Pre-dating his more famous peers by at least a century, was Pausanias — the fairly obscure Greek traveller and geographer of 2nd century AD. His most famous work is the Periegesis tes Hellados, or Description of Greece, a guide to important sites and historic places in ancient Greece. The ten volumes of the book are focussed on classical sites in Athens, Sparta, Delphi and Olympus (the site of the Olympic games)…

 

Hazy memories from encounters with history textbooks would have us believe that the earliest form of travel writing came from travellers like the Chinese Buddhist monk Fa-Hien or the medieval Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta.

However, pre-dating his more famous peers by at least a century, was Pausanias — the fairly obscure Greek traveller and geographer of 2nd century AD. His most famous work is the Periegesis tes Hellados, or Description of Greece, a guide to important sites and historic places in ancient Greece. The ten volumes of the book are focussed on classical sites in Athens, Sparta, Delphi and Olympus (the site of the Olympic games) — destinations that would have been high on the radar of most tourists visiting Greece at the time as they continue to be in the present age.

Over the years, the book has served as an invaluable treasure trove for archaeologists — who have used it to reconstruct the street plan of ancient Athens — and tour guides, who continue to use it as their personal guidebook.

Unlike most modern travel writers, Pausanias was more traveller than writer, spending almost two decades of his life on his journeys across the Greek landscape. Little is known of his background except for the fact that he came from a wealthy family with roots in present day Turkey, which explains how he funded his travels. The Description is better defined as a cultural geography of Greece than as a travel guide in the modern sense of the word.

Pausanias was more inclined to describe the cultural and allegorical aspects of a place than to restrict his descriptions to mere geographical facts. He did not dwell much on the flora and fauna of the places he visited, choosing to focus his attentions instead on the cultural and mythological undercurrents shaping the history of each place. The book is full of detailed descriptions of the cultural history of each place, replete with background stories of how a place got its name and what it signified. It is sprinkled with references to other writings associated with each place, along with little vignettes that offer an insight into the stories that intrigued the writer.

The following anecdote may seem like a digression in serious travel literature, but it shows our writer’s emphasis on human stories associated with the places he visited: “Adjoining Cyllene is another mountain, Chelydorea, where Hermes is said to have found a tortoise, taken the shell from the beast, and to have made therefrom a harp”

Perhaps, the reason for Pausanias’ skewed focus on myth and stories lies in the fact that he wrote at a time when Greece was at a crossroads – caught between the unquestionable glory of its past and the grim reality of its (then) present — being ruled by the mighty Roman empire.

So whether modern scholars read Pausanias’ Description as a travelogue or as a commentary on the political status of Greeks at the height of the Roman empire, the work remains an important source for understanding ancient Greek history, and the first example of travel writing.

 

Varun Dhingra

Varun Dhingra

Varun Dhingra is a New Delhi based finance professional and writer.

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