And the Olympic Gold medal for the sport of “Nice Try” this week is awarded to Turkish prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who in a bid to convince officials of the International Olympic Committee that Turkey should host Olympics in the future, explained to its president, Jacques Rogge, that: “Turkey is the birthplace of the Olympic flame. We want the Games back in our country. The IOC has the right to bring the Olympic flame back to its origin.” The scholarly Turkish Prime Minister bases his claim on the sound reasoning that there exists a Mount Olympus in Western Anatolia. It follows axiomatically, at least to the prime Minister and his hordes, that as a result, the Olympic Games are Turkish.
What Başbakan Erdoğan should have mentioned, in order to further his claim, is that there is not just one, but four places called Olympus in Anatolia. There is Mount Olympus on the northern coast, now known as Arit, Mount Olympus on the outskirts of Smyrna, which is now known as Mount Nif, the ancient Lycian city of Olympus on the southern coast of Turkey and, most famously, the Mount Olympus near Bursa, now known variously as Uludağ. This sounds impressive until it is juxtaposed against the mountains of same name in Greece. There are six of them: the home of the gods in Pieria but also on Lesvos, Arcadia, Skyros, Euboea and Lavreotiki. If the Olympic Games were to be awarded on the bases of homophones, Greece would win hands down.
It may surprise the Turkish Prime Minister to learn that none of the lofty peaks entitled Mount Olympus have, of course, anything to do with the Olympic Games whatsoever. In fact, the word Olympus is said to be a pre-Greek term, with no known Indo-European etymology, signifying a tall mountain. It may also be inconvenient for the learned leader of the Turkish nation to consider that the reason for the prevalence of so many peaks sharing the appellation of Olympus in his country, is that for three thousand years, that country formed the heartland of Greek civilization. For the Greeks of old were possessed of the propensity to name new settlements after their place of origin. Thus there was a Naxos in Southern Italy, a Messinia (now Messina) in Sicily, while in both Italy and Turkey there was a Heracleia and a Calipolis (Gallipoli). Since Spartan colonists founded the Anatolian city of Isparta, one is astounded that the Turkish government has not yet applied the same reasoning to lay claim to Leonidas, Thermopylae and all marketing proceeds and profits of the movie 300. If they try to do so, the answer is simple: «Μολών λαβέ.»
Yet Bithynian Mount Olympus, the mountain the Turkish PM is using as his flagship for the appropriation of the Olympic Games truly is a mountain of great historical importance and for this reason, we should all be grateful to Erdoğan for drawing the world’s attention to it. The mountain’s former Turkish name is of course, Keşiş Dağı, meaning the mountain of monks and this because during the early Middle Ages, the mountain was renowned for its prevalence of hermitages and monasteries, which rivalled those of Mt Athos in number and splendour. The monks of Bithynian Mount Olympus not only gave Orthodox monasticism the form in which it exists to the present day, but also presented a firm and stubborn resistance against the innovations and heresies of the iconoclast emperors of Byzantium, to the point where they finally prevailed over them, causing the veneration of images to be restored to Orthodox Christianity. The main protagonist in this struggle and by far the most famous resident of Mount Olympus was the wonder-working Saint Ioannikios the Great, one of the greatest monks in the Orthodox tradition.
It goes without saying that athletic games such as those performed in Olympia every four years from 776 BC, for approximately seven hundred years, were never performed on Bithynian Mount Olympus. The only Games ever to have been held in the vicinity are those attested to by Homer in the Iliad, these being the funeral games sponsored by Achilles for Patroclus, outside the walls of Troy, on the coast. Yet, considering the widely unrecognized fact that, if some modern Turkish historians are to be believed, the venerable bard Homer was actually a Turk called Ömer, one can see how all these seemingly disparate actualities can collectively make a persuasive case.
Nonetheless, and given the above, on closer inspection of the Turkish Prime Minister’s reasoning, one may delight in the identification of a much more sublime and profound motivation for his claim. For in promoting the interests of a mountain that has nothing to do with the physical exertions of the Olympic Games and everything to do with the quietitude, self-cultivation and interior struggle of Orthodox monasticism, does not Erdoğan’s claim sound akin to a clarion call, exhorting all of us to abjure activities of the flesh, to seek not triumph in the frivolities and vanities of physical accomplishments, to reject the mercenary zeitgeist of glory and sponsorship but rather, to establish on Bithynian Mount Olympus, the foundation stone of Byzantine monasticism, a greater game, one that involves casting aside one’s chthonic passions in order to transcend oneself and catch a glimpse of the uncreated light of the Divine?
After all, the Olympics have never been called ‘Games’ in Greek. The word is «Ἁγώνας,» which means struggle and this is exactly the term that orthodox monks utilise to denote the meaning of their calling. Further, the word for exercise, a condition precedent for an athletes’ involvement in the Olympics, is the same word used by monks to refer to the practises of the daily lives: «άσκησις,» whence comes asceticism. If one goes further, as Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan has, and reads the various troparions of the Orthodox Church devoted to martyrs, or peruses the writings of such holy fathers as Saint John Chrysostom, then one will immediately notice that sundry martyrs and saints are more often or not referred to as «αθλητές,» or athletes, since in its literal form, an athlete is one who performs a burdensome task. In this context, crypto-Christian Erdoğan then is quite clear. Let all of us reject the worldly Games, with all their pomp and emphasis on brute strength as the measure of superiority, and instead, struggle to participate in the True Games, silently, with humility and fervour, with our eyes fixed on the heavens, in the hope of salvation.
Similarly, Erdoğan’s seemingly paradoxical statement that the Olympic Flame belongs to Turkey can now be explained. It is of course trite to mention that while a constantly burning flame was maintained in the sanctuary of Hera in ancient Olympia, a torch lighting ceremony of commencement did not take place in the ancient Games. Instead, the lighting of a flame was introduced at the 1928 Amsterdam Games, only to be taken up and extended to a torch relay by the Nazi’s at the 1936 Berlin Games, as the perfect way to illustrate Hitler’s belief that classical Greece was an Aryan forerunner of the Third Reich.
This is obviously then, not the flame of Erdoğan. Rather, is not his the inner flame, the flame that burns passionately for truth and love? It is not also the flame of thousands of votive lamps lit by the monks of Mount Olympus and all over modern Turkey by its people for over two thousand years that were extinguished suddenly in the 1922 catastrophe and the genocide that preceded it and have not been lit again…that is until now?
Erdoğan may have intended his absurd IOC remarks only for domestic consumption by his hordes, as a cheap and easy way of maintaining popularity, as only a nationalistic politician in an eastern Mediterranean country knows how. However, in doing so, he inadvertently serves to highlight the intrinsic role Greek civilization, in all of its multifarious forms has played throughout the ages, in developing ideals of physical and spiritual cultivation. And if he neglects or forgets to mention that the propagation of many of those ideals took place by Greeks in the country he now rules over, whether these be the widely applauded and western adopted physical Games, or the silent, long suffering yet equally as awe-inspiring ascesis of the spiritual athletes of Mount Olympus, then we, the inheritors and bearers of this tradition must never do so.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 19 August 2012