Archipelagos of Time: On the Song of the Sirens

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Eirini Vourloumis, The Mermaid Madonna, (2015), Onassis Cultural Center, Athens

Homer, Odyssey, 12.184-191, (trans. Emily Wilson) (Full text on the Scaife Viewer)

‘Odysseus! Come here! You are well-known
from many stories! Glory of the Greeks!
Now stop your ship and listen to our voices.
All those who pass this way hear honeyed song,
poured from our mouths. The music brings them joy,
and they go on their way with greater knowledge,
since we know everything the Greeks and Trojans
suffered in Troy, by gods’ will; and we know
whatever happens anywhere on earth.’

‘δεῦρ᾽ ἄγ᾽ ἰών, πολύαιν᾽ Ὀδυσεῦ, μέγα κῦδος Ἀχαιῶν,
νῆα κατάστησον, ἵνα νωιτέρην ὄπ ἀκούσῃς.
οὐ γάρ πώ τις τῇδε παρήλασε νηὶ μελαίνῃ,
πρίν γ᾽ ἡμέων μελίγηρυν ἀπὸ στομάτων ὄπ᾽ ἀκοῦσαι,
ἀλλ᾽ ὅ γε τερψάμενος νεῖται καὶ πλείονα εἰδώς.
ἴδμεν γάρ τοι πάνθ᾽ ὅσ᾽ ἐνὶ Τροίῃ εὐρείῃ
Ἀργεῖοι Τρῶές τε θεῶν ἰότητι μόγησαν,
ἴδμεν δ᾽, ὅσσα γένηται ἐπὶ χθονὶ πουλυβοτείρῃ.

Traveling to and from islands is always, in a foundational narrative, a response to a search for origins, and finality, at the same time: “Islands are either from before or for after mankind […] Some islands drifted away from the continent, but the island is also that toward which one drifts; other islands originated in the ocean, but the island is also the origin, radical and absolute” (Deleuze, 2004). The second Homeric epic is a durational tale of the return of the hero to his home island of Ithaca, following the exploits of the Trojan War. While Odysseus was held for a year by the sorceress Circe on the mythical island Aeaea, she warned him about the song of the Sirens that he would encounter between Aeaea and the rock of Scylla: Whoever draws near their deadly song, he nevermore returns (Od. 12.36-54). He is advised to row past them, anointing the ears of his comrades with wax, and let them bind him to the mast of the vessel so that he may hear the voice of the two sirens and not come near them. But the survival tale of the hero leaves us wondering whether this isn’t one of the most cryptic passages in the epic.

In his first person account, Odysseus is unable to tell what it is exactly that he heard (Od. 12.180-194); it is a song without content, and the promise or threat of a song. The hero of the epic is fooling us into believing that he has heard a deadly song, and survived, rowing past the Sirens. The recital begins with the Iliadic expression πολύαιν᾽ Ὀδυσεῦ μέγα κῦδος Ἀχαιῶν (Il. 9.673; Il. 10.544, but esp. Il. 11.430 where he is faced with the possibility of death), “Odysseus, greatly praised, great glory of the Achaeans”, which appears nowhere else in the Odyssey. By re-introducing the militarism of the Iliad, the Sirens threaten Odysseus’ homecoming. This episode, however brief, has outlasted its importance in the diegesis of the Odyssey, and there’s an underlying contradiction that one cannot evade: “Since we know everything the Greeks and Trojans suffered in Troy, by gods’ will; and we know whatever happens anywhere on earth” is a flawed song and promise, for if they knew the future, they would have known that Odysseus sails on unmolested by their conditional offer.

The Sirens’ attempt to subvert time, expresses a desire to change the course of events not towards different historical events, but towards the one and single event: The endless repetition of the exploits of Troy. This temporal lacuna (a loss of vision) causes a rip in the texture of the Odysseic time-world, however minuscule and unsuccessful; according to the later account of Lycophron, the Sirens kill themselves after Odysseus escapes them (Lycophr. 1.712-716). This gap, a singularity, occurs as spatio-temporal remoteness: The Sirens know everything, except what is now present and visible. This remoteness is itself akin to an island – islands are unconnected. They represent a void in the continuity of the world, but also a last frontier that can be crossed, and yet a space without function: “Odysseus hears a voice without a story, and the audience a story without voice” (Schur, 2014). With these hypotactic metaphors in mind (void, island, breach, non-time), let’s travel to the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, where Odysseus made a brief stop en route from Troy to Ithaca (Od. 3.169).

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Eirini Vourloumis, The Mermaid Madonna, (2015), Onassis Cultural Center, Athens

“The islands of the blessed” (Μακἀρων νῆσοι) they were called – Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Cos, and Rhodes, because they were ruled by Macareus and his sons, or because of their enviable prosperity (Diod. 5.81-82), but Diodorus Siculus also tells us, in the 1st century BCE, that Lesbos had been inhabited in ancient times by many peoples, since it has been the scene of many migrations. After the Pelasgians perished in the flood of Deucalion, “It came to pass that Lesbos was also laid desolate by the deluge of the waters”. The rule of the Macarioi was just the first installment in an interminable history of conquest and resettlement of Lesbos, extending through the Mytilenian Debate (Thuc. 3.36-49), when the city-state of Mytilene attempted to revolt against Athenian hegemony, to the raising of the Greek flag in 1912, after the surrender of the Turks who ruled over it for over four hundred years. After the Asia Minor catastrophe in 1922, Greek refugees arrived in droves from Anatolia and settled in the northern part of the island, as Ottoman Muslims from Greece were exiled in the opposite direction.

Sea-locked in Lesbos, separated from Turkey only by a narrow strait, these former refugees once upon a time called “intruders, people with no identity, trash” (Papadiamantis, 2005), and at a considerable distance from the Athenian hegemony of today, were themselves the first ones to receive the new wave of refugees from the Middle East and Africa since 2015, enduring once again, the perils of Homer’s wine-dark sea (Od. 5.349). In this reenactment of a perpetual deluge through the island, without knowing yet the final destination (if there’s one), memories of unresolved trauma pile beneath new ones, and the role of an island as the focal point of a discentered void, becomes accentuated. “The desert island is the material of this something immemorial, something profound” (Deleuze, 2004). It’s not necessary for an island to be uninhabited to become deserted, or to contain inner deserts: There are manifold possibilities for being sea-locked; the raft on the water, the refugee camp of Moria in northern Lesbos, places of quarantine, and then the entire island. Archipelagos of time, zones of exclusion, confinement, para-legality.    

In Wu Tsang’s collaborative video-installation slash parafiction One Emerging From a Point of View” (2019, Fast Forward Festival 6, Onassis Cultural Center, Athens), the artist presents a polyphonic tale on the topic of migration that resembles more an epic than a linear narrative: Far from the logic of a documentary, a series of overlapping characters tell time (rather than specific events) in Lesbos not unlike the Homeric sirens – self-description becomes identical with a narrated event, time is a promise. What is promised is a story about history, but in the end we are faced with the condition of being outside of historical time, stuck, suspended, sealocked and unprotected by the spaces of mutual appearances. Realistic fragments from the present-day journey of a migrant, journalistic observations of life inside this political cosmogony (there’s no inside/outside on the island world), and the fictional narration of Yassmine Flowers, a transgender woman from Morocco, who escapes from a king to become a ‘deep sea techno witch’, interweave into a thick montage of present, fresh ruins.

In this hybrid fantasy world, events might be separated by impassable boundaries, where the border is not the limit of an experience, but its fundamental category. These different narrations collide in the photographic work of Eirini Vourloumis (one of Tsang’s collaborators), where she documents the physical traces of previous and current journeys from the viewpoint of an archaeology of borderwork: Working against a distinction between material and human (Hicks & Mallet, 2019).

Παναγία η Γοργὀνα

The iconic orange inflatable lifesavers are piled on the shoreline, a raft approaches the coast at night, and the debris of a makeshift settlement, all serve as a testimony of the new arrivals, but the testimony isn’t a memory – the deluge is still taking place, it has never stopped taking place (inside of the void, there’s no history, just one single continuous event). The Mermaid Madonna” is based on the eponymous novel of Stratis Myrivilis, published in 1955, set against the background of the Asia Minor catastrophe, but centered around two interrelated mythological characters: Our Lady of the Mermaid, (Παναγιά η Γοργόνα), a small church perched on a rock in the village of Skala Sykamnias, and the girl-nereid Esmeralda.

Centuries of oral traditions, transmissions and depictions in the Aegean, have blurred the distinction between various female mythological creatures, naiads, nereids, sirens, muses, tritonites, gorgonas, associated often with dual bodies/nature; they exist on the margins or at the borders of possible foundations. According to tradition the church took its name from what Myrivilis calls the strangest Virgin Mary in Greece and in the whole of Christianity, an apocryphal mural by an unknown folk painter that presented the Virgin Mary with a mermaid’s tail (now as an icon in the church). Esmeralda’s origin on the other hand is no less fantastical: A girl that doesn’t appear in the plot of the novel until several chapters later; she was born with emerald green eyes – like the sea, and golden curly hair – like the sun, so that the women in the village wondered whether she had been mothered by a nereid: “Who has given you such beautiful curls, my beloved? Your mother the nereid must be! Since you were born from the stars, go and ask the sun, whether it’s him or you who shines the world.” 

Skala Sykamnias, church of the Lady Mermaid

Soon rumors around the dark powers of sirens, mermaids, nereids and muses began to circulate; a mythography around all the tragedies in Esmeralda’s life. Throughout the novel, the divine origin in the sea of Esmeralda is speculated, but she remains in the end like the Homeric sirens, unaccounted (Homer, always rich in adjectives, doesn’t offer a genealogy or even a description of the Sirens): “She anchored by the shadow of the rocks, then undressed completely and plunged into the water. Her body shone for a moment, illuminated by the moon, like an enormous golden fish, and then disappeared. The gorgona virgin, the young nereid, the deep sea techno witch, the migrant and the gaze of the photojournalist, all cross each other in Lesbos, but never encounter one another. “One Emerging from a Point of View” expresses the lost imaginary of the future, in which the Homeric siren song must be cut short: Completeness of knowledge, threatens the present. In the end, a new creature arises from the violent seas of the here and now: “This mermaid is Greece – half land, half sea”

Wu Tsang, “One Emerging from a Point of View” (2019), Onassis Cultural Center, Athens

The perplexing articulation of Tsang’s cinematic epic in Athens around the shrinking of historical time, was then augmented by an experimental theater piece, Thomas Bellinck’s speculative documentary “The Wild Hunt” (2019, Fast Forward Festival 6, Onassis Cultural Center, Athens) which begins with a reference to a painting by Romantic Scandinavian painter Peter Nicolai Arbo, “The Wild Hunt of Odin” (1872), recalling the Wild Hunt of Scandinavian folklore, a terrifying procession flinging across the skies during midwinter to abduct all those unfortunate who have been unable to find a hiding place. In this long audio performance (extending through hours, during which you only see the audible words projected on a screen), another sinister polyphony pieces together a portrait of today’s human hunt taking place throughout the Mediterranean, through snippets of dialogues in different languages between migrants, journalists, smugglers. The missing images of toil (the impossibility for Odysseus of sharing or reenacting the ephemeral sound of a deadly song) wrestle away from us the possibility of being shocked, and therefore, desensitized. 

NOR Åsgårdsreien, ENG The wild Hunt of Odin
The Wild Hunt, Peter Nicolai Arbo, (1872)

And the reality of this human hunt (humans have prices, markets, bidders), makes us question whether the typology of the island hasn’t erected itself as an entirely new politics? Archipelagos of time are those zones of enframing, confinement, enclosure, that exist outside an audible human world (where one is heard and can speak): Camp Moria and Camp de la Lande (in the Calais area of France) at the outermost borders of Europe. Who are those unfortunate who have been unable to find a hiding place? Roaming around the earth, these undesirables, are not fighting out only a conflict between a militaristic narrative and a homecoming, but rather, they have been abandoned by the Odyssey in the land of the Lotus eaters: “So they went straightway and mingled with the Lotus-eaters, and the Lotus-eaters did not plan death for my comrades, but gave them of the lotus to taste. And whosoever of them ate of the honey-sweet fruit of the lotus, had no longer any wish to bring back word or to return, but there they were fain to abide among the Lotus-eaters, feeding on the lotus, and forgetful of their homeward way” (Od. 9.91-97).

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Thomas Bellinck, “The Wild Hunt” (2019), Onassis Cultural Center, Athens

It would be impossible today to discuss the structure of an emergency politics (the archipelago of time, the island, is the political condition of the exception, of the camp) without the Aristotelian sharp distinction between natural life and the polis (Aristot. Pol. 1.1252a.26-35), the demise of which is theorized by Agamben under the infamous concept of the state of exception: “When life and politics, originally divided, are linked together by means of the no man’s land of the state of exception that is inhabited by bare life -begin to become one, all life becomes sacred and all politics becomes the exception” (Agamben, 1998). Or, to put it more simply, the sovereign’s ability to commit crimes without suffering consequences: “Whoever entered the camp moved in a zone of indistinction between outside and inside, exception and rule, licit and illicit, in which the very concepts of subjective right and juridical protection no longer made any sense” (Agamben, 1998). On the island, those who have been gathered by Odin, exist in a different universe where they might not be killed, but they’re also not permitted to die.

This sacrality of life, Agamben informs us, is here fully decontextualized: “The principle of the sacredness of life has become so familiar to us that we seem to forget that classical Greece, to which we owe most of our ethico-political concepts, not only ignored this principle but did not even possess a term to express the complex semantic sphere that we indicate with the single term life” (Agamben, 1998). Out of this indistinction, where the traditional categories of friend and enemy that sustain classical political theory have been suspended, new forms of violence become possible in which what is traditionally called hostility, war, conflict, enmity, cruelty and hatred becomes here thus unidentifiable (Derrida, 2004). The camp, as the expression of the exception is a war without war: “To kill without bloodshed, with the help of new techniques, is perhaps already to accede to a world without war and without politics, to the inhumanity of a war without war” (Derrida, 2004). Agamben, in his fine construction, however, spins the tale as the natural outcome of Western metaphysics and this decline narrative must be abandoned at once.

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Thomas Bellinck, “The Wild Hunt” (2019), Onassis Cultural Center, Athens

Agamben’s willful oblivion of European imperialism brings us to a legal scholar to clarify the historical record. The state of exception didn’t rise out of Western metaphysics. It was in fact tried and tested by Europeans in their colonies, before it was shipped home and made to bear a constitutional face which is by no means exceptional, and thus destroys the traditional idea of colonialism as a period: “Colonialism is both place and process, a world-historical system that registers in different modes at different times” (Hussain, 2003). The island remains a liminal border of the colonial experience. Different colonial expeditions set sail not only towards inaccessible islands (Rufold Island in the Arctic) but also towards phantom islands: Islands that were previously recorded in maps and travelogues, but were found later not to exist. The exception of the camp is also a phantom island; it exists ghostly and outside cartography. The phantom island is also the story of the migrant stowaways on shipping vessels: a floating camp, bare life at sea, a site of radical difference (MacDonald, 2020).

What all these archipelagos of time share is actually the privation of time. Through dehumanizing borderwork (producing inside/outside border means to produce also illegality), impermanence becomes a form of transnational government and the bare life at sea (or on the desert, the island, the camp) articulates the interminability of colonial violence insofar as the permanence required to appear before others evaporates; the different languages of “The Wild Hunt” are inaudible gibberish without translation, just like the stuttering utterances of the deep sea techno witch, or in fact any inaudible story. Temporality is replaced with temporariness: The temporary becomes a space for politics, a time destroyed so quickly that it is perhaps shorter than the evénément (Hicks & Mallet, 2019).” Refugees are moved from place to place, their belongings destroyed, their institutionalization halted. But this privation of time isn’t simply by exclusion, it is also by reconfiguration: They’re condemned to exist in a time other than the timezone of modernity.

The everlasting present of this island functions as a geopolitics: “The temporal stasis that comes from the physical blockage arising from seeking asylum through irregular passage becomes the abhorrent condition of impermanence as abjection. Time is weaponized, as it was once before through Victorian savagery. But this now operates through the withdrawal of duration and the ongoing (post)colonial process of the imposition of different ages across different hemispheres” (Hicks & Mallet, 2019). As denizens of a global pandemic, we now know how difficult it is to sustain a world in which the fragility of human affairs isn’t mediated by our appearing together through sustained, mutual, acts of speech. The nature of human action is such, that as soon as the action ceases, so does the world. It was for example, in the Iliad, the factuality of public speech, of having a place where men can do battle with words, what guaranteed a truly political foundation (Barker & Christensen, 2013; Arendt, 1958). How do we inherit then Dan Hicks and Sarah Mallet’s notion of ‘giving time’ (back) as resistance to the threat of inaudible speech?

We must return here again to the Song of the Sirens and the opening Iliadic formula: πολύαιν᾽ Ὀδυσεῦ μέγα κῦδος Ἀχαιῶν (this time in the Wilson translation for clarity: ‘Odysseus! Come here! You are well-known from many stories! Glory of the Greeks!’). Invoking Odysseus as the πολύαινος (polyainos, full of wisdom and knowledge), the one of many deeds and praises from the Iliad, the tale of force (violence, bare life), becomes a challenge to the hero’s present ainoi, his speech acts: The goddess Athena celebrates him for being a cunning liar, “among mortal men, you’re far the best at tactics, spinning yarns, and I am famous among the gods for wisdom, cunning wiles, too” (Hom. Od. 13.324-39) His survival depends now solely on his capacity for storytelling and persuasion. Returning home for Odysseus, as the opening lines of the epic tell us (Hom. Od. 1.1-6), establishes a relation between his mind (noos) and his return (nostos), so that in returning home, he also saves his life and his mind, after “getting to know/see different ways.” Odysseus refuses to submit to the interminability of the song, the precarious eternity. 

The opening of the Odyssey already contains the answer to the Song of the Sirens: “Tell me about a complicated man. Muse, tell me  how he wandered and was lost when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy and where he went, and who he met, the pain he suffered in the storms at sea, and how he worked to save his life and bring his men back home.” (Hom. Od. 1.1-5) Odysseus is not only relating the life of the mind, his soul, to the life of the community, his return, but he is also a πολύτροπος (polytropos): One who could change in many different ways who he was, and who takes on many different forms, a man of many devices, a complicated man (in the Wilson translation). It speaks of the capacity to use stories as foundations, in order to emerge from a primeval void (Homer’s epics were also a break with previous master narratives).

Gregory Nagy’s interpretation of Odysseus’ homecoming highlights that this isn’t just any homecoming, but a return to light and life. In Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s video work Remember the Light (2016, Sharjah Art Foundation), men and women are submerged deeper and deeper underwater, and strange things happen to the spectrum of color – it narrows into disappearance: “Those men, this woman, seems then the echo of all those persons traveling through the sea without knowing their fate.” But something resurfaces then again towards the light, and the spectrum of light begins to magnify until the light is in full view. Lebanese Joana Hadjithomas, from a Greek family that sailed for Beirut after the Asia Minor catastrophe, still wonders how many more homecomings are possible: “What is forgotten, what remains and what can be imagined? And the truth may just be this: that in a time of monsters, in which ‘the old world is dying away, and the new world struggles to come forth’, the only thing that can bring us out of the darkness is the light of love, beauty, poetry” (Muller, 2006). 

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Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, Remember the Light, (2016)
“I’ve stared at beauty too much”, Cavafy tells us in one of his poems. The scene has changed from Athens to Beirut. In Hadjithomas and Joreige’s video, “I’ve Stared at Beauty So Much: Waiting for the Barbarians” (2013), in reference to Cavafy: “Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come. / And some of our men just in from the border say / There are no barbarians any longer”, we see Beirut from the skies, overlapping realities, myths, we are confused, the view is blurred, and yet remains possible at the same time. As I wrote in 2014 about their lecture performance “An Additional Continent”: “For Hadjithomas and Joreige it is necessary not only to remember the past, but also to reinvent it as if it had never happened before. Hadjithomas insists that to re-stage is to re-start. They want to reframe the question of political foundations as a problem of culture (or of civilization). How to start something anew? How to be reinvented in uncertainty? How to live without foundations? And by foundation we meant the act of founding a body politic, a human community, a political stage.” Dialogue is the possibility of geography, the possibility of (again) time; but these conversations take a very long time, perhaps all the available time.

And then what does poetry have to do with the gift of time, in its practical implications? How is it possible to conflate the travels of Odysseus with the plight of unnamed migrants stranded and even lost at sea? Because the Odyssey functions as a master narrative, a self-contained universe, it allows us today to wonder at a time when we’re ourselves temporarily exiled from access to the immediacy of time (during a pandemic), whether this being lost at sea, as a political cosmology, isn’t growing between us as a new foundational narrative and a possible new world, even more violent than the old one.

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Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, An Additional Continent, Ashkal Alwan, Beirut, (2014)

We should read this time the return to Ithaca against Cavafy, “To arrive there is your final destination. But do not rush the voyage in the least. Better it last for many years […]”, for we no longer want to delay time once it has been wrestled from our hands, and especially from their hands, into the evénément of the unexceptional exception of bare life at sea. But yet we will read it with Christos Ikonomou, from his collection of short stories “Good Will Come from the Sea” (2014): “In which land we are to live, I wonder, us and those who’ll come after us? In a country that will exist because it hates and is afraid? And I want to believe in something. I want to believe, okay? […] To know that something doesn’t exist and to believe in it – I think this is the only salvation left to us. Because if you believe in something that doesn’t exist, who knows, one day it could be born.” The procedure is simple; consciousness of limit, fragility, finitude, and only here, no other, distant worlds (Heller, 1993). The final word rests with Odysseus, in his address to the goddess Athena:

But even so, I want to go back home,
And every day I hope that the day will come.
If some god strikes me on the wine-dark sea,
I will endure it. By now I am used
To suffering – I have gone through so much,
At sea and in the war. Let this come too.

ἀλλὰ καὶ ὧς ἐθέλω καὶ ἐέλδομαι ἤματα πάντα
οἴκαδέ τ’ ἐλθέμεναι καὶ νόστιμον ἦμαρ ἰδέσθαι.
εἰ δ’ αὖ τις ῥαίῃσι θεῶν ἐνὶ οἴνοπι πόντῳ,
τλήσομαι ἐν στήθεσσιν ἔχων ταλαπενθέα θυμόν·
ἤδη γὰρ μάλα πολλὰ πάθον καὶ πολλὰ μόγησα
κύμασι καὶ πολέμῳ· μετὰ καὶ τόδε τοῖσι γενέσθω.

Homer, Odyssey, 5.219-224, (trans. Emily Wilson)

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Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, “I’ve Stared at Beauty So Much: Waiting for the Barbarians”, (2013), commissioned by the Onassis Cultural Center, Visual Dialogues


  • Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics, 1998
  • Arie Amaya-Akkermans, “Why Eternity is so Precarious?”, Hyperallergic, 2014
  • Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press, 1958
  • Elton T.E. Barker & Joel Christensen, Homer: A Beginner’s Guide, Oneworld Publications, 2013
  • Michael Bull, Sirens: The Study of Sound, Bloomsbury, 2020
  • Gilles Deleuze, Desert Islands and Other Texts 1953-1974, Semiotext(e), 2004
  • Jacques Derrida, The Politics of Friendship, Verso, 2005
  • Lillian Eileen Doherty, “Sirens, Muses and Female Narrators in the Odyssey”, in The Distaff Side: Representing the Female in Homer’s Odyssey, ed. Beth Cohen, Oxford University Press, 1995 
  • Margalit Finkelberg (ed.), The Homer Encyclopedia, vol. 3, Wiley-Blackwell, 2011
  • Agnes Heller, A Philosophy of History in Fragments, Wiley-Blackwell, 1993
  • Dan Hicks & Sarah Mallet, Lande: The Calais Jungle and Beyond, Bristol University Press, 2019
  • Nasser Hussain, The Jurisprudence of Emergency: Colonialism and the Rule of the Law, University of Michigan Press, 2003
  • Megan C. MacDonald, “Bare Life at Sea (the Leper and the Plague)” in Biotheory: Life and Death under Capitalism, ed. Jeffrey R. Di Leo & Peter Hitchcock, Routledge, 2020
  • Nat Muller, “Beauty in a Time of Monsters” in Two Suns in a Sunset: Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Koenig Books, 2016 
  • Pedro Jesús Molina Muñoz, “La imagen de la Sirena en la obra de Stratis Myribilis, La Virgen Sirena”, in Identidades Femeninas en un Mundo Plural, ed. Maria Elena Jaime de Pablos, AUDEM, 2009
  • Gregory Nagy, The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours, Harvard University Press, 2013, online.
  • Αλέξανδρος Παπαδιαμάντης, «Τραγούδια του Θεού», Άπαντα, κριτική έκδ. Ν. Δ. Τριανταφυλλόπουλος, Αθήνα, Δόμος, 2005
  • Pietro Pucci, “The Song of the Sirens”, Arethusa, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Fall 1979)
  • David Schur, “The Silence of Homer’s Sirens”, Arethusa, Vol. 47, No. 1 (Winter 2014) 
  • Emily L. Shields, “Lesbos in the Trojan War”, The Classical Journal, Vol. 13, No. 9 (June 1918)

Acknowledgments to the people who through their suggestions and conversations in the past year contributed to this essay: Arca Alpan, Katia Arfara, Gregory Buchakjian, Joel Christensen, Musab Daud, Maria Eliades, Sofia Georgiadou, Joana Hadjithomas, Dan Hicks. 

Arie Amaya-Akkermans is a writer and art critic based in Istanbul. He’s also tweeting about Classics, continental philosophy, contemporary art and Turkey/Greece.

“Efeler Yolu”: On the Footpath of the Tmolus


Lübbey Kışlağı, [all images by the author unless stated otherwise]
I. An Ancient Route

Euripides, Bacchae, 451-465

Release his hands, for caught in the nets he is not swift enough to escape me. But your body is not ill-formed, stranger, for women’s purposes, the very reason you have come to Thebes. For your hair is long, you’re not a wrestler, scattered all over your cheeks, full of desire; and you keep your skin white, protected from the sun, by hunting after Aphrodite  beneath the shade. First then tell me who your family is.

I can tell you this easily, without boasting. I suppose you are familiar with flowery Tmolus.

I know of it; it surrounds the city of Sardis.

I am from there, and Lydia is my fatherland.

Why do you bring these rites to Greece?

Dionysus, the child of Zeus, sent me.

μέθεσθε χειρῶν τοῦδ᾽: ἐν ἄρκυσιν γὰρ ὢν
οὐκ ἔστιν οὕτως ὠκὺς ὥστε μ᾽ ἐκφυγεῖν.
ἀτὰρ τὸ μὲν σῶμ᾽ οὐκ ἄμορφος εἶ, ξένε,
ὡς ἐς γυναῖκας, ἐφ᾽ ὅπερ ἐς Θήβας πάρει:
πλόκαμός τε γάρ σου ταναός, οὐ πάλης ὕπο,
γένυν παρ᾽ αὐτὴν κεχυμένος, πόθου πλέως:
λευκὴν δὲ χροιὰν ἐκ παρασκευῆς ἔχεις,
οὐχ ἡλίου βολαῖσιν, ἀλλ᾽ ὑπὸ σκιᾶς,
τὴν Ἀφροδίτην καλλονῇ θηρώμενος.
πρῶτον μὲν οὖν μοι λέξον ὅστις εἶ γένος.
οὐ κόμπος οὐδείς: ῥᾴδιον δ᾽ εἰπεῖν τόδε.
τὸν ἀνθεμώδη Τμῶλον οἶσθά που κλύων.
οἶδ᾽, ὃς τὸ Σάρδεων ἄστυ περιβάλλει κύκλῳ.
ἐντεῦθέν εἰμι, Λυδία δέ μοι πατρίς.
πόθεν δὲ τελετὰς τάσδ᾽ ἄγεις ἐς Ἑλλάδα;
Διόνυσος ἡμᾶς εἰσέβησ᾽, ὁ τοῦ Διός.

From the road alone, it is difficult to grasp the extension of the Boz Dağ, a mountain range known in antiquity as the Tmolus. It runs from east to Izmir all the way to Turkey’s western Anatolian Plateau, with a summit at around 2200-2400 m. Now it’s tucked somewhere between the modern Turkish provinces of Izmir, Manisa and Uşak, hiding its lush valleys, irregular elevations, and largely abandoned villages. At present, the area is a destination for hikers and bikers, who spend time in between the mountains (see The Figs and Mountains of Izmir: Travel horizontally in any direction and you see no change in landscape, by Smithsonian journalist Alastair Bland who biked in the area in 2011) and mostly local tourists, who visit the area around Lake Gölcük and the Ottoman-era town of Birgi (the distance between them is around 21 km), both located at the easternmost end of the mountain range. The real attraction though is Mount Bozdağ itself, and its short skiing season. But during the journey, we traveled only in a triangle between the regional capital, modern-day Ödemiş (a former capital of the Aydınoğlu Sultanate in the 13th and 14th century), the historical Birgi and the more remote settlement of Lübbey.

Even though the Tmolus is flanked by the valleys of very important fluvial channels in antiquity, and in the neighborhood of the Aegean Coast, one of the best known parts of the ancient world – Aeolis, Ionia, Lydia –  little is known about the mountains. This remoteness has contributed to their mythological status as a home of the gods: Euripides tells us in his posthumous masterpiece that Dionysus was born there (and already in the opening lines, the God informs us that he has arrived in Thebes, taking a mortal form, after leaving behind many riches in Lydia and Phrygia; Eur. Ba. 13-22). The first appearance of the mythological Tmolus, goes back to Theognis, a 6th century lyric poet from Megara, <Οὔποτε τοῖσ’ ἐχθροῖσιν ὑπὸ ζυγὸν αὐχένα θήσω / δύσλοφον, οὐδ’ εἴ μοι Τμῶλος ἔπεστι κάρηι.> ( Never will I set my neck under the galling yoke of mine enemies, nay, not though Tmolus be upon my head); according to myth Tmolus is a mountain-god, son of Ares and Theogone and he judged the musical contest between Pan and Apollo (Ov. Met. 11.146-194). Mount Tmolus is named after him, a king of Lydia, with the capital Sardis at its foot and Hypaepa on the southern slope.

Ancient Lydia, map by Sami Patacı

The historical Lydia, however, is an Iron Age kingdom, named after 2nd millennium king Lydus (Hdt. 1.7) from the dynasty of the Maeonian kings, and which occupied, in its pre-Greek setting, large swathes of Western Anatolia. It was reduced after the Persian contest roughly to its Hellenistic border with Ionia and Phrygia, especially after Cyrus conquered Sardis. But for all the importance of Lydia, the mythical Mt. Tmolus remained a place of isolation, shepherds and woodcutters.

The myth of its seclusion continued into the Christian era with monastic foundations but once again sources are hard to come by. Yet the importance of Mt. Tmolus had always to do with its privileged location between the Anatolian Plateau and the Aegean Coast, except that as Western explorers found out in the 19th century (especially the Swiss botanist Edmond Boissier in 1842), it cannot be crossed from east to west in modern times; “the fertile valleys are separated from each other by large and complex ranges of mountains where communication is difficult and agricultural resources are inadequate to support a large population” (Foss, 1978).

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Map of Efeler Yolu

However the Tmolus is not impassable: “Most of the range consists of smaller chains of peaks which run north and south and enclose long, narrow valleys, called yayla, ‘summer pasture’, in Turkish” (Foss, 1978). Ancient roads led from Sardis to Hypaepa (an ancient city at the southern slope of the the Tmolus), a convenient route that connected the plateau and the coast, and that existed since Hittite times. It bypassed the Tmolus altogether along the Hermus, following parallel mountain ranges with lower elevations.

Other parallel roads were carved by political events: the Persian conquest of the Asia Minor in 546 BCE and the subsequent Athenian take over in 499 BCE. From the perspective of a  contemporary visitor, the unspoiled nature is breathtaking and inviting, but under the dense vegetation of the valleys or the barren slopes, lurk long centuries of seasonal migrations, archaeological remains, agricultural landscaping, population exchange and massive public works. Since the departure of the man-god Dionysus for Thebes, the mysterious land of the gods has been hotly contested, often in battle, but ultimately abandoned to overgrown nature.

Lübbey Kışlağı

II. One City, Many Names

Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, 8.19.2-3

A message, however, reaching them from Chalcideus to tell them to go back again, and that Amorges was at hand with an army by land. They sailed to Dios Hieron and there saw ten more ships sailing up with which Diomedon had started from Athens after Thrasycles, They were fleeing with one ship to Ephesus, the rest to Teos.”

καὶ ἐλθούσης παρὰ Χαλκιδέως ἀγγελίας αὐτοῖς ἀποπλεῖν πάλιν, καὶ ὅτι Ἀμόργης παρέσται κατὰ γῆν στρατιᾷ, ἔπλευσαν ἐς Διὸς ἱερόν: καὶ καθορῶσιν ἑκκαίδεκα ναῦς, ἃς ὕστερον ἔτι Θρασυκλέους Διομέδων ἔχων ἀπ᾽ Ἀθηνῶν προσέπλει. καὶ ὡς εἶδον, ἔφευγον μιᾷ μὲν νηὶ ἐς Ἔφεσον, αἱ δὲ λοιπαὶ ἐπὶ τῆς Τέω.

Anna Komnene, The Alexiad, 9.7

Finally, summing up everything, he judged it wise to arrest Nicephorus. The latter was preparing his meditated escape and, wishing the start on his way to Christopolis during the night, sent to Constantine Porphyrogenitus in the evening and begged him to lend him the swift steed the Emperor had given him. However, Constantine refused, saying it was impossible to give away a gift from the Emperor of such value to another the very same day.

Καὶ εἰς ἓν τὸ πᾶν συναγαγὼν δεῖν ἔκρινεν κατασχεῖν τὸν Νικηφόρον. Ἐκεῖνος δὲ τὸν μελε τώμενον ἐπισπεύδων δρασμὸν καὶ βουλόμενος νυκτὸς τῆς πρὸς Χριστούπολιν φερούσης ἅψασθαι ἑσπέρας ἀποστεί λας εἰς τὸν Πορφυρογέννητον Κωνσταντῖνον τὸν δοθέντα αὐτῷ παρὰ τοῦ βασιλέως ταχυδρόμον ἵππον ᾐτεῖτο ἀποχα ρίσασθαί οἱ. Ὁ δὲ ἀνένευε λέγων μὴ δύνασθαι δῶρον τοιοῦ τον αὐθήμερον τοῦ βασιλέως ἀποποιήσασθαι.


The historical center of Birgi is our base camp for exploration and one of the arteries in a 500 km long walking path, the Efeler Yolu (roughly translated as the Bandit’s Route, explanation forthcoming); a path connecting partly abandoned villages and valleys that were once inhabited by the so-called bandits of the area. Unlike the famous Lycian Way, extending from Fethiye to Antalya, designed and marked by amateur historian Kate Clow (and Turkey’s most famous footpath), however Efeler Yolu is a coordinated effort of Ege University in Izmir, under the direction of Dr. Özgür Özkaya, involving key stakeholders in the region, such as municipalities and development agencies.

The newly established footpath, overlaid on ancient and modern roads, seeks to reactivate the region through different strategies of sustainable tourism. Already in the 19th century (Wagner, 1892) the Ottoman Birgi was largely abandoned as population displaced towards the regional capital Ödemiş, but it is now a heritage tourism destination, with its Ottoman period houses and artisanal production, from which traces of its antiquity are rather absent and have to be carefully carved out through obscure sources.

Its ancient name of Dios Hieron – Sanctuary of Zeus – is very poorly attested and there’s a confusion in the sources given that there’s another Dios Hieron on the Ionian coast that figures prominently in Greek sources as a city in the Delian League (Thuc. 8.19.2), and Thucydides, Stefan of Byzantium, Pliny the Elder, Strabo and Herodotus provide confusing, often conflicting accounts. The only reliable source is merely the name of the city listed by Ptolemy, and there’s doubt whether we are talking about the same exact settlement, or somewhere nearby. Many coins were minted here in antiquity with the inscription “Διοσιερειτων” or different variants thereof.

“Seal of Leo, the most humble bishop of Pyrgion”, Byzantine seal, 11th/12th century obverse, Dumbarton Oaks

Its name changed to Diopolis and Christians called it Christopolis (see Anna Komnene), but it was known as Pyrgion by the end of the Byzantine era – a place mentioned in many sources but without much detail. When Pyrgion fell to the Turks in 1307, its name changed to Birgi and became the capital of a sultanate. By the time Ibn Battuta visited in the 14th century he described the hospitality of Muslim institutions, but little is known about Christian life through the centuries, except that a number of Greeks and Armenians were also settled in the area.

Ulu Cami, detail of spolia, Lydian lion, İzmir Kültür ve Turizm Dergisi

The great mosque of Birgi (Ulu Cami), was erected in 1312, by Mehmed Bey of the Aydınoğlu Emirate, and the builder integrated into the construction a fascinating piece of spolia: A Lydian lion, bearing witness to the pre-Greek past of the region (a Lydian tomb was excavated in the region as a part of the Sardis expeditions in the 20th century). After Turks settled in the surrounding area, nomadism became the established way of life, and whole tribes would move great distances between the summer and winter pastures, called yayla and kışlak in Turkish (Foss, 1978),]. Mt Tmolus or the Boz Dağ, was known through the Ottoman period as a refugee for bandits (hence the name Efeler Yolu), but its reputation for banditry is also ancient: In the Novellae Constitutiones, a code of Roman law initiated by Roman Emperor Justinian I, there was a discussion of Pisidian banditry and the punishments meted out to thieves and bandits. It is also thought that the lack of Christian sources is perhaps due to heretic sects living in this remote highland. But during the Ottoman era, the authorities found it extremely difficult to impose law and order in these valleys.

Ulu Cami, the Great Mosque of Birgi

Several kilometers from Birgi, we arrive at the kışlak of Lübbey, a semi abandoned winter village where only a handful of inhabitants, ruined houses and a mosque remain. Interestingly enough, the archaeological knowledge of the area is very poor, and most of the descriptive work of Clive Foss is based on the yayla, not on the kışlak. Visiting the kışlak with the Izmir Vakfı (a non-profit organization), we are led by Emin Başaranbilek, an archaeologist from Birgi, who completes the picture of this settlement on the Cayster valley, called Küçük Menderes in Turkish, largely against the background of the work of Foss and the Sardis expeditions (he’s also written about the mosque of Lübbey in Turkish). Information about this settlement, populated by Turkmen in the modern era, is very scarce, mostly limited to the late Ottoman period and cadastral records. The history of Lübbey is completely unknown, as the word has no meaning in Turkish (toponyms that begin with L are foreign to Turkish), and could be perhaps related to Datbey (a place famous for kiln firing), around Hypaepa, an important Greek city on the southern slope of the Tmolus that loses importance to Birgi/Pyrgion.

III. Wine from Tmolus

Painting by Emin Başaranbilek, historical hammam, undated

Euripides, Bacchae, 135-167

He is sweet in the mountains, whenever, after the running dance, he falls on the ground, wearing the sacred garment of fawn skin, hunting the blood of the slain goat, a raw-eaten delight, rushing to the Phrygian, the Lydian mountains, and the leader of the dance is Bromius, evoe!

The plain flows with milk, it flows with wine, it flows with the nectar of bees. The Bacchic one, raising the flaming torch of pine and his thyrsos darts about, like the smoke of Syrian incense,  arousing the wanderers with his racing and dancing, agitating them with his shouts, casting his rich locks into the air.

And among the Maenads his voice cries deep: “Go, Bacchae, go, Bacchae, with the luxury of Tmolus that flows with gold, sing of Dionysus, beneath the heavy beat of drums, celebrating in delight the god of delight with Phrygian shouts and cries, when the sweet-sounding sacred pipe sounds a sacred playful tune suited to the wanderers, to the mountain, to the mountain!”

And the Bacchantes, rejoicing like a foal with its grazing mother, rouses her swift foot in a gamboling dance.

ἡδὺς ἐν ὄρεσιν, ὅταν ἐκ θιάσωνδρομαί-
ων πέσῃ πεδόσε, νε-
βρίδος ἔχων ἱερὸν ἐνδυτόν, ἀγρεύων
αἷμα τραγοκτόνον, ὠμοφάγον χάριν, ἱέμε-
νος ἐς ὄρεα Φρύγια, Λύδι᾽, ὁ δ᾽ ἔξαρχος Βρόμιος,
ῥεῖ δὲ γάλακτι πέδον, ῥεῖ δ᾽ οἴνῳ, ῥεῖ δὲ μελισσᾶν
Συρίας δ᾽ὡςλιβάνου κα-
πνὸν ὁ Βακχεὺς ἀνέχων
πυρσώδη φλόγα πεύκας
ἐκ νάρθηκος ἀίσσει
δρόμῳ καὶ χοροῖσιν
πλανάτας ἐρεθίζων
ἰαχαῖς τ᾽ ἀναπάλλων,
τρυφερόν τε πλόκαμον εἰς αἰθέρα ῥίπτων.
ἅμα δ᾽εὐάσμασι τοιάδ᾽ ἐπιβρέμει:
Ὦ ἴτε βάκχαι,
ὦ ἴτε βάκχαι,
Τμώλου χρυσορόου χλιδᾷ
μέλπετε τὸν Διόνυσον
βαρυβρόμων ὑπὸ τυμπάνων,
εὔια τὸν εὔιον ἀγαλλόμεναι θεὸν
ἐν Φρυγίαισι βοαῖς ἐνοπαῖσί τε,
λωτὸς ὅταν εὐκέλαδος
ἱερὸς ἱερὰ παίγματα βρέμῃ, σύνοχα
φοιτάσιν εἰς ὄρος εἰς ὄρος: ἡδομέ-
να δ᾽ ἄρα, πῶλος ὅπως ἅμα ματέρι
φορβάδι, κῶλον ἄγει ταχύπουν σκιρτήμασι βάκχα.

In Euripides’ Bacchae, the god Dionysus is constantly bragging about the quality of wines from Lydia and the Tmolus, fact that has been corroborated by Strabo, “And indeed the Ephesian and Metropolitan wines are good; and Mt. Mesogis and Mt. Tmolus and the Catacecaumene country and Cnidos and Smyrna and other less significant places produce exceptionally good wine, whether for enjoyment or medicinal purposes” (Strab. 14.1).

The Aegean coast has always been famous for its wine culture (Hom. Il. 13.673) but in the historical agriculture presented in Foss’ description, vineyards are quite absent: Fruit and nut trees of all kinds, wheat, potatoes, hazelnuts, chestnuts, grapes, apples, and pomegranates. In modern times, the vineyards are located on the lower slopes of the Boz Dağ, though of course wine culture has been affected by population exchanges that drove away from Anatolia Christian minorities traditionally concerned with wine-making. But Turkey’s Aegean region, nevertheless, has experienced a mild rebirth of its wine culture in recent years, paradoxically as the currency has slipped and freedom of expression became very restricted.

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Dios Hieron minted coins, Lydia, reign of Antoninus Pius, circa 147-161 CE, ƐΠΙ Λ ΙΟVΛ(Ι) ΜΙΘΡΟV ΔΙΟϹΙƐΡΙΤΩΝ, Goddess Hera, Ashmolean Museum

Part of the appeal for Efeler Yolu is actually the return to small scale agriculture that can serve other purpose than survival: The region’s archaeology of food, for which we have no good sources, indicates that not only is the agricultural panorama radically different from antiquity (unlike Greece for example), but it has profoundly transformed the environment as well. For a country whose modernization has always emphasized large-scale industrial production, massive dependence on imports – a dangerous situation as the currency has lost so much of its value – and a move away from traditional craftsmanship, there’s a lack of much needed incentives for local, regional agriculture. As Alastair Bland mentions in his article from the experience of biking through the ancient roads of the Tmolus in 2011, there was plenty of local produce on offer, olives, figs, oil, and a limited quantity of fruits. Would it be possible to transform back the environment through a gesture as simple as a footpath? Perhaps not, but it creates a different, deeper historical space, where such ideas are possible.

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Lübbey Yaylası, Clive Foss, 1978

The cultural history of nomadism and the role of traditional religion and the progressive abandonment of villages have not only transformed the environment, but brought gigantic rings of poverty to capital cities that can no longer sustain a growing young population with high employment rates. By the end of the Ottoman era and definitely in the beginning of the Turkish republic, nomadism was largely eradicated and a degree of law and order was established, but with its departure came also the abandonment of the Tmolus.

It might seem strange to casual observers today, but classical and Byzantine settlements have been found throughout the area, and while significant remains of antiquity have not been found, it is also suspected that the banditry culture contributed to massive looting and that antiquities were unearthed before heritage laws were passed. According to Clive Foss, who documented a number of inscriptions in the 1970s, inscriptions were broken up for stone and carried off for roadworks, without much oversight. That this happens is no surprise to observers in Turkey, where archaeological sites are covered by roadworks and botched restorations are a matter of course.

Chris Roosevelt, an archaeologist specializing in the Lydia region, has also documented testimonies from other archaeologists in the same period and as late as the early 2000s, about mysterious shepherds, overnight digs, weak law enforcement and unreported antiquities,  including looting and destruction of remains. He even theorizes that in the absence of the state (in the remains-rich Bin Tepe, north of Mt. Tmolus), archaeological excavations in fact encourage more plunder and looting. It is perhaps possible, to think, that a multidirectional project such as Efeler Yolu, a coordinated effort across different state and private actors and agencies, could in fact serve to magnify efforts in heritage (preventive) preservation. Through its engagement with nature and the built environment (an artificial construct with political implications), a contemporary archaeological practice (of the kind espoused by archaeologists such as Dan Hicks and his project “Lande: The Calais Jungle” or Yannis Hamilakis’ “Transient Matter”) could arise, reversing the socio-cultural damage that survival agriculture and decades of poor planning have inflicted on the Lydian mountains.

IV. The Other Town

The Other Town,

Anna Komnene, The Alexiad, 14.1.2

The Emperor was detained for some time by his care for the Franks; and when he had arranged everything satisfactorily for them, he took the road home to Byzantium. But after his return he did not give himself entirely to rest and repose, for, when he reflected how the barbarians had laid the whole sea-coast of Smyrna in ruins up to Attalia, he thought it would be a disgrace if he could not restore the cities to their pristine state, bring back their former prosperity, and re-people them with the inhabitants who were now scattered far and wide.

 Ὁ δὲ αὐτοκράτωρ τῆς τῶν Κελτῶν ἔτι φροντίδος εἴχετο· καὶ τὰ κατ’ αὐτοὺς εὖ διαθέμενος τῆς πρὸς τὸ Βυζάντιον φερούσης ἥψατο. Ἐπανελθὼν δὲ οὐ πρὸς ἀνέσεις καὶ ἀναπαύλας ἀνέκλινεν ὅλως, ἀλλὰ λογι ζόμενος αὖθις ὅπως τὰ κατὰ τὴν παραλίαν τῆς Σμύρνης καὶ μέχρις αὐτῆς Ἀτταλείας οἱ βάρβαροι τελείως ἠρίπω σαν, ἐν δεινῷ ἐποιεῖτο εἰ μὴ καὶ τὰς πόλεις αὖθις ἐς τὴν προτέραν ἐπαναγάγοι κατάστασιν καὶ τὸν πρῴην ἀποδοίη κόσμον καὶ τοὺς ἁπανταχῆ σκεδασθέντας ἐποίκους αὐταῖς ἐπανασώσοιτο.

Constantine P. Cavafy, “Anna Komnena”, Poems 1919-1933

In the prologue to her Alexiad,
Anna Komnena laments her widowhood.

Her soul is all vertigo.
“And I bathe my eyes,” she tells us,
“in rivers of tears… Alas, for the waves” of her life,
“alas for the revolutions.” Sorrow burns her
“to the bones and the marrow of the splitting” of her soul.

But the truth seems to be this power-hungry woman
knew only one sorrow that really mattered;
even if she doesn’t admit it, this arrogant Greek woman
had only one consuming pain:
that with all her dexterity,
she never managed to gain the throne,
virtually snatched out of her hands by impudent John.

Στον πρόλογο της Aλεξιάδος της θρηνεί,
για την χηρεία της η Άννα Κομνηνή.
Εις ίλιγγον είν’ η ψυχή της. «Και
ρείθροις δακρύων», μας λέγει, «περιτέγγω
τους οφθαλμούς….. Φευ των κυμάτων» της ζωής της,
«φευ των επαναστάσεων». Την καίει η οδύνη
«μέχρις οστέων και μυελών και μερισμού ψυχής».
Όμως η αλήθεια μοιάζει που μια λύπη μόνην
καιρίαν εγνώρισεν η φίλαρχη γυναίκα·
έναν καϋμό βαθύ μονάχα είχε
(κι ας μην τ’ ομολογεί) η αγέρωχη αυτή Γραικιά,
που δεν κατάφερε, μ’ όλην την δεξιότητά της,
την Βασιλείαν ν’ αποκτήσει· μα την πήρε
σχεδόν μέσ’ απ’ τα χέρια της ο προπετής Ιωάννης.


The presence of the Ottoman minorities along the footpath of Efeler Yolu is as weak as the evidence for its classical past, and often apocryphal – mostly accounts of Western travelers. Although in the case of Birgi hardly avoidable, given the status of Christopolis, and especially Pyrgion, as a borderline in the mountains of a receding empire as the Seljuk presence closed in on the Byzantines. In a way, Turks and Greeks first encountered each other in these mountains, and continued to do so for centuries. The erasure of the Greek presence is today near absolute, to the extent that a number of Roman and Byzantine tombs (even inside of Birgi) are mistakenly attributed to the Ottoman Seljuks, and incorrectly dated. The Fall of Constantinople, thanks not to the Turks but to Latins on August 12, 1204, thus moving the Byzantine Empire out of Constantinople and to Nicaea,  created a wave of refugees from the city to the Aegean region and a new dynamic in the area (Anna Komnene writes bitterly about the first Italo-Norman invasions). This situation surprisingly empowered the Byzantine presence versus the new Seljuk arrivals from the East.

But the nomadic nature of the Turks put the long-settled Greek and Armenian population at terrible disadvantage, and since then, imperial power became increasingly fragmented around this region. Many Byzantines converted to Islam, sometimes for practical reasons but often also forced; other populations welcomed the Ottomans in protest of the oppressive Byzantine taxation and even fought alongside them, and since then both Muslims and Christians (and a minor Jewish population) lived in a complex archipelago of settlements, in which facing each other was unavoidable.

The highland gave advantage to the Turkish bandits in terms of inaccessible geography, but in terms of battle it is a place where scarce resources and water make it impossible to remain hidden for long, therefore mobility between the valleys was a necessity. Birgi fell (1307) long before Constantinople and the Aydın sultanate was established rapidly, but it wasn’t going to be the last time Turks and Greeks would be facing it off in battle: On May 15, 1919 the Greek forces advanced as far as Birgi during the independence war and not unlike other battles in the Anatolian Aegean, Greeks were defeated with devastating consequences.

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Application by A. Stavrakoudis, οικοισμοι προσφυγες

An online application, created by Anastasios Stavrakoudis, at the University of Ioannina, maps out all the locations from which Greeks were expelled on the aftermath of the Greek-Turkish war in 1922, when Greece and Turkey exchanged their entire minority populations (after hundreds of thousands were massacred, the vast majority in Turkey), with the exception of Istanbul. You easily can find Birgi and Ödemiş in this map. A documentary film by Turkish filmmaker Nefin Dinç and Herkül Millas, a Greek writer from the minorities of Anatolia, “The Other Town” (2011), takes place in two towns, one in Turkey (Birgi) and one in Greece (Dimitsana), on the mountains of Peloponnese, a place very similar to Mt. Tmolus, and a borderland with the Ottomans that played a role in the Greek independence in 1821. In both towns, Millas discusses the ‘other’, with both the young and the elderly, in places where people have learnt about each other only through the history textbooks that present only one version of events, being both versions quite symmetrically based on the similar events and nationalistic discourse that has led to multigenerational ethnic hatred.

The Greek presence on the Aegean coast and the Tmolus is something that cannot be expunged from memory, the play of Euripides tells us. In the vicinity of Lübbey, the remote yayla we just visited, a Hellenistic inscription was found by Foss, bearing the uncommon name Nicopolis, attested only in Hypaepa, but all of this disappeared from public memory in Turkey, and traces are difficult to pin down without specialized archaeological knowledge, how is this process possible? The 500 km path of Efeler Yolu, almost unknowingly, on its twenty-something village stops – chosen for a number of strategic reasons, highlights not only the history of ancient roads in a remote and importantly connected region of historical Lydia, but also uncovers an unfinished, multilayered, historical memory, both recent and in the far past, rich in archaeological implications and made invisible not only by the overgrown nature but also by the political maneuvers of modern nation states. According to Millas, myths mean more than they narrate, “Nations believe in myths even if the myths are not sensible and rational, they are not documented, they are full of contradictions, even if they are proven fake.”

Whether a project so ambitious (it’s still not fully operational, and I suspect, much work remains to be done), and so deeply embedded in institutions of the state at a time of turmoil will be capable of independently achieving aims other than presenting a neutral (or neutralized) image of the past/present, remains to be seen. As we know from the struggles of indigenous peoples in many countries at present, the environment is never neutral, and represents a key factor in the frontline of decolonization, especially against the background of redrawing historical borders and questions of belonging. In a country that has historically struggled with complexity and cultural memory, and where the history of minorities has been largely erased and archaeology is a contentious point in the construction of national identity, it is not possible to turn the clock back. Nevertheless, the hope remains that a vision of sustainable development comes not at the expense of a serious consideration of the value of material culture that might problematize the past not as myth, but as shared heritage. So much remains to be seen insofar as what lies ahead in the rest of the month-long trail.

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Hellenistic inscription, the rare name Nicopolis, Lübbey Yaylası, Clive Foss, 1978

George Seferis, “Mythistorima”, XIX, 1935

Even if the wind does blow it brings us no relief
the shade cast by the cypress-tree is tight and narrow
and all around are steep paths leading to the mountains;

they weight upon us
those friends who no longer know how to die.

Κι αν ο αγέρας φυσά δε μας δροσίζει
κι ο ίσκιος μένει στενός κάτω απ’ τα κυπαρίσσιακι
όλο τριγύρω ανήφοροι στα βουνά·
μας βαραίνουν
οι φίλοι που δεν ξέρουν πια πώς να πεθάνουν.

*In the course of the coming year, I will visit a number of points in the trail of Efeler Yolu, seeking the map out details and stories from classical antiquity, Byzantine and pre-modern past of the region. Efeler Yolu is on Instagram, only in Turkish.

Visiting Lübbey Kışlağı with İzmir Vakfı


Dimiter Angelov, The Byzantine Hellene: The Life of Emperor Theodore Laskaris and Byzantium in the Thirteenth Century, Harvard University Press, 2019

Emin Başaranbilek, Lübbey Kışlağı ve Lübbey Camisi, 2015

Clive Foss, Explorations in Mount Tmolus, California Studies in Classical Antiquity, Vol. 11 (1978), pp. 21-60

Dimitri Korobeinikov, Byzantium and the Turks in the Thirteenth Century, Oxford Studies in Byzantium, Oxford University Press, 2014

Herkül Millas, The Other Town: How Greeks and Turks perceive their mythical neighbors, 2011

George Ramsay, The Historical Geography of Asia Minor, Royal Geographical Society, Supplementary Papers, Vol. 4, John Murray, 1890

Alexandros Rizos Rankabes, Antiquités Helléniques ou répertoire d’inscriptions et d’autres antiquités, Athens Archaeological Society, 1842

Louis Robert, Monnaies grecques de l’époque impériale, Revue Numismatique, Vol. 18 (1976), pp. 25-56

Christopher Roosevelt, The Archaeology of Lydia, Cambridge University Press, 2014

Christopher H. Roosevelt, Christina Luke, Mysterious Shepherds and Hidden Treasures: The Culture of Looting in Lydia, Western Turkey, Journal of Field Archaeology, 31-2 (2016), pp. 185-198

Speros Vryonis, The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Process of Islamization from the Eleventh through the Fifteenth Century, Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, University of California Press, 1971

G. Weber, Hypaepa, le Kaleh d’Aïasourat, Birghi et Oedémich, Revue des Études Grecques, Vol. 5-17 (1892), pp. 7-21

Arie Amaya-Akkermans is a writer and art critic based in Istanbul. He is interested in the Greek heritage of the Asia Minor and the relationship between (pseudo)archaeology and nationalism in the Eastern Mediterranean. He’s also tweeting about Classics, Byzantium, contemporary art and Turkey/Greece.


Piraeus, Heterotopia

Collection of the Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation. Karl Baedeker’s “Greece, Handbook for Travelers”, Leipzig, 1894

I. From Omonoia to Piraeus

Aristophanes, Knights, 813-819 (sausage-seller speaks)

“Oh! citizens of Argos, do you hear what he says? You dare to compare yourself to Themistocles, who found our city half empty and left it full to overflowing, who one day gave us the Piraeus for dinner, and added fresh fish to all our usual meals. You, on the contrary, you, who compare yourself with Themistocles, have only sought to reduce our city in size, to shut it within its walls, to chant oracles to us. And Themistocles goes into exile, while you gorge yourself on the most excellent fare”

ὦ πόλις Ἄργους κλύεθ᾽ οἷα λέγει. σὺ Θεμιστοκλεῖ ἀντιφερίζεις;
ὃς ἐποίησεν τὴν πόλιν ἡμῶν μεστὴν εὑρὼν ἐπιχειλῆ,
καὶ πρὸς τούτοις ἀριστώσῃ τὸν Πειραιᾶ προσέμαξεν,
ἀφελών τ᾽ οὐδὲν τῶν ἀρχαίων ἰχθῦς καινοὺς παρέθηκεν:
σὺ δ᾽ Ἀθηναίους ἐζήτησας μικροπολίτας ἀποφῆναι
διατειχίζων καὶ χρησμῳδῶν, ὁ Θεμιστοκλεῖ ἀντιφερίζων.
κἀκεῖνος μὲν φεύγει τὴν γῆν σὺ δ᾽ Ἀχιλλείων ἀπομάττει.

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 1.93.3-5

“Themistocles likewise persuaded them to build up the rest of Piraeus, for it was begun in the year that he himself was archon of Athens, because he conceived the place both beautiful, in that it had three natural havens, and, also that, since the Athenians were now seamen, it would very much advance the enlargement of their power. For he was indeed the first man that dared tell them that they ought to take upon them the command of the sea, and then immediately helped them in the obtaining it. By his counsel also it was that they built the wall of that breadth about Piraeus which can now be seen.”

ἔπεισε δὲ καὶ τοῦ Πειραιῶς τὰ λοιπὰ ὁ Θεμιστοκλῆς οἰκοδομεῖν(ὑπῆρκτο δ᾽ αὐτοῦ πρότερον ἐπὶ τῆς ἐκείνου ἀρχῆς ἧς κατ᾽ ἐνιαυτὸν Ἀθηναίοις ἦρξε)νομίζων τό τε χωρίον καλὸν εἶναι, λιμένας ἔχον τρεῖς αὐτοφυεῖς, καὶ αὐτοὺς ναυτικοὺς γεγενημένους μέγα προφέρειν ἐς τὸ κτήσασθαι δύναμιν(τῆς γὰρ δὴ θαλάσσης πρῶτος ἐτόλμησεν εἰπεῖν ὡς ἀνθεκτέα ἐστί), καὶ τὴν ἀρχὴν εὐθὺς ξυγκατεσκεύαζεν. Καὶ ᾠκοδόμησαν τῇ ἐκείνου γνώμῃ τὸ πάχος τοῦ τείχους ὅπερ νῦν ἔτι δῆλόν ἐστι περὶ τὸν Πειραιᾶ


Piraeus Station

The journey begins at Omonoia Square, one of the most recognizable landmarks of modern Athens, built in the 19th century after the birth of the modern Greek state, and also iconic to the turbulent history of the country: Included in the initial urban plan of Athens (1833), it’s been renamed many times, as many as it has been renovated, rebuilt, destroyed and remade. A witness to the city’s modernization, once the site of the neoclassical architecture that has characterized central Athens (the body politic’s desire to mimic a grandiose past), it was once regarded as an icon of multiculturalism, in the same way that it is now despised for the same reason.

The rather derelict area is now traditionally known as a gray area for foreign workers, low cost retail (and drugs) and most recently, a site of contestation of European identities with the refugee tents going up in the area, making inescapably visible the plight of human rights and the failure of international law to protect those who need it most. As the square watched the refugees of the Asia Minor arrive in Athens from the port of Piraeus to rebuild their lives in Greece, it has now watched refugees from imperialist wars in the Middle East flock into Europe, but with little hope to rebuild anything.

Yet this image of Omonoia Square with the tents (just a stone’s throw from the Greek parliament), has a tendency to fade quickly. In a kind of white flight that saw the wealthy abandon the city center as it became progressively impoverished—a situation that paradoxically gave it its multicultural character. But a recent change of government has put forward plans for the reclamation of the city center by investor capital. Will the square be cleaned from its intangible history of migrations?

It remains to be seen. But it is significant that here we begin the journey towards “Piraeus/Heterotopia”, a participatory theater project by Japanese artist Akira Takayama that took place in 2017 (as a part of the Fast Forward Festival, organized by the Onassis Cultural Center), and is now dormant but latent since I was able to “awaken” it, during a visit to Athens in May. The project consists basically of an unusual walking tour of the port area, armed with a smartphone app and a map, with several stops selected based on the hidden (or at least not apparent right now) history of the area, unlocking a speculative oral history: At every stop, visitors listen to a story (it’s necessary to reach the spot physically to unlock the sound audio in the app) written by commissioned writers from different countries.

Akira Takayama, Piraeus / Heterotopia, Fast Forward Festival 4, Onassis Cultural Center

The story being told ‘might’ have happened there, and it’s written based on detail research of the history and possible connotations associated with the specific spot. Here we introduce the idea of a para-fiction: It’s both true and fictional. Starting with Ancient Greece, all the way to the current refugee crisis and the Asia Minor catastrophe in between, “Heterotopia” highlights the important role of this area as a space of transition, overturning the current European idea of migration from a state of exception, to an essential aspect of human history.

This “strange land”, is for Takayama an ‘heterotopia’ following from Foucault’s use of the term, as a space of otherness that is larger than the sum of its parts. The urban and economic history of modern Athens has been nothing but strange combination of randomness and neglect, so that the port with its privileged location stands far beyond the metropolitan heart of Athens (centered around the Acropolis), and is not necessarily part of the self-image of Athens today, but it reappears in this project as an epicenter of mobility and demographic change. In what follows, I will stay loyal to the spirit of the project, leaving the oral stories alone, for they need to be experienced in person (the app is still functional and it is possible to do the walking tour).

I will focus on a few spots in the project, attempting to unmask the presence of the past – classical and otherwise, and make it present. At a time of infinite powerlessness before our current condition, with the global erosion of the liberal democratic project, these places of ‘otherness’, at the borders of European capitals (and particularly for Athens, an alleged monument to the Western tradition), remind us of the porousness of history, and therefore, of the tragic but nonetheless pluralistic experiences that have shaped the birth of modern polities.

The arrival in Piraeus is a continuation of the fragile multiculturalism of Omonoia (something that truly stands out in a country like Greece, built along the lines of 19th century ethno-states and largely self-identifying as white, by association with the classical past of Europe), with wares being sold in many languages and crowds of tourists rushing to catch the ferries to the Greek islands. As we know from ancient writers, particularly Thucydides, Piraeus was developed in the 5th century BCE under the statesman Themistocles, who in 493 BCE initiated the works of a fort in Piraeus, and in 483 BCE, the Athenian fleet left their order port in Phaleron, and relocated to Piraeus, a move that would be decisive in the battle of Salamis.

Phaleron, the old harbor, now the district of Palaio Faliro, is also the site of fascinating history: One of the most important archaeological findings of recent years was the mass grave in Faliro Delta, furnishing valuable information—and many new questions—about a rather obscure period of Greek history, the 7th century BCE. The find was the subject of another Japanese artist’s work, when Hikaru Fujii presented his video/performance work “The Primary Fact”, once again at the Onassis Cultural Center’s Fast Forward in 2018, that I wrote about.

Hikaru Fujii, “The Primary Fact”, Fast Forward Festival 5, Onassis Cultural Center

The archaeological site was revealed during the construction of a complex for the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, now housing the national library and the national opera, highlighting the hybrid situation of Greece where these long-established shipping families such as Onassis and Niarchos act as a kind of para-state; not unlike the rule of the oligarchs, mentioned by Plato in the opening portion of his “Seventh Letter”. But returning to Piraeus, its story is long and complicated: Athens and Piraeus were connected through a pathway between the two walled cities (the Themistoclean Walls were completed in 471 BCE), but it declined after being destroyed by the Romans. What follows for Piraeus is a long dormant period during Byzantine and Ottoman rule, and later revival when Athens was designated the Greek capital under Bavarian Otto I.

To what degree was the revival of Piraeus part of the European antiquarianism regarding Greece? It would be difficult to answer. The current station building goes back to 1920s, a period of intense conflict in Greece with their loss in the war against the new Turkish republic, along the way forfeiting claim to the historical Greek Smyrna, and receiving thousands of Greek refugees from the Asia Minor, reluctantly welcomed into a country still very poor and largely undeveloped. It was from Piraeus that Greek migrants left to pursue the American dream, and it was also from there that the Nazis occupied Greece.

Different generations of migrants have settled in the area temporarily before moving on (during the research for Heterotopia, Takayama and his team also spoke with refugees from Syria in the refugee camp of the Piraeus port), but postclassical history seems to capture little of the imagination in Greek historiography, where the only path to connect a grandiose classical past with the birth of the modern republic, is the silencing of everything else. In this way, Greeks both reconnect with the European tradition and lay claim to their ‘whiteness’ (opposed to the people of the former multicultural Near East), and replace complexity with a traditional nation state.

Continue below for parts 2-4

Continue reading “Piraeus, Heterotopia”

“Our Culture”, Anatolian Edition

Editorial note: in response to an earlier post about the exclusionary character of the history of Classical Studies several people commented that the views were almost exclusively Anglo-American. This is the first of hopefully several posts addressing that narrow perspective. –JPC

Dimonisos, the Halkedonian island, took its name from Dimonisos, the first one who worked there; the place has mines of steel and malachite. The best from this mine commands prices comparable with gold; for it is a drug for the eyes. There is also copper to be dived for, two fathoms in the depth of the sea; from there is made the statue in the ancient temple of Apollo in Sicyon, and also those in Pheneus, called from yellow-copper. On them there’s an inscription: “Heracles, son of Amphitryon, dedicated these on capturing Elis.” He captured it under the guidance of a woman, whose father Augeas he had killed, in accordance with the oracle. Those who dig for copper become very able-sighted, and those who have no eyelashes grow them; therefore doctors also use the blossom of copper and Phrygian ash for the eyes.

Pseudo-Aristotle, de Mirabilibus Auscultationibus, 58 (Loeb)

Δημόνησος ἡ Καλχηδονίων νῆσος ἀπὸ Δημονήσου τοῦ πρώτου ἐργασαμένου τὴν ἐπωνυμίαν εἴληφεν· ἔχει δ’ὁ τόπος κυανοῦ τὸ μέταλλον καὶ χρυσοκόλλης. ταύτης δ’ἡ καλλίστη πρὸς χρυσίον εὑρίσκει τιμήν· καὶ γὰρ φάρμακον ὀφθαλμῶν ἐστίν. ἔστι δὲ αὐτόθι χαλκὸς κολυμβητὴς ἐν δυοῖν ὀργυιαῖς τῆς θαλάσσης· ὅθεν ὁ ἐν Σικυῶνί ἐστιν ἀνδριὰς ἐν τῷ ἀρχαίῳ νεῷ τοῦ Ἀπόλλωνος καὶ ἐν Φενεῷ οἱ ὀρείχαλκοι καλούμενοι. ἐπιγέγραπται δ’ αὐτοῖς “Ἡρακλῆς Ἀμφιτρύωνος Ἦλιν ἑλὼν ἀνέθηκεν.” αἱρεῖ δὲ τὴν Ἦλιν ἡγουμένης κατὰ χρησμὸν γυναικός, ἧς τὸν πατέρα Αὐγείαν ἀπέκτεινεν. οἱ δὲ τὸν χαλκὸν ὀρύττοντες ὀξυδερκέστατοι γίνονται, καὶ οἱ βλεφαρίδας μὴ ἔχοντες φύουσι· παρὸ καὶ οἱ ἰατροὶ τῷ ἄνθει τοῦ χαλκοῦ καὶ τῇ τέφρᾳ τῇ Φρυγίᾳ χρῶνται πρὸς τοὺς ὀφθαλμούς.

A recent post on the blog, discussed at length (once again) the efforts of decolonization in the field of Classics, a conversation that, though not as widespread as we would like, has occupied some of us for a while. There is an ongoing debate on the use of Western civilization and its relationship to Classics—why is an area study of a rather small part of the ancient world even called classical? Is it about class?—that has indeed traveled far this year, all the way to the darkest corners of the alt-web.

But one of the main caveats in this complex, longer-than-a single-life task, has been in my opinion, the heavy reliance on Anglo-Saxon sources and discourse; I pointed this out to Rebecca Futo Kennedy about her blog post on the history of Western civ, and more recently, to that post on this blog. There’s a wealth of sources in other European languages that we can turn to, in order to understand better the symbolic violence of the Western historical discourse. So, on this occasion I want to turn your attention to an “imperialist other”, a territory (and today a national state) outside of the Western world, but yet at its very borders and part of the geography of the ancient world, to further complicate the relationship between westernization, classical culture and imperialism.

In the Turkish Republic (1923-present), classical culture never played the same kind of pivotal role that it plays in European public life, but its emergence in the early days of the republic (and subsequent eclipse) provides an idea of the depth of interactions between modernization, westernization, archaeology, classical culture and nationalism that shaped the world between the world wars.

As the Turkish Republic emerged from a War of Independence in the course of which the Christian minorities of Anatolia (including its Greek speakers, dating back to the archaic period) were forcibly deported or murdered with the nodding approval of the Western powers wishing to draw a new map of the post-Ottoman Middle East (Muslims, on the other direction, were also murdered and deported in a series of population exchanges between Turkey and Greece), the Greek presence in Anatolia came to an abrupt end. At the same time, however, that the young republic was looking West and not to the “Middle East” (considered backward, ‘Arab’, Islamic) in order to disavow its Ottoman heritage. Modernization is in full force for Turkey to join the community of European nations, and many reforms in the field of education, language and heritage take place. Soon we will find out what Classics has to do with this.

In what follows I will share some anecdotes, documents and sources that are more or less scattered, as the research is still very preliminary, and since Classics and Turkish modern history (not exactly my field) are not necessarily contiguous, I am venturing here into unknown territory; but it will be enough to give an idea of a process that needs to be studied more closely (I wonder for example about the modern reception of Classics in Israel, or the Arab world). I apologize in advance for my incomplete ideas.

The Princes Islands, 2015

As a resident of the Princes Islands, Istanbul’s most remote neighborhood in the Marmara Sea, a group of nine islands known to be inhabited by Greek-speaking population since at least the 4th century BCE (attested in a pseudo-Aristotle), and still one of the very last pockets of a ghostly Greek presence in Anatolia, it has become almost a matter of necessity to dig out these submerged histories, to see if they can shed some light on the absurdities of the present. As the ‘Rums’—the Romans or Greeks of the Eastern Roman Empire—were being driven out (see the novel ‘Farewell, Anatolia!’ by Dido Sotiriou, a moving but by no means objective account of this period), Turks would travel far back in history, seeking for a new mythology once the owl of Minerva had flown away.

  1. Greek during the Ottoman Empire

It is traditionally argued that the end of the Byzantine Empire translated into a death sentence for Greek culture in the Near East, but this was hardly the case. As many historical studies show, though Greeks were a minority, they were ubiquitous throughout the new empire, and adapted rapidly to the sloppy, chaotic and often inefficient Ottoman rule.

We don’t know so much about the Greek educational institutions of the early Ottoman empire, but some schools are thought to have transitioned from one rule to another and survived, and the Phanar Greek School, for example, was founded in 1454. A number of Greek libraries were founded under Ottoman rule, but most remarkable was the library of the Holy Trinity monastery of Halki (our island, known in Turkish as Heybeliada) founded by Metrophanes III in the early 16th century with the donation of 300 books, to be found today in the library of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. A French research project is centered on the history of the library and a critical edition of the manuscripts of the library has been published in French just last month. The Greek scholarship of this long period is rich and vibrant, and most literature of importance written in Greek in this period was written outside of Greece: Istanbul, Venice, Alexandria, Smyrna.

Holy Trinity of Halki, 2019

Knowledge of Ottoman would be handy here, but we know from the writer and translator Yasmine Seale’s piece on the reception and translation of Homer in Turkey that the first translation of the Iliad into Ottoman Turkish was done in 1886 by Naim Frashëri. A relatively recent text on the history of classical philology in Turkey (Turkish) puts us in the context of what took place in Istanbul University (founded in 1453) in the 19th century: With the reforms of 1869, arrived in the university courses in Greek, Latin, archaeology, numismatics and Roman law, and then followed by more offerings in Greek and Latin literature, mythology and archaeology in 1874.

This wasn’t haphazard: As the colonial powers began their journey into the collapsing empire through technology and education, German professors of classics arrived in Istanbul University at the same time that authorized European excavations in all the Ottoman lands would begin a frenzy of looting and exporting that not only would enable some of the most groundbreaking discoveries in Near Eastern studies, but would also solidify the modern Western museum, where vast holdings from the region still sit today. The redistribution as appropriation began with the past, and then expanded to the denizens of the present.

  1. The Turkish History Thesis and the Early Republic

The early history of the Turkish Republic presents a picture of confusion. Being a late comer in a world of (already fading) nation states, it was necessary to produce not only a myth that could unify them but also a grand(iose) narrative that would smooth out any gaps, and it is here that archaeology proves useful. As Turkish scholar Tugba Tanyeri-Erdemir argues, “archaeological knowledge was used to create citizens out of subjects of the fallen Ottoman Empire. […] Under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder and first president of the Republic, the intelligentsia of this newly formed Turkish nation embarked on a quest to discover its ancient history.”

This discovery, known as the Turkish History Thesis and the basis of official historiographical ideology, would of course inevitably lead back to the Hittites: “According to the thesis, the Turks were believed to be the direct ancestors of the Hittites and the Sumerians, and were also thought to have influenced native peoples living in the Aegean Basin, this contributing significantly to the development of Greek civilization. This theory allowed the Turks to claim to be the legitimate heirs (and indeed, practically the progenitors) of all civilizations that had existed previously on the soil of the new Turkish Republic.” (Tanyeri-Erdemir)

It would be of course impossible to travel back into the 2nd millennium BCE without a fair amount of conspiracy. Pan-Turanism, appears in the 19th century as a theory, largely discredited, that all Turkic and Uralic peoples descend from a pre-historic common ancestor in Turkestan, who in the modified republican version, migrated to Anatolia in the 2nd millennium. The typology is interesting because of a detail highlighted by Tanyeri-Erdemir: Between the first and second Turkish historical congress (attended by Atatürk) there’s a shift in mood and audience, from nationalistic archaeology to professional archaeology. In the years between these meetings, there was also a language congress during which Turkish linguists presented the Sun-Language Theory, with the thesis that many languages descended from Turkish after a series of migrations from Central Asia, and their mythical proto-language was severely criticized by the international audience.

The relationship with the Turkish History Thesis is here crystal clear, and though the focus moved to archaeology’s modernization, the discourse had already penetrated the Turkish historiographical consciousness. The thesis of the Altaic languages, encompassing Turkic, Mongolian and Manchu-Tungus, has also been discredited since then.

Another Turkish scholar, Can Erimtan, has written an incredible account (and I strongly advise you to read all of it) of the propaganda tract “Pontus Meselesi” (1922), by Ağaoğlu Ahmet Bey, a Turkish politician and publicist of Azeri background, dealing with the (argument against) establishment of a Greek state in the Pontus region, combined with nationalist propaganda about the grand narrative of the Turkish presence in Anatolia, as follows: “[Anatolia] has been the Turk’s home country, the Turk’s homeland for thousands of years. […] As a matter of fact, the Turks did not arrive in Anatolia with Ertugrul Gazi or even with those who constituted the Seljuk governments. The Turkish race has been present in Anatolia since the oldest and most unknown of times. As has been illustrated by history the first inhabitants of Anatolia were Turanians.”

Ataturk and the Sumerians, 2012

There’s so much one would like to say here. Archaeology is deeply embedded in the political geography of Turkey, but the readings are currently ambiguous. There’s still a large apparatus of scholarship on Near Eastern studies in the Turkish language, particularly in Hittite. Nazif Aydin published in 2017 a Hammurabi lexicon and a book by Assyriologist Muazzez İlmiye Çığ, “Ataturk and the Sumerians”, was published as late as 2012.

  1. Classical Philology in Turkey
Textbook for learning Classical Greek in Turkish, first published in 2006

The nationalist narrative obviously couldn’t easily disassociate between Classical Greece, the Greece of Anatolia and the newly emptied out and newly mythical Anatolia. According to Bedia Dirimiş‘s text (Turkish) on the history of classical philology in Istanbul University, Classics is defined as such: “The main purpose of classical philology is Ancient Greek and Roman civilization, paleography, grammar and rhetoric. On the basis of reinterpreting ancient texts from a linguistic and literary point of view, there is a perfect reconstruction of these texts.”

Written only in 2009, this reveals the European bias of the discipline, not only as an apparatus of knowledge, but one strictly separated from the historical continuity of Anatolia. In her account, classical philology as a department appears in Turkey with the university reform of 1933, overseen by Atatürk himself (just like the history and linguistics conference, he’s always at the helm of historiographical ideology), after his first visit on January 15, 1930. Here the young republic’s leader reveals the extent to which the history of the region had been permeated by the question of Anatolia’s past.  Atatürk asked a question (recorded in the writings of Mehmet Uysal, 1981): Why is it important to study classical philology in Turkey?

After he wasn’t satisfied with the answer, he asked a different question: Who are the first people of the Aegean, the bearers of the Aegean civilization? Fazil Nazmi Bey (probably a teacher in the department) answered the question with a legend. Atatürk replied: “History is based on the findings of archaeology, paleography, and philology, not myths. I think history shows that the first Aegean people, the bearers of the Aegean civilization came from Anatolia to the Aegean islands.”

With this, the agenda for classical philology in Turkey was set, so that Dirimiş reports in her brief history that as late as 2005, in an academic conference, a professor confirmed this thesis by means of philological and paleographic evidence. And here comes the bomb: “Since the Tanzimat, we have adopted Western civilization as the basis of humanism, human beings at the center of the world, rather than merely imitating the discipline of classical philology.” It has been a long way from pre-historic Turan, to humanism. The humanism of the Enlightenment that whitewashed the ancient world, and provided ample legal justification for the plunder of the earth, so that all universal treasures are kept in one place, for all the universals to see, except when you’re not universal enough.

It is also hard to assess the larger meaning of civilization in a country such as Turkey, living in the no-longer-and-not-yet of globalization, and adopting a postcolonial identity while at the same time remaining an expansionist state, actively engaged in soft power and economic colonization. The depoliticization of the Greek tradition (and the Romans, almost accidentally) is only matched by the hyper-politicization of remote antiquity, from a time when Hittite hadn’t been more fully deciphered, therefore it was possible to make all kind of questionable speculations.

The classical philology, however, that Dirimiş posits as “an education that provides an awareness of the process of spiritual evolution through its history”, is however no longer a part of the grand narrative of the republic. In what follows in her history, there’s a long list of professors, from the first German appointees (including Jews who sought refuge in Turkey during the war and later returned to Europe; this is also discussed in Seale‘s account) through the later Turkification of the department as they received training from earlier teachers. Seale also speaks about Azra Erhat, an early republican translator of Homer, whose life seems fascinating and about whom I haven’t been able to dig anything but vague references. It is also interesting to notice that at least one academic employed by Ankara University was also an instructor of Latin at the Atatürk Lise (high school) during the early republic  but I have no evidence at the moment of when this began or ended, or whether it also took place in other public high schools.

  1. Decolonization of Classical Greek in Turkey

A question needs to be posed before it can be answered. Broadly speaking, Turkish academia is not thinking about decolonization of Classics. Still, there are some interesting examples of decolonization practices happening outside of the academia. The Theological School of Halki, an Orthodox seminary shut down by the Turkish state in 1970s (this has been long disputed and is a frequent topic of Turkish-Greek relations) but it still houses the library founded by Metrophanes III (although the original 300 manuscripts are elsewhere in Istanbul), that is open to researchers and contains thousands of volumes in philosophy, history and theology, mostly in Greek but also in other languages.

Despite the enforced closure, the building (located also in Heybeliada) hosts events and academic conferences regularly. The Greek-language publishing house Istos, founded in 2012 in Istanbul (as the local Greek newspaper was disappearing) and the first Greek-language publisher in Turkey in half a century, publishes books in Greek and Turkish, including history books dealing with the history of Greeks in Anatolia and books aimed for a younger audience introducing them to classical Greek literature in Turkish. Recently Istos published an English translation of Skarlatios Byzantios 19th century book, “Constantinople”, topographical, historical and archaeological description of the city.

From “The Land Across the Blind”, Galeri Mana, 2014

Greek-Armenian artist Hera Büyüktaşçıyan, herself an islander, has been engaged in decolonization throughout her practice. In her work, largely informed by Classical and Byzantine eras, she has used visual compelling storytelling, iconography, and deep memory-time and traces, to parse fragile moments in the history of the region and reveal the continuity between text and image, past and present, in different contexts that go beyond the boundaries of the city: an aqueduct in Naples, a cave in Athens, or bringing metaphorically the city of Bergama to an exhibition space Berlin, questioning the Pergamon museum, engaged in extended contemporary readings of Greek (and other languages) across eras.

In an exhibition from 2014, “The Land Across the Blind”, the artist creates a magical journey between the Princes Islands—traditionally places of exile— and the San Lazzaro degli Armeni in Venice (another island), traveling between centuries of displacements. The land across the blind is Byzantion, the city founded by Byzas of Megara, lying across from Khalkedon, the place that Persian general Megabazos is recorded to have said that they had to be blind to settle there: “Must we not be blind not to see this? This is the land across the blind. This place that we see every day is the point at which Byzas begins to see!” (Buyuktasciyan)

The Greek-Armenian artist is also responsible for the programming of the Galata Greek Primary School in the central district of Beyoglu, a building now empty as the student population disappeared already decades ago, now being used as cultural institution hosting exhibitions and cultural events; a last attempt to keep alive the faint memory of the long Greek presence in Istanbul. Most recently, Buyuktasciyan opened an exhibition at the IFA Gallerie in Berlin, “Neither on the Ground nor in the Sky”, making reference to the mosaic of an Alexandrine parakeet from Pergamon, held at the museum in Berlin. In the exhibition, the artist created a historical bridge between different historical periods, from the famous Library of Pergamon once at the Acropolis, to the final exile of the Anatolian Greeks. As a part of the public program of the exhibition I gave a lecture/performance in April in Berlin, during which I read poetry of Seferis in both Modern Greek and English, in reference to ruins and the life of stones.

From “Neither on the Ground nor in the Sky”, IFA Gallery, 2019

Classical culture does have its representatives in Turkey, for example the very active department of Classics at Istanbul University regularly hosting events and talks, the Twitter account of a young classics lecturer, Cengiz Cevik, tweeting in Turkish about classical literature and ancient philosophy, or the Ancient Greek/Latin recitation competition held at Koc University. All of the above of course deeply embedded in the paradigm of white European humanism. The cultural programming of Türkiye Bankasi, includes a series devoted to translations of classical literature into Turkish, but with a very small pool of translators and a large yearly output, it still remains to be seen if the quality matches the expectations.

And the future isn’t quite looking bright. As the Turkish state turns more and more erratic and isolationist, recently the use of Greek or “Rum” as an insult has reappeared in public life in light of the convoluted Istanbul election, as the opposition candidate has been labelled a Pontus Greek in a propaganda effort to smear his name. A journey through the country’s provincial archaeological museums reveals the dismal picture of the current state of antiquities (where there’s any left, that is), and the neglect of Turkey’s Byzantine and Early Modern Greek heritage, crumbling in front of your eyes, like the Greek Orthodox Orphanage on the island of Büyükada, the largest wood structure in Europe and now at risk of collapse. The most apt metaphor I could find is that of a ruined ruin, based on a fragment of a poem by Seferis:

These stones that sink into the years, how far will they

drag me with them?

The sea, the sea, who can ever drain it dry?(*)

G. Seferis, Mythistorima, XX. (*) the poet translates into Modern Greek line 958 of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, spoken to Clytemnestra as she lures her husband to death. (R. Beaton, 2016)

Αυτές οι πέτρες που βουλιάζουν μέσα χρόνια ως που

θα με παρασύρουν;

Τη θάλασσα τη θάλασσα, ποιος θα μπορέσει να την εξαν-


Greek Orthodox Orphanage, Büyükada, 2019

Arie Amaya-Akkermans is a writer and art critic based on the Princes Islands of Istanbul. He is interested in the Greek heritage of the Asia Minor and the relationship between (pseudo)archaeology and nationalism in the Eastern Mediterranean. He’s also tweeting about Classics, Byzantium, contemporary art and Turkey/Greece.