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Thursday, 8 November 2007

A missing commentary - the debate between sea and olives

Dora Bakoyannis, Greece's impressive Foreign Minister, and ex-Mayor of Athens, was doing things in London this week - like talking with David Miliband about Greek-Turkish relations and the FYROM issue. She brought a signed copy of Alexander the Great's birth certificate issued well south of the Slav upstart state claiming his history. No seriously, that's a squabble that has to be talked out by diplomacy - so it never gets fought out.
[Back to the future - 17 Dec '09: At the end of November 09, DB lost a fight with Antonis Samaras for the Leadership of New Democracy, in opposition since PASOK won a General Election in October '09. Op-Ed from Kathimerini]
DB is a politician who tends not to put a foot wrong. (Future PM?) Bakoyannis, in the Mercouri tradition, met the British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles. She thanked them for their campaigning, stressing that Athens' goal (diplomatic metonymy) was to "reunite" the Marbles being held at the British Museum in London with those in Greece - a shrewdly used word; a change of name.
'They do not only belong to Greece but the world has a right to see them united at the new Acropolis Museum'

Consider the blank space on the west pediment above our heads in this snap taken by another couple who we'd just snapped for their album. Whether you have the place to yourself - which can happen - or whether it teems with visitors, its genius loci is undeniable, yet in this world of 'signage' designed to teach visitors and remind locals about their history - the most finely crafted commentary on the Acropolis is missing. Blast away its roof and scar its pillars, it is the story told in marble on the pediments and friezes of the Parthenon that is as important to its integrity as Genesis is to the Bible or the statue of Romulus and Remus suckling a wolf is to Rome.
The theme of the western pediment is the rivalry between Athena and her uncle, Poseidon, as to who should be patron of their favourite city. Witnessed by Cecrops, the Goddess offers an olive branch; the God, a saltwater spring. What's that about? Ponder pethia! Think visitors! Or head to northern climes and check it while I have a skirto.
Olives are good food, good wood and their oil fuelled lamps. Both could be traded. Poseidon's gift was about sea power - important for defence and trading. Which is the best gift? What qualifies Cecrops to judge? Poseidon and Athena occupy the central, high point of the west pediment's triangle - or should. Also up there - or should be were he not in the British Museum - is Cecrops, half man and half serpent, born from the soil, ancestor of the Greeks, who, by preferring Athena's gift, founded Athens teaching her citizens to bury the dead, honour the contract of marriage, to read and write. A civiliser. The Parthenon was named Cecropia in his honour. It became home to Phidias' building-high ivory and gold statue of Athena. Can you see the problem here - a tension between peace and war; between the practicality of the olive, not to mention its beauty, and the fact of Piraeus and the security of the broad blue highway from whence came the trading economy of the Aegean basin and littorals beyond? Some lesson! Did the neat little recording gadget tell you that while you were gazing in wonder at the remains of the marble narrative - chipped and bowdlerised by ill advised cleaning - in the British Museum? [one of my students stands before the east pediment marbles a few weeks ago] Erichthonius, also on the west pediment, was the second king of Athens. I am confused about him. There seems to be speculation about his history and identity. He wasn't Athena's son but she brought him up. He taught his subjects to work silver, put horses to chariots, and to pull the plough. I don't think Poseidon liked him. I need to learn more. Then there are more water divinities - Iris and Hermes among them - joining in a debate which, for the moment, remains muted and remote since the chamber above our heads is sadly empty. When I was last there, I was looking at the miniature reconstructions of the pediments in the museum on the Acropolis. I got into conversation with a Greek visitor from Thessalonika. I said I'd very much like to see the marbles returned, since their absence made me ignorant, stopping me shifting my gaze in a helpful way from pediments to frieze - a four-fold lesson there - to the larger structure, to the city below and towards the sea to the south. He said 'Yes they must come back, but we are not ready for them. Because of the air pollution in Athens they will have to go from your museum to our museum.' Having first seen the incomparable Parthenon in the late 1950s I was indeed struck by the pollution damage since then; more harm in 30 years than in many previous decades. I saw his point. More pragmatic than moral. Athens' pollution problems are not helped by her magnificent topography. The great city is located in a basin surrounded by high mountains and the dear dark faced sea that has served her so well. Air dispersion despite the etesian winds of summer is minimal. It is the only city where I - a traveller - have suffered as much from the humid heat of August and which makes cooler suburbs like Kifissia so seductive. The main sources of air pollution - motorised traffic, industry, domestic heating and air-conditioning - is increased by solar radiation during spring and summer. Athenians know 'the nefos'. The fires on Parnitha and closer in Kifissia amplify the problem - driven by ill-chance and yearning for land. Traffic congestion seems as bad as ever. [19/01/08 Problem continues: Stavros Dimas to Parliament on CO2 emissions measurement “This issue can create a problem for the entire EU – imagine the ridicule for our country" ] In 1977 the pollution of Athens was so bad, that, according to then Greek Minister of Culture, Constantine Trypanis, the caryatids of the Erechtheum had seriously degenerated, while the face of the horseman still on the Parthenon's west side was all but obliterated. Strict measures during the 1990s improved air quality. Five of the caryatids were replaced with replicas - the orginals placed in the Acropolis Museum. Elgin had the sixth. [He's got a receipt. 'Hold on it was in my pocket just now. Wait. it's somewhere here, I promise.']. The nefos is rarer, but summer 2007 saw great palls of smoke blanketing the city. All the same, more Athenians are on bicycles. Many more rely on the superb rapid transit system that came with the Olympics. But people are people. They love their cars. They covet, they yearn and sometimes they burn. The National Law 1650/86 contains the main legal framework for the protection of the environment. Air is monitored in a highly detailed scientific way, much depends on human beings, corporate responsibility and confident government. ['The pilfering lords have gone, but the hungry clouds of pollution do damage in Athens nearly as bad.' Richard Stoneman (ed) Land of Lost Gods: The Search for Classical Greece, London: Hutchinson, 1987, p.300] If the Parthenon marbles return to their pediments - not just to a superb air-conditioned humidity-controlled museum nearby (politically correct as that would be) - Greece will have achieved more than a just restoration, she will have tackled one of the great urban problems of the world. The statue of Romulus and Remus is in the Musei Capitolini not in the open on the Capitoline Hill, needing similar protection from air pollution. If the Parthenon marbles do not return to their original place, then can you reproach those with the means who also retreat to 'superb' air-conditioned humidity-controlled environments separated from their fellows, shielded from the effects of their way of life? The message on the west pediment - the debate between Poseidon and Athena, between sea and olives should be renewed and resolved. They may argue. They may quarrel. But if they cannot share the same space then nor can we. The next time I enjoy an olive from Kalamata or Halkidiki I will be more aware of its salty taste.
[Back to the future: For another juxtaposition of sea and tree or rather 'boat vs. tree' see this blog entry on how toy-sized boats are being replacing by trees in Greek Christmas celebrations. Christmas trees came to Greece rather as they came to Britain - in King Otto's Bavarian baggage to Greece and in Prince Albert's German baggage to Victorian England] [Who owns the Codex Sinaiticus, until the 19thC in the Monastery of St Catherine, Sinai - probably the earliest copy of the Holy Bible in Greek?]

* * *
What British things have been taken to another place? I can't think of any that are a bone of contention. US universities have bought quite a few original manuscripts, and now and again we hear of British Museums trying to save certain works 'for the nation' in competition with overseas private collectors. I'm failing to imagine what it must feel like to want the Parthenon Marbles back - because they are 'ours'. Cargo cults are driven by a shared feeling in a subject population that a powerful tribe has run off with their forefathers' wealth and magic powers, their technology and art. I wonder if growing Greek self-confidence will lessen demands for the return of the marbles so that when they come back, as I think they should and eventually will as part of the integrity of Pericles' Acropolis, the party will be ill-attended. Had Elgin not completed his mission for which he suffered famous abuse from Byron*, illness, impoverishment and gross disfigurement, the world might not have the marbles that now exist.
*Cold is the heart, fair Greece! that looks on thee,
Nor feels as lovers o'er the dust they lov'd ;
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defac'd, thy mouldering shrines remov'd
By British hands, which it had best behov'd
To guard those relics ne'er to be restor'd.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they rov'd,
And once again thy hopeless bosom gor'd,
And snatch'd thy shrinking Gods to northern climes abhorr'd.
Childe Harold: Canto 2 (15) 1812
[Back to the future: 5 Aug 2009 - Since writing this I've learned of a sturdy intellectual thread in Modern Hellenic culture that has mixed feelings about widely venerated emblems of Classical Greece such as the Parthenon, including growing political sophistication about the way regimes exploit the supposedly objective work of archaeologists - preserving, rebuilding and destroying resonant symbols. As a discipline it's referred to as 'socio' - or 'social archaeology'. See for instance Liana Giannakopoulou 'Perceptions of the Parthenon in Modern Greek Poetry' Journal of Modern Greek Studies, 20 (2) Oct 2002, pp. 241-272
The Parthenon is not a popular source of inspiration for modern Greek poets. Only a few poems are devoted to it, expressing either the poet's grief for bygone ages of glory or his praise of the immortal Greek spirit. Against this background, three poets can be distinguished for being different and original. For Palamas, who fights for the cause of Demoticism, the attitudes of his contemporaries towards the Parthenon encapsulate what he takes to be a sterile veneration of the ancestors. He thus opposes the idea of the restoration of the Parthenon, promoting the Modern Greek language instead. For Sikelianos, the Parthenon is only one monument among many. This weighty symbol of ancient Greek tradition is not a source of awe or embarrassment, but the yardstick that indicates the importance of the modern poet's achievement. For Calas, finally, the Parthenon is associated with the declining values of a doomed bourgeoisie and should therefore be blown up and replaced by new standards in life and art.
And see also Yannis Hamilakis 'The Other "Parthenon": Antiquity and National Memory at Makronisos' Journal of Modern Greek Studies, vol 20 (2) Oct 2002, pp. 307-338
Makronisos, the small, uninhabited island off the Attica coast, was the location of the most notorious concentration camp set up by the Greek government during the Civil War (1946-1949). It was a place of brutality, torture, and death, but its distinctive feature was its role as an indoctrination centre for many thousands of political dissidents (mostly left-wing soldiers and citizens, but also ethnic and religious minorities) who, after they were "re-educated" in the national dogmas, were sent to fight against their ex-comrades. Classical antiquity was one of the main ideological foundations of this "experiment," the audience for which was the whole of Greece and the international community. In the island, still known as "The New Parthenon," the "redeemed" inmates were encouraged to build replicas of classical monuments, and the regime's discourse emphasized the perceived incompatibility of the inmates' "destiny" (as descendants of ancient Greeks) with left-wing ideologies....]
[Back to the future: a 21 August 2009 op-ed on the debate about the ownership of antiquities]
[Back to the future - 19 Dec 2009: 'The Parthenon frieze can now be digitally observed, piece by piece' - a website in Greek analysing the frieze with superb images...also see p.14 of 11 Dec 09 Athens Plus in which there's a piece about modern marble craftsmen working on the Acropolis]

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Simon Baddeley