On the 28th of June 2008, I arrived in Cairo airport, to meet with Dr. Hawass, the Supreme head of the antiquities in Egypt. Having read many of his books, and followed his career through lectures at the Los Angeles County museum, his many guest appearances, on Discovery and The History Channel, I felt, I had a good grasp of this man. He made a huge difference in bringing to light the many discoveries of Ancient Egypt onto the world stage.
I arrived in his office, punctually at 2 PM, an office filled with female assistants, surprisingly, not a piece of Egyptian art in sight. Walking in, I politely asked, “Are you ready, Dr. Hawass?” Abruptly he answered, “Ready for what?” ‘Hmmm, where had all the charm gone? Gone for television everyone.’ Not looking up and looking terribly busy, I thought. ‘Oh, please don’t stand’.
I decided to keep my ‘one pointedness’, as Zen taught me, not to flinch. I began yhrowing questions at him about Bahariya (golden mummies), Seti the First (Pharoah), grandfather of Rameses 11, anything-new found in KV5, (The tomb of Rameses’ sons). All his answers were an abrupt ‘no’ or dismissive. I couldn’t seem to reach him. I decided to try another tactic. I remember reading about his friendship with Omar Shariff, whom I had worked with in Europe ten years prior. He curtly responded, “He lives in Paris. What else?” I quickly showed him photos and stories of documentaries I was developing for Discovery Channel. Immediately he went into discussing the fees to shoot in these places and when to contact him. I felt the need to finish this game he was playing, and like an actor knowing his cues, I stood up and quickly finished the meeting with a handshake. Alas, a shift took place, he stood up. I think he was surprised that I had ended this meeting before he had. I was not about to experience his dismissal. And as he gave me his card, he said, “You know that only thirty percent of Egyptian artifacts have been uncovered. We have a lot of work ahead of us”. Great, I thought, and as I looked into his eyes, I knew I had broken through and my mission was accomplished, the right to explore my journeys in his country and have his approval. I congratulated him for the great work that he was doing in Egypt. I thought to myself, he may not be the most likeable person, with his arrogant manner, but I respected him immensely for the great passion and love he has demonstrated towards his country, and making sure nothing, not even a grain of sand left Egypt without his approval. Too many European cultures of the nineteenth century, especially, England, France and Germany, who had no classical age, looted thousands of artifacts from Egypt and claimed them as their own.
My next journey, was to drive to St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai, a seven-hour trek through a desolate environment. This ancient church fortified by enormous walls, protecting over two thousand icons, and over three thousand Manuscripts, second only to the Vatican Library.
The entire Sinai was inhabited by Bedouins (Nomads), since ancient times. It was here that Moses experienced the manifestation of the Divine. Here, where God, said. “I am that I Am,” and charged Moses to free the Israelites from Egypt’s bond.
Getting there was difficult. So many security stops. Of course I had mistakenly not taken my passport with me, which showed that I had arrived in Egypt legally. My driver had to convince them that I was an actor having come to meet Dr. Hawass, and to be allowed to continue on. I wondered why there were so many Military and secret police. It was only 125 degrees in this hostile environment. The answer would come to me after I had left the country. Through landscapes so desolate and uninviting, I wondered ‘how had Moses survived crossing this desert alone and thrown into the wilderness by Pharaoh. After 8 military stops with the same procedure being stared at in the back seat by suspicious authority, I just played the role of an innocent in the wild while they tried to scare me down.
Finally, at 11AM, we arrived, a huge number of military police, a hundred yards beneath St. Catherine’s stood firm. It was an interrogation scene out of “Midnight Express”. The white uniform with the black epaulets, the dark sun glasses and the stance only found in fascist’s countries, where no democracy exists only fear imposed on the masses. This time my Driver’s License ID did not suffice. The head of the police strutted around like an animal, and said to my driver, in Arabic, “ He will have to go back to Cairo and get his passport. He is not invited here”. My driver translated. Then I said. To my driver, “This is a Greek Monastery ruled over by the Orthodox Church. He is a Muslim and cannot deny me my rights to connect to my God’. Standing there threateningly he quickly responded in English, “You are Persona non-grata. Leave”. My driver came up with a brilliant idea, to go to the nearest hotel and have the face of my passport faxed from Cairo. “You wait here’. I found a shady spot in all that heat and while waiting for my driver to return I decided to try a different tactic and began charming the police. I found one that spoke Greek, exchanging stories about dreams and women, of course. Always a way to get to a man’s heart. My driver returned with the evidence. The veil was dropped by the authorities and I was allowed through. Halleluiah! Another way through was found.
I trekked the rest of the way on a camel. As ugly and uncomfortable as they are, there is something in their motion that connects you to the ancient past, where things took time, unlike our modern age. I came across the great wall, where Emperor Constantine, in 313AD, issued the famous edict that brought an end to the persecution of Christians. He built this Monastery around the legendary ‘Burning Bush’. And it is that tree that still lives after three thousand years that continues to give life and purpose to this sanctuary. In all its years of existence, it has never been abandoned.
Arriving at the gates of St. Catherine, I met with Father Porfidios, a journalist who landed here at the age of fifty, and found a place of solitude, became a monk and never looked back. He took me to the well, where Moses had met his wife. I sat at this spot, spiritually moved and imagined what Moses, having come out of the hostile desert, overcame the Pharaohs death sentence. He settled here and became the great myth that still affects the Christian and Muslim faith today.
As I walked further into the Monastery, I came across ‘the Burning Bush’, Thick in It’s intensity I instantly jumped up to grab a piece only to find it covered with fine thorns, that seemed to be telling me. ‘hands off’. I could imagine, after all these hundreds of years, this living sacred tree had been cut and gnawed at by the millions of pilgrims over the centuries feeling it would bring them closer to God. Including myself. I left with bleeding fingers. Ouch!
As we sat outside the café the father began to tell me how the Monastery had been named. In 292 AD, an eighteen year old woman by the name of Catherine, of royal lineage, challenged Emperor Maxentius, who was a worshiper of Pagan Gods. By questioning his pagan beliefs she was sentenced to death. Put on a water wheel to slowly drown, to their astonishment the whole thing collapsed. She was finally put to death by decapitation. It is believed, milk, not blood flowed from her body and so she was martyred and became the patron saint. In the 9th century, angels guided the monks to her remains in Sinai and buried her within the walls of the great church. The singular sound of a monk began to echo through the monastery, announcing that four o’clock mass had begun. I entered the ancient church and the first thing that struck me was the smell of the thousands of candles that had been lit through the ages, and I picked up one for myself and put a flame to it. My God, I felt the ancient icons that surrounded me, enter my very being. My seemingly difficult journey in arriving here all of a sudden disappeared and I can still hear the haunting sound of their religious mantra echoing in my mind. The next day on my way to Damascus, I opened the Herald Tribune, and there it was on the front page, what all those obstacles getting to Sinai was about. The Egyptian Security Forces had arrested more than a hundred people throughout the country, suspected of plotting terror attacks on its country’s treasures.
They said that three cells, lead by operatives outside of Egypt, had allegedly planned bombings in three large cities, espousing an ideology of Takfir, accusing others of Apostasy. Large quantities of explosives and weapons were found as well as maps of official institutions in the country. Egypt’s aim was to stop the smuggling of weapons and terrorists through tunnels from Sinai to Gaza strip. It cannot afford another threat of terrorism on its soil.
Leaving Egypt behind me I realized that these places hold in their memory that which has come before and that the mysteries of what exists and where we go to uncover them keeps these places alive. And my greatest desire by passing through here is to be part of those memories.
From London I went back to Greece, to the Island of Kastellorizo where my ancestors came from in the early 16th century. Having migrated from Constantinople (now Istanbul) on this little rock of an Island, a couple of miles from the Turkish coastline, where they eventually settled.
The name of this Island means , ‘the castle with the red plant’ which grows wildly over its landscape. The structure belonged to 14th century Venetians who inhabited the Island. This lovely ruin blends into the rocky terrain overlooking is wonderful harbor where a Greek flag flows freely, above the neo-classical houses. In its time, the women of the Island would parade along the harbor wearing their best dowry complete with a lace umbrella, with the attitude ‘You may look, but don’t touch’.
When I was a boy I asked why my father’s mother Kostandina, had such a huge nose. It’s because she came from a wealth of merchants, and she always had her nose in the air. And as we say in Oz,’A stuck up’, and her nose kept growing, showing off her importance. I never liked her nor she me. If she had an opportunity, she would pinch me hard when no one was looking. I somehow seemed offensive to her. Of course she died not a very happy woman and her hands were always empty.
As I was entering the harbor of Kastellorizo, having caught the boat in Rhodes which was a very rough crossing, the people whose ancestors were from this part of Greece began to cry. All the memories of their childhood or the many myths that their families had shared with them growing up had now surfaced. It looked more like a Greek tragedy. I was always told, that once you see the Island for the first time it will be an emotional experience. To me it wasn’t. To me it was a struggle remembering all those traditions they enforced upon us when they came to Oz and then handed them down rather rigidly in a different culture to theirs. And there were clashes. To always behave and remember not to ruin the family name. After all there were sisters that had to be married and we couldn't hurt their chances in the arranged marriage saga. It all seemed so silly now.
The island looked more like a fairy tale among its ruins, it’s beautifully colored houses restored and all neatly presented on the waterfront as if they were on good behavior. Fishing boats of all colors docked while the fishermen mended their nets. My youth had a lack of freedom and I balked at anything that made me feel like I couldn’t breathe. My father’s strict and contradictory rules and the abuse that went along with them still affect me today. Maybe that’s why these open spaces made me feel so free. And that these spaces I have chosen were part of the education that enhanced my being and most importantly to my spirit. It’s taken a lifetime, overcoming this Victorian attitude. My mother always came to my rescue and my father’s frustrations of not being able to reach me weighed heavily on my youth. So when I saw the island’s beautiful harbor there were shadows weaving through the battered landscape. When I landed I went straight to the spot where my mother and father’s family lived facing the harbor. It was now an empty space, so many wars and fires and earthquakes have destroyed a lot of its beautiful terrain. Pity, I would have loved to have sat in the environment that they had been brought up in. Maybe that’s what I was searching for, something that perhaps would help me understand better who they were and why my father was such a tyrant. Something must have seeded it. Maybe it was my grandmother who never showed any affection to us or to him, just authority.
I ended up facing the school that my parents attended in their youth. The magnificent neo-classical architecture; what the Island must have looked like before most of it took fire. And right next to it was the church of St. Kostandinou and Eleni. As I entered the church and lit a candle, as I was embraced by the hundreds of icons, all exuding some kind of revelation but still intimidating. I even got to go beneath the church where people hid in secret chambers from their enemies. It was claustrophobic. I climbed back up into the church and sat at the pew. I took in the smell of the burnt out candles and envisioned how they all sat there on a Sunday praying to get rid of their guilt, austere and all those good manners carrying them through the sermon. And the old lady who lived to keep her church pristine, thinking she would definitely go to heaven having donated her life to the church echoed by those daily chants. Simple and undemanding, she did her daily ritual. A smile came to my face realizing how uncomplicated her needs were.
I prayed for my parents who had passed on in1995. I wish I hadn’t waited this long to come here. To be able to call them and say ‘I’m finally here and want to share my revelations’. Or been here when they had visited and saw it all through their eyes, their eternal youth, their memories. But the cards didn’t play it that way and now I was seeing it through their stories, their voice and how isolated they were on this small island furthest from the mainland of Greece. But I do recall my mother telling me that this little spot of earth and its inhabitants were part of the Trojan War in the 14th century BC. She loved that it had such an old rich history.
I climbed up the steep slope to the top of the Island where I could see the Turkish mainland very clearly two miles away. The old enemy looking very powerful from a distance. And didn’t they, the Ottomans spread the worst kind of dominance. Very brutal and sadistic. You think of the Armenian genocide and it’s power over Greece for three hundred and fifty years. I kept thinking, ’Where was God?’ Their screams were silent.
I eventually came back down to have an early dinner. Everyone I met was charming. The few restaurateurs tried to hustle me in but I was in no hurry. I settled at one table and a woman approached me who knew my mother well. “You look so much like her”. I smiled and sat at her simple café, overlooking the bay. It was sad when she spoke of my parents and the kinds of people they were. The father, who after my success finally accepted me, and loved talking about it as if his influence helped me to do the right thing. When I really escaped his lack of embrace. But I shared with those who listened, how much my journeys in life made him feel that some part of him succeeded through me. What the hell, it changed him late in life for the better and I know that if parents don’t want you to go beyond them, in fear of losing you, you have to leave them behind and be true to your own self. As Milton Katselas, my teacher used to say to me, “Out create them.” And by having success, it broadened their vision and certainly mine. And so I came to peace with myself finally, and was able to let him go, gracefully.
The next morning at dawn, I got up and caught a small boat to take me to the Grotto. As I stepped onto the boat I was greeted by my driver. As we motored out I could see the clarity of the water below where my father as a young man had dived into, bringing up hundreds of sea urchins in small nets. What we remember. Fifteen minutes later, traveling around the rock, with its historic remains I was reminded what history had passed by these monuments. Age old battles, of domination, from the Greeks, to the Crusaders, Turks, Italians, French and finally back to the Greeks. The reason we left early in the morning was because, if the sea was high, the Grotto would disappear. We arrived and entered the cave’s narrow entrance and there was that water, so blue it almost appeared artificial. It was aqua marine. So beautiful I dived in and felt the silky water that my father had described to me when he was having one of his good days. The light piercing through the cave created a magical atmosphere. I kept thinking to myself, how my parents had swam here in their youth. And now here I was.
I got back into the boat and headed towards the hotel. At dusk I began to walk along the different paths and take in the symmetry of this land and how many of its inhabitants lost their fortunes during the early 20th century and made their way to America and Australia. I grew up believing that we were part of an enormous heritage with royal connections, and that if you were not from Kazzie (nickname of the Island) you were not a Greek, but a foreigner. All this self importance about the kind of history you came from and the lifetime it took to remove this imprint.
Suddenly I heard a flute playing and a shepherd rounding up his goats and sheep at the bottom of the hill. Not much has changed here, unlike America where everyday brings change and little time to realize success. It was a beautiful scene where I imagined holding my father and mother’s hand leading them up the hill, being young again where there was time to laugh and have that afternoon Greek coffee where some old lady would read your fortune.
But they have gone now. As the sun set behind the horizon, I felt them slip out of my hands and disappear to wherever that next stage of life may be. I miss them dearly now and see them whole, and realizing how difficult it was for them to leave this tiny paradise and go to an Anglo country, where they had to put their pride aside and start at the bottom where little fantasy was left for them in this great and newly developed country called Australia.
I left the following day having a better sense of who my parents were by visiting their place of birth and the stories that unfolded when I was young.
Their little Kastellorizo with its remains, it’s old and new inhabitants, and those who left and brought their children back to witness their heritage, and keeping it alive. As the boat was pulling away, I couldn’t help but sing quietly to myself a melody that my family had taught me and the sound of my mother playing the mandolin. Now I began to get emotional. At a distance a smile warmed up my face and I felt the magic that only far away places can give you, especially when you have connected with your past and shifted into new beginnings. It’s as if the Island had waited for me till I came, so that my quest was fulfilled by being there in the present.
It seems that all these journeys I have taken, were places to hide, to forget, to escape, and eventually discover their meaning by going through them and the revelations that were waiting for me to embrace. It helped me weave the fabric that I would wear for the rest of my life, and in the end bring me closer to the God in me.