When Alexander left Pella in the spring of 334 BC the city of Thessaloniki, about 46 km further east did not exist, meaning that his army marched through the plains to near modern Lagkadàs. From there, we can today choose between two roads towards Amphipolis: the freeway running north of Lake Koroneia and Lake Volvi or the local road that follows the southern banks of these lakes. Both roads are interesting to drive for they give a very vivid idea of the terrain crossed by Alexander and before him by his father, King Philip II during his repeated battles on the Chalcidice peninsula.
It is obvious that Alexander didn’t set out from Pella with the entire army, only with his Macedonians. The delegations from the northern Balkan tribes joined him at Amphaxatis near the mouth of the Axios River. It was in Amphipolis that Parmenion met his king with the contingents from Greece and the Greek mercenaries, and where Alexander’s fleet connected with his land forces. From there the entire army which must have counted nearly 30,000 men and 5,000 cavalry marched towards Abdera and Maroneia, both in Greek hands. After crossing the Hebrus River, Alexander led his troops to Sestos on the Chersonese peninsula in European Turkey, where he arrived twenty days after leaving home. Here he had his first glance of Asia lying across of the Dardanelles known as the Hellespont in antiquity and which formed a major natural barrier for any invading army.
The crossing of the Hellespont, which had been done in the opposite direction a good century early by the Persian armies of Darius I and Xerxes, cannot be underestimated. The current at the narrowest point is extremely swift as the water is squeezed between the low continental banks.
It is here that I pick up history when travelling with Peter Sommer In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great, a trip that is now split into two parts but which I had the immense pleasure to follow by walking, driving and sailing over a period of almost three weeks, the best days of my life! Peter himself has walked all the way from Istanbul to Iskenderun near the Syrian border in search of Alexander’s path and he reads the landscape like no other – a blessing beyond description!
Before crossing the Hellespont we stop at a plant where shells are being processed and where I can walk to the very edge of the water to have a first look at the blue landmass of Asia on the other side. A thrilling experience for this must have been what Alexander saw 2,500 years ago. A little further down the Chersonese peninsula, Peter points at a wide flat between the low rolling hills - the plain of Arisbe - where Alexander’s army set up camp awaiting to be shipped to the other side. My imagination immediately gets to work, pitching tents, lighting campfires, building stockades where soldiers keep watch, adding the sound of men talking, yelling, singing or cursing. What a place!
My crossing is not in style with any of Alexander’s 160 triremes that moved back and forth to transport men and beasts over several days, but instead I take a regular ferry from Kilitbahir to Çanakkale. Once on board I look back and forth, behind me are the remains of Ottoman forts with a proud Turkish flag on top, ahead of me the busy quays of the city that was the land where Alexander jumped out of his ship in full armor and threw his spear into Asian soil, taking Asia as spear-won territory from the very start.
Just like Alexander, we first pay a visit to Troy, home of Homer’s Trojan War where the young king’s heroes had fought and died. In his days there wasn’t much left of the old city but its history and legends were still very much alive. During my visit, I was led around by an expert who had worked very closely together with Manfred Korfmann, an archeologist who had dedicated the last 16 years of his life to Troy. I receive a simplified view of the nine successive layers of Troy built one on top of the other over the 3,000 thousand years of its existence but I still cannot sort it out. The different layers of the city are labeled with numbers to help the visitor locating each time-frame but then the layers get mixed up or disappear so that I am left with a variety of walls fitting certain buildings at some time in history. The discovery of Troy by Heinrich Schliemann in 1871 is general knowledge, and his so-called Treasure of Priam turned out to be at least one thousand years older. Schliemann had read Homer’s Iliad and so had Alexander, who slept with a copy of the book with annotations made by Aristotle. Both men were inspired by the Iliad although in very different ways and for different reasons. But in the end, Troy is Troy, the city of Alexander’s hero, Achilles.
I am then led to an odd looking hill with scant remains. I’m told that this is the place where the Temple of Athena stood where Alexander made a gift of his armor in exchange for some weapons from the Trojan War that could have belonged to Achilles – or at least that is probably what Alexander wanted to believe. I stare at the hardened soil in between the stones that barely outline the temple walls and I wonder whether or not I am standing in the space where Alexander once stood. The temple clings to the edge of a cliff offering an unreal but peaceful view over a plain that was mostly covered by the sea in his days.
The cherry on the cake for that day is most surprising. Our minivan drives off from Troy over local roads and suddenly stops at the end of a dirt road in the middle of what seems to be an orchard. From here we continue on foot through waist-high barley fields at whose edges I discover a tumulus. This turns out to be the Tomb of Achilles! For a moment I’m speechless. How exciting! Earlier today I have seen many tumuli in the landscape, but to hear that this one is actually the hero’s burial site is so terribly unique. According to some, Achilles’ tomb is shared by his faithful friend Patroclus, and this makes the place even more special as Alexander saw himself as Achilles and his dearest boyhood friend Hephaistion as Patroclus. Both men cut their hair and laid a wreath on this tomb and afterwards ran a race around it stripped of all their clothes. The picture certainly fuels my imagination!
For no reason at all, we all rush to the very top where some rough stones crown the summit. What a place to visit, to touch, to experience. The view this late in the afternoon is blessed with the delicate light of diminishing sunlight blanketing the landscape with a delicate glow. I can actually see a good stretch of the seashore and Peter kindly pinpoints the very bay where the Greek fleet was hidden from view by the Trojans while awaiting for the city gates to be opened by the soldiers hidden inside the famous Trojan Horse. So much history has happened on these grounds! What a place to be.
From here, Alexander rejoined his troops which by now had all crossed the Hellespont into Asia. He soon would have to face the Persian enemy (see: The Battle of the Granicus) and I’ll pick up his traces tomorrow.