| The eyes have it|
Photo essay: Greece and its Myths
December 13, 2006
abstract: I met my first Greek when I was seventeen. I had been speaking English only for two weeks. I had a hard time pronouncing his name, Chris, right. He was more annoyed, however, at my not being able to roll the word Greece correctly. I had known the country by its Persian name, yoonan. I knew next to nothing about its “Persian Wars.” For Chris, on the other hand, they were important enough to become the subject of our very first conversation. Nonetheless, we became friends in that freshman year of college. Chris got good grades but his inclinations were other than academic. Every school break, he went to Chicago to work for his uncle who had a restaurant there. He made good money as a waiter. I lost track of him after I transferred at the end of that year, but Chris left a strong desire in me to learn more about his country and its ancient relationship with my country of birth. What you will read here is the report on my recent trip there which lasted ten days.
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The eyes have it
My flight from Frankfurt to Athens was scheduled for 7:50 in the evening; it would arrive at 11:40p.m. local time. “Do you serve food on this flight?” I asked the Olympia Airline agent. “Yes!” she said “and it is delicious!” When it was served, however, the Greek man who was sitting next to me disagreed: “This tastes terrible.” I agreed with him. He then told me where to find “the best shrimp in the world.” I had told him that I would be going to Monemvasia, and he started drawing an elaborate map of the vicinity of the area where that 12th century walled town is located. “Before the bridge, you go left to the seaside restaurants,” he said. He insisted that I take his drawings which were on the back of the “air sickness bag” he had found in the pocket facing his seat. I remembered him when the eyes of those whole shrimp looked at me a few days later.
This midnight on the expressway that went from the airport to the Center of Athens my eyes were diverted to the big billboard that said: “Athens welcomes you and your myth.” I asked my young driver what the name of my hotel, Hera, meant. “The God,” he said, clearly annoyed at my limited knowledge about that cow-eyed “Earth Mother” in Greek mythology. He was sullen for which he blamed his allergies. I asked about the weather forecast. “I don’t know. I am not God.” The drive was long, however, and an important municipal election would be held on the next day. So we talked urban legends: Greek politics as the long-standing soap opera of competition between two dynasties, the Karamlises and the Papandreous. My driver was for the latter as he was a “socialist,” although he was not active in politics. He had studied electrical engineering but he was driving a taxi because he could not find a job in his field. The economy was bad due to “corruption and inflation,” he said.
The next evening in the Dionysos restaurant at the foot of the Acropolis, there were three large groups of diners: “African VIPs” who had come with police escort, a group of American businessmen and women with “a transportation coordinator” and two buses, and a Greek party of some twenty hosted by a man at the head table. The locals who were sitting at the three tables next to us smoked during the meal. The Greeks smoke almost twice as many cigarettes per capita as the European average. My guide book said that a 2002 law banned smoking in all enclosed public spaces and restaurants, but added “It remains to be seen how seriously Greeks will take this law.” It occurred to me that my neighbors in this “power” restaurant perhaps included some of the very deputies who had passed that law.
The following day we took the catamaran to Mykonos. As the passengers disembarked at the first stop at the Island of Tinos, a French couple joined me on the deck. “Look, they have no luggage,” the woman said, “maybe they are day-workers.” I noted that one was on his last commute in a hearse that was coming down off the ramp. Then the boat’s plank was slowly hoisted back. “We now watch,” the French lady interrupted me, “we will have a conversation later.”
The playgroundinthe twilight
When we arrived at noon, our hotel room in Mykonos was not ready. The receptionist sent us to the pool side to have a complementary drink. In the overcast and cold whether, the famously blue Aegean sea looked more like the Baltic. No one was in sight, except for two curious cats. The many chaises that were now empty made it even gloomier. We had gotten up at 5:00 a.m. to make the trip and longed for some rest; we had made this reservation at least two months before. When nobody came to us for almost an hour, I went back to the receptionist. “You have to wait, we are full,” he said. I must have appeared incredulous. He gave another reason: “The Greek law requires that we give the room at 2 o’clock.” I retreated, but my annoyance could not be missed. A short while later a young man showed up to say that he was ready to take us to our room. There, a bottle of wine and some fresh fruit awaited us. Our usher turned out to be the manager. We chatted amiably. I told him about the invocation of the 2 o’clock law. “Since when have the Greeks followed the law?” I teased him. He was jovially forgiving: “Never.”
When we went back to the reception desk, the receptionist smiled for the first time. He was on his “mobile” phone. We wanted directions to a restaurant. He said goodbye to the caller. He told us: “It is my birthday. I am from Cyprus. Many are calling me.” He proceeded to give us directions. When the many lefts and rights got us confused, we pulled out a map and asked that he show us the place on it. His face reflected dejection: “I don’t use maps.” Indeed, as we soon learned, the only way to find a place in Mykonos was to get lost first, pleasantly, in the maze of its charming narrow streets of white-washed small buildings which are accented by bright blue, green, and red doors and windows.
Thus looking for food, we ended up at a jewelry shop a few blocks away. The owner, wearing a Lacoste polo shirt was standing at the door. His smooth salesmanship vouched for the sign on the store’s window that its other branch was in New Hope, the chic town near Philadelphia. He proffered a gold necklace for a mere 500 Euros, “half price because here the season is over and I don’t want to store it. You would have to pay $1,500 for this in the States.”
The sale signs at other shops that still remained open also marked the calendrical advent; it was toward the end of October and Mykonos was shutting down. We saw them pulling up the awnings. The unassuming Nikos Taverna, with its huge roaming Pelicans, was taking all the tourists. The exorbitantly expensive Katerina restaurant was reduced to one table of customers. I had my taste of three Baklavas at a bakery and bought a copy of Sour Cherry and Bitter Orange, the latest CD by the popular singer Haris Aelxiou, from the vendor who displayed Zorba the Greek on his counter with a distinct look of resignation toward the presumed taste of the last tourist groups. “You will stay up and party the whole time in Mykonos; you will have to sleep later,” my friend on the flight from Frankfort had told me. My sleep there, however, was in fact broken only by the early morning crow of the rooster next door. Instead of licentious frivolity, earlier we had seen a quiet wedding in the small church on the edge of the town cramped with some fifty local residents, all in business suits and black dresses.
“I am going on vacation for three months: Italy, Paris, and then London,” Katerina, the night shift receptionist told us. Many other “hospitality workers” had already left Mykonos, quite a few for Athens. “It is Athens’ season.” Katerina also brought me up to date about the elections: Karamalis had prevailed over Papandreous. Power just alternates between these “legacies,” she said and gave a mathematical history of recent governments by Karamalis and Papandreou in this order: “1-2-3-2 terms.”
The real estate myth
The third Katerina we encountered in Mykonos was our guide to the Island of Delos. “This is my favorite historical site in Greece,” she told us. “In the 5th Century BC, this Island was the capital of the Mediterranean! It was the most cosmopolitan center in the world.” She pointed to the ruins of the “Greek hill, Assyrian hill, Egyptian district, and the Beirut (or Phoenicians) district” on the Island. This was the “only place where merchants of the world could exchange money,” she told us as we passed the remnants of the head of “the god of merchants, liars, and thieves.” With no trace of irony, she continued, “Delos was the safest place.” This was because “geologically, unlike other nearby Mediterranean islands there was never an earthquake in Delos due to the fact that it is in the middle of the African and European plates.” Delos was safe in another sense: “The Persians came here four times, but were never able to invade this island.” Delos was so special that while elsewhere the Greeks worshiped Gods, “in Delos, the land itself was sacred to them.” Thus they cleansed it by “catharsis: banning any birth or death on this island.” The lake in Delos was the original source of inspiration for the classical Greek dance, our guide said. “The dancers hold each other’s stretched arms to form the shape of this lake.” Properties in Delos were owned jointly by the residents, Katerina who lived part of the year in Houston, told us: “They were condominiums,” like her compound in the U.S. Her description of the Delos titles, however, more fit tenancy-in-common arrangements.
The good time in Delos lasted until “Mithridates from the Black Sea conquered it in 88 BC. One of his parents was Persian, while the other was Greek. Then Delos was abandoned and forgotten until the 19th Century.” The small museum on Delos clarified and amplified the reasons our guide had given for the importance of Delos. Its holy status was because it was the birthplace of two of the major Greek deities, “Apollo, the god of light, harmony and balance, and Artemis, the moon-goddess, his twin sister.” Delos’ growth as “the greatest commercial center of the world” was the result of “the declaration of Delos as a free port” in 167 BC. Its demise was due to its friendly relations with the Romans causing their enemy Mithridates, and his allies the pirates of Athenodorus, to attack and loot Delos. Even today, however, true to its cosmopolitan legacy, the sole refreshment store on Delos was run not by a Greek but by an Albanian.
Much of translucent marble for the statutes and sculptures of Delos came from another Island, Paros, as did those that made the Venus de Milo. The Canadian couple I met in Paros, however, had come there for its natural beauty. The woman was a consummate shopper as well and introduced me to the other special product of Paros, which is not too heavy to take home, its famous hand-made textile and traditional clothes -arguably the best souvenir from Greece.
The snow flakes of the caldera
Santorini plays a trick on you at first glance. Approaching it from the water, you think you are seeing snow on its high cliffs. Closer, they are in fact the Island’s white and pastel buildings. At the port we were separated from the some 300 other tourists headed for the main cities of Fira and Ia. A taxi we shared with the locals took us in the other direction, south to the village of Akitori. We had asked for authenticity and we got that, and isolation. The emptied pool in the hotel next door was emblematic of the post-season; our hotel too would close after our stay. The only other guests were a Swiss couple on a hiking trip. We too walked through the town toward the two other reasons for choosing Akitori. Alas, the fabulous “Ancient Akitori” ruins of a Minoan outpost with three story high buildings from the 16th Century B.C. were closed -we were told because a bridge constructed for a dig had collapsed. Our other goal, the Red Beach of volcanic rocks was also virtually inaccessible on its steep rough “trail.” Instead, we sat at the nearby pretty seaside Dolphins Café, family owned, where the mother cooked and the daughter served us small Pandora fish and the local specialty, mashed fava beans.
The only store in town which was open at eight in the evening was a grocery where the owner and his friends, including a priest with thick beard and thicker glasses, were chatting. “Kalispera,” I uttered the word for good evening for the first time, self-consciously. “You speak Greek?” the owner asked. “No, I am from the United States.” One man shouted “my sister in Los Angeles... twenty six,” he raised both his arms “grew 26,” perhaps indicating that she had been there for that long. This might have been an unlikely outpost, but I hardly met a Greek who did not claim a relative in America.
In comparison with Akitori, Fira, the major town on Santorini, was a metropolis. Its shops overflowed with merchandise of all values. The day visitors from cruise ships kept it lively. Even at night, we were not the only guests at Plato’s Myth, a hotel that exuded old time comfort with a stunning view of the Caldera below. Our most engaging company, however, was the receptionist. A refreshing change, she was a natural in the business of hospitality. She took command when I asked her about the places to see. “My family has been in Santorini for three generations,” Irene said, offering that Santorini was Greek for St. Irene. She pulled out a map and designed a three day itinerary for us, marking the important sites we would visit.
In the Museum of Prehistoric Thira we saw some of the finds from Akitori. I was amazed at the wall paintings of two women showing that so long ago they used the elements of make up current today: plucking the eyebrows, coloring the lips red, and putting rouge on the cheeks. I reported this to Irene. “They tell me that I look like a Persian,” was her response as her big eyes got even bigger -she knew about my heritage. Irene was a brunette in a land where women, who should know better, now dyed their dark hair blond. She said “my father looks just like you.” She confided that her father was gifting a house to her which did not please her siblings, and complained about the high transfer taxes in Greece, a controversial subject covered in the latest issue of the English language periodical in our hotel room.
I asked Irene what she did in the off season. “We go on trips for three months and then we spend one month fixing the little hotel that my husband owns.” Our taxi driver also said that he spent some time repairing his house after the tourists go home. “We also go work in our family vineyard,” he continued, punctuating our conversation with “bravo, bravo” for emphasis. There are many small vineyards in Santorini, nearly 1000 in a cooperative at the Boutaris winery we visited in Megalochori. Santorini’s well known wines are from grapevines that are shaped as baskets on the ground to protect them against the wind. In addition to wine, two other products, cherry tomatoes and pistachios, help to make Santorini more than just a tourist island. Its many churches, our tour guide said, were the legacy of a fishing community: “when the fishermen went out to the sea, they promised God that they would build a church if they came back safely.” In the village of Pirgos (for pirates) there were 42 churches for 240 people. While the Orthodox churches are more numerous, there were several Catholic churches left from the time Venice dominated the island. The Ottomans also ruled here. We saw no mosque, but our guide pointed to a church on a far away hilltop and explained that the site was chosen “so that the Turks could not easily get there. “ This was near Eborio, a village with Eucalyptus lined streets which Jean Paul Sartre and Simon de Bouvoire had managed to find agreeable to reside on for some time.
The theater of reflections
“For a spectacle in Santorini, you must see the sunset in Ia on a good day,” Irene told us. This was such a day, with no clouds in the sky. To get the full experience we went to the bus station and climbed into the 6 o’clock leaving for Ia which is just a few kilometers north of Fira. The bus did not depart until it boarded the many passengers from another arriving bus who hurried up. We were all concerned about the time as the sun was setting soon. All that is, except the bus driver. First, his assistant went around collecting the fares, while the driver was enjoying a smoke behind the wheel. When he began driving at 6:10, he crawled as the road was narrow and winding, all the while engaged in a loud conversation with his assistant who sat next to him. A couple of miles later he pulled into a gas station. The two of them came down from the bus, but in their division of labor, it was the driver’s job to pump gas, still a cigarette dangling from his mouth and not interrupting the talking. When we reached Ia, there was a mad rush by the young passengers out of the bus and up toward the center of the village. We followed them and climbed several blocks and ran several more on the main street of cliff top shops. We almost tripped over dogs who were lazing motionless on the street. When we got to the northern tip of Ia, we could only see the last sliver of the disappearing sun.
The real theater, however, was afterward: in the crimson and gold colors blended in the waters of the caldera by the melting sun, and in the drama of their reflections on the buildings perched on the edge of the terraced hills. The surprising harmony of disparate shapes was striking as your eyes moved from the domes of the orthodox shrines to the barrel roofs of the houses and back to the bell towers of the catholic churches. Red Bougainvillea flowers embraced the walls. A shopkeeper massaging his Doberman said that this was an especially spectacular sunset.
We came back earlier the next day. It was a bit hazy and the deja vu did not seem as impressive. This time we went to a little area that looked like the observation platform of an old fortification. There were about thirty other people there. Many had their cameras out and were taking pictures. Some were still casing the place for the optimal position when the sunset occurred. A Chinese couple was snuggling. An Italian man was reading a magazine. An American college girl was telling her stories of the day to four giggling friends. We all waited until the sun vanished and then trekked back to the streets where the shops and restaurants of Ia were largely empty. Salesgirls stood at the door talking to each other. I asked about old komboloi (Greek worry beads). They directed me to a woman whose principal merchandise were the puppets she made in that store. She showed me 150 year old worry beads. “It is 350 Euros. It is of a special Greek stone. I don’t know the English name for it.”
Of myths and urban legends
“Plato was the first to talk about the mythical lost continent of Atlantis,” our guide said as he stood on the hills of a small island created by the last volcanic eruption in the caldera just off Santorini. “We believe Santorini was part of the Atlantis that was destroyed by the volcano.”
The urban legend about a hotel named Atlantis in Santorini was a part of the gossip which a man shared with me the next morning as he was fixing my broken watch. It is owned by “Madam Lida” who lives in London, he said. She comes in her yacht to Akrotiri for one week every year. “Each time with a different man: number one, golden hair; next year a black from America; next an Englishman. She owns 30 ships. They are oil tankers. She is about 55.” He laughed. I asked him what he did in the off season. “I go to my wife in Perivolous“ for five months, he said. “I am married 26 years. She always makes moussaka and tzatziki; no Greek salad. I, same wife. Only lookie, lookie.” Then he told me about his friend Stavros, a hotel cook, who was going through a divorce that was unsettling him so much that he could not concentrate at his work. The kids are split between the parents, “the boy, 8, is with him and the girl, 6, with the mother.” He felt sorry for them. “Papa no good,” she says; “Mama no good,” Stavros tells them. He made clear where his loyalties were: “We, all men are trying to get a woman for Stavros.”
We looked in vain for the window of Avance Rental Car among the shiny counters of the likes of Hertz and Avis at the Athens airport. A man in shabby clothes approached us with a sign that misspelled my name. He was from Avance, chosen for us by our Greek travel agent. He found an empty counter and filled out the forms which we signed. Then he took us to a hatchback in the parking lot. The door to the trunk would not open. He made a call on his phone and then told us that he had to take us to downtown for a car that worked. Thus, instead of getting a head start toward Peloponnese as we had planned, we were engulfed in the traffic of downtown Athens for a good part of that day. In the process we learned that our reservation had not been for an automatic which now would cost us twenty Euros a day more. When we started driving the dirty car which we were finally given, we discovered that its gas tank was empty.
As we crossed the isthmus into Peloponnese my mind wandered on the Peloponnesian War. I had imagined the terrain the Spartans marched on as they moved toward Attica. What I actually saw from the window of the car was different. The high mountains and verdant fields surprised me. The area was also unexpectedly under-populated. There were few cars on the road. We passed a handful of small settlements before we arrived in Sparta which looked quintessentially provincial. Three and four story buildings framed the wide and a bit dusty, main street. We sat outside of a hotel that evoked the early 20th century. We had lunch as we watched people go by unhurried. It was hard to reflect on the Peloponnesian War.
Monemvasia, on other hand, pulls you back centuries. Built on a rock, it had the feel of a medieval town. Efforts have been made to retain it in its 12th century Byzantine shape. To get to our hotel room we had to go several city levels down on stairs carved into stone. Our luggage was carried in a wheel barrel by a sturdy silent young man. All this was conducive to a depressing sensation that our dark room was more a dungeon than a guest house. Its facilities and amenities were suitable for backpackers. The proprietor-manager of the hotel was available only on her cell phone -which was of no help to those of us who travel without a locally-functioning cell phone.
“Only 5 or 6 people actually live in Kastro now,” the museum guide told us, “but in times past it had up to 30,000 residents.” He was referring to the old Monemvasia which is on the rock. “Those who work here live across the bridge in Yephyra,” which is on the mainland. The many old houses of Kastro (qasr or fort) have been turned into rooms for tourists. The shops and restaurants were on one street. On the same street is the imposing mansion of the town’s most famous resident, Matoula Ristos who owns the best garden restaurant in town located next door. Matoula is now 95 years old. Early in the morning as we were having a breakfast of yogurt mixed with honey and fruit, Matoula, white-haired and in the ubiquitous black Greek dress, had come down to supervise the opening of her restaurant. I had to avert my glance under the force of her penetrating gaze at me.
This was a long holiday weekend in Greece and almost all the tourists were Greek. In front of us a man was white-washing the steps to the main square. On one side was the most prominent of the 40 churches of the town, Church of Christ in Chains. From the increasing activity we gathered that there would be a happening in the square. Presently, a circle was formed by some sixty adults and about 40 high school students in uniform -black skirts for girls, black pants for boys, and white shirts for all. The priest, surrounded by a few assistants, came out into the middle, spoke, and administered blessings on representatives of the assembled crowd. Incense was burned at the mouth of an old memorial cannon in their midst.
A prosperous looking middle-aged Greek couple told us that this was the “Ohi, Ochi, Oxi, or Okhi day; you’ll never get the pronunciation right,” the man said sympathetically as I tried. “The word means no. It was the day that the Greeks said no to the Germans.” His wife corrected him, “to the Italians.” Neither remembered the year. “Early in the 1940s.” I asked the students when they dispersed. The one who spoke better English replied: “This was independence day from Germany in 1821.” An American woman standing nearby thought that she got it: “It is like their 4th of July.” The guide at the museum on the other side of the square said it was the day the Greeks gained “independence from Germany in 1941 under Metaxas.” A priest seemed most specific and certain: “It was in 1940. We won against Italy but then the Germans came. Metaxas was the Prime Minister.” He was referring to the Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas, as I learned later, who tolerated Mussolini until October 28, 1940 when El Duce’s demand to enter Greece and occupy certain locations proved too much. He allegedly answered with a single word: No. Later on that day, the Greeks came out on the streets to support him shouting Ohi. According to some scholars the political significance of Ohi could well be an urban legend, because Metaxas’ actual reply was in French "Alors, c'est la guerre! (Then it is war!)”
“Its special almond cookies,” we were told, that was the souvenir sophisticated Athenian visitors were buying in Monemvasia. Across the street from the confectionary, men were lounging, drinking coffee, smoking, and talking. On the street women were rushing to church. “When do they work?” I asked. A mock cynical sales clerk smiled: “The Greeks don’t work. That is why they live to 110.” Our excuse was that we were seeing sights. We took the road that snaked around hillsides of olive and cypress trees to the harbor town of Neapoli, to find the Greeks enjoying the sun at its tavernas. It was here, however, that we noticed something rare: two yuppie couples were reading. Everyone else was engaged as usual in conversation. Inside our tavern I noted another rarity, signs about smoking. Two signs on either side of the room said that it was a smoking area. There was no sign indicating the non-smoking areas. For that we had to wait until the Bakers Dozen Donut shop in Tripoli, further north in Peloponnese where a sign pointed to a small corner of the huge room. The other parts were occupied solely by smoking men. We sat in the town square outside and watched two men strolling up and down and a cluster of five standing to the side chatting, while every one of them was twirling a komboloi in his hand.
The myths of golden age
Curiously, in the most modernized part of Greece which is Athens, we were immersed in the ancient past. We made the obligatory tourist pilgrimage to Acropolis. The Parthenon and other shrines here have been burned and destroyed many times. It was the burning by the Persians in 480 B.C., however, that has left the most pronounced mark on the Greek historical memory. The clean slate allowed the Athenian ruler Pericles to build a new Parthenon -the remnants of which stand now- after the defeat of the Persians. That was also a historical milestone in Greek cultural history. It ended the Archaic Period and ushered in the Classical Period, or “the Golden Age” of Athens. The fact that this period lasted merely a little over fifty years -with the Peloponnesian War and Sparta’s domination of Athens- is virtually ignored by Greek tour guides.
The Macedonians soon followed the Spartans, and at the time many Atheniansdid not even consider them to be Greeks.However, now the friendly guard at the Athens Archeological Museum was telling me: “Greece is a French word. Our race includes the Athenians, Macedonians, Spartans, and Ionians.” He had volunteered as my unsolicited guide. He defined the Greek “race” as “Hellenic.” He took me to a pottery jar prominently displayed in a nearby wing. He pointed out that in the painting on the jar, Heracles (Hercules) “had beard and his penis was pointed to distinguish him from the Egyptians he was subduing. They have no beard and their penis is circumcised. Race was important for the Greeks.” Bespectacled and smiling, the guide was eager to talk: “The swastika you see on the artwork in this gallery is not anti-Semitic. It is the ancient Greek sign made up of the four gamma letters, one for genus meaning race, the others for fertility and woman and ... This way, the Greeks wanted to distinguish their race.”
I asked him why the sea to the west of Greece is called the Ionian Sea while the Ionians lived in Asia Minor on the east. He was not sure. “Perhaps because the Ionians colonized that area. The Greek “colonists took the parti with them.” I tried to be helpful, “you mean homeland?” Yes, he said, “local customs and names.”
The import of my question had to do with the influence of the Persians. For over 200 years (most of the 547-334 B.C. period) the Persians ruled in the land where the Ionians (from Achaea in northwest Peloponnese, next to the Ionian Sea) had moved to, which was on the western coast of Asia Minor. In fact, their namesake for that region, yoonan, has always been the word for Greece in Persian. The destruction of Acropolis was the direct response by the Persians to the 498 B.C. burning of Sardis, their administrative capital in Asia Minor, by the rebels among their subjects, the Ionians, who were helped by an Athenian expeditionary force. In these Persian Wars many Greeks “Medized”: they allied themselves with the Persian army and, often, adopted Persian ways. How important was this and the Ionian culture of the Persian period in the formation of the Greek civilization, especially in that of the Classical Golden Age? The Museum did not address this question, although it had acknowledged that the earliest Greek Archaic art had borrowed heavily from the Egyptian statutory before developing its own style.
The question came back to me as I sat on the edge of Acropolis looking at the vast Dionysus Theater below where one of the oldest Greek Tragedies, The Persians by Aeschylus, had been presented in 472 B.C. Aeschylus fought the Persians in Salamis eight years earlier and performed his play before an audience of Athenians who were mostly fellow warriors in that battle, or the next one in Plataea (479 B.C.). His play is a long poem of lamentation and woe uttered by the Persians. It intentionally distorts reality to deliver messages at the level of the myth. Thus, in the copy I was reading -poems 240, 340, and 710-, Athens “stands still unsacked” by the Persians; “as long as there are men, the city stands; ... Persia is destroyed;” no one commands the Athenians and their strength is because “they are slaves to none, nor are they subject;” they could withstand a foreign foe “enough to vanquish Darius’s noble host.”
Some forty years after Aeschylus, Herodotus was the first to write a coherent narrative about the same subject, the Persian Wars. He too was a Greek, but from Caria and hence a Persian subject as this and other parts of yoonan in Asia Minor remained parts of the Persian Empire -Aeschylus’ myth notwithstanding. The ubiquitous attributions of events to oracles and dreams in Herodotus’s work make it, too, akin to mythology, especially when combined with his gross exaggerations. Beyond that, The History of Herodotus supplies fodder for some fashionable arguments about the Greeks, not only in guide books but also in academic tombs. On close reading (David Grene’s translation, 1987), I thought, some could be challenged.
One is the myth of Greek bravery in the Persian Wars. Herodotus furnishes ample evidence to the contrary -especially when he talks about the conduct of the supreme Spartan leader Pausanias in the battle of Plataea (pages 633-34). Equally, the myth of Greek solidarity is debunked by the many stories which Herodotus relates of the Athenians’ and Spartans’ breach of promises and treachery toward each other.
The biggest myth, however, is the Greek spirit of democracy contrasted with the Persian despotism. Curiously, the prominent episode that Herodotus tells of the Greek people’s participation in decisions concerning the war with Persia contradicts the notion of democracy. When one of the Athenian councilors, Lucidas proposes that the question of whether to continue the fight should be put to the vote of the citizens of Athens, he is stoned to death (page 613). On the other hand, Herodotus reports the story of the Seven Persian nobles who, in the power vacuum after King Cambyses’ death, deliberated in 521 B.C. on what form of government should be established in their country. While they finally settled on monarchy, those Persians seriously debated the merits of democracy and oligarchy as well. Otanes, “the equal of the very greatest of the Persians in birth and wealth” proposed that “power should be entrusted to the main body of the Persians.” His views were not accepted and the nobles decided to continue the tradition of monarchy. Otanes was allowed to remain in his high position (pages 249-50). Several decades later, Socrates also ruffled the feathers of the traditionalists; he did not fare as well in Greece.
I climbed down to Agora, the town square where Socrates held forth. Far from being honored then, he lost his life, charged with attempting to corrupt the Athenians. Full democracy had not yet arrived. The Athenian law which gave every (male) citizen an equal vote came afterward in 337 BC. I saw this milestone commemorated as an inscription on a pedestal topped by an image of a personification of the Demos (people) of Athens being crowned by Democracy herself in the Agora Museum. The Museum is in the Stoa of Attalos with arcades of cool, marble pillared space where in ancient times the wealthy Athenians met, gossiped, and voted by ostraka. I saw many of these pottery fragments which were used as ballots. They banished to exile those the Athenians decided to “ostracize.” The name of the famous Hippocrates appeared on one, with the same spelling and script as used today in Greece.
Ancient Athenians were apparently not fond of long speeches. On display in the Museum was a klepsydra, the water clock used for timing speeches in the public law court: it would take exactly six minutes for the water to run out. What we know about the length and content of speeches by Socrates (who did not write) we have from the works of his devoted student Plato, especially his Dialogue. What we know about the ancient Persians, who also did not write much, is similarly from another source: Herodotus’ work was based on oral stories a generation old. I recalled the famous dictum by historian Thucydides, slightly younger than Herodotus, that only a contemporary account could be called true history. Are others more than mere myths?
Back to the present
The legacy of another long-time occupier (most of the 1458-1821 period), the Ottoman Empire, was not much in evidence in Greece either, unless you counted the worry beads (komboloi). The old mosque in the main square of Monemvasia was turned into a museum with hardly any artifact of the Ottoman era, except for some loulas (hookah bowls) and smoking pipes. “The large number of smoker’s items found in excavations of Post-Byzantine sites,” the Museum’s glossy guidebook informed the visitors -on page 49-, “is an indication of the social importance rapidly assumed by tobacco, despite the fact that after its introduction from the West, the use of tobacco was at first banned(17th c.).” To which our observations could add: Plus ce change, plus ce meme chose, the deep-rooted habit survives regardless of all changes!
The Ottoman mosque in Athens’ Monastiraki Plaza has become the Kyriazopoulos Folk Ceramic Museum with concentration on the ancient Minoan arts. On the rainy day of our visit, this Plaza‘s “oriental” feel, as the guides would say, was enhanced by the street vendors who were selling fresh fruit. This was the season for Thompson grapes. I bought some. Young men from Bangladesh were selling umbrellas, apparently without permit as one was caught and was being led away by the Police. In the nearby Thanaissis Taverna, Athens most famous souvlaki joint that has been serving since the 19th century, we ordered kebop which was grilled minced lamb on hot pita bread with grilled tomatoes. An old woman was selling lavender: one Euro for a bouquet. When we bought one, she said “one thousand thank yous.” Then she went to a table of some English speaking ex-pat university age students. She sang a song for them and had her picture taken by them.
Greece has been a member of the European Union for sometime, a goal denied its regional rival Turkey. Membership in the EU, however, was blamed as the major source of Greece’s economic problems by the taxi driver who was taking us to the political center of the country, Athens’ Parliament Square. “We now have to compete with countries like France and Italy. Prices have doubled in the last three years.” Rain had cancelled the changing of the guard in front of the Parliament. We went around the corner to see the other seat of power, the Hotel Grand Bretagne. This was a space swarming with security guards. It was the only place one had to go through a metal detector to enter. Instead, we went outside to the café in the park to see the Greek politicos gossip. A friendly waiter named Christopher began to tell us what were the current subjects of the buzz. He was interrupted by the sight of the tips left by his customers two tables away. We were left to our own devices. I tried to sum up my impressions of the trip. Cumulatively, they were still scanty as a factual foundation except for a myth. It was at least my myth of Greece >>> Photos
Keyvan Tabari is an international lawyer in San Francisco. He holds a PhD and a JD, and has taught at Colby College, the University of Colorado, and the University of Tehran.