This article incorrectly described the poet Cavafy as English. Although he lived in England, he was Greek, born in Egypt.
Traveling With Herodotus
Sunday, January 11, 2009
I never thought traveling with a dead man could be so much fun. Certainly not for the best part of five years mooning about the Mediterranean, North Africa, the Aegean and the Middle East.
True, there were some pragmatic, perhaps selfish, attractions about a journey with Herodotus, the 5th-century-B.C. Greek who is generally considered the Father of History (or Father of Lies, if you prefer Plutarch's acid put-down). There would never be any arguments, none of the tedious irritations that come from spending too much time on the road with one person. I wouldn't come to blows with him for pinching the aisle seat on a cramped bus in Greece. His ham-fisted attempts to speak Arabic, or perhaps his linguistic brilliance, couldn't annoy me. I wouldn't have to lend him money, he wouldn't keep the lights on after I wanted to go to sleep and he would never embarrass me in front of a pretty girl.
All that was a given. Yet I didn't expect to become such good friends with someone who died almost 2,500 years ago. It didn't seem possible or plausible. The thing is, Herodotus is a tremendously engaging companion, even from beyond the grave. He's not only a historian. He's an anthropologist, a foreign correspondent and investigative reporter, an explorer and traveler and the consummate travel writer. Above all, he's an irrepressible, effervescent storyteller, and who doesn't like a good story?
"The Histories," his only book, would have to be my guide. Ostensibly it tells the story of the cataclysmic Persian Wars with the Greeks, the decisive encounter between fledgling East and West, from the early battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. through the adrenaline-charged heroics of King Leonidas's Spartans at Thermopylae (think Zack Snyder's violent film "300") to the tumultuous finale at Plataea in 479 B.C., when the Greeks emerged triumphant. But "The Histories" is much more than that. It is one of the most digressive, wide-ranging books in Western literature.
Traveling through much of the then-known world in a spirit of roving wonder, Herodotus writes about the weird and the wonderful. He tells us of gold-digging ants and dog-headed men, the flying snakes of Arabia and self-immolating cats in Egypt. This is a world in which a dolphin can rescue a shipwrecked musician. Mad about monuments, as we shall see, he notes the architectural heritage of the places he visits, from the temples of Greece to the pyramids of Egypt. He has an eye for sex, too, recording the exotic customs of the Babylonians (husbands and wives fumigate their genitals after lovemaking), examples of necrophilia and bestiality in Egypt, and the predatory promiscuity of the Massagetae tribe of the Caspian Sea region ("If a man wants a woman, all he does is to hang up his quiver in front of her wagon and then enjoy her without misgiving").
Plenty to go on, in other words. A journey in the spirit and slipstream of the man who invented history. We kick off the Herodotean itinerary, appropriately enough, in his hometown on Turkey's Aegean coast, the vulgar-chic resort of Bodrum that was the Halicarnassus of old.
Bodrum is a curious place. Somehow it just about manages to play host simultaneously to high-end tourism (expensive frolicking on the water in sleek yachts called gulets) and the bottom end of the market (shaven-headed, beer- and sex-seeking Brits) without inconveniencing either group.
Although nothing survives from Herodotus's time -- a constant refrain for the next five years of our trip -- Bodrum still does a nice line in history. It is home to the tumbledown ruins of the Mausoleum, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, a monument so hubristically horizon-dominating in its time that its royal sponsor, King Mausolus, gave his name ever after to this grandest form of funerary architecture. Bodrum also has the splendid, 16th-century Castle of St. Peter, which protrudes into the harbor, a reminder of the old fault line that runs through these waters and divides Muslim East from Christian West in the form of ever-squabbling Turkey and Greece. (My Turkish guide in Bodrum: "Everyone thinks Herodotus was a Greek. He wasn't." A Greek in Athens: "He was Greek, of course, but they [the Turks] can never admit that.") This coastline is riddled with history. The ancient sites of Ephesus, Priene and Miletus are close at hand for those history buffs who quickly tire of the turquoise waters.
From Turkey, we head south to Egypt, the country that most impressed our itinerant Greek. In fact, to say he was impressed is a gross understatement. He was positively wowed by it. In his own (translated) words: "About Egypt I shall have a great deal more to relate because of the number of remarkable things which the country contains, and because of the fact that more monuments which beggar description are to be found there than anywhere else in the world." He got so carried away by the place that he ended up devoting a whole third of "The Histories" to it: a masterful survey of the country's history, geography, religion, politics, culture and customs, flora and fauna, architecture, agriculture, burial and sacrificial rituals, diet, mummification and, inevitably because this is Herodotus we're talking about, sex. Breezy as it was, the store of information he brought back about Egypt was unsurpassed until the 19th century.
When he came to the country's most magical monuments, the pyramids, he couldn't resist another tall story. The pharaoh Cheops (or Khufu, as he's also known) ran out of money during the Great Pyramid's construction, he reported. To replenish the royal coffers, Cheops sent his daughter to a brothel and put her to work. The unfortunate woman decided to do some business on the side to raise her own pyramid, charging each satisfied customer a 2.5-ton block of limestone. Entertaining nonsense, you might think, but be careful about mentioning the story to Egyptians. They consider it blasphemous.
One afternoon in Cairo, having returned from trips to Memphis and Luxor and a foray into the Western Desert to visit the ancient oasis of Siwa, whose Oracle of Ammon was consulted by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C., my guide and I drive to the pyramids to search for our own tall stories. These days the most improbable tend to have a ring of truth about them. And it is the Egyptian guides, rather than foreign tourists, who tell them with a sense of wonder bordering on disbelief. One of them is about how sun-worshiping New Agers descend on Giza once a year, dressed in white, holding hands in a circle and praying before slipping into the Great Pyramid at midnight (thanks to some baksheesh) to make their pilgrimage through the granite darkness of the Great Gallery to the millennial stillness of the King's Chamber for a bout of soul-searching and exploration of their consciousness.
Suddenly, as I'm standing there listening, the atmosphere turns poisonous. One moment, the tourist touts have been offering me rides on camels and horses, "rare" (mass-produced) papyri, undiscovered royal tombs, forgotten treasures and prostitutes; the next they are struck with fear and suspicion, which turns suddenly to outright hostility. The sight of my notebook has proved fatal.