Jasmine

Here’s an unusual poem, a haiku by Seferis. It uses the traditional form of 17 syllables that you find in classic Japanese haiku, but doesn’t quite adhere to the spirit of this verse form  which often has a twist in the final line.

In my translation I’ve tried to maintain the same number of syllables in each line as Seferis used in the original Greek

Jasmine

When it’s getting dark
or day’s breaking
it stays the same
the white jasmine.

 

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Ancient Agora in Athens

Right next to the bustling tourist area of Monastiraki is the Agora, heart of the ancient city of Athens. It’s cut off from the modern city by the electric train line with its graffitied walls that separates it from Monastiraki. Rather incongruously, just over the other side of the track is the side of a partially re-built 2nd century AD Roman basilica. Once on site it’s hard to believe that you are in the middle of a modern city, it’s so quiet and peaceful, with wonderful views of the Acropolis.

This huge site, which originally contained temples, theatres, shops and government buildings, looks as though it has an unbroken link with the past, has actually been subject to enormous changes over the years. It was destroyed by the Persians in 480 BC, the Romans in 86 AD, the Herulians in 267 AD, the Slavs in 580 AD, Frankish invaders in 1204 and then finally in 1826-7 during the War of Independence. The final insult occurred in the late 19th century when it was buried under the Vryssaki quarter. It’s amazing that after all this destruction there is anything left to see at all. 

The entrance is part of the Sacred Way, the road that leads to the Acropolis, and which was used in ancient Greece for the procession of the Panathenaia festival in honour of Athena.

One of the first buildings you come across is the Odeion with some impressive Tritons at the entrance, a theatre for music performances built in 15 BC by the Roman General Agrippa.

However my favourite building is the Temple of Ifaistos, built in the 5th century BC and one of the most complete ancient buildings in existence. All of its columns are still in place and some of the metopes (featuring the battle between the Centaurs and Lapiths), together with a roof. The roof however is not original and dates back to the time when the barrel-vaulted Byzantine church of St George was built inside it.

It reminds me of the equally wonderful Concordia Temple in Agrigento, another very well-preserved ancient Greek building. From its elevated position you have a good view over the whole site and of the Acropolis itself. I remember seeing it from the top of the Acropolis on our first visit to Athens, not quite believing that such a complete ancient building could still exist.

Nearby are some significant ancient government buildings: the Tholos, a circular building dating from 460 BC where the city council met: the Metroon (2nd century BC) where they kept city records, documents, official weights, etc:
and the 5th century BC Vouleuterion where the Assembly met:

There an enormously long Stoa (the Middle Stoa) that cross the site that dates from 2nd century BC.

I particularly like the site of an ancient water-clock that was used to mark the passing hours:

A further stoa called the Poikili Stoa lies outside the current site and was famous as the Painted Stoa which housed painted panel masterpieces. What a shame that those paintings didn’t survive! In fact there are no paintings that survive from ancient Greece, except in the form of mosaics.

Some of the building are hard to work out from what remains, for example the Strategeion, the Library of Pantainos and the Temple of Ares.

Between the site of the Agora and the Acropolis is the Areopagos, the place where St Paul preached when he came to Athens. In classical Athens it was the place where the Council of the Nobles and the Judicial Court met. At the edge of the Agora sits the hugely restored 11th century Church of the Holy Apostles.

Dominating the eastern side of the site is the two storey Stoa of Attalos, originally built in 159-139 BC, but completely re-built by the American School of Classical Studies in Athens in the 1950s.

The portico has a wooden beam roof and is a wonderful space for the display of selected statuary:

including a sculpted head of what is thought to be Herodotos:

The small museum is arranged in chronological order from the Mycenean through to the Byzantine era.

Here’s a lovely head of Apollo:
and what looks like a mask from a satyr play:

There are a lot of ostraka on display: these are sherds of pottery on which citizens scratched the names of politicians they wanted to send into exile (shame we lost that tradition). The examples below show Themistocles who was ostracised in 472 or 471 BC and ended up at the Persian court (the subject of Cavafy’s poem Satrapy). It feels strange to be so close to the evidence of such an ancient event..

A trainer potty is one of the odder and most endearing objects on display:

However, I think one of the saddest display cabinets is the one showing pottery from the Byzantine era. There seems to be so little of it left and what has survived is fragmentary and  disappointing in comparison to the fabulous religious artefacts we are familiar with:

Not far from the museum are the remains of a 5th century water-mill. Closer examination of the wall beneath the sign shows the grooves cut into it by the water wheel.

Finally on the site is a rather dilapidated spot where the Altar to the 12 Gods used to stand. There isn’t much to see now as most of it is covered by the perimeter wall and the electric railway line built in 1891. The altar was surrounded by a temenos, an enclosed sanctuary with stone columns that was famous in Athens as a place of refuge. It was also the point from which all distances were measured. However it fell into disrepair in the 4th century BC and was finally destroyed in 3rd century AD.

 

 

 

     

 

In 200 BC by Cavafy

In honour of the 85th anniversary of Cavafy’s death on 29 April 1933, here’s my translation of his poem In 200 BC.

“Alexander, son of Philip, and the Greeks except for the Lacedaemonians…”
We can well imagine
how completely indifferent they were in Sparta
to this inscription. “Except for the Lacedaemonians”,
of course. The Spartans were not there
to direct them and command them
like precious servants. Besides,
a Panhellenic expedition without
a Spartan king as leader
would not seem to them to be of much importance.
But then again, “Except for the Lacedaemonians”.

That’s one attitude. It’s understandable.

So, except for the Lacedaemonians at Granicus;
and then at Issus; and at the decisive
battle where the fearsome army was destroyed
which the Persians had gathered at Gaugamela:
the one that set out from Gaugamela for victory and was destroyed.

And from this wonderful Panhellenic expedition,
glorious, brilliant,
renowned, praised
as no other has been praised,
incomparable: we emerged;
a great, new Greek world.

We Alexandrians, Antiochians,
Seleucids, and the countless
other Greeks of Egypt and Syria,
and those in Midia and in Persia, and so many others.
With our extensive territories,
With our diverse ways of making thoughtful accommodations.
And our shared Greek voice
that we took as far as Bactria, to the Indians.

Why bother talking about the Lacedaemonians!

This is the penultimate poem that Cavafy published (in 1931). The inscription to which the poem refers is the one used by Alexander the Great for the booty from the Battle of Granicus which he dedicated to the Parthenon (‘Alexander, son of Philip, and the Greeks except for the Lacedaemonians, from the barbarian inhabitants of Asia’). The Lacedaemonians had refused to take part in Alexander’s expedition on the grounds that Spartan custom forbade them to take part in expeditions which they did not lead.

The narrator looks back 130 years from the year 200 BC to the three great battles (Granicus, Issus and Gaugamela) that Alexander fought against the Achaemenid empire of Darius III. The culminating victory at Gaugamela led to the downfall of the Achaemenid empire, enabling Alexander to expand his empire eastwards towards India. From this glorious triumph of the Hellenic world and all that followed it, Alexander pointedly excluded the Spartans for their refusal to take part in his expedition.

Dedicated to my mother who shared the same birthday as Cavafy.

Temple of Hephaestus

This shot of the interior was taken from the rear of the Temple of Hephaestus at the Ancient Agora in Athens, one of the most completely preserved buildings from Antiquity and a stunning example of Ancient Greek architecture.

I’m pleased to be back to my blog again after a prolonged absence. Now I have fully retired I’ve plenty of shots to upload and a lot of ideas for posts.

Our country is closed by Seferis

This poem was published in Seferis’s 1935 collection of poems, Mythistorima (Fiction). As with the Ritsos poem I translated here I find strong resonances with the political and social situation in our own country at the moment.

I was puzzled by what Seferis meant when he said that Greece was ‘closed’ and it was not until I understood the mythological reference in the penultimate verse that it became clear. He seems to be implying that Greece is closed off from the outside world by the Clashing Rocks, perhaps by the Metaxas dictatorship.

The rocks not only kill those who try to escape, but are also killing the people who still live in Greece because they are cutting it off from the rest of the world, causing rivers, springs and wells to dry up, and everything to become stagnant and hollow. Everything has closed in on the country, including the mountains and the sky, creating a feeling of claustrophobia. There is not even any spiritual support in this situation, as even religion has a hollow echo when people bow their heads in worship to the empty cisterns. It is as if people are becoming alienated from their past and any understanding of how they have come to be what they are.

This closing of the country also causes people to forget that they are alive and how they have in the past achieved the simplest of things, like building. This extends to people understanding how to relate to others (eg in marriage) and to have children. The evidence of what the Clashing Rocks are doing is provided by the images of the smashed wood and floating bodies from ships crushed by the rocks coming together.

In mythology the action of the rocks was destroyed by Jason, but in this pessimistic poem there is no sense of a hero who can bring the situation to an end. Nor is there any hero to rescue us in our situation either.

Our country is closed 

Our country is closed, day and night,
everything: mountains that have cover,
The low sky.

We don’t have rivers, we don’t have
wells, we don’t have springs.
Just a few cisterns,
even these are empty,
that echo when we bow to them.

A stagnant, hollow echo,
like our solitude,
like our love,
like our bodies.

It seems strange to us
that once we could build our homes,
shacks and sheepfolds.

And our weddings, cool
wedding crowns and fingers
are becoming puzzles
inexplicable to our minds.
How were our children born, how did they grow strong?

We don’t have rivers, we don’t have
wells, we don’t have springs.
Just a few cisterns,
even these are empty,
that echo when we bow to them.

Our country is closed.
Τwo black Clashing Rocks*
are closing it.

On the harbours on Sundays,
when we go down to take the air,
we see smashed wood lit up by the sunset,
from journeys that were not finished,
and bodies that no longer know
how to love.

*Note: the Symplegades (Clashing Rocks), also known as the Cyanean Rocks, were, according to Greek mythology, a pair of rocks at the Bosphorus that clashed together randomly. They were defeated by Jason and the Argonauts, who would have been lost and killed by the rocks except for Phineus‘ advice. Jason let a dove fly between the rocks and it lost only its tail feathers. The Argonauts rowed mightily to get through and lost only part of the stern ornament. After that, the Symplegades stopped moving permanently. (Wikipedia)  

Our country by Giannis Ritsos

This poem is from a collection by Ritsos called The wall inside the mirror and it was written in the village of Partheni on the Dodecanese island of Leros where he was being held in an internment camp by the Greek Junta. The date of its composition, 13 December 1967, also happens to be a very significant one in the history of the Junta.

On that day King Constantine attempted to stage a counter coup against the Colonels’ regime. He and his family flew to Kavala, east of Thessaloniki to try to rally loyal troops against the regime and then to take Thessaloniki. But the attempt was foiled by officers and troops loyal to the Junta and Constantine was forced to leave Greece and take refuge in Rome. He never returned and the monarchy was eventually abolished in 1973.

Our country

We walked up on the hill to see our country –
humble dwellings, modest fields, stones, olive trees.
Vineyards stretch down to the sea.
Next to the plough a little fire is smoking. From the old man’s clothes
we made a scarecrow to keep off the jackdaws. Our days
take their course with a little bit of bread and a lot of sun.
Beneath the poplars a straw hat is gleaming.
The cock on the gate. The cow on the yellow earth.
How did it happen that with a stone hand we dealt with
our home and our life? On the lintel
is the soot, year after year, from the Easter candles –
little black crosses that the dead traced
when they came back from the Easter Day service.
This place is much loved, with patience and pride.
Every night from the dry well the statues cautiously come out
and climb into the trees.

This poem haunts me a lot. It depicts an ordinary countryside scene, such as you could find all over Greece. A familiar and much loved land in all its ordinary detail. A land with a deep history and familiar, comforting traditions, like tracing the sign of the cross over the lintel at Easter. But at the same time there is all this unbelievable stuff going on: the poet is in exile, the country is in the vice-like grip of a dictatorship, the king has just tried to seize power back. How on earth did we get here?

I think this poem speaks to me so clearly because it expresses how I feel about the state of our own country at the moment. How the hell did we get here? It’s not a comfortable place to be, in the same way that being held in an internment camp wasn’t for Ritsos.

But strangely there is something comforting about the extraordinary image at the end of the poem. Though the source of life, the well, is dry at the moment, the country still has a deep connection with the past that the nightmare present cannot eradicate. Nothing can destroy that link with Greece’s history, culture and values. Even though the statues only come out at night and then ‘cautiously’, they are still there. We can only guess what they are thinking about Ritsos’s Greece and what our equivalents would think about our own situation. But at least those fundamental values haven’t been lost – and that’s worth hanging on to in these dark days.           

On the set of the film ‘Kazantzakis’ by Giannis Smaragdis

Wandering around the back streets of Irakleio at the end of a two week holiday in Crete back in 2016, we came across a strange sight. On the edge of a dusty square, dominated by a church a young man in black clothes was being lynched in a mulberry tree. Or rather he was standing on a step-ladder whilst a roadie fixed up the harness that would support him when he was eventually hanged. We had come across the shooting of a scene from a film or TV programme that looked as it was set in the nineteenth century when Crete was under Ottoman rule. Various other characters were waiting around in the square for their bit of the scene:


 We found seats at a local cafe to watch them shoot the scene, but they were still setting up when we left three-quarters of an hour later, without a clapboard being clapped.

About a year later, I found a You tube clip of a scene that featured the characters and setting we had seen in that square in Irakleio. It was from Giannis Smaragdis’s film Kazantzakis that was released in November 2017. I’m looking forward to seeing the whole thing when I can find a copy of it.