06 February 2010



Christopher Columbus has the distinction of being nearly the only famous person from the 15th-century Mediterranean not known to Cyriaco of Ancona. When Columbus was not pirating or otherwise engaged, he exported mastic  from Chios, and in his first letter to Queen Isabella, he presented the possibility of new sources of mastic as one reason to invest in his explorations.  One line of Columban theology claims that Columbus was a Greek from Chios but this is not relevant here.

Cyriaco also exported mastic. Mastic is (the word is from the same root as masticate) a gum produced by a small shrub, found mostly on Chios, a highly profitable trade in the pre-Colgate era for sale as a tooth cleaner and breath sweetner. In January 1446, Cyriaco rode out with friends in a mule train to see where mastic came from. "I finally saw drops of glittering mastic in large numbers rather nearby on every side among the tearful but joyous trucks and had the pleasure of gathering some in my hand . . .

"For I recalled that I had often seen numberous boxes filled with this highly esteemed gum being loaded on to the great ships in your broad and tranquil port of Chios and I knew that the world was being filled with the scent of this island's gift, this wholesome exhalation, since in the course of the years, through the agency of Genoese and foreign ships, these fragrances are carried, some through the Dardanelles and the Bosporus to Thrace and eastern Europe, others through the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov to the River Don, to comfort the Sarmatians, Scythians, and Hyrcanians beneath their cold sky; or elsewhere through Asia, to allure the Colchians, the Albanians, the Georgians, Cappadocians, and Cilicians, and thence the Persians, Parthians and Arabs and Bactrians and Medes and Babylonians, Others are carried over the immense Ionian and Libyan Seas to Egypt and Syria, thence to be transported to the Ethiopians, Garamantians, and Indians. And we know that others are brought via Illyria to Italy, while still others have been transported across the entire Mediterranean Sea, to Ocean and the western lands, to revivify Cadis, the Gauls, Germans, Spaniards, Britons, Irish and Scotch, and far-off Thule." 

This passage brings irresistibly to mind the letter to Henry Miller, in which Lawrence Durrell described George Katsimbalis at the locked gate of the Acropolis one midnight. He "sent out the most bloodcurdling clarion I have ever heard: Cock-a-doodle-doo . . .' and then, after a pause, 'lo from the distance, silvery-clear in the darkness, a cock drowsily answered -- and then another, then another." The night began to quiver with cockcrows.

In Mani at Cape Matapan, Patrick Leigh Fermor was told that they could sometimes hear cocks crowing from Cythera. "The distance between Cythera and Capate Matapan on the tattered map in my pocket, was somewhere between twenty and thirty miles. This enormously extended the possible ambit of George's initial cockcrow . . . the traffic could be reversed, and leap from the Mani (or better still, Cape Malea) to Cythera, from Cythera to Anticythera, and from Anticythera to the piratical peninsulas of western Crete; only to die out south of the great island in a last lonely crow on the islet of Gavdos, in the Libyan Sea. . . . But a timely west wind could carry it to the eastern capes of Crete, over the Cassos straits, through the islands of the Dodecanese, and thence to the Halicarnassus peninsula and the Taurus mountains. . . . The possibilities became suddenly tremendous and in our mind's ear the ghostly clarion travelled south-west into Egypt, south-east to the Persian Gulf; up the Nile, past the villages fo the stork-like Dinkas, through the great forests, from krall to krall of the Zulus, waking the drowsy Boers of the Transvaal and expiring from a chicken-run on Table Mountain over the Cape of Good Hope.

"North of Athens, all was plain sailing; it would be through the Iron Curtain, over the Great Balkan range and across the Danube within the hour, with nothing to hinder its spread across the Ukraine and Great Russia [[ the sudden hubbub in a hundred collective farms alerting the NKVD and causing a number of arrests on suspicion -- until it reached the reindeer-haunted forests of Lapland, and called across the ice toward Nova Zembla to languish among igloos . . . Thus, as the northern call fell silent among the tongue-tied penguins of the Arctic floes, the westward sweep, after startling the solitary Magyar herdsman with the untimely uproar and alarming the night-capped Normans with thoughts of theft, was culminating in ultimate unanswered challenges from John o'Groats and the Blasket Islands, Finisterre and Cape Trafalgar, and a regimental mascot in Gibraltar was already rousing the Berbers of Tangier . . ."

On New Year's Day of 1445, Cyriaco trumped the cock.  Despite the fact that the crew of his boat had celebrated long and deeply the night before, and were sprawled asleep on their benches, "long before the cock with his wakeful voice called for the warm day, I roused the captain and his crew by singing alleluia."

The mosaic is from Roman Tunisia.
The cockcrows are from Mani, by Patrick Leigh Fermor, pp, 123-124,
The mastic is from Cyriac of Ancona: The Later Travels by Edward Bodnar, pp. 213-215.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I will not publish Anonymous comments.