of history buried in that hill in Turkey, and much more still to be learnt.


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