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Vergina: Ancient Aegae

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The site of VERGINA, 16km southeast of Véria, undoubtedly qualifies as one of Greece’s most memorable attractions. This was the site of Aegae, the original Macedonian royal capital before the shift to Pella, and later the sanctuary and royal burial place of the Macedonian kings. It was here that Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, was assassinated, cremated and buried; tradition maintained that the dynasty would be destroyed if any king were buried elsewhere, as indeed happened after the death of Alexander in Asia. Until the site was unearthed in 1977 after decades of work by Professor Manolis Andronikos, Aegae had long been assumed to be lost beneath modern Édhessa. The ruins of the Palace of Palatítsia are currently closed for renovations until at least 2017.

The Royal Tombs

Under a tumulus, then just outside modern Veryína, Andronikos discovered several large Macedonian chamber tombs, known simply as the Royal Tombs. From outside, all that’s visible is a low hillock with skylights and long ramps leading inside, but once underground in the climate-controlled bunker you can admire the facades and doorways of the tombs in situ, well illuminated behind glass. Finds from the site and tombs, the richest Greek trove since the discovery of Mycenae, are exhibited in the complex along with erudite texts in Greek and English. It’s best to try and get here very early or visit at siesta time in order to avoid the crowds.

A clockwise tour takes you round the tombs in the order IV-I-II-III. Tomb IV, the so-called Doric, was looted in antiquity; so too was Tomb I, or the Persephone tomb, but it retained a delicate and exquisitely crafted mural of the rape of Persephone by Hades, the only complete example of an ancient Greek painting that has yet been found. Tomb II, that of Philip II, is a much grander vaulted affair with a Doric facade adorned by a sumptuous painted frieze of Philip, Alexander and their retinue on a lion hunt. Incredibly, the tomb was discovered intact. Among its treasures on display are a marble sarcophagus containing a gold ossuary (larnax), its cover embossed with the sixteen-pointed star symbol of the royal line, and, more significantly, five small ivory heads, among them representations of both Philip II and Alexander. It was this clue, as well as the fact that the skull bore marks of a facial wound Philip was known to have sustained, that led to the identification of the tomb as his. Also on view are a fabulous gold oak-leaf wreath – so delicate it quivers – and a modest larnax (small coffin) found in the antechamber, presumed to contain the carefully wrapped bones and ashes of a Thracian queen or concubine.

Tomb III is thought to be that of Alexander IV, “the Great’s” son, murdered in adolescence – thus the moniker Prince’s Tomb. His bones were discovered in a silver vase. From the tomb frieze, a superb miniature of Dionysos and his consort is highlighted. You should also spare a moment or two to view the excellent video, subtitled in English, which brings the archeological finds to life.

The Macedonian Tomb

The so-called Macedonian Tomb, actually five adjacent tombs, can also be visited after a fashion. They are about 500m uphill, above the large parking lot, left of the main road. Like the Royal Tombs, they lie well below ground level, protected by a vast tin roof. Excavated by the French in 1861, the most prominent one, thought to be that of Philip’s mother Eurydike, is in the form of a temple, with an Ionic facade of half-columns breached by two successive marble portals opening onto ante- and main chambers. Inside you can just make out an imposing marble throne with sphinxes carved on the sides, armrests and footstool. The neighbouring two pairs of tombs, still undergoing snail-paced excavation, are said to be similar in design.

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