alexander the great
Turkey has hosted many kings and empires during it’s 5,000 plus years as a cradle for human civilization. Included in its history is one of the world’s most famous conquerors, Alexander the Great. Alexander would rule an empire that spread from what is now Italy, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, and beyond. Many ancient cities in Turkey have at least one monument to King Alexander, and Alexander founded dozens of “Alexandria’s” including a coastal city in Turkey now known as “Iskenderun” (City of Alexander).
Why am I telling you all this? Well, because this week I was lucky enough to
host an sharp, young journalist whose eight month mission will be to WALK King Alexander’s journey to Babylon (Iraq). My friend, Theodore May, will start in Iskenderun where Alexander began his war with the Persian King. Babylon represents Alexanders final victory over Persia.
May’s trip, as planned, will take him through Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, and Iraq. He hopes to shoot video, photos, and report not only on Alexander’s history, but also on current political and economic issues facing the areas he visits. You’ll even be able to track May in real time through a GPS he carries, May has some great experience, spending two years in Egypt working as a journalist for foreign and local newspapers.
I was able to teach May a little about Anatolian culture, and give him a briefing about Turkey. We dined over Manti (Kayseri Ravioli) and Pastirma, two famous Kayseri foods. The next day, we were able to visit Kayseri’s old citadel and the last surviving church in Kayseri. Ofcourse, I made sure to introduce May to Turkey’s delicious Iskender Kebap (Alexander’s Kebab).
I really think May is going to do an excellent job, and whether or not you are a history buff, May’s journey will offer a unique look at the Middle East region. You can follow his journey at www.alexanderglobalpost.com. The link is also available under the “Other Bloggers in Turkey” tab on the right side of the page.
alexander the great
Picture a small village in middle of nowhere. When you look around, you see nothing but a few small flats and buildings that make up the “town square.” Alongside the narrow road serving as “main street”, farmers stand next to their overloaded tables bulging with fresh tomatoes, melons, and other fresh fruit. As you look away from the town, you see nothing but endless fields of wheat and rolling mountains sitting on the horizon. This is the small township of Polatli, Turkey. 72 km (43 miles) west of Ankara, the town is not far from the city of 4 million. However, Turkey is a country made up of large urban centers surrounded by much smaller townships and even smaller villages. For example, Turkey’s 2007 census reports that about 12.5 million people live in Istanbul alone while about 20.8 million people live in all of Turkey’s non-urban areas combined.
Polatli was not our destination, however, but the last checkpoint with civilization before setting out in search of the 3000 year-old capital of Phrygia, Gordion. Located in the incredibly small Turkish village of Yassihüyük (Yas-see-hew-yewk), Gordion was an incredibly important and strategic city for two empires: the Assyrians (Phyrigians) and the Greeks.
During the Phyrigian period, Gordion lied right at the river crossing for the road connecting Lydia and Babylonia. At the time, these cities were equivalent to today’s New York and London. They were huge city centers where much of the world’s power was concentrated.
For the Greeks, the city is the subject of one of its most famous myths: King Alexander and the Gordian Knot. According to the myth, Gordion had no established leader during its formation. Instead, an oracle predicted that the next person to enter the city driving an ox cart would become King. A poor peasant named Gordias entered carrying his ox cart with his son, Midas. Gordias was quickly declared the new leader. Midas, in honor of his father’s succession, dedicated the cart to the gods and tied it to a post with a very intricate knot.
The Gordian Knot, as it became known, would remain tied until 333 BC when Alexander the Great would
attempt to untie the knot. Previously, the oracles had said whoever could untangle the knot would rise to power as the next King of Asia. The impatient 23 year-old would ultimately cut the knot with his sword in a fit of rage. After his “success” at Gordion, Alexander would go on to conquer the rest of the known Asian continent, but his kingdom would be very short lived. Ten years later, King Alexander would die of a severe fever in Babylon. Some say Alexander was cursed by the gods for taking the easy way out with the Gordion knot.
In Turkey, I am surprised almost on a daily basis of how much history I can find around me. As two of my classmates and I drove through seemingly endless fields of wheat, I asked myself, “How did anyone find anything out here?” But there they were, hidden among the hills and rocks of Turkey lay the ruins of Gordion’s inner city.
My traveling companions included Nye, a retired British civil engineer who has lived in Turkey for many years, and Ivory, a student from Hong Kong visiting Turkey for the next two months as a part of her university program. Both of them are in my Turkish class, which I will talk about later in the blog. Feeling a bit like Indiana Jones, we walked along a small path circling the remnants of the ancient citadel. We had almost walked into the archeological site when the Turkish man in charge of watching over it warned us off. As a Boston resident where the oldest surviving structure is, at best, 500-600 years old, this was an experience. Standing on a cliff overlooking what was once an ancient citadel housing a powerful King, all his amenities, and the ancient elite, I couldn’t help but feel more connected with the ancient world I had spent years in my history and Latin classes reading about.
Just beyond the ruined citadel, you can see many small mounds in the distance. These mounds are not ordinary hills, but the burial mounds of Phrygia’s kings. The tallest and only excavated mound is the tomb of “King Midas” (the Midas Tumulus). Yes, this is thought to be the King Midas who was granted the golden touch. However, upon entering the tomb, visitors find out that the Midas portion may be exaggerated. In all the books that speak about Gordion, one is led to believe you will see the tomb of King Midas. Upon arrival however, the visitor is told at the entrance to the tomb that although the mound certainly contained one of Phrygia’s greatest kings, it seemed to have been built too early for Midas. Instead, archeologists believe the tomb probably belonged to Gordias, the father of King Midas. Alas, it appears that the site was nothing but fools gold!
Nonetheless, the site was incredibly interesting and the chance to step so far into a 3000 year-old tomb was invigorating. Walking just ten feet into the tomb, we noticed the temperature drop at least 30 degrees. We walked about 200 feet down a narrow tunnel built by archeologists in the 1950s when they discovered the tomb. All of the valuables and bodies were removed and given to either the Gordion Museum across the street or to the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara. All that remained in the tomb itself was the wooden frame built by immense logs. The frame resembled a log cabin. As tradition dictated, the Phyrigians buried and sealed the tomb with earth and rock.
After our six hour adventure in Gordion, we rested at a small outpost behind the Midas tomb. The single story ranch was built out of the red rock found everywhere in Turkey. Sipping on Schweppes bitter lemon, we all agreed the adventure was much more surprising and interesting than expected.
Earlier, I mentioned my trip to Gordion to Mehmet, my Turkish host. He looked at me with shock and said, “Matt, why are you going out there? Nothing but rocks and dead plants. Not very interesting.” Mehmet was right that there were plenty of both rocks and dead plants in Gordion, but there was also so much more. With so much of Turkey’s main attractions crawling with tourists, one can get lost in the hustle. Getting away and visiting a much less traveled site provided us with a chance to really take the time and soak in what we were seeing.
That day in Gordion, I learned Turkey’s treasures are not just in Sultanahmet or along the Aegean Coast. Some of Turkey’s most breathtaking sites lay off the beaten path, away from the carpet dealers and tourist traps of the cities, and all you need is the motivation and the right companions to travel through the intimidating Turkish landscape and discover the treasures scattered across the country.