Thessaloniki is the second city of Greece. We all ask ourselves how this very lively spot on the Aegean Sea seemed to be off our radars for so long.
What brought us here to northern Greece were two archaeological sites not far from Thessaloniki, at Vergina and at Pella.
As we soon discover, Thessaloniki is well worth the visit too, and the archaeological sites are so much more than a ‘pile of old stones in a dusty landscape’!
Far from it. This is the home of Alexander the Great, and the commencement of the Greek Hellenistic period.
What draws our interest is that the discoveries are so recent. World class small museums have been constructed on the actual sites where the palaces and tombs were discovered. Both sites are within easy driving distance of Greece’s lively and youthful second city, Thessaloniki.
Vergina is best known as the site of ancient Aigai, the first capital of Macedon. It was there when in 336 BC Philip II was assassinated in the theatre and Alexander the Great was proclaimed king. The ancient site of this first capital of the Kingdom of Macedonia, was discovered in the 19th century.
The most important remains are the monumental palace, lavishly decorated with mosaics and painted stuccoes, and the burial ground with more than 300 tumuli, some of which date from the 11th century B.C. One of the royal tombs in the Great Tumulus is identified as that of Philip II, who conquered all the Greek cities, paving the way for his son Alexander and the expansion of the Hellenistic world. It was discovered in 1976 and excavated under the leadership of Greek archaeologist Manolis Andronikos.
What’s fascinating is that the Museum is built underground ‘around the actual tombs’! They are still intact! Exquisite, precious items of gold and finely carved ivory miniatures were found in the tombs. They are beautifully displayed along with other funerary objects placed in the tombs for their use in the afterlife.
When Philip II’s tomb was discovered, it was so well camouflaged. It was never disturbed or looted as so many others before this. It was such a surprise for Andronikos, who realised that his years of work finally proved that this place was the site of the traditional capital Macedonian Kingdom of 2,400 years ago.
This discovery has current day political significance too, as it proves that Macedonia is in mainland Greece. The claim of the bordering state in the former Yugoslavia, to be the real Macedonia, is simply not true.
Philip and his son Alexander were born in Pella. Here, we see a re-creation of the Summer Palace of the Macedonian dynasty. It’s a large building with a rectangular atrium – as a reference to the central peristyle courtyard of ancient houses in Pella.
We walk easily through four themed well-curated rooms. It’s so easy to understand aspects of daily and public life in ancient Pella. We view amazing original mosaics lifted from Pella’s sanctuaries (the carefully chosen pebble used as the eye of the deer is of a size and has the right angles and colour that brings the animal to life). And, in another thematic group on a higher floor, we see the findings from the city’s cemeteries.
Our guide helps us to know so much more about the mighty Alexander. He was a student of Aristotle, but also learned much from his father as to how to respect and govern his people. It’s hard to believe that he lead his first campaign at the age 18 and was dead by the time he was only 31.
He was a brave leader, a man of the people, who conquered lands all the way east as far as India. His great legacy was uniting his people in one great state.
Alexander had a ‘deep appreciation’ for his friend, the handsome Macedonian fellow warrior, Hephaistion. In those days, it was very customary for members of Alexander’s Army to take fellow soldiers as lovers while away on Campaigns. It is said that this made them all the braver as they had strong motivation to protect each other when going into battle.
Alexander married the beautiful Roxana of Bactria, and fathered at least one child, Alexander IV of Macedon, born of Roxana shortly after his death in 323 BC.