Nigel McGilchrist is an art historian, teacher, lecturer and author, educated at Winchester College and Oxford University, who has lived on the island of Kythera in Greece since 2013, and who lived and worked, for thirty-five years prior to that, in Italy, in Rome and Orvieto. His languages include Italian, French, Greek & Turkish.
During his career, he has taught for the Sapienza University of Rome; the University of Massachusetts; and was, for 11 years, the Dean of European Studies, an interdisciplinary university programme, administered by the The University of the South and Rhodes College in Tennessee, together with the Associated Colleges of the South. He worked also for a period for the Ministero dei Beni Culturali (the Italian Ministry of Arts) on a field project for the conservation of wall-paintings in Umbria.
In the last thirty years, he has lectured for many museums and institutions, especially in the United States: the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC; the J. Paul Getty Museum and Villa, near Los Angeles; and both the Santa Barbara and San Diego Museums of Art, in California. He has accompanied tours for several of these institutions, as well as for the American Horticultural Society and the American National Trust for Historic Preservation.
His writing has mostly centred on the Hellenic world, first with a ground-breaking series of twenty volumes on the Greek Aegean Islands which appeared in 2010; and then, with a study of Pythagoras and the vital transmission of speculative thought between Asia, Africa and Greece, in the 6th century BC, published in 2022 under the title, When the Dog Speaks, the Philosopher listens.
His particular interests include Ancient Roman polychrome marbles; Mediterranean wild flowers and trees; European bird-song; Archaic Greek art and literature; and 17th century instrumental chamber music. His current study of Buddhist art often takes him to two much-loved destinations - Japan and Sri Lanka. He supports a number of struggling human rights activists and refugees, in different parts of the world.
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Upcoming lectures or activities of cultural interest
This is a list of some of the forthcoming talks or lectures I will be giving, or cultural tours for which I have been asked to lecture. If you should be interested to follow any of them, or to be a participant on one of these itineraries, please contact the respective organising institution.
18-20 January. Lectures at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, California. 18th Jan.: When the Dog Speaks, the Philosopher listens - Why Pythagoras?; 19th Jan.: 'Venice & the Veneto: a Cultural Symbiosis.'; 20th Jan.: The Meaning of Travel: Conversation with Susie Orso, to celebrate 50 years of the Museum's Travel Program.
28 February. Lecture What Ancient Greece means for us today, in Boca Grande, Florida.
4 March. Lecture Looking into the mirror of the Ancient Greek mind, at The Hypogeum Society in Shreveport, Louisiana.
10-17 April. Lecturer for Malta & Gozo (with Nicola Howard) organised by The Ultimate Travel Company, London.
18-30 April. Lecturer for Treasures of Malta and Sicily, for The Santa Barbara Museum of Art, California.
13 May. All-day seminar, in four parts Leonardo da Vinci and Michaelangelo: Contrasts in Greatness, for the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.
15-31 May. Guest lecturer on Gardens and Horticulture in Greece, for the American Horticultural Society.
15-26 June. Guest lecturer on Noble Caledonia's M/S Island Sky cruise, Voyage to Valletta. (Departing Istanbul, through the Aegean Islands and Corinth Canal to Sicily and finally to Malta.)
7 July. Lecture Looking into the Mirror of the Ancient Greek Mind, for the Fintry Trust.
27 August-6 September. Lecturer for The Veneto with Venice tour for The Santa Barbara Museum of Art, California.
25-30 September. Lecturer on The Mediterranean's Scepter'd Isle tour organised by Art Pursuits Abroad (Arena Travel).
3-13 & 18-29 October. Two private tours organised by Special Tours/Ultimate Travel (London): The Ancient Aegean: Crete & the Cyclades and Portugal and Lesser Known Spain.
12-23 November. Japan - Gardens, Temples and cutting-edge Art Collections, organised by Art Pursuits Abroad (Arena Travel).
13 December. The mind of Pythagoras - a first bridge between East and West. Zoom lecture for The Scientific and Medical Network.
9-13 January. Lecturer for The Maltese Archipelago and Baroque Festival, organised by Art Pursuits Abroad (Arena Travel), to coincide with the opening of the Valetta Festival of Baroque Music.
28 January-4 February. A week of lectures on Venice and Venetian painting for the John Hall Venice Course in Venice, at the Instituto Canossiano.
10 February. All-day seminar, in four parts Sicily: Crucible of European History, Art & Gastronomy, for the Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC. What Ancient Greece means for us today, in Boca Grande, Florida.
9-23 March. Lecturer for tour to Bhutan Inside the Land of the Thunder Dragon: Buddhist Art and Culture in the Kingdom of Bhutan, organised by The Santa Barbara Museum of Art, California.
27 March-10 April. Guest lecturer on Noble Calendonia's M/Y Elysium cruise, Passage Through the Ancient World, Jordan (Petra and Nabatea), Egypt (Suez, Cairo & Alexandria), Greece (Crete, the Cyclades & Athens).
7-17 May. Lecturer for The Veneto with Venice (II), for The Santa Barbara Museum of Art, California.
6-18 June. Guest lecturer on Lesbos & Chios - Impressions of Life in the Greek Islands, for the American National Trust for Historic Preservation.
1-7 September. Lecturer on Puglia and Matera, tour organised by Art Pursuits Abroad (Arena Travel).
16-23 September. Lecturer on Footpaths of Umbria (Piero della Francesca, Saint Francis and the hill-towns of Umbria), organised by Martin Randall Travel, London.
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These are four short pieces for the curious reader, on subjects related to Greece or the Ancient World, which are inlcuded here for general amusement.
The Black, the White and the Grey:
How geology shapes art
How geology shapes art
Written in June 2012 for the Anglo-Hellenic Review.
The peculiar beauty of the Aegean world is inseparable from its geology. Moulded and sundered by a near-eternity of geophysical torment – volcanoes, earthquakes, lavaflows and subsidences caused by the slow collision of three continental tectonic plates – this sea within a sea encompasses a greater diversity of minerals and rocks in its circumscribed space than any other corner of Europe. That in itself is a phenomenon of interest: but the specific nature and interaction of some of these minerals has also been fundamental in setting in motion the early history of Western Art.
The first traceable appearance of human activity in the Mediterranean is intimately linked to the father of all these minerals – a rare, super-hard volcanic glass which forms under certain, quite particular, circumstances during volcanic events, and which is known to us as obsidian. Luminously black, smooth of surface and yet with a broken edge of unbeatable acuity, obsidian was mankind’s first widely-distributed commodity. Its incomparable cutting edge made it essential for killing, cutting, butchering, building, shaping, tool-making, and for fashioning even the rudimentary sea-craft by which it was first transported and made available across the Mediterranean area. Like a superb, naturally occurring Swiss Army Knife, it was the ultimate aid both to survival and to creativity. So sharp is its natural cutting edge when fractured, that even today obsidian blades of a thickness measured only in nanometers are chosen by surgeons, in preference to high-quality steel, for scalpels used in sophisticated operations of micro- surgery. This ancient tool is still, we might say, ‘cutting-edge’ technology.
Unlike clay for pottery or stone for building, however, obsidian was not to be found just anywhere. There are only a handful of sources in the whole Mediterranean area; and only two of these provided the vital combination of quality, accessibility and abundance: Lipari, to the north of Sicily, and Milos in the southwest corner of the Aegean. From these two sources pieces of obsidian radiated out across the other islands and shores of the Mediterranean. The fact that this sea-borne movement happens from as early as the ninth and eighth millennia B.C. suggests that paddled boats, capable of covering quite large distances at sea, and ‘sailor-merchants’ fearless enough to chance the winds and currents, were moving successfully around the Aegean area more than ten thousand years ago.
Obsidian does not need to be quarried. The deposits on Milos are on and close to the surface of the ground at two quite specific points – at Demenegaki in the east of the island and on the hill of Nychia, a short distance west of the port of Adamas, overlooking the wide, natural, volcanic harbour of Milos. Some of the obsidian that lies there in the grass in discrete piles, is debitage – in other words the cast-offs from the preparation and selection process, one of the earliest manifestations of quality-control in human history. It is moving to look at the mass of obsidian pieces left behind by the first workshops of Aegean history at Nychia and to realise that one is looking at the origins of human commerce in the Island world. It was this curious ‘black gold’ which provided the impetus for early humanity to take to the water in boats for the movement and exchange of goods, as the Aegean peoples have continued to do ever since that time.
Some eighty kilometres across the water to the northeast of Milos are the islands of Paros and Naxos. The shores of these two islands, on which the precarious sea-craft with their shining black cargo from Milos first beached, are composed of pure white pebbles, rounded and smoothed by the natural polishing of the sea’s movement. The mountains of Naxos and Paros are really just vast extrusions of a pure white limestone, pushed up above the level of the sea. The particular purity of their translucent, white marble is remarkable: it is almost completely without the veins, discolourations, blemishes or faults that commonly characterise other marbles. Its open and regular structure of crystals make it soft and easy to cut: they allow it to transmit light and give it a natural ‘inner’ brilliance caused by the flat surfaces of the crystals glinting and reflecting light within the stone. No surprise, therefore, that Parian marble was the chosen material of Praxiteles, Paionios and the early Archaic sculptors of the Athenian acropolis. Parian is still generally considered, for its softness and ductility to cutting, one of the world’s foremost sculptural marbles. Michelangelo and Bernini would surely have used it, in preference to the colder, sugary marble of Carrara, if only it had been more readily available to them.
When black met white, therefore – when the perfect cutter met the ideal material for cutting, when obsidian encountered Parian and Naxian marble – it was a marriage made in heaven. It was also the beginning of a millennial tradition of sculpting, forming, expressing and constructing in marble which was to be the foundation of ancient and subsequent European art.
The elemental forms of Cycladic sculpture of the third millennium B.C. are the offspring of this felicitous marriage. Most Cycladic figurines are small in scale. The influence of the Egyptians who were constrained to work on a far larger scale because of the intractable hardness of their native granite which had to be cut and shaped with stone and massive force, had not yet been felt in the Aegean: that was to come over a millennium later, and push the Greek sculptors of a much later epoch towards the colossal statuary and constructions in which Naxos excelled in the 7th and 6th centuries B.C. Cycladic figurines were mostly small by contrast, finely cut in their soft material with small obsidian tools and perhaps the use of tiny augers tipped with obsidian. When we look at their soft contours, they bring to mind again those sea-eroded pebbles on the shores of Naxos and Paros – perfectly smooth and rounded. The black obsidian could cut and hew the marble with ease; but the resulting surface was rough and irregular. How was that important sense of rounded smoothness to be achieved, however?
Up until the middle of the 19th century, virtually the only source of emery for the markets of the Western Hemisphere was one valley in the northeastern corner of Naxos. It is another of the unusual gifts of the Aegean’s geology. Although its applications in industry are many, we encounter emery most commonly today in the form of emery- boards for manicure. The ancients would collect it in this remote valley of Naxos through a process known as ‘fire-setting’; later, the Ottoman Turks mined it from the hill-side; and the 20th century finally brought industrial machinery and an overhead gondola, which can still be seen, for transporting it to the shore below for loading. But the sculptors of the Bronze Age could gather it from the surface of the valley just as they collected obsidian on the hill of Nychia.
Emery is marble’s natural complement: much harder and more durable than marble, and a dark greeny-grey in colour. It is composed principally of corundum (aluminium oxide), mixed with small proportions of iron ore and magnetite. Its most important characteristic is that of abrading any softer stone – such as marble – without leaving any scores or traces of colour on the surface. It can polish surfaces to a perfect softness, especially when combined with volcanic pumice. Its qualities and uses are mentioned and praised by Theophrastus, Dioscorides and Pliny. The Romans even called emery ‘naxium’, because the only source they had for it was on Naxos.
Abrasion with emery does not just render a marble surface beautifully smooth and rounded and clear; it also creates a protective ‘skin’ for it. When the marble is first cut with obsidian, its fragile crystalline structure is ruptured in the process, leaving a flaked and jagged surface. The subsequent abrasion with emery, however, slowly compresses and compacts the fractured crystals in the surface into a uniform layer so that they begin once again to reflect light, i.e. to shine, to acquire a ‘polish’. At the same time, by compressing the surface, this abrasion creates a protective ‘skin’ for the marble, which impedes the absorption of moisture (and the corrosive elements it carries) into the heart of the stone which would cause it to decay and erode. This is what conservators such as those working on the Parthenon are referring to when they say that (modern industrial) pollution has eaten through the ‘skin of the marble’ laying it wide open to a corrosion in the interior of the blocks, which leads eventually to its crumbling.
Naxos and Paros became the earliest prolific centres of stone sculpture in Europe, and they continued to dominate the art for many centuries. This did not happen just by chance. It arises from the geology: first, from the abundance of a primary material of exceptional quality; then from the proximity of obsidian for cutting; and finally, to complete this trinity of geological felicitousness, from the presence of a unique source of an abrasive, ideal for polishing.
Here we have spoken about only three minerals: one black, one white, one grey. But the Aegean area is also home to a kaleidoscopic diversity of brilliantly coloured stones – polychrome marbles, red jaspers, yellow and purple agates, green porphyries, multicoloured breccias, and lugubrious basalts; solid, striated, blotched, veined, or dotted; pure as the cool, blue-veined marmor Carystium from southern Euboea, vivacious as the variegated marmor Scyrium from northwestern Skyros, or intense as the blood-red jasper from ancient Iasos. Nowhere produces such a diversity of marbles in so small an area: and the Romans, when they began to dominate the Aegean, were quick to realise that. No-one has ever invested so much human energy and resources into quarrying the multifarious geology of the Aegean as they did, in their tireless passion for using and collecting decorative marbles. But that is another whole story...
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A tale of two Greeces
This short article was written in January 2012 for the Anglo-Hellenic Review when Greece’s economy was in melt-down and the country was entering dangerous and uncharted waters.
The news coming out of Greece week after week [winter of 2012] is troubling and upsetting for all those who care about the country and hold it dear. Four hundred years of paying tribute to an Ottoman master, followed by a period of poisonous civil strife while other countries in Europe were enjoying the opportunity to rebuild themselves after two world wars, gave remarkable poignancy to the years of tranquil prosperity which Greece enjoyed at the end of the last century. The state of mind of the country – if one can talk of such a thing – subtly changed; Greece seemed to become at last at peace with itself. All that seems suddenly in jeopardy now. Never have Byron’s words, ‘Fair Greece! sad relic of departed worth!’, seemed so imbued with unwelcome irony.
Yet, of all the countries in Europe, Greece offers – at a spiritual more than a material level – an important reason for hope. Greece may be at the origin of much of the economic crisis in Europe at the moment; but it is also the corner of Europe to which we would do well to turn for inspiration and instruction on how we will be able to cope with the new order of things emerging across our continent. I am not referring to Greece’s politics or to the management of its affairs, but to that profound and positive dimension of simplicity which has always characterised the best aspects of its culture.
Herodotus, wide-eyed yet canny observer of the remoter horizons of his age, was easily impressed by the wealth and prosperity and achievements of others – be it what remained of Polycrates’s Samos or the Egypt which fascinated him perhaps more than anywhere else. He chose to write about Egypt at great length, on his own admission, because ‘there is no other country like it, and none that possesses so many wonders’.
Egypt was in almost every way the diametric opposite of Greece: monolithic in political structure, immensely fertile and rich, well-organised, hemmed into the banks of a river whose predictable habits and peaceful waters provided all the needs of transportation, communication, irrigation, food and life for its populous inhabitants. Greece – through whose lens Herodotus viewed all this – was, by contrast, fragmented, fissiparous, poor, infertile, short of water, rocky, and scattered round and across a turbulent and unpredictable sea. The magnificence of these two quite distinct geographies was as manifest as their utter difference. In Egypt life was, as Herodotus intimated, a gift from heaven: in Greece it was a ceaseless and invigorating struggle with the elements. This made existence in Greece a quite different proposition from existence in Egypt: it also made thinking in Greece quite distinct as well.
The fact of evolving in a myriad coastal settlements and a scatter of islands in the sea, with limited fertility and fresh water, nicely obstructed the centralisation of power and wealth and ideology in the ancient Greek world. It fostered a simplicity of life-style, based on small units and a sharing of meagre resources: a sharing not just of food and water, but also of power and ideas. Sharing – even when imposed by limitations and by pragmatism – is a human quality of profound importance.
Greeks could not rely on the benign floods and silt of a great river, but only on their wits. Movement, communication, observing and creating markets, outwitting others in speed or in invention, was what brought wealth and food for survival. The sea was the great facilitator of all this; but it was also a useful separator. When the winter storms set in, the waters could be out of bounds for weeks on end. With no luxurious trappings to distract them, and a lot of enforced leisure while the storms raged, the islanders and coastal communities had the benefit of invaluable time for thinking, debating, versifying, story-telling, arguing, planning new strategies for crossing the sea, and excogitating every kind of empirical enquiry from reflecting on how exactly the stars could help in navigation to what it was that made the weather function as it did. It fostered inner resources and the very mentality of enquiry and curiosity which spurred Herodotus to wonder about, and sometimes to challenge, Egyptian assumptions. Back in Egypt itself, on the other hand, for most Egyptians the unchanging routine of the Nile and its fertile flood-lands meant that there was little time for anything but sowing, reaping and storing; sowing, reaping and storing; documenting, accounting and filling the coffers and the grain-stores of Pharaoh. Rarely is the influence of physical geography on culture and thinking so clear as in the contrast between Egypt and Greece.
Much later in their history, however, the Greeks were, by a curious turn of events, to live something of the Egyptian experience themselves when they inherited in Constantinople, from the fracturing of Rome’s world-domain, the economic capital of the known world. A prosperity and luxury and monolithically centralised power, similar to that which Herodotus had described in Egypt, unforseenly became their own. Urban prosperity on such a scale was something the Greek world had never previously known. The centralisation of power and thought was equally alien. A new and different Greece was born, a second Greece – fascinating, decorative, rich and cosmopolitan, but whose premise was the very opposite of the network of fractious polities in the ancient island world. Unity prevailed at all costs over plurality; the state, over the individual.
Byzantium became with time a labyrinth, not of streets so much as of ideas and rules and constraints. It inherited a Roman administrative structure which was slowly becoming sclerotic, and out of it created a monumental bureaucracy. Internal passports became necessary for travel within the Empire; permits were required for publications and lectures. A labyrinth absorbs and dissipates the human energy of those who enter. Byzantium was a great city: but did it ever produce a Sappho, or a Heraclitus, a Pheidias or an Aeschylus? In the luxurious prosperity of the metropolis the Greek intellect seemed to become locked in the ‘Egyptian’ mindset: arcane, exquisite, ingenious, but ultimately sterile. Fascinating though his thinking may be, the works of Gemistos Plethon are about as alive and relevant to us today as the ritual complexities of the ‘Book of the Dead’.
Simplicity lies at the heart of innovation and originality. A paring down and cutting away of waste – of the unnecessary, the irrelevant, the distracting – has characterised, throughout history, the best revolutions in intellectual enterprise, from the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads to the models for our universe developed by Kepler and Newton. In poetry, philosophy, physical science, politics, administration, mathematics… simplification is a joy accessible to all. That simplicity, and what we might call a positive ‘poverty’, have always been the real strength of the Aegean world. When we talk of the ‘poverty’ of the Aegean landscape, we refer to the lean beauty of its hills, valleys and rocky outlines: it is a poverty not of deprivation, but of essential lines and volumes. It is comparable to the extraordinary insistence on nudity in ancient Greek sculpture – a yearning for the essential and unencumbered, for the purest common denominator. It is what Thales and Pythagoras sought in their cosmologies, Hippocrates in his analysis of physical human disorder and decay, and Homer in the clear arc of his narratives.
Did these two Greeces – Ancient and Byzantine – really have anything beyond a language in common? Precious little. Their art says it all. Even Plato’s writing had to be stood on its head and then dismembered in order to be accommodated in the Byzantine world-view; and ancient sculpture and architecture served only as rubble to fill the walls of new buildings, not as foundations of design or sources of inspiration.
Herodotus recognised the resilience and flexibility of the Greek-speaking people. Their capacity for regeneration after disaster was then, and is still today, remarkable. In antiquity their cities, from Rhodes to Corinth were rebuilt, always more finely, after each successive earthquake that wrought destruction across the centuries. Enterprise seemed to thrive on renewal: after the gruesome destitution of Chios and Psará in 1822 and 1824, those who survived and fled created within no more than two generations a magnificent new city, and a shipping and trading network of global dimensions from their new home of Ermoupolis on Syros. It is a story that Herodotus would have applauded, and he would have recognised also the qualities that it embodied – the spare, lean values, the simple initiatives and quick skills, the same ἐμπορικό πνεῦμα which had fuelled Archaic Greece.
And what of today? In recent decades, Europe has indulged in its own kind of administrative and political pyramid-building, creating a towering structure of bureaucratic ingenuity whose orthodoxy is founded on the concept of European unity. Greece’s relation to it has been a complex one – an inextricable mixture of both good and bad. But the European idea has, often perilously, tended to promote the super-state over the individual, and to exalt unity at all costs over plurality. Its thrust has been contrary to the simplicity and agility of those ancient Aegean values. It has inevitably favoured the ‘Byzantine’ over the ‘Aegean’ kind of Greece, stimulating bureaucracy and the values of the metropolis, and enervating individual resourcefulness and agility.
Greece, with its small size, its innate flexibility and independence of spirit born of its fractured geography, will, if free to do so, regroup as quickly and as proftably as it has done throughout its history. There are immense resources in its humanity and simplicity. It is not Greece that I worry about. It is the others in Europe which are the true cause for concern – if they do not take the lessons, that is, that Greece has to offer them.
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The Boy Riding a Dolphin
Commissioned and written for the volume marking 25 years of the Fondation Marc de Montalembert in Rhodes in 2020.
Dolphins and humans have a long history together. And in the art and mythology of Antiquity there were many dolphin-riders too. The beautiful logo-image used by the Marc de Montalembert Foundation of a boy mounted on a dolphin draws its inspiration from the exquisite coins that were struck in Ancient Taras (modern-day Taranto in Southern Italy) between the early 6th and late 3rd century bc. A number of other cities in the Greek world – Thera, Lindos, Syracuse and Zancle (Messina) – also bore images of dolphins on their coins: in the case of Messina, the arching curve of the dolphin suggests the sickle-shape of its magnificent harbour. But it was Ancient Taras that in particular immortalised the idea of a boy riding on the dolphin. It is an image full of resonance and hopefulness – not least because it tells the story of Taras, the youthful son of Poseidon, who was saved from a shipwreck when his father sent a dolphin to carry him ashore to the place where he then founded the city that bore his name. Taras grew into one the richest and most successful ports of Magna Graecia. In this way the image wonderfully expresses how this Foundation carries into a new and different life the spirit of Marc de Montalembert, in whose memory it was created.
The Ancient world knew much about the intelligence of the dolphin and, since earliest mythology, the animal’s affinity with humans was noted. The attentive observer walking in the centre of Athens can see high up on the frieze of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates (334 bc.) in Plaka a scene in which human beings are unexpectedly metamorphosing into dolphins as they jump into the sea: they still have legs, but their heads and bodies are already those of a dolphin. This relates to a story which is beautifully and humorously recounted in the Homeric Hymn to Dionysos which dates from the 7 th or 6 th century bc., in which the god Dionysos, sitting alone on the shore with all the semblance of a young prince, is rudely captured by pirates who do not know his identity. After several extraordinary happenings on board the ship, the pirates, realising their scarilege, jump into the sea and are transfromed into dolphins. Another of the Homeric Hymns, this time dedicated to Pythian Apollo, tells how the god, in the guise of a dolphin, leads the crew of a Cretan ship ashore at Kirrha in order that they should become the first priests of his Sanctuary at Delphi. There is an obvious play here on the name of the Sanctuary ‘Delphoí’ and the word for a dolphin, ‘delphís’.
The most famous story of a dolphin and rider, however, must surely be the account in Herodotus of the famed singer and citharode, Arion, who on his journey back to Corinth from Taras, was robbed by the sailors who were taking him home: when they threatened him with death, he asked for just a few moments reprieve while he sang one final song. The passionate beauty of his singing attracted a dolphin who drew near and, when Arion was finally tossed overboard, picked him up and ferried him on his back to the safety of the shore at Cape Tainaron. He returned overland to the court of Periander of Corinth and, to the discomfort and astonishment of the sailors, was already there to greet them when they finally arrived in the city.
The dolphin’s apparent interest in human company and frequent desire to be of assistance marked it out, in the mind of Antiquity, from all the other inhabitants of the sea. Pindar notes the dolphin’s response to the beauty of music, while for Homer it remained the swiftest of all the animals of the sea and king of the marine world. Its expressive shape appears apotropaically on numerous painted cups and vases not just in Classical times but also way back into pre-history on the fluidly drawn ceramic wares of Crete and Thera in the early second millennium bc. But perhaps more than anything it was the empathy between animal and human that captured the imagination. Pliny writes in Book IX of his Naturalis Historia of the young boy of Baiae who befriended a dolphin whom he named ‘Simó[s]’ (a word which meant ‘snub-nosed’ in Ancient Greek and was therefore widely used as an appellation for bottlenose dolphins). Simo would come to the boy’s call and carry him across the bay to his school in Pozzuoli. Another story, recounted both by Pliny and, in greater detail, by Aelian, is the story of Hermias of Iasos – a city on the coast of Caria, not far to the north of Rhodes. The young Hermias was wont to swim together with a dolphin who had become enamoured of him. When the boy died in an accident one day while they were swimming together the dolphin brought his body to land, and himself died of remorse on the shore beside him. The people of Iasos built a single tomb and a monument to them both in marble.
These are just a few of the countless similar stories told by ancient authors. But if anyone should suspect that they belong merely to the fantasy of the Ancient mind, they should recall the documented accounts of the wild dolphin, Opo, who in the mid-1950s delighted the children of the fishing village of Opononi in New Zealand with her affectionate playfulness.
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Written for the Journal of the Mediterranean Garden Society, October 2017.
Reading Alexander Seferiades’s beautiful piece in the April issue of the MGS Journal (no. 88) about the majestic Vallonea oaks of Kea prompts me to pick up the interesting topic of trees in the Aegean which he raised, and to add a few more general points about the forestation and deforestation of the Aegean through history, and on the uses and abuses of its remarkable variety of trees. Those oaks which his article discussed are among the noblest trees of the Aegean, standing like monumental sculptures on the high plateau of the island – symmetrical, architectural and yet alive with movement and the sounds of birds. As the article mentioned, they were also utilities: their acorns were used as fodder for pigs (and for humans in times of famine), and the outer casings for the tanning of leather. The tanning industry in Greece, which centred mostly on Lesbos, also obtained much of its supply of acorns from the island of Aghios Evstratios, because of its greater proximity. Ag. Evstratios is an empty, almost waterless island, with a tiny permanent population, largely forgotten and little visited today, lying right in the middle of the upper Aegean. To the visitor arriving on one of the rare ferries, the island appears barren and treeless. Yet an hour’s walk from the port across the ridge of the island reveals that its wild, northeast corner is densely wooded with those same Vallonea oaks. Protected by the island’s ridge from the torrid, desiccating western sun, the trees have been nourished by nothing more than the greater humidity and the lingering morning dew of the eastern slopes of the island. They have grown more elaborately and are smaller, denser, lower, more woven-together and less aristocratic in mien than their magnificent cousins on the plateau of Kea; but they produce just the same splendid acorns, and in great abundance. Their importance on Ag. Evstratios is indicated by the fact they appeared, duly identified and enumerated, in the funerary testaments and marriage contracts of the local population. They constituted virtually the only source of income which the islanders had, in an age when the piracy habitual to their ancestors had started to become a less attractive alternative.
The active cultivation of trees in the Aegean environment has never been easy, their perennial enemy being not lack of water but rather the relentless winds that tend to stunt growth and can easily burn the tips of the new foliage of all but the very hardiest species. On occasions, however, the growth-size and habits of particular species have been ‘domesticated’ by a close productive relationship with humans. The evergreen mastic tree (Pistacia lentiscus) is one such an example. Many varieties of mastic trees grow wild throughout the Mediterranean area; but it is only on Chios, that the local Pistacia lentiscus chia variety, has responded to intensive cultivation. There may be a palaeobotanical reason for this. Fossils of mastic tree leaves found on Chios, indicate the presence of the tree on the island six thousand years ago. And, although it is hazardous attempting to plot with any certainty the spread of a species over time, it seems quite possible that Chios and the Çeşme peninsula of Asia Minor were the area of origin of the mastic tree.
The natural production of gum by the trees has been hugely increased by many centuries of management by humans, as has the average size of the trees. This is an expected consequence of domestication. The trees, which dominate the hilly landscape of the south of Chios with their dense and beautifully sculpted form, have a rough, corrugated bark which spontaneously weeps a pale yellow, largely odourless, resin or hardened sap. The ‘weeping’ is promoted by making incisions (called ‘hurts’) in the trunk and branches of the mature tree and by harvesting the resin from June through to September; careful husbandry is required because ‘hurting’ too young a tree, however, inhibits its growth. The sap coagulates as it drips from the cuts and is collected, rinsed in barrels, and dried: a second cleaning is done by hand. At its prime, a tree will yield 4.5 kg of mastic gum in one season.
Mastic never was nor could be a large-scale industry, but the demand was constant from Roman times on. Although there is no hard literary or archaeological evidence to put forward, my suspicion is that the Romans made the first steps towards the ‘domestication’ of mastic trees in the 4th or 3rd century BC as their presence expanded into the Aegean and Asia Minor. The Romans could be highly attentive to plants and must have observed that the trees in Southern Chios had found a micro-climate particularly well suited to their growth. The original technology of the ‘hurts’ may have been theirs. Dioscorides – observant writer on plants and herbs of the 1st century AD – mentions that the mastic gum was used for attaching false eyelashes to eyelids (De Materia Medica, I. 91): it was also known in antiquity as a treatment for duodenal ulcer and heart-burn. Christopher Columbus believed it to be a cure for cholera and carried supplies of it with him on his journeys to the New World. But the most enduring quality of the gum has been its power, when masticated, to neutralize and to scent the breath in an age long before the advent of toothpaste. This was widely appreciated in the harems of Arabia and Turkey; 18th century reports suggest that the Ottoman Sultan kept half of the annual harvest from Chios for the Seraglio in Top Kapı – a quantity equivalent to about 125 tons.
Hard-headed Genoese merchants were the first to multiply mastic’s commercial potential through intensive production, and it was for the precious resin, more than any other product of the Aegean area, that they went to great lengths to protect Chios from piracy through the building of over fifty, fortified watch-towers around the circumference of the island. Under Ottoman occupation this protection was maintained and the ‘mastic villages’ were given further special privileges, forming a separate administrative region linked directly with the Sublime Porte through elected representation. It was commonly said that the women of the Sultan’s harem, who used the mastic also as a beauty cosmetic, had Chios under their protection.
Rubens favoured mastic gum as a stabiliser in paints; it is an ingredient in many kinds of incense; it was employed in dentistry for temporary fillings, and, in the refined world of Ottoman cuisine, it is still used in the preparation of true Turkish Delight, and as a binding agent with oil, lemon juice and spices to coat the outer surface of the traditional döner kebab. Greek ingenuity has also endowed it with a myriad uses – in sweets, meat dishes, thirst-quenching drinks and liqueurs. Something of a renaissance in the marketing of mastic has occurred in the last decade, and it is now sold as a nostalgically packaged luxury item, both on Chios and further afield in Greece. The flavour of the gum is initially bitter, but after a few minutes of chewing it softens and releases a light, cedar-like freshness into the mouth which remains for about 15 to 20 minutes.
Another delicate tree gum originating from the Aegean was also commented on by Dioscorides (De M.M., I.79). It came from closer to his own home which was in Asia Minor. He tells us it was used as an ingredient in incense, as well as in oral hygiene, in the same way that mastic was used. It is the fragrant gum of the Liquidambar orientalis tree, known commonly as ‘storax gum’. It is perhaps most familiar to us as the odour of Friars’ Balsam, an inhaled cold remedy which was created and marketed first in the 18th century. The liquidambar tree, though more common in North America, is rare in the Mediterranean area, confined today exclusively to the southwest corner of Turkey around Marmaris and Muğla and to the Petaloudes Valley on the island of Rhodes.
It is a singularly beautiful tree with a delicate foliage. In Rhodes, it is responsible for one of the loveliest natural spectacles of the Aegean islands: from July to September the sweet smelling, golden-coloured resin of the trees attracts thousands of tiger-moths to the valley. These are not technically butterflies as the name ‘Petaloudes’ would imply, but a kind of moth of the species Callimorpha (or Euplagia) quadripunctaria, generally referred to as ‘Jersey tiger-moths’ in English. It was first studied in the Himalayan mountains but was later found on several continents. The moths come in large numbers from around the island and perhaps as far away as the Turkish coast to aestivate here, drawn by the humidity and the aromatic presence of the liquidambar trees. The grey-coloured moths rest with the head pointing downwards and their wings closed: but, if disturbed, they reveal the brilliant orange of their lower wings as they fly – often in considerable numbers – forming a silent, shimmering cloud of colour. The endemic bellflower Campanula rhodense is also a native of the same Petaloudes valley.
The mention of an endemic reminds us that the huge variety of wild flowers in Greece and the existence of so many endemic species in the Aegean Islands is largely due to the fact that 20,000 years ago the Aegean area was a swampy, low-lying forest in a depression between the Balkan and Anatolian highlands. The melt at the end of the last Ice Age and the considerable tectonic activity of the area since then has resulted in its filling with water except for the isolated heights which have remained as islands. Each island possessed at that point an abundant gamut of flora, fauna and tree cover – rich and hugely varied. In other words, all the islands – with the exception of those with volcanic activity (Santorini, Nisyros, Milos) and the few large, waterless islands (Gyaros) – were to a lesser or greater degree green with tree-cover. Even Delos which, though now completely barren and treeless, could formerly support a running water-course, the river Inopos. Delos was sacred not just to Apollo but also to his twin sister, Artemis, divinity of the hunt and the groves that sheltered game and wild animals. What sense would it make for the island to be sacred to her if it had had no trees and groves?
The presence of man in the Aegean, with his agricultural exploitation, in fact changed this situation very little at first. But living on islands required boat-building – a craft for which the Aegean islanders acquired considerable fame. This is the moment when the situation began to change. Homer speaks of Odysseus felling twenty trees to build a rudimentary boat for himself, whereas a Venetian man-of-war is said to have required five or six thousand; the number for a Greek trireme or penteconter, for example, must have been between two and three thousand. Cypress from the mountains of Crete was used for rigging-masts; a single fir tree for each oar; hard woods, such as oak from Phrygia, for the outer hull, and lighter and softer pine for the interior benches and fittings.
The important thing, however, is not just the numerical quantity of trees required but the fact that these felled trees and groves, were far slower to replenish – if at all – on the islands than would have been the case on the mainland. As whole fleets, both military and merchant, began to be required and needed constant renewal, the smaller islands lost first their trees and then their top soil, never again to regain them in most places. Think of islands such as Symi, Psará, Kassos, Mykonos – islands with long ship-building traditions which now are famous for their uncompromisingly rocky profiles. Symi, alone of these, still preserves some small but magnificent stands of mature cypress, fir, juniper, and oak, with small breaks of chestnut, in its inaccessible interior.
The Ancient Greeks were aware of the existence of an ecological equilibrium which they actively managed in later Antiquity through the wholesale importation of timber from the Black Sea area, and by the prioritisation of indigenous wood for boat-building alone. Temples, public buildings and houses had to be made instead from the abundant limestones of the Aegean. That simple fact means that we have Greek architecture that has survived two and half millennia into our own times: if it had been constructed in wood instead, which would have been far easier for the builders, it would have perished long ago and we would know nothing of it, nor would we have any Parthenon today.
It was the rapid spread of Rome’s power out into the Mediterranean basin during the 3rd century BC, however, which caused the first large-scale, human-driven ecological changes of history. Sicily is a case in point. Once a densely forested and well-watered island, it was systematically transformed when it became a province of Rome. The massive demands on trees for the building of an ever-expanding Roman navy and the daily need for timber in the cities for the furnaces of the public baths led, in the case of Sicily, to the deforestation of large parts of the centre of the island and to the dedication of the areas cleared thereby to the cultivation of grain on an almost industrial scale so as to feed the growing imperial capital. Sicily was never to look the same again. Then, nearly a millennium later, the island underwent yet another environmental transformation – this time more positive – when the Arabs occupied it in the 9th and 10th centuries. They went some way to redressing the balance by introducing citrus trees, almonds, pistachio, rice, sugar cane, and cotton – all of which they brought into Sicily from Asia and Africa along with the sophisticated technology of irrigation and water management which was to sustain their cultivation. They refreshed the ecology of the island. And with these ingredients, of course, they laid the foundations of Sicilian and Italian cuisine.
Sicily is an interesting case because of the scale of the environmental changes it experienced. A small Aegean island, however, is different: how can its tree-cover ever replenish after felling, fire, or the marauding, piratic devastations that have been the constant lot of the islands throughout mediaeval and modern history? The rocky, tree- less ‘Cycladic landscape’ which is so loved by us for its elemental simplicity is a relatively modern vision of these islands. Not far back in their history they were nearly all wooded, watered and full of bird-life.
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Post script on silphium
Simply through the sheer size and demand of its market and its talent for the exploitation of natural resources, Rome’s influence could have a different kind of negative impact. An interesting vegetable known to us from written sources (a fragment of Solon, Herodotus, Theophrastus, Pliny et al.) as ‘σιλφίον’ or ‘silphium’ is a good example of this. Silphium was a member of the carrot family, or genus Ferula – a relation of our fennel. It was probably not radically dissimilar to the Ferula tingitana which still grows wild in Morocco. Although widely used in Ancient Egypt and Minoan Crete for its medicinal and seasoning properties, silphium appears to have become extinct in the Mediterranean around the end of the 1st century AD. We say ‘extinct’, but of course it is difficult to establish a plant’s extinction for sure if it is not possible to identify the plant with complete certainty in the first place.
We have many glimpses of silphium, however. Herodotus (Histories, IV.169) mentions it as growing abundantly in the region of Cyrene, on the North African coast of what is Libya today. It appears shortly afterwards, clearly delineated, on the fine coinage minted in Cyrene. A black-figure cup of the mid-sixth century BC, made in Laconia and found at Vulci in Etruria (the trade between the Etruscans and the Greeks in both directions was considerable throughout this period) and which is now in the Cabinet des Médailles in Paris, shows the King of Cyrene, Arcesilaos I, presiding over the weighing and packaging of what is possibly a consignment of the silphium plant. It constituted the primary and most valuable export of his kingdom. It was much sought after as a spice for food and had a reputation as a medicinal purgative, a terminator of unwanted pregnancies, a cure for fever and gastric problems, and (as recommended by Hippocrates) the active ingredient in a poultice to repair a prolapsed intestine.
Theophrastus, too, speaks about silphium at length, but he indicates interestingly that it was particularly unresponsive to cultivation (Historia Plantarum VI. 3. 1-3), and, in his view, only the Libyans knew how properly to collect the curative resin from the stem. By the time we reach the 1st century AD, however, the age of Pliny and Dioscorides, it is clear that the plant is disappearing. Pliny discusses it in his ecyclopaedic Naturalis Storia (XIX.15). He calls it Laserpitium and refers to its juice or resin as laser. He touches on its mythical origin, the strange effects it may have on animals that graze on it, and the methods of extraction of its juice. But he points out that its cost by weight had already become equivalent to that of silver, and that a solitary stem of the vanishing plant had been sent to the Emperor Nero as a curiosity “because it had no longer been found in the area of Cyrene for many years”, “…multis iam annis in ea terra non invenitur”. (XIX.15.39)
What had happened? Was this a result of a catastrophic mis-management of a plant that was known anyway to resist cultivation? Or could over-grazing by pasturing animals be to blame? Or was it simply a sign of the evolving desertification of the north coast of Africa in this period? All that we can say is that silphium was ultimately exterminated in the area of Cyrene, and that the market turned afterwards to Persia where a quite different plant of the same genus, Ferula asafoetida (which had a slightly fetid odour as its name implies) was used to substitute some of its qualities. Never again was the silphium plant to appear resplendently on the coinage of North Africa, nor soothe the fevers of Roman citizens.
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