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Ancient Greece in Springtime

Posted: Fri Apr 22, 2022 5:14 pm
by moderne
Only one modern city to report on, lots of dead cities and some of them functioned quite different from modern ones and some were built in impractical improbable places.
Took an archaeological tour with British tour company that specializes in archaeological tours mostly in Mediterranean basin. Along with a couple other Americans met group coming in from London at Athens airport. Along with tour manager there was a Ph.D archaeologist lecturer and a professional photographer. Tour was all inclusive meals and tips. Brits are very thrifty.
Athens except for a few spots is an uninspiring city. Modern Athens is not much older than KC. It was just a village when after the independence war from Ottoman Turkey it was chosen as capital of the new kingdom. As part of receiving western European military support in war the new king was German. Otto put up a number of neo classical buildings that were quite lavish. Despite this and some building for the first modern Olympic games, Athens remained a small city. The Turks were on the wrong side of WWI and the Greeks gained some territory. They then got greedy after the war and had some idea of liberating all the Greeks around the Aegean. Smyrna (now Izmir) was a large Greek city on the Turkish coast and a major economic center of Turkey. The Turks literally pushed the Greek citizens into the sea. The peace involved a huge exchange of Greeks and Turks on both sides. Most of the Greek refugees ended up in Athens. The result quadrupled the population. Endless plain cement block and stucco buildings were thrown up to house people resulting in the lackluster appearance of most of the city.
Our hotel was a few blocks from the base of the Acropolis. Our orientation gathering was on the rooftop garden with a dramatic view of the Acropolis. Those first few nights jet lag woke me in the middle of the night and I would go up to the roof to contemplate the silent floodlit ruins. We started early in morning to ascend acropolis and beat out the hordes coming in later from cruise ships. We took path that wound around base of Acropolis and watched sunrise from the theatre where most of the great plays were performed. The top of the Acropolis is quite small. People are not allowed to walk into the temple ruins and lots of ground is covered with building fragments and block storage that is continuously being used in the ongoing restorations. After descending the summit we went to the newish Acropolis Museum that houses sculpture and artifacts. The next day was the Agora and lunch at the British School at Athens, an 150 year old archaeological mission. Lunch in the garden courtyard followed by some words from scholars working there.
Left overland for Delphi. The spring countryside was a riot of the senses. At first the vegetation looked similar to southern California chapparal. But instead of thorny and spikey it was soft and aromatic. The weeds were things like oleander, bay, oregano,thyme, and sage. Wildflower were riotous especially vivid red poppies. Ruins are evocative but when set in fields of wildflowers they become Byronic romantic. On way to delphi stopped at petrol station rest stop market. Across the parking lot was a plain steel building with a cross over the door. Stepped inside, it was a chapel filled with a fortune in icons. I thought Latin Americans and Italians were most devout christians. But orthodox have them beat. It was lent and the big build up to Orthodox Easter. Greeks think the west is wacky with Xmas. Easter is the bigger holiday here at it is the real point of the religion. Delphi setting is on a shelf of more level land about a third up the way of 9,000' Mt Parnassus. The modern village of Delphi sits on an adjacent lower shelf and the most southern ski resort in Europe is further up the mountain. From Delphi the mountain slope falls sharply to a small plain covered in silver grey olive groves meeting the blue Gulf of Corinth beyond which rise the snow capped peaks of the Peloponnese peninsula. If it sounds like an odd place for a city, even more so as the temple of Apollo sets on top of intersecting fault lines from which issues gases that filled the oracle chamber and made the oracle delirious, When excavators arrived here 150 years ago nothing was left standing having been shaken down in innumerable quakes. Among the ruined buildings many columns have been re-erected, the Athenian Treasury nearly completely restored. There is a stadium in the precint. Ancient Greece has games every summer, In addition to the Olympics and the Pythian games at Delphi were the Isthmian and Nemean. Hence the 4 years cycle for the Olympiad. The adjacent museum is most famous for the bronze charioteer. Few bronzes survive from antiquity as they were melted down in the dark ages.
Down the mountain and around with winding shores of the Gulf to cross on the Rion-Antirion bridge. A collosal cable stay with 4 towers with deck high up over ocean vessels. Not only is the Gulf of Corinth actually a huge active fault where the Peloponnese is tearing off the mainland, the underwater canyon is so filled with debris it was impossible to secure the towers to bedrock. So they just float in the rubble over the fault.
Driving from Patras to Olympia along Ionian sea was rare and valuable coastal plain. Level ground has been prized in Greece since ancient times. Turned inland to stay at small village outside Olympia. Very rural and agrarian even with tourism here. Ruins here a very ruinous, still was a thrill to walk around the track of the stadium. As with most major sites, a substantial museum with the entire pediment sculpture from the Zeus Temple.
Next stop was Pylos at SW corner of Peloponnesus. Perfect little seaside town with Plaka facing harbor, big old Kastro(castle) looming over with harbor enclosed by massive rock of Navarino. Had hotel room facing the plaka with this view at sunset. Went to site of citadel of Pylos. Mycenaen era site of legendary King Nestor of the Illiad. Ongoing excavations continue to bring to light tomb treasures of warrriors with weapons,gold, and jewels.
Next ancient city was Messene. The Spartans in the valley on the other side of the lofty Taygettos range developed their society where every male citizen landholder was a soldier training full time. So who would do the work? They marched over the mountains and enslaved the people of Messene. Slaves in their own valley and in the Spartans valley. Other Greek city states thought it abhorent the Greeks would enslave other Greeks, although enslaving barbarians was fine. Generation after generation of enslaved Messenans with numerous futile uprisings. After Sparta defeated Athens in the Peloponessian War, other city states found Spartan domination worse than Athenian and finally Thebes defeated Sparta and set the Messena people free to go home. Other cities grew haphazzard. The new Messene was laid out on latest city planning ideas as an ideal. In the north mountain approach massive walls to thwart Sparta. The city then descends in broad terraces in the valley towards the distant sea with agoras, temples, theaters symmetrically placed. They had a golden age of arts of their own. The entire tour group seemed chippper and bouyed by the happy spirit of this place. Then someone pointed to the cobblestones of the streets. All the gaps were filled with the tiny daisy like chamomille flowers. Walking on the flowers was causing an aromatherapy effect.
Up over the Taygettos on a narow winding highway. I was not expecting Greek mountains to be impressive since none are over 10,000'. But since their bases are near sea level they rise as high as the Rockies do from the Great Plains. To snowfields in the pass down to the valley of Laconia. Sparta was never much to see as they did not put resources into impressive buildings. What survived of the Spartan capital was abandoned in the Middle Ages when it became vulnerable to Arab raiders. Where the people took refuge was fantastic.
Mystra sits on what looks like a giant pie shaped wedge of stone broken of the east slopes of the Taygettos. It flourished in the twilight of the medieval Byzantine empire. At the top tip of the wedge is a fortress, descending down the slope are dozens of chapels and churches with lower down palaces and mansions of the nobility and common folk at the bottom. The total effect is reminiscent of Tolkien's Minas Tirith even as modeled by Peter Jackson. There is a steep winding road to the top so we were able to enjoy the gravity assist hike down. The tiny churches have astounding frescos. Most are in the stiff medieval orthodox style, But the later ones show fluidity and motion. As if this were the first spark of the Renaissance. Stopped at an active nunnery where an ancient sister exhibits and sells her orders handcrafts. Last stop was the restored cathedral where the last Emperor of the Romans was crowned to immediately set sail to defend Constantinople and vanish from history when he ran into the breach in the thousand year old walls made by Turkish canon fire.
On towards the plains of Argos. Stopped at convenience rest stop of tollway that had huge shopping area where I made best purchases. The most delectable honey that tastes of the aromatic flowers and herbs of the countryside and saffron picked locally from mountain crocus in the melting snow.
Got to hotel outside ruins of citadel of Mycenae. A for location and effort. The rest was strange. Hot water was turned off at night and not turned on until six in morning. Bedsheets and towels must have been line dried. They were so stiff and rough it was like loofah. In the evenings they would bring out wine in decanters . They called it the Blood of Hercules. Nevertheless since it was included free the Brits drank heartily. There were 4 that were barristers and judges and got into fascinating discussion of the various types of wigs worn and what court procedure called for what wig.
Citadel of Mycenae truly Homeric. Walking through the Lion Gate where Agammemnon triumphed on his return from Troy only to be murdered by his wife and her boyfriend was epic. The beehive tombs were impressive although only the brave entered due to hornets swarming. With this hotel as base spent days going to cyclopean walled Tiryns, lively lovely port of Nauplion(wished we had lodged there), the healing city of Epidauros. Sort of an ancient Rochester MN. Has famous theatre acoustics and undergoing more actual restoratian(rather than just conservation) of any site we saw.
Had picnic at Nemea where professor excavating there talked to us. He has started new Nemean games where anyone can just show up to enter. The temple there has doric columns of unusual height and relative thiness.
Corinth was wonderful last ancient city. Remains mostly from Roman era when it was largest city in mainland Greece. Saw exact spot St Paul was trashed by Jewish elders. Instead of an acropolis it has the acrocorinth which is not flat topped and has remains of intriguing temple of Aphrodite famous for its temple prostitutes. Site is vast, lots of structures, rambling museum and killer views of Gulf of Corinth.
Back to Athens for last day. Went to National Museum. Collections vast. Entire room devoted to the corroded AntiKythera mechanism, a complex geared device said to be the worlds first know computer.
Back at the Herodian Hotel our farewell dinner was a feast. Had to leave dinner first as flight out was at 6AM. Had cards with photo of KCPL and Bartle Pylons with tips for tour director and archaeologist guide. They both accepted graciously, but all the Brits at table fell silent. I thought they were going to hiss at me. I guess tips included meant my perogative made me a gauche American.

Re: Ancient Greece in Springtime

Posted: Wed Jun 01, 2022 9:52 am
by rxlexi
Thanks for this. A friend just returned from a similar, though less detailed journey through Athens, Delphi, Santorini and Mikonos. He described it as an amazing experience. Love your descriptions of the floodlit Acropoils in the middle of the night, and the soft wildflowers of a Spring sojourn.

Being of Greek descent and Greek Orthodox your comments on Easter ring true. Looking forward to making a similar trip someday...

Re: Ancient Greece in Springtime

Posted: Wed Jun 01, 2022 1:56 pm
by moderne
Modern day Greek culture is a continuation of the Orthodox Byzantine tradition. While at the same time very proud of the ancient achievements. When you are there you realize how much of what we call western civilization was invented in Ancient Greece.