SEPTEMBER 9, 2015
MUCH WAS WRITTEN, but less was shown in the western media when the lifeless body of Aylan Kurdi washed up on the beach at Bodrum. With a few notable exceptions, newspapers and magazines, print and online media decided not to publish the photo of the three-year-old Syrian boy, arms akimbo and head twisted against the sand.
Though he lived more than two millennia ago, this resort town’s most famous native, Herodotus, would have had much to say about both the events that led to this tragedy, and the way it has been treated in the media.
Born early in the fifth century, when Bodrum was still known by its Greek name of Halicarnassus, Herodotus gave to posterity the history of the Persian Wars — in fact, he gave us, quite simply, the invention of history. Prose, not poetry; facts ascertained, not myths retold; causes and effects studied, not fables and gods invoked: when it came to the past, Herodotus turned away from the bards who sang of the gods and heroes, and towards the thinkers who discoursed on reason and observation.
This is not to say he jettisoned the usual justification for epic poetry to immortalize the great acts of heroes. Herodotus in fact embraced this imperative. In his celebrated opening, he announces: “I, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, am here setting forth my history, that time may not draw the color from what man has brought into being, nor those great and wonderful deeds, manifested by both Greeks and barbarians, fail of their report.” But he also sought to understand what led to this great clash of civilizations, and what lessons it might teach.
In so many respects, Herodotus was the right man for the job. In his day, Halicarnassus was a bustling port, a magnet for Greeks and barbarians drawn to the city for commercial reasons. Sailors and merchants, speaking different languages and sacrificing to different gods, haggled over prices, not principles. The port’s population was a mixture of Ionian and Dorian Greeks, along with non-Greek Carians — the sort of people that Herodotus, like his fellow Greeks, called “barbarians.”
Yet what Herodotus meant by the word is not what we now understand, or Greeks later in the century, understood by it. Barbaros was a descriptive, not pejorative term, identifying an individual not by his lack of culture or civility, but instead by his lack of Greek. When a barbaros spoke, his words sounded like the start of a Beach Boys song: bar-bar-bar. But once translated, the sounds conveyed as much wisdom, or as much nonsense, as did the Greek of philosophers and sophists. Barbarians and Greeks lived side by side in Halicarnassus; the town, for Herodotus, was a school in wonder and tolerance.
In his travels across the Mediterranean world, Herodotus found much to praise among the Egyptians—and, indeed, among the Persians—just as he found much to ridicule among his fellow Greeks. So much so that one later critic, Plutarch, slammed him as a “barbarian lover.” But Plutarch was wrong. What Herodotus loved was the world’s kaleidoscope of peoples and their respective nomoi, or sets of traditions and beliefs; what he scorned was the reflex of superiority and rejection that peoples often reveal, then as now, towards those they don’t understand. No one, he wrote, “but a madman would make a mockery of such things.”
Just as no one but a madman would ignore the evidence of his eyes. Herodotus placed great store in seeing for himself, in personally enquiring — the literal meaning of the Greek word historia — about claims and accounts concerning the past. Whether in his quest deep into southern Egypt for the source of the Nile, or voyage north to Tyre to visit a temple dedicated to Hercules, the intrepid historian—perhaps the world’s first tourist—time and again assures the reader that he verified this or that with his own eyes. “So far it is my eyes, my judgment, and my searching that speak these words to you.”
Outside the town’s museum stands a modern bust of Herodotus; his eyes, lacking pupils, are blank and pointed towards the sea. The artist no doubt had his reasons, but the vacant gaze reflects much more the nature of the West’s response until now than it does that of the Greek historian. Herodotus would not have been blind to what took place on the beach; instead, he would have described what he saw with his own eyes and forced us to judge our response to events which seem as titanic as those in Herodotus’s own day. It is unclear what newspapers were sparing us by not publishing the photo, if not the recognition of the unspeakable nature of the refugee crisis, and the unacceptable response shown by our governments.
Early in his history, Herodotus tells the story of the Egyptian king Psammenitus, who was defeated and enslaved by the Persian king Cambyses. With a cruelty unusual even for him, Cambyses enslaves Psammenitus’s daughter, dressing her in rags, and condemns to death his son, with a rope around his neck, parading both of them in front of the father. Staring fixedly at the ground, Psammenitus neither wept nor groaned. But when the conquered king saw an old friend broken and begging from Cambyses’s soldiers, he burst into tears. Taken aback, Cambyses demanded to know why he cried for this man and not for his own children. Psammenitus replied: “My own grief was too great to cry about, but the sorrow of this friend is worth tears.”
Like Psammenitus, we have grief and tears enough for Aylan. But were we to see —with our own eyes — that child, dead on the beach, would our grief be too great? Would it be so great that we would no longer remain silent or perplexed, no longer abide the paralysis of most governments, both European and North American, to welcome these refugee families? Like the Greek tragedians, Herodotus insisted upon the ineluctable nature of what we call justice, and the Greeks called dike, or balance. Such balance, though, imposes itself not over the course of a month or a year, but over generations and great expanses of time. But we cannot wait for the gods or fate. It is too late for Aylan and the thousands of children who have died beyond the reach of a camera, but not too late for those still alive.