I want to retell a story you've heard since childhood, a romance of brave heroes and young love crushed by cruel fate. It is the legend of the shining city of Troy, Helen and Achilles and the wooden horse. But this time I mean to wring as much of the myth out of the tale as I can. My version begins with the capricious, hot, dry Etesian winds, which for five months every summer for the last five thousand years have periodically roared without warning down the winding narrow straights of the Hellespont – the land gates to the Sea of Helen - for days at a time. Faced with such a fickle and relentless foe, crews of the square rigged ships, sailing from the Aegean Sea to the Bosporus and the Pontos Axinos (the Dark or Black Sea) beyond, risked their lives and their cargoes if caught in the straits by an Etesian wind.
A safe harbor close to the southern entrance of the dangerous straits, where a ship could safely wait for favorable winds, would surely prosper. For some 1,500 years there was just such a wealthy port on a broad bay at the mouth of the Scamander River, within ten miles of the Dardinelles, the Hellespont. And to modern ears the cities' name sounds almost ethereal, as if whispered by the Etesian winds themselves – Wilusa.
Wilusa began as a fishing village, atop a 100 foot high limestone outcrop that jutted into the bay like a ship's prow. Over a thousand years the village became a royal palace and keep, five city blocks wide, with 25 foot high sloping walls. Eventually, as the town prospered, two ditches were dug, eleven feet wide and six feet deep, encircling the land side of the citadel. The earth from the ditches produced a 12 foot high wall, encircling a city, eventually, of 6,000 people. A tunnel dug through the bed rock fed Wilusa with fresh water. And outside the walls, dotted with farms, was “The Troad”, the sea of grasses that made Wilusa famous for horse breeding.
The great crises for the city that would come to be called Troy began about the year 1275 B.C.E., when the guarantor of Wilusan royalty, The Hittite King Mursili III, was challenged by the resurgent Egyptians along his southern border in Syria. Seeking to secure his opposite flank, Mursili III picked a dull but stable, younger son, Piya Walmu, for the kingship of Wilusa. His name meant "gift from Wilusa". And for the Hittites he was a gift, supplying horses and chariots for the Hittite Army under Mursili's uncle, Prince Hattusili. It was the logical decision, but it short changed the older son, Piya Aaradu. His name meant "gift of the faithful”. And his gift was a dangerous ego maniacal ambition.
The Battle of Kadesh in 1274 B.C.E. began when Hattusli's chariots caught a third of the Egyptian army by surprise, and came very close to sweeping it off the field and killing the Pharaoh. But Ramses kept his nerve and held his force together until reinforcements arrived. Nearly 4,000 chariots on both sides, the battle tanks of their day, swept back and forth across the Syrian plain, until the Hittites were forced to take refuge behind the walls of Kadesh. Hattusli was saved only because Ramses' army was too weakened to put the city under siege. Both sides' propaganda claimed a bloody victory, and both Ramses and Hattusli were labeled as heroes. But afterward both Hittite and Egyptian empires retreated to lick their wounds.
At the first word of Hittite troubles, Piya Aaradu murdered his bother and declared himself the new King of Wilusa. But Mursili knew he would not remain King for long if he was thought to be weak. And he felt his uncle Hattusli, the “hero” of Kadesh, looming behind his throne. So Mursili commanded Manapa-Tarhunda, the governor of the Seha River region , just south of Wilusa, to punish the usurper. In about 1273 B.C.E., the Seha army marched on Wilusa. But on the plains of The Troad, Piya Aaradu ambushed the punitive force, and Manapa-Tarhunda was defeated, possibly killed. Now, suddenly, the Hittite western border was looking vulnerable, as well.
Mursili had no choice. In 1272 B.C.E. he dispatched a larger, fully Hittite force under a general known to history only as Gassus. Using a horsehide covered battering ram suspended from a rolling frame (above), the Hittites quickly breached the city walls of Wilusa. Gassus allowed his warriors to sack the city, but prevented them from burning the entire place to the ground. Afterward, Wilusa was no longer trusted enough to have its own king, but a local was named the new governor - Alaksandu. The only mistake Gassus made, and perhaps the reason we do not know his full name, was that he allowed Piya Aaradu to escape.
The pouting prince sailed 300 miles down the coast of Asia Minor to the port of Millawanda, or Miletus in language of its Archean founders, whose ruler was the king of Mycenea, 100 miles west across the Aegean Sea, in what is today Greece. Here, Piya Aaradu was sympathetically greeted by Governor Atpa, who was also his son-in-law, and the brother of Akagamunas, the king of Mycenae.
With this familiar support, Piya Aaradu led a mercenary raid against Hittite merchants on the island of Lesbos. The joint Achean and Wilusian raid captured 700 skilled artisans, who were then sold into slavery. It seems likely Piya Aaradu split the profits with Atpa, and that Akagamunas also “got a taste”, to borrow a Mafia term from the 20th century A.D. The “had been” and “would be” King of Wilusa, Piya Aaradu was now a pirate, with money to finance future raids, and a safe base to operate from.
Unfortunately for Piya Aaradu, his military alliance with the Mycenae was the final straw for the Hittites. About 1269 B.C.E. Mursili III was sent into exile by, his uncle, Hatusili. The new king gathered an army and about 1267 B.C.E, marched on Miletus.
Piya Aaradu tried talking his way out of the mess. He offered to swear allegiance to Hatusili if he was returned to power in Wilusa. Hattusli responded by marching his army right up to the border with Miletus. Teetering on the brink of all out war between Mycenea and the Hittites, Hattusili demanded Akagamunas hand over Piya Aaradu for punishment.
Akagamunas was not eager to start a war. Pulling Hittite beards was fun, and Piya Aaradu's raids had even shown a small profit. But big wars have a tendency to wipe out small profits very quickly. So, as a show of respect, the Governor of Melitus, Atpa, invited Hatusili to visit Melitus , assuring him he would hand Piya Aaradu over to him. But once Hatusili was inside the city walls, Atpa informed the Hittite King that, oops, Piya Aaradu had skipped town, some how.
Hattusili was not happy. But he did not want a war, either. So after stomping around Mellitus for a few days, he headed home. And given the time and distance to think during his journey, and perhaps listen to his advisers, Hattusila decided on a new approach. The following year he offered to give Piya Aaradu everything he wanted, including the crown of Wiliusa. Swear fidelity to Hattusili and all would be forgiven.
Now, no one in their right mind would have believed such an offer. But was Piya Aaradu in his right mind? Or - more importantly - was Akagamunas? And there were logical reasons for the King of Mycenea to be suspicious of the pirate prince. It was one thing to finance Piya Aaradu when the Achaens had plausible denial It would another if Piya Aaradu began to trumpet Mycenaean duplicity from the topless towers of Ilium. No matter how unlikely the offer from Hattusili was, the king of Mycenea could not risk the pirate prince taking the offer. It was a death sentence for Piya Aaradu.
It made little difference if the ego maniac was strangled in his bed, or stabbed by a trusted friend while leading another raid. His dead body may have even been handed over to Hattusili as a sign of good will. But as long as there was the possibility of Piya Aaradu switching sides again, he had to die.
In fact Hattusili followed a similar strategy later when his nephew Mursili escaped his exile and arrived in Egypt. First the Hittite King demanded his return. And then offered to welcome him back into the family. Both Mursili and Piya Aaradu simply, suddenly. disappeared from history. And they were far from the only ones who disappeared.
"Within a period of 40 to 50 years", beginning abound 1206 B.C.E., according to historian Robert Drews, “...almost every significant city in the eastern Mediterranean world was destroyed, many of them never to be occupied again” One of the first to be burned for the last time around 1200 B.C.E., was Wilusa. Almost the last to go was the Hittite capital of Hattusa, which was burned to the ground one night in 1180 B.C.E. By then, every major city, from Greece to the Egyptian frontier, was violently destroyed, and often left unoccupied for generations.
Maybe the villeins were invaders, or diseases, or volcanoes or climate change or perhaps even the replacement with bronze by iron tools and weapons. But whoever or whatever the cause, to a child growing up in Greece 3,000 years ago, the past was a time of greatness and plenty, unlike the hunger and poverty of their today. And leaders like Piya Aaradu (aka Priam), Akagamunas (or Agamemnon), Alaksandu (Alexander, aka Paris) had been so famous for so long, they became myths. And Helen herself, the most beautiful woman in history, the face that launched a thousand ships and toppled the topless towers of Ilium (Troy) was Greece herself, and the new Hellenistic culture she would export to the entire world.
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