The Ruins of Athens

Actually, no – not the ruins of Athens … that’s a Beethoven piece that popped into my head – the Turkish March, from The Ruins of Athens … I’d always wondered in a desultory way, what would happen to me, if I played that classic music piece without comment, when I was stationed at EBS-Hellenikon, back in the day. I was never reckless enough to do the experiment and find out, actually. The Greeks were hair-trigger temperamental about any mention of Greece, Turkey, or the EEC (the forerunner to the EU) on the perilous airways of the American Forces Radio station where I worked – mostly on the swing and mid-shifts in the early 1980s. As exasperating and sometimes as deadly as the political stuff got during those years – and it did get deadly, for the N-14 organization and elements of the PLO were more or less targeting Americans on a regular basis – I loved Greece unreservedly.

Loved the place and the people, loved where I lived, loved being able to take a city bus downtown and explore the Parthenon and other historical sites, or take a drive down the Attic peninsula, or over into the Peloponnese … those relics of Classical-era Athens were what we had, you see. That and the words of intellectuals, playwrights, philosophers, doctors, politicians, historians … they were a light to lighten the gentiles, the glory of the world, as it was. That light went on shining and inspiring for more than two thousand years, the words, the words and ideas, the art, and the poor crumbling stones, the relics of that world left to us. And so, scholars and poets and tourists and people like me have been making pilgrimage ever since, to the place where the words were made, the oracles read, and the mighty deeds done. Someone once said of Greece – and I can’t be bothered to look up the citation – that it is the second country for those of use who revere the Western traditions in scholarship and political thought. What might we think, and do – if a present-day political body in Greece made as if to routinely destroy, reduce to stone crumbs and shards – all that is left to the present-day of that glory remaining of classical Greece? What might we think, if the current regime made it a policy and practice to destroy those existing monuments, and to cement over all those as-yet unexcavated sites? To smash and trash the exhibits remaining in the archeological museums – what might we think, of our intellectual inheritance being destroyed before us, in a grim demonstration of cultural superiority?

So – attend to me a moment, and consider what may, or what might be about to happen in Egypt – a culture thousands of years older than that of Greece, the place where one of the Eight Wonders of the World still stand, and the oldest one of that, as it is. Think of all that glory, the monuments, those relics and the art of Ancient Egypt not existing any more. The temples and shrines tumbled to the ground and smashed to gravel, the contents of museums scattered to the four winds, or melted down for the gold in them, layers of cement poured over as-yet-unexcavated sites. We in the West value the Egypt of unimaginable antiquity – we’ve been going there for two centuries, funding expeditions and excavations, collecting curiosities up to and including whole buildings, imagining, speculating, researching tirelessly — even just taking a tourist excursion to see those wonders for ourselves. We’ve been told over and over that the ordinary Egyptians and the scholarly sort like the ubiquitously annoying Dr. Zahi Hawass value them too; a matter of local/national pride and a magnet for tourism. However, now there is a movement afoot in Egypt, of prominent Islamists urging that monuments like the Pyramids be destroyed, tourism neither being desired or welcome any more.

One might think it just talk, chest-thumping for the local audience by radical Islamists, now that one of their own is in charge in Egypt … or it just might be intended as a means for the new ruling party in Egypt to extort an international ransom in exchange for not harming the pre-Islamic landmarks and relics. But after the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, and the recent destruction of historic sites in Timbuktu, the officially-sanctioned destruction of pre-Islamic archeological sites in Saudi Arabia, the smashing of pre-Islamic relics in the Maldives, one has to consider the destruction of ancient Egyptian historical sites and relics as a very real possibility. The Afghans around Bamiyan were supposedly fond of their Buddhas, and the Malians of the ancient wonders of Timbuktu, for all the good that and the condemnation of the outside world did in preventing their destruction. As I wrote before – aren’t things like this the property of the larger world, in the intellectual sense? Aren’t they worth cherishing and protecting for new generations? Is history to be a kind of whiteboard, frequently wiped clean of everything accumulated before the day before yesterday, at the whim of the local thugs in temporary charge? At the very least this ought to put an end to well-meant efforts to repatriate Egyptian relics now in European and American museums back to their land of origin. If the Egyptian Islamists are dead serious in their intent and effective in carrying it out, those items might be all that we have left.

(Cross-posted at

9 thoughts on “The Ruins of Athens”

  1. At the very least 1 Imman proposed putting wax on the pyramids (whatever that is supposed to signify).

    I guess i was fortunate to see them in 1983. My tour had left Nairobi and there were 5 of us bumped from the EgyptAir 737 to Cairo.

    So we got to go the next day. So instead of a large tour bus picking us up we took a taxi.

    The Cairo Airport is a good 10-15 miles from Giza – site of the pyramids the world knows. Even older pyramids are in Memphis – 30 miles or so from Cairo (it’s been 25+ years – Just remember it was maybe an hour or so drive).

    But back to Cairo – we took a taxi to Giza – and imagine just traveling on roads with no lights – no freeways – just constant honking.

    We rounded a corner as I recall and suddenly the Great Pyramid came into view.

    What a sight that was.

    I would think that the majority of Egyptians are not foolish enough to destroy their heritage – that the world comes to see – regardless of what some Immans say – but we shall see.

    The Great Sphinx was forever disfigured by a cannonball by one of Napoleon’s solders. However I was just reading that this is just a theory – that the nose was gone before that time. But the legend – and thought of stupidity for all time – endures.

  2. I would think so,also – that they wouldn’t dare … but there are enough indications that the Islamists might just, and think themselves perfectly justified in doing it.

    My daughter had a chance to see the Pyramids and the other tourist sights, when she went on Brightstar in 2001. It was just to scary, just then. She got bitten by a scorpion, which was just enough drama for her at the time.

    I wish it had been more peaceful, then. I am afraid that Egypt will be lost to us for a while.

  3. David P. Goldman, who writes under the nom d’internet of Spengler, has been way ahead of the curve on Egypt. Here is his latest:

    As for the Greeks. The modern Greeks were manufactured by English and German Romantics. At the beginning of the 19th Century, the Greeks were Christian peasants in the Ottoman Empire. Their knowledge of the Greek Language and Greek culture was limited to what the Orthodox priest in their village taught them.

  4. The 19th century Greeks were animated by a genuine shared ideal — the restoration of the Byzantine empire in some modern form. At that time Constantinople was still a majority-Greek city and much of the Anatolian littoral was majority or near-majority Greek as well. The “Great Idea” was to form a Greek state that retook Constantinople and as much of Anatolia as possible, along with the Greek islands including Cyprus. These Greek nationalists learned that the Western Europeans had an attachment to pagan Greece, Athens, and the ruins, and they played that up to get European support. Eventually they folded that era into their national myth, where it remains today, but if you cut open the heart of a Venezilos, even now, you will find on it engraved, not Athens, but Constantinople.

  5. The Islamists will dare. If we’re very lucky they will be constrained by non-Islamists or the prospect of regaining some income from tourism.

    The Israelis have administered old Jerusalem in a tolerant, multi-cultural way giving each religion control of its own holy sites. One of the consequences has been that the Muslims have attempted, with some success, to hide and destroy pre-Islamic Jewish ruins and artifacts that underlie current Muslim-controlled areas such as the Temple Mount. This is consistent with the Palestinian Authority’s campaign to erase Israel’s Jewish history. It is essentially a political tactic, but Islam is a political religion. This is the model for how non-Islamic groups are to be treated and in areas controlled by Islamists it will be executed x 1000.

  6. Sgt Mom – that trip left me a lot of memories. We stayed at the Radison, in Gisa. Just down that boulevard was a magnificent hotel – forget the name, but some French princess had it built (?) (if memory serves me) – I just remember there was gold leaf on the ceiling.

    But at the Radison in the morning for breakfast, a group of Israeli tourist came in.

    I thought what a contrast to before Sadat made peace with Israel – giving Egypt a generation of peace.

    I thought I was witnessing the dawn of a new era.

    Later we went by the reviewing stand – also on a wide boulevard – where Sadat was assassinated, killed by the same people coming to power.

    His tomb is just across the street from the stands.

    Jonathan – interesting point about the Islamist s in Jerusalem. So much for their idea of peace.

  7. @Robert – Interesting write-up – I predict the Obama foreign policy in re: Egypt will blow up – but then the line for that starts over that way ;-)

    Interesting about the Saudis and the MB.

  8. For me,it was far longer ago & I was a silly person. But we were aimless, as so often, and came upon a small, round, rural chapel: a circle of saints stood next to each other (probably a fresco?)surrounding us. Bleakly, they stood, with faces gouged out. Even then, it struck through me & stays – that is what barbarians do. Of coourse probably my ancesters broke the stained glass windows of England. What characterizes the west (including Israel, of course) is learning from the past – as your post so beautifully does.

  9. This story reminds me a bit of the movie “Silent Running” which preceded the Star Wars trilogy and which is largely forgotten. The plot was a future where everything was artificial including the food. The message is considered to be one of environmentalism but, to me, it is the lack of respect for the past and the tendency of the young to live in the present.

    Althouse today has a post on the most powerful TV moments. of course, the list is dominated by mindless pop culture from the recent past. Major events, like the Army McCarthy hearings which mesmerized me as a kid, are not included. Since history is no longer taught in school, this should be no surprise.

    The best security for the pyramids is the inability of Muslims to accomplish big things. I doubt that even airliners would demolish the pyramids. The Bamiyan Buddas were not as difficult to damage as the pyramids would be.

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