Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Love Story

The love birds of this story.

It is time for a love story.

This love story was once known as wide as the world was then. But the world is wider now and it thinks wiser. In fact, it is no wiser now than then. Just more cynical and judgmental. So it is good to remember great loves of yore.

This is a true story and so, though it begins with “once upon a time,” we can fix that time to about 400 years BCE.

The story starts in a place not too far from here: Milas, Turkey. Or Mylassa as it was known then.

There, a girl was born. A princess. Every great love story has to have a princess. She was born to Hecatomnus, a great ruler. He was a satrap, as they were called.

Satraps were governors of the Persian Empire. This was at a time when the Persian Empire was vast and vibrant. It stretched to the borders of India in the east, it included Saudi Arabia and Egypt to the south, and north into parts of modern day Russia.

The Persian Empire ended at the shores of modern day Turkey. Across the Aegean was their cantankerous neighbor (Which neighbors weren’t back then?) and sometimes enemy, Greece.

Greatness is created by friction, by conquering challenges, by being amidst great discord and creating therefrom great opportunity. And it was on this border of two great nations that Hecatomnus ruled.

He was a clever general and an even smarter diplomat. He was ordered to build an army and subdue an uprising in Cyprus. He had ships built and went to war at sea, but lost the battle. Later, it was rumored, he had funded his enemy’s war coffers.

But his loyalty was never questioned and despite the defeat, he was awarded a substantial overlordship of the largest Greek settlement in Asia Minor.

Hecatomnus was fascinated by Greek culture, even while he fought them by land and by sea. Perhaps what propelled him to greatness is that with one hand, he saluted the Persian Empire and with the other shook hands with the Greek people. A practice in diplomacy that might do the powers of today some good.

Hecatomnus had four children. Two daughters and two sons. One was the princess of our story.

Her name was Artemisia, a name whose meaning derives from the Greek meaning of “Great Mother of Nature.” To be exact, she was Artemisia II. Her father had named her after a great queen: Artemisia I who lived about 100 years before.

This was no mere arbitrary choice.

Artemisia the First performed so admirably as the only female commander for the Persian king Xerxes in a battle against the Greeks that Xerxes presented her with a jar. That jar was handed down through lineage and ended up in the hands of Hecatomnus.

Hecatomnus had such grand hopes for his daughter that, in addition to bestowing his daughter with the name of Artemisia, he gave her the jar as well.

We can assume that Artemisia was raised strictly but with lack of want. Surely, she would have been trained in combat and military strategy. She would have learned several languages, math and geography, and we know for a fact that she was a scholar of botany and medicine. For our story, we are going to imagine her as beautiful. Long black hair, which she would braid for battle. Smooth, defined facial features which she would work to her advantage. Woe betide the arrogant politician who confused her beauty with lack of brains.

For such a daughter of promise, Hecatomnus arranged a marriage. It was the only way to ensure the family’s dynasty and his vicarious dreams for his daughter.

Luckily for Artemisia, she loved the man chosen for her. He was strong and he was handsome. This we don’t have to imagine. There remains a statue of him. His name was Mausolus.

Certainly, just as important as his long, wavey hair and his trim, stylish beard, he was smart. Mausolus was a brave soldier of the highest rank.
He even had the diplomatic intuition of her father: Mausolus made good friends with the Spartan king Agesilaus. He had a “xenia” with him; a formal acknowledgement of mutual hospitality. How he achieved this is not quite known, but in order to have created this xenia, the two must have met and bonded.

Finally, this brave, smart commander was destined to succeed her father, Hecatomnus.

In almost every way, Mausolus was like her father. And why shouldn’t he: Mausolus was Hecatomnus’s son, the brother of Artemisia.

This marriage of siblings was the marriage arranged for them. This marriage was also both of their deepest desires.

Soon after the death of their father, the couple moved their headquarters from Mylasa to Halicarnassus, or, as it’s known today: Bodrum, this town in which Jennifer and I are now living.

They had considerable challenges as new rulers. To the south, Egypt had gained independence and the Persian king wanted it back. To the north, the ever-troubling Cadusians were waging rebellion again.

With the Persian king’s desire for control, ever-greater authority was granted to Mausolus and Artemisia. Greece became nervous that Mausolus and other satraps would use their newfound power to independently invade Greece.

While the brilliant couple kept Greece guessing, they built their empire at home. They reinforced Halicarnassus and glorified the city with marble and statues. This was a lively city back then with a Roman-style amphitheater, an active harbor and trade probably much like the modern day Thursday and Friday markets of today.

The couple spread the wealth to other cities as well. In particular, he fortified and rebuilt Greek cities. Always a clever strategy in winning the hearts and minds of your weary neighbor. Mausolus’ success in war and diplomacy in his region of Persia made him so powerful and so independent that he became a sort of king himself. He was signing treaties and in some references was actually called king.

The two were busy, to be sure. But let’s imagine the lovers’ evenings. This part of the world can be truly magical. The waters are so clear you can see down 20 feet and count the minnows. The air is so pure it seems as if it springs from a well. Growing on trees are mandarins, pomegranates, apples, pears, and olives.

Artemisia and Mausolus would have reclined on a couch, overlooking the Mediterranean bay, feeding each other slices of juicy mandarin. Playing as if they were the first and only lovers in a game of senses. The setting sun would be steeping the white city in sanguine hues of pomegranates and passion.

“It could only ever have been you,” he would say.

“It was always and will ever be you,” she would whisper back.

But as soon as they exchanged those words, they began to echo in Artemisia’s mind.

Ever? Would she be able to enjoy his love for ever and ever? She said it would always be him. But how could she make sure.

The next morning, while Mausolus was in conference with his advisors, she called her own council.

“I want a tomb built for Mausolus in Halicarnassus. I want you to employ the best Greek architects. I want it to be understood that this tomb will be and ever be the most grand tomb to protect and honor the everlasting soul of my husband and your ruler.”

And so it was designed.

A tribute in marble that was massive and solid. The designs presented to her showed a tomb grander than any ever built.

“Not enough!” was Artemisias’ response. She was consumed now, by the urge to impress upon her brother, her husband, her lover the depth, the near-pain of her love for him and everything for which he stood.

The architects showed her new designs. They doubled the height. On top of the tomb was a new level. It had ten columns on every side of the square tomb. In between each column was a statue. At the ground level, the base was widened; a stairway was created up to the tomb. The stairway was flanked by lions. The walls had bas reliefs, depicting scenes, for example, of the battle of the centaurs with the lapiths, and Greeks in combat with Amazons.

“Not enough!” screeched Artemisias as she dashed the drawings from the table.

She was becoming ever more desperate. What was she feeling? That the weight of marble in balance with the heart is never enough? Or was it the impending finality of legacy?

Her conflict was this: If permanence is achieved more securely through matter than word of mouth, then how much matter grants how much permanence?

The architects returned. They added a new level of equal height to the last two. This one was a pyramid, with steps narrowing to a platform. On top of the platform was over-life-sized chariot drawn by four horses. Inside the chariot rode the figures of Mausolus and Artemisias.

No one knows exactly what the Mausoleum looked like. No sketches  remained. Only a few descriptions by travelers is all we have. So there are a few renderings, but all are based on few facts and mostly imagination. 

Presented with this, Artemisias looked at the chariot, focused on Mausolus and fell silent. Whoever had drawn this had done a superb job of rendering his strong jawline, his bold face, his thick wavy hair.

She fell silent. And workers in the hills fell into mining marble.

Then, one day, the feared inevitable happened. Mausolus died. Her lover. Her husband. Her brother. The son of her father. Her life.

She retreated into the room overlooking the Mediterranean and had the construction begin.

Her enemies tried to take advantage of her mourning. They attacked. But they underestimated her. The protected harbor she and Mausolus had built and her cunning in warfare proved them fatally wrong. She defeated the attacks. And with that victory earned herself the title of Queen Artemisias II.

But at night, she could not avoid the defeat she felt in her heart. She mourned as passionately as she had loved. She sat on the couches overlooking the Mediterranean. She turned toward the pitcher of water placed next to her. She poured herself a glass of water. From her pocket, or perhaps it was from a vile she wore as necklace, or some marble box she would refill on secret, moonlit visits to the tomb, she scooped a spoon full of her brother’s ashes, mixed them into her drink and swallowed him. Imbibed him. Brought Mausolus back to life by making his ashes her body.

Every day, she drank her love, her brother, her family, back into herself.

Was it the ashes or the grief which killed her? We cannot know, but merely two years after Mausollus’ death, her body was burned as well and her ashes placed in the tomb.

The work she had architects begun, continued. They were so impressed with the tomb she had commissioned, they continued at no pay. Just for the honor and glory of being part of such a massive monument to love.

Soon word spread. All throughout the known world, travelers came to see the tomb to Mausolus. It became known as the Mausoleum.

And so are all grand tombs known today. So who is to say that her insistence on marble instead of words wasn’t the exact right way to immortalize their love?

In fact, so well known became the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus that it became one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

And yet, ironically, in full circle, barely anyone can remember any of them. And I wonder how many can name the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus.

To add insult to injury, the Mausoleum no longer exists. Alexander the Great got to admire it when he invaded the city 20 years after the siblings died. And it is known that it stood for over a thousand years from various reports surviving from those days. But sometime in the 13th century, it suffered major damage from an earthquake.

When the Knights of St. John arrived in 1402, it was already in ruins and the knights pillaged the site for decorative reliefs and building blocks for their castle.

Every 25 or 50 years, another addition was built onto the castle and the Mausoleum was raided again until nothing was left but the foundation.

Surrounding residents took their share of the stones as well, every time they built a house. In fact, Tina and Hermann, who are renting their home to us are convinced that some of the large marble blocks in their courtyard could only have come from the site, which is only a few streets away. How else, they ask, would such huge, fine pieces of marble end up in an otherwise brick and mortar home?

Sometime, on a sunny day -- it is about sixty degrees here during the day this time of year -- I will sit on one of those stones in th courtyard. With me, I'll have a collection of poetry and I will look up something by Edna St. Vincent Millay. She is the literary chanteuse of passion. I will read and let myself be transported.

Perhaps this one:

And you as well must die, belovèd dust,
And all your beauty stand you in no stead;
This flawless, vital hand, this perfect head,
This body of flame and steel, before the gust
Of Death, or under his autumnal frost,
Shall be as any leaf, be no less dead
Than the first leaf that fell, this wonder fled,
Altered, estranged, disintegrated, lost.
Nor shall my love avail you in your hour.
In spite of all my love, you will arise
Upon that day and wander down the air
Obscurely as the unattended flower,
It mattering not how beautiful you were,
Or how belovèd above all else that dies. 


judymac said...

What a story: love , war, peace, culture and incest!

Joel Gardner said...

That's inbred even by Boston standards! Marvelous story, though. Good history, good romance...