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
Hope-
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.

 

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.

Bisextile? Yes, It’s a Leap Day

Augustine, The City of God 15.12

“Six multiplied by six, which makes the square of six, adds up to thirty-six days. When this is multiplied by ten, this makes three hundred and sixty days, which gives us our twelve lunar months. The solar year requires five more days and one quarter day to be completed, and this is why an additional say they call the bissextus is added every fourth year. So, additional days were added by ancient authorities to make the days align with the years. The Romans called these days intercalary.”

Sexiens autem seni, qui numerus quadratum senarium facit, triginta sex dies sunt, qui multiplicati deciens ad trecentos sexaginta perveniunt, id est duodecim menses lunares. Propter quinque dies enim reliquos quibus solaris annus impletur et diei quadrantem, propter quem quater ductum eo anno quo bissextum vocant unus dies adicitur, addebantur a veteribus postea dies ut occurreret numerus annorum, quos dies Romani intercalares vocabant.

Bissextus [or bissextile, bisextilis] was the name given in the Julian calendar because the day was added on the 24th of February in leap years as ante diem sextum Kalendas Martias or (a.d. vi Kal. Mart.), the twice-sixth day before the Kalends of March. Romans added time at the end of February because of a ritual accord following the winter solstice. Prior to the Julian calendar, when the year was set at 355 days, there could be an entire leap month added. According to our records, the calculations were so off in 45 BCE that Julius Caesar imposed 67 additional intercalary days.

Image result for medieval manuscript clock
From Oxford, Bodleian Library, Digby 46 [borrowed from Erik Kwakkel’s Tumblr post]

“When Will This Year Be Over”? Seneca on Speeding Life Along

Seneca, De Brevitate Vitae 7

“The man who has hoped for the fasces longs to put them down once he gets them and says constantly, “When will this year be over?” This man sponsors games which he once valued as a great opportunity for him, yet he says “When can I get away from them?” A lawyer is raised up by the whole forum and with full crowd beyond where he can be heard, but he complains “When will we have a break?” Everyone speeds their own life along and suffers for a desire for the future and boredom with the present.

But the person who portions out every moment to his own use, who schedules out every day like it is the last, neither hopes for nor fears tomorrows. For what kind of new pleasure is any hour alone capable of bringing? Everything is known and has been enjoyed fully. Fortune may by chance bring out something else, but life is already safe. Something can be added; nothing can be subtracted, and he will accept anything which is added like someone who is already satisfied and full will take some food he does not desire.

Therefore, it is not right to think that anyone has lived long because of grey hair or wrinkles. He has not lived a while, but he has existed a while. Certainly, what if you thought that he had traveled far whom a terrible storm grabbed in the harbor and dragged here and there in turns of winds raging from different directions and drove him over the same space in a circle? He did not travel far, but he was tossed around a lot.”

Adsecutus ille quos optaverat fasces cupit ponere et subinde dicit: “Quando hic annus praeteribit?” Facit ille ludos, quorum sortem sibi optingere magno aestimavit: “Quando,” inquit, “istos effugiam?” Diripitur ille toto foro patronus et magno concursu omnia ultra, quam audiri potest, complet: “Quando,” inquit, “res proferentur?” Praecipitat quisque vitam suam et futuri desiderio laborat, praesentium taedio. At ille qui nullum non tempus in usus suos confert, qui omnem diem tamquam ultimum ordinat, nec optat crastinum nec timet. Quid enim est, quod iam ulla hora novae voluptatis possit adferre? Omnia nota, omnia ad satietatem percepta sunt. De cetero fors fortuna, ut volet, ordinet; vita iam in tuto est. Huic adici potest, detrahi nihil, et adici sic, quemadmodum saturo iam ac pleno aliquid cibi, quod nec desiderat et capit. Non est itaque quod quemquam propter canos aut rugas putes diu vixisse; non ille diu vixit, sed diu fuit. Quid enim si illum multum putes navigasse, quem saeva tempestas a portu exceptum huc et illuc tulit ac vicibus ventorum ex diverso furentium per eadem spatia in orbem egit? Non ille multum navigavit, sed multum iactatus est.

Image result for medieval manuscript calendar
Johannes von Gmunden: Calendar, [Nuremberg], 1496

“When Will This Year Be Over”? Seneca on Speeding Life Along

Seneca, De Brevitate Vitae 7

“The man who has hoped for the fasces longs to put them down once he gets them and says constantly, “When will this year be over?” This man sponsors games which he once valued as a great opportunity for him, yet he says “When can I get away from them?” A lawyer is raised up by the whole forum and with full crowd beyond where he can be heard, but he complains “When will we have a break?” Everyone speeds his own life along and suffers for a desire for the future and boredom with the present.

But the person who portions out every moment to his own use, who schedules out every day like it is the last, neither hopes for nor fears tomorrows. For what kind of new pleasure is any hour alone capable of bringing? Everything is known and has been enjoyed fully. Fortune may by chance bring out something else, but life is already safe. Something can be added; nothing can be subtracted, and he will accept anything which is added like someone who is already satisfied and full will take some food he does not desire.

Therefore, it is not right to thing that anyone has lived long because of grey hair or wrinkles. He has not lived a while, but he has existed a while. Certainly, what if you thought that he had traveled far whom a terrible storm grabbed in the harbor and dragged here and there in turns of winds raging from different directions and drove him over the same space in a circle? He did not travel far, but he was tossed around a lot.”

Adsecutus ille quos optaverat fasces cupit ponere et subinde dicit: “Quando hic annus praeteribit?” Facit ille ludos, quorum sortem sibi optingere magno aestimavit: “Quando,” inquit, “istos effugiam?” Diripitur ille toto foro patronus et magno concursu omnia ultra, quam audiri potest, complet: “Quando,” inquit, “res proferentur?” Praecipitat quisque vitam suam et futuri desiderio laborat, praesentium taedio. At ille qui nullum non tempus in usus suos confert, qui omnem diem tamquam ultimum ordinat, nec optat crastinum nec timet. Quid enim est, quod iam ulla hora novae voluptatis possit adferre? Omnia nota, omnia ad satietatem percepta sunt. De cetero fors fortuna, ut volet, ordinet; vita iam in tuto est. Huic adici potest, detrahi nihil, et adici sic, quemadmodum saturo iam ac pleno aliquid cibi, quod nec desiderat et capit. Non est itaque quod quemquam propter canos aut rugas putes diu vixisse; non ille diu vixit, sed diu fuit. Quid enim si illum multum putes navigasse, quem saeva tempestas a portu exceptum huc et illuc tulit ac vicibus ventorum ex diverso furentium per eadem spatia in orbem egit? Non ille multum navigavit, sed multum iactatus est.

Image result for medieval manuscript calendar
Johannes von Gmunden: Calendar, [Nuremberg], 1496

How “Long” From Sparta to Pylos? Time and Distance in the Odyssey

In the Odyssey Telemachus goes from Ithaka to Sparta (via Pylos) and back. When he travels in both directions, he makes a stop for the night in a scene that I think most of us often forget:
Od. 15.185-188 (=3.486-490)
“All day long they shook the yoke around their necks.
The sun set and the wide ways were shadowed.
They arrived at Phêrai, the home of Diokles,
The son of Ortilokhos, the child whom Alpheios fathered.
There they spent the night and he gave them guest-gifts.”

οἱ δὲ πανημέριοι σεῖον ζυγὸν ἀμφὶς ἔχοντες.
δύσετό τ’ ἠέλιος σκιόωντό τε πᾶσαι ἀγυιαί·
ἐς φηρὰς δ’ ἵκοντο Διοκλῆος ποτὶ δῶμα,
υἱέος ᾿Ορτιλόχοιο, τὸν ᾿Αλφειὸς τέκε παῖδα.
ἔνθα δὲ νύκτ’ ἄεσαν, ὁ δὲ τοῖς πὰρ ξείνια θῆκεν.

Though he stops at this town twice, we get very little information about it from the epic itself. The scholia do provide some information:
Scholia HQ Ad Od. 15.186-193:

“Phêrai: the name of a town in Laconia. The journey from Sparta to Phêrai is one day; and it is nearly another day from Phêrai to Pylos… This is the same night that Odysseus sleeps at Eumaios’ place.”

ἐς Φηρὰς] διὰ τοῦ η τὴν πόλιν τὴν Λακωνικήν. H. ἀπὸ Λακεδαιμονίας ἕως Φηρᾶς ἡμέρας ὁδὸς, ἀπὸ δὲ τῆς Φηρᾶς ἄχρι καὶ Πύλου ἄλλη ἡμέρα…. Q. ταύτην πρώτην νύκτα κοιμᾶται παρὰ Εὐμαίῳ ᾿Οδυσσεύς. H

Most interesting for me here is the almost throw-away line from the scholiast that this night spent in Phêrai is the same night during which Odysseus is entertained by Eumaios. Although some scholars entertain this seriously (e.g. Olson 1995, 91ff) a more standard take is presented by De Jong in her Narratological Commentary… (2001, 588):

De Jong 2001

If we count the days from Odysseus’ return to Ithaca (when Athena leaves him to go find Telemachus (13.439-440: ἡ μὲν ἔπειτα / ἐς Λακεδαίμονα δῖαν ἔβη μετὰ παῖδ’ ᾿Οδυσῆος.), we get a slightly different timeline for the second half of the Odyssey:

Day 1
14: Odysseus goes to Eumaios, they sleep (14.523)

15: Telemachus leaves Sparta, sleeps at Diokles’ house (Simultaneous action shown in parallel)

Day 2
15.301-494: Eumaios and Odysseus dine again and talk through most of the night

15: Telemachus bypasses Pylos for his ship,(15.296-300) (Simultaneous action shown in parallel)

Day 3
15.495-500: Telemachus arrives arrives in Ithaca and goes to Eumaios’ home (16); the suitors return from their ambush; Eumaios, Telemachus and Odysseus sleep (16)

Day 4
17: Telemachus and Odysseus go to their home separately; the suitors go home to sleep (18.427-428); Penelope sleeps (19.600-604); Odysseus sleeps (20.54-55)

Day 5
20.91: Dawn comes and the suitors return; 21: The Bow; 22: Mnesterophonia; 23.342-43: They sleep

Day 6
23.345-349 Dawn comes, Odysseus wakes and goes to see his father; the second Nekyuia; Testing of Laertes; Ithacan Assembly; Final showdown

 

Of course, thanks to a thing called “Zielinski’s Law” (see De Jong 2001, 590 for a bibliography and Cook 2009, 148 for a brief discussion) Homerists tend not to believe that Homeric narrative shows simultaneous actions…

Who is Diokles? Why do we care if the end of the Odyssey takes 6 or 7 days? Tune in next week….

Heraclitus, Parmenides and Friends go Back, Up and Down on Time

Heraclitus, Fragment 61

“The road upward and down is one and the same.”

ὁδὸς ἄνω κάτω μία καὶ ὡυτή.

Some Heraclitus references.

Parmenides, fr. 6.16

“The path of all things goes backwards.”

…πάντων δὲ παλίντροπός ἐστι κέλευθος.

Euenus (Simplicius on Aristotle’s Physics 4.221a31)

“Time is the wisest and most unteachable thing.”

σοφώτατόν τοι κἀμαθέστατον χρόνος

Seneca, De Brevitate Vitae 1.1

“We don’t have too little time, but we do waste most of it. Life is long enough for the completion of the greatest affairs—it is apportioned to us generously, if it is wholly well managed.”

non exiguum temporis habemus, sed multum perdidimus. satis longa uita et in maximarum rerum consummationem: large data est, si tota bene conlocaretur.

Diocles, fr. 14 (Photius, a247)

“Let no one of you ever long to get old.
Think instead how to die at the right time
Still young and living life well
And how not to wear on to the toothless time of life.”

μηδείς ποθ᾿ ὑμῶν, ἄνδρες, ἐπιθυμησάτω
γέρων γένεσθαι. περινοησάτω δ᾿
ὅπως νέος ὢν ἀγαθόν τι τῆ̣ ψυχῆ̣ παθὼν
ὥρᾳ καταλύσῃ μηδ᾿ ἀγόμφιόν ποτε
αἰῶνα τρίψει

Sophocles, fr. 65

“No one loves living as much as a man growing old”

τοῦ ζῆν γὰρ οὐδεὶς ὡς ὁ γηράσκων ἐρᾷ

Cicero, On Old Age 24

“No one is so old that he thinks he could not live another year”

nemo enim est tam senex qui se annum non putet poss

Euripides, fr 25

“Alas, the ancient proverb holds well:
We old men are nothing other than a sound
and an image, lurking imitations of dreams.
We have no mind and but we think we know how to think well.”

φεῦ φεῦ, παλαιὸς αἶνος ὡς καλῶς ἔχει·
γέροντες οὐδέν ἐσμεν ἄλλο πλὴν ψόφος
καὶ σχῆμ’, ὀνείρων δ’ ἕρπομεν μιμήματα·
νοῦς δ’ οὐκ ἔνεστιν, οἰόμεσθα δ’ εὖ φρονεῖν.

Democritus, fr. 296

“Old age is the perfect handicap: it has everything and lacks everything.”

γῆρας ὁλόκληρός ἐστι πήρωσις·
πάντ’ ἔχει καὶ πᾶσιν ἐνδεῖ.

Seneca, De Brevitate Vitae 1.1

“We don’t have too little time, but we do waste most of it. Life is long enough for the completion of the greatest affairs—it is apportioned to us generously, if it is wholly well managed.”

 

non exiguum temporis habemus, sed multum perdidimus. satis longa uita et in maximarum rerum consummationem: large data est, si tota bene conlocaretur.

%d bloggers like this: