The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.
Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
A life spent writing has taught me to be wary of words. Those that seem clearest are often the most treacherous. “Identity” is one of those false friends. In every age there have been people who considered that an individual had one overriding affiliation so much more important in every circumstance to all others that it might legitimately be called his “identity”. For some it was the nation, for others religion or class. But one has only to look at the various conflicts being fought out all over the world today to realize that no one allegiance has absolute supremacy. Where people feel their faith is threatened, it is their religious affiliation that seems to reflect their whole identity. But if their mother tongue or their ethnic group is in danger, then they fight ferociously against their own co-religionists.
Amin Maalouf, In the name of identity
In the Mediterranean area, cradle of the three monotheisms, the last 2000 years identity has been mostly a matter of religion. At the borders between the northern shore, predominantly Christian, and the south-eastern shore, devoted to Islam, a past of religious clashes is still a bulky relic. The eastern finger of the Greek Peninsula of Chalkidiki, at the edge of the European Continent, is the last stronghold of the Orthodox Church, also known as Mount Athos. This 80 km long strip of land, forbidden to women, hosts a dozen of monasteries dating back to the 14th century, completely independent from the outside world.
I arrived in Anfeh on the 20th of November 1973. In 1979 I began the restoration of the monastery of Notre Dame de la Guarde. I was completely alone and living on the bare minimum: one room, one bathroom and not much more. In that era the militias of Maraba arrived and seized the monastery. It was a very difficult time. Even after the arrival of the Syrian soldiers it was complicated, they didn’t want me to be here, but with time our relationship improved. Hereafter the Lebanese soldiers arrived. They were very gentle and friendly with me even though they weren’t very hardworking. However I have to say that they did help me in the reconstruction of the church. We finished the restoration of the convent the 15th of June 2013. It has been 40 years of hard and exhausting work. After having finished I only had $7. When I leave this place, whether to inferno or paradise, who knows what will happen to the monastery... Now I spend my mornings looking out to the sea and the salt ponds from the balcony.
Another fading twilight of the Byzantine Empire and the world that went under the name of Levante is the Christian village of Anfeh, Lebanon. Once a stronghold of the crusaders, it hosts the last working salt marshes of the country, a production started by the Phoenicians in the natural potholes surrounding the rocky, nose-shaped peninsula. The salt fields belong to the monastery of Notre Dame de la Garde, watched by the 80 year old Soeur Catherine, a nun of the Antiochian Church who, in the last 40 years, heroically renovated the complex resisting the militia and armies that raided the country. “When I leave this world, who knows what is going to happen to the monastery and the salt fields... I feel I’ve done my task and I can rest in peace in my grave, nearby the church”, says Catherine looking beyond the Sea.
The Turkish are the ones who still have a problem with us, not us with them. Don’t you know that every day, from here, we see Turkish aviation invading the Greek flying zone? Until 1965 in Imvros Island we were only Greeks, approximately 9000 people. Nowadays we are 250, scattered in the villages of Agridia, Schinoudi, Agios Teodoris, Gliki, Castro, Livounia and Panagia. During the dark times, the Turkish government was sending here the worst thugs and other mistreated minorities like the Kurds to occupy our houses, work our fields and violate our women. It’s when my wife, native of Agridia, had to leave the island. She was a young beautiful blonde girl, she was scared to death. So she came to Athens and I’m glad she did, otherwise I would never have met her! Now we are retired here because she wanted to spend her last years in her homeland.
Captain Yorgos Kodonakis
At the doors of the Strait of Dardanelli, separating Europe from Asia, lies another relic that has survived throughout history, the Island of Imvros. The war between Greece and Turkey (1919-1922) to partition the Ottoman Empire ended with a population exchange treaty that called for the return of the Orthodox people to Greece and the Muslims to Turkey. The treaty outlined one main exception: the ethnic Greeks living on the island of Imvros, which belonged to Turkey. Although they were protected by the treaty, in the 60’s their rights were increasingly violated by the Turkish government; the Greek population shrank. In the 80's, Agridia was an abandoned village, until the native Barba Yorgo came back and started reconstructing his parents' home and then renovated 5 other houses. Nowadays, 25 people live permanently in Agridia, most of them retirees who, in the last years of their lives, returned to the place of their childhood. Every August 15th the village is enlivened by entire families reunited to celebrate the Holy Virgin, the main symbol of their Orthodox identity.
In the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, on the African coast, the cult of the Virgin is also the most deeply rooted tradition for its Christian inhabitants. Every 16th of July the statue of the Virgen del Carmen, patron of the seafarers, is carried through the town, towards the sea. Boats sounding their horns and decorated with flowers and lanterns receive the blessing of the Saint. Prayers are said for those lost at sea and for the protection of those who continue to make a living from it. The native Moroccan fishermen silently observe the parade from the fishing dock.
For those who lost their belonging to a monolithic identity, new forms of affiliation seem to work as well. Religion may be replaced by other ancestral rituals as the theatre. In an industrial dock of Marseille, the multiethnic crew of the Ship of Fools proclaims on stage: “We are a Free Republic of Fools. Nobody is holding the wheel, nobody knows where to go. We are an image of the world upside down.”
What all these features of fluids amount to, in simple language, is that liquids, unlike solids, cannot easily old their shape. Fluids, so to speak, neither fix space nor bind time. While solids have clear spatial dimensions but neutralize the impact, and thus downgrade the significance, of time (effectively resist its flow or render it irrelevant), fluids do not keep to any shape for long and are constantly ready (and prone) to change it; and so for them it is the flow of time that counts, more than the space they happen to occupy: that space, after all, they fill but "for a moment". In a sense, solids cancel time; for liquids, on the contrary, it is mostly time that matters. When describing solids, one may ignore time altogether; in describing fluids, to leave time out of account would be a grievous mistake. Descriptions of fluids are all snapshots, and they need a date at the bottom of the picture.
Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity
Solids and Liquids. Space and Time. Stone and Water... and Wind. Is this what made the Mediterranean landscape as we see it today? I have spent many hours contemplating the map of the Mediterranean. Its rugged coastline stimulates the spotting of familiar forms as we use to do with the clouds; the boots of the Italian peninsula, the bull skin of the Iberic, the claw of the Chalkidiki, the pointing finger of Corsica and the island of Elba looking like a moth. One may suspect that the snaky line was traced by man, it is instead the result of the collision 12 million years ago between Eurasia and Africa, that left a labyrinth of water trapped between the two continents.
Geological processes are too slow to be appreciated by beings with such a short existence as our own. Volcanic eruptions and earthquakes are exceptions, dramatic accelerations. They are frequent along the border between the two tectonic plates, on that invisible line dotted by active volcanoes like Etna, Stromboli and Santorini. Others craters are extinct, like the one on Vulcano Island that discarded, who knows when, two identical stones in such a symmetrical way that they seem like menhirs placed there to celebrate some pagan ritual. Granite monsters emerge along the cliffs of Capotesta, the extreme tip of Sardinia, guarding the strait of Bonifacio, warning against its dangers. They also look as if they were sculpted by man.
On the contrary the solid monoliths built by the pre-Indo-European natives, like the Tumb of Giants or the Nuraghe Mereu in Sardinia, have been altered by the elements for so long that they look like they were originally moulded by nature. Stones, unfortunately, don’t speak, don’t reveal the stories of who placed, lived, worshiped and destroyed them. They whisper some leads though. The ruins of the Hellenistic city of Olympos, on the Aegean coast of Turkey, give us a hint of where we come from. Walking among these stones that once were the agora, the theatre and the bathhouses, we experience how that classical world revolving around the polis had been conceived in a perfect human scale. As well as in Tipasa, the ancient Roman city on the Algerian coast, as Westerners we feel at home, the place where our culture originated.
It's not a coincidence that this landscape, the first to be densely populated by man, featured characteristics in his image and likeness. It has also been the one where the mark of human presence has been the most profound since the beginning of history. The first population inhabiting Sardinia - Sandallion for the Greeks, for its footprint shape - started to extract obsidian in the 6th millennium BC. From then on the island has always been a Mediterranean hub for mining and processing metal. Phoenician merchants had come attracted by its iron, copper and lead. The Roman Republic had employed its silver as a monetary unit. The maritime republics of Pisa and Genoa, Muslim emirs and Aragonese soldiers fight against each others to get control of its valuable ores. To extract and trade them faster, an engineer from Veneto built a tunnel-port, named Flavia after his daughter, in the only spot protected by the mistral sweeping the Western coast, behind the massif of Pan di Zucchero.
The relation of reciprocal alteration between the man and the environment has been so long and so profound that the sum of Mediterranean geographic features can be described as a cultural landscape, a product of cooperation between nature and man. The closure, in 2012, of the last working mine of Sardinia may be a sign that a chapter of this 8000 years history has come to an end.