Rhodes, Greece. Love in the Times of Ancient Civilisations
Colossus. Glory And Oblivion
Music: Amaranthine, Amaranthe
Movie: Colossus of Rhodes, a Sergio Leone classic
Book: The King Must Die, Mary Renault
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Rhodes, 226 BC
“Ebele, come greet Croesus! He has come to arrange the transport for the archon’s order!”
“Mother, I’m busy now. Tell Croesus I’ll speak with him later!”
Ebele rushed to the pot of stale water to rinse her hands of clay before checking the kiln.
Dry clay covered her bare arms to the elbow. Her delicate face was also smeared in places. Many a time, Ebele would rub her forehead to wipe the sweat without even thinking that she was elbow deep in wet clay.
Her dark strands were just as messy, no matter how much care she took to tie it in a knot in the morning. The tresses will always rebel out of the knot and touch the wheel or some fresh pot.
The original colour of her peplos was a thing of the past. In less than a week, any clothing would become a strange splotch of clay and paint.
She worked from dusk to dawn in the small backyard in merciless swelter and next to the kiln. To add to the day’s warmth, the beast spewed heat like a volcano every time she opened the door to stow a pot in or to take one out.
Ebele discovered pottery the day her father took her on his knees for the first time and held her tiny hands around a damp mould of clay. As the table trundled, the mould became an amphora with a long neck under the little child’s astounded eyes. Then, in a second, it fell right down in a messy pile as she jumped off her father’s knees.
Everything occurred so quickly that Ebele had no time to process what had just happened. She was excited to show her mother her miraculous creation when suddenly there was none.
Ebele cried, but her father dried her tears with his splotched hands. The man patiently explained to the little girl that pottery meant trial and error. She would ruin many amphoras before she would drink fresh water from one made by her hands. The tears dried on the little girl’s face. So did the clay. Since that day, she was rarely smudge-free.
Ebele was barely five when she had her first try at pottery. She remembered her father’s smile and patience with her. She remembered how in the years that ensued she would sneak in the courtyard at night when the house was sleeping and wheel any leftover clay from the man’s workday.
The pottery shop was her father’s business. The pots he made were always in high demand, and the fame of his designs had reached many places outside Rhodes. His primary clients were the merchants that had flourishing export business with the island of Ledra and farther east, all the way to Phoenicia.
Phoenicia! Ebele left a sigh to escape her mouth while sweating blood at the kiln’s dragon mouth. Four large amphoras and seven smaller jugs were dry enough for the next step in her trade: painting. She removed them carefully from the kiln using a large shovel and placed them orderly on a shelf to cool down.
As her hands kept busy, her thoughts trailed back to her recent past.
Twelve years after her father introduced her to the magic of pottery, the kind man departed from this world, overwhelmed by incessant work to cover his orders and a cough that racked him for months. Ebele found herself alone with her mother and orders that were piling up.
In the past year, all she has done was work from the first ray of dawn until late at night. In the coolness of the dusk, she would squint her eyes while painting the vases with a steady hand.
For light, she would use tallow lamps that came out of her skilled hands and were flickering in each empty corner of the courtyard.
Her throat was always sore, her eyes dry, and her body numbed by the endless hours she spent bent over each pot. But no amphora left the tiny courtyard without an intricate design carefully painted on.
Since Ebele found an urn buried in the vineyard at the back of the house that belonged to her great-grandfather, Chares of Lindos, she fell in love with the older styles. She started using more often black and orange to paint her pots.
In a short time, she realized that the black figures looked much better on an orange background and that these specific colours were way more resistant to the tongues of fire in her kiln.
Besides, the urn she’d found must have spent about a century buried in the ground and yet displayed the most vivid colours as if Chares had only painted it yesterday. Alas, the great architect who built the Colossus statue at Rhodes pier’s mouth had been dead and buried an eternity ago.
That was ancient history she learned as a little girl. It was her family’s heritage. Each generation after the great Chares made sure the sculptor’s most significant accomplishment would be kept alive.
Many a time, as the family gathered around the dinner table, Ebele’s father would tell how the gigantic statue came to being.
And each time, the wide-eyed listener was sworn to secrecy. The mystery of such an outstanding achievement was carefully preserved in her household.
Ebele was holding a belly amphora on her lap, her thin brush dripping with ochre she liked to use for painting the clothing of the people who adorned her pots. She blinked as a drop of red got in her eyes. When she could see again, she looked down.
Great! A splotch of red pain was now smearing her peplos. By the gods, what a mess she was! She realized that she desperately needed a new one. It was an excellent time to take a little break and visit the market in port. And maybe see what business Croesus had with her, other than checking the order she was still working on.
She would need to grow another pair of hands to work faster. Of course, she had enough coin to afford to hire an apprentice and teach him the trade. But it would require time she did not have. Besides, no apprentice will ever paint like her. That was something she could not teach. It was an innate gift, and she knew she was more than gifted with the brush.
Her passion was her downfall as well. The merchants were queuing at her mother’s door to place orders for the beautiful urns. The old-style colours made the trade all the more attractive and soared the profits. From Rhodes, her long neck or belly amphoras filled with grains or spices were shipped as far as Carthage in the west or Phoenicia in the east.
Phoenicia! Another sigh escaped her mouth. Every time she was starting to form a thought about it, some mundane action required her attention. Nonetheless, the idea was always at the back of her head.
Her mother was a Phoenician, but Ebele, born and raised in Rhodes, has never visited her mother’s side of the family. She knew she had an uncle and cousins in Byblos but never had a chance to meet them in person. Since the business was booming and money was pouring in, she thought she would allow a more extended break and take her mother to visit her homeland and estranged family. Perhaps even selling the business and moving to the mainland would not be a bad idea at all.
Ebele loved Rhodes, but it was just an island always at the whims of a conqueror or another. It is true that since the last occupation of Alexander from Macedonia a century ago, nobody else could break the walls and invade la land. It does not mean that they never tried.
Thank the gods, all the foreign ships that docked in port these days were sailing to Rhodes for trade, not war, and for wondering at the magnificence of her great-grandfather’s Colossus. But still, a more severe attack would mean serious hardship for two women with no one to protect them or the business.
Ebele thought that her uncle in Byblos would provide more protection and comfort. And if anything were to change overnight, her mother and herself could always take refuge farther inland. There was nowhere to hide from soldiers in Rhodes, except for the caves that linked her village to the port.
The limestone caverns were only familiar to the locals. As a child, Ebele used to explore them while playing with the other children in the village.
A thought started to form in her mind. Perhaps she should take the path that led to the cave entrance instead of the busy road to the town. She could get to the port using the underground passage. Maybe it was worth checking if she could still find her bearings and see if the escape route to the port was still clear.
As soon as the idyllic scene of young shepherds peacefully watching their flock was ready and started to dry on the belly amphora, Ebele, content with her design quality, went looking for her mother. The good woman would be happy to know that her hard-working daughter decided to take the afternoon off and go to the market.
“Thank the gods, daughter of mine! It’s about time you look presentable. What would our neighbours think if they saw you at this moment? I cannot even fathom it! You look worse than a beggar and dirtier than one! Go and give yourself a thorough scrub before you step out of my house!”
Ebele giggled happily and hugged her mom. As expected, that produced another wave of lamenting from the good woman as she wiped the red smear the daughter’s embrace has left on her cheek.
It was all happy banter. The two souls left alone in the world would treasure such rare moments of contentment.
Ebele, a Phoenician name that meant compassion, was more precious to her mother than life itself. It pained the good woman that the only child she had was working so hard to procure for both of them. What fate would this wonderful girl have? Would she find a husband to treat her right and protect her?
Ebele was a wild spirit, an artist who needed to be free, not enslaved in the wrong matrimony or worse, at the whims of someone in power. The mother watched the daughter as she disappeared into the house to clean the clay and paint off, cheerful giggles still trailing behind her.
The woman sighed deeply, concerned about her daughter’s future. Why has Croesus demanded to see her earlier? And why has he accepted her dismissal without much fuss? Perhaps the business he had with Ebele was somebody else’s, and the soldier was just the carrier of a message he was not happy to convey. He seemed a good man, but he was only a guard in the archon’s employ. And the archon was Rhodes’ most powerful person.
The woman shook the worrisome thoughts off and went about her business around the house.
Ebele emerged fresh and radiant, a charming smile brightening her face like the God Apollo a summer’s day. How beautiful she was when she let her ebony curly locks free on her shoulders!
“Don’t stay too long and buy some food for supper as well. Spare me a journey to the market since you’re going anyway!” Shouted her mother from the door frame.
“I won’t! And I will!” Ebele’s answer echoed from the road.
Her mother has seen the small, tallow lamp the girl was doing such a lousy job at trying to hide in the folds of her clean peplos. If only she won’t get in trouble!
In less than an hour, Ebele was in the bubbling market. She offered the lamp to an older woman selling vegetables and remembered to buy some greens for tonight’s supper.
She could quickly become distracted and forgetful when her mind was busy churning, which happened all the time.
The way through the caverns was precisely how she remembered it from years ago. A couple of times she was about to take a wrong turn, but she looked for the tiny stick man carved in limestone and familiar only to those who truly knew their way through the dark chambers.
One thing solved. Supper supplies are sorted as well. Ebele looked around for a clothing stall and quickly bought a peplos without much fuss. Giggling, the young woman dismissed the merchant who seemed somehow offended by her lack of interest in his array of fabrics and colours.
Ebele was practical. What was the point of picking? By tomorrow evening, the new dress will be splotched with paint and smudged with dry clay.
Shopping done, Ebele decided to take the usual road back to her village. That meant to pass by the castle. Even better! Croesus should be on duty and tell her why he wanted to see her earlier.
Before she even finished the thought, a firm hand pulled her arm and dragged her on a quiet alley. A rough hand covered her mouth to prevent her from screaming. She was not going to. Everything happened so quickly, Ebele didn’t even have time to react.
To her relief, though, the man who grabbed her so abruptly was Croesus.
“Apologies, Ebele, I did not mean to frighten you, but I do need to speak with you urgently!”
“You scared me and bruised my arm!” Ebele snapped, startled. She rubbed the red mark, thinking that she might find it difficult to lift the bigger vases tomorrow. “What is so urgent, then?”
“The archon likes your amphorae …”
“Yes, I know”, Ebele cut Croesus short, a tad annoyed. “I am quite busy working on a large order for him. The one you placed, remember?”
“Yes”, Croesus sighed deeply. “But has it ever occurred to you that he might have further reason to place this order?”
Ebele felt the hairs at the top of her head rising. The fact that the archon was the wealthiest and most powerful man on the island was well known. How he found pleasure in exercising this power in all aspects of life on the island was also known and feared by most, especially by young girls.
The archon has made a habit of inviting the most beautiful ones to visit him at the palace. Refusal meant their families were brought to ruin and castaway in the farther corners of the island to live a lifetime of misery.
Many fathers found themselves in the impossible conundrum. And many young women ended up in the palace for a while, until the old satrap would get bored with them and look for younger ones.
“Yes”, continued Croesus observing the change in Ebele’s pose. “He asked about the artist who painted such fine vases. His weasel of a counsellor was extremely informative in his desire to please his master.”
“Croesus!” Ebele screeched, forgetting that they were still close to the bustling market and could attract unwanted attention. “You cannot take me to the palace. I will not go!”
“Trust me, it is the last thing I would want to do! But you should try to hide somewhere, for a while at least, until he loses interest.”
“Hide? Where? Rhodes is only an island, and everybody here knows me. After all, I am the great-granddaughter of Chares of Lindos!”
Ebele automatically turned her head towards the gigantic statue wearing a crown of rays on his head that guarded the entrance to the port.
“I have his Colossus to thank that for!”
“True!” Croesus was visibly preoccupied. “But listen, isn’t your mother Phoenician”?
“Yes, she is. I have an uncle and cousins in Byblos.”
“That could work, then.” His mind was churning, trying to find a solution to this quandary. No way would he allow to see Ebele walking the shiny marbles of the palace to the archon’s private chambers! It would be his ruin. She was the first woman he ever liked, truly liked.
“There is a boat in port that is due to sail to Tyre tomorrow. I can get free passage for you and your mother. Then you will have to find a way to travel from Tyre to your uncle in Byblos without attracting too much attention. I hope this will work. Anything is better than seeing you at the whims of the governor!”
Ebele looked at her hands that seemed like a child’s clasped between his strong, tanned ones. As her eyes lifted slowly to meet his, she saw why he was doing all this for her. At the same time, it struck the young woman that they would never see each other again.
A sting in her heart at the realization brought a profound sense of panic upon her. In a second, her entire world has turned upside-down.
To avoid a destiny many young women were sentenced to, Ebele would have to abandon her late father’s business and her passion, Rhodes and a decent man who clearly had feelings for her. She will go to Phoenicia in exile. All she wanted was to visit her mother’s family!
“Very well, then”, she spoke in a weak voice, “I will go home, tell my mother, grab all we can and be ready for tomorrow.”
“Take my horse and use it for your cart in the morning. Meet me here before the first light; I will be prepared to take you both to the boat. I trust the captain. He will help.”
Ebele straddled the horse, forgetting the greens and her new peplos left behind in a heap on the dirt.
The night was a blur of a rush to gather whatever was necessary for the unprepared trip.
Following Croesus’ advice, the two women left their house before dawn, watching with tears in their eyes how it was rapidly swallowed by darkness.
“At least, we did not have to walk all this way through the caves”, said Ebele absentmindedly. The dark covered the perplexed look her mother threw at her. The way her daughter’s mind worked was an enigma to the good woman.
The market was deserted in the darkness. Small lights were flickering from the boats docked in port. The only noise at the early hour was the hoof clatter of the horse pulling the barely loaded cart.
In the shade of the corner where Croesus pulled her yesterday, Ebele saw a shape moving. It was him. She sighed in relief as the man approached.
“You will have to walk from here. Keep close to the wall, move swiftly and try not to attract the attention of the guards. Follow me closely; I will take you directly to the boat for Tyre!”
He grabbed the larger piece of belongings, grateful that the women did not concern themselves to pack an entire house.
As they walked hastily, keeping in the shadow of the pier’s wall, the water in the bay started to wobble and splatter at their feet. A first, barely perceptible shake of the ground increased by the second until the entire wharf was shaking so violently that it sent the three people tumbling down.
“It’s an earthquake!” Ebele’s mother screamed, terrified.
“Get up!” Shouted Croesus, who was already pulling the old woman’s arm to help her. “You have to board the boat and leave Rhodes immediately; the entire palace will get out in the streets in a moment, and all will be lost!”
Ebele grabbed her bag filled with coins and ran to where the boat was moored.
The moonlight was casting a pale light over the metallic Colossus. Ebele lifted her eyes to the massive structure and saw it trembling dangerously over the port. A deafening metallic creak filled the air above their heads, stopping the three of them dead on their way.
The gigantic statue’s left knee cracked open. The giant gave up his watch and fell with a thunderous noise over the boats moored in port. The Colossus’ ray-crowned head collapsed across the pier, taking it down to the bottom of the sea, together with the three souls that were desperately looking to escape destiny.
Rhodes, August 2011
I opened my eyes as the tour guide announced that the bus was approaching the Rhodes cruise terminal. I had to rub the sleep away and the weird dream.
I searched around for any sign of a fallen Colossus. Nothing! The two relatively tall bronze columns that towered at the entrance in Mandraki Port sported on top the two animal symbols of Rhodes: Elafos (stag) and Elafina (doe). Not as imposing as the thirty-three meters tall Colossus, yet stylishly adorning the sea gate.
Behind the cruise ship was moored a luxury yacht, complete with a pool and helipad. The tour guide said that it belonged to Abramovich. A big, flashy thing; everybody turned excitedly to take pictures of it.
I turned my eyes the other way, trying to make sense of that dream. I removed the wrapping of the amphora I have bought in Lindos and stared at the black and orange paint. It was a beautiful replica of ancient Greek pottery.
I looked out the window again and wondered if a gifted girl of no importance was trying to convey a message across millennia. Maybe she wanted me to know about her ephemeral existence on this planet and her contribution to her artistic era.
I wondered how many of the vases dug up or recovered from the bottom of the sea could have been her work of art. Alas, if she even lived, her name was lost in time immemorial.
Meanwhile, the Colossus of Rhodes remained alive in humanity’s collective memory as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World together with the Pharos of Alexandria, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, all long vanished from the physical world.
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