By the Dardenelles


An ageing Turkish car ferry churns the Dardanelles, battling against currents swift and unseen. From the upper deck of the feribot, on this afternoon of March 2004, I take in the city of Çanakkale. A sprawl of faceless and charmless concrete apartments, it looks like something thrown up in a day, left unfinished, and inhabited simply because it was there. Two Ottoman forts on either side of the narrows one heart-shaped, as if designed by a Persian poet are the only treat for the eye. But of course they have a darker purpose, as reminders of war in a land rich in blood-soaked soil.

Battles have been fought here from the age of bronze-greaved warriors to the time of subterranean trench cities, howitzers and suicidal bayonet-charges. The years have barely suppressed the clamorous battle cries, the clash of metal on metal on flesh, on bone. The ruins of the ancient fortified town of Hissarlik, believed by many to be Homer’s Troy, lie a few kilometres to the south-east of Çanakkale. Behind me on the Gallipoli peninsula are the broken remains of 44,000 Allied soldiers and twice that number of Turks, put to the slaughter in 1915.

The shades of the dead cry out from both sides of the Dardanelles, the straits known to the ancients as the Hellespont. Here at the juncture of East and West, the brackish waters of Central Asia spill from the Black Sea into the ecstatically blue Aegean.

Here, at the Hellespont, worlds collide.

It began in the age of gods and heroes, more than a millennium before the birth of Christ, when a Greek armada of 1200 black warships set out to crush an Asian town called Ilion, or Troy a disproportionate, and in many ways still inexplicable, response to the seduction of a legendary beauty, Helen of Sparta, by a pretty Trojan prince called Paris.

The Persian King Xerxes, in 480 BC, had to bridge this narrow neck of restive water before he could march on Greece. ‘When he saw all the Hellespont covered with ships and all the shores and plains full of men, then Xerxes declared himself a happy man,’ writes Herodotus, the Greek historian. Shortly afterward, the king burst into tears. Drying his eyes, Xerxes explained his weakness to an adviser: ‘ pity overcame me as I made my meditation on the shortness of the life of a man; here are all these thousands and not a one of them will be alive a hundred years from now.’

Alexander the Great, a century and a half later, launched a retaliatory conquest of Persia by crossing west to east at the head of 160 triremes (warships with three decks of rowers) and many merchant ships. Springing ashore not far from here in a full suit of armour, the young Macedonian king announced his intentions by spearing the Asian shore. The second-century AD chronicler Arrian reports that Alexander ‘built an altar on the spot where he left the shore of Europe and another where he landed on the other side of the strait, both of them dedicated to Zeus, the lord of safe landings, Athena and Heracles.’

Thoroughly schooled in the Iliad (or story of Ilion), and keen to invoke the shimmering past at every turn, Alexander had no sooner finished propitiating his expedition than he went to bow before the tomb of Achilles, most glamorous of the Greek heroes, at a site believed to be Troy. He found weapons there preserved, so it was said, from the Trojan War including a ‘sacred shield’ which he took as a souvenir and had carried into battle by a bodyguard. Alexander not only revered the gods and heroes of antiquity, he saw himself as a rival to the godlike Achilles and a personal favourite of Zeus.

Dating Aphrodite: Modern Adventures in the Ancient World by Luke Slattery

Mytho-poetic vapours, not nearly as intoxicating as those that filled the head of the young Alexander, yet emanating from the same source, clouded many a mind during the Gallipoli campaign of 1915: in many ways an attempt to liberate the ‘holy land’ of Attica, so dear to the West’s imagination, from the Ottoman scourge. Young hoplites from Britain, France and the dominions were sent into battle against walls of flying metal because this place was still an ideal.

When the time came to address his troops before their blooding, the romantically minded Commander-in-Chief of the expeditionary force, General Sir Ian Hamilton, invoked the eternal fame of the Homeric heroes. ‘You will hardly fade away until the sun fades out of the sky and the earth sinks into the universal blackness,’ he declared, ‘for already you form part of that great tradition of the Dardanelles which began with Hector and Achilles. In another few thousand years the two stories will have blended into one ‘

At school the officer corps had imbibed the Iliad, the first and still the greatest of war stories, and the Odyssey, which tells of sea-crossings, punishing storms, monsters, witches and earthly pleasures. They learned the tale of Jason and his all-star Argonauts, who had sailed this way in pursuit of the Golden Fleece, slipping through the straits by night and hugging the coast of Thrace.

The north-eastern Aegean is a garden of invention: the birthplace of tragedy; of adventure; of romance. Leander swam the Hellespont each night for love of Aphrodite’s priestess Hero, aided only by the constellations and a lamp hung by his beloved at her window. The story was myth, of course; but beauty, aided by Christopher Marlowe’s poem Hero and Leander, had made it a kind of cultural memory.

And then there was that other species of myth history itself. The chronicles tell how the Spartan admiral Lysander, in 405 BC, destroyed the Athenian fleet at Aegospotami, the site of a small creek issuing into the straits, thus precipitating the fall of Athens and the end of the Peloponnesian wars. After news of the disaster reached Athens, reports the philosopher-soldier Xenophon, ‘a wailing came from the Piraeus, through the Long Walls, to the city, one man passing the word to another, so that on that night no one slept.’

By the time of the Great War, glamorous myth had replaced hard-edged history as another armada sailed for the Hellespont. The Englishman Patrick Shaw Stewart, combatant and classicist, took an old copy of Herodotus on the boat to Gallipoli. ‘The flower of sentimentality expands childishly in me on classical soil,’ he wrote. ‘It is really delightful to bathe in the Hellespont looking straight over to Troy’.

He died in action in 1917, and his reputation as a war poet rests on a posthumously published work building steadily to these lines:

Was it so hard, Achilles,
So very hard to die?
Thou knewest and I know not
So much the happier am I.
So I will go back this morning
From Imbros over the sea;
Stand in the trench, Achilles,
Flame-capped, and shout for me.

To Shaw Stewart and other sentimental classicists of his ilk the Homeric heroes were at once gods of war and comrades-in-arms. They were giants. And they were ancestors. The much-loved Rupert Brooke, sailing to the Dardanelles he was to die off Skyros of an untreated mosquito bite two days before the dawn landings of 25 April 1915 also pictured the impending battle in the colours of a glorious past:

They say Achilles in the darkness stirred
And Priam and his fifty sons
Wake all amazed, and hear the guns,
And shake for Troy again.

The officers and soldiers of the Australian Imperial Force were hardly immune to the resonance of their surroundings. An Australian contingent, pushing out their trenches at Gallipoli, chipped away at the buried remai
ns of an ancient settlement, but there was no time for amateur archaeology and enemy fire propelled them on. Charles Bean, the classically educated Australian war correspondent and official military historian, later kicked at the dirt and uncovered a coin of ancient provenance.

The Australians may not have penned war poetry of lasting merit, but their waggish doggerel offers a distinctively ironic counter to the high-toned myths of war:

An then ol’ Joe ‘e was a well read chap
Starts tellin’ us about a ten years scrap
They ‘ad in Troy which wasn’t far away
So Joe made out, from where we were that day.
A bloke ‘ad pinched a bonzer tabby, then
‘Er own bloke came to get ‘er back again,
An all ‘is cobbers came to see fair play,
An’ in the end they got ‘er safe away.
But Bill ‘e didn’t think a scrap could start
And last ten years about a blanky tart;
No Jane ‘e’d ever met was worth a brawl.
There must be something else behind it all.

Within a few short years of the homecoming, the Anzac experience of blood, mud and gore had been burnished into the much more brilliant Anzac legend; the hard-bitten Australian digger was openly likened to both the Greek citizen-soldier and the Homeric warrior of myth. For the author of The Trojan War 1915, a member of the Australian Field Ambulance on Gallipoli, the digger was already a reincarnated Greek hero:

Homeric wars are fought again
By men who like old Greeks can die;
Australian backblock heroes slain,
With Hector and Achilles lie.

Today the bones of those ‘backblock heroes’ rest in mass graves along the European coast of a Muslim country upon which a secular State has been grafted; an uneasy hybrid of East and West.

Çanakkale, like much of modern Turkey an architectural expression of budget modernism, is the gateway to the mythic battlefields of Troy and the very real killing fields of Anzac Cove. Tours of both Troy and Gallipoli set out from the city, and upon it descends the annual Anzac pilgrimage. The locals are awakened on 26 April each year by the moaning of the muezzin to find the town drunk dry, its hotels silent but for the snoring of young Australians and New Zealanders.

This is an edited extract from Luke Slattery’s Dating Aphrodite: Modern Adventures in the Ancient World (ABC Books) RRP $32.95.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.