Saturday, December 17, 2011


It is a little known fact that Greek civilization has its own counterpart to the Taj Mahal. Unlike Shah Jahan’s gleaming edifice, ours lies in ruins. Again unlike Shah Jahan, whose edifice is a testament to his love and grief for his beloved wife Mumtaz and which, serving as her final resting place, is but a glorified tomb, Antigoneia, now in Albania, was a living, bustling city, constructed by the Epirot king Pyrrhus, as a gesture of love towards his wife Antigone, in the third century BC.
Perched high above the valley of the river Drinos, directly opposite the stone city of Argyrokastro, Antigoneia, commands the main artery towards Illyria to the north and the rest of Epirus to the south. Today, all that remains of it are a few shattered columns, and the base of some massive stone walls, for this was one of the seventy Epirot cities destroyed by the Roman legions of Aemilius Paulus in 167 BC. Scratch in the dirt however, and you uncover mosaics of breathtaking poignancy, sporting Greek inscriptions. These have been allowed to moulder away among the silent grasses and the few surviving trees, felled by the order of the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha, who did not want Antigoneia being used as a place of pilgrimage or entertainment by the Greeks of the region, and so all and sundry may loot and pillage what little remains to tell the tale of this most ancient Greek city, as well.
Some kilometres away, perched high upon a hill in the verdant district of Delvino, lies another ruined city of Pyrrhus, Phoenice, the capital of the ancient Epirot tribe of the Chaonians and one of the northern most archeological site of the classical period. From the second half of the fifth century BC, an acropolis was erected on the site, while at the end of the next century, Pyrrhus expanded the city’s walls, which consisted of massive blocks up to three metres thick, and made the city his capital. Strolling about the dusty archeological site now, consisting of the base of Pyrrhus’ massive walls, a few lintels and columns overgrown with grass, it is difficult to imagine that this was the birthplace of federalism in Northern Greece. When in 233 BC, Queen Deidamia II was assassinated, the Epirotes abolished the monarchy, and uniting the major Epirote Tribes of the Chaonians, Molossians and Thesprotians, instituted a system of federal government known as the Epirote League.
Squatting on the dusty ground of what today is a sleepy backwater, to get a closer view of the intricate dry wall construction of all that remains of Phoenice’s walls, it is not easy to conjure images of these walls being manned and then surrendered by Gaulish mercenaries to the megalomanic Illyrian Queen Teuta, only to be reconquered by the Epirotes. These are the stones that bear mute testimony to the Epirotes’ valiant attempts to navigate their way through the tortuous waters of Illyrian rapacity and Roman expansionism, vainly trying to preserve their independence, only to lose it and face destruction at the end of the Third Macedonian War. One can gain a lasting impression of the destruction caused by the Romans who levelled the city by those same stones, which have largely lain where they were overthrown, in a manner akin to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, ever since.
The enormity of some crimes are too heinous to bear even for their perpetrators and the following centuries do not reveal strong traces of a Roman presence in Phoenice and Antigoneia. Granted, the Emperor Justinian did construct fortifications on a hill adjacent to Phoenice, and during the fifth and sixth centuries, the city was listed a see of a bishopric, hosting a number of churches, a baptistery and a basilica. However, subsequent to this time, the city vanishes, as the urban centre of the area was moved to the Mesopotamos, a vibrant centre of Hellenism to the present day.
The existence of the ruins at Phoenice and Antigoneia, attesting to the antiquity of the Greek presence there, have proved to be a headache for subsequent rulers. During the formal excavations of the area in 1924-1928 by an Italian Archaeological Mission, which was a political tool for Mussolini’s nationalistic ambitions in Albania, Italian archaeologists, led by the fascist prehistorian Luigi Ugolini, were dismayed to have found only a few “Illyrian” artefacts, as this was inimical to their desire to exploit Albanian nationalist sentiment in the region, at the expense of the Greek ethnic consciousness of the majority of the local population. Similarly, a survey conducted by Albanian archaeologists Bace and Bushati in 1989, glossed over the archaeology of the classical period, reporting Hellenistic domiciles, Roman houses and drawing implausible parallels between excavated dwellings and medieval Albanian ones. They also found an “egalitarian” nature among the excavated dwellings, in line with the philosophy of “self-reliance” propagated by the Albanian communist state during that period.
Even today, and despite Phoenice and Antigoneia falling squarely with the Albanian recognized “Greek minority zone,” the state experience immense difficulty in accepting that the archeological sites that pepper the landscape and are allowed to erode away, are of Greek origin. Some of their attempts to prove otherwise, such as the annual Festival of Pagan Rites and Popular Games in Antigoneia, involving rather sad people pretending to be Illyrians, though no one really knows just what Illyrians were like, are rather amusing. What is more insidious however, is the deliberate vandalism of the historic sites in displays of unrestrained racial intolerance.
The perpetrators of the disgusting act of philistinism that saw the words “Greece Fuck” spray-painted upon the ruins of Phoenice in recent weeks speaks volumes as to how Albanians view the ruins that their government would have them believe are Illyrian. Casting aside for a moment as spurious the argument that the grammatical construction employed in the slogan is an imperative and that the authors are thus exhorting the Greek population to copulate, presumably in order to arrest their declining birthrate, it is clear that the authors of this act of cultural barbarism do not identify these archaeological remains as forming part of their culture or identity. Nor do they see them as articles of integral historical importance to the land in which they slumber, and thus, worthy of respect. Instead, they see them as the hated and unwanted remnants of an equally hated and unwanted people, which should be defiled and reviled, as having no place in the Albanian national narrative.
The Greeks of Northern Epirus, an autochthonous population who form the largest concentration of Greeks contiguous to the Greek border, are used to such vilification. For years they have endured policies that denied them their names, language, religion and customs. Now, they are being denied their right to their own history by Balkan bigots who have difficulty accepting that they are ruling a grudging population who was subjected to their depredations by force, as well as understanding that cultural and historic diversity and pluralism enrich and benefit societies.
There are no prizes for having a more ancient lineage in an area. However, for the impoverished and often harassed Greeks of Northern Epirus, their historical identity is, in many cases, their sole source of pride. Yet they themselves do not deny that the ancient monuments of Phoenice and Antigoneia do not belong to them, but to the whole world as a lasting testament to mankind’s ingenuity. They deserve protection, not desecration. To you, o criminals who have defiled the history of the land you profess to love, these words from Dean Koontz: “We’re not here to leave a mark, bro… We’re here to revel in the world, to soak in the awesomeness of it, to enjoy the ride. The world’s maximum perfect as it is, beauty from horizon to horizon. Any mark any of us tries to leave- hell its only graffitti. Any mark anyone leaves is no better than vandalism.” And in case you are asking, no, Greece does not want to copulate with you.


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 17 December 2011