White Magic
White Magic

by Ralph Adams Cram
1930

White Cities. The phrase is almost meaningless to us, the vision it evokes nebulous and insubstantial, for such things lie outside our ken, unless indeed we venture far past the Pillars of Hercules into the once well-travelled roads of the Adriatic and Ionian and Aegean Seas. We live in grayness and our eyes are nourished (so to speak) on dun coloured towns; the mud-browns and gross gray-greens, faded and sullen, of mill towns, the harsh reds and clay-drabs of industrial plants, the rust of iron and the black of coal smoke.

One writes "If you would visualize Cadiz you must write the word 'white' with a white pencil on blue paper" but the vision still remains aloof and intangible. That swift-rushing line from "Lepanto": "They have dared the white republics up the capes of Italy" flashes a sudden gleam of light across customary shadow; it hardly achieves permanence, but fades on the moment leaving only a wistful wonder as to what these white things may be. Our own industrial cities we know — but what are "white cities" and in what fabulous land do they lift their walls and towers above blue seas and against violet hills?

Nor does the nearer Europe aid us much. Gray and red and brown achieve a certain transfiguration in England where old villages blend in with older groves of great trees and immemorial meadows. France — the old France of lords and peasants — lifts the key a little, and increasingly southward, with Spain and Italy, the possibility becomes more real, with Segovia and Cadiz and Umbrian hill towns in the sun, but always the undertone of gray and brown asserts itself and — Spain apart — leaves only a mitigated whiteness and a wonder as to what the absolute may be.

It is a real wonder and an abiding desire. Why is the white city so evocative in its name and why is "white" in itself so far more than a word and the denomination of a tincture? It is so, beyond question, and even to the walls of the New Jerusalem we attribute the living effulgence of luminous ivory and the pale radiance of mother-of-pearl. Memory or anticipation? Who knows? but the dream and the desire are always there, and if, by the grace of God eyes blurred by the gray clay and the dull mud of familiar housing open suddenly on the radiant vision of apocalyptic white in a setting of blue, violet and gold — given sea, mountains, verdure — heart and soul answer with the thrill of revelation, the caught breath of ultimate fulfillment.

It is in the far eastern Mediterranean that the white cities still linger in isolation and merciful forgetfulness on the part of a world alien in temper and in impulse. Beyond the brave approximations of the Adriatic and the Ionian Sea, you must go to the coasts of Greece and to the islands of the Aegean and the shores of Anatolia. The littoral of North Africa also, to Morocco and Algeria, to Tunis and Tripoli, but this alluring land I do not know. I can tell only of some of the white things seen in cruising over the seas and along the lands where once Minoan ships and Egyptian, Phoenician and Carthaginian, Greek and Roman, Byzantine and Frank and Venetian and Moslem, cut the blue waters and contended with the wild winds in ceaseless and tangled traffic. The sea is unchangeably the same and the fanciful land-masses; snow crowned mountains and violet headlands, opal island-peaks and the lavender walls of strange continents. Tall cities have risen with each successive culture only to fall before ruthless devastation and vanish utterly away save for heaped debris, and the racked platforms and sagging steps of temples and palaces and theatres. Knossos and Mykenae, Troy and Halicarnassus, Alexandria, Antioch, Athens, Nicaea, Thessalonica, Mistra, all have passed and their stones have been used over and over again after strange and alien ways, only to fall at last in final abandonment. Even the multitudinous castles of Franks and Venetians and Genoese and Crusaders, with their churches and palaces, are fast disintegrating, and Cyprus and the Morea show only shattered vestiges of a civilization that held sway for two hundred years.

It may be a lesser culture that survives and for its own housing has built its white cities of the stolen marble of great temples, and of rubble and plaster instead of the moon-white stone of Paros and Pentelicus, but the whiteness lasts and, ever and again renewed by washings of lime, still offers the simulacrum of the gleaming marble of a civilization that would not accept the substitute for the reality.

* * * * *

Sailing south from Piraeus past the silver columns of Sunium on its high cliff — hail and farewell of Athens to its mariners -- and threading a devious way through a city of mauve islands on a rippling plain of lapis lazuli, it was the marble island of Paros that began to weave the white magic of white cities. The goal was not this, nor was it dreamed of. It was only the "Church of an Hundred Gates," known vaguely for its unique archaeological qualities and because of its founding by the Empress Helena. The church itself proved disappointing in a measure, for it had been largely rebuilt after an earthquake in the eighteenth century (earthquakes and fires and bombardments should never have been permitted by a kindly Providence later than the sixteenth century if the circumstances implied attempts at restoration) but as the yacht — a "white city" in itself — steamed slowly into the little harbour of Paroechia compensation, and more, revealed itself, for all along the sea rose a slender but faintly pyramidal town, whiter than the snow crown of Helicon, silhouetted against the Parian peak, and bubbling into little white domes on and around its old Acropolis. Landing in the midst of wind-mills and wine casks, with a vine-hung trattoria in front and a snow-white and domed little chapel to the left, with the great pale dome of the hundred-gated church further away, it was the path to the town that lured, and that fulfilled the promise of the silvery apparition from the sea. White, yes, the whole town, with its narrow and climbing streets, its pavements and curbstones and house steps of white marble, but "white" means so much more than snow. Once inside the town it appeared that the little houses with their outside stairs and their flat roofs, were of all possible hues, rose and mauve and pale ochre and cobalt blue mingling with the vivid white of lime-wash, and with the round white domes rising in every vista. Cleaner than clean, the blue- shadowed, narrow streets were shaded by luxuriant grape vines trained from side to side, translucent gold and emerald under the high sun. Fragments of Parian marble everywhere, spoil of the dismantled Acropolis and its temples, and mingled with them Mediaeval statues set in niches on the arched stairs to upper stories. Strangest of all, a half ruinous castle of the Frankish dominion, built wholly of temple marble: architraves and pilasters laid in level courses, alternating with the drums of Greek and Roman columns set end-wise in the walls in uncouth patterning. On the very crest of the Acropolis a little white- domed church, a part of the walls the lower courses of the cella of the vanished temple, a diminutive Gothic-arched cloister on one side and within the intricately carved iconostas all dull gold around its painted icons.

And the arcaded fore-court of the Church of an Hundred Gates was no less white than tiny Paroechia. Spotless and gleaming, with clear blue shadows under its procession of wide arches, and in the midst flowers and tall bronze cypresses, black against the dazzling church and the sequent arcades.

A white town in the midst of golden vineyards and orchards of orange and pomegranate, with the blue sea below and the blue mountain peak rising behind. The whiteness of a life that may have forgotten Hellas and its Parian symbol of white life, but had not known the drabness and the murk of the culture of coal and iron and all that they imply. Yes, one could live there well in the white lights and the blue shadows and the golden gleams of vine leaves.

In the open sea again, now "wine-dark" under driving winds though the sun is bright. Ahead a lavender silhouette grows slowly, clearer and more definite, Santorin, of old the island of Thera. As we come nearer the blue wall shows a narrow cleft and suddenly to the left one headland blooms into a vision of ivory and white and gold under the low sun. From the very edge of the tumultuous sea the white begins, walls and terraces, and domes like great pearls, mounting irregularly up the steep slope, a full thousand feet, to the very crest where it spreads out into a wide city around the silver of a crowning Mediaeval castle. Maxfield Parrish may have made this picture, but otherwise, so fantastical is it, it has no other reality.

The yacht slips through the purple gates and the dream-city is gone, all too soon. Within there is a quiet inland sea, walled by astounding cliffs eleven hundred feet high, the vast crater of a volcano once, some fifteen hundred years B.C., greater than Aetna. The towering walls are almost vertical, a cross section of volcanic deposits, striated in many layers and every shade of tan, cocoa-brown, ochre and puce. There is a huddle of white and black at the one possible landing place on the edge of the water and zig-zagging upward the thin line of a mule path cut in the face of the cliff, ending at last on the very brim where, amazingly, there spreads a long white city, again with its walls and terraces, domes and towers, luminous, dazzling, like the icing on a giant layer cake, or a heavy fall of immaculate, drifted snow. It is incredible, no less; outside all former experience.

The city itself, the snow crown of the crater cliffs, is not old enough to be good nor new enough to be bad, but it is white, white,with its terraced, flowery gardens creaming over the brink and dripping a little down the sides of the abyss; its narrow and climbing streets in blue shadow, its arcades and belfries, and its dim passages from one level to another. On the crater side the fall is sheer to the blue disc of sea with the low black hump of dead lava and scoriae, the sluggish, intermittent crater of the still extant volcano. On the other side the city ceases as abruptly but here the long escarpment sweeps gently down to the island perimeter, gold-green with vineyards and market gardens and orchards of orange and olive and pomegranate. It is all exceedingly improbable. Why has no one told of this strange thing before? At least one might have been warned, or was it better to have this sudden revelation of a wonder unique in the world?

Shards of white cities along the coasts of Crete and Rhodes and Cyprus, but fragments only. Desolated by modern civilization, both through destruction and reconstruction: Candia, Lindus, Rhodes, Larnaka, Famagusta; then the amphitheatre of Symi with its circling tiers of new white houses, and later the purple mountains of Doris and Ionia, leading on through the maze of islands to incredible Halicarnassus.

Or rather, perhaps, one should say Boudrum, for the city of Mausolus no longer exists, even as scattered stones amongst the olives. It is as though it never had been; not even the fire-warped pavements of Phaestos or the gaunt stylobate of Delphi. Only a green slope of gardens and gray Turkish houses separated by dilapidated stone walls. "Boudrum." The name suggests nothing, raises no anticipations of possible wonder, but as we neared the mountain walls of Anatolia, here rather low and without marked diversity, a line of whiteness along the sea extended itself, lifted in the centre and grew more luminous, and at last, as we cast anchor, revealed itself as an amazement. Another low-lying white city, or rather village, but in the midst, rising sheer from blue water, an enormous Mediaeval castle with high battlemented ramparts, tier above tier, and many tall towers, turreted and crenelated, and all, not silver gray or tawny like the other castles we had seen in the Morea or the Cyclades, but dazzling white as though it were built of the marble of Paros or Pentelicus. And white marble it is, the whole amazing erection, and reared by the Franks from the white and chiselled spoil of the Mausoleum and the palace, the agora and the theatre of vanished Halicarnassus. Quite incredible, this white vision against the lavender hills; a dream castle that might have housed Lohengrin or guarded the Holy Grail. By rights a castle should look its warlike part; it should be steely gray like Ludlow, or black and ominous like Loches, but here in Greek lands under Moslem occupancy stands this Gothic castle white as moonlight and fanciful as a dream.

Until the Great War it stood absolutely intact, as complete an example of Mediaeval military architecture as existed anywhere in the world. During the war every French battleship that passed towards the great and futile tragedy of the Dardanelles, threw a casual shell or two at the towering walls, bursting breeches here and there, splitting turrets from tower angles and piling marble wreckage in the courts on the edge of the sea. Still the keep and most of the towers stand, though with gaping holes here and there, and from the sea the partial ruin seems almost intact, a silvery silhouette unreal, intangible. So should Camelot have seemed, or Joyous Gard or Montsalvat, the dream castle hoarding the Holy Grail.

From such a castle as this to Patmos of the Apocalypse is not so violent a transition after all, as it is no great distance over liquid sapphire amongst purple islands. Castle and monastery, workshop and cathedral and secret bower were all but varied showings of the same thing, a life that had, almost for the first time, fundamental unity. Fighting and worship and labour and love were all good things, each in its time and place. There was no real conflict for all were more frank and natural than now and none was blurred by psychoanalysis, blotted by a Manichaean puritanism or distorted out of all human shape by technological civilization. These things divide and destroy; the old life united and synthesized. Only its white memory remains and we can seek it best in these Aegean seas.

Patmos rises gaunt and barren to its low but dominating peak above a thin, deep, land-locked inlet of harbour. Here as always there is a low whiteness of quiet housings along the sea with a zig-zag of sun-baked road up to the gray fortress-like monastery on the high crest. High walls, sombre and unfriendly, militant rather than ascetic, but once through the gate the radiance of unblemished white is almost blinding when the sun shines down into little cloistered courts and through pointed arches that are apparently willful in their endless multiplication. Here the shadows are almost as blue as the sea but paler and more limpid. White stairways climb up past wandering galleries to flat white roofs where bronze bells hang in white belfries, arch upon arch, against the vivid sky. This is perhaps the whitest thing to be found anywhere, only the black habits of the old broad-bearded monks cutting into the hundred shades of what is in the end only white; but the little church is within all gold and the faded hues of old frescoes, and the brown of carved wood and the flicker of myriads of lamps and chandeliers of brass and crystal. The white light and the gold of the Revelation of St. John still seem to irradiate these courts and cloisters after the passing of nearly two thousand years.

So one goes on from one white thing to another in these Eastern waters, but it is to Athens one comes back in the end for final apotheosis. Not to the new Athens, a rather horrid place, reaching out and clutching the helpless country in every direction in jerry-built suburbs, not unlike the newer Detroit. A wilderness of tan and ochre plaster and streets of tawny dust driven by immoderate winds. A sad place and meaningless, swelling without conscious motive or sense of direction, rather pitiful when it tries to recover touch with its far past and sense of inheritance, through cheap architectural reproductions and plaster replicas of originals in Pentelic marble.

Out of this welter of fading yellow rises always the great rock of the Acropolis. Roman ruins and Greek huddle around its base, and thoughtfully the authorities have preserved some space of trees, here and there for measurable isolation. Busses and automobiles roar around the rock, and gasoline and cinema signs fight for nearer approximations, but at the base of the scarp civilization ceases and culture — or the memory of a culture, begins. Orthodox Christians, Moslems, Franks, Venetians, predatory amateurs and archaeologists have sequently contributed their share of destructive energy, and now restoration comes in to play its part, but still some immortality fights down mortality, and the Acropolis, ruined, desecrated and defiled, still reveals and proclaims something in the life of man that had the whiteness of pure flame, a thing that could not die.

And yet there is no whiteness here as of snow or lime or deep-sea pearls. Rather it is all blue-silver and old ivory and amber from Samarkand. But the word means so much more than pure pallor, it embraces all these warm hues, that, as with the spectrum, together make the white fire of pure white. From the sea the Parthenon shows white against the mauve of Lycabettus and the blue of the Pentelican hills. It is white under the sun and white under the moon, but it is the white of some higher purity that transfigures its material accidents.

Approached as the Acropolis should be under a late sun on a cloudless day, the Propylaea is a towering wonder of clustered, truncated shafts of chiselled ivory glowing with an interior fire that makes these dead stones a living breath. I have never seen this before except once, long ago when, at his jubilee, Pope Leo XIII was borne into St. Peter's in his sedia gestatoria. How should marble of Pentelicus become ivory and how should this ivory grow into still flame? The chryselephantine statue of Athena in all its wonder of chiselled ivory and wrought gold is gone, refashioned perhaps into dice and traders' coins, but something of its soul has drifted down from the violet-crowned height to infuse these stones of the portal with their undying flame.

And through the last of the pale, fluted shafts, opens the bare, blue rock, like a broken pavement of tarnished silver with cobalt caught in the clefts and shadows. On one hand the girlish slenderness of the pearl-white Erechtheion, on the other, high, high as the tallest hills, the Parthenon, supreme achievement of the highest intellect of man. Here also is the texture of old ivory so that the touch lingers and caresses, but the colour is of the honey of Hybla and of the wrought amber of Turkestan. Out of a giant stylobate of blue-silver it rises against purple Hymettus into a blue sky that is infinite depth; less colour than the radiant profundity of interstellar space.

Under the moon all colour is burned away and the Acropolis and all it sustains becomes burnished silver with shadows that are neither black nor violet, but something akin to both. Then Athens vanishes in the dark and becomes only a widespread star cluster, a fallen milky way of gleaming stars; the sky is impenetrable and the moon paints the ghost of Hellas in dark shadows on the pale silver of column, entablature and pavement. But the lasting memory is neither of ivory, nacre or amber, but of white, for it is this that is the indwelling spirit of the Acropolis.

I do not know the secret of this white magic that still lingers in these enclaves and islands and hidden places of the old East that saw the birth of the human world we know. It is more than what the eye sees, more than the joy of something clean and utterly pure. The final appeal is interior, mystical, taking hold, in some sort, of ultimate things. It is criticism and judgment, but it is also illumination. We know little enough of the Beatific Vision, but one thing we can safely assume and that is that it has that perfect whiteness that has its pale simulacrum in the white cities of the Aegean Sea.


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