PELLA, 40km west of Thessaloníki, was the capital of Macedonia throughout its greatest period and the first capital of Greece after Philip II forcibly unified the country around 338 BC. It was founded some sixty years earlier by King Archelaos, who transferred the royal Macedonian court here from Aegae. At that time it lay at the head of a broad lake, connected to the Thermaïkós gulf by a navigable river. The royal palace was decorated by the painter Zeuxis and was said to be the greatest artistic showplace since the time of Classical Athens. Euripides wrote and produced his last plays at the court, and here, too, Aristotle was to tutor the young Alexander the Great – born, like his father Philip II, in the city.
The site today is a worthwhile stopover en route to Édhessa and western Macedonia or as a day-trip from Thessaloníki. Its main treasures are a series of pebble mosaics, some in the museum, others in situ.
Today Pella’s ruins stand in the middle of a broad expanse of plain. It was located by chance finds in 1957 and as yet has only been partially excavated. The acropolis at Pella is a low hill to the west of the modern village of Pélla. To the north of the road, at the main site, stand the low remains of a grand official building, probably a government office; it is divided into three large open courts, each enclosed by a peristyle, or portico (the columns of the central one have been re-erected), and bordered by wide streets with a sophisticated drainage system.
In the third court three late fourth-century BC mosaics have been left in situ under sheltering canopies; one, a stag hunt, is complete, and astounding in its dynamism and use of perspective. The others represent, respectively, the rape of Helen by Paris and his friends Phorbas and Theseus, and a fight between a Greek and an Amazon.
The excellent new museum, designed on the rectangular model of the ancient dwellings, stands up at the back of the modern village of Pélla. It showcases more spectacular pebble mosaics taken from the site, as well as rich grave finds from the two local necropolises, delicately worked terracotta figurines from a sanctuary of Aphrodite and Cybele, a large hoard of late Classical/early Hellenistic coins, and – on the rarely seen domestic level – metal door fittings: pivots, knocker plates and crude keys. The finds are all set within the context of life in the ancient capital, with detailed contextual displays, all well translated.