Athens: Art and Awe

AthensI have a gigantic cake in the oven (this one!), and I’m going to have to wait at least an hour or so for it to bake, so I thought this would be a good time to sit down and write out a bunch of thoughts that are still kicking around in my head from our trip to Athens. On our first day in town we went to the Ancient Agora, the hub of Greek democracy. I honestly didn’t expect it to be as cool as the Acropolis, but I ended up liking it even better! Seeing and understanding how this system worked, so beautifully, all those thousands of years ago, was humbling and inspiring.

AthensThis is a water jug used to time a speaker at the agora. It takes exactly seven minutes for all the water to run out the bottom. Brilliant. (As a side note, I hardly ever take pictures in museums. I am just always afraid the light will be bad and they won’t come out right. But I snapped away like crazy at the agora, and I am so glad I did!)

AthensThis, believe it or not, was a jury box. Each person put in their thin piece of metal with their name and city on it, and then a ball was released. If your row was knocked down by the ball, you were released from jury duty. I stared at this one for a long time, pretty much in awe.

AthensThese shards of pottery were used to carry out an ostracism. When someone was getting too power-hungry, they held a special election. People would write the name of the person they wanted to be exiled for seven years on their shard, and then they would counted. The little scratches of writing amazed me. Poor Themistocles.

AthensThis one made me cry. Those round and pointed objects are the tools of a cobbler who worked inside the agora. They found all of the tools together with a cup that said Simon. Being that close to someone’s individual history blew my mind.

AthensWe found turtles in the agora too.

AthensAnd this little guy! When he wandered out onto a footpath, an employee came dashing out and said, “He is our agora pet! I will move him!” Pretty adorable.

AthensThe next day we headed up to the Acropolis. Looking down on this theatre was pretty incredible. A Russian couple came by and were talking amongst themselves about how to get a picture together, so I offered to take one for them. We chatted a bit, and they were really nice. A little while later, I read a sign for Eric that was in German, and he called me his own personal United Nations. It was one of the sweetest and most adorable things he has ever said. And he’s said a lot!

AthensThe Acropolis was, of course, really incredible and really crowded. But we loved it. That’s the birthplace of Greek drama right down there at the bottom of the hill. I may never get over the fact that I’ve seen it in person.

AthensThe Parthenon. Never dreamed I’d see this either. The magnitude of it is just incredible. And to think that they hand-carved every one of those stones.

AthensThe level of precision in the bas relief is amazing.

AthensDown the hill at the Acropolis Museum, the excavations underneath the building are exposed right underneath your feet. To be standing on a spot that was the center of multiple civilizations for thousands and thousands of years is pretty awe-inspiring.

AthensOn our last day in town we went to the archaeological museum. Spoiler alert: many more mind-blowing things are housed there. This is me with the mask of Agamemnon. Amazing.

AthensThe Mycenaeans had a lot of gold, and they did a lot of amazing things with it. Those little pendants on the top left are octopi. I stared at them for a long time, and I couldn’t find any differences between them. It occurred to me that in this age of mechanical reproduction, we may never know the true value of anything. We can choose to buy something handmade or something that was made in a factory. But it’s amazing to think of a time when that wasn’t the case. A time when every little thing in the world took exactly as long as it took to be made, used just the amount of tools required. The person who made these was obviously highly skilled and probably very esteemed. It’s a happy daydream to think of him (or her) pounding out these little slivers of gold.

AthensBut that’s not the whole story, of course. The manufacture of things was different then, but so were the circumstances of life. And that’s why it boggles my mind even more that these impeccable and labor-intensive things were made during a time when life was so much harder than it is now, when people certainly had far less free time after their basic needs were met. All of the remains found around these settlements show signs of malnutrition and multiple battle wounds (think cracked skulls that never quite healed). That beauty (and democracy!) was a priority during such dangerous times, when it took so much more effort than it does now to eat and house and clothe a family, says something very deep about what it means to be human. I was taken aback by it in the most beautiful way.

AthensSimilarly, it was so powerful to be able to see things I’d only learned about in books. In eleventh grade I had an art history class (that was basically the saving grace in a day filled with calculus and chemistry), and I remember studying these kouri and watching their features develop over time, becoming more defined and less stylized. They are so iconic to me. There are tons of them, and that makes me think a lot about the kind of images we choose to represent in our art. These figures were hugely important to the Greeks, and I started wondering if we have anything similar. Modern art is, of course, a far cry from these figures, and necessarily so. It made me smile to think that hundreds of years from now, people might look at our industrial design and architecture and multi-media pieces and wonder at the ways we chose to express our human experience. I guess what I’m really getting at here, in my long-winded way, is that seeing the ways that the creative impulse was expressed thousands of years ago–through the decoration of everyday objects, through pieces intended for ceremonies and rituals, through the design and execution of stunning and gigantic edifices–makes me like a very small link in the most incredibly beautiful chain. What drives me to quilt and paint and make jewelry is the same inner calling that led to the kouri and the Greek theatre and the Parthenon. And that is pretty amazing.

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