Tuesday, 25 October 2011

The good old times

(Vangelis cutting wood)

During these times of crisis, many must be thinking: Away with the Greeks! But I don’t think that the Greeks alone have contributed to this European crisis. And have you ever thought how the world would be if there had never been Greeks?

In the last decades Greece has become known as a popular holiday destination and as a country with mighty shipping magnates. In ancient times however Greece was the birthplace of lots of scientists and philosophers and many of their inventions and theories are still part of the modern world.

For example, when you get brutally awakened from your sweet dreams by your alarm clock, do you ever think of Plato, who may have used the very first alarm clock? And then when you take your shower, do you realise that in the fourth century BC Greeks were also taking showers and, just like you, they used a bar of soap? Then you check your computer. Centuries ago Greeks did the same: The Antikythera mechanism is the famous analog computer that was found, about a century ago, in a shipwreck close to the island of Antikythera. Only recently has it been discovered how smart this mechanism is. It calculates astrological positions and it can calculate the dates for cultural events like the Olympic Games.
When you set off to work and you take along some chewing gum, you will be chewing on a Greek invention. And when you unfurl your umbrella against the rain, you take shelter under another Greek invention.
The list of Greek inventions is much longer and also contains the anchor, the catapult, the steam machine, the thermometer and central heating.

According to Wikipedia central heating was invented by the Roman Sergius Orata. The system used to be called hypocaust and was originally floor heating: in ancient Greek hypo means under and caust means burnt. So the name is Greek and according to Pliny the Elder, long before the Romans marched into Greece, there were houses and buildings that had this hypocaust system. So, it’s more accurate to say that the Greeks invented central heating and that the Romans adjusted it.

Last week this invention was bitterly needed, because we suddenly got a preview of winter: the thermometer descended to below 5oC! Suddenly this beautiful Indian summer was gone and the heaters had to be lit.

Most people here on the island have oil-fired central heating. But some ten years ago the heaters on Lesvos were mainly small oil or electric heaters and some people had a woodstove or an open fire. Nowadays there are even people who survive the winter with only their aircon. But in latter years many people have changed to central heating and no newly build house is without it. Just like in ancient times.

In Ephesus they have found the remains of a hypocaust: air was heated and was transported through clay pipes to the houses (of the rich) and public buildings. Although in that time they did not use oil to create the heat.

Did they use gas? Natural gas comes from the earth and cannot be claimed as an invention; but in ancient Greece they were already using natural gas. Some thousands years BC, there was a shepherd on Mount Parnassus who discovered a fountain of fire coming from the earth. The flame would not stop and was seen as a sign from a god. That is why they built a temple around the flame: the famous temple of Delphi, where priestesses used this eternal fire to see into the future. Gas was used as an oracle fire.

Could these priestesses have foretold that there would one day be a time when the Greeks could no longer pay for their central heating? The price of the oil has now risen so high that many Greeks can no longer afford it and on the island many people are rushing to buy woodstoves.

In a way, the heat of a woodstove is better than that of a central heating system. Lots of houses here on Lesvos fight against moisture that causes mould on the walls. No matter how much you clean or cover the walls with water resisting paint, the mould always comes back. The best way to fight it is to burn a woodstove that takes the moisture away.

So lots of people will benefit from buying a woodstove: the heat is more efficient and using one is many times cheaper than buying this incredibly expensive oil. The island has enough wood: the lop (pruning wood) of the olive fields and the many dead trees in the woods.

So the countryside will be more busy this coming winter. People will be going into the woods more often to pick-up a free meal, searching for wild vegetables (chorta) and mushrooms. And there will be a new group coming: wood poachers.

The old Greek empire also gave birth to money: coins were invented in what is present day Western Anatolia, where Greek city-states were invaded by the Lydians. The first coin was made during the rule of King Alyattes II. He was the father of the legendary King Croesus, famous for the proverb As rich as Croesus. Croesus was so rich he could afford to build one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: the famous Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. And who knows — maybe he also installed central heating there.

Times however have changed since rich King Croesus. So where have all those mighty kings and smart scientist gone, now that the Greeks have no money left and cannot afford the oil for their central heaters?

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

1 comment:

  1. Very simplistic but quite to the right direction your post! Of course, you would possibly need the rest of your remaining life to be listing all the achievements and inventions, (material but most of all non-material, spiritual, intellectual, philosophical, political, scientific) stemming from the Greek genius.
    As for the Greeks not being the sole culprits in the crisis, it has to be mentioned how weak and inefficient EU was when filtering all EU or eurozone accession criteria for Greece. They just allowed Greece to access the Euro as parents may allow an obese child to access the chocolate cupboard. You can’t blame the child! Maybe it was all a well-planned scenario to put the European finger in the Greek honey, colonization being an ever-burning flame on your national CVs, like wolves, sharks and vampires crave for blood.
    And let me remind you once more the Greeks’ contribution on the battle field. Thanks to the Greeks… “you have the privilege of free speech not being muffled by a Persian burqa, an Ottoman sultan's phallus or a Nazi' censor.”