Soma is in the province of Manisa, in ancient times called Magnesia. Drive south for an hour from the mine where so many lost their lives last week and you will come to the province's capital, Manisa City, and the mountains of Spil, ancient Sipylus. It seems horribly appropriate that on Spil you can find the rocky spur formed by Niobe herself, the ancient mother who lost every single one of her grown-up children in a single day. She was turned into rock, her tears forming streams running from the rock face, so she could lament her dead children in perpetuity. “Niobe, all tears” as Shakespeare’s Hamlet calls her.
|"Niobe, all tears" in Manisa (Magnesia)|
There have been mines in north-west Turkey for millennia: its gold and silver were famous under the kings of ancient Lydia, including the plutocrat Croesus, before anyone began extracting coal. Minted coins were invented there. And people have been dying down mines all over the world ever since, simply because they have no other source of income and nobody has taken proper care of their safety.
Even the de Re metallica of Georgius Agricola (a.k.a. Georg Bauer), the foundational Renaissance treatise in promotion of mining (1556—an elegant Latin essay which shows an astonishing grasp of every piece of classical evidence on the industry), conceded that mining was impossibly dangerous: “miners are sometimes killed by the pestilential air which they breathe; sometimes their lungs rot away; sometimes the men perish by being crushed in masses of rock; sometimes, falling from the ladders into the shafts, they break their arms, legs, or necks.”
I happened to spend the week before the Soma catastrophe researching the history of British miners. Every pit’s history contains grim documents showing how miners have always died underground in droves. Deep-shaft miners know that every day they go to work they may never see the sun again. After every shift, when they return home, they feel like dust-encrusted revenants.
The famous authors who evoke the reality of mine labour—Zola in Germinal, D.H. Lawrence in The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd—all had dead miners in their immediate family or circle. Two British miners whose interest in the Greeks and Romans has led me to excavate their personal careers—the Yorkshire painter Gilbert Daykin and a young Thucydides enthusiast in 1920s Northumbria—both died in underground accidents. The tragic story endlessly repeats.
So on Sipylus in Turkey, a little south of Soma mine, Niobe weeps for all the world’s unnecessarily dead sons and daughters (and it is beginning to emerge that women miners as well as men died in Soma). It would be good to think that one day Niobe could stop weeping—that all people on the planet who do dangerous, difficult and dirty work can receive the safety conditions, respect and high pay that they have always deserved. Call me a naive optimist or even a Bolshevik if you like.