Greece Travel

Travelogue: Athens, Greece (Part 2)

MONDAY, 11 MAY 2015 (continued)

Athens can be a very strange city. There is a sense of chaos and decrepitude that suggests certain places like Bangkok; the clash between polished buildings and slightly seedy side lanes reminded me of Hong Kong; and yet, unmistakably, there is definitely something very Mediterranean about the whole place. Greece — or Athens, at least — is arguably not a particularly European place.

The problem, of course, is that given the seminal role of ancient Greece in modern European culture, it’s patently difficult to untwine the two. Is Greek culture “European” because it created the concept of the European, or is it instead the case that Europe is the product of a series of representations, misrepresentations, and distortions of classical Greek culture? In that case, can Greek culture itself really be described as “European”? Certainly, a stroll through Athens is not quite reminiscent of strolling through, say, Paris or London; I suppose one might argue that there is a fundamental difference between Western Europe and the rest of it, but what really is “Western” Europe, anyway? Richard Clogg, in his A Concise History of Greece, describes Greece as being both ‘Balkan’ and ‘Mediterranean’; certainly this is not the mainstream Europe that we normally expect when we think of the term.

The vast differences that now divide Greece from the rest of Europe are indubitably historical at their root. The cultural fulcrum of the Roman Empire shifted to Asia Minor when Constantine moved its capital from Rome to Constantinople, cracking late antique Europe into two halves; later, schism from the church in Rome, the growing self-sufficiency of the Orthodox tradition and the development of Greek (as opposed to Latin) as the liturgical language created an increasingly  idiosyncratic and unique devotional and theological culture in the eastern half of the empire, exacerbated by the subsequent dismemberment of the Western Empire after the decline of Rome and the deposition of her last emperor Romulus Augustus (ironically named after her founder). The fall of Athens to the Ottoman Turks in 1458 would lead Greece further away from her European counterparts, with mosques built into the carcasses of the old pagan temples, most of which had in any case either been destroyed or repurposed as churches and monasteries when the later Roman emperors (notably Theodosius I and Justinian) imposed Christianity on their subjects by the brute force of the law.

Given the little armies of Greek gods and goddesses crowding the shelves of the countless souvenir shops populating the old city quarter of Plaka, however, it seems the Greeks are happy being identified with their classical, proto-European past. The question lies in whether this will save their relationship with the rest of the European Union or simply distract them from the real problems.

The first site we’re visiting are the north and south slopes of the Acropolis. The diagrams given on the placards around the site are, disappointingly enough, incredibly confusing: one can neither make head nor tail of exactly what or where the contour maps are referring to, and it took us some time to realise that the inscriptions and votive offerings illustrated on the placards have all actually been removed from the site and taken to the different museums around Athens. Niches cut into the rock sides of the Acropolis indicate where visitors to the lesser sanctuaries placed these votive offerings, including all manners of inscribed tablets and miniature statuary; for the sake of preservation they are all safely kept away in the carefully-controlled environments of museums and storage vaults — a pity, considering that leaving them where they were found would have illustrated exactly how frequented and popular these sites must have been. More importantly, however, the presence of these objects, imbued with devotional intent, would no doubt have exuded that tangible sense of conscious spirituality that permeates places of worship. It’s no surprise whatsoever that the most beautiful, most moving sacred places are often also among the most decorated, as many of the churches in the city usually are, brimming with the soft glow of gilded icons and the haze of scented candles lingering in the air. There’s something about devotional paraphernalia that embodies a sense of worship and describes a space as “sacred”, functioning as a physical medium that negotiates the space between the human and the transcendental. The invisible and the ineffable have been made present, and sacredness becomes real.

But for now, all that’s left of these minor sanctuaries gracing the slopes of the Acropolis is the untameable life force of nature, and a handful of niches that have been cut into the rock. We find ourselves heading downslope, and before we know it, the Theatre of Dionysus is spreading out below us. Here is another sacred space, but not on the same level as the sanctuaries we saw before: the Theatre of Dionysus is the birth-place of Greek drama, an ancient site consecrated for the formal, elaborate Dionysiac rituals that matured into the theatre. Backboned by the rock of the Acropolis and overlooking the roofs of Athens shimmering in the sunlight, the very air here gave first life to the most famous speeches of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and the countless other playwrights whose names have long been lost to antiquity.

Ancient entertainment appears to progress in an absurd direction, however, when the Romans manage to get their hands on the theatre. Almost predictably they convert the theatre to the use of gladiatorial combats; the emperor Nero, however, also apparently commissions during his reign the reinforcement of the parapet marking the boundaries of the stage in order that the latter could be filled with water and naval battles reenacted in the theatre. It’s difficult to say if this supposed contrast between sacred Greek drama and profane Roman panem et circenses is a false one, coloured by a retrospective understanding of the differences between conqueror and conquered, winner and loser, crude imitation and holy original; still, it’s fascinating to consider the possibility that entertainment today, however vulgar, should find its origins in a collective act of sacred story-telling.

We finally make our way towards the top of the Acropolis. The ancient entrance to the Acropolis, the Propylaea, still maintains an air of magnificence, a fitting entryway to the religious heart of pre-Ottoman Athens. Crossing through the Propylaea, the Parthenon, where the devotional focus of the entire city to their patron goddess Athena is directed and concentrated, finally looms into view, its grandeur unfortunately marred by scaffolding and other accoutrements attached to modern construction work. This is a city in the process of rebuilding its crumbling past in the face of a teetering present, left scarred and reshaped by the events of recent and not-so-recent history.

Worth a reminder, of course, is the fact that the Parthenon, apart from having been a Greek temple, has in its life also once been a church, and then a mosque. It’s seen fire and war, glory and honour, conquest and invasion; it’s watched the centuries come and go; it’s felt the footsteps of generations after generations of reverent worshippers, rabid invaders, reckless archaeologists, and roving sight-seers tread over its marble bones. Someone said to me that Athens bored him after two days, having come across to him after a while as nothing but a bunch of “old stones”; this is because Athens isn’t for beginners, nor is it a place for those with a conservative imagination and no affinity for scrying across the abyss of time. Athens is a city for prophets and seers, and so perhaps it’s no surprise at all that the Unknown God should have been pre-empted in the city (Acts 17).

Across the top of the hill from the Parthenon is the Erechtheum. What’s surprising is that the iconic caryatids (sculptures of young women which are used as decorative columns in the façade of buildings) are not in fact the original; the original caryatids have all been removed and are now exhibited in the Acropolis Museum — except one which, unsurprisingly, is currently in the British Museum here in London. In their place are exact cast replicas, but the difference is barely discernible, given in particular the distance between them and the spectator (there is a marked boundary around the Erechtheum). Going around the building from the side facing the Parthenon, you eventually come to the north portico and to an adjoining structure known as the Pandroseion, a sanctuary dedicated to one of the daughters of the legendary Athenian king Cecrops I. Standing over the grove before this portico is an olive tree, planted in honour of the sacred olive tree that grew in that very spot during antiquity, a living reminder of the precious gift that Athena bestowed to the city and made the city sacred to the goddess whose name it still bears.

Sometimes I wonder to myself: do we still a place in our hearts for such origin stories? Do we still care about the mythical past and what it tells us about who we are and where we’ve come from, or is it simply a source of “interesting” trivia with which to amuse ourselves when describing ourselves to others?

When everything is judged on fact, do these stories still matter to us at all?

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