Bringing the historian alive

Bringing the historian alive

Making an itinerary with the help of Herodotus' works

Vijay Tankha
September 09 , 2014
03 Min Read

Travel writers travelling with their favourite authors, pursuing a quarry long departed, move in two dimensions. That no one has tried to do this with Herodotus is not far to seek: he lived so long ago and the world has changed so much, that such an exercise would be scarcely worth the effort.

Justin Marozzi does not attempt anything so futile. Instead, he uses Herodotus’s enormous work as a companion to his own itinerary, stitching together a wonderful pastiche of the near and the far, the remote and the recent. We have here then two books, for the price of one.

Marozzi brings the historian alive and travels with the great traveller. Thus he finds it easier to get information about Egyptian embalming techniques from Herodotus than from the Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in present-day Cairo, whom he is unable to even meet! For Herodotus, as Marozzi shows, is in many ways our contemporary. As Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist notes, “if Plutarch called him the father of lies, he must have been very jealous... the thing I love about Herodotus is that you can take him to the beach.”

Apart from Plutarch there is at least one school of thought that puts a question mark on the issue of a globe-trotting historian. Herodotus, it is claimed, makes up more than he admits (and he admits to only reporting if not making up some of his more fantastic tales: the gold-digging ants of India, dog-headed men, flying snakes and what not). Even his better attested travels in Egypt are under the cloud of dubious verisimilitude, for he has the Egyptians doing everything in reverse (compared to the Greeks) — kneading dough with their feet and sending their wives to the public markets while the men ply the loom. Metaphor more than truth, it is claimed, drives his research. Marozzi acknowledges this glitch in his hero’s writings, but glosses over them. He sees, probably rightly, Herodotus’ frequent focus on the bizarre sexual practices of non-Greek peoples as an author’s playing to the gallery. Sex still sells, and Marozzi reports almost every detail Herodotus mentions, and then some — from the hymen repair industry in contemporary Egypt to the claim that in the oasis of Siwa, where the Oracle of Ammon was located, men will still more likely kill over a boy than over a woman.

The problem with the book, if there is ever a problem with engaging travel writing, is that Marozzi does not really need Herodotus as much as he thinks. But he drags him around with him everywhere, not merely speculating where he might have been but what he might have thought about this, how he might have felt about that. He also quotes him frequently, which adds the right touch of gravitas to his own narrative, but then sometimes spoils it with repetition. After reading for the third time, “In peace sons bury fathers but in war fathers bury their sons,” I prayed, in vain, that it would not appear again.

Although this fault is difficult to overlook, because so annoying, the book is otherwise engagingly written, the author has a great eye for detail and an economy of style that rockets his prose forward: there is just the right mix of reportage and comment, though slanted, somewhat Herodotean in manner, towards the West. There is an attempt to read the conflict between Greece and Persia — the very conflict whose origins take Herodotus to Babylon, Egypt, Scythia, Colchis, Thrace, Dodona and other exotic sites of the then known world — into the present. Many of the places that Marozzi visits, like Baghdad, in 2004, are characterised by what Herodotus would call Western hubris. Live and let live, both authors, liberal in their own way, are saying.

For the antiquarian traveller, interested in the remnants of the past, in the ruins of Babylon or the missing Elgin marbles, and the sorrow of what damage has been done to our heritage by the machines of war, this book will be an invaluable, if sad, testimony. If it gets you to read the Histories, it will have done you a good turn as well.

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