Wednesday, 24 June 2009

The Lovely Stones, by Christopher Hitchens

The essay below by Christopher Hitchens on the Parthenon, the new Acropolis Museum and the issue of the return to Greece from Britain of the Parthenon Marbles appears in the July issue of Vanity Fair. Hitchens is a long-time critic of Britain's refusal to repatriate the marbles – Hitchens calls Britain's arguments for keeping them in London 'boring' and 'constipated' – and, indeed, he has written a book on the subject, The Elgin Marbles: should they be returned to Greece?

The great classicist A. W. Lawrence (illegitimate younger brother of the even more famously illegitimate T.E. 'of Arabia') once remarked of the Parthenon that it is 'the one building in the world which may be assessed as absolutely right'. I was considering this thought the other day as I stood on top of the temple with Maria Ioannidou, the dedicated director of the Acropolis Restoration Service, and watched the workshop that lay below and around me.

Everywhere there were craftsmen and -women, toiling to get the Parthenon and its sister temples ready for viewing by the public this summer. There was the occasional whine of a drill and groan of a crane, but otherwise this was the quietest construction site I have ever seen – or, rather, heard. Putting the rightest, or most right, building to rights means that the workers must use marble from a quarry in the same mountain as the original one, that they must employ old-fashioned chisels to carve, along with traditional brushes and twigs, and that they must study and replicate the ancient Lego-like marble joints with which the master builders of antiquity made it all fit miraculously together.

Don’t let me blast on too long about how absolutely heart-stopping the brilliance of these people was. But did you know, for example, that the Parthenon forms, if viewed from the sky, a perfect equilateral triangle with the Temple of Aphaea, on the island of Aegina, and the Temple of Poseidon, at Cape Sounion? Did you appreciate that each column of the Parthenon makes a very slight inward incline, so that if projected upward into space they would eventually steeple themselves together at a symmetrical point in the empyrean? The 'rightness' is located somewhere between the beauty of science and the science of beauty.

With me on my tour was Nick Papandreou, son and grandson of prime ministers and younger brother of the Socialist opposition leader, who reminded me that the famously fluted columns are made not of single marble shafts but of individually carved and shaped 'drums', many of them still lying around looking to be re-assembled. On his last visit, he found a graffito on the open face of one such. A certain Xanthias, probably from Thrace, had put his name there, not thinking it would ever be seen again once the next drum was joined on. Then it surfaced after nearly 2,500 years, to be briefly glimpsed (by men and women who still speak and write a version of Xanthias’s tongue) before being lost to view once more, this time for good. On the site, a nod of respect went down the years, from one proud Greek worker to another.

The original construction of the Parthenon involved what I call Periclean Keynesianism: the city needed to recover from a long and ill-fought war against Persia and needed also to give full employment (and a morale boost) to the talents of its citizens. Over tremendous conservative opposition, Pericles in or about the year 450 BC pushed through the Athenian Assembly a sort of stimulus package which proposed a labor-intensive reconstruction of what had been lost or damaged in the Second Persian War. As Plutarch phrases it in his Pericles:

'The house-and-home contingent, no whit less than the sailors and sentinels and soldiers, might have a pretext for getting a beneficial share of the public wealth. The materials to be used were stone, bronze, ivory, gold, ebony and cypress-wood; the arts which should elaborate and work up these materials were those of carpenter, molder, bronze-smith, stone-cutter, dyer, veneerer in gold and ivory, painter, embroiderer, embosser, to say nothing of the forwarders and furnishers of the material It came to pass that for every age almost, and every capacity, the city’s great abundance was distributed and shared by such demands.'

When we think of Athens in the fifth century BC, we think chiefly of the theater of Euripides and Sophocles and of philosophy and politics – specifically democratic politics, of the sort that saw Pericles repeatedly re-elected in spite of complaints that he was overspending. And it’s true that Antigone was first performed as the Parthenon was rising, and Medea not all that long after the temple was finished. From drama to philosophy: Socrates himself was also a stonemason and sculptor, and it seems quite possible that he too took part in raising the edifice. So Greece might have something to teach us about the arts of recovery as well. As the author of The Stones of Athens, R. E. Wycherley, puts it:

'In some sense, the Parthenon must have been the work of a committee It was the work of the whole Athenian people, not merely because hundreds of them had a hand in building it, but because the assembly was ultimately responsible, confirmed appointments, and sanctioned and scrutinized the expenditure of every drachma.'

I have visited many of the other great monuments of antiquity, from Luxor and Karnak and the pyramids to Babylon and Great Zimbabwe, and their magnificence is always compromised by the realization that slaves did the heavy lifting and they were erected to show who was boss. The Parthenon is unique because, though ancient Greece did have slavery to some extent, its masterpiece also represents the willing collective work of free people. And it is open to the light and to the air: 'accessible,' if you like, rather than dominating. So that to its rightness you could tentatively add the concept of 'rights', as Periclean Greeks began dimly to formulate them for the first time.

Not that the beauty and symmetry of the Parthenon have not been abused and perverted and mutilated. Five centuries after the birth of Christianity the Parthenon was closed and desolated. It was then 'converted' into a Christian church, before being transformed a thousand years later into a mosque – complete with minaret at the southwest corner – after the Turkish conquest of the Byzantine Empire. Turkish forces also used it for centuries as a garrison and an arsenal, with the tragic result that in 1687, when Christian Venice attacked the Ottoman Turks, a powder magazine was detonated and huge damage inflicted on the structure. Most horrible of all, perhaps, the Acropolis was made to fly a Nazi flag during the German occupation of Athens. I once had the privilege of shaking the hand of Manolis Glezos, the man who climbed up and tore the swastika down, thus giving the signal for a Greek revolt against Hitler.

The damage done by the ages to the building, and by past empires and occupations, cannot all be put right. But there is one desecration and dilapidation that can at least be partially undone. Early in the 19th century, Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Lord Elgin, sent a wrecking crew to the Turkish-occupied territory of Greece, where it sawed off approximately half of the adornment of the Parthenon and carried it away. As with all things Greek, there were three elements to this, the most lavish and beautiful sculptural treasury in human history. Under the direction of the artistic genius Phidias, the temple had two massive pediments decorated with the figures of Pallas Athena, Poseidon, and the gods of the sun and the moon. It then had a series of 92 high-relief panels, or metopes, depicting a succession of mythical and historical battles. The most intricate element was the frieze, carved in bas-relief, which showed the gods, humans, and animals that made up the annual Pan-Athens procession: there were 192 equestrian warriors and auxiliaries featured, which happens to be the exact number of the city’s heroes who fell at the Battle of Marathon. Experts differ on precisely what story is being told here, but the frieze was quite clearly carved as a continuous narrative. Except that half the cast of the tale is still in Bloomsbury, in London, having been sold well below cost by Elgin to the British government in 1816 for $2.2 million in today’s currency to pay off his many debts. (His original scheme had been to use the sculptures to decorate Broomhall, his rain-sodden ancestral home in Scotland, in which case they might never have been seen again).

Ever since Lord Byron wrote his excoriating attacks on Elgin’s colonial looting, first in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812) and then in The Curse of Minerva (1815), there has been a bitter argument about the legitimacy of the British Museum’s deal. I’ve written a whole book about this controversy and won’t oppress you with all the details, but would just make this one point. If the Mona Lisa had been sawed in two during the Napoleonic Wars and the separated halves had been acquired by different museums in, say, St. Petersburg and Lisbon, would there not be a general wish to see what they might look like if re-united? If you think my analogy is overdrawn, consider this: the body of the goddess Iris is at present in London, while her head is in Athens. The front part of the torso of Poseidon is in London, and the rear part is in Athens. And so on. This is grotesque.

To that essentially aesthetic objection the British establishment has made three replies. The first is, or was, that return of the marbles might set a 'precedent' that would empty the world’s museum collections. The second is that more people can see the marbles in London. The third is that the Greeks have nowhere to put or display them. The first is easily disposed of: the Greeks don’t want anything else returned to them and indeed hope to have more, rather than less, Greek sculpture displayed in other countries. And there is in existence no court or authority to which appeals on precedent can be made. (Anyway, who exactly would be making such an appeal? The Aztecs? The Babylonians? The Hittites? Greece’s case is a one-off – quite individual and unique). As to the second: Melina Mercouri’s husband, the late movie director and screenwriter Jules Dassin, told a British parliamentary committee in 2000 that by the standard of mass viewership the sculptures should all be removed from Athens and London and exhibited in Beijing. After these frivolous and boring objections have been dealt with, we are left with the third and serious one, which is what has brought me back to Athens. Where should the treasures be safeguarded and shown?

It is unfortunately true that the city allowed itself to become very dirty and polluted in the 20th century, and as a result the remaining sculptures and statues on the Parthenon were nastily eroded by 'acid rain'. And it’s also true that the museum built on the Acropolis in the 19th century, a trifling place of a mere 1,450 square meters, was pathetically unsuited to the task of housing or displaying the work of Phidias. But gradually and now impressively, the Greeks have been living up to their responsibilities. Beginning in 1992, the endangered marbles were removed from the temple, given careful cleaning with ultraviolet and infra-red lasers, and placed in a climate-controlled interior. Alas, they can never all be repositioned on the Parthenon itself, because, though the atmospheric pollution is now better controlled, Lord Elgin’s goons succeeded in smashing many of the entablatures that held the sculptures in place. That leaves us with the next-best thing, which turns out to be rather better than one had hoped.

About a thousand feet southeast of the temple, the astonishing new Acropolis Museum will open on June 20. With 10 times the space of the old repository, it will be able to display all the marvels that go with the temples on top of the hill. Most important, it will be able to show, for the first time in centuries, how the Parthenon sculptures looked to the citizens of old.

Arriving excitedly for my preview of the galleries, I was at once able to see what had taken the Greeks so long. As with everywhere else in Athens, if you turn over a spade or unleash a drill you uncover at least one layer of a previous civilization. (Building a metro for the Olympics in 2004 was a protracted if fascinating nightmare for this very reason). The new museum, built to the design of the French-Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi, has had to be mounted aboveground on 100 huge reinforced-concrete pillars, which allow you to survey the remnants of villas, drains, bathhouses, and mosaics of the recently unearthed neighborhood below. Much of the ground floor is made of glass so that natural light filters down to these excavations and gives the effect of transparency throughout. But don’t look down for too long. Raise your eyes and you will be given an arresting view of the Parthenon, from a building that has been carefully aligned to share its scale and perspective with the mother ship.

I was impatient to be the first author to see the remounted figures and panels and friezes. Professor Dimitrios Pandermalis, the head of the museum, took me to the top-floor gallery and showed me the concentric arrangement whereby the sculpture of the pediment is nearest the windows, the high-relief metopes are arranged above head height (they are supposed to be seen from below), and finally the frieze is running at eye level along the innermost wall. At any time, you can turn your head to look up and across at the architectural context for which the originals were so passionately carved. At last it will be possible to see the building and its main artifacts in one place and on one day.

The British may continue in their constipated fashion to cling to what they have so crudely amputated, but the other museums and galleries of Europe have seen the artistic point of re-unification and restored to Athens what was looted in the years when Greece was defenseless. Professor Pandermalis proudly showed me an exquisite marble head, of a youth shouldering a tray, that fits beautifully into panel No. 5 of the north frieze. It comes courtesy of the collection of the Vatican. Then there is the sculpted foot of the goddess Artemis, from the frieze that depicts the assembly of Olympian gods, by courtesy of the Salinas Museum, in Palermo. From Heidelberg comes another foot, this time of a young man playing a lyre, and it fits in nicely with the missing part on panel No. 8. Perhaps these acts of cultural generosity, and tributes to artistic wholeness, could 'set a precedent', too?

The Acropolis Museum has hit on the happy idea of exhibiting, for as long as following that precedent is too much to hope for, its own original sculptures with the London-held pieces represented by beautifully copied casts. This has two effects: It allows the visitor to follow the frieze round the four walls of a core 'cella' and see the sculpted tale unfold (there, you suddenly notice, is the 'lowing heifer' from Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn). And it creates a natural thirst to see the actual re-assembly completed. So, far from emptying or weakening a museum, this controversy has instead created another one, which is destined to be among Europe’s finest galleries. And one day, surely, there will be an agreement to do the right thing by the world’s most 'right' structure.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Four Greek American artists

Sceptre: William Baziotes

I’ve been taking an interest in the works of four Greek American artists, all heavily influenced by surrealism, abstract expressionism and, of course, their Greek heritage. The four are:

William Baziotes (1912-1963)
Theodore Stamos (1922-1997)
Michael Lekakis (1907-1988)
Thomas Chimes (1921-2009)

Below are some of their works. It’s worth pointing out that Baziotes was probably the most renowned of the four, though Chimes also enjoyed a considerable reputation. Chimes is also noteworthy for his fascination with French writer Albert Jarry – the creator of the absurdist pseudo-philosophy of ‘pataphysics’ – and Franco-Greek playwright Antonin Artaud. Stamos was deeply influenced by Greek mythology and philosophy and after a scandal involving the estate of his close friend Mark Rothko, he spent more and more time in Greece, particularly on the island of Lefkada, his ancestral homeland. Lekakis, predominantly a sculptor, whose father was a flower seller in New York, said that he developed his sense of form through his knowledge of flowers and flower arranging and his sense of form and space through studying and practising Greek dance. Chimes credits Lekakis with being his mentor. The two met at an airforce base in South Carolina in 1941. Chimes had been drafted into the services, while Lekakis was teaching a course in camouflage.

William Baziotes




Theodore Stamos

Aegean Sun Box


Infinity Field

Delphic Shibboleth

Michael Lekakis




Thomas Chimes

Portrait of Alfred Jarry

Portraits of Antonin Artaud


Monday, 15 June 2009

Κατά την χώραν Κύπρον Σκαιών

Above is a quality video (in Greek) made in 1998 on the state of some of Turkish-occupied Cyprus' most important cities, towns, villages and cultural monuments, including Kyrenia, Lapithos, Nicosia, Bellapais, St Hilarion, Rizokarpaso, the monastery of Apostolos Andreas, Engomi, Salamina, the monastery of Apostolos Varnavas, Lythrangomi, the church of Panayia Kanakaria, and Ammochostos.

It's worth remembering that since the documentary was made 10 years ago, Turkish attempts to eradicate the overwhelmingly Greek character of northern Cyprus have intensified. More and more Turkish settlers have been dumped on the island, as have other foreigners – mostly British – who have taken over land and properties belonging to Greeks forced out by the Turkish invaders.

The title of the documentary – Κατά την χώραν Κύπρον Σκαιών – refers to a work by the 12th century Cypriot saint, St Neophytos the Recluse, which describes the depredations the island suffered under the rebel Byzantine governor Isaac Komnenos and, subsequently, the invading Westerners who seized the island during the Third Crusade in 1191.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

How dependent is the Cyprus economy on Russia?

Below is a report by Fiona Mullen that appeared on the Cyprus business news site Financial Mirror, which seeks to put Russo-Cyprus economic ties in perspective and asserts that the reason the Cypriot economy has managed to be the only one in the EU to maintain positive growth is because of increased government spending.

The Cyprus economy has been undergoing a silent transformation over the past few years as the relative importance of the tourism sector declines and the relative importance of the business sector increases. In 2008, balance-of-payments income from travel (mainly tourism revenue) amounted EUR 1.9 billion or 11% of GDP, down from 18% of GDP in 1998. By contrast, income from 'other business services', around half of which comprises accounting and legal services, reached EUR 1.4 billion, or 8.2% of GDP, up from 7% in 1998.

Much of the accounting and legal services business comes from Russian nationals. However, during this global financial crisis, questions have now been raised about how vulnerable Cyprus is to a downturn in the Russian economy. This is an important question, because real GDP growth in Russia contracted by 9.5% year on year in the first quarter; forecasts for the year range from a contraction of between 5% and 7.5%.

Unfortunately, obtaining hard data on Russian business is difficult. First, there is the matter of definitions. For example, balance-of-payments data show that Russian investment in real estate accounted for 7.3% of total inward direct investment in real estate in 2006 (much lower than the 76.0% recorded for the UK). However, these figures do not include real estate purchases made by a Russian national resident in Limassol, for example. It is possible, therefore, that the Russian market is rather larger.

Another approach might be to look at the nationality of depositors at the banks. Central Bank data show that bank deposits of non-EU non-residents amounted to EUR 16.4 billion in February 2009, equivalent to around 28% of total deposits. If we knew the nationality of those depositors, we could assess the vulnerability of Cyprus to specific markets such as Russia. Alas, although the commercial banks gather this data, the Central Bank of Cyprus does not make it available. 
One statistic that we do have is tourism. Russians are now the second largest tourism market after the UK, but come a distant second at 7.5% of all tourists in 2008 compared with 51.7% for the UK.

Thus, in order to arrive at an idea of the dependence of the Cyprus economy on the Russian market the economist must turn, with a heavy heart, to anecdotal evidence. Discussions with professionals from the banking, business services and real estate sectors suggest the following.

First, that Russian deposits account for as much as 66% of all non-resident deposits. Notwithstanding changes in residency definitions which led to some to report in error that the Russian deposit base was falling, it has in fact remained stable during the financial crisis. Russian deposits can therefore be estimated at around EUR 11 billion.

Second, Russian nationals account for around 20% of foreign real estate sales, which in turn are around 20% of the real estate market. Thus, Russians account for about 4% of the total real estate market. The real estate market was worth EUR 2.5 billion in 2007 in gross output terms, therefore the annual Russian real estate market might be valued at EUR 100 million.

Third, Russian business reportedly accounts for 'the vast majority' of accounting and legal services business. On the assumption that this means around 80%, Russian accounting and legal services may amount to around EUR 560 million each year.

The same sources suggest that after a bumper 2008, the Russian market is in rapid retreat: the Russian market for real estate and accounting and legal services could be down by as much as 50% this year. Tourism arrivals also fell in April for the first time in over two years.

This suggests that for the first time in many years, the three major sectors in Cyprus – tourism, real estate and business services – may be contracting. It is hardly surprising therefore, that unemployment has risen more quickly in March-April than at any time in recent history.

But it also begs the question why the Cypriot economy still scraped a tiny growth rate of 0.01% compared with the previous quarter according to the flash estimate for January-March. The full figures are not yet out, but no doubt we shall see that the only reason why the economy has remained afloat these past two quarters is government spending.

Perhaps the best measure of the dependence of the economy on the Russian market, therefore, will be the size of this year’s budget deficit.

Friday, 5 June 2009

EOKA forever

On 3 June, at a ceremony in Nicosia the well-known Cypriot journalist Lazaros Mavros was recognised by the Memorial Council for the EOKA Struggle 1955-1959 for his contribution to the council's goals. In accepting the distinction, Mavros had this to say (my translation, see article in Greek here):

EOKA is not museums, monuments, memorial services, books, articles, radio and television programmes, ceremonies and events. EOKA, first of all and above all, then, now and for always, is, was and will remain forever: the duty to liberate our homeland.

EOKA is King Onesilos in 499BC and the Battle of Marathon in 490BC.

EOKA is Thermopylae, Salamina and Plataea in 480BC.

EOKA is Kimon, who 'even in death was victorious'.

EOKA is Constantine Paleologos in 1453: 'we have all decided to die and we shall not spare our lives'.

EOKA is the rebirth in 1821, Pavlos Melas and the Macedonian fighters, the Balkan Liberation Wars 1912-13 and the mayor of Limassol Christodoulos Sozos, who died fighting in Epirus at the Battle of Bizani.

EOKA is the Asia Minor campaign in 1919, the 'Thirty Times Greeks' [Τραντέλλενες] from Santa in Pontos, the October 1931 uprising in Cyprus, the NO to Mussolini and the 1940 epos, the national resistance movement 1940-1945, the Enosis Plebiscite in 1950, and the resistance to the Turkish onslaught in 1963-64.

EOKA is the Afxentiou-inspired heroes in the National Guard and the Hellenic Force in Cyprus (ELDYK), who fell or became missing fighting the Turkish invaders at the betrayed Cypriot Thermopylae in 1974. EOKA is Theophilos Georgiades, who campaigned for a Greco-Kurdish liberation alliance and was murdered by the Turkish secret services in Nicosia in 1994.

EOKA is the loud NO to the Annan plan in the referendum of 24 April 2004, after first, at dawn on that Saturday, in tears of shame, we laid flowers at the graves of the EOKA men killed by the British [στα Φυλακισμένα Μνήματα].

EOKA is our duty to fight for the liberation of Cyprus from the Turkish occupiers and the British colonialists. And if we don't achieve this in our lifetimes, we will hand down to our children and grandchildren that which was entrusted to us by Grigoris Afxentiou and Evagoras Pallikarides.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Interview with murderer of Solomos Solomou

I wrote earlier this year two posts (here and here) on the murders of Tassos Isaac and Solomos Solomou during anti-occupation rallies in Cyprus in 1996. Above is a recent documentary from Skai TV in Greece on the background to the killings, including an interview with Kenan Akin, who is accused of shooting Solomou. 

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Cyprus roundup

Here's a roundup of a few issues regarding Cyprus that have attracted my attention recently.

Today, Cypriot newspapers are concentrating on two issues:

First: the towns and villages that will be returned to Greek control and for Greek resettlement in any proposed deal. Turkish occupation leader Mehmet Ali Talat said over the weekend that the Turks, who currently control 37 percent of the island, will not give up more than eight percent of what they hold. This has led to speculation that the towns and villages to be returned will be Famagusta and a few of its satellite villages, plus Morphou and some of its satellite villages. This is roughly the territorial settlement envisaged by the Annan Plan and will leave Kyrenia, the Mesaoria and Karpasia in Turkish hands. (For more, see report in Greek here).

Another scenario doing the rounds is that because of Morphou's economic significance and the amount of Turks now living in Morphou – around 50,000 – the occupation regime is reluctant to give up the western Cyprus town and will instead offer the Greek side five or six Greek villages at the tip of the Karpasia peninsular, including Yialousa, Rizokarpaso, Agia Triada and Leonarisso. Karpasia's economic significance is less and would require that only 10,000 Turks be moved.

Second: Simerini is reporting that Alexander Downer, the so-called UN special envoy to Cyprus, whose role in the negotiations is supposed to be as a mediator/facilitator and not an Annan-style arbitrator, has been telling Cypriot NGOs and others in private meetings that in a settlement not only will Turkey's 'security' guarantee remain but so will the 200,000 Turkish settlers brought to the island since 1974. Downer is also reported to have turned on the Cypriot media and its coverage of the Christofias-Talat talks. 'I feel disgust,' Downer allegedly said, 'at the stuff put out by [daily newspapers] Simerini and Phileleftheros and by [TV stations] Sigma and ΑΝΤ1.'

President Christofias said today he will investigate Downer's statements and interventions, while leader of EVROKO Dimitris Syllouris said Downer should understand that Cyprus is a democracy with a free media, and added that if Downer is telling us that Turkish 'guarantees' and settlers will stay, then he is no longer acting as a mediator but as a representative of Turkish interests. (For more, see report in Greek here).

Third: even though like everywhere else, Cyprus has been hit by the global economic crisis, it is the only EU country that will post positive growth for 2009, a testament to the relative success of the island's economy. And yet in a Daily Telegraph article, I read this from Howard Davies, former chairman of the Financial Services Authority and currently director of the London School of Economics: 'The European economic forecast is pretty grim. About the only place that doesn't look too bad is Cyprus and that's really due to money laundering by crooked Russians.'

Now, Cyprus' financial regulation system is as tight as anywhere in the EU – and tighter it seems than in the USA and UK, whose banking systems have been exposed as true exponents of casino capitalism – and Russian economic interest in Cyprus is entirely legitimate. All Davies reflects is the prejudice that only the Anglo-Americans are capable of genuine economic enterprise while the rest of the world's business activities are 'crooked'. The truth is that Russian money is no more dirty than American or British money, and it seems, following recent events, a whole lot more secure, while Cyprus' economic stability is down to hard work and sound management. (Also, read Antipodean's article on how Anglo-American political and economic interests are targetting Cyprus).

Fourth: I like a lot the cartoon above, which I came across on the Ινφογνώμων Πολιτικά blog and refers to a whole series of recent British moves aimed at undermining the Republic of Cyprus – see my post here. Last week in Ankara, we even had Britain's foreign minister David Miliband and his Turk counterpart Ahmet Davoutoglou declaring that Turkey and the UK have the same 'vision' for Cyprus. As if we didn't know that Britain and Turkey down the years have shared a 'vision' for Cyprus – partition – and have acted hand in glove to realise it, as they continue to do so today.