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Boomer Bytes #71: Foundation of Western Civilization

Editor’s Note: Below is another column in Steve Canipe’s series called Boomer Bytes. The column, as the title suggests, will focus on a variety of topics that may be of interest to baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964. But Canipe also hopes to start a conversation with younger generations, too. Check out an introduction and Canipe’s (first self-titled) column here.

Foundation of Western Civilization

By Steve Canipe

Percy B. Shelley made a statement in 1821 that “We are all Greeks. Our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts have their root in Greece.” This statement grew out of a profound appreciation of the Greek civilization. It is amazing the myriad of things which have come to us, either directly or indirectly, from the Greeks.

My wife and I had the opportunity during the last month, to travel to Greece and see some of these things ourselves. This column will deal with some of my observations and reflections. The trip, which we took, was sponsored by Road Scholar and was called “Myth and Modernity.” (http://www.roadscholar.org/n/program/summary.aspx?id=1-3XS0J2&MC=) I have mentioned the Road Scholar travel program before in previous columns so will not really go into detail of this lifelong learning opportunity; many readers may know the organization better as Elderhostel. The current company exists to provide ongoing educational opportunities for older people, although its age restrictions have been greatly loosened.

As the readers may know, we have been living in Tucson during the winters for several years now, escaping Boone’s winter weather! We had an uneventful flight from Arizona as we flew first to Philadelphia and then on to Athens. Since I cannot sleep on planes, I enjoyed watching movies on the trans-Atlantic part of the trip. I have tried to sleep and even have been prescribed sleeping pills to help me get to sleep; but nothing works. Total travel time including layovers, was about 17 hours….it was a long time!

Upon arriving in Athens we found clearing customs very easy with no visa required and no one to declare any items that we might have brought into the country. So different from the United States clearance in Customs where there seems to be an assumption that you are some type of nefarious criminal trying to get into the country – even with an American passport!!

There we met up with one of our fellow travelers who had been on the same flight, an emeritus professor from Temple University. Since we were arriving early in the morning and nothing was planned until late afternoon, we decided to explore the area around our hotel. We were only a couple of blocks from the Parliament Building and next to a large metro stop on a huge public square called Syntagma Square or Constitution Square. We walked into the old section of town on several pedestrian only streets. Lots of shopping was available but the motor scooters did not pay heed to the pedestrian quality of the street and you had to be on the watch for the scofflaws driving down a walker’s only avenue in addition to trying to shop the stores!

One of the things I found fascinating in Athens was the fact that there are laws concerning building and unearthing antiquities. When a construction project is going on, the preservation and study of artifacts is required. For example in Syntagma Square in the Metro station, there are displays of what was found in the digging for the underground metro.

While walking around we were visiting an ancient church, Church of Panagia Kapnikarea (built around 1050 AD), we looked through some buildings down a side street and spied, for the first time, the Parthenon, which was sitting high on the Acropolis. It was a WOW experience to behold. Later we learned that from many places in the city you can see the building perched on the Acropolis hill.

In a place which has been inhabited for at least 5,000 years, there is evidence of earlier people almost everywhere. Because of successive conquerors the artifacts are not always Greek in origin. The Mycenaeans, the Persians, the Macedonians, the Romans, the Ottomans, and others were all in the Athens area from time to time over the course of history.

Once the tour got underway, we were able to see and visit many of the sites that I remember studying in those world history classes in high school and at App State. This column would evolve into a book if I were to describe each one. The most significant ones, as far as I was concerned, were the stadium where the first modern Olympics was held in 1896; the Parthenon that is the iconic site sitting on the Acropolis (literally highest hill); Crete and the ancient Minoan city of Knossos; and the various temples of several of the Greek gods—Apollo and Zeus. The photos accompanying this column show some of the sites.


Standing outside the 1896 stadium, it was almost possible to hear the roar of the crowds from the Olympics and from earlier, historical venues. This stadium today, while large and still impressive, has nowhere near the seating capacity of more modern arenas. In 1896, the stadium was able to seat about 80 thousand. Today it is estimated that about 45 thousand could be seated. The “modern” stadium has been built on the site of ruins from 329 BC. Imagine if you would something in a horseshoe that is over 50% larger that the “Rock” at ASU!

Getting close to the Parthenon and being able to climb to the top of the Acropolis (really and easy stroll) was awe inspiring. Walking in by the Athena Nike temple (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temple_of_Athena_Nike) and through the Propylaea entry gates was something to remember. The top of the Acropolis was restricted, but the Athena Nike temple was open to all.


Once inside the Propylaea, the imposing structure of the Parthenon itself was just there! Rebuilding of the various structures means that there is scaffolding in place in several areas. Looking at the entry itself, it is possible to see where the historical materials were placed and where more modern have been added to complete the structure. There is a color difference. Many spots on the Acropolis have a marble “bone yard” where archeologists and engineers are trying to piece together the massive jigsaw puzzle, looking at all the jumbled pieces of columns, walls, etc.!!

The other imposing place on Acropolis Hill is the Erechtheum which has the “Porch of the Maidens.” The Porch has six female figures (caryatids) that act as supporting columns. The original caryatids are housed in the new museum that Greece has constructed to provide a place for numerous artifacts from Greek antiquity.

Porch of Maidens
Porch of Maidens

So standing on the top of the Acropolis, I was struck with wonder at what still remains after all those years, wars, occupations, and some natural calamities like earthquakes. Here in the United States we consider Jamestown and Santa Fe as “old” – even Columbus landing in 1492 was a mere 523 years ago. But there is evidence that as early as the 4th Century BC there was settlement on the hill; the structures on the top of this hill that are icons today were relatively recent in the range of 425 BC – or about 2450 years ago!! Almost five times as old as Columbus’ landing in the New World and more after Santa Fe (1598) and Jamestown (1607). This is old.

Why study and be interested in things so old? Maybe it is human nature to try to make a connection to that which went before. Maybe it is the connectivity that provides us a connection to our feelings of immortality. To quote Shakespeare – “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” Maybe we are trying to connect with that “good.” Whatever the reason, many of us like to have an anchor.

Minoan Pot
Minoan Pot

As I reflect on the trip to Greece (and Turkey), I cannot help but be inspired with the beauty of the architecture, the surviving sculptures, the glorious pottery, and other things made not because of practicality but because of their beauty. The decorations serve no real purpose other than aesthetics! Look at the beautifully decorate ewer from the Minoan civilization on Crete…beautiful.

I think the poet Shelley was right – we are all Greeks!! Was the trip a pleasure? Absolutely! Was going with a group of 10 strangers (Road Scholar participants) interesting? Oh yes! Making connections with the foundations of our civilization was fabulous. The opportunity to learn and enjoy new adventures with like-minded individuals brought back college memories (without the angst of exams or papers). It was not our first Road Scholar trip and will not be our last. I hope those of you dear readers who like to travel and learn will consider joining a trip – maybe we will be on the same one and can learn together!

Please share your fun travel ventures in the space below or via email to [email protected]. I shall look forward to hearing about your trips and adventures as we Boomers continue our lifelong learning adventure.