You ever see that Eddie Izzard bit about the UK surreptitiously hiding a few countries behind its back after the end of World War Two?
“What’s that you’ve got there?”
“Oh it’s just…India and a number of other countries.”
“Give it back.”
“Fine…wait, we need the Falkland Islands…for strategic sheep purposes.”
That’s a bit like what’s going on with the Elgin Marbles.
Travelling with archaeologists, you tend to hear about everyone’s personal villain. Some people hate Arthur Evans for reconstructing Knossos, some hate Schlieman…but EVERYONE hates Lord Elgin. Elgin had the bright idea to strip-mine the Parthenon for its friezes and have them shipped back to England as part of his personal effort to, ahem, ‘preserve’ antiquity. Once bankrupt, he sold them to the British government, and today they sit in a museum in London, of all places, that has absolutely no right to them.
Oh wait, that’s right, Elgin got permission from the Ottoman Empire, which was occupying Greece at the time. That’s a bit like saying I’ve got the right to my collection of French art I got by bribing the Nazi security guard.
C’mon, Britain. We’ve got a great new museum in Athens in which to house them. Time to give them back.
“You HAVE to come dancing with us,” she pleads. “You were so AMUSING last week.” Is this really the way any guy wants to hear his dancing described? She’s insistent, though that my dancefloor antics provided her with considerably comic photographs, and its my moral duty to produce more of them for her this weekend.
In fairness, as anyone who has seen me dance can attest, it is hella funny.
But I decline, friends, for tonight the nice Greek doctor I dragged myself to has prescribed bed rest, which I intend to take.
The hospital is on the outskirts of town, along the road to Methoni. I know I should take one of the more fluent professors with me, know that I should take a cab, despite the cost. But I’m a grown man, and a cheap one at that, and we can be funny about doing things for ourselves without troubling others. So after dinner I make my excuses, and figure I might as well find the hospital while I’m walking around town.
It’s only about a fifteen minute walk, though I’m not even sure at first if the building is in fact the hospital. There’s no red cross sign, no caduceus, but i take a stab that the Greek symbols spell out “Central Pylos” and a third word I pray means hospital, and check myself in.
The place looks like an elementary school after 3:31. A single clerk is on the phone at the front desk. I ask if he speaks English. Not much.
I think that means “four days” and I pantomime the symptoms. He smiles and points me toward a small examining room to his left, where I wait for the doctor.
He’s my age, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, which doesn’t inspire a whole lot of confidence in me, but this exam is being paid for by the goodwill of the Greek people, so I can hardly complain. He takes my temperature: no fever. Great. Then it ain’t strep, the only thing I was remotely concerned about, and I figure I can be on my way. But he checks my breathing, just to be safe. “Orea.” Clear as a bell. He looks at my throat and I say “ah.”
“Oh no,” he says. “Very bad. Very red.”
Really, doc? But we were doing so well there…
He brings in a senior doc, who speaks no English but relays questions to the younger one. Through more stilted, broken English and Greek we manage to make ourselves understood to each other. I find myself quickly picking up entirely new phrases and words. “Endaksi” a word I’ve been unable to remember so far that means “okay.” You know that line about the hangman’s noose being a wonderful tool to concentrate the mind? Well, it’s almost as true for doctor visits.
It’s a virus, which means there’s little else for me to do but gargle, take some advil, sleep, and let it pass. Time for that mutant healing factor I’ve always enjoyed to go to work. We have two days coming up with no digging, hopefully enough time to finally sleep this damn thing off.
When I left I asked what I owed, but all they wanted to hear was “efharisto,” thank you, in return. I can’t imagine the culture shock for the poor Greek traveller who has to seek medical attention in the US, who likely would have been socked with a $10,000 bill for what I received for free. So thank you, Greek taxpayers. Efharisto poli.
It finally dawns on me during my trudge back to my room how much I’ve put my body through lately. The 10k at altitude, the stress of the move, hauling a couple beds down four flights of stairs single-handed (that was particularly bad-ass), the transatlantic flight, the six-day workweeks with shovel and pickaxe, the training runs after, waking up at 3am to watch hockey. It’s over now, and I shouldn’t have asked you for so much, body. You win. The next 48 hours are yours.
I wanted to add a few more photos of Mycenae. I don’t know that I quite managed to capture the magnificence of the place in my last post. Maybe it’s impossible to do in words. In any event, I’ve got a few more shots I’d like to include:
This is just a shot from the parking lot, but it gives some sense of just how freaking high up the citadel was, what command it gave the Mycenaeans of the surrounding countryside.
Above is a shaft grave just within the outer wall of the citadel. Culturally, the Mycenaeans would have had their inhumations outside the city walls, and this one originally was. But at some point, they decided to expand the city with an outer wall, which brought the shaft into the city proper. At that point, the shaft ceased to be a functioning tomb, and new shafts were built outside the newly extended city.
This face is based on one of the bodies found in one of the shaft graves, and is on display at the site’s museum. Although there is a degree of guesswork inherent on a fully fleshed out sculpture that’s based on a skull, there’s something striking about the way his eyes stare out at us from across the millenia.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.