A Drop of History 132

July 16, 2009

Sphinx, the Panagia of Egypt

Few historical monuments in the world have been celebrated like the Egyptian Great Sphinx. For over four millennia, it has been towering imperiously above the Giza desert, contemplating the passage of time and listening to the wishes, promises and desires of the people.

The monument’s history begins shortly after the death of the great Pharaoh Khufu, when Khafra ascended the throne. The building of a pyramid was a lifetime achievement, which started as soon as the new Pharaoh undertook his duties.

Khafra decided to build his funerary monument on the site where his predecessor had erected his own, and the reason was that there was a leftover lump of rock on the site, about two hundred metres long and over twenty metres tall. The palace architects advised the new Pharaoh that it was much more cost-effective to work the stone there than to move it elsewhere. As a result, adding limestone where necessary, the stone was carved into a crouching lion with a human head, whose face bore Khafra’s features. The Great Sphinx’s dimensions are still impressive: 57 metres long, 20.10 metres tall, a face 4.10 metres wide. Its nose is 1.37 metres long and its ears, 1.70 metres. Contrary to the Greek Sphinx, the Egyptian one is male and symbolises the implacable way a Pharaoh deals with his enemies, trampling them underfoot and rending them with its claws. What is unique about this wonder of Egyptian architecture is that, over time, the monument itself was deified.

A thousand years after its construction, during the 18th Dynasty, it had Sun God properties attributed to it. The Sphinx had lost its connection to Khafra and was considered an avatar of Hor-em-akhet. A few decades later, it was linked to the war god Maahes, who was of foreign origin. It had become a new deity, upholding its own values. At the time, apart from few royal favourites, the common people could not enter temples. The Sphinx, unlike other monuments, was not hidden in a temple’s sanctuary but visible to all. Consequently, the faithful pilgrims could gather at the monument and deposit against the walls of the enclosure the little stone stelae on which they had etched their prayers and requests.

The common people of Egypt invested the monument with the property of protector of the weak and defenceless. Several stelae salvaged by archaeologists depict men and women standing, kneeling or lying prone in worship, offering gifts, flowers and ex-votos to the Sphinx. The pilgrims asked for nothing more than what common people ask for today: strength, health, wisdom, longevity, a peaceful old age and a good burial…

“Grant me a good burial at the end of my old age, help me reach the necropolis of the chosen, like all the righteous… Grant me wisdom, grace and love… Grant me sight in the darkness you create, light my eyes…”, such are the wishes that archaeologists decipher today.

The Sphinx, whose age by now is over 4,660 years, had managed to rise, from a symbol of strength and simple guardian of Khafra’s remains, to member of the Egyptian pantheon. It had become a deity with its own cultural tradition, its own myths and legends, embodying values similar to those represented by other well-known gods who had been worshipped for centuries before.

© Dimitris Kambourakis 2003, All Rights Reserved
Translation from the Greek © M.A.K. 2008, All Rights Reserved


A Drop of History 131

July 15, 2009

One, sweet, coming up
The fascinating adventures of coffee

Augusto Fausto Nairone, in a book published in Rome in 1671, is the first author to make reference to the history of the most famous beverage in the world, coffee. He recounts the following Arabian legend: “A goatherd who tended the flocks of a monastery on the Red Sea saw his goats eat the fruit of a strange bush and then act like crazy. They would not sleep at night; instead, they leaped and capered all over the cliffs, incredibly alert. The abbot went to the area, picked some fruit, boiled them and drank the disgusting, bitter broth. He felt strangely rejuvenated, his mind clear and lucid, but he could not sleep. All the monks in the monastery started drinking the same beverage in order to remain alert, and so it spread all over Arabia.”

Coffee was a luxury item, but it also sparked a great deal of conflict. The enlightened minds of the Islamic world considered coffee a blessing, because it kept them awake for more study. On the contrary, religious fundamentalists demanded it be banned, because Allah had created night so that people would rest. If he wanted them awake, he would have created eternal day – or so they claimed. Fanatics are always the same, in all religions and times. Ah well…

So, coffee had conquered the Near and Middle East, but it was unknown in Europe until 1683. That was when the Turkish army was shattered before the walls of Vienna and, in their hasty retreat, left their ammunition and provisions behind. Those provisions included five hundred sacks of coffee beans. The soldiers who came out beyond the walls thought they were camel fodder and decided to burn them, but a Pole, who had lived in the East and knew what they were, requested the load of coffee as his share of the loot. The rest gave it, laughing at him.

However, the Pole proceeded to create a fortune for himself. He carted the coffee into the city and opened the first coffee shop in Europe. He even started serving coffee prepared his own way: finely ground, boiled in water, flavoured with honey and milk. He called it “Viennese coffee” and served it in small cups with crescent-shaped pastries, to commemorate the Ottomans’ defeat. That was history in the making. Café Viennois is still being drunk today, and croissants are still made in the same shape. From Vienna, coffee spread all over Europe. The only countries where it was not an instant success were Germany, where beer ruled supreme, and Britain, where tea was the beverage of choice.

In France, which was guild heaven, the arrival of coffee triggered great unrest. It was not clear how it should be classified, and consequently which guild would handle its distribution. It was claimed by the guild of pharmacists, because it was a stimulant and sleep suppressant, therefore it had to be considered a medicine. Various travellers in the East mentioned coffee as a pleasant, refreshing beverage, so the guild of hoteliers intervened and laid claim to the right to maintain coffee shops. That brought on vehement objections by the guild of tavern keepers, with the simple reasoning that their interests were being harmed, as customers, instead of drinking wine in taverns, would prefer coffee in coffee houses.

Coffee became fashionable by the end of the 17th century, although it was insanely expensive. Sweetening it with sugar dates from those times, since aristocratic ladies found its bitterness unpalatable. By the turn of the century, the whole of France wanted coffee but its price was exorbitant, because the monopoly was zealously guarded by the Dutch. In 1714, the mayor of Amsterdam presented King Louis XIV, the Sun King, with a coffee bush, sure that it would be useless in Paris. That proved right. It was planted in a greenhouse in Versailles, but despite the care lavished on it, it remained moribund and barren.

Naturalists struggled for years, until a simple naval officer, Gabriel DeClieu, had the brilliantly simple idea to replant the bush in a tropical climate, which might help restore its growth, that had been stunted by the Parisian cold. He took a cutting to Martinique, which was a French colony, planted it there, and the resulting bush grew and gave plenty of fruit. He distributed the seeds to the locals, who planted them, and within five years, France was growing all its own coffee, whose price had dropped spectacularly.

In the 20th century, the worldwide coffee work cycle was worth over 100 billion dollars a year. Multinationals took over production, distribution, manufacture, advertising, and price regulation. Centroamerican and African countries leaped from poverty to wealth and back, following the stock prices in Wall Street. There have been wars, dictatorships, population mobilisations, evacuations of huge areas, all for coffee, all against the backdrop of exploitation of the countries and people of the Third World. It is estimated that today, out of the sum that a Western household pays to buy coffee, only 2.5% goes to the country that produces it, and out of this meagre percentage, only 1% is reinvested in the country. The remaining 97.5% to 99% goes into the coffers of middlemen and gluttonous multinationals.

Damn you, history, damn you, international system; why does even the mouthful of coffee I drink in the morning have to be a tool of exploitation, while it has such a fascinating history?

© Dimitris Kambourakis 2003, All Rights Reserved
Translation from the Greek © M.A.K. 2008, All Rights Reserved

A Drop of History 130

July 14, 2009

The history of taxes
A nuisance rising to a fine art through the ages

Filing tax returns has always been a nightmare for the common citizen. All those numbers, the paperwork, the documents and certificates, all they manage to cause is headache and terror. Would it make you feel better to know that taxation has always been the state’s favourite way of effortless fundraising throughout history?

Of course, we know that taxation is not a fruit of the present age, but the antiquity of the idea itself is impressive. The first written mention of taxes we have is in the Old Testament, where Joseph advises the Pharaoh to demand one-fifth of the crops while they are plentiful. Taxation existed in ancient Greece as well; Peisistratos demanded one-twentieth of the rich Athenians’ income. Aristophanes lampooned that policy in his comedy Frogs, to the mirth of the audience. In Rome, Caligula imposed a tax on porters, equalling one-eighth of their daily wage. In China, Emperor Han Wudi collected 2% of every merchant’s profits and, a thousand years later, the Tang dynasty emperors taxed each family for four or five hundred copper pieces.

The actual list would be endless, since all organised states had developed their own taxing policies. Most of the times, though, such policies were unfair and, despite the state’s initial efforts to impose them only on the wealthy, those managed, one way or another, to escape the state’s clutches and leave the poor behind to get the chestnuts out of the fire.

The first true tax reform was attempted after the French Revolution. Before that, France had established tithing; all farmers had to hand over 10% of their crops to the state coffers. After the revolution, that sum was abandoned and the new rulers tried for the first time to legislate objective taxation, respective to the volume of assets owned.

Around the same time, in Britain, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger formulated for the first time the concept of personal income tax. Britain was preparing to go to war against Napoleon at the time, and Pitt thought of that measure in order to bolster military capital. Personal tax would be graduated, depending on the income of each British citizen. The idea was applauded by other politicians, and the Parliament voted almost unanimously in favour of the famous “Income Tax”, in 1798. The term would create an entire school of economics and contribute to the formation of whole taxing systems.

According to the law, British citizens with an income over £200 would have to hand over 10%. The percentage was lower for incomes between £60-200, and incomes below £60 were considered tax exempt. Due to the particular measure, several citizens who wanted to avoid paying taxes declared incomes on the cusp of exemption. There are several tax return documents from that period declaring an income of £59 s19.

The personal income tax has been abolished and reinstated several times over the last couple of centuries. It was reinstated in 1842 by Robert Peel, marked “temporary”, in order to ensure the balance of the budget. It is nominally “temporary” until today, but its levying has never stopped.

Just so as you do not believe that such things happen only in Greece.

© Dimitris Kambourakis 2003, All Rights Reserved
Translation from the Greek © M.A.K. 2008, All Rights Reserved

A Drop of History 129

July 13, 2009

The tarmac comes to the streets of Athens
When man-carriers protested the paving of Aeolou Street

It was 1905 when the tarmac debuted in the Greek capital. That year, during the second term of Spyros Merkouris as mayor, the first paving works started on Aeolou Street, spreading later to other downtown streets. Until then, the capital choked on its own dust during the summer months, while, as soon as winter set in, mud covered everything. Although the paving was a truly great work, marking the beginning of a new era, it did not go uncontested. Dimitris Lambikis writes in his book The 100 Years of the Borough of Athens: “The first to protest the new works were the coachmen, as the wheels of their vehicles skidded dangerously on the new road surface.” Opposition continued, from other professional classes. The same book goes on: “The press encyclopedists found another drawback: that tarmac would be a thermally conductive material, which would turn the climate of Athens tropical.”

Perhaps the strongest opposition came from another professional group. At the time there were dozens of carriers, whose job involved carrying well-dressed ladies to the other side of a muddy street or square on their shoulders. It made sense that they were not enthusiastic about paved streets. On the other hand, the ladies’ husbands were zealous supporters of the works, because they could not bear to see those rude carriers grope their wives’ buttocks as they carried them over.

It is interesting that the paving of the first street in the country was considered a financial scandal. Ever since, all the roadwork done in Greece, down to the present, has been burdened with that original sin. In reference to the work’s management, Lambikis stresses that there were many doubts as to whether the contractor observed fully the terms of the agreement signed with the municipality. A shrewd, scandal-hunting journalist, in fact, based his accusations on an experiment: He poked his cane into the newly-paved street and found that the layer of asphalt was only four centimetres thick, instead of the eight that the contract stipulated. Still, despite the objections and shoddy workmanship, the paving went on after Aeolou, on other streets, opening the way for the appearance of the motorcar in the Athenian citizen’s daily life.

The first motorised vehicle had appeared in our country in 1897. It was a passenger Gardner with fourteen seats, which was instantly targeted by the coachmen, who suspected that the new diabolical contraption would cost them their jobs. They capitalised on the vehicle being awfully noisy, claimed that pregnant women would risk miscarriage, and demanded the prohibition of its circulation. They succeeded. Up until 1900, the motorcar was practically unknown to the Athenians, and petrol was only sold in chemists’ as a stain removing product. The first motorised taxi entered circulation in 1901, owned by one Moraitinis. It did not have the Gardner’s fate; instead, it survived, despite the coachmen’s opposition, seeing that there were already plenty of cars in Europe and America.

By 1909, there were 37 cars in Athens; by 1915, 203; by 1925, 900, and by 1936, 35,000. However, the streets were still fairly empty and cars navigated unhindered from one end of the city to the other. Serious traffic problems arose in the capital during the 1960s, and they keep getting worse with every passing year.

If we examine it closely, ladies, there is a historical dilemma here too. A Mercedes carries you around with greater speed and comfort than a carrier, but does not grope your buttocks…

© Dimitris Kambourakis 2003, All Rights Reserved
Translation from the Greek © M.A.K. 2008, All Rights Reserved

A Drop of History 128

July 10, 2009

A day in the life of a Milan duke
Luxuries that would make a modern tycoon feel poor

Dmitri Merezhkovsky, a Russian philosopher and novelist (who died of starvation in Paris during World War II) describes in his book Leonardo Da Vinci the life of a Milanese duke around 1500. His account has special value because it is the result of extensive archive study during a long tour of Greece, Turkey, Europe and the Near East. It is, in fact, a historical document of everyday life among the ruling class of the early years of the European Renaissance.

So, the duke, during an ordinary stroll around the workshops neighbouring his palazzo, where all sorts of artists that he patronised worked, would listen to the hagiographers talk about their art. The wood on which they would paint had to be old beech or fig tree, and it had to be primed with a good rubbing of powdered burnt bone. The bones used for that had to be hen’s wings, capon’s spines, or ram’s ribs and shoulderblades. Otherwise, the wood would not be smooth and glossy enough for a good icon. The paints were made by the artists themselves, using ingredients they collected themselves in nature. Indispensable ingredients were egg yolk, fig sap, water, oil, and wine. There was endless variation in details. If they wanted to paint young faces, the egg had to come from a town-bred hen, and thus have a lighter yolk. The yolk of eggs laid by free range country hens was suitable to colour older and darker faces and bodies.

The duke would continue his stroll, pass through his warehouses, cowsheds and pigsties, and end up in an outbuilding named “the home of giants”, which every respectable aristocratic home had. That was where all the creatures that amused the noblemen and noblewomen of the time lived, locked up in cages. Hounds, monkeys, parrots, dwarves, hunchbacks, negroes, madmen and epileptics, all piled up together in incredible filth. They were taken out according to the masters’ mood for entertainment. Of course, it did not even cross anyone’s mind that, for instance, dwarves or negroes were human creatures too. When a negro child was taken seriously ill, the duke thought of baptising him in order for him not to die a heathen, but then considered it too great an indulgence.

Then the duke and duchess would get to table, which, on an ordinary day, would include no less than thirty people. This is how Merezhkovsky describes an ordinary ducal dinner: “They started with fresh artichokes, brought from Genoa to Milan on horseback, fat eels from Venice, carp from the fisheries of Mantua and jellied capon’s breast. Afterwards, the main course was a huge boar’s head, stuffed with chestnuts and raisins. A whole stuffed peacock followed, with its magnificent feathers stuck again on its roasted body. As soon as the cooks put it on the table, it suddenly started to flutter its wings and tail, to the delight of the table companions. That was achieved through a mechanism hidden inside the peacock’s body, which made the cooked bird act like a living one. Dessert was a huge cake, out of which jumped a dwarf covered in parrot feathers, who was promptly snatched by the servants and locked in a gilded hanging cage in order to amuse the guests with his jokes during dinner.”

There were no forks on the table, only knives. The guests ate using three fingers, although at dessert there was a sort of fork brought in, gold with a crystal handle, which only the ladies would use. There were no napkins either; the guests wiped their hands on the tablecloth. They drank a light Sicilian white wine with the first course, then red Cyprus wine flavoured with cinnamon and cloves to accompany the meats. Before the duke drank any wine, the chamberlain would dip in his cup a special amulet, made by a piece of African rhinoceros horn on a golden chain. If the wine was poisoned, the horn would blacken instantly. There were similar amulets on all salt bowls. If rhino’s horn was not to be found, they used talismans of desiccated frog or snake’s tongue instead. After dinner, the guests would listen to some poetry recitations, eating gilded oranges drenched in aromatic Malvasian wine.

That was an ordinary day in the life of a Milan duke during the early Renaissance, a time when death of starvation, both in the cities and in the ravaged countryside, was a very common fate for the poor.

© Dimitris Kambourakis 2003, All Rights Reserved
Translation from the Greek © M.A.K. 2008, All Rights Reserved

A Drop of History 127

July 9, 2009

Smokers: steadfast sponsors of the state
The first taxes on tobacco in Greece

Now that smokers are under merciless persecution, it is worth taking a look at the history of production and consumption of cigarettes in Greece. The first ready-made tobacco products, or rather a primitive version of modern cigarettes, appeared in our country in 1885. The reason was (what else?) the state’s decision to tax tobacco consumption for the first time. Until then, smokers bought loose tobacco and papers separately. Ten drams (32g) of tobacco cost four (drachma) cents, and the respective quantity of paper cost just one cent.

Tobacconists’ had special mortars, in which they pounded the tobacco to the customer’s liking, just like coffee shops do today, grinding coffee in the buyer’s presence. The sale of loose tobacco was prohibited in 1883, when the Harilaos Trikoupis government decided to transfer taxation from production to consumption. Until then, only tobacco cultivators were taxed, and that was calculated not according to produced quantity but according to acreage. In this way, the state added two to three hundred thousand drachmas every year to its coffers. By taxing consumption it was estimated, in the 1884 budget, that the revenues would be five million drachmas – sixteen times the previous sum.

The brilliant idea belonged to Trikoupis’ Minister of Finance, Pavlos Calligas. Presenting the budget before the parliament, he was the first to use an argument that has been a staple for all his successors ever since: “Risking our popularity, we suggest a small but indispensable tax on goods not necessary but of optional use.” With that “small but indispensable” tax, the price of tobacco immediately skyrocketed. The product was mandatorily packaged, together with paper, so that the seal of the state would go on the pack and the tax would be paid. But the price became forbidding, since the tax was set at 4 drachmas per okka (1.280kg). The ten drams of loose tobacco plus paper, from 5 cents, jumped instantly to 25, which means that the price increased fivefold, in favour of the state and to the detriment of the consumer. Does it all sound familiar?

Those were the first expensive Greek packs – not cigarettes, since, even packaged, the tobacco was still loose. As was expected, there was a fury of protests, both by smokers and tobacco merchants, the precursors of tobacco manufacturers. The press of the time is full of malicious comments against the government’s tax-promoting policy. Leader of the tobacco merchants was one Andreas Gazis, who owned a large shop on Ermou Street.

During the first years, illegal trade and smuggling of loose tobacco flourished. The state, on the other hand, started using gendarmes (like modern economic crime squads) to persecute the cultivators who sold their tobacco illegally and the merchants who sold loose tobacco to consumers. The state won the war. Smokers decided it was better to reach deeper into their pockets, while tobacco merchants realised they could make more profit under the new regime, and became manufacturers.

One year later, in 1885, the first packaged ready-rolled cigarettes appeared. They were all handmade. Thousands of workers rolled cigarettes and filled packs by hand, and their price skyrocketed again. Ten drams’ worth of tobacco in ready cigarettes cost by now 50 cents, to the delight of the merchants and the state, which saw its tax revenues increase exponentially. Within two years, the price of tobacco had risen tenfold. Reminds me of something… reminds me of something.

The first industrially made cigarettes appeared in 1918, when the first rolling machines were introduced, but, despite the vertical increase of production and the drastic reduction of the manufacturing cost, the price of cigarettes not only did not decrease, but in fact rose yet again. And that keeps happening until our days, just proving that Greek history, in certain things, like the robbing of citizens by the state itself, maintains a wonderful continuity and consistency.

© Dimitris Kambourakis 2003, All Rights Reserved
Translation from the Greek © M.A.K. 2008, All Rights Reserved

A Drop of History 126

July 8, 2009

Nero at the Olympics
Instances of incredible obsequiousness towards the mad emperor

We Greeks have written many pages of glory and grandeur, but, throughout the course of our long history, we have also done things for which we should not be proud at all. All Greeks? Of course not, and not so much the populace as our rulers (elected or appointed), who have done, over time, the best and the worst.

In the 1st century CE, Greece was under Roman rule. The democratic system of government had disappeared, but the Hellenic consciousness was strong and the cities flourished politically. The rulers, however, were completely sold out to the Roman overlords. In 65 CE, maniacal Emperor Nero, considering himself an artistic character and a philhellene, decided to take part in the Olympic Games, which were still held in Olympia. The news alone of the emperor’s coming to Greece roused the entire ruling class, leading to acts of flattery pathetic enough to constitute historical shame.

The 65 CE games were almost ready to start, but when the organisers learned that the emperor was delayed, they postponed the opening, until he would deign to come. The situation became ridiculous very quickly, as there were no less than twenty-six consecutive postponements of the opening of the games, which finally took place two whole years later, in 67 CE. During the whole of that time, the athletes, judges, and administrators were forced to stay in Olympia, just in case Nero arrived unexpectedly and did not find them in their place.

When he finally arrived, he was welcomed with honours that verged on grovelling, and he declared he intended to take part in the chariot race. During the race, the emperor fell off his chariot, but he was declared winner and crowned with a golden wreath. For some obscure reason, all the other athletes who had finished the race withdrew after the event, so Nero ended up as the only participating athlete, and naturally was proclaimed winner.

The organisers, after the victory in Olympia, took him to all the other games that had become famous since ancient times, and which were put on right there and then, in Nero’s presence: the Isthmian, Pythian, and Nemean Games. Nero was declared undisputed winner in all those games. There were a few disputes, of course, but those were of no consequence, compared to the glory and grandeur of the imperial triumphs. A few dozen spectators, who laughed at the ridiculous spectacle of fat Nero posing as an athlete and winner, had to be murdered as well, but that was just a detail.

After the Olympic Games, Nero toured the sanctuary of Olympia and carried off all its statues to Rome. In Delphi, his visit was a hurricane. He entered the shrine, was received with honours and officially named equal to Heracles, wept with pious emotion in that exquisite place, and then snatched five hundred marble and bronze statues for his palace. After the looting, the emperor returned to Rome, happy.

He had hardly arrived when ambassadors from all the Greek cities arrived after him. They had gathered and decided that they had to go to the emperor and thank him with a gift for the honour he had done them by coming to Greece to ridicule and loot it. The gift was 888 golden wreaths!

But the pinnacle of obsequiousness and debasement that Latinophile Greek rulers reached was the following event: It is well known from history that Nero, in a burst of insanity, attired himself as a bride, had a freedman named Sporus attired as a groom, and married him in a formal ceremony. He even admitted the entire senate into his bedroom after the wedding and the couple had intercourse before all, with Sporus in the man’s role and the emperor in the woman’s. Well, the rulers of Greece raced to send congratulatory messages to the couple, including wishes for offspring. “Wishing for legitimate children to be born to them,” writes Dion Cassius, in reference to the wording of the cities’ edicts.

We Greeks are truly an incredible race…

© Dimitris Kambourakis 2003, All Rights Reserved
Translation from the Greek © M.A.K. 2008, All Rights Reserved