Saturday, June 04, 2005

Under Mount Olympus

As a child obsessed with Greek mythology, I dreamed of seeing Mount Olympus for myself. Twenty years later, walking among the ancient temples at Dion at the foot of Olympus, I could see why the ancients considered the site to be divine. On the day we visited, the air smelled of thyme and mint. Clusters of red poppies grew on top of the ruins; electric-blue and -green dragonflies landed and spread their wings just long enough to tease the eye. Large frogs leapt in and out of the water around Aphrodite's temple, making a low cackle I had never heard frogs make before -- and I suddenly realised that this was Aristophanes' 'Brekekekex.' (You can hear the frogs' call for yourself on this page.)

Since the purpose of our tour was to look at Byzantine buildings, it's ironic that my favourite parts took place outdoors. Besides Dion, the highlights of the trip for me were visits to Aristotle's birthplace at
Stageira (still being excavated, and as yet very un-touristic) and a cruise round Mount Athos.

And the churches and monasteries? I shouldn't admit it, but Orthodox churches all look the same to me. The only time the art captured my interest was when it seemed to deviate from the normal style. For example, in one of the monasteries at
Meteora, a section of the wall painting showed Adam naming the animals: the surprisingly realistic elephant and monkey (as well as a somewhat less realistic dragon!) looked delightfully whimsical among the wooden-faced saints. The Church of Prophetes Elias had an unusually expressive icon of Elijah looking lost in thought, as if waiting to hear the Lord in the breeze. In a church dedicated to St Marina, an icon showed the saint about to strike the Devil, a laughing, gesticulating silhouette that came up to her knee. The image was startling and reminded me of another Marina -- Tsvetaeva -- and her own supposed encounter with the Devil.

Although I tried hard to understand what the icons and wall paintings meant to Eastern Christians, I could find no opening into their spiritual world. In fact, when I went for a walk in Thessaloniki and came across what appeared to be the city's only Catholic church, it was a relief - a homecoming - to see Western religious imagery again. Entirely my fault, of course, not the East's.


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