The Truth of Troy - questions and answers
Where does the legend of the Trojan War come from?
The Greek epic poems, the Iliad and Odyssey are the principle sources for the story of the Trojan War. It is thought that they were composed in the second half of the eight century BC, by the blind Greek poet Homer, although it is believed they are based on an oral tradition that goes back much earlier.
How do we know where Troy is?
Homer’s poems seem to make Troy’s general position fairly clear. It is described as being close to the Dardanelles Straits, the islands of Tenedos and Imbros and visible from Mount Ida to the Southeast. This description matches an area of the Northwest corner of modern day Turkey, south of the Dardanelles and close to the modern town of Çanakkale. However the exact location of the citadel itself, was never made explicit in the text.
In 1869, Heinrich Schliemann, a wealthy businessman first visited this region. He was looking for a change of career. After intensive reading of the Iliad he became focussed on the search for Homer’s Troy. The British archaeologist Frank Calvert told him about preliminary excavations that had shown that the mound of Hisarlik was man-made. Hisarlik is located 6km from the Aegean coast and 4.5km from the Dardanelles. Schliemann’s excavations there convinced him that it was in fact the site of Troy.
While subsequent excavations by Wilhelm Dörpfeld and later by the American archaeologist, Carl Blegen, have associated later layers of the site with the Myth than Schliemann did, his identification of Hisarlik as the site of Troy has become generally accepted.
Why does Troy have so many Layers?
Troy’s favourable position on the waterway separating Europe and Asia meant that the site was abandoned and then re-occupied time and again over a period of more than three thousand years. Professor Manfred Korfmann of Tübingen University explains that sundried mudbricks were the principle building material for the walls of houses in Anatolia at that time. When rebuilding took place, mudbricks from the previous structures were of no value and so the old buildings would be levelled and the new structures built on top.
In this way a raised site gradually grew up, with remains from different periods of settlements arranged in layers, with the oldest towards the bottom of the mound and the most recent towards the top. Today archaeologists group these strata into nine broad layers representing consecutive periods of occupation from the Early Bronze Age, beginning around 3000BC, right up until Roman times, ending around 500AD.
Who were the Hittites?
The Hittites were one of the superpowers of the Late Bronze Age. According to Trevor Bryce of the University of Queensland, the Hittites lived in an area of central Turkey which they called the land of Hattie. They were subject to the rule of a royal dynasty, which ruled from the Hittite capital Hattusa, which is about 150 kilometres east of the modern Turkish Capital, Ankara.
The Hittites were the dominant force in Anatolia from around the 17th century until the 12th century BC, and in the 14th and 13th centuries BC they ruled a vast expansive territory from the Aegean coast of Anatolia in the West right through to the Euphrates in the East. The kings of Hattie were known as ‘great kings’, which suggests they were on the same level as the kings of Egypt, Babylon and Assyria.
Most importantly for establishing the historicity of the Trojan War, the thousands of cuneiform clay tablets found at Hattusa, Bryce says, give us an extremely comprehensive picture of what life was like in the Hittite world. The search for references to Troy in the texts began almost 80 years ago, not long after the Hittite language had been deciphered.
How do we know whether Troy is mentioned in the Hittite texts?
As Troy is an important regional centre, located at the edge of the Hittite Empire, it seemed likely that there would be references to Troy in the Hittite archives. According to Trevor Bryce, many scholars have long believed that Wilusa, referred to in the Hittite tablets as the name of a kingdom in western Anatolia, was the ancient Anatolian name for Troy. However, the tablets themselves give no clear indication of where Wilusa was situated geographically and so the connection could not be proved.
However in recent years a series of breakthroughs and inspired detective work have enabled scholars to establish the Hittite geography and the location of Wilusa.
Seven years ago Professor David Hawkins of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London made an important breakthrough. In the Karabel pass which takes the road from Ephesus to Sardis over the Imolus range, not far from the modern Turkish city of Izmir, there’s an ancient sculpture of an armed human figure cut into the rock.
However, no one knew what it meant, because until Hawkins’ breakthrough, no-one had been able to decipher the inscription associated with the sculpture. Hawkins’ translation identified the human figure as the king of a powerful western country called Mira.
The sculpture probably marked Mira's northern frontier with another kingdom called the Seha River Land. We now know that this kingdom extended north from the Karabel pass towards the northwest corner of Anatolia. When taken in conjunction with a letter, this new information helped scholars to locate the kingdom of Wilusa.
The letter was written by a king of the Seha River Land called Manapa-Tarhunda to his Hittite overlord. It describes how a notorious local trouble maker called Piyamaradu has attacked Wilusa. The Hittite king orders Manapa-Tarhunda to drive Piyamaradu out, but he fails dismally and the Hittites send out an expeditionary force to do the job themselves. Before reaching Wilusa, the Hittite force arrives first in the Seha River Land and from there march directly into Wilusa.
For Trevor Bryce, this leads to the inescapable conclusion that there is only one possible location for Wilusa - in the far Northwest corner of Turkey, the precise location of the site of Troy. It seems likely that Wilusa and Troy are one and the same.
Are the Greeks mentioned in the Hittite texts?
As well as a number of kingdoms that can be placed in Western Anatolia, the texts also make reference to the land of Ahhiyawa. Professor David Hawkins says that Ahhiyawa is associated with boats, islands and phrases like “across the sea”. The geography of western Anatolia as now established leaves no space on the Turkish mainland for the “great kingdom” of Ahhiyawa. Scholars have therefore suggested that Ahhiyawa is the Hittite name for Mycenaean Greece.
What can the Hittite texts and archaeology tell us about Troy and the story of the Trojan War?
In general the texts suggest that certain Mycenean kings and their allies became politically and militarily involved on the Western Anatolian coast during the Late Bronze Age. Moreover, there are six references to Wilusa in the Hittite texts a number of which suggest conflict over the site. In particular, a letter attributed to the Hittite King Hattusilli III, dated to around 1250 BC and written to the Mycenean or Ahhiyawan King, refers to former hostilities between the Hittites and the Ahhiyawans over Wilusa, which have now been discontinued in favour of peace.
"Now as we have come to an agreement on Wilusa over which we went to war…" Tawagalawa Letter, c1250 BC
This text, says Bryce, gives us a firm contemporary, historical reference for a war involving Mycenaean Greeks, Trojans and Hittites.
However, Prof. Hawkins urges caution. Although excavations at Troy have revealed three destruction horizons at around 1300, 1200 and 1100BC, it is not easy to identify these with any known historical events mentioned in the Hittite texts.
While it is difficult to identify any specific event in either the archaeological record or the Hittite archives that corresponds directly to Homer’s ‘Trojan War’, we may now be closer than ever to establishing a historical context behind Homer’s epic tale.