October 15, 2012
I successfully navigated my way to Plateia Syntagma this morning, no small feat since EVERYTHING IS WRITTEN IN GREEK.
Athens is a gritty concrete jungle, covered in graffiti and plastered with posters, many of the buildings constructed in the 1950s, at least one building every few blocks in partial rubble. It all feels so different from the other places I have visited during this trip, with a strong pull toward modern Middle Eastern architecture. (When the Roman Empire was divided in two, Greece fell in with Constantine and his lot, who ruled from what is now Istanbul. This, along with the fact that Greece was occupied by the Turks for four hundred years between the 15th and 18th centuries, has given Greece a very strong Middle Eastern influence.) Nevertheless, this place is still the birthplace of Western civilization… just lift your eyes above the white low-slung buildings, and you’ll see the Acropolis soaring over everything, with ruins and archeological digs around every corner. When it comes to classical architecture, art, philosophy, government, and law, no one can hold a candle to those Ancient Greeks.
Hey, remember how I once wrote that Democracy originated in Rome? WELL I WAS TAKING CRAZY PILLS. I was wrong wrong wrong and am gravely embarrassed by the gross reallocation of a pivotal era to a completely different civilization. In actuality, Ancient Rome was kind of like Ancient Athens’ little brother, copying everything Athens did and basically wanting to be Athens. So although Rome popularized the Republic, dēmokratía or "rule of the people" originated in Greece long before the Roman Republic (we’re talking 508 BC, people).
Anyway. I took the bus to the National Archeological Museum, which is world-renowned for housing an almost peerless collection of ancient archeological artifacts (say that three times fast). The museum is huge: I was there for a couple of hours, and I probably only saw half of it. Countless busts, statues, gravestones, building reliefs, jewelry, coins, vases, lamps, weapons, toys, and more. It must be so exciting to be an archeologist in Rome or Athens… just imagine what it must be like to dig and dig and search and search and dig some more and then a miracle — a marble hand, a marble shoulder, and on and on until you have discovered a whole person, something made by a fellow human being over two thousand years ago. A first-hand and visceral connection through time.
(Side note: I wonder what it is about humans that inspires us to represent ourselves through art? Does it spring from a desire to remember and be remembered? Is it a method for exploration, a mirror onto that may enable us to see ourselves more clearly? Is it because we find our forms beautiful? Or intriguing? Or miraculous?)
I remember when I used to think my parents’ childhood played out in a black-and-white world, thinking the photographs I saw directly represented the visual world of that time. I feel like this trip is slowly adding color to my mental timeline of the world, but on a much greater scale. Because, in the very deepest recesses of my mind, I think I still imagine ancient civilizations as primitive, as muted, as simple… when, in actuality… people are people are people… who we are now is not so very different from who we were then… and when I look around today, I see so much light, so much color, so much thought, so much intellect, so much searching, so much tribulation, so much communication, so much philosophizing, so much joy, so much confusion, so many details. Even though I intellectually know that this is all a part of the human condition, that the people who lived thousands of years ago experienced all of these things in living color, I think I am finally starting to feel it.
Although I chose this west-to-east route for meteorological purposes (ie I wanted it to stay warm as the seasons turned), it has actually turned out to provide a fascinating historical trajectory… it’s been enlightening to go backwards through time, getting closer and closer to where it all began. And it's exciting to at last be here, in Athens, the birthplace of Western Civilization.
But you know what? Athens is a baby compared to Cairo. I can’t wait to get to Egypt someday…
When I left the museum, I walked through the Exarcheia district, famous for being the home of many an anarchist, as well as the origination of most of the city’s protests and riots over the last few decades. It was broad daylight, with many students about and the sidewalk cafes filled with people, so I didn’t feel in any way threatened, but I did definitely feel that I had entered a different world. Athens generally has quite a bit of graffiti, but the graffiti in Exarcheia covered virtually every surface, some of it plastered over by posters announcing upcoming rallies (though the words were in Greek, the illustrations made the meaning clear). There was the overwhelming smell of urine, crowded walkways, people openly doing cocaine in the street. There were a good number of people begging, a few of them children, and many young people crowding the cafes, talking passionately. Last night, while walking through the Acropolis and Gazi, I couldn't really sense a country in trouble. I can definitely see the repercussions of Greece’s economic collapse in Exarcheia, however. There is a 25% (and rising) unemployment rate here… I’ve only been here a couple of days and don’t really understand the current economic state in Greece, but I definitely get the feelings that something’s got to give.
Leaving Exarcheia, I walked into the Plaka as the light began to fade. The Plaka is Athens’ modern historical district with its own labyrinthine passages and neoclassical buildings, situated on the northern and eastern slopes of the Acropolis. There were lots of shops and many tavernas, and I found a quiet café off a side street in which to write in my journal and have dinner. And now I am back at Eleni’s, cuddling with Amica, and very ready for bed.
Tomorrow: the Acropolis!