by W. Ruth Kozak
By the harbour in Thessaloniki, Greece, stands a magnificent statue of the young warrior-king, Alexander the Great, astride his fabled horse Bucephalus. At the base of the monument someone has laid two wreaths: myrtle for a hero, laurel for a god. It is June 10, the anniversary of Alexander’s death. I place a simple bouquet of red carnations beside the wreaths. Just who was this ambitious, brilliant young man? Alexander was only 20 when he became king of Macedonia and 22 when he set out to conquer the world. By the time he died suddenly and suspiciously in Babylon just 10 years later in 323 BC, he ruled an empire that included Persia and Egypt and stretched to India.
I first became acquainted with Alexander when I was in my teens and he has become part of my life. I have realized a dream, coming to northern Greece to trace his footsteps. My search for Alexander began in Athens when I boarded a bus heading north. The bus route follows the coast, skirting the teal-blue sea, past olive groves and fertile fields. As the bus nears the Thessaly/Macedonian border, Mount Olympus looms into sight. It is Greece’s highest and most awe-inspiring mountain. The ancients believed it to be the home of the twelve gods, the Olympians. Nestled under its towering northern flank lies ancient Dion, a sacred city of the Macedonians. Alexander visited here to make his oblations to the gods before setting off to conquer the world.
In Alexander’s time, northern Greece was populated by many tribes, one of which was the Makedonoi. When his father, Philip II, became king, the balance of power in the Hellenic world fell into the hands of Macedonia. Under his command, Philip formed the League of Corinth and within a few years he had conquered all the outlying tribes. To ensure their allegiance, Philip arranged marriages with daughters of clan chieftains. One of these political unions brought him to the island of Samothraki in Thrace. And this is where Alexander’s story begins.
At Thessaloniki, named for one of Alexander’s half-sisters, I board a bus heading across Macedonia to Thrace. East of Thessaloniki, the coastline is rugged with low mountains rolling down to the rocky sea coast. Alexandroupolis, a pleasant city near the Turkish frontier, originated as a small Thracian garrison town founded by Alexander. Offshore, the island of Samothraki rises mysteriously out of the sea. It was on this island that Philip met his bridge, the bewitching Epirote princess, Olympias. They soon wed and became the parents of a remarkable son, Alexander.
From Alexandroupolis I boarded the two-hour ferry trip to Samothraki. Once there, I walked the five kilometres through the lush countryside to the sanctuary of the Great Gods. The magnificent marble pillars of the temple loom ahead of me in a grove of trees. At the time of Philip’s marriage to Olympias, this sanctuary was the centre of religious life in northern Greece.
I place my hands on the magnetic lodestone of Samothraki, which represents the Great Mother. The russet-coloured stone burns beneath my touch. Supplicants used to hang iron votives here. Every member of the Macedonian royalty was initiated into the cult of the Great Mother. At one time, Alexander must have stood in this very place. Nearby I find the ruins of a small building erected in 318 BC, dedicated to Alexander and his father Philip by their sons, the join-kings, Philip Arridaios and Alexander IV.
From the tranquility of Samothraki, I return to Thessaloniki. From there, it’s a short bus ride to Pella, the ancient capital of Macedonia, Alexander’s birthplace. Several private villas have been excavated there and there are traces of wide streets flanked by foot-paths and a central avenue crossing the Agora.
The palace where Alexander was born in 365 BC is located on a rise behind the city. Known as the “wonder of the north” it was a significant example of Greek palatial architecture. The palace site is closed because of on-going excavations, but in the small museum across the highway from the site, there is a reconstruction of it and the villas. Exhibits include a pebble mosaic depicting Alexander and a friend hunting lions, and a bust of Alexander in his youth.
Greek poets, tragedians, historians, philosophers, doctors, actors, painters and craftsmen were invited to the Macedonian court. One of these philosophers was Aristotle whom Philip invited to tutor his son at school he had build known as the Nymphaeion” at Mieza, near modern Naoussa. The school, called “The Peripatos” (“walk”) was a two storey L-shaped building linked by staircases, built along the face of the rock. The school’s facilities were set up to harmonize and blend in with the environment, incorporating several caves. Here, in this tranquil setting of lush vegetation, fresh water springs and caves, Aristotle taught Alexander his companions.
I wander the pathways of the ancient site under tree branches where wild figs and grapes grow. On these shady walks and stone-tiered seats around the fountain dedicated to the Nymphs, Alexander was initiated into philosophy, poetry, mathematics and natural sciences. I enter the largest cave. Carved lintels lead to damp passageways. Stalactites drip from the ceilings. I imagine the voices of boys echoing from the past.
The original capital of Macedonia was at Aigai (near modern Vergina) a short distance from the town of Veria. It’s a pleasant half-hour walk from the village to the palace site. This big palace, built on a high promontory overlooking the plan with the sombre mountains close behind it, was a favourite hunting lodge for Philip. It was here that young Alexander often spent time with his father.Just below the lower terrace of the palace is the small theatre where Philip was assassinated as he attended a celebration for the wedding of Alexander’s sister Kleopatra.
As I stand looking out over the ruined tiers, I try to image the scene on that fateful day. The wedding was to be a big show with carts bearing statues of the twelve gods, including one with an effigy of Philip crowned as a god. As Philip entered the theatre and dismounted from his horse, he was stabbed to death by his bodyguard. The assassin dashed out of the theatre but was overtaken and killed. Family and political intrigues were behind the murder. At the time, Alexander was estranged from his father. His mother, Olympias, a ruthless, impassioned woman, was jealous of her rivals. Soon afterwards she had Phlip’s newest wife and infant daughter murdered.
Philip is interred in the royal tombs located a short walking distance below the palace on the plain. Found in a farmer’s field in 1976 and excavated, the tombs remain under the earth mound where they were discovered and entrance is through an underground passage.
Alexander would have been buried there in the tradition of the Macedonian kings, however his body was hijacked while it was being transported from Babylon and taken to Egypt where it was supposedly interred in a magnificent glass sarcophagus.
The new Tomb Museum incorporates several royal tombs and all the treasures found in them.As I climb down the stone steps to the tombs, tears fill my eyes. To me, this experience is as precious as the wealth of gold taken from the graves. All the years I have read and researched about Alexander, I have never imagined that one day I would stand before the graves of his legendary father and possibly that of his son, Alexander IV.
Philip’s tomb, a small marble temple, was hastily finished after the king’s sudden death. A young woman, identified s one of his barbarian wives, was buried with him. It is said that Alexander gave his father a Homeric funeral, fashioned after that of brave Hector in The Iliad. Items from the cremation pyre are displayed and they include pottery shards, pieces of weaponry, remnants of food offerings and harnesses from horses.
Next to Philip’s tomb is that of a Macedonian prince, believed to be Alexander IV, who was murdered at age 14. His remains are in the silver funeral urn that is displayed along with other grave offerings and a golden oak wreath.
Alexander became king at the age of 20. At the time of his assassination, Philip had been about to start a campaign against the Persians. Wishing to excel over his father and rival his glory, Alexander took up the challenge and marched eastward to conquer the world. Centuries later he is still revered as one of the greatest warriors the world has ever known.
Back in Thessalonki, as I ponder the two wreaths at the base of his monument, a group of Macedonian youths skateboard around it, dodging the rows of shields and sarissas that are the emblems of Alexander’s mighty army. I’m certain Alexander is smiling an approval.
If You Go:
Getting Around: There is frequent daily bus and train service from Athens and from Thessaloniki to other parts of northern Greece.
Where to Stay: Reasonably priced hotels are available near the Thessaloniki train depot. Check with the local tourist-information office for pensions and hostels. There are good hotels in Veria but limited accommodations in Vergina. Samothraki has pensions and hotels at Kamariotissa near the ferry port.
♦ Chaironeia, northeast of Athens, is the site of a decisive battle in 338 BC that established Philip II as ruler of the Greek city-states.
♦ Delphi, on the slopes of Mt. Parnassus, was a shrine of Apollo, God of the sun, music, reason and wisdom. Alexander came here to consult the priestess Pythia.
♦ Dion, one of the most important Macedonian shrines, is located on the north side of Mt. Olympus on a wide plain
♦ Dodoni, in the Pinos mountains of Epiros, was the home of Olympias, and Alexander spent much of his youth here.
♦ Mieza, near Naoussa, is where Aristotle taught the boys during Alexander’s early youth.
About the author:
Ruth spent a number of years researching and writing a novel dealing with the fall of Alexander’s dynasty. “Shadow of the Lion” is currently making the round of publishers. During the time she researched the novel, she lived in Greece and spends nearly every year visiting there. She also used her research trips to write travel articles about Greece and the country’s history. www.ruthkozak.com