The hill of Strongilovoúni seen from west, note the extensive remains of fortifications on the summit and slopes. © EAK-SIA-YPPOA.

The hill of Strongilovoúni seen from west, note the extensive remains of fortifications on the summit and slopes. © EAK-SIA-YPPOA.

The remains at Strongilovoúni have never been systematically explored, but that doesn’t mean that they are wholly unknown to the scholarly community.

Well, they are almost unknown. We only know of four foreign scholars to have visited the summit of the hill before us, of which only two published their observations. The local populations of the village of Vlochós and its neighbours did of course know of the site. Its Turkish name, Kuşaklı Dağ, means “the belted mountain”, and the alternative Greek name Zonária, “the big belts”, both give a good illustration of the winding great fortifications on the hill-sides. Strongilovoúni, in turn, simply means “round mountain”.

J. L. Ussing (1820-1905).

The first to mention Strongilovouni was the English traveller William Leake who passed by in 1805, but it was the 24 year old Danish philologist Johan Louis Ussing who on June 12 1845 became the first known scholar to visit the site and its remains.

Ussing published his experiences in Thessaly in his Travels in the south (Rejsebilleder fra Syden, 1847), containing many accounts of his observations and adventures. Travelling through still Ottoman Thessaly in the 1840s was surely not easy, especially if you’re 24 and on your first visit abroad. After describing the remains at Vlochós, Ussing continues:

The approaching darkness stopped me from following the wall in its totality: I had to get off the mountain. Here I took the wrong turn, which almost costed me dearly. As I had no wish to return to the top of the hill, I thought that I could take a shortcut by descending the slope from the spot where I was. I had however misunderstood my position: I was now on the other side of the hill, and when I reached its foot, I had to run for a long while through thistles before I reached the road from which I had begun my climb. I was alone; since my servant had been tired, I had left him at the foot of the hill during my explorations of the citadel. As I had been away a long while, he had gone searching for me. It was already dark, and I could not see Vlochós any longer, but I knew its general direction. I went this way and called at every apparition that I glimpsed through the darkness, but they evaded me all – luckily, I didn’t meet any dogs! – until a herder asserted me that I was on the right track. When I reached the village, I was met by my servant and kavas who were in great anxiety because they had lost me. They hadn’t found shelter yet, because all the villagers were out in the fields, as it was harvest time. Now, when it had been dark for over an hour, did they return and I was accomodated in a courtyard just outside a house. The eggs were soon fried, and when this sturdy dinner was over, I slept well after the many difficulties of the day, ignoring the the heavy thunder rain which the simple wooden roof of the yard barely withstood.

Ottoman kavaslar (honorary guards) in Jerusalem, late 19th century.

Ussing’s book contains other entertaining episodes, such as when he tries tzatziki for the first time (“buttermilk with garlic, yuck!”) or unknowingly commits a break-in into the house of an old spinster (“I had to feign a lot of Turkish serenity and air of supremacy to calm her”), but it is his account of Strongilovouni that is the most interesting. It shows that the site has remained more or less untouched since at least the mid-1800s, quite a rare situation for any archaeological site anywhere in the world.

We expect less difficulties in working at Strongilovoúni than described above, but many of the challenges met by Ussing still remain. It is easy to take the wrong turn on this massive hill (as Robin and Johan did during a visit last year), there are loads of thistles, and dogs… …yes, let’s hope we won’t meet any dogs.