By the harbour in Thessaloniki, stands a magnificent statue of the young warrior-king, Alexander the Great, astride his fabled horse Bucephalus. At the base of the monument someone has laid two wreaths: myrtle for a hero, laurel for a god. It is June 10, the anniversary of Alexander’s death. I place a simple bouquet of red carnations beside the wreaths. I first became acquainted with Alexander when I was in my teens and he has become part in my life. I have realized a dream, coming to northern Greece to trace his footsteps.
Just who was this ambitious, brilliant young man? Alexander was only twenty when he became king of Macedonia, and twenty-two when he set out to conquer the world. By the time he died suddenly and suspiciously at a banquet in Babylon, just ten years later, he ruled an empire that included Persia and Egypt and stretched to the borders of India.
My search for Alexander began in Athens when I caught a bus heading north. The bus route follows the coast, skirting the teal-blue sea, past olive groves and fertile fields. As the bus nears the Thessaly/Macedonian border, Mount Olympus looms into sight. It is Greece’s highest and most awe-inspiring mountain feet (2981m). The ancients believed it to be the home of the twelve gods, the Olympians. Nestled under its towering northern flank lies ancient Dion, a sacred city of the Macedonians. Alexander visited here before setting off to conquer the world. In this idyllic setting surrounded by fields of crimson poppies, I was transported to the past, to the time when the Makedonoi grazed their flocks on those meadows.
In Alexander’s time, northern Greece was been populated by many tribes, one of which was the Makedonoi. When his father, Philip II, became king the balance of power in the Hellenic world fell into the hands of Macedonia. Under his shrewd command, he formed the League of Corinth and within a few years he had conquered all the outlying tribes extending the borders of Macedonia to include Epiros to the west, Thrace to the east, Illyria to the north, and other northern tribes as the Danube River. To ensure their allegiance, Philip arranged marriages with daughters of clan chieftains. One of these political unions brought him to the island of Samothraki in Thrace and this is where Alexander’s story begins.
East of Thessaloniki, the coastline is rugged with low mountains rolling down to the rocky sea-coast. Alexandroupolis, a pleasant city near the Turkish frontier originated as a small Thracian garrison town founded by Alexander. Offshore, in the mist of early morning, the island of Samothraki rises mysteriously out of the sea. It was on this island that Philip met his bride, the bewitching Epirote princess, Olympias. They soon wed and become the parents of a remarkable son, Alexander.
From Alexandroupolis I took the two hour ferry trip the Samothraki. One there I walked the five kilometers through the lush countryside to the sanctuary. As I listened to the wind hisses through fields of dried grass I watched hundreds of butterflies flit among the wildflowers.
The magnificent marble pillars of Temple of the Great Gods loom ahead of me in a grove of trees. At the time of Philip’s marriage to Olympias, this sanctuary was the centre of religious life in northern Greece. Its mystic religion gave the island a unique character. The prime divinity was the Great Mother, a goddess of pre-Greek origin. Splendid buildings were erected in Her honour most of them paid for by the Macedonian royalty. I placed my hands on the magnetic lodestone of Samothraki, which represents the Great Mother. The russet-coloured stone burns beneath my touch. Supplicants used to hang iron votives here. Every member of the Macedonian royalty was initiated into the cult of the Great Mother. At one time Alexander must have stood in this very place.
Nearby, I found the ruins of a small building erected in 318 BC, dedicated to Alexander and his father Philip by their sons, the joint kings Philip Arridaios and Alexander IV.
From the tranquility of Samothraki, I returned to Thessalonki. From there, it’s a short bus ride to Pella, the ancient capital of Macedonia, Alexander’s birthplace. Several private villas have been excavated there and there are traces of wide streets flanked by footpaths and a central avenue crossing the Agora.
The palace where Alexander was born in 365 BC, occupied 60,0000 square meters, located on a rise behind the city. Known as the “wonder of the north”, it was a significant example of Greek palatial architecture. The palace site is closed because of on-going excavations, but in the small museum across the highway from the site, there is a reconstruction of it and the villas. Exhibits include a pebble mosaic depicting Alexander and a friend hunting lions, and a bust of Alexander in his youth.
Greek poets, tragedians, historians, philosophers, doctors, actors, painters and craftsmen were invited to the Macedonian court. One of these philosophers was Aristotle who Philip invited to tutor his son at a school he had built known as “the Nymphaeion” at Mieza (near modern Naoussa).
I took a taxi from Naoussa to reach the site. The school, called “The Peripatos” (“walk”), was a two-story L-shaped building linked by staircases, built along the face of the rock. The school’s facilities were set up discreetly enough to harmonize and blend in with the environment, incorporating several caves. Here, in this tranquil setting of lush vegetation, fresh water springs and caves full of stalagmites and stalactites, Aristotle taught Alexander and his companions.
I wandered the pathways of the ancient site under the branches of plane trees where wild figs and grapes grow, and ivy drips from the bowers. On these shady walks and stone-tiered seats around the fountain dedicated to the Nymphs, Alexander was initiated into philosophy, poetry, mathematics and natural sciences. I entered the largest cave. Carved lintels lead to damp passageways, and stalactites drip from the ceilings. I imagined the voices of boys echoing from the past.
The original capital of Macedonia was at Aigai (modern Vergina) a short distance from the town of Veria. It’s a pleasant half-hour walk from the village to the palace site. This big palace, built on a high promontory overlooking the Plain with the sombre mountains close behind it, was a favourite hunting lodge for Philip. It was here that young Alexander often spent time with his father and companions.
Just below the lower terrace of the palace is the small theatre where Philip was assassinated as he attended a celebration for the wedding of Alexander’s sister Kleopatra. As I stood looking out over the ruined tiers, I tried to imagine the scene on that fateful day.
The wedding was to be a big show with carts bearing statues of the twelve gods, including one with an effigy of Philip crowned as a god. As Philip entered the theatre and dismounted from his horse, he was stabbed to death by his bodyguard. The assassin dashed out of the theatre but was overtaken and killed. Family and political intrigues were behind the murder. At the time, Alexander was estranged from his father. His mother, Olympias, a ruthless, impassioned woman, was jealous of her rivals. Soon afterwards she had Philip’s newest wife and her infant daughter murdered.
Philip is interred in the royal tombs located just a short walking distance below the palace on the Plain. Found in a farmers field in 1976, and excavated by the renowned archaeologist Manolis Andronikos. The tombs remain under the earth mound where they were discovered and entrance is through an underground passage. Alexander would have been buried there in the tradition of the Macedonian kings, however his body was hijacked while it was being transported from Babylon, and taken to Egypt where it was supposedly interred in a magnificent glass sarcophagus.
The new Tomb Museum incorporates several royal tombs and all the treasures found in them and is a tribute to Andronikos who died a few years after the discovery.
As I climbed down the stone steps to the tombs, tears filled my eyes. To me, this experience was as precious as the wealth of gold taken from the graves. All the years I have read and research about Alexander, I have never imagined that one day I would stand before the graves of his legendary father and possibly that of his son, Alexander IV.
Philip’s tomb, a small marble temple, was hastily finished after the king’s sudden death. A young woman, identified as one of his barbarian wives, was buried with him in the small antechamber. Their remains were stored in golden caskets found inside the vaults along with hordes of dazzling gold and jewels. It is said that Alexander gave his father a Homeric funeral, fashioned after that of brave Hector in “The Iliad”. Items from the cremation pyre are displayed including pottery shards, pieces of weaponry, remnants of food offerings, and harnesses from horses.
Next to Philip’s tomb is that of a Macedonian prince, believed to be Alexander IV who was murdered at the age of thirteen. His remains are in the silver funeral urn that is displayed along with other grave offerings and a golden oak wreath.
Alexander became King at the age of twenty. At the time of his assassination, Philip had been about to start a campaign against the Persians. Wishing to excel over his father and rival his glory, Alexander took up the challenge and marched Eastward to conquer the world. Centuries later he is still revered as one of the greatest warriors the world has ever known.
Back in Thessaloniki, as I ponder the two wreaths at the base of his monument, a group of Macedonian youths skateboard around it dodging the rows of shields and sarissas that are the emblems of Alexander’s mighty army. I’m certain Alexander is smiling an approval!
Other Alexander Sites:
CHAIRONEIA: located N.E. of Athens. This is the site of a decisive battle fought in 338 BC that established Philip II of Macedon as ruler over the Greek city-states. At this time Alexander was 18 years old. He is said to be the first to break the line of the Sacred Band of Thebes. A great stone lion monument dominates the road and overlooks the battle field. Chaironeia village is the birthplace of the philosopher-biographer-priest, Plutarch who wrote “Lives of Alexander”. (2 hours by bus from Athens)
DELPHI: on the slopes of Mt. Parnassus, was a shrine of Apollo, God of the sun, music, reason and wisdom. Alexander came here to consult the priestess called Pythia.
(3 hours by bus from Athens).
DION: one of the most important Macedonian shrines (from 500 BC) is located on the north side of Mt. Olympus on a wide plain. The archaeological site is marked by roads, cisterns, private villas and various shrines dating from Roman to the early period. (You take a bus from the town of Katerini)
DODONI: was the home of Olympias and Alexander spent much of his youth here. It is located in the Pindos mountains of Epiros not far from the city of Ioannina. During Alexander’s time, Epiros was a tribal country ruled by leaders chosen by the clans. Olympias was a princess of the royal family of the Molossians, descended from Achilles. (You reach the site by taxi from Ioannina)
If You Go:
GETTING THERE: There is frequent daily bus and train service from Athens and from Thessaloniki to other parts of northern Greece. Car rentals are available and the roads are good. Greek inter-city bus service is comfortable and inexpensive. There is transportation to most archaeological sites.
STAYING THERE: Reasonably priced hotels are available near the Thessaloniki train depot on Monstiriou St. Get there by bus from the Bus Depot. Check with the local tourist-information office for pensions and hostels. There are good hotels in Veria but limited accomodations in Vergina.
Samothraki has pensions and hotels at Kamariotissa near the ferry. (no camping!)
MUSEUMS: There are museums in Thessaloniki, Samothraki, Pella and Vergina. Opening times vary. Most sites are closed on Monday.
All photos by W. Ruth Kozak.
Ruth is a historical fiction writer as well as writing travel and often combines travel writing with her research trips. This was one of several journeys Ruth has made to Northern Greece in search of Alexander while researching her work-in-progress novel “Shadow of the Lion.” You can read more of Ruth’s travel adventures on her blog: