To journey back to Athens was to exit mythological time and step into the historical.
We walked the winding streets of the Plaka in silence, as though on pilgrimage to a sacred place. As narrow-alley Antifioki wound ever upward, I reflected on my first visit to the Acropolis: eagerly awaited and long overdue.
I’d read so much about ancient Greece, from Classics lectures in university to a systematic study of its thinkers, dramatists, and poets during my long dark temp agency years. It felt odd to enter these same scenes centuries later.
And then there I was, on the lower slope of the acropolis, sitting on what’s left of the Theatre of Dionysus. Said to be the very first theatre, it was in use from the 6th century BC. But it was in the golden age of the 5th century BC that the giants of Greek drama — Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Menander — staged their works here.
My favourite is Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, in which the women of Athens force an end to the Peloponnesian War by going on a sex strike. If you think the classics are dull, please read this. It’s just as funny now as it must have been in 411 BC, and men and women still squabble over the very same concerns.
The wind was cold by the time we reached the top of the Acropolis, and sex strikes were the furthest thing from my mind. The city was laid out like a diorama below us: modern, bustling Athens with its traffic and graffiti and tireless energy, and I could feel it receding backwards through the centuries in the stone beneath my boots. Behind me, the Parthenon — the ancient world’s most perfectly proportioned building — had a strange sense of mass about it that I never expected. Was it the weight of Western civilization, or just a trick of the columns?
Later, we descended to the Athenian agora, once the throbbing heart of Athens, the focus of commercial and political activity, and the very same stage where our greatest philosophers wandered and argued. It’s no exaggeration to say that this tiny patch of land was the crucible of Western civilization.
I didn’t plague random passersby with questions, like the annoying Socrates did here. Nor did I take up residence in a large ceramic jar and masturbate publicly, like Diogenes the Cynic. But I did scribble my vote on a piece of pottery and ostracize two fellow citizens for crimes against library books. “Don’t come back for ten years!” I’d always wanted to ostracize someone. There’s one major goal off my list.
We saw the treasures of the National Archaeology Museum too, of course. All those objects I knew from textbooks: the bronze statue of Poseidon, recovered from the sea off Cape Artemision, and the Varvakeion Athena, the most faithful reproduction of the statue by Phidias which once stood in the Parthenon in twelve times larger size.
But what struck me most were the Athenian funeral stelae. These simple grave monument are similar to the headstones you see in any cemetery, but they are carved with bas-reliefs depicting family members saying goodbye to a loved one before they vanish into the underworld.
I found myself unable to turn away from a scene where two old men look one another in the eyes and shake hands for the last time. The sculptor captured sadness so perfectly, the inevitability of death, and our reluctance to let go. A jumble of visions rushed through my head: the dryness of my father’s hand in mine during his last days in hospital, and a vision of my own future as I say farewell to the friend who has been with me since childhood.
We’re so close to the people who created these works, and who built the foundation of our culture. We are chained to one another through time: they, the speakers and writers, and we the readers, engaging with their thoughts down a dark tunnel of centuries.
The Western canon is disparaged by today’s postmodernists, and targeted by those crippled with their own sense of postcolonial guilt. But in discussing how we might right these historical wrongs, we overlook just how much we stand to lose by making this incredible cultural edifice the target of our shame, by pulling down thousands of years of human progress in response to present-day politics that, when taken in context, are the briefest moment of our larger story.
We spent our last evening in Greece discussing these things in a nearby ouzeri. The ouzo came from the wooded isle of Lesbos, which also gave us the poet Sappho. It clouded white when mixed with water, and it was the perfect accompaniment to bread and tzatziki laden with enough garlic to repel a coven of vampires.
Later, we made our way to a bar across town to hear a local band that mixed gypsy instruments with modern jazz. The upper floor venue was packed, and flailing dancers shunted us towards the back of the room. At some point, I turned to look out the window. I was startled to see the Parthenon there, brightly lit through the depths of night, looking over my shoulder from atop the acropolis.
My rational mind knew it was lit with electricity, but my deeper self knows this was really the light of wisdom. The ancients are watching over us as we recede into the future, building upon everything they left behind. I wonder what Diogenes would think of that pulsing double bass?
Photos ©Tomoko Goto 2018