June 10, Mycenae

Today we started the long drive north that would end at the Athens Airport Hotel.
After 90 minutes of twisting country roads up the mountains, we stopped at Mycenae, the ancient home of the House of Atreus, whose two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus, launched the Trojan War. See, Helen of Troy was actually Helen of Sparta before she left her husband King Menelaus for Troy—either as an act of passion or as a victim of kidnapping. Either way, most of the Peloponnese got involved in 10 terrible years of war, as chronicled by Homer’s Iliad and climaxed by the Trojan Horse and sack of Troy.

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Or was it all a fairy tale? Clytemnestra, Iphigenia, Electra, Orestes—fact or fable? Or both?

That’s what amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schleimann was obsessed with discovering in the 19th century. And in 1874, digging right where I stood today, he changed our past by uncovering the ancient citadel, complete with royal chambers, storehouses, and giant tombs. To prepare for this moment, I’d read his biography last month. It includes his exultation at finding an unopened royal tomb, approaching the corpse, lifting the gold death mask and exclaiming, “I have seen the face of Agamemnon.”

Well, he was wrong about that, because the tombs he found were even older, dating back to about 1600 BCE. But oh, what tombs! Cyclopean blocks of stone perfectly edged and aligned. A 200-foot long paved walkway culminating in an entrance you could drive a bus through. An enormous beehive-shaped chamber for the body and grave goods. And when finished, skillfully covered with dirt so that it looked like just another little hill.

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My guide walked me around the outdoor site, shivering in the 70-degree cloudy breeze (I kept my delight about the weather to myself). The Mycenaeans had traded with other local commercial centers like Argos and Epidaurus, and eventually made it to Crete where they conquered the more peaceful and sophisticated Minoans. My guide speculated about the social changes indicated by the change in god-legends that accompanied the conquest.

We eventually left Mycenae and went north to Corinth. We drove up even higher, to the acropolis that had overlooked the ancient city—and had also seen later military use by the usual suspects: Romans, Crusaders, Venetians, Turks, etc.. It commanded an extraordinary view of the plain below, and the isthmus connecting the Peloponnese to the mainland—only 4 miles wide at its narrowest.

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I walked up the uneven stone entryway as lightning and thunder lit the gray afternoon sky. The enormous walls, fortified many times, were everywhere, and yet so skillfully set into the mountain they seemed to have simply grown up toward the open sky. I didn’t even try to climb up to see the old temple of Aphrodite—it was just too strenuous and I didn’t want to get stuck in the rain that threatened to slicken every stone in the place.

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Back down below, the tiny old town was dwarfed by stone columns from the 6th century BCE—and, when my eyes adjusted to the various shades of gray, acres and acres of the excavated old city of Corinth—marketplace, homes, etc.. My guide was quick to point out rough Roman additions to the elegant Greek architecture. And when we saw an exhibit of how column capitals had evolved over time, she was quick to point out all the Greek innovations, sniffing that the Romans hadn’t added much of value or taste.

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The day’s last stop, just a few minutes later, was on a small bridge over the Corinth Canal, imagined by Caesar and Nero but completed only in 1893. Just two miles to the west I could see the blue Gulf of Corinth. Turning to the east, I could see the Aegean’s Saronic Gulf. I didn’t want to leave ancient Greece. But I did in fact turn north, and headed for twenty-first century America.

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June 9, Epidaurus

HOLISTIC HEALING IN ANCIENT GREECE

I’m in the Peloponnese for three days, the mountainous southern mainland containing legendary cities like Sparta, Corinth, Olympia, and Argos.

We drove up and around on steep, winding roads, finally arriving at Epidaurus. I was there to see the gorgeous, almost completely preserved 4th-century BCE theatre. But the site offers so much more.

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The theatre was part of an enormous, internationally-known healing complex, complete with dormitories, athletic arena, clinics, hotel, and spiritual centers. Patients were expected to participate in their own healing in a number of ways: exposure to art, music, and theatre; playing sports, especially track & field; and (after plenty of preparation) sleeping in one of the holy places, and then reporting the advice of Asklepios, god of healing, which was revealed in dreams or images.

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The psychological impact of all this must have been profound. Imagine a sick person making an arduous journey by foot or donkey for days or weeks, to an isolated mountain-top. Once there, you see grand, decorated buildings, all designed to focus the healing energy of the universe. The gods are on duty, attended by priest-physicians. You receive the wisdom of all, fully expecting a positive outcome.

Just as it was 2500 years ago, the hilltop air today was breezy and sweet, a great relief from the oppressive heat down below. The views are still extraordinary: thousands of trees, the sea visible off on the horizon, the sounds of nature in the air and underfoot.

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After 90 minutes of slowly walking and interpreting the site, we finally came to the theatre. Set gently into a small hill, it sat 13,000, to give you an idea of how big this site is. Perfect acoustics, of course. Seats, stairs, entrances, stage–virtually the entire thing is original. As my guide said, “The most famous theatre in ancient Greece is the only one that has survived intact. Almost by Providence.” It’s easy to link fact and symbolism like that when you’re here.

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Remember, the performances weren’t mere entertainment: they were part of a process designed to heal mind and body. That whole “catharsis” thing Aristotle described about classical theatre? This was its highest implementation.

Of course, you’d want the best playwrights for such important work. They had Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides. These were The Who, Beatles, and Rolling Stones of the era. Or the Tom Stoppard, David Mamet, and George Bernard Shaw of the era. If any of these six had invented music or theatre.

After some time absorbing the theatre’s grandeur, we left and drove some 15 minutes west to a lesser-known site called Tiryns. This hilltop palace had been inhabited by Mycenaens, about 1,000 years before Epidaurus was built. Along with the foundation stones of the internal rooms, the external walls were neatly in place—made of stone blocks each as large as I am.

My guide and I surveyed the Argolid plain, more or less unchanged since ancient times: Argos to the left, Mycenae straight ahead, Epidaurus behind us, the sea off to the west. Legends—or history—describe how this triangle of politics and culture had been blessed and cursed by the gods for at least 5,000 years. Schoolchildren around the world still learn the stories of those gods, as did I.

Walking among them today I felt quite small and part of something quite large.

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June 8, Knossos

WAAAY BACK IN TIME

Before Shakespeare, before Julius Caesar, before the Trojan War, before Abraham, there were the Minoans. They lived on Crete, traded around the Mediterranean, and used tools of bronze. Yes, they helped bring us out of the Stone Age, making possible Facebook and Diet Coke.

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I had heard of the Palace of Knossos and the amazing stuff they’d found inside, but didn’t know exactly how excited to be when it was offered on this trip’s itinerary. After all, you’ve seen one excavated ancient site, etc.

The day actually started the day before, at the last stop in Chania. They’d suffered an earthquake there in the 1970s, and various residential areas were rebuilt at different times. By the time the less touristy area behind the harbor was to be rebuilt, the rubble had revealed the remains of Kydonia, a fancy Minoan neighborhood. An entire square block has now been excavated and is open to the public. The original foundation blocks, stairways, altars, and other features were as clearly laid out as your local supermarket.

From 2500BC. It was the oldest thing I’d ever seen outside a museum.

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There was more of that to come today. After a drive east across northern Crete, we stopped at the Palace of Knossos, parking alongside a horde of busses.

Although my trusty guide Emmanuel could whisk us in ahead of the enormous queue of cruise-shipped, bussed-in people, he couldn’t make the people already up on the site disappear. Despite 95-degree heat, the enormous site was covered with selfie-taking, name-tagged (“Group 9, Jurgen”), guide-following, sandal-and-sock-wearing, sweating (as was I), nattering (as I was NOT), toilet-needing (as was I), tourists, herded from one amazing pile of ancient stones to another.

(Memo to self: do not reveal prejudices about people blowing into tiny remote sites on cruise ships that carry 6,000 people, overwhelming local harbors and delicate cultural treasures that can’t possibly accommodate them.)

Ahem. The 4,000-year-old Palace was discovered a century ago by British adventurer Arthur Evans. Using the era’s physical tools, primitive professional standards, and his own can-do enthusiasm (and family fortune), he hired gangs of locals and dug up the site, larger than all of Yankee Stadium. And “restored” all over the place with artists and oh, no—poured concrete.

Bad move. Like discovering half the Mona Lisa and “restoring” the other half with magic marker. Or discovering half of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and asking Miley Cyrus to “restore” the other half. The concrete expands over time (sun, rain, repeat thousands of times), breaking the old stone. Or hides and damages everything beneath it.

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But Evans didn’t loot the place, he meant well, and he generally loved the site and all it revealed. So today we have access to it. The site—again, it’s over 4,000 years old and a city of 18,000 people—is remarkable: A working sewer system. Multiple stories, terraced into a hill. Fronted by the first paved road in Europe. Fifteen hundred rooms (the source of the word “labyrinth”). Perfectly oriented north-south to take advantage of the sun’s rays, with gently sloping flat roofs to capture rain water.

Thanks to no-looting Evans, many artifacts are on view in the newly-refurbished museum in modern Iraklion, just a few minutes from the excavation. We went straight there (ignoring the old Venetian-era town—ho hum), had a quick lunch (Greek salad in a crepe, which tasted exactly like all the other Greek salads I’ve been eating here), and entered the museum. Fortunately, most of the tourists I’d seen at the site were either in town shopping or had headed back to their respective Love Boats.

I never thought I’d say this, but two-and-half hours in the museum flew by like minutes. Artifacts that might have been mildly interesting in New York or London were riveting here, just minutes from where they’d been uncovered back in 1900.

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The gold jewelry—exquisitely delicate. The pottery—amazingly fluid and expressive. The bookkeeping tablets in Linear B (the precursor of ancient Greek)—absolutely thrilling, just hours after Emmanuel had pointed to the royal clerk’s room where they’d been found. Reliefs of the Minoan Bull that was the center of their religion—practically breathing right in front of me, eyes and nostrils bulging. A vibrantly painted sarcophagus featured scenes incorporating many of these images into a farewell scene.

My feet hurt and my shirt was sticking to my body. I was anchored firmly in 2500 BCE, and almost nothing could dislodge me. Except I had a plane to catch.

Which is exactly how modern life works.

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June 6 – THE BATTLE OF CRETE

Exactly 75 years and two weeks ago, the Battle of Crete was the first paratrooper invasion in history, and the first battle influenced by decrypted German messages from the Enigma Machine.

I spent today in western Crete walking the battlefield, visiting war cemeteries, and examining war photos in the naval museum.

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To summarize: in spring 1941 Allied troops retreated south from the Greek mainland to the island of Crete. Germany wanted Crete for the same reason the Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, Ottomans, and British had wanted it: it’s the East Mediterranean crossroads of the world, roughly equidistant from Egypt, Jerusalem, Rome, Istanbul (Constantinople to us romantics), Malta (the Crusader-era Knights Hospitaller from Rhodes, remember?), and—not incidentally—the Nazi oilfields in Romania.

Rough neighborhood. Valuable real estate. But I digress.

The Allies held Crete. Germany wanted it. The Brits, Australians, New Zealanders and Greeks outnumbered them, roughly 50,000 to 22,000. But in the retreat from the Greek mainland, the Allies had left most of their heavy equipment behind. On the other hand, the Royal Navy patrolled the Aegean between Crete and the mainland. What to do? The first full-scale paratrooper invasion in history.

The Germans went for the island’s three airfields, stretched across its long north coast. Today I stood on a hill overlooking the western airfield outside the town of Chania, sweating in the late morning sun.

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After landing by the airfield, the paratroopers ran up the hill, shooting. Lots of them died. Lots of defenders died. Cretan partisans armed with hunting knives stole the revolvers of the Germans they killed. A Maori regiment served with distinction. But German warplanes overwhelmed the Royal navy, and ultimately, the Allies withdrew to the south shore and from there to Alexandria, Egypt.

The combined toll: 8,000 dead or missing. 17,000 Allied soldiers captured, 300 Luftwaffe destroyed, 20 Royal warships sunk or damaged. And in keeping with the Nazi policy of punishing resistance, 500 Greek civilians were executed.

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On the hill above the airfield is a German military cemetery, which I walked. There had been a big ceremony marking the battle’s 75th anniversary, and so there were fresh flowers by each grave. There were also wreaths from the governments of the various Allies. I was quite surprised by the ecumenical messages among the former enemies. Seeing a personal message from the British Ambassador leaning against a plaque commemorating German war dead—men who had died killing Brits—was eerie, almost theatrical.

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From there I drove a half-hour east to the Souda Bay Allied War Cemetery. The setting is a quiet, beautiful harbor (from where I could see three NATO ships in the distance). Again, the graves were freshly attended, and messages from dignitaries marked the anniversary—the last one that will be seen by its survivors. The complimentary observances linked the two sites in real time, as if they had spoken to each other. The two sites were halves of a whole.

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In the chaotic evacuation, some surviving Allied soldiers fled into the hills. They lived there a year or more, fed and clothed (and occasionally married) by Cretans who risked their lives to do so. To this day, Wellington, New Zealand and Chania are Sister Cities, and a main street in Welly has been renamed Chania Street.

The British War Cemeteries Commission oversees the graves of 1.6 million soldiers around the world. Here at Souda Bay the cemetery also includes a German, an Italian, and a French soldier, brothers in death with several thousand Brits, Kiwis, and Aussies. My father could have ended up here. But the 18-year-old medical corpsman happened to be fighting two years later, in a different uniform, half-way around the globe in the Pacific.

He lived to be 80.

I spent the afternoon touring Chania, admiring the remains of its Venetian and Ottoman heritage: synagogue, hamam, palace, mansions, mosque. Their occupations of Crete ended in bloodshed, too. Their cemeteries here didn’t survive the bombing of World War II.

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June 3, Rhodes In Music & Art

On my last day in Rhodes I spent a looooong morning (until almost 3pm) puttering and reading an actual book (something I hardly ever do at home). By late afternoon the temperature had peaked and a few clouds provided some shade, so it was back to Old Town one more time.

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The day was bookended with music of two completely sorts. The first was from one of the 9-year-old Roma accordion players who seem to be everywhere in Old Town—indeed, you hear one before you’re half-way across the drawbridge over the castle moat. All those jokes about “play an accordion, go to jail” are particularly poignant in this case. The kids are dirty and street-wise, the miniature instruments are beat up, the playing so half-hearted (and awful) as to be unintentionally (I think) heart-breaking. I certainly don’t want to encourage them by tossing coins, but at the same time I imagine that if they get home with insufficient cash they get beaten. Either way, it’s not their fault that they’re in such a ghastly situation. So I’ve been conflicted about it each time I see them. And I sure hate the wheezing sounds they squeeze out of those boxes.

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Once inside Old Town I returned to the Grandmaster’s Palace. I climbed six dozen marble stairs to see the ancient life-size statue of Laocoon And His Sons (actually, it’s a copy of the one in the Vatican). Created by artists of Rhodes, it famously stood in the palace of Roman Emperor Titus, and was eventually excavated in 1506.

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From a story later retold in Virgil’s Aeneid, it depicts the Trojan priest and his sons attacked by sea serpents. The young men are dying. The father, muscles straining, face twisting, is in agony, both from his own fatal bites and from watching his sons die. I suddenly remember my own mother telling me, as a boy, that the worst experience a human can have is watching their own child die.

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Laocoon’s two-thousand-year-old face is the epitome of that agony. After this extraordinary artistic achievement, what more can an artist say or show about grief? Somehow Shakespeare managed to show us the feeling anew. Picasso did, too. If you’ve ever heard The Band sing “The night they drove old Dixie down,” you’ve experienced grief as if for the first time. That’s what successful art does—it shows us the familiar in new ways so we can think about and experience our own lives in richer and more nuanced fashion.

I studied Laocoon’s face in this reconstructed medieval castle. In the abstract, I hate the Crusaders for their religious fanaticism. Laocoon reminded me that they were all someone’s sons, too—every single one who didn’t return.

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It was time for some fresh air, and leaving the castle I was greeted by a gentle Mediterranean breeze. Although still early by Greek standards, I was hungry, so I returned to the Rustica Taverna, where I’d eaten two days ago. I was greeted like an old friend, and the same musicians were there from my last visit. An older man played guitar and sang, accompanied by a younger guy playing bouzouki. I stayed for 90 minutes, and they never took a break. All in Greek, the music seemed a combination of love songs, folk tunes, and observations about life. I imagined the usual stories: I Set Off On A Journey…; My Heart Is Broken…; I Never Expected…; and of course Life Is Difficult, But I’ll Manage.

That is, after all, the Greek way.

Tomorrow, off to Crete.

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June 2, Rhodes

We last spoke from Thessaloniki about Macedonia’s favorite son, Alexander, and his father and son. Fly south with me now to Rhodes, an island half the size of Rhode Island (no relation) and only 11 miles from Turkey.

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Rhodes has been continuously occupied since the Stone Age. It witnessed the Peloponnesian Wars (stayed neutral), was part of Alexander’s kingdom, and received Christianity from Paul himself. Rhodes was happily Byzantine until 1309, which is where our story picks up.

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You’ll recall that European pilgrims had been journeying to the Holy Land throughout the late middle ages. The Crusades began in 1099, when thousands of Western European knights marched on Jerusalem (and anything else in their way). Naturally, there were people needing medical attention, so a group calling themselves the Knights Hospitallers of St. John formed to help out. They soon started providing armed escorts to pilgrims, and became a military group aligned with the Pope.

After being defeated in and around Jerusalem, with a quick stop in Cyprus, the Hospitallers took over Rhodes in 1309. Their fate took a positive turn when Pope Clement dissolved their main rivals, the Knights Templar. On the island’s northern tip, they proceeded to build what is now Europe’s most magnificent medieval walled city, which is what I came to see.

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I saw it in the blazing heat—90 degrees at 10am, going higher hourly.

Gigantic walls encircle the city, even along the waterfront. As a bonus, they’re topped by swallow-tail (not the conventional saw-tooth) crenellations, which I’d never seen nor heard of. They’re in extraordinary condition, containing the coats of arms of various important families. On some of the original gates into the city, the heavy wooden doors are original, covered with their original metal plating.

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In the wide dry moat below street level are dozens of leftover stone cannonballs.

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Inside the walls unfolds a charming little town of about 50,000 Greeks and a jillion tourists, disgorged daily by nearby cruise ships (Homer himself praised Rhodes’s maritime location). While there are plenty of tourist facilities, this is also a living, breathing town, where people live, work, and raise kids. Once off the main street, the narrow lanes twist and turn until getting lost is absolutely inevitable. And how charming that is! Bougainvillea here, an old stone chapel there, the remnants of various Knights Inns. The Crusades really happened, and this city was deeply involved.

So involved that the Ottomans couldn’t let it last as a base. In 1522 Suleiman the Magnificent besieged the town with 100,000 Ottoman soldiers. After six months, the survivors were allowed to retreat to Sicily, and later to Malta. A Kiwanis Club version of the Knights exists to this day.

Meanwhile, the jewel of the Old Town is the Palace of the Grand Master, lovingly rebuilt by the Turks after an enormous ammunition explosion destroyed much of it in the 19th century.

The floor mosaics—gorgeous. The ceilings—artistic cabinetry. The rooms themselves are large, airy, and designed for both function and to impress. We walked from one to another, grateful to be doing it without wearing armor. Because of the late hour I had the place essentially to myself. I kept telling my guide to lower his voice—he wasn’t with a large group, and a reverential whisper made it much easier to imagine life there in 1400 or 1500.

Soon enough it was time to descend the wide stone steps and leave the palace. I headed toward the harbor where the Colossus of Rhodes once stood, a lighthouse and an advertisement for the grandeur of the ancient city. Suleiman’s Ottomans held the city 400 years; the Italians grabbed it in the run-up to World War II; and when they had trouble holding it in 1943, the Germans invaded. Soon enough Rhodes’s 2400 Jews were sent to Auschwitz, and the local Greeks were starving.

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May 31, PELLA & VERGINA

Today I spent a day with Alexander the Great out in the Macedonian countryside. Of course, if you’re Bulgarian, Turkish, Albanian, or a citizen of FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia), calling anyplace Macedonia is fightin’ words.

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First I went to Pella, ancient and wealthy capital of Macedonia, birthplace of Alexander the Great and his father, Philip II. Various parts of the city have been excavated, and so I walked the ancient streets. I saw huge floor mosaics just as they had been in the reception rooms of the wealthy—finely executed scenes of gods, humans, and recognizable animals and vegetation.

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Then it was on to Vergina. Back in the early 4th century BCE, Philip II of Macedon ruled this area. There were no national states here, of course. Philip ruled for over two decades and had many wives and many children. When he died, his son Alexander (not yet Great, of course) became king at age 20.

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One of his many acts was building a tomb for his father—a grand building below ground level the size of a house, with an ornate marble façade, columns, and frescoes. Inside were burial goods fit for a king—silver bowls, weapons, the finest libations, jewelry, delicate ivory carvings, and pounds of gold, including a delicate wreathed crown hammered into fine oak leaves.

Fast forward some 14 years. Alexander has been away from home most of his reign, conquering lands from Egypt to India. His wife and son are at home when Alexander dies in Babylonia at the age of 33.

The 14-year-old prince should assume the throne, but he’s young. Alexander’s half-sister (Thessalonike, remember?) could assume the throne, but she’s a woman. So her husband the famous General Cassander becomes regent, and soon enough, murders the young prince and his mother.

Now-King Cassander then builds a monumental tomb for the dead prince, son of Alexander the Great. Marble, ivory, silver, gold, frescoes by the world’s great artists—nothing’s too good for the murdered kid. And he builds the edifice below ground level just yards away from where the kid’s grandfather is entombed.

Each building is covered with a bit of rubble, as grandfather and grandson are, in turn, sent toward the Underworld, equipped with all the burial goods anyone could possibly need.

And then about 35 years later, anticipating invasion (and the looting that comes with it), the Macedonians cover the two royal tombs with tons of earth.

They remain undisturbed until 1977 when Greek archaeologist Manolis Andronikos finds them. Everybody goes totally mental—the biggest find in Greece since the Acropolis and Parthenon. Next question: what to do with these extraordinary burial buildings, and the treasures within?

A year after archeologist Andronikos dies, the government completes the answer: it builds a museum around the tombs. Yes, you enter the museum, walk down a ramp, and in a semi-darkened hall, stroll around looking at exquisite burial goods. And when your eyes have adjusted to all that artistry and wealth, there are the tombs themselves.

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Silently, I sat on the wooden viewing platform in front of each one: Alexander the Great’s father and son. They really existed. This isn’t fiction. And suddenly the familiar artifacts we’ve all seen so often came alive. The silver goblet with delicately worked handle. The gold coins bearing Philip’s profile. The ivory head of Philip, smaller than a walnut, so perfectly carved that the battle-scar on his right cheek is visible. All in perfect condition, because they’d never been used, and weren’t in contact with soil or weather.

It was all too much, exactly the right amount, and not enough all at the same time. I wanted to talk to grandpa, ask a million questions, hear about the Illyrians he conquered. I wanted to absorb this moment, more than half a century after first hearing the name Alexander the Great as a schoolboy, tracing his route across Asia with a pudgy finger.

In the end, I did all that a person could do: I looked. I thought. I thought some more. And then I drove back to my hotel on the Aegean, in the city that replaced Pella as Macedonia’s capital 2200 years ago, and wrote about it.

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