Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A Promontory Above the Aegean

Athens. If you were to ask me what I remember most about our visit to the capital of Greece, I would say, our tour guide, Chrysa, a young woman, full of energy, enthusiasm, and information about her country, who was waiting for us in a long white sun dress as we left the boat, bright and early on that Wednesday. “How are you enjoying your trip, by far?” she asked us as we began to board the tour bus, demonstrating the difficulty in mastering the bewildering range of English language idioms and expressions.
It turns out that Barbara had been here before, right where our bus was parked. When she made her first trip to Israel in 1967, the ship she was on (that’s right, she went to Israel on a ship; you can’t easily do that today) stopped at Pireus, the Athens port, at two o’clock in the morning. There was just enough time to notice all the seedy bars lining the docks, in case one had a sudden, irresistible urge for a shot of Arak. There were, in fact, several others in our AACI group who had been here around that time, all of whom had the identical reaction. There are no more seedy watering-holes anywhere in sight. The bus was driving through a modern city area which didn’t exist forty years ago. I mention this for a reason. At times, we get so carried away with the physical development which has taken place in Israel during this time span, that we forget the fact that large parts of the world have done the same thing. Not everywhere; in fact there are plenty of places which seem to be worse off now than then. Still, we needn’t fracture our wrists patting ourselves on the back. Consider that the Greek government decided to renovate the one existing subway line in Athens and two construct two new ones in time for the 2004 Olympic games; they started in 2000, with the ensuing discomfort throughout the city; but the work was completed on time. You can look it up on the Internet and see how extensive it is. And then you can contemplate what is euphemistically called ‘The Light Rail’ here in Jerusalem (remembering that the word kal in Hebrew means ‘light’ as well as ‘easy’). It would, of course, be impossible to build a transportation system underground here; in addition to the authentic religious and historical objects that would be dug up and would need to be investigated, no doubt, somewhere along the way, a dog would bury a chicken bone, and certain people would start to riot when it was uncovered. At least the present mayor, whatever his limitations, is taking steps to make certain the Light Rail project gets done in our lifetime (you can actually see men working now, instead of the ghost town atmosphere that prevailed before), and we have reason to feel confident that the wrong tracks won’t be laid, or the right tracks laid upside down, as happened before because the previous administration (David Dinkins, where are you?) provided no oversight. Still, I think it’s fair to wonder why the Israeli government can’t compete with the Greeks in building mass transportation; the completion of the complementary rail link from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem seems to be at least five years away.
To be fair, there are other areas in which the Greek government seems surprisingly incompetent whereas we here in Israel shine. Both of our guides, in their own way, mentioned how lackadaisical their government was in providing funds for maintaining and restoring historical sites. As we rode around the city, we were appalled at the amount of graffiti we saw, not just in out of the way or rundown areas, but on important government buildings, huge black and white scrawls left over from large-scale protests months before. (Sort of reminded me of the pre-Giuliani days in New York.) It would be difficult to imagine anybody having the leisure to apply spray paint to the exterior of a public building in Israel. And if that unlikely event occurred, I’m confident that it would be cleaned up with the same speed and attention as they give to cleaning up after a terrorist attack. And for the same reason, which I trust you understand, without my having to over-explain the value of a government creating the appearance of normalcy.
One of my two conflicting impressions of Athens, as seen from my seat on a bus, was that I could have been anywhere. There were streets that we passed by, especially in the center of the city, where the signs in the shops, especially their logos, were mostly in English. And the young people walking by were dressed exactly as they would have been anywhere in any big city in Europe or The States. In other words, we were passing through that well-known multi-national town, Upscaleville, a place with no geographical boundaries.
Then the bus would turn a corner, and one would see that we were in a great capital of the ancient world, an impression reinforced by Chrysa’s on-going commentary. For placed on sites obviously selected for their significance and visibility, the remains of the ancient temples and shrines on which the Greeks of antiquity lavished so much attention are still visible today. And not just the major sites. Insofar as our tiyul was going to last all day, Carole Cremer had arranged to have box lunches for us. The bus stopped and we all disembarked, taking our lunches with us to eat wherever we could find a place to park our bodies. Barbara and I wound up sitting on the steps of some minor government building, leaving enough room for people to come and go around us. When we were finished eating, we took a little walk through an area which catered to tourists. As we walked through the side streets, we came upon a number of ancient shrines that were just there. I don’t think that they were even labeled as such. On the other hand, across the main street where our bus had parked stood the remains of a temple to Zeus, which you could see for blocks away. We didn’t have time to walk around the perimeter fence – at least fifty yards from the ruins – to the entrance and pay the admission fee to go inside, so I took a few photographs from outside.
From everything we saw and from what Chrysa was saying, it was clear that, I can’t say avodah zara (idol worshipping), but the knowledge of avodah zara was definitely alive in Greece. If you were a boy or girl in Athens, and you kept passing these large ruins, sooner or later you would discover what their original purpose was and to whom – namely, Athena, Zeus, Poseidon and the rest of the cast of characters, and sooner or later you would learn how these pagan gods interfaced with Greek history. So while actual idolatry was wiped out here in The Land a long time ago, its memory lingers on in today’s Christian Greece. I was discussing this matter with some of my colleagues on the cruise. The point I was making was that I didn’t think that this fascination with pagan gods existed with so much vigor in northern Europe, and, surprisingly, no one challenged me on this point (usually someone will challenge you regardless of what you say). About a week or two after we returned, I picked up a book which Natania had borrowed from our Maale Adumim library (which exists thanks to Bnei Zion, and has material in Hebrew, English, French, and Russian) entitled “Vienna Blood” by Frank Tallis, volume two of his “The Liebermann Papers,” a series of historical, psychological detective stories set in Vienna at the turn of the (20th) century – highly recommended if this genre suits you. The novel plunges you into the bizarre neo-paganism of Guido (von) List, who promoted his concept of the sun worship which he claimed was the original Germanic religion. It hit me like a bolt out of the blue: the straight and narrow path from Wagner’s Ring Cycle to the la-la land of Von List to the Aryan supremacy of those-whose-names-must-be-blotted-out. For while it is not true that every pagan is a Nazi; it is pretty much true that every Nazi was in some way a pagan. Von List wrote about himself that, when he was fourteen, he accompanied his father ( a faithful Roman Catholic) down to the catacombs beneath a cathedral in Vienna. At a certain point, far below the ground, they came upon the ruins of a pagan altar; at which point, something came over Von List and he proclaimed "Whenever I get big, I will build a Temple to Wotan!" Guys! This could be a movie, a bad one at that. Somebody playing a villain in the next Batman sequel coming to a theater near you next summer. How about Danny Devito hiding in an underground sewer, planning to destroy all of Gotham City and turn it into a theme park dedicated to the downfall of Batman. There is a certain irony here in the real life version: worshipping the sun inside a catacomb. I guess there is some truth to the notion that evil thrives in the absence of light.
The ancient Greeks did no such thing. They worshipped their pagan gods on the highest hills in their sun-drenched land, usually overlooking the incredible blue of the Aegean. They let in so much light that ultimately their gods, like anything left out in the sun too long, faded away, leaving behind only the incredible beauty of the buildings. There are few man-made things more splendid than The Acropolis (many Greek communities had an acropolis, but only Athens had The Acropolis (acropolis, by the way, means the edge of the city). Now someone out there, in a fit of patriotism, is going to say, “Wait a minute. We know that there was nothing more beautiful than Bayit Sheini (the second temple); our sages tell us so.” Fair enough. The edifice under discussion is the one that Herod built. Does anyone actually imagine that this madman took a hiatus from murdering his sons long enough to dream up the idea that if he built a retaining wall, and he set back each successive row of stones two centimeters, the wall would appear to be straight and not give the sense that it was going to topple over? He had the absolute authority, the managerial skills, the wealth, and the manpower to build all that he did. But none of the geometry came from his own warped mind. Think of the Greeks, perhaps filtered through the Romans.
The Acropolis is on a promontory five hundred feet high. The bus left us off on the paved road at the bottom, leaving us to walk up the well-worn and very slippery stone steps to get to the top. Nowhere near as steep as the footpath up to Masada, for example, but daunting enough for the senior members of our group. There are about twenty original buildings clumped together in a few acres, leading me to believe that this may have been the world’s first theme park, Pagan Promenade, thousands of years before anybody thought of shopping malls or food courts. Their original slogan may have been, “Give Every Deity His Due.” With that many buildings, you can do a lot of serious idolatry.
During our stay up there, Chrysa was busy explaining what we were looking at. I didn’t catch too much of what she was saying; I was off on my own photographing. There was one point near the beginning when I saw an excellent composition, but I needed to be where I wasn’t supposed to be to take it. What the heck. We had come this far, and it would be a long time, if ever, before I returned here. It wasn’t as if I would be jumping into an enclosure with a family of orangutans or doing anything as stupid as that. I just needed to be at a vantage point where they didn’t want me to be. I slipped over the restraining rope, and quickly but unobtrusively zipped over to the spot where I could tell I needed to be, got down on my knees, and was able to take one digital image. “Stay behind the barrier. Stay behind the barrier,” over a loudspeaker (incidentally, in excellent English). I got up and walked back to where I was supposed to be. I got my shot.
Much of what I was looking at was the serendipitous piling of stones and pillars, placed there for sorting and cataloging. At long last, the new Acropolis Museum is open, and perhaps some of the stuff piled on the ground will get to be on display. One needed to have ordered tickets in advance on the Internet to get in, so that was that. We weren’t going to get in. One of the main reasons for the new museum was to provide a final resting place for the so-called Elgin Marbles, named after Robert Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin, who, perhaps with the permission of the Ottoman Turks – who themselves had no rights to them – walked off with dozens of statues from all over the Acropolis as well as 250 feet of a frieze that was originally in the Parthenon, quantitatively the largest art heist in recorded history. (Elgin was a partisan of the ‘Finders Keepers, Losers Weepers’ school of archaeology.) Of course there was precedent for this pillaging. Think ‘Arch of Titus.’ (Another scenario for a movie: the Israeli government believes it has located the golden menorah and the other sacred vessels from the Temple hidden in a vault five hundred feet beneath the Vatican. Two stalwart Mossadniks, Micha Bar-Am and Michael Schwartz, played by [you pick ‘em] are sent on a mission to retrieve them. The Vatican would never be able to protest, because they would have to admit they had these sacred objects all along.)
I returned to our group, and Barbara whispered to me that Chrysa had just finished explaining that the Parthenon was constructed without any right angles. I responded, “Just like our apartment.” In the section where we are currently living in Maale Adumim (for another three weeks), every person got to build his own house, which made everyone his own architect and space planner, resulting in the most bizarre home designs you could ever imagine. There are, in fact, no right angles on any of the walls in this apartment; but this occurred because of sheer incompetence, unlike the Parthenon, where they used asymmetry to create an illusion of perfect symmetry. When I stood still for a minute to look at this, the best known building on the Acropolis, I was able to envision dozens of other buildings I had seen for which this was the paradigm, some well known, and some less so, like the old white court house in Owego NY or what had been the Mount Eden Jewish Center near the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. I think it is fair to say that Western architecture had its origins here on this promontory five hundred feet above the Aegean.
Unfortunately, one has to look at the Parthenon through the cranes and other objects in the background. It was not clear to me what exactly what was being done here. Perhaps they were trying to rebuild part of the original structure? Or perhaps they were trying to find away to limit the damage from pollution – a problem which they are having as well in Rome.
At some point, I began thinking of comparable efforts at archaeological digging and restoration here in The Land, sites in which work has been going on for many years, like Masada, where not only have they done a marvelous job of reconstruction, but they created a visitors center AND a cable car to the top, or the City of David, where they keep finding stuff wherever they dig. Recently, I was doing a little research about the Acropolis on the web, and I came across this fascinating bit of information: the Parthenon had been turned once into a Byzantine church, and then into a mosque under the Ottomans. My brain began working in overdrive, and something occurred to me. First of all, a better comparison for The Acropolis, the epicenter of Greek idolatry would have to be, for us, The Temple Mount, the epicenter of monotheism. And consider how easy the Greeks have it today. No one is saying that because The Parthenon was once a mosque, it has to remain one today. Nobody, not the Turks, the Italians, the Germans, the Arabs, especially the Arabs, is claiming sovereignty over this promontory. There are no raucous voices, from within and without the nation, that this area doesn’t belong to the Greeks. No one is squatting there; no one is endangering the integrity of the site by doing illegal digging. Any Greek, any visitor can go up there without impediment. I imagine that if there are any devotees of Athena or Zeus lurking around, they could utter whatever words they might want to utter to their gods without being harassed or arrested. I could go on and on, but I trust you get the point.
There is more to say about this city and the rest of our journey, but that will have to wait until the next installment.

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