In the footsteps of Alexander the Great
What would you say to following the trail through Anatolia, from Çanakkale to İskenderun, of Alexander the Great, who set out to conquer the world?
For more than two thousand years Alexander the Great has excited the imagination of people around the globe. I became fascinated by Alexander some 18 years ago, when a school teacher unravelled a map of the classical world and traced the outline of his journey. Who could not be intrigued by a man who inspired his soldiers to march for 12 years, beyond the known ends of the earth. They tramped some 22,000 miles; from Greece all the way to India and back to Babylon. By the time the Macedonian king died at the age of thirty-two in 323 BC much of the known world lay beneath his feet.
Having studied his campaign in libraries I wanted to get out on the ground and see how the landscape shaped his strategies and determined his route. I decided to organise an expedition in Turkey, retracing his footsteps from the city of Troy to the site of the Battle of Issus. What better way than to walk the 2,000 miles, travelling at the marching speed of his 40,000-strong army and experience something of the physical rigours they faced. I wanted to behold the monumental ruins of cities he visited or attacked, and to search for ancient roads upon which his soldiers trekked.
ACHILLES’ CELEBRATED SHIELD
Turkey is a veritable treasure trove for those enthralled by Alexander. First stop should be Istanbul’s magnificent archaeological museum. There, pride of place, stands the Alexander sarcophagus. This was not Alexander’s personal coffin; instead this tomb probably belonged to Abdalonymus, a mere gardener who was appointed as local ruler in the Levant by Alexander. In death as in life he wanted to show his continuing respect for his overlord, and so had Alexander depicted on his tomb.
In spring 334BC Alexander embarked on his epic expedition to overthrow the Persian empire. As he sailed across the Hellespont, the modern Dardanelles, he stopped mid way to sacrifice a bull and pour libations to placate Poseidon and the sea. Then, dressed in full armour at the prow of the royal trireme, always a king with a showman’s instincts, he hurled his spear into the soil claiming the continent as his, won by right of conquest.
When I visited Troy the start-point of my walk, I felt like many travellers first exploring the site, confused and a little disappointed. There are no great colonnaded streets decked with marbles and mosaics to inspire awe; instead you have to let your imagination fly and let ancient myths consume your thoughts. This is what Alexander did almost immediately after arriving in Asia Minor. He stripped naked, anointed himself with oil, and ran to place a garland on the tomb of Achilles. It was a symbolic gesture, the new great warrior paying homage to his own personal hero, who had fought a thousand years before Alexander (if there is any truth in Homer’s story of the Trojan war). Next, having climbed up to the temple of Athena, he donated his own suit of armour and was given in return heroic relics, including Achilles’ celebrated five layer shield, which was to save Alexander’s life during a siege in India.
FROM EPHESUS TO HALICARNASSUS
My walk began in March and as I walked inland I shivered my way through hills decked in snow. Thankfully, welcoming villagers were on hand, calling me into their tea houses, plying me with hot cocoa, and presenting me with a cornucopia of tasty treats. Hiking south I reached Ephesus. While Troy requires a leap of faith, this city needs no effort at all to bring its ruins to life. Although almost all of what can be seen today is Roman, when the city was the capital of the province of Asia, it was an important city hundreds of years before when Alexander marched through.
In Alexander’s wake I visited the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Coincidentally it was burned down by a madman the night that Alexander was born. Nowadays the temple stands forlorn and melancholy. Just one column rises full above the swampy ground. Alexander offered to defray the costs incurred in the rebuilding of the temple, on the proviso that they would dedicate it in his name, but the citizens of Ephesus politely declined ‘because it did not befit one god to do honour to another’.
Heading further south, Alexander reached the city of Halicarnassus, built on a lavish scale by Mausolus, whose tomb, the ‘Mausoleum’, was rated one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was also a key naval base occupied by the Persians, who manned the city’s 6.5kms of fortifications. As big and strong as they were, Halicarnassus’ walls were built to defend in a bygone age. For Alexander was equipped with a new type of weapon, the torsion catapult. Designed by engineers at the court of Philip, his father, it was powered by animal sinews that could unleash far more power than anything previously seen. With these catapults Alexander could actually knock down walls, and literally smash any cities that stood in his way. At Halicarnassus he did just that.
FOUR AND A HALF MONTHS AND 2,000 MILES
Three months into my expedition I reached Gordium. Situated just west of Ankara, this was the capital of Phrygia, a kingdom founded by Gordius in the 8th century BC and expanded by his son Midas, whose legendary touch turned everything to gold. It was here that one of the most celebrated moments in Alexander’s career occurred. Alexander was attracted by the story surrounding a ceremonial chariot that marked Gordius’ grave. The wagon’s yoke was attached by a knot no man had ever been able to undo. A myth had developed foretelling whoever undid the knot would become Lord of all Asia. Surrounded by a crowd of onlookers, Alexander struggled to loose the knot. Growing frustrated he drew his sword and slashed through it. Apparently Zeus himself approved of Alexander’s actions, for “there were thunderclaps and flashes of lightning that very night”.
My walk finished at Iskenderun, near the Syrian border, a city Alexander founded in commemoration of the battle of Issus, where he smashed through the ranks of the Persian army. Four and a half months and 2,000 miles after setting off from Troy, I could not believe my journey had finished. The myriad ancient cities I had seen were embedded in my memory, but what remains foremost in my mind is the sincere friendship of the Turkish people, extended constantly to a weary traveller far from home. Every single day I was welcomed into their homes and showered with kindness and hospitality. Though just a brief affair, it was passionate in the extreme, and left me madly in love with the land that is Turkey.