“The Stones of Ilium”

I stood before the gates of Troy and called out to those heroes of old: “Achilles, Agamemnon, Odysseus, Hector….” To be on that storied ground, to tread the same earth once pressed by their sandals, thrilled me, and as I spoke their names, I could feel the rush of adrenalin. Before me, the once great city lay in ruin, brought down by time and fate, but my imagination told hold of those scattered stone, lifted them into a whirlwind, and before my eyes, the city rose anew. Spiraling back through time, age by age, block by block, higher and higher, the ancient walls reclaimed their former glory, once again standing lofty and impenetrable. Was that the faint clash of arms echoing on the plain? Did ghostly figures waver at the fringes of my vision?

Troy 1 the eastern gate small

The Eastern Gate of Ilium

Most of what we know regarding the Trojan war is detailed Homer’s epic poem: The Iliad, thought to have been composed in the eighth century B.C. Different versions of the epic have sat on successive bookshelves of mine since I could first afford my own copy. That ragged, dog-eared, second-hand volume was replaced by more expensive editions until a hardcover copy that I had given my father came back to me after he died.

It is difficult to articulate what it meant to be at that place. Troy, or Ilium—its ancient name—has been an influence in my life since the beginning of memory. Its story is one of the most celebrated in Western culture. An epic battle in an age where men and women strove with gods, how could such a tale ever fail to inspire us? Over three thousand years after the Ilium fell, contemporary artists still feel compelled to bring it to life. It had taken me several hours of driving to reach the ancient city, but my true journey to Ilium began years before.

The route that led me to those ruined gates was a circuitous one. On my first trip to Greece, I ventured to the island of Ios, where Homer’s remains are purported to be interred. Did he actually spend his last days on that barren rock with its great beaches and inexpensive beer? No one knows, but it is fitting that his resting place is as blurred with reality and myth as is his greatest poem.

As recounted in the mythology, the impetus for the ten-year war was the kidnapping of Helen by Paris, one of the princes of Ilium. Paris was smitten by Helen’s unparalleled beauty, but he would have been wise to anticipate her husband’s unparalleled wrath. Helen was married to Menelaus, the ruler of Sparta and the brother to Agamemnon, the Greek king of kings. In answer to this horrific insult to his brother’s pride, Agamemnon amassed a mighty armada that set sail to Ilium and laid siege on the city. As a result, Paris was indeed “smitten,” as were all those doomed souls who lived within the walls of Ilium.

The end of the war is never described in The Iliad; we learn of the city’s fate in later tales. The story of its fall, however, is so ubiquitous in Western culture that nearly everyone is familiar with some variation of its mythological conclusion. The wily Odysseus, king of Ithaca, devises a stratagem in which the Greek army feigns defeat and, as a tribute to the Trojans, leaves behind a gigantic wooden statue of a horse. (Ironically, the so-called Trojan horse was actually a Greek creation.) The Trojans take the statue into the city. After nightfall, the warriors hiding within the horse’s belly creep forth to unleash murder, rape, and fire upon glorious Ilium. Utter devastation ensues—the broken wall, the burning roof and tower. Of all the Trojan warriors, only one seems to survive: Aeneas, and that is another story. (A very, very long story, as a matter of fact.)

History offers another version of the war. It should be noted that in this case, history relies as much on speculation as Homer did on imagination. Without question, however, the city of Troy did exist, and excavations of the site have revealed a successive number of Troys, each built upon the ruins of the one preceding it. The earliest manifestation of the city may date back four thousand years. As for the Ilium of Homer’s poem, it appears to have been destroyed by fire some time around 1250 B.C. If a war did occur, Helen was probably not the cause. More realistically, the struggle focused on establishing primacy over trade on the Aegean Sea. Rather than beauty, love, and honour; most likely it was greed that launched those thousand ships. There is no evidence that the horse devised by Odysseus ever existed. There is, however, a historical account of an earthquake that occurred in the area at approximately the same time as the war. A slightly more believable version of the war’s end, therefore, is that the walls of Troy were breached by Mother Nature, and the invading Greeks simply capitalized on this event.

The first archeological evidence that Ilium actually existed came from an unlikely source—a wealthy German businessman named Heinrich Schliemann. Schliemann was a linguistic genius who taught himself Greek and then studied The Iliad free from the contortions of translation. Treating the descriptions within the poem as literal fact, he financed an expedition and set out to find the fabled ruins. Schliemann’s analysis of Homer’s epic led him unerringly to the site of the buried city. His techniques of excavation make contemporary professionals wince; however, it was Schliemann who brought Ilium back into the light.

Following my trip to Ios, I travelled to the site of Mycenae, the ancient fortress of Agamemnon. These ruins sit atop a hill and are so massive, it seems that over millennia, the sheer weight of the stones has pressed the earth downward. Schliemann had been here as well, and once again guided by Homer, the German had uncovered a literal treasure trove of artifacts. The most famous of the pieces he discovered is an exquisite golden funeral mask that Schliemann identified as belonging to Agamemnon. Modern archeologists have since determined that his dating of the artifacts was incorrect; regardless, his discovery of the treasure was noteworthy. I was able to see these golden relics on display in the Athens museum, and although the mask did not belong to the king of kings, it was nonetheless captivating.

After Mycenae, my next destination was Ilium itself.

I spoke the litany of names a second time, and they began to resonate like a dirge: “Achilles, Agamemnon, Odysseus, Hector….” Such tragedy. It was thrilling to stand on the same ground where Prince Hector—the most heroic character in the war—strode out to answer the challenge of Achilles. Hector knew he could not match the martial prowess of his opponent, but for the sake of his city, his people, he could not refuse to try. Even Odysseus, who alone would not die a violent death, would have to face ten years of hardship before returning home. (And that is another very, very long story.)

Of the south gate—the main entrance to the city—almost nothing remained. It challenged my imagination; however, there was a mounted display with an artist’s rendering of how the gate would have once looked. This helped bring the time-battered rocks to life, and I could envision the wall rising to reassert the lost dominance of Ilium.

I wandered about the ruins, careful to differentiate between the Ilium of Homer’s epic and the other levels of excavations. The eastern wall and gate still stood high, and I let my fingers trace along the stones as I walked past. What tales those walls could tell….

An hour after leaving the main gate, I came upon the Schliemann Trench. This has itself has become a type of artifact. Only days before his permit from the Turkish government was about to expire, Schliemann had still found nothing. In desperation, he ordered that a trench to be dug into the landscape. A hill named Hisarlik was cleft, and Schliemann’s gamble paid off: several layers of Troy were uncovered. Thousands of years laid bare. He had finally grasped the Golden Fleece. This ridiculous stab at archeology has been left relatively untouched; although, the various incarnations of Troy have been labelled with small signs.

It was the confluence of diverse influences that pushed me toward Ilium: mythical, historical, literary, and finally seeing those ruins was the culmination of years of travel. It became ironic then, that only two hours passed before my interest began to wane. The sun burned hot in that dry landscape. Imagination and wonder withered in the summer heat. The thirst for experience was supplanted with an actual thirst. As my imagination flagged, the walls came back down, and the stones fell into scattered heaps. The names of the heroes were carried away by the furnace breeze. The legends grew silent once again.

Somewhat begrudgingly, I turned my back on Ilium and walked from the millennial city. When I reached the road that would return me to the modern world, I glanced back a final time toward the site. Rising high above the entrance, a thirty-foot replica of the Trojan horse towered above the trees. I shook my head at the unintentionally comic impression it created. It was so large that it would not have fit through the gates of historical Ilium. I shrugged, it hardly seemed to matter. Within that place of blended truth, myth, and fantasy, anything was possible.

Kenneth D. Reimer

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