Your feet kick up the vestiges of antiquity on the dusty walking track. The ground is hard and dry – the day has warmed up, but we are shaded by the pines. There are great vistas between the trees and we can see out across Athens, toward the West and South, where the city has grown far beyond the bounds placed on it. By the time we get to the top of Filopappou Hill, the sun is casting a silvery sheen down t he crowded roads – the city is aglare, full of modernity and poor planning, so large and from this distance homogeneous in its suburban sprawl.
Socrates died on this hill before it became “Filopappou” – drinking hemlock in his prison room after being given the choice between death and exile, having been found guilty of critiquing the Athenian authorities beyond what they were willing to put up with. The paintings by Jean Francois Pierre Peyron and Jacques-Louis David of the Death of Socrates describe a scene where he is still teaching the students – including Plato – who are there with him to witness his death, who comfort him as he dies. They look on in anger and anguish, mourning and dejection as he prepares to leave them. Socrates is still proselytising as he picks up the poisoned chalice, preparing to dispatch himself from this world. These paintings capture a colossal moment.
We begin to walk back down, and as we do so, it hits me. I look toward my left, out across the valley toward the Acropolis. The Parthenon stands surrounded by scaffold and crane, but is still very visible. I have seen it every day for the past week, and have become almost used to it. But this time, from this particular angle, standing on this particular hill, it hits me full in the chest.
I am sucked back in time, instantaneously, to the floor of our family lounge-room circa- 1975, Christchurch, New Zealand. The carpet, as I recall, is a brown paisley pattern, and is strewn with the detritus of childhood. I am from a family with a multitude of children, so it’s likely there would have been 3 or 4 of my siblings close by. I imagine it a rainy Sunday afternoon – I base that assumption on the presence of a laid out Monopoly board. It’s also likely that there are a variety of pets walking through this play area – across the board, pawprints over the books.
Lying on my stomach, I am surrounded by the reels that fit into a Viewmaster, the popular stereoscopic toy that rendered 3D images to the viewer. There was a Hanna-Barbera reel, some with Disney and animal themes. We had reels with one of the cells in the 3D pair missing, so one eye was presented with a blank, white image, and the other received the normal 2D image. This lead to the disconcerting effect of being blinded in one eye, and educated in the other. Some were bent, and no longer fit into the Viewmaster. As time went on, the number of usable reels decreased. Our interest in the toy diminished in tandem with this decline.
One reel covered the Ancient World, and there was a particular image that I always paused at, that I always went back to.
It is the one I am standing in front of right now.
A photo of the Parthenon, that must have been taken from almost this exact spot.
I am looking through my own eyes at the image that made me want to travel. I am standing in the very spot that lead to a shift within me, a kink in my spirit. This one moment, staring across the valley at a scene first seen on a lounge room floor nearly 40 years ago and a whole world away. It is given weight by the many moments that have gone before it.
It was this image that set me off travelling – I lived in a small town, in a small country so far away from everything in the world. A country with a modern history of only 150 years, that had known human occupancy for only a few hundred more. A place as far away from everywhere else in the world as you can ever get. This one image switched something on for me, that made me want to see that exact thing with my own eyes – the image itself amazing, breath-taking, unbelievable for a child in small town NZ; but the image not enough. I wanted to feel that same sun on my skin, to feel the breeze running over me. I wanted to eat the food and smell the fragrance that those people I imagined lived here would eat and smell. I wanted to be cast back in time, to when the place in the photo was teeming with life and utility, to walk the same pathways that so many have walked before. After seeing this one Viewmaster image as a child, I began to dream of travel. I didn’t particularly like the rest of the images on that reel, but I kept coming back to the one that cast me into Athens.
It’s this hill, these hills – the one I am standing on and of the one I am looking at – they make up a part of my personal history, my network of memory and images, connected together in this dense and unrepeatable neural pathway. One thought or memory sets off another, which sets off another. On this hillside, looking across to the Parthenon – well, history begins here – it’s a shared moment, a universal moment; moment built on moment, history built on history.