Thursday, April 06, 2006

Losing my marbles

Dear old Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin. He's known for little else now but for stripping figures, friezes and bits of columns from the Parthenon and shipping them back to London. Bought for £35,000 by the British Government (sneaky, hey?) in 1816, they're one of the biggest attractions in the British Museum. And what a terrible diplomatic nightmare the Elgin Marbles have become. Just so.

I'm telling you this because I was afforded a rather scary insight into the imperial mindset of old Thomas the other day. My friends and I had driven down the forested coast of southern Turkey to the ruined city of Anamurium, once a thriving — well, the usual story; raided by Arab corsairs in the 7th century, it's now a Byzantine ghost town.

It was deserted. And we set off to explore it. That is, explore in the way day-trippers do; have a clamber about some ruins and then think about lunch. Anamurium, though, is a vastly special place. So our offhand plan, to wander and leave, backfired. To start with, the city is huge. And the weather was conducive to all sorts of misty, nineteenth-century Romantic thoughts. Soft and rainy, with the tops of the limestone hills obscured by cloud, and the whole, the whole vast complex of broken walls and arches, emerging from acres and acres of bright wildflowers. My Turkish flora is rudimentary, and I've not got any photos yet (they will come) but — well, the wet air smelt of rocket and bay and sage and thyme, and there were nightingales singing from the scrubbier slopes, and a rock nuthatch yelling at us from the ruins of the bath-complex, and a very wet long-legged buzzard sat eyeing us from the arch of a ruin further up the hill. Yes, there were goats, and an abandoned orchard of lemon trees, and broken marble columns all over the beach, and Isabelline wheatears hopping all over them. It was — yes, here comes a horrendously nineteenth-century word — enchanting.

And the warden, a short, cheerful man in giant brown gumboots that reached to his knees, rescued us when it started tipping down with rain, and took us into the broken barn with a stove in it to keep dry. And when the rain had stopped, he started to show us around the ruins, partly in French, partly in German, and I hit my head really very hard indeed on one low arch as we entered a roofless building. So hard that I saw stars, and so hard that what I saw next confused me greatly. In two small, plastered alcoves, the guide was — what was he doing? He was squirting water from a bottle onto the back of the alcoves, and rubbing the plaster hard with his hand. And there, drenched and rubbed, out of the dust, were two painted peacocks. Really good ones. Dark blue heads, fine crests, and bright eye-spots fading to taupe. Hmm, I thought. That can't be very good for the paintings, can it? Oh dear.

And then we walked on to a small depression in the ground nearby. In the midst of turf and herbs and flowers were three or four patches of what looked like stony beach. My head was still making me dizzy and still hurt like hell, so I massaged the growing bump gingerly with one hand while our guide used the side of his foot in his giant brown gumboots to scrape away the stones. Screeetch, Scriiitch, Scritch scritch. Um....isn't that? Scratch scratch scratch. And yes, underneath the stones, mosaics. Stunning mosaics. Absolutely beautiful, bright, vivid mosaics. Emerging from the stones and mud, in the rain, was the face of Hermes. And a beaked, elegant dolphin. And right by my feet, scritch scritch scratch scritch, underneath the stones, a chukar; a red-legged partridge a thousand years old, with a glint in its little black tesselated eye as if it were about to burr into flight and plane down the valley to safety. Bloody hell, I thought. And this is where I (shamefacedly in retrospect) came over all Thomas Bruce, Seventh Earl of Elgin. I need to rescue these mosaics! I thought, mad as hell. They're going to be ruined! They should be in a museum! Why aren't they being looked after?

And then, as the rain grew heavier, pittering down on their glowing surfaces, the man with the big brown gumboots scraped the stones back over to cover them up, and the rain kept falling, and he was grinning, and I was grinning, and it was like a shared joke. Blame my head, maybe, but I couldn't help thinking he knew what I was thinking, and I looked up and around at the hillside city in its trails of cloud and thought, with enormous relief, Oh. But of course they're here. Scritch scritch scritch.

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