Holding Onto the Old

Canada is an amazing country but it lacks something I crave: ancient history. Or at least the evidence of ancient history. I studied the Native Peoples of North America in school and on my own. I know that they inhabited the continent for millennia before the arrival of the Europeans. The tribal art, mythologies and histories that have been passed down are all fascinating.  But they didn’t dominate the landscape around them the way that the pyramids of Giza or the Parthenon on the Acropolis do.

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The city reaches to the hazy horizon, patches of its long and storied history dotting the landscape.

Arriving in Athens and seeing the juxtaposition of the old and the new so closely woven together was an entirely new experience for me. The oldest buildings in Canada are in the eastern provinces and even those are a couple hundred years old at most. Walking up the hill to the Acropolis, taking careful steps to avoid slipping on the marble, I could see the weight of several thousands years worth of footsteps. The stairs have become concave, the hard marble worn away into a smooth curve. Once upon a time hundreds and thousands of Athenians followed the exact route I was walking, carrying sacrifices and offerings to the Parthenon, the great temple of Athena, guardian goddess of the city.

I had seen the Acropolis the night before, all lit up against the dusky sky. The scene filled me with wonder. Now, in the bright Greek daylight, I could see what a few thousand years of history does to a building. The vast plateau that overlooks the city is best known for the Parthenon but there other buildings as well. Nary a one was without scaffolding or rigging of some kind. What had appeared to be a slightly battered temple in the night was now a marble ruin, held together by pieces of iron and steel.

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The entrance gate looking like an outdoor stage for a concert.

Swallowing my initial nauseating disappointment, I followed our teacher around the ancient buildings, only half listening to her soothing lecture. The rest of me was desperately wondering what I had been expecting from two thousand year-old temples while mentally snuffing out the awe-inspiring scenes of temples from Gladiator and Troy that danced through my head.

The longer we walked around the Acropolis the more I began to realize that this is what we do. Humanity is so obsessed with its history that we cling to pieces of rock that should have fallen long ago. We have more paintings and pictures of the Parthenon or the Colosseum than we could ever need to remember their significance. Still, we cannot let go. Money and effort are continuously poured into their restoration because Zeus forgive us if we forget that once upon a time a group of old men in wrapped dresses invented the concept of democracy there. Slavery, mass killings and animal cruelty are all looked down upon but we all can’t wait to take steps down the same corridors as the masses who paid to see them.

I am as bad as the rest of you. My initial disappointment in the state of the temples faded the longer I was there. The Erichtheon, one of the oldest buildings on the Acropolis and dedicated to both Poseidon and Athena, has the porch of the Caryatids. Miraculously free of any construction, it was the most well preserved building on the lot. The Caryatids are five women carved out of marble that take the place of columns, their proud heads holding the stone beams high. Once there were six but one of them was stolen by a British Lord Elgin to decorate his Scottish mansion. Of course the statues that I was viewing were not the originals either. Those have been removed and replaced by exact replicas.

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The Caryadids of the Acropolis, holding the weight of the building on their heads for a millennia.

By the time our class left Athens my disappointment had faded and left behind a grudging respect for the Greeks. There is a law there that any time ground is broken in the city limits any and all artifacts must be given to the museum and any pieces of architecture must be left as they are found. Walking among modern skyscrapers and coming to a giant pit surrounded by viewing glass, I saw pieces of the walls that were once the border of the city.

Several years later, watching the fall of the Greek economy and the effects that it had on Europe I realized that my thoughts hadn’t been entirely off base. Much of their economy depended on tourism, on the everlasting desire of people like you and I to view the past. While that is certainly something to capitalize on, it is hardly a safe investment for the long term. Tourism and travel took a dive  when the economy did, plunging a country driven by its history, like Greece, into debt. Obviously there were many other factors contributing to the problem. Without the thick veil of tourists to hide behind those problems came front and centre, plunging the city into riots and turmoil.

Canada may not have thousand year old temples but we do have a vast track of wilderness that is one of our defining traits. The Greek people have to clean their marble statues and prop up their temples but if we as Canadians don’t continue to take steps forward to protect our land, animals and resources, we are going to need some scaffolding of our own to hold us together. The width of the columns of the Parthenon was astonishing. No less than the ancient and massive old-growth trees that stand taller than any man-made column than I have ever seen.

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Banff National Park, the mountain peaks carved into a pleasing geometric form by the most creative of artists, nature herself.

I suppose my point is that these things are only as important we make them. For every marble statue that gets buffed and shown with pride there are a hundred lying shattered, ruined and buried forever. For every tree that we hug and promise to protect, a thousand are chopped down to make furniture and paper. Nothing has any meaning that we don’t give it. A tree does not know it is called a tree; a piece of stone doesn’t care that you laboured for years to chip it into a pleasing form.  History is subjective. The pieces of it that remain are important not only because they teach us about the past, but because they teach us what the people felt was important to remember.

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