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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Of Time and Tides

A recent trip to Athens, Crete and Cycladic islands of Greece had been on my bucket list for some time. As I like to do when travelling I chose a book to read during the trip that offered some historic context. Nothing seemed more appropriate than to re-read Homer’s Odyssey, which I had last struggled with in my 10th grade Greek class. I had not enjoyed Homer’s occasional lapses into purple prose, and long recitations on the ancestry of gods, kings, and heroes, but decided to read a translation by T.E. Shaw, the pseudonym used by T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia.

It proved the right choice. I used it as a kind of ancient travelogue, although some place names required diligent research to identify their present identity. But no study was needed to imagine the story even in a contemporary setting. Homer was writing around 735 BC about events that transpired 400-500 years before his day—legends or history, if you will, he gleaned from stories he had heard. He was neither a soldier, seafarer or historian, as was Lawrence, but he was an artful storyteller, and that story came alive for me in Lawrence’s translation as I stood on the ground he had described.

You have probably seen photos or drawings of the Parthenon but to see it in the flesh, so to speak, standing atop the Acropolis with the wide harbor and shadowy mountains that lie behind framing the scene was transformative. In my mind’s eye the modern structures that crowd around the shore were banished and I could imagine Homer's black hulled ships their oars flashing in cadence as they confronted this sight for the very first time.

It was made all the more poignant for me by a fellow traveler, a woman who had survived a crippling cancer that made walking without a cane nearly impossible. She had hoped to make use of an elevator designed to assist those with handicaps to avoid the steepest portion of the climb but as luck would have it a bad rainstorm the night before had disabled the lift as well as the ticket readers at the entrance. Most of us confronted with that dilemma would probably have forfeited, especially as the line of visitors waiting to gain entrance was backed up a quarter mile. But my new friend quietly insisted that she had dreamt of this moment for too many years to forego it and so, slowly and with some pauses along the way, we made our way to the top.

The pauses proved a boon. It allowed us to avoid the crush of tourists and reflect on what we were seeing—as well as what we weren’t. Stripped of so much of the statuary and artifacts that Lord Elgin pillaged –which now are ensconced in the British Museum and ravaged by an explosion in the late 1600’s AD during the Venetian war the remnants of the modern-day temple are still arresting. It isn’t that hard to envision the structure and its surrounding temples in the 5th century BC when Athens was the seat of the Delian league and the dominant seat of power in ancient Greece. For my friend, gaining that summit and standing before the temple was a personal triumph, a goal hard won, and we were privileged to share in her achievement.

I cite this moment among so many others because most are familiar with the Acropolis, but almost anywhere one turns in Greece there are vivid reminders of this seat of our civilization – fragments of temples and palaces, reflections of conquests and architectural remnants of the Roman, Venetian, and Moorish rulers, that as one of our guides put it, are the layers of a wedding cake archaeologists have painstakingly uncovered and restored, revealing a sophistication and ingenuity that is quite astounding. To be in this place that gave birth to science, medicine, philosophy, the arts even the roots of democracy, all as we know it today is humbling. And nowhere was this more evident than in the Akrotiri of Fira or as it is now known, Santorini, and at the palace of Knossos in Heraklion on the island of Crete.

Many who visit Santorini, come for the iconic blue domes and white -washed cliff dwellings of Oia. But Santorini is much more than tourist infested alleys of jewelry shops restaurants and souvenir stands, it is the home of the Minoans—the precursor peoples supplanted by the Myceneans, the forefathers of the ancient Greeks following the destruction of Fira’s volcano in 1600 BC. That explosion dispersed the fledgling population to Crete and the Greek mainland and set in motion events far from its epicenter. The bronze age Akrotiri site reveals a prehistoric city buried under volcanic ash that has been patiently uncovered since the late 1960’s, and that site along with the even more ancient neolithic settlement at Knossos are the literal cradle of western civilization.

Houses and public buildings three stories high with walls of stone three meters thick, sophisticated plumbing and water systems, remnants of frescoes depicting men and women of the period, and furnishings and goods cast in plaster from fire and ash remnants tell the story of a matriarchal society, traders, farmers, and seafarers, distant ancestors of Odysseus, Agamemnon and Achilles, of Socrates, Hippocratus, and Archimedes. Unlike Pompei, Akotiri is bereft of bodies caught by the sudden eruption of the volcano that left Santorini a sea filled caldera, forever transformed by its violence. The Minoans evacuated their island home in advance of the final eruption. They were well aware of the fickleness of the gods. But they left behind a remnant of a vibrant civilization far advanced beyond our imagining.

Without question, however, the most compelling site of all I visited was the palace of Knossos, the oldest known European settlement dating back some 9,000 years to the neolithic period. Artifacts of the period housed in a museum in the nearby modern city of Iraklion tell the story of a farming village that occupied the surrounding slopes and during the later neolithic period around 5000 BC built stone houses with squared off corners, timbered doors and window frames--some with as many as eight rooms, and made pottery, and household furnishings from clay and wood. These ancestors of the Minoans appear to have had an evolved society, with public buildings, decorative arts and perhaps the presence of a temple or palace. While symbols of an ancient language written on clay tablets and wooden plaques remain to be deciphered archaeologists are reasonably certain they record trading accounts, inventories and a census—outlines of a civilization far beyond our assumptions about the culture of that time period.

The palace of Knossos built adjacent and in some cases on top of the neolitihic settlement dates to around 2,000 BC. Its design and architectural sophistication are extraordinary. It is surrounded by hills and small mountains, one of which, Kephala, houses a water tower at its summit that fed water from natural springs 10 km away by means of an aqueduct through a series of terracotta pipes to the palace and surrounding land. This alone, an extraordinary achievement prefigures the waterworks of ancient Rome by thousands of years. It features a coupling design that, amazingly, is still in use today, and a parallel sewage system that funneled waste down the hills into the sea. It's walls, columns, and chambers are vast and clearly engineered from well conceived plans; nothing of its design is haphazard.

It is also home to the famous Labyrinth of the Minotaur that legend says was designed by Deadalus at the behest of the king or Minos. Legend also tells us that Theseus entered the Labyrinth to fight the bull headed monster, the son of Minos, with the aid of a ball of thread given him by Minos’ daughter, Ariadne, in order to find his way back. Latter day archaeologists surmise that the design was actually employed to prevent entrance to the apartments of the chief occupants, the king and consort or priest and priestess that presided over the surrounding lands and shield them from assassination or theft. The multi-level maze of dead ends, tiny doorways and windowless rooms that can be seen quite clearly today brings the legend starkly to life, especially if one imagines a fantastic monster lurking in the darkness of its corridors.

The bull-headed creature undoubtedly was inspired by the prominent role bulls played in the Minoan culture. Bulls represented wealth and we know from Homer and other writings they were often sacrificed to appease the ancient gods. Statuary in the palace, depictions in frescoes and artifacts rendered in gold and precious stone reflect the importance of the bull in this culture and display a rite of passage that Minoans faced at their coming of age, vaulting the bull. In fact, our contemporary expression, seizing the bull by its horns, apparently owes its origins to the practice and suggests the tradition was intended to demonstrate the cunning and strength needed to grab a bull by its horns and vault over its back without being gored.

The royal road, a stone paved causeway that joined the nearby port with the palace is the oldest known throughway—a precursor to the Roman roads built centuries later and a terraced theater echoes the stadiums and theaters we associate with Sophocles the Olympic games and political arenas 1600 years hence. Despite a devastating fire caused by the same earthquake that followed the eruption of Fira’s volcano and subsequent ravages during the Venetian period, much of the palace design is intact revealing columns built of inverted cypress trees with pediments plastered and painted in a distinctive ochre that was also used in the palace interiors and pathways. We can also observe breezeways designed to capture offshore winds and cool interior rooms, and a fully preserved throne room with the carbonized remains of the original throne, decorative Griffins flanking its seat.

Although Minos translates to King in the linear-B language of the latter-day Minoans, the curved seat of the throne and symbols of fertility below it echo the matriarchal culture we saw at Akrotiri, while a lustral basin outside the room suggest both ritual cleansing and the presence of a priest or more likely, priestess. Clearly Knossos was far more than the home of an ancient ruler, but rather the center of a dynastic civilization that predates Athens, Sparta, Troy and Rome itself.

Knossos is separated from the Roman empire by more than 1900 years but the true mystery is how so many innovations credited to the Romans were first implemented by the Minoans apparently forgotten and reinvented nearly two thousand years later. Mentioned by both Herodotus and Thucydides in their ‘histories’, Knossos was undoubtedly a powerful center of civilization, what Herodotus called a thalassocracy or sea empire that he claimed cleared the seas of pirates, established colonies on many of the Aegean islands, and was a prominent seat of trade. All this before the flowering of ancient Greece and the rise of the west as we know it.

Nikola Tesla said that “all is ebb and tide, all a wave”. If nothing else this trip reminded me that the wave is never ending but an endless repetition on itself. We can only wonder what generations thousands of years in the future will make of our present times, whether they will marvel at our innovations or tell a tale of societal decline. History it is said is ours to write–but we might well ask what our ancestors will say of our day?

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