Greece: I came, I saw, I was conquered

This is the travel account from my Greece trip. I have always dreamed of visiting Greece, but now that –finally- I visited it, I will always dream of going back one day. I spent three weeks reading about the country before visiting it, but that was a mistake, a crime. Even three years are not enough to prepare the passionate traveler for the treasure that this country is…a country blessed with every beauty imaginable. This post is a tribute to Katerina Synodinou and Giorgos Thanos, my dear Greek friends as well as my passionate companions and extraordinary guides in Athens.

I- Ode to Greece

There is a kind of beauty that makes you smile, another that leaves you awe-stricken, and yet another that makes you sigh, as if in grief. Greece is one of these few places on earth where you can feel all three forms of beauty, as well as a fourth…what Plato would call ‘beauty of the idea’: the beauty of what Greece stands for.

When most people talk about the Greek civilization, they fail to notice the obscene oversimplification of history: Just in the Bronze Age alone, Greece had three successive and distinct civilizations (Cycladic, Minoan and Mycenaean). Then came the classical period (V and IV centuries BC) when classical humanism was born and the human condition became a common concern. Europe was born here, in reality as in legend: Europa, the Phoenician princess, was kidnapped by Zeus and brought to Crete. Her son, -the legendary king Minos, founded the Minoan Civilization, and his son, the Minotaur, was slain by Theseus, the founder of Athens.

The Phoenician dream, became flesh and blood. It became a city. In Athens as in other Greek cities, I filled my soul, felt my heart bigger. From the Homeric Question and the fatalism of Sophocles in Athens to the picaresque passions of Kazantzakis’s ‘Zorba the Greek’ in Crete, I had more than enough fuel for an already intrigued mind.

II- Athens, an encounter with my pagan trinities

“We have only a little time to please the living,
But all eternity to love the dead.” – Sophocles (Antigone)

Pagan is beautiful, and Athens is a perfect place to contemplate this reflection. More than just beautiful, pagan culture has triumphed (that is a long story), and -personally- I prefer pagan philosophers to mainstream prophets: the first teach you how to think, the second, what to believe.

In Athens, I was short of breath almost all the time. On one side there was the frenetic rhythm as we moved from one marvel to the next, and on the other side, there were tens of long awaited ‘encounters’ as I chased the phantoms of legendary thinkers and scholars: First, there was Pericles at the Dipylon, close to the Keramikos Cemetery where he made his famous epitaph in honor of the Peloponnesian War victims. His words echoed in my ears: “We love the beautiful within the bounds of what is right, and we love wisdom without surrendering to softness. We act to turn wealth to good use, rather than boast about it in idle words (…). We do not consider that discussion endangers action; the danger rather lies in taking action without having been instructed by discussion.”

Pericles did turn wealth to good use: the outcome was the Acropolis. At the Acropolis, I met the extraordinary sculptor, Phidias, who supervised the project, as well as King Aegeus who threw himself into the sea from this very same hill, thinking his son was killed by the Minotaur. The sea would forever bear his name: the Aegean Sea.

Then came two of my three ‘holy trinities’. First, I paid respects to the godfathers of drama in its golden age: Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides. I did that at Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus where their plays were performed to a spellbound audience.

Next, I traced the footsteps of the holy trinity of Greek philosophy: Socrates at his Stoa (in the Agora); Aristotle at the Lyceum (excavations); and Plato at his Academy (its relics are at the heart of a park that only Giorgos could show me).

Noble Athens. This land is where two gods vied for being patrons of the city (Athena’s olive tree granted her victory over Poseidon, and the city took her name). This is where the first pre-Christian bible was conceived (Homer’s Iliad)… this is where Hesiod first talked about the Five Ages of Man…this is where Aristophanes promoted women rights and where the first birthpangs of democracy were felt…this is where, centuries later, the Romans would learn what it means to be civilized…this is the noble Athens.

Now if you expect an ‘essay’ about the monuments and the museums of Athens, then sorry, Athens to me is what you read above. I need not tell you about the top-notch museums (Archaeological, Byzantine, Cycladic and Benaki Museums), the small, icon-stuffed Byzantine churches (like Agios Nikolaos and Agios Eleftherios), the Acropolis and its surroundings (the Agoras, the Hadrian Library and the Temple of the Olympian Zeus), the neoclassical marvels (like the trilogy on Panepistimiou Street), the serene neighborhoods (like Plaka and Anafiotika), the smell of gyros and souvlaki that fills the air in Monastiraki around lunch time…no…you can read about that in any guide book.

III. Santorini, the postcard island

“Happy is the man who, before dying, has the good fortune to sail the Aegean Sea.” – Nikos Kazantzakis (Zorba the Greek)

The voyage from Piraeus to Santorini is no less rewarding than Santorini itself. Islands of every shape and size float like huge marine monsters on the sea surface, something that Kazantzakis emphasized in more detail: “Many are the joys of life. But to cleave that sea in the gentle autumnal season, murmuring the name of each islet, is to my mind the joy most apt to transport the heart of man into paradise. Nowhere else can one pass so easily and serenely from reality to dream.”

We arrived at Santorini at night. As we approached the island, we saw the city of Fira twinkling like a thread of pearls on top of the caldera (volcanic cliff). In the morning, we quickly came to realize what makes this island a top destination and an obligatory visit: more than an island, Santorini is a carefully conceived sequence of postcards! White walls and light blue domes above the caldera, and profound blue sea with distant islets far below…we were flying in a blue dream.

Then came sunset, the famous Santorini sunset. Packs of tourists and lovers engaged in the age-old ritual of solar adoration, watching the sun disc sinking slowly into the bare bosom of the sea, kissing it, and painting the sky in every hue of orange, pink and yellow to the amazement of the hypnotized viewers. We stood there tongue-tied, sighing, but a shiver ran down my spine as I remembered how, over three millennia ago, a volcanic eruption here triggered a tsunami that –literally- wiped out the Minoan Civilization. Atlantis is not a myth.

Further to the north, Oia is a city with views as stunning as Fira, but with a more authentic ambience than the overloaded capital, while in the East and the South of the island a bunch of pebbly volcanic beaches (like Perissa) welcomed us with black sand, warm water and red rocks. We thought Santorini had the most spectacular landscape that we would ever see in Greece. We were wrong: At a distance, Crete was winking mockingly.

IV. Crete, the real deal

It’s where Europe’s first advanced civilization was born (the Minoans)…it has some of the Mediterranean’s best archaeological sites (Knossos)…it has Europe’s longest gorge (Samaraia) and three of Greece’s most gorgeous beaches (Elafonisi, Falasarna and Balos)…it has unique harbor-cities with enchanting historic centers where the Venetian and the Ottoman legacies blend to perfection (in Hania and Rethimno)…it has the best cuisine in Greece (because I said so) and, as if all the above was not enough, its people are hospitable and warm-hearted. To put it shortly: Crete has it all.

As we moved from the East to the West across the island, things got more interesting and the cities more picturesque. First there was Heraklion and Knossos where we contemplated the frescos of the Prince of Lilies and wandered around the Labyrinth of the Minotaur, then came Rethymno with its Venetian fountains, wooden facades and Ottoman minarets, then the charming Hania with its tidy Venetian harbor and its pleasant old city, a maze of alleys and medieval mansions turned into open-air restaurants where everything under the Cretan sun is served: whether it’s as simple as dakos and tzatziki or as elaborated as stifado, grilled octopus or gemista, you cannot go wrong with any choice you make. At night, traditional live music fills the air as musicians play their bouzouki and their guitars to the diners. Every alley makes for a memorable walk, every beach becomes the backdrop for a dancing ‘Zorba’.

Beaches I said? Go west. At Falasarna, we dipped into azure pools sheltered from the waves by natural rock barriers…a picturesque beach and a magical landscape. At Balos, the story was different, and I don’t think any words can do this place any justice (and hence the photos). I never before saw pink sand or water the color of mother-of-pearl! This place is, in one word, an earthly Eden. I walked in, I was overwhelmed, and I walked out…out of Eden.

Published: al-Farghani and his Nilometer

Central Asia gave birth to many prominent medieval intellectuals like Ibn Sina (Avicenna), al-Biruni and al-Khwarizmi. One name, however, should ring a bell in Egypt: al-Farghani (Alfraganus), the mastermind of the famous Nilometer. Following the time he spent at Bayt al-Hikma (House of Wisdom) in Abbasid Baghdad, he finally moved to Egypt where he left one of his masterpieces. Here is his story from an article of mine published by Ahram Online:

Published: al-Andalus at the heart of Islamic Cairo

The term ‘al-Andalus’ never fails to evoke nostalgia in the Arab World. More than anything, people long for a golden age marked by a cultural renaissance that was made possible thanks to enlightened rulers and exceptional intellectuals in the cities of Cordoba, Granada, Seville, Toledo and others.

In the case of al-Maghreb (Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria), the Andalusi imprint is clearly visible in cities like Tetuan, Kairouan and Oran. When it comes to Egypt, it takes a little scratching beneath the surface to see this imprint in the mosques of Islamic Cairo. Here is my latest article published in Ahram Online:

Mahmoud Said: Alexandria’s Paintbrush breaks Christie’s Record?

My latest article in Ahram Online is about an artist that painted dancers and dervishes, aristocrats and nudes. The best appreciation he ever received during his lifetime was –as he himself said- a spit on the face from a man that was ‘moved’ by the sensuality of the nude figures in that painter’s works. Our artist, who left his law studies in France and dedicated himself to art, eventually became ‘Alexandria’s paintbrush’ and one of Egypt’s most iconic modern painter: Mahmoud Saïd (1897-1964).

In 2010, his name made the news headlines as one of his masterpieces; ‘The Whirling Dervishes’ (1929), sold for a record $ 2.546 million through Christie’s Dubai. The estimated price prior to the sale was no higher than $ 400,000. The sale sent shockwaves through the art market, setting the world auction record for the artist
and the world record price for any Arab painting sold at auction. Earlier that year, another painting of his; ‘Les Chadoufs’ (1935), had sold for $ 2.43 million. Now, two of his paintings might break a new record next week. Read on:

The wounded Snow Goose that turned Friendship into Love

It’s a portrait of a young girl called Fritha with a wounded snow goose in her arms, and the story behind it is a sad one.
The man who had painted this portrait, a disabled artist called Rhayader, died during the war. He had known Fritha years earlier when, one day, she brought the wounded snow goose to him at the lighthouse where he lived, hoping he could heal the goose. He did, and every year ever after, the snow goose would visit the lighthouse in its annual migration…an occasion celebrated by Rhayader and Fritha every year as their friendship silently turned into love over the years. She realized it after he died.

This is the plot of a short novel titled ‘The Snow Goose’ by Paul Gallico, a very touching story that inspired my favorite band, Camel, who issued a concept album based on the novel in 1975. Having read the novel, the music brings tears to my eyes every time I listen to it and remember the fate of this love. Here is a short instrumental piece called ‘Sanctuary’ from the album:

Yeats and his Mermaid

“I would there was nothing but my beloved
That night and day had perished
And all that is and that is to be
All that is not the meeting of our lips.”
– The Shadowy Waters

Romance as it should be from one of my favorite poets: Butler Yeats. This Irish genius, together with James Joyce, made modern Irish poetry possible. Yeats was a playwright, poet, critic, editor, literary journalist, theatre director, public speaker, promoter of Celtic tradition and –as if that list was not enough- mythologist.

Born in Dublin in 1865 into an artistic family, he soon developed an obsession
for magic, the occult, & the supernatural. This obsession marked his writings ever after. He engaged in political activism later on, and contributed significantly to the preservation of the Celtic literary identity.

Here are some of my favorite verses by Yeats:

“A mermaid found a swimming lad
Picked him for her own
Pressed her body to his body
Laughed; and plunging down
Forgot in cruel happiness
That even lovers drown.”
– The Mermaid