The Heroon of Trysa, the Hidden Treasure

By Vinal Binner

When will the public be able to view this fourth century B.C. monument? A monument of major dimensions and importance to world culture is quietly stored in an underground depot outside Vienna:  The Heroon of Trysa.  It has been in the possession of the Art History Museum since 1884, for 116 years, and since then has been unavailable for any extended public viewing. 

One exception was made two years ago when parts of the monument were lent to Berlin to enhance an exhibit on antiquities in Germany. The monument has been made available for public view in Vienna only once, for a day or two in 1984, during a "Week of the Open Door," when 6500 visitors pressed through the narrow depot space (at that time in the basement of the museum), an indication of the public's enthusiasm to see and share in this world treasure. 

World treasure?  What is The Heroon of Trysa?  How did it get to Vienna?  If it is such a treasure, why is it not on public display?

The Heroon is a set of four walls, decorated with reliefs of Greek and Lycian heroic tales.  The walls originally stood on a mountain peak in southern Turkey, a bit northeast of the island of Rhodes, and enclosed the burial site of a Lycian hero prince-a hero being a leader capable of supernatural deeds.  About 1400 B.C., Lycians settled in a scattering of city-states in this rough, mountainous area, on a peninsula.  Trysa was one of the Lycian city-states.  The first literary mention of Lycia was in Homer:

The Lycians were led by Sarpedon with Glaucus, the heroes,
Far from Lycia, from the whirling waters of Xanthus.

Lycia developed strong economic and cultural attachments to Greece, and Lycian deities became identified with those of the Greek pantheon.  Around 400 B.C., the Peloponnesian War and the ensuing self-destruction of Greek society ended this strong alliance between Greece and Lycia, and Lycia fell under Persian domination.  Artisans living in the ruins of Greece-a war-torn land that now had little demand for artists-sought their fortunes in Anatolia.  Most of the fine friezes of the Heroon are thought to have been the work of these emigrants.

The Heroon of Trysa is a quadrangle of limestone walls originally built 866 meters (about 2600 feet) above sea level on a long ridge of the Taurus mountain range.  The walls average 9 feet in height, and 66 by 78 feet in length and are decorated with two rows of reliefs, one above the other.  Nearly 85 percent of the frieze reliefs survived the centuries. 

The Heroon is one of the most important relief monuments of classical art.  Unique to this work and little known is that Lycian heroic episodes are intertwined with similar Greek stories in the depictions.  For example, the story of Bellerophon, the Corinthian hero, who refused the advances of the wife of King Proetus of Argos.  An angry Proetus (who questioned Bellerophon's innocence) sent him to his father-in-law Iobates in Lycia who then gave him a dangerous mission-to kill the Chimera.

First he must kill that monster, the Chimera,
That was, as gods are, sprung from immortal beings.
The front formed of lion, the rear of dragon, and
the middle of wild goat,
It breathed out a terrible glow
of blazing fire.
Yet, he slew it, trusting the signs
Of the gods.


Following this accomplishment, Bellerophon became King of Lycia.  The ancestry of Lycian dynasties began with him.

When and how did this enormous work arrive in Vienna?

The Heroon was originally sought and found by Julius August Schoenborn, a German schoolteacher and self-taught scholar who first viewed it in 1841.  He, however, lacked the financial or political power to acquire the monument for Berlin.

In 1881, Otto Berndorf, Professor of Classical Archeology at the University of Vienna and first director of the excavations at Ephesus, prepared an expedition to find the Heroon of Trysa, for Schoenborn had left no map.  When he did find it, numerous obstacles stood in the way of his removing it to Vienna.  He required financing from the government, permission from Ottoman officials to remove it, and a large crew to build a transport road to the site of the monument.  Then he had to retain the crew to carry supplies up to the mountain and the sections of wall down to the sea, where the weighty pieces could be shipped first to Trieste and then overland to Vienna.

Since 1884, the entire Heroon-with the exception of the magnificent main gate, which unfortunately tilted over a cliff during transport and crashed onto the rocks below-has been in Vienna. 

Why has it never been on exhibit?

Finding Austrian funding seems to be the problem.  The Heroon would require a huge museum to protect it from the weather.  Although it survived 2400 years on a mountain ridge in Turkey, it suffered there only the normal wear of normal weather.  Today in our environment it must be protected from the increased acidity of the outside air as well as from human vandalism.

The Antiquities Section of the Art History Museum has, from time to time, drawn up suggestions for places to exhibit the monument.  Perhaps display space could be made underground between the two great museums, the one for Art History and that for Natural History, within a corridor connecting the museums under the statue of Maria Theresa.  Perhaps there would be space underground in the Peoples' Park.  Perhaps&ldots;

But the government purse has not been opened to build a museum for the Heroon.  General knowledge of the existence of this treasure, a priceless world monument, is fading away.

Is The Heroon of Trysa lost to the public forever?

A solution may lie at hand.  In the past few years, the City of Vienna has taken an interest in preserving and using another neglected treasure-the Neugebaeude, a 16th century renaissance palace built by Kaiser Maximilian II in Simmering.  It now lies behind the walls of the crematorium of the Central Cemetery.  As a matter of fact, the grounds of the crematorium, surrounded by walls with towers, were originally gardens of the Neugebaeude Palace.  The palace itself is composed primarily of long high rooms-several with sufficient space to exhibit The Heroon of Trysa.  Two marvelous treasures on one site!

Perhaps the Austrian state and the City of Vienna could cooperate on this project.  Perhaps officials could interest the European Union in providing help to preserve and make the two monuments available to the European-and world-public.   Once one hall in the Neugebaeude is renovated and the Heroon of Trysa placed in it for exhibition, tourism to the spot could provide sufficient funding for the completion of the Neugebaude repairs and for the upkeep of both the palace and the monument.  Perhaps&ldots;?

Das Heroon von Trysa, by Wolfgang Oberleitner, was published by Philipp von Zabern, Mainz, in 1994.  Most of the information about the Heroon in this essay is contained in Oberleitner's book.  Copies are available at the Art History Museum Shop, or in public libraries.  Unfortunately, there is no edition in English, and very little information in English about the Heroon.  The lack of an easily available text in English is a sad barrier to information for numerous guests to Vienna and scholars of antiquity.

One may view a model of the Heroon in the Ephesus Museum in Vienna.

Further information may be found on the subject in the articles by Billie Ann Lopez in Virtual Vienna:  "Gathering Dust: The Heroon of Trysa", and "Maximilian II's Neugebaeude Renaissance Palace."