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Troy's story still stranger than fiction

A swirl of fantasy and fact sweeps visitors to the city's remains, windswept excavations of nine urban layers, presided over by a gargantuan wooden horse reproduction.

Published May 9, 2004

[Photos: Walter Roessing]
Among the best preserved ruins at Troy is a small theater, probably constructed about 350 B.C.

Visitors stroll between the walls of Troy. The taller, stronger wall on the left was constructed about 1,500 years before the Roman-built wall on the right.

TROY, ASIA MINOR - Hollywood, that wonderland of make-believe, has produced yet another fictional epic about Troy, but the remnants of the mighty city-state are becoming a tourist attraction.

The latest film version of the 10-year siege opens this week, and stars Brad Pitt; it comes just a few months after a made-for-TV film. These and other entertainment versions of the epic battles immortalized by Homer in the Iliad and Odyssey and by Virgil in the Aeneid are often more fairy tale than history.

The real thing sits atop a flat-top hill overlooking fields of cotton in Turkey's remote Asia Minor.

Visitors walk the ruins of the city, whose origin dates back 5,000 years. These relics are spread across a site a short distance from the Aegean Sea and 18 miles from Turkey's strategic Dardanelles waterway.

At its cultural peak, this heavily fortified, walled city was so important it was visited by kings, queens, emperors, sultans and generals - starting with the Persian ruler Xerxes in 485 B.C. and followed a century later by Alexander the Great. Julius Caesar was a guest here in 48 B.C.

Archaeological digs have uncovered nine separate periods of settlement that date to the Early Bronze Age. However, the first and most visible sign of today's Troy is an imposing reproduction of that fabled giant wooden horse.

Standing 39 feet high, the present-day horse was built from the pine trees of the nearby Ida Mountains by the Turkish Ministry of Culture in 1975, to attract tourists to this isolated site. Its size is relative to the original fortifications of the city during the Trojan Wars. Adjacent to the horse are a small museum and marble pedestal of the statue of a Roman tribune (79 A.D.) with Greek inscriptions.

What's fun about this horse is that you can climb inside. But you'd best be in good physical condition, because its stairs are steep, particularly the ones leading to the upper level. The horse has many open windows, for waving to friends and other tourists. Standing inside this symbol and scanning the nearby ruins is a good time to recall the legend:

Failing to conquer Troy in a mighty battle, the Archaeans (Greeks) built a wooden horse outside the city walls, as an apparent tribute to the goddess Athena. They hid a small group of warriors inside the creation before withdrawing their army.

The Trojans, thinking the horse was a gift from their enemy, pulled it into the city and set about celebrating their victory. Around midnight, the hiding Archaeans opened a trapdoor, climbed down, killed the sleeping guards, opened the city gates and signaled their army to attack. Mighty Troy was sacked and its soldiers slaughtered.

Today, after stepping away from the modern version of the wooden horse, a guided tour of Troy's ruins begins by entering the east gate. The stronger, taller walls on the left were erected 1,500 years before the Roman wall on the right.

The prime physical remains of the nine cities - one built atop another - include towering city walls, typical house foundations, a temple and amphitheater. But gone are such glories as its high towers, palaces and the marble Temple of Athena, all destroyed by wars, fire and earthquakes.

It's believed Troy began fading into obscurity around 400 A.D. With the help of a guide, a visitor can make out the form of a great theater that once held 10,000 spectators. More apparent - and open for inspection - is a smaller theater erected around 350 B.C.

Unfortunately, Troy's historical remnants are in disarray because the site's initial 19th-century excavations were conducted in an amateurish manner. In a frantic search for gold and riches, Heinrich Schliemann, who was not an archaeologist, slashed huge trenches haphazardly through the site.

His approach was akin to carving large slices out of a delicate pie.

Eventually, Schliemann found treasure: gold jewelry, ornamental pins and cups, and copper and bronze artifacts. Without the knowledge of the Ottoman government, Schliemann shipped the treasure to Greece.

Some pieces were returned to Turkey and are displayed in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, along with gold coins and items uncovered by others. But much of Schliemann's treasure wound up in a Berlin museum, where it disappeared after the Russians helped conquer that city in 1945.

Not all of Troy's excavations have been completed. More ruins are believed buried under the fertile cotton fields, which have endured the passage of many armies and civilizations: Mycenaean, Assyrian, Hittite, Hellenist, Roman, Persian, Greek and Ottoman. Even if no other significant discoveries are made, this city, which guarded an intersection of trade routes linking Asia and Europe, will endure as a place of fascination in both literature and archaeology.

Freelance writer Walter Roessing lives in La Mesa, Calif.

* * *

GETTING THERE: Centuries ago, this citadel was a major port in the Aegean Sea. But because of earthquakes, today's site is several miles from the sea. That land movement, plus its location in the northwest corner of Asia Minor, make it a challenge to reach.

Troy is about 170 miles southwest of Istanbul; a roundtrip bus tour takes about eight hours. The nearest large Turkish town is Canakkale, 20 miles north; it has hotels, rental cars and a commercial airport.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Contact the Turkish Tourist Office, 821 United Nations Plaza, New York, NY 10017; call 212 687-2194 or go to

[Last modified May 7, 2004, 11:10:15]


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