The early history of the Greek, or Hellenic, culture is dominated by the history of two centres of population based in Mycenae and Troy – a history that was frequently described by violent conflict. We must always bear in mind that the national boundaries of today bear no relation to the lands that were occupied by the cultures of 3,000 years ago. Much of what will be discussed in this section took place in present day Turkey, and more specifically in that part of Turkey that was known as Anatolia. The city of Troy (or Ilium) was the focus of a larger area known as the Troad. This land was situated on the southeastern shores of the Hellespont, the stretch of water that is considered to separate the landmass of Europe from what geographers used to call Asia. A strategic waterway that runs from the northeastern corner of the Aegean Sea, into the Sea of Marmara, the Hellespont leads north into the Bosporus and thence into the Black Sea. It is of obvious importance in providing access by sea to vast areas of land in Europe, Asia and Africa.
Troad is the name given to the region as a whole in which Troy was built and almost 90 ancient settlements have been discovered here. The most important ones are Assos, Alexandria-Troas, Chryse, Lampsakos, Sestos, Dardanos, Neandria, Parkote, Asisbe, Priapos, Parion, Kebrene, Skepsis, Gallipolis, Tenedos, Imbros, Abydos and Sigeon.
On the northwestern side of the Hellespont channel lies the sparsely populated Gelibolu (Gallipolis) peninsula. The modern name for the channel is Çanakkale Bogazi named after Çanakkale, the main town in the region, and which lies northeast of the site of Troy where the waterway is narrow. Çimenlik Castle was constructed on the Anatolian side by Sultan Mehmet the Second, Conqueror of Istanbul, in 1462 and occupies an important strategic position, in conjunction with Kilitbahir Castle opposite. Together with Nara Castle on Nara Point, they have watched over the Dardanelles right up to the present day. Kumkale Castle on the Anatolian shore at the mouth of the Çanakkale Bogazi was built to protect the Straits. Today, two lighthouses mark the entrance at Kumkale Burnu (E4848) on the southern side and Mehmetcik Burnu (E4850) on the northern side.
Archaeologists have formally identified nine different versions of the city of Troy, numbered logically as Troy I - IX, that is to say that, over a period of 3,500 years, it was destroyed and rebuilt eight times. Some archaeologists believe there were even earlier settlements before Troy I was constructed around 3,000 BC. However, for our purposes, we need not discuss this further. Fabulously rich in treasure of all kinds, the city has been savaged over many years by indiscriminate and ill-disciplined excavation, making a full understanding of the history impossible. Today, the Turkish government carefully controls archaeological excavation and we must hope that there is still plenty to learn from as yet undiscovered artefacts.
Following the original Anatolian settlements, the Greeks began colonizing the province in about the 9th century BC. The Persians took control in the 7th century but in 334 BC Alexander the Great crossed the Straits and onto Asian soil for the first time. He joined with the Persians in a fierce battle at Granikos on the banks of the river Kocabaş. An admirer of the great Greek warrior, Achilles, Alexander made a pilgrimage to the tomb of his hero, Achilles, which was thought to be on Cape Sigeum. After Alexander, the area changed hands several times, coming under Lydian rule in the 2nd century BC before the Romans took over in 191 BC.
Troy was built on Hisarlik Hill, a site of only modest elevation, but which could be defended from attackers and provide a good view over surrounding countryside. As we saw earlier, coastlines have changed over the many years of our study. In 3,000 BC, during the time of Troy I, the sea came south from the Hellespont and much closer to the city, making Cape Sigeum a distinct promontory that projected into the southern entrance of the Hellespont and made a perfect strategic location. Observations of the materials from which many of the buildings of Troy are constructed quickly reveal that they contain many seashells. This is because they were made from mud bricks composed of soil from the alluvial plains below Hisarlik Hill after the sea had retreated.
The location of Troy was essential to take part in the trading activities of all shipping that passed between the Black Sea and the distant Mediterranean, as well as providing a strategic military position. The lands surrounding the hill were a fertile plain, watered by two rivers, the Scamander and the Simois, that ran into the nearby Beşik Bay, the waters of which extended much farther inland than they do today. For example, around 2,000 BC, the sea level was about 1 m higher than it is today. Ships passing north through the Dardanelles struggled to overcome the fast currents that flowed against them. This was made worse by the prevailing wind that was frequently from the northeast. It was thus important for ships to have safe harbour before commencing the transit through the Hellespont and there were ports on either side of the entrance. On the eastern side, Abydos was the port of Troy, whilst on the European side was Sestos.
The cities Troy I to V occupied the years from 3,000 BC to 1,700 BC. Troy VI lasted from 1,700 to 1,250 BC, a very long period of 550 years. It represented a significant cultural development from Troy V, being much more military and fortified. The city was contemporary with the Hittite culture. The city walls are almost completely intact permitting entry into the city through a number of gates. They represent advanced engineering skills for the time in which they were built. Several towers, once 30 metres high, can also be seen. It was laid waste in 1,250 BC by a devastating earthquake and rebuilt soon after so as to continue the cultural development that had been established to that point.
It should be appreciated that the inhabitants of Troy were not Greek and did not speak that language and that it is inaccurate to refer to Trojans as Greek.
"Hector, I urge you above all to do as I say. In his great city, Priam has many allies. But these foreigners all talk different languages. Let their own captains in each case take charge of them, draw up their countrymen, and lead them into battle. (lliad II. 800-805)
"...Such was the babel that went up from the great Trojan army, which hailed from many parts, and being without a common language used many different cries and calls. (lliao IV. 437-439)
Current opinion is that the Trojans should be considered to be a people native to Anatolia, i.e. those people who had lived in the surrounding lands for as far back as archaeology is presently able to discern.