Monday, September 13, 2010

An Idiot's Guide To Athens

No trip to the Greek capital could be complete without a visit to the Acropolis [Greek = ‘high city’]. The so-called Athenian Citadel stands atop what is known as the Sacred Rock, 150 metres above sea level (Figure 12.1). Construction dates back to the 5th century BCE, and it has since become, understandably, an archaeologist’s, as well as an historian’s, paradise.

Figure 12.1: An aerial view of the Acropolis of Athens

Copyright 1995 Paul Spradbery

A friend of mine took his girlfriend there recently. He phoned me from his hotel overlooking Paleo Faliro harbour. During his day at the Acropolis, he had been accosted by a pushy tourist outside the Parthenon (Figure 12.2). My pal had stopped to inspect a rectangular stone slab which was positioned flat on the ground and elaborately engraved, albeit in Greek script. The tourist grabbed the opportunity to embark on a condescending monologue. It was, apparently, a sacred memorial tablet, despite bearing no date. It was centuries old, despite being in near-pristine condition. Most significantly, though, the shapes of some of the characters demonstrated, with great precision ‘to the educated observer’, the era in which the tablet had been inscribed. The curvature of the letter ζ (zeta), in particular, was, supposedly, a definitive indicator of its age.

Figure 12.2: The Parthenon Temple, dedicated to the goddess Athena

Copyright 2010 Paul Spradbery

Once my pal had recovered from the verbal onslaught, he caught the eye of a solitary old man who was sitting nearby. Unable to speak each other’s language, the man, after gesturing for a pencil and paper, scribbled two words in perfectly-formed Greek letters.

A postcard arrived at my house the following week. On one side was a photograph of the Parthenon set against a clear blue sky. On the other, my pal had painstakingly copied:

ανθρωποθυρίδα κάλυψη

Please translate!

I am familiar with Greek letters, as is any halfway decent scientist, but had no idea as to the meanings of the words they comprised.

I sat at my laptop, opened the ‘Symbol’ section in Microsoft Word, and carefully strung together the two Greek words, before entering them into Google Translate. As I was copying and pasting each letter in turn, however, I wondered whether my pal had provided me with the correct letters in the correct sequence. How would I know? What if he had miscopied some of it? Written poorly, μ (mu), ν (nu) and υ (upsilon) could be indistinguishable. Just one omission or transposition could alter the whole word and hence its meaning. (In English, for example, friend is hardly the same as fiend.) Moreover, what if the old guy could not spell?

I hit the button. The English translation appeared. Eureka. Archimedes had just flooded the bathroom. I had certainly found it.

ανθρωποθυρίδα κάλυψη turned out to be Greek for ... ‘manhole cover’.

I almost fell off my chair. Of course, I cannot verify the old man’s opinion, although the evidence (see above) suggests that it was sound.

So, let me say to the pretentious bore who descended, without invitation, on my mild-mannered pal: you have demonstrated more than adequately the extent of your Classical knowledge. Now shut up, you fool.

Copyright 2010 Paul Spradbery

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.