In 1911, 11 years prior to the Asia Minor Catastrophe, Alexandrine poet Constantine Cavafy penned the hauntingly beautiful poem «Ιωνικόν» or Ionian. At that time, it would have impossible to conceive that Smyrna, the major city of Ionia and indeed the whole region, would be denuded of its Greek inhabitants and closed to Hellenism little more than a decade later, yet as a student of history, especially that of Hellenism on the margins, Cavafy appreciated loss as a historical discourse more than most.

In its current form, Ionikon stands as a revised version of an earlier poem, presciently entitled Remembrance, or Memory. This version links topos with metaphysics, commencing with the poet informing the reader that the immortals do not die, rather it is the faith of mortals which perish. In Ionikon, this premise will be refined and rendered with subtlety, rendering itself relevant to a myriad of contexts:

Because we smashed their images – / Because we cast them from their temples – / It does not mean the gods no longer live. / O land of Ionia, they love you still;

You enliven their souls still; / And when an August morn dawns upon you / Your atmosphere turns vibrant with the vigour of their lives; / And sometimes an aetheric, youthful form, / Indefinite, in moving swiftly by, / Will pass above the summits of your hills.

Ostensibly Cavafy is writing about an age of transition and liminality – the conversion of the ancient world to Christianity. On the face of it, he posits an argument of futility: that the efforts of mortals, constrained by but also effaced by the passage of time are irrelevant. They are transient and subject to evolution, juxtaposed against the monolithic immortality of gods with unchanging attributes. Thus the gods transcend the fickleness of human faith. Their existence is not depended upon their human charges and their endeavours endure on a plane and time scale incomprehensible to and out of the reach of mere mortals.

Underlying the poem, like so many others, is an all-pervasive sense of sadness at the transience of time and the loss that this entails. The narrator thus makes valiant efforts to negate or minimise the extent of the violence or offence committed against the gods. Accordingly, the narrator maintains that the smashing of the statues, (and the ancient Greek world for statue, ἄγαλμα literally meant something that brought joy to the gods – thus their destruction creates in them the exact opposite of this emotion), the very gods’ eviction from the temples in which they are worshipped, is not in any way inimical to their existence. Notwithstanding the efforts of the iconoclasts and the fundamentalists, the gods endure still, albeit as a hint, a gesture or a spirit passing by. We can no longer see them, but they have not moved on. Instead, they literally haunt the landscape.

The irony in the narrator’s claim is apparent from the outset. Of what relevance in the gods’ continued existence, of what benefit is their continued haunting of the landscape, of what use is their continued love of Ionia to those who have rejected them and cast them out of their lives? The people of Ionia have moved on. They have espoused other beliefs and practices in which the old gods play no part. They no longer have any need or use for the old gods, even as they inhabit the rubble of their demise. It is irrelevant to them whether the gods still love the land of Ionia, and the indefinite hints of their continued presence, now in the spirit realm, which the poet labels “etheric” are of no interest. Out of sight, out of mind.

File image of Aleandrian born poet Constantine P Cavafy (1863-1933).

There is a chthonic element to the poem that should not be overlooked. It is poem very much tied to place, to the soil of Ionia. It is a land littered by statues broken by those who originally made them. Significantly, we learn that it is the land itself of Ionia, not the worship of mortals) that gives the souls of the gods life, allowing the gods in turn to render Ionia’s atmosphere vibrant with that life force, in a type of life cycle that begins and ends in the earth of Ionia itself. Viewed from this perspective, both the existence of the gods and mortals is peripheral to the poem. Instead, Ionia is everything.

Within a decade, a new group of exiles would join the ghostly gods of Ionia. These are the descendants of those who evicted the gods in the first place. No longer do they exist in fair Ionia and the current inhabitants of the land, those who smashed their homes, their statues, their edifices and their very bodies have also rejected them. This contemporary iteration of iconoclasts also lives among the detritus of the lives of those they have destroyed but displays no compunction, no empathy for the loss of life or dislocation they have occasioned. Like the iconoclasts before them, after their removal, the fate of those who came before is completely irrelevant to them.

Like the gods, the Greeks of Ionia did not die as an entity. Instead, they relocated to an ethereal realm, that of memory, so that they still may continue to be nourished by remembrances of their ancestral land. There may no longer be place for them in the land of Ionia, now part of modern Turkey, but Ionia continues to define their collective consciousnesses and their ethno-cultural identities. While the modern inhabitants of the region may consider their existence peripheral or incomprehensible in relation to the locales in which they reside, the exiles and descendants of exiles seek, among the broken statues, the ruined temples, the crumbling amphitheatres and the collapsed houses, the fundamentals that will enliven their own souls and just as the gods, they love Ionia still.

It would perhaps, be stretching credulity to post that Cavafy’s poem serves as a prediction of what was to follow. Rather, as a student of history, Cavafy was able to identify, analyse and ruminate over common trends in the history of a region so steeped in antiquity, that its memories operate as a palimpsest, effacing those that have come before, in order to write their own, all the while eerily following in their footsteps. It is perhaps for this reason that Cavafy refrains from mentioning the gods by name. While we may be led to think that he is referring to the Olympian gods, he may just as plausibly be referring to the gods of the Arzawans, the Lydians, the Carians, the Luwians, the Hittites or those of long-vanished races of whom we know nothing, but who still inhabit the spirit realm, nourished by a vengeful, narcissistic land that engenders them, only to exile them, only to keep them alive in worship of her, and refusing them release into oblivion. This taxidermy of loss, this dissection of historical amnesia, is an inescapably authentic component of the human condition.

When in Ephesus, or Sardis, or one of the innumerable other archaeological sites of Ionia that attest to our sojourn in the region, it is easy, among the shadows cast by tourists among the columns, to think that they eye has caught an aetheric, youthful form, indefinite, moving swiftly by.

Meanwhile in the small church of Panayia in the town now known as Urla, and in the church of St Fotini in the city now known as Izmir, clerics, resplendent in the brocade of their vestments, spread their antimension on the altar and begin to pray, the cadences of their litanies drowned out by the sound of the muezzin’s call to prayer from the minarets constructed where the old cathedral of Saint Photini once stood. Perhaps there is something to be said about old gods who linger after all…