Mid November marks the uprising by students of the Athens Polytechnic against the military junta in 1973. The uprising started on 14 November and was brutally suppressed by the regime three days later.
Here’s a tribute to the student rebels by the poet Niikiforos Vrettakos:
Small burial mound (17 November 1973)
Without rifle or sword, the sun shining on your foreheads, you were both heroes and poets. You are the Poem.
Stretching out, my hand can’t reach the spot where the wind of virtue carries in procession your bodies, beautiful flowers, o my children!
In the face of this Poem, silence is the only worthy response.
On his Law and Policy Blog I came across a post recently by the lawyer, David Allen Green, on the issue of who legally owns the Parthenon Marbles. It’s a topic in the news again this week with the Greek Prime Minister raising the issue with Boris Johnson during a visit to the UK to discuss bilateral relations. Johnson in typical ‘not me guv’ fashion stated that it was a matter for the British Museum: another lie! The original purchase of the marbles from Elgin was authorised by an Act of Parliament and so can only be undone with one.
On the issue of ownership, the British Museum position is simply stated as follows:
“Lord Elgin’s activities were thoroughly investigated by a Parliamentary Select Committee in 1816 and found to be entirely legal.”
David Allen Green’s blog provides a link to a fascinating article by an American academic lawyer called David Rudenstine that forensically examines this issue. I will summarise the paper here because it’s a lengthy but enthralling read and it makes me regret that I did not pursue a career in the law.
In 1801 Lord Elgin, then the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople had the the marble frieze and sculptures on the Parthenon removed and taken to England. This was the beginnings of his troubles as the endeavour led him to the verge of bankruptcy. By 1816 he decided to sell the marbles to the British government to be housed in the British Museum, just when the museum was rapidly expanding its collection of Classical artefacts.
In 1816 the House of Lords set up a Select Committee to enquire into the matter. Appearing before the Committee, Elgin was asked repeatedly whether he had any documentation proving his ownership and repeatedly he said ‘ no’. He claimed instead that in July 1801 he had received a document from the Ottoman government connected with the work he was undertaking on the Acropolis that entitled him to ‘draw, model and remove [items}’ as well as excavate in specific places. He had not however kept a copy of it.
Whilst in post in Constantinople Elgin retained as a secretary / chaplain a man called Philip Hunt, responsible for liaising with Elgin’s workmen through their supervisor, an Italian painter called Giovanni Battista Lusieri. It was Hunt who urged Elgin to get a detailed agreement from the Ottomans for the work on the Acropolis.
Hunt was also called to testify to the Select Committee in 1816 and in the course of giving evidence claimed he had an Italian translation of the original Ottoman document called a firman (an imperial decree issued by the Sultan), signed by the Grand Vizier (the Sultan’s chief minister). This clinched it for the Select Committee and their report to Parliament led to the government agreeing to purchase the marbles from Elgin.
There are some striking oddities about these documents. Evidence suggests that some sort of document was issued by the Ottoman authorities in July 1801. Yet no firman on this subject has ever been found in the Ottoman archives and no record of any dealing between Elgin and the Ottoman government on the subject have ever been found in the Foreign Office files. Legal ownership of the marbles therefore turns on this Italian document.
Hunt apparently asked for a literal translation of the Ottoman document, but received a translation (my italics). It begs the question as to why the translation was into Italian, a language that neither Elgin nor Hunt spoke. Hunt’s statement that it was because Italian was the lingua franca of the eastern Mediterranean is frankly incredible. The document’s introduction refers to it being conveyed to Athens by ‘N.N.’ which mystified people for many years, until legal experts pointed out that this stand for ‘non nullus’, ie someone. It’s a form of words often used in draft legal documents to indicate that a name will be inserted in the final draft.
Despite the findings in the Select committee report, the Italian document is not a firman as firmans are usually issued only by the Sultan. Only the Sultan could authorise anything to do with classical monuments in Ottoman lands.
Could this Italian document be a carefully contrived forgery cooked up by Elgin and Hunt working together? There was a two week gap between Elgin’s appearance before the Select Committee and Hunt’s. In his evidence to the Select Committee though, when he was asked repeatedly about documents proving his ownership, Elgin did not mention it. This suggests that he did not know of its existence. If they had forged a document, why did they not forge something that proved Elgin’s ownership unequivocally? The Italian ‘translation’ does not do this.
David Rudenstine’s conclusion is that the Italian document is a draft that Hunt, acting on behalf of Elgin, had drafted by Pisani a dragoman (interpreter and fixer) employed by Elgin to negotiate with the Ottoman authorities. It is not a translation of the original lost Ottoman document, but a draft request for the work on the Acropolis Elgin wanted the authorities to agree to.
The implication of this is that Elgin did not have any documentation proving that he owned the marbles and that the Select Committee was wrong to accept the Italian ‘translation’ as that document. As Elgin did not therefore legally own the marbles, he could not legally sell them to the British government. Rudenstine implies that the Select Committee jumped at the Italian document as the basis of Elgin’s for ownership and therefore his right to sell the marbles, without further forensic examination of the documentation story, because they were eager to acquire the marbles to display in the British Museum.
What a shabby story of misinformation by Hunt and Elgin and of collusion by Parliament! This story will never go away until the UK hands the marbles back to the country to which they belong and rights this longstanding wrong. That day may be getting closer.
Right next to the road between the villages of Moni and Khalki on the island of Naxos and in among the olive groves stands this little church, said to be one of the oldest in the Balkans and one of the most revered churches in Greece. It seems incredible, but the oldest part of the church dates back probably to the 6th century, though the little guide to the church claims it dates from the 4th century. Dedicated to the Panagia (Our Lady) Drosiani (the one who cools), it is the only remnant of an old monastery, perhaps giving the village of Moni its name (Moni in Greek means monastery).
Architecturally, the church was built and added to over the course of about a thousand years. The oldest part is the area consisting of the apse, the sanctuary, the iconostasis and the top part of the nave. On the northern side of the church are what look like three side chapels set at an angle to the nave, probably from the 7th century. The main body of the church, the nave, dates from the 12th-14th century.
Here’s a view of the church looking towards the iconostasis and apse:
Marble iconostases, like the one here, at this early stage in the development of Byzantine church architecture were generally low, as was the original one in Haghia Sofia. It was only later that it was raised in height to obscure the view of the sanctuary from the laity.
The church is famous for a miracle-working icon of the Mother of God which is said to perspire whenever the village is at threat. I have to confess I didn’t pay much attention to it in my eagerness to look at the frescoes.
The area around the apse and sanctuary are the only part that has frescoes. What makes them so special is that they date from the period before Iconoclasm (between the early 8th and mid 9th centuries) when the Byzantium turned against the making of images. Not only that, they destroyed many existing ones; very few frescoes or icons survived. Notable examples can be found at St Catherine’s Monastery on Mt Sinai, one of the oldest monasteries in the world. But it is remarkable that this church on Naxos pre-Iconoclasm frescoes. Perhaps its isolation and distance from Constantinople enabled it to preserve them.
On either side of the top of the nave facing each other are frescoes of the military saints on horseback, St George here:
and St Demetrios:
The tympanum of the apse has a seated Christ surrounded by angels that is really hard to make out and certainly too faint to photograph (even for me).
In the sanctuary there is a beautiful Virgin holding the infant Jesus in a circle in her breast, called the Nikopoios type in Greek (meaning Victory-making):
On either side of the Virgin are roundels of the healing saints, Kosmas and Damian:
In the space beneath the apse depiction of the Virgin, it is customary to depict four saints, usually the Three Hierarchs, the great teachers of the Orthodox Church (Saint Basil the Great, Saint Gregory the Theologian and St John Chrysostom), plus usually in Greece, St Nicholas. In this case, there is an unusual selection.
In the centre is Christ standing on a footstool:
To the left of Christ are the Virgin also standing on a footstool, with hands held out in supplication:
and next to her is what the guidebook says is Solomon holding a cross, a really strange choice. To me he looks more like a Byzantine Emperor: his imperial purple clothes are studded with pearls and he wears a pearl-encrusted crown. I don’t know how to explain the halo though. To the right of Christ is the figure of St John the Baptist and next to Christ what looks to me like a Byzantine Empress (not a female saint as the guidebook says) with a pearl and jewel-encrusted crown and pearl pendilia (pendants hanging down from the crown). Maybe she is the companion of the Emperor depicted on the left. Could they be Justinian and Theodora or Constantine and Helena?
In the dome are two very badly damaged portraits of Christ, symbolising the human and divine natures of Christ:
On one of the arches are inscriptions referring to the donors who paid for the church to be built:
The arches also have damaged full length depictions of saints, most unidentifiable, such as this female saint with a bag of healing medicines:
and this one:
This is the Holy Martyr Julian in a very badly damaged fresco:
On the north wall are these two striking head fragments:
On the south wall is a very naïve depiction of the Mother of God, looking cross-eyed:
On the north and south walls under the frescoes of SS George and Demetrios are red crosses that looks as though they may date back to the time of Iconoclasm:
Of the three side chapels, one was used as an ossuary and one as a ‘secret’ school, a church school that taught Greek to local children during Ottoman rule. The Ottomans though had a light presence on the island and left the Venetians to administer it, so it may be that this is a piece of myth-making.
I had asked the old lady guardian if I could take photographs inside the church and she quite willingly me agreed to let me do it. However, as I got to the end of shooting the frescoes, I suddenly heard her shout at me ‘Stop!’ in a very angry voice. Of course, I stopped taking photographs, but I couldn’t understand why she had suddenly turned against me.
A very old olive tree near the entrance gate to the church:
Finally, a view of the church of the Panagia Drosiani at the bottom of the valley with Mt Fanari in the background:
Apeiranthos is a mountain village on the eastern side of the island of Naxos. We were a bit put off stopping there when we saw tour buses dropping people off and so we took the road down to the tiny village of Moutsouna on the east coast. I may blog about Moutsouna separately as it was such a beautiful and peaceful village. But something that day drew us back to Apeiranthos.
Wondering around the village at lunchtime, the tour buses seemed to have disappeared and there weren’t many people in the single main street, so we drifted in and out of shops, like this one with its strange horse whip:
Of course, as it was lunchtime several museums we wanted to visit were closed, until we came upon the open Archaeological Museum. We didn’t expect much: the man on the door wasn’t bothered whether we went in, it cost 1 Euro each and the museum only consisted of a single room, dusty and in need of a tidy-up. Many of the items were in glass cases with few labels, larger ones were spread around the floor.
There was a fine collections of Roman oil lamps on a table:
Some lovely pottery from 3000BC, very modern-looking, unfortunately too difficult to photograph; weapons including obsidian blades and spearheads; bronze tools; and a huge stone bowl:
It took me a while though to spot some of the museum’s most remarkable objects. Remarkable because so unexpected. They are a series of stick men and animals carved on stone. These petroglyphs were discovered in 1962 by the man who started the museum, Mikhalis Bardanis. He found them on a hill called Koryfi t’Aroniou in the south east of Naxos and they date between 2700-2200BC.
I suppose what makes them so striking is the contrast with my expectations of what Greek art is like: beautiful products of sophisticated craftsmanship. But these items have a directness and energy that comes from their simplicity.
This is one of my favourite carvings, three figures apparently dancing together in a circle, their arms raised and at least one of them holding some sort of stick. I say dancing, but I’m interpreting that from the character on the left with one foot in the air and the position of the central character’s body indicating that he is in motion. I wonder what sounds they were moving to. Were they celebrating something or calling on their gods or spirits to help them?
Here’s one of a figure of what looks like a deer, perhaps being confronted by a hunter:
In the next one the human figure behind the deer looks as if he is putting some sort of instrument to his mouth – perhaps calling for help with stalking the animal :
Three characters look like they are attacking a deer with spears:
Two animals together, possibly deer, though they look a bit sleeker:
Another hunting scene:
One or two animals grazing?
The next one is very unusual. It looks like two men standing on a boat with a mast on the right hand side. Or perhaps they are fighting? Very hard to make it out.
Some of them are difficult to see as they are painted on the rock surface in ochre:
There are also carvings using geometrical and other shapes:
It’s all very intriguing and the museum has no other information to help us make sense of these carvings. I would love to know more about the site they came from and what they signify.
Aperiranthos is a very attractive village and it’s not surprising that it gets so many visitors.
We stop off at a kafeneio for a fresh lemon juice and that’s when I spot these two gentlemen:
Looking back from high up on Mt Zas at the village of Filoti:
Here are my translations of a couple of poems by the modern Greek poet, Kiki Dimoula (1931-2020). She had a desk job at the Bank of Greece in Athens for many years before giving it up to become a poet full time.
Utopias On my way to work at 7.30 in the morning I meet March in a good mood full of intimations of spring and so on.
I put my existence on hold, I break my contract with winter, and am scattered on the ground. I turn into a little natural Earth, laying down, spread out face to face with the universe that is in harmony with everything. I grow flowers, emotions bloom in me, and I feel very good on this endless journey, being here.
“Spring’s forbidden!” suddenly a cloud-sign warns. Straightaway it started raining and spoke out against spring, and against me, a sad wind blows away my flowers scatters my emotions and drives me to the Office.
So, a serious offence then, particularly on my way to work, by a lady of a certain age, with family responsibilities, and with many years’ service in a government job and winters.
Uncompromisingly All my poems about spring remain unfinished.
That’s because spring is always in a hurry and my mood is always lagging behind.
So, I force myself to finish every unfinished poem of mine about spring in autumn time.
This is the third and final post in my series on this monastery. You can find the first post here and the second one here.
The Panagia is the oldest of the two main churches, built in the second half of the 10th century. It was probably decorated with frescoes, but hardly anything remains and with its plain stone walls it feels a bit of an anticlimax after the magnificence of the katholikon.
In the exhibition room next to the Panagia Church in addition to Osios Loukas’s cell there is a space between the floors that was used either as a ‘hidden school’ to teach children to read and write Greek or to hide them from the Paidomazoma (Tur: Devshirme) during Ottoman rule in Greece. Paidomazoma was the Ottoman practice of kidnapping Christian boys to recruit soldiers and bureaucrats to the Sultan’s service.
Here are some more views of the monastery’s buildings:
These wonderful arches form a series of flying buttresses between the katholikon and the old refectory:
Here’s the rear of the katholikon (on the left) and the rear of the Church of the Panagia (right):
The dome of the katholikon behind the drum of the Panagia:
Drum of the Panagia:
The original monastery entrance gate:
Exterior of the Panagia church:
An old outbuilding:
The monastery’s ancient cistern:
A quite corner in the grounds:
Cannot resist a good door:
Finally on the terrace in front of the monastery there is a monument to Archbishop Isaïas Salomon who with his brother Gaga-Giannis died fighting the Turks at Khalomata on 23 April 1821 (ie at the start of the Greek Revolution against Ottoman rule). In this monastery, which the monument refers to as the base of the Revolution, he also blessed the weapons of the revolutionary fighters.
Osios Loukas is a beautiful place: it has an aura of calm and peace from the concentrated prayers and meditation of all the monks who have lived and worshipped here over the past 1,000 years.