Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Treasure Room

One Sunday morning in the Peloponnese I checked out of my hotel and set off driving toward the center of the island.  I had picked some name on my map as my nominal goal but was in fact just out to see the countryside.  I saw a farmer’s field planted with some low, radish-looking crop that swept over the ground in neat rows, parting to flow around a large, ancient Corinthian capital sitting in solitary splendor in the middle.  I wondered what vanished building could have been there with columns that called for so large a capital, and then I wondered why the farmer had left it there.  Perhaps he had no need for it, as he had done his home in Doric or Ionian.  In a pile of brush cut to clear an ancient theater I found a perfect walking stick and I had a long lunch on the hillside terrace of a country restaurant, the old-fashioned kind where they don’t have a menu but invite you back into the kitchen to pick out what you want.

Then, driving along the highway, I saw a sign pointing down an unpaved road: it said there were ruins.  There was nothing on my map, and the road looked unpromising, but the sign said it was only ten kilometers.  And the fact that it wasn’t on my map could be a good thing, so I turned off the highway and went looking for it.

The road first descended, then began a long, slow climb up the side of a mountain.  The tires fell into deep ruts and the bottom of the car scraped the dirt road, but an earlier foray up a mountain road had taken off my muffler so I assumed there was nothing else of importance likely to be knocked off.  The hillside was covered with low brush and stunted trees and there were few houses.  I saw only one person, a lady who waved at me as I passed.  I assumed I was her day’s excitement. 

I was concerned about the heat, not for myself but for the car, so when I found a shaded cut in the road I left the car there and walked the last kilometer or so to the site.

The stunted trees I has passed below here gave way to pine forest around an open pasture where horses were grazing around the foundation and fallen columns of an ancient temple.  I climbed through the barbed wire fence and wandered through the ruins.  The horses sent one of their number to investigate me, but after a few sniffs he found me uninteresting and wandered back to his companions.

It was a hot, bright summer afternoon, with patches of yellow wildflowers and bees droning in the dry, dusty air and now and then the flicker of a lizard across white stone and horses grazing among the fallen ruins of the temple and I was completely alone.

I took some photographs, as much of the horses as the ruins, as the two seemed to go so well together.  Then I climbed back out through the barbed wire fence to walk back to my car when the lady appeared.

She was, I realized, the lady at the farm who had waved at me as I drove past and when she asked if I would like to see the museum I realized she was probably the caretaker for the site and, as I had no idea there was a museum, I of course said ‘yes’.

She led me across the road into a pine woods, to a building I hadn’t noticed, and unlatched a padlock and let me into the museum.

It wasn’t, I saw, an actual museum, but a large building with work tables and rows of metal shelving containing statues and pottery and shelf after shelf and box after box of artifacts.  It was the storeroom of the material excavated from the site.  The lady told me she was going back home and that I should lock the door when I left.  And there I was, alone in a treasure room.

I love ancient things.  I might as well have been in Ali Baba’s cave.

I wandered around, bemused.  Nothing was labeled, except for some cryptic numbers, which I assumed to correspond to an inventory or perhaps the field notes of the excavators who, if the layers of dust were any measure, had left long ago.  There were fragments of a colossal statue of the goddess, much loved in her own time, and shelf after shelf of what I took to be votive offerings.

There was a huge amount of pottery, both whole and broken.  Archæologists love pottery, even when it is broken.  When a pot is broken the people who used it consider it valueless and the pieces are left where they fall: archæologists like that.  The ancients were in many ways estimable, but today we have better glue.

There was a large box of Roman coins.  Some of the coins still had dirt on them and I thought, as I do in these situations, how the last but one or two who had handled these coins had come to this temple to perform rites to the goddess because he thought it an important thing to do, a civic as much as a religious duty, a way of maintaining the health of the community and the right order of the world, and one can only imagine what he thought of those impious Christians who refused to do so simple a thing.  One may believe whatever one wants, of course, but one still ought to perform the rituals. Roman coins are usually easy to date by the wording of their inscription and it would be simple enough to do with a handbook, but they all looked to be 3rd or 4th Century: the less-interesting emperors.

I wandered through the treasure room, picking up ancient things and examining them through a magnifying glass and feeling their heft in my hand and imagined what they were and what they might once have meant.  And then in the end I had enough wonder and left the treasure room and locked the door behind me and walked back to my car and returned down the hill to the highway.  The lady wasn’t out when I passed her house, but I honked to let her know I had left.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

the Portal at Naxos

The portal at Naxos.  The Portara.  Once on a hill, now an islet connected by a causeway.  You can see it from the town.  It was a cold, early spring day when I went there.

Step through it into Elsewhen.  The parallel worlds that exist alongside our own, every moment splitting off new paths . . .
We travel Elsewhen with our mind, breaking free of Here & Now by an act of will, our consciousness  --  weightless as light  --  flickering unobstructed through the walls of time, willing ourselves  --  if our imagination be strong enough  --  into lost worlds as real to us as any of those that try to restrain us.

A short walk from the port of Naxos, across a low causeway, is a small islet on which sits a trilithon, a tall, stone doorway leading nowhere.  It turned out to be farther than it at first appeared because it was taller than I thought.  Three stone blocks framing an opening six meters high by three-and-a-half wide.  Twenty-some feet tall: not tall for a monumental arch, though with its two straight, flat-sided uprights and flat horizontal it is plainly just a door.
    It is all that remains of the megalomanic building scheme of a 6th Century B.C. tyrant whose plans were interrupted by a war and his temple (to whom it was to be dedicated, other than his own glory, is unclear) was never completed and then sometime in the Middle Ages the occupying Venetians decided they had better use for the stone of the uncompleted building and carried off everything but the monumental doorway, whose 20-ton posts and lintel must have been judged more trouble than they were worth.  So today a twenty-foot tall doorway stands on a hilltop with nothing around it, leading nowhere.
    Or leading wherever you want it to, I suppose.

It was a cold, early spring day when I went there.  A high wind off the water and no one was about.  I have since seen photographs taken on a warm afternoon, the place thick with tourists.  It wasn’t at all the same.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Persian Arrow

It was my first visit to Greece  --  when I yet went to places because you were supposed to  --  and I one day took a bus from Athens to the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion, where tourists have been going since at least the time when Lord Byron carved his name in the soft stone of the temple in that not-that-long-ago time when such vandalism was considered part of the historical process.
    I saw his graffito  --  appallingly large and deep  --  took a few photographs and tried to take in the lay of the land, or rather of the water, as it was here, in 480 B.C., at the temple at Sounion that Xerxes had set his camp in order to observe what would develop into the Battle of Salamis, fought in the straits below, wherein the bold and maneuverable Greeks destroyed the huge Persian armada and yet again saved the West from oriental despotism.
    While that had been a full day’s work for the Greeks and the Persians, I thought I had extracted as much from it as I was likely to in about a half-hour and found I then had several hours to amuse myself until the next bus came.
    There had been a number of tourists on the bus with me, but they seemed to be getting more out of looking at the temple and surveying the Straights of Salamis than I.  Fortunately, they seemed to find their interest on the south slope of the Cape and once I crossed the road to the north side I found I had the place to myself.
    The north side of the Cape sloped down in little ravines that formed pleasant little half-moon beaches, most of them by this time of the afternoon partially shaded, so I slid down a ravine to one of the little beaches and found myself a patch of shade and had a snack and wrote in my journal and gazed off across the water and otherwise had a perfectly fine time.  Eventually, I saw that it was time for the bus and I made my way back up the ravine toward the road.
    The ravine was fairly steep and I had slid down it and now had to make my way back up more or less on all fours, which meant I was facing down and so, part way up, in the loose pebbles and earth of the scree, my eye caught a familiar shape: an arrowhead.  A stone arrowhead.

In New World, where we are only a few hundred years away from the Stone Age, it is not uncommon for people who live in the country to find stone tools and arrowheads, and I have found a number myself when walking a plowed field or along a roadside cut.  In Europe, where the Stone Age is thousands of years removed, stone arrowheads are a rarer find.
    The Greeks seem to have emerged into history with bronze.  No one we think of as Greek used stone tools.  But here, beside the temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion, in the heart of classical Greece, I found a stone arrowhead.

While I might like to carry on a while about the mystery, I had a pretty good idea what it might be.  In his history of the Persian Wars, Herodotus reports that among the great host that Xerxes brought with him on his invasion of Greece were troops of semi-civilized allies from the mountains, so backward that they were armed with stone weapons.
    That seems to me the simplest and most likely explanation for my stone arrow point.  It was dropped by one of the Great King’s rustic auxiliaries, the last Stone Age warriors to invade Europe  --  that the last person who had touched this artifact had seen Xerxes in the flesh and witnessed with his own eyes the waters below us littered with broken ships and thick with drowning sailors  --  and my arrowhead dated precisely to the year 480 B.C.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

scribbling intently

On a blustery day on a small Greek island I took refuge in its one, tiny coffee shop.  I sat over against a wall, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible as I sipped my thick Greek coffee and wrote in my journal.  The shop was full of local men loudly holding forth in the way of Greek men about electric bills and the latest villainy of the shipping companies.  I listened only out of the corner of my ear as I wrote about a monastery I wanted to visit on the other side of the island, but I gradually became aware that the subject of their discussion had changed and they now seemed to be talking about me.  The owner then came over and very politicly mentioned that some of the patrons were disturbed by my writing as they suspected that I was writing about them.  The matter was resolved easily enough, as I pantomimed my innocence and desire to give no offense to their gracious hospitality, and so forth and so on, and smilingly put away my journal, silently resolving that someday I would appropriately repay this insolence, if only by not writing about them, that the memory of them might perish from the earth.

Thinking about the matter later I now understand it differently.  The small room of the coffee shop, which I took to be a completely public venue, they may well have considered a more private and intimate space and it was more as if they had found a stranger sitting in their living room, who did not say a word to them but was scribbling intently into a notebook.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

a soft, golden light

The German lady on Kea had told me about one of those very tiny islands reachable only by a once-a-week mail boat, where the only foreigners might be from a passing yacht and I would have the whole place to myself.  So of course I went.

There was no pier and we came ashore in the small boat that rowed out to pick up the few returning islanders and their impedimenta and, I suppose, the mail, though I would later get the impression from islanders I spoke with that they were content neither to send nor receive any.

We disembarked in the surf and I walked to the only obvious commercial establishment in sight, a small whitewashed structure with a very small porch shaded with palm thatch and adequate to a single table and a few plank chairs, all of them well worn and obviously of local manufacture.  I greeted the fellow in charge and told him how happy I was to be on his island, and asked where I might find the hotel.  His answer seemed friendly, but non-committal.  I assumed it was a language problem.

He asked if I would like a glass of water, which I said I would.  He reached for bottled water, but, not wishing to appear a finicky tourist, I indicated that tap water would be just fine.  Sensing that he needed to do something before I hurt myself, he poured a glass of tap water and held it up to the light, revealing an Amazonian swamp of tiny wriggling creatures, and these only the ones large enough to be visible to the naked eye.  I indicated that bottled water would be just fine.

By this time the table began filling up with local men, whom I realized were fishermen just back from the day’s work, who brought their own fish for our host to cook.  I do not know if he charged for this or took his compensation from the beer and wine they drank with the meal.

In any event, it was a fishermen’s meal, with the few non-fisher locals who wandered in left to sit on the low wall around the porch, talking with the fishermen and occasionally given a bite of their meal.  Seeing that I was a visitor, I was invited to join them at table and share their meal, for which I gratefully bought wine for the table.

The thing that struck me about the meal  --  and I suppose it may have had to do with living on a small island  --  was how respectful they were of each other.  Whenever one spoke he was never interrupted, but always heard out, even if the continuation of the conversation suggested that what he had said had not been thought all that cogent.  (My knowledge of Greek, always pitiful, was even worse at that point, but it is surprising how much of the sense of a conversation you can follow by knowing just a few words and picking up context and watching how people react.)

My contribution to the conversation  --  beyond the usual introductory details of where I was from and where I was going, and how tasty the fish was  --  consisted of mentioning, whenever there was a lapse in the conversation, that I needed a room for the night.  I had by this time figured out that there was no hotel on the island.  My remarks would be met with expressions of understanding and concern, but nothing I could detect in the way of doing anything about it.  Then, as evening shadows lengthened, the men began to take their leave and disappear down the unlit lanes of the little village, which on the map is called Chora, which means simply “village”.

While it was not my preferred option, I had by this time decided that I could sleep under one of the overturned boats on the beach.  While it might not be that comfortable, I could certainly get by until the next mail boat came.  But fortunately it did not come to that.

One of the last men to leave motioned me to follow him down a narrow lane and, after several disorienting turns, through a little door into a house and there into a back room piled with boxes and in the corner a low cot and then, with the usual heartiness with which they conducted all business, he left, closing the door behind him and leaving me in darkness.  As evening had been falling I had noticed the soft warm glow of oil lamps around the village.  It now occurred to me that this was because the tiny island had no electricity.

But I was a resourceful traveler and of course carried a small flashlight, though its narrow beam did not give my quarters quite the homey warmth I was hoping for.  But I had saved a broken shoe lace and used it as a wick in a saucer with a little olive oil that I found in the room for a make-shift oil lamp, whose soft glow lit the bare cement walls of my room with a romantic golden light, which was one of those pure, child-like pleasures I find in travel.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012


A kouros is a lord.  In modern usage the word refers to those statues of young Greek men, life-sized or larger, put up by the ancients.  These young men, these kouroi, are portrayed nude and upright, shoulders back, sometimes stepping forward, and on their face the serene and confident smile of a young lord.  There are beautiful ones in the National Museum in Athens and on the island of Naxos there are two left abandoned in an ancient quarry.
    The young men all seem about the same age, around twenty, and in the full flower of youth and health, their body strong and supple, not yet hardened by years.  If some might remind you of the golden young Lord Apollo, it would be no accident.
    It would appear that these were placed over the grave of the man they are meant to represent, however old he may have been when he died, to remind those who came after what he had been like in those excellent years of his young manhood, when he held life so fine, a precious gift of the gods which, once bestowed, could be held fast in memory against the machinations of time and fate.

Downstairs from my room was the taverna.  On a cooling case, beside a display of wine bottles and a carving of some unrecognizable animal, was a framed photograph.  I recognized the man in the picture.  He was Patrone, my host, as a young man, not unhandsome, in an old-fashioned army uniform. 
    You were a soldier, I said.  Yes, he answered, a soldier.
    But it was sad for me to see Patrone as he was now  --  a dumpy old man with a dumpy old wife, and he part-paralyzed on one side  --  and Patrone then  --  a fine young man in the prime of health and youth, in his fresh new uniform and all the world before him.
    Had life been good or bad to Patrone, or was it simply as it was? Things are as they are, said one of the old Greeks, and will come out as they must.  So do I mourn Patrone for what he has become, or celebrate him for what he once was?  Mourning would be easy, but I think wrong. It is foolish to judge a life by what it looks like in the end, as we most look badly in the end.  So I ought be glad for Patrone and the blessings of life that I see in the photograph of that young man in an old-fashioned uniform, and choose to remember Patrone, a kouros.