- The Bridge between the Classical and the Balkan
Our age follows on the heels of several centuries’ expansion that landscaped untrodden territory and city-scaped underdeveloped landscapes. Denaturalizing a newly discovered world is not an option, since the world comes to us already downtrodden. We are caught between our remorse for past incursions and our fear of bold reconstruction. Assuming there can be nothing new under the sun, we choose gentle rediscovery. Revisiting unexpected sites where we can reflect on what we know, we revise our most deeply held convictions, restore historical features, and recover a sense of our own place. It is in this spirit of rediscovery that I approach the Bridge of Arta, a site overlooked by those who went to Greece looking for classical ruins. My approach is cautious, circuitous, and pensive. It turns on important questions of our own times: How permanent are the boundaries drawn by our precursors? Are there bridges that span old lines of division?
There is a famous bridge in northwest Greece. It stands southwest of Arta, a provincial town of [End Page 633]
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ancient origins and medieval fame from which the bridge takes its name.1 The Arachthos River runs below, having completed its protective loop around the town’s northwest circumference. To the west stretches a fertile plain of orchards, vineyards, and olive groves, the townspeople’s life-blood. To the south, the river widens and slows as it mixes with the famous waters of the Ambracian Gulf to form a vast, bird-haunted wetland.2 The barrier of the Pindus Mountains, source of the river’s strong current, is visible to the north. Between panoramic town and cultivated fields, where mountains taper off into wetlands and classical ground yields to unfamiliar Balkan terrain, one encounters the illustrious four-arched Bridge of Arta (Figure 1).
The casual passerby will identify this bridge with a certain class of engineering achievement. Here is an elegant, utilitarian construction built to [End Page 634] wed separate banks so as to enable safe passage across fluid waters. Here is a charming point of focus in a lovely, if nondescript, landscape. Unlike bridges of reinforced concrete or steel, or iron (a material the Romans reserved exclusively for war, so banned from use in peaceable building), this beautifully executed arched stone bridge stands in harmony with its surroundings. Eyes trained to appreciate the formal beauty of stone architecture will pause to take in the work of the mindful hands that chiseled and laid weighty boulders according to a master builder’s adept plan. Artists will try to reproduce its graceful crescent shape and the odd asymmetry of its four differently sized arches, signs that this is an Ottoman bridge. And any traveler with a guidebook in hand will inevitably discover its strong presence in folk poetry, where the Bridge of Arta is the source ofthat hair-raising legend about a poor master builder who immured his dear wife in one of the bridge’s piers in order to bind slippery foundations.
There is more to be learned from Greek sources.3 They tell us that the bridge was rebuilt many times and that the dating of its original foundations, perhaps Roman or even pre-Roman, is subject to disagreement among scholars. The precise date of the present edifice is uncertain, too. Tradition says it was built between 1602 and 1606 under Ottoman rule, while other sources add that the bridge soon fell and had to be rebuilt in 1613 or shortly thereafter, perhaps giving rise to folk speculation on how the master builder had secured the foundations.4 Greek sources also describe the bridge’s asymmetry: its arches peak not at the center of the river but nearer to the western shore. To this they attach an important note adding historical weight to the structure’s already rich folk associations...