“Five more hours and it will be a thousand
two hundred, sixty-six years and a day,
since the bridge-way here fell crumbling to the ground.”
Dante, The Inferno
Award-winning Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare’s classic Ura Me Tri Harqe (The Three-Arched Bridge) concerns itself with native legends that have been woven about bridges and their supernatural powers in the Balkans for millennia. In a re-telling of the Legjenda ë Rozafes, a legend set in pre-Ottoman northern Albania but almost substantively identical to the Greek legend of the bridge of Arta, we learn from the monk Gjon narrating Kadare’s novel that an Albanian ruler’s land is in need of a building project, this time a bridge, to link Albania to the rest of the Balkans at a time when Ottomans have already infiltrated the area, in a precursor to invasion. Though this bridge goes up quickly, after each night the piers and arches show signs of damage no hammer or claw could inflict, generating widespread gossip in favour of another “sacrifice for the sake of the thousands and thousands of travellers” who will cross the bridge “down the centuries to come”.
The sense of uncertainty with which Gjon relates the myth-making process, malignantly employed by the shadowy forces constructing the bridge (obscure world powers, hand-in-hand with proto-capitalists), mirrors contemporary fears concerning the future of the region. Kadare dwells on the power of myth, viewing, exploring its creative and destructive capabilities. The bridge itself becomes the greatest myth of all, however. The people of the town are consumed by the possibilities the bridge suggests, but by connecting East and West, it dooms all those living under its shadow.
Local resistance to the bridge is not predicated upon the sacrifice of the stonemason’s wife, which is seen as necessary (as is also the case in the erection of the bridge at Arta epic), but rather, because the ‘shackling’ of the river by way of a bridge is considered an overthrow of the natural order of things and an expression of hubris against the powers of nature, that can only bring about calamity.
Beyond the supernatural, the local populace experience grave disquiet. They are not quite sure as to the intentions of the bridge builders or who is behind
them and so deceptions, self-deceptions and quarrels multiply. Is the bridge meant to breach, or to confine? Is there a real sacrifice involved, or just a crime?
It was to Kadare that my mind turned when learning of the recent tragic collapse of the centuries old single span stone bridge at Plaka, in the Tzoumerka region of Epirus. Spanning the Arachthos River, in the same manner as its most famous multi-spanned counterpart at Arta, it had the widest single span of any stone-made bridge in Greece, and possibly the Balkans.
In a true mirror of the Albanian and Greek legends, the River Arachthos resisted its fettering twice, with the single-arched bridge of Plaka collapsing in both 1860 and 1863, when it actually disintegrated on the day of its inauguration. It took the efforts (and hopefully not the human sacrifice) of master stonemason Kostas Bekas to finally tame the Arachthos, in 1866, whereupon a permanent fetter was thrown across it, one that survived until just the other day.
In keeping with Kadare’s conception in The Three Arched Bridge of the bridge as both breach and jailer, the Plaka bridge marked, between 1881 and 1912, the border between Greece and the Ottoman Empire, which is why, in a short distance from the bridge, there remain traces of an outpost of the Greek army, an inn and a customs building.
While in Kadare’s novel the bridge was constructed as a means of facilitating an Ottoman onslaught through the Balkans, the reverse took place at Plaka, where the bridge withstood heavy bombing by Nazi aircraft during the unspeakably brutal German occupation. At that time, minor damage was repaired with cement. Again, bridging, but confining and separating, it marked the spot where, on 29 February 1944, the Treaty of Plaka for co-operation was signed between the leftist resistance movement of EAM and the rightist resistance movement of EDES. In true Kadarian fashion, the Plaka bridge was not able to bridge the ideological or other differences between the two factions and soon after, EAM chased EDES out of the region.
During heavy rains in 2007, the bridge nearly collapsed, and a restoration was considered but not effected. And thus it came to pass that on 1 February of this year, in the wake of the assumption to power in Greece of a man who hails from the region of Arta, that the shackles binding the river Arachthos were loosed in Plaka, and the entire structure collapsed into the raging waters below.
Already local superstitions and hysterias, buried for generations, are beginning to re-emerge. For some, and in complete contrast to the locals of Kadare’s novel who opposed their bridge, the collapse of the Plaka bridge is a portent of dire things to come. While Kadare’s bridge led to conquest and a form of globalisation, the Plaka bridge, which was used primarily to direct traffic from Tzoumerka to Thessaly, no longer leads anywhere. Are we therefore witnessing the natural order of things in Greece realigning itself to reflect a broader cultural, moral and political malaise? Are the forces of nature reasserting their mastery over the land in order to put right the devastation caused by their incompetent and unworthy stewards, or are they in fact conspiring to convey a potent message to all of the descendants of those invaders and exploiters who were facilitated by Kadare’s sister bridge, centuries before?
Plaka’s single-span bridge, or rather its demise (‘Urë me një hark’, as Kadare would put it), thus comes as a stark sign of the times. In parallel with Kadare’s pre-Islamic Albania, our particular land of the bridge is facing a time of strife and uncertainty. Assailed by those from the outside, confined, insular and dysfunctional within, is the collapse of the bridge therefore a reminder for all to look inward and gather inner strength from the travails of the past and their own resources, rather than rely on those outsiders, possessed of dubious motivations, waiting on the other side of the river? Or is the whole collapse of the bridge an artifice of mummery and illusion, designed to disorient us and make us despair, in the same manner as the demonic Malacoda attempted to mislead Virgil in Dante’s Inferno? We will cross that bridge when we come to it.
Nikos Loulis, the 29-year-old local entrepreneur who has volunteered to bear the expense of reconstructing the bridge at Plaka, should take note: For every wall that is broken down, another, stony and silent, rises in its place. In post-bridge societies, delirium, superstition and madness mostly reign.
The bridge may be the sign of progress, a symbol of humanity’s ingenuity, resilience or of our own history but inevitably, what Kadare teaches us is that the ‘wicked waters’ it spans will, enigmatically, win out, after all.