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The real Troy story

Something remarkable happened around a heavily fortified city just south of today's Dardanelles. The evidence is above ground and beneath your feet in the ancient city of Troy. Today it is a a peaceful place to visit, and listen for the echoes of those ancient stories.

The rest of the group disappear around the end of a wall, leaving me alone under a tamarisk tree on a windy hill in Turkey with only a wild tortoise for company.
For a few minutes I understand what it must be like to be locked in the Louvre in front of the Mona Lisa, or to be the only person standing below the Great Pyramid in Cairo.
I am in the setting for the greatest story ever told, outside the Bible. Welcome to Troy.
So come forth Achilles, Ajax, Ulysses, Hector, Cassandra and, of course, the wondrous beauty Helen. This is your stage.
The tortoise gives me a bored, seen-it-all look, then slams its head back into its shell. These lumbering centenarians never go far and it is a fair bet that this one’s ancestors, perhaps only 30 or so tortoise generations back, had a crawl-on part to a cast of heroes, or whoever the real-life people were who inspired them.
The massive gates and palaces the Greek poet Homer described in the Iliad are gone, if they were ever here quite on that scale. But enough tantalising extracts of 3,000-year-old masonry survive to persuade you that this was once a very powerful place. The 20ft-high wall towering above me was surely built to repel great armies and defend huge wealth.
To put in perspective the grip on the world’s imagination of the story of this ancient city, recreated for the big screen in thwe movie Troy, consider this: The Lord Of The Rings may get our vote today, but to match the staying power of the Iliad, which tells the key events in the ten-year Trojan Wars, it would still need to be big box office in about AD 4604.
The movie, starring Brad Pitt, Sean Bean and Orlando Bloom, with Peter O’Toole as the venerable Trojan King Priam, deilvered passion, heroics and fabulous battle scenes. But don’t expect geographical precision from Hollywood. It was filmed in Malta, with the big battle scenes shot in Mexico.
So I came to western Turkey, where the Aegean meets the Sea of Marmara, for the real Troy.
I looked down across the Troad plain. This was sea when - so legend says - the Greek ships sailed in to take back Helen, the wife of Spartan king Menelaus, given to the Trojan Prince Paris by the goddesses as his prize for judging their beauty contest.
Little flocks of sheep wandered the flat fields, just as Lord Byron described them. Every few minutes, in the middle distance, a monster ship would glide through the Dardanelles Straits on its way to or from the Black Sea.
Historians don’t know for sure what happened at the siege of Troy in about 1375-1250 BC. But about 400 years later Homer wrote his epic and the story has inspired spinoffs from Virgil’s Aeneid, to Shakespeare’s Troilus And Cressida and Berlioz’s great opera The Trojans. Even an episode of The Simpsons. Lemon Of Troy was a take on the wooden horse story.
The story of Troy has passed into our language: Achilles heel, Trojan horse, ‘The face that launched a thousand ships’, ‘Beware of Greeks bearing gifts’ - the list goes on.
Troy’s relative remoteness has spared it big tourist crowds. I joined a group with travel company Andante on the 220-mile trip southwest-from Istanbul, through the rolling landscape of Thrace.
It is as green and hedged as southern England but with incongruous touches. Storks circled in stately, fluttering swirls. Two-tone crows hopped around the verges, among herdsmen tending their cows. Blocks of marble were piled high at roadside workshops.
Thirty miles from Troy, the road enters the narrow Gallipoli peninsula, etched for ever in the annals of great military tragedy. Many thousands died here in the First World War in the failed attempt by British and Anzac troops to capture the strategically important straits.
We were in the grip of myth and legend by the time we reached Eceabat for the ferry across the mile-and-a-half-wide Hellespont, which Leander swam for his nightly assignation with Hero.
They all came here. Xerxes, king of Persia, made a bridge of boats over the water in his vain bid to conquer Greece in 480 BC; about 150 years later Alexander the Great travelled in the other direction on his way to conquer Asia.
Julius Caesar came in homage to Aeneas. 200 years ago Lord Byron swam the straits and dreamt about the still-undiscovered Troy, just 15 miles west.
Our leader, archaeologist Professor Bill Manning, patiently separated legend from fact at the remains of Troy, where excavation continues to this day. ‘You can accept or reject the Iliad,’ he said diplomatically. ‘But there are a lot of questions unanswered.’
Briton Frank Calvert was the first to dig, in 1863. But it was Heinrich Schliemann, the most remarkable and notorious excavator of his or any other time, who gave Troy such a brutal wake-up call. It had been covered for 1,400 years ever since the Romans, the last to occupy the site, left.
We served ourselves tea from a Thermos thoughtfully set out on a table by a nearby hotel - a typical gesture in this country of warm hospitality - and surveyed the 140ft-long trench Schliemann cut in 1871 down to the bedrock in search of King Priam’s treasure.
Schliemann sliced through nine layers, each representing a different version of Troy built one above the other. His dig destroyed masses of archaeological evidence, including, possibly, the secret of Troy’s importance.
He did find treasures, although not from the time when Homer’s Priam lived. Schliemann let his wife Sophie wear some of the gold jewellery he discovered, then smuggled it out to Berlin. It disappeared and ended up at Pushkin Museum in Moscow, where it may well stay.
The digs found definite signs of great fires that swept over the entire city. However, it is impossible to tell accidental destruction by fire from a blaze caused by some attacker - say a Greek force led by a king who, if he wasn’t trying to get his brother’s wife back, wanted a part of Troy’s wealth.
Troy is a well maintained site, although tiny when you consider the legends it sustains. Some impressive interpretation boards, paid for partly by the sponsors to the current excavations, take a stab at depicting how the city might have looked at its peak.
One explains Troy’s very own community of wildlife – be ready for polecats, snakes, bee-eaters and tree frogs.
I looked in vain for some romantic bird such as a swallow or a hawk, embodying the spirit of a Trojan hero. But I saw only sparrows, chirping about like Istanbul urchins.
Is there more to come from Troy? Excavations may one day throw up conclusive clues to the works of the heroes. In the meantime, wait for the crowds to move on, linger at a quiet place, suspend disbelief and conjure up the glorious sword-work of Achilles, or Aeneas rescuing his father from the flames, or Troilus pining after Cressida.
And think also of the look of utter amazement when the Trojans saw the enemy soldiers tumbling out of that huge horse - there is a replica near the entrance.
As the Homer of our own times said in the Lemon Tree episode - it involved smuggling a van-load of tree thieves into the park by day and letting them out at night - ‘No one in history has ever done anything this clever!’ D’oh!

Andante Travel (01722 713800,) offers a 13-day archaeological tour called Turkey: The Aegean Coast.
Turkish Airlines 020 7766 9300, Turkish Tourist Office 020 7629 7771.

www.gototurkey.co.uk
www.andantetravels.co.uk

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