Imagine Alexander the Great rising from his grave on his terrible steed, Bucephalus, and the two of them galloping off, clattering over the wine-dark sea, hopping from Patmos to Kos, tilos to Halki, and in one gigantic leap from there onto the bluffs of Rhodes.
The Great One tugs on the reins, he wipes the dust from his eyes. He must be seeing things because there, looming over Faliraki, glowing red in the Rhodian sunset, belittling the island itself, is a stunning, gargantuan replica of himself.
Bucephalus paws the dust; the great warlord scratches his head. He is a little man, a homunculus really next to the enormous bronze Alexander, whose outstretched arm, should it topple off, would sink the whole town like a Kraken belched from hell.
Alexander climbs to the top of Alexander, and shimmies back down. On the first floor of the pedestal is a museum with busts of many poets he has never heard of. Below that is an aquarium filled with bizarre fish. He stops to check a map. All of his land has gone to a mysterious tribe called the Turks; in India they are speaking a foreign language. He sighs, jumps back on Bucephalus and trots off, back to this tomb, shaking his head.
There is one man who has been having this dream for the past fifteen years, but in his version the spirit of Alexander, and not the man, will rise from the grave to announce the tremendous gift of Hellenism to the world, a gift of peace. Alexander’s face, the face of the new Colossus of Rhodes, will be there too, towering 100 feet above his boots.
The budget to complete the statue, £40 million, he says, is already there. The investors, bigwigs from all over the world, are clamouring for the new Colossus. If only the mayor of Rhodes, a devious Greek who can’t understand what this means for Hellenism, would give the order, the Colossus, his Colossus, the Sun of Justice, would rise again to shine benevolently down on all the nations of mankind.
Nikos Kotziamanis is no stranger to giant statues. Most of his life has been spent erecting colossi. There is one at the Macheras Monastery, a massive statue of Gregory Afxentiou (the eagle squatting at his back is the size of a limousine), another in Messolonghi, a ten-foot Byron, moustachioed and turbaned. His busts are, according to his own literature, mostly ‘twice life-size’.
But Kotziamanis’ most famous sculpture, because his most contentious, is his homage to Archbishop Makarios III, His Beatitude, which stands over thirty feet high from the hems of its robes to its soot-caked mitre, in front of the Archbishopric in Nicosia.
It is a grim-looking statue, almost unnerving. Stuffed behind a gate that barely reaches his shins, too big for the space allotted, but diminished by the ironwork, His Beatitude seems to have sprouted from the earth fully robed, a golem or a mountainous, scorched chess piece, and just frozen there. And he is black, so black that he could have been fashioned from a lump of coal and not the actual bronze he was forged out of 20 years ago.
But it is only fair to see Makarios as the sculptor saw him in 1987, the year of the statue’s completion, standing ‘with enormous dignity almost as if he is about to stride forward once more in his flowing robes, nodding and smiling at his people.’ Which would explain why Kotziamanis might be peeved at the news that His Beatitude may one day soon be striding to Troodos on the back of a lorry, perhaps still nodding with enormous dignity, but smiling at nothing but the goats and wild basil of Kykkos.
The decision to remove the mini-colossus was announced by the new Archbishop, Chrysostomos II, a few weeks ago. It smacks of insurgence. Can a non-Beatitude even have a Beatitude removed like that? Besides, Kotziamanis just built one for Havana, another giant Makarios. If the Cubans have one, what will the world say if the Nicosians don’t want one?
These are the questions that may have been going through the sculptor’s mind. I don’t know because he wouldn’t talk to me about what was on his mind when we met at the Hilton in Nicosia last week. Not yet at least. He was playing his cards, he said. I hoped he had a good hand.
As we sat sipping our beers, the conversation kept returning to the Colossus, the one in Rhodes, the one he would build if it was the last thing he did.
When I had first heard of this new Colossus I thought it was ludicrous. The longer I talked to Kotziamanis the more ludicrous I thought it was, but Kotziamanis is a charming man and a passionate artist, and though his sculptures are more like what they are carting off their pedestals in Tirana and Bucharest, his zeal for lost causes and national struggles is contagious. At a point, I found myself swept up in the madness of it all and asking out loud, “What’s the matter with the Rhodians? Why are they stopping us?”
Kotziamanis nodded urgently.
“Always something is stopping us, but we don’t know why. We have politicians, academics, Noble Prize winners . . . Soares, the president of Portugal, Mandela. Even Clinton showed an interest in it. And yet . . .”
“Forty million. We have it, and the most famous architects, engineers, everything. I even asked the Rhodian people. I said, ‘Tell me that you don’t want it.’ But no, they don’t, so historically they cannot be the ones that said no.”
The Rhodians again.
“A lot of people came to me,” Kotziamanis went on. “They said, ‘Do it, Nikos, do it for Hellenism, for the world.’ For example, one of my greatest supporters is Matoosh.”
“An expert on Italian and Greek bronzes. She wrote a really superb letter to the Greek government and they didn’t even bother to respond. The pedestal is going to be four stories high with auditoriums, exhibition halls. You can walk around, go in an aquarium. The Japanese figured out how to do that.”
“In the aquarium.”
“No, not in the aquarium. Around the aquarium. You can look in the aquarium. Can you imagine what would happen if you asked the little kids what they know about the Seven Wonders of the World? They will say the Colossus of Rhodes. We have the pyramids, yes, but the first one they will say is the Colossus of Rhodes.”
Kotziamanis paused for a moment, as if he had baffled even himself with the implications of such a Colossus. “Really, can you imagine what this would mean for Hellenism?” he said. “For Greece? And what do you think they said to Matoosh?”
“They didn’t even reply.”
Just then a waiter walked by. He’d been passing by our table regularly for the past hour or so, and every time he passed, he must have heard one of us saying, “The Colossus!” or “The Rhodians!” and shaking our heads in disgust.
“Why something so colossal?” I asked finally. The question, the most obvious one, seemed, after all we had been through, unbearably dim-witted. Kotziamanis shrugged.
“Why do they want to recreate the pharaohs of Alexandria? It’s what it symbolizes. If you see my brochure, the studies . . .” He stopped to look at me, scanning my face for some quality, some colossus-sympathy.
“It is a light on the world,” he said eventually. “It is giving, in a sort of compassionate way, the flame of the Greek civilization to the world. We’re thinking of putting all the geniuses inside, whether American, English, Russian, whatever. That Colossus is projecting civilization, what is good, all the knowledge, everything. If a student wants to see something, with a push of a button it will give him everything.”
“Everything. Did you know that most politicians are classicists? In Germany, France, even in England. Clinton was a classicist.”
“I’m not a chauvinist,” Kotziamanis said a moment later.
“Have you seen Clarke’s Civilization on the BBC? He’s talking about all the world civilizations. There was the Egyptian, he says, the Assyrian, the Persian, the Chinese, all of them, and suddenly here they came, the Greeks. Just imagine it. That’s what I mean. I can’t see myself as being a nationalist.”
We finished our beers. Kotziamanis still wouldn’t talk about Makarios. I pestered him. The most I got out of the sculptor was that it would be a hell of a project to get His Beatitude out of the ground with all that concrete stuffed into his robes. He wasn’t sure how they would do it, if they had even thought about it.
The original Colossus of Rhodes collapsed in 224 BC, when the island was struck by an earthquake. It had been cobbled together from the flotsam of an invading army – siege engines, ships, armour – that had tried twice and failed twice to capture the island 56 years earlier. After the statue fell, it lay there for centuries, until the Arabs attacked in 654, when, according to contemporary reports, it was whittled down to fit on the backs of 900 camels that were loaded onto boats, and then vanished into the Central Asian steppes.
The more I thought about it, our much maligned effigy of Makarios was really only a pet, a bibelot compared to the mighty new Colossus of Rhodes, and not much of an eyesore at all. I tried to imagine it four times its current size, balanced on a Japanese aquarium and three floors of world geniuses, using the Turkish flag on Pentadactylos for a bathmat. The enormous dignity of the thing amazed me. If Chrysostomos didn’t want it, maybe we could get Hugo Chavez to put up the money. If not Chavez, then Soares.
The waiter picked up my glass. I was sitting alone. This was a shock.
“The Colossus!” I said.
This article originally appeared in the Cyprus Mail on April 22, 2007.