23 September 2012

Ruins and Ruin: The Temple to Poseidon

       If a picture is worth a thousand words, then it shouldn’t be difficult to write a few pages about any photograph that comes my way, especially since I’m an English professor. The particular photo I’m attempting to translate into prose is of a structure left in ruins. By virtue of having been there and actually taken the photograph, I know that it was once a Greek temple to Poseidon. The photo, however, shows little more than a few remaining pillars of what was once a grand edifice overlooking the Aegean Sea, a symbol to all of the power, wealth, and awesomeness of a people and their god.
       I took a lot of pictures that day. I was in Europe traveling with my cousin, V., and my dear friend E. We had flown in to Paris; traveled to and through Croatia; taken a frigid, frustrating, forty-hour, capricious train ride through Bulgaria and a number of other countries; and arrived at the temple of Poseidon during a day trip on which our host’s friend T. was taking us. It was nearing sundown when we parked the car and started to walk up the hill, though it was more a gently-sloped, rocky mountain. There was not much to see, structurally, once we got to the temple, but the view was breathtaking.
       Every direction showcases something epic in scale and astoundingly beautiful. There is a 180 degree view of the sea, sparkling in the warm, setting sunlight. The mountains and hilly Greek landscape rise up around the sea, looming above the cityscapes along the coast and encroaching on the edge of the water like the fingers of some monolithic, rocky giant. Walking toward the edge of the cliff, a sheer drop of many stories appears and the muffled crashing of waves that has been rhythmically pounding in the background like a subterranean metronome blasts through and assaults the senses. Sometimes the gusting wind sucks all the sound away, leaving just a hollow whooshing. Other times, the wind amplifies the sound of the waves, revealing their awesome force like slowly taking off headphones in a room full of crashing cymbals.
       After walking around for a bit and admiring the scenery, I pulled out my camera and started taking pictures. One symptom of owning a digital camera has been that I can no longer remember taking particular, individual shots, but when I went back and reviewed all the pictures I had taken from that area, this one stood out to me for some reason. In the foremost foreground, there is a rope fence. This fence has two thin, droopy lines attached to poles spaced out at indecipherable distances because nothing in the photograph provides any kind of scale; they could be five feet apart or they could be twenty-five feet apart. What’s interesting about the fence is that it is so unobtrusive. The posts and rope are the same dull colors as the sandy earth surrounding the temple, and the fence is so low to the ground that it would take no more than an exaggerated step to get over it. It is less an intimidating barrier to keep people out and more a symbolic border subtly suggesting the temple ruins should not be approached.
       This subtle suggestion only needs to be a suggestion because, despite their dilapidated state, the temple ruins are imposing. The surviving pillars stand like proud, athletic figures reaching to the sky asking only to be gazed at, not approached. There are only seven marble stairs spanning the entire length and width of the temple leading up to the main floor of the structure, but they are covered in thorny, barely-alive vegetation; rubble; and rust-colored rocks from the surrounding area; you couldn’t ascend them unless you were absolutely determined. If these factors weren’t enough to deter voyeurs from encroaching, the solemn, almost inhospitable desolation of the craggy, rocky cliff-top environment intensifies the stupefying wonder of the ruins and makes them seem inviolable.
       What no simple description of this place can convey is the deep, overwhelming sadness that overtakes you when you actually stand in front of this awesome, destroyed remnant of one of the most advanced cultures the world has ever seen. No longer does the sparse array of pillars hold up an ornamented marble roof; instead, they hold up the sky. No longer do heathen priests sacrifice animals or drown horses to appease and edify their god, Poseidon; instead, the wind and rain tenant this temple, chipping away at the little marble that somehow remains standing after thousands of years. No longer do the voices of the faithful rise up as one to call on their deity; instead, the sound of the crashing waves on the cliffs far below reminds visitors that nothing created by man, not even the strongest stone structures constructed to honor the most powerful gods, can stand forever. Time, one second, one year, one decade, one wave at a time, breaks down all the works of men both tangible and ideological: tick-crash, tock-crash.
       These ruins are beautiful, beautiful but sad. Forsaken and neglected, they remain a tattered memento mori standing on a dusty cliff-side overlooking the sea. They say it was one of the most famous and well-known temples in the ancient world, that its marble pillars were plated with gold, and that when the sun rose and set each day, the brilliant, shining temple could be seen all the way across the sea in Sparta. I never understood the true meaning of the Latin Ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt? until I stood there wondering where the gold had gone, why the temple had been left to fall into disrepair, and what had ultimately happened to its builders and their civilization. I knew, factually, what had happened because I studied ancient history in college, but what history classes and pictures in textbooks can’t tell you is that someone, an individual, painstakingly worked to carve out the marble of those pillars and create something beautiful and grand, an enduring monument to a deity. “What will come of me?” I wondered as I walked down the rust-red, sandy path leading down from the top of the cliff, listening to the waves crashing below. “What will I leave behind?” I couldn’t help but realize the answer, for me and for everyone, ultimately, is nothing. Tick-crash, tock-crash.

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