Memories fade and crumple, but my single day’s descent into deep Greek island landscapes lasts strong. It began in a village where even the roads where flagged in white marble, high and cold on a mountain ridge, from which an ancient marble road descended down a long and increasingly deserted valley. Farmed at first – olive, oak, barking dogs, thick scents of thyme, oregano, basil – the valley became increasingly barren, but the path stretched on. After a solid hour it had rounded several bare hills and was approaching a knoll overlooking a deep gulf that led out towards the island-sea; and there, by a farmhouse surrounded by goats, was a tiny bare church, naked of whitewash, camouflaged by age, merely an outcrop, though once clearly just off an important route.
Inside is bare, almost skeletal; the wind moves with quiet warmth. A narthex, an aisle, a nave and apsed chancel seperated by a dome; and fading, barely clinging to the element-open walls, frescoes that date back to the eigth century, aniconic frescos that would have covered the interior in geometric patterning, animals, vegetal motifs, anything that could not be interpreted as a human image.
And then the climb back, and now up, to a knoll of limestone that rose like a sheer knuckle from the island floor; from a distant utterly bare and inaccessible, except for the tiny white pimple of a little church.
In fact a broad road encircles and climbs, suggesting access is required reasonably readily; and the naked limestone close-up is awash with mountain flowers. But the wind beats so hard here I can barely stand up, and corvied nesting below rise and wheel in alarm and the mad approaching Englishman. Chamomile is snatched away as soon as scented.
Finally, barely crawling over the naked stone, the church rears in front of me. The mountain top has been flattened, save a rocky knoll for this chapel to cling to. A bell on a frame. A door of hard gloss blue, a white dome so small and geometrical you could Tardis it away.
A push, and it is open. Tiny icons, tiny iconastasis, candles, wicks, oil and matches. But the wind is shaking the mountain top with near-tectonic force, and this tiny white throat-like interior seems to groan and echo with something from far down and far below. And can these stone walls three feet thick really be vibrating?
Greece, of course, presents insights galore: as a non-specialist viewer who is going to have to write about this stuff before the end of the year, both are crucial.
First – moving backwards in time – there is Greece’s Christian heritage. More than anything else, the experience of being in the homeland of ‘Greek’ orthodoxy is a forceful reminder of how the world looks from the faith’s heartland. For exampe, and in spite of Rome’s crucial role in the faith’s early years, Catholicism as we know it — let alone the various Protestantisms and Nonconformisms that have happened since — is a johnny-come-lately compared to this. Nowhere else is the New Testament in its first form also the vernacular; nowhere else is Kyrie Eleison, and much else, more than an exotic-sounding incantation. Not only does this version of the faith go back as close to its roots as any (give or take a Syriac or a Copt or two), but it has comparitively speaking changed comparitively little since its inception. Attendance at an Orthodox mass is not an experience of C3 or C4 Christianity — but it is certainly relevant to understanding that of, say, the C8 or the C9, and the culture from which the western Christian world grew, and which was a continuum with what (for example) Anglo-Saxon religion looked like.
Most astonishing, in this respect, is the density of the ‘popular’ sacred landscape. It is not unusual to see five, six, or more small churches, chapel or shrines in a patch of now-depopulated countryside much smaller than the average English parish; they presumably have developed through complex accretion of two thousand years of unbroken development; one may have parochial status, another have been founded as a burial chapel, a third be associated with a well or rock of cultic significance. Often they are tiny, perched on dramatic hilltops, nestling in hollows. A great many replaced or reused classical temples, and there may well be continuities of holy places, too: such claims, we should remember, while easily contested here in Britain, are less so in a place whose paganism (unlike ours) we know much about, and which was perfectly alive and well when the new cult from Palestine was officialised.
Much medieval practise is alive, too. Roadside shrines, maintained (presumably) by an invisible army of black-clad old ladies, dot every road we drive down, often more frequently than emergency telephones on an English motorway; some are old and neglected, but others are brand new — you can pick up a two-foot Orthodox chapel on a plinth from any builder’s merchants – and contain a few icons, some candles, oil, and a lighter. The respectable self-made businessman will place a walk-in concrete chapel in his garden. And the images on the iconostatis in any parish church, especially those of Mary or Christ, are hung with ex votos just like those we know were left at medieval shrines: here, little metal models of healed limbs, or even offerings such as watches and jewellery.
Yet it is only an accident of history that Greek Orthodoxy is so alive and kicking in Greece: the original epicentre of this culture was significantly to the east: until it was hemmed in by Islam, Greek Byzantium and Anatolia where were it was at. Indeed years of foreign domination, as with Poland, have probably done much to keep the faith vital. No splittist Reformation, no Dissolution, no iconoclasm since the C9, though in the modern world attendance is fading. It is from this root that the culture I study, younger and further west, bifurcated, and as much is explained by seeing this as by knowing it for an intellectual fact.
Hagia Sophia is obviously the Great Church of this world; yet moving around this landscape one is struck by the conservatism of its architecture thereafter. The most ambitious buildings are no more elaborate or large than a medium-sized monastic house in medieval western Europe; architectural development involves complex calibrations of dome-and-aisles, dome-and-transepts, pursued within a far narrower range of possibilites than one sees in western Europe in the same time-frame, that is the long C9-c18 from which most churches in both landscapes date. It is an astonishing fact that, after Hagia Sophia in the C6, there is simply nothing in Orthodoxy to match any number of cathedrals in Italy, Germany, France, Iberia or Britain.
There’s nothing wrong with this: the ceaseless inventiveness and ridiculous ambition of western architecture is a unique thing, and born, by coincidence, at precisely this period. And the buildings that result are exhausting in number and scintillating in internal presence; richly painted internally, clothed in whitewash externally, and thick with images, they are merely a reminder of how we once looked.
But still, this conservatism begs questions. Not least about the role of architecture in this culture. This is architecture as a setting for painted imagery, and the significance of the painted image is extraordinary even by medieval western standards. Not stained glass, or sculpture, but icons and frescoes; the former to this day attracting a constrant stream of people who wish to kiss them. Arguably, more than anything else, this architecture is designed as a setting for sacred image-making, and by no means an end in itself. But one would love to get to grips with these tensions between image and its architectural setting, and development or the lack of it.
This is even truer of Classical architecture. I went to Greece wanting to contextualise, to put the rabbit of precocious modernity back in its iron age box. After all, the philosophers were few in number, and didn’t build temples: most people were busy making sacrifices in front of brightly painted and sculpted backdrops, rather than questioning the nature of reality. These all-too familiar myths were once a faith, these gods were real. Indeed it is rather intriguing that Classical paganism, in spite of its disinterment by Robert Graves, does not seem (unlike our home-grown variety) to have been reinvented by New Agers. Perhaps we know too much about it to be able to make things up of our own.
Yet none of this explains the remarkable thing that happens to architecture from around the C6BCE. These buildings were the backdrop for an exhaustingly complex series of stories and rituals; their interiors were stores of valuable offerings centred on a single great image. They are invariably set carefully in their landscape, and embody a modular architectural canon best compared to the Classical architecture of East Asia.
But they also do something new, something architecture had never done before. For example the developments of orders, in particular the Doric and the Ionic — one rarely sees Corinthian in Greece, except as a Roman re-importation — enables buildings to strike different emotional registers, and I don’t think buildings had ever done this previously. Those of contemporary China, India and Egypt were elaborate and impressive, and did their one thing very well: but it was only one thing. The Orders intimate that architecture can do many things, have many moods and calibrations, like music does, or painting. That is their most lasting contribution.
One might think that a culture which makes this discovery — obvious in retrospect, but brilliant when first made — would be seeking histrionic effects, would be trying to go all baroque or gothic or safavid or mughal with the many voices it is finding it can make. But no, this impressive discovery is seived always through a matrix of reason, moderation, of a sense that as well as having an expressive range, architecture has a grammar as complex and rich as language. So the achievement is double impressive.
Can it be explained, then, in terms of the religious culture alone? There are certainly contextual things going on that might suggest this would be the case. Homer, writing in probably the C8BCE, had turned the gods into personalities, immortal, super-powered beings, yes, but ones who nevertheless have the emotional complexities and wiles of ordinary human beings. This rewriting is all, as far as I can see, that seperates the religion out from a myriad other Indo-European paganisms. Did this, I wonder, also have an impact on the cultural artefacts that developed? If one’s gods have the emotions of people, does one not want to please and delight them, rather than simply propitiate terrifying and distant forces? And if one treats one gods like one treats one’s friends, does one not, without hardly noticing, start to create art to please *real* people, too, so that ritual theatre spins out into theatre as we understand it: art/entertainment, and likewise sport, and poetic competitions, and so much else that seems so modern to us about this world? And does that not in turn explain the enormous focus on the sculptud human form which is key to understanding this art, and the grace, discipine and quiet range of the architecture that was its setting?
It’s a good theory, but that’s all it is. And as one walks round the sculptures in the National Archaeological Museum, or reads about the way the most important of these buildings where as much expressions of civic identity, politics and ceremonial as of anything we would recognise as spiritual, it is hard not to escape the simple fact that, contextualise it all you like, something truly extraordinary, precocious and, yes, modern happened here all those years ago. Something about much more than religion, even though the religion was very much alive: something considered, clever, human.
Back from Greece, head buzzing with many things, I feel moved to write about this subject, which is intimately caught up with Greece’s self-presentation and cultural identity, and thus lies like a layer of modern stratigraphy over getting to grips with the traces of its past.
After all, before the archaeological/antiquarian discoveries of the C18, most if not all of them by ‘western’ Europeans, Classical Greek material culture and architecture where effectively unknown, influencing the world only through their Roman imitators. Even given that Greek had been the language of Plato, Aristotle, the New Testament, etc, one wonders whether the Greek wars of Independence of the 1820s and 30s would have panned out the same without them, or (to stretch a point) if the country would even today seem much more than a Balkan state with a particularly interesting history. I’d love to have seen the Parthenon in the mosque/church/castle state it was before interfering Classicists stripped all that away.
That these things still matter is evidenced by such issues as the Elgin Marbles controversy, and the investment put into new museums at some of the great Classical landmark sites — Delphi and the Athenian Acropolis, to be specific — over the last few years. Of these it is the Acropolis Museum that has really hit the headlines, and is now near the top of many tourist’s must-do’s when in Athens, alongside the Acropolis itself, and the knockout National Museum of Archaeology, surely the only archaeological museum in the world which functions just as well as a gallery of great art.
There is much to praise about the Acropolis Museum. After decades of discussion and inactivity, not a penny seems to have been spared, either in its construction or in its ongoing functioning: a phalanx of helpful staff with excellent English; well-produced, imaginative and multi-lingual kids’ trails, etc. More to the point, the narrative panels which guide you round it are the most eloquent and well-informed things of their kind I think I’ve ever read, and I’m delighted to find them reproduced verbatime in the visitor’s guide. I challenge any recent publication to better them as an account of the site. Not bad considering they presumably had to be translated from the Greek.
The collection in essence comprises two elements, broadly spread over two floors. First, most complete and earliest — and, appropriately, on the lower floor — are the finds from the pre-Classical Acropolis. These are a revelation. The Parthenon and other structures currently gracing the top of that ancient rock are so famous, so globally iconic, that one forgets they are replacements for (and a dramatic reworking of) a complex that had been evolving rapidly for several centuries, and that the scale of their ambition (and much of their sculpted iconography) addresses the destruction of this complex by the Persians (…yes, those Iranians again…) in 480BC. It’s thus obvious that the pre-Classical acropolis was itself a major site, but what I hadn’t realised was that much of its statuary was buried on site by the Athenians, who at first refused to rebuild at all; large quantities of major sculpture thus lay convenienlty buried on-site in pits that were, in effect, Treasuries, keeping beautiful objects created for Athena as intact as possible and placing them physically within Her premiere sanctuary.
Excavated and re-presented they form almost as impressive a collection of artefacts as the rooms of Archaic sculpture in the National Museum: for example, astonishingly, almost a complex pediment of the temple that preceded the Parthenon is preserved. And because this sculpture was buried rather than allowed to weather, much of its bright colouring is intact, giving a more authentic sense of the original appearance of all ancient Greek sculpture than one is used to. I love this stuff, with its wide-cheeckboned, almond-eyed, smiling faces, and its muscularly stylised figures. Less coldly perfect, more aesthetically interesting, than the true Classical statuary, miraculous though that is.
The upper floor, of course, is much more barbed. It’s quite clear that this building’s other function, perhaps even the function which justified to the Greek parliament the expense that has been lavished on it, is as a statement to the world that Athens is ready and waiting and equipped to *have those Marbles back, thank you very much*, and parakalo for looking after them. Rough-and-ready plastercasts of the originals are arranged around a floor which presents the carvings just (if providing a closer-up point of view) as they would be on the Parthenon itself, which is itself visible from its windows. A fine gallery of first-rate work Elgin left behind (I was particularly struck by the scale and exotic beauty of the dramatic finials which grew from the top of the Parthenon’s pediment) is arranged around them, and the staircase which replaces the Parthenon’s cella in the building’s plan has at its top, ie the point equivalent to the most sacred position in the Parthenon itself, an honest and informative video about their history and that of that structure, with excellent reconstructions of its phases of development right through to the modern age. Clever stuff. The experience of the upper floor, all-in-all, is at once worthwhile in itself and a none-too-subtle statement that the marbles restored here would find a good home, be secure, protected from the elements, etc.
Internally, the museum is hard to fault, with cool natural light falling everywhere that major sculpture is displayed, and circulation routes that make sense both intuitively and historically. Glass floors are often used to evoke the stratigraphy indicated by the arrangement of the collections themselves, most effectively on the ground floor, where one peers down at the excavated remains of ancient Athenian domestic buildings. A cafe-cum-viewing platform provides a view of the Acropolis, though one wonders why it couldn’t have been placed higher, ie where the view would have been better — on the roof?
Externally, things are less good. The building’s not disastrous, and is expensive-looking and meriticious in a manner standard for modern ‘heritage-temples’ across Europe. But it’s big, and unsubtle, and given its intervisibilty with the Acropolis and the lightness-of-foot that truly imaginiative modern design can achieve in such settings when it wants to, it surely could have been better.
The problems come when one approaches the Acropolis itself. Many of the reasons for this may be historical — as Stonehenge indicates, there is nothing like the presentation of an Iconic World Site to send the powers-that-be into gridlock, but the result is not always a happy one. The infrastructure — ticket booths, cloakrooms, etc — is astonishingly small scale given the pressure this site must be under at peak season. Nothing wrong with a light footprint, but I fail to understand why — given that the path of the Sacred Way still exists — we can’t be allowed to follow the approach to the site that its creators intended. Instead one first encounters the Propylaie — a brilliantly and subtly-designed open air porch — from the side, and then *leaves* the site along the path from which it is designed to be approached.
The site itself comprises a series of much-patched and hugely impressive structures whose history has not been a happy one. At some stage pretty early in the process of its rediscovery, the Acropolis was wrested from and cleansed of the layers that had preserved it — Frankish castle, Orthodox and then Catholic church, Mosque — leaving a battered and much patched skeleton behind for us to admire. Those sculptures not hacked away by the good lord Elgin have been consumed by pollution. And this marble skeleton, hugely impressive though it is, has been undergoing conservation for a very long time now. There is something inconclusive, to this uninformed outsider, about what is going on in this respect. I know what conservation looks like: painstaking, slow, but very, very focused. This isn’t that; it’s a bunch of youngsters hanging around waiting for something useful to happen. Meanwhile collossal cranes and scaffolding dominate everything, placing metal skeletons alongside those of Athenian marble; interpretation panels, understandably under the circumstances, go into faintly defensive detail about the scale of the problems faced and the kinds of solutions being discussed.
It’s off the beaten track, on the south slope of the acropolis, where things get more worrying. At least one of the great sites here – the Roman Odeon/theatre of Hadrian, the Classical Theatre of Dionysius, a hodge podge of lesser sites and ritually/mythologically significant caves — seems to be being reconstructed rather than conserved, flying in the face of the last 50 years of concensus about such sites, and undermining the responsible approach trumpeted by the Acropolis Museum a few hundred metres beyond. But I hesitate to carp further: I wouldn’t be the first person to sling criticisms around on the basis of a two-day acquaintance with what must be one of the world’s most challenging and complex conservation problems. Especially with Stonehenge just an hour’s drive from where I write this.
More insights into the complexities and oddnesses of Greek archaeological presentation are provided by some of the less well-known sites we visit. Here, one big plus: everywhere, interpretation is provided in English as well as Greek, and is unfailingly, and (to many English eyes) old-fashionedly, authoritative and detailed.
Now my head, swayed by a few years too long at English Heritage, knows that the general public need spoon-feeding and talking-down-to if they are to understand the past; but my heart leaps to be offered instead phased plans, detailed information, stratigraphy and intelligent explication from which I can draw my own conclusions. Hooray! One weirdy, though: everywhere, a small army of people treat you as if you are bound to be committing some crime or other. Little Lily goes 6 inches under a rope fence at the Delphi Stadium: a young woman comes across unsmiling and tells me I can bring her back but not wander off into the stadium itself. What else was I likely to be about to do? In the archaeological museum on Naxos — great collection, bewilderingly ordered — a man follows us from case to case as if we are about to whip out a hammer and a binliner. In the Temple of Dionysius there I am forbidden from photographing the finds, which are displayed in a shed-sized building, even though more spectacular discoveries from the same site can be freely photographed, and are under the same management, at the above museum, which is just a couple of miles away. Weird.
The latter site embodies much that is odd and much that is good about such places in Greece today. To the un-intiated it’s very much a third-rate Classical temple site, albeit within a mile of a very popular high season beach (the proximity of which may explain why IMF-battered Greece maintains no less than two full-time staff at this small reconstructed ruin); it’s actually, of course, fascinating, embodying in its history some of the many options for the design and decoration of temples being explored in the centuries of the C8/C5BCE when the Classical langauge was gradually defined. It even claims to hold fragments of the oldest dated Ionic capital, though I suspect this claim has its competitors.
And like much that is prehistoric, the temple ruin an archaeological invention, a putting-back-together of once fallen and buried elements, mainly by outsiders, in a manner that manages to imitate a ruin rather than the half-reconstruction it in fact is. Indeed there is a book to be written about the extent to which the world’s most famous sites are largely, in their modern form, reinventions by north European nineteenth-century gentlemen: this is true from Stonehenge to Angkor Wat, from Avebury to Sanchi.
Raised on a podium overlooking the site is a signboard from which one can look down the axis of the temple, and by moving sheets of glass backwards and forwards look at each phase of its development in succession with the actual site in front of one: a very neat idea, which one would love to apply to innumerable English sites.
But this is where the problems start. This podium overlies most of a rectangular dip in the ground marked as an ‘altar’; next to it is a jumble of Early Christian worked stone. The interpretation makes it clear that a church (St George) succeeded the temple here, but the plan and site of that church has been excised from the presentation, as if this phase is less authentic or interesting than the rest. So does the podium overly that church’s altar (positioning the church outside the temple, and beneath the viewing platform)? Or does the podium lie atop the site of the external sacrificial altar of the temple itself? Either way, why could it not be placed a metre or two off the core of the site, and the ‘altar’ it half-covers better explained? Very odd.
The site is also oddly cut off from its landscape. This matters: Temples of Dionysius are often situated in marshland, and this is no exception. One approaches through groves of bamboo, narrow lines lined with waterways, freshwater lakes thick with seabirds. Yet the landscaping of the site itself cuts it off from this redolent setting, replacing it with wires, fences, stone-flagged and walled walkways and steps, set in a brief outbreak of municipal parkland which must in itself be expensive to maintain, compared to the natural environment around it. Perhaps it needs protecting from flooding.
Much better is the temple of Demeter, a few miles up a scarp and on a plain to the north-west, again presenting an early variant on later, more canonically defined, architectural mores, and again later converted to a church. Very strikingly, both here and at the Dionysius temple, excavation revealed the site of the altar around which the temple was constructed to be truly ancient, and never to have moved despite multiple expansions and additions to the temple itself.
Here, the archaeology of these oldest interventions in the landscape is illuminatingly laid out: fragile sacrifical drainage channels and pits dug into the earth are the earliest features found; one wonders how many hundreds, perhaps thousands, such cult sites were never graced by a temple and lie unidentified in Greek countryside and townland alike.
But here, the site’s last incarnation — as a church — is not ignored; we get to see how the columns of the temple where at once preserved and re-oriented as part of this process. Though where the church itself has gone is anyone’s guess. And even better, the site is open — it has a staff, but when they knock off anyone can wander in — and its modern landscaping, while directing the visitor clearly, leaves clear beguiling views down into a broad, wide, fertile valley, every bit as typical of Demeterine (is that a word?) sites as the Dionysiac marshes are of that cult.
Last but not least, there is the massive porta or doorway of the Temple of Zeus which once dominated the harbour at Naxos, and which has become as iconic a symbol of Cycladic culture as the Parthenon is of the Athenian world (indeed of European Classical civilisation as a whole). This is the collossal doorfame for an equally ambitious, and unfinished, temple built on an islet by the tyrant Legdames. Its foundation fills the surface of the island, overlooking the hill and harbour of this strategically-crucial islet.
Naxos was the political centre of the Cyclades which cycle around it (Delos is their spiritual centre), and its high-quality marble made the island one of the birthplaces of Greek sculpture. It is the largest of the stepping-stone islands which linked Anatolia/modern Turkey/Asia with Greece/Europa. Its history features Venetian, rather than Ottoman, domination, giving its hilltop castro — which dominates the dramatic view from the Temple and remains the centrepiece of the Hora, as Naxos town is known — a distinctive flavour. A little cathedral serves a still-surviving Catholic population; marble doorframes feature displays of medieval heraldry seperated by copies of classical triglyphs. Yet this was surely, earlier, Naxos’ acropolis; and certainly, the Greek settlement of Bourgos, which clusters around the northern fringe of the castro, and which contains the town’s Orthodox cathedral, has been settled — perhaps continually — since Mycenean times and perhaps before. An excavated tumuli sits in the Mitropoli cathedral square.
So this is a crucial site, and the great rectangle of Naxian marble frames a striking view of it all. Oddly, it is almost entirely un-presented and uninterpeted, despite being two minutes from Naxos’ harbourfront cafes and tavernas, thronging in summer with tourists from all over. Ropes meekly discourage couples from getting shots of themselves standing in it: yet the collosal Classical opening dominates all.
And presents something of a mystery. Photographs and engravings going back to at least the eighteenth century suggest this doorway has stood here, unsupported, without being blown over by the strong winds for which this area is famous, for centuries. It certainly looks as if it has been lashed by a few salty storms. Yet it is standing ontop of — is kept up by — a pile of miscellaneous worked stones which are entirely un-eroded, and in a photograph of the 1920s mentioned by Nigel McGilchrist in his excellent Naxos and the Lesser Cyclades (2010) it is completly absent. At some point, in fact, it thus must have fallen and been re-erected. The result is the curious mixture of the extraordinary, the emblematic and the absent, the reinvented and the authentic — a fitting conclusion to a hasty tour of modern presentations of Greek’s remarkable past.