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Works and Days

Sailing to Byzantium

August 8th, 2009 - 5:19 am

 

Rhodes

 

Millions of Euros have transformed Rhodes into a sort of Frankish and Venetian Disneyland. The medieval city has been completely rebuilt, or almost rebuilt—turrets, walls, streets, arches, courtyards—into a fascinating citadel as it might have appeared around 1500 or so. I visited in 1973, 1974, and 1988, and it has since invested more money in the last twenty years into infrastructure than during the prior 100. But then the story of Greece itself the last thirty years is the gargantuan influx of Euro money, both before and after the Olympics, that make it unrecognizable from my first visit at 20 in September 1973—an awful year of war in the Middle East, furor over American resupply of Israel,  of oil embargos, a preliminary coup that removed George Papadopoulos, brought in the more sinister Ioannides, and the shoot-out at the Polytechnion.

 

One does not see medieval homesteads in the interior anywhere in Greece as was common during the classical period. Indeed Rhodes of the Middle Ages—tons of stone ramparts guarding a stone central fortress with crowded brick and stone homes within—was not the Rhodes of 400 B.C. with plentiful small poleis and surrounding homestead farms.

 

Piracy and Ottomanism meant that enemy galleys could appear on the horizon without warning and land within hours to rape, murder, kidnap, and pillage. The pattern of settlement of  Rhodes is a testament to that fact. Houses are built fortress-like. Streets are labyrinths, and secondary lines of defense, as trapped invaders might be pelted from top stories of shuttered homes, citizens safe behind massive doors, or at least safe enough to jump above across narrow pathway-like streets or to escape through subterranean tunnels.

 

Throughout the Mediterranean antiquities of the 14th-18th centuries, the story is the same: fears of security, inadequate defense, and constant anxiety trump the ease and economy of living among the fields. Commuting peasants attached to lords who provide security for exploitation, not yeomen homestead farmers of the classical past, are more characteristic of the countryside

 

One way of learning history without texts is simply to wander the ancient countryside and observe: when there are scattered towns and homesteads, life is good; when not, life is tenuous and development retarded. Standing on the ramparts of Rhodes, I could not think of a scarier thing than hearing a shout from a watchman that seaborne raiders have appeared out of nowhere and the gates were closing to prevent catastrophe.  We in the United States have not seen such insecurity since the Civil War and especially the bloody killing in Kansas and Missouri, other than a few range wars in the late nineteenth-century West. But history is not always progressive, and without good government, national unity, and viable defense, the world returns to the status of the 15th-century Aegean. Almost every island out here has an impressive Frankish fort, beefed up by the Venetians—and ultimately sacked by the Turks.

 

Bodrum

 

I first visited Halicarnassus—birthplace of Herodotus, home of the Mausoleum, and capital of Artemisia’s Carian kingdom—over 35 years ago. It has metamorphosized from a seedy, sleepy sort of Bohemian seaside port into a cruise ship  hot spot, with rebuilt Frankish castle, touristy harbor, scores of impressive wood yachts, and an inviting market not that much different from those on the Greek islands.

 

There is not much more than a stone or two left from the Mausoleum (the least visited of the 7 ancient wonders of the world, I think, are the Babylon hanging gardens and Mausolus’s tomb). The ancient theater is still used, but gaudy and without the dignity of the white simplicity of Epidauros. The harbor has great natural beauty. I spent the afternoon at a coffee bar and talked to a Turkish intellectual, furious that Greeks come easily ashore as EU cash-laden visitors, while Turks only with difficulty can stay more than a day on the Greek islands. I left the conversation when he got into the great Aegean narrative: that Greek islands, like Rhodes, Samos, Lesbos, and Chios, are intrinsically and properly Turkish—apparently he never heard of ancient Ionia. We had started out well enough, talking about olives and grapes, and the scarcity of water; politics ended all that.

 

Mykonos

 

I confess I have never liked Mykonos. Like most classics and archaeological snob students, I avoided it except as transit to uninhabited Delos. But aside from the Euro-sensualists who swarm the island, its interior has natural beauty and fine beaches, as well as good seaside restaurants. I first visited there 36 years ago, and that old divide between gawking traditional native residents and polymorphously perverse European party-goers is now gone. Indeed, the Greek cosmopolitans are almost indistinguishable from the other visitors. I usually preferred to visit Paros or Naxos, or even eerie tourist- and antiquities-free Syros. Swam alongside a snorkeler who speared four big octopuses, and he spoke English as poorly as I do modern Greek now.

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