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Metamorphosis in Athens
Diary and photos essay

By Cyrus Kadivar
June 24, 2004
iranian.com

There are four hills on the Athenian skyline and our hotel, the famous St. George Lycabettus, nestled at the foot of one of them. It was springtime in Athens. On that Good Friday, as our yellow taxi made its way up the verdant hill winding through the fashionable streets of Kolonaki, I tried to catch a glimpse of the heavily scented orange trees hiding the designer French boutiques and chic restaurants. >>> See photos

The sun had begun to fall into the sea by the time we reached the hotel. As my wife and I strode into the black marbled lobby we were dreaming of our room which our London travel agent had promised came with a spectacular view of the Acropolis.

In the space between the reception desk, staffed by two attractive, but slightly bored, female staff, and the abandoned bureau de change, stood a familiar painting of a knight seated on a white horse slaying a green dragon with his lance.

If life has taught me anything it is that sometimes the best of plans can go awry with your fate hanging in the balance. That evening we discovered that our room was the one on the left of the reception desk. Not only did we not have a view of the Parthenon but our window overlooked a tall, blank wall. Our faces must have assumed the expression found on those masks used in a 5th century B.C. Greek tragedy.

The Gods must have pitied us for our disappointment was short-lived. Chris, our friendly Greek porter, assured me repeatedly in broken English that if we could be patient he would arrange that we be transferred the next day to Room 506. "The best in all of Athens with a view of the Acropolis from your bed," he promised.

That night we dined at Frame, a casual yet elegant and trendy restaurant situated in the hotel's basement. The '70s retro-style décor, designed by Angelos Angelopoulos, was colourful but simple, featuring bar stools and tables set with designer cultlery and multi-coloured serving plates. Reclining on a cushioned sofa we selected rose-tinted bread rolls and struggled to read the menu in the dim light.

A handsome couple sat at the bar sipping their cocktails and listening to Smooth groves and Conga beats. The young waitress seemed proud of her black T-shirt with its motto, "Eating makes me happy", written on her back, as she poured crystal water into our glasses before serving our meal: chicken sprinkled with herbs and bathed in olive oil. Dionysos would have surly approved of the excellent wine from the Peloponnese where the grapes ripen in the warm sunshine.

I was standing the following morning on a raised terrace near the hotel's entrance talking to Chris. My wife had, shortly after a generous breakfast, abandoned me to have her hair made. So as I threw a distant look towards the tiny view of the Acropolis with its broken temples, Chris explained to me how Athens' hotels were undergoing a frenzy of restoration in preparation for the 2004 Olympics.

Inevitably we chatted about the forthcoming Olympics. The average Athenian was fed up with all the bad press they were receiving: delays in construction projects, lax security precautions and the threat of terrorism from Al Qaeda. Few mentioned the good things, like the new international airport and the shiny highway.

The dynamic female mayor of Athens was devoted to make the Olympics an outstanding success with or without a roof over the swimming pool and the discovery of more historic relics in the area. Chris was not alone when he said: "We will be ready for the Games." In a typical dose of Greek optimism he added that the Herculean works would be finished one day before the event, "because the world will be watching."

Chris had been working at the hotel for almost twenty years. He owned a house in the farthest corner of the Peloponnese. It was his last day and he was looking forward to spending Easter with his wife. He told me that we had chosen a quiet time to visit Athens since most of the capital's inhabitants had fled to the nearby villages and islands.

When he learned of my Iranian background we immediately spoke of the ancient heritage that linked Persia and Greece. There was an immediate sense of mutual pride as we compared notes about the historic battles fought at Marathon and Salamis. Every Greek child is taught how their ancestors defeated the fearsome "barbarians of the east" and in theory determined the fate of Western Democracy.

For a Persian this period of history is but a simple footnote in the tale of one of the greatest empires the world has ever known, one that stretched from the Bosphorus to the Punjab, from Egypt to Georgia in Caucasia, embracing the best part of what maps today term the Middle East.

And still, I could not help feeling overwhelmed by the explicit knowledge that Western civilisation was descended from the battle fought on the plains of Marathon (22 miles from Athens) between 9,000 citizens of the Greek City states and the 30,000-strong Persian army of Darius.

Our modern history was perhaps a little similar and widely different. Both Iran and Greece had despite their glorious histories been overrun by foreigners but had always retained a very strong sense of cultural identity. Both had been former monarchies.

I had no intention of explaining the circumstances that had led to the disappearance of 25 centuries of Iranian kingship in the Khomeini led 1979 revolution. However, I was curious to know how Chris had felt about the 1967 coup led by the Colonels who had forced King Constantine II, son of Paul I, into exile.

"They were terrible times," he told me. "I was a young man but I remember the tanks rolling down the streets, firing on people. I had to hide inside a building until the shooting had died down. Many people were arrested, tortured and often disappeared."

In his marvellous book, "The Greeks", James Pettifer, noted that on 21 April 1967, when tanks rolled into Athens, "democracy was snuffed out." Ironically, the official position of the Greek monarchy remained unchanged during the rest of the junta's regime in that the King was allowed to return if he wanted. But ex-King Constantine, whom I saw a few years ago sitting alone in London's Claridge's with a Harrod's shopping bag at his feet, refused to come back, preferring exile until the restoration of constitutional government. But the junta lasted longer than the King expected.

Many Greeks today view ex-King Constantine (a close friend of the deposed Iranian royal family) with nostalgic sympathy or write him off as irrelevant, or at best another "Citizen." Some older people blame a series of disastrous misjudgements by the King's supporters, especially those in the navy, during the first six months of the colonels' rule for weakening the institution of monarchy and its chances.

After an abortive naval mutiny in May 1973, the junta leader, Papadopoulos, declared that Constantine was deposed and he proclaimed the establishment of a "presidential parliamentary republic." This was ratified in a bogus plebiscite in which Papadopoulos became the virtual dictator of Greece. Sadly, when the junta were driven from power, organized support for the King had been almost completely destroyed.

As Chis explained to me, even in the Peloponnese, which had always been a royalist region, "there were many monarchists but no organized political party to campaign for the King." In the referendum on the future of the monarchy in December 1974, 69 percent voted for a republic. But in 2004, Athenian democracy appeared unshakeable and Greece a serious member of the European Union.

The reappearance of my wife ended the history lesson, plunging our discussion to more practical subjects. "And when will we have our room?" I asked. "This afternoon," Chris said. "I will make sure that your luggage is transferred. You will have your view." We bade our saviour a Happy Easter and headed downhill towards Iraklitou Street.

Spring is indeed a great time to visit the city that gave birth to Socrates, Pericles and Sofka Zinovieff's recent novel, "Eurydice Street." At 23 degrees centigrade the temperature was balmy, and the orange trees that line every street were blossoming and smelling sweet. There was no hint of the dreaded traffic and pollution.

"I'm going shopping," my darling wife exclaimed as her eyes feasted on the smart shops. It was a deal. We always give each other a day off on our holidays and with a kiss we darted in separate directions promising to rendezvous later at the hotel.

I had not expected such a rewarding walk. In the bright sunshine my eyes could hardly make out the once-graceful neo-classical mansions rubbing shoulders with blocks of soot-coated buildings that lured me into thinking I was walking in downtown Shiraz.

On Kanari street I came across a lovely building that housed a cinema museum and an outdoor café in its courtyard. Creamy leather sofas and tables tucked under giant palms provided an ideal spot to enjoy a cup of Greek coffee washed down with a glass of water. The place was almost deserted except for an elderly Athenian lady in a fur-lined coat and her blonde daughter in a white flowery dress.

I once read that the best way to appreciate this magical city was by not trying to look for it in a conscious way. One had to get lost in both a physical and psychological sense. "Athens," wrote Pettifer, "is a great humane city with an almost infinite capacity to make the visitor feel at home and an equal facility to renew mind and spirit."

These words lingered even as I continued down Vassilissis Sofias, a long avenue housing the Cycladic and Benaki museums as well as a number of foreign embassies. At the gates of the Egyptian embassy (a former residence of King Fuad of Egypt) I caught a glimpse of a fat cat frolicking in the small manicured garden. Behind me an impressive and intimidating collection of stray dogs, probably nine or ten, greeted me with bored expressions as they dozed in the midday sun.

At Syntagma Square, crowned by Greece's Parliament building, a bustling scene of yellow taxis shattered the peace. To my left a few European tourists had gathered in a semi-circle to witness the tall handsome guards as they performed their slow, high-kick performance at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. For some the sight of the serious-looking soldiers in short puffy skirts, red tasselled caps, and pompom-bedecked clogs was truly amazing. There was nothing funny about their uniforms, worn since Greek independence from the Turks. But for me the real highlight of the day was the discovery of the Grande Bretagne, a magnificent hotel with a story.

In the blinding sun amidst the honking traffic, dusty scaffolding and with half of Athens under construction in preparation for the Olympics, the Grande Bretagne presents a charming sight. The stucco exterior with its gold trimmings and stone winged lions provides a hint of the brilliance inside. A world of exquisite luxury, recreating a sort of turn-of-the-19th century opulence greeted me. In the polished lobby an American woman sat on a sofa gaping at the enormous chandeliers and mirrors.

Originally built by Theophilus Hansen, the initial Dimitriou Mansion has undergone a series of face lifts. Here at "GB" the details are overwhelmingly pleasing. Antique furnishings, hand-carved architectural splendour, Doric-style columns, Bavarian and Swiss aesthetics combine to produce a serene environment.

There is a sense of history at every corner of this luxurious hotel. During the Second World War it served as the headquarters of the Greek political and military authorities before being captured by the Nazi high command. Even as 100,000 Athenians died of starvation the Grande Bretagne remained a centre of opulence.

In 1944, after the liberation of the city, Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden made a surprise stop on Christmas Eve. In the post-war period the hotel was to welcome crowned kings and princes, Heads of State, Prime Ministers and government dignitaries, cold war spies, business tycoons, prominent names in Literature and the Arts, renowned journalists, well-known theatre actors and film stars.

These days the fabulous roof restaurant and cool pool overlooking the eternal city along with the grand rooms are the haunts of the glamorous cosmopolitans who celebrate the pleasures of the flesh and the living in the shadow of the Gods.

My modest appearance in the stunning Winter Garden was received with the alluring smiles of two slim attendants sublime in their black dresses that hid their shapely figures. With their disarming, enchanting and subtle beauty they flanked me and gracefully placed a spell on me. I followed them to the Alexander Bar where I ordered a Greek Coffee brought to me on a small tray and poured into a tiny cup.

Engrossed in my newspaper I came across a story about an excavation project near Mt. Athos where archaeologists have been searching for the remains of the Persian Armada sent by Xerxes to crush the Athenians but which was defeated at Salamis in 480 B.C. inspiring Lord Byron's famous poem. Leaving the bar I braved the noisy streets passing the Temple of Zeus and the Theatre of Dionysus where entries such as Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and Aeschylus's The Persians premiered.

Above me, the remains of the Parthenon, caught my attention. It was not yet time to visit this site. So, instead I wandered through a narrow street leading me to Plaka. Sprawling at the foot of the Acropolis, Plaka is a charming labyrinth of tavernas, cafes, workshops and markets. In the main streets flower-filled corners lured me further into Athens' oldest and prettiest neighbourhood with its stone-paved alleys.

In one of these twisted alleys I came across a Russian woman sitting on a chair reading a book and teasing two lovely kittens. Last Easter I lost my beloved cat Pishi, a black tabby with green eyes. Now the sight of these little creatures jumping in the air as they tried to catch a fake spider dangling from a string attached to a long stick filled me with joy. I decided to call the black kitten Alpha and the blue-grey one Beta.

On Philellinon Street I marvelled at the Russian Orthodox Church of Aghia Triada and viewed the yellow flag with its double-headed Eagle. All around me tourists in sandles made their way to Adrianou Street with its active souvenir shops and restaurants.

I returned to the hotel, tired and elated. In Room 506 my wife greeted me with a look of suspicion. "And where were you all day?" she exclaimed. Then before I could answer she kissed me and invited me to the balcony where she showed me the view.

The sight of Athens baking in a white splash of light against a blue sky and the flat coastline and hills was breathtaking. That evening we returned to Plaka for dinner at Adrianos. Music and laughter filled the air. Here and there people walked with candles, making their way through the alleys towards the many Byzantine churches to assist in the elaborate ceremonies. It took a while before we found a taxi.

On the mad race to our hotel our driver switched on a small television above the dashboard in order to watch a film on the crucifixion of Christ. Holding my wife's hand in the back seat of our taxi we were all too aware of the surrealism of the situation. We flinched at the horrible scenes of the cruel Roman soldiers hammering the nails. Thus we headed towards the Lycabettus hill. Back at the hotel we rushed to the balcony and watched the sky erupt with fireworks just before midnight.

Sunday dawned quietly, except for the distant sound of barking dogs. I smiled at the familiar sight of the Acropolis. After a shower I drank my coffee on the balcony. Later, after a lazy start to the morning, my wife and I headed down the familiar steps towards Café Poros on Tsakalof street. The feast of the lamb was on and the delicious smell of roasted meat filled the air. In front of our table where we drank ice coffee an old Greek man danced with a dark-haired beauty in a scene from Zorba.

It did not take long before my wife and I were dancing in a circle. Once the music had died down we sat down for a slice of lamb and lots of tzatsiki. It was then that we met John. He was sitting beside me listening to my wife conversing with me when he offered to take a photo of us. He said that he had the same Olympus camera.

In his sixties, John had been born in Athens but had lived 19 years in Egypt. His mother and grandmother had belonged to the small Greek community that had thrived under the Egyptian kings until the revolution had sent Farouk into exile and ushered years of upheaval. Trained a chemist he had raised a family in France before settling down in Kent where he worked as an international sales director.

When I told him that I too had left my country because of a revolution, John shook his head and said: "Good for you, my friend!" When I introduced myself as Cyrus he smiled and putting a hand on my shoulder whispered, "No, you are Koroush."

I suddenly recalled Xenephon's description of Koroush (Cyrus in Greek) in his so-called Anabasis whereby he stated that, "Of all the Persians who lived after Cyrus the Great, he was the most like a king and the most deserving of an empire."

Naturally, we both knew the story of how 10,000 Greeks marched on Persia and all the rest. John revealed to me that he had been to Iran in the 1970s. "I had many Iranian friends connected to the Shah," he said. "They took me hunting along the Caspian and invited me to stay at their Persian villas." He had liked Iran. His daughter was dating an Iranian in New York and he spoke fluent Farsi and Arabic.

When talking about the history of Greece, John told me that "love of one's country" was the most important trait of a true Greek. He sympathised with the sense of loss felt by many exiled Iranians and confessed that he was a Greek monarchist who had organised a lavish charity ball for ex-King Constantine in London.

John talked about his mother who had died the previous week and we sensed his sadness when he invited us to her empty apartment in a posh street behind the restaurant. He offered us some pastries and showed us her pictures before touring with us as our guide. "Athens is not a beautiful city," he said, "but it has character."

After a feeble attempt to climb up Mt Lycabettus where a few Greeks offered us to share some lamb with them we left Kolonaki for the Panathenaic Stadium built in 330 B.C. and the metro station at the Parliament Square with its artefacts and burial chambers.

Over a drink at the Grande Bretagne, John described how he had once seen Onassis at the hotel. His interest in the Shah's three wives took up a good half hour of our discussion. He then revealed that a Greek friend of his had once worked at the Palace as a caterer and had witnessed how after each banquet the Shah and Queen Soraya had danced the night away long after all the guests and staff had left.

When our friend had left us my wife and I explored the Neo-Classical buildings of the Academy on Eleftheriou Venizelou Street and later the National Historical Museum on Stadiou. On Amerikis we peeked through the gates of the former house of Heinrich Schliemann, the famed German archaeologist who supposedly discovered Homer's city of Troy (a subject of a $200m Hollywood film staring Brad Pitt).

We could not find a boat to visit the islands of Hydra, Poros and Aegina on Easter Monday so we visited the port of Piraeus (a ten minutes taxi ride) and enjoyed another iced coffee at Café Fredo and watched the boats in the historic port before returning to Athens for a stroll down Ermou Street and busy Monastiraki.

A pleasant outdoor lunch next to the Tower of the Winds (a 1st century BC sundial invented by a Syrian) was later followed by a film at a cinema (English with Greek subtitles). After a shower at the hotel we ended the night with another great meal at Frame with its bubble chairs, sheepskin armchairs and miniature hanging gardens.

By the fifth day the charm of Athens had taken over. The streets were fuller than ever. We spent the morning with Sophia, a delightful Swedish professor of Middle Eastern politics who had completed a paper for the United Nations on the Iraqi immigrants in Greece. She spoke of the Kurdish and Albanian refugees and their problems.

Our conversation continued over lunch at the Grande Bretagne where she spoke of her Greek fiancé, her travels to Iran and the tragic events in Iraq. My wife explained how she had gone to a church the night before to pray for the liberation of the Japanese hostages and how happy she was that they had been finally set free.

"Have you been to the Acropolis?" Sophia asked, delicately changing the topic. "Not yet. Tomorrow, perhaps," I replied, sipping my wine. "It's a tradition," she insisted.

After Sophia had left us my wife confessed that she was not too keen to climb up to the Acropolis. So I told her that I would make an attempt the following morning. That afternoon my wife decided to go shopping in Plaka and I went about in search of Greek cats.

The previous afternoon I had observed two ginger cats staring from behind the windows of a drinks stall. Now in a car park I came across a friendly black cat with green eyes dozing under a navy BMW. I guess my sense of loss over my cat Pishi had not healed. I still recalled how upon my return from an Easter break in Paris I had found her stiff and lifeless body on the Persian carpet in my London flat.

In Athens I had felt my deceased cat's haunting presence and when the sleepy feline walked up to me and rubbed its head against my hand I felt overwhelmed by sentimentality. A few Greek passers by must have thought me unwell. But my cat's ghost continued to send her love. Long after I had started my way back to the hotel I was to meet another black cat that jumped out of the Egyptian Embassy!

Taking another route I came across a bookshop on Skoufa where I purchased a children's book, "The Saga of Alexander the Great" with great illustrations of the Greek-Persian wars. One of the assistants told me that he was fascinated by Zoroastrianism and the Sassanid empire. "We like the Persians," he told me. "I think that they are like us Greeks – very civilised." A female assistant preferred to talk about the Olympics. "We will show the world what a great people we are," she said.

Back on my hotel balcony I was feeling happy, content and completely invigorated by the lust for life in this lovely city. The light was dimming over Athens. Soon the streets were teaming with elegant crowds. The climate was gentle and the air scented. Everything was alive. What a carefree people the Athenians were, I thought to myself. That night, I took my wife out to dinner in Kolonaki.

We talked and laughed about silly things we had witnessed during our stay. Later, as we returned to our hotel, night creatures emerged to make the city theirs. We passed a smart-looking designer shop and admired a flowing white dress inspired by the one worn by vestal virgins at Delphi.

It was midnight. I lay in bed looking out of the window, my mind preoccupied by the stones on the hill, glowing in the dark. As a keen reader of history I was unable to discard the powerful imagery of the events that had rocked this city in 480 B.C. I flipped through Barry Strauss's book, Salamis, and absorbed his vivid description of the invading Persian force that had arrived by land and sea to punish Athens.

"In the three months before the battle of Salamis," I read, "the Persians had marched through northern and central Greece, crushed the Spartan army at Thermopylae, fought the Athenian navy to a standstill at Artemisium, and entered Athens in triumph. They had burned the old temples of the Acropolis to the ground."

In the morning, fortified by a cold shower and a big dose of Greek coffee, I took a taxi to the Acropolis.

The city was slowly waking up and the short ride along the side of the Parliament building revealed a former royal park and tree-lined avenues once graced by Athenian women dressed in the imported chic fashions and dignified men who had adopted "European" suits and hats and who lived in those large, dignified homes built a century or so ago. Thoughts of Niavaran and Shemiran in the good old days returned.

To be an exile gives wings to the imagination. To have one's soul yearning for a past long gone can consume the senses, confuse and torment, enthral and disappoint. The Greeks knew the meaning of exile and considered it the worst of punishments.

In Homer's Odyssey, King Alcinous listens patiently to Odysseus who has sought shelter with him during his ten years' wandering after the siege of Troy. The words now seemed hauntingly true as I stepped out of the taxi and made my way up the hill.

Many are the sorrows the gods of the sky have given me.
Now first I will tell you my name, so that all of you
may know me, and I hereafter, escaping the day without pity,
Be your friend and guest,
though the home where I live
is far away from you.

The pride I had felt as a child climbing the ruins of Persepolis was now replaced by the adult I had become as I ascended the sacred precincts of Athens, the cradle of democracy. If the Persians were driven by their pride, the Greeks were thinkers.

If my ancestors extolled the divinity of their king of kings, the Greeks were suspicious of power and made every attempt to marginalise those who flew too close to the sun.

And if the Persian placed his destiny in the hands of supernatural forces, the Greek interrogated the mind and allowed critical introspection. History is more than a series of dates. I tried to imagine the impact of the Persian invasion had it succeeded.

An Iranian friend had once quipped jokingly to me that, "If the stubborn Greeks had lost, Xerxes would have captured the Peloponnesus and everybody would have been drinking Persian wine!"
At school in Iran I had been taught, like every other proud Iranian, that the burning of Persepolis in 330 B.C. by Alexander the Great had been an unforgivable act of revenge for King Xerxes' destruction of the proud city of Athens and particularly for the sacking of the few temples that had stood on top of the Acropolis.

I tried to reconstruct the terrifying scene. The Persians had stormed into Athens to find it deserted, evacuated in fact by the orders of its defending commander, Themistocles. It did not matter for the vengeance that had been denied at Marathon was finally at hand. Statues were overturned, vases smashed, houses looted.

Some 512 feet high and 1000 feet wide, the Athenian Acropolis is a natural fortress, its slopes sheer and precipitous. The Persian commander must have been surprised to learn that a small band of barricaded defenders were rolling stones down on his troops as they attempted to climb the Acropolis. Herodotus claims that the siege lasted a few days. Finally the Persians after trying to negotiate with the mad Greeks found a way up through an unguarded pathway and quickly slaughtered the Athenians (a few committed suicide by leaping off the hill).

The Persians looted the treasures of the temples and then set fire to the whole hill, the wooden beams of its stone buildings blazing, the statues of lions and sea monsters crashing down. To the Greeks this act must have seemed like the end of the world.

It was sacrilege, a crime against their gods. From then on fighting the "barbarians" was no longer an act of self-defence but a religious duty. Even as Athens burned, Themistocles led the brave Greeks to a stunning victory by defeating the superior Persian fleet at Salamis and forcing the proud King Xerxes and Queen Artemisia (one of history's few female naval commanders) to retreat in disgrace.

Victory over the Persians was completed after the battle of Plataea (479 B.C.) to the northwest of Athens, when a combined Greek army annihilated the Persian armies once and for all.

After that a solemn vow was made by the victors never to rebuild the shrines that were destroyed in the war, preserving them instead as memorials for later generations.

Thirty years later, Pericles, the Athenian statesman, gathered together the best architects and artists in the city to rebuild the temples, bigger and greater than before. Later, when in the 15th century, Athens was captured by the Turks, the Parthenon became a mosque, and the Erechtheion temple with its ten deities became a harem.

In 1686 most of the Parthenon was damaged when a gunpowder warehouse for the Ottoman garrison exploded inside its walls. Time damaged the rest but the mystique remained inspiring poets, writers, historians and romantic travellers to dwell over the past.

That lovely morning, standing beside the Temple of Athena, I found myself thinking about the future of democracy in Iran. What better place to make sense of the past and present.

In 1979, as a teenager, I had witnessed the toppling of a king and everything that it had represented by a popular and misguided revolt. As a result 25 years of theocratic madness had seized my country. Religion had been abused to enslave a nation.

Ironically, in the 21st century, the word democracy was on every Persian lip. It still meant something to the millions of male and female Iranians struggling for their basic human rights, rising above petty differences as a universal concept above all ideologies.

How strange that a couple of broken stones should hold such sway over human civilization. From this vantage point I surveyed the city of Athena and found below the tiny, peaceful microcosm of life. It was spring and if you looked carefully, one could pick out the few trees gloriously flaunting white and pink blossoms.

It was my last day in Athens and although a little sad as I meandered downhill I had the feeling of having been purified, enlightened perhaps. I left the Acropolis with the sun in my eyes. Following the paved stones I wondered who else had been here.

In the distance I caught sight of an Orthodox priest, stroking his long beard and resplendent in his dark robes. Moving along in the holy man's footsteps I soon got lost.

It took me a little while to reorient myself. As I made my way through the peaceful and dilapidated alleyways I could hear the birds singing. It was on Karyatidon-Kallisperi street where, to my utter delight, I found the Ilias Lalaounis Jewellery Museum.

Founded in 1993 the museum (situated on the south side of the Acropolis) is really an ode to Mr Ilias Lalaounis, a genuinely remarkable man. Goldsmith and designer of rare jewellery, academic, artist, businessman and a member of the French Academy, he exemplifies the last of that special, daring breed that drew inspiration from the beauties of nature and creativity from both Greek and Persian antiquity.

Chatting to an elderly lady whom I suspect was his wife Lila I was encouraged to visit the first floor where among the vast collection (3000 pieces) I discovered something special. Between the Mesopotamian and Ottoman sections was a rather unique exhibition entitled, "From Luristan to Persepolis." Instantly, it caught my attention.

As if in Ali Baba's cave, I viewed the treasures behind the glass cases: pendant in 22ct gold and sodalite inspired by a 5th century Persian vessel made of stone, a necklace with two ibexes facing each other, a gold-plated bowl with swan heads, earrings shaped as grapes or the crescent moon, bracelets inspired by the pillars of the "Audience Hall" of the Palace of Darius I and Xerxes at the City of Persians.

In creating these refined pieces, Lalaounis had been keenly aware of the pan-Hellenic dream of Alexander and his attempts to marry the culture of the Greeks and Persians. When Macedonia invaded Persepolis and ended Achaemenid rule, Greek merchants and soldiers came to live in Anatolia, Syria, Mesopotamia and Iran.

For me, the attraction of these pieces was in the celebration of common cultural traditions as well as intermingling styles that runs as a constant theme in Lalaounis' masterpieces.

Downstairs the elderly Athenian lady was intrigued to find out that a Persian was in her midst. Her initial reserve was soon replaced by an eagerness to tell me how the master had come to be inspired by Persia. I felt a sudden rush of emotions.

As the story emerged from the mist of time I learned how it had begun. Sometime in 1976, Her Majesty, Farah Pahlavi, the wife of the late Shah of Persia, invited Lalaounis to come to Tehran to present a collection at the Imperial Court based on Persian art.

It was a demanding task. Lalaounis immersed himself in a study of Persian art and toured the museums in Iran and collections abroad only to realise the sheer complexity of the project. His library was filled with books on the arts from Persia ranging from the tribal graves in Luristan in western Iran to that of the Imperial Court in Persepolis.

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Pahlavi dynasty a special presentation of Lalaounis jewelry and vessels in 22ct gold took place at the Imperial Court. By all accounts, Empress Farah and her guests were more than pleased by the results. Amir Abbas Hoveyda, the Shah's prime minister, was a man of great culture and was so moved that he complimented the Greek jeweller on his accurate knowledge of Persian art, adding that he possibly knew more of the culture than an Iranian.

I left the museum and made one final tour of the surrounding houses and ancient stones at the foot of the Acropolis, savouring images of a city that had finally seduced me. Catching a taxi back to the hotel I went up to my wife who had in her practical way already packed our luggage. Before leaving for the airport we had lunch at a Greek restaurant in one of the chic streets of Kolonaki.

As we awaited our dish of salmon and rice, my wife handed me a small gift wrapped box.
"I wanted to thank you for a memorable time," she said, looking at me with those big eyes, enchanting me with her lovely smile. I opened the present and found a silver and green worry bead. "It's lovely," I whispered, leaning over the table to kiss her.

We left Athens with a feeling that our love affair with this marvellous city had just begun, awakening a desire to learn more about its many layers. And these words sprung from Lalaounis' book titled "Metamorphoses": "Every work of art contains a message, an idea, it is a symbol and a memory that links the past with the present." >>> See photos

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