Sailing to Byzantium

by Victor Davis Hanson

PJ Media


Millions of Euros have transformed Rhodes into a sort of Frankish and Venetian Disneyland. The medieval city has been completely rebuilt, or almost rebuilt — turrets, walls, streets, arches, courtyards — into a fascinating citadel as it might have appeared around 1500 or so. I visited in 1973, 1974, and 1988, and it has since invested more money in the last twenty years into infrastructure than during the prior 100. But then the story of Greece itself the last thirty years is the gargantuan influx of Euro money, both before and after the Olympics, that make it unrecognizable from my first visit at 20 in September 1973 — an awful year of war in the Middle East, furor over American resupply of Israel, of oil embargos, a preliminary coup that removed George Papadopoulos, brought in the more sinister Ioannides, and the shoot-out at the Polytechnion.

One does not see medieval homesteads in the interior anywhere in Greece as was common during the classical period. Indeed Rhodes of the Middle Ages — tons of stone ramparts guarding a stone central fortress with crowded brick and stone homes within — was not the Rhodes of 400 B.C. with plentiful small poleis and surrounding homestead farms.

Piracy and Ottomanism meant that enemy galleys could appear on the horizon without warning and land within hours to rape, murder, kidnap, and pillage. The pattern of settlement of  Rhodes is a testament to that fact. Houses are built fortress-like. Streets are labyrinths, and secondary lines of defense, as trapped invaders might be pelted from top stories of shuttered homes, citizens safe behind massive doors, or at least safe enough to jump above across narrow pathway-like streets or to escape through subterranean tunnels.

Throughout the Mediterranean antiquities of the 14th-18th centuries, the story is the same: fears of security, inadequate defense, and constant anxiety trump the ease and economy of living among the fields. Commuting peasants attached to lords who provide security for exploitation, not yeomen homestead farmers of the classical past, are more characteristic of the countryside

One way of learning history without texts is simply to wander the ancient countryside and observe: when there are scattered towns and homesteads, life is good; when not, life is tenuous and development retarded. Standing on the ramparts of Rhodes, I could not think of a scarier thing than hearing a shout from a watchman that seaborne raiders have appeared out of nowhere and the gates were closing to prevent catastrophe. We in the United States have not seen such insecurity since the Civil War and especially the bloody killing in Kansas and Missouri, other than a few range wars in the late nineteenth-century West. But history is not always progressive, and without good government, national unity, and viable defense, the world returns to the status of the 15th-century Aegean. Almost every island out here has an impressive Frankish fort, beefed up by the Venetians — and ultimately sacked by the Turks.


I first visited Halicarnassus — birthplace of Herodotus, home of the Mausoleum, and capital of Artemisia’s Carian kingdom — over 35 years ago. It has metamorphosized from a seedy, sleepy sort of Bohemian seaside port into a cruise ship hot spot, with rebuilt Frankish castle, touristy harbor, scores of impressive wood yachts, and an inviting market not that much different from those on the Greek islands.

There is not much more than a stone or two left from the Mausoleum (the least visited of the 7 ancient wonders of the world, I think, are the Babylon hanging gardens and Mausolus’s tomb). The ancient theater is still used, but gaudy and without the dignity of the white simplicity of Epidauros. The harbor has great natural beauty. I spent the afternoon at a coffee bar and talked to a Turkish intellectual, furious that Greeks come easily ashore as EU cash-laden visitors, while Turks only with difficulty can stay more than a day on the Greek islands. I left the conversation when he got into the great Aegean narrative: that Greek islands, like Rhodes, Samos, Lesbos, and Chios, are intrinsically and properly Turkish — apparently he never heard of ancient Ionia. We had started out well enough, talking about olives and grapes, and the scarcity of water; politics ended all that.


I confess I have never liked Mykonos. Like most classics and archaeological snob students, I avoided it except as transit to uninhabited Delos. But aside from the Euro-sensualists who swarm the island, its interior has natural beauty and fine beaches, as well as good seaside restaurants. I first visited there 36 years ago, and that old divide between gawking traditional native residents and polymorphously perverse European party-goers is now gone. Indeed, the Greek cosmopolitans are almost indistinguishable from the other visitors. I usually preferred to visit Paros or Naxos, or even eerie tourist- and antiquities-free Syros. Swam alongside a snorkeler who speared four big octopuses, and he spoke English as poorly as I do modern Greek now.


Compared to the last time I was here, the city is unrecognizable. On both the European and Asian shores, some 13 million now make up greater Istanbul. The carbon dioxide level of the Great Bazaar on a hot humid Friday afternoon must reach dangerous levels, and seems to suffocate within minutes. The shopkeepers are of course pushy, even provocative, but they offer strangely inviting and creative lines—“It is now my turn to take your money” or “Please don’t smile at me” or “ Stop! That’s mean to laugh at me” or “Let me show you how to spend your money.” Small blocks on the hills of old Constantinople seem to emulate San Francisco Victorian districts, but of course on closer inspection really do not.

I have visited the grand Hagia Sophia twice before, and it even more in middle age evokes a sense of tragedy. Compared to its Islamic copy — the Blue Mosque across the way (built about a thousand years later in a gasp of inferiority thinking that “we can do it better”) — its age and majesty shine out. Turkish guides still claim the minarets were added only to “bolster” the fragile dome, but they neither explain the prior flying supporting arches added for that very purpose centuries before the fall, nor how the dome existed for over a thousand years without the minarets. It needs millions in upkeep and restoration (work on the dome continues), and in comparison to the Blue Mosque, the jewel of old Christendom is rather seedy inside (though better than in the 1970s). Again, quite sad, especially when remembering the frightening narrative of the assembled, who in late May 1453 expected an archangel to rescue them moments before the Janissaries broke in …

The “Turkish Question” — is it West or East, should it be in the E.U., is it a reliable NATO partner? — is hardly a question anymore. Istanbul is Western, its citizens Western in appearance, a liberality prevalent in commerce and discourse. And yet a 100 miles away in the interior, the traditional Middle East and Islam are on the rise. The West cannot decide what Turkey’s future is, since it is in the midst of a grand dialogue between itself — between its European West and its fundamentalist East. Europe will have to await the outcome.

I heard an engaging lecture by the author of the magisterial Ataturk biography, 83-year-young Andrew Mango, who reemphasized his long-held views that Turkey is Westernizing as never before, and belongs with Europe. Our Turkish guide was informative at Tokapi, but often propagandized about Turkish Westernism (e.g., only prejudice he swore keeps it out of the E.U.), falling into that traditional trope of often bitterly resenting the West that he so eagerly wishes to join, while bitterly resenting Middle East fundamentalism and indigenous prejudices that thwart modernism while chauvinistically praising all things Turkish.

The Dardanelles

This morning we passed through the Hellespont, through the narrows where Xerxes’s bridge brought his army into Europe in the largest sea-borne and supported invasion of the continent until Normandy, 1944. Monuments to Gallipoli dot the coast, as do remains of the Turkish forts.

At the narrowest the strait constricts to about a mile wide. The Gallipoli campaign was probably lost in March 1915 before the landings even began, when mines sunk a French dreadnaught and damaged a few British ships, preventing adequate bombardment and further steaming up the Dardanelles. Had the mines been properly cleared, the Allied fleet could easily have blasted the cliffs and headed all the way to the Bosporus to shell or occupy Istanbul. All the same, looking this morning at these barren foothills, one wonders how tens of thousands of Australians and New Zealanders were supposed to be fed and supplied while at the mercy of Turkish gunners, trained and armed by German specialists. The beaches and hills are naked, dry, and windswept.

Not far down the coast, around the corner are the waters of Aigospotami and Arginusae. Well over 500 Spartan and Athenian triremes were sunk in these environs between 413 and 404. Going in and out of the Hellespont and the coast of Asia Minor, I tried, from sea with maps, to spot the sites of the battles of Cyzicus, Cynosema, Notium, and Abydos — the ancient equivalent of Western-front butchery, of the last phase of the Peloponnesian War when the struggle was decided here at the mouth of the straits. The Athenians lost the war not 1500 miles away in Sicily in 413, but right here at the even greater catastrophe at the Hellespont between 413-404.

The geography could not be more strategic — the entrance to the breadbasket of the Black Sea grain plains, the Western maritime route out for the Islamic Middle East, the warm-water escape of the Russian fleet, the contested hot spots between Greece and Turkey, the route of overland pipelines from the oil-rich former Soviet Union. Tankers and cargo ships go by almost minute by minute, port and starboard. Steaming through the Dardanelles is like opening up a book on the history of the West. Through these straits the great Ottoman galley fleet headed west in 1571 to Lepanto. In 1973 in Istanbul I watched U.S. ships, like taxis, waiting for the Soviet fleet to emerge out of the Bosporus, as they immediately tagged and followed each one out into the Sea of Marmara and into the Dardanelles here.

In the last 2500 years these waters and landscapes have never witnessed a 60-year long period of tranquility and prosperity as we see in the present. What keeps things in order for cruise and commerce ships; what prevents piracy, Greek-Turkish shoot-outs, new Russian belligerence, and Islamic suicide USS Cole-like attacks?

NATO ships and American leadership. Take that away and we’d be back to 1941, 1915, 1571, and 404 B.C. in a few years.We should remember that as we go into $2 trillion debt this year, since very soon this administration will by needs either raise taxes on the middle class or slash the military budget in late 1940s style.

©2009 Victor Davis Hanson

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