Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Mediterranean dreams and nightmares

Maybe I have mentioned this before, but eight or nine years ago I had a really vivid dream about living in a motorhome. At that time owning one seemed an impossible aspiration, but this did not stop us traipsing around dealers on dull Sunday afternoons and imagining what we might like, even though the price on the windscreen seemed hopelessly unaffordable.

This particular Sunday we must have decided that our fantasy motorhome was one of those 25 foot twin wheeled Euromobiles. so much so that I ended up having a recurrent dream about it. We were parked on an empty pebbly beach under a deep blue sky beside a gently lapping clear sea. On a hill above the bay stood a ruined Greek temple. That was it; I was not accosted by a passing nymph Aphrodite did not appear before me in all her gorgeousness to promise unbridled pleasure and eternal life. No, there was just us, a few tons of gleaming German metal and a ruin by the sea.

Bit by bit the dream has almost come true, but in fragments like a jigsaw. Now we do spend months of our life touring about in a few tons of German metal, though not a Euromobil. In Greece last autumn we did kip-down on pebbly beaches beside the gently lapping sea, next to a pine and eucalyptus fringed bay, beneath rocky headlands or on a lovely harbourside.

Though we have visited many temples, none quite seemed to match the lone majesty of the ruin in my dream. Until yesterday - when I saw on a low, gariga covered promontory the remains of Seninunte's somewhat unimaginatively named 'Temple C'. Its line of 12 slender Doric columns silhouetted against the shining sea seemed instantly recognisable; this was the temple from my dream! So, my dream had come true, but in instalments.

Temple C type dream


The site at Selinunte is beautifully positioned on a deserted stretch of coast. It consists of two areas. The sacred area east of the city walls has one temple that has been partially reconstructed, and another massive ruin with heaps of column drums, each weighing 100 tons. It's difficult to decide which monument is the more impressive.

The temples to the east of the old city

Some re-erected by archaeologists early last century

some left as a pile of gigantic stones
The site of the city itself is on a hill by the sea about a kilometre distant. The track to it wends its way through a shallow valley which today, in mid-February, was carpeted in spring flowers. I cannot think of a better day to have been here - sunny, but not too warm as to make sightseeing uncomfortable. The archaeological area  must be more than five square kilometres at a guess, yet there were fewer than a dozen cars parked at the entrance. At times we had the place to ourselves, it felt magical.

Spring flowers among the temples - yellow, blue and red...
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The ancient city itself is a sprawl of tumbled down walls, fallen columns and chunks of carved masonry. It is difficult to make sense of it as most of the visitor information boards have been removed and those that remain are so old that the writing is more or less illegible. Judging from the few that were decipherable, then the information would still have been incomprehensible as the copy seemed to have been lifted straight from an academic paper about the site. I was left struggling to differentiate a pronaos from a pluteus, and wondered if truncated trabeation should be a concern, and something to consult a specialist about. Luckily the ambiance of Selinunte is such that understanding the details does not matter too much. In truth the place was a ruin even in Roman times as it was abandoned after the first Punic war in the 2nd century BC.

The Acropolis is something of a jumble - and difficult to make sense of the original layout.

The massive walls were added after the massacre in 409 BC
In fact the story of the city is somewhat sobering given events unfolding in the eastern Mediterranean at the moment. Selinunte was founded in 7th Century BC as an off-shoot of a Greek colony near Syracuse. By the late 5th Century it was allied to Syracuse and Agrigento and had grown to be one of the most successful cities in the Western Mediterranean. However in the late 5th century the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta affected the fate of their distant allies. Syracuse supported Sparta and attacked by an Athenian invasion force. Even though the invasion was defeated it brought Selinunte in conflict with the Athenians allies to the north at Segesta. As Athenian power waned, the Segestians switched allegiance to Carthage and a joint force attacked Selinunte in 409 BC and massacred every living soul in the place in one of the most infamous acts of cruelty in ancient history.

It's a bit depressing that almost 2500 years later civilians are still being massacred on the shores of the Mediterranean in a regional conflict fuelled by the ambitions of major powers in a proxy war. In Northern Europeans' minds the Mediterranean has acquired a connotations of civility, good living and well-being; just think of the terms 'Mediterranean diet, or Mediterranean lifestyle. But the history of 'mare nostrum' has a darker past too. Quite often fellow motorhomers talk of 'living the dream' parked by the sparkling sea under a blue sky, and we are living that dream too. Yet here especially, with the islands of Lampadusa and Pantelleria only just over the horizon, it is difficult to ignore the nightmare that has befallen millions of ordinary people that share this sea's shore. No one knows how this will end, but the history of the Mediterranean is not exactly comforting. For all its alluring beauty and rich culture, it is and always has been a blood-stained sea, giving a chilling sense to Homer's 'wine-dark' epithet.


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