فصل 07

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فصل 07

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Here are some lines to be chanted aloud while tapping their rhythm, Lines that were used by the poets of Greece in their stories of warfare, Telling the contests of gods and of heroes in earlier ages. (Verses like this, with six beats to each line, were called ‘hexameters’ by the Greeks. The rhythm suits the Greek language, but it sounds a little unnatural in English.) You will have heard of the war that arose when Paris, the Trojan, Sided with Venus and gave her the apple of gold in the contest, How, as reward, she helped him to seize the beautiful Helen, Wife of the King of the Greeks, Menelaus the Caller in

Battle, How an army of Greeks laid siege to the city of Troy to

regain her, With Agamemnon and Nestor the sage, Achilles and Ajax, And countless heroes who fought in that war with the sons

of King Priam, Paris and Hector, for ten long summers and winters before

the City, at last, was conquered and razed to the ground by the

victors. Do you also remember the tale of the wily Odysseus? How, returning from Troy, he experienced the strangest

adventures, Till, at last, on miraculous ships, he returned to his

homeland, To the wife who awaited her lord all the years of his absence.

Verses like these were chanted at feasts by Greek minstrels as they played their lyres. Later, they were written down and people came to believe that one poet, called Homer, had composed them all. They are read to this day and you, too, can enjoy them, for they are as fresh and vivid as ever ­ full of beauty and wisdom.

‘Now wait a minute,’ you’re going to say. ‘These are stories, not history. What I want to know is, when and how did these events take place?’ A German businessman called Schliemann asked himself that same question, more than a hundred years ago. He read Homer over and over again, and longed to see all the beautiful places described by the poet. If only he could hold in his hands, just once, the wonderful weapons with which these heroes fought. And one day he did. For it turned out that all of it was true. Not in every detail, of course: the heroes named in the songs were no more real than the giants and witches in fairy tales. But the world that Homer describes ­ the drinking cups, the weapons, the buildings and the ships, the princes who were at the same time shepherds, and the heroes who were also sea raiders ­ were not inventions. When Schliemann told people this they laughed at him. But he didn’t give up. He just kept putting money aside, so that one day he could go to Greece and see for himself. And when he had finally raised enough money, he hired labourers and set about digging in search of all the cities mentioned in Homer. At Mycenae he discovered palaces and the tombs of kings, armour and shields, just as the Homeric songs had described them. And he found Troy, too, and dug there. And it turned out that it really had been destroyed by fire. But in all those tombs and palaces there wasn’t one inscription, so that for a long time no one could put a date to them until, one day, quite by chance, a ring was found in Mycenae that didn’t come from there. On it, in hieroglyphs, was the name of an Egyptian king who had lived around 1400 BC, and had been the predecessor of Akhenaton, the great reformer.

Now at that time there was living in Greece, and on the many neighbouring islands and shores, a warlike people who had amassed great treasures. Greece was not so much a kingdom as a collection of small fortified cities, each with its own palace and king. The people were mostly seafarers, like the Phoenicians, only they traded less and fought more.They were often at war with one another, but on occasion would gang together to plunder other shores. And as their fortunes grew bigger, they grew bolder ­ and not just bolder, but braver, because to be a sea raider takes courage as well as cunning. So sea raiding was a task which fell to the nobility. The rest of the population were simple peasants and shepherds.

Now, unlike the Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Assyrians, these noblemen weren’t interested in preserving the ways of their ancestors. Their many raids and battles with foreign peoples had opened their eyes to new ideas and taught them to relish variety and change. And it was at this point, and in this part of the world, that history began to progress at a much greater speed, because people no longer believed that the old ways were best. From now on, things were constantly changing. And this is why, nowadays, when we find even a fragment of pottery ­ in Greece, or anywhere else in Europe ­ we can say: ‘this dates from roughly this or that period.’ Because a hundred years later a pot like that would have gone out of fashion, and nobody would have wanted it.

It is now thought that all the beautiful things that Schliemann found in his excavations of Greek cities ­ the fine vessels and daggers decorated with hunting scenes, the golden shields and helmets, the jewellery and even the colourful paintings on the walls of the halls ­ were not invented there. They were first made not in Greece or in Troy, but on an island nearby. This island is called Crete. There, at the time of King Hammurabi ­ do you remember when that was? ­ the Cretans had already built splendid royal palaces, with innumerable rooms, staircases running up and down in all directions, great pillars, courtyards, corridors and cellars ­ a veritable labyrinth!

Speaking of labyrinths, have you ever heard the story of the evil Minotaur, half man, half bull, who lived in a labyrinth and made the Greeks send him seven youths and seven maidens each year as human sacrifices? Do you know where that was? It was in Crete, so there may be some truth in the story. Cretan kings may once have ruled over Greek cities, and those Greeks may have had to send them tribute. In any event, these Cretans were clearly a remarkable people, even if we still don’t know much about them. You only have to look at the paintings on the walls of their palaces to see that they are unlike any made at the same time in Egypt or in Babylon. If you remember, the Egyptian pictures were very beautiful, but rather severe and stiff, a bit like their priests. This was not the case in Crete. What mattered most to them was to catch animals or people in rapid motion: hounds chasing wild boar, and people leaping over bulls ­ nothing was too hard for them to paint. The kings of the Greek cities clearly learnt a great deal from them.

But by 1200 BC this time of splendour was over. For it was at around that time (some two hundred years before the reign of King Solomon) that new tribes came down from the north. Whether they were related to the former builders of Mycenae nobody knows for sure, but it is likely. In any event, they drove out the kings and installed themselves in their place. Meanwhile, Crete had been destroyed. But the memory of its magnificence lived on in the minds of the invaders, even when they founded new cities and built their own shrines. And as the centuries went by, the tales of the kings of ancient Mycenae became confused with those of their own battles and conquests, until they became part of their own history.

These newcomers were the Greeks, and the myths and songs sung in the courts of their nobles were the very same Homeric poems with which this chapter began. It is worth remembering that they were composed shortly before 800 BC.

When the Greeks came to Greece, they were not yet Greeks. Does that sound strange? Yet it is true. For the fact is that when the tribes from the north first invaded the lands they were to occupy, they weren’t yet a unified people. They spoke different dialects and were obedient to different chieftains. They were tribes rather like the Sioux or the Mohicans you read about in stories of the Wild West, and had names such as the Dorians, Ionians and Aeolians. Like the American Indians they were warlike and brave, but in other ways they were quite different. The native Americans were familiar with iron, while the people of Mycenae and Crete ­ just as the songs of Homer tell us ­ had weapons made of bronze. And so these tribes arrived, with their wives and their children. The Dorians pushed furthest, right down into the southernmost tip of Greece which looks like a maple leaf and is called the Peloponnese. There they subdued the inhabitants, and set them to work in the fields. They themselves founded a city where they lived, and called it Sparta.

The Ionians who arrived after the Dorians found there was not enough room for them all in Greece. Many of them settled above the maple leaf, to the north of its stalk, on a peninsula called Attica. They made their homes by the sea and planted vines, cereals and olive trees. And they, too, founded a city, which they dedicated to the goddess Athena ­ she who, in the Homeric songs, so often came to the rescue of Ulysses the sailor. That city is Athens.

Like all the members of the Ionian tribe, the Athenians were great seafarers, and in due course they took possession of a number of small islands, known since that time as the Ionian Islands. Later, they went even further, and founded cities far across the sea away from Greece, along the fertile coast of Asia Minor, with its many sheltering bays. No sooner did the Phoenicians hear of these cities than they sailed there to trade. And the Greeks will have sold them olive oil and cereals, as well as silver and other metals found in those regions. But they soon learnt so much from the Phoenicians that they, too, sailed onwards, to distant shores, where they founded their own outposts, or colonies as we call them. And the Phoenicians passed on to them their wonderful way of writing using letters. You shall see what use they made of it.

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