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Greece is a country of many pasts and many presents by Alex Motyl

Guest lecturer Professor Alexander J. Motyl takes us on a journey from Athens to Athens, as he remembers his recent visit to Greece on board Aegean Odyssey last month. Having first travelled to Greece as a student in 1976; he has regularly visited the incredible architectural heritage of this beautiful region.

Prof Alexander J. Motyl sketches the beautiful scenery in Greece. © Alexander J. Motyl

Prof Alexander J. Motyl sketches the beautiful scenery in Greece. © Alexander J. Motyl

There is the world of Minoan, Mycenean, and Athenian civilization. There is the world of the secular Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires. There is the world of the sacred Christian Orthodox realm. Superimposed on all these pasts is a fabulous world of myths that both conceal and illuminate the realities that we espy in the ruins.

And then there is the world of modern Greece—the nation-state that emerged from a bloody struggle in 1832, that spent decades attempting to in-gather all Greeks within its boundaries, that suffered a catastrophic defeat in its war with Turkey in 1922-1923, that emerged as a prosperous economy after World War II and the dreadful Civil War that followed, and that is now perched on the verge of economic collapse.

Aegean Odyssey in Delos

Aegean Odyssey in Delos

Where is the real Greece? As our tour of mainland and island Greece demonstrated, the real Greece is as much in our—and the Greeks’—imagination as it is in the magnificent Hellenic, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman ruins that adorn its cities and landscapes like the mysterious remnants of mythic creatures.

The temples, columns, and buildings—whether on the island of Delos or at the top of the Parthenon—do not and cannot speak to us directly. They do so only through the mediation of archaeologists and historians who interpret them by acting as translators between us and them.

Ruined fortress in Lindos © Alexander J. Motyl

Ruined fortress in Lindos © Alexander J. Motyl

But even their mediation requires further interpretation. After all, the world of ancient Greece—no less than the world of the Romans, Byzantines, and Ottomans who established their empires in Greece—must be viewed through the lens of today’s Greece, just as the world of today’s Greece must be viewed through the lens of ancient Greece and all the empires that followed it.

Today’s Greece exists in the distant past as much as ancient Greece lives in the very palpable present.

Contemporary Greeks see themselves in ancient Athens, Santorini, Delos, Crete, and Macedon. They view the monasteries and churches on Patmos and Meteora as repositories of their age-old spirituality. They claim Phillip of Macedon and his son, Alexander the Great, as their forefathers.

Remarkable Monasteries of Meteora © Alexander J. Motyl

Remarkable Monasteries of Meteora © Alexander J. Motyl

At the same time, all these sites, all these ruins, all these churches, monasteries, and holy places insinuate themselves into the Greece we see and hear and feel all around as we stroll the crooked streets of Rhodes, gaze at the whitewashed buildings and windmills of Mykonos, admire the harbors of Hydra and Skiathos, and sip coffee and eat baklava in the cafes of Athens and Piraeus.

Alexander J. Motyl sketch of Skiathos ©Alexander J. Motyl

Alexander J. Motyl sketch of Skiathos ©Alexander J. Motyl

These multiple Greeces form a symphony of sound and light, a set of beautiful and incomprehensible images that delight, mystify, and terrify us at the same time. In this variegated, complex, ever eternal, and constantly fleeting Greece, we see both the permanence and transitoriness of the human condition.

In fact, we see ourselves—in all our glory and with all our human imperfections.

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Experience Greece and its islands for yourself on our Greek & the Greek Islands cruise departing 2nd September 2016 and 13th September 2016.