The glory that was Pella - The Best from Greece

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Posted on: 03/Aug/2012 - Exciting developments are taking place in the heartland of ancient Macedonia, in northern Greece.


At Pella, the capital of ancient Macedonia, the site is becoming increasingly visible and its topography more comprehensible through ongoing archaeological excavations by the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and archaeologists from the Greek government.
But that’s not all. Just north of the city’s Agora, a sparkling new archaeological museum has also recently arisen to showcase the sprawling site’s impressive finds and vital role in the history of late Classical and Hellenistic Greece.
Nowadays, the region lying northwest of the modern city of Thessaloniki appears to travellers as a low, level plain, rich in agricultural fields and orchards, populated by small rural communities. When one turns further west and approaches the archaeological site of Pella, however, clues begin to appear of the area’s earlier, radically different landscape and of nature’s transformational power.
Low mounds, most showing signs of past archaeological investigation, rise here and there above the flat fields marking the locations of stone-built, often ornately-faced tombs that were customarily erected and covered with soil as the prominent funeral monuments of well-to-do Macedonians.
A bridge carries the modern road across the broad Axios River, a major waterway on its last, downward leg to the Aegean Sea from the nearby Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), where it is known as the Vardar. Both of these ancient names refer to the river’s dark appearance.
Thanks to the silt-laden waters of the Axios, and to the heavy flows of other nearby rivers including the Gallikos, Grammos, Aliakmon and Loudias, a previously WNW-projecting bay of the Thermaic Gulf that once extended right to the doorstep of Pella, now no longer exists.
The deltas of these regional watercourses steadily drained outward into the Thermaic Gulf and the beds of the rivers progressively lengthened toward the southeast, leaving the area around Pella - by late Hellenistic and Roman times - a wetland district noted for its lakes and marshes.
A former port
That Pella - like Ephesus in western Asia Minor - was once a major port city is somewhat hard to imagine, since today the site lies landlocked at least 26km inland from the present-day Aegean coast. By the late Roman era (4th-7th centuries AD), the Thermaic Gulf’s northwestern bay had occluded to the point that only a small lake remained opposite Pella, Lake Loudia, which by circa 1900 had further shrunk in size, finally disappearing into what is today the drainage of the Loudias River.
Pella was founded circa 399BC by the Macedonian king Archelaus (reigned 413-399BC), who recognised that the old Macedonian capital at Aegae (Vergina) - located about 15km inland on the opposite, southern side of the now extinct northwestern bay - was no longer suitable for an imperially ambitious state with its sights set on expansion to the north and east.
Therefore, Pella was established on the bay’s north coast, where it ultimately became a world-famous maritime emporium and naval base, that proved an invaluable launching-off point for the forces of Philip II and especially his son Alexander III, also known as Alexander the Great.
Both father and son were born at the new capital of Pella, in 382BC and 356 BC respectively (see box). The city thus became the backdrop for the important events of the Argead Dynasty during its final century, before Alexander died in Asia in 323BC and Cassander declared himself regent in 317BC, then king of Macedonia in 305BC, establishing the short-lived Antipatrid Dynasty (315-294BC). Under Cassander, a new Macedonian city, Thessaloniki, was also founded in 315BC, which eventually eclipsed Pella as the major commercial and military port of the northwestern Aegean.








Well-planned city
The extensive city of Pella (circa 400 hectares) was organised according to the gridded urban system perfected by the 5th century BC architect Hippodamus of Miletus. Pella’s city blocks had a width of about 47m and lengths ranging between 110m and 150m. These blocks were separated by a grid of E-W and N-S streets 6m and 9m wide respectively. The city centre was dominated by an enormous agora, while a palace stood on a broad, flat hill to the north. The entire city of Pella was encircled by a massive fortification wall 5m thick, with square defensive towers spaced 28m apart. Sophisticated networks of drains, sewers and fresh-water pipes helped to ensure the population’s health.
The agora was surrounded by colonnaded stoas sheltering two-storied shops of four rooms each. On its north side stood a large, inner-city sanctuary dedicated to Aphrodite and the Mother of the Gods. Outside Pella’s walls were cemeteries - the eastern one belonging to the city and the western one to the nearby Roman colony, established in the 1st century BC, after Pella had been levelled by an earthquake and fallen into at least partial abandonment.
Initial archaeological excavation at Pella took place in 1914-1915, although systematic exploration was only launched in 1957-1963, resuming in 1977. Since 1980, the agora and surrounding areas have been investigated by an Aristotle University of Thessaloniki team, currently under the direction of professor Ioannis Akamatis.
In the last two years, activities at Pella have been particularly heating up, as the modern highway that crossed the site was closed, allowing further excavation to take place and the ruins of the ancient capital to be unified. The old archaeological museum was also closed and a new, state-of-the-art museum, located between the agora and the palace, opened its doors in 2009. Now, as Pella’s streets are further defined through the restoration of their curb stones and the city’s shops, workshops, houses, baths and shrines are further exposed and conserved, daily life in ancient Pella becomes ever clearer.
New museum galleries
The new museum at Pella is especially impressive, providing far more exhibition, presentation, storage, study and refreshment space. Although the museum’s exterior is still being completed and landscaped and no books are conveniently available at the entrance desk (the old Pella Museum was known for its excellent selection of guides and other archaeological books), the interior galleries are truly remarkable, due to their thematic, creative displays, excellent lighting and labelling, innovative reconstructions and diverse range of artefacts.
Visitors will find informative introductory panels and maps concerning the history and natural formation of the site. Displays then follow, concerning domestic and public life, religious cults, cemeteries and the palace.
Within these general themes are specific presentations on the worlds of women and men, writing, trade and pottery manufacture. A series of children’s toys include a ceramic rooster whose bright red and yellow paint is still preserved. Silver and bronze coins, stone stamp seals, bronze and lead weights and a variety of transport amphorae hailing from Corinth, Thasos, Rhodes, Knidos, Kos and Italy, attest to Pella’s well-developed commerce and far-flung trade connections. Figurines of Athena, Eros and Aphrodite, as well as serpent models evoking Orpheus and Dionysus, served as votive offerings in Pella’s numerous sanctuaries.
One particularly distinctive sanctuary, located near the city’s harbour, featuring a large tholos, or circular, building and dedicated to Darron, a local healing god, may have offered comfort to the people of 2nd century BC Pella, as they struggled to deal with the increasingly unhealthy conditions of their marshy environment.
Life-sized bronze human arms and a horse’s leg can only hint at the great works of Hellenistic art that once decorated Pella and are now lost. Humbler but no less meaningful artefacts are two ceramic roof tiles - one stamped with the word “Pelles“ (of Pella), the other “Basilikos” (Royal), positively proclaiming the identity of the ancient Macedonian capital.
  • Museum summer hours: Mondays 10:00am-6:00pm, Tuesdays-Sundays 8:00am-8:00pm; tel 23820-33094, -32730
Pella once a morass of wetlands
The Augustan-era historian Livy, writing about the Roman takeover of Macedonia in 168BC by forces led by Lucius Aemilius Paullus, notes Pella’s strategic but exceedingly wet natural surroundings:
"The consul [Paulus], quitting Pydna, arrived with his whole army…at Pella and, pitching his camp…a mile from it, remained…for several days reconnoitring on all sides the situation of the city… [Pella] stands on a hill [facing] the southwest and is surrounded by morasses formed by stagnant waters from the adjacent lakes-so deep as to be impassable either in winter or summer… The ‘Phacus’ [lentil-shaped] citadel [seaward of the city] rises up like an island…secure against any injury from the water of the surrounding marsh. At a distance it seems to join the city…but is divided from it by a river, and united by a bridge, so that if…invaded it has no access from any part; and if the king chooses to confine any person within it, there is no way for an escape except by that bridge… This [citadel] was the depository of the royal treasure, but at that time there was nothing found there but…three hundred talents…"
(History of Rome)
Alexander born at Pella as Ephesus burned: A bad omen for Asia
Plutarch (circa 46 BC-AD120) reports:
"Alexander was born early in the month of Hecatombaeon [July 356BC]…and on this day the temple of Ephesian Artemis was burnt. Hegesias the Magnesian…said…it was no wonder that the temple of Artemis was burnt down, since the goddess was busy bringing Alexander into the world. But all the Magi who were then at Ephesus, looking upon the temple’s disaster as a sign of further disaster, ran about beating their faces and crying aloud that woe and great calamity for Asia had that day been born"
(Life of Alexander)



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