Category Archives: Oxford

Oxford Geeks and Crafty Greeks

September 2019

Oxford Geeks
The Man and I had to go to Oxford a few weeks back and, naturally, we took a plane. It was a night flight via Addis Ababa and we were lucky enough to be seated in Comfort Class. At the very last minute, a harassed business-type person hurried up the aisle and found his seat just ahead of us. Well didn’t he then stand up and start removing his clothes! The sight nearly left my eyes. As it turns out, he was changing into his jammies (tasteful, black, suitable for an executive). After some skilful Houdini-type stuff, he handed his suit, shirt, and tie to the flight attendant, made his seat into a bed, pulled the blanket over his head, and was snoring in no time. He woke for breakfast, cleaned his teeth and whatever, then changed back into his suit to deplane, as they say, in Heathrow. Way to go, man – you could be an advert for the airline! That was the highlight of the flight.

One wet and misty bus trip later, we were in the Towery City itself. Being early on a Sunday, the streets were quiet while numerous bells told the intervals of the hour and called the faithful to prayer. After the lushness of the vegetation on the shores of Lake Victoria, so much stone looked, well, heavy, and rather dull to our eyes, but the history! And so we oohed and aahed at every corner, and peered into the quads of the colleges at the manicured lawns, trying to imagine them in times gone by. But since we hadn’t had the foresight to change into our jammies on the plane the tiredness got us after a while, and, rather sinfully, we slipped into The Randolf, and the wonderfully-named Morse Bar for a reviver.

During the week we caught up with friends, made new ones, attended some great presentations – my own was good (said The Man) – indulged in a little retail therapy, and drank a few GnTs. But one of the nicest things was having breakfast in the great hall of Christchurch every morning. Munching on toast and marmalade at the high table, surrounded by portraits of the great and good, the not-so-good and the apparently holy, transports you to another age and has you marvelling at the amount of learning that went on since the college was founded – a religious house has stood at the Christchurch site since the eighth century. But it also transports you to Hogwarts and you can pretend you are Professor Minerva McGonagall peering down at her favourite students of Gryffindor. This gives you the idea.

christchurch

And then, all too soon, it was time to go. But it was full of satisfaction that we made our weary way down St Aldate’s to catch the first bus to Heathrow. Still full of sleep and anxiously checking the time every few minutes, The Man asked if I had remembered to take the passports out of the room safe. Whoops, I thought he always did that. So there’s me sprinting up the hill to the porters’ lodge for a new room key, getting the passports, and shifting it all the way back down the hill again. Last time I moved that fast was with an angry German Shepherd behind me on a country road in France. Missed the first bus. But another one was soon on the way, and The Man had built in some wriggle room. He’s like that. Sometimes I laugh; this time I was grateful, if totally winded.

Crafty Greeks
And because we were in Europe, we decided to have a bit of a break on the island of Crete. Rather silly really, going almost halfway back towards Addis given that our return flight to Kampala was from Heathrow. But that being said, what an eye opener! For a start the weather was just like Uganda (a tad warmer at times, but lovey), the room overlooked the old Venetian harbour, and the food was just what the doctor ordered – if you like cheese, salads, olives, and stuffed vine leaves.

A brief wander through the streets saw the Harry Potter and London-themed tourist trinkets of Oxford’s High Street replaced by Athenian owls and pottery, mediterranean herbs, Cretan slippers, Turkish plates and bowls, and all sorts of colourful stuff. But apart from the atmosphere and the scenery, there were two things that made Crete memorable for me – old fogey that I am – the ancient archeological site of Knossos and the Museum of Ancient Greek Technology.

First Knossos. The earliest traceable signs of human settlement at Knossos appears to have been around 7.000 BC according to archeologists. Minoan civilization – so named after the mythical King Minos – was at its height during the second millennium BC, and Knossos was one of four of the great palace-cities of ancient Crete (the others being Mallia, Phaistos, and Zakros). But the palace was not simply the residence of the king: it stood at the centre of the administrative, economic, religious, and cultural activities of the people who may have numbered 100,000 in its heyday. The palace covers an area of 20,000 sq metres around which the city sprawled. The architects were a clever lot and built the palace into the hill with many parts being storied. They also constructed “light wells” to allow for air circulation and a sense of spaciousness.

stories

The rooms of the inner chambers were plastered and painted, and some are magnificent. One room depicts dolphins swimming amid smaller fish, while another (the Throne Room) shows the most wonderful griffins seated majestically amongst lilies.

dolphins

griffin

But can you believe that those Minoans, like the Ephesians, had rainwater drainage, clean water supply, sewerage, baths and indoor loos four thousand years ago? The rest of Europe was still having a yearly bath! One strange thing about the Minoans though: they had tiny waists, even the men. Look at the Priest-King.

king

But what struck me most was the size of the jars used for storage – they were huge, almost the height of me – and they were made with an eye for detail.

big pot

I loved it all, not only because Knossos was a wonderful example of human craft, but also because it evoked the old Greek myths. The daughter of King Minos was Ariadne (she of the Ariandne’s Thread method of solving puzzles) who gave her suitor a thread by which he could find his way out of the labyrinth of Daedalus having killed the Minotaur. They haven’t found a labyrinth there yet, as far as I know.

However striking the place may be (and it is a significant tourist attraction), it has been the focus of much scholarly and archeological debate. One school of thought has it that British archeologist Sir Arthur Evans (who started work there in 1900) reconstructed somewhat enthusiastically, extrapolating from the available evidence to create structures that bear scant resemblance to what they may have been: the making of ancient Crete in a sense! He gave the various parts of the site names based on supposed function: The Schoolroom, the Lapidary’s Workshop, the Royal Road, the Sanctuary Hall, the Corridor of the Draughtboard … and a lot of these places do need a fair degree of imagination to join the dots as it were. The famous “Ladies in Blue” fresco from the East Wing was, in reality, drawn by Swiss artist Émile Gilliéron (he had only a few fragments to go on), and my lovely dolphins (and the griffins) were the work of Dutch architect Piet de Jong! In the end, I suppose Evans and his artists were working “according to their own lights”, but it was rather a disappointment to find out that tiny waists and frolicking dolphins were probably a twentieth-century fiction. You can read more here.

But this great civilization and its palace-city disappeared, like Ephesus, Maya, and so many of the cities and civilizations of the ancient world. Sometime between 1,375 and 1,100 (perhaps due to the after effects of the Thera volcano) Knossos faded from history, leaving behind great piles of crumbling stones for later generations to walk through and make sense of.

And now the best of all: winner of the EU Museum of the Year Award 2019, the Kotsanas Museum of Ancient Greek Technology. This unassuming-looking building on a side street knocked our socks off – The Man even went back for second helpings. The ancient Greeks were famous for a lot more than philosophers and one-armed statues: they were the poster boys for the cutting edge technology of their time. Housed in the Venetian Palazzo d’Ittar (built around 1500 AD), this small, hands-on exhibition has re-built and demonstrates internal screw cutters, pistons and cylinders, hydraulic valves, gears and sprockets, and much more. It all sounds a bit, well, technical, but the demonstration of these uses of steam, fire, water, and air are genius. Take the robot servant of Philon (third century BC). I won’t bore you with the technical details, but when Philon’s party guests wanted a refill, they simply pressed their glass to the robot’s decanter and, voila, the glass was full in no time. Here she is.

wine robot

Philon seems to have been a oenophile because lots of his inventions have to do with the stuff. He had a cup that allowed you to pour wine to a specific level. If you had a shaky hand or were just a bit too greedy, you lost the lot! Another very clever invention was his water/wine jug. Lots of stuff going on inside (basically tubes and air holes) meant you could pour your guest wine, watered wine, or simply water depending on how mean you were or how drunk you thought they were. Love this one!

Fire, the expansion of air, a closed container of water, some weights, and a syphon could create a miracle if you were Heron of Alexandria. Visitors to the temple who offered sacrifice to the gods could see the doors of the temple open automatically as if the gods were pleased with the offering. The Antikythera calculating mechanism was used to calculate very complex astronomical and calendar events via a series of gear wheels and graded circles. And did you know that the vaginal speculum was used in the fourth century BC or that Plato invented an alarm clock? Neither did I.

From automata and cryptography to musical instruments and useable domestic appliances, from gadgets and jet propulsion to cranes and pulleys, this museum richly deserves the 2019 EU Museum of the Year Award. If you can’t make it to Crete, do visit the website and prepare to use up your monthly data allowance. kotsanasmuseum

August 2016 1: Ancient Theological Fraud and Contemporary Theologians in the Towery City

conference

Last month yours truly spent at week in Oxford doing interesting academic stuff. Himself came along for moral support and we loved every bit of it. We attended a workshop about a philosopher / theologian called Dionysius the Areopagite and his commentators throughout the centuries, a guy who perpetrated one of the greatest identity fraud “crimes” (with the widest-ranging theological consequences) of all time. This Dionysius was a sixth-century monk / theologian, most likely from Syria, and in his writings pretended to be a convert of St Paul who had, sometime around the year 50 AD, preached a sermon on the Areopagus in Athens (“Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus ….” Acts 17:34). Why this sixth-century scholar decided to take on a first-century identity has been the subject of much diligent scholarly detective work but we are no nearer to an answer – not surprising given the intervening millennia! But Dionysius, despite his assumed identity, was to prove one of the most significant influences on medieval philosophy and theology. Even today, his work has sparked huge debates among the luminaries of contemporary thought, spearheaded by French philosopher Jacques Derrida.

But on the first day of that conference at Pusey Hall, St Cross College, Syria was often on my mind. The images on our TV screens of Aleppo and other besieged Syrian cities and towns make for harrowing viewing, and provided a seriously stark contrast with the sunny, humid setting of the small, intimate Oxford library in which we were gathered.

dscf1359

Scholars from four continents were present for the workshop, and the discussions were truly participatory. Not surprisingly, there was a sizeable contingent of Orthodox scholars present, including Emeritus Professor Andrew Louth (Durham) who made the opening presentation and a further presentation on the last day. My slot was on day two, and of course I spoke about my Irish friend the ninth-century philosopher / theologian John Scottus Eriugena. Here he is on the old Irish punt note in the days before the euro.

eriugena

I was happy with the presentation, and in the chair, Dr Wayne Hankey from Dalhousie University handled the ensuing discussion with his usual aplomb. I am writing a review of the conference for the journal Sobornost and look forward eagerly to the publication of the proceedings. My friend from the Lesbos conference on Love in May 2015, Dimitrios Pallis, did a great job organizing the workshop, and my sincere thanks go to him for securing the sponsorship that enabled me to attend.

Academic work aside, I hadn’t been in Oxford since Christmas 1995, and while the place in general hadn’t changed that much, the streets most certainly had. Walking up to Cross College in the morning and back in the evening cost me a fortune! These days, the homeless and their (often frighteningly large) canine companions are a prominent feature on benches, in doorways, and anywhere really where they can sit, relax, and get their containers jangling. I simply couldn’t pass the street people with dogs. How did they manage to get enough to eat for two? Where did they get water? What about the doggy worming tablets and rabies vaccinations? How did they get their yearly bath (both humans and canines)? All these and other questions filled my mind as I struggled to gather my thoughts for the scholarly discussions to follow. And so my hand was constantly rooting around in my bag for cash as I asked the names of canines and their humans. In return I received many, many “God bless yous”, and for these I was, and am, most grateful.

To my great excitement we had been allocated accommodation in Christ Church. Wow! Just going through the massive portal that is called Tom Tower is a step back in time. As residents we could enter at any time, unlike the tourists who were were allocated a few hours in late afternoons. To my shame I must admit to a degree of smugness as we were whisked past the crowds waiting to explore this mighty institution. The college is built around a central quod (the original cloister), and as we walked around, I could hear centuries of music echoing in my head way back to the days of John Taverner the director of the first choir. The present-day church has its roots in the twelfth-century, and has the distinction of being both college chapel and cathedral.

quod

Interestingly, the first church on the present site dates back to the time of St Frideswide, founder of a church on the site; he was born around the time Eriugena was dying. In the twelfth century, Augustinian monks built a monastery church there, but this suffered the fate of all monasteries in the time of the Reformation: it was suppressed in 1524 and partially destroyed. But only one year later, the famous Cardinal Wolsey founded the college, and the church became the college chapel. Henry VIII also had a part in its history when he “re-founded” the college and made the church a cathedral in 1546. We spent a good three hours inside the church and emerged with very sore necks!

chirch-ceiling

Other interesting facts about are that Charles I lived at Christ Church between 1642 and 1646, while the brothers Wesley studied and were ordained there in the 1720s.

The more modern connections may be more interesting; my favourite is Lewis Carroll. Charles Dodgeson went up to Oxford in 1851 to study mathematics, and became rather fond of the Liddell sisters, especially Alice, daughters of the then Dean. He told stories about a girl named Alice to the girls who begged him to write them down. And so history was made. Here is the little door that was Carroll’s inspiration.

door

Edward Burne-Jones (who worked closely with William Morris) crafted a wonderful stained-glass window in the church where the representation of St Catherine of Alexandria is actually a portrait of Edith Liddell, Alice’s sister. Alice herself can be seen in a window in the magnificent Great Hall – the whole of which was actually reproduced at the University of Chicago – where parts of Harry Potter were filmed. We had breakfast there every day!

great-hall     hall2

 

 

 

 

My favourite place was the Jabberwocky Tree called after that wonderful nonsense poem of Carroll “Jabberwocky”. This is the actual tree at Christ Church where Carroll got his inspiration.

tree

My favourite (and most weird) fact about Oxford is that there once was “Oxford Time”. Yep, you read that right! Even today, Church services follow Oxford time which is GMT+1+5 minutes! How wonderful is that? We did not get to hear the Cathedral Choir sing because term was out, but if you want to have an idea of their sound just listen to the theme music for the Vicar of Dibley (The Lord is my Shepherd ) and — wait for it — Mr Bean (Ecce homo qui est faba).

All in all, it was a wonderful experience and I want to go back to visit all the nooks and crannies we did not reach. It was with a heavy heart that we jumped back on the bus outside Tom Gate that would take us back to Heathrow and on to the town of my birth. Coming up next: Belfast, Beards, and the Bucket List Trip.