Exploring the ancient cities of Troy and Pergamon
We love a good bit of history; throw in some mythology and a few ruins and we’re in touristy heaven. That’s one of the main reasons we wanted to come to Turkey (that and the food of course – who doesn’t love Turkish food?!); the Western coast of Turkey was part of the cradle of European civilisation, with ruins dating back 7,000 years peppered all over the Aegean coastline. Specifically we wanted to see the ruins of Troy and Pergamon, two of Turkey’s most famous archaeological digs.
If you’ve ever seen the movie “Troy” or read Homer’s epic poem “The Iliad”, you’ll be familiar with the story of Troy – you know, the story about young lovers Paris and Helen, of arch-enemies Hector and Achilles, and of the large wooden horse full of soldiers that helped the Greeks win the 10 year war against the Trojans. Once thought to be merely a legend, Troy was rediscovered in 1863 by an amateur archaeologist from Germany. Subsequent excavations have revealed 9 ancient “Troys”, built one on top of the other, dating back to 3000BC (the various cities of Troy were destroyed by earthquakes, fire and wars).
Built atop a hill, overlooking a natural harbour and the Dardanelles, Troy occupied an enviable position that was easily defensible – this is why it was always rebuilt after each catastrophe. Its location also allowed for complete control of the Dardanelles, through which every merchant ship from the Aegean Sea and/or Black Sea had to pass. This made Troy rich as well as defensible.
Troy was in turn an independent city state, the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Lysimachus, part of the Hittite* Kingdom, then a vassal state of the Persian Empire and, finally, a Roman city, before falling to ruin in the 6th century AD.
*The Hittites, we learnt today, were native to the far Eastern part of ancient Anatolia (i.e. modern day Turkey). They moved Westwards and invaded Troy in the 5th century BC but were later conquered themselves by the Persians under the rule of legendary ruler Xerxes.
The Troy made famous by Homer is believed to have been Troy VII, which existed from 1300BC to 950BC. Not that there’s much left of the 9 cities of Troy today – the ruins are pretty, well, ruined. The same German archaeologist who discovered the ruins apparently messed them up pretty badly in his eagerness to find buried treasures. Still, it was pretty cool seeing the remnants of the various cities of Troy, and wandering down streets first paved 5,000 years ago.
From Troy we headed off to see the Acropolis of Pergamon. This ancient Greek city was the capital of the Kingdom of Pergamon from around 300BC to 100BC, after which it became a Roman citadel and then an Ottoman outpost. Today the hill-top ruins sit above the modern Turkish town of Bergama and attract millions of visitors every year, keen to see the world’s second-largest surviving Acropolis (the largest is, of course, in Athens). At its peak Pergamon was a city of over 200,000 inhabitants, renowned across the ancient world for its temples, amphitheatre, library and hospital.
There were 2 significant temples in ancient Pergamon: the Temple of Athena, of which just a few columns remain, and the Temple of Zeus. The magestic marble altar uncovered within the Temple of Zeus was one of the wonders of ancient Pergamon. Unfortunately the altar was removed and taken to Berlin by the German archaeologist that found it, where it now sits as the centrpiece of the Pergamon Museum of Ancient History. All that remains of the Temple of Zeus are foundational stones and a cleared area where the altar would have stood.
The amphitheatre remains in its entirety however. Carved out of the hillside with magnificent views out over the surrounding landscape, the theatre had a seating capacity of over 10,000 and had the steepest seating of any known theatre in the ancient world.
We also got to see the remnants of the Library of Pergamon, which was second only to the Library of Alexandria in size. The Library of Pergamon was famous not only for the size of its collection, but also for the nature of its collection. That is, Pergamon was the first library to contain bound books (not just rolled up scrollsof papayrus). The story goes that the Egyptian Pharoah Ptolemies, alarmed that the growing Library of Pergamon was rivalling his own library in Alexandria, banned the export of papyrus to Pergamon. In response the Pergamese began writing on pieces of specially treated animal skins which they then bound into the first books. As a final tragic epitaph to the story, the contents of the great Library of Pergamon were gifted to Cleopatra by Marc Anthony and included in the Library of Alexandria, which was, of course, destroyed by the Arabs in the 7th century AD.
The final ruin we visited at Pergamon was the Sanctuary of Asclepius – one of the ancient world’s most famous hospitals. The Sanctuary of Asclepius was considered one of the most famous therapeutic and healing centers of the Roman world, offering treatments for all kinds of ailments – both physical and psychological. Galen, one of the most famous physicians of antiquity, was born at Pergamon and received his early training at the Sanctuary of Asclepius.
It was wonderful being able to explore the ruins and learn about the history of Troy and Pergamon. We certainly had our fill of history today and are now happily tucked away in our hotel, resting our feet and our brains for tomorrow’s expedition to Ephesus – the world’s best preserved ancient Roman city.