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History Turned Up to 11

September 29, 2014 3 comments

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Knossos, both restored and unrestored.

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…

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The lighthouse at Chania in western Crete. On a stormy night like this, there’s no place better to be.

From Myth Into History

September 24, 2014 Leave a comment

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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.

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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.

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Sunset from the Palmidi fortress.

The Historical Traveller

September 17, 2014 Leave a comment
Mind you, I live in Dublin now, so visiting this is a holiday in itself.

A millennium and a half of history just down the road. But if you can go further, why wouldn’t you?

There’s a certain set of rituals to be undertaken before a long holiday. Eating the last of the perishable food in the house. Considering what clothes to take with you (there may be shorts, and the baring of milky-white leg flesh). Making sure that no one gets left in the lurch at work (inevitably, though, the clock draws the eyes more and more strongly as the end of the last day approaches). Reminding yourself not to forget your passport (which has absolutely no effect on whether or not you do eventually forget it).

I’m in the middle of all of this right now—in two days I leave Dublin for Greece (via Copenhagen for reasons of cheap flights and the prospects of a pleasant layover). On this trip, I’m staying true to one of my main reasons for travelling. There are many things that can drive one to visit distant places—time in the sun, adventure in an exotic locale, a new cultural experience, encounters with natural wonders—and over the years I’ve resorted to them all, either solo or in company. The draw that most informs my list of “must visit” places though? History.

Experiencing history is something like floating on an ocean. There are depths below you, all around, and every so often you can catch glimpses of what lies below. Back at home, familiar sights included a schoolhouse more than a century old, a ruined church more than a thousand years-a-crumbling and a stone circle dating back to the Neolithic period. Being surrounded by all of this as a child made me feel like I could reach out and touch the people who shared my homeland, no matter how separated in time we might be. The same feeling hits me on my holidays too, whether in the Colosseum in Rome, Tycho Brahe’s observatory in Copenhagen or a temple in Kyoto.

Greece has been on my top-ten list of places to visit for a long time. In fact, in the current political climate (which rules Egypt and Iran out) and in the absence of a long sabbatical from work (ruling out much of the southern hemisphere), it’s probably the most desired unvisited destination I have. Ten days won’t be near enough to see everything that I want to see (I’m focusing on the mainland rather than the islands) but they’ll be a packed ten days.

Why Greece? Look back to a childhood dominated by myths and legends for the main clue. To travel around Greece is to step back through time: from Ottoman rule to Byzantine domination, beyond that to the time of Imperial Rome and Macedonian kings, then to classical Athens and archaic Mycenae and Knossos. To return to the ocean metaphor, travelling through Greece is like floating above a wonderful mix of coral reefs and abysses. There’s always going to be something to see, layered everywhere you look. It’s a beautiful country too, full of wild mountains and deep valleys.

My basic plan is to start in the north, near Thessaloniki, and make my way south through the mainland, visiting Delphi, Athens and Mystra before hopping on a ferry to Crete, from where I’ll fly home again. Unlike my last long journey through Russia and beyond, there’s no need to exhaustively plan everything out, so I’m happy to wing it to an extent. That’s another benefit of travelling solo, I suppose: you can indulge your own whims without worrying about the impact they might have on your travelling partner. Of course, the drawback is not being able to share your enthusiasm and experiences, but that just provides a reason to repeat the journey again in the future.

All of which is to say that there should be, before too long, another travelogue appearing under the long-neglected “Travel” tab above. Between now and then, there will be reports from Greece whenever I get the chance to add them (not having planned out my accommodation to the last detail, I have no idea when and where I’m going to have Internet access—again, on the bright side, it’ll be nice to get away from LCD screens for a while).

In the last couple of days, I’ve realised all the things I’m going to be missing while I’m gone: a comics convention, Dublin’s Culture Night, the Ryder Cup and two weeks of rugby, West Brom and Doctor Who. For all that though, it’s been too long since I travelled. The excitement is just starting to kick in now, and it’s a nice, unfamiliar feeling. When I finally head to the airport, it’ll be in my preferred fashion, with a bag on my shoulder, a passport in my pocket and history in my future. I hope, in whatever I come to write about it, I manage to share some of that excitement with you.

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