When I went to Istanbul recently, I was eager to submit to the full tourist experience and immerse myself completely in the city’s ancient and fascinating history. Known through the ages as Byzantium and Constantinople before it became Istanbul, the constantly conquered and strategically important settlement has played a huge role in the history of the world as we know it, so I felt that by visiting it I would be discovering one of the real cradles of modern civilisation.
After a few fantastic days visiting the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and the Grand Bazaar, I found out to my surprise that we modern folk are not the world’s first tourists.
Not even close. In fact, we were beaten to it by thousands of years by the ancient Romans. During a day trip out of Istanbul to visit the ancient city of Troy in southern Turkey (believed by many scholars to be the site of the Trojan War as described in Homer’s Iliad), I found out to my utter amazement that tourism has been going on there for thousands of years.
Apparently the ancient Romans believed that Aeneas, one of Troy’s original heroes, was an ancestor of Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome. So around 2,000 years ago Romans were already flocking to Troy on organised trips, eager as I was to discover and experience its colourful past, which already at that point in history stretched back around 2,000 years.
Apparently, local tour guides even back then were using every trick in the book to relieve Roman visitors of their hard-earned Denarii, even to the point of making stuff up. They would point to random hills and fields and tell the hushed crowds that these were the sites of bloody battles where their forefathers had laid down their lives for the glorious cause. They even used to place large animal bones around these sites, dump a dented helmet and a rusty sword next to them and tell the gullible visitors that these were the remains of their valiant ancestors who had been struck down in battle. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the next bunch of archaeologists who take a shovel to the area were to uncover a 2,000-year-old gift shop complete with hand-carved models of Aeneas, Romulus and Remus and a range of tacky shield magnets depicting dramatic scenes from these fictional battles.
But what amazed me the most was the story of the Trojan horse. Like everyone else, I had heard of it and I knew the basic story but I had never really thought about the logistics until I saw a huge replica of the horse standing at the entrance to the ruins of the ancient city.
The story goes that after 10 years of trying to take the city from the Trojans in a gentlemanly manner, the Greeks came up with a fiendish plan. They would build a huge hollow horse, hide a platoon of their best chaps inside it then wheel it up to the city gates. At the same time the rest of the Greek army would visibly retreat and sail away on their ships, leaving behind only their most convincing conman Sinon to persuade the Trojans that the horse (the symbol of the ancient city) was an offering from the Greeks to the Goddess Athena (the Trojans worshipped Greek Gods), intended to say sorry for the destruction of her temple at Troy and to ensure fair weather for the Greek fleet as it sailed away.
Apparently, even after 10 years of war and repeated warnings from the city elders, the Trojan military brass accepted the story at face value, gave Sinon a hearty slap on the back and happily wheeled the horse into the city where it seems they left it unattended. That night, the Greeks returned quietly on their ships, the chaps inside the horse jumped out and opened the city gates, and the entire Greek army poured into Troy and chopped up every man, woman and child they could find. The war was over. How did the Trojans keep the Greeks at bay for 10 years with stupidity like that just below the surface?
And here history comes full circle. There I was lapping up this story in the footsteps of the millions of tourists before me, not questioning any of it, when it suddenly occurred to me – did any of it really happen? Was there really ever a Trojan horse or even a city of Troy? Some say it’s all fantasy and the site I visited is what’s left of some other ancient city. Some say it’s all true. But did I buy a small carved wooden horse and a Troy fridge magnet from the tacky gift shop? You bet I did. Hail Caesar!