Aiolou Street is named after Aeolus, God of the Winds, and is the first street to have been paved in Athens in the 19th century. It it to this day a major shopping street in downtown Athens, and it is in its sewage system—which has been undergoing a maintenance overhaul—that workers discovered a bust of Hermes, herald of the gods.
The marble head is bearded and with his hair in strictly arranged curls. In good condition, it was found a mere 1.3 meters under the road surface.
The bust dates from around 300 BC, and is believed to have been part of a stone pillar serving as a street marker. These pillars were called Hermae, and were used as markers and also to impart good luck to travellers, and ward off harm or evil. They were placed at crossings, country borders, in front of temples or public buildings such as libraries, gymnasia, and palestrae, and also in front of houses. They were quadrangular and plain, with the head sitting on top; sometimes male genitalia were carved at the appropriate height. They were called Hermae because the head of Hermes was the most common, since he was the protector of merchants and travelers. However, the heads of other gods and heroes, and sometimes distinguished mortals, were also frequent.
Being unable to roam the world due to lockdown, some people, most of whom were probably nerdy loners in the first place—albeit geniuses—have decided to recreate the world indoors on a one to one scale, via Minecraft. What the hell is Minecraft, I can hear some of you shriek (probably anyone over the age of 13). It is a video game, I answer, where players can build anything their imagination can come up with, using blocks of a variety of materials provided. If you want to find out more, or even learn how to do it, YouTube is full of (FREE!!) videos. There is a small drawback, in that the infant instructors have such boring voices and deliveries that they are guaranteed to send you to sleep in five minutes flat. Trust me, I know. But I have nevertheless seen with my very eyes children of 7 or 8 build the most amazing, if hideous, constructions of every sort: towers, castles, spaceships. Middle Earth. Dragons, and sheep. You get my drift. It is actually very clever and quite educational.
Back to the point: one of these gamers, known as PippenFTS, has started the Build The Earth Project, using data from Google Earth to generate the terrain on a 1:1 scale. He has called on other players to join him in constructing all man-made structures in every city, town and village across the world. The response was astounding: more than 130,000 people have come together online to build a life-size recreation of the earth.
For his part, PippenFTS is kicking off by recreating his home city of Seattle, virtual brick by virtual brick, on the Minecraft map.
The idea is for each Minecraft player to start their own Planet Earth map, pick a city or territory, and work on creating it on a 1:1 scale as true to reality as possible. When the building of all the areas is completed, they will be patched together with map editors to combine everyone’s work into a single Earth.
“Literally a week into the quarantine and we’ve already replaced the outside world,” one supporter noted.
In order to build the Earth to scale, PippenFTS first had to overcome some limitations within the game – most significantly, the inability to build more than 256 blocks high. By using a mod called Cubic Chunks, he was able to bypass the game’s vertical height limit and recreate geological wonders like Mount Everest and the Grand Canyon at their full scale. “All human made structures – all of our cities, our towers, cathedrals, railroads, museums, theatres, parks and skyscrapers – all of it is built and completed in one map that represents our innate human desire to create, to achieve, to persevere in a single visitable and explorable Minecraft world,” he said. “This would be the world to end all worlds: the single most greatest collective achievement in Minecraft, and I want to see it done in my lifetime. So I’m starting the first brick.”
Builder evilpauwse, a New York college student who is a moderator in the project, said that people are constantly asking why? Why rebuild the Earth within Minecraft? “To that I say, ‘why not,’” he said. “Something of this scale has never been done before, and is ready for anyone who wants to take on the challenge of doing it.”
The project’s biggest roadblock is organization: with so many volunteers, it’s hard to keep builders focused and working together. Therefore various committees and systems are being set up. But all the builders love the challenge of capturing the earth in this moment in time, in all its glory.
Here’s a short video for anyone interested. Maybe some of you would even like to join in?
‘Nuns fret not at their Convent’s narrow room; And Hermits are contented with their Cells; And Students with their pensive Citadels; Maids at the Wheel, the Weaver at his Loom Sit blithe and happy; Bees that soar for bloom, High as the highest Peak of Furness-Fells, Will murmur by the hour in Foxglove bells: In truth the prison, into which we doom Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me, In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground; Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be) Who have felt the weight of too much liberty, Should find brief solace there, as I have found.’
These days it’s a plus to be someone who likes being alone and takes pleasure in their own company. Sometimes it can even be easier than being cooped up with others, especially if you don’t get along particularly well… Be that as it may, we’re all in this together, as the press does not stop reminding us. And it’s true, globalisation has never been so pertinent. So we must all try to find ways to embellish our living conditions as much as possible.
Seeing as the coronavirus has been unable to stop the coming of spring, I have been enjoying painting the daffs and tulips in my vases in various ways. In the drawing below, the ink marks were made using a stick I picked up outside.
For a bit of news from Greece, every day at six o’clock people have been turning on the TV to listen to the health bulletin read by the new national guru, ProfessorSotirisTsiodras. Harvard and MIT educated, the self-effacing and mild-mannered Professor Tsiodras has been appointed by the government to manage the coronavirus crisis as well as communicating to the public about it. An austere, almost ascetic man (he is father to seven children, and a psalm singer in church), he seems unsuited for the role of television personality. However, he has managed to gain the trust of a people usually very suspicion of those in authority. This is just as well, because Greeks do not take kindly to obeying rules; and of course there is the inevitable faction of rebels who do not hesitate in accusing him of trying to instill fear in the population for political reasons, going so far as to troll him on social media. However, in general the Greek government has been following the French example of confinement and things seem to be reasonably calm.
Nevertheless, there is great worry about the day after, since Greece has been trying to emerge from unprecedented crisis and the EU is now widely seen as not being up to par in its obligations. As for the refugee problem, it will not abate anytime soon, given the continuing wars in Syria and Libya.
In better news, the Ministry of Health is taking delivery of a large amount of protective material (masks etc) from China, the cost of which has mostly been covered by the Onassis Foundation.
Finally, Greece is mourning the death, at 97, of Manolis Glezos, left-wing politician and Anti-Nazi resistance hero. He will always be remembered for his feat, as a young man, of ripping down the swastika from the Acropolis. On May 30, 1941, aged 18, he scaled the walls with a companion in the dead of night, to remove the occupyers’ flag. He was arrested and tortured, and subsequently sentenced to death multiple times; due to his political activism, he spent sixteen years of his life confined to a prison cell. Later he was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize, and vociferously campaigned well into his 90s for German reparations as compensation for the atrocities Greeks suffered at the hands of the Nazis. Glezos lived with his wife Georgia in a little house in Athens filled with books, and was a great believer in the afternoon nap – the legacy of a life of exile and imprisonment.
Going back to Wordsworth, and his ‘host of golden daffodils’, here a cartoon by the inimitable Matt, to make you smile:
And to finish off, I’d like to share a little video I came upon, about musical twins in Italy. Who could be gloomy with these two in the house!
It’s difficult to know how to describe the situation we find ourselves in. A mini-apocalypse? A plague? A warning for the future? It’s been hard accepting how dangerous the virus is, and how contagious. Most of us, if in good health, kept up normal activities for a while, thinking it was just a bad kind of flu. Some are still not taking it seriously enough, obliging governments to impose confinement, curfews and fines. In retrospect, it was a disaster waiting to happen, given the global amount of traveling that goes on, with no health checks whatsoever. The proof has been the rapidity with which the virus has spread worldwide.
However, this too shall pass, as have all previous epidemics: the object now being to limit the devastation it will leave in its wake, both in terms of deaths and financial.
It’s interesting, and sometimes weird, to see how people are reacting. I still have friends who are on holiday, blithely ignoring the fact that they might be blocked from going home, maybe for months. Thousands of travelers, of all nationalities, are stuck abroad as we speak.
As with all extreme situations, this has brought out the best and the worst in people. Every day we witness incredible scenes—some of outrageous selfishness, some of great kindness.
Indisputably, we must come to terms with the new reality facing us for weeks, maybe for months to come.
I find myself back in confinement after the weeks when I could put no weight on my broken ankle—but this time without a cast! Bliss. I can now cook, and, as everyone knows, food is a great lifter of spirits. Improvising with what we have in the fridge, freezer and store cupboard. And I’ve been doing some foraging. There’s a little stream nearby, and its banks are full of wild garlic and nettles. Good for pesto, and soup, perhaps. There was a little yellow frog hopping about, and for a minute I thought ‘Frog legs!’, but then, Noo. No way 🙂
I feel so thankful and privileged to be able to go out in the garden. It’s such an escape from feeling like murdering the loved ones. I think of people stuck with small kids in tiny appartments. People worried about losing their jobs or going bankrupt. The refugees, piled in camps with no hygiene. People stuck in prison. The elderly who cannot see their families because they risk being contaminated. Africans who have no access to clean water with which to wash their hands. The list goes on.
I also have so much respect for the people with no choice but to continue working in very uncertain conditions. Nurses, doctors, policemen, firefighters, couriers, pharmacists, cashiers and many more.
Apart from cooking, and reading, I’ve been drawing and painting, color being another spirit booster. Amazing how many ways there are of describing one cheerful vase of daffodils.
And let’s not forget that laughter is the best medicine. People’s sense of humor is flourishing, I’m pleased to report, with a spate of jokes, memes and caricatures flooding the web and my social media.
Here’s a little news story that brought a smile to our faces today, amid all the depressing articles about the economy, the refugee situation, Brexit, the wars going on everywhere and the usual spate of crimes: A young policeman in uniform in the Monastiraki quarter of Athens joined a busker playing guitar in the street, taking the microphone and belting out ‘Stand by me,’ – in English – to the delight of passers by. The video of his performance has gone viral.
Disclaimer: I didn’t mean that ALL Greek cops can sing, nor was I suggesting they take music lessons in working hours!
While some people’s job is to look for burglars or murderers, forensic archaeologists Christos Tsirogiannis spends his time searching for looted antiquities.
He has identified 1,100 such artefacts in 13 years, and accuses the major auction houses, such as Christie’s, Sotheby’s or Bonham’s, of failing to properly check the provenance of antiquities in their catalogues. He asserts that they don’t take the necessary steps in due diligence by contacting the authorities before buying or selling antiquities.
Of course, the auction houses deny this, and insist they do work with authorities in order to establish due diligence, but that they don’t have access to the databases of seized objects, something which Tsirogiannis contests.
Be that as it may, Bonham’s has recently withdrawn an ancient Greekdrinking vessel from sale amid accusations that it was illegally excavated. Tsirogiannis alerted Interpol after producing evidence linking the Bonhams antiquity to convicted traffickers in stolen artefacts. He recognised lot 95, an ancient Greek vessel from 375-350 BC, in Bonhams’ catalogue for its July 3 antiquities auction at its flagship London salesroom. The 8in-high Apulian red-figure kantharos or drinking cup was estimated to fetch between £20,000 and £30,000.
Dr Tsirogiannis has access to images confiscated in police raids and he found a picture of the vessel, still with soil on it, in archives seized from Gianfranco Becchina, convicted in Italy and Greece of illegally dealing in antiquities.
Cambridge-based Tsirogiannis also works for the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Glasgow. He is determined to draw public attention to the irreparable damage done by looters of antiquities from archaeological sites.
Christos studied archaeology and history of art at the University of Athens, and received his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge, on the international illicit antiquities network.
He has worked for the Greek Ministries of Culture and Justice, excavating throughout Greece and recording antiquities in private hands, and has voluntarily cooperated with the Greek police Art Squad. He was also a member of the Greek Task Force Team that repatriated looted, smuggled and stolen antiquities from the Getty Museum, the Shelby White/Leon Levy collection, the Jean-David Cahn AG galleries, and others. In 2013, he won the annual Award for Art Protection and Security from the Association for Research into Crimes against Art.
Tsirogiannis believes that to loot and trade in stolen goods is a crime against humanity, because it is the cause of a major catastrophe: the irreparable loss of knowledge about our past. He has built a secret archive of tens of thousands of photos from the antiquities underground traffic, where illicitly dug artefacts pass from tomb raiders to smugglers to dealers and then on to museums, collectors, and auction houses. He has been given most of his images from prosecutors in Greece and Italy who have obtained them from police raids; he matches the photos with objects that surface at auctions or museums and then works to repatriate the pieces.
Tsirogiannis is somewhat of a thorn in the side of auction houses, but his work has forced them, and other dealers, take due diligence much more seriously. Nevertheless, the auction houses contend that the industry’s due diligence would benefit if the archives, which are technically owned by the Greek and Italian states, were to be made public, which so far they have declined to do. As for Tsirogiannis, he says that publishing the records could alert bad actors and push the market for illicit antiquities further underground.
One of the best things about living in Greece has always been its climate. Mild, sunny and dry, with a short winter and an absence of violent weather. Unfortunately, this has been gradually changing over the last few years, with more rain in the spring months, warm winds and a muggy atmosphere. Sand storms blowing in from the Sahara have also multiplied (I wrote about it in my post, An Orange Sky – https://athensletters.com/2018/04/11/an-orange-sky/), as have summer wildfires.
The latest manifestation of this phenomenon was a terrible storm that hit the northern province of Halkidiki a few days ago, killing six people and causing a lot of damage. At least 100 others were injured, with 23 people hospitalised. A state of emergency has been declared, with dozens of rescue workers dispatched to help.
A study conducted by the Crowther Lab at ETH Zurich university, anticipates that by 2050 global temperatures will have risen by 2C from pre-industrial levels. Under these conditions, three quarters of the world’s 500 largest cities will experience dramatic changes in climate (a lot of large cities are near water, who’s level keeps rising.) The worst hit, among them Singapore and Jakarta, will develop weather patterns so extreme that they don’t currently exist anywhere on earth.
Weather patterns have always been cyclical, and are not only affected by the antics of mankind. However, this is getting rather scary…
Greeks have voted for the change in government that had been widely anticipated before the elections. A lot of the people who had voted for Alexis Tsipras, hoping he would get the country out of the mess previous governments had brought it to, turned their backs on him to punish him for broken promises.
Tsipras’s detractors refer to him by the unflattering nickname ‘kolotoumbas’, which means backtracker. This started with the 2015 referendum, when he led the vote to leave Europe, having convinced Greeks to reject another international bailout and the onerous austerity that came with it — then acquiesced and fell into line with the demands of the Troika. (Thus Grexit never happened—reminds you of something?)
Twitter feeds have been going wild with lists of his broken promises. Along with the chronic financial grievances, mainly from Greece’s shrinking middle class, Tsipras’s government has also been criticized for mismanaging the response to a devastating fire near Athens last summer that killed 102 people, and for brokering a widely unpopular deal to resolve a never-ending dispute over the name of neighbouring North Macedonia. Also, he never came through with a pledge to allow Greeks living abroad to vote.
However, he cannot be held responsible for all the woes that have befallen the country, many of which were the fault of previous administrations.
The centre-right NewDemocracy party, led by KyriakosMitsotakis, the Harvard-educated, 51-year-old scion of one the most powerful political families in Greece, has won nearly 40% of the vote, guaranteeing him a comfortable majority. Mitsotakis has been painting a bright(er) picture of the future, promising growth-oriented policies, including lower taxes to encourage investment. However, it remains to be seen how feasible these are, because fiscal restrains still remain.
Let’s hope at least some of these plans will come to pass.
Greek Prime Minister AlexisTsipras suffered a severe defeat in the European Parliament elections last Sunday, his party Syriza trailing the opposition New Democracy party by about ten points.
Syriza stormed the Greek political scene on an anti-austerity platform six years ago, then suffered a backlash after imposing cut-backs as part of a third bailout in 2015. This month the government introduced more than one billion worth of handouts in the form of tax cuts and pension payouts, unwinding some of the austerity measures—but it proved to be too late in the day, although the handouts may have averted an even steeper defeat.
Let us not forget that Greece lost a quarter of its economic output during an eight-year depression, which economists record as the worst contraction of any developed economy since World War II. Unemployment peaked at 28 percent in 2013 and remains at 19 percent.
Voters punished the ruling Syriza party for broken promises but also for a deeply unpopular agreement signed by Tsipras to resolve a long-running name dispute with North Macedonia.
Tsipras has now announced a snap election, to take place in the coming month or so. The government’s current term was due to expire in October.
The high score of 33.2 percent of the vote won by the opposition party NewDemocracy suggests it might manage to energise a greater voter base in the coming month. It would need about 40 percent to rule outright, without a coalition partner.
New Democracy leader KyriakosMitsotakis has promised a restart of the economy. He says he will lower tax on businesses from 29 percent to 20 percent in two years and lower income tax on farmers from 22 percent to 10 percent.
He also says he will seek to create 700,000 new jobs in five years and has pledged to bring home at least half a million of the 860,000 skilled workers who, according to the Hellenic Statistical Service, have left the country since 2009.
Of course, such promises are founded on the assumption that the economy will achieve an annual growth rate of around four percent per year, a goal which might not be so easy to achieve. The economic plan mostly hinges on a key promise to negotiate a new deal with Greece’s creditors, which would allow the government to spend less on repaying external debt and keep more money in the economy for reinvestment.
In his talks, Mitsotakis sounds optimistic if not bullish—but we’ve heard it all before. We just have to keep our fingers crossed.
The most widely known of architect I. M. Pei’s designs has to be the metal-and glass pyramid dominating the main courtyard of the Louvre Museum in Paris. When completed in 1989 it was widely criticized, but today it is as much a symbol and an icon as the Eiffel Tower.
I. M. Pei has died, aged 102. He is widely considered to be one of the most influential architects of all times, and during his career won nearly every major award in his field.
I.M. Pei was born in Guangzhou, China, in 1917 to a banker father and artistic mother. He grew up in Hong Kong and Shanghai before moving to the United States at age 17 to enroll in architecture school. After graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Pei attended Harvard’s famed Graduate School of Design, where he studied with Bauhaus master Walter Gropius.
Pei loved to research his projects thoroughly, and to allow himself the freedom to experiment with different ideas and materials. He did not like his work to be stylistically ‘stamped’, although he did focus on simplicity, transparency, geometry and light.
Even after retiring from his full-time architectural practice, Pei continued to work into his 80s, creating some of his most memorable projects in that time, such as the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, below, which was completed in 2008.
Via his spectacular buildings, he leaves behind a rich legacy in modern design.