A Sudden Burst Changes the Landscape

Looking down from the steps of the Parthenon, you might imagine how grand the Acropolis and its temples must have looked 2000 years ago before the modern world shamed Athens with concrete apartment blocks, inelegant roads, and a plume of smog that has gnawed at the marble since the automobile was introduced. Worse than the damned Venetian navy.

If you’ve been to Mycenae where the view dwarfs you among mountains, valleys, olive groves, a further ridge of mountains, and the occasional meandering farmer’s path through the orchards, you could impose that memory’s image on Athens.

But Pergamon, high on its acropolis, looks out over a city of 60,000, hills both high and low, distant mountains, a reservoir, and an undulating plain that stretches, you’d guess, from here to Ethiopia. As it is, it must ever have been, you’d think. But 2000 years ago Pergamon was a coastal city, one where Marc Antony bought a great library for Cleopatra’s birthday and sent it to Alexandria by water. An eon of silt has intervened, and now Pergamon is 16 miles inland from the Aegean. The lower hills and the plains comprised the ocean floor while only the tallest hills emerged from the water as islands.  So look at the pictures below and change them utterly in your imagination. Turn the bronzed soil and the green of the olive groves into the perfect Mediterranean blue one sends to Santorini for. (After writing this paragraph, I learned of a photography project by a historian called Jo Teeuwisse. She has superimposed ghost-like images of WWII soldiers on the contemporary French sites where the shots were first taken. You can find her work at http://goo/g/2FOHs.)

Smaller tour buses trundle up the narrow ribbon to the top. Most of us take the perpetual motion cable car. No attendant, no instructions. You ride an elevator from the ticket booth to the cable car entrance. The cars come down from the top, begin a slow circle, open their doors, wait obligingly for you to figure out the system, complete the circle, close the doors, and launch out for the several hundred meter ride. Winds are strong. A few years ago, a car was blown off its rail and some tourists died.

Now it’s all politeness: a bus of German tourists and another of Japanese collided and renewed an old alliance. Most inefficiently, they bowed, scraped, smiled, and gestured, each waiting for the other to get in the damned car and sit down and shut up while I’m trying to read this guide book in the damnedest fractured English because they’ve sold out of the Deutsche. Given this display of manners, half a busload of Hong Kongers were aboard the cars in a flash between the last Bitte and the first Arigato.

The archeological site is vast; perhaps centuries, if humankind has so long, will see the job of revealing Pergamon’s past lives completed. We, of course, see the remains of the whole, of the last iteration, of the anti-evolution of the city as if it were all created at once. It’s like the way we look at stars in the constellations. We see the whole of Orion’s Belt or Cassiopeia and never consider that the stars do not lie in an even plane. That star in the Dipper’s handle may be a million light years deeper in space than its fellow in the cup. Seeing such an image in three dimensions would alter the experience altogether and mystify our mythologies completely. And yet we look at Pergamon as if we were seeing it ‘of a piece.’ But put on these historical eyes: the Temple of Zeus sits on a level quite lower than the Temple of Athena above. Athena’s temple base coincides with the top row of the great theatre (which sat 10,000, which is the steepest theatre in the ancient world, and which would induce, in the highest seats, nose bleeds in an astronaut). The highest-ranking temple memorializes a different god, Trajan, the Roman emperor who, in ungodlike fashion, died before the building was complete. So Hadrian (remember “Hey, Hadrian, come ‘ere” from an earlier post?) finished the job for him. The hierarchies are striking, and they are sequential. Honor Zeus first, and then work your way up through the Athenian wisdom you wish to emulate, and then get on with the political business at hand. And if you have to savage an earlier temple to strengthen the substructure of the new, so be it. Zeus’ll never know.

The Zeus temple has attracted two other interesting tidbits: first, the colossal staircase and altar of the Zeus Temple struck early Christians as such monstrous, overweening, arrogant paganism that they declared the altar Satan’s Throne and Satan’s Home on Earth. Considering that the church at Pergamon is also one of the Seven Churches in Asia to which John the Divine sent his Book of Revelation, maybe the Satan’s Throne charge is severe. After all, Christ sent John the address list of the seven churches in a vision. The second tidbit: the German archeologists responsible for so much of the work here arranged with the Turkish government to transport the entire staircase and altar to Germany where it now stands, in much glory, in as much glory as the Elgin marbles in London, in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Oh, to have it back! Or to lay the photograph of a visit to Berlin over this real ground near the lip of the cliff overlooking the olive grove—no, the sea coast—rising to that island—no, that cypress-strewn mountain. Then one would, above all things love to say, standing next to her, ‘Look, Elizabeth, dearest of mothers, look here.”  “I see it,” she says and shades her eyes against the October sunset, and I take that photograph in a mind’s eye that would love to have taken that photograph, under Hadrian’s laughter.

How fast antiquity captures us.

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