Vergina

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Vergina (in Greek Βεργίνα) is a small town in northern Greece, located in the prefecture of Imathia in the region of Central Macedonia. It is about 13km south-east of the district centre of Veria and about 80km south-west of Thessaloniki, the capital of Macedonia. The town has a population of about two thousand people and stands on the foothills of Mount Pieria, at an elevation of 120m (360 ft) above sea level.

History

The modern town of Vergina was founded in 1922 near the two small agricultural villages of Koutles previously owned by the Turkish bey of Palatitsi and inhabited by 25 Greek families in his employee as serfs. After the Treaty of Lausanne and the eviction of the Bey landlords, the land was distributed in lots to the existing inhabitants, and to 121 other Greek families from Eastern Rumelia and Asia Minor after population exchange agreements between Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey. The name for the new town was suggested by the then Metropolitan of Veria, who named it after a legendary queen of ancient Beroea (the modern Veria) who had supposedly lived in the vicinity.

Archaeological finds

Vergina is situated close to the site of ancient Aigai (or Aegae), once the royal capital of ancient Macedon, ruled by the Argead dynasty from about 650 BC onwards.

The town became internationally famous in 1977, when the Greek archaeologist Manolis Andronikos unearthed what he claimed was the burial site of the kings of Macedon, including the tomb of Philip II, father of Alexander the Great. Although the identification of Philip II as one of the kings buried there has been disputed, there is no doubt that the site is of great archaeological importance.

The larnax (gold casket) which Andronikos identified as containing the remains of Philip II has a symbol of a sun or star on its lid, and this Vergina Sun has been adopted as a symbol of Greek Macedonia. It became the subject of international controversy in 1991 when the newly independent FYROM used the symbol on its flag. This outraged Greek public opinion, which saw the use of the symbol as theft of its historical heritage and implying a territorial claim on Greece. In 1995 FYROM agreed to drop the use of the symbol.

Archaeologists were interested in the hills around Vergina as early as the 1850s, knowing that the site of Aigai was in the vicinity and suspecting that the hills were burial mounds. Excavations began in 1861 under the French archaeologist Leon Heuzey, sponsored by the Emperor Napoleon III. Parts of the Macedonian royal palace of Palatista were discovered. However, the excavations had to be abandoned because of the risk of malaria.

In 1937 the University of Thessaloniki resumed the excavations. More ruins of the ancient palace were found, but the excavations were abandoned on the outbreak of war with Italy in 1940. After the war the excavations were resumed and during the 1950s and 1960s the rest of the royal capital was uncovered. Manolis Andronikos became convinced that a hill called the "Great Tumulus" (in Greek, Μεγάλη Τούμπα) concealed the tombs of the Macedonian Kings.

In 1977 Andronikos undertook a six-week dig at the Tumulus and found four buried chambers which he identified as hitherto undisturbed tombs. Three more were found in 1980. Excavations continued through the 1980s and 1990s. Andronikos maintained that one of the tombs was of Philip II, and another was of Alexander IV of Macedon, son of Alexander the Great. This has now become the firm view of Greek archaeologists and the Greek government, but some other archaeologists dispute this identification.

A large quantity of works of art, many in gold, were recovered from the tombs. These included the larnax with the Sun of Vergina on the lid, which Andronikos maintains contained the cremated remains of Philip II. These treasures were temporarily housed in the Thessaloniki Archeological Museum. Recently they were returned to Vergina and installed in a museum which has been built inside the Great Tumulus.

After the death of Alexander the Great, his empire was divided between a number of successors. Aigai remained the capital of the Macedonian kings. Under Antigonus II Gonatas in the 3rd century BC, the palace of Palatista was constructed at Aigai but was later partly destroyed by fire. More tombs were constructed during this period.

In 168 BC, the Roman Republic invaded, overthrew the Antigonid Dynasty and destroyed Aigai. It was later rebuilt but declined after the 1st century AD. The city was eventually abandoned.

In 1996, the archaeological importance of Vergina led UNESCO to add it to its list of World Heritage Sites.

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