Monday, March 29, 2004


From the people that brought you Thessaloniki Talkfest 2003, welcome to Sydney Talkfest 2004! It is both heartening and ironic that the Greek Consular authorities decided to convene a forum in Sydney recently to discover why youth do not play an active role in the “Greek community.” For this comes at a time when youth participation has reached such a level that it would be almost impossible to resuscitate it. Talk about bad timing. It seems to be more like a forensic examination than a fact finding mission. It is interesting that such a forum was not convened years ago, when there was some youth participation within the community and the findings could have been used to determine a future course of action. The paltry act of convening a talkfest, a quick and easy method of ‘feel-good’ marketing to show that yes we really do care, is too little too late. Still, they have to be applauded, as at least their heart is in the right place.
The Greek Consulates’ lament at the imminent demise of Greek regional organizations, due to lack of youth, is even more poignant and uplifting, considering that they have not really been active in promoting youth participation in the past. In the eighties and nineties, these organizations received little or no guidance from the Consulates, save when they attempted to sabotage or create dissent within certain organizations that ideologically were ‘undesirable.’ Sadly, this state of affairs continues to the present day. Save for the case of one consul-general who during his brief sojourn, for better or for worse managed to rally the Greek community around the Consulate, the vast majority of the accomplishments of the Australian Greek community have been guided by the Church, and individual endeavours. The absence of the Consulates’ assistance from these has been stark.
Talkfests though, are rather fun and provide one with the opportunity to vent their spleen in a way only a writer of a diatribe could manage. I went to one in 1999, where Dimitri Dollis acted out a plausible caricature of Jerry Springer, passing around a microphone and obtaining responses from a bunch of youth who were involved in the organised community as to why they were so involved and what needed to be done to move others to do so. It was an interesting session, there was some healthy debate and motions were moved and carried. The delegates left feeling optimistic that the resolutions would be published and all would implement them. They also were grateful to the organizers of the said talkfest. Five years down the track, we still await their publication, while most of the delegates no longer are involved in their respective communities.
Top-heavy forums, packed full of elitist neo-Greeks, who serve only to preen their Hellenism before others self-righteously, assist no one. They are not representative of the vast corpus of Greeks out there who are not involved in the organised community. It is short sighted to suggest that young Greeks consciously make the choice not to get involved. Rather, it is the case, that fewer and fewer youth are exposed to the Greek community per se. The focus needs to be on making sure that these persons will not be left out of the loop as it were. Instead, we are continuously employing the services of ‘youth leaders’ of the Greek community who fit a certain stereotype: educated, with good jobs and dynamic – perfect to take home to one’s mother. This is not to say that these people’s commentary and opinions will not provide a valuable insight. It does however mean, that those who do not fit into the ‘desirable’ stereotype, remain without a voice as their so-called representatives are out of touch with them. This in turn ensures the perpetuation of the same ‘token youth’ and the exclusion of all others.
Problems within the organised Greek community do exist. Youth who do at some stage experience their inner workings are often left disappointed and isolated, not only because of the propensity for internecine power squabbles that characterise us as a race, but because regional organizations generally have little vision other than remembering events in the home village fifty years ago, cooking, and drinking beer. In their current states, these organizations do not seem to offer much to the youth. Other organizations that cater for ‘interests’ rather than for regions are afflicted with similar problems. They are closed, insular and hinder rather than encourage the active role of often outspoken and idealistic youth, while at the same time paying lip service to them.
Talkfest 2004 should have examined an interesting aspect of youth attitudes to the community. Sadly, most youth actually look down upon the first generation and their activities. This type of stuff is for the ‘wogs.’ In the eighties and nineties most youth took the conscious decision to reject their identity by not attending ‘wog’ functions and refusing to speak Greek. In many cases, this has been engendered by those very ‘professionals’ that the Consulates seek to promote as ‘ideal’ Greeks. Not a few of these from the first generation have made their money by providing services to their compatriots. Sadly, many of these also engendered a dislike of their compatriots in their children as uncultivated and uncouth. I remember a prominent first generation Greek businessman telling me that Greeks were pigs and that they smelled. His son shared his opinion. This passive resistance and hatred of ‘wog’ things can be found in almost every Greek family. It is unpleasant, and we don’t like to talk about it. Sadly, we loathe that part of ourselves that links us to our ancestry and determines our identity. How then can we carry on as an identifiable community? What are those other interests that we can have in common if we reject our ‘regional’ identities?
The answer is not much. Networking is an oft-used word that is thrown around when talking of identity these days. What is generally meant by this is that we should retain our sense of community so we can refer work to each other and so we can marry within our community, thus ensuring its survival. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with these two ideals. They do promote a sense of cohesion. However, they do fail to provide an ideological basis for our continued existence as an organised community with a common identity.
Another thing that Talkfest 2004 does not seem to have picked up on is that they automatically assume that youth would flock to an organization that would cater to their needs. Nothing could be further from the truth. Greek organizations have been alienating their youth for years and yet few are the youth who have banded together to form an organization to suit them, save for the Romiosyni Association, whose interest lies in the history of Byzantium. Those youth who do get involved in Greek organizations become like ‘oldies’ they criticize, and are prone to the same Byzantine skullduggery, plots, gossip and schemes as their ancestors. At any rate the state of youth organizations that are run by youth is poor. Most of these are ‘letterhead’ organizations that are kept alive so that their aging presidents can still gain invites to free cocktail parties and free trips to Greece. This is a root cause of malaise that needs to be addressed. It is the conduct of the youth themselves rather than that of the ‘seniors’ that is cause for concern. We are ‘big boys’ now. We should be able to look after ourselves. Unfortunately, we don’t want to and we seek to blame our parents for our own shortcomings. Sadly, they are allowing us to get away with this.
Finally, as the very fabric of the previously unanimously accepted conception of ‘community’ unravels before our very eyes, perhaps it becomes necessary to re-consider what definition we shall have to re-apply to the word community. The world in general is a very different place to that in which our forefathers settled in Australia. Society is in many ways, much more insular and individualistic and the demands of paid employment take out an even more sizeable chunk in people’s spare time, time that once could be applied to the attendance and organisation of community events. How do we define our community in an era of globalism and what is our place in it? Is the very word community fast becoming redundant when applied to a people of diverse interests who are not as homogenous a they would like to think that they are? Are other units, such as family units the sole repository and hope of Hellenism and should they be studied and aided further?
Ultimately, the struthocamilism that this diatribist constantly rails at reigns supreme. It is no longer enough to try to identify the problem. We have known for years that our institutions are diminishing. All the talking in the world will not save us from this. Now is the time for the youth to emerge and act. If they truly espouse the ‘ideals’ of ‘Hellenism’ some vestiges of the old identity shall remain, albeit in an altered form. If not, then it will not be through lack of talking. The Consulates could take a stand here in assisting in a campaign to enlighten and bring the youth in closer contact with the mother culture, or at least play a more prominent part in their daily lives, something which would be unprecedented. If the traditional disheartening visit to the Consulate however, is anything to go by their level of cultural sensitivity, this will be a long day in coming. I can’t shake of the suspicion that as a people obsessed with their past and living half in it, we will not be able to shake off the spectre of abandoning our face saving facades and our empty brotherhood buildings and adapt to meet the challenge of the times. Let’s be Pythagoreans and think outside the square and isosceles triangles we live in. In the meantime we await the published findings of Talkfest 2004. In particular, we will relish the advice provided as to how to bring Hellenism to the small trader, the tradesperson and the unemployed among us. And we hold our breath, in anticipation of outcomes.
first published in NKEE on 29 March 2004

Monday, March 22, 2004


It has been the marvel of visitors to Greece for two centuries now, as to how highly developed the Greek people’s sense of identity actually is. This sense of identity has been forged from the common consciousness of three thousand years of civilisation. The forging largely took place in the nineteenth century, when a renascent Greece sought to formulate a national ideology that would justify its existence. Of course, there was plenty of material to choose from and the Greece of the three eras, ancient, Byzantine and modern, is with us still today, passionately nationalistic and largely ignoring the long sojourns and contributions of other nations in the geographical area of Greece.
It comes for example as a surprise for many to learn that the most successful emperors of Byzantium were actually of Armenian descent, or that indeed, Greece marks the birthplace of other peoples’ national myths. Thus Thessaloniki occupies a special place in the national myth of Turkey. It is the birthplace of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern, racially homogenous Turkey and spinner of the myth that the ‘new’ Turkey basically has no room for non-Turks. It was in Thessaloniki that Ataturk made the ideological connections that would drive his vision to its ultimate conclusion and the house in which he was born remains a place of pilgrimage for his admirers even today.
The Albanians’ nationalistic narrative is so inextricably linked with Greece that it is difficult to perceive where “Greece” ends and “Albania” begins. This is because Albanians have had a long history of settling in Greece and primarily in Peloponnesus, and have played a considerable role as mercenaries in the Byzantine armies. They have as their national hero who first ‘united’ the ‘Albanian’ tribes and consequently ‘created’ an Albanian identity, Georgios Kastriotis, a Greek nobleman who successfully held southern Illyria and Epirus against the Ottomans for over twenty years. A latter day Kastriotis exists within the framework of the myth in the person of Ali Pasha, the wily Albanian warlord of Tepeleni, who ruled Epirus so effectively that he was able to extend his schizophrenic benevolent/malevolent rule at the expense of the Ottomans throughout the whole of Greece. Thus the Albanian national myth, in parallel to the Greek one, is forged in the fires of resistance against the Ottomans. This is evermore so obvious when one considers that most of the ‘Greek’ revolutionary fighters, including the Souliotes, spoke Albanian dialects and organised their daily lives in accordance with Albanian tribal custom. Theophanis Mavromatis, or as he is known in Albanian, Fan Noli, the first president of Albania, further attempted to construct the Albanian national myth along Greek lines by providing an ancient past for those people. Thus, in accordance to official historiography, Pyrrhus, king of Epirus was Albanian, as was Alexander the Great, his ancestor. A sign on the walls of the castle at Argyrokastro in Northern Epirus reads: “Illyrians (supposedly the ancient ancestors of the Albanians), Epirots and Albanians are one race.” There can be no doubt that the genesis and basis of Albanian national consciousness rests firmly in Greece.
The Adolf Hitler prize for most blatant examples of history being pillaged to suit the builders of national identities would have to go to those persons who took the heritage of the Macedonian kingdom, scraped away all vestiges of Hellenism and purported to present the well scraped, paper thin and wholly ludicrous aftermath as the national identity of a hitherto non-existent ‘race’ to a people who, hitherto, had no such identity, the Vardar Slavs.
Mt Athos, surprisingly enough has been a particularly interesting genesis point for Slavonic national myths. The lonely pioneer of Bulgarian nationalism was Father Paisi, a monk at Mt Athos. In 1762 he wrote a history of Bulgaria in which he tried to make his people aware of their illustrious past. His work, considered as history, was of no scientific value. It was naïve and uncritical, written in clumsy and artificial idiom, half Church Slavonic and half Bulgarian. But it was alive with nationalist fervour and it had a dynamic effect in the limited circles in which it was read. Paisi’s appeal is an interesting one, in an age when most Bulgarians thought of themselves as Greeks:
“Why are you ashamed to call yourselves Bulgarians and why don’t you think and read in your own language? Didn’t the Bulgarians in former times have a great empire? Why be ashamed of your race and adopt a foreign tongue?…Of all the Slav peoples, the Bulgarians have been the most illustrious. They were the first to receive baptism, the first to have a patriarch, the first Slav saints were of our race…”
Historically, Bulgaria’s national myth is also inextricably linked with that of Greece. While Bulgarians’ origins lie in the intermingling of Turkish tribes from the Volga region of Russia with Slav settlers, the empire that Paisi refers to, that of the Asans and Samuels was one built along Byzantine lines and predicated on the gradual conquest of the Byzantine state and the assumption of its heritage by the Bulgarian khans. Not a few of those khans styled themselves ‘Emperors of the Romans,’ while they are also claimed by the Vlachs as their own. The first apostles to Christianise the Slav peoples, Cyril and Methodius are also claimed by the Greeks, Bulgarians and the Slavs of Vardar as their own.
Serbian national consciousness also rests within Mt Athos. Tsar Stephan Dushan and the Nematjid rulers carved for themselves in medieval times an empire in Greece along similar geographical lines as that of Ali Pasha and used Byzantine rites and rituals to legitimise their rule. Most importantly, the jewel in the crown of imperial Serbia was Hilandar monastery on Mt Athos, built by Serbia’s patron Saint, St Sava in 1198. Richly endowed by Serbian kings, it remained a beacon of Slav nationalism throughout the Ottoman Empire, maintaining spiritual and cultural connections with Serbian communities in the Balkans. It also played a notable role in preserving the national awareness of the people, leading to a renewal of the Serbian state in the nineteenth century. Sadly, this monastery, a treasure house of Byzantine and Serbian manuscripts was heavily damaged by fire recently. It is hoped that it shall be restored soon so that its importance remains undiminished.
Ultimately Greek national myth which excludes that of the nations herein is a poor one considering how much of our own experience these fraternal nations have adopted. At any rate, national exclusivity leads to stagnation and ho hum, tedium. Our cultural experience is much broader and much less exclusive than we may like to think.

First published in NKEE on 22 March 2004

Monday, March 15, 2004


When Nikos Kazantzakis completed his "Last Temptation of Christ," he wrote that he had never so felt the magnitude of how much Christ was tempted to stray from the path of saving humanity. He said it helped him to appreciate the torment that Christ went through as a man. His work of course, a work of fiction was condemned by the Church hierarchy and Kazantzakis was excommunicated for his troubles. While it could be said that doctrinally, the "Last Temptation of Christ" is replete with holes, read responsibly, it does help one gain an appreciation of what it may have been like to be tempted, as a man to stray from a difficult, pre-ordained path.
Ultimately, any portrayal of a divinity's life is fraught with controversy. Firstly because the first criterion of worthiness is how close the portrayal is to the 'original' or 'accepted' version of the story and secondly what issues or hidden agendas emerge from such a portrayal. Kazantzakis for example was accused of being a freemason and an anti-Christian by portraying Christ on the Cross imagining what it would be like if He forsook the Cross and went home, got married and had children. This was an exploration of faith rather than a narrative of faith and was thus condemned.
Mel Gibson's recent work, "The Passion," also purports to be a work of faith. It certainly is a most powerful piece of cinematography that tries and provokes the emotions. By focusing on the last twelve hours of Christ's earthly existence, Gibson parallels the approach taken by Kazantzakis in many ways. His is also an exploration, not so much of the humanity of Christ per se, but the suffering that Christ endured for our sake. Thus while the viewer is constantly bombarded with horrific images of Christ being tortured, mocked and mutilated, this appears to be consistent with the Gospels and it has a most singular effect. For it is one thing to read in the Gospels that Jesus was whipped, mocked and spat upon and another thing to see a plausible version of the events before your eyes. If anything, Gibson's movie allows the viewer to appreciate how much Christ suffered and what that suffering really entailed. It is an appreciation of that suffering that is the main effect and thrust of the movie. It certainly is effective. Rather than being the crass horror movie designed to tittilate, it succeeds in providing an insight into the depths of human brutality and suffering.
Of course as a narrative, it is not perfect, though it purports to be close. There are many 'defects' including Satan's personification as an androgynous being and his temptation of Christ during the harrowing ordeal of His last hours. There is nothing in the Gospels to suggest that this in fact did occur but nevertheless, the presence of evil, its gloating at suffering and final vanquishing with the sacrifice of Christ is central to the Christian message, and arguably acceptable. Other defects can be found. Christ speaks in Latin to Pilate when there is no evidence for this, the sign on his cross is written only in Latin and Hebrew rather than also in Greek, as is attested to in the Gospels and much license is taken with the earth tremor which in the movie not only causes the veil in the Temple to be torn in two, but the entire Temple itself.
These small explorations do not detract from the central message of the film. It is one replete with raw power and I doubt that anyone who has ever seen it will view Easter in the same way again.
The ramifications of the film of course are manifold, with various 'hidden agendas' being postulated. The movie has been said to have been motivated by a Jesuit view of Christianity. There is no evidence for this. More importantly, the film is claimed to be anti-Semitic. This is a most serious charge, for if true, then the movie flies in the face of the central message of Christ, love. A determination of this sort rests directly on the interpretation of the word anti-Semitic. Does this mean that it is a movie whose message is that Jews are disreputable and/or portrays them in a bad light or does it mean that this movie may incite feelings of revulsion towards Jews as a whole?
I would hesitate to ascribe it to the first of these definitions. The movie does show a crowd of Jews shouting for the death of Christ. It also shows Jews mocking Him on the cross. Yet it does not say that all Jews clamoured for the death of Christ. It even shows some of the Jewish priests defending him. Even the famous phrase "may His blood be on us, and our children" uttered in the movie by Caiaphas and not subtitled is misunderstood. For years thiswas quoted by priests as a justification for pogroms against the Jews. This is wrong. All it means is that it was uttered by some persons at that time, if we accept, which Christians do, that the Gospel is the Word of God. Ultimately, in this respect all the movie does is tell the story of some Jews who felt threatened by Christ's message and considering it blasphemous, asked the Romans to crucify him, which they did. Per se, it would be hard to say that the movie sends a message against Jews or their descendants, though Christians believe that the condemnation of an innocent man and God Himself is reprehensible. Nevertheless, Christ did forgive his tormentors from the Cross.
Whether the movie can give rise to anti-Semitic feelings is a vexed question. Presumably it can, because certain people lack the sophistication of subtlety to understand that the crucifixion was the work of a small group of people two thousand years ago. While watching the movie, I heard movie-goers around me make comments like: "Bloody Jews," and "Jewish Scum." This of course stems from the highly emotional subject matter of the story of Christ and a misunderstanding of the events of His death and His life and is thoroughly reprehensible. Of course the Jewish nation cannot be held to account for the crucifixion of Christ two thousand years ago, simply because it was not the work of the Jewish nation. Yet whether a movie should be banned just because some people may misunderstand it, is a question that deserves to be posed. In this instance, I would venture to say it shouldn't, not only because of the movie's didactic purpose but because bigots are always a minority and the probability of a manifestation of anti-Semitism as a result of the movie is low.
at any rate, such censorship sets an ugly precedent. Do we ban discussion of the Armenian genocide in fear of Anti-Turkish behaviour? Of course not. Turks are not responsible for the works of some of their ancestors any more that today's Greeks can be blamed for that heinous act of cultural genocide, the desecration of the Jewish temple during the reign of Antiochus. Ultimately, the solution is simple. See the movie yourself and make up your own mind. Oh, and don't bring popcorn into the theatre like a view of my fellow movie goers did. Not is this only disrespectful but a waste of money, as you surely won't be able to eat it.


first published in NKEE on 15 March 2004

Tuesday, March 09, 2004


Can a person’s life begin with a prophecy, given almost two hundred years before his birth? A rugged and fierce St Kosmas preaches to the inhabitants of the small village of Kossovitsa in Northern Epirus. Suddenly, he looks up at the mountains surrounding the village and his eyes glaze over. Slowly and distinctly, he pronounces these words: “This village will be girdled by a vast wire.” At the time no one paid any attention. Years later, a villager who remembered the Saint’s words wrote them down, adding in commentary, that the prophecy meant that “something bad will eventually happen to our village.” Something bad did indeed happen to Kossovitsa, as well as the rest of Northern Epirus. For it was girdled by a vast length of electric fences and barbed wire by the Albanian government that would not let anyone in or out for fifty years.
It was in this village, a Byzantine settlement nestled between the foothills of Mount Mourgana that Petros Petranis was born in 1930. Born in a time and place were anything could happen and most often did, his is a most remarkable life including such episodes as: being sent to Tirana at the age of seven, where he almost forgot how to speak Greek, being persecuted by the Albanian government, undertaking with his sisters at the age of fifteen a perilous border crossing and endangering his life in the process, learning of his parents’ death at the hands of Greek communists, sampling the prejudice of Greeks against refugees, learning the printing trade, working at the great hydro electrical works of Louros in Epirus and explaining these to the King, meeting the love of his life, migrating to Australia, setting up a successful printing press, being responsible for the publication of most works of Greek-Australian literature published in Australia, running his own newspaper, acting as a beacon of advice and assistance for newly arrived Greek migrants and spending countless hours assisting them and finally, spearheading the campaign for the recognition of human rights for the Greeks of Northern Epirus.
Most definitely a full life. Now at the age of 73, Petros Petranis provides the Greek-Australian community with one more gift from the heart: the experience of his life and of those Epirots around him. His book «Οι Ηπειρώτες στην Αυστραλία,» (The Epirots in Australia), published by the Latrobe University National Centre for Hellenic Studies and Research is a unique contribution to the historiography of our community for many reasons. The first and most foremost is that quite simply, the Epirot community is one of the oldest and most important Greek communities in Australia. The first Greek woman to migrate to Australia was an Epirot, Catherine Plessas-Crummer, who arrived here in 1830 from Ioaninna, while there are records of Northern Epirot migrants arriving on our shoes as early as 1890. Petros Petranis, with the eye of a true historian, painstakingly thumbed through RSL records, the murky memories of the aged, a multitude of photographs, manuscripts and his own personal archive, amassed over fifty years to bring to life a community of pioneers who like George Bitsis, who introduced new business practices and a spirit of enterprise to Australia, or Giannis Lillis who pioneered the production of Greek literature in Australia, or even Petros Petranis himself, laid the foundations of the large and vibrant Greek community that was to come.
Petros Petranis’ book covers only pre-Second World War migration, the task of recording the arrival of the thousands of Epirot families during the sixties and seventies being beyond the interest of even the most fastidious historian, and of small historical importance at any rate. He also traces the development of the organised Epirot community, the various organisations that were formed to provide a social structure for the newly arrived immigrants, the philanthropic societies and the political organisations. In this, Petros Petranis was a pioneer, for he was the driving force behind the trend for Greek associations to federate and combine resources. The Panepirotic Federation of Australia was one of the first of its kind, having as its aim, not only the social needs of its members but most importantly, the needs of Epirots overseas and especially in Northern Epirus. In his passion for his homeland, Petros Petranis and the Federation did not hesitate to take on governments, dignitaries and clergymen alike and demand explanations and answers. It has always been a force to be reckoned with and has gained the respect of Greece as a lobby group, despite the current consul-general’s persistent snubbing of the same.
The book is not just Petros Petranis’ life’s work. His entire life is enclosed between its covers. Kyriakos Amanatidis, one of our community’s most eminent men of letters has most eloquently and humanely taken us back to the birthplace of Petros Petranis and recounted to us those events that made him the man that he is today, in the first section of the book. It is a most moving story and though I have heard it from the lips of Petros Petranis countless times, I cannot help but be moved every time I consider it. It is essentially an Australian story, a story of privation and hardship as well as redemption in a new land and a story which will strike a chord not only with his contemporaries who had similar experiences, but also with the second and third generations who are not only given a better appreciation of the conditions that caused their forebears to leave their homes but also an understanding of how the Greek community was constructed from the foundations up. In doing so, Petros Petranis’ scope is vast. He deals with the issue on a Pan-Australian level, encompassing culture, industry and social aspects. His book is of vast importance to the corpus of the recent trend of Greek-Australian historical writing.
One of the things in my life that I can say I am truly proud of, is that I have known Petros Petranis from birth. I have basked in the warmth of his smile, have been challenged by his inquisitive and restless mind, fired by his passion and enjoyed him as a mentor and friend. This is nothing out of the ordinary. His fellow-villagers in Kossovitsa, though they have not seen him for fifty years, still remember him with fondness and thank him for his arrangements to obtain for them a clean water supply. His book is a generous offering to the whole community, both as a mirror and as a memorial, now that the organised community and the cause which he fought for is in its swan-song. Like many Northern Epirots, he will probably never be able to return to his homeland. Yet the lure and the song of that homeland is what enabled him to put down such firm roots in Australia and the shadow of his branches embraces all of us. The launch of the book «Οι Ηπειρώτες στην Αυστραλία», under the auspices of La Trobe, the Panepirotic Federation of Australia and the Australian-Greek Cultural league will take place on 21 March 2004 at Moonlight Receptions. For all of those who are interested in the history of our sojourn in this land, this book is a must.

first published in NKEE on 9 March 2004

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