Monday, 9 April 2018

In the footsteps of Homer (Athens 1)

Ancient Greece. What does that evoke for you?

Chariots? Trojan horses? War? Sean Bean in a tunic? All the above? 

For me, it's all that and more--a complete world to step into and understand, and now I'm on my second visit to Greece's Peloponnese to immerse myself in Homer and the Greek tragedians and to breathe in the atmosphere that inspired some of my authors (Mary Renault and Henry Treece). 

Athens is wonderful. Despite its age and disrepair, the Parthenon shines over the city as though it truly houses a radiant deity. Its stonework is blinding and, viewed from the Filoppapou Hill (the Hill of the Muses), the thousands of tourists flooding its acropolis are reduced to the size of ants. It's suddenly possible to imagine it as it must have appeared to merchants docking in the Piraeus: a symbol of incredible power and influence with the great bronze goddess glinting in the fierce Greek sun. 

Parthenon viewed from Filoppapou hill 

On the Parthenon itself, its impossible not to be awestruck at the architecture and construction of the temples, as well as ashamed of the ravages wrought by people hacking off pieces to carry them back home. I've seen and appreciated the Parthenon marbles which were removed by the British ambassador Lord Elgin and that are now in the British Museum, but when I saw again the scarring and gaps left by his work I was staggered by his hubris. 

The same story is repeated all Greece, as different visitors sought to take a piece of antiquity for themselves with dubious legality. Their removal to Britain and subsequent display in and of itself is part of their story and illuminates a chapter in Greece's history centuries after the marbles' creation. Artefacts don't stop being meaningful, like myths, they gain new significance with every generation that sees and touches them.  

The museum adjacent to the Acropolis has been built since my last visit to Greece and does a wonderful job of showing the evolution of the site. The Karyatids are just fantastic - each intricate pleat of their hair still visible after all these years. This isn't just the history of one site, it's the story of Greece's influence across the world, which has long in philosophy, education, culture and art for thousands of years after it ceased to be a major political or military power. 

Red anemones on Filoppapou Hill 

We cut across Filoppapou Hill, to get to the Agora and to Keremeikos. The Hill isn't just a tremendous viewing point, it's a delight in itself, a tranquil haven where you can find relief from the sun on shady paths with no sound but the wind rustling through silver-green olive trees and long-needled pines, and the bees lazily buzzing amid the red anemones and bright yellow daisies. Here, you can find the remains of the walls built by Themistokles and an ancient rutted road, cut with wheel marks. 

We also stumbled across the Pnyx - the birthplace of democracy, where citizens gathered to hear from orators like Pericles. Athens was a true democracy where every vote counted (well, if you were freeborn and a man, that is - women and slaves didn't get much of a look in).

We got to Keremeikos an hour before it closed at 3pm. It's an incredibly rich site, which takes a long look at Athenian history through the prism of the pottery quarter and one burial ground. The museum assembles burial practice from one site to help provide a snapshot of several millennia of people's lives. The changes over the years are less startling that the continuity, and it's hard not to reflect on the human need to be remembered and for our lives to have meaning. It was thrilling to see pottery and jewellery from the Homeric era and fascinating to see the influence of Egypt and Rome. 

The site itself is lovely - tranquil, sprawling and spread with wildflowers - a lovely spot just to sit and read (or play hide and seek, which we did). Here you can see the start of the path which participants in the Eleusian Mysteries took and follow in their footsteps. 

In the footsteps of the Eleusian Mysteries 
Friendly lion, who guarded the sacred gate at Keremeikos 

Keremeikos cemetary is close to Athens' flea market and its vintage and secondhand shops. It's a fascinating part of town, rich in graffiti and vintage furniture. 

Street Art near Keremeikos 

The Flea Market is next to the ancient Agora, now lined with tourist restaurants and stalls selling souvenirs. This was the meeting place for people in ancient Athens, and the discussions people had here in the baking sun are thought to have contributed towards the incredible outpouring of original thought from people like Aristotle and Plato. 

The other highlight of Athens was the discovery of tahini and honey on toast, which was nearly as exciting as the Acropolis. But not. 

And then.... to Nafplio... 

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