Saturday, 11 August 2012

What there is to seek

Sailing around the Greek Islands, I always felt the need to explore more than just the beaches and bars that each destination had to offer. While I don't regret the beaches visited or the bar we drank in, the Greek islands meant far more.

They were a connection with the past, not just with the world of the Ancient Greeks, but with my own past, with the myths I'd read though-out my childhood and with the events I'd studied in depth through my final years of school. I knew the legends of Thera, the volcanic tourist destination who had blown it's top and possibly wiped out civilisation on Crete. I knew of the island where Theseus dumped Ariadne having decided she was of no further use and where Dionysus fell in love and married her. The cave where Zeus was hidden upon birth to save him from his cannibalistic father. And of the floating island where Apollo was born before it became the seat of the Delian League.

Before we started out we said goodbye to Bodrum, A Turkish town of what was once Asia Minor, where it held the prestigious name of Halicarnassus and boasted home of two great daughters. Both Artemisia, the first evaded capture by the Greeks and it was of her that Xerxes said 'My men have become women and my women men.' The second was wife of Mausolus and upon his dead drank his ashes and finished the building of his tomb, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus.

On Kos, mosaics lie, intriguing though they are, unprotected from the wind and sand and so appear as though they're filmed with dust. So soft and faded they tempt a bath to rinse away the dust, but under greater photographic contrast spring to life and properly show the intensity of their colours and allow an appreciation of their intricate beauty.

The plane tree under which Hippocrates taught (Kos). (Don't spoil the legend by stating that plane trees only live 200 years, for if anything this is at least a direct descendent.

Homer's grave (Ios) where visitors construct their own tribute, rocks piled high to guard the eminent site while below waves crash against the deserted coastline.

The fresh-water Aria Spring (Naxos) upon the trail to the cave in Mt Zas where Zeus remained hidden through his childhood. Where views remind you of the majesty of the undulating mountains that frame the vista out to sea.

Thera - now known as Santorini where the town of Thira perches on the cliff face overlooking the canyon at her feet and the rising volcano before her.

What once was one round island is now the splintered edge where life stretches out balanced on the precipice to end in splendour at one point with the sunset town of Oia (pronounced 'ere).

And when the sun sinks into the sea, Thira springs to life anew, its cliff-face disappearing beneath a twinkle of lights before slipping into the inky blackness of the night.

On Naxos first stop is the Portara on the coast where photos of the sunset peeping through the doorway are de rigueur.  It is sad and yet also impressive that this doorway is all that remains of the ancient temple that stood on this site.

In ancient marble quarries (Naxos), rough-cut and broken Kouroi lie fallen from their pedestal as they have for so many hundred years. They're cracked or shattered and could no longer fill their purpose. And so they remain, waiting for tourists to stumble through the undergrowth in search of just such fallen giants.

When the sailing ended, I still needed to visit Delos - I was in that part of the world after all and it seemed a pity to bypass the opportunity. This was the home of the Delian League, the contemporary league of city states of the known world uniting under Athens against the invading Persians. It had been of monumental importance so to be able to stand there and remember all I'd learnt...

With the solemn majesty of the Avenue of the Lions, you could imagine a glimmer of the power and energy a centre like this would create. Now, in the high of summer, the dead grasses brushed against your bare legs and the weeds looked tempted to provide the expected tumble weeds blowing across the agora.

Instead of seeing before me the island's historical importance politically and culturally, (it required too much imagination) I was at least able to see the superb but faded mosaics opened to the elements, that recorded not just the stories of the gods who dabbled in these lives, but also the skill of the craftsmen who ensured the vivacity of their creations lasted the test of time.

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