Did ancient Troy really exist? - Einav Zamir Dembin
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Part epic, part cautionary tale, we know the story of Troy and its famous war from ancient poets like Homer and Virgil, who transcribed the narrative in antiquity. Homer’s account, known as the Iliad, was codified in the eighth-century BCE from preexisting oral traditions. Since then, the legendary city has captivated popular imagination with its accounts of heroes, gods, treachery, and tragedy. The pivotal event, known as the Trojan War, was set in motion when a Trojan prince named Paris abducted the beautiful Helen, Queen of Sparta, and brought her back with him to Troy. Here, the events of the story unfold: for nine years, the Greeks lay siege to the city tucked behind its fortification wall, eventually breaching the boundary through a clever bit of trickery in the form of the Trojan Horse.
The Search Begins
By the mid-19th century, the Trojan war was largely thought to be the product of the Greek imagination, an epic tale completely removed from reality. Those who continued to trust in its historical accuracy searched for vindication in texts and artifacts. These investigations centered around one question: was Troy a real city? To establish a site for the events of the Iliad was to provide it with a home, a place where fiction could find its way into fact. Multiple locations were previously associated with the site of Troy. Most of these centered around the Troad Peninsula in northwestern Turkey. The earliest of these investigations was led by Pierre Belon, a 16th-century French naturalist who included the site of Alexandria Troas in a map of the region, labeling it as "Ruines de Troye." He based his identification solely on the presence of ruins.
Pietro Della Valle, a 17th-century Italian composer, conducted a detailed survey of the ruins in 1614, and agreed with Belon's assessment.
Jean Baptiste LeChevalier published Voyage de la Troade in the 18th century, which was the first thorough investigation into the potential location of the Homeric Troy. He described a mound, near the village of Pınarbaşı, which towered over the plain of Troy on an impressive hilltop.
Baron Johann Hermann first proposed in 1768 that the site of Troy could be found at Hisarlık, but he was largely ignored. For about three decades, LeChevalier's theory was the most widely accepted. It wasn't until 1822 that Hisarlık was seriously considered as a possible alternative.
Charles Maclaren, a Scottish journalist/geologist (and co-founder of The Scotsman), based his assessment on the geological survey of another scientist—he hadn't visited the site when he made his hypothesis. However, no one quite believed him for about four decades.
Frank Calvert, an English consular official, owned the eastern portion of the mound of Hisarlık. He became aware of the discussions surrounding the location of Troy and convinced Heinrich Schliemann, a German businessman and explorer, to excavate on his property, which he suspected might yield evidence of the ancient site. Eager to get to the base of the mound, he tore through large portions of the layers above the second deposit, known as Troy II. These levels, in particular Troy VI and VII, dated to 1700-1180 BCE, are believed by some scholars to have been the actual remains of the fabled city.
During this excavation, Schliemann found a significant hoard of artifacts containing many items of metallurgic significance. This "Treasure of Priam" came from Troy II, which predates the Trojan War by about a thousand years. Still, the overall richness of the material culture indicates a wealthy, cosmopolitan site on par with the Troy described in legend. Perhaps one of the most extraordinary objects is a pommel fragment composed of a high nickel meteoric iron. This represents one of the earliest uses of iron in Anatolia.
However, Schliemann’s hasty excavation has made it challenging for modern scholars to reconstruct the settlement, and even more difficult to establish a connection to the accounts of Homer and Virgil. Traces of a fire that took place in Troy VII, along with evidence of weaponry and violence, have led some scholars to speculate that the city, some 200,000 square meters and boasting five to 10,000 inhabitants, was in fact destroyed by warfare. But perhaps more significantly, there appears to be evidence of a fortification wall similar to that described by Homer and Virgil. Could this be the very same wall where the events of the Iliad played out? Maybe someday, archeologists will find the answers to this mystery. Until then, the true identity of Troy could lay hidden behind, and within, a wall.
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