Heinrich Schliemann, genius and charlatan, liked to tell the story of how he’d been inspired by a picture seen at the age of eight, of the burning of Troy, which had made him vow that one day he’d discover its ruins. In fact, his interest doesn’t seem to have been alerted until, a middle aged and wealthy merchant, he was travelling the plains of Turkey, and became interested in looking for the disputed site. An English diplomat called Frank Calvert believed a hill called Hisarlik was the real site of Troy, though he didn’t have the money to excavate it, and the place seemed too small to have accommodated all the dramas of the Iliad; no space for ‘topless towers’ here. Actually, there were not just one, but nine cities built on this site, one on top of the other, until the mound of debris was fifty feet high. As one city was destroyed, by earthquake, fire, or hostility, another would be built on top. The space was small, but large enough to house the royal citadel of a city that would sprawl over the plain around it. Matters weren’t helped by the fact that in order to build the final city, the Roman-Greek Ilium Novum, much of the hill had been levelled, destroying the archaeology beneath. However, there would have been plenty of Homer’s city left to find, if Schliemann hadn’t acted with such disregard. Fired with enthusiasm, he bought the site, and then embarked on a destructive and vandalistic dig. Hordes of Turkish workmen gouged a great chasm in the remaining walls, scattering huge stones everywhere over the plain, where they could now only be of use for building by the locals. In particular, he destroyed most of a wall of beautifully made limestone blocks, believing it was too fine to belong to his period, and went on digging ruthlessly down and down. Finally, he stopped at the second city on the site, known as Troy II, which he decided was the authentic Troy. There he had the luck to find a huge cache of treasure, abandoned as though the inhabitants had fled from a catastrophe. He spun a romantic story that his schoolgirl bride, Sophia, was with him at the time – though she wasn’t – and had her photographed in what he decided were Helen’s jewels. These jewels, which he smuggled out of Turkey. ended up in the Berlin Museum, where they were believed to have vanished during World War II, but in yet another of the strange convolutions of this story, they have since turned up in Russia, looted by Russian soldiers, and the Russians seem to have every intention of hanging on to them.
But these jewels, whoever they belonged to, certainly didn’t belong to Helen; they were hundreds of years older than that. And by now, much of the ‘real’ Troy (Troy VI) , the city he had believed to be ‘too fine’ to be his Troy, lay destroyed and unsalvgeable, scattered over the plain. Recent more sensitive excavations have since found traces of Troy VI and have managed to piece together the picture of a royal citadel, of fine stone houses and high walls; but for all his enthusiasm and energies, one can’t help wishing that someone other than Schliemann had excavated such a crucial and evocative site.
When Homer composed his epic, the Trojan War had been over for many hundreds of years; 1250 BC is a possible date – and Troy VI does seem to have been destroyed by fire, though how this related to the story of the Iliad can’t be known.
But far from being an imaginary city, Troy and its kings seem certainly to have existed, and was known , and was known to the ancients . Homer called it Ilion, and the Hittite kings referred to it as it as Wilusa. Perhaps it would spoil the legend to know too much about it; I’ve never been to Hisarlik, but apparently the tourist, in the absence of much else to see on the site, is greeted by a huge and hideous wooden horse, so maybe I’m better off with my imaginary Troy, of gleaming walls and white buildings.
(Michael Wood’s book ‘In Search of the Trojan War’ is an excellent account of the Trojan story, and to be recommended to anyone who wants to find out more.)