Actually, no – not the ruins of Athens … that’s a Beethoven piece that popped into my head – the Turkish March, from The Ruins of Athens … I’d always wondered in a desultory way, what would happen to me, if I played that classic music piece without comment, when I was stationed at EBS-Hellenikon, back in the day. I was never reckless enough to do the experiment and find out, actually. The Greeks were hair-trigger temperamental about any mention of Greece, Turkey, or the EEC (the forerunner to the EU) on the perilous airways of the American Forces Radio station where I worked – mostly on the swing and mid-shifts in the early 1980s. As exasperating and sometimes as deadly as the political stuff got during those years – and it did get deadly, for the N-14 organization and elements of the PLO were more or less targeting Americans on a regular basis – I loved Greece unreservedly.
Loved the place and the people, loved where I lived, loved being able to take a city bus downtown and explore the Parthenon and other historical sites, or take a drive down the Attic peninsula, or over into the Peloponnese … those relics of Classical-era Athens were what we had, you see. That and the words of intellectuals, playwrights, philosophers, doctors, politicians, historians … they were a light to lighten the gentiles, the glory of the world, as it was. That light went on shining and inspiring for more than two thousand years, the words, the words and ideas, the art, and the poor crumbling stones, the relics of that world left to us. And so, scholars and poets and tourists and people like me have been making pilgrimage ever since, to the place where the words were made, the oracles read, and the mighty deeds done. Someone once said of Greece – and I can’t be bothered to look up the citation – that it is the second country for those of use who revere the Western traditions in scholarship and political thought. What might we think, and do – if a present-day political body in Greece made as if to routinely destroy, reduce to stone crumbs and shards – all that is left to the present-day of that glory remaining of classical Greece? What might we think, if the current regime made it a policy and practice to destroy those existing monuments, and to cement over all those as-yet unexcavated sites? To smash and trash the exhibits remaining in the archeological museums – what might we think, of our intellectual inheritance being destroyed before us, in a grim demonstration of cultural superiority?
So – attend to me a moment, and consider what may, or what might be about to happen in Egypt – a culture thousands of years older than that of Greece, the place where one of the Eight Wonders of the World still stand, and the oldest one of that, as it is. Think of all that glory, the monuments, those relics and the art of Ancient Egypt not existing any more. The temples and shrines tumbled to the ground and smashed to gravel, the contents of museums scattered to the four winds, or melted down for the gold in them, layers of cement poured over as-yet-unexcavated sites. We in the West value the Egypt of unimaginable antiquity – we’ve been going there for two centuries, funding expeditions and excavations, collecting curiosities up to and including whole buildings, imagining, speculating, researching tirelessly — even just taking a tourist excursion to see those wonders for ourselves. We’ve been told over and over that the ordinary Egyptians and the scholarly sort like the ubiquitously annoying Dr. Zahi Hawass value them too; a matter of local/national pride and a magnet for tourism. However, now there is a movement afoot in Egypt, of prominent Islamists urging that monuments like the Pyramids be destroyed, tourism neither being desired or welcome any more.
One might think it just talk, chest-thumping for the local audience by radical Islamists, now that one of their own is in charge in Egypt … or it just might be intended as a means for the new ruling party in Egypt to extort an international ransom in exchange for not harming the pre-Islamic landmarks and relics. But after the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, and the recent destruction of historic sites in Timbuktu, the officially-sanctioned destruction of pre-Islamic archeological sites in Saudi Arabia, the smashing of pre-Islamic relics in the Maldives, one has to consider the destruction of ancient Egyptian historical sites and relics as a very real possibility. The Afghans around Bamiyan were supposedly fond of their Buddhas, and the Malians of the ancient wonders of Timbukto, for all the good that and the condemnation of the outside world did in preventing their destruction. As I wrote before – aren’t things like this the property of the larger world, in the intellectual sense? Aren’t they worth cherishing and protecting for new generations? Is history to be a kind of whiteboard, frequently wiped clean of everything accumulated before the day before yesterday, at the whim of the local thugs in temporary charge? At the very least this ought to put an end to well-meant efforts to repatriate Egyptian relics now in European and American museums back to their land of origin. If the Egyptian Islamists are dead serious in their intent and effective in carrying it out, those items might be all that we have left.