Dion and further on

As Vergina was the traditional burial place of the Macedonian kings, Dion was the traditional place of worship and sacrifice when they were celebrating victories, or asking for big favours like a successful invasion of Asia.

Alexander made splendid sacrifices to Zeus the Olympian Father, the aspect of Zeus most often worshipped at Dion, possibly at this massive altar,

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which also had behind it three rows of eleven stone blocks equipped with iron rings for securing the sacrificial animals. Later, Alexander had bronze statues of the twenty-five cavalry companions who fell at the battle of Granikos in 334BC erected in the sanctuary. They so impressed Metellus after he won the fourth Macedonic War in 146BC that he took them to back to Rome with him.

Zeus must have been pleased with Alexander’s sacrifices, as well as with the accompanying artistic and athletic contests that he held in Zeus’ honour, because in the thirteen or so years that Alexander was in Asia, he never lost a battle.

I’ve heard people say that Alexander was a bloodthirsty megalomaniac. This ignores the preceding history between Greece and Asia, the legacy left to him by his father Philip II and the mores of the time. There’s plenty of information about the first two, for those who are interested in following the above links, and further. As for the mores of the time, the question was not whether or not a king made war, it was a question of how he made it. Alexander certainly conquered cities who resisted and punished those such as Tyre, which murdered his heralds and used the barbaric weapon of boiling sand tipped from the battlements.

Bernard Cornwell in the Sharpe novels frequently comments on the ferocity of soldiers who eventually take a city they’ve besieged, a reaction to the horrors they endure in taking it. Shakespeare describes it too, in Henry V’s speech to the governor of Harfleur.

“Therefore, you men of Harfleur, take pity of your town and of your people, whiles yet my soldiers are in my command; … if not, why, in a moment look to see the blind and bloody soldier with foul hand defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters; your fathers taken by the silver beards, and their most reverend heads dash’d to the walls; your naked infants spitted upon pikes …”

“will you yield, and this avoid, or, guilty in defence, be thus destroy’d?”

Alexander preferred if possible to win cities by his twin reputations for being unconquered in battle and his mercy when unopposed.

But back to Dion!

It’s an enormous site. As well as the sanctuary of Zeus Olympios, there was a sanctuary to Zeus Hypsystos (“the highest” – another aspect of Zeus),

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and sanctuaries to various gods, including Aesklepios, Demeter (where I noticed an ear of corn growing!), the Muses, Isis (yes, the Egyptian goddess), Aphrodite, and Dionysus. There may be more. There were two theatres, the largest, the Hellenic which has modern seating in it now for performances, and a smaller Roman one. There’s also a stadium. The town itself is a large one, with a seemingly endless main street.

DSC07085A statue of Hera was found in 2006, built into the extensive defensive city walls by the early Christians as fill!

There’s a public baths complex, with loads of mosaic floors. The Romans in particular used the public baths as a social meeting place. They even built an odeion as part of the baths complex for musical and other small performances. The hypocaust has been exposed and is being reconstructed,

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and the extensive underground drainage and sewer system can be seen in places. Courtesy of Hadrian, there are even public toilets.

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After the site, the museum was a little disappointing, although I think all the good finds are probably in Thessaloniki and Athens.

I left Dion, heading back past Thessaloniki to Halkidiki. I had intended to go to ancient Olynthos as the last stop on my tour of ancient northern sites before flying back down to Attica, and had booked two nights in a guesthouse outside Polygyros. As I drove up the narrow stony track to the guesthouse, I was hoping that it had a restaurant because it seemed pretty remote, and being directionally challenged as I’ve mentioned before, I didn’t trust myself to get back from the town in the dark.

There was no restaurant. The hostess, who had little English, suggested, “Delivery? Souvlaki? Big!” and nodded encouragingly while measuring between her hands the size of said souvlaki. I was hungry, but not for Nia Vardalos’ “meat on a stick”. She took me to talk to another guest, who was reading on the veranda. She spoke to the guest, who turned to me and laughed, “I have to translate.”

After a little three-way conversation, the guest, whom I’ll call E, asked, “Why do you want take-away when you could go out somewhere nice?” I replied that I didn’t really; I’d much rather go out somewhere. E asked if I’d like to go with her. So we made plans to leave in half an hour and thus began a really enjoyable evening with an intelligent, funny and apparently, as I found when she tried driving back to the guesthouse, similarly directionally challenged woman as I am.

With a combination of directions from local gents, none of whom objected to being hailed and asked for help by E, who is very vivacious and attractive – certainly our waiter thought so – and a more reliable source, the GPS, we made it back and arranged to meet next morning for a jaunt to some little villages in the hills. I had already decided against visiting Olynthos. I needed a rest.

In the morning, I was even less inclined to do anything more strenuous than sit on my balcony and listen to the goat bells, a sound that I’ve loved since being woken by it in Delphi in 2007, so we chatted over breakfast, and for the rest of the morning, along with our hostess. At one point I caught the word “Avstra-leea” in the Greek conversation, and E turned to me laughing. “Vaso [our hostess] is an expert in astrology, and wants to know your star sign.” I replied that it was Cancer. This was duly relayed, and further discussed animatedly, and E turned back to me. “Do you know what time of day you were born? Vaso thinks there is another sign that influences you.” “Like an ascendant sign? 4:30 in the afternoon.” Another animated discussion, and Vaso nodding at me wisely.

E, trying to suppress laughter, said to me, “We have decided – unanimously! – that you have an ascendant Sagittarius.” E, a civil engineer, logical and incisive, who mentally calculated the exchange rate of my airfare into Euros in seconds, believes in astrology about as much as I do. She was splitting her sides as she translated. “Vaso says a Cancerian couldn’t possibly travel all the way from Australia alone. You must have an ascendant Sagittarius, and it also explains your archery!”

E had to return to Thessaloniki that day, so we exchanged phone numbers and email addresses. After taking it easy all day, I ventured out alone that evening to find a taverna in Polygyros for dinner and found my way back to the guesthouse afterwards. Without the GPS.

Filoxenia and filoto

After my great day at Vergina I left my hotel outside Halkidona, heading southish toward Dion, my next ancient site. For a change of scene, I’d decided to stay at the seaside town of Olympiaki Akti, which is a little way from Dion. I made good time and was there mid-afternoon. I had to stop a couple of times to take photos as I came in sight of Mount Olympos.

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It’s no wonder the ancient Greeks thought it was the home of the gods. The surrounding land is pretty flat and the mountain seems to rise up from nowhere. It looks more a mountain range than a mountain. There are 52 peaks, up to 2,917 metres high. That’s Mitikas, called Pantheon in the old days, because it was the meeting place of all the gods. Their palaces were in the ravines, or as Homer called them, the creases of Olympos.

Dion is at the foot of Olympos and was a site sacred to Zeus, for whom the town is named. Dion means “of Zeus” which is Dias in ancient Greek. The “d” in Dion and the “Z” in Zeus both pronounced,  “th” as in “they”. This was told to me by my landlord. He couldn’t quite get my name, so I said, “Diane, you know, like Artemis.” So he called me Artemis from then on. We talked about mythology, and ancient history, especially in regard to where I’d been so far and where I was going, and about politics. I asked who he thought would win the Greek election. He wasn’t sure, which was probably a good call. When I asked him what he thought of Alexis Tsipras, he said, “First, he was good, but then …” and with a wry expression, he picked up his key ring and turned it over, and then back again, an eloquent illustration of a back-flip.

Poor Tsipras. He’s been in office for seven months, and people expect him to have already fixed the problems that have accumulated under a government that’s been in power for forty years. The problem that my landlord saw however, and that most people see, is that Tsipras was elected on the platform of “no austerity measures”, which makes sense, because the austerity measures are crippling the economy, not to mention the people. Unfortunately, I think Tsipras wasn’t tough enough to stand alone against the “Troika” – the European Commission (EC), the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). I think Yannis Varoufakis was, but the Troika refused to negotiate with Greece while he was the Finance Minister, so he resigned his post.

How is that democratic? How can a union of other countries and banks have the power to decide what Greek finance minister they’ll work with? It flabbergasts me. They couldn’t win an argument with him so they told him to take his bat and ball and go home, and send someone nicer.

Unfortunately that was the beginning of a rift between Varoufakis and Tsipras, so they’re no longer working together. Unfortunate because I think they had the beginnings of a good team. I asked my landlord what he thought of Varoufakis. He replied, “He rock star. He want everybody look at him.” So, not everyone is as impressed with him as I am. Fair enough too as I don’t live in Greece, I’m not Greek (even though I’d like to be) and I don’t live with the politics daily. In my defence, at least I’m interested.

The landlord told me that they will have an election on 20 September.  I told him that I knew, and that I will be in Athens on that day. I’m looking forward to it. We chatted for about forty minutes then he said he was going to make some food for himself, and would I like some. I agreed because hospitality is important to Greek people and I felt honoured. He made filoto, which he explained was a traditional dish, very simple, made with whatever you had to hand. It often has spinach but he was just using feta.

He browned a thin circle of flaky bread, like cooked filo pastry, called perek, in a wad of butter, then crumbled a thick slice of feta onto it, turned it onto a plate, browned another perek in another wad of butter, and turned it onto the previous one covering the cheese, then browned both sides a bit more in more butter. My arteries were trying to crawl into a hole, but I had to be polite, didn’t I?

A couple of wedges of lemon squeezed over and we were set. It was delicious. We chatted more as we ate, about our children, and then of course it came round to our partners, or in my case, that I don’t have one. He, it turned out, was divorced. By the time we finished eating it was beginning to feel like foreplay, so I thanked him profusely for the meal, excused myself as graciously and speedily as possible, and retreated to my room. I didn’t emerge till 8pm. Still full from the filoto I sneaked out and bought some grapes for supper, found a cafe that made me a cup of tea to take away, and returned to my room. Great wifi in that room.