March 28, 2014 7:27 pm

Mortal thoughts in a timeless place

‘Those ‘aha!’ moments come more rarely but with special pleasure to the middle-aged’

An old and close friend with whom I recently revisited ancient sites in the Peloponnese (after a gap of more than 35 years) said he was pleased almost everything was exactly as he’d remembered it, with the exception of the museums, which had improved out of recognition. I couldn’t quite say the same.

Perhaps Mycenae, Tiryns, Olympia and so on hadn’t changed much but I certainly had, and that impinged on what I saw. The theatre of Epidaurus was just as resplendent, on our one day of bright sunshine in a persistently rainy week, as in my boyhood memories; but the image I had was of a sort of lone wonder, the world’s most perfect auditorium set in magnificent isolation among stony, scrubby hills.

On this return visit I realised that Epidaurus in its heyday wouldn’t have been at all like this romantic vision of beauty in a wild unpeopled landscape. Epidaurus, the most famous shrine of the healing god Asclepius, would have been busy, bustling, noisy, full of people suffering from various ailments (some of which we would call psychosomatic) and desperately hoping for cures, along with their relatives, doctors, quacks, priests, sophists, actors, commercial opportunists, conmen, beggars and thieves. In other words, it would have been quite a lot like Lourdes (a place I have avoided like the plague).

Perhaps I have become less literal-minded and less romantic, and this has pros and cons. The disadvantage is that I have lost what Robert Browning called “the first fine careless rapture”. But now I wonder whether that Romantic rapture – the ability to be lifted, carried away by the loveliness of a landscape – isn’t based on a sort of heartlessness or solipsism, an ability to blank out the “still sad music of humanity” as Wordsworth had it, which a sensitive ear can hear in any place where humans dwell or have dwelt.

One of the sites I enjoyed most was one where we arrived just too late to get in, after a morning of mist and drizzle at Mycenae. The clouds cleared as we got close to ancient Nemea. Though an unsmiling custodian refused us entry, we walked around the perimeter of the site, admiring the slender Doric columns of the temple of Nemean Zeus (six have been re-erected since 2002, to join the three that have stood for 2,300 years). There was nothing spectacular about it, not a tourist to be seen, but the way the ancient site gathered and focused the lovely tranquil valley-landscape of vines and olives provided one of those “aha!” moments that come, perhaps, more rarely but with special pleasure to the middle-aged.

Vines and olives. These hadn’t changed a great deal, not just since my last visit (though I couldn’t help noticing many unpruned vineyards in this leading wine area) but possibly for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The ancient Greeks, or at least the Athenians, felt strongly about olives. Hence the destruction of the olive groves of Attica in the latter stages of the Peloponnesian war by the invading Spartans was felt to be not just a war crime but a sacrilege. This is why the aged Sophocles wrote with such lyric intensity in what was possibly his last play, Oedipus at Colonus, about “the grey-leafed olive, nurturer of children . . . a plant unconquered, self-renewing, causing terror to destroying enemies.”

It was good to visit places we had never been to previously, such as ancient Messene, near Sparta (and often oppressed by it). The site is huge and impressive, even in torrential rain, but what really caught my imagination was that the ancient city whose ruins we were tramping round was an early example of town planning inspired by the rational and egalitarian principles of Hippodamus of Miletus, according to which all citizens should have equal plots of land and access to public buildings.

One place that had changed, even my friend had to agree, was Bassae. Visiting the remote temple of Apollo Epicurius, perched at 1,100m on the borders of Messenia and Arcadia, was certainly a highlight of our school trip all those years ago. Our minibus barely made it up the winding, crumbling road, but when we arrived we were greeted with one of Europe’s grandest sights: an almost intact temple – built by Ictinus, the architect of the Parthenon – that seemed to grow organically out of the grey rock from which its fluted columns were carved.

That unforgettable vision is no longer available; the temple is now shrouded in canvas, while essential and radical restoration is carried out, cut off from its living contact with the mountain and the sky.

The good news is that the shabby and mildewed old tent that has covered the temple since 1987 will soon be replaced, giving archaeologists better conditions for the painstaking work of restoration, not just of the building but of the eroded soil and rock beneath it. The timeline for that is less certain, as it is for the recovery of the country in which the temple stands.

harry.eyres@ft.com, @sloweyres

More columns at ft.com/eyres

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