Our cities are filled by the hubbub of human-made noise. Where shall we find the quietness we need to nurture our spirit?
To walk from south to north on the peripatos, the path encircling the Acropolis of Athens – as I did one golden morning in December last year – takes you past the boisterous crowds swarming the stone seats of the Theatre of Dionysus.
The path then threads just below the partially restored colonnades of the monumental Propylaea, which was thronged that morning with visitors pausing to chat and take photographs before they clambered past that monumental gateway up to the Parthenon.
Proceed further along the curved trail and, like an epiphany, you will find yourself in the wilder north-facing precincts of that ancient outcrop. In the section known as the Long Rocks there are a series of alcoves of varying sizes, named ingloriously by the archaeologists as caves A, B, C and D. In its unanticipated tranquility, this stretch of rock still seems to host the older gods.
I sat below these caves that morning appreciating a respite from the tumult and, for a few minutes, I just listened. The pursuit of quietness, especially in urban areas has become a preoccupation of mine in recent years. However, the quiet I experienced below the caves of Zeus Astrapaios, of Apollo and of Pan was not precisely an encounter with silence, for it was punctuated by many sounds.
A family of cats mewled; the wind gusted playfully across the limestone and the schist, and sent the leaves scuttering along the pavement. A murmur of voices rose up occasionally from the cafes of the Plaka neighbourhood; someone, somewhere, played a melancholy air on the klarino.
All of these sounds were pleasant to my ears. This form of quietness, one that is not precisely silence, is characterised rather by an absence of noise or βοή (voe) in Greek, a word that might also translate as clamour, or din. I call the sort of auditory lull that, at the same time, asserts a benevolent presence, ‘avoesis’ (that is, the absence of voe or noise).
After a short time, I moved farther east along the peripatos and the susurrus of idle chatter picked up once more; a car horn sounded in the distance, and then I discerned the pronounced hum of traffic. A sharp whistle blew from the top of the Acropolis – I assume a visitor had breached a cordon and had placed a profane foot upon a protected antiquity. I had now left the quiet behind; my time with the gods was over.