Aristotle the Great

Alexander the Great was one of the world’s greatest leaders and commanders. He conquered vast swaths of the known world and left his name everywhere he went. He founded several cities (20 seems to be a count with which Wikipedia is comfortable), and even named one after his horse.

So you would think I would see his name a lot here, given that he was from this part of Greece. But I don’t – instead I see the name Aristotle , his tutor, everywhere. Alexander definitely appears, but Aristotle is somehow more prominent, including in the name of the local university. And the street leading to Aristotelous Square, above. In fact, my taxi driver on the first night pointed several Aristotle references.

I feel like we can learn something from that.

I met my tour group in the square in front of the hotel, and the seven of us clambered into a van and headed out to the northwest, with Nikos as our driver and guide. Nikos studied archaeology and at times I can see him obsessing on some small detail or other.

Not Aristotle. This is Eleftherios Venizelos.

They needed one of us to ride shotgun and I volunteered. Only 2 of us were truly traveling alone and I decided to take one for the team.

This gave me the chance to talk to Nikos for a bit. I told him my family story. Everybody here is so welcoming when they learn that I am part Greek, and Nikos inquired about my name.

I told him the family name, and conceded that my grandfather had modified and Americanized his Greek name. Nikos was clearly offended. I tried to explain that, a century ago this was the norm. In English, the spelling is unusual, and something people might struggle with. On top of that, Greek immigrants to the United States at the time were looked down upon. These are reasons a name might change.

Nikos was unconvinced, but we moved on with the conversation.

We were in rural Macedonia now, at the ruins of Pella.

We paid our entrance fee at the gate and entered the very spare, windswept remains of the city that once saw the birth of Alexander the Great.

Little remains here that would speak to or suggest such an auspicious history. It was a walled city, which would have been unusual in the 4th century BCE, but at this point the wall is barely recognizable. As in the rest of Ancient Pella, most of the stones have since eroded or been carted away to use elsewhere.

The sea once came to this point, but millennia of silt deposits from the rivers in the area have placed the port miles and miles away. Still, near the old port we find the remains of the pottery makers. In my mind this makes sense, given the hot fires of a kiln. It would be much safer to have them here, outside the walls.

And also here are the baths. I have been told before that the baths are often near the entrances to cities to cleanse visitors and prevent disease, so the placement here fits.

Further in we found the city archives. Nikos explained that they were able to identify it as the archives because of city seals found at the site.

The grandest area here surrounded the remains of the Temple of Dionysus, with a few of its columns restored. The overall paucity of restorable structures speaks to the limited nature of the ruins and how little actually remains.

And yet, some of the floor mosaic in a neighboring building remained intact and impressive. Flooring is designed to be walked on. It can’t fall over. It seems to endure the eons very well.

Also notable was the agora. The size is massive, and Nikos pointed out that it stood in the center of town. I considered this information, processing how big this city was, even if the space was now barren.

Above the remains of the ancient city would have stood the ancient palace, but both were destroyed when the Romans conquered the region.

Further up still was the Pella museum, with a marvelous array of relics from the site.

After this we moved on to Vergina, where the tomb of King Phillip II, Alexander’s father, was found in a great tumulus, or mound of earth. Macedonian graves here were set within mounds of earth, and can be found if you know what to look for.

Four tombs were found in this tumulus, and unlike many others, some of these were intact, including the King’s.

So many of the finds here were absolutely spectacular, but the pictures you’ll find often focus on the funerary wreaths, and with reason. Wrought of gold in the form of delicate curves and leaves, they stretch the imagination. It is almost hard to believe that they are here, and in such incredible shape, over 2000 years later.

We had a few more stops with Niko, but this one other stop sticks in my mind. This was the theater where King Phillip II was assassinated, and where Alexander was coronated. There’s just something special about this spot in history.

This wasn’t exactly the birthplace of Alexander, but it was where his reign began. Under his leadership, the Greek empire spread out for a time, and Greek became the language of Asia minor for centuries.

But when you read about who he was and where he learned to be the leader he became, the truth emerges somewhere between his birth and his accession to the throne. His tutor was Aristotle, who told him to conquer to the east (and tutored two other future kings). Interestingly, in the end, Aristotle may have also helped assassinate him.

Millennia later, the breeze was brisk and the February sun was warm, as I considered these stories, these real-life Greek tragedies, that had brought me to this place at this moment.

And it was a great day.

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