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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