"Exploring Macedonia" is our first new itinerary in Greece since 2018. On this occasion, to give an impression of the experience, we are providing a kind of travel diary on our blog, following precedents from Greece, Ireland and Turkey. Rather than describing every day in detail (you can check our itineraries on www.petersommer.com for that), every day we will pick one image we took that day, accompanied by some explanations and thoughts.
We are still excited.
Having met our guests for a first and superb dinner yesterday, we set out today to really explore Macedonia. I am writing from the Old Town of Edessa, a traditional settlement set atop a cliff overlooking the central Macedonian plain.
Our main site today was Pella, the capital of the Kingdom of Macedon for some time and the birthplace of Alexander the Great. There is much to say about Pella and its wonderful museum, about which I have written before, and will write again.
But today, I'll focus on our first stop, along the way to Pella. Our initial visit was to Agios Athanasios. It is one of the most astonishing archaeological sites in Greece!
Agios Athanasios, just outside the suburbs of Thessaloniki, is a typical 'Macedonian tomb', an elite burial monument from the late fourth century BC.
The term 'Macedonian tomb' describes a fairly consistent scheme, namely a built burial chamber with a finely articulated facade, approached by a passage, all buried under a mound of soil (a tumulus). This type of tomb became common during the era of Philip II and Alexander in the late fourth century BC, and there are many spread across Macedonia. Because of their elaboration, we can assume that they were the burial places of powerful people, of the aristocracy of ancient Macedonia.
The Agios Athanasios tomb, discovered in the 1990s, was found looted, so we can say little about its content. What makes it so extraordinary, however, is its facade. Architecturally, it's in the Doric order, but its key feature is the painted decoration! We know that the ancient Greeks, just like Europeans in later ages, considered painting one of the finest achievements of art - along with sculpture (of course). We also know that most sculpture was painted. There were famous painters in the Greek World, their works mostly created with wax-based paint on wooden panels. Unfortunately, this type of painting rarely survives.
The best idea we have of ancient Greek painting is found on the facades of Macedonian tombs, created for a fairly short period in the late fourth and early third centuries BC, in the fresco technique (painted on wet plaster). Agios Athanasios is the best example we have, with vibrantly covered fresco paintings on its facade.
Its painted decoration comes in three registers. There are griffins crowned by a palmette in the gable. The Doric frieze has a long and elaborate painting, uniting three scenes. On the left, there is a set of revellers from a symposion (a drinking party) approaching the centre merrily. On the right, a group of warriors, with typical attributes of Macedonian officers (shields and hats) is approaching the centre solemnly. The centre, approached by both groups, shows a symposion: people consuming wine while reclining on couches, entertained by a flutist and served by a nude wine-carrier, and welcoming both aforementioned groups. Although we can't be sure, we assume that the central figures, a man and a woman, are the deceased inhabitant of the tomb, and his wife. Much more could be said about this frieze - that's for another post!
Below, to the right and left of the tomb's door, there are two warriors, both evidently mourning. They are astonishing in their subtlety, showing strength and sadness and especially on the right, a sophisticated three-quarter perspective - something we wouldn't know Greek art could produce if it weren't for Agios Athanasios.
We have no idea who was buried in this tomb, but the quality of the painting and the emphasis on Macedonian officers suggest someone of high rank. Adding the chronology, we end up assuming it may be the grave of a high-ranking soldier in Alexander's army, perhaps even one of his famed 'companions', the members of noble families who were educated with him and who provided his inner circle throughout his lifetime.
Tomorrow, we'll foray into the western extremities of Macedonia.