BRIDGE ON THE RIVER ARACTHOS
If you could take humanity's indomitable will and determination to bridge the chasm between infinite possibilities and destiny and fossilize it, the end result would surely be the stone bridges of Epirus. One comes upon them unsuspectedly, perched across the spans of a primeival land, gnarled and twisted by the ravages of time, disconsolantly echoing the merciless footsteps of the history that has passed over it. Carved out of the very living rock that they purport to defy, these are works created throughout the ages by the hands of man which blend harmoniously with those created by nature itself: majestic landscapes, craggy mountains and gorges, the meeting place of rivers, breathtaking coastlines looking out onto the horizon.
Overcoming lacunae in the benevolence of nature (and Greeks have generally never thought of nature as benevolent), by building bridges was a task of Herculean proportions, requiring special know-how and skills such as knowledge of the characteristics of the obstacle to be surmounted, expertise with respect to the building materials, engineering expertise, dexterity and the utilization of technological innovations. Romans were certainly the greatest bridge-builders in antiquity and the first to set-up a technical corps, consisting of engineers and experienced workmen who supervised and coordinated, throughout the Empire, the building of bridges. As well, they also founded technical schools, though admittedly staffed by Greek "expert" slaves, who recorded the first instruction manuals and technical descriptions, as can be found in the work “Architecture” of Vitruvius. The stone bridges found in Epirus, are descendents of these Roman bridges. They arise, impossibly, in the most precipitous of peaks and arch themselves, hunch-backed, across the void.
It no wonder that the craggy, inaccessible and torturous landscape of Epirus has produced the most skilled bridge-builders. The technicians and stone-masons, in the villages of Tzoumerka were particularly skilled. As itinerant craftsmen, they would set of in search of work after Easter, usually on St. George’s day and returned in the midst of Autumn. The troop leader was the foreman while the second in command was known as “kalfas.” The kalfas was in charge of the troop, which consisted of builders, clay-men, marble carvers, stone hewers (known as “pelekanoi”) and many others, amongst them many boys – known as apprentices (“tsirakia”), whio carried the materials from dawn to dusk. These craftsmen also devised their own idiom – the “craftsman’s tongue” – “mastorika” – in an attempt to safeguard their art and interests. Although they were highly regarded by the Turks, who granted them special privileges for their free movement in the occupied territories and honuored many of them by offering them positions of authority in the Empire, their only defence against double-crossing was the desertion of the work-site, which remained undone and no other troop took up its completion until the master settled the score with the previous troop. In this way, hump-backed stone bridges through themselves over ravines all over the Balkans. Indeed, the famous bridge at Mostar in Bosnia, whose destruction during the dissolution of Yugoslavia became such a pertinent symbol of internecine strife, was constructed by Epirot stonemasons.
Perhaps the most iconic of all Greek stone bridges, is the fabled bridge of Arta, over the river Aracthos, which has featured so bleakly in Greek demotic poetry. The bridge became famous from the eponymous legendary folk-song, which is at the core about human sacrifice. From the ballad, a number of Greek proverbs and customary expressions arose, associated with interminable delays. For example, I tend to refer in exasperation to the perennial roadworks in Buckley Street, East Keilor, as «Το γιοφύρι της Άρτας», even though they span nothing more than the trickle that purports to be Steele Creek, because, in the words of the song: "All day they build it and in the evening it collapses."
According to chronicler of Epirus, Panayiotis Aravantinos, the bridge was constructed during Ancient Roman times. However, according to some traditions it was built when Arta became capital of the Despotate of Epirus, possibly under Michael II Ducas (1230-1271). Other alleged construction dates vary from 1602 to 1606. Seraphim, the Metropolitan of Arta, has noted that the bridge was built, according to some tradition, by an Artan grocer.
According to the folk song, every day 1300 builders, 60 apprentices, and 35 masons, under the leadership of the Head Builder, tried to build a bridge the foundations of which would collapse each morning:
"Forty-five master builders and sixty apprenticesWere laying the foundations for a bridge over the river of Arta. They would toil at it all day, and at night it would collapse again.The master builders lament and the apprentices weep: "Alas for our exertions, woe to our labours,For us to toil all day while at night it collapses!"
Finally a bird with a human voice informed the Head Builder that in order for the bridge to remain standing, he must sacrifice his wife. As his wife is being killed, being built in the foundations of the construction, she utters curses that conclude with blessings:
"Alas for our fate, woe to our destiny!We were three sisters, and all three star-crossed.One of us worked on the Danube, the other on the Euphrates, And I, the youngest, on the river of Arta. May the bridge ever shake, as carnations shake,And may those who cross it ever fall down, as leaves fall from trees.""Girl, take that back, make it a different curse, Because you have your only dear brother, lest he happen to pass by."
What is particularly fascinating about this macabre song, is that relatively unknown fact that it has spawned a sister song. For there exists, upon the upper reaches of the Euphrates River in North Iraq, a similar stone bridge with a surprisingly similar song attached to it. According to the Aramaic ballad, which is still sung today, the Head Builder was advised by a bird that in order for his bridge to stand, he would have to sacrifice the first thing that came to him at midday. The Head Builder vowed to do this, knowing that usually at midday, his wife, preceded by his dog, would come to the river to bring him his lunch. However, on the particularly unhappy day that the song unfolds, the wife ran to the bridge first in an attempt to please her husband and was promptly immured in it. Since our demotic song refers to the immured sister in the Euphrates, one can draw the conclusion that the sway of Epirotic bridge-builders reached as far as the Middle East. The idea that a major edifice can not be built without a human sacrifice ("building in" of a person) was also common in the folklore of other Balkan peoples such as Bulgarians and Romanians (Epirot craftsmen also built bridges over the Danube in these countries). A master-builder being forced to sacrifice his wife in this way is a common theme in their folk songs with a recurring plot element is the masterbuilders' decision to sacrifice the woman who comes first to the building site to bring them food. All but one break their promise and tell their wives to come late, and it is the wife of the only honest one that is sacrificed.
The first time I gazed upon the hum-backed stone leviathan wearily rising from the waters of the Aracthos, I fancied that instead of the groans of the entombed Head Builder's wife, I could hear the groans of an entire people, entombed into a destiny and a way of life that it cannot ever possibly escape. The bridge of Arta, leads nowhere. No one crosses it anymore. Instead, it is bypassed by a highway, at whose side busses pull over, in order for tourists to take photographs to which they can point and claim that they have "done the bridge at Arta". In short, this imposing structure, for whose construction an ultimate price was paid, is, after so much effort expended, irrelevant to the purpose for which it was originally constructed. Experts in building matters mention that the lime used in bridges such as that of Arta takes up to seven years to congeal. It is said that bridge-builders prayed for the river not to flood during these first seven years of its construction in order not to draw the bridge away. Traditionally a supplication was held to be addressed by the lime to the stone: “Hold me stone for seven years and I will hold you forever.” This was supposed to mirror the commonly held belief that the first seven years in a marriage are the difficult ones, until a “bridge” between the partners is built. However, once the lime congeals, destiny is set in stone and can never be escaped.
One thing we tend to "do" rather well is futility and this is unsurprising given that one of our ancestors was the inmate of Tartarus, Sisiphus, compelled for eternity to carry a boulder uphill, only to have it roll down to the bottom when he had almost completed his task, rendering his efforts to nought. The merciless bridge of Arta, which rendered all human aspirations into rubble and demanded the blood of life as the price for permanence, is but another rolling boulder in the long list of Sisyphean pursuits that characterise the avalanche that comprises our terrestrial experience. In that, it resembles another of its counterparts, the bridge on the River Kwai, constructed as the movie would have it, by a British colonel who, after settling his differences with a Japanese PoW camp commander, co-operates to oversee his men's construction of a railway bridge for their captors - while oblivious to a plan by the Allies to destroy it.
What shall be the fate of the edifices our founding fathers sacrificed their spare time in order to construct? Will we, just like our fore-fathers, be compelled to build and re-build shattered structures until such time as our endeavours come to nothing? Does immortality require us to be cryogenically "built in" to whatever we construct so that it can moulder on throughout the ages - unchanged but irrelevant? Maybe the moral of the bridge at Arta, whispered among the crashing of the waters around its supports, is that there are some voids that we should never aspire to fulfil - that there is hubris in permanency after all. But then again is not the tragedy of the condition humane, its fleeting essence in a time-bound world? If so, then perhaps the bridge at Arta is an existential fossil, and the stone-masons of Epirus, the precursors of Camus. Let us keep building then, for in the words of the great l'étranger himself: "He who despairs over an event is a coward, but he who holds hope for the human condition is a fool."