Thursday 20 September 2012

Samian Semiotics

Well, I'm back. I've been to the island of Samos to celebrate the centenary of its joining Greece in 1912 and to study three symbols of ancient civilisation.

The classically-educated (and therefore philhellene) British patriarchs who forced the Ottoman Empire to concede independence to Greece in 1830 balked at letting poor old Samos go with them because it's only a stone's throw from Asia Minor. Instead they made the Sultan give them "devo-max" autonomy under a fairly powerless "Prince" in a funny fez and exotic costume whom the Sultan appointed but who had to be a Christian - a very British solution known as the "Hegemony" but it worked quite well and the islanders enjoyed a bit of a boom making Turkish cigarettes before finally breaking free.

Long before that - in around 440 BC - history's first historian Herodotus wrote that he was interested in Samos because...

ὅτι σφι τρία ἐστὶ μέγιστα ἁπάντων Ἑλλήνων ἐξεργασμένα, ὄρεός τε ὑψηλοῦ ἐς πεντήκοντα καὶ ἑκατὸν ὀργυιάς, τούτου ὄρυγμα κάτωθεν ἀρξάμενον, ἀμφίστομον...δεύτερον δὲ περὶ λιμένα χῶμα ἐν θαλάσσῃ, βάθος καὶ εἴκοσι ὀργυιέων· μῆκος δὲ τοῦ χώματος μέζον δύο σταδίων. τρίτον δέ σφι ἐξέργασται νηὸς μέγιστος πάντων νηῶν τῶν ἡμεῖς ἴδμεν (my loose translation- they built three of the greatest constructions of the entire Greek world, namely a half-mile long tunnel [to carry water] which was built from both ends and met in the middle, ... a vast mole in deep water [to enclose their harbour], and a huge temple [to Hera])

Many people say that Herodotus made up most of what he wrote but in the last two weeks I've been down the tunnel, parked my car on the mole (in the modern Greek navy's car park thereby avoiding a two euro charge), and clambered over the very impressive temple (pic below) - so I'm convinced at any rate.

Herodotus also relates how the Samian tyrant Polycrates (an amiable hard case who was mainly responsible for the three wonders described above) was considered so lucky that he tried to make some bad luck for himself by flinging his favourite ring into the sea. However, later that day a fisherman presented him with a fish...which contained the ring which it had swallowed before being caught. Spooky but as I said I don't doubt H's veracity. I bought some good (but sadly jewellery-free) fish from the boats which looked much like the ones from 2,500 years ago but with the sensible addition of a Honda outboard.

There is also a fair amount of Byzantine stuff there but something had to give so that I could escape to the cool comfort of swimming in the Aegean. So, no, not all hard work.