Of Heritage and Identity

Guest Post – Pujya Priyadarshni, travel writer

As I read flipped through a weekly magazine, which diligently analyzed the ongoing Syrian war, the plane started it’s descend in Athens. Having lived in Syria for three years nearly a decade ago, every such story, photographs and/or video, left a lump in my stomach. The nighttime glitter of the city below similar to any other, but the Mediterranean Sea beyond beckoned like an old friend. We had met last on the shores of Tartus and Latakia in Syria!

While the plane taxied, I wondered whether the Acropolis will stir the same feeling that the Monumental Arch did in Palmyra. Would the Temple of Zeus be grander or more overwhelming than the Temple of Bel? As I pondered, little did I know that while discovering Athens and Greek heritage, at every step, my Syrian experience would tug at the heartstrings. Outside the airport, fresh air (paradise for Delhi’s air-clogged lungs) and the mild winter were a welcome change from the preconceived notion of western winters. Winters were colder in Damascus, I recollected.

Next day, with a shining sun, we began a walking tour of Athen’s old city, which is spread around the Acropolis. Our guide, visibly American educated, was a history enthusiast and an occasional philosopher. His sense of humor gave away his education, while his looks made one think of an Arab lineage. What was it about his looks? Was it the light colored eyes, his “Greek-style” beard or the air of pride in his rich history? I still don’t know.

The two hour walk began at Syntagama Square, where the Greek Parliament stands,  through the busy streets of Ermou and Plaka to the quieter bylanes that turned into Hadrian’s Library, the Ancient Agora, Mars Hill and ending ultimately at the entrance of the Acropolis. Along the way, our guide while detailing the history, also provided insights into contemporary Greek life. From tips on where to eat, warning us about areas to be avoided at night,  the tour was an ideal introduction to Athens. As I observed the streets slowly come to life, I wondered how buildings, artifacts, food and culture, all serve to create what may be called the “civilizational strength” of a people; visible in the Greeks and Syrians alike.

Our trek up to the Acropolis, this time without a guide, was full of huffing and puffing. Situated atop a hill, in the heart of the city,  the Acropolis is the poster-child for mainland Greek tourism.

At some distance, as the path turned, on our right we found ourselves overlooking a huge amphitheater. “Hey, this reminds me of the amphitheater of Bosra,” I blurted out; the Syrian hangover clearly playing out. The evident Roman influence seemed to only make it stronger. As the final flight of stairs take you through an archway, the Parthenon emerges leaving you spellbound. No, no postcard, painting or picture does justice. And yes, that is despite the scaffoldings.

Perhaps, it is the sense of heightened expectation, the exhausting trek or the fact that no other building is in the line of sight. While this temple stands tall on a hill giving the effect of a desert in the middle of an oasis, Palmyra was the oasis in the middle of a desert. A walk around the circumference of the area provides a panoramic view of Athens. It is also a great place to catch a good birds’ eye view of the Temple of Zeus and of the Ancient Agora down below.

As we descended, we retraced our steps to the entrance of the Ancient Agora. A site strewn with boulders and artifacts, a must see there is the Temple of Hephaestus. Any ancient place of worship emanates energy and a sense of reassurance about eternal continuity. Didn’t the Temple of Bel at Palmyra stand for similar values?

The entry ticket also includes the museum housed in the Stoa of Atallos. It is like a time capsule. From ancient pottery to precious items, it provides a micro view of Greek civilization, with a helpful timeline for the less initiated. While some were looking for where Socrates stood and spoke, most of us took in the silence of the haven in the middle of the city.

On day two, we took a cruise to the three islands of Hydra, Poros and Aegina. Costing 75-80 euros per head, these cruises take the entire day, and offer lunch with Greek-style entertainment on-board. The first island, Hydra, is about three hours from the coast. With a population of approximately 3000, it is small; a relic of the past way of life, with no cars and only donkeys for transportation.

The small lanes winding upwards on the mountains, the cobbled roads and the alabaster white facade with occasional blue doors may remind of the island of Santorini. Juxtaposed against Hydra are the islands of Poros and Aegina that are conventionally “modern” with bustling city life and of course, cars.

The journey between islands was interspersed with with music and lunch; complete with traditional salad, Dolmades and yoghurt.

At Aegina, we sat by the sea in a small café with calamari (fried squid) and ouzo (traditional alcoholic beverage) and watched the sunset! The cruise is a must do not just for the flavor of Greek islands, but the entire experience of food, entertainment and Greek hospitality.

tramNext day, starting our day at noon, we took the local tram that goes along the coast. The round trip from Syntagma Square to Voula is ideal. Public transport, apart from providing transportation, also provides a sneak peek into the daily lives of locals and their neighborhoods away from the tourist haunts. The tram literally runs through neighborhoods, with plenty of stops for shopping, food and churches along the way.

On our return, we strolled to the Athens Flea Market. A pedestrian’s paradise, it is ideal to shop for souvenirs. From olive soaps, fridge magnets, pottery, to decorative plaques; there is something for everyone. Feel free to bargain, for there are no fixed prices and plenty of room for conversations! Every 200 metres there are street vendors selling nuts and dry fruits, filling the air with the familiar scent of the Damascus souk.

No holiday is complete without a taste of the local food. At the crossroad between the Flea Market and Plaka area, many restaurants serve traditional Greek food at affordable prices (10 euros per head). The salads, the lamb kebabs and the pita bread are the trade mark of perhaps all Mediterranean cuisines. Wasn’t this the very taste I acquired in Syria!

Of course, the Greek yoghurt is a must. Try the plain one with fruits added on top, or the frozen flavored one; it hasn’t acquired a reputation just like that.  Many cafes throng along the boundary of the historic sites, offering authentic Greek food with the site as the backdrop.

As my Greek holiday came to an end, I couldn’t help but think about the essential role of physical environment, history and culture in the formation of one’s identity. Would a Greek feel the same without the Acropolis stretched across the skyline of Athens? Certainly not. I wonder how Syrians relate to knowing that Palmyra and Bosra don’t stand any longer. Heritage and identity are intertwined and interdependent. Athens, it is only right that I learnt this from you.

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