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Sunday, September 25, 2005

RETRACING STEPS

"One of the pleasantest things in the world is going on a journey..."
William Hazlitt 1778-1830 "On Going on a Journey"

Just as a traveller often enjoys returning to familiar haunts, retracing steps to places that have special memories, so the writer enjoys returning to reread passages, sometimes long-forgotten, tracing steps back in time to historical or imaginary places.

A week ago a fellow writer posted a blog about meandering the Asia-Minor coast to the ancient Lydian city of Sardis. This sparked a memory for me, about my own 'visit' to this city. It seems so long ago now, because it takes place in Part One of my novel "Shadow fo the Lion" so I was curious to return, to see if my descriptions matched his. It happens Scott and I are writing a similar period of history with some of the same characters and this has been an interesting connection. He's never been to Asia Minor (Turkey) or Greece so sometimes we exchange information about the sites. (He says he's 'travelling' to Assos now. I visited there back in the '80's so it brought all the memories of that trip back when he mentioned it.)

I've passed near by the site of ancient Sardis but haven't actually explored the ruins there. But from research and memories of the landscapes, I constructed a descriptive passage about the place. You can read Scott's at http://scottoden.blogspot.com Here's mine:

In this scene, General Perdikkas, Chiliarch of the Macedonian army since Alexander the Great's death in Babylon, is leading his army up the coast of Asia Minor from Ephesus. With
Perdikkas is one of the the titular kings, Alexander's half-wit brother Arridaios. At Ephesus there had been an attempt to kill Arridaios.

Perdikkas' army departed from Ephesus and the cool green coast, and turned inland toward the rugged landscape of Lydia. The curious pointed red-rock mounds of the Lydian hills loomed over the wind-swept plain where Lydian kings lay in their ancient tombs. At one time, in this wild country, girls were expected to earn their dowers by prostitution. Perdikkas thought grimly of how, because of his capricious night of passion with the flute girl, it almost cost Arridiaos his life. He berated himself for such a lack of discipline. The assassination attempt on the king had unnerved him. But how could he have known? And who had sent the temple maiden to poison Arridiaos? For surely Gazelle-Eyes was merely the innocent tool of someone far deadlier.

Ahead, on the knoll of a russet crag, the thick-walled citadel of Sardis towered against the cloudless sky. Flanked by a new guard composed of troops of Greek Argives sent from the garrison of Sardis, Perdikkas sat stiffly on his horse, his face set in a harsh scowl.

This city, the terminus of the eastern post road, had once been the headquarters of Persian administration. Ten years ago the Lydians had welcomed Alexander here, but they were capable of striking a bargain with the enemy just as readily as they had with the Macedonians. Would the assassin follow them here?

As the soldiers advanced up the steep roadway, a deep-throated rumble of excitement sounded throughout the ranks. Perdikkas scanned the ramparts and observed on every battlement the familiar blue pennants, the golden star-burst of Macedon, unfurled and dazzling in the sun.

A thunderous cheer rumbled down the rank. Perdikkas beamed, relishing this as an auspicious omen. For now, he would try to put the events of Ephesus behind him. His bride awaited him here at Sardis, the cornerstone of his future. Once the royal caravan arrived from Babylon, he would take charge of Alexander's son himself and consider the blood-price of the child's Soghdian mother.

Perdikkas' bride-to-be is Nikaia, daughter of Antipatros, the Regent of Macedon. She has arrived at Sardis recently to await her bridegroom.

She had arrived here to this fine house, given to her by her bridegroom, with only her personal servants and a small baggage train containing dowry gifts and wardrobes. It was her first time separated from her mother and sisters. She longed for news from home, but heard nothing, not even from her elder brother, Kassandros, who had gloated that now she was marrying Perdikkas, her children would inherit the Regency of Asia.

The house, whose terraces hugged the slope of the hill below the russet-walled fortress, had a tall portico of red Samian marble and walls with painted murals. It was more lavish than she was used to, but she felt wrenched from the homely comforts of a country home in Macedon where her father's horses ranged free on the grasslands and the air was scented with thyme and sage. She longed for the northern mountains with their black pine forests, and Pella's reedy lake. Here, from the portico, she viewed the stark buttress of the fortress walls, and on the summit of the hill, the pristine gilded columns of the small Temple of Zeus, built as an offering by Alexander when he had conquered the old city. In the parched fields below the acropolis, herds of sheep grazed along the bank of a brown, serpentine river. The city, which was three times as big as Pella, lay on the western slope, hidden from her view. Still, she felt like a kind of prisoner, and cursed her father for having sent her so far from home.

While I was making this return trip to Sardis, I decided to visit Ephesus too, and renew my acquaintance with Barsine, who is also featured in Scott's novel.

As the royal caravan entered Ephesus, through the western portals where the statues of lions guarded the gates, the woman, an aristocrat, dressed in a gold-bordered himation, alighted from her slave-borne litter with her young son, and climbed the high platform of the long, pillared stoa to view the approaching procession. She had come from her wealthy villa on the Hill of Nightingales, accompanied by her chamberlain and her child. It was a rare and unusual treat for them to venture alone into the city.

The boy, his fair cheeks flushed with excitement, held a basket of rose petals which he tossed in a fluttering shower into the path of the processional. He was a handsome child, immaculate in a spotless white chiton, his blonde curly hair adorned with a gold ribbon diadem. He was seven years old, and tall for his age.

He climbed the plinth of a statue to perch where he could easily see over the heads of the gathering ghrong. His mother watched admiringly, occasionally reaching up to straighten the folds of his garment or to stroke his shining hair.

The red-caped soldiers paraded by, marching to the cadence of the deep-toned aulos and drums,
standards unfurled, silver armour gleaming.

The boy began to cheer. "Look, Mama!" he cried eagerly. "See the cavalry!" He admired horses and could name all the breeds -- the tall, heavy-boned Nisaians of the Persians, the spirited steeds of Marakanda ridden by the Soghdian honour guard, the stocky, long-maned war stallions of Thessaly favoured by the Macedonian cavalry. He nearly emptied the basket of it contents, grinning in delight as the flower petals swirled around the horses' prancing hooves.

"One day I shall have a stallion like that one!" He pointed out a sleek honey-coloured Nisaian, its mane and tail woven with scarlet ribbons, the ornate jeweled headstall and harnesses jangling with golden bells. The handsome rider, a man of grave and noble bearing, rode before the imperial cortege. He was exquisitely garbed in garments of iridescent pearl like a dove's breast.

The woman drew her chamberlain aside and whispered something to him. She gazed long at the Persian rider as the cavalcade passed.

"Is he the king, Mama?" asked the boy. "Is he a friend of Grandfather? Do you know him?"
But his mother was quiet with her own thoughts.

Later, the woman, Barsine, sends for the Persian courtier, Nabarzanes, who is a Court advisor and Royal Cousin of Roxana, Alexander's Soghdian widow.

Barsine's house, built on the slope of the hill, had terraced gardens and a marble paved peristyle with an oval pool in the fountain court. The eunuch led Nabarzanes into an arched reception room furnished with a wealth of bronze, marble and ivory. There were statues of Artemis in the niches, and a floor mosaic of Apollo and the Muses.

As she woman stepped into the stream of lamplight between the pillars, Nabarzanes made a graceful genuflection and touched his forehead to the slender fingers of her outstretched hand.

"My esteemed Lady, Barsine. How pleasurable it is that we should meet again."

She clasped his hand in a gesture of friendship, a custom learned from her Greek husband. "Nabarzanes, how pleased I am that you have come. Have you been blessed, my friend, through all the years?"

Her height was almost equal to his, and as he gazed into her eyes, green-gold as pools reflecting sunlight, he felt a sudden nostalgia for Ekbatana's verdant mountains. He studied her pensively. She had kept her age well. Past forty now, she was a dignified woman, stylish in a Greek peplos and upswept hair.

"I am serving the royal household of Macedon now. And since the birth of Alexander's son, I have been appointed court advisor and governor of the child."

"You serve the Soghdian then?" A shadow crossed Barsine's fine-boned face. She withdrew her hand from his and studied him solemnly.

"I serve the son of Alexander," Nabarzanes said. He remembered how bitterly Barsine had wept beside the fountain court that night in Ekbatana when he had last seen her, the night they had learned of Alexander's marriage to Roxana.

Alexander would have done well to have married her instead of the Soghdian, he thought.

She led him to the privacy of the courtyard where tall lamps burned among urns of roses. She sat on the edge of the stone balustrade, her face turned into the shadows, hidden from him. The moon bathed her in a platinum light. After a long, meditative silence, she spoke.

"I have waited for you, my friend...for a man of your integrity and virtue...someone I could entrust with my cause. When I saw you ride by the with the royal caravan, I knew you had been sent by the Benevolent God. A long time has passed since we last spoke in Ekbatana. Seven years. A long, long time..." She drew in a long, shuddering breath. "There was something I could not tell you that night when you caught me weeping. " She looked up at him, her face pale in the moonlight. "I was pregnant with Alexander's child."

Nabarzanes was stunned by her revelation and could not find words of reply. Accustomed to more liberal Greek traditions, a woman twice married and widowed, Barsine did not follow the strict purdah of the Persian court, but her reputation was impeccable. While she had served as his mistress after her husband's death, after she had been taken captive with the Persian royal women, Alexander had treated her with deep respect and fondness. His abandonment of her had shocked the Persian court. And now she was exposing her shame.

"Did Alexander know?" Nabarzanes asked finally.

Barsine replied in a faint, trembling voice. "I believe he did, though I dared not tell him myself. He had the world to conquer, you see. He had no time to spare for fatherhood." She peered up at him with a wry little smile. "Father thought it best I leave Ekbatana before the gossip reached the Soghdian. We are all familiar with the vicious intrigues of the harem."

* * *
Sometimes the act of revisiting our writing, like returning to the familiar places where we once travelled, helps stimulate the memories, revives the spirit, recalls the Muse.
I'm ready to start working on the novel again after a few weeks of distraction. It felt good just rewriting these passages, recalling the characters who have become like old friends to me. And actually, now I am closer to the end of the novel, I'll be revisiting Barsine again too. I'm looking forward that that!
"Re-vision -- the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction --" Adrienne Rich 1929-
"On Lies, Secrets and Silence" 1970. "When We Dead Awaken."'













5 comments:

Anonymous said...
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Scott Oden said...

Excellent excerpts, Wynn! Thanks for posting them. I'm still going to tie you to your desk and make you finish this book, as I'm dying to read it ;)

I used a couple of pictures and a description of the site in a late 1800's archaeology gazeteer (found at Perseus) as a basis for my descriptions of Sardis, along with whatever I could glean from Herodotus. What I miss are the 'atmosphere' details, such as how the area smells in the spring. Still, I'm thankful I wasn't too far off the mark ;)

Next week sometime, Muses willing, I'll post my version of Assos and see how it jibes with your memory of the area ;)

Great job!

Wynn Bexton said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it Scott. I must say it was very inspirational going back over the old writing and I really got back into the groove while doing it. Later I went downtown to the Library for the annual"Words on the Street" hoping to get more inspired but didn't. I figured I should have just stayed home writing. Now I'm looking forward to doing more tomorrow.

So you see, you helped inspire me! Thanks, Writer Buddy!

Sam said...

I loved the excerpts!!!
It's fun to visit places in one's imagination and go back (or forward) in time. I sometimes do that on my walks around the village here in France. There are so many crumbling stone walls and half-hidden paths that I wonder all the time how it must have been 'back then'...

Wynn Bexton said...

I love time-travel and also astral-travel which I think I'm going to write about. At any given time I can let my imagination drift to places I've been before and put myself there. It's a wonderful thing to do!