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History Lives On


I never thought traveling with a dead man could be so much fun. Certainly not for the best part of five years mooning about the Mediterranean, North Africa, the Aegean and the Middle East.

True, there were some pragmatic, perhaps selfish, attractions about a journey with Herodotus, the 5th-century-B.C. Greek who is generally considered the Father of History (or Father of Lies, if you prefer Plutarch’s acid put-down). There would never be any arguments, none of the tedious irritations that come from spending too much time on the road with one person. I wouldn’t come to blows with him for pinching the aisle seat on a cramped bus in Greece. His ham-fisted attempts to speak Arabic, or perhaps his linguistic brilliance, couldn’t annoy me. I wouldn’t have to lend him money, he wouldn’t keep the lights on after I wanted to go to sleep and he would never embarrass me in front of a pretty girl.

All that was a given. Yet I didn’t expect to become such good friends with someone who died almost 2,500 years ago. It didn’t seem possible or plausible. The thing is, Herodotus is a tremendously engaging companion, even from beyond the grave. He’s not only a historian. He’s an anthropologist, a foreign correspondent and investigative reporter, an explorer and traveler and the consummate travel writer. Above all, he’s an irrepressible, effervescent storyteller, and who doesn’t like a good story?

“The Histories,” his only book, would have to be my guide. Ostensibly it tells the story of the cataclysmic Persian Wars with the Greeks, the decisive encounter between fledgling East and West, from the early battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. through the adrenaline-charged heroics of King Leonidas’s Spartans at Thermopylae (think Zack Snyder’s violent film “300”) to the tumultuous finale at Plataea in 479 B.C., when the Greeks emerged triumphant. But “The Histories” is much more than that. It is one of the most digressive, wide-ranging books in Western literature.

Traveling through much of the then-known world in a spirit of roving wonder, Herodotus writes about the weird and the wonderful. He tells us of gold-digging ants and dog-headed men, the flying snakes of Arabia and self-immolating cats in Egypt. This is a world in which a dolphin can rescue a shipwrecked musician. Mad about monuments, as we shall see, he notes the architectural heritage of the places he visits, from the temples of Greece to the pyramids of Egypt. He has an eye for sex, too, recording the exotic customs of the Babylonians (husbands and wives fumigate their genitals after lovemaking), examples of necrophilia and bestiality in Egypt, and the predatory promiscuity of the Massagetae tribe of the Caspian Sea region (“If a man wants a woman, all he does is to hang up his quiver in front of her wagon and then enjoy her without misgiving”).

Plenty to go on, in other words. A journey in the spirit and slipstream of the man who invented history. We kick off the Herodotean itinerary, appropriately enough, in his hometown on Turkey’s Aegean coast, the vulgar-chic resort of Bodrum that was the Halicarnassus of old.

Bodrum is a curious place. Somehow it just about manages to play host simultaneously to high-end tourism (expensive frolicking on the water in sleek yachts called gulets) and the bottom end of the market (shaven-headed, beer- and sex-seeking Brits) without inconveniencing either group.

Although nothing survives from Herodotus’s time — a constant refrain for the next five years of our trip — Bodrum still does a nice line in history. It is home to the tumbledown ruins of the Mausoleum, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, a monument so hubristically horizon-dominating in its time that its royal sponsor, King Mausolus, gave his name ever after to this grandest form of funerary architecture. Bodrum also has the splendid, 16th-century Castle of St. Peter, which protrudes into the harbor, a reminder of the old fault line that runs through these waters and divides Muslim East from Christian West in the form of ever-squabbling Turkey and Greece. (My Turkish guide in Bodrum: “Everyone thinks Herodotus was a Greek. He wasn’t.” A Greek in Athens: “He was Greek, of course, but they [the Turks] can never admit that.”) This coastline is riddled with history. The ancient sites of Ephesus, Priene and Miletus are close at hand for those history buffs who quickly tire of the turquoise waters.

From Turkey, we head south to Egypt, the country that most impressed our itinerant Greek. In fact, to say he was impressed is a gross understatement. He was positively wowed by it. In his own (translated) words: “About Egypt I shall have a great deal more to relate because of the number of remarkable things which the country contains, and because of the fact that more monuments which beggar description are to be found there than anywhere else in the world.” He got so carried away by the place that he ended up devoting a whole third of “The Histories” to it: a masterful survey of the country’s history, geography, religion, politics, culture and customs, flora and fauna, architecture, agriculture, burial and sacrificial rituals, diet, mummification and, inevitably because this is Herodotus we’re talking about, sex. Breezy as it was, the store of information he brought back about Egypt was unsurpassed until the 19th century.

When he came to the country’s most magical monuments, the pyramids, he couldn’t resist another tall story. The pharaoh Cheops (or Khufu, as he’s also known) ran out of money during the Great Pyramid’s construction, he reported. To replenish the royal coffers, Cheops sent his daughter to a brothel and put her to work. The unfortunate woman decided to do some business on the side to raise her own pyramid, charging each satisfied customer a 2.5-ton block of limestone. Entertaining nonsense, you might think, but be careful about mentioning the story to Egyptians. They consider it blasphemous.

One afternoon in Cairo, having returned from trips to Memphis and Luxor and a foray into the Western Desert to visit the ancient oasis of Siwa, whose Oracle of Ammon was consulted by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C., my guide and I drive to the pyramids to search for our own tall stories. These days the most improbable tend to have a ring of truth about them. And it is the Egyptian guides, rather than foreign tourists, who tell them with a sense of wonder bordering on disbelief. One of them is about how sun-worshiping New Agers descend on Giza once a year, dressed in white, holding hands in a circle and praying before slipping into the Great Pyramid at midnight (thanks to some baksheesh) to make their pilgrimage through the granite darkness of the Great Gallery to the millennial stillness of the King’s Chamber for a bout of soul-searching and exploration of their consciousness.

Suddenly, as I’m standing there listening, the atmosphere turns poisonous. One moment, the tourist touts have been offering me rides on camels and horses, “rare” (mass-produced) papyri, undiscovered royal tombs, forgotten treasures and prostitutes; the next they are struck with fear and suspicion, which turns suddenly to outright hostility. The sight of my notebook has proved fatal.

“Don’t talk to him,” one of them warns a younger man approaching us. “He’s recording us.” Moments later my guide and I are engulfed in a scrum of glinting-eyed Giza mafiosi. I am a spy, a foreign investigator compiling evidence of guides behaving badly, I’m going to report them to the police, get him out of here. I’m persona non grata at the pyramids. A tourist policeman on a threadbare camel trots over to find out what’s going on. Voices are raised. Some pushing around. A scuffle. My guide is becoming frightened. The men pressing around us in an intimidating circle are making nasty threats. The blood-red sky darkens. It’s time to leave.

The journey with Herodotus must end in his homeland of Greece, which offers a bewildering number of places and possibilities. We don’t know exactly where he went, or lived, or traveled, but he writes so much about this sun-kissed mainland and archipelago that the opportunities are endless.

From the pages of my atlas rise the splintering backbone of the Taygetus mountains in the southern Peloponnese, jaded Sparta, faded Olympia, the fallen columns of Corinth, divine Delphi and dreamlike Athens. To the east, across the tepid Aegean, lie the ancient city of Samos (now called Pythagorio) and the trio of architectural treasures — more precisely, engineering feats — that caught Herodotus’s eye: the Tunnel of Eupalinos, an aqueduct that was dug out of a mountain from both ends simultaneously; the breakwater; and the Temple of Hera, the largest known temple in Herodotus’s time, only one column of which remains.

After a conference in Athens on cross-cultural encounters between ancient Persians and Greeks (insufficiently cross-cultural to include a glass of wine during evening refreshments) and the obligatory pilgrimage to the Parthenon, timeworn symbol of the birth of democracy, I sail off to the whale-shaped island of Samos, as much to investigate its world-famous wine as to see the monuments Herodotus found on it.

“Fill high the bowl with Samian wine!” said the epicurean poet Byron, so I do. Or at least so does Yiannis, my host from the Union of Wine-Making Co-operatives of Samos. It’s a generous glass of vin doux, an entry-level dessert wine to limber up the palate. It glimmers seductively in my glass. And then, whoosh, down it goes. A perfect start to the morning.

“This is the most classical expression of the muscat grape,” Yiannis explains. I am welcomed, after the acclimatizing vin doux, with a brimming tumbler of the grand cru. “You’ll find this less sweet,” says Yiannis. “We send it to the Vatican.” Bright topaz glows before me, then disappears in a warm haze.

Next up is Phyllas, an organic dessert wine, yellow-tinged and without the treacly dreaminess of vin doux. I’m not sure whether this is one of Yiannis’s favorites, though it seems to me he is pouring deliciously, irresponsibly large glasses of the stuff. “Dash down yon cup of Samian wine!” Byron commanded, so I drain another glass.

“Now you must try the Anthemis,” says Yiannis firmly, pouring another tumbler of chestnut blond wine aged in oak barrels for five years. “This is our champion wine.” And so it tastes.

I am ready to leave, but Yiannis won’t hear of it. “You must try our most magnificent sweet wine,” he says grandly. “Nectar.” It is, a powerfully condensed elixir with a dark, raisiny finish. I am feeling fairly finished, too. I stumble out of the tasting room, squinting in a chastening blaze of sunlight, struggling to put a hard morning’s work behind me.

After the teetotal rigors of a month in Egypt (not to mention an alcohol-free year in Iraq, partly on the Herodotus trail to Babylon), a wine-soaked itinerary in Greece is the perfect tonic. Amid the scattered columns and pedestals of Delphi, I discuss Herodotus with Antigoni, an argumentative academic friend, over a bottle of agreeably pine-tinged retsina. There is more retsina over a memorable lunch in the Peloponnese fishing village of Kardmayli with Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, life-enhancing war hero and travel writer without equal.

Later, in the northern port town of Kavala, I stay at the fabulous Imaret, more of a monument than a hotel, an inspired conversion of a 19th-century madrassa (religious school) complex built by Mohammed Ali Pasha, founder of the modern Egyptian state and a Kavala native. My hostess, Anna, mastermind of the renovation, welcomes me with repeated large glasses of fine malt whiskey that shoot to my head like tracer bullets.

Anna is a formidable woman who tells me she once threw out a vastly rich Russian who made repeated complaints about the service and then compounded his errors by opening his door naked, much to the shock, if not the awe, of the chambermaid. He was ejected in ignominy minutes later (a Herodotean tale of hubris leading to nemesis, you could say).

“Ohhh, I looove Herodotus!” she purrs, clinking our crystal glasses. “He’s the world’s first cosmopolitan.”

I am beginning to think I have had my fill of Herodotus for the day, primarily because I have had my fill of whiskey and Virginia tobacco. The elegant bar of the Imaret is swaying before me, in time with Anna’s talismanic diamond earrings and the alternately rising and dipping, dripping cut-glass chandeliers.

I seem to have been surveying this scene through the bottom of a crystal tumbler all evening, but it is quickening now. Curtains billow around the windows like phantoms. The Oriental rugs on the wooden floor are taking on a life of their own, rolling up, up and away, borne off on a magic-carpet zephyr that picks up my floating head and carries it off into the swimming night. My limbs are alternately weightless, skimming across this star-filled sky, and drowsily heavy inside the revolving bar.

The crackling fire is spitting sparks and Anna is talking away a dime to the dozen, but I can’t make out any of it now. She’s spinning away into a spiral of Egypt and Turkey, candlelight and the English poet Cafavy, golden Greece, Orphean mysteries, Alexandria and diamonds, and somewhere out there, lost in this seething maelstrom, Herodotus is telling me it is time to go to bed.

Justin Marozzi is the author of “The Way of Herodotus: Travels With the Man Who Invented History,” published this month by Da Capo Press.