The Wave of All Waves

Prinkipo Greek Orphanage, 2021, photograph: the author.

Giorgos Seferis, “Thrush” I, Poros, ‘Galini’, 31 October 1946, trans. Edmund Keeley

The house near the sea

The houses I had they took away from me. The times
happened to be unpropitious: war, destruction, exile;
sometimes the hunter hits the migratory birds,
sometimes he doesn’t hit them. Hunting
was good in my time, many felt the pellet;
the rest circle aimlessly or go mad in the shelters.


I don’t know much about houses,
I remember their joy and their sorrow
sometimes, when I stop to think;
again sometimes, near the sea, in naked rooms
with a single iron bed and nothing of my own,
watching the evening spider, I imagine
that someone is getting ready to come, that they dress him up
in white and black robes, with many-coloured jewels,
and around him venerable ladies,
grey hair and dark lace shawls, talk softly,
that he is getting ready to come and say goodbye to me;
or that a woman — eyelashes quivering, slim-waisted,
returning from southern ports,
Smyrna Rhodes Syracuse Alexandria,
From cities closed like hot shutters,
with perfume of golden fruit and herbs —
climbs the stairs without seeing
those who’ve fallen asleep under the stairs.

Houses, you know, grow resentful easily when you strip them bare.

Τὰ σπίτια ποὺ εἶχα μου τὰ πῆραν. Ἔτυχε
νά᾿ ναι τὰ χρόνια δίσεχτα πόλεμοι χαλασμοὶ ξενιτεμοὶ
κάποτε ὁ κυνηγὸς βρίσκει τὰ διαβατάρικα πουλιὰ
κάποτε δὲν τὰ βρίσκει- τὸ κυνήγι
ἦταν καλὸ στὰ χρόνια μου, πῆραν πολλοὺς τὰ σκάγια-
οἱ ἄλλοι γυρίζουν ἢ τρελαίνουνται στὰ καταφύγια.


Δὲν ξέρω πολλὰ πράγματα ἀπὸ σπίτια,
θυμᾶμαι τὴ χαρά τους καὶ τὴ λύπη τους
καμιὰ φορά, σὰ σταματήσω-
καμιὰ φορά, κοντὰ στὴ θάλασσα, σὲ κάμαρες γυμνὲς
μ᾿ ἕνα κρεβάτι σιδερένιο χωρὶς τίποτε δικό μου
κοιτάζοντας τὴ βραδινὴν ἀράχνη συλλογιέμαι
πὼς κάποιος ἑτοιμάζεται νὰ ῾ρθεῖ, πὼς τὸν στολίζουν
μ᾿ ἄσπρα καὶ μαῦρα ροῦχα μὲ πολύχρωμα κοσμήματα
καὶ γύρω του μιλοῦν σιγὰ σεβάσμιες δέσποινες
γκρίζα μαλλιὰ καὶ σκοτεινὲς δαντέλες,
πὼς ἑτοιμάζεται νὰ ᾿ ρθει νὰ μ᾿ ἀποχαιρετήσει-
ἤ, μιὰ γυναίκα ἐλικοβλέφαρη βαθύζωνη
γυρίζοντας ἀπὸ λιμάνια μεσημβρινά,
Σμύρνη Ρόδο Συρακοῦσες Ἀλεξάντρεια,
ἀπὸ κλειστὲς πολιτεῖες σὰν τὰ ζεστὰ παράθυροφυλλα,
μὲ ἀρώματα χρυσῶν καρπῶν καὶ βότανα,
πὼς ἀνεβαίνει τὰ σκαλιὰ χωρὶς νὰ βλέπει
ἐκείνους ποὺ κοιμήθηκαν κάτω ἀπ᾿ τὴ σκάλα.

Ξέρεις τὰ σπίτια πεισματώνουν εὔκολα, σὰν τὰ γυμνώσεις.

From Prinkipo Palace to the Greek Orphanage

Prinkipo Greek Orphanage, 2021, photograph: the author

When the building was finally abandoned, or rather, forcibly dispossessed, on September 14, 1977, the truth is that it had never been lived in to its fullest grandeur and it had enjoyed only a short period of luster, under headmaster Hristos Mavrofidis. That era, or the grace of buying time in between historical ruptures, coincided with the two events that would seal the convoluted fate of Istanbul’s Greeks, the Romioi — the pogroms of 1955 and the expulsions of 1964. We are talking here about the Prinkipo Greek Orphanage, erected on Hristos Hill in 1898, one of the two peaks on the island of Büyükada, called Prinkipo by the Greeks, since at least the time of Emperor Justin the Younger, in the 6th century AD.

The story of the orphanage is more or less well-known and it has been chronicled often, due to its protected status as a cultural site for being the second largest wood structure in the world. A long legal battle at the European Court of Human Rights between the Greek community and the Turkish state over its ownership resulted in the building being returned to the Greek Patriarchate in 2010. This was, however, a pyrrhic victory, for the deterioration of the building was advancing quickly and sections of the roof have completely collapsed in recent years, since the small community, now numbering in the thousands, is unable to meet the costly repairs. Every once in a while you hear an official pronouncement that restoration is about to begin…

As we learn from the book “206 Rooms of Silence: Etudes on Prinkipo Greek Orphanage,” the itinerary of the orphanage begins not in Büyükada in 1898 but in Yedikule in 1853, when the first orphanage was established within the Balıklı Greek Hospital, subsequently destroyed by an earthquake in 1894, and then transferred to an old building in the back of the hospital in such terrible condition that it came to be known as the “place of fleas” (Των ψύλλων). In parallel, around this time, in 1897-98, begins the grandiose history of Prinkipo Palace, a one of a kind luxury hotel, a gigantic wooden structure built by the renowned French-Ottoman architect Alexandre Vallaury, a building as majestic as its future would be contested.

206 Rooms of Silence, exhibition book by Galata Greek School, 2019, photograph: Galata Greek School

The 206-room hotel, extending into 20,000 square meters, was designed to be a hotel and a casino, for there was high demand for luxury hotels at the end of the Oriental Express, and it was owned by the same train company. Vallaury, known as Mimar-ı Şehir (architect of the city), who was born into a Levantine family in Istanbul and was the mastermind of traditional landmarks of the period, such as Pera Palace Hotel, the Istanbul Archaeological Museum and the Ottoman Imperial Bank. He conceived Prinkipo Palace, the world’s first modern multi-story wooden structure, as a combination of traditional Ottoman architecture and European styles of the period, using local timber to recreate ornate neoclassical interiors.

But this hotel was never to be. When Sultan Abdülhamid II banned gambling, the building entered into a legal limbo and it was then sold for a fraction of the price to Eleni Zafiropoulos-Zarifis, the wife of a wealthy banker, who bequeathed it to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, and in 1903 the Prinkipo Greek Orphanage opened its doors. But the joy was short-lived. After the outbreak of World War First, the building was confiscated, first occupied by a military school, then by allied German soldiers and finally by Russian migrants. The orphanage was severely damaged in the process, and when it was finally returned, the school had to operate in those conditions.

It was only until 1955, under the direction of Mavrofidis, that the orphanage operated at its fullest capacity (even though large portions of the enormous building were never used), according to the most up-to-date educational methods of the time. This period, however, would coincide with the pogroms against Greeks in Istanbul (which the school weathered out) and would culminate with the resignation of Mavrofidis in 1964. This year would spell fresh troubles for the Romioi, after the Famagusta incident in Cyprus between the Greek Cypriot militia and Turkish Cypriots, with measures aimed against Greeks living in Istanbul, and the islands of Imbros and Tenedos, including deportation orders, and expropriations of buildings and capital.

On April 20, 1964, an evacuation order was sent to the orphanage on the pretext of a fire hazard. The 1974 Cypriot coup d’etat, initiated by the Greek military junta, followed by a Turkish invasion five days later, would signal even further losses for the Greek community, with more and more departures and restrictions — Cyprus has been a divided island ever since. On September 14, 1977, the Prinkipo Greek Orphanage was officially closed. Pupils were transferred to other schools and monasteries, lacking facilities for bathing and heating; teacher appointments were suspended ,as were books coming from Greece, and it was forbidden to renovate the schools and buildings they were housed in.

206 Rooms of Silence

206 Rooms of Silence, exhibition book by Galata Greek School, 2019, photograph: Galata Greek School

What is the Prinkipo Greek Orphanage if not a permanent incompleteness, serving as a grand metaphor for Istanbul’s perennial sense of historical discontinuity with itself? In 2018, artist Hera Büyüktaşçıyan, a Greek-Armenian from Heybeli, called Halki in Greek, an island adjacent to Büyükada, told me about the project of making an exhibition about the orphanage, in light of its dismal condition then, and the necessity to highlight this building, in order to preserve a fragment of its memory, of its unfinished history, before it was too late. And then it was perhaps a little too late: Although the exhibition was to take place at the orphanage, it was no longer safe to enter the building.

In October that year, the exhibition “206 Rooms of Silence: Etudes on Prinkipo Greek Orphanage” (eponymous with the aforementioned book, published a year later), opened at the Galata Greek Primary School, also a former school of the Greek community closed down in 1988 due to a lack of pupils, and then permanently in 2007, now a prominent cultural center where Büyüktaşçıyan runs the cultural program. Büyüktaşçıyan, as an artist (and curator) was joined by three Turkish artists, Murat Germen, Ali Kazma and Dilek Winchester, to intervene on different aspects of the orphanage’s history and memory, from drone photography and film, to acoustic mnemography and material archives.

If you think of the parallels, the Galata Greek Primary School could have suffered the same fate as the orphanage, which is not an unlikely event in Turkey; demolitions, expropriations, bureaucratic limbo, abeyance (the orphanage escaped demolition due to its status as a historical landmark because it was a Vallaury building). As an artist, Büyüktaşçıyan has been actively engaged with the memory of dispossessed places, from the Princes Islands’ history as a place of exile since the Byzantine period to Hezekiah’s Pool in the Old City of Jerusalem barred to Palestinians by the occupation; in the book for 206 Rooms of Silence, she begins by telling us what one would see today if he stood on Hristos Hill, gazing sidewards and downwards:

“Elegantly rises on a hill growing from the
and gives the feeling of a flying building
that overcomes the gravity
…to those who stand at the peak and look
Faces one side to the city and Heybeli, the
other to Sedef Island
And the other two…
North and south ends
are at the service of all the wild winds.”

The Wave of All Waves, Hera Büyüktaşçıyan, Galata Greek School, 2018, photograph: the author

The reference to nature’s physical presence is uncanny but yet not an attempt to aestheticize a ruin; instead it aims to let it speak in all its dimensions, through the contours of what is absent, and has been emptied out. Summoning of a ghost, of a building-as-a-ghost, resulting from political events against Turkey’s minorities, whose absence is not a clean break, but a visible interruption in the flow of being-there; “Hâlâ burada” (“Still here”) as Turkish artist Ali Kazma notes in the book, and whose delicate filmography of an orphaned orphanage, presents the juxtaposition between the rotting wood of the lonely building carcass and the lush forest, flanked by the ebullient life of the city across the sea.

The eerie silence of the rooms, at the summit of the hill, visited only by the forces of nature, both accelerating decay and withholding real presence, is summarized by Büyüktaşçıyan in her writing: “The only things that filled the rooms were: the winds of the island, the rustling of pine needles touching the windows, the deep but heavy, strident movements of the breathing wooden body. It all became the silence of countless voids within.”(*) Her installation, “The Wave of All Waves”, placed on the fourth floor of the Galata Greek Primary School, at the foreground of Murat Germen’s monumental photography of the collapsing roof, resembles not only an extension of the roof itself falling down, but a passage-way, a transition point.

(*) Translation edited.

A structure of moving planks, completes the idea of a transition between physical and imaginary spaces, recurrent in Büyüktaşçıyan’s previous works, “When Things Find Their Own Cleft” (2016) and “Docks” (2014) both of which also reference the predicament of Greeks and Armenians in Istanbul’s modern history, pointing at the condition of instability, and the perilous journeys of forced displacement. The safety of the ground under our feet can disappear at any moment; there exist everywhere uncanny waves from the past that can suddenly demolish the present moment, without warning. The artist turns to a cryptic poem by Seferis, to articulate the passage of the ruin from the mere degradation of an artifact to a historical condition.

Giorgos Seferis, “On a Winter Ray”, V, Three Secret Poems, 1966, trans. Vrasidas Karalis

Which murky river conquered us?
We collapsed at the deep.
The current runs over our heads
Winding inarticulate reeds;

The voices
Under the chestnut tree became pebbles
And children throw them away.

Ποιός βουρκωμένος ποταμός μάς πήρε;
Μείναμε στο βυθό.
Τρέχει το ρέμα πάνω απ’ το κεφάλι μας
λυγίζει τ’ άναρθρα καλάμια·

οι φωνές
κάτω απ’ την καστανιά γίναν χαλίκια
και τα πετάνε τα παιδιά.

Transcending the empirical reality of time, always moving in the direction of a line leading from past to future, Büyüktaşçıyan is seeking in poetry — not in poems as aesthetic objects but in poetical thinking, access to simultaneity, or rather, to multiples (any position that is not the singular or the whole) where interruptions can be traced as larger than merely events. As a model of temporality, currents and waves have always been part of her lexicon, since she began investigating the aquatic memory of cities, beginning with Istanbul’s water sources and cisterns. The wave of all waves, however, points at a larger kind of permanence, or endurance, through interruption, that the ghost-building of Prinkipo shares with the broken statues of Seferis.

Ali Kazma, Orphanage, 2018, photograph: the author

Reading Seferis: The Apocalypse

The crucial achievement in Seferis’ poetry, a qualifier of both his modernism and his rearticulation of “Hellenicity” (the larger cultural Hellenic space with its diasporas rather than a Greek national poetry) is a sparseness of language, counterintuitive to the archaizing influence of Katharevousa, precisely because of how rooted it is in the close reading of ancient texts, particularly Homer and Aeschylus. These are not “Classics” in the traditional European sense, referring to Greek texts as the genesis of a Western consciousness anchored in historical or mythological battles, but the direct experience of a timeless Aegean: Rocks, the cruel sea, black earth and the scorching sun. It is about the sparseness of the landscape.

206 Rooms of Silence, exhibition book by Galata Greek School, 2019, photograph: Galata Greek School

In Mythistorema (1935), the most famous of his poetry books, when he reaches his mature form as a poet, an undecipherable tale of desolation unfolds; it is laden with familiar characters; Odysseus, Orestes, Andromeda, Astyanax. But the exact moment and location of events remains elusive: There are shipwrecks, asphodels, horses, burnt pines, corpses. Sometimes, these could be the burial mounds of the Odyssey, but some other times, we might think of Seferis’ grief after the loss of his grandmother’s house in Urla in 1922 shortly before the Asia Minor catastrophe (that house is the theme of The House Near the Sea, above this essay) that sent countless refugees from Turkey to the shores of inhospitable islands or languishing in the port of Piraeus.

Giorgos Seferis, Mythistorema, XX, 1935, trans. Roderick Beaton

In my breast the wound opens again
When the stars go down and become kind with my body
When silence falls beneath the footprint of mankind.
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?

Στο στήθος μου η πληγή ανοίγει πάλι
όταν χαμηλώνουν τ’ άστρα και συγγενεύουν με το κορμί μου
όταν πέφτει σιγή κάτω από τα πέλματα των ανθρώπων.
Αυτές οι πέτρες που βουλιάζουν μέσα στα χρόνια ώς πού θα με παρασύρουν;
Τη θάλασσα τη θάλασσα, ποιός θα μπορέσει να την εξαντλήσει;

Here Seferis translates into Modern Greek line 958 of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, spoken by Clytemnestra as she lures her husband to death: ἔστιν θάλασσα, τίς δέ νιν κατασβέσει; (There is the sea, and who shall drain it dry?). The dramatic overtone of Aeschylus’ recurrence was for Seferis nothing like a mere aesthetic strategy. In his famous statement against the Greek Colonels’ junta in 1969, Seferis evokes the dramatist: “Everyone has now learned and knows that in dictatorships the beginning may seem easy, but tragedy always awaits, ineluctably, at the end. The drama of this end tortures us, consciously or unconsciously, as in the age-old choruses of Aeschylus. As long as the anomaly lasts, evil will advance further and further.”

He didn’t live to see the end of the military junta, but after he died in 1971 his funeral became an enormous, impromptu public protest, where the crowds began to sing his poem “Denial” (1931), set to music by Mikis Theodorakis, then a popular song in the Plaka district of Athens until it was banned. As Büyüktaşçıyan notes in the book, “The wave of all waves is a reminder of the unexpected mighty wave that shakes our present reality and swallows it if need be, with the accumulated oeuvre of years of history.” Seferis couldn’t have been aware at the time of the (under)currents that would bring down the junta three years after his death, through events that are still a matter of dispute, through events that perhaps he influenced.

Hera Büyüktaşçıyan, When Things Find Their Own Cleft, 2016, photograph: the artist

Giorgos Seferis, Mythistorema, XXI, 1935, trans. Roderick Beaton

We who set upon this pilgrimage
Looked at the broken statues
Consoled ourselves with thinking that life cannot be lost
So easily
That death must have roads unexplored
And its own kind of justice.

Εμείς που ξεκινήσαμε για το προσκύνημα τούτο
κοιτάξαμε τα σπασμένα αγάλματα
ξεχαστήκαμε και είπαμε πως δε χάνεται η ζωή τόσο εύκολα
πως έχει ο θάνατος δρόμους ανεξερεύνητους
και μια δική του δικαιοσύνη·

But the central metaphor of Mythistorema are stones and broken statues. According to Liana Giannakopoulou, however much glorification of Western ideas of Hellenism revolves around the study and representation of classical statues, for Seferis, the broken fragments, represent mutilated corpses, “haunting a desolate landscape, threatening nightmares which persecute the viewers”, reflecting our modern experience as being no longer whole: The fragment of stone is a symbol of a lost wholeness, of disorientation, exclusion and despair. The persistence of the Orphanage atop the island summit, as symbolized by Büyüktaşçıyan’s intervention cascading towards the present, is a ghost of this kind: No longer whole and yet not altogether absent.

Yet, Mythistorema, in spite of its Odysseic desolation, ends in a note of reconciliation, or hope, in which the ghosts of the past can be resurrected in some form, even while the journeys of Odysseus to the underworld, tell us otherwise. The Asphodels still believe that rescue from the wheel of time will come when the past is made present by memory. However, Seferis’ “On a Winter Ray”, written in his older age, belongs to a different order of poetic resolution: Three Secret Poems is a collection of apocalyptic, elegiac songs for the end of the world, a world corrupt and degraded (Beaton), in which “there’s no palliative care for the pain of physical dissolution, and no escape for the soul into an afterlife.”

Hera Büyüktaşçıyan, Docks, 2014, photograph: Mustafa Hazneci

Let’s turn for a moment to Elpenor, the youngest companion of Odysseus, who became drunk while on the island of Circe and decided to spend the night on the roof. In the morning after, he slipped on the ladder, fell, and broke his neck, dying instantly (Hom. Od. 11.51). In Seferis’ poem “Sensual Elpenor” (1946, part of Thrush), written at the height of the Greek Civil War, after his return from exile, when he happened upon the wreck of a naval supply ship in the channel between Poros and the Peloponnese, there’s a conversation between Circe and Elpenor, recounted by Socrates. I imagine a version of the story in which Elpenor falls drunk from the roof of the orphanage and a distraught Odysseus couldn’t find his body to perform the ritual of burial.

Büyüktaşçıyan would then listen to Elpenor’s tale, not alive but also not buried, as in the appearance of Patroclus to Achilles in a dream, wandering around the silent rooms…

Giorgos Seferis, “Thrush” II, Poros, ‘Galini’, 31 October 1946, trans. Edmund Keeley

Really, those statues are not
the fragments. You yourself are the relic;
they haunt you with a strange virginity
at home, at the office, at the receptions for the celebrated,
in the unconfessed terror of sleep;
they speak of things you wish didn’t exist
Or would happen years after your death,
And that’s difficult because…’
— ‘The statues are in the museum.
Good night.’
— ‘… because the statues are no longer
Fragments. We are. The statues bend lightly… Good night.

Ἀλήθεια, τὰ συντρίμμια
δὲν εἶναι ἐκεῖνα- ἐσὺ ῾σαι τὸ ρημάδι-
σὲ κυνηγοῦν μὲ μία παράξενη παρθενιὰ
στὸ σπίτι στὸ γραφεῖο στὶς δεξιώσεις
τῶν μεγιστάνων, στὸν ἀνομολόγητο φόβο τοῦ ὕπνου-
μιλοῦν γιὰ περιστατικὰ ποὺ θὰ ἤθελες νὰ μὴν ὑπάρχουν
ἢ νὰ γινόντουσαν χρόνια μετὰ τὸ θάνατό σου,
κι αὐτὸ εἶναι δύσκολο γιατί…
-Τ᾿ ἀγάλματα εἶναι στὸ μουσεῖο.
-… γιατὶ τ᾿ ἀγάλματα δὲν εἶναι πιὰ συντρίμμια,
εἴμαστε ἐμεῖς. Τ᾿ ἀγάλματα λυγίζουν ἀλαφριὰ … καλή-

Τhe Light of Homer

206 Rooms of Silence, exhibition book by Galata Greek School, 2019, photograph: Galata Greek School

In a letter, dated December 27, 1949, from Ankara, while he was posted at the Greek embassy in Turkey, Seferis writes to his friend George Katsimbalis, attempting to explain the content of Thrush, and why he had exchanged Tiresias for Socrates in the dialogue between Circe and Elpenor. He doesn’t say much by way of explanation, except for talking about his impressions upon having encountered the shipwreck in Poros and Socrates’ feeling about ceasing to exist, but he concludes with this phrase: “We could go very far; but I shall stop here. We arrived at the light. And the light cannot be explained; it can only be seen.” After which he quotes from the Odyssey, the last words of Anticleia to her son:

Homer, Odyssey, XI, 222-224, trans. Emily Wilson

The spirit flies away and soon is gone,
Just like a dream, now hurry to the light;
Remember all these things, so you might tell
Your wife in times to come.

ψυχὴ δ᾽ ἠύτ᾽ ὄνειρος ἀποπταμένη πεπότηται.
ἀλλὰ φόωσδε τάχιστα λιλαίεο: ταῦτα δὲ πάντα
ἴσθ᾽, ἵνα καὶ μετόπισθε τεῇ εἴπῃσθα γυναικί.

206 Rooms of Silence, exhibition book by Galata Greek School, 2019, photograph: Galata Greek School

Jennifer Kellogg recounts how during the Nobel acceptance speech, Seferis commented upon the sense of overlap between Homeric Greek and the modern language, in relation to φάος ἠελίοιο, the light of the sun: “I experience a familiarity that stems from a collective soul rather than from an intellectual effort. It is a tone, one might say, whose harmonies reach quite far; it feels very different from anything a translation can give.” The light of the sun in Homer, is a metaphorical place in the sun-scorched sparseness of the Greek landscape; it is a formulaic expression that conveys a sense of life to Achaean heroes, but conversely its absence, darkness, is also a signifier of death and the underworld.

According to Letoublon, most appearances of φάος ἠελίοιο in Homer, refer to death or the possibility of death. This metaphor was certainly not lost on Seferis, who saw the appearance of light and the sun as a symbolic metaphysics of existence and persistence. There are three poems of Seferis that are identified with the Homeric light, φάος ἠελίοιο: “King of Asine” (1940), “Τhrush” (1946) and “Agia Napa I” (1955). Hera Büyüktaşçıyan is no stranger to the reading of Seferis light poems: She paraphrased a line from the King of Asine in a long English poem of her own, as the background of her earlier project “Neither on the Ground, nor in the Sky” (2019), an investigation into historical transitions around the city of Pergamon.

But it is in Thrush, according to some, Seferis’ masterpiece, with the uncanny description of the afterlife of statues, where we can best pinpoint the narrative meeting point between Büyüktaşçıyan and Seferis as both readers of epic, engaged in the mythologization of contemporary events for the sake of a permanence of memory that will fill discontinuities with historical content. In Thrush, at the height of the Greek Civil War, and severely disheartened, Seferis returns to the τοπος (place) of Mythistorema X, “Our country is a closed place, all mountains roofed over by the low sky day and night”. His usage of metaphysical topos as a country is highly idiosyncratic and stepped in the νοστος (homecoming) of the Odyssey.

A famously cited work by Gregory Nagy insists that the nostos of Odysseus in the Odyssey means not only a return or a song about a return, but even a return to light and life. However, Büyüktaşçıyan’s brief but very precise engagement with Seferis’ “On a Winter Ray”, as a part of “The Wave of All Waves”, led me to believe that the poem has been vastly overlooked as one of Seferis’ poems about φάος ἠελίοιο. The fourth stanza, immediately preceding Büyüktaşçıyan’s choice for illustrating the waves and currents of subterranean histories emerging forth, introduces, retrospectively, within the condition of the apocalyptic imaginary, a break with the past that masquerades as nostalgia, but is yet a substantial present.

Giorgos Seferis, “On a Winter Ray”, IV, Three Secret Poems, 1966, trans. Vrasidas Karalis

Years ago you said:
“Deep down I am a matter of light.”
Even now as you rest
On the broad shoulders of sleep
Even when they drown you
In the lethargic bosom of the sea
You search for niches where blackness
Frays and does not endure
You grope for the spear
Destined to pierce your heart
And open it to light.

Είπες εδώ και χρόνια:
«Κατά βάθος είμαι ζήτημα φωτός».
Και τώρα ακόμη σαν ακουμπάς
στις φαρδιές ωμοπλάτες του ύπνου
ακόμη κι όταν σε ποντίζουν
στο ναρκωμένο στήθος του πελάγου
ψάχνεις γωνιές όπου το μαύρο
έχει τριφτεί και δεν αντέχει
αναζητάς ψηλαφητά τη λόγχη
την ορισμένη να τρυπήσει την καρδιά σου
για να την ανοίξει στο φως.

By a substantial time, we refer to possibilities of temporality incisive enough to suspend the ebb and flow of history as a teleology where events are unavoidable and human actors, mere passive spectators of a slaughterhouse. That is not to say that the power to change history resides in literature or art — this would be folly — but that narrative gestures can elevate the present moment to a status of timelessness before it has solidified as a past over which we have no control. Anthony Zahareas wrote of Seferis: “He speaks of fragmented men who yearn for completion, of wanderers who long for the home that constantly recedes into the future, and of being mired in the injustice of time, who search for timelessness.”

In this injustice of time, Büyüktaşçıyan is holding conversations with distant friends, across eras and seas, visualizing myths, waters, statues, fragments of stone, or a ruined building, in the same way that inhabitants of a small village in Ottoman-era Eleusis, saw the Ceres caryatid, that they didn’t want removed by British looters in 1801; it was their belief that these are real people that will return to life when the time comes. But for the time being, the artist must serve the role of a witness: “A present that has sunk into the past… A past that cannot bear with the painful truth of the present… Disassembles itself, piece by piece, from the inside out…”

“Ceres of Eleusis”, 50 BC, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.


The exhibition “206 Rooms of Silence: Etudes on Prinkipo Greek Orphanage” ran from October 9, through November 10, 2018, at the Galata Greek Primary School. The eponymous book was released a year later. The book is available only from the bookstore of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. A limited number of copies is available to scholars and researchers from the Galata Greek Primary School.


Arie Amaya-Akkermans, “Hera Büyüktaşçıyan”, in SFAQ Issue 24, 2016
Arie Amaya-Akkermans, “Unfinished Centuries”, in SFAQ Issue 21, 2015
Roderick Beaton, “Introduction”, in George Seferis: Novel and Other Poems, Aiora, 2016, pp. 11-19
Thomas Doulis, “George Seferis and the Erosion of Memory”, in The American Scholar, Vol. 37, No. 2 (spring, 1968), pp. 336-346
Liana Giannakopoulou, “Statues and Stones in the Poetry of Seferis and Ritsos”, in Kambos, Cambridge Papers in Modern Greek, Vol. 10 (2002), pp. 37-64
Yannis Hamilakis, “Indigenous Archaeologies in Ottoman Greece”, in Scramble for the Past: A Story of Archaeology in the Ottoman Empire, 1753-1914, ed. Zainab Bahrani, Zeynep Çelik & Edhem Eldem, SALT, 2011, pp. 49-70
Jennifer Kellogg, Seferis and Homer’s Light, The Center for Hellenic Studies, 2020
Vayos Liapis, “‘The Painful Memory of Woe’: Greek Tragedy and the Greek Civil War in the work of George Seferis”, in Classical Receptions Journal, Vol. 6, Issue 1, January 2014, pp. 74-103
Anthony N. Zahareas, “George Seferis: Myth and History”, in World Literature Today, Vol. 63, No. 2, 250th issue, (spring, 1989), pp. 200-205

Acknowledgements: Nektaria Anastasiadou, Gregory Buchakjian, Hera Büyüktaşçıyan, Theo Chiotis, Musab Daud, Nikolaos Dervisis, Joana Hadjithomas, Etan Nechin, Felekşan Onar, Afroditi Panagiotakou, Natalya Vasilieva.

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.

There’s Only One City: Istanbul

A Recipe for Daphne, Nektaria Anastasiadou, Hoopoe Fiction/AUCPress, 2020

Herodotus, Histories, VII, 7.219.1-7.220.4

The seer Megistias, examining the sacrifices, first told the Hellenes at Thermopylae that death was coming to them with the dawn. Then deserters came who announced the circuit made by the Persians. These gave their signals while it was still night; a third report came from the watchers running down from the heights of down. The Hellenes then took counsel, but their opinions were divided. Some advised not to leave their post, but others spoke against them. They eventually parted, some departing and dispersing each to other own cities, others preparing to remain there with Leonidas. It is said that Leonidas himself sent them away because he was concerned that they would be killed, but felt it not fitting for himself and the Spartans to desert that post which they had come to defend at the beginning. I, however, tend to believe that when Leonidas perceived that the allies were dispirited and unwilling to run all risks with him, he told them to depart. For himself, however, it was not good to leave; if he remained, he would leave a name of great fame, and the prosperity of Sparta would not be blotted out. When the Spartans asked the oracle about this war when it broke out, the Pythia had foretold that either Lacedaemon would be destroyed by the barbarians or their king would be killed. She gave them this answer in hexameter verses running as follows:

“For you, inhabitants of wide-wayed Sparta,
Either your great and glorious city must be wasted by Persian men,
Or if not that, then the bound of Lacedaemon must mourn a dead king, from Heracles’ line.
The might of bulls and lions will not restrain him opposing strength; for he has the might of Zeus. I declare that he will not be restrained until he utterly tears apart one of these.”

Considering this and wishing the win distinction for the Spartans alone, he sent away the allies rather than have them leave in disorder because of a difference of opinion.

τοῖσι δὲ ἐν Θερμοπύλῃσι Ἑλλήνων πρῶτον μὲν ὁ μάντις Μεγιστίης ἐσιδὼν ἐς τὰ ἱρὰ ἔφρασε τὸν μέλλοντα ἔσεσθαι ἅμα ἠοῖ σφι θάνατον, ἐπὶ δὲ καὶ αὐτόμολοι ἦσαν οἱ ἐξαγγείλαντες τῶν Περσέων τὴν περίοδον. οὗτοι μὲν ἔτι νυκτὸς ἐσήμηναν, τρίτοι δὲ οἱ ἡμεροσκόποι καταδραμόντες ἀπὸ τῶν ἄκρων ἤδη διαφαινούσης ἡμέρης.  ἐνθαῦτα ἐβουλεύοντο οἱ Ἕλληνες, καί σφεων ἐσχίζοντο αἱ γνῶμαι: οἳ μὲν γὰρ οὐκ ἔων τὴν τάξιν ἐκλιπεῖν, οἳ δὲ ἀντέτεινον. μετὰ δὲ τοῦτο διακριθέντες οἳ μὲν ἀπαλλάσσοντο καὶ διασκεδασθέντες κατὰ πόλις ἕκαστοι ἐτράποντο, οἳ δὲ αὐτῶν ἅμα Λεωνίδῃ μένειν αὐτοῦ παρεσκευάδατο. λέγεται δὲ καὶ ὡς αὐτός σφεας ἀπέπεμψε Λεωνίδης, μὴ ἀπόλωνται κηδόμενος: αὐτῷ δὲ καὶ Σπαρτιητέων τοῖσι παρεοῦσι οὐκ ἔχειν εὐπρεπέως ἐκλιπεῖν τὴν τάξιν ἐς τὴν ἦλθον φυλάξοντες ἀρχήν. ἐκέχρηστο γὰρ ὑπὸ τῆς Πυθίης τοῖσι Σπαρτιήτῃσι χρεωμένοισι περὶ τοῦ πολέμου τούτου αὐτίκα κατ᾽ ἀρχὰς ἐγειρομένου, ἢ Λακεδαίμονα ἀνάστατον γενέσθαι ὑπὸ τῶν βαρβάρων ἢ τὴν βασιλέα σφέων ἀπολέσθαι. ταῦτα δέ σφι ἐν ἔπεσι ἑξαμέτροισι χρᾷ λέγοντα ὧδε. 

“ὑμῖν δ᾽, ὦ Σπάρτης οἰκήτορες εὐρυχόροιο,
ἢ μέγα ἄστυ ἐρικυδὲς ὑπ᾽ ἀνδράσι Περσεΐδῃσι
πέρθεται, ἢ τὸ μὲν οὐχί, ἀφ᾽ Ἡρακλέους δὲ γενέθλης
πενθήσει βασιλῆ φθίμενον Λακεδαίμονος οὖρος.
οὐ γὰρ τὸν ταύρων σχήσει μένος οὐδὲ λεόντων
ἀντιβίην: Ζηνὸς γὰρ ἔχει μένος: οὐδέ ἑ φημί
σχήσεσθαι, πρὶν τῶνδ᾽ ἕτερον διὰ πάντα δάσηται.”

ταῦτά τε δὴ ἐπιλεγόμενον Λεωνίδην, καὶ βουλόμενον κλέος καταθέσθαι μούνων Σπαρτιητέων, ἀποπέμψαι τοὺς συμμάχους μᾶλλον ἢ γνώμῃ διενειχθέντας οὕτω ἀκόσμως οἴχεσθαι τοὺς οἰχομένους.

Le isole di Antigoni, Cosimo Comidas, 1794, The Gennadius Library – The American School of Classical Studies at Athens

During the Byzantine era, Greek fishermen and mariners made up the entirety of the population on these three islands, Prinkipo, Halki and Antigone. On the latter, there was a watchtower that gave the island its Turkish name, (Burgaz, a corruption of the ancient Greek πύργος), mentioned by Evliya Çelebi and other Westerner travelers, seen in an engraving by Cosimo Comidas, from 1794. The island of course looks very different today, with its wooden palaces built in earlier centuries, now a present memory of an earlier Istanbul that disappeared during the fires – both real and metaphorical, and punctuated by the vast inequalities of Turkey; the humble boats of the now Turkish fishermen docked alongside jet skies and sailboats. The Greek population has largely vanished, but many Jews from the city still have their summer residences there.

If you’ve been to Antigone on a summer day, you would recognize the scene, portrayed in Nektaria Anastasiadou’s debut novel “A Recipe for Daphne” (2020), when a group of Istanbul Greeks (known as “Rums”, I’ll return to this later) traveled by ferry to the island for a lunch at Aliki’s house: 

“Do you see that old lady up there?” she said, nodding toward a woman with an arm dangling over her oriel sill. “Probably Rum,” said Kosmas. “She’d have to be Rum -or Jewish- to have an old house like that. That’s what I love about Antigone in the summer. You can ever hear Greek and Ladino coming from open windows. It’s like smelling the rich aroma of tsoureki bread wafting out of bakeries at Easter time.” 

It’s impossible to miss the purple-dyed lilacs hanging from the windows, the pungent smell of pines, the mild saltiness of the Marmara Sea, and the loud chatter coming out of fish restaurants on the seashores. At lunch, in Anastasiadou’s novel, everything is made to seem extraordinary; the trays of freshly prepared food under mosquito tents, the smell of coffee, clinking glasses of cherry liquor, heated conversations with fists on the table and dances to the tune of music. Perhaps the music of Roza Eskenazi, the Jewish-Greek rebetiko singer from Constantinople, is playing in the background? 

And yet, anyone who lived on the islands has been to such day-long gatherings, where always an elderly person will tell you that parties were so much better in the earlier years, without being able to say specifically why. Is this scene then a telegram from a lost world? 

It’s a pity that the Greeks left, it’s the common explanation, after which a long silence settles in. During a phaeton ride (they have been banned since 2019), Daphne, our main character, wonders about the history of this place: They slowed for a turn. A derelict cottage of dry boards caught up Daphne’s eye. Through its glassless windows and tattered lace curtains, she glimpsed dusty, abandoned wicker furniture and a paper icon tacked to the wall. She wondered why the cottage’s owners had left without even collecting the furniture and curtains. Had they been deported in 1964? Had they been unable to endure the nationalistic pressures of the seventies?

Burgazada seen from Heybeliada, summer 2019, photograph: the author.

In a different part of the novel, Kosmas’ mother Rea (he is courting Daphne) recounts the events of the pogroms against the Greeks in 1955, on the Princes Islands:

“–we were at our cottage on the island. It’s always on a Tuesday that these things happen, just like in 1453.”

“Mama, please. What do your shoes have to do with black Tuesday and pogroms and the fall of Constantinople?”

“When the mob arrived by ferry, my mother and I hid in the shed behind the house. My father and brothers took refuge in the fig trees. The thugs threw the bell of Saint Nicholas into the sea and killed the monk who used to make these crucifixes. They tried to burn our house, too, but the fire extinguished itself. My mother said it was because of the crucifix. She’d fixed it to the inside of the door before we hid in the shed.”

Yet, the central theme of “A Recipe for Daphne” is not the tragic modern history of the Greeks of Istanbul, although the events of 1955 lurk powerfully in the background: Fanis’ wife committed suicide after a rape on the night of the events, and Daphne’s parents, Ilyas and Sultana, an “Ottoman” (a polite nod to “Turk” and Muslim, often used in Greek media) and a Greek woman, migrated to the United States afterwards. Daphne is a Greek-American teacher from Miami, who travels to Istanbul for the summer (set in 2011), to discover this distant ancestral home, and try to make sense of her Greekness, which in a place like Istanbul, is far from a linear, well-organized narrative.

The actual theme of the novel is food. Yes, food. Lots of food. An incredibly fertile and vivacious metaphor for the pluriverse of the Mediterranean; richly extravagant descriptions of interminable plates, appetizers, confections, and pastries, make Istanbul feel alive!

The descriptions are mesmerizing: “A waiter brought a tray of cold appetizers in rectangular white dishes. Everything was fresh, impeccable, and tastefully decorated with red pepper slices, lemon wedges, olives, and minced parsley. Kosmas wondered what Daphne would like best. He ordered mussels stuffed with cinnamon-flavored rice, smoked eggplant salad, cod roe spread, and salt bonito in oil.” At times, I struggled to identify the English names, since I have known these dishes for nearly a decade only in Turkish.

Or think of this spectacular idea for a wedding cake: “For you I’d do five round tiers delicately accented with green cardamom from the Egyptian Bazaar. Butter-cream icing, without coloring, because the natural cream is understated and elegant, like you.” He paused. Car lights flashed from the rim of the bay, lighting up her face. She was smiling and looking directly at him now, as if no one else existed. He shook off the dizziness caused by her gaze and continued: “The decoration will be of the same cream color. Piped like embroidery, not stenciled. You’d never fit into a mold. The motifs will be Ottoman: foliage, tulips, carnations, hyacinths. From top to bottom, in an elegant curve, will stretch one stern of white orchids.”

Fish market, Karaköy, Istanbul (now demolished), winter 2012, photograph: the author.

It is a pastry recipe which holds the center of the narrative together and presents Anastasiadou’s complex but tender world. Kosmas is a trained patissier, proud Rum, and deeply knowledgeable about the history of the city:

“All the time. Ancient, Byzantine, Ottoman. Everything I find about the City. My favorite is Edmondo de Amici’s 1877 travelogue Constantinople. After raving about the beauty of the city from afar, de Amici begins his second chapter by describing Constantinople -in which he had, by that time, spent five hours -as a monstrous confusion of civilization and barbarism. Which is exactly what Istanbul remains to this day.”

Kosmas is searching for a lost recipe from the Ottoman world, a pastry called the Balkanik, and after many attempts, the original recipe was found in an old Ottoman language book from Uncle Mustafa: 

He now understood the general construction: the Balkanik was a long hollow pastry with a consistency that fell somewhere between that of an éclair and a sponge cake. It was filled with lightly flavored creams: chocolate, vanilla, cardamom, rose, pistachio, saffron, mastic gum, orchid root.


Fanis looked down at the plate. If the Balkanik pastry could be resurrected, then perhaps there was hope for their community. “Bravo,” he said.

“I’m proud of you, son,” said Rea. She took the knife from Emine, symbolically crossed the pastry thrice, and cut it into slices. The inside was exactly as it always had been: Filled with different colored and flavored creams. 

“Each cream represents one of the Ottoman Balkan peoples,” Kosmas explained. “Bulgarians, Romanians, Albanian, Greeks, Serbs, Croats, Jews and Turks.”

Audience with Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, October 2015, photo: the author.

But who are the Rums and Greeks that Anastasiadou uses almost interchangeably? Here things begin to get complicated for Daphne and for us. The identity of Hellenic peoples in the ancient world was never a coherent whole, and this ambiguity significantly expanded during the Byzantine period, with the transition of power from West to East, and the inheritance of complex ideas about Roman citizenship. But fundamentally, “Rum” is merely the Ottoman term for Roman, or Ῥωμαῖος that the foundation of Constantinople in the year 324 came to problematize in its own particular manner, between contradictory ethnic, religious and cultural identities.

The question of who Byzantines were, has historically preoccupied scholars, especially given that the term Byzantine was never used by Romans themselves. Anthony Kaldellis, one prominent Byzantine scholar in this debate, for example, argues, that the terms of engagement were not homogeneous between elite identity and ethnicity, city and countryside, and that although for the most part, Roman, referred from that point in time onwards, to Greek-speaking Christians from the empire, this usage was not consistent. Rum is also used today in all Arabic-speaking countries to refer to all their native Christian Orthodox population and was at some point used in India in reference to all the peoples of the Middle East, both Christian and Muslim. 

A number of conversations emerge in “A Recipe for Daphne” that touch on these unfinished debates and what they mean today for the tiny, dwindling, Greek Orthodox community in Turkey, now numbering in the few thousands. When Daphne criticized the idea of the Orthodox Homogeneia in describing Greeks only as a race, Kosmas’ mother slapped her hand onto the table and said “You’re not from here, Daphne,” […] “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” It’s a difficult conversation to have in a volatile and often violent environment, where public trust is absent, and a traumatized community is clinging to a last stand, wondering if there’s a future for the community.

In the novel, a sermon takes place at the local church (perhaps the Panagia Isodion church, in the district of Beyoğlu, around the corner from the Hazzopoulos restaurant?), that puts this last stand to the test with a folk tale based on Herodotus: 

At the close of the service, the bishop delivered a short sermon about the survival of the Rum community: “When Leonidas, King of the Spartans, went forth to battle with the Persians at Thermopylae with a force of only three hundred men, someone asked how he planned to defeat an enemy so numerous with so few. Leonidas replied, ‘if you think I am going to get by numbers, then the whole of Greece would be insufficient to match the Persians, but if I am going to get by courage, then even this number is sufficient.’” 

“You see?” said Daphne to her aunt. “Even this number is sufficient.”

We know now, nevertheless, that courage is not sufficient, for as Herodotus tells us (Hdt. 7.238.1) Xerxes gave orders to cut off the head of Leonidas and impale it, the source of great humiliation. Today in Istanbul it’s not necessary to be Greek in order to see clearly that more than courage is needed for a last stand that doesn’t involve dying as it was for Leonidas: Constant unrest, student protests, impoverishment, arbitrary arrests, sham trials, infinite nepotism, embezzlement, conspiracy theories and wars. One might harbor good intentions and faith, but the surface of reality cannot be trusted.

Gezi Park protests, Istanbul, summer 2013, photograph: the author.

The order of history is so fragile and convoluted that a scene taking place in the green scenery in the Gezi Park, in central Istanbul, though set in 2011, now seems part of an archaic, nearly forgotten era. Since the Gezi Park protests that rocked the country in 2013, the park has been largely closed to the public and heavily policed, as a traditional site of political contestation between the authorities and the public. We can already sense here the permanent uncertainty: 

“You can easily make your life there, but there’s little history and no decay, no domes and minarets, no craziness, no secrets. In Istanbul you never know what’s around the next corner.”

“It could be a policeman in riot gear, or a teargas canister, or a bombed synagogue or bank,” said Selin.

“Girls!” Gavriela made a zipper motion over her mouth. “Enough of the B-word. Half the people in this park are plainclothes cops. They might think you’re terrorists.” 

In a way, we are constantly witnessing decay and deterioration as a marker of time, but it also seems to me as if the city has been always been decaying, since the very beginning of time, and that decay is one of its structural features, always trapped between its mythologies and its utopian dreams (to paraphrase here the sociologist Ekrem Işın). The idea, constantly appearing in conversations in Istanbul, that the past had been better, is always fraught with hesitation.

I can’t help but think of the Lebanese-French writer Amin Maalouf and his recent book “Adrift: How Our Word Lost Its Way” (2020), where he mourns the vanishing world of Levantine Christians from Alexandria, to Adana, to Beirut, Cairo and Constantinople, he also hastens to add that the collapse of this multicultural world, though beautiful as it might have been, was unavoidable precisely because its foundations were not solid, anchored in the divide and rule policies of the Ottomans, followed by European colonialist adventures in the region, and the watching eye of American imperialism. 

Fanis hated nothing more than solitude at the close of the day, yet there was nothing more certain than solitude for the last of the Levantine Christians and Rums.

Balat neighborhood with Phanar College in the background, founded 1454, December 2020, photo: the author.

Nevertheless there’s something especially relevant in “A Recipe for Daphne” far beyond the delicate metaphors around the Balkanik, and that is, a conversation about the complexities of the ancient world that resonate strongly now at a moment when there’s a fierce debate in the Classics around the meaning of antiquity and the classical tradition today, against a background of the role classicism has played in shaping Western political institutions.

On the one hand, the novel resorts to the traditional strategy of contextualizing Istanbul “Rums” as the descendants of “natives” from the Eastern Roman Empire, which of course we know to be historically flawed: The Greek community of Constantinople was destroyed during the Ottoman conquest and a careful look at Greek family names present in the 20th century Rum community, would inform us that the origin of many of these names is in fact in mainland Greece and that many Greeks relocated to Istanbul through the centuries primarily seeking the advantages of the imperial Ottoman capital.

On the other hand, one the characters in the novel, Jewish violinist Selin, explains to the audience that the various peoples of Turkey are not so different genetically, the result of countless intermarriages, conversions and migrations.

“Look at the key,” said Selin, pointing. “The light green represents the Minoan Greek gene. The Greeks have the same amount of that as the Turks. The black is Caucasian and Greco-Anatolian. The dark green is Arab and Jewish, the yellow Mycenaean Greek. The orange is also Mediterranean, and the red represents Hittite and Armenian.”

Fanis set the iPad on the table. “Do you mean to say… that the Turks are almost as indigenous as we are?”
“Yes,” said Selin.
“Nonsense,” said Gavriela. “I don’t believe a word.” 

For an example from history, the key moment in the transition from Byzantine to Modern Greek, one of the cornerstones of Greek identity, as we know from a study by Henri Tonnet, took place in Istanbul but not even among the Rums; it was the translation of the Constantinople Torah by Greek-speaking Jews in 1547.

Reading “A Recipe for Daphne”, Bebek, Istanbul, December 2020, photo: Anna Yakovleva.

What we can learn today from this complex world depicted in a contemporary novel, is the liquidity of time: There are infinite permutations and narrative fluctuations between temporal horizons that are neither closed nor stable. The idea of Greekness presented here, departs from the indifference of the  classical tradition to Byzantine and Modern Greek but also from the Greek state’s national narrative that presents a perfect continuity line between the rather brief classical period and the modern republic. This divergence is articulated in one simple sentence, in a conversation between Daphne and Kosmas that would seem puzzling to a Western audience:

“You’re an easterner, Daphne, one of ours. Frankish men aren’t for you.” 

But the city remains, as it is… I can’t remember a single occasion when a Rum in Istanbul didn’t tell me that he or she was moving somewhere: Moving out of the Old City in the imperial era, and then now moving between Khalkedon and Prinkipo, Tatavla and Therapia, Pera and Fener, leaving the country, moving to Athens, moving to America, returning from Athens, leaving again. Always going somewhere as if in a peripatetic circle. But the city, both cruel and gentle, witness to the depth of time, has chosen to remain seated in its place.

“Do you know where you are?”
“Of course I do. I’m in the City.” “Which city?”
“There’s only one. Istanbul.”

Lastly, a word about minor literatures: Why was a novel like “A Recipe for Daphne” not written in Turkish or Greek, both languages native to the author? In many ways, English creates a hermetic narrative, and thus, a distance impossible to bridge.

It’s the ornate palatial rooms, the saturation of light and life, the over-jewelled Istanbul women, and the trays overflowing with food. Or the precariousness of the cosmopolitan minorities with their lips tightly sealed, serving the local elites in exchange for protection, or the sad aura of rebetiko playing in a meyhane, now shuttered due to the pandemic. Or the cruel humor about sex and marriage, in both Turkish and Greek, characteristic of traditional societies. I assure you there’s not an inch of fiction in these descriptions, methodically excavated from life. In this sense, the novel is a form of minor literature (rather than minority) in the way envisioned by Deleuze and Guattari: “Minor literature is not a literature written in a minor language; it is rather that which a minority constructs within a major language. Rather than a literature of a small nation, minor literature is a form of expression, a subversion of a language by a minority use.”

And here minor is also a form of multidirectional memory: Minor in reference not only to the status of the Rums in Turkey and the Turkish language itself, but also minor in reference to mainland Greece and the Greek republican monopolization of a Greek identity that existed (perhaps it is appropriate to use here the past tense, with the exception of Istanbul) across Western Asia. It is the distance from both Greek and Turkish what I believe, creates this additional geography, around a central question: What does it mean to be the Other?  

Bust of C.P. Cavafy, Yeniköy, Istanbul, September 2020, photo: the author.

Last year, on the 6th of September, the memorial day of the pogroms against the Greeks in 1955, Nektaria launched “A Recipe for Daphne” in the courtyard of the Panagia Kumariotisa church, in the elegant neighborhood of Nihori (Yeniköy in Turkish). There, in the garden, there’s a bust of Alexandrian poet C.P. Cavafy, who lived in the area for three years in his youth and the house where he lived is now the stuff of legends. Gregory Jusdanis was the last Greek to attempt a search, which yielded nothing but an empty plot in the middle of a road intersection. It is Cavafy, a favorite of Nektaria Anastasiadou, who in a letter, once mentioned that he saw himself as “Hellenic” rather than “Greek”, a broader community defined by language and culture, more than an ethnic or national belonging to a place. I think Daphne would be comfortable with this reading.

That evening, without having yet read Daphne, walking along the shores of the Bosporus, amidst the prominent yalis of Yeniköy, returning from the church, I thought about whether it might not be a good time to leave the city, while the sky’s still blue and the lilacs in full summer bloom. Being unaware then of the days and the hours, both beautiful and terrible, that would soon engulf me and my new friend Daphne, after a certain day, weeks later, the most miraculous of all, on the Golden Horn.

I still haven’t left Istanbul, but that day, Cavafy’s poem for his beloved Alexandria came to mind.

C.P. Cavafy, The City, 1905-1915, trans. Evangelos Sachperoglou

Any new lands you will not find; you’ll find no other seas.
The city will be following you. In the same streets
You’ll wander. And in the same neighborhood you’ll age,
And in these same houses you’ll grow grey.
Always in this same city you’ll arrive. For elsewhere -do not
There’s no ship for you, there’s no road.
Just as you’ve wasted your life here,
In this tiny niche, in the entire world you’ve ruined it.

Καινούριους τόπους δεν θα βρεις, δεν θά βρεις άλλες θάλασσες.
Η πόλις θα σε ακολουθεί. Στους δρόμους θα γυρνάς
τους ίδιους. Και στες γειτονιές τες ίδιες θα γερνάς·
και μες στα ίδια σπίτια αυτά θ’ ασπρίζεις.
Πάντα στην πόλι αυτή θα φθάνεις. Για τα αλλού — μη ελπίζεις —
δεν έχει πλοίο για σε, δεν έχει οδό.
Έτσι που τη ζωή σου ρήμαξες εδώ
στην κόχη τούτη την μικρή, σ’ όλην την γη την χάλασες.

“A Recipe for Daphne”, by Nektaria Anastasiadou, was published by Hoopoe Fiction/AUCPress, and is available here. All quotes in italics are from the book.

Journey between the Princes Islands and the Anatolian coast of Istanbul, summer 2019, photograph: the author.

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.


The Debt To The Birds

Felekşan Onar’s “Perched” at the Damascus Room, Dresden Museum of Ethnology, 2020. Photo Credit: Dario J. Lagana.

Aristophanes, Birds 227-262

Epopopoi popoi popopopoi popoi, here, here, quick, quick, quick, my comrades in the air; all you who pillage the fertile lands of the husbandmen, the numberless tribes who gather and devour the barley seeds, the swift flying race that sings so sweetly. And you whose gentle twitter resounds through the fields with the little cry of tiotiotiotiotiotiotiotio; and you who hop about the branches of the ivy in the gardens; the mountain birds, who feed on the wild olive-berries or the arbutus, hurry to come at my call, trioto, trioto, totobrix; you also, who snap up the sharp-stinging gnats in the marshy vales, and you who dwell in the fine plain of Marathon, all damp with dew, and you, the francolin with speckled wings; you too, the halcyons, who flit over the swelling waves of the sea, come hither to hear the tidings; let all the tribes of long-necked birds assemble here; know that a clever old man has come to us, bringing an entirely new idea and proposing great reforms. Let all come to the debate here, here, here, here. Torotorotorotorotix, kikkabau, kikkabau, torotorotorolililix.

ἐποποῖ ποποποποποποποῖ,
ἰὼ ἰὼ ἰτὼ ἰτὼ ἰτὼ ἰτὼ,
ἴτω τις ὧδε τῶν ἐμῶν ὁμοπτέρων:
ὅσοι τ᾽ εὐσπόρους ἀγροίκων γύας
νέμεσθε, φῦλα μυρία κριθοτράγων
σπερμολόγων τε γένη
ταχὺ πετόμενα, μαλθακὴν ἱέντα γῆρυν:
ὅσα τ᾽ ἐν ἄλοκι θαμὰ
βῶλον ἀμφιτιττυβίζεθ᾽ ὧδε λεπτὸν
ἡδομένᾳ φωνᾷ:
τιὸ τιὸ τιὸ τιὸ τιὸ τιὸ τιὸ τιό.
ὅσα θ᾽ ὑμῶν κατὰ κήπους ἐπὶ κισσοῦ
κλάδεσι νομὸν ἔχει,
τά τε κατ᾽ ὄρεα τά τε κοτινοτράγα τά τε κομαροφάγα,
ἀνύσατε πετόμενα πρὸς ἐμὰν αὐδάν:
τριοτὸ τριοτὸ τοτοβρίξ:
οἵ θ᾽ ἑλείας παρ᾽ αὐλῶνας ὀξυστόμους
ἐμπίδας κάπτεθ᾽, ὅσα τ᾽ εὐδρόσους γῆς τόπους
ἔχετε λειμῶνά τ᾽ ἐρόεντα Μαραθῶνος, ὄρνις
πτερυγοποίκιλός τ᾽ ἀτταγᾶς ἀτταγᾶς.
ὧν τ᾽ ἐπὶ πόντιον οἶδμα θαλάσσης
φῦλα μετ᾽ ἀλκυόνεσσι ποτῆται,
δεῦρ᾽ ἴτε πευσόμενοι τὰ νεώτερα,
πάντα γὰρ ἐνθάδε φῦλ᾽ ἀθροΐζομεν
οἰωνῶν ταναοδείρων.
ἥκει γὰρ τις δριμὺς πρέσβυς
καινὸς γνώμην
καινῶν τ᾽ ἔργων ἐγχειρητής.
ἀλλ᾽ ἴτ᾽ ἐς λόγους ἅπαντα,
δεῦρο δεῦρο δεῦρο δεῦρο.


κικκαβαῦ κικκαβαῦ.

  1. An Oriental Interior 
The ‘Damascus Room’, Dresden Museum of Ethnology. Detail of
the large wall closet door, right shutter, contrast between gilded ‘ajamī decoration and duller painted houses. Photo: Anke Scharrahs.

The one-hundred-and-thirteen elaborate wooden panels that make up the Damascus Room at the Dresden Museum of Ethnology testify to the immense wealth of the era, at the beginning of the 19th century when wood and ceiling panels adorned the reception room of Damascene houses in Ottoman Syria. A detailed composition of city landscapes, bouquets of flowers, bowls of fruits and Arabic calligraphy was executed around a main framework in which vertical panels, niches, wall closets, doors and windows were integrated, often aggrandized by the use of mirrors in a sophisticated painting technique known as ‘ajamī (Persian). This pastiglia style involved preparation of the wood with a rough white ground layer, followed by more colorful paint layers, underdrawing, transfer of patterns, then followed by application of ornaments, metal leaf and dyed glazes. 

Scholar Anke Scharrahs interviewed Damascene artists revealing that knowledge about this intricate painting technique of the 17th and 18th centuries (rich in organic pigments and animal resins) was subsequently lost to modern pigments and European influences. In fact the panels were often washed down, restored and repainted every few generations, therefore only a few original interiors remain in Syria itself, so that the preservation state of the Damascus Room is nothing short of astonishing (only four such interiors exist in the Western world).

But the journey of the Damascus Room to its present splendor took two centuries, and is as protracted as the history of the museum housing it. The Dresden Museum of Ethnology dates back to 1560 with the cabinet of curiosities established by Augustus, the elector of Saxony, and was subsequently transformed into different museums, under different names, as European ideas about culture were being shaped by both science and colonialism. 

It was the year 1898 when a German art collector, Karl Ernst Osthaus, known primarily for his interest in the avant-garde movement, traveled throughout the Ottoman Empire, collecting artifacts from bazaars and workshops. But there was one treasure hunt that couldn’t be completed: The search for an Oriental interior. Although he traveled far and wide in all the major cities of the empire, it was to no avail, and at the end of his journey, he passed on the responsibility to the German consulate in Damascus. The consulate in turn assigned photographer Hermann Burchardt to the task, who had been living in Damascus since 1893. A suitable interior was found (dated 1810-11), purchased, disassembled and sent to Germany. Osthaus was then very involved in modern art, so when the pieces arrived at his estate in Hagen, they were kept in an attic and quickly forgotten. 

Restoration of the wooden panels with ‘Ajami decoration of the Damascus Room, 2016. Photo: Anke Scharrahs.

After Osthaus’ death in 1921, the panels were discovered and donated to the Dresden Museum of Ethnology in 1930, and the collections of the museum were about to go on show at the Zwinger palatial complex (dating back to the 18th century Baroque), but the space provided for the Damascus Room proved too small – the surface area of the room is 4 x 5.5 m and 5.4 m high. This mismatch turned out to be a fortunate event, because the room would have been completely destroyed during the bombing of Dresden in 1945.

Once again forgotten, it was rediscovered in 1997, but by then no one knew how to assemble it together. How do the one-hundred-and-thirteen pieces fit together? Two students from Dresden, Ulrike Siegel and Antje Werner, took up the challenge of putting the puzzle back together, measuring every single piece, meticulously documenting each item and following the number coding written onto the backsides. 

But then it needed to be restored. 200 years hadn’t passed in vain, and many of the wooden pieces had been eaten by worms, damaged by dampness, large flakes of paint fell off and the entire thing was covered in dust and mold. A restoration began that wouldn’t be completed until the end of 2019. The following year, in the autumn of 2020, amidst the raging pandemic, as if continuing the trail of oblique historical journeys, it met a peculiar contemporary artistic intervention coming from the place where it all had begun, modern Syria and Turkey.

An installation consisting of colorful glass swallows with their heads tilted downwards, placed on the floor of the lavish room, would tell a story where the different pasts and presents of these interiors would meet: Improbable journeys and the (im)possibility of travel, exile, migration, uncertainty, memory and the feeling of having fallen out of the world, whilst living in the presence of all its traces. 


2. Birds Without Wings 

Felekşan Onar’s “Perched” at the Aleppo Room, Pergamon Museum, 2018, photo: David von Becker.

Three years earlier, in 2017, Turkish glass artist Felekşan Onar arrived in Berlin from Istanbul with the intention to work at a glass studio, and blow into plaster moulds closed winged birds for her project “Perched”, without knowing at the time its final destination. The wingless swallows with their heads tilted downwards, resembled for Onar, the millions of Syrian refugees stranded in Istanbul, not knowing where to go, or what is going to happen next. In Onar’s words, “Simply perched on sidewalks, like birds without wings”.

This reflection however, was interlocked with an earlier metaphor: She began thinking about the birds after a reading of Louis de Bernières’ novel “Birds Without Wings” (published in 2004); set in the era of population exchanges between Greece and Turkey, in the period following World War First; the novel chronicles an era of intolerance and forced migration, still consequential to this day for both countries.

The plot of de Bernières’ novel revolves around the tragic love story between Philothei, a beautiful Greek woman, and Ibrahim, her Muslim suitor, who loses his mind halfway through the novel after returning from the trenches of war, vividly recounted. The novel is set in the fictional village of Eskibahçe, based upon Kayaköy, a Greek village in the Turkish province of Fethiye, deserted after 1923, when a series of agreements that would define the present-day borders between Greece and Turkey meant the forced migration of all Christian Greeks from Anatolia to the Greek mainland, and Muslims in Greece to Anatolia.

These peoples left behind their homelands, becoming refugees in newly established countries, shattering an ancient multicultural geography. Kayaköy is today a derelict ghost town after many failed attempts of the Turkish government to lure Muslims from Greece to occupy the abandoned houses.   

This story was familiar to Onar: Born in the Aegean region of Turkey, in the town of Söke–some hundred kilometers from Izmir, the ancient Greek Anaia, renamed Soka in the Byzantine era–it was impossible for her not to be immersed in the cultural world of the population exchanges: A housekeeper from her childhood, Nazmiye Hanım, had come from Crete to Söke as a result of this population exchange, and often told mesmerizing tales about her homeland in the heavily accented Turkish of a native Greek speaker. Therefore, years later Onar identified Nazmiye Hanım with many of the characters in de Bernières’ narrative.

At the height of the Syrian crisis,  Onar saw in these birds without wings, part of “Perched” (there are ninety-nine birds in total), a slow meditation not only on the present circumstances but on the permanent waves of migration and spatial redistribution of peoples that form of the core of Mediterranean history since antiquity.

Ghost town of Kayaköy

In the words of Nadania Idriss, the founder of Berlin Glassworks (herself of Syrian background) where Onar completed blowing the swallows, The pigments and surface texture of each unique sculpture recall the multitude of hues that hold in Syrian daily life; and yet these swallows sit patiently, heads tilted downward as they try to understand the situation that has befallen them.”

It was Idriss who facilitated a conversation with the Museum of Islamic Art at the Pergamon Museum, and as a result the first stop in the journey of the wingless birds was the famous Aleppo Room at Pergamon in 2018. In fact, this might be the most spectacular of all Syrian interiors in the world, dated as far back as the early 17th century, and acquired in 1912 by German orientalist and archaeologist Friedrich Sarre in Aleppo. A conservator at the museum, Anke Scharrachs, then encouraged Onar to connect with other museums in possession of Damascene interiors (Scharrachs was involved in the restoration of the Dresden panels). 

And that’s how “Perched” traveled then to the Damascus Room in Dresden, and the year prior, to the Islamic Galleries at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. A double metaphor grew out of the Aleppo Room at Pergamon with its spectacular colorful panels, laden with rich ornamental fauna, according to Stefan Weber, director of the Islamic Museum: The lively, colorful peacocks, ducks and pigeons on the wall panels stand in almost oppressive contrast to the small, fragile birds with clipped wings seated on the ground. Not only does the installation resonate with the sad fate of a once flourishing metropolis – now destroyed by the civil war – but it also picks on the reality of Syrian refugees in modern Turkey.”

From ambers, to amethysts and greys and blues, greens and pinks, the iridescent colored glass swallows hint at the archetypal role of birds in the ancient Mediterranean as both messengers and mediators, rather than silent spectators in the drama of mankind. 


3. The Debt to the Birds

Felekşan Onar’s “Perched” at the Damascus Room, Dresden Museum of Ethnology, 2020. Photo Credit: Dario J. Lagana .

When “Perched” opened at the Dresden Museum of Ethnology (part of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, one of the largest and oldest art and artifacts collections in the world), it was already September 2020, at the height of the pandemic, and it was no longer possible for anyone in Turkey, and not only refugees, to fly anywhere in Europe, so that the metaphor came home to roost: The artist Felekşan Onar was unable to travel for the exhibition.

At the time a monograph about the entire journey of “Perched” was in preparation, which saw the light in December, and was supposed to be launched at the museum, but with the closure of cultural institutions in Germany due to the pandemic this wasn’t possible either. For this monograph, de Bernières contributed a short story, “The Debt to the Birds” (Onar and de Bernières met for a public conversation at the Victoria & Albert), that sets the story and trajectory of Onar’s birds, on a different, much more complex itinerary.   

“The Debt to the Birds” is a deceptively simple tale about a boy that was given a gun by his father on a promise: You must promise me never to shoot a bird that you do not intend to eat, nor ever shoot a man unless you’re at war. Do you promise?” The young boy, like his father before him, was tempted by his father’s words and shot a sparrow, watching it die in the grass. Three years later, he found a young jackdaw with a broken wing, and brought it home to cure it, in order to repay his debt to the birds. The bird healed quickly and became his loyal companion, perched on his shoulder, and then he was instructed by his father to teach it how to fly, at the risk that it might fly away. When it flew off with a posse of jackdaws, never to return, both father and boy thought that they had finally repaid their debt to the birds. The boy became a father and passed on the gun to his son, but yet he did not tempt him by telling him not to shoot the birds.

Distant from the historical world of de Bernières’ “Birds Without Wings”, there happen to be a number of uncanny parallels between “The Debt to the Birds” and Aristophanes’ play “The Birds”, performed in 414 BC at the Dionysia festival in Athens.

These parallels ground the spatiotemporal framework of Onar’s “Perched” in a larger, aporetic logic, allowing the viewer (as if the audience of a live, theatrical performance) to move in between different temporalities, depending not only on the context. The Oriental interiors function here also as a springboard that releases the audience away from the historical context onto a nondescript area, free of allegory and actually also free of debt (I will return to this at the end). They are both are interrogative texts, set specifically against interpretation, by taking place outside any context whatsoever. One couldn’t name a specific timeframe in which the events unfold.  

Etching by Henry Gillard Glindoni (1852— 1913) of the 1883 performance of Birds at the University of Cambridge, Wellcome Library, London

This is in fact an anomaly in Aristophanes’ surviving plays, and by all means an innovation, although it is written in the conventional style of old comedy. “The Birds” contains no direct reference to the Peloponnesian War, and hardly any references to Athenian politics (although much has been theorized about political allegory in the play), and in the manner of Aesop’s Greek tales, it is set in remote, but undefined times.

In “The Debt to the Birds”, there are two oblique references to war, ‘never shoot another man unless at war’ in the promise, and the father having been a soldier himself. But we know nothing about when or where the events take place. There seems to be a search for redemption in both texts which ultimately fails, by means of different strategies: In Aristophanes, the conclusion of the play is the instauration of a human-led tyranny after the defeat of the gods, and in de Bernières a potential cycle of return to debt with the birds. 

In the larger scheme of Aristophanes’ play we know that it is a narrative about the foundation of a political community, but in such terms, so fantastic (two elderly Athenians convince the birds to create a walled city in the air, to prevent the aromas of sacrificial offerings from reaching the Olympian gods), that the cloud-cuckoo-land becomes less than a metaphor, offering something alien to the pattern of problem-and-solution of the comic universe, namely, a suspension.

For de Bernières, on the other hand, the smoothed out but always latent cycle of repetition between violence, debt and settlement, indicates a species of non-linear time, more akin to myth than to history. This time out of joint that cannot be put back together, resembles simultaneously the chaotic temporality of the ancients, marked only by events and decay, and the timelessness of Onar’s swallows, head tilted down, waiting and waiting, still at the Damascus Room. 


4. Unfamiliar Futures

Felekşan Onar’s “Perched” at the V&A Museum, Islamic Galleries, 2019. Photo Credit: Daniel Oduntan.

The resemblances between the ancient comedy and the contemporary tale do not end with the site of temporality. There’s a crucial passage in de Bernières: The essence of man is to be a prisoner, but the essence of a bird is to be free. A bird shows no passport at the borders. It pays no taxes. A bird has no pockets and when it dies it has no shroud.”

Not only is this passage immediately connected to a key fragment in his novel “Birds Without Wings” (“Man is a bird without wings, and a bird is a man without sorrows”) but also to Aristophanes’ play, when the starring humans, Euelpides and Pisthetaerus, ask the Hoopoe, formerly King Tereus who metamorphosed into a bird, what is it like to live with the birds? The idea of a utopian, moneyless, political community, resonates strongly in both authors, and the impossibility to realize this fantasy reveals in its aporias a tension that remains without offering resolution.

Aristophanes, Birds, 154-161

I would not be Opuntian for a talent. But come, what is it like to live with the birds? You should know pretty well.
Why, it’s not a disagreeable life. In the first place, one has no purse.
That does away with a lot of roguery.
For food the gardens yield us white sesame, myrtle-berries, poppies and mint.
Why, ‘tis the life of the newly-wed indeed.

Yet, the most interesting parallel between them, concerns the antiquity of birds, thus, once again, the question of the origins and new beginnings (and therefore of foundations) returns. In “The Debt to the Birds”, the father explains to the boy, “Did you know that dinosaurs are not extinct after all? We were all completely wrong. They’re beginning to think that the little dinosaurs survived, so now we have lizards and amphibians, and birds […] We look out of our windows and see the trees full of little dinosaurs!”

The story continues later, with a moving passage on the boy: “That evening the boy sat his jackdaw on its perch and looked into its face. He recognized the extreme antiquity of its being, and said to it ‘Your soul is millions of years more ancient than mine. My soul is young compared to yours.’ The bird looked back into his eyes and shook its wings a little, just as fledging does when hoping to be fed.” And furthermore: “That evening the boy repeated to the bird on its perch in his bedroom ‘Your soul is more ancient than mine.'”  

In these apparently innocuous passages, de Bernières is enlarging the historical space of Onar’s birds, breaking down the repetitive cycle of timelessness: Trapped inside an infinitely expanding present, these refugees moving across the world, but particularly visible in both Turkey and Germany, cannot articulate stories that narrate either past or future; they’re rooted in the presentism of despair that quickly devours the future as a temporal index, while at the same time not being entirely free from the immediate past. All recollection is fragmented. These birds, caged by traumatic events, acquiesce to a type of memory-work, structured by repetition and transitoriness, rather than a series of checkpoints in reality to orient yourself in the world.

The introduction of a primeval consciousness of time, a time before time, of unquantifiable properties, preceding the uniformity of historical experience, opens up a dialogue between de Bernières and Aristophanes, on a crucial passage from “The Birds”. In the one-sided agon of the play (there’s no antagonist, and the formal argument is constructed around convincing an already eager audience) a political cosmogony is laid out, by means of which the realization of a utopian city in the sky acquires legitimacy. The birds are now endowed with a new, previously unknown, master narrative. Enlarging the past works here in two directions: At first it provides a lasting consciousness of duration by probing the depth of origin, and then, it brings out an invented, alternative future, on which the past itself can be re-inscribed back, without the horizon of continuity losing its template.   

Aristophanes, Birds 465-485

By Zeus, no! But I am hunting for fine, tasty words to break down the hardness of their hearts. To the Chorus. I grieve so much for you, who at one time were kings…
Leader of the Chorus
We kings? Over whom?
…of all that exists, firstly of me and of this man, even of Zeus himself. Your race is older than Saturn, the Titans and the Earth.
Leader of the Chorus
What, older than the Earth!
By Phoebus, yes.
Leader of the Chorus
By Zeus,but I never knew that before!
That’s because you are ignorant and heedless, and have never read your Aesop. He is the one who tell us that the lark was born before all other creatures, indeed before the Earth; his father died of sickness, but the Earth did not exist then; he remained unburied for five days, when the bird in its dilemma decided, for want of a better place, to entomb his father in its own head.
So that the lark’s father is buried at Cephalae.
Hence, if they existed before the Earth, before the gods, the kingship belongs to them by right of priority.
Undoubtedly, but sharpen your beak well; Zeus won’t in a hurry to hand over his scepter to the woodpecker.
It was not the gods, but the birds, who were formerly the masters and kings over men; of this I have a thousand proofs. First of all, I will point you to the cock, who governed the Persians, before all other monarchs, before Darius and Megabazus. It’s in memory of his reign that he is called the Persian bird.

Detail from Felekşan Onar’s “Perched” at the Damascus Room, Dresden Museum of Ethnology, 2020. Photo Credit:  Dario J. Lagana.

Aristophanes, of course, was aware of a double-bind that we have carried over into the modernist imaginary: Cosmogonies are also structures of power and the pendulum can swing in any direction. Narratives can be manipulated as well, as the conclusion of “The Birds” exemplifies, under the new tyranny of Pisthetaerus. But as a mythology of origins, this cosmogony throws the body politic (of the birds) back to a future that is assumed to exist, as if the past had shed light on it (and yet fails).

When Euelpides and Pisthetaerus turned to the birds for help, and yet with a masterplan to create a new city in the sky, what they longed for was more than a political community itself; it was about an impossible political community where utopia and law could coexist. De Bernières subtly touches on this sentiment from the father’s viewpoint: “For us the birds represent all the freedom that we can never have. They give us something to aspire that we cannot reach. And sometimes when you aspire to what you cannot reach, one day after all, you will reach it.”

The long duration translates in de Bernières’ story into a multi-temporality, projected back on the journey of “Perched”: The journey of migrants towards Turkey and Europe contains many other journeys from the past, articulated here through the accumulation of cultural meanings embedded in the glass birds across time, and of which the current predicament is only one among the possible worlds. What emerges here is the possibility of an unfamiliar, yet un-created future, not necessarily the direct consequence of the past.

New foundations and master narratives can be anchored anywhere in the temporal index:  It is not only the history of Syrian refugees perched on the streets of Istanbul juxtaposed to the population exchanges between Greece and Turkey, but also the arrival of Byzas of Megara in the 6th century BC to found the city that three political orders later would become Istanbul, and the permanent condition of migration that shaped the Mediterranean cultural space since times before time (no less than the modern world) or the long journey of glass since the 4th millennium BC, appearing simultaneously in Syria, Eastern Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, long before it adorned the Ottoman palaces of Istanbul, challenging constantly our ideas about archaeological contexts and mobility networks. 


5. Whose Cultural Property?    

Felekşan Onar’s “Perched” at the Aleppo Room, Pergamon Museum, 2018. Photo: David von Caspar.

Yet it is significant that the journey of “Perched” has begun in European encyclopedic museums, and has been decidedly defined by their interiors and galleries. The encyclopedic museum, we recognize today, is deeply rooted in the experience of colonialism and the concept of universal history. This all-encompassing history, with Western mankind at the center, is a politically heliocentric universe, largely flawed, but at the same time, manufacturer of the colonial world-system, which has inflicted infinite violence on large swaths of the Earth.

As large collections of artifacts from all over the world, the Western museums perform what archaeologists Dan Hicks and Sarah Mallet,  have called in their work, the weaponization of time: The dispossession of both cultural property (in museums) and peoples (at the borders of nation states) is not simply circumstantial or situational, but ontological. Controlling time, by placing objects outside of everyday historical experience, often destroying complex systems and contexts along the way, suspends the temporality of objects under the unfulfillable promise of permanence. But isn’t the most fundamental reflection underlying “Perched”, the struggle of memory against the destruction of richly layered, pluriversal, complex contexts? An answer is difficult to arrive at.

And thinking about birds, is for us, always thinking also about the museum. Most of our knowledge about birds comes from the collections of encyclopedic natural museums, often mediated by the utilitarian beliefs of 19th century social science. Commenting on the 33,000 years old Water Bird in Flight from the Hohle Fels Cave in south-west Germany, carved in stone during the Upper Paleolithic, John Berger made an important remark for our context: “The supposition that animals entered the human imagination as meat or leather or horn is to project a 19th century attitude backwards across the millennia. Animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises.” Is there an intrinsic relationship between promises and debts?

If we have a debt with the birds, what does this debt consist of? And if de Bernières is correct, and birds do in fact represent freedom, shouldn’t we be free also from debt? Hannah Arendt was one of the first modern thinkers to treat the faculty of making promises with philosophical seriousness, arguing that they help stabilize the world by making it predictable to the extent that it is humanly possible and that the reality of the space of appearances, where concerted power could arise, is guaranteed only by mutual promise or contract.

But it was David Graeber in his monumental anthropology of debt, who made the connection between debts and promises: “A debt is the perversion of a promise.” All human economies have been heretofore based on a system of debt and credit that boils down to trust between peoples, and not to barter as economic historians have chosen to believe. All revolutionary movements in the ancient world were defined by a single program: The cancellation of all debt.

Waterbird in Flight from the Hohle Fels Cave.

If the crucial question here is the settlement of a debt, could we try perhaps to free ourselves (this was a fundamental argument in Graeber’s work: we can only be free with each other, not from each other) and cancel our debt through a promise? The promise of time, of giving time, of giving time back, another idea I’m borrowing from Hicks and Mallet. What would it mean to give time back in the context of the birds in the Damascus Room?

All of the Oriental interiors in Germany were legally acquired as per extant documentation, and there’s no restitution claim for them as in the case of say the Benin Bronzes or the Parthenon Marbles (Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh, recently staged an intervention in Dresden through ‘missing’ posters in the city over one of the Benin Bronzes at the museum) but the question remains whether the grand tour of collecting antiquities in the Near East during the era of the great archaeological discoveries wasn’t embedded in terrible imbalances of power that remain to this day and account for many violent conflicts in the region.

Archaeology has been the main factory of universal history, and as decolonization struggles all over the world inform us, there’s in fact no such a thing as universal heritage, because heritage isn’t a concrete set of parameters for the preservation of a common past, but instead, a notion and symptom of time crises, in order to (re)produce pasts as touristic sites, with the present tense as the boundary event of our world. 

Yet there’s something perplexing happening in the journey of Felekşan Onar’s swallows through these stately rooms in Berlin, London and Dresden: The birds, both as metaphor and artifact, imbued with so many blueprints of time, recent and distant, have begun accumulating contexts rather than merely reflecting them. With an eventual journey back from Germany to Istanbul in the horizon (a number of birds have been accessioned to the collection of the V&A Glass Gallery, and the permanent home of “Perched” will be in due course of time at the Dresden collection), they are now also pregnant with unfamiliar, open-ended, contingent futures.

Giving back time to cultural artifacts and peoples means essentially to re-insert them into temporality not only in absolute terms but through the relative durability of institutions and political agency. One can’t help but wonder after a reading of “Perched” through de Bernières and Aristophanes, whether it wouldn’t be possible to create new future-oriented cosmogonies for these artifacts and stories, beyond and outside closed museological systems. 

A striking passage in Aristophanes, during the first formal argument between the two elderly Athenians and the hoopoe,  brings to mind a poetic spatial metaphor: When Pisthetaerus asks the hoopoe to look up and down and what he has seen, the sky (οὐρανός) the bird says to have seen and the pole (πόλος) of the birds that Pisthetaerus refers to, do not carry identical meaning. The sky is a region of the atmosphere and outer space, a kind of unbounded expanse, whereas a pole, is a vaulted dome, the firmament, that in ancient cosmologies divided the primal sea from the dry land.

This firmament as David Konstan argues, is a bounded space, ‘not everywhere’, which necessarily grounds the utopian city in the sky within the framework of the polis, a community. Pisthetaerus goes on to add that this pole is a place (τόπος), expression which Seferis identifies with a country or fatherland in Mythistorima X. There’s a circumscribed place to stand on, even in the sky. 

Aristophanes, Birds, 178-196

What have you seen?
The clouds and the sky.
Very well! is not this the pole of the birds then?
How their pole?
Or, if you like it, their place. And since it turns and passes through the whole universe, it is called ‘pole.’ If you build and fortify it, you will turn your pole into a city. In this way you will reign over mankind as you do over the grasshoppers and you will cause the gods to die of rabid hunger.
How so?
The air is between earth and heaven. When we want to go to Delphi, we ask the Boeotians for leave of passage; in the same way, when men sacrifice to the gods, unless the latter pay you tribute, you exercise the right of every nation towards strangers and don’t allow the smoke of the sacrifices to pass through your city and territory.Very well! is not this the pole of the birds then?
By earth! by snares! by network! by cages! I never heard of anything more cleverly conceived; and, if the other birds approve, I am going to build the city along with you.

The gift of time that cancels debt, at the heart of “Perched”, is a with-world, beyond the space of appearances and the realm of objects, which according to Sophie Loidolt, in her study of Arendt’s political intersubjectivity, “emerges through our intersubjective relations and which holds all these dimensions of meaning together in one world where we can exist as humans.” The gift is a promise, the promise of multiple meanings embedded in concrete, actual experienced time, looking backwards and forwards, without the grip of the instant. Where’s eternity then? 


“Perched” by Felekşan Onar is on view at the Dresden Museum of Ethnology, September 5, 2020 through February 21, 2021 (the museum is currently closed due to pandemic regulations), the monograph “Perched: Felekşan Onar”, published by Paul Holberton Publishing, with contributions by Felekşan Onar, Nadania Idriss, Stefanie Bach, Louis de Bernières, Stefan Weber, Mariam Rosser-Owen and Glenn Adamson, is currently available, in English and German.

Detail from Felekşan Onar’s “Perched”, V&A Museum, Islamic Galleries, 2019. Photo Credit: Daniel Oduntan.

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.


  • Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press, 1958
  • Gregory Dobrov, “Aristophanes’ Birds and the Metaphor of Deferral”, in Arethusa, Vol. 3 No. 2 (Fall 1990)
  • David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years, Melville House, 2012
  • Francois Hartog, Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experiences of Time”, Columbia University Press, 2016
  • Dan Hicks & Sarah Mallet, Lande: The Calais ‘Jungle’ and Beyond, Bristol University Press, 2019, open access
  • David Konstan, “A City in the Air: Aristophanes’ Birds”, in Arethusa, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Fall 1990)
  • Sophie Loidolt, Phenomenology of Plurality: Hannah Arendt on Political Intersubjectivity, Routledge Research in Phenomenology, 2019 
  • Annegret Nippa & Anke Scharrahs, The Damascus Room in Dresden – A Treasure of Ottoman Interior Design in Germany, 2003, online
  • Anke Scharrahs, “Insight into a Sophisticated Painting Technique: Three Polychrome Wooden Interiors from Ottoman Syria in German Collections and Field Research in Damascus”, in Studies in Conservation, Volume 55, 2010 

On Ghosts & Apparitions

For Cihan Erdal #freecihanerdal

John Flaxman; The Ghost of Patroclus Appearing to Achilles; 1792-3 (c) Royal Academy of Arts

Homer, Iliad 23.65-76

And there appeared to him the ghost of poor Patroclus
all in his likeness for stature, and the lovely eyes, and voice,
and wore such clothing as Patroclus had worn on his body.
The ghost came and stood over his head and spoke a word to him:
You sleep, Achilles; you have forgotten me; but you were not
careless of me when I lived, but only in death. Bury me
as quickly as may be, let me pass through the gates of Hades.
The souls, the images of dead men, hold me at a distance,
and will not let me cross the river and mingle among them,
but I wander as I am by Hades’ house of the wide gates.
And I call upon you in sorrow, give me your hand;
no longer shall I come back from death, once you give me my rite of burning.

ἦλθε δ᾽ ἐπὶ ψυχὴ Πατροκλῆος δειλοῖο
πάντ᾽ αὐτῷ μέγεθός τε καὶ ὄμματα κάλ᾽ ἐϊκυῖα
καὶ φωνήν, καὶ τοῖα περὶ χροῒ εἵματα ἕστο:
στῆ δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ὑπὲρ κεφαλῆς καί μιν πρὸς μῦθον ἔειπεν:
‘εὕδεις, αὐτὰρ ἐμεῖο λελασμένος ἔπλευ Ἀχιλλεῦ.
οὐ μέν μευ ζώοντος ἀκήδεις, ἀλλὰ θανόντος:
θάπτέ με ὅττι τάχιστα πύλας Ἀΐδαο περήσω.
τῆλέ με εἴργουσι ψυχαὶ εἴδωλα καμόντων,
οὐδέ μέ πω μίσγεσθαι ὑπὲρ ποταμοῖο ἐῶσιν,
ἀλλ᾽ αὔτως ἀλάλημαι ἀν᾽ εὐρυπυλὲς Ἄϊδος δῶ.
καί μοι δὸς τὴν χεῖρ᾽: ὀλοφύρομαι, οὐ γὰρ ἔτ᾽ αὖτις
νίσομαι ἐξ Ἀΐδαο, ἐπήν με πυρὸς λελάχητε.

Ghosts, apparitions, miracles, supernatural events, to what extent do we believe in them? And if they were to be real, how much would they differ from each other? At first we need to begin by establishing what we understand by supernatural. If we refer to occurrences that fall outside the laws of nature, then the scope of these events has immediately enlarged, considering that we do not live in nature, but in a world – a human product. Nowadays many things have gone missing from that world; people, places, events. And these disappearances, through quarantine, incarceration or simply prolonged absence, are a kind of supernatural event in reverse – a sudden dis-apparition. But the missing haven’t been abandoned, instead, they lie in a state of abeyance, without being immediately present. With the irresistible and ceaseless flow of time — paraphrasing here Anna Komnene — we begin to question their reality.

Have these things and persons in abeyance then become ghostly presences or apparitions? I like Derrida’s idea that ghosts today are but the return or persistence of elements from the past, because it instantly complicates matters around ghostliness: Since elements from the past are always around us, can we really talk about absence or ghosts? Would it be correct to identify all absences as ghostly? Not sure here what it is exactly that returns or reappears.

We need to turn to dictionaries now, but they aren’t of much help. The only antonyms of ghostly (what is the opposite of a ghost?) that I could find, were the terms ‘natural’ and ‘angelic’, both of which do little in reference to the world, so that there’s not an exact territory of coincidence between ghosts and death. A dictionary of classical literature, on the other hand, tells us that ghosts are difficult to distinguish from supernatural entities or delusions, and yet the really striking part of the definition is that while ghosts seem generally ‘powerless and ineffectual’, they are persistent. I am fascinated by this combination of both persistence and powerlessness in the ghost, because of what it has to say to us about contemporary political narratives.

An example of this persistence comes down to us from the Iliad: Without a proper burial, the ghost of Patroclus, Achilles’ companion, is condemned to wander around the house of Hades for eternity. It would be hard to overstate how important burials were for antiquity (and continue to be so for us, for no clear reason, accounting for the shock at the mass graves of Bergamo and Hart Island during the pandemic) but I don’t want this commonplace trope to distract us from the mysterious apparition. It is one of the strangest dreams in classical literature and the only ghost to appear in the Iliad: Breaking away from the pattern of Homeric dreams, which generally involve divinities that bring knowledge of the future (following a structure of apparition at night when the person has retired, speech, departure, reaction and then dawn), dead Patroclus’ apparition in book XXIII makes no real sense, and it doesn’t bring any new information or steer the narrative in any direction.

The strangeness begins earlier, when Achilles himself performs two unusual tasks one after another (18.316-317): First, he attempts to summon Patroclus back to life by the uncommon gesture of placing his hand on the chest of the dead body as if it were alive and then he greets Patroclus with the formal χαῖρέ (hail!), establishing a distance between himself and Patroclus, implying a separation between them that is hard for Achilles to grasp — is he alive or dead? This attention to detail might seem pesky but given that the repertory of epic is so limited, any deviation in patterns of speech and behavior is telling us something; an innovation is taking place. After the funeral feast, Achilles slumbers into sleep by the seashore, and Patroclus appears to him ‘all in his likeness’ (23.66) with a puzzling request to be buried as soon as possible, given that Achilles had already decided to bury him the next day.

Gregory Buchakjian, photograph of Istanbul’s Tarlabaşı neighborhood that was due to be demolished. May 2013, a few weeks before the Gezi Park demonstrations started. Courtesy of the artist.

Patroclus is dead (at the hand of Hector, who was in turn subsequently slain by Achilles — the heart of the epic) but he hasn’t entered Hades yet. He finds himself in an in-between space, a uniquely hybrid dream/underworld scene where, far from heroic convention, this meeting about memory and the past, is still possible. And yet Patroclus asks Achilles to give him his hand for the last time for he’s nevermore to return from Hades after his burial (23.75). In spite of the immense affection between them, when Achilles tries to embrace him, the shadow suddenly turns into nothingness and dissolves into air (23.99-101), ‘with a shrill cry’. This extraordinary moment of tenderness, apparently innocuous, happens at a pivotal moment in the epic, when the death of Achilles is near – this was no news. Achilles himself is too baffled, and speaks with sadness about Patroclus’ weeping and wailing (23.106), before lighting the funeral pyre, followed by the long funeral games, a series of competitions held in honor of Patroclus and that take up most of the book.

The ghost appears thrice in the book, however on the last appearance (23.221-225), there’s a heartbreaking scene: a distraught Achilles is said to call upon Patroclus’ ghost for a last time, ‘as a father mourns the bones of a son, who was married only now, and died to grieve his unhappy parents’ and ‘[Achilles] dragged himself by the fire in close lamentation’. It seems as if the span of the apparition has come to an end, yet something is about to occur that makes the brief encounter with Patroclus gain immense depth. In book XXIV, Achilles is still agonizingly mourning Patroclus and abusing Hector’s body, dragging it around his friend’s tomb – Hector’s mother Hecuba remarks that even that did not bring Patroclus back to life (24.755-57). The apparition of Patroclus in fact restored Achilles’ humanity which had been buried in his anger and pain. A moment of reckoning arrives here: now he begins to see all the desolation that his anger has caused and there’s a final encounter with mortality in which Achilles accepts Patroclus’ death and also his own.

Commentary on the Iliad is long and intricate – it is a song about war and its disastrous consequences, but also one about political foundations and origins. But I want to dwell on the neglected figure of the ghost. Homeric terminology for the ghost is complex and “Psyché” encompasses meanings as diverse as both life and departed life, and is also used indistinguishably with other terms for soul and mind. As we had earlier seen, the status of the ghost is undefinable, and therefore it stands outside of and sometimes in opposition to the order of memory that establishes a polis upon return to the homeland from the battlefield. In the world of epic, commemoration of great deeds from the past is caught between two temporal modes: Remembering the life of a hero who has already died (remembrance of Achilles from a future standpoint) and preserving that memory as something not forgotten (the lasting permanence of the past), therefore the appearance of the ghost of Patroclus breaks down here the collective recollections of victory and turns inwards, towards remembrance of the past together with Achilles but not collectively with others (23.78).

Though we speak a lot about memory-narratives in the present, collective memory is a function of the regime of history, where things and events have already consolidated into a foundation (or against foundations). Whether the permanence of the memory that founded the body politic in the first place undergoes change, the substance of the space of the polis goes back to a single source. What I want to propose here is an idea of ghosts as communities of memory, distinct from but parallel to political foundations. What if it were possible for memory to become fragmented into different filaments of remembrance of things past and future articulated around the present and stemming from different sources?

A notion of ghosts as communities of memory came from recent work by Turkish sociologists Cihan Erdal (a young scholar now imprisoned in Turkey alongside thousands of other students on bogus charges of political activities) and Derya Fırat, on ‘presentism’ and the temporality of Gezi, the popular uprising that took place in Turkey in 2013 and after which the political landscape of the country has significantly deteriorated into authoritarian rule. Erdal and Fırat question the defeatism of the Western and Turkish Left in regard to utopian moments and whether something remains from them? Has the defeat of Gezi in anyway affected our sense of temporality?

Gezi Park protests graffiti, “The solution is Gandalf, what’s up Derrida?”, Istanbul, June 2013, photograph by the author

On a close reading of Enzo Traverso’s work on the melancholy of the Left, and his assertion that utopias have become a historical form of the past, they speak about the presentism after 1989 that absorbs the past and the future through the opening up of a self-dissolving, sparse present tense, so that this present-timeism builds a thick wall between the present and the past, putting an end to the transference of experience […] particularly in the absence of an alternative model of society. Following from that, their central argument is that the Gezi Park protests attempted to establish a new radical imagination of time (moving simultaneously between past and present, memory and expectation) that disrupted the current neoliberal presentism, and that they did so by imagining utopias both past and future – as a dialogue between different moments of mourning and memory, and between different ghosts that return and persist.

A few words on presentism would help to clarify the extent to which the Iliad as a foundational narrative is able to time-travel in order to tell us something about the present: Admittedly there’s no concept of linear time in Homer, in the same way that our fractured temporality — the temporariness of life under presentist authoritarian regimes, we’ve been ejected from time — attempts to grasp the past in order to imagine other possibilities: The subject of the Iliad is time itself and the durability of memory that withstands the withering flow of this ever-present time. Achilles’ most famously referred description as κλέος ἄφθιτον (of unwithering glory) expresses this desire as an action yet to be completed (9.410-416) simultaneously in the past and future. Time might be abstract but it is also a force that produces change, and this is what presentism (in Homer as the returning cycles of nature and in our times as the capitalist eternity of markets and the internet) is attempting to erase by collapsing the future-orientation of utopia or memory into an obsolete historical form, predicated on the ends of history: This is the best of all possible worlds.

While it’s been constantly argued that memory and mourning is the way out of the amnesia of presentism (why are we so shocked about Bergamo and Hart Island but not so much about the mass graves of wars elsewhere within the same time period?), the politics of ghosts proposed by Erdal and Fırat reframes this work of memory beyond both static remembrance of the past and restoration of past utopias. Remembrance becomes here a different orientation, which created means of communication between different historical moments and social movements, preventing the present or the past from exercising authority over each other. Ghosts from the past are speaking to each other in the here-and-now, expressing not only the”no longer” that has passed, but a sense of continuity anchored in “not yet” and “would be” referred towards the future — a typology of Iliadic time.

The ghosts that we are dealing with in here are moments of upheaval, uprising and utopia that have been deeply buried in the collective imagination but that have the power to return any time – the function of latency – without destroying the fabric of time by attempting futile restorations. These ghosts are not only moments of political action, but also catalysts thereof, such as commemorations of events and memories of violence.  In the context of Gezi, for example, Erdal and Fırat mention that when Taksim Square was banned for workers in 1979, the symbols of the left factions were hung on Konak Square in the city of Izmir, a gesture that was repeated in 2013 on the facade of the Atatürk Cultural Center in Istanbul. As a checkpoint in political memory, the building was subsequently demolished, and yet this doesn’t guarantee that these ghosts will not return again and again: Apparently, the trade-free shopping between ghosts continues. Within the world of the Iliad, physical objects, decaying structures — of ships and tombs, and moments lost in time provide a record of the past that continues to exert force upon the present.

The fundamental problem that Erdal and Fırat see with with the work of mourning (over utopian pasts) is that it requires a dead body and a burial, but how can something be buried if it is absent or has never been completed? For Derrida, the ghost cannot even be called a being, because it doesn’t exist – it is both present and non-existent, and therefore one cannot enter into mourning with ghosts, because ghosts never die, they always keep coming back. The recognition of the presence of the ghost in its unburied state, is also a call for practical justice and therefore, a reinscription of experience within time, rather than against it: This proposal is also a formulation of justice so that time out of joint can be rectified. It is one that will provide an exit from the present in crisis and will bring us to justice by building this new relationship with both past and future. It is a politics of ghosts that, on the one hand, aims to put an end to the violence of the present against the past, and on the other hand, it will overcome the possibility of the past and future to dominate / erode the present.

Atatürk Cultural Center, Gezi Park protests, Istanbul, June 2013, photograph by the author

In a time of global upheaval, although we are still trapped in the presentism of catastrophe and disaster which is one of the most common narratives of capitalism — the emergency, the possibility of closing the distance between the present and a horizon of expectation about the future has not been completely closed. The future is still a latent possibility that might awake again at some undefined point. Is this future coming from the past? There’s no assurance, sometimes the future arises out of itself, but the cancellation of movement inside historical planes is not a viable solution when the present alone is too fragile to hold institutions and moral reflexions. In a world replete with ghosts – paraphrasing Derrida – the supernatural is no longer an extraordinary occurrence, but the nature of all political action. Insofar as all human action remains unpredictable, in both motive and intended goal, it is always miraculous and supernatural in the sense that it is highly improbable and yet actual.

But if all worldly existence and political life is invaded by ghosts, how to distinguish then between the ghost and reality? We think that memory should be reconstructed today and considered as a radical invitation to democratize the relationship between generations in political space. Political space is always a term that brings us back to the Iliad again: This isn’t only a concept of memory, since physical spaces as the containers of memory, are replete with debris that functions as “clocks” measuring time through both deterioration and durability. The constant apparitions of the past in these spaces remind us that although encounters with ghosts are ephemeral, they can serve as markers of the short distance between no longer and not yet, as expressed in the “now” emphasis in the words of Menelaus in the Iliad, while remembering Patroclus in such a way that this now, although stemming from the present, becomes a memory for a would-be future:

Homer, Iliad 17.670-672

Now let each one of you remember poor Patroclus
who was gentle, and understood how to be kindly toward all men
while he lived. Now death and fate have closed in upon him.

νῦν τις ἐνηείης Πατροκλῆος δειλοῖο
μνησάσθω: πᾶσιν γὰρ ἐπίστατο μείλιχος εἶναι
ζωὸς ἐών: νῦν αὖ θάνατος καὶ μοῖρα κιχάνει.

Here the conversation about ghosts and the supernatural is also a conversation about very long spans of memory across time: While all politics is grounded in human action and all human action is supernatural, our standard liberal model of society attempts to dovetail action and do away with politics by reducing it to bureaucratic administration and the satisfaction of human needs in nature, therefore its alleged emphasis on the social and economic question. But it was at the very beginning of our tradition of politics, in the Iliad, when the ability to change the flow of time in any direction, was considered the benchmark of rising above the cycles of nature, and therefore making action and speech identical with freedom. Anthropologists David Graeber and David Weingrow speak about freedoms that were common to many early human societies in the past and that we have abandoned: The freedom to refuse orders, to move away and to create entirely new social orders or move between different ones. This ability for new beginnings is at the heart of the Iliad‘s struggle against the destructive influence of time.

Little did they know (they couldn’t), Cihan Erdal and Derya Fırat, at the time their work was published in the end of 2019, that the politics of ghosts would become a mainstay of political life only a few months later when we would temporarily lose the world, and become entirely surrounded by ghosts. But interestingly enough, they do mention at the end of their essay the songs of Victor Jara rising from the squares and balconies in the capital Santiago in Chile or the yellow vests in the streets of Paris as a part of the conversation between ghosts. Only a few days ago, a referendum in Chile overthrew the constitution from the Pinochet dictatorship, even as many other uprisings are taking place and failing elsewhere. The ghost dialogue about new beginnings continues…

‘Being here, today, is accepting to live with our ghosts, to long for them, to feed them’ said Lebanese artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige years ago (I know the quote is real, but I cannot locate its source, therefore it remains itself a ghost), speaking about incomplete mourning: these ghosts are present among us, and the spaces they occupy are irredeemable – a gap that cannot be closed, but they can suddenly break out of the present by throwing us back into the future, a future that can be remembered and over which it is also possible to act. In a fragment from the Myrmidons, a lost play of Aeschylus, recounting aspects of the story of Achilles and Patroclus, unknown or too obvious to the Iliad, Achilles scolds his comrade Antilochus, reversing the nature of mourning over his companion Patroclus – we are not in mourning over the missing, but over ourselves:

Scholia to Aristophanes

Antilochus, bewail me, the living, rather than him, the dead; for I have lost my all.

᾿Αντίλοχ’, ἀποίμωξόν με τοῦ τεθνηκότος
τὸν ζῶντα μᾶλλον.

[Fragments in italics, from Cihan Erdal and Derya Fırat, “Toplumsal Hareketler ve Bellek İlişkisi: Yas ve Anmadan Hayaletler Siyasetine” (The Relationship Between Social Movements and Memory: From Mourning and Remembrance to the Politics of Ghosts) Birikim, December 2019, translated and paraphrased by the author]

Cihan Erdal, courtesy of Omer Ongun

On September 25, 2020, Cihan Erdal, a 32-years-old PhD researcher in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University in Canada, was arrested in Istanbul. The charges stem from events back in 2014, which are being used to continue persecuting members of the leftist HDP political party. Erdal and 81 others have been targeted because they are all signatories to a letter calling for the government to protect a Kurdish town under ISIS attacks. He was placed in solitary confinement in Ankara until October 23, 2020. No indictment and no hearing date has been announced yet. If convicted, he might be facing a potential life sentence. Some 2500 academics worldwide have signed a petition for his release. As an LGBT person, he is at risk of additional persecution over his sexuality. Cihan has been based in Canada since 2017 and his research is largely focused on youth-led social movements in Europe, including Turkey. Learn more about the case at

Send letters to Cihan Erdal:

Cihan Erdal adına
Sincan 2 Nolu F Tipi Yüksek Güvenlikli
Kapalı Ceza İnfaz Kurumu
06930 Yenikent/Sincan-ANKARA

Acknowledgements: Gregory Buchakjian & Joana Hadjithomas in Beirut for (almost) a decade of conversations, both present and absent, about ghosts, our own and others’. Dedicated to Cihan Erdal, for your prompt liberation.

Demolition of Atatürk Cultural Center, Istanbul, May 2018, photograph by the author

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.


Arie Amaya-Akkermans, “Revolution or Redemption? The Middle East” in Revolutions: Finished and Unfinished, from Primal to Final, ed. P. Caringella, W. Cristaudo & G. Hughes, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012, pp 329-249

Hannah Arendt, “Introduction to Politics” in The Promise of Politics, Schocken Books, 2005, pp 93-200

Hannah Arendt, “What is Freedom?” in Between Past and Future, Penguin Classics, 2006, pp 142-169

Hannah Čulík-Baird, “The Fragment as Form”, UT Austin Lecture, 25th September 2020, online.

Cihan Erdal & Derya Fırat, “Toplumsal Hareketler ve Bellek İlişkisi: Yas ve Anmadan Hayaletler Siyasetine” (The Relationship Between Social Movements and Memory: From Mourning and Remembrance to the Politics of Ghosts) in Birikim, 368, December 2019, 35-43

R.K. Fischer, “The Concept of Miracle in Homer”, Antichthon, 29 (1995), pp 1-14

Lorenzo F. Garcia, Homeric Durability: Telling Time in the Iliad, Hellenic Studies Series 58, Center for Hellenic Studies, 2013, online.

George Alexander Gazis, Homer and the Poetics of Hades, Oxford University Press, 2018

David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years, Melville House, 2012

Agnes Heller, A Philosophy of History in Fragments, Wiley-Blackwell, 1993

Nat Muller, “What Was Lost: Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige in conversation with Nat Muller” Ibraaz, 2012, online.

W.B. Stanford, “Ghosts and Apparitions in Homer, Aeschylus and Shakespeare” in Hermathena, No. 56 (November, 1940), pp 84-92

David Wengrow, What Makes Civilization: The Ancient Near East and the Future of the West, Oxford University Press, 2018

Istanbul/Beirut: “We were waiting for the apocalypse and the apocalypse finally came.”

And I have the unbearable feeling that my entire life won’t be enough to remove this drop from my soul.

And the thought haunts me that if I was burnt alive, this persistent moment would be surrendered last.

G. Seferis, London, June 5th, 1932

Κι έχω το ασήκωτο συναίσθημα πως ολόκληρη η ζωή που μου απομένει δε θα ‘ναι

αρκετή για να καταλύσει αυτή τη στάλα μέσα στην ψυχή μου.

Και με καταδιώκει η σκέψη πως αν μ’ έκαιγαν ζωντανό

αυτή η επίμονη στιγμή θα παραδινότανε τελευταία.

Gregory Buchakjian, Sursock Palace after the 4 August blast, 2020, photograph

“We were waiting for the apocalypse and the apocalypse finally came”. Those were the words of Gregory, the Lebanese art historian and photographer with whom I’ve corresponded for almost a decade, during which admiration gave way to friendship, and finally to complicity. He is locked in his apartment on Abdul Aziz street in Beirut, or at his parents’ home in the mountains near the city, avoiding the infernal traffic and the visual field where all the catastrophes of history blend with garbage, with tar, and with the vision of the Last Things. After that spectacular explosion that changed Lebanon forever, and partially destroyed forty percent of Beirut, with their homes shattered, people had to flock into the streets, to reclaim the city, to protest, to scream, to weep, to supplicate, to deny, to fight. There are some moments in history in which certain things can be done only collectively, even if they produce absolutely no result; this was one of those moments. It is necessary to bury Polynices’ body, even if it’s forbidden by law on punishment of death, and the tragic heroine is a whole city, dressed in its rubble.

The death penalty seems like an immaterial punishment in a situation like this; for in Beirut death wouldn’t mean to cross the threshold towards the indeterminate,  but rather and simply, a change of position within the same chessboard, without entry or exit permits. Gregory has spent the last ten years photographing the abandoned houses of Beirut, or at least those that have survived not only the wars (there have been a few of them), but also the reconstructions, restorations, or simply time itself. And that photographic labor, that at first dealt with a historical document, has become an obsession, a terrifying desire, and a species of invasive archaeology, hunting ghosts, recollecting their personal objects, and speculating about the past, as if it were possible this way, to rectify the present without canceling it altogether. All those who seek the truth are punished by the gods with doubt, that little fragment of discrepancy, in which the scientific method and theology meet face to face, for just one second.

After ten years (even though he had been photographing Beirut since his teens in the 1980s, during the first years of the civil war), this passion became a doctoral thesis at the Sorbonne in Paris, a book and two museum exhibitions. Then, the photographer, lost in his own distance from the images, has become also a forensic investigator. The corpse is always unprepared, and the circumstances of death unknown. Sometimes, shocking events take place: The dead rises to his feet while the autopsy is in course, and while his condition of being ‘alive’ is immediately recognized, it is also well known that he will never recover, and his identity cannot be verified – the state of decomposition is very advanced. How can matter decompose while being still alive? The generic term life seems to encompass an infinite number of contradictions between biology, inorganic chemistry and historical experience. This isn’t about a loss of memory, for memories are never lost, but they can become so disarrayed to a point where continuity and coherence are lost.

Gregory Buchakjian, Abandoned Dwellings. Tableaux_BF335-Ain el-Mreisseh_ 17’06’2012, photograph

A week after the explosion, Joana, another Lebanese artist and filmmaker, writes me from her shattered apartment in the neighborhood of Achrafiyeh, to say that she and her husband Khalil, survived miraculously without as little as a minor wound, but that they’re not really alive. How to differentiate between architecture, images, the body, living matter and rubble? When we say that everything else has been destroyed, it’s impossible to specify what do we mean by ‘everything’; in the absence of referents that place rational limits on reality, it’s no longer practical to classify particulars and universals as taxonomic categories. Brick dust and molten metal contain all the states of matter. In a video that Gregory produced with Valérie, his friend and companion in the journey of photography, work which resembles more an elegy to the fragment, to loss and disappearance, they meticulously organize and classify personal objects found in the houses. Gregory reads aloud from a found letter: “I shall miss the Orient all my life… People say I live in the past.”

Traveling from Occident to Orient, as metaphor and possibility, every day at dusk, I ride on a ferry boat, from Rumelia, the further corner of southern Europe, towards Anatolia, the Mediterranean border of the Orient with Europe. While on the ferry, I watch Gregory’s video on repeat every day. But it’s not a long journey, it takes not even 20 minutes, and we are still inside the same city: Istanbul. It’s a city larger than some small countries, and with a population more or less as big as Chile’s (some twenty million souls survive in this irregular and viscous space), and here it’s not possible to speak of history proper, except in extremes: Either a ridiculous and touristic version of history, that Turks themselves do not believe but to which they’re condemned, or the other version that is an interminable series of catastrophes and miseries – it’s impossible to count them all, there are not enough numbers. How to tell here the time, date, day and hour? One can leave the house casually to go somewhere and end up in some other day, another era, in some other life.

And since life itself doesn’t really work out here, because there’s too much bureaucratic paperwork for the twenty million souls, we have begun to believe in miracles. Not in the great miracles, like those of Jesus Christ, but in the very tiny ones: Every day you’re grateful that gravity still exists, and that amidst all this chaos, all this hate, all this disarray, all this cruelty, this motherfucking city hasn’t just fallen into the water, killing us all instantly. The city has tried to kill herself in all possible forms – conquests, fires, earthquakes, crises, recessions and evil winds, but nothing has worked out. Half mythological creature, half prostitute, this is a city that carries really deep wounds, but is at the same time immortal and sadly invincible. For all of these reasons, she doesn’t understand history or time, and she’s not even interested. Everything seems to her a foolish game, like an Aegean mermaid, diverting sailors lost at sea, or driving them to madness. But the history of the Homeric mermaids doesn’t end well; some medieval scholia say that they jumped to their deaths after Odysseus’ escape.

Valérie Cachard and Gregory Buchakjian, Abandoned Dwellings. Archive, 2018. Still from film. Cinematography: Malek Hosni.

I know all of this might sound very romantic, but the result is usually something very mediocre – a love without limits or horizons, is also a feeling without specific content, and without concrete promises to anchor it in the present. Everything happens in the optative mode of the verb. There’s a myth that goes like this: When the colonizers from Megara, a city in Ancient Greece, consulted the Delphic oracle, at Apollo’s temple, the Pythia warned them not to go to Byzantion (the first artistic name of Istanbul, in Archaic Greece), because the place was cursed. They didn’t listen though, and went on to found the city. But it’s also possible I’m making up this story or greatly exaggerating it, based on a misunderstanding of a Persian account. The important detail is that for a city so capricious and amnesiac, her greatest disgrace is being a prisoner of history. Sometimes it seems as if this weren’t a real city; its beauty is unbearable, exaggerated, terrifying, impalpable. That’s why she’s always threatened with destruction and bombarded with infernal skyscrapers.

When speaking about history, therefore, Turks are really bad, they only tells lies and slander. The more natural version of what is known as history, is the intrigue and the rumor, which they probably learnt from the Byzantines, great experts in gossip, conspiracy and self-destruction. Time here is completely out of joint, and it already was eight years ago when I arrived in this country as a temporary visitor, en route to some other country, and I ended up stranded like many Syrians, Afghans and Iranians. In those days, when this was a rich country (that also turned out to be a lie), there was a rage in the streets, so desperate, that I was surprised I didn’t get poisoned by breathing the same air as them. But then the protests began in 2013, and since then, we have lived in something similar to a diet version of hell: with room service, currency exchange and stunningly beautiful views of the city, when you stand on fashionable rooftops, posing like fine people, parading yourself on the catwalk of amnesia, enjoying the sunsets.

Hell here is not a metaphor for fire, or even for suffering, it’s more about the interminability of everything that is taking place. The pandemic took us by surprise, but not too much. People are so used to bad news, and they know how to fall on all four without getting hurt too much. The curfews and states of emergency were well known, from the military dictatorship in the 1980s to the self-coup in 2016, and in a city of this enormous size, you have always been alone, and it’s difficult to forge lasting friendships in an atmosphere of so much paranoia and lack of trust. Locked in the house, we began to drink, and to accumulate bottles of wine to mark the passage of time, since the clock no longer had any use. But that experience of being outside of history is not new. That’s why I find it funny when they speak of the end of the world (or capitalism), the end of history, the end of time. The world never ends, insofar as human conversations continue, and time is a temporal structure, not only in the sense of pure time but also of permanence.

Hera Büyüktaşçıyan, Neither in the Sky nor on the Ground, IFA, Berlin, 2019, photograph by the author

Biblical literature leaves us precise instructions: Time will not last. So in that sense, the end of history is a thesis as ridiculous as the death of God, how can something end of which we have no certainty whether it ever began? If by history we mean the veracity of historiographic accounts, then we are in trouble. But if this refers to the historical experience of human beings, to the conscience of historical contingence, all these concepts are very new and it could be very well possible that history is just beginning. The end of history is the experience of a kind of void, the inability to conceive the future, so that we return to the past obsessively, in order to rebuild it, hoping that this may eventually reorganize the future. But this strategy always ends very bad for Istanbul. When they were building one of the metro lines near the old city, the excavations lasted for a few years and when they reached the layer of the sixth millennium BC, they decided to stop. It’s impossible to live with so much rubble, with so many broken vases. A famous archaeologist used to say that sometimes you find so many things buried in this city, that you need to bury them again in order to continue living.

One of the happiest days of my life was the end of the pandemic lockdowns, and then we got on a ferry to travel to the Princes Islands with Greek artists Mirsini and Mairi who had spent a few months quarantined in the city during an artist residency and who had never seen the islands before. There we walked a few kilometers between the sun and the Marmara sea on the island of Halki, until we reached the monastery of Terk-i Dünya that is translated as “Abandon the world!” (in imperative), and on a certain corner, where there is an eternal tree, quite magical, I directed a long gaze at the infinite blue. I toyed with the idea that some kind of freedom was still possible. But the history of this place is also sad: The islands were places of exile during the Byzantine period, and that tradition continued during the Ottoman empire, at the same time that the monastic foundations began to wither and the islands became summer residences for the elite, and eventually, a district for minorities – Greeks, Armenians, Jews. But then the massacres began again, the exiles, the expropriations, the deep burials, the rotten wood, the lost memory.

Here you need to forget everything, if you want to live even one day. But we don’t want to forget. And that’s why I need to return to Joana: A few years ago, she and Khalil traveled to Izmir, an ancient city on the coast of the Asia Minor in Turkey, on the Aegean Sea, to make a film with the writer Etel Adnan, about the exile of the Greeks of Anatolia that arrived in Beirut in the year 1922 (including Joana’s grandfather). They became very curious about the many headless Greek and Roman statues at the archaeological museum, and they documented them carefully to utilize the footage at a later date.

Terk-i Dünya, Halki, Istanbul, June 2020, photograph by the author

During the pandemic lockdown in Paris, Joana and Khalil assembled the images into an spectacular video on the background of which a fragment of a poem of Seferis (one of the great Greek poets of the 20th century, who was also born in the Izmir area) is read aloud:

They were telling us you will win once you surrender.

We surrendered and found ashes.

They were telling us once you abandon your life, you will win.

We abandoned our life and found ashes.

G. Seferis, London, June 5th, 1932

Μας έλεγαν θα νικήσετε όταν υποταχτείτε.

Υποταχτήκαμε και βρήκαμε τη στάχτη.

Μας έλεγαν θα νικήσετε όταν εγκαταλείψετε τη ζωή σας.

Εγκαταλείψαμε τη ζωή μας και βρήκαμε τη στάχτη.

The first time I heard about this video was in a letter from Gregory, and then I wrote to Joana…

Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, Where is My Mind, 2020, installation views, “I Stared At Beauty So Much…”, FRAC Corsica.

My letter was sent on the 1st of August, and for a week an answer didn’t come. The 4th of August there was the massive explosion in the port of Beirut. Then a week later, Joana understood my letter as if it had been sent after the explosion… and after finally seeing the video, I also found only ashes. The ashes of the rubble of Beirut.

A year prior, I myself traveled to Izmir, and was also moved by the headless statues, and documented them as well. Soon afterwards, I traveled to Germany to give a lecture about Seferis’ poetry, in which I used images of the statues as visual support material and metaphor for the survival of history through time, deep memory and transmission of trauma:

Our country is a closed place, all mountains

roofed over by the low sky day and night.

We have no rivers we have no wells we have no springs,

only a few underground tanks, empty too, that echo and

we treat as sacred.

G. Seferis, Mythistorima X

Ο τόπος μας είναι κλειστός, όλο βουνά

που έχουν σκεπή το χαμηλό ουρανό μέρα και νύχτα.

Δεν έχουμε ποτάμια δεν έχουμε πηγάδια δεν έχουμε πηγές,

μονάχα λίγες στέρνες, άδειες κι αυτές, που ηχούν και που

τις προσκυνούμε.

This lecture performance was part of an exhibition in Berlin about the history of Pergamon (with reference to both the ancient city and the Berlin museum) by another artist friend, Hera, who lives on the island of Halki – there I spent that precious day after the end of pandemic lockdowns. A few weeks later, in the same venue in Berlin where Hera’s exhibition took place and where I had earlier spoken, Joana and Khalil would present another video, on the intimate relationship between archaeology, architecture and the destruction from the Lebanese wars, a video which is today more pertinent than ever and that hauntingly, ends with a long aerial shot of the Port of Beirut, now destroyed.

We both remembered a future yet to arrive then, through inhabiting a space with images and words, an idea central to Hera’s delicate treatment of historical narratives across long spans of time. In the forest of time, all movements are circular, and we always return to the same starting points; that long lost gaze towards the infinite blue.

Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, Palimpsest, 2017, still from film. Part of Unconformities.

But during the pandemic, I also found my own ashes: Locked in my apartment with Musab for a few months, I began a very long correspondence with Arca (it’s pronounced Arja) that lasted for something like half a year, in between curfews, prohibitions and lockdowns, punctuated by fear and uncertainty, even though we were at a distance of only about 7 km. And the correspondence encompassed millions of words, that always reminded me of what Joana said to me in 2017, after a major terror attack in Istanbul: “You have to remember the light!”, and in between so many letters, invented memories, fragile promises and intervals, during which life seemed more or less possible, the idea of an encounter acquired certain aura of hope.

In those moments of doubt about the reality of things that occur so naturally during an event as perplexing as a pandemic, we’re not even dealing here with love or feelings, but more with the possibility of reaffirming reality through confirming the existence of the other, who is present beyond yourself, since we don’t have an authentic history without shared memories.

It was a beautiful day in October, when the encounter finally took place in an almost cinematic set: The rays of sunlight filtered through the trees, moving back and forth slowly with the fresh breeze of the end of summer, followed by many hours of casual conversations, without any trajectory – time disappeared until sunset. And that was the last time. The next letter remains unanswered, it turned to ashes.

Lives are complicated, the histories, the bets of luck and chance, the crossed destinies, the fears, and above all, the feeling of having lost the world to a certain degree. We have only fragments left. At the end of the video with Seferis, another part of the poem:

It remains to find our life again,

Now that we have nothing left anymore.

G. Seferis, London, June 5th, 1932

Μένει να ξαναβρούμε τη ζωή

μας, τώρα που δεν έχουμε πια τίποτα.

But there’s another fragment of the poem that Joana and Khalil didn’t include:

I imagine that he who will find life again, out of so many papers, so many feelings, so many disputes, so many lessons, he will be someone like us, only less forgiving in memory.

G. Seferis, London, June 5th, 1932

Φαντάζομαι, εκείνος που θα ξανάβρει τη ζωή, έξω από τόσα χαρτιά, τόσα

συναισθήματα, τόσες διαμάχες και τόσες διδασκαλίες, θα είναι κάποιος σαν εμάς,

μόνο λιγάκι πιο σκληρός στη μνήμη.

Notes and letters, March-October 2020, photograph by the author

And like this the apocalypse came to pass, and passed. Without having told him the story of Arca, I wrote to Gregory a few days ago: “I don’t think there’s a viable way to ‘fix’ our lives at this point. But we have to re-inscribe them poetically, I think this is what Joana meant by ‘Remember the light!’”. And also like this, we return to the starting point, within the same history, like our cities, like the ashes of our cities. We have to find again our freedom, in the metaphysical and in the political sense (we’ve lost even the freedom of movement).

On that same week, I wrote to Nektaria, a Greek writer from Istanbul: “Nobody is condemned to history, to time, to the circumstances. One can always break free. Freedom is really hard, you fall all the time, there’s so much vertigo, it’s mostly a series of accidents and errors, but there’s just no other way.” Nektaria had published recently a novel about Daphne, a Greek-American woman traveling to modern day Istanbul in search of her roots. She had signed a copy of the novel for Arca’s birthday, a few weeks in advance, and that I brought with me to those spectacular hours among the wallowing trees. Is our eviction from the world perhaps a punishment for having constantly violated the rules of time?

As Joana told me in an interview in 2016: “When you superimpose so many temporalities, so many images, little by little there is a kind of duplicity, so you have many suns appearing. Things were happening to some people; this idea of multiple suns when you feel this chaotic time. It’s not only what’s happening to men; it’s affecting nature, it’s affecting the universe, and it’s affecting everything.”

Back in April I was daydreaming with Arca, from the depth of the confinement: “We are still in Beirut, maybe we went to Abu Hassan for dinner, got very drunk, and you met Gregory and Joana and Khalil. It was a beautiful day.” A long human chain now connected us all: The colonizers from Megara, a Hadjithomas grandfather on a journey from Izmir to Beirut, Gregory, Joana and Khalil, Daphne’s journey on the other direction to Istanbul, Hera, Arca, and me (alongside many known and unknown others). A long human chain, connecting these two cities, through a series of long winding promises, made near the end of the world.

But still Nektaria answered with fire: “If Arca or anyone in your life feels condemned to circumstances, then perhaps he is not for you. I have heard so many people use the circumstances excuse (and I have used it myself). It’s a mirage if the person believes it and an excuse if he doesn’t. We can always be free if we choose freedom. Anything else is rubbish.”

Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, Where is My Mind, 2020, installation views, “I Stared at Beauty So Much”, FRAC Corsica

Note: This piece was originally written in Spanish for literary magazine El Imparcial and translated into English by the author, presented here with substantial edits and additions. The text is part of the extended research of the author for the exhibition “Beirut is a Fragment”, Istanbul, April 2021. Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige’s exhibition “I Stared at Beauty So Much…” at FRAC Corsica, ran from July 7th through October 24th.

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.

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.

Screen Shot 2020-02-23 at 12.20.04 AM
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.

Screen Shot 2020-02-21 at 5.02.58 PM
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.

Screen Shot 2020-02-22 at 7.14.53 PM
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.