This is the water across which the refugees are swarming from the Middle East into Europe.
In the foreground, the temple of the Greek goddess Athena at Assos, now in Turkey and called Behramkale. In the distance, the Greek island Lesbos.
I used this painting for the jacket of my Troy Town Tale.
We have all been reading about the refugees who, in hope of getting to Europe, are making the water crossing from Turkey to Greece. They presumably are stopped from crossing the short land border between the two countries. Lesbos is the largest of the Greek islands near the Turkish coast.
It’s quite near to several parts of that indented coast, so I didn’t know where this crossing is made, until just now when I read the article “Syria’s Climate Refugees,” by John Wendle, in the March issue of Scientific American. Farming people have their livelihoods destroyed by worsening droughts, and their miseries intensified by corrupt officials and the guns and bombs of Assad and ISIS.
Desperate strangers of all ages gather along the Turkish coast every day, not only from Syria but from all over the Middle East. They crowd on board big rafts and set out for the roughly 16 kilometer crossing to Lesbos. The boats are routinely overloaded, and in rough seas they are easily swamped. Most cannot swim, and 20 percent are children. Drownings happen all the time.
Many do reach Lesbos alive, and they move on as quickly as possible. On the island’s northern beaches the first rays of sunrise illuminate discarded orange life vests and broken boats as far as the eye can see. Last November alone more than 100,000 foreign migrants passed through Greece, according to the International Organization for Migration. (A stunning 776,376 migrants had arrived in Greece since January 2015.) A bobbing orange dot on the horizon foretells the imminent arrival of yet another boat from Turkey…
So it is on Lesbos’s northern coast that the refugees arrive, and it must be from Behramkale, or near it, that they have crossed. The scene I painted is ruffled only by smooth waves gliding in from the open Aegean Sea to the right; the scene now, even when storms are not blowing, is less serene, on both the hidden shore below and the misty shore in the distance.
But it has been a coast of violence before. The Iliad opens with a quarrel between Agamemnon, commander of the invading Greek army, and Achilles, the most dangerous of his supporting chieftains. Achilles has returned from a raid along the coast south of Troy – this coast – in which he sacked several small towns friendly to Troy, including this one. He killed their lords and carried off their princesses, and it is over two of these that he and Agamemnon quarrel.
When riding around the Troyland – not on horse as the scholar Walter Leaf did a century ago but on bicycle – I wanted to see Assos because of its curious geographical situation. A river (Greek Satnioeis, Turkish Yirmidere Çayi, “twenty-valley stream”) comes down from snow-capped Ida and gets within a mile of the sea on this south-facing coast, but turns back inland and takes another twenty miles to come out on the western coast. It was strategically obvious to found a place, Assos, on the narrow thread between river and sea. Leaf identified the spot with Homer’s “steep Pedasos” beside the Satnioeis.
In classical times it was re-founded by Greek colonists as Assos, and this invites another digression. Its most prosperous time was under a ruler called Hermias, who came from one of the other little coastal towns, Atarneus, and was technically still a slave of the ruler of that place. Hermias studied philosophy in Athens under Aristotle; at his invitation, Aristotle moved to Assos, ran his Academy there, and married Hermias’s niece Pythias, before moving on to live under the most powerful student-patron of all, Philip of Macedon. The Persians conquered Assos, and tortured Hermias to death. For which the overthrow of the Persian empire by Philip’s son Alexander the Great could be considered a revenge.
I had imagined, from some old layer-colored map, that the narrow thread between river and sea was a plain, which would in a way have been even more geographically dramatic – the river coming out of a door, as it were, peeping at the sea, and then turning away through another door. But it is a ridge. As I came up what seemed to me yet another mountainside, something tall appeared on a skyline, and when I came to it I found it was Assos. I almost turned and went back down the road to understand again the approach I had missed. The tall something was those three columns, re-erected by archaeologists and towering from the cleared pavement of the temple floor. Beyond them, dissolved in the southern sun, was the twelve-mile-wide gulf and the bulk of Lesbos, reduced to a flat purple wall.
The Turkish name for the place, Behramkale, is a turkicized compound of Persian and Arabic, “Bahrâm’s castle”. Though it did seem high above the sea, I had no idea that as soon as I went over the edge there would be such a long zigzag drop to the little port, the Behramkale Skala. Perhaps it is from there that the refugees push off in their untrustworthy rafts.