Thessaloniki // 14 January 2019

Friends, relations, lovers!

I’m in Greece. I was going to write a longer “Christmas letter”-style email in a couple days, and I might still, but if you’re getting this, you’re in the set of people I feel less bad inflicting my logorrhea onto… a set which expanded substantially once I finished this letter and decided I was pleased with it. So, read on if you’re interested in hearing about my trip to Athens and some transcendent archaeological experiences; if not, save your literary energy for my Christmas letter. (Or read neither. I’ve decided to stop giving reading comprehension quizzes about my emails, after enough complaints.)

When I started writing this, I was in the salon of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, sitting next to a complete set of the Loeb Classical Library (the Greek texts on the left, the Latin ones on the right, and a huge fireplace in the middle). Now I’m in Thessaloniki. Tonight I’m taking a night train to Bulgaria. Yesterday I attempted to run the marathon — not a marathon, but the marathon, from Marathon to Athens.

I’m here visiting E., another former UChicago kid who’s now an archaeologist in Athens. He’s spending the year at the American School for Classical Studies. My friend R., a linguist, happened to be doing fieldwork in Belgrade on Slavic phonology, and so flew down to join us. We spent a couple days running from archaeological site to archaeological site, fueled by coffee, ouzo and raki, eating souvlaki and mezzes, and narrowly avoiding letting our sleep-deprived selves slip on the wet marble that paves every walking surface in Athens.


1. Athens.

There are so many olive trees (or, as I initially called them, “rhododendrons”). There are so many cypress trees: tall, thin conifers with densely-packed needles and bark peeling in long, narrow strips. Lots of rosemary bushes, too. On the steep desert slopes of Lykavittos (“wolf-trodden”) Hill, there are fields of prickly pears interspersed with agaves the size of European cars. (Their stalks are 15 feet tall!) There are magpies: birds with huge tails and the dramatic black-and-white coloring of a cartoon penguin or panda bear. There are independent contractor cats everywhere. Every 100th person walking down the street is a Greek Orthodox priest, dressed from head to toe in all black (their beads are inevitably black, too). It’s not the black that makes them stand out so much as the cassocks: a single continuous body-length item of clothing, without even a loose distinction between “upper body clothes” and “lower body clothes.” It’s been in the 50s and 60s, alternating between sun, clouds, and light rain. It snowed the day before I got here — such a rare and noteworthy event that the Swiss border officer in Zürich commented on it when I told her my final destination. It had all melted by the time I got here, but you can still see it in the far-off mountains.

2. The archaeology.

“I don’t call myself an archaeologist,” E. said. “Or a classicist. I think of myself as a historian. Actually, what I’d like to call myself is a ‘Hellenist,’ but that seems pretentious.”

E.’s ability to play historical tour guide is phenomenal. For every single random block of stone we happened to walk past, E. a) gave a lengthy description of where and how it was quarried, b) commented on the art-historical aspects of its shape and detailing, c) explained which buildings it was part of in ancient Athens and the role of each building in Athenian culture, d) explained which Byzantine buildings it was subsequently part of (big blocks of stone get re-used a lot), e) explained how 19th-century archaeologists first pieced together its history, and f) described the subsequent two centuries of historiography and scholarly arguments over the provenance and precise timeline of that block of stone, up through so-and-so’s recent controversial paper he had heard her present last week. I’m exaggerating here. But only slightly. E. is like one of the half-god, half-mortal Homeric heroes, except that he’s a scholarly hero, not a military one. I guess that’s the expected result if you’re a smart, hard-working person who’s been studying this stuff intensely for over a decade. So I’m not surprised, but I am impressed, and grateful. Who better to show you around ancient Athens than Indiana Jones?

3.

I don’t want to bore you with a long list of stuff we saw. But I do want to describe one encounter.

We went to the agora, the “downtown” of ancient Athens. E. says he doesn’t like it as an archaeological site: it’s a jumbly mish-mash of different things from different time periods, and so it’s hard to read and get a coherent sense of what the site was like at any specific time. He was thinking out loud about where to begin, and ended up taking us to the Temple of the Twelve Gods. (“Δώδεκα Θεών!” I said, clumsily pronouncing the Greek interpretive marker. “Dodeca theon! Twelve gods! Like a dodecahedron!”) What remains of the temple is just the foundation stones, a small quadrilateral of them, cut off at an odd angle by a giant modern retaining wall, which marks the outer limit of the agora excavation. We had to stumble through some brush to get there, and it looks like it’s not on the typical tourist beat of the agora. But it’s an appropriate starting place, E. said, because it was the historical zero mile marker for Athens. All the roads leading out of Athens had mile markers, just like roads today, and this temple was the zero mile marker.

How do we know that this was the Temple of the Twelve Gods, given that it’s just a bunch of unmarked foundation stones? Well, right next to the foundation stones is another big stone, with an inscription — the base of a statue. The inscription says the statue is (or was) of Leagros, an “aristocratic pretty boy” (E.’s description). In Plato’s Hippias, Socrates (or perhaps one of the interlocutors) casually mentions that everyone knows there’s a statue of Leagros right outside the Temple of the Twelve Gods. Hence, this is the Temple of the Twelve Gods!

E. went on about the historiography of the site, but my thoughts took a different tack. The idea that I was standing right next to a statue that Plato had seen — it was overwhelming. I asked E. to take a picture of me. In the photo I look sad, but really I was just trying to process the experience. The thought that this exact spot, 2400 years ago, was where Socrates had walked and asked people what they thought virtue was — gosh. How do you even put that into words? And this wasn’t where just Socrates walked. A few hundred years later, this was where St. Paul preached the gospel. Boy.

I didn’t quite have it together to say all that. Instead, what I said was, “But how do you know there was only one statue of Leagros in the agora?” E. acknowledged the point. Then he gave a very defensive but also very eloquent monologue on epistemology in classical archaeology. The giant retaining wall that cuts off the foundation of the temple marks the limits of the excavation, E. said, and perhaps it’s also symbolic of the limits of our knowledge.

Sitting behind the base of the statue of Leagros

4.

Visiting Athens feels less like visiting, say, Paris, and more like visiting Washington, D.C. Not that I’ve really been to Paris. Perhaps a better counterexample would be Tokyo. You go to Tokyo, and look at Toshogu Shrine, and read about the Tokugawa Shogunate, and it’s all very interesting and very real, but there’s no particular personal connection. Athens, by contrast, isn’t just a historical site for the modern Greeks. It’s a historical site for all of Western Civilization. This is my heritage (and yours, if you’re reading this). It’s our heritage just as much as it’s the heritage of the Greeks who live here. We’re ALL tourists with respect to ancient Athens.

Related: archaeology in Greece as a colonial enterprise.

I’ve been trying to figure out why there’s an “American School of Classical Studies” in Athens. It’s not just a dozen scholars in some rental apartments and offices. It’s a huge campus that takes up an entire city block. There’s not only an American school: there’s a French school, and a German school, and a British school, and an Italian school — more than a dozen overall. They’ve all got these huge campuses, walled off from the street, looking like the embassies of major world powers.

E. explained that when archaeology as an academic field began in the 19th century, Greece wasn’t just poor relative to Western Europe, like it is today. It was downright undeveloped — just a country of farmers and shepherds. So all of the archaeology that happened was from rich western Europeans and Americans coming in. It wasn’t the Greeks digging up their own past and showing it off to their Western European and American cousins: it was the Western Europeans and Americans who came in to dig up and discover their own classical past. The Germans dug up Olympia; the French dug up Delphi; the British dug up Knossos; the Americans dug up Corinth. They did all of it. The Greeks? If anything, they were in the way. An entire neighborhood of Athens had to be demolished in order to dig up the agora.

Today Greece is a developed country, and has plenty of indigenous archaeologists and archaeological institutions. But inertia is a powerful force. The respective foreign archaeological schools are still in charge of those sites. They’re still way better funded, thanks to century-old endowments and wealthy donors from their home countries. E. says that all the best archaeological resources in Greece are owned by the foreign archaeological schools. If you’re a Greek archaeologist at the University of Athens, you don’t go to the University of Athens library to do your research. It doesn’t have half the stuff you need. Instead you have to go to the American School’s library — it’s way better than any Greek archaeological library. The Greeks resent this. I don’t blame them.

5.

I have been to plenty of weird parties, but I haven’t seen many juxtapositions stranger than a dozen people playing beer pong just feet away from a 2nd-century Greek funerary monument (an original, not a cast).

My visit to Athens overlapped with the birthdays of several of E.’s colleagues at the American School. The social setting at the first party was familiar: young academics in their 20s and 30s, all poorly dressed, all drunk and ebullient, all talking about their research and travel plans and social gossip. The physical setting wasn’t. We weren’t in a crowded apartment or a dingy rental house. ASCSA’s dorm for short- and medium-term visitors is a huge old mansion. Enormous rooms, high ceilings, fancy wood paneling, giant fireplaces. The beer pong was happening on a terrace floored with polished marble tiles. The terrace was surrounded by ionic columns, also made of polished marble. The funerary monument was basically Han Solo in carbonite, but with an ancient Greek dude, and only his top half, and carved out of marble. It was just a few feet away from the beer pong table. Guess what the tabletop was made out of? A slab of marble. Inside a dance party was happening on an authentic Persian rug (right next to a complete set of the Loeb Classical Library). E. and I went to bed fairly early, but the party kept going in the courtyard right out of E.’s window, and didn’t quiet down until 4 AM.

(The second birthday party we went to was a calmer affair at a restaurant that featured grilled lamb chops ordered by the kilo, and absolutely the best grilled cheese I’ve ever had. Not melted cheese — grilled cheese. Like, it tasted like it was part of a kebab. Crispy and smokey. I need to figure out how to grill cheese now. That’s my current life goal.)

6.

E., R., and I had a long conversation about intellectual property law as it relates to archaeological sites.

E. explained that the Greek government recognizes/establishes a “right to publish.” Namely, when you excavate a site in Greece, as part of the regulatory process, you get the exclusive rights to the first publication of the results of your excavation. If you dig up a pretty urn, and it winds up in some Greek museum or archive (as it will, since whatever you find belongs to the Greek state), no one else can publish an article about it until you have. Even if you don’t. What this means is that there are all sorts of what we’d call (stealing the term from US copyright law) “orphaned” artifacts: Professor So-And-So dug up this pretty urn back in the 50s, and maybe intended to publish about it, but never did, and now he’s 95, and no one else can publish anything about it until he does (which he won’t) or until he gives them permission (which he won’t). (I asked E. about the inheritability/transferability of these rights, but he wasn’t sure.)

This is interesting to me because of all the problems (and unintended consequences) in the US with our overly-generous intellectual property rights/laws. We’ve got all these orphaned works: books (or other IP-protected works) which a) are old and obscure, and which someone might like to do something creative with, but b) which are still under copyright, and because of being old and obscure, the copyright holders of which it’s impossible to track down to get permission. Congress keeps extending the copyright term, which is great if you own the rights to an old but lucrative property (e.g., Mickey Mouse), and not so great otherwise. It’s been especially on my mind recently because, as I assume most of you saw, a huge chunk of works entered the public domain in the US on January 1st, for the first time in 20 years. (In 1998 Congress extended the copyright term by 20 years, hence the 20-year-drought.)

More generally, what I find interesting here is the fact that intellectual property rights are property rights over something abstract. It’s one thing to recognize property rights over, say, real estate. That’s tangible. Maybe you can make an argument from natural law, or history, or something. But establishing property rights over something intangible is much more philosophically difficult. Contrasting example: we don’t generally establish IP rights over fashion. If you’re a fashion designer, that’s a problem: people are always ripping off your expensive clothing designs and selling cheap versions, and there’s nothing you can do about it. So, the idea that there’s this IP right I wasn’t familiar with is very interesting.

(E., being used to this rule, didn’t find it interesting, but I did. And I’m sure I’ve gotten lots of the precise details wrong here, as this is my recollection of E.’s not-a-lawyer understanding, so, lotsa layers of telephone.)

7.

The marathon. I was going to run it yesterday. Not run a marathon — run the marathon, from Marathon to Athens, just as Philippides did after the Battle of Marathon 2500 years ago. I’ve been training for the last two months. Then I wound up at the wrong bus station in the morning and missed the bus to Marathon. Aaaagh. Well, I guess I’ll have another shot when I come back through Athens on my way back to the States.

8. Vignettes:

a) E. says that when you get to the parts of Greece near Turkey, all the road signs that give directions to nearby cities point to “Constantinople,” not Istanbul.

b) The Acropolis, and all the buildings on it, are lit up at night. It looks so, so amazing. There are all these rooftop bars that advertise “Acropolis view!!!” and it’s so touristy but also so great. (E. assures me that normal Athenians love the Acropolis-view-rooftop-bars, too).

c) I learned an amazing new word, courtesy of a plaque in the Acropolis Museum, with an appropriately-Greek etymology: “homonymous,” like “eponymous” but with “homo.” (The plaque was thanking so-and-so for “the donation of a historical copy of [such-and-such] that had been painted by his famed and homonymous grandfather.”)

d) R. surprised me at how good she is at modern Greek, given that she’s never studied it before and was only in Athens for a few days. “Well, what I do when I need to learn some basic survival language for traveling,” she said, “is that I memorize the 100 or 200 most useful verbs, and then I memorize all the ways they can be used in questions or statements.” (She’s a linguist.)

e) E., to R. and I when we met him at the rooftop bar our first night in Athens: “I took the metro, but I assume you walked, because it’s Andrew.” E., when we told him the next day how our 20-minute walk back to R.’s Airbnb had turned into an hour after we got lost: “I assume Andrew didn’t want you to use your smartphone for directions, because it’s Andrew.”

f) The men’s bathrooms here are marked “ανδρου,” which is my name, so I feel personally welcomed every time I pee. There’s lots of Alexander the Great stuff everywhere, too, so it’s like I have found my people, nominally.

g) The American School has a nightly “ouzo hour,” which is as lovely as it sounds.


Right now I’m sitting at a cafe in Thessaloniki overlooking the Aegean. The view is like one of those Chinese landscape paintings with three discrete depth planes: in the foreground are giant pelicans patrolling the harbor; in the middle distance are huge freighters; in the background, barely visible through the smog, are snow-capped mountains. (Mount Olympus! The original one, not the one in Washington.)

In a few hours I’m going to head to the train station and take the night train to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. Or maybe a night bus? I remember there being some ambiguity about whether the night train runs in the winter. None of this I’ve planned in advance. I’m headed there because, unlike Greece, it’s NOT a tourist destination. Bulgaria? Who goes THERE? In the winter? Supposedly there are hot springs, and skiing, and weird Soviet art, and some you-just-gotta-see-it monastery up in the mountains. (E. is cool enough to have been to Bulgaria, and told me about trying to find said monastery and getting lost and accidentally walking through some military installation.)

lemme know if you want a postcard,
Andrew