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At the bottom of the cistern

June 9, 2009 2 comments
There are four of us. The air is cool. There is no light. There is no noise. We pause in the dark, listening to ourselves breath. Above, everyone waits for us, the last few in the cistern, but we’re selfishly hoarding this moment, an island of tranquility just a few minutes long in trip that is an ocean of activity.

The cistern runs about 50 meters below the surface. We’re standing at the bottom of it, which is reached by way of a very narrow stairwell carved into the living rock of the acropolis of Mycenae. The stairs are smooth, almost to the point of being slippery, and we wonder if they’ve been made this way by the millenia of footsteps or by the water that was once stored down here.

Your vagabond, at the bottom of the cistern

This was part of the Mycenaean defense system, their answer to an uninterruptable water supply in case of siege, basically a reservoir protected by scores of meters of bedrock. We walked down, all thirty some odd of us, just to see to reach the bottom. Some turned back when they conked their heads on the low ceiling, or the passageway narrowed. This was built for men who would have been a foot shorter than us. Others turned back when confronted with the cloud of gnats that now inhabit the place. The rest persevered to the landing at the bottom, no bigger than Volkswagen. Four of us stayed, waiting for the others to leave to get that perfect picture of oursleves against a backdrop of empty stairs heading upward to the surface.

Partly, though, I think the four of us were transfixed by that lonely, quiet, empty place, and we just couldn’t help a few minutes of relative solitude in a cool dark place. We turn our flashlights and headlamps off. There is no light. There is no sound. It is perfect. The moment passes. We ascend.

Above ground, after having braved the cloud of gnats again, we blink and rub our eyes against the impossibly bright Greek sunlight. Mycenae is at the top of a very large hill, almost a mountain in its own right, earning the classification of ‘acropolis’, literally a city on a peak. From this vantage point, the entire surrounding countryside is laid out before you with magnificent command. The people who controlled this city would have controlled considerable surrounding territory simply by virtue of holding the high ground. The city was unassailable from the mountains in the rear, and they built the frontal approach so that the ramp leading up to the main gate runs alongside the outer wall, rather than approaching it from a perpendicular angle. Any attacking army would have had scores of dangerous meters to walk while defenders pelted them with rocks, arrows, boiling oil, only to reach the famous Lion”s Gate, a narrow entrance that is easily barred and defended by a small number of men. I try to imagine the blood that must have been shed along this narrow approach by attacking armies. This rather pleasant mountaintop with its tourist-trap museum shop and overpriced Heinekens must have once been a considerable killing ground once.

Justin, resident rock star, standing below the famous Lion's Gate

Justin, resident rock star, standing below the famous Lion's Gate

The tour guide takes us around ot the rear, showing us the back door to the city, literally a small door that would have allowed access to the rear of the city behind the walls. The Orestes Gate. According to legend, Orestes escaped this way after killing his mother and her lover, in revenge for their murder of his father, Agamemnon, upon returning from the Trojan War. Agamemnon had in turn sacrificed his daughter, Iphigenaia, in order the appease the gods and gain a favorable wind that the Achaean fleet might sail for Asia Minor. No one did the cycle of violence better than the ancient Greeks, the originals and best.

The Orestes Gate

The Orestes Gate

“He died in his bathtub, you know.” Troy, the man next to me at dinner the following evening, tells me. I nod, vaguely familiar with the details of the story from studying Aeschylus as an undergraduate. “Economical. Most Myceneaens would have been buried in their bathtubs.” He smiles. “I have some experience in grave-digging.” Troy’s family are, in fact, the local grave diggers for his hometown in Minnesota. HIs grandfather invented a method of melting the frozen ground by placing sheets of metal over a low burning fire, allowing him to dig graves even in the cold Minnesota winters. When he died, Troy helped dig his grave. “It actually helped with the grieving process,” he tells me, again with a ready smile.

Now Troy is waiting for his enlistment term to end, which will be in February. He’s with the Army National Guard, and already served one tour in Iraq with a logistics division. He’s taking classes, like the rest of us, but until his enlistment ends he can’t leave the state, so his choices of schools is perforce limited. He could be deployed to one of two overseas locations: Afghanistan, or Kuwait. He hopes if it comes, it’ll be Kuwait. He’s already seen more of the Middle East than I’m ever likely to see, having taken a trip to Qatar on leave, seen Doha. He doesn’t know if the National Guard will stop-loss him after that, putting a hold on his plans to continue his studies in archaeology.

Troy, in his hotel room

Troy, in his hotel room

I think back to the moment at the bottom of the cistern, where Troy stood beside me. It is dark, and cool, and quiet. The city was once a killing ground. But in those few moments, all is peaceful and calm, and we have no thoughts of war, or deployments, or stop-loss. Only the feeling of wonder at this magnificent space, carved by human hands, so many millenia ago.

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