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Return to Greece.

Classical Greece gave birth to much of what we love best about our world -- notions of ethics and citizenship, love of beauty and all the fine arts, and the search for meaning; this is, after all, the cradle of reason. That so much unreasonable tragedy has befallen this country over the centuries is a sad reality. But even in the shattered stones around the Acropolis, one can find evidence of the precision and genius that made this place the cornerstone of Western civilization.

MORE than forty years on, my first arrival in 1954, I returned to Greece. When I first came, I found a country that had emerged barely four years earlier from civil war. I was a young Canadian graduate student, with a fellowship from the American School of Classical Studies, supplemented by a grant from Yale University to finance a research trip to Egypt. Now I was returning as a visiting professor at the same American School. In the intervening years, Athens had grown into a city teeming with cars and motorcycles, which ruthlessly compete for space with pedestrians: a bustling, restless place, preparing to host the summer Olympics in 2004, and tearing up the city centre to build a modern subway. It is beautiful in its own way, with the flat-topped Acropolis and, beyond, the peak of Lykabettos thrusting up into the haze -- the nefos, as the Athenians call it, the smog that sometimes recedes but never disappears.

The nefos is a creation of the past quarter century: a mixture of vehicle exhaust and discharge from oil-burning furnaces; and in the summer of 1998, one of the hottest on record, arsonists started fires which destroyed the pine forests on Mount Hymettos, south-east of the city, and added wood smoke to the mix.

The Athens of forty years earlier was a city with thin traffic and limpid air possessed of that pellucid Mediterranean light that fades into violet at sunset. Pollution had not yet transformed the winter rain into the dilute acid which now gnaws holes in the city's ancient monuments. In the 1950s, a watcher on the Acropolis might have beheld the blue Aegean as easily as the legendary king Aegeus did, when he spied the ships of his son Theseus sailing back from Crete. Theseus had promised his father that if he was successful in killing the Minotaur in King Minos' labyrinth, his ships would hoist white sails. But Theseus had a convenient memory lapse, and when Aegeus saw that the sails were black, he hurled himself off the Acropolis into the sea known ever after as the Aegean. It is sobering to think that the thick nefos of present-day Athens would prevent any modern Aegeus from making a similar error.

THE Greek Line's Nea Hellas, which brought me to Athens in 1954, had been built for a British shipping company only two years after the Titanic made her fateful voyage. First class was redolent with stuffy grandeur; cabin class was dark with wood panelling; and third class was spartan and utilitarian. But it seemed to me that third class was where all the shipboard life was to be found. Meals in third class were generous, and accompanied by unlimited quantities of retsina, served on long narrow tables by stout, perspiring waiters. Across the table from me sat a Greek-American family, the father a fleshy, red-faced man with a prodigious capacity for retsina; his wife, from behind her horn-rimmed glasses, kept a close watch on her two nubile daughters. Most of my fellow passengers were students or Greeks returning home after long absences in America. There were a number of elderly single men, who looked forward to finding young wives in their native villages and settling down to a retirement financed by Social Security cheques from the USA. A sprinkling of Maltese and Turks made up the rest.

Four days out of New York I found myself in the middle of a dialogue between two Turks, one a young student and the other a 74-year-old returning home for the first time since before the First World War. For the old man, Turkey's sultans had been good rulers who had been deceived by bad advisors. The younger man thought the sultans were traitors who had let the Ottoman Empire slip through their fingers. His hero was Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who had defeated the Greeks in 1922, ejected the Christians from Smyrna, and burned the city except for the Turkish and Jewish quarters, ending the 2,500-year-old Greek presence in Asia Minor.

A few days later I encountered a young Greek from Vancouver who was going home to find the bones of his brother, killed by communist guerrillas ten years earlier. He also intended to find his brother's murderer.

The Nea Hellas was the only passenger ship offering direct service between New York and Piraeus that summer, and the voyage took two weeks. Later that year, an archaeologist from Columbia University created something of a sensation when he arrived at the American School within 24 hours of departure. He had flown from New York on a Lockheed Constellation. It was a presage of the future. The Indian Summer of the great ocean liners would soon be over, and most of these splendid ships have now gone to the scrap yard. But in the 1950s they were full every summer. The old Nea Hellas touched at Lisbon, and then Naples, where I invested a frame of Kodachrome film on Mount Vesuvius looming in the distance (it too has since disappeared behind a cloud of air pollution).

Then it was on to Greece, and as the Nea Hellas entered Piraeus harbour we stood on her deck and gawked at the Parthenon, white against a blue sky on the Acropolis. Distance hid the ravages of time and negligence: the Parthenon, having been successively a temple to Athena, a church of the Virgin Mary, and finally a mosque, survived reasonably well until 1687, when the Turks used it to store gunpowder in one of their conflicts with Venice, and a well-aimed shell from a Venetian gun sparked an explosion.

Yet there was still enough left to attract an international horde of treasure hunters in the last quarter-century of Turkish domination, the most notorious of whom was the seventh Earl of Elgin (father of the Canadian governor-general who presided over the birth of responsible government in Canada). The seventh earl removed a large share of the Parthenon sculptures to London, and there they remain in the British Museum, to the continuing indignation of the Greeks. Other fragments are in Palermo, the Vatican, Paris, Copenhagen and Karlsruhe. But the view from the deck of the Nea Hellas revealed none of this mutilation, and under the clear skies of 1954, it was easy to imagine the view Athens must have presented to a traveller two thousand years before.

THE American School of Studies and the British School of Archaeology sit side by side on Odos Souidias -- Sweden Street -- a short walk from upscale Kolonaki Square. Behind the American School property runs the Roman aqueduct built in the second century AD by the emperor Hadrian, which was still the city's chief water supply until the population exploded with the relocation of over a million refugees from Turkey into Greece after the 1922 debacle in Asia Minor.

Modern Athens, with its sprawling suburbs, is a creation of the last half century. When the American School was built, open countryside separated it from the city centre, and the connecting road was full of ruts and potholes. One early director, Bert Hodge Hill, liked to relate how he managed to get it repaired. He made a courtesy call at the prime minister's residence and dropped off his calling card. Etiquette demanded that the prime minister repay the civility, and so he drove out to the school in his carriage over the ruts and potholes, and left his card in return. No word was spoken about the condition of the road. None was necessary; the potholes themselves spoke eloquently. A few days later, repair work began.

In 1954, the country still carried the scars from the German occupation of 1941-44 and the subsequent civil war between royalists and communists which dragged on until the start of the next decade. The Athens government was only able to defeat the communists with massive American aid and military advice. By the mid-1950s, the country's shattered economy was showing signs of recovery, but in the National Museum only a few galleries were open. The wonderful archaic sculptures which had been excavated from the Acropolis late in the previous century still resided in the museum basement. But in the marketplace of classical Athens, the Agora, the American School was building a new museum of white marble. It was a reconstruction of a great portico that had been donated to Athens by an ancient king of Pergamon, a wealthy Hellenistic realm in western Asia Minor. It also had a library which rivalled Alexandria's, great enough to arouse the cupidity of Cleopatra, for she persuaded her lover Marc Antony to give it to he r to merge with her own.

Attalus, king of Pergamon, remembered his student days in Athens fondly enough to fund the construction of a colonnaded portico or, as the Greeks called it, a stoa, at the edge of the Agora, and this survived well enough that modern archaeologists could recover its architectural plan for both lower and upper stories. A new museum was needed to display the finds from the Agora excavations, and any new structure on the site would obliterate the foundations of an ancient building. So rebuilding the Stoa of Attalus made sense to the director of the excavations, the late Homer Thompson, who was on the faculty of the University of Toronto at the time, though Toronto was soon to lose him to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where he worked until two years before his death on 7 May 2000. John D. Rockefeller Jr, who had financed the excavations, agreed to match any funds the American School could raise, and the project got under way. When I reached Athens in 1954, the pillars of the Stoa were rising, and stonemasons were chiselling new column drums out of marble brought from the same quarries on nearby Mount Pendeli that had provided the material for the original building, and for most of the famous landmarks of the ancient city.

The Agora was the civic centre of ancient Athens, where Socrates' relentless search for truth annoyed the Athenians, and where the prison where he drank the hemlock was located. It was not the first marketplace in Athens. There was an earlier one south-east of the Acropolis, but in the late sixth century BC, about the time when Athens began to evolve into a democracy, the classical Agora (the upper case "A" distinguishes it from many other agoras, for in Greek it may be anything from a large grocery store to a farmers' market) began to develop north of the Acropolis. After Rome conquered Greece, Julius Caesar, hoping - vainly, as it turned out - to win Athenian support in the impending civil war with Pompey, gave Athens a donation to pay for a new market, and his heir, Augustus Caesar, finished the project even though he was not much more popular in Athens than his adoptive father, Julius.

In subsequent centuries, as Rome's hold grew feebler, there came a series of raiders and pillagers to upset what Edward Gibbon called the happiest period in human history. In 267 AD the Heruls swept down from the north and left a trail of destruction behind. A century later the Visigoths arrived. A legend cherished by surviving Athenians told of the Visigoth leader, Alaric, being frightened off by the twin apparitions of the warrior goddess Athena on the city ramparts and a scowling Achilles guarding the gate, but archaeological evidence puts things in a different light, with much evidence of Alaric's looting. Fourteen years later, in 410, he would sack Rome and send a shock-wave through the classical world, for Rome had not been sacked since the Gauls invaded, 800 years before.

But the last years of classical Athens seem to have been prosperous enough and not unhappy. The city clung to her pagan past even when Christianity was triumphant elsewhere. Her schools reopened, students came once again to study, and in the refounded Athenian Academy philosophers continued to teach a mystic pagan theology until 529, when the Emperor Justinian banned them as part of his campaign against heretics, pagans, Jews, Samaritans, and any other followers of sects which did not fit a Christian empire. The academy's headquarters was unearthed in 1955, studied, and then promptly buried beneath Dionysius the Areopagite Avenue. The building showed signs of hasty abandonment, and in its remains was found the skeleton of a small pig still with the sacrificial knife in its throat. The law of the day might have forbidden such sacrifices to the pagan gods, but apparently some were willing to risk it.

MODERN ATHENS had its start in 1834, after European intervention forced Turkey to accept Greek autonomy, and the young Bavarian Prince Otto became the country's first king. Otto reached Athens, and dedicated his new capital in the church of St George, a recycled classical temple ascribed to the hero Theseus. It was, in fact, built in the mid-fifth century BC for Hephaistos, the blacksmith god of fire, though the name Theseion still lingers. Greece had just emerged from a bloody war of independence, and Athens was a city of dilapidated monuments, 4,000 souls, and a great but distant past.

At that time, no one knew the site of the ancient Agora, but the chance discovery of an inscription located it near the temple of Hephaistos. The Greek Archaeological Service planned to excavate, but money was short, and delays ensued. It was only after the shattering defeat of 1922 that urgent action became necessary, for refugees flooded the city, and if nothing were done, the Agora site would soon vanish under new housing developments. The job fell to the American School, whose director persuaded John D. Rockefeller Jr to fund an excavation. The houses on the site were demolished, their unhappy inhabitants moved away, and from beneath the earth there emerged the remains of a lost city centre. Seventy years on, the Agora has become an archaeological park, with wild flowers poking their blooms up among the ruins in abundance.

The rebuilt Stoa of Attalus now faces the Hephaistos temple across the Agora, but forty years of exposure to the elements has made the whiteness of its marble less startling. In 1954 its marble cylinders were immaculate, fresh from the quarry. The stonemasons first cut the drums roughly and then erected the columns, before performing the final smoothing and fluting when the building was almost complete. They sculpted lion's head waterspouts for the Stoa's eavestroughs. These masons worked within an unbroken tradition stretching back to the classical period; their chisels were of better steel than their ancient forebears, but they were heirs of the men who built the Parthenon, working in the same manner.

The faculty of the American School in 1954 was small: the director, the professor of archaeology Eugene Vanderpool, the greatest American expert of his day on the topography of Greece, and the secretary of the School, Willie Eliot, who in the fullness of time was to become the president of the University of Prince Edward Island. But each year the school had a visiting professor, and in 1954 he was one of the greatest epigraphers of the century, Benjamin Meritt, the leader of a troika of scholars who had just finished one of this century's landmarks of American classical scholarship, a new publication of the Athenian Tribute Lists.

In the fifth century BC, Athens transformed the Delian League, which began as a defensive alliance against Persian imperial expansionism, into an empire that collected tribute from its member city-states. A tiny share of the tribute, a mere i .66 per cent, was given to Athena to win the approval of that formidable virgin goddess, and the goddess' treasurers inscribed their accounts on great slabs of marble where Athena herself might read them and check the arithmetic. It is unlikely that the average citizen took the trouble, for he would have needed a stepladder and infinite patience. Yet for the modern scholar, these accounts on stone give a glimpse of the inner workings of the Athenian Empire's revenue department.

Broken pieces of these inscriptions fell over the north cliff of the Acropolis and survived: the Agora excavations have turned up a number. Epigraphy, the discipline of reading and interpreting inscriptions, is an exacting skill, and, as I was to discover that year, Meritt was a practised expert: he could resurrect a document from a damaged fragment of marble with almost magical ease. In 1954, the final volume of the ATL had just appeared.

When I last visited the Epigraphical Museum in Athens, I found it developed into a handsome showplace. In 1954, it was just a storeroom in the bowels of the National Museum. Yet I spent hours there alone, documenting the evolution of Greek letters in the last four centuries before Christ. I made "squeezes," the papier-mache impressions of inscriptions which are the essential tool of the epigrapher. I purchased sturdy paper from a stationer on Hermes Street, soaked a sheet in water, spread it over the face of an inscribed stone and beat it with a brush. When the paper dried, I had a mirror image of the inscription which could be folded and taken off to the study. Today it is difficult to obtain permission to make squeezes, since if done too often the process can damage a fragile stone. But in 1954, the great academic hordes had yet to arrive, and I could work as I pleased.

IN the spring of 1955, I visited the island of Seriphos in the Cyclades archipelago, and we found the village strangely deserted and silent. Forty years on, one can find many mountain villages as silent, but the reason now is that the younger generation has migrated to the cities. The silence on Seriphos was more tragic. During the war, the population had slowly starved. The Nazi occupation lasted three brutal years, and then on Christmas Day 1944 came the Communist coup d'etat. Communist guerrillas overran much of Athens, though they failed to take the Kolonaki area where the American and British Schools were located. Athens was a graveyard in the winter of 1944-45. The civil war lingered in northern Greece until 1951, and there are still many Greeks who cannot speak of this period without bitterness.

In the late 1990s, death removed two men who had dominated Greek politics in the latter half of the last century. Andreas Papandreou, whose career included a stint teaching at York University in Toronto, died in 1996, and almost exactly two years later, his great rival, Constantine Karamanlis, died in the spring of 1998.

Greece owes much to Karamanlis, an outsider from Macedonia. His surname indicates that his family was of the karamanli: Greeks under the rule of the Ottoman Empire who had adopted the language but not the religion of their Turkish conquerors. Nevertheless, King Paul chose him as prime minister in 1955 to succeed the old army officer, Marshal Papagos, whose government had defeated the Communist ELAS, conquered triple-digit inflation, and had begun the climb to prosperity.

Karamanlis' life spanned the century. When he was born in 1907, his native village was still part of the Ottoman Empire. But though King Paul launched his political career, Karamanlis later quarrelled with the monarch and was in self-imposed exile in Paris in 1967 when a junta of right-wing army officers - two colonels and one brigadier - seized power and ruled Greece until their regime self-destructed seven years later. Every Greek believes that the CIA worked behind the scenes to install and support the junta, and now that the Cold War is over, the United States no longer bothers to deny it. Both the colonels and the CIA feared the ambitions of Andreas Papandreou, and rumours of a leftist conspiracy floated about in the political air - which is always highly charged in Greece. The young King Constantine, who had come to the throne at the age of 24 and since then had frittered away his popularity (with considerable help from his mother), might have taken a stand for democracy, and refused to accept the junt a's proposed cabinet. His prime minister pleaded with him to do so, but instead he gave the cabinet grudging recognition, thereby sealing the fate of the monarchy.

When the junta collapsed at last, Karamanlis was still in Paris; nonetheless the Greeks turned to him, and on 24 July 1974 he was sworn in as prime minister. Karamanlis' new government held a referendum on the monarchy - though the prime minister remained studiously neutral - and the royal family was soon in exile. And so ended the bizarre history of the Greek monarchy - Bavarians and Danes who never had been fully accepted as real Greeks, and who often seemed determined to prove that they were not.

I briefly visited Greece during the government of the colonels, and the reminders of their glum, paranoid regime were everywhere; signs proclaimed "Greece is for Christian Greeks!" - among other reactionary rants. Even the weather seemed oppressive. When I visited Athens again for a sabbatical year in 1976, this time with my family, it felt as if normalcy had returned, as Karamanlis steered Greece into the European Common Market. Four years later, Karamanlis used his parliamentary majority before an election to secure the post of president. His instincts were sound. Andreas Papandreou's PASOK party won a landslide victory and would continue to dominate Greek politics until his death.

The two rivals were very different. Karamanlis was a private man, upright and autocratic, without his rival'' suavity and sophistry. Papandreou was dogged by personal and financial scandal, and cultivated an anti-Western stance during the Cold War, which played well with some Greeks, and an anti-Turkish stance in the Aegean theatre, which played well with most of them. Papandreou left a turbulent legacy, with two wives and an illegitimate daughter laying claim to his estate. By contrast, Karamanlis' legacy qualifies for fewer headlines, but it is solid nonetheless. Greece belongs to the Common Market and has now entered the European Monetary Union.

Not long ago, I visited the Acropolis and found it still crowded with tourists even though the summer was over. From a distance, they looked like ants covering a hillock. Tourists have transformed Greece over the late twentieth century; they come to see its ancient monuments, lie on its beaches, or ski in its mountains. Mount Parnassos, which beetles over Apollo's oracle at Delphi, has become a ski resort, and even little Kalavyrti, where Bishop Germanos of Patras raised the flag of revolt against the Turks in 1821, fills up with skiers in the winter. Today, tourists have become so numerous that they are simply an ever-present part of the economy.

Forty years ago, the xenos -- the foreigner -- was an object of curiosity and was treated with great courtesy. Where was I from? I would be asked by a group of curious villagers. When I replied that I was from Canada, discussion followed. Where was Canada? What was its relationship with, differences from, and similarities to Ameriki? Then the local expert would appear: a Greek who had worked in Boston or New York and had retired to his native village. He settled the definition of Canada with a finality that has escaped our professional political scientists. The villagers, and I as well, fell silent, in awe of his wisdom.

Yet xenoi also deserved special treatment. One November day I took the bus from Sparta to Athens. The conductor who listed the names of the passengers made a gesture of bewilderment when I told him mine, and simply wrote down xenos. As soon as we left Sparta, the matron in the seat in front of me began suffering from motion sickness. Ten miles out, she was imploring the Virgin for help and pressing her face to the open window. Light rain began to fall. The bus conductor marched down the aisle, slammed the window shut and told the suffering woman reprovingly that the xenos must not get wet. Only two small raindrops had touched me, but I realized that I was witnessing the exercise of authority and hesitated to interfere. The hapless matron gave up invoking the Virgin and sat huddled in misery until we reached Athens when her Golgotha was at last over.

The fall program at the American School called for field trips, led either by the director or the professor of archaeology. Our chartered bus was spartan, and the driver practised the accepted theory of Greek bus drivers for saving fuel in the mid-1950s: on level stretches he accelerated quickly and then allowed the bus to coast for a quarter mile. It was a forgotten Greece we saw. One day as night fell, our bus jolted up a mountain road which the French Guide Bleu pronounced passable, and reached the village of Andritsaina in Arcadia. We filled the little hotel, and next morning we set off on a three-hour hike on a mountain path to the temple of Apollo at Bassae, which stands, remarkably well-preserved, in a small mountain valley, deserted and wildly beautiful. Iktinos, the architect who built the Parthenon in Athens, also designed this one.

But the village of Andritsaina itself left an impression that has been almost as lasting as the temple. It was famous for its sheep bells, which had a timbre of their own, and as I explored the alleyways, I found a bell-maker's shop and bought one as a souvenir. Also, the village had a library: a native son who had emigrated was a book collector, and he had given his collection to his village. The local school had set aside a room for it. We spent an hour or more there, all the time we could afford, exploring leather-bound editions produced by the famous printers of Renaissance Europe.

I HAVE been back to Andritsaina several times since. A broad road now runs from the village to the temple, which is protected from the tattering wind by a huge tent. Yet life seems drained from Andritsaina, though it has fared better than many mountain villages where the youth have left for the cities. Tour buses pass through it, and sometimes they stop. But I have not been able to find the shop that sold sheep bells, and when I last asked about the library I encountered only incomprehension.

JAMES ALLAN EVANS retired in 1996 from the University of British Columbia, where he was professor of classics and department head. He published The Age of Justinian: The circumstance of Imperial Power (Routledge) in 1996, and this year his Partner to Justinian: The Empress Theodora will be published by the University of Texas Press.
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Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:4EUGR
Date:Mar 22, 2001
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