Azure beauty of the Aegean islands
Nigel McGilchrist talks about how his passion for Greece led him to spend seven years writing travel guides for the Greek Islands that he believes have been overlooked
The Aegean Islands are far more than just beaches and bars, according to Nigel McGilchrist. "Mykonos is a wonderful island for a holiday but one shouldn't be blind to the fact there's so much history and it tends to be forgotten," he says. It's for this reason the art historian and author has just released a 20-part series of guidebooks on the islands of the Aegean, McGilchrist's Greek Islands, following seven years of full-time travel, research and writing.
The series, which has been selected as 'Books of the Year' by Bettany Hughes and by The Economist, covers seventy islands, includes 120 maps and plans and is 3400 pages in length. McGilchrist was originally commissioned to write the books for the Blue Guides but after finding more material than expected, his extensive manuscript was later dramatically cut down by the publishers. "I think the result left out lots of important material so I decided to go ahead and do it myself," McGilchrist says. What's interesting is it's paid off. "This is a guide that doesn't have big colour pictures and all that; it's very detailed it talks about everything and people seem to want it. One thinks people only want sound bite guides but in fact it seems from the sales there's a constituency of people there that like the full story." The UK expat had previously contributed to the Blue Guides' Italian travel books by writing on Sicilian gastronomy, however, it was his passion for Greece that made him suggest writing about the islands.
"They've never really been done properly. There are a lot of small guides to the islands, written by locals, and then big guides to Greece that cover the islands a little bit but nothing had really been done that focused on the islands as a whole." McGilchrist, who was born in Scotland, educated in England at Oxford University, and now lives in Italy, has always had a passion for the Mediterranean. "When I was 17 years-old I went there for the first time and I just made up my mind then. I thought, 'I never want to go back and live in cloudy skies in England, I want to be in the Mediterranean with its intoxicating combination of ancient history and antiquity and beauty and lovely weather," he says. As a university teacher McGilchrist, for ten years, took American university students on semesters abroad to Greece where they studied ancient art history and archaeology on the islands.
"When you're teaching intelligent young people you learn not only about the subject you're teaching but you learn how to put it across to people and how to help them understand the wider picture and it was in doing that I thought I wanted to write about it as well," he says. Travel to the Greek islands has increased dramatically over the years, McGilchrist believes. "The islands give us something nowadays that nowhere else in the world can give. Where else can you get this combination of dramatic natural beauty, real historical importance and tranquillity? It's a great gift," he says. Athens is a marvellous and brilliant city but it also has all the problems of a big city; being crowded and plagued with traffic, McGilchrist points out. "Obviously Athens is a base for everybody who's looking at the ancient Greek world; Athens is terribly important but people are focused so much on Athens they've forgotten the islands were actually really more important before Athens came to its moment of glory," he says.
When classical studies began in the 19th century Athens was a place people could get to; it's only very recently the islands have become easily accessible, McGilchrist says. "Study is concentrated far too much on big centres: Athens, Corinth, the mainland, and we've forgotten these places like Samos, Rhodes and Kos, which were terribly important in their time and in the case of Samos bigger, and wealthier and more important than Athens in the 7th century BC," he says. "I want to regress the balance a bit and explain why the islands are important."
To begin with, geography is really important, McGilchrist says. "The Greeks are naturally proud of their big contribution to civilisation, and I think the island and sea nature of Greek culture is what clinched it really," he says. "Greece is not much of a mainland, the land is not important, it wasn't fertile, it wasn't productive but the commerce that went on between those centres and the islands, and then in the Black sea and with Egypt, made it the hinge civilisation of history." The sea is also an important factor, as McGilchrist emphasises in his books.
"The fact that they're islands is really important because people who live on tiny islands like that can't cultivate food in the way they could in Egypt and Mesopotamia: the great civilisations before." He points out how on the Aegean islands people had to "get into boats and trade commodities in order to survive and buy or obtain food." Growing food on those islands is difficult, "they're too rugged, too rocky, there's not enough water, so it forced people to communicate, travel, to think about the world scientifically," McGilchrist says. "So much of what we really value in western civilisation comes from the fact that those little islands organised themselves as little political units.
They had to communicate with one another and had to deal with trade; the birth of commerce and capitalism is all there in those islands, not in Egypt and Mesopotamia, which are terribly important earlier civilisations. Our identity comes from the Greek islands." McGilchrist is currently in Greece launching his books. He underscores that it's a challenge due to the unhappy situation in Greece, but adds that it's important and needed studies to "focus attention" on it. People think 'it must be a mess let's not go to Greece this year' but it's really important people go because it needs it and Greece is so important to us all".
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