Travelling to Crete is like taking the lever that controls the Greek history time machine and pushing it as far back as it will go without breaking. Modern political divisions notwithstanding, this is a very different country, and there’s no better place to see this than in Knossos, heart of the Minoan civilisation of Crete and fabled palace of the mostly legendary King Minos, his daughter Ariadne and her half-brother the Minotaur. (Look it up – it’s a little icky.)
Even for the Mycenean Greeks who supplanted them, the Minoans must have appeared to be something alien and ancient. In the court of the Pharaohs of Egypt, the men of “Keftiu” were regular visits and the acknowledged masters of the wide green sea. The first maritime kings of the Mediterranean, they bequeathed some but not all of their practices to the Myceneans when disaster and strife somehow brought down their power. (The role of the Thera eruption in that downfall is yet another fascinating possibility.)
Looking at the art of the Minoans, it’s still easy to note the gulf that separates them from the later, more realistic depictions of the Greeks. In religion, the Minoans were goddess worshippers, and while they did venerate male deities too, the shift that placed Zeus (born and raised in a cave on Mount Ida on Crete as the tale goes) at the head of the pantheon of Olympian deities came after their time.
This shift in culture, art and language is a fascinating one to try and follow. There are Greek scripts that seem to depict the ancient Minoan tongue. The Linear B text seems of Minoan origin but is used to depict Greek language. The Minoans rose and fell several times over the centuries, coexisting with the Myceneans for several of them until their uniqueness was eclipsed.
The Iraklio Archaeological Museum does an excellent job of putting this tale in its proper context. (Any flaws in my understanding of it all, I’ll have to put down to my sleep-deprived brain – and while I’m at it, I’ll blame any typos on that too.) It seems that the more the Cretans were plugged into the trading networks and political systems of other Mediterranean powers, the less distinctive they became. Eventually, the people who had built and decorated the palace at Knossos so gloriously (though not necessarily as it now appears, depending on your opinion of Arthur Evans) became just another territory. An appendage and territory of other powers, whether Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, or Venetian.
It seems a shame, but we have the memories in myth and legend of those times and the relics recovered from the concealing earth and painstakingly restored. For me, I’ve enjoyed all that and more. My travels have taken me from Thessaloniki in the north of Greece, with its Byzantine and Ottoman influences, all the way to Crete, going ever deeper into history as I’ve continued south. This seems as good a place as any to stop. Maybe tomorrow, before I fly home, I’ll just lie on the beach for a while instead…
When one is given a chance to attend a full orchestral performance in a theatre some 1,900 years old, one doesn’t turn it down. Thus it was that I found myself buying a €5 ticket to gain access to the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, in the shadow of the Acropolis, there to watch a performance by the Azerbaijan National Orchestra and several other Azerbaijani performers, notable among them a troupe of dancers.
Whether or not the ticket seller was offering a dramatic flourish of his own when he said that I had bought the very last ticket, I can’t honestly say, but the Odeon was probably as full as it could be while still being safe. Likewise, I’m not exactly sure what the cultural links between Greece and Azerbaijan are – perhaps my attention wandered during the introductory speeches that took up a fair chunk of the evening. Still, there’s no arguing with the fact that the orchestra’s performance was very warmly received, whether they were accompanying other acts (including, incongruously, a tenor offering up his take on “Nessun Dorma”). The dancers turned out to be the stars of the night though, their kinetic leaping, whirling and shouting inspiring the audience to clap in time to every flourish as light and sound illuminated the inside of those ancient stones.
Sublime history of another kind was the order of the day the next morning, as I made my way to the National Museum of Archaeology. With such a resource as the history of Greece to draw on, this could hardly fail to be spectacular, and as much as I may have seen more statues in the past two days than in the course of my life to date, I haven’t tired of them yet. The museum contains the Death Mask of Agamemnon (so called by Schliemann), several rare and exquisite bronze statues (far fewer of these survive from ancient times than their marble equivalents), and items both unspeakably ancient and of such quality of manufacture and art that you can’t help but linger over them.
Perhaps the most fascinating piece that the museum now holds is a relatively recent acquisition. In an ancient shipwreck off the tiny island of Antikythera were found not only a collection of sculptures (probably looted and on their way to imperial Rome) but a nondescript lump of fused bronze. That lump, carefully studied over decades, now has an exhibition all to itself and is known as the Antikythera Mechanism. An intricate clockwork device, seemingly constructed to track and predict the motions of celestial bodies, it’s a glimpse into the little guessed complexity of ancient craftsmanship, forgotten for centuries afterwards.
So much for the sublimity: whence comes the ridiculous of this article’s title? Well, I’ve supplied most of that myself as I’ve come to the last few days of this trip. For example, on my way to the museum, I managed to get completely turned around and found myself wandering through a mostly deserted park until I figured things out.
The main ridiculousness though has more to do with where I am as I write this. I’d always planned to head to Crete for the last two days of the trip, but following my thus-far successful plan of booking things at short notice has caused me a few problems this time around. First off, I went ahead and booked accommodation without checking ferry times. Bad idea – the only ferries from Piraeus, Athens’ ancient and modern port, are overnighters. Still, I get in early enough that I might be able to use breakfast and a shower before I have to check out. As a final insult, trying to book a ferry ticket online resulted in a lost connection somewhere between the agency and the ferry company. And then it turns out that I could and should have bought the ticket at a booth at the port for half the price! Sigh. Lesson learned for now. Time to try to get some sleep while hoping that the boat doesn’t sink and that the guy behind me stops snoring at some stage…
I’m in ur background, bombing ur photoz.
There’s a trope in film and television of using familiar landmarks to create a sense of place. If a scene is meant to be in Paris, the odds are that the Eiffel Tower will be lurking in the background. If it’s London, Big Ben and Tower Bridge serve the same purpose. If it’s Dublin, well, a pub will probably do fine.
For Athens, the Acropolis and the Parthenon are the more than obvious choices as identifying landmarks. The difference being that when you’re in Athens, the Parthenon and Acropolis actually are in the background most of the time. It’d be a surprise if they weren’t, give that they’re built on a whacking great mountain in the middle of the city.
For all that modern Athens now sprawls all across the Attic plain, its ancient past remains evident at its heart. The Acropolis stands out of course: there are Mycenean stones at its base, as in so many other places that I’ve visited, but habitation here goes back at least to the Neolithic. But it’s hard to go anywhere in the centre of the city and not come across reminders of the past. Plenty of the museum pieces that I’ve seen over the past two days have had notes attached saying that they were found in some construction project or other.
It must make urban planning a nightmare here, perhaps more so than anywhere else on Earth. All around the city you can see building sites that have turned into archaeological digs, though how much of that is due to the economic downturn I couldn’t say. Even the Acropolis Museum has a glass ground floor, the better to show the craftsmen’s district uncovered during its construction.
Tear your eyes away from the Pantheon and take a walk around Athens though and you’ll be well rewarded. In the shadow of the Acropolis alone, you have the Areopagus hill, where high crimes were judged. You have the Pnyx, where Athens’ ruling body of the people met. There’s the largely intact temple to Hephaestus and the mostly ruined but massive Temple of Olympian Zeus. In the ancient agora, you can see the prison where Socrates took his fatal draught of hemlock, and down the hill you can see the uncovered Kerameikos district, where he strove to open minds among Athens’ ordinary citizens, questioning their every assumption.
Once again, it’s all about being close to history. Not just the history of a place like the Acropolis, a sacred precinct for the gods, but the history of the Kerameikos, where the common folk of Athens went about their daily business. Where they lived and died and were buried, for the Kerameikos was a cemetery too. Where you can see the roads that led out through Athens’ walls and the homes where meals were prepared and eaten. In a place like that, where centuries of dirt have been scoured away, you can walk in their footsteps. It’s as close as you’ll ever get to walking beside them.
Emerging from the Secret Cistern in Mycenae. It’s bloody dark down there.
I mentioned before that only a scrap of mythic Mycenae remained in Nafplio. Specifically, that scrap exists in the foundations of the Akronafplio, the old Acropolis of the city. In fact, for a long time the acropolis was the city, until the Venetians came along and created the lower city. As with the Palamidi fortress, nearly everything that’s there now is Venetian, and though there are odd chambers and hidden passages still visible amid the foundations, it’s hard to explore them far among all the restoration work.
In contrast, half an hour away by bus, the citadel of Mycenae is almost pure myth. This is Homer’s Mycenae, the city of Agamemnon, founded by Perseus, the son of Zeus. Although it was never forgotten during the dark ages between its height and the rise of Athens and Sparta, what history it had faded into folktales. The stones of the walls and gateways were so massive that it was thought that Perseus had called on the cyclopes to help him build the city.
Through painstaking excavation and the decipherment of scraps of Linear B script from the site, we know a lot more than the Greeks did about how Mycenae operated: its rule by a “Wanaka” and the trade links that stretched all across the Mediterranean and even as far as the British Isles and the Baltic Sea. There are records among the Hittites, Egyptians and other ancient civilisations of contacts with the “Ahhiyawa”, and there we can even glimpse a few names, though their exact provenance is hard to determine. In general, we know no more of the personages themselves – the kings and queens, heroes and villains – than Homer did when he spoke of “gold-rich Mycenae” and its king.
This kind of thing fascinates me and always has: the point in time where history fails us and the only point of reference we have is half-remembered stories of great events and turning points. Be they ever so twisted for dramatic effect or to provide a moral point, they’re as much truth as we have. It still happens too: think of the tales of George Washington and the cherry tree or Abraham Lincoln and his log cabin. Closer to Ireland, was there ever a Cuchulain, or was he just a recasting of an older tale or a folk hero with no basis in fact?
Stories have their own gravity, and myths are just those stories that have been around long enough to solidify into a bedrock for other tales. The Iliad and Odyssey dragged in heroes from other stories, just as King Arthur and Cuchulain became the dominant stories of a nation and more: stealing the narratives from other tales and recasting them as their own. What then happens to those stolen stories?
In some cases, their fate is to be buried, as with the Akronafplio. Larissa Fortress near Argos, another famed ancient city, has Mycenean stones among its foundations too, but the rest of the edifice is of much newer make. Argos had the good fortune though of being celebrated through its heroes, both in Homeric fashion and into historic times. Other sites have not been so lucky.
One such can be seen closer to Nafplio. The citadel of Tiryns is, if anything, even larger than Mycenae. However, it’s in poorer repair and sits on a less imposing outcrop. More importantly, it features in few stories now. The people of Tiryns left behind a monument in stone, but the age that they lived in is the one we now call the Mycenean Age. A tribute as much to Homer and his skills as it is to the greatness of that city and its peoples, whom we remember now only through his tales.
The Omphalos, centre of mythic Greece.
If there’s a place in Greece that stands on the border between myth and history, it’s Delphi. Its origins are lost in legend and folktale, but the fact of its influence and wealth can be seen in the incredible physical remains of the place.
According to one tale, the Omphalos above marks the spot where two eagles that Zeus released from the edge of the world finally met. According to another, it was the stone that Rhea fed to Chronos instead of the infant Zeus, and Delphi is where it fell when Chronos vomited it up.
Neither tale did anything more than burnish the already hallowed reputation of Delphi. The sanctuary of Apollo was where kings and emperors sought out the wisdom of the Sibyl, known as the Pythia, when they wished to know what the future held. When Leonidas of Sparta was told that a king’s blood must water the earth of Thermopylae if Greece was to resist Xerxes’ Persians, he strapped on his shield and went for a walk, taking only 300 bodyguards with him. Or so the story goes.
That the priests of Apollo were able to keep this gig going for centuries can be seen in the fact that the sanctuary was rebuilt at least twice, each time more magnificent than before. Until the Christian Era at last put an end to pagan superstition, Delphi endured. Even now, there’s something special about the place. Perched high in a valley above the Gulf of Corinth, bees still buzz in the trees there, and olives are grown in the soil below, much as they must have been in ancient times.
If you go there yourself, go at dawn or dusk, preferably the former. Sunrise over Delphi is something special, and it’ll keep you out of the worst heat of the day. Walk the same path that pilgrims seeking Apollo’s wisdom once did and savour having the place to yourself before the tour buses arrive.
The Tholos of the Santuary of Athena at Delphi.
If I’d stuck to the plan I made yesterday, I’d be mentioning Thebes now, home of legendary Oedipus, that most complex rex, but also Epaminondas and Pelopidas, two very historical figures who broke Sparta’s power at the Battle of Leuctra. Sadly, either the bus didn’t stop there or Alexander the Great did a too-thorough job when he razed it, as I didn’t see anything resembling a city, ancient or otherwise.
Instead, I did a Chicago, passing swiftly through Athens, across the Corinthian isthmus to Nafplio. If Delphi is half myth and half history, Nafplio has only a scrap of myth left to it. There are Mycenean walls beneath one of its fortresses, but the most of the stone here is nailed down to well-understood history. The imposing Fortress of Palmidi, which rears high above the city, is less than three hundred years old, for all that several of its many fortifications have been named for figures of Greek myth and legend.
The climb to Palmidi isn’t for the faint of lung, but the view is worth it. I got to the top just in time to watch the sun going down over the mountains on the far side of the bay and sat there looking at the much older city acropolis below until I was ready to try the stairs again.
All that exertion is done for the day though. As I write this, I have a beer in front of me on a balmy Aegean night. Not long ago, I was strolling along the waterfront enjoying a (real Italian) gelato in the dying light of the day. If that isn’t what a holiday is supposed to be, I’m not sure I want to be part of it.
Twenty years ago, I was preparing to start college and live away from home for the first time. Sixteen years ago, I was about to interview for a job that, counting promotions, would keep me employed for the next dozen years. Three years ago, I watched the sun rise over Japan during a journey that was a reaction to losing several of the props of the life I’d built for myself and trying to figure out something new. Two years ago, I was beginning a Masters course that was a bigger challenge than anything I’d taken on in years, and one year ago I was completing it successfully. This year, I woke to see sunrise over the pinnacles of Meteora and will go to sleep in Delphi, the centre of the ancient Greek world, in time for sunset.
Draw any straight line through a life and you’re likely to find a similar degree of drama. This particular history sticks in my mind because my birthday and that of two thirds of my family fall within the space of a month at this time of the year. Late September and early October has always been, for me, a time of change and new beginnings. (That school years in Ireland, north and south, also begin at this time of year probably also helped to set this association in stone.)
For today though, I’m not so much starting something new as passing from one thing to another. Walking among other the monasteries of Meteora this morning (as the image above depicts) has been followed by much travelling by bus. Lamia, amid the mountains of central Greece, was my resting place for the past few hours. Unable to make my way to Thermopylae, only twenty kilometres away (sorry dad), I avoided being stuck in the bus station for four hours by heading into town for a stroll and a frappé (a Greek habit that’s proved worth picking up), returning to the station a safe hour before the bus to Delphi left.
Sunset was lost behind the mountains south of Lamia as we followed a road that Xerxes would have given a king’s ransom for. The closest I got to Thermopylae was passing around the wrong side of a mountain, though perhaps not far from the goatherd’s path that betrayed Leonidas and the 300 Spartans (minus two injured “tremblers” but plus their normally ignored helot slaves and allies). From there it was switchback corners up and down mountainsides into the gathering gloom, changing in Amfissa to take on even narrower mountain paths in the dark, heading towards a site of pilgrimage for a thousand years and more.
In Ancient Greece, travellers to Delphi went there seeking answers to what the future might bring. It was a dangerous business though, seeking out prophetic wisdom. Even if they heard what they wanted to, there was no guarantee that their interpretation was the correct one. Not for nothing has the word “Delphic” come to mean “enigmatic to the point of deliberate ambiguity.” (Look up Croesus for an example of the trouble misinterpreting prophecy can get you into.)
The Pythia’s not been in business for centuries though, and I’m not inclined to look for answers from inspired sources. For me, these blog entries have provided answer enough to something that’s been bothering me for a while. I’ve been trying to get back into the habit of writing for a few months but unable to break through a barrier of self-consciousness. What Greece has provided is a chance to get away from habitual surroundings and strip back my tools to the basics. (I have with me a pen and notepad for writing and an iPhone for posting notes and photos.) With less to worry about, I feel more relaxed, and I hope that shows in my writing. Unlike the ancient Greeks, I’ll be arriving in Delphi with no question in dire need of answering.
Not bad for a hotel room view.
The first Christian hermits in the Middle East thought that the best way to get close to God was to get as far away from the madding crowd of humanity as they could (some of us may sympathise). Holiness, however, brought fame, and soon those same crowds sought them out. So the hermits erected poles and pillars and retreated up them for years at a time. Anything for a quiet life.
The monks of Meteora, sadly, weren’t taking this approach to its logical extreme when they decided to build their monasteries on top of inaccessible pinnacles of rock. It would have made this post much more coherent if they had. Instead, they were trying to keep out of the way of the Ottoman conquerors of Greece, with whom they weren’t religiously in synch . Whatever their reasons though, the results are spectacular.
Kalambaka, nestled at the base of sheer limestone cliffs (which, yes, people try to climb because some people aren’t happy unless they’ve found a new way of making their lives difficult) is a small town that mostly caters to the tourists coming to gawp at the monasteries of Meteora. My own gawping is taking place towards the end of the gawping season, which means that the town is a little quieter than it might be and a fair bit cooler. (That it gets a lot colder can be seen in the piles of firewood that most houses have set aside for the winter.) Which is definitely a good thing, as a trek up the footpath to the nearest monastery without a bottle of water came close to being a rather bad idea.
The views, though, were well worth it again, and tomorrow morning I’ll be back to do it properly. Already I’m realising that ten days isn’t enough to even scratch the surface of a country like Greece. But a day that can grant you a glimpse of Mount Olympus, a tour through a thousand-year-old church adorned with frescoes on every surface, and the sight of a monastery that can only be reached by a rickety cable car or a stairway carved into a cliff face is a day well spent.