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Sunday, 31 August 2008

DIA 295-303 - Enter Macedonians Stage Left

Istanbul - Kesan - Alexandropolis - Kavala - Peristera - Vergina Dt = 11651 Km

From Istanbul we catch a bus to a town close to the Turko-Greek border called Kesan. We are in a hurry to meet Piluca and Ester (Angel's mother and sister) in Thessaloniki. We ride like maniacs from Kesan to make it on time, and Thrace passes in a blur. But there is still a little time to think.

The Persian king Xerxes is the first historical figure to spring to mind. We are riding between the mountains and the sea. Did Xerxes march this route on his way to see to father Darius' unfinished business and defeat those pesky Greeks? I remember standing in the ruins of his palace at Persepolis near Shiraz in Iran. It has taken us almost two months to cycle. How long did it take Xerxes? How did he feed all his soldiers? There is some debate over how many soldiers were in the Persian army, but many scholars put the number at 250 000 men.

From Xerxes, it is an easy mental leap to Alexander the Great marching in the opposite direction. They are related in my thoughts ever since Persepolis. When Alexander conquered Persepolis in 330BC, he burned the place down. The fire started in Xerxes' palace and was rumoured to be revenge for Xerxes' destruction of the Acropolis in Athens over 100 years earlier. (Athens was completely destroyed. In a rare display of solidarity, many of the Greek states worked together to hold off the Persians. They failed to stop Xerxes from taking Athens, but he sacked an empty city. After the Greeks' defeat at Thermopylae, Themistocles, the ruler of Athens, made the wise decision to evacuate all the women and children, and the men retreated to Corinth, the next line of defence. The Greeks had Athens back in a year by using their navy to good effect). Nevertheless, I thought Alexander was an animal for burning a place of such staggering beauty when I was in Persepolis. I do not subscribe to the eye-for-an-eye idea when it comes to losing so much artwork!

When we are near Thessaloniki, we cycle up into the mountains to stay with Vasilios, a super-cyclist we have contacted through the Hospitality Club. Vasilios has cycled around the world. He travels between 2-3 times faster than us on his bike. We are impressed and also very grateful for his excellent hospitality and trip advice. He lives in a house he has made with his father on the outskirts of a little village called Peristera, and the views all the way to Thessaloniki and the sea are magnificent. His house is extremely relaxing and we get to sleep on a comfortable mattress. We leave our bikes with him for ten days, and go down to meet Piluca and Ester at Thessaloniki airport.

The four of us hire a car and head to Vergina. This is the site of Aegae, the ancient capital of Macedonia, otherwise known as the springboard for Alexander's sacking of the known world. So far, as you may have guessed, Alexander has not been my favourite historical bloodletter, but when it came to burying his father, Phillip II, the young man surprised everyone and stepped up to the plate. King Phillip, who paved the way for his son by converting Macedonia from a provincial backwater to a major Greek player, was assassinated in 336BC at the wedding of his daughter. Alexander gave his father the best burial ever and, as either luck or strategic planning would have it, Macedonian citizens were buried on top of Phillip's tomb. Grave robbers managed to get into surrounding tombs, but Phillip's tomb was left intact until 1984.

Everything found in the tomb and also the tomb itself are on display inside the original mound. The most important aspect of the burial was the supreme sacrifice of a young woman. Meda, one of Phillip's younger wives, sacrificed herself for her husband, and Alexander paid her the highest honour, giving her a gold crown, and putting her cremated remains in a box just as ornate as his father's to take with her to the underworld. This Thracian princess is now immortalised along with her husband - she made an interesting decision, but one that has paid off in the long term! A beautiful dinner set, washing implements, gold crowns and numerous precious items were also found in Phillip's tomb. Other tombs have also been discovered in this mound, including the tomb of Alexander's son, who was born after his father's death and assassinated as a little boy.

However, it is the tomb of King Phillip II of Macedonia in particular which offers us a window into Macedonia's golden age. It feels like the events which unfolded occurred in recent history rather than more than two millenia ago. Thank you Alexander. Nice to see you could do something more than lift a sword and light fires...

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