Dion and further on

As Vergina was the traditional burial place of the Macedonian kings, Dion was the traditional place of worship and sacrifice when they were celebrating victories, or asking for big favours like a successful invasion of Asia.

Alexander made splendid sacrifices to Zeus the Olympian Father, the aspect of Zeus most often worshipped at Dion, possibly at this massive altar,

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which also had behind it three rows of eleven stone blocks equipped with iron rings for securing the sacrificial animals. Later, Alexander had bronze statues of the twenty-five cavalry companions who fell at the battle of Granikos in 334BC erected in the sanctuary. They so impressed Metellus after he won the fourth Macedonic War in 146BC that he took them to back to Rome with him.

Zeus must have been pleased with Alexander’s sacrifices, as well as with the accompanying artistic and athletic contests that he held in Zeus’ honour, because in the thirteen or so years that Alexander was in Asia, he never lost a battle.

I’ve heard people say that Alexander was a bloodthirsty megalomaniac. This ignores the preceding history between Greece and Asia, the legacy left to him by his father Philip II and the mores of the time. There’s plenty of information about the first two, for those who are interested in following the above links, and further. As for the mores of the time, the question was not whether or not a king made war, it was a question of how he made it. Alexander certainly conquered cities who resisted and punished those such as Tyre, which murdered his heralds and used the barbaric weapon of boiling sand tipped from the battlements.

Bernard Cornwell in the Sharpe novels frequently comments on the ferocity of soldiers who eventually take a city they’ve besieged, a reaction to the horrors they endure in taking it. Shakespeare describes it too, in Henry V’s speech to the governor of Harfleur.

“Therefore, you men of Harfleur, take pity of your town and of your people, whiles yet my soldiers are in my command; … if not, why, in a moment look to see the blind and bloody soldier with foul hand defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters; your fathers taken by the silver beards, and their most reverend heads dash’d to the walls; your naked infants spitted upon pikes …”

“will you yield, and this avoid, or, guilty in defence, be thus destroy’d?”

Alexander preferred if possible to win cities by his twin reputations for being unconquered in battle and his mercy when unopposed.

But back to Dion!

It’s an enormous site. As well as the sanctuary of Zeus Olympios, there was a sanctuary to Zeus Hypsystos (“the highest” – another aspect of Zeus),

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and sanctuaries to various gods, including Aesklepios, Demeter (where I noticed an ear of corn growing!), the Muses, Isis (yes, the Egyptian goddess), Aphrodite, and Dionysus. There may be more. There were two theatres, the largest, the Hellenic which has modern seating in it now for performances, and a smaller Roman one. There’s also a stadium. The town itself is a large one, with a seemingly endless main street.

DSC07085A statue of Hera was found in 2006, built into the extensive defensive city walls by the early Christians as fill!

There’s a public baths complex, with loads of mosaic floors. The Romans in particular used the public baths as a social meeting place. They even built an odeion as part of the baths complex for musical and other small performances. The hypocaust has been exposed and is being reconstructed,

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and the extensive underground drainage and sewer system can be seen in places. Courtesy of Hadrian, there are even public toilets.

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After the site, the museum was a little disappointing, although I think all the good finds are probably in Thessaloniki and Athens.

I left Dion, heading back past Thessaloniki to Halkidiki. I had intended to go to ancient Olynthos as the last stop on my tour of ancient northern sites before flying back down to Attica, and had booked two nights in a guesthouse outside Polygyros. As I drove up the narrow stony track to the guesthouse, I was hoping that it had a restaurant because it seemed pretty remote, and being directionally challenged as I’ve mentioned before, I didn’t trust myself to get back from the town in the dark.

There was no restaurant. The hostess, who had little English, suggested, “Delivery? Souvlaki? Big!” and nodded encouragingly while measuring between her hands the size of said souvlaki. I was hungry, but not for Nia Vardalos’ “meat on a stick”. She took me to talk to another guest, who was reading on the veranda. She spoke to the guest, who turned to me and laughed, “I have to translate.”

After a little three-way conversation, the guest, whom I’ll call E, asked, “Why do you want take-away when you could go out somewhere nice?” I replied that I didn’t really; I’d much rather go out somewhere. E asked if I’d like to go with her. So we made plans to leave in half an hour and thus began a really enjoyable evening with an intelligent, funny and apparently, as I found when she tried driving back to the guesthouse, similarly directionally challenged woman as I am.

With a combination of directions from local gents, none of whom objected to being hailed and asked for help by E, who is very vivacious and attractive – certainly our waiter thought so – and a more reliable source, the GPS, we made it back and arranged to meet next morning for a jaunt to some little villages in the hills. I had already decided against visiting Olynthos. I needed a rest.

In the morning, I was even less inclined to do anything more strenuous than sit on my balcony and listen to the goat bells, a sound that I’ve loved since being woken by it in Delphi in 2007, so we chatted over breakfast, and for the rest of the morning, along with our hostess. At one point I caught the word “Avstra-leea” in the Greek conversation, and E turned to me laughing. “Vaso [our hostess] is an expert in astrology, and wants to know your star sign.” I replied that it was Cancer. This was duly relayed, and further discussed animatedly, and E turned back to me. “Do you know what time of day you were born? Vaso thinks there is another sign that influences you.” “Like an ascendant sign? 4:30 in the afternoon.” Another animated discussion, and Vaso nodding at me wisely.

E, trying to suppress laughter, said to me, “We have decided – unanimously! – that you have an ascendant Sagittarius.” E, a civil engineer, logical and incisive, who mentally calculated the exchange rate of my airfare into Euros in seconds, believes in astrology about as much as I do. She was splitting her sides as she translated. “Vaso says a Cancerian couldn’t possibly travel all the way from Australia alone. You must have an ascendant Sagittarius, and it also explains your archery!”

E had to return to Thessaloniki that day, so we exchanged phone numbers and email addresses. After taking it easy all day, I ventured out alone that evening to find a taverna in Polygyros for dinner and found my way back to the guesthouse afterwards. Without the GPS.

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Vergina – a personal pilgrimage

After Pella, I was very much looking forward to Vergina, the ancient royal town of Aegae before Archelaos I moved it to Pella. Aegae remained the traditional burial place of the kings of Macedon. The first thing I noticed on the way that it’s well sign-posted. It looks as though Greece is really keen for people to visit the monuments here.

After arriving in the town, it was still well sign-posted, a detail I’ve noticed is often missing. Often the last sign before actually arriving is at least a kilometre from the site, and even up to five! But Vergina was easy. There was even a sign for parking for the Museum, which is also the site of the great tombs, so I drove in and parked. It was then I realised I’d been had. The parking lot was a private venture, and there was a small inexpertly made sign advising of one euro fifty charge. I didn’t mind though, even though it turned out there’s plenty of on street parking available nearer the museum. Every little bit that goes back into Greek pockets, the better for the economy.

The entrepreneurial gentleman running the parking lot was gesticulating at me that I had to move my car, because the spot I’d chosen was apparently a prime spot for a motor home. Obediently I moved to where he indicated, and shuffled back and forth till he was satisfied. He asked me, “Sprechen sie Deutsch?”. I replied, “Nein,” at which he repeated, “Nein!” and laughed. I paid and off I went, hearing him as I left talking animatedly in German to someone. I think he actually was German.

I walked off down the hill in the direction the sign indicated. As I walked through the gates, I saw the tumulus, 13 metres high and about 100 metres in diameter.

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It’s a reconstruction of that which was raised over the tombs sixty years after their creation, after looting by Galatian invaders in 274/3 BC, and which was excavated from 1976-80. The re-constructed tumulus provides a protective shelter over the tombs and monuments. As I walked towards the entrance I saw it was designed to replicate the real thing too, which gave me a slight chill as I prepared to walk through it.

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Once inside however, I was quickly brought back to the present by a polite young man telling me sadly but firmly that I couldn’t take photos inside, even without flash. Equally sadly I put the camera back in my bag, and prepared to try to absorb everything I saw. (The pictures I’ve included of inside the tumulus are from the net.)

Inside is dimly lit, the only light coming from the spots perfectly designed to illuminate only the exhibits. It’s very atmospheric. Interestingly it seems to have the desired effect as visitors move quietly and speak in hushed tones if at all. I moved through the exhibits taking my time to examine everything. As well as grave steles, there were replicas of the wall paintings found in the tombs, and grave goods and offerings of many people, ordinary, noble and royal. The collection of the goods that were burned on the pyre of Philip II, father of Alexander, is enormous, especially when you consider that the pieces left over from the flames are only the small metal fastenings, seeds that were somehow protected, small bones of animals that were sacrificed for the funeral and the dead king’s weapons.

An entire room is dedicated to the finds from Philip’s tomb. The image below shows much of it.

After his cremation, the bones were cleaned and placed into a gold larnax, decorated with the sixteen rayed-star of the Macedonian royal house, and rows of lily, palette and rosette ornaments. The larnax is displayed surmounted by his grave wreath of gold oak leaves.

And then it was time to go down the stairs to the gate of the tomb.

The faint noises from the floor above faded away as I descended. I stood alone at the bottom of the stairs, surrounded by dark silence, before the massive marble doors, and thought about Alexander being here, possibly on this very spot, burying his father with huge ceremony after his assassination.

I admit to being a bit emotional. There was some trembling, and a few tears.

Over the years I’ve read a lot about Alexander, and while he’s known as Alexander the Great for his enormous and unprecedented accomplishments, I have a great deal of respect for his father Philip’s statesmanship, generalship and kingship.

Another, smaller, tomb was thought to be that of his most recent wife Eurydike (the Macedonians practised multiple marriage for diplomatic reasons), murdered after Philip’s death by Olympia, Alexander’s mother. The information there says however that it was that of an earlier wife, who because of her Thracian heritage and the customs of her race, went willingly to the pyre with her dead husband. The magnificence of the tomb, though short of Philip’s, is said to reflect the honour in which Alexander held her sacrifice.

Another tomb, known as “The Prince’s tomb” is that of a youth aged about 14 years old, said to be King Alexander IV, murdered with his mother Roxanne by the regent, Cassander. I think it was because he was beginning to show qualities like Alexander’s, and quite possibly there were too many of the army very willing to follow the son of Alexander. It’s one of the great unanswered questions for me – what would he have been like, and how would history have been changed had he survived?

After leaving the tumulus, I followed the signs to the ancient theatre, further up the hill. I had been told that it and the palace site were both closed for conservation work, but I wanted at least to have a look through the fence.

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Although there wasn’t much to see, as it’s grass covered and there are only a couple of earthen rows of seats visible, I was glad, in the cool quiet of the early evening, to have added it to my pilgrimage. It was the place where Philip was assassinated, and where Alexander was acclaimed king.

Driving on the right to Philippi

I’d booked a rental car to spend a week touring the major archaeological sites in Macedonia, and took a taxi to the airport to collect it. The rental was with Sixt. The office staff were lovely and their shuttle took me to the pick up point. The beautiful little BMW hatchback was brought to me and the attendant, doing the shuttle drives and the pick-ups and returns all on his own, began hurriedly to go through the start-stop instructions, when I suddenly realised he was stepping on a clutch!

Now, I drove a manual car for twenty years, but that was twenty years ago, and I’m from Australia, where we drive on the left side of the road, and our cars are right hand drive. I began to panic. “But I ordered an automatic!” I blurted! The attendant ordered, “Wait in the shade madam. I have no time to deal with this now,” and left in the shuttle again.

I thought, “Oh bugger, I’m a problem. I’ll be lucky to get out of here by dark.” It was about 12:30pm. I began to worry. Did I order an automatic? I’d been flicking in and out of web pages, and I’d been tired, doing the booking late on my last night before leaving Australia. I checked booking record on my phone. I’d ordered a manual car! Would I have to accept it or or would I have to go without? What would I do instead? In this mode my panic escalated as I sat, trying to stay calm.

The attendant returned with a different car. “Madam,” he snapped, “Here is your car – automatic.” I jumped up, thanking him and apologising for my stupid mistake. “It’s not my problem madam; it’s not my car!” I was very embarrassed, and mumbling apologies, in which he was not in the least interested, I got into the car and out of his way as quickly as possible!

Nevertheless, I was so grateful that the company had fixed my mistake.

The car was a neat little Renault Clio. It was a few days later that I realised that the mythological muse of history was called Clio. I don’t believe in omens and “signs”, but this is Greece ….

Using my phone as a GPS, I set off and reached Philippi within a couple of hours, and in plenty of time to look at the site and the museum. The island of Thasos had established a colony called Krenides, and when the colonists had trouble with the native Thracians, asked Philip II of Macedon for help. He helped, and noting the strategic, agricultural and resource value of the area, took over the colony and reestablished it as a Macedonian city. It was later a Roman city, supported by the Via Egnatia, which passed through it, and the site of the battle at which Mark Antony and Octavian, later Augustus, defeated Brutus and Crassus. Later again, in the first century AD, it was the first place in Europe a Christian church was established.

Needless to say, with that much history, it’s a great site.

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It has a theatre begun in Philip’s time for traditional drama, poetry and musical performances, and redeveloped during Roman times to provide for more spectacular entertainment, often involving involving wild animals. There’s also a forum and an agora, and as well as remains of temples and administrative buildings, a couple of basilicas.

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The museum had a few good artefacts, but was mostly information boards which I photographed for all the detail. I left thinking about the rows of sorted and numbered bits of masonry, and the parts of the site where remains of buildings lay in disorder. There is years of work still to do to fully excavate, examine, interpret and conserve the site before the full extent and history of Philippi, especially pre-Roman, will be known, and I don’t see how Greece can do it in the current circumstances.

On the other hand, it’s waited 2,000 years. It can wait a bit longer. I got into the car, turning on the blessed air-conditioning, and used my phone to book a hotel at the nearby village of Krinides. Gotta love technology!

Last day in Thessaloniki … maybe …

On my last day in Thessaloniki I slept late, then had a leisurely breakfast before taking a taxi to the Archaeological Museum. My taxi driver was Constantinios. We had a nice chat. He told me about his friend who had gone to Australia a year ago to “win” money. At first I thought he meant in the lottery, and was about to disabuse him of this fond hope when he said that his friend had three jobs to win money for the future and a better life, and that he was sending money to Greece for his parents. I get so annoyed when ignorant people, because of the economy, say Greeks are lazy. Constantinios and his friend talk everyday on Skype. His friend says the “organisation” is better in Australia, but the road rules are very strict. “My friend says,” said Constantinios, “If the light is red, but there are no cars, still can’t go. Must wait till light green, even at 5am, and no cars. In Greece, if no cars, can go.”

“Really?” I asked. “Sure,” he replied. “People the same. Why different rules? People the same. Should be same rules. If light red, but no cars, no people, in Greece can go.”

“If it’s safe,” I said. “Of course!” he replied. He took for granted that the drivers drive safely. It was a light bulb moment for me. It crystallised what I’d been thinking while in taxis in the very busy traffic in Thessaloniki. Even though to me, it seemed that the drivers were a bit crazy, ignoring lanes, creating additional ones, they seem able to predict what drivers all around them will do, trusting each other to do what they would do themselves. It’s a kind of chaotic ballet, where everyone eventually ends up where they should be.

It wouldn’t work in Australia. The people aren’t the same, but I didn’t say so.

When we arrived at the Museum, we were still chatting, about where I was going, what Australia’s like, and our families, and it was me who said goodbye first. Such a nice man.

In the porch of the museum, there was a lovely marble lion, a funerary monument, about life-size, but similar to the enormous one Connal and I saw in 2012, a monument to the fallen at the battle of Chaeronea, where Alexander led the cavalry in his father Philip II’s decisive battle against the Thebans in BC338. The lion seems to have been a common funerary monument theme for soldiers in ancient Macedonia.

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Before going inside I sat down in the outdoor cafe for a cup of tea. The café is spacious and shaded by a huge platanos tree, with a garden beside it of steles and other monuments excavated from ancient cemeteries.

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The café is frequented by many locals as well as by visitors to the museum. I noticed an overhead projector fixed to the eave, and turning, saw the expected pull-down projector screen. Now, both of these pieces of equipment were in the open, that is open to the street, yet were apparently undamaged. In a city that has more graffiti than I’ve ever seen anywhere, including some dangerously close to but not on antiquities, this equipment, and the aforesaid antiquities, are untouched. People are different. That projector wouldn’t last five minutes in Australia.

Inside the museum, I saw the first of the many gold grave goods I would see in the north of Greece. These weren’t as plentiful as those in the National Archaeological Museum from the much older Mycenaean graves, but still lovely, and amazing.

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DSC06628There was a Roman milestone from the Via Egnatia, which was built in 145BC by the Romans under the governor of Macedonia, Gnaius Egnatius, as an extension of the Via Appia into Greece and Asia Minor, where it joined the ancient Persian Royal Road. Nowadays it’s a motorway called the Odos Egnatia, odos being Greek for road or street, and it isn’t quite so long, stopping at the border of Turkey. It even runs parallel to the ancient road for a way, and goes through Thessaloniki as its main street, while the motorway becomes a ring road around the city.

As an archer, I always look at the arrow heads in museums. Usually they’re just laid out side by side on flat surfaces, and I have loads of photos of arrow heads at many museums displayed in just that manner. This was the first time I’d seen them presented this way, with perspex rods representing the shafts and the flight of the arrows.

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It’s very effective, and as stupid as this sounds, I suddenly felt that they really were, well, real. I remember that the Spartan king Leonidas said at Thermopylae, when told that the Persian archers were so numerous that their arrows darkened the sun, “Then we’ll fight in the shade.” Just imagine that many of these nasty little missiles coming at you.

The temporary exhibition covered Greek colonisation, and the way that it spread Greek culture throughout the Mediterranean, from modern France and Italy to Asia Minor and the Black Sea. I really enjoyed it. It took me back to ClassCiv 1 at Newcastle University. It made much more sense to see it laid out so visually. One exhibit illustrated the colonisation as trees, with the trunks representing the mother-cities and the branches the colonies (expand the picture to see the names). At work (in libraries and museum) we use both high tech and low tech for displays. This, along with the arrow heads, demonstrated how effective low-tech can be when done well.

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I like Thessaloniki. The busy streets, the almost endless graffiti, and the layer upon layer of posters, scraped off and re-pasted, were a bit of a shock at first, but I acclimatised very quickly because, like the rest of Greece, none of it is threatening. On the outside the city is gritty and noisy, but inside each shop is spotless, with very helpful staff (many are students working part-time) and there are many quiet pedestrian oases, abounding with cafes and tavernas.

My hotel, the Plaza, is in the pedestrian area called the Ladadika, which was an old olive store area near the port. I loved getting back there after each long day, and eating at one of the many tavernas in the tiny winding streets. I might visit again one day.

Upper town to waterfront

After two days of walking around Thessaloniki, during which I clocked up twenty-three kilometres, I asked the receptionist if it was too far to walk to the Castles, the old upper town. She said yes, especially as it was all up hill. I opted for a taxi. I was glad I did. It was over three kilometres. The young taxi driver didn’t have much English and as I don’t have anything like enough Greek, I had some difficulty letting him know where I wanted to go, but eventually we were on the way. Very close to the top of the town we passed a fenced archaeological site. Of course I wanted to know what it was. He replied, “Is old … ah … old … is ah … old … I don’t know.” Not everyone shares my interests.

He dropped me off at “the view” as he called it, and I found that, while there  was a tower with a platform in front of it from which to view the city and beyond, there was another half kilometre at least to walk up to the castle. There were impressive defensive walls enclosing the upper town, and longer walls that went around the city.

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When I reached the castle, properly called the Heptapyrgion, or seven towers, I was not even surprised to see a sign on the door that said “The monument is closed this weekend for urgent restoration works.” I walked all round the outside anyway, enjoying myself immensely as I always do when pottering around old buildings.

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Out the back there were a few probably Roman columns and other bits and pieces laid out in what looked like some kind of order for future work. After coming back down to “the view”, I mounted the tower and looked for a good while. It was a great view of the city, the city walls dog-legging down the hill out of sight among the buildings, and the Thermaikos Gulf.

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After a cup of tea at the adjacent cafe, I took another taxi back down to the waterfront, and walked in the park where stands the modern statue of Philip II of Macedon, Alexander’s father, a brilliant leader, general and diplomat in his own right. I like the statue but my photos make it look squat, so I’ll just include the close-up of his face. It shows the wound that cost him his right eye, one of the wounds by which his remains were identified.

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First the father, now for the son. I looked for the statue of Alexander, and found it right on the waterfront. It too is modern, and I had been prepared to find both it and that of Philip disappointing, but I loved it. It’s on a raised white marble dais, decorated with eight full-size Macedonian shields each paired with one of the famous seventeen foot long sarissas, and has a frieze depicting a battle at one end. The statue itself then sits atop a black marble block. It makes a beautiful tableau.

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Alexander sits astride his horse, probably Bucephalus, and holds a sword in his right hand.

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After hanging around vainly hoping he would come to life, I made my way to the White Tower, over thirty-three metres tall and the most recognised landmark of Thessaloniki. I was given an audio guide to help me through the museum, but it spoke in such a horrible voice and strident American accent that after listening to the story for the first exhibit, I could bear to listen to it any more, and did it the old way, looking at the pictures and reading the signage. I’d already read some of the history of the Tower, and climbed up, level by level. The shallow stair-case spirals around inside the outer wall, each level having a large round central room, some adjoining small rooms and a couple of arched window openings. They were barred.

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As I climbed the stairs, I found myself becoming first slightly, then more edgy with each level. I was imagining how it must have been for the prisoners here, and the terrible suffering. I couldn’t stay in the rooms, and considered leaving, but decided to get out into the fresh air at the top. Immediately the breeze and the sunshine dissipated the oppressive feelings and I enjoyed the view. Three American women asked me to take a photo of them. I obliged, saying, “Say chickens.” They laughed and said it. I think it works better than “cheese”.