It was June 10, the anniversary of Alexander the Great’s death, and someone had placed two wreaths at the foot of the young king’s monument in Thessaloniki.mountainsphoto
That little act of reverence was a reminder that the warrior of ancient times might still have a role to play in the New World Order.
Alexander was just 20 when he became king of Macedonia, and only 22 when he set out to conquer the world. And by the time he died suddenly and suspiciously at a banquet in Babylon, just 10 years later, he ruled an empire that included Persia and Egypt and stretched to the borders of India.
That was in 324 BC, more than 2,000 years ago, but here in the Greek province of Macedonia, Alexander is still revered, not simply as one of the greatest kings and warriors the world has ever known, but as a local hero and a potent symbol of national pride.
But just who are the Macedonians? And who was Alexander the Great, the brilliant young man who conquered everything between Greece and India before he turned 33?
Boarding an express bus in Athens, I went north to Macedonia on a quest to follow in the footsteps of Alexander. The bus route followed the coast. Olive trees flashed silver in the wind and through them I caught a glimpse of the teal-colored sea. In the furrowed ochre and green fields of the plain, farmers harvested their summer crops. A crude sign scrawled on the whitewashed walls of a village building in bold black lettering announces: MAKEDONIA EINA ELLINIKA — MACEDONIA IS GREEK!
Soon Mount Olympus came into sight, the highest mountain in Greece (7,200 feet), on the border of Macedonia and Thessaly. The ancients believed it to be the home of the 12 gods, the Olympians. Nestled under its towering northern flank on a wide plain only a few kilometers from the town of Katerini, is the archeological site of Dion.
Once one of the most important Macedonian shrines, Dion was a port connected to the sea by a navigable river. Here is the lovely shrine of Isis-Tyche, goddess of fortune, now partially submerged in marshy ground, abundant with reeds and tall yellow irises.
The site is surrounded by fields of red poppies and yellow chrysanthemums, marked by ruined roads and avenues. (Roman period) basilicas, temple sites, Roman baths and cisterns, private villas with floor mosaics, a theatre and various shrines dating to 500 BC.
In the shade of the maples, I listened to the deep-throat ed chirping of bullfrogs in the rushes, the trill of songbirds in the grove. A flock of sheep munched its way in my direction and a young shepherd boy, carrying a crook, called a greeting to me. In this pastoral setting, I was transported to the past, to the time when the migrating tribes of the Makedonoi grazed their flocks on these plains.
Since the Bronze Age, this northern area has been populated by tribes, one of which was known as the Makedonoi. Some historians argue that these people were Illyrians, others insist that they were part of the tribes who occupied the Pindos Mountains, known as the Dorians. The Dorians were pure Greeks and throughout history, Macedonia has been considered part of the Greek alliance.
The Macedonian kings were Greek, not merely in descent but in outlook, religion and culture. They understood the mentality of the city-state Greeks and outwitted them in diplomacy. They worshipped the 12 Olympian gods. Greek poets, tragedians, historians, philosophers, doctors, actors, painters and craftsmen were invited to the Macedonian court. But until Philip II, Macedonia did not attach its royal court to the Greek world.
In 360 BC, 22-year-old Philip ascended the throne, and under his shrewd command the balance of power in the Hellenic world fell into the hands of Macedonia. Philip consolidated the Greek city states by forming the League of Corinth and declared himself the Grand Hegemon. Within a few years this brilliant military strategist had conquered all the outlying tribes and extended the borders of Macedonia to include the tribal lands of the Epirotes to the west, Thrace to the east, Illyria across the northern border of Macedonia and conquered other tribes as far north as the Danube River.
To ensure the allegiance of these tribes, Philip arranged marriages with daughters of clan chieftains. One of these political unions brought him to the island of Samothraki in Thrace, where he had seen and fallen in love with the daughter of an Epirote king.
I took a bus from Thessaloniki to Thrace. The route follows the old Persian Road that Alexander’s army used when it marched East to conquer Persia.
The Thracian coastline is rugged with low mountains rolling down to the rocky sea-coast. Alexandroupolis, a pleasant city near the Turkish frontier, is the center of the local tobacco trade. It originated as a small garrison town founded and named by Alexander the Great.
Nearby are the Evros River wetlands, a flat, boggy area along the shore, refuge of more than 263 species of birds. Offshore, in the mist of early morning, the island of Samothraki appears, rising mysteriously out of the sea about 50 km. south.
On this island, Philip II met his bride, the bewitching Epirote princess, Olympias. They were soon to become the parents of a remarkable son, Alexander III.
The ferry trip from Alexandroupolis to Samothraki is two hours. I disembarked at the only port, Kamariotissa and found a comfortable pension room with a balcony overlooking the harbor.
Local buses run between the villages on the island, but to absorb the enchanting essence of Samothraki I walked the 5 km to the sanctuary. The road was deserted as I set out. All around the vegetation was lush. The wind hissed through fields of dried grass and hundreds of butterflies flitted among the wildflowers. I heard the distant chiming of goat bells, the bleating of sheep, the crackle of waves on the stony shore.
At the sanctuary I visited the museum where there’s a reproduction of the famous Winged Victory, the original of which is in the Louvre in Paris. Finds from the sanctuary include remnants of altars, statuary and votive offerings.
The sanctuary and its mystic religion gave this island its special character. The sanctuary was used as early s the 5th century BC. The prime divinity was the Great Mother, a goddess of pre-Greek origin known as Axieros, but identified by the Greeks as Demeter. Splendid buildings were erected in her honor, most, if not all, paid for by donations from the Royal House of Macedon, which had a special allegiance to the cult.
At the time of Philip’s marriage to Olympias, this shrine was unrivalled as the center of religious life in northern Greece and the island was considered to be divine property. All the rites were conducted in the ancient Thracian language and were open to all men and women, free or enslaved.It had an international character; the Samothracians annually sent out invitations to the festival throughout Greece and Asia Minor so ambassadors from many cities came to offer sacrifices here.
On a windy knoll, I found the ruins of a small temple dedicated in 318 BC to Alexander the Great and his father. The inscription – ‘Kings Philip and Alexander to the Great Gods” – it was put there by the joint kings Philip Arridaios (Alexander’s half-brother) and little Alexander IV (Alexander the Great’s only heir.)
Samothraki has been settled since the Stone Age, and the Thracian language was spoken here until the first century BC. Chora, the main village, is hidden in the folds of the mountains 6 km from the port. Here the traditional two-story white-washed houses with red-tile roofs cling to the sides of a rocky bluff. I wandered through the cobbled streets and bought raisin buns from an old man who had baked them in an ancient stone oven.
I climbed to the top of the acropolis and sat amid the ruins of a medieval castle, looking out over the pine forest to the sparkling aqua sea. A chanted litany rose from the village church, the sound of the priest’s voice drifting out across the silent valley. In the shadow of the mountain below me, in the quiet, deserted sanctuary of the Great Gods, the wind soughed through the trees.
From the tranquility of Samothraki, I returned to Alexandroupolis. The area of northern Greece known as Thrace has a small population of Turkish Muslims, and their influence is seen in the minarets that rise above village rooftops. Towns like Komotini and Xanthi are a blend of both cultures.
Crossing back into Macedonia, I stopped at Kavala, a picturesque city on the slopes of a mountain with an impressive Byzantine castle. This city, first named Neaopolis, became a member of the Greek alliance when Philip II seized the silver and gold mines on nearby Mount Pangeon in 340 BC.
A few miles north are the ruins of the city of Philippi, occupied and named by Philip. It was here, on this fertile green plain, that Marc Antony defeated Caesar’s assassins in 42 BC.
The road west of Kavala winds around Mount Pangeon. At Amphipolis, once a strategic port, there are impressive Byzantine and Roman ruins of city walls and fortifications, and remains of the old fortress on the acropolis. The citadel is on a high promontory on the east bank of the river. Here the child, Alexander IV was held prisoner, a political martyr and a pawn of the successors who took over the empire after Alexander’s death. His murder at the age of 14 at the hands of his father’s enemy, the despot Kassandros, ended Alexander’s dynasty.
As I walked down the ravine and along the highway below the site, a bolt of fork lightning shot down over the dark acropolis ruins. I turned a bend in the road and came upon the fierce stone Lion of Amphipolis, a colossal monument believed to have been erected in honor of a soldier who once served with Alexander. It looms over the exit of the bridge at Ennea Hodoi, the Nine Ways Crossing, and guards the spot where King Xerxes of Persia sacrificed nine local children to the river gods in the 5th century BC.
At the nearby village of Nea Kerdilia I flagged a bus heading for Thessaloniki. Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece, is the capital of Greek Macedonia. Founded in 316 BC by Alexander’s enemy Kassandros, the city was named after the eldest daughter of Philip II who became Kassandros’ s wife. Here too, the Apostle Paul first preached Christianity to the Macedonians in 50 AD.
The city has suffered successive waves of invaders – Slavs, Arabs, Saracens, Normans, Catalans, Turks and more recently the Germans who rounded up and killed thousands of Greek Jews who had settled in the city during Byzantine times. It is a modern city, and a center of business and academic life.
The National Museum of Archeology has an impressive display of treasures taken from various Macedonian tombs as well as reconstructions of the city through it’s various phases beginning when Kassandros founded it. The grave offerings found in the Royal tombs are now on display at the tomb museum in Vergina.
From Thessaloniki, it’s a short bus ride to Pella, the ancient capital of Macedonia and Alexander’s birthplace. The city was built by King Archelaos in 410 BC. It was a big city, built near a lagoon or shallow lake that was navigable to the sea. Several private villas have been excavated and there are traces of wide streets flanked by footpaths and a central avenue crossing the Agora.
The palace, which occupied 60,000 square meters, was discovered on a rise behind the city. It consisted of many buildings and was a significant example of Greek palatial architecture. A small museum across the highway from the site exhibits archeological finds and h as a reconstruction of the palace and villas.Artifacts found at the site include a famous mosaic depicting Alexander and a friend hunting lion, several statues, and a bust of Alexander in his youth. There’s also an impressive collection of terra-cotta pottery and ceramics crafted by noted artisans of the era.
The original capital was at Aigai (Vergina) 75 km west of Thessaloniki. This big palace, antique even in Alexander’s time, was built on a high promontory overlooking the plain with the somber mountains close behind it. This palace was a favorite hunting lodge for Philip II and it was here that young Alexander played in fields of yellow asphodel.
The palace, laid out geometrically, with large blocks of dark gray stone, some Doric-style pillars, was more cumbersome than the impressive Pella palace. Still intact is the audience-room floor. It has a circular design of mosaics with a white lily with tendrils of leaves in the center and the figure of Aphrodite with arms outstretched in each corner.
Scattered through the site are shards of terra-cotta pottery from the flowerpots that once adorned the courtyard. The air here is sweet with the fragrances of vines, dried grasses and the pine forest of the mountains. Just below the lower terrace of the palace is the small theatre of Aigia where Philip II was assassinated at the age of 56 as he entered the theatre to attend a celebration for the wedding of his daughter, Kleopatra, to the young prince of Epirus. Philip may have arranged this wedding to heal a rift between himself and Olympias and Alexander, who was then 20.
Philip had recently married his seventh wife, a young Macedonia noblewoman, an event that angered Olympias. Polygamy was an accepted method of consolidating truces with rival chieftains, but Olympias was very jealous of her rivals. Family and political intrigues were behind Philip’s assassination and Olympias had his young wife and her infant murdered three months later.
Macedonia’s royal tombs are on the plain below the palace. The tomb of Philip II was discovered in a farmer’s field near the village of Vergina, in 1977 and excavated in by the noted archaeologist Manolis Andronicos. The tomb had been hastily finished after Philip’s sudden death. His young wife’s body was buried in a small antechamber. Their remains were in golden caskets buried inside the vaulted tomb with hordes of dazzling gold and jewels. Philip’s bones had been washed in wine and wrapped in purple cloth. A team of horses had been sacrificed on a pyre above the burial site.
The tombs are open to the public and dedicated to the memory of Andronicos. The remarkable grave offerings he discovered are now housed in the new Vergina Museum. Included in this treasure-trove is the gold larnaca, a box of hammered gold decorated with the 16-pointed star, emblem of the Macedonian royalty, which contained partially cremated remains believed to be those of Philip II. The skeleton is displayed in a glass case as are the king’s ceremonial shield, armor, weapons and other resplendent grave offerings.
You’re not allowed to take pictures in the tombs, but graduate archeology students at the site are willing to answer questions and explain the history of the excavations. When I told the guide why I had come, he asked if I would like to see the statue they had found in the tomb of Eurydike, Philip II’s mother. Although it was not yet on public display, I was fortunate to be given a glimpse of Euydike’s white marble form lying in a wooden case at an outside storage area.
Back in Thessaloniki, I pondered those two wreaths at the base of Alexander’s monument – one of myrtle for the hero and the other of laurel for the god. On the monument, Alexander is portrayed riding his fabled horse, Bucephalus, facing east toward his new conquests.
Alexander spread Hellenism and dreamed of uniting the world in brotherhood, but there are still squabbles in what was his empire. And those two wreaths spoke volumes about the Greek’s passion to preserve Macedonia’s history.