When it comes to a winter break in Europe, it isn’t easy to decide where to go. Though Grand Tourists made it seem like Italy was always sunny and warm—“a beaker full of the warm south”—the Mediterranean is not really the perfect place to winter. The real truth is that most of the European Mediterranean countries are cold and rainy during the winter months. As Rosina Bulwer Lytton, the young wife of the (in)famous parliamentarian and author Edward, wrote while on a miserable honeymoon in Italy during the winter of 1833, “Poets ought to be strangled for all the lies they have told about this country.” Granted she had more reasons than the rain and cold to be unhappy on her honeymoon, but she was not wrong about the weather.
I was lucky a couple of weeks ago during a brief trip to Athens, when the weather was glorious and sunny. It had been many years since I was in Athens, and I have to admit, I was not sure what to expect. In the intervening years, the capital has mainly been in the news for less than positive reasons: austerity induced financial and political upheaval, anxiety around the migrant crisis, and national protests against the official recognition of the name of country that borders the north, The Republic of North Macedonia.
Athenians strike me as a bit like Romans; theirs is a passionate, ancient culture that has pretty much seen everything, so while they both deserve better from their political leaders, they also manage to get on with their daily lives with a certain world-weary pleasure. Una faccia una razza—one face one race—as the saying goes.
Unlike Rome, though, the antiquity of Athens doesn’t spring from the stones beneath one’s feat as much as it floats dreamily on high. The breath-taking Acropolis, with its elegant outline of the Parthenon, is never far from one’s sight line, always pulling the attention upward. But no matter where you are in the city, the sweep of horizon is ruled by the city’s patron goddess. Even Mount Lycabettus, the highest point in Athens, was said to be created by Athena when she got bad news from a raven and dropped a limestone mountain she was carrying for use in the construction of the Acropolis. There is a cable car to the top, where you can visit the small chapel dedicated to Saint George, and the restaurant bar has an astonishing view of the entire city, across the Acropolis all the way past the port at Piraeus to the Aegean islands bobbing in the harbor.
The Acropolis itself, now swarmed by tourists and university student groups on the modern incarnation of the Grand Tour, remains mysteriously evocative. The majesty of the site survives even narcissistick-toting crowds, but on a sunny weekend in mid-January, when the tourists are few and far between, one can’t help but feel a sense of chain lightening. There is a distinct charge from the historical connections made down through history that originated on this very spot, and there forms a deep love for the goddess of wisdom and for the people who chose her and her olive tree over Poseidon and his salty spring.
When I was here nine years ago, the Acropolis Museum was closed because of a strike, so a visit there was the main objective on this trip. The museum, like the Parthenon it faces, is a balance of strength and beauty, glass and steel in conversation with the ancients. The upper floor is a mathematical reflection of the Parthenon, and the lack of monumental sculptures at the pediments is a silent rebuke to Lord Elgin. Those who argue that the Parthenon marbles should not be returned to Greece simply need to stand there and be silent and look from the empty space through the windows to the Parthenon. From there one can see how they worked with the temple itself. In Athens, there is a sensual connection between the sculptures and their architectural and historical home that the grey neoclassical hall at the British Museum can never make up for.
Despite the current debates surrounding Elgin’s looting of the Parthenon marbles, the literature of the time was unequivocal. One British historian Robert Holland—rather problematically-- writes, “It was one thing to arrange the acquisition of paintings from an Italian gallery, or to seize stone hieroglyphics in Egypt, but another to remove large portions of ancient Greek temples.” The difference eludes me, but the fact is, even in 1801, the act of prying friezes and sculptures off the temple with a crowbar and the contingent damage as they smashed to ground and were hoisted onto carts and manhandled to the port was deeply disturbing, even to the British who witnessed it. Robert Smirk witnessed it and recorded the injured spirit of the temple. Edward Dodwell expressed his “inexpressible mortification” as he witnessed the destruction and recorded the “shattered desolation” of the temple in the aftermath of Elgin’s “conservation.” Elgin’s team was as unpopular in Athens then as his legacy is today, and Byron’s cri de coeur on behalf of the “maimed antiquities” that would end up in country houses in England and Scotland continues to ring true. Whatever one’s feeling, the recent Guardian article by Jonathon Jones that suggests Elgin’s act was “creative,” is laughable. However, it goes beyond laughable when he argues that the cultural patrimony of ancient Greece somehow does not belong to the modern Greeks any more than the study of mathematics and philosophy does. It was not “an act of reverence” that put the Parthenon marbles in the British Museum, but an act of theft and then of economic desperation by the nearly bankrupt Elgin who sold them to British government. Byron was right, as he nearly always was, when he threw Elgin under the bus in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers for making his “grand saloon a general mart/ For all the mutilated blocks of art.”
For sheer poetic beauty, the ancient Agora of Classical Athens suggests the daily life of Athenians at the foot of Acropolis, as well as the Roman Agora and Hadrian’s gate with the double-sided inscription. On the west side of the gate, facing the acropolis, it reads: “This is Athens the Ancient City of Theseus”—and on the east side: “This is the City of Hadrian and Not of Theseus”! The Museum of Cycladic Art, the Benaki Museum, and the Byzantine and Christian Museum all contain the history of the western world writ small. You can witness the unobserved corners of history, as well as the grand narratives of empire: Roman, Christianity, Eastern Orthodox, and Ottoman.
It is good to be reminded of the rise and fall of powerful empires. It reminds us where we fit in history and that we are not the first to experience decline, violence, loss of faith, the hollowing out of a once noble idea. More importantly, though, it reminds us of the resilience of people, and their imagination and potential for creativity and beauty. Virginia Woolf, with her usual trenchancy, noted in 1925 that in times of horrific historic change, we should look to the Greeks. Noting a sympathy with nature, which is powerfully evident in the ruins of the Greek Agora and Acropolis, Woolf suggested that ancient Greek culture was “even more aware than we are of the ruthlessness of fate”--quite an observation in the aftermath of WWI. That awareness of fate, for her at least, did not seem to paralyze the spirit but gave it strength to endure. She concludes her essay in the Common Reader, “it is to the Greeks that we turn when we are sick of the vagueness, of the confusion, of the Christianity and its consolations, of our own age.”
Unfortunately, I had to cut my visit a bit short, as the hotel staff advised an early departure due to protests in Syntagma Square of the parliament’s decision to recognize the name of The Republic of North Macedonia. As it turned out, thousands of people filled the square to protest the name change in a gathering that was far from peaceful. My taxi was one of the last to leave before all the streets were closed around the square. From my house in Rome, I watched the news eagerly, wondering what the next chapter would be in the history of this ancient, ageless, beautiful city.