Monday, March 01, 2004


Pergamum, or Bergama as it is now known, is renown in history for four things, during its two thousand year history as a Greek city. The first is the invention of parchment. At a time when papyrus was expensive and hard to come by, the wily Pergamese of Asia Minor invented a way of treating goatskin that produced a hard wearing, flexible and beautiful surface to write on. This invention is what caused the widespread dissemination of books in the ancient world and parchment has been used right up until the middle of the twentieth century for official documents and in Victoria, for Certificates of Title. In Greek, the word for parchment, justifiably enough, is Περγαμηνή.
The second is its Great Library. The enlightened Attalid dynasty of Pergamum who carved themselves a large kingdom in western Asia Minor beautified their city and as avid scholars, sought to collect all of the world’s literary works. Second in its collection only to the library of Alexandria, it was a beacon of learning and scholarship throughout the ancient and Roman world, until its destruction.
Pergamum’s fate was the first indication of the self-destructive capacities of the Greek character. The last of the Attalids, enmeshed in a power struggle between the Seleucids of Syria and the Ptolemies of Egypt, bequeathed his kingdom to Rome. This allowed Rome a significant foothold in the Middle East, providing Rome with the perfect base to subjugate the Hellenistic kingdoms to her will.
Finally, Pergamum is known as one of the seven ancient churches of the East, as appear in the Apocalypse of John. As a church centre however, it was soon eclipsed by Ephesus, with its cult of the Panagia Theotokos, who supposedly died there.
The Turks of Pergamum do not have fond memories of the Greeks. Pergamum was the scene of many atrocities committed against the local Turkish population by Greek troops during the Asia Minor War in 1920. Whether this would explain their current attitude to the history of its Greek rulers is unknown. Apparently, the municipal authorities of Pergamum have erected a statue of Pergamum’s king Attalus II Philadelphus, who living between 220-138 BC, beautified the city with public buildings, built the library and was also responsible for building the Stoa of Attalus in Athens, near the temple of Hephaestus. This simple act has caused an outcry, with citizens demanding the statue be pulled down, as they claim Attalus was gay. Until the issue is determined, the offending parts of Attalus have been discreetly covered up.
That all this comes from a race of people whose very name, Ottomans gave meaning to the word ottomanism and the sexual practices that so intrigued the British during the era of Orientalism seems to escape them, as does the fact that the vast majority of their Sultans had a particular yen for attractive young boys. In fact, the legal tender of the Turkish Republic is stamped indelibly with the face of a man who is rumoured to have more than indulged in this particular habit. It is however quite possible that the macho Pergamese Turks misread Philadelphus for Philadelphi, a slight change in literal meaning from “Lover of one’s brother,” to “Lover of gays.” Not that there is anything wrong with that. Compound words are always confusing.
Poor Attalus. There he was, finding Pergamum of brick and leaving it of parchment, creating the first construction boom and simultaneously inventing the reality tragedy in the ancient theatre of Pergamum, built into a cliff face, (whereby actors would act out the tragedy of the developer who would try to create the housing estate of his dreams, only to find out that the authorities will not give him a planing permit. Finally, he falls on his knees and begs the King’s mercy and he is granted permission to build. Years later, a young family who bought one of homes is killed when the home, built of shoddy materials collapses, revealing a nude statue of Attalus in the rubble) only to be forcibly outed by a bunch of hypocritical zealots two millennia later. Quite aside from the ridiculous assertion that gay people do not deserve statues (England and Turkey are full of them), why accuse someone as gay just because they were interested in interior decorating and books? Let he whose ancestors have not buggered cast the first stone I say.
The municipal authorities of Pergamum are laudable in their attempt to come to terms with the history of their town. The usual practice has been to totally disregard the Hellenic heritage of Asia Minor and to disguise it as Roman, Hittite or ‘ancient Turkish.’ I remember visiting the archaeological museum in Constantinople a few years ago and being told by a guide that statues of Zeus from Ephesus were actually ‘ancient Turkish sculptures.’ By paying homage to Attalus, the municipal authorities of Pergamum are recognising and respecting the fact that the city pre-dated their sojourn and that the land in which they live is and was a melting pot of a multitude of cultures. This does not in any way compromise Turkish sovereignty over the city. It does however provide a realistic and more humane perspective of history that permits two peoples who have been traditional enemies to unite in celebrating the significance of Pergamum to their cultures. One cannot shake off the suspicion that the hoo hah about Attalus supposedly being gay is merely an ill disguised attempt by ultra-nationalists to stop the municipal authorities of Pergamum paying homage to the city’s Greek ancestry and it is sad that this should be so and it displays that perennial insecurity and immaturity in our neighbours that has seen the gradual decay through calculated neglect of monuments of world significance and particular importance to Hellenism such as Agia Sophia, the Boucoleon Palace or Agia Irene.
If straight, damn straight Attalus was alive today, he certainly would be telling them to bugger off, before going down to the agora for a steam bath and a lengthy discussion with his associates as to which cornice will look good in the latest public edifice. That’s what you get for being down with your brothers. It’s enough to make you want to leave your kingdom to the Pope, for Tupac’s sake.


first published in NKEE on 1 March 2004