"I have been told that there is an American who has set up a site for people visiting Ithaca; among other special attractions for a visitor, he claims, is that you can pick pieces from the palace of Odysseus and take back to your country."
The ex-mayor of Ithaca Spyros Arsenis is furious about the indifference of the central archaeological authorities in Athens who are viewing the whole quest for finding the ancient Palace of Odysseus as not a worthwhile investment of their limited funds. As we are guided around a large stretch of mountainous land in the north end of this small but fascinating island, we ourselves picked up ancient clay shards scattered around on the surface. I picked up a small part of an ancient jar sticking out of the ground. Many more pieces were lying around. My Turkish friend and colleague Haluk Sahin who had decided this year to make the long journey from Tenedos (Bozcaada) to Ithaca and see this Greek island with his own eyes was looking puzzled. He had a special reason to want to come to Ithaca.
King Odysseus, the canning hero of the Iliad, the owner of the ingenious idea of the Trojan Horse had started his 10-year journey back to his island Ithaca from Tenedos. That journey was the theme of the second masterpiece of ancient Greek literature the "Odyssey."
But this is not a story of the past. Almost 3,000 years after those mythical-historical events, King Odysseus still rules the fame and fortunes of this tiny island of just under one hundred square kilometers and approximately 3,500 inhabitants.
Archaelogy and Hollywood
The quest for the palace of Odysseus extensively described by Homer, where his ever-waiting wife Penelope and his son Telemachos were trying to push away the ruthless suitors to the throne, has been the biggest challenge for every archaeologist since Heinrich Schliemann who visited the island in 1869 and after failing to discover the palace of Odysseus, he sought better fortunes in Troy. Travelers and archaeologists have agonized long about the location of the palace, which would have been a conclusive proof that present day Ithaca is the same as the Homeric one. This crucial identification would have shut the mouths of the contemporary suitors of Homeric heritage like the islands of Lefkada and Kefalonia that have been attempting to usurp the throne of Ithaca.
But Kefalonia has been a recent and formidable claimant thanks to archaeology but also to … Hollywood! A large Mycenaean tomb dating from the 13th century B.C. discovered in late '90s in Kefalonia claimed to be a royal tomb by its archaeologists, indicated that the island was an important center during the times where the whole drama of Iliad and Odyssey was taking place. The change of tide in favor of Kefalonians became even stronger when in 2001 the island was chosen as the set of the exaggerated Hollywood version of the autobiographical book "Captain Corelli's mandolin." Kefalonia became known to everyone for its landscape and started to attract international celebrities, who also brought tourism, development and high prices. It was only a matter of short time before Odysseus was added to the Kefalonian indigenous celebrities. As the highly enterprising Kefalonians who are known for their idiosyncratic character, their intelligence and adventurous spirit as well as their increased feeling of self-importance, would claim the Homeric hero as their own.
Gleam of hope
Since the discovery of the Mycenaean tomb in Kefalonia and since the discovery of Kefalonia by the international jet set, the traditional claimants of the island of Ithaki and consequently of King Odysseus, have been on the losing end. The erratic excavations conducted by professor Symeonoglou in the south of the island after the mid 80s did not produce any conclusive evidence about the existence of a palace. It did produce, however, a lot of hard feelings against the American based Greek professor who is now being sued by the local authorities for causing irreparable damage to known sites by his careless digs.
But all is not lost. A strong gleam of hope, has emerged during the last three years with the excavations that are taking place in the north of the island under the auspices of the University of Ioannina A site of an old church built probably on the very site of an ancient temple, perhaps a Temple of Athena, has produced some surprising finds. Ancient walls, wells, tomb like structures, manmade steps hewn on the rock, gigantic gates leading to ruins where the nicely arranged slabs of a floor have been preserved, show that on the slope of the mountain on the north of the island, on a commanding location overlooking "three seas" " as Homer mentions -- at last the Ithacans may find the palace of their ancient king. They are particularly encouraged by a recent astonishing find: a small, incised piece depicting a man tied on the mast of a boat with various flying creatures and monsters around him!
It is hard to be small threatened by the deadly embrace of a bigger and stronger one. But the Ithacans are obsessed enough, not to allow the Kefalonians to steal their legend. " If the Culture Ministry does not give money, we will find the money, if they do not expropriate the land, we will buy it," says defiantly the ex-mayor after guiding us through the excavation site, which is about to restart. He feels his duty to hand us a locally produced archaeological map, which states on the top, "The Ithaca of today is the Ithaca of Homer!" At any rate, he reminds us, it was on our Ithaca that a piece of clay jar " albeit from A.D. 2 -- was found with a dedication to Odysseus!
I make the journey to Ithaca every year. As an archaeologist I have not still seen the conclusive hard evidence to cast modern Ithaca as the Homeric site. But until science closes the matter, poetry can keep us busy with its feelings. The palace may take long time to find but Ithaca is giving its modern inhabitants the excitement and the energy to keep on exploring. In our modern world of scarce passions, one cannot but admire this and believe in premonitions.