The Greek Islands: A Historical Odyssey

According to Hesiod, ‘at first Chaos came to be’, but what appears now is the tranquil and picturesque waters of the Aegean. Chaos was a dark and unsettling void of darkness that the Ancient Greeks considered to be a mixture of air, water, earth, and fire. But now, the air is calm, and the water peaceful. The earth holds depths of wisdom so divine and the civilisations that developed from fire reside in a world of undying legend. Our extravagant ship sails through the islands, the summer’s sun beams down on the world, and simultaneously the two create ripples of light beneath the water. Our ship may be modern, but the history of the Greek Islands stubbornly, and inspiringly, refuses to die.

From the waters, Kalliste is simply spectacular. The white buildings the island is famous for scatter across the top of the rock walls like snow on a mountain or frosting on a cake. They shine between the earthy brown colours of the land and the bright blues of the sky, creating a postcard-perfect sight. From an altitude of 220-metres, the island of Kalliste reveals a breathtaking view that is like no other. Literally meaning ‘the most beautiful one’, Kalliste in the Ancient times was home to the Nymphs of the sea. Today the island takes the name of Santorini and, like its original name proposes, is undoubtedly one of the most stunning places on earth.

Santorini truly appears to be a real-life fairytale. However, the origin of this magical island recounts horror and devastation. What was once a single landmass is now a collection of five different islands resting in the Aegean like a deconstructed jigsaw. In the mid-second millennium BCE, these ancient islands endured one of the most catastrophic volcano eruptions in history, causing the single round island to fragment into the series of islands the world knows today. Only recently have archeologists discovered how destructive this event really was. The eruption was almost four times the magnitude as initially believed, six times the size of Mount Vesuvius’s eruption on Pompeii in 79AD, and was 40,000 times stronger than the Hiroshima bomb. The reminiscence of the Minoan Eruption of Thera has formed the mountainous walls that surround our docked ship, secluding us from the rest world, seducing us to Greek glory. In Santorini, everything is pleasantly enhanced: the whitewashed limestone buildings, the lapis lazuli waters, and the arrays of yellows, oranges, and purples that brighten the caldera at sunset.

Aside from the physical beauty of the island, Santorini offers a unique charm that, for me, emerges from the myths, history, and traditions of the Ancient World. The myth of Atlantis describes the lost paradise that was once flourishing land that suddenly vanished, sinking into the sea by the doing of the angry gods. Many believe that Santorini was once Atlantis, and as discussed by the Greek philosopher, Plato, ‘there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea’.

The settlement of Akrotiri is suggested to be a possible inspiration for Plato’s story of Atlantis. Situated in southern Santorini, Akrotiri offers an insight into the sophisticated settlements of the ancient times. The traces of the communities that once inhabited this lost world are still visible to this day. Journeying through the quarries of Akrotiri and walking between the stone field-walls takes you back in time to when the land was prosperous, the Greek Gods and Goddesses were worshipped, and when the deadly wrath of the Thera volcano was only a distant fear.

The Greek Islands are the stepping-stones to thousands of years of history, and as we sail deeper through the islands, I am being drawn more and more into the ancient charm. In an idyllic landscape in the western Peloponnese rests the ever-famous Olympia. Surrounded by a pine-wooded vale and flourishing with lilac Judas trees, the birthplace of the Olympics feels sacred, yet distinctively powerful. On the acropolis of Mycenae in the original Greek capital, Nafplion, lays Agamemnon’s castle, demanding to prevail. The limestone cyclopean walls have endured centuries of war, yet they continue to stand tall. Walking through the Lion Gate takes you back in time to the era of the Trojan War and to the home of the eminent Helen of Troy. A trip through these stepping-stones really is a historical, yet modern, odyssey in itself. In Homer’s Odyssey, heroic Odysseus takes us on a journey home to Ithaca from Troy after the Trojan War. As we sail through the waters of Scylla and Charybdis and sail past Aeaea, the home of the witch-goddess, Circe, we are following Odysseus in his footsteps, though only in ten days instead of ten years.

Grubby, not gorgeous. Ruling, not remote. Athens is a city where antiquity encounters the present and where traditions connect with modern life. With every glimpse, we discover a multi-layered social and historical city, covered in graffiti and intertwined with urbanity. There is a distinctive, yet impalpable, scent that immediately brings Athens vividly to mind: a mixture of the suburban smells of the port, the ancient limestone structures, the antique smell of the shops, and the fuel exhausts of the many vehicles on the road. Garbage is piling up, and tempers are rising in Athens. ‘The garbage collectors are on strike,’ our tour guide, Katerina, groans whilst pointing to the rubbish lining the streets and shaking her head. Athenians are loyal and passionate about their city, and with a story so inspiring and their home being the center of Greek civilisation for some 4,000 years, I almost wish I could call myself an ‘Athenian’.

Beyond the urban sprawl and the pollution stands the acropolis of Athens – the apple of the city’s eye. Surrounding the acropolis are humble caves where air, earth, and fire have met to share an eternal sleep. Walking up the intriguing pathways to the top of the Sacred Rock creates a sense of solitude, unlike the neighbouring city. Hundreds of olive trees seclude us from the hustle and the bustle of the streets, surrounding us with their protection; much like the protection Athena has provided the city with for thousands of years. The olive tree was a present from the goddess Athena, the city’s patron, in a time of rivalry on the brink of war. Where Poseidon offered the citizens a frothy spring of salty water with a thump of his trident, Athena planted a much more valuable gift. There, she granted the Athenians with olives as sustenance, a source of oil, as well as wood for building houses and boats.

At the top of the Sacred Rock is an ensemble of grand temples, and shining bright is the most striking structure of the Ancient World. Simple, balanced, and orderly, the Parthenon is the apotheosis of ancient Greek architecture. The combination of experience, wisdom, and human effort from generations is crystalised in the Parthenon – the culminating architectural achievement of ancient Greek spirit. It took only nine years for the Greeks to build such a monument, but repairing it is taking much longer. The Parthenon has been shaken by earthquakes, set on fire, blown up with gunpowder, and ransacked for its sculptures. The Greeks are renowned for their architecture, and the Parthenon’s faultless proportions and balance make it deserving of a place in the Wonders of the World. From afar, the Parthenon seems completely straight and symmetrical. In reality, however, not any one of the columns is entirely straight or parallel. On one side, the Parthenon is covered in scaffolding, and on the other is a burst of creams, browns, and greys. Although the limestone is chipped and the roof is no longer intact, there is an overpowering the presence of the anthropomorphic statues that once decorated the Parthenon.

From just over 150-meters high, the view from the acropolis is remarkable. The city sprawls as far as the eye can see, and you almost feel like a deity overlooking the world. From here, the Theatre of Dionysus is entirely visible and I am only left wishing I was sitting in the audience, watching as Euripides took the concept of Greek drama to an entirely new level. The theatre holds such depths of joy and education and is home to the ghosts of many innovative playwrights. I remember my high school Classics teacher, Mrs. Thursby, once saying ‘the Classical Greeks were so thoughtful and sensitive to what it is to be human, and so their stories, their literature, and their drama has formed a basis for much of our literature today’. Her words jump out at me instantly as I observe the theatre where the classical playwrights taught the world of morals, Dionysian rituals, the gods and the heroes, and what it truly means to be human.

To this day, the city of Athens continues to present an aura of the Ancient Greeks who reached their peak almost 2,500 years ago. The acropolis is truly magical, crowning the old towns that rose from prehistoric grey concrete. Some of the world’s greatest museums, the first modern Olympic arena, and the pedestrian-friendly streets are all in view from the summit of Athens. You can feel the pride of the gods and the civilians meeting in the middle, sparking to ignite the Sacred Rock.

On the exterior, the Greece is a magical and striking slice of paradise that entices us to value the present. The hearts of the islands, however, inspire us to appreciate the lost world and the legends of the past.

Words and Image by Adrienne Goode

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