Monday, June 18, 2007

From our honeymoon:

THIS was the stop on the trip I had looked forward to the most: Piraeus, Athens, Corinth, and Mycenae. Those are magic words for me: I have loved the Iliad since I was about ten years old.

We arrived in Piraeus, the port city of Athens. Simply bobbing in the harbor there was exciting: this is the port from which the thousand ships launched (Helen's face? Iliad? Trojan War? right.) Nowadays it is full of ferries, freighters, and passenger ships, not triremes and other warships, but still. It didn't take much imagination to be all excited at the idea that this was the very place where Agamemnon sent Clytemnestra into a rage by sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia for a favorable wind.

We had a favorable bus ("21 Purple") and anyway, we were headed inland. Our tour group was a motley crew, including a woman dressed like a ninja (I later found out she suffers from porphyria and cannot tolerate sunlight), several gimpy types like myself (we actually discussed knee replacements -- one woman had had TWO), a Gnostic priest and her honey, a very young couple in camouflage and khaki, and Linda with yours truly. Our tourguide's name was Georgia, and she stepped very gracefully among questions about everything from goddesses to bathroom locations.

Driving out of Athens, we saw the Acropolis from a distance through smog that put L.A. to shame. Granted, it was a rainy, overcast day, but this was impressive smog. The photo I'm posting has been cropped, blown up, and seriously enhanced; I won't waste bandwidth with the original. Still, we can say we saw the Parthenon.

We drove onwards to the next feature, the Corinth Canal. This is a modern wonder, and from an engineering point of view, it truly is a marvelous thing, even if from above it is basically an enormous ditch. It connects the Ionian and Aegean Seas, and makes the Peloponnesian Penninsula into an island. We stopped there and looked at it. We also found a bathroom there, which for a busload of women is another modern engineering marvel worth noting.

We rode for another long while, to intermittent commentary from Georgia about olive trees and ancient politics, until a mountain topped with ruins came into view. "Look up there," said Georgia, pointing. "That is the site of the Corinthian Temple of so-called Aphrodite." Seems the locals actually worshipped a version of the Middle Eastern fertility goddess Astarte, and called her Aphrodite to make it all nice. The Temple was, among other things, an enormous cult brothel, but looking at it, all I could think was that a man had to be awfully determined to get up there. Anything for piety, I suppose!

That acropolis was one reason that Corinth got such a bad name in the ancient world. It was full of sailors and adventurers and cult prostitutes -- no wonder Paul of Tarsus, aka St. Paul, felt the need to lecture the inhabitants on the virtues of agape, or brotherly love! Judging from the ruins, it was also a lovely city. I'll post some photos so you can see what's left of the ancient agora [city center]. The acropolis was not accessible to us (45 min of hard climbing) but the agora was very accessible, and had a museum nearby of artifacts that are still being discovered as they excavate the city.

We made some interesting discoveries there. The city bema was the presidium the big platform on which public speaking was done. I've heard that, but I'd never seen a bema before, and there it is. It happens that this particular bema was the one on which Paul of Tarsus was examined by the Roman authorities after complaints from the local synagogue. We saw bits of the local of the Greek city assembly,synagogue, also: only two small pieces are identifiable, and they were recovered after reuse as parts of other buildings. There is a capital from a column in the museum that has menorot with etrog and lulav, which we spotted almost immediately. There is also an inscription that has the last three letters of the word "synagogue" in Greek along with the first four letters of "Hebrew." According to the guide, that's all that is left of it, and those parts had been recycled as building stone for other, more recent structures.

We saw several bas relief sculptures of a battle between Amazons and Greeks, and beautiful sculptures. All in all, we could have stayed longer, and seen more, but it was time for Mycenae.

We drove some more, and that was when Georgia began to make ominous noises about Mycenae. "We will wait to eat lunch," she said, "It's a very big climb, not good after lunch." Those among us with orthopedic issues sat up and took notice. How much of a climb? Pretty good climb, she assured us. We looked around, and you could feel the resolve hardening in that bus: we'd come to see Agamemnon's city, and by golly, we were gonna see it!

We drove on and on, and Georgia told us about the quarry the archaeologists have found, from which huge stones of the special composite stone were carved for the Lion Gate and the Tomb of Agamemnon. It's miles from Mycenae (since we passed it on the way, we were sure of this) and no one knows how they hauled stones of as much as 100 tons all that distance in the 15th century before the common era. The inhabitants of Mycenae are mysterious to us; they may have been ancestors of modern day Greeks, but nothing is sure.

Finally we saw the double hills that were Heinrich Schliemann's clue that this was indeed the site of Agamemnon's city. Mycenae lies between them, with a view for miles and natural defenses on all sides but one. Approaching, we could see the excavation like a brown scar between the green hills. We parked, descended from the bus, and began the climb up the hill. Georgia was right: it was daunting. I left everything but my camera on the bus and began to put one foot in front of the other, climbing up the path. To our right, archaeologists continued the work of excavation, digging trenches to explore what lay beneath the soil.

The path curved upward to the right, and in the distance, I saw the Lion Gate ahead, looking just as it had in the photos. It is a huge structure, with great lion bodies topping it, a marvel of construction and a work of art. You can see in the photo that it dwarfs the people beneath it. The stones are enormous -- they reminded me of the foundation stones in the lowest levels of the Western Wall in Jerusalem-- and they came from a quarry over ten miles away. This is the only approach to the city, and it is fortified not only with a thick wall, but with daunting psychological defenses: the message is look, we can move these stones, and we will eat you as these lions would eat sheep. Personally, I would not choose to invade this city.

But the gate was open, the Myceneans long gone, so in we went. We saw the grave circle that Schliemann uncovered, not the grave of Agamemnon, as he hoped, but the graves of even earlier kings, wearing golden masks. The gold is all in the museum, and there was not time to visit it, but the graves, to me, were more evocative of the time. What an incredible place! By then, my right leg was screeching at me, but I wasn't sorry I climbed the hill -- it was worth it.

Finally, we visited the Tomb of Agamemnon, also known as the Treasury of Atreus. Both kings had been buried in this great beehive shaped tomb, because after Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon (in his bath!) she had his body unceremoniously put in his father Atreus's tomb. Still, it's pretty darn impressive, a giant human-made hill enclosing a hollow beehive of the mammoth stones from that quarry miles away. The entrance is the only part that photographs well, but as you can see, it is if anything even more impressive than the Lion Gate. The lintel stone (above the door) is the largest stone of all, weighing over 100 tons.

Later we had lunch at a nice place ("Agamemnon's," of course) and took the long bus ride back to the port. We arrived tired, bruised, gimpy, and happy, just in time for the crew of the Veendam to shoo us aboard and pull up the gangway. Then, like the ancient Greek armies, we sailed out of Piraeus and into the sea.

1 comment:

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