The Ancients Fasted to say these things
The “feribot” to Chios, Greece from Turkey spews a cloud of black smoke into the blue Autumnal sky. My friends and I sit huddled on the aft deck where the noise of the engine drowns out our ipods. The first rays of sun warm the deck and we sit huddled there, anticipatory grins on our faces. The dark smoke from the sputtering engine billows up into the sky and dissipates against a backdrop of clouds and marine birds.
This is my first time to Greece, but many of my co-workers are familiar with the place. “We go there all the time. We have family over there” they say. There is very little ill will or resentment in their voices when they speak of the history between the Greeks and the Turks. “That was a long time ago” says my friend whose name in Turkish means “favorite courtesan of the red-light-district.” But at the same time, there is a distinct tension. Downtown in Izmir there is a statue of Ataturk expelling the last of the Greeks and all of the rest of the “foreign invaders” after World War 1. The history hangs like smoke from an ashtray.
We disembark under a banner of unfamiliar lettering. The math teacher in the group knows the names of the Greek symbols and announces them as the officials lazily slap our thickened passports with an inky insignia. I recognize only “kappa” and “gamma” because those were the symbols I knew from my girlfriend’s sorority in college. We begin walking and the first sight that catches my eye is an old military bunker right next to a row of businesses. It is crumbling from disuse, but the symbol is clear. “Stay out” it says. But as Oscar Wilde reminds us “those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.” I glimpse what might be a coffee shop in the distance and move on without taking a photo.
We plod along the waterfront esplanande which is decorated and substantially improved with expensive stone-work. At once it is clear that deficit spending has at least been kind to public works. A café beckons, and we slump into wicker chairs to enjoy an espresso. It’s notable for what it’s not—it’s not Turk Kahve, that sludgy cowboy-coffee-on-crack beverage which we chew several times per day. The wireless network at the café informs me that nearby there is a UNESCO heritage sight, an 11th century monastery knows for its tile mosaics. We rent a scooter and motor up there.
The monastery is closed until the late afternoon, so we trudge up the hill for a view of the ocean, and Turkey, our home for the next few years, in the distance. A fire has swept up the hillside, cracking the ancient limestone, once a sea floor now uplifted, burned, blackened and cracked. Charred trees stand like actors in a tableau of the wastelands after a horrific war. The air is still but the occasional breeze rattles through the stand of snags and shakes branches upheld like angry arthritic fists to the sky, cursing a now absent deity. Our feet shuffle over charcoal and the trail beneath or feet crunches and creaks, the landscape a dead memory. Ruins dot the hillside where once stood the houses of monks and shepherds. My friend motions me over to a crumbling edifice and motions for me to poke my head inside an enclosure.
At first I’m not sure that what I’m seeing is real. Through a hole no bigger than a book cover, I peer inside at a row of objects in the darkness. My eyes adjust to the light and I step back when I realize that they are human skulls piled on top of one another and lit by a faint candle. At first my reaction is to try to play a joke on a friend, but it doesn’t take long for my heart to settle into its questioning routine. What was the story behind these deaths, and more relevant still what rhetorical machinations can explain the need for these morbid skulls to be on display here?
A hike up the hill allows my mind to settle a little, but the footsteps plodding is a noise like Poe’s “Tell Tale Heart.” It seems that nothing lives here—no birds, no insects, no noises except for those which come from ourselves within this coffin of a silent world.
The hilltop brings us to a more modern monastery where a bearded monk with a Rasputin look slouches and sweeps the dust of the afternoon away from the empty doorstep. I reach up to pluck a dried fig from the branches above my head but find that the fruit has dessicated away in the summer hilltop heat and the fig crunches and becomes inedible grainy sand in my palm. The monks eye us suspicisuly as we reach for the borrowed clothes that visitors use to cover themselves out of respect for the observant. An eerie pall descends and a few photos of a half bnurned tree satiate the urge for further meanderings. We slide down the scree back toward the rented 50 cc motorcycle.
On the way out a man points to a door and we step inside the old cathedral which has cracks running down its supports from an age old earthquake. More skulls—this time inside a glass case that informs us—in many languages for the foreign visitor—of the cruelties of the long ago Ottoman Empire. The sign informs us that an estimated 80,000 occupants of Chios were slaughtered by the Ottomans as a wave of anti-Turkish rebellion swept across far flung islands formerly belonging to Greece. These are their skulls.
The Turks left the hillsides burned. Tales circulate around the island like ocean currents of the women and children who leapt off cliffs to avoid capture. The Sultan enslaved many of those who were left to work in the mastic farms. Mastic is sold now in the convenience stores in the form of peculiar tasting chewing gum. The firebranded hills tell of the roots of these trees which leeched the soil of their nutrients and now are bare, the hills framed through the halo of burned out sunlight. Prometheus, who stole fire from the Gods and was sentenced to having his liver eaten repeatedly by an Eagle, left this fire, this martian landscape. And we have knowledge; we suffer. The Greeks have a saying—“the ancients fasted to say these things”—and some choose to ensure that this suffering is not forgotten.
We mount the scooter and glide down the hill. My passenger and I are having pleasant conversation as the last lights fade to the west over the hills, and beyond that the sea; we are talking of a road-trip down the California coast. My mind is there, and then suddenly around a hairpin corner we are on the ground. The violence of the crash is over quickly, brain synapses firing all too rapidly make time slow as we check for injuries. Mine a chafed elbow in a borrowed sweater and hers a ruined pantleg and a painful knee. Strangely a hollow and haunted sense invades me and I feel nervous, as if the next danger is right around the corner. We are not safe in these harbors.
I sleep to troubled dreams, but a coffee on the sunlit porch is a welcome start to the morning. Breakfast brings us to the village of Pyrgi, a medieval town which is famous for narrow alleyways which were built for defense against Ottoman Turks and pirates. The alleyways are reputedly so mazelike that invaders would be led into corners where they could be easily attacked. We drive past cottages, farmhouses, desiccated bushes, parched beasts of burden and the strange walls of Pyrgi come into view. The walls are painted with otherworldly designs called Xysta which are created by applying black sand to the walls of buildings, covering it with plaster which is then painted white. The artist or homeowner will then use a scraping tool to carve geometric designs out of the white plaster so that the appearance is a black etching atop white background. The designs are oddly symmetrical and eerily perfect.
We sit in a center courtyard and order a pizza from a friendly Greek named Costas who blasts Metallica from a room behind the brick wood-burning oven. He is jovial and friendly and soon brings what is easily the best pizza I have tasted in years. We devour, and as the check is paid and we are getting ready to leave, we strike up a conversation. He asks if we got a chance to look at the town, and I said that I did and that I noticed the narrow alleyways.
“Those are for the pirates.”
“And by ‘pirates’ do you mean Turks?”
As this query comes out of my mouth it instantly occurs to me that I have asked too much, overstepped the boundaries of our relationship. The idiom in Turkish is “kishinin bashina gelen agzindan chikandir” which means “what a man suffers is the outcome of what goes out of his mouth.” I see a change in Costas’ face, and he gets defensive.
“I don’t believe in that stuff man. I’ve got kids. I think of the future for them. What kind of world am I bringing them into? Do I want to raise them to hate other people? To think of the past? I live for them; I live for what comes next.”
His answer shocked me as it bespoke opinions far deeper than were warranted by the question. I smiled and shook his hand as the rest of my group was readying themselves for departure.
We wind around bends on treacherous sandy roads again, slow, slow. Past the cliffs where the women jumped, past the dimly lit bone filled museum, past the vacant vast golden beaches and the sunsets of the ages, the 50 cc “dink” bears us onward. We pass the old barracks and the bastions of the defense that once was and are oceanbound again to Turkey.
Later I asked a Turkish colleague. What’s a saying that has to do with conflict? She thinks for a moment and says “Ish amana binince kavga uzamaz” –When one side surrenders, the fight is over.