Sunday, September 12, 2010

Lap of the Gods ..

I’ve been stunned into submission of the senses by so many of the magnificent and imposing structures in this beautiful and vast landscape of wonder, and still I’m continually surprised at the wealth of history to be uncovered in this ancient land. With every sunrise that colours the world my eyes are opened once again to the tremendous possibilities in living and the hopes that drive us onward. I regularly discover stunning vistas and majestic buildings; new and exciting places to see and significant extraordinary sights to visit just up ahead and around the bend of this endless path I tread.

I was fortunate enough to be asked to accompany a student on yet another outing – this time to an outstanding historical site with a story stretching back almost three millennia. I first visited this architecturally sacrosanct wonder eighteen years ago when, on my first night in Turkey, my two companions and I had dinner at a little restaurant directly overlooking the temple grounds. This time it was even hotter amid the remains and ruins of this fantastic monument, and we stopped only for sweet çay and a bottle of ice-cold water to soothe our parched throats.

Summer in south-western Turkey has proved to be the hottest sustained period I have lived through since I spent August of ‘83 working in the merciless humidity of downtown Philadelphia. Every day has been in the mid forties (that ranges from about 105 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit for you folks in the States), with a few days pushing the thermometer toward 50, and I haven’t seen an actual cloud let alone a raindrop for over two months now. The last time it rained here was a short afternoon shower on June 14th. It's only rained 5 times since I arrived, 3 of those days in April.

Although I had returned to the Temple of Apollo since coming to Turkey over five months ago, this was my first opportunity to wander around inside the vast sacred sanctuary. It was well worth the visit to gain a glimpse of the incredible construction from within its thick stone walls. One of the marble blocks, situated between the doorway that leads to the courtyard, weighs over 70 tons and is considered to be the largest single component of a human designed structure anywhere in the world. With over a hundred original column bases from the 124 that surrounded the walls still in evidence, and altars with engraved ‘griffins’ (a mythological creature sacred to Apollo), carvings of other legendary beings and statues in abundance, there are plenty of places and things to weave in and out of as if in a magical dream transported to an ancient past.

Some of the bases of the massive columns are carved in high relief elaborately depicting mythological scenes from popular tales, others in intricate meander patterns that are familiar in later Athenian sculptures. The tops of the huge pillars are generally in traditional Ionic or Corinthian design and appear to use the pin and hole approach to post and lintel connection.

My student and friend Yasar is a mining engineer from the north of the country, and was able to explain to me (in our English-Turkish mix) the reason for the corruption of the marble that makes up so much of the structure. As with most stone, pollutants can be cleaned and scraped from marble (in recent years many cities, including London, have taken serious measures to reclaim the original beauty of the masonry on older buildings blighted by smog over the past couple centuries), however, over time the sun burns into the rock and chemically alters the composition to darken the stone permanently.

Many ancient monuments that are now a gleaming white, including the Parthenon in Greece, were originally painted and dyed in lavish colours – much to the chagrin of many historians and relic collectors who seem to enjoy the idea that the dazzling white marble we see today was intended to signify some suggestion of purity or ideal thoughts.

One is confronted with the academic suggestion that these statues, paintings and notations had more than aesthetic purpose and were in fact venerated by the ancients as containing an aura that we moderns reject. However, ritualised objects were part of the ‘cult of beauty’ so obtrusive in contemporary art theory that prefers the context of politics as reproduction as opposed to originality becomes the norm.

Apollo, Bringer of Light ..

Apollo, son of Zeus, although often confused in later times as simply the ‘god of the sun’ was much more than just a chariot driver of the sky. Apollyon was the bringer of light, but also the intangible presence that gives appearance to the world of things – essentially this ‘god’ is an indiscernible force who by his very nature operates in our minds and allows us to create shape from thoughts, to give a semblance of structure to imagination. Without light we are unable to see, so the manifestation of ‘real things’ derives from the ability to perceive objects as forms in space through the existence of Apollo as an agent in the spiritual realm.

Debated at length by philosophers and mathematicians from Aristotle to Descartes, the world of form and character is the material representation of idea and atomic structure combined in accepted and agreed upon shape and variety of components. ‘The world exists because we will it to be’, ‘I think therefore I am’ etc ad nauseam. Apollo is the semi-anthropomorphic term the ancients gave to this association of proposal and inspiration – a god, yes; a set of thoughts intended to convey the mystery behind the evident existence of things, yes.

Coincidentally, Apollo was also the patron god of poetry and the leader of the Muses; Hermes even created the lyre for Apollo to play, and hymns sung to Apollo were called paeans, which are also sung to protect against misfortune or ill health. The laurel wreath, sentimentally important to Apollo as one of his lovers, Daphne, had been transformed into the laurel tree, is seen on various figures throughout the site.

.. the shape of things that are ..

Probably first erected around 800 BC, the temple housed the important oracle of the Branchidae and was consecrated to Apollo circa 560 BC, and became a place of pilgrimage for those seeking advice on future matters of importance. King Croesus attended and provided many valuable offerings, as did the Egyptian Nekho II.

Although the Persians destroyed it in 494 BC, Alexander the Great of Macedonia had it rebuilt after 334 BC following his triumphs in the region. However, probably during the reign of Theodosius it began to lose its status as an influential site. Subsequent to the Christianisation of Turkey, it was again ransacked and pillaged by those well-meaning brutal invaders.

Located on the southern coast of the Aegean, outside the central area of the town of Didyma (not to be confused with the people who live in the imagination of Ken Dodd), which means twins or twin hills; it was probably the partner temple to that of Artemis and the 18 kilometre road which led from the temple to the town of Miletos was paved in marble and flanked by sculpted lions.

The Temple of Apollo is the third largest ever built and was revered by generations of seekers of wisdom and prophecy. At 60 x 118 metres, with columns that reached twenty metres from base to crown, one cannot help but be impressed by the marvels of industry accomplished so long ago by people lacking the mechanical tools of today’s engineers.

The entrance steps stay true to the Greek method of planning communal buildings. Odd numbers of steps always lead into magisterial blocks or sacred temples, in this case seven all the way around the outside and thirteen at the Eastern entrance. This is because was one supposed to always enter a building right foot first – so, if one placed the right foot onto the first step then the right foot would also be the first to land on the top step or platform of the shrine.

The head of Medusa, the frightening creature of mythological antiquity, is a significant relic that now occupies pride of place near the entrance. Along with the bull’s head and several other artefacts of major importance, it would have been carved by the craftsmen of Aphrodisias.
Karnakhos, a famous sculptor of the ancient world, created the statue that stood prominently in the central worship hall and would have been venerated by emperors, soldiers, soothsayers and brides-to-be as an incarnation of Apollo himself.

There are those who reject this reliance on a sense of community cohesion that dictated a homogenous belief as unswerving allegiance to these ‘idols’ of classicism, instead accepting as the post-structuralists would that the inherited view of the individual as subject is itself a myth created to bolster the image of an autonomous being operating independent of society’s decrees. However, without free will and independent, autonomous intelligence, genius of the type necessary to create this arrangement of stone and comprehend the incredible forces at work in the Temple of Apollo could not arise to achieve vocational destination and contemplate the future held in such high esteem by its prophets.

Certainly not everyone was a superstitious believer however, and many who understood the allegorical teachings of the mystics came simply to be awed by the power, grandeur and skill represented by this fabulous building on the turquoise coast. The crusaders left their mark in the stone edifice as they marched through the region in the footsteps of Anthony and Cleopatra who allegedly loved visiting the area together.

Archaeologists from England, France and most recently Germany have all excavated the site with varying success over the past 150 years. Thanks to these pioneers in the field of clawing the dirt and studying rocks as vestiges of time, we can marvel in our own personal investigation of those ancients who created the first meaningful infrastructure of society across this rocky plain.

Every step of the way presents a new horizon to gaze out over and ponder as if seeing the light for the first time. With every sunrise that colours the world my eyes are opened once again to the tremendous possibilities in living. At each sunset, as the haloed disc descends and the moon reflects fragments of its radiant form across the sandy beach of the water’s edge, I give thanks for another day in the cradle of civilisation and the lap of the gods.

The story continues, the narrative reaches a climax in the journey, and in my mind are endless streams of illumination reflecting a vision of the song of my inner voice. The sound reminds me that truth demands I shape my world in the likeness of the creative spirits that deliver me independence of thought and imagination, to search for a reality that is genuinely my own amongst the many potential options nature grants in infinite wisdom and love.

Meanwhile, Apollo drives upward, filling my eyes with light, winking in salutation of one more vivid morning, time passes with each pulse of my beating heart, the wheels of the golden chariot spin in anticipation .. the adventure of life will carry on, and the long road home beckons as an endless pageant of dreams yet to be fulfilled ..

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