Thursday, 30 May 2013

From ancient to modern Greece

The view from Assos across to Lesvos
Between the Aegean coast of Turkey and Lesvos is broad channel of water, about 10 nautical miles wide, which we crossed on a lazy afternoon and, in doing so, re-entered Europe.

I hadn't given much thought to what that would mean while we were still in Turkey - beyond the availability of cheaper Cinzano and Italian coffee - but as soon as we docked in Greece I felt different. Turkey, though I try hard to ignore it, is a man's world. The hardening up of Islamic muscle power only makes it only more so. Here in Mytilene, which is the big town on Lesvos, women take up space. They are allowed to. They carry themselves like the girls back home. They look you in the eye, laugh loudly, speak directly and to the point. Alex noticed the blondes. I noticed the good-looking coastguards  - the women, that is. This is Sappho's island, and perhaps there's something in the air, but probably not. More likely that we are back in our own culture, give or take a few degrees of separation.

Some things stay the same. The fish in the photo above were hung out to dry over our restaurant table in Assos, a tiny harbour north of Ayvalik. We were there on Sunday (to look at ruins, of course). Yesterday we ate lunch in Mytilene on the harbour front and, lo and behold, were seated below octopi hung out to dry in much the same fashion. The people of these parts, who are so firmly bolted onto each other's history, put great store on their differences, but fishing habits threaten no-one's sense of identity.

I promised ruins in the previous post, and I hate to disappoint.

A prelude: Alex was in Turkey 40 years ago - he loves to mention this to young Turks who are duly shocked to find that they were either not born or still in nappies when he first visited their country since it implies prior or more knowledge of Turkey than they have. He and Jan covered a fair bit of ground in their campervan on their way through to India, but for reasons which don't matter any more, they missed Pergamon. So, ever since we arrived in Turkey on Enki, Alex has talked about going to Pergamon. Of course you can see more of the good stuff in the Pergamon museum in Berlin, but hey, are we going to let that upstage our fun?

I knew nothing about ancient ruins until I got the Lycian bug last August, and for all my enthusiasm now, I can only just keep a simple timeline of the ancient world in my head. So I didn't quite know what to make of my response to Pergamon. It's one of the Big Ruins sites - but for the first little while it left me cold. We prowled around the acropolis, trying to make sense of the layout. The view down to the modern town of Bergama on the plain was extraordinary. What a strategic holdout. Pergamon was a rich and powerful city in its heyday (between 335 and 159 BC). We knew that. But still, where was the magic? Where was the famous library? Where was anything?

The Roman temple of Trajan at Pergamon
Then we dropped down beneath the temple of Trajan on the top of the acropolis, walked past the stupendous arched vaults which support the mighty retaining wall which the Romans built to hold up their temple to the emperor Trajan (the Trump Tower of its time?). We squeezed into a staircase tunnel which extruded us out onto the back row of the steepest amphitheatre in the Greek world and then it happened. 'Ah, there it is'. The old ruins magic.

There was another 'ah' moment in the Middle City where, off the beaten track, there is a tenderly restored Pergamon house, once two-storied, with the mosaic floors designed to impress with their expanse and intricacy.

We hiked back up to the acropolis. Pergamonians would have been a fit lot. The cable car which takes modern visitors between the parking area for buses and the entrance at the top is not even at the lowest level of the ancient city which spilled right down to the plains.

Reconstruction of the Pergamon acropolis
In the Bergama museum down in town we found a picture (above) which reconstructs what the acropolis might have looked like. An imaginative aid. There's so little left - the amphitheatre, foundations of palaces, the base of a small temple to Zeus, the Trajan shell, a stump where the library with its 200,000 scrolls grew out from, a lot more that is indecipherable to the amateur, and rubble - so much still buried. In times of peace, who wants to live on a rocky outcrop when the plains below are so fertile and easy to live on?

There's no sculpture left on the site. The Pergamon school of sculpture was hugely influential  in its day, and the museum has some nice busts. But we saw many more and better sculptures from the Pergamon school in Istanbul's archeology museum, including the famous bust of Alexander. That's the way it goes.

The road  to Asklepion, looking back up to Pergamon
It's a fair hike from Pergamon to Asklepion (we drove). Asklepion is the ancient healing centre where sick people went for treatment when Pergamon was a flourishing city. Only pregnant women and the dying were turned away at the gate. Its doctor-priests used dream therapy, massage, mud baths, rest and rudimentary surgical operations to treat their patients. Galen, the most famous doctor in the Roman empire, was at Asklepion for a time. Alex knew of him from his general medical reading (I didn't). Galen's anatomical knowledge was the medical standard until 1628, and he performed operations to remove cataracts very much as doctors still do. Galen was originally brought to Pergamon to be a kind of sports medic to the gladiators. I liked that detail. I also liked the peace we found at Asklepion, which sits in a hollow, like a cupped hand. I drank from its sacred fountain, and tried not to worry about what might be in the water.

The Asklepion compound, healing rooms at bottom left

I switch quickly now to Assos where, on a perfect day, after our lunch in the harbour under the pegged fish, we climbed up to what is left of the ancient temple of Athena, and the Byzantine walls which later enclosed it and, alongside the walls,  one of Turkey's oldest Ottoman mosques. History piled on top of itself, as is usual in Turkey.

Choosing mezes for lunch at Assos
Assos harbour
What's left of the temple is pretty sad. Its exceptional sculpted friezes are kept in Boston and the Louvre, I believe, as well as in Istanbul. But if you stop a while, the coastal views of the gulf of Edremit and across to Lesvos allow you to imagine the glory that was. Someone's had a go at drawing what they think the temple might have looked like, and that helps too.

What the temple of Athena might have looked like
When our friends on Angel Louise, Ed and Sue Kelly, left Turkey for Greece a couple of months ago, they wrote - "we have left ancient Greece for modern Greece". That's how I feel too. The ancient world had shifting boundaries, as does the modern one, but Greeks inhabited Asia Minor (what the Turks now call Anatolia) over many centuries and modern Turkey goes about its business very much on the foundation stones of that culture, and of the empires which followed. Greece will be different.

Looking back towards Turkey from the castle at Mytilene
Mytilene harbour
Main street Mytilene

Here in Lesvos, we've begun hearing different stories. But they can wait for the next post.


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