Saturday, May 19, 2018


Superficially, at least, Constantine Cavafy’s enigmatic last ever poem, completed just days before his death in 1933, “On the Outskirts of Antioch,” focuses upon an episode in the life of the controversial Emperor Julian the Apostate, who decreed that the Roman Empire discard Christianity as its official religion and return to the old gods instead. In the poem, Cavafy relates how the god Apollo refused to provide any more oracles until the remains of Christian martyrs were removed from the environs of his temple. Thus:
“We in Antioch were astonished when we heard/ what Julian was up to now./ Apollo had made things clear to him at Daphni:/ he didn’t want to give an oracle (as though we cared!),/ he didn’t intend to speak prophetically, unless/ his temple at Daphni was purified first./ The nearby dead, he declared, got on his nerves.”

The most offensive of the dead to the god Apollo, was the martyr Vavylas, and the removal of his remains seemed to have been a matter of some urgency: “There are many tombs at Daphni./ One of those buried there/ was the triumphant and holy martyr Vavylas,/ wonder and glory of our church./ It was him the false god hinted at, him, he feared./ As long as he felt him near he didn’t dare/ pronounce his oracle: not a murmur./ The false gods are terrified of our martyrs.)
Unholy Julian got worked up,/ lost his temper and shouted: “Raise him, carry him out,/ take him away immediately, this Vavylas./ You there, do you hear? He gets on Apollo’s nerves./ Grab him, raise him at once,/ dig him out, take him away, throw him out,/ take him/ wherever you want. This isn’t a joke./ Apollo said the temple has to be cleansed.”

In accordance with Julian’s wishes, the faithful gather to remove the bones of the saint: “We took it, the holy relic, and carried it elsewhere./ We took it, we carried it away in love and in honour.” This having been done, retribution, whether by divine, or other means, is not long in coming: “And hasn’t the temple done brilliantly since!/ In no time at all a colossal fire/ broke out, a terrible fire,/ and both the temple and Apollo burned to nothing./ Ashes the idol: dirt to be swept away. Julian exploded, and he spread it around/—what else could he do?—that we, the Christians,/ had set the fire. Let him say so./ It hasn’t been proved. Let him say so./ The essential thing is—he exploded.”
As with all his works, Cavafy’s poem is imbued with a multiplicity of meanings. Ostensibly referring to the triumph of Christianity over paganism, a close reading of the text reveals that the poem acts also, as a coded metaphor for the Asia Minor Catastrophe and the annihilation of the Greek presence in that region, in 1922.
According to this reading, given that Apollo is the god of civilisation, it is the Allied Powers, through the League of Nations that order Eleutherios Venizelos, (equally as revisionist and apostatic in the eyes of half of the Greek population at the time, as Julian himself), to remove the remains of the martyred Greeks of Asia Minor (personified by the remains of Vavylas), somewhere else, so that the problem of the co-existence of Christians and Muslims, Turks and Greeks within Asia Minor, cease to vex the International Community and “get on their nerves.” They threaten to withhold their aid, (“the oracle”) until this is done. In particular, the verse describing the translation of the relics of Vavylas are eerily reminiscent of harrowing accounts of the long processions of Asia Minor refugees, fleeing their villages, carrying their church labara, relics and the bones of their ancestors before them, to a new land.
The irreverent Cavafy has “false gods” tremble before such martyrs. Here, he is quite possibly parodying what he perceived to be Eleutherios Venizelos’ blind trust and belief in the absolute benevolence of the Allies, even as they betray him. Without question, he agrees to their demands, lest he incur the ire of his gods, for after all, in an expression that is a disquieting precursor for ethnic cleansing, “the temple has to be cleansed,” and no alternative course of action is to be considered. As such, he becomes the unwitting tool for the destruction of Hellenism in the East. We know from the writings of his friends, that Cavafy had mild monarchist leanings and thought poorly of Venizelos and his politics, for his conception of Hellenism transcended the bounds of the nation-state.
Having left Asia Minor/ the temple, a great conflagration breaks out which renders everything before it to ashes. Is this a not-so veiled reference to the great Holocaust of Smyrna, where the warships of the World Powers remained anchored in the harbour, watching the city being burnt and its inhabitants massacred without intervening? When Cavafy relates that Apollo is burnt to nothing, is he implying that in the aftermath of one of the greatest ever humanitarian disasters, caused in no small part by the cynicism and vested interests of the powers underwriting the League of Nations, that our faith in those International Institutions that supposedly bring about justice are now ashes? He is certainly prescient, given that the League of Nations went on to perish in an even large conflagration, that of the Second World War and the Holocaust. Furthermore, given the destruction of Smyrna, is it one of the most powerful driving forces of Modern Greek foreign policy, the “Megali Idea,” that is the idol that is consumed to dust in Apollo’s conflagration? 
Certainly, the final verse, supports the view that in the arson of the god Apollo’s temple, Smyrna’s destruction is being referenced. When he states: “he spread it around—
what else could he do?—that we, the Christians, had set the fire,” Cavafy seems to conflate Julian/ Venizelos with Venizelos’ partner in achieving the population exchange in Asia Minor: Kemal Atatürk, who famously blamed the burning of Smyrna on the Christian Greeks and Armenians. Similarly, Eleutherios Venizelos blamed the mismanagement of the war which saw the Greek presence in Asia Minor go up in flames upon the royalists. If it is Atatürk that Cavafy is inferring, then his last line, in which he is said to have “exploded,” (the Greek is έσκασε and here means to be upset) is doubly ironic, for the condition of exploding/being upset (σκασίλα), translates in the colloquial as not caring in the slightest.

Considering that Cavafy was an inhabitant of Alexandria, one of the greatest Hellenistic cities, that his historical poems generally are set during Hellenistic and/or Byzantine times, when the lands ruled by Greeks reached their greatest geographical extent and that he was attracted to characters and themes existing upon the margins of Hellenism and which expressed its decline in multi-faceted forms, it is ironic but not unexpected, that in the last poem of his life, he chose to deal with the final act of the most marked contraction and reversal of the geographical spread of Hellenism, the Holocaust of Smyrna. His paralleling of Antioch with Smyrna is inspired because in many ways Antioch is its counterpart: historically a vibrant and important centre of Greek civilisation that was repeatedly and violently sacked, burnt and fell into decay, until it was written out of the Greek discourse altogether. 
Despite his lament and deeply emotive evocation of the Asia Minor Catastrophe, embedded within Cavafy’s poem are the seeds of survival, the prophetic keys to the regeneration of Hellenism, unconstrained by borders and narrow ideologies: “We took it, the holy relic, and carried it elsewhere./ We took it, we carried it away in love and in honour.” And we did take it, that holy relic, far from the blasted lands of conflict and genocide, into continents Cavafy‘s heroes never imagined existed. We retained it, and founded colonies of such hellenisticity as to rival Cavafy’s own poetic geography. And though we declined in the same bittersweet and disarmingly innocent manner in which Cavafy’s described our forefathers’ fate, we keep it still, and will continue to do so, preserving the ashes and the memory of those who burned to keep it for us, until the time comes for that imperishable holy relic, in love and honour, to be carried away, somewhere else.


First published in NKEE on 19 May 2018