The last stretch of my journey began in a traffic-snarled resort town by the name of Canakkale, on the eastern shore of the Dardanelles Strait in northwestern Turkey. After a six-hour drive from Istanbul, I inched my rental car through the crowded city center, lined with fish restaurants and boutiques selling clothing and sunglasses. When I finally made it onto the highway and sped south, the landscape opened into a vista of agricultural fields, office parks and the occasional mosque. Now and then the mile-wide sparkling blue expanse of the Dardanelles came into view. Half an hour later, near where the strait empties into the Aegean Sea, I spotted a sign announcing my exit: Troia.
I turned off the highway and spilled onto a rural road. Olive groves and cornfields extended on both sides, along with guesthouses and gift shops selling T-shirts, refrigerator magnets and other trinkets. Five hundred yards farther on lay a vast parking lot to serve the roughly 1,500 or so tourists who flocked to this ancient site every day before the pandemic hit. There were ticket booths and a set of gates. Just beyond the entrance rose a towering, 40-foot-tall Trojan horse, fashioned in the 1970s by a Turkish craftsman from local pine.
It has been nearly 3,000 years since Homer wrote the Iliad, one of the foundational works of Western literature. The epic poem describes, in gory and lyrical detail, 52 days near the end of the ten-year siege of Troy, the “well-fortified” city ruled by the kindly King Priam. According to the legend, Priam’s son Paris (sometimes known in Turkey as Alexandros) ignited the war by seducing the “lovely haired Helen,” wife of the Spartan king Menelaus, and spiriting her to the Citadel at Troy. In response, Menelaus’ brother Agamemnon, the “king of kings” who ruled from Mycenae on the Greek mainland, led a fleet of warships across the Aegean to recapture Helen and take revenge against the city.
The question of which of these people and events, if any, are historical has captivated scholars for centuries, and though there’s little conclusive evidence that any scene happened as Homer described it, he invested his characters with such vitality and complexity that it can be hard to remember that much of the story is likely made up. His epic, based on centuries of oral tradition, plays out among the ships in the harbor, inside the walls of Troy, and on the plain in between—perhaps a stone’s throw from where I now stood in the parking lot. It was there, according to the legend, that the Greeks, led by “god-like” Achilles, confronted Priam’s son Hector and his Trojan force. With its stirring descriptions of martial pageantry, its dramatic accounts of close combat, its heroic but flawed characters, its sacrifices, betrayals, grieving lovers and parents, and its powerful descriptions of loss and human suffering, the Iliad shaped Western literature through millennia. “Poets must sing the story over and over again, passing it from generation to generation, lest in losing Troy we lose a part of ourselves,” the British actor and scholar Stephen Fry wrote in his recent best seller Troy.
With Fry’s words ringing in my ears, I entered the site, which is administered by the Turkish government, through a gate reserved for researchers, skirted the giant Trojan horse, and followed a path to a barnlike building crammed with boxes of animal bones, broken fax machines and other detritus. This was the headquarters of Rüstem Aslan, the current head of excavations at Hisarlik, the modern Turkish name for the area, and the first Turkish citizen to serve as chief archaeologist since formal digging began, in 1870.
Aslan is an amiable, shaggy-haired scholar with a scraggly beard and mustache. He began working as a student here in 1988, and spent years as a protégé of the German archaeologist Manfred Korfmann, who made several important discoveries. Thanks in part to their work, most historians now believe that the city uncovered at Hisarlik is the Troy Homer wrote about, and that a war or series of wars did in fact play out between the Mycenaean Greeks and Anatolians here around 1180 B.C., at the end of the late Bronze Age. And yet some historians still disagree about how large the city was, what drew the city into conflict with the Mycenaeans, whether it was a powerful regional player or a minor backwater, and whether the characters described by Homer were based on real people or were as mythical as the Greek gods.
In his office, Aslan fist-bumped me and suggested that we inspect some of his new excavations. He led me back past the kitschy equine monument to a raised wooden walkway that circles the 74-acre site. Already we had ventured farther into the ruins than many tourists who come here. “Some visitors walk through the gate, see the Trojan horse, then turn around and go home,” he told me with a grin.
We stopped before the South Gate, the main entrance into the Citadel, likely the sanctuary of the royal family and other elite during the late Bronze Age around 3,000 years ago. Before me lay a ramp of sandstone slabs from that time, sweeping upward at a steep angle past a field of stone foundation walls toward the heart of the ancient city. By the time this ramp was built, Aslan told me, this city on a hill had grown into a trading center of 5,000 to 10,000
people—far larger and more powerful than the insignificant settlement some historians argue was here at the time. Most of the population dwelled in the shadow of the Citadel, farming wheat and corn across a plain that sloped gently toward a bay four miles to the south. “The Citadel was surrounded by defensive walls and towers, with a two-story palace inside,” Aslan said, mopping his forehead in the July heat. “Then you had the Lower City, encircled by a fortified ditch, and filled with workshops, houses and streets.”
In fact, it was something just outside the South Gate, in this unglamorous part of the ancient city, that Aslan wanted to show me next: a huge trench, 20 feet deep, which Aslan and his team have been excavating for four years. Inside this pit, Aslan said, was further evidence for the historical city described by Homer.
Until about 150 years ago, it was widely believed that Troy was a fiction, a mythical city like Atlantis or El Dorado. And yet throughout antiquity there was a tradition linking Hisarlik to Troy. The classical Greeks, who lived hundreds of years after the events described by Homer would have taken place, believed that Hisarlik had been the site of the Homeric city of Troias, and they built a Greek settlement with a lavish temple, theater and city council building there. Writing in the first century A.D., Plutarch described a visit by Alexander the Great in 334 B.C. to celebrate the Mycenaean conquest nearly a millennium earlier—and to grieve at the supposed tomb of Achilles. The Romans, for their part, believed that they descended from the Trojan hero Aeneas, who fled to Italy after Troy’s destruction, as recounted by Virgil in the Aeneid; Julius Caesar was said to have visited Hisarlik in 48 B.C. to pay homage to Aeneas, Hector and other Trojan heroes. The emperor Constantine even considered making Hisarlik the new capital of his empire before choosing Byzantium, later to become Constantinople, then Istanbul. In the fifth century, a series of earthquakes led to the city’s abandonment, and its links to Homeric Troy were largely forgotten. Still, as late as the 15th century, a Castilian traveler and writer named Pedro Tafur visited a collection of ruins—apparently Hisarlik—and described it as “that place which they say was Troy.”
In the modern era, the first person to suggest Hisarlik as the site of Troy was the Scottish polymath Charles Maclaren, a one-time editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. But it would be nearly half a century before an amateur archaeologist named Frank Calvert began to explore the mound overlooking the Dardanelles that the Turks called the “Place of Fortresses.” A wealth of detail in the Iliad suggested to him that Hisarlik and Troy were one and the same. Homer had placed the city on a hill situated between two rivers, the Scamander and the Simoeis, which some modern scholars suggest correspond to the rivers now known as the Karamenderes and the Dumrek Su. The Iliad also contains dozens of references to mile-high Mount Ida, 20 miles south of Hisarlik, from which Zeus “the cloud-gatherer” and his “ox-eyed queen” Hera observed the fighting and intervened on behalf of favored warriors. And there is a tantalizing description of “two well-heads of lovely water,” one hot and one cold, around which Achilles pursued Hector toward the end of the Iliad. (In the late 1990s, archaeologists discovered an underground reservoir that some believe fed the wells described by Homer.) Calvert uncovered temples and other ruins from Hellenistic and Roman towns, but he ran out of money to dig further. When he met a self-taught German archaeologist named Heinrich Schliemann, who was in Turkey conducting his own search for Troy, he encouraged Schliemann to pick up where he left off.
Schliemann had been entranced with the Iliad and the Odyssey since he was a boy. After he made a fortune trading in gold dust in California, indigo dye in Russia, and black-market gunpowder in Crimea, he walked away from his businesses to self-finance his passion, and set out in 1868 for the Troad, or “Land of Troy,” a 77-square-mile swath of countryside overlooking the Dardanelles.
Schliemann burrowed through layers of settlement, leveling walls and tearing up relics that had lain in place for millennia. In a layer near the bottom, on the southwest edge of the ruins, he unearthed an astonishing cache of goblets, shields, diadems, bracelets, necklaces, brooches, thousands of gold beads, and hundreds of other objects made of gold, silver, copper and electrum, a mixture of precious metals. Claiming that the treasure confirmed the site was Homeric Troy, Schliemann called his bounty “Priam’s Treasure,” attributing it to the Trojan monarch in the Iliad. As it turned out, the jewelry and other artifacts he found at this layer, known as Troy II, dated to between 2500 and 2300 B.C., about 1,000 years earlier than the agreed upon time of Homeric Troy. But Schliemann’s findings proved that a wealthy sanctuary, perhaps the one described in the Iliad, had held sway on this hilltop. “Schliemann converted Hisarlik to Troy,” Aslan said.
Schliemann and his successor, Wilhelm Dörpfeld, eventually identified nine archaeological layers spanning 3,500 years, from the Bronze Age to the Roman Era. In the uppermost strata they discovered temples, baths, legislative chambers and other structures showing the importance the site had to classical-era Greece and Rome. Although excavators found no direct evidence of Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar, they uncovered a small outdoor theater that may have been built to commemorate the emperor Hadrian’s visit in A.D. 124. “In Roman times this site was like Disneyland,” Aslan tells me. “Everybody visited because of the Iliad.”
In the 1930s, the American archaeologist Carl Blegen found compelling evidence of a protracted siege consistent with the late Bronze Age: Large buildings were subdivided to take in numerous families, presumably to accommodate people seeking protection during a period of conflict outside the city walls; in addition, the city’s storage capacity was increased by burying giant vessels for food or other supplies in the ground. Blegen also found the remains of several unburied bodies, along with blackened debris and other signs of fire, as well as Greek-style arrowheads and what appeared to be several stockpiles of stones, apparently to repel invaders.
But after World War II, work at the site remained stalled for nearly 50 years, until Korfmann, Aslan’s mentor, arrived in the 1980s. Korfmann first carried out excavations at a bay several miles away, where he developed a theory, disputed by some archaeologists, that a Greek-Trojan maritime rivalry culminated in a major war around 1200 B.C. He described Troy as a “pirate fortress,” with a strategic harbor from which it ruled the Dardanelles, and he hypothesized that Troy’s extortionate demand for tribute from Greek trading vessels was a chief instigator for conflict. As evidence that mariners were forced to linger here, essentially as Trojan hostages, he cited the discovery of a necropolis near the bay that appeared to be the final resting place for foreign sailors. He also pointed to a settlement in the headlands that may have served as a Trojan base of operations.
Next, Korfmann conducted excavations and surveys in and around the Citadel itself. His work dramatically reshaped what was known about the ancient city. The surveys revealed a grid pattern of streets outside the gates, a tunnel system that collected and distributed potable water, and a 6-foot-deep, 13-foot-wide trench dug into the bedrock, which he interpreted as a defensive structure intended to prevent chariot invasions. Although some scholars dismissed the trench as a drainage ditch, it matched Homer’s description of a “dike being everywhere so deep and (where it is least deep) set with stakes exceeding thick, sharp, strong, that a horse could never pass, much less their chariots after them.” Perhaps most important, Korfmann found that the Lower City extended all the way to the defensive trench—making the city ten times larger than previously thought, and laying to rest many questions about whether it was ever substantial enough to form the basis for legendary Troy.
Archaeologists have since found more evidence of a rapid expansion of the Lower City during the late Bronze Age, as well as a second defensive trench outside the first. That suggests that the city expanded as people from across the Troad took refuge in the fortified city, possibly during a period of conflict, Ernst Pernicka, an archaeologist at the University of Tubingen in Germany, told me. Pernicka also analyzed copper and lapis lazuli ornaments from the Bronze Age that may have come from as far away as Central Asia, which attest to the city’s international reach. And Aslan’s excavations have only added more texture to the life of the city.
One morning, in the ruins, Aslan and I ducked beneath a wooden barrier that lines the boardwalk, greeted a few of his Turkish colleagues and entered the remnants of the Citadel of early Troy. Just 300 feet in diameter, about the length of a football field, this fortress was once enclosed by a massive wall with gateways and towers, and contained about 20 rectangular houses.
I followed Aslan up the 3,500-year-old ramp to the remains of a late Bronze Age palace, experiencing a frisson of excitement as I imagined Priam walking with Paris and Helen through its once ornately decorated halls. I had to remind myself that while the palace was real, the stories about those who lived here almost certainly sprang from Greek myth or Homer’s imagination. In one of numerous encounters between mortals and gods in the Iliad, for example, the messenger goddess Iris found Helen inside the palace “in her room, working at a great web of purple cloth for a double-cloak, and in it she was weaving many scenes of the conflict between the horse-taming Trojans and the bronze-clad Achaians”—what Homer called the Greeks—“which they were enduring for her sake.” Moments later, Helen learned that Paris had agreed to fight her jilted husband, Menelaus, in single combat, to decide the outcome of the war. “Over his shoulders he slung a bronze sword, the hilt nailed with silver, and then a great massive shield,” Homer writes of Paris preparing for the fateful duel. “On his mighty head he placed a well-made helmet, with a plume of horse-hair, and the crest nodded fearfully from its top. And he took up a strong spear, well fitted to the grip of his hand.” Alas, Menelaus soundly beat Paris, and is preparing to kill him when Paris was whisked to safety by the goddess Aphrodite, causing the agreement to fall apart and the bloody strife to resume.
Today the powerful city of that era is unrecognizable, reduced to a field of interlocking rectangular blocks of limestone that formed the walls of the palace and surrounding houses. We veered toward the East Wall, a thick, sloping structure that rises to about 18 feet. A massive two-story tower projects 25 feet from the face of the wall, looking out over the fertile plains where so much carnage unfolded. In the Iliad, it’s from such a tower that the elderly King Priam gazed upon the battlefield and observed “the monstrous Achilles, and the Trojans being driven in utter panic before him, with no spirit left in them.” The Trojan flight came shortly before Achilles killed Hector in combat, the act that presaged the city’s destruction. “And Achilles charged against him, his heart filled with savage fury,” Homer wrote. “In front of his chest he held the covering of his lovely decorated shield, and the bright [embossed] helmet nodded on his head....Achilles drove in there with his spear as Hector charged him, and the point went right through his soft neck....He crashed in the dust, and god-like Achilles triumphed over him.”
Aslan, the son of peasants from central Turkey who moved to Istanbul when he was 3, discovered the Iliad and the Odyssey in middle school thanks to a history instructor with a passion for the classics. “Homer was not usual for us,” he told me. “It was a little bit out of the frame of the Turks’ cultural background. But it was my luck. I grew up in Istanbul, and I had such a kind teacher. For me, the power of the poetry in the Iliad was what most affected me. Sometimes when I read it, I get excited still.” He graduated from the University of Istanbul with a degree in archaeology, earned his PhD at the University of Tubingen (he speaks and writes fluent German as well as being conversant in English) and worked alongside Korfmann at Troy for nearly two decades.
Since taking over the excavation, he has found pottery from the Lower City that definitively dates that part of the city to 1200 B.C., reinforcing Korfmann’s view that a thriving metropolis existed outside the Citadel at the time of Homer’s conflict. He also discovered, in the deep trench just outside the South Gate, a Minoan seal from Crete, made of clay, imprinted with a deer, and used to endorse official documents. The 3,300-year-old emblem offers some of the most compelling evidence, Aslan says, that the city was an important urban center with commercial and political links extending across the Aegean even before the era of Homeric Troy. In 2019, he dug down to the bedrock and uncovered the remains—pottery shards, wooden beams—of a pre-Bronze Age settlement from 3500 B.C., showing that Troy was at least 600 years older than archaeologists had previously thought. The identification of a tenth layer of habitation, which Aslan called “Troy 0,” proved that people lived here at the same time that the first cities were being built in the Tigris and Euphrates valleys, and the early Egyptians were organizing into powerful chiefdoms along the banks of the Nile.
Aslan has also drawn attention to Troy’s intriguing connections to the Hittites, the powerful Anatolian kingdom to the east. Although Troy was long regarded as a Hellenistic city, recent findings have shown that it has roots in Anatolian culture, a fact that has deepened Turks’ awareness and appreciation of the city. The evidence includes an urban layout that resembles other towns east of the Dardanelles, and a 3,000-year-old bronze seal containing hieroglyphics written in the language of the Hittite empire. In addition, tablets found in the Hittite capital of Hattusa, some 400 miles east of Troy, suggest direct ties between the two entities. One tablet, dating from around 1200 B.C., describes the close economic and political relationship between the empire and a city-state in northwestern Anatolia that the Hittites called “Wilusa”—not dissimilar, linguistically, from the Greek “Ilios,” which is what Homer called Troy—and which many scholars believe refers to Troy. The tablet even names the Wilusan king who signed the treaty as Aleksandu, which sounds an awful lot like Alexandros, the name sometimes given to Paris. Other Hittite tablets record several wars that took place in Wilusa during the late Bronze Age. Aslan, like Korfmann, believes that the Trojan-Hittite alliance inflamed Troy’s relationship with the Mycenaeans, making it a target for attack. But, more than that, he points out that it shows the world was not divided between East and West in quite the way it was long assumed to be. One of the foundational legends of Western culture, it turns out, involved a powerful political actor that lay across the sea from Europe, in what is now Turkey, with influence that extended all the way to central Anatolia.
Aslan stops at the Scaean Gate, today defined by little more than a well-preserved stone ramp. “If there was a Trojan horse, this was its entry point,” he says. In the Odyssey, the wooden horse was left by Greek forces, supposedly as a parting tribute to their enemy. Then the fleet sailed off, apparently in retreat after ten long years of combat. In fact, the ships anchored out of sight at a nearby island while a company of Mycenaean warriors led by Odysseus hid inside the hollowed-out statue. Priam and other Trojan leaders debated whether to accept the offering left behind by the Mycenaeans before finally carrying the giant equine into the city.
Peering at the gate, I imagine Odysseus and his fellow Greek warriors emerging from the statue after dark, as recounted in the Odyssey, and throwing open the city’s gates for the returned Mycenaeans, who slaughtered the Trojan population in the streets where I now stood.
A quarter mile down the road from Troy, a giant cube of rust-colored steel rises starkly from a sea of corn and wheat fields and olive groves. The Troy Museum, an $8 million showcase adjacent to the ruins that spans 5,000 years of history, opened in October 2018. Its four floors are filled with jewelry, sculptures, sarcophagi and other objects, including the Hittite treaty tablet, in handsome exhibition spaces surrounding an airy and brightly lit 50-foot atrium. Aslan worked with Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism to secure much of the collection from museums in Canakkale, Istanbul and Ankara. The process met with grumbling from museums asked to hand over treasured artifacts, but it has produced a rich tableau of items. Still, a few exhibits verge on the kitschy: One display consists of videos in which Turkish actors and actresses wearing late Bronze Age attire speak the parts of Zeus, Odysseus, Helen, Achilles, Hector and other characters from the Iliad. “The guy who played Hector went on to become a star on the Turkish version of ‘Survivor,’” Aslan tells me.
These days, Aslan spends much of his time trying to persuade museums to return Trojan artifacts, currently dispersed, he says, among 45 collections around the world. This has placed him at the forefront of the international movement to repatriate cultural materials.
Aslan led me through a series of concrete passageways between the floors of the museum, meant to conjure, he said, a sense of emptiness and dislocation. On the top floor, a permanent exhibit that he helped conceive displays, in individual showcases, illuminated images of dozens of Priam’s Treasures still held in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow—gold earrings, gold pins with rosettes, and a jadeite ceremonial hammer ax. A plaque declares the collection to be “Trojan artifacts longing to be reunited at home.” Though the Turkish government has been in talks with the Russians about the return of the objects—they were smuggled out by Schliemann, then held by the Nazis, then seized by the Soviets—repatriation “will be very difficult,” Ridvan Gölcük, the museum director, told me. “It’s not very near.”
Priam’s Treasures were hardly the only relics Schliemann brought out of Troy. Between 1870 and 1890 he packed everything from bronze kettles to ceramics to gold jewelry into crates and shipped them to Europe. Some valuables found their way to museums and private collections; others went to Schliemann’s friends. And that inventory does not include objects stolen from the Imperial Museum in Constantinople or pilfered by workers from the digs and sold overseas. (The Smithsonian holds more than 100 Trojan artifacts, which were part of Schliemann’s personal collection, and were donated to the institution by his wife in 1893, after the archaeologist’s death. Turkey has never approached the Smithsonian about repatriation, but Sabrina Sholts, curator of anthropology, says that under the institution’s framework for deciding on the ethical return of objects they may be valid candidates for consideration.)
So far, the Turks have persuaded only one foreign institution to turn over its artifacts since they began planning the Troy Museum a decade ago. In 2012, the Turkish government asked Brian Rose, who is curator of the University of Pennsylvania’s Mediterranean collection, to examine 24 Bronze Age gold artifacts of uncertain provenance that the museum had acquired from a Philadelphia dealer in 1966. The items included earrings adorned with leaves, brooches and a necklace strung with beads and ringlets. The Turks suspected they had been smuggled out of Troy in the 19th century and held in private collections until they surfaced with the dealer. Ernst Pernicka, an ancient metals expert, tested soil found inside one of the jewels and determined that it contained the same percentage of arsenic found in earth samples from Troy. “It was the smoking gun,” Rose tells me.
The objects were technically shielded from repatriation by a 1970 Unesco treaty prohibiting museums from acquiring artifacts that left their country of origin after 1970 without full documentation. Still, Rose agreed to a long-term loan of the 24 pieces to the Troy Museum in return for a license to carry on excavations at Gordion, the capital of the eighth-century B.C. Phrygian Empire, in central Anatolia. “We will never see it again,” Rose conceded of the collection, adding, “I’m delighted it’s displayed so prominently.”
Rose’s handover set a precedent, says Aslan, who has approached the Neues Museum in Berlin, which has thousands of Schliemann’s artifacts, including silver ceremonial cups and other objects of silver and bronze, and the British Museum, which has 300 pieces from the Troad, including 200 from Troy. But the talks have led nowhere. “They say, ‘If the politicians say to give them back, I will give them back,’” Aslan told me. “They all insist it is a political decision.”
To Aslan, these scattered remnants belong at home in the Anatolian culture that produced them. “When they stole the Trojan artifacts,” he said, “they stole our identity along with our heritage.”
Back at the Citadel, Aslan told me that the excavations at Troy are far from finished. The Lower City needs to be further excavated to settle questions about the size of the late Bronze Age population, the defensive wall and the surrounding ditch. More tantalizing is an earthen dump at the northern edge of the Citadel mound, created by workers in the third century B.C. to level the surface for a Temple of Athena. Some experts suspect the dump could contain something truly invaluable—engraved tablets. Until now, the only evidence of writing in Bronze Age Troy is the “Luwian Seal” uncovered by Korfmann.
And the hunt goes on for a late Bronze Age cemetery containing the remains of soldiers killed in battle, along with their weapons. Blegen found nothing more than a few skeletons scattered around the Lower City, and more recent remote sensing hasn’t turned up anything promising. Over the past decade a team from Ege University in Izmir has drilled 500 holes deep into Troad soil in a futile search for a large boneyard.
“Soon I will try to make the search in a couple of places,” Aslan told me, standing above the trench outside the South Gate. Eventually, he said, though perhaps not in his lifetime, “I am 100 percent sure that something marvelous will be found.”
*Editor's Note, 3/4/2022: An earlier version of this story stated that King Priam is killed at the end of Homer’s Iliad. In fact, his death is depicted in Virgil’s Aeneid.