Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Layers of an Ancient Society

The morning started with the finding of a parking space near the city center so that we could visit the Presidential gardens, walk around the surrounding district of mansions and consulates and go to the Byzantine museum. The museum was interesting to me in particular for its collection of icons and wall paintings.
{photo of mosaic Madonna of Tenderness]

We filed out of the museum to make it to Constitution Square for the changing of the guard at Parliament and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The skirts of the guards contain 400 pleats: One for each year of Turkish occupation.

Next came a walk to end all walks: We went past temples, Hadrians’s gate and the stadium where the first modern Olympic Games were held on our way to the New Acropolis Museum to meet our guide – the inimitable Dora with her wide grin, floppy hat and perfect English.

The museum was an incredible architectural experience: The glass floors and open spaces of the structure give the impression that floats above the architectural dig that gave the museum many of its objects.

The place of honor in the museum is reserved for what much of the world knows as the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. These pieces were looted irrespective of structural damage to ancient temples and monuments and taken to England in the late 19th century/early 20th century where they remain today. Greek officials and academics have tried unsuccessfully through diplomatic means to engineer the return of these objects to where they belong: In Athens.

Initially, the British Museum and government claimed reluctance to return the pieces because the city of Athens had not a safe or suitable home prepared for such historically significant works of art. The current museum certainly resolves that issue without dispute. I sincerely hope one day to return to Athens to see the alarming number of plaster casts scattered through the phenomenal facility replaced with the originals pirated by a British collector about a century ago; it is time for the marbles to come home, regardless of the possible chaos it may cause in the world’s most famous museums. It is time to call theft what it is and make restitution.

The climb to the Acropolis itself was a bit tiring in the heat, but standing on the summit amid structures I had only read of and never thought I would see in person was a very moving experience and well worth the climb.

My favorite building was never the Parthenon; It was always the temple that belonged to both Poseidon and Athena, though it is said that Athena got the lion’s share of space because she gave the perfect gift to the ancient Athenians: An olive tree that once stood in the angle where the two sanctuaries met.

The olive tree was significant because it symbolized life, light and wealth through its oil and fruit. An olive tree was replanted in the same spot some years ago…I left the Acropolis to head to dinner and then to walk folk dances from all over Greece, but in my pocket were two dried olives and several leaves gathered from under the tree re-planted to commemorate Athena’s perfect gift.

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