Monday, April 27, 2009

Women travellers in the Near East

In an earlier post about temptations I promised to comment on the books I ordered after I have read them. I haven't even started on Flinders Petrie's letters and diaries yet, but Women Travellers in the Near East, edited by Sarah Searight, is a slim volume, which I managed to read on a train to Joensuu and back.

The book is a collection of short articles on several, mainly 19th century British and American women, who travelled in the Near East - or in the Balkans in one case - for various reasons, although the last article concerned archaeologists' wives in the 20th century. The articles concentrate on less-well-known female travellers, most of whom had no "academic interest" in the area where they were traveling. People better acquintanced with British history might find some of these women familiar, but I had never heard of any of them. In that respect it was slightly annoying for me that the articles act as short introductions rather than as actual descriptions of the travels of these ladies. The emphasis of the whole volume is, in fact, not on the travels, but on elucidating how the women described the countries and people they saw on their travels, and how their notions relate to orientalism*.

For anyone interested in the actual travel descriptions, the bibliographies of the articles include the original publications of the travel diaries or letters of these women travellers, as well as references to the other books written about them. So, Women Travellers works very well as a bibliography for further reading or academic work.

*as defined by E. Said in Orientalism (1978)

Monday, April 6, 2009

Family matters

I was offered a chance to go to the Danish dig in Jarash again this year. After some consideration I regretfully declined the offer. The foremost reasons were financial, but there were also family matters to be considered. I was away from home a lot last summer, and I had sort of promised my son already that this summer would be different. I could not break that promise.

Last summer while in Jarash I was reading the biography of Gertrude Bell. She was a well-off and educated British lady who traveled widely in the Near East, especially Levant, in the late 19th and early 20th century. She documented archaeological sites - she also visited Petra - and did services to the British Army during the First World War. In her time, when most women devoted their lives to raising a family, she was most exceptional - and I dare say she would still be. Her life is fascinating. What began to annoy me when reading the biography, however, was the way how the biographer, Georgina Howell, seemed to think that all of Gertrude's achievements were just compensation for the lack of husband and children. That, in fact, the true vocation of every woman ever born is to raise a family, and Gertrude threw herself into her work just to sublimate that need. It made my hackles rise. Surely Bell could have married if she really was desperate to have children - I understand she did not lack charm or suitors. What if she chose otherwise - in those days combining family and her way of life would have been outright impossible.

Trying to have it all is still not without its complications, at least for a woman. The idea of the mother as the primary caretaker sticks fast. When I do go abroad I often face questions about who will look after my son. I remind those who ask that the child has a father, too, and one who is perfectly capable of taking care of him, and try not to feel too bad about people who sagely say that a child should not be separated from his mother for more days than he has years of age. But sometimes I can't help wondering whether I am doing my son some irreparable wrong.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Home sweet home

So the seminar is over, and normal life has quickly reasserted itself as the only reality. I brought home with me a lot of thoughts about time and travel and maybe I'll write something about those one of these days.

I finally got to visit the Acropolis, which was something of a disappointment. Currently it is really just a big construction site. And although I understand and agree that you can't let millions of tourists to mess with the ancient monuments if you want to preserve them, being forced to look at them from a safe distance leaves me cold. It reminded me of my experience of Stonehenge. After trekking across the fields along the Avenue, it came as something of an anticlimax to circle the henge with dozens of tourists. These places leave me depressed rather than impressed.

If you think places like Acropolis or Stonehenge as landscapes, they are landscapes in the most sterile meaning of the word - something to be gazed at from outside. Maybe it has to do with the materiality of experience. You need to physically engage with the monuments to experience them - to walk among the columns, to see and feel the worn stone, to use yourself as the scale to begin to appreciate their immense size and the achievement it was to raise them. I am beginning to wonder if all this restoration and protection - an attempt to somehow keep the sites frozen in time - is really worthwhile. Maybe we should just let them decay and wander about the ruins.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

On strike

Talk about some bad luck: today we had our fieldtrip day in the seminar, and of course the Greek decide to go in a general strike exactly then. Because the people looking after ancient sites and monuments are on the government payroll, the strike meant that they would be closed. Luckily in our first target, the Temple of Artemis in Brauron, the guard apparently had not heard about the strike yet and we got inside, and there is open access to the theatre in Thorikos. But there was a new fence around the silver mining remains in Laurion, and the Temple of Poseidon was closed - as well as the smaller remains of a temple of Athene nearby. There were quite a few disappointed tourists milling around at the last site.

However, despite the weather forecast which warned of a possibility of rain, the day turned out gorgeous, warm and sunny. And there were flowers of every colour everywhere. We had lunch in a taverna in Laurion and I boldly used what little Greek I can speak. Maybe we got special service due to that, since we had our food before other people from our party who had arrived earlier, and also got our bill with less problems. It always pays to learn the magic words in any language.

Tomorrow will be the last day of the seminar. This week has really flown by, and it has been both academically stimulating and socially enjoyable experience. I hope I shall meet some of the people here again in the future!