By Ayaz Amir
Machiavelli held an official position in the Florentine Republic, secretary to the second chancery, from 1498 to 1512. That year the Medici returned to power and Machiavelli was suddenly ousted from office. He went to live on his farm.
He would rise early and go and see how the woodcutters were getting on with their work. He would wander off to read his favourite authors. Fondly, and perhaps wistfully, he would recall his love affairs. To the local inn he would repair to pass his time playing dice, talking to passersby on the way. Then when evening came…but here it is best to quote him in his own words, this in a letter to a friend:
“…I return home and enter my study; on the threshold I take off my workday clothes, covered with mud and dirt, and put on the garments of court and palace. Now clothed appropriately, I step inside the venerable courts of the ancients, where, graciously received by them, I nourish myself on that food that alone is mine….I have jotted down what I have profited from in their conversation and composed a short study…” The short study would be one of the most influential books of history, The Prince. It’s a moving image, walking the fields by day and conversing with the ghosts of the ancients by night.
I find similarly moving something completely different. At the battle of Leipzig, 1813, which Napoleon lost – this was after his retreat from Moscow – one of the sharpest engagements between the French and the Russians was for the village of Gossa. Leontii Korennoi was a grenadier in the Third Battalion of the Finland Guards, a decorated soldier. Here he surpassed himself. Officers of his regiment, along with the commanding officer, were cut off by a French attack. First with a handful of other men, then all by himself, Korennoi held off the French while the officers escaped. Korennoi was taken prisoner.
Now the point of this recital: “To their great honour, the French…presented him to Napoleon himself, who praised his courage and ensured that he was well looked after. By the end of the battle he was back with his regiment”….which implies that the French let him go. Korennoi’s bust occupied pride of place in the barracks of the Finland Guards until 1917. (This account is from Dominic Lieven’s excellent ‘Russia against Napoleon’.) Just imagine, amidst the clamour of a great battle, an enemy soldier is brought before Napoleon and the emperor praises his courage.
Heroism can take many forms. Pharaohs as we know were buried with their treasure for their journey in the after-life. But no tomb was ever found intact, grave robbers entering the tombs and carrying off the riches. In 1922, however, something singular and spectacular occurred: the discovery of the untouched tomb of Tutankhamun.
Howard Carter came to Egypt to work at the ancient tomb sites when he was 17. He worked under various archaeologists and came to be known for improving the methods of copying tomb decoration. In 1899 he was appointed first chief inspector of the Egyptian Antiquities Service. Receiving funding from this service he was able to carry out his own excavation projects and during this period discovered the tombs of Thutmose 1 and Thutmose 111, both tombs robbed of their treasures long ago.
He left the service and hard times followed. In 1907 he was hired by Lord Carnarvon to head his Egyptian excavations in the Valley of the Kings. Carter dug and excavated for 15 years, without success. The First World War intervened and work had to be stopped. It was resumed at war’s end.
Carnarvon had spent a fortune financing his expedition and was exhausted. He told Carter it was the end. Carter pleaded for just one more year. When Carnarvon demurred Carter said he would finance the expedition from his own pocket, going on to say that if, however, a discovery was made it would belong to Carnarvon, as per their long-standing agreement.
Carnarvon was a lord, owner of an estate of 36,000 acres. As recounted in ‘Howard Carter: and the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun’ by H V F Winstone (a book I bought in Cairo in Sep 1994), this “…touched Carnarvon’s sporting instinct and led him to change his mind.”
Carter told some friends in London that he was tired of living alone in Egypt and sought a companion. They thought he was referring to a wife. They came to know later he was talking of a singing canary which he took with him to Egypt. Hearing the canary sing, his Egyptian workmen told him it would bring him luck.
Carter began work again on November 1, 1922. Two days later the men while digging came upon a row of workmen’s huts dating back to 1200 BC. To quote Winstone, “When he (Carter) arrived at the site that Saturday morning there was an uncommon air of silence. (He) felt instinctively that something out of the ordinary had happened. A foreman announced that a step cut in rock had been discovered underneath the first of the huts they had demolished…that limestone step was to prove the most redolent chance discovery in the entire history of archaeology.”
Alerted by telegram, Carnarvon hastened from England. On November 22, after a great deal of digging and clearing away off rubble in the intervening period, they stood before a door. A hole was made. “Can you see anything?” asked Carnarvon. Carter’s famous answer: “Yes, wonderful things.”
I have been to the museum in Athens and seen the Mask of Agamemnon which Schliemann, the discoverer of Troy, discovered when he came upon the Mycenaean tombs cut into the rock of the acropolis (although, as historians were to calculate later, the tombs predated the Trojan War and therefore it could not have been the Mask of Agamemnon). I have seen the Parthenon. I have been to the British Museum. But nowhere else do you get a sense of the vastness of time as in the Cairo Museum. Akhenaten, Ramesses, Tutankhamum…as the words ring in your ears you find it hard to believe that you are standing before the objects of that distant past.
The statues and mummies of the pharaohs inspire awe. But Carter’s great discovery leaves you wide-eyed: figures of strange beasts, life-size statues of sentinels in black with sandals of gold, chairs embroidered in gold, the sarcophagus of solid gold and then finally the mask of Tutankhamun, a work of astonishing art.
Carter achieved glory not just by chance. Imagine the years of hard work, the daunting labour, but through it all not losing hope. What other name for this except heroism?
And Schliemann the romantic, in love with ancient Greece from his early years, with an uncommon knack for making money and an uncommon gift for languages…reading Homer in the original Greek, making his fortune by the time he was 36, advertising for a wife in Athens (he had divorced his first Russian wife) and finding his beloved Sophia, with whom he had two sons, Andromache and Agamemnon Schliemann. It was with reluctance that he had them baptised, completing the ceremony in his own manner by placing a copy of the Iliad on their heads and reciting, as I learn from Wikipedia, a hundred hexameters of Homer.
Never assailed by over-modesty, treasure that he found among the ruins of Troy he dubbed ‘Priam’s treasure’ – Priam the father of the doomed Hector – and a stunning necklace which was part of the collection he said was the very necklace which Helen wore. This priceless treasure he smuggled out of Turkey and gifted to the Berlin Museum. It fell into Russian hands when Berlin fell to the Red Army at the end of the Second World War. The Russians kept saying that the treasure was lost. After the collapse of the Soviet empire, the Russians finally admitted they had it when word came out that it was kept secretly in the basement of the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.—The News