Halfway between long barrow and Temple of Ra, the Myceanan Tholos is the perfect place to witness the achievements of the ancient Middle East as they inch their way into Europe. For this very reason what we know of it’s rich decoration — zigzags and other motifs in bright colours and decorative stones – is instructive; yet what survives is gargantuanly well cut passage into a massive geometrically fierce door within a massive artificial mound, hard on the hillfort acropolis between its twin hills, overlooking the fertile plain.
It’s closed, so I leap the fence, and find myself faced alone by this hammer-first walkway, and alone again in the colossal dark dome — once bright with bronzes — within. A stamp on the floor makes sharp echoes crack all around me: and shocks something else into life. Within seconds the shadow-filled space is filled with a single-minded buzzsaw burr, its ferocity amplified by its own echo, and I stand transfixed — and then leave with quiet rapidity — for the silent space has filled with swarming bees.
So here I am, in the third of three great ancient cities that run in a line along the north side of the (eastern) Mediterranean. How do they compare?
Rome is a grand and crumbling beau,ty, in which three successive empires – ancient Rome, the medieval western Church, and its successor, at once emboldened by its worldwide spread and threatened in its European homeland – sit, essentially, on top of each other: Baroque church fronts reveal early Christian interiors, amphitheatres turned into squares, great crumbling fingers of past power pushed into lambretti-buzz of the layered and stone-fronted present.,
Istanbul is, in it’s way, more extraordinary still: firstly for the landform, which would make any city-planner pause for breath, as Eurasia gazes at itself across its own watery seperations. Here the discontinuities are again more striking, and more thrilling: pagan Rome-moved-east Contantinople is supplanted by Christian Byantium and replaced in turn by Ottoman Istanbul. Though the first two of these are at least historically interconnected, Rome is virtually a continuum by contrast. Mighty works echo and dome from each other even as they crush their predecessor: corners of the forum hulking over the mosques, Hagia Sophia and Sinan gazing at each other in dull-eyed competitive respect, Greek inscriptions echoing to the mezzuin. Perhaps nowhere else embodies the Mediterrenan story in all its restless completeness.
And Athens? Athens is a once-great city, for a few decades the first epicentre of everything noble about human culture… that spent the ensuing centuries fading, and then made a too-rapid comeback into Europe’s poorest capital city. By the late Ottoman era it was a backwater, a large village of houses clustered round its pock-marked rock; even today the charm of Plaki turns into concrete boulevards of modernity at every turn. One can see why so much of the intervening millennium or two has been stripped away, but it lends an odd hollowness to the result. The elegant pillared temple on the rock is also a battered stump, stripped of mosque and church, hacked at by Johnny-come-latelies from Venice and London.
Yet nothing can take away from that first achievement, nor the extraordinary sense that other later occupiers – Hadrian, Suleyman – respected what they found. Indeed the greatness of that achievement rather shoots itself in its foot: because they wrote it into literature, we forget that this mythology was also a faith; because they made it proportionally so elegant, and imparted and invented so much of Reason; and history then buried and stripped it of paint and stain, we forget that these were bright painted backdrops to the steaming mess of sacrifice and feast; and also bank vaults, war-treasuries of the goddess. And both modern and ancient Athens conspire to make us overlook the most extraordinary thing of all: what the first sight of the primeval rock much have been like; this great cave-gouged, sheer-sided boulder, foiled by steep and lesser hills, filled with sweet springs, guarding like some imperious goddess the fertile plain around, with its wild olives and its orange trees, inhabited by a terrifying woman and her owls, ready to burst its striking, elegant temples on the world with the eloquence of a lady who has wrested the city from the sea.
There is something shamanic about what we do: this total-pyschic fall and drive into the past, this urge to connect with beings who are gone. It’s dressed up in words and citations, it wears a mask of science, but something primal lurks among the book stacks.
Merlin chases an eight-legged pig through the classmarks. Handlebar-moustachioed British archaeologists wreck the Great Stupa of Sanchi. Alexander and his griffins land on the Kaba, catch their cycling shorts on the crockets of St Mary Redcliffe.
Mark Fairburn is a photographer (with whom last night I shared a pleasant pint) whose private project has been this amazing series of images:
I can’t think of any images that have taken the architectural miracle that is the medieval rib vault and made it look as fresh and contemporary as this. Watch and be amazed!