Vergina

...the site [Vergina] is of outstanding universal value representing an exceptional testimony to a significant development in European civilization, at the transition from classical city-state to the imperial structure of the Hellenistic and Roman periods.” WORLD HERITAGE COMMITTEE, UNITED NATIONS

Vergina, Aigai, Theater and Palace, Google Earth

Vergina (in Greek Βεργίνα) is a town in northern Greece, in the district of Imathia in the province of Central Macedonia. It is about 13km south-east of the district centre of Veroia and about 80km south-west of Thessaloniki, the capital of Greek Macedonia, on the foothills of Mount Pieria (2,193m). It has a population of about two thousands. The town is close to the site of ancient Aigai, once the royal capital of ancient Macedon.

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 therefore became the subject of international controversy in 1991 when the newly independent Republic of Macedonia used the symbol on its flag. This outraged Greek nationalist sentiment, which saw the use of the symbol as implying a territorial claim to Greek Macedonia. In 1995 Macedonia 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. Parts of the Macedonian royal palace were discovered. The excavations were 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 1939. After the war the excavations were resumed and during the 1950s and 1960s, and 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.


The entrance to one of the tombs

In 1977 Andronikos undertook a six-week dig at the Tumulus and found four buried chambers which he indentified as tombs, hitherto undisturbed. Three more were found in 1980. Excavations continued through the 1980s and '90s. 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.

Miniature portrait believed to be Philip II of Macedon

A large quantity of works of art, many in gold, were removed 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, and is one of the finest examples of modern museology.

Archaeologists do not agree whether the Vergina sun was a symbol of the ancient state of Macedon, a symbol of Phillip's dynasty, a religious symbol, or simply a decorative design. Eight-pointed suns often appear in Macedonian coins and shields of that period. Eight-, twelve- and (rarely) sixteen-pointed suns have been used as a decorative element in Greece, the Middle East and elsewhere for centuries, without any specific association with Macedonia. The exact configuration of the Vergina Sun, however (rays of differing lengths around a circle containing a sunburst) had never been seen by archaeologists before being uncovered in Vergina.

Vergina is part of the Vergina municipality of Imathia, population 2478 in 2001

Division of the municipality

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