Troy is 15km (9 1/3 miles) south of Çanakkale
The Iliad and Odyssey have made Troy one of the most recognizable mythological events in the world, and few can resist the chance to trod among its remains. The reality is less satisfying, however; the site for the most part is a hodgepodge of unrecognizable archaeological detritus visible from afar via a raised catwalk, some of which is blocked off by ongoing excavations. So the primary dilemma continues to be whether or not a visit is warranted. As an adjunct to a tour of Gallipoli, the trip is definitely worthwhile. But as a pilgrimage to the classical world, there are better-preserved and more representative sites on Turkish soil that are more conveniently accessible.
Until 1871, when Heinrich Schliemann decided to go dig for buried treasure, finding Troy was about as likely as finding Atlantis. There was (and to a certain extent, still is) no concrete evidence that the civilization of Homer’s Iliad existed. One of the arguments is that the poet’s epic account of the Trojan War is an amalgam of battle stories based on geopolitics of the day, with a little Aaron Spelling thrown in for flavor.Then Schliemann, a self-taught archaeologist with an ancient-Greece obsession and an even stronger lust for buried treasure, descended upon the nearby village of Hisarlik and started poking around. His shoddy excavation resulted in significant damage to the site, and when the dust settled after his looting, there was some dispute over what it was that he actually “found” there. But there’s no disputing that he began the significant excavation and reconstruction process that continues to this day.
The fact that nine civilizations were built one on top of the other is no surprise, given the strategic location. Two thousand years ago, Troy was a port city at the mouth of the Dardanelles, and it would have been surprising if a war hadn’t been fought here. While it’s anyone’s guess just how heroic the goings-on were on these ancient shores, the possibility of stepping into a legend is an exciting proposition — as is climbing into the belly of a wooden horse that Walt Disney would be proud of.
Stories about the young Schliemann paint a picture of a child prodigy on a vision quest from an early age. But it’s entirely possible his obsession for Homer and Greek culture took root much later. It seems more likely that his main goal in life was to strike it rich; having achieved that in the California gold rush, he then set his sights on immortality.
At about 44 years old, after years of study of ancient and modern Greek and the classic epic work of Homer, Schliemann proclaimed himself an archaeologist and began digging at Pinarbasi, which was believed at the time to be the site of Troy. Meanwhile, Frank Calvert had discovered the ruins of a palace or temple on the hill at Hisarlik, and the two agreed that this was a more likely area for the lost city.
Schliemann began bulldozing his way through the hill in 1870 and found little besides obsidian knife blades and clay tiles — which in Turkey, you can pretty much find while bending over and tying your shoe. When he finally discovered something significant — a relief of the sun god Apollo — he immediately attributed it to the ruins of Zeus’s throne (and smuggled it out of the country and into his garden). It started to get interesting in August 1872 with the discovery of some gold earrings and a skeleton, and 9 months later his crew uncovered two gates guarding a stone foundation of a large building. To Schliemann, this was obviously the Scaean Gate, and the building was the palace of Priam, the last king of Troy.Some time later, Schliemann literally struck gold, shrewdly giving the crew the day off while he and his wife dug alone. That day’s findings were monumental: a treasure of goblets, spearheads, knives, and jewelry in copper, silver, and gold, including an incredible 8,750 gold rings and buttons. Eventually Schliemann smuggled the whole lot (except for a few items now in the Archaeology Museum in Çanakkale) out of the country, initially stashing a major part of the treasure with various friends around Greece, where neither Turkish nor Greek authorities could claim ownership. He also donated a portion of the treasure to a Berlin museum, but the artifacts were stolen by the Soviets during World War II and transported to Russia. Schliemann halted and resumed excavation two more times through 1890 but never came near to the findings of that first stash, now believed to have belonged to a princess around 2000 B.C.
So the question remains. Was Schliemann a lying megalomaniac with delusions of grandeur? One biographer points to the evidence. Discrepancies between Schliemann’s personal letters and diary entries show that Schliemann lied with regard to his personal life. He also reported that the site of the treasure was located in Priam’s Palace, when the site of the find was actually outside the city wall. The truly incriminating evidence is in the photographs he took of Priam’s treasure; several of the items “found” in 1873 appear in photos taken in 1872 of earlier finds.
Maybe he was just nuts; there’s evidence supporting that, too. Schliemann eventually retired in Athens, renamed all of his servants after characters in Greek mythology, and required them to deliver all messages to him in ancient Greek, a language he had taught himself. The inscription on the tomb he had built for himself seems to be his final word on the subject: “For the hero Schliemann.”