My big fat Greek odyssey, Part III: Drama in Pella

As fabulous as the Times Journeys’ “The Legacy of Alexander the Great” was thus far, I still wasn’t feeling Alexander. Athens had never been a home to him, even after he  sent the city 300 Persian shields – a brutal souvenir of the victorious opening gambit in his quest to conquer the Persian Empire, the Battle of the Granicus. Plutarch – and tour leader David Ratzan – tell us that Alexander signed the tribute “Alexander, son of Philip and all the Greeks except the Spartans,” the Spartans rarely taking part in anything the other city-states, especially archrival Athens, did.

You get the sense that perhaps Alexander was doing a bit of kissing up to the Athenians, who saw him, Philip and the rest of the Macedonians as rough-hewn arrivistes. (It’s the reason that Oliver Stone cleverly had the Greeks speak with British accents in his movie “Alexander” and the Macedonians speak with Irish ones, the idea being that the Greeks looked down at the Macedonians just as the British have looked down on the Irish.) You also sensed in Athens in the Acropolis Museum’s Alexander that the Greeks were, as David put it, trying to classicize – and, thus, control – Philip’s yearning son. In any event, Athens and Alexander were never an easy relationship.

Even in Thessaloniki – the center of Greece’s Macedonian region, named for one of Alexander’s younger half-sisters – Alexander vied with glorious Byzantine churches for pride of place. But in Pella – his birthplace, the capital of his kingdom – there at last I encountered him at the Archaeological Museum.

This museum has as brilliant an introductory gallery as any I’ve ever seen in more than 35 years of covering culture. Picture if you will a wall lined with photographic reproductions of artworks in all media from the ancient world to the modern one – all Alexanders. Sculpted, metal, medieval, Warhol, you name it. This wall, which captured his profound influence over art history, led us to a head of Alexander as a tender youth that is very familiar to me. I have a reproduction of it, which serves as a welcoming figure in my home, and I had just seen the original in “The Greeks” show at the National Geographic Museum. Similarly, the sensuous nude “Alexander as Pan” was a copy, the original also being on loan to Washington D.C.

I know. The irony of going all the way to Greece to see copies of works I had already seen back home. Still, copies or no, I was seeing the works amid a place where Alexander was the favorite son, as the accompanying text demonstrated. It was filled with romantic notions of Alexander as world unifier instead of mere world conqueror – ideas that had been advanced by Victorian historians, among others. Not only were these ideas untrue, David said, but Alexander wasn’t even beautiful, as some sources have suggested. This came as a skeptical disappointment to many of the ladies on the tour, including Cat, Pat, Roberta, Sheila, Penny and, of course, moi – particularly as Nigel Spivey points out in his book “How Art Made the World” that Alexander was the first ruler to use his face and form to consolidate his authority. (According to the ancient sources, he would allow only the painter Apelles, the sculptor Lysippos and the gem carver Pyrgoteles to craft his image.)

If this was true, than we were seeing a somewhat idealized image of what he looked like but still what he looked like. Given these  surviving Roman copies of the Greek originals, he was a dish. But David’s remarks and the ladies’ reactions underscored something that has been driven home this election year:  You will never persuade people to believe what they do not want to. And if they hold an idea dear, they will never be dissuaded from it.

The museum in Pella was not just handsome Alexanders. There were fabulous floor mosaics, including one of Dionysus that was almost feminine in its curvy depiction of the wine god. (I found him on a shopping bag at the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki and snatched him up, he was so stunning.) A lion hunt mosaic, with bubbly stones, was equally impressive. The museum wound its way to a top floor children’s area, where budding artists had drawn their own versions of museum treasures. But as the group made its way there, I took a break in an indoor courtyard off the main floor. Sometimes, you have to take a moment by yourself just to be. It’s a moment I will have forever.

Of course, sometimes you have to stay with the pack. After a snack in the café, I got into a conversation with a docent about why the gift shop was not in the museum but instead all the way out in a field next to the archaeological site of the palace’s remains – which we were to visit after the museum.

She rolled her eyes. I was speaking to the Greek chorus. This was the way the minister of culture wanted it, she told me pointedly. I got the message. And far be it from me or any American to tell other countries how to market their culture. Still, when the unemployment rate is 25 percent, I think you move the gift shop front and center, no?

Anyway, as my friend Mary said, apparently someone spent too much time obsessing over the gift shop, because as I left the museum my bus was pulling away – without me.

“No,” I screamed waving, running as fast as my chubby little legs would carry me (not very, as in a dream). A couple of village matrons in black recognized my plight and began running and gesturing at the bus. With this, a village patriarch pulled up in his car. “Get in,” he commanded. I got in. “They’re going to the archaeological site,” I said, breathless. He careened around a corner. “Close the door,” he said. I slammed the car door shut just in time to be delivered to the bus.

No one seemed to think it very odd that I was left behind, and I didn’t make a big deal of it but I made sure that I visited the gift shop – I had to get the artisans working across the way to open it – and then went promptly back to the bus. I was taking no chances from thereon in.

Lunch amid the mountainous, cabin-like setting of The Four Seasons restaurant in Naoussa gave me a chance to collect myself – and wonder why I had never liked mountains. These were misty, dreamy, verdant – at once touching the sky and rolling to the sea. Greece has made me a fan.

Our next stop was the neighboring Garden of Mieza, where the philosopher Aristotle taught Alexander and his Companions, the sons of Macedonian nobility, the flower of his culture. (How cagey was Philip. As long as he held their sons as a captive audience, the nobles had no choice but to acquiesce to his wishes.)

The  Cultural Center of Aristotle’s School was one of those marvelous contemporary spaces – the new wing of the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass. is another – that lets the landscape in. It had stunning blue juniper bushes – fat and teardrop-shaped. In the gift shop, I found a plaque with a familiar image of Alexander – one of my favorites – from coinage depicting him as the son of the god Zeus Ammon, complete with ram’s horns as a kind of diadem. (See also the Book of Daniel, which prefigures Alexander in the prophecy of a horned conqueror who would sweep West to East.)

At Aristotle’s School a sympathetic lecturer spun more Alexandrian myths. Then we walked a few hundred feet to the actual garden. Those expecting something like The New York Botanical Garden will be disappointed. A brook, rocks, a leaf-strewn path:  It’s an unassuming spot, but to me, it was magical for there at last I felt Alexander’s presence, and as I watched David talk to the other tour members, I had a sense of Aristotle instructing his young charges on a late summer day.

In one of his lectures, David credited Aristotle in part for Alexander’s abilities as a multitasking military CEO. But David dismissed my notions of himself as a kind of latter-day Aristotle.

Still, in that moment, he was like Aristotle; and the tour group, the Companions; while I photographed and observed them – a part of and yet apart.