"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.
Today was devoted to two great ancient cities in Eastern Macedonia: Philippi and Amphipolis.
We first went to visit Philippi, a city founded by settlers from southern Greece, but eventually taken by Philip II, who renamed it for himself. The site, Greece's most recent entry on the UNESCO World Heritage list, is extensive and there is much to see, especially of its Late Roman/Early Byzantine era with the remains of a whole series of enormous basilica churches. Other features include a fine Roman forum, a Hellenistic theatre and an excellent (if small) museum with artefacts from the excavations. It overlooks the battlefield of the 42 BC Battle of Philippi, a pivotal event in the aftermath of the assassination of Julius Caesar and another story we told.
After a wine tasting in the Drama region, we went to Amphipolis. Set near the mouth of the river Strymon, it is one of the most significant ancient cities in the region. Also initially founded by settlers from the south, it was famously fought over by Athens and Sparta in the fifth century BC, and also incorporated into the Macedonian kingdom by Philip II. It was from here that Philip's son Alexander and his pan-Hellenic army attacked the Persian Empire.
The wonderfully interesting local museum is mostly unchanged for the last decade or more, but not quite: it contains the find we illustrate today. It is the head of one the two sphinxes from the second facade in the celebrated Kasta Tumulus, Greece's archaeological sensation in 2014. We've written about this unusual monument, perhaps the largest burial mound in Macedonia, twice before, in 2013, when the excavation was in its early stages and in 2014, when it was complete (for now). Eight years later, the site remains inaccessible to visitors, as consolidation is ongoing, but it visually dominates the Amphipolis area. It remains both mysterious and controversial, because it is so unusual. No other Macedonian tomb has two antechambers, each with its own facade, and no other Macedonian tomb has sculpted facades. Kasta uniquely has Caryatids in the first facade, and sphinxes in the second. It also has mosaic floors, unknown from other tombs of this sort, and wall paintings (the only non-unusual feature).
There is ongoing debate about the age of the tomb, but many scholars see it in the late fourth century BC (others think it may be as late as Roman!). If it is a fourth or early third-century BC monument, there is even more debate about whom it was built for. Options include Alexander the Great's mother, Olympias, his Bactrian wife, Roxane, his close companion, confidant and perhaps boyfriend, Hephaistos, and various other close associates. We just don't know. The head of the sphinx is a fine piece of (presumably) Hellenistic sculpture, Late Classical in attitude, appropriately mourning in expression for a tomb, and preserving traces of paint to indicate it was once polychrome. It is very fine.
Our experts, Maria and I, spent time explaining this recent find and also speculating about its meaning. Eventually, we ended up in the rather attractive seaside city of Kavala, our base for the next two nights.
Tomorrow, we go to an island.