On our third day in Greek Macedonia, we decided to hire ourselves a guide and visit the large town of Veria (Veroia), about 75 kms south west of Thessaloniki. The main purpose of our tour that day was to also visit the neighbouring town of Vergina where in 1977, the Greek Archaeologist Manolis Andronikos discovered some tombs of fourth century BCE Macedonian Kings that had not been robbed over the almost two and a half thousand years since they had been interred.
As one of our themes of our trip was to keep track of that indefatigable first century traveler, St Paul, we went via a spot in Veria where there was a monument to Paul’s visit. Paul’s visits to the towns and cities in Macedonia was a cycle of hard travelling, preaching in the local synagogues and then often ending up in jail. As usual, Paul got into trouble in Thessaloniki for his radical views about the nature of the messiah and got whipped off to Beroea (ancient Hellenistic name for Veria) by night by his disciples. Trouble followed him from Thessaloniki and again he had to flee, down the coast of Greece and then by sea to Athens. The only sign of Paul’s visit to Veria was a rather ornate mosaic in a back street showing a calm Paul preaching to the local citizens. It’s a stopping point for bus tours so we weren’t there for long before a bus load of American tourists crowded out the locale and we moved on to Vergina
The previous year we had travelled through much of Turkey, particularly through Cappadocia and Anatolia so we were familiar with the tragic stories of post World War 1 Greek speaking Turks who were expelled from Turkey. Thessaloniki was one of those cities in Greece where there was a lot of Turkish speaking Greeks who were sent to Turkey as part of the population exchange. So there is a certain logic to the system that a lot of the Greeks coming from Turkey were settled around Thessaloniki; the town of Vergina was created to house many of these people.
Macedonia is a land of much ancient history and culture so that it is difficult to build a new town on ground that hasn’t already been a home for long forgotten people whose towns and cities lay long buried under the soil. In the case of Vergina, it was built over the ruins of Aigai, an ancient royal city of Macedonia. On an outcrop in today’s Vergina, the famous father of Alexander the Great built a huge palace with views down over the plains of Northern Greece…it was in this palace at the wedding of one of his daughters, that Philip II was assassinated in 336 BCE. However, given that the site of Aigai has been settled since the Bronze age, it is not surprising that there are a lot of ancient graves in the area. It is believed that Philip II’s lavish funeral took place at Aigai and that he was buried in a tomb not far from his beautiful palace.
The above image is of the tumulus at Vergina that has been re-erected over the site of the three tombs of special interest at the site. The original hill was 100m wide and 12m high when Manolis Andronikos began excavating. He unearthed here a shrine (a Heroon), one large tomb and two much smaller tombs in the same area. The large tomb was a substantial construction consisting of a portico, an antechamber and a larger main chamber containing the sarcophagus whose contents have caused great excitement, great interest and significant controversy ever since. The image on the right below shows the protective roof placed over Tomb 2 as it slowly appeared from the ground. In the museum that was eventually created over the top of this tomb, visitors enter by walking down steps through this doorway to the display room of the treasures found here. In this same image, the top of this main doorway can be seen and above it, the remains of a mural depicting a hunting scene participated in by Philip II and his son Alexander the Great emerging just under the edge of the roofline. It is mind-boggling that much of this image has survived the 2313 years it spent embedded in the soil. A recreation of what the hunting scene would have looked like freshly painted can be seen below.
This ancient painting wasn’t the only masterpiece recovered from the graves in the tumulus of Vergina. In the smaller Tomb I that had been looted in antiquity, the amazing painting, ‘Hades abducting Persephone’ was found on the wall.
In both sections of tomb 2, golden boxes called ‘larnax’ were discovered, each with the bones of an individual entombed along with other artifacts. The box in the antechamber contained the bones of a female and a golden diadem. Very early on in the recovery of these materials from tomb 2, the archaeologists involved decided that the whole structure of Tomb 2 was the tomb of King Philip II of Macedon and the female buried in the antechamber was most likely his eighth wife, Cleopatra who may, it was theorised, have been forced to join her new husband on his death journey. Given that there were no documents or plaques with accurate information written on them attached to the tombs, the identifications of the bodies has been the subject of archaeological controversy ever since. Luckily for the tourist industry of Vergina, it has been generally accepted that the bones in the larnax in the main chamber belong to Phillip II but the controversy over the bones in the antechamber still continues.
The bones of Philip II were found inside a larnax that was contained within a marble chest. Included in the larnax was a golden wreath of 313 oak leaves and 68 acorns. The life of Phillip II as a military commander meant that he was riding horses and fighting battles all over Macedon and Greece for the 54 years of his life. You can’t live such a violent life and not suffer physical consequences. Information passed on by contemporary sources say that he was wounded in the eye socket as well as being speared through the knee. The bones in the larnax of the main chamber were eventually determined to have the signs of both these injuries as well as the wear and tear on the spinal bones indicated a life spent on horse-back.
On the way through the Peloponnese towards the north of Greece, we stopped at Olympia for a lovely tour of this famous historical site. There was a ‘Philipeon’ there, a memorial tholos to Phillip II’s victory over Athens, not long before his assassination at Aigai. So it was great to catch up on more of the Philip II life story in Vergina. One of the things we discussed on our way back to our hotel in Thessaloniki was the comparison between the story of Philip’s tomb and the famous discovery of the Egyptian Pharoah Tutankhamen’s tomb. The obvious comparison is the golden objects in both tombs; the quantity of gold being superior in the tomb of the Tutankhamen. However when you compare the anonymity of Tutankhamen before his grave was discovered and the enduring fame of Phillip II of Macedon, there is no comparison. Phillip is a huge figure from classical antiquity and the discovery of his tomb largely intact sounds like an ancient historian’s dream come true. Not only was Phillip the father of Alexander the Great, it is very clear to history that without Phillip’s preparation for the war on Persia, Alexander’s success in conquering the major empires of his time would not have happened. Phillip provided Alexander with his education (Aristotle no less), his military training and a ready-made all-Greek army to lead off to conquer the world.
APPENDIX 1: VERGINA AS A WORLD HERITAGE SITE
Summary of reasons for “Outstanding Universal Value
The city of Aigai, the ancient royal capital of Macedon, was discovered in the 19th century. It is located between the modern villages of Palatitsia and Vergina, in Northern Greece (Region of Hemathia). At Aigai was rooted the royal dynasty of the Temenids, the family of Philip II and Alexander the Great. The Archaeological Site of Aigai, containing an urban center – the oldest and most important in Northern Greece – and several surrounded settlements, is defined by the rivers Haliakmon (W and N), Askordos (E), and the Pierian Mountains (S). Aigai provides important information about the culture, history and society of the ancient Macedonians, the Greek border tribe that preserved age-old traditions and carried Greek culture to the outer limits of the ancient world. The most important, already excavated, archaeological remains of the site are: the monumental palace (ca 340 BC), which was the biggest and one of the most impressive buildings of classical Greece, the theatre, the sanctuaries of Eukleia and the Mother of the Gods, the city walls, the royal necropolis, containing more than 500 tumuli, dating from the 11th to 2nd century BC. Three royal burial clusters have been already excavated. Twelve monumental temple-shaped tombs are known. Among them is the tomb of Euridice, mother of Philip II and the unlooted tombs of Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, and his grandson, Alexander IV, which have been discovered in 1977-8 and made a worldwide sensation. The quality of the tombs themselves and their grave-goods places Aigai among the most important archaeological sites in Europe. (https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/780/)