Spending a few days on the Greek island of Kos has involved seeing a lot of ruins. The main one was the Asklepieion, a temple dating from the fourth century BC where healing and medicine were practised by Hippocrates among others. There are several of these temples in Greece, named after Asclepius, the god (or demi-god to be precise) of healing dreams, and this is one of the largest ones. People would travel long distances to these temples and after ablutions, fasting and prayer to Asclepius, would spend the night there, hoping for a dream that would indicate a cure for their illness.
Built on three levels with a series of ascending steps and a panoramic view from the top, only a few columns are still standing. Many columns, stone slabs and capitals lie on the ground, broken up into segments and overlooked by sheltering pine trees. The temple, probably destroyed by earthquakes, was not restored after the advent of Christianity, which would hardly have approved of such pagan practices.
Other ruins were of the Ancient Agora, in Kos town centre, close to the harbour. This is a vast excavation area, including a lot more than a marketplace. The oldest parts date from the third century BC and there are the remains of a shrine to Aphrodite and a later Christian basilica dating from the fifth century. Once again, lying on the ground are massive stone pillars broken into pieces and beautifully carved capitals. What is more startling is to come across mosaics, half hidden by the long grass. These are mostly fragments but there is one complete one of a rather pensive looking bird.
What strikes me about these stone ruins is that they don't seem to have aged at all. Perhaps it's the quality of the stone or the dryness of the atmosphere or both, but these stones look as though they could have been thrown there just a few years ago. They're surrounded by long dried grasses and prickly plants that scratch your legs as you walk through them – though some paths have been worn by numerous feet – and colourful wild flowers dotted among the grass. The dense growth of these fearsomely sharp and spiny yellow stalks are nothing like the feathery soft green vegetation that we call grass.
After admiring all these broken and scattered stone remains and braving the scratchy undergrowth, all in hot sunshine, I feel it's time to increase my knowledge in the cool interior of the archaeological museum in Plateia Eleftherias. But when I reach the outer gates of this building there is a handwritten note pinned to them, in Greek and English, saying that it is closed because of a national strike.
As I walk away I notice a small crowd gathering in the square just opposite the museum. A few minutes later a young woman speaks into a microphone and addresses the gathering. Curious as to what is going on, I speak to a grey-haired man who looks to be in his 60s. He explains that the unions have called for a nationwide 24-hour strike to be held because the following day, 18 May, another round of austerity measures is to be signed by the Greek government. These measures involve reducing people's salaries and pensions yet again. (According to an article in that day's Le Monde, this is the 14th round of austerity measures since 2010.) These new measures have to be agreed upon before Greece can be given the next lump sum of international loans.
'More and more pressure is put on the people,' says my kindly informant. 'It gets worse and worse, it's too much.' He gestures with his hand, pushing downwards, to indicate both the origin and effect of this pressure. I ask him if he thinks that things have improved since Tsipras became leader, if he had helped Greece. His smile is melancholy. 'Alexis Tsipras said he would fight for the people, but he signs every paper and agrees to every austerity programme that the EU draws up. Every one.' My informant makes a flourishing gesture with his hand, as if signing something.
I tell him that I had heard that some of Greece's airports have been sold and are now run by Germany. In other words, that Greece's assets are being sold off to help to pay its debts. 'Oh yes,' he says, 'everything is for sale – airports, ports' – he gestures to the sea, just a couple of streets away, and then to the imposing façades of the buildings around the square – 'soon Greece will have nothing left. I think that soon, maybe in a year's time, there will be a revolution.' As he leaves, he wishes me a good holiday.
Not far away, still in the heart of the old town, is a smaller square, Plateia Platanou, named after the massive ancient plane tree at its centre. An imposing building, the former 18th-century mosque of Gazi Hasan Pasha, has a long covered gallery along one side with various small boutiques in its cool interior. Chrysanthe has a stall there, selling ceramics and scented soaps. She is a slim energetic woman, probably in her 50s. As she wraps the plates I've bought, I mention the strike and she nods.
'Yes,' she says, 'people strike and demonstrate and sign petitions, but after that, nothing. Nothing changes.' She tells me she has a house in Athens but spends most of the year here on Kos, running her business. 'Here in the islands it's safe,' she says, 'but in the big cities, Athens, Thessaloniki, things have become dangerous, there's no security, people have lost half their salaries and many are desperate. Some people break windows to take a few things, but the worst are the big robberies, criminal gangs with Kalashnikovs –'
'Kalashnikovs?' I interrupt her, astonished by this.
She nods vigorously.
'Yes, they have guns and Kalashnikovs and they break down doors and take everything. These are big gangs, international gangs, Albanians, Bulgarians, Russians. But here in Greece we have the rise of the Golden Dawn. We never had a Nazi party until just a few years ago, but now it's on the increase. People are focussed on security, everyone buys locks' – she makes a gesture of locking doors – 'but it's no use, they can't protect you. Everyone feels the tension in the air, it's like before the second world war, and I fear blood may have to be spilled before it goes away.'
As I leave she gives me a big smile and wishes me a good holiday. The boutiques and stalls are just a few metres away from the plane tree and there are benches beside a low wall where people can sit, sheltered from the sun. It is said that Hippocrates taught medicine to his students underneath its leafy shade. It radiates peace and serenity.
On 18 May when the new austerity measures were signed by the Greek government, protests in Athens against more cuts in salaries and pensions turned violent. On 22 May at a meeting of the Eurozone finance ministers in Brussels, they failed to agree on a plan for fresh bailout loans promised for Greece, although discussions are ongoing. Some ministers want to give debt relief to Greece. Others, like the Slovakian finance minister, according to the Guardian, 'told reporters that Greece didn't really need debt relief right now.'
I think many people in Greece would disagree with him.
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