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Cities of refuge

The 1951 Geneva Convention on Political Asylum was a typical creation of the Cold War: the system cannot deal with the huge population flows now permanently characteristic of our world. It is not just about humanitarianism, philanthropy or solidarity. The face of the other who suffers lies behind the identity of each and every one […]

Asylum and protection for the persecuted is an old and honorable tradition. Throughout history, temples and cities have been places of protection. The tradition started with the six ‘cities of refuge’ listed in the Priestly and Deuteronomy codes of the Old Testament and with the supplication rituals in Ancient Greece. The Jewish cities were places of refuge for those persecuted for crimes, usually homicide. Priests would question the supplicant and, if the criminal act was not intentional, the city would offer protection from the relatives of the victim who wanted to exercise the age-old law of lex talionis—an eye for an eye.

A similar institution existed in Ancient Greece. Someone who had committed a crime or was persecuted could ask for a-sylum— etymologically protection from harm. The request was made to a temple or city. The supplicant had to perform a certain ritual which placed him under the protection of the Gods, in particular the Ikesios or Hospitable Zeus. Examples of supplication are found in Homer while The Supplicants, Aeschylus masterpiece, describes the ritual and political operation of the institution.

The fifty daughters of King Danaos fleeing the proposed incestuous marriage with the sons of King Aegyptos seek asylum in the city of Argos from its King Pelasgos. The prudent king hesitates initially, fearing that the barbarians might attack the city to abduct the maidens. But if he does not offer protection, he will offend Ikesios Zeus and will bring a curse on the city. The King brings the issue to the assembly of the demos, which votes to grant asylum. The city accepts the Danaids, protects them from evil and, as a result, Zeus blesses Argos.

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