Thursday, 29 June 2006

Herculean task of restoring Acropolis

The Parthenon is clad in scaffolding as work continues on restoration of the Acropolis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2006)

Letter from Athens
Patrick Comerford

In the heat of the summer sun in Athens, tourists pick their way across the rocky top of the Acropolis from early morning, crossing mini-rail lines, ducking under overhanging cranes and scaffolding on the Parthenon, and watching in amazement as stonecutters chip away at marble blocks and archaeologists push ahead with their efforts to restore the most important classical landmark in Greece.

According to Greece’s deputy culture minister, Petros Tatoulis, the long drawn out work on restoring the Acropolis should be largely completed by the end of next year. However, the Parthenon will be the last monument to be renovated, and the entire project will not be ready until 2020.

“This is a national effort for which money is no object,” Tatoulis says. Almost €18 million was invested in the project between 2000 and 2004, and a further €14 million is being spent in 2005 and 2006, the vast majority provided by the EU.

Earlier this year, Tatoulis hinted that the government might seek private sponsorship, breaking a taboo that has been in place since the conservation project began 30 years ago.

Tatoulis says work is “progressing at a satisfactory pace”, but so far, the only monument to have been fully conserved and partially restored is the Erechtheion temple, at the northern end of the Acropolis.

Scaffolding on the Parthenon, the Temple of Athena Nike and the Propylaea Gates will come down by the end of next year, but restoration work on the Parthenon may then resume, according to Dr Maria Ioannidou, head of the official organisation overseeing the works, the Conservation of Acropolis Monuments (YSMA).

More than half the marble blocks from the three monuments have been treated and put back in place, but there is still much painstaking work to do. “We are treating each piece as an individual work of art. There has not been systematic support for the Acropolis monuments since the age of Pericles, so any delay is justified. The essence is the quality of the work involved and not the time,” says YSMA president Prof Haralambos Bouras.

Three basic restoration programmes on the monuments are on target and are expected to be completed by the end of this year, according to Prof Bouras. The Parthenon, the Temple of Athena Nike and the Propylaea Gates have suffered from exposure to pollution and from damage caused by failed restoration efforts in the past.

Another view of the Parthenon, which will be the last monument to be renovated on the Acropolis. The entire project will not be ready until 2020 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2006)

However, new challenges continually arise as the restoration work continues. In the YSMA's latest annual report, Dr Bouras points out that the latest delays have been caused by problems on the periphery walls of the Acropolis.

Other problems include inscriptions which remain in the open air, as there are no final plans on where to move them and how to protect them. In addition, work on the Temple of Athena Nike is proving to be time-consuming, with two extra restoration techniques now being called for.

Greek officials say the construction of the long-awaited and much-delayed Acropolis Museum will be completed by next year and that it will open to visitors by the end of 2007. The original plan was to open the new museum in time for the 2004 Athens Olympics.

The museum, in inner suburban Makriyiannis, is just 300m (984ft) south of the rock of the Acropolis. It covers 23,000sq m, and the ministry of culture says the entire project will cost €129 million.

Archaeologists digging at the foundations discovered antiquities dating from the late Neolithic period to the seventh century BC.

A special place in the museum has been reserved for the Parthenon Marbles, which are still on display in the British Museum in London.

Project director Prof Dimitris Pandermalis expects that glass partitions will be placed in the hall built to host the Parthenon Marbles by the end of July, and that the glass enclosure will be finished by August. Some of the heavy sculptures will be moved from the old museum on the Acropolis during the summer months.

Visitors will gradually start gaining access to the halls of the new museum, even while the antiquities are being moved.

The museum consists of four basements, a ground floor, an inclined level on the ground floor which will host the findings from the Acropolis, and a first floor which will host archaic and post-Parthenon collections. The two-storey building will be capped by a glass hall allowing visitors unrivalled views of the Parthenon.

The 14,000sq m exhibition area will contain more than 4,000 works – 10 times the amount on display in the cramped museum on the Acropolis. Most have been kept in storage for decades, and thousands have never been seen before by the public. “We are talking about masterpieces that have never been seen”, including bronze and pottery artefacts found on the slopes of the Acropolis, says one senior project official, Nikos Damalitis.

All the 2,500-year-old Parthenon sculptures in Greek possession will be displayed on a full-sized model of the temple inside the museum, and the Greek government is renewing demands for the return of the Parthenon Marbles, 190 years after they were stripped away by Lord Elgin.

This half-page news feature was first published in The Irish Times on 29 June 2006

Friday, 9 June 2006

Survival of Albania’s ethnic
Greeks a tribute to resilience

Letter from Albania:
Patrick Comerford

In the backstreets of Saranda the street children selling cheap trinkets share only two words in English: “One euro.” But when they are asked their names in Greek, Pos se léne? (What’s your name?"), even they can answer fluently: “Me léne Christos, Me léne Florin.” Greek is commonly spoken in this corner of Albania but 10 years ago, Saranda and the surrounding villages in southern Albania were in danger of being deserted as the ethnic Greeks of Northern Epirus and their ethnic Albanian neighbours tried to cross the border in droves, seeking greater freedom and economic opportunities.

Today, those who fled or migrated are trickling back to Albania. Loretta, a schoolteacher, has seen them go and return. Although she quotes the official estimates that 20 per cent of the people of Saranda are Greek speakers, the response of the street children confirms local estimates that the figures are higher.

The survival of Albania’s ethnic Greek minority, with their language, culture and Orthodox Christianity, is evidence that Albania may be about to reverse its economic fortunes. Remittances home and returning migrants have brought a building boom to Saranda and the neighbouring villages, with new apartment blocks and hotels along the seashore. Mobile phone users are offered a choice of five operators – two Albanian and three Greek – and day trippers from Corfu are one of the primary sources of cash and foreign currency.

The survival of Albania’s ethnic Greeks is testimony to the resilience and fortitude of this minority throughout the Cold War, when Albania cut all ties with the outside world, becoming Europe's most isolated state and, from 1967, the world's only true atheist state.

Yet, throughout those decades, religion survived in the hearts of the people. Today, new churches, cathedrals and mosques are springing up again. The number of Albanians who are Orthodox Christians is now put at 30 per cent, including ethnic Greeks and ethnic Albanians.

The Albanian people claim descent from the original Illyrians, who populated this part of the Balkans in pre-classical times. One of the most important archaeological sites east of the Adriatic is Butrint, south of Saranda. The largely unexcavated site contains Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Venetian remains, with many important early Christian remains, including an early basilica and one of the most complete early baptisteries built between Venice and Constantinople.

Albanians believe Christianity was brought here by the Apostle Paul, who said he had proclaimed the Gospel throughout Illyricum (Romans 15: 19), and the Apostle Andrew. After the great schism that divided Christianity in the 11th century, southern Albania remained within the ambit of Byzantine Orthodoxy for centuries, and Albania's struggle for independence at the beginning of the last century was identified with the Orthodox Church, which was also seeking independence.

Efforts to organise an independent Orthodox Church of Albania began in 1908 with Fan Noli, a priest who later became a bishop and prime minister. The Church of Albania, which received independent status from the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1937, survived efforts by the Italians during the second World War to force a merger with Byzantine-rite Catholics in Calabria and Sicily. Under Enver Hoxha’s regime, complete control was imposed and religious persecution began. Archbishop Christophoros died under house arrest, clergy and lay Christians were exiled, jailed, tortured and murdered, and when Albania was officially proclaimed an atheist state in 1967, hundreds of churches were torn down, many more turned into workshops, factories, warehouses, stables, cinemas or clubs, and monasteries razed or turned into army barracks.

Today, however, the Church is claiming phenomenal growth. Archbishop Anastasios Yannoulatos of Tirana, a former theology professor at the University of Athens, arrived in 1991 to complete desolation: 1,608 churches and monasteries were destroyed and the number of Orthodox clergy had fallen from 440 in the 1940s to 22. He called together the remaining clergy, re-established a general synod, appointed new bishops and says now that the Orthodox Church of Albania is living in “a resurrection atmosphere”.

Hundreds of churches and monasteries have been built, restored or repaired, the Orthodox Theological Academy of the Resurrection has opened at the Monastery of Aghios Blasios near Durres, and there are new children's homes, diocesan and youth centres, guest houses, schools, clinics, a printing press, and icon studios. The church carries out extensive social work through Diakonia Agapes (Service of Love), distributing food, clothing and medicine.

Greek-speaking villages abandoned in the 1990s are being repopulated slowly, and the Greeks who know this corner of Albania as “Northern Epirus” are no longer seeking union with neighbouring Greece.

This feature was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on 9 June 2006

Wednesday, 19 April 2006

Nathan, the forgotten man of 1916

The former Under-Secretary for Ireland became the first president of Hong Kong's Jewish congregation

The bustling, busy side streets off Nathan Road in Hong Kong (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Hong Kong Letter:
Patrick Comerford

Despite the commemorations of the Easter Rising, few, if any, are recalling Sir Matthew Nathan, who had the misfortune to hold the position of under-secretary for Ireland in 1916.

Nathan, who had been under-secretary since 1914, was based in Dublin Castle when the Rising broke out. During his career, he was also governor of Sierra Leone and the Gold Coast (Ghana) in west Africa, and Natal in South Africa. After the Rising, he was secretary to the British ministry of pensions and later governor of Queensland, before retiring to Somerset, where he died in 1932.

Unlike the other leading members of the cast in the drama of 1916, Nathan’s memory is not recalled in the names of city streets or railway stations in Ireland. Instead, his memory lives on in Nathan and Nathan Heights in Brisbane, and in Nathan Road, the main commercial and shopping street in Kowloon, also known as Hong Kong’s “Golden Mile.”

Nathan Street is Kowloon’s main traffic artery and shopping street and a fitting tribute to the man who was governor of Hong Kong from 1903 to 1907. Nathan established a central urban planning and building policy, built major streets and roads in the Kowloon Peninsula, and began building the Kowloon-Canton Railway. It was once possible to travel by train from Kowloon to Europe, but Nathan's station was demolished in 1978 and all that remains today is the Clock Tower, close to the Star ferry terminal.

Nathan Street is a bright, brash, bustling thoroughfare, packed with shops, shoppers, traders and tourists. Beneath the tangle of neon lights and signs that bedeck Nathan Street and the warren of side streets off the “Golden Mile” there are cheap tailors, Cantonese canteens, camera and electronic shops and sleazy karaoke lounges. In between them all is the Kowloon Mosque – and Delaney’s Irish pub.

Nathan is also remembered as the first president of Hong Kong’s Jewish congregation. Archaeological evidence points to a Jewish presence in China as early as the eighth century, when Jewish merchants travelled the Silk Road from Persia and India. Many travellers, including Marco Polo, reported meeting Jews in China. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), a Ming emperor conferred seven surnames on the Jews which still identify their families today: Ai, Lao, Jin, Li, Shi, Zhang and Zhao. Shi and Jin are the equivalent of common Jewish names in the west – Stone and Gold.

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Many travellers,
including Marco Polo,
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Jews in

In the 17th century, Jesuit missionaries were the first Europeans to come across the Jewish community in Kaifeng in eastern Henan province. The Jews of Kaifeng had no contact with European Jews, but the discovery was a greater sensation among European Christians than among Jews. The Jesuits reported that the surviving Kaifeng Jews observed synagogue practices and most Jewish festivals, abstained from pork, circumcised their sons and followed the Mosaic laws like Jews in Europe.

By then, however, the Kaifeng Jews were beginning to lose their unique identity. The process of assimilation was hastened by the death of their last rabbi in 1810, the destruction of their last synagogue by a flooded Yellow River in 1849, the lack of Chinese translations of the Torah and the loss of Hebrew.

It is said the Kaifeng community once displayed a Torah scroll in the public marketplace with a sign offering a reward to any traveller who could interpret its text. As the community withered, a Kaifeng Jew wrote in the mid-19th century: “Morning and night, with tears in our eyes and with offerings of incenses do we implore that our religion may again flourish. We sought everywhere, but could find none who understood the letter of the Great Country [Hebrew] which causes us deep sorrow.”

By 1900, the Jews of Kaifeng had dwindled in number to 50 families of about 250 people. The Jews of Shanghai became interested in their plight and started a Shanghai Society to Rescue the Chinese Jews, begging Kaifeng’s Jews not to sell any more of their scrolls and offering to help them rebuild their synagogue.

But their efforts and pleas were in vain. In another effort to revitalise the Jewish community in 1919, Bishop William White, the Anglican Bishop of Henan who lived in Kaifeng, called a conference to bring them together. A photograph of those who attended shows the women and girls all with bound feet in Chinese fashion. Despite the discussions and social atmosphere, the conference failed.

Within a short time, poverty had forced the last remaining Jews of Kaifeng to sell their synagogue, land and Torah scrolls to Canadian missionaries.

Descendants of the Zhang, Shi and Jin families continue to live in Kaifeng, but they have no religious rituals, although some refuse to eat pork. Yet despite a lack of formal religious practice, these Kaifeng Jews retain a sense of ethnic identity.

Some list their children as “Youtai” (Jewish) on official papers and documents next to the place where they might have written “Han” (Ethnic Chinese).

Hong Kong’s present Jewish community began in the 1800s with the arrival of several families from Baghdad who contributed to Hong Kong’s development. In 1902, Sir Jacob Sassoon dedicated the Ohel Leah Synagogue to his mother’s memory. Another Jewish dynasty developed when the Kadoorie family arrived from Baghdad. Sir Elly Kadoorie’s son, Lord [Lawrence] Kadoorie, bought Torah scrolls found by a Catholic friar on Cat Street. His son, Michael, now owns the Peninsula Hotel, the plushest hotel in Kowloon, at the end of Nathan Road, and serves as a trustee of the Jewish community.

Later waves of Jewish immigration reached China after the 19th century Russian pogroms, and during the first and second World Wars.

As a strategic trade and finance centre, Hong Kong attracted foreigners from the 1960s on, including Jews from the US, Israel, England, Australia and Canada. Today, Hong Kong’s 2,500 Jews are 40 per cent American, and the rest are mainly of European and Australian extraction.

This feature was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on 19 April 2006

Thursday, 19 January 2006

Respect at the heart of inter-faith initiative

A visit to Ireland this week by four key Muslim leaders shows that Muslims and Christians can work together for justice and peace, writes Patrick Comerford

Mount Sinai is a holy mountain for the three great monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is here that all three faiths believe God appeared to Moses in the burning bush and that the prophet Elijah hid in a craggy crevice.

At the foot of Mount Sinai, St Catherine’s is one of the most important monastic foundations in the Orthodox Church, dating back to the earliest days of Christianity.

In 635 AD, the monks of Mount Sinai sent a delegation to the Muslim prophet Muhammad, asking for his protection. A document preserved in the library at St Catherine’s, with his handprint, promises that Muslims would protect the monks and respect the Christian character of the monastery. The mutual respect of Jews, Muslims and Christians for each other in Egypt is reflected in the veneration of the tomb of the prophet Daniel in a mosque in Alexandria, and the uninterrupted presence for the past 10 centuries of a mosque in the heart of the monastic complex on Mount Sinai.

The Christian presence in Egypt traces its roots to the very beginning of the Gospel stories. Christians make up 10 per cent of the Egyptian population and there are more Christians in Egypt today than in all other Middle East countries together. In recent years, the al-Azhar Institute in Cairo and the Anglican diocese of Egypt have been to the forefront in initiating Muslim-Christian dialogue.

Al-Azhar is both a mosque and a university. Dating back to 969 AD, it is one of the oldest universities in the world and the pre-eminent place to study the Koran and Islamic theology and jurisprudence. Its Grand Imam is Egypt's senior Islamic figure and holds one of the world's most respected positions in Sunni Islam. Statements by the faculty of al-Azhar, including fatwas or religious rulings, carry worldwide authority among Sunni Muslims.

On the other hand, the small Anglican church in Egypt is a minority within the Christian minority.

However, according to the Bishop of Egypt, Dr Mouneer Hanna Anis, one of the key goals of his church is “to be a bridging church with other denominations and faiths” – a bridge church between the churches in Egypt and a bridge between Christians and Muslims, facilitating dialogue. One of the most exciting new ventures in inter-faith dialogue has been the series of bilateral talks in Cairo, Alexandria, London and Doha organised by the faculty at al-Azhar and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s staff at Lambeth Palace. Their talks have been wide-ranging, including scripture, justice, violence and the place of women in society.

Four years ago Archbishop George Carey and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Dr Mohamed Sayed Tantawy, signed an agreement acknowledging “our common faith in God” and a “responsibility to witness against indifference to religion on the one hand and religious fanaticism on the other.”

Speaking in al-Azhar recently, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, urged people of faith not to use the name of God to justify violence and injustice and said: “The greatest challenge today for our world is how to react to circumstances in a way that is faithful to God’s will … Once we let go of justice, fairness and respect in our dealings with one another, we have dishonoured God as well as human beings. We may rightly want to defend ourselves and one another – our people, our families, the weak and vulnerable among us. But we are not forced to act in revengeful ways, holding up a mirror to the terrible acts done to us.”

As part of this process of Christian-Muslim dialogue, the Church Mission Society Ireland recently facilitated a visit to Egypt by two Irish bishops – Archbishop John Neill of Dublin and Bishop John McAreavy of Dromore.

This week Christian and Muslim leaders who have been at the heart of inter-faith dialogue in Egypt are paying a return visit to Ireland. Bishop Mouneer is travelling with three key leaders from al-Azhar: Shaykh Dr Ali Gomma Mohamed Abdel Wahab, the Grand Mufti of Egypt and rector of al-Azhar University, and Shaykh Fawzy el-Zefzaf and Dr Ali El Samman, president and vice-president of al-Azhar’s Permanent Committee for Dialogue with Monotheistic Religions.

During their visit, they will meet President McAleese, Archbishop Eames of Armagh, Archbishop Neill of Dublin, and Christian and Muslim communities in Dublin and Northern Ireland.

On Saturday they will speak at a public forum in the chapel of Trinity College Dublin, and on Sunday, Bishop Mouneer will preach in Christ Church cathedral and at the “Discovery” service in St George’s and St Thomas’s.

For the large Muslim community in Ireland, the visit is an opportunity to show that Muslims and Christians can respect each other’s core beliefs and values and work together for justice and peace. For Christians, the visit is an opportunity to show that dialogue is at the heart of the church's mission.

Rev Patrick Comerford is southern regional co-ordinator of the Church Mission Society Ireland.

This feature was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on Thursday, 19 January 2006