Sic transit gloria mundi

“When the booty had been gathered together, a tenth of the whole was set apart for the Delphian god, and, from this, was made the golden tripod which stands on the three-headed bronze serpent nearest the altar.” Herodotus

It’s early afternoon and the square is crowded. An insatiable horde of tourists takes possession of Istanbul. After Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, five minutes are now dutifully allocated to immortalize the instant when they walk over the Hippodrome of Constantinople. The impossibly old Egyptian obelisks are the undisputed stars of the relentless ritual but today, the heretic in me prefers the solitude and the shade.

I make a tactical retreat but before leaving the square, I notice the broken column. Avoided by the cloud of tourists and under siege by a sea of cigarette butts and plastic bottles, it casts a simple but dignified silhouette. My curiosity takes over and I read the inscription that identifies it as the Serpent Column (Greek Τρικάρηνος Όφις (trans. Trikarenos Ophis), part of an ancient Greek sacrificial tripod built to commemorate the victory over the Persian Empire at the Battle of Plataea (479 BC).

A once powerful symbol of the (precarious) unity of Hellas against the invader, it stood at a place of honour in Delphi, the heart of the Greek civilization. Although that promise of unification was not to be fulfilled, its symbolic value was not lost to Constantine I the Great who relocated the column to Constantinople in 324 AD. There, at the centre of another great power, the Serpent Column withstood the sands of time for over a thousand years until at the end of the 17th century the serpent heads at its top fell apart. Parts of those heads have been preserved and can be seen at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum.

I suppose it is almost a miracle that I get to see such an ancient artefact even in a fragmentary state. Yet, I cannot help having an ineffable feeling…a mix of respect and admiration but also sadness. Something that meant so much for so many and it’s now neglected. While I drink good Greek wine to the memory of Pausanias and his comrades, this is my humble homage to them and the broken column and if you traveller, happen to visit the second Rome, don’t forget to pay your respects.


The Serpent Column

Categories: History, Politics | Leave a comment

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