NAME THAT COUNTRY

 

Kavala, in the north of our mystery country, was known as Neopolis 2,000 years ago, when the apostle Paul visited on one of his missionary journeys. It’s often included as a stop on Christian pilgrimage trips following the footsteps of Paul. The city’s position on the Roman Via Egnatia, and its large port on the Aegean Sea, made it an important commercial center in antiquity.

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Go East Young Man! The Via Egnatia to Byzantium

Via Egnatia route map, Wikipedia

Via Egnatia route map, Wikipedia

The Roman Via Enatia was built in the 2nd century BCE running west-east through Roman occupied lands from the Adriatic Sea to Byzantium (which became Constantinople a few centuries later, then Istanbul… https://youtu.be/Wcze7EGorOk). The road begins on the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea at the Albanian town of Durres (ancient Dyrrachium) and heads eastward for about 700 miles through some very rugged terrain, including multiple mountain passes. The modern countries on the route are Albania, the Republic of Macedonia, Greece and European Turkey. All roads lead to Rome, as they say, but the Via Egnatia required a transfer to the Via Appia, which picked up on the other side of the Adriatic and continued to Rome.

the Via Egnatia at Philippi in Greece

the Via Egnatia at Philippi in Greece

The apostle Paul used the Via Egnatia to travel between Philippi and Thessalonica in northern Greece on his 2nd missionary journey. In the waning years of the Roman Empire, travel along the Via Egnatia, or any road in the Roman provinces for that matter, was dangerous and by the 5th century CE, the road was in serious disrepair. With the Byzantine Empire, centered in Constantinople, the road was restored and became an important trade route to western Europe. The Via Egnatia made up one leg of the crusader march from Europe to the Holy Land.

Like many highways through once-Roman territories, the modern Egnatia Odos runs parallel to its ancient namesake from Thessaloniki, Greece to the Turkish border.

 

 

NAME THAT COUNTRY

This theater of Dionysus is tucked into the slopes of the world’s most famous acropolis. Although often overlooked in favor of the famous structures on top of the hill, such as the Parthenon and the Erechtheion, the theater is an impressive remnant of the  influential ancient civilization of this mystery country.

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Redemption & Resurrection

Redemption, resurrection, renewal, promise and freedom are themes of our current season. Over the ages, countless traditions have marked the springtime miracle of life bursting forth from seemingly cold, dead earth.

I’m thinking of three traditions in particular, two of which are probably obvious to those of us in the West, Passover and Easter. This year, the week of Passover overlaps Christian Holy Week, the period between Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday. To add a hint of scandal, I’m also thinking of the ecstatic Dionysian Mysteries of ancient Greece. All three involve breaking free of physical and spiritual bondage of some sort and emerging as a more complete, connected and authentic individual, community member and earthling.

Passover celebrates the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, led by the divinely chosen but less-than-willing Moses. They are reborn as a nation and set on a path by the Lord to the Promised Land. The physical redemption of the Israelites is honored during the 7-day holiday and it is also a time of spiritual redemption. Along with house cleaning of the soul there is house cleaning of the house. The Israelites left Egypt in a hurry and, unable to wait for bread to rise, they took unleavened bread to sustain them on their journey. A big part of Passover tradition is to rid the home of all traces of leavened stuff and anything that might consider leavening if given the opportunity. Cupboards and pantries are cleansed of breads and pastries, pastas and most grains and, for good measure, the whole house is usually given a major spring cleaning.

the Sinai Peninsula, where the Israelites wandered for 40 years after leaving Egypt

the Sinai Peninsula, where the Israelites wandered for 40 years after leaving Egypt

the Sinai Peninsula, where the Israelites wandered for 40 years after leaving Egypt

the Sinai Peninsula, where the Israelites wandered for 40 years after leaving Egypt

the view of the Promised Land from Mt. Nebo Jordan, as seen by the Israelites after wandering in the desert for 40 years

the view of the Promised Land from Mt. Nebo Jordan, as seen by the Israelites after wandering in the desert for 40 years

Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus, a sign of redemption and liberation from death. Through Jesus we are shown that death is not an end but a new beginning, a passage to another life. Easter symbols are all about fertility and new life – eggs, chicks, bunnies, Easter Lilies…

the Upper Room in Jerusalem, where Jesus shared his Last Supper with his disciples before being arrested

the Upper Room in Jerusalem, where Jesus shared his Last Supper with his disciples before being arrested

the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, where Jesus was arrested

the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, where Jesus was arrested

the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows or Way of the Cross), the route walked by Jesus to his crucifixion

the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows or Way of the Cross), the route walked by Jesus to his crucifixion

the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows or Way of the Cross), the route walked by Jesus to his crucifixion

the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows or Way of the Cross), the route walked by Jesus to his crucifixion

the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, where many believe Jesus was buried and resurrected

the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, where many believe Jesus was buried and resurrected

the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, where many believe Jesus was buried and resurrected

the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, where many believe Jesus was buried and resurrected

Dionysian rites were held in the spring across the Greek and Roman world. Dionysus was associated with the season of rebirth because he was a twice-born god. His mortal mother Semele died while pregnant with Dionysus when she insisted that Zeus, the father of her baby, appear before her in his full godliness. Semele was not equipped for such a sight and perished instantly. Zeus provided the fetal Dionysus a substitute womb inside his thigh, from which Dionysus was born again some time later.

There were also strong liberation themes in Dionysian rites, which were characterized by wild abandon. Dionysus was god of the vine and wine was used to break down restrictive social barriers and inhibitions. Celebrants drank and danced into tranced-out frenzy, transcending the mundane world to be spiritually unified with the god. Woohoo!

La Jeunesse de Bacchus by William Bouquereau, 1884

La Jeunesse de Bacchus by William Bouquereau, 1884

4 Daytrips from Athens

Some of Greece’s top sites are close enough to Athens for an easy day trip.
Here are a few:

Delphi, Greece

Delphi, Greece

Delphi is a 2.5 – 3 hour drive northwest of Athens on the slopes of Mt.Parnassus, a really stunning spot. The ancient Greeks believed it to be the center of the world. According to legend, Apollo killed the Python that guarded the Omphalos, or navel of the earth, and thereafter, the site was dedicated to the god. The Delphic Oracle was a priestess known as the Pythia, who channeled the words of Apollo for seekers of wisdom from near and far. Delphi was also known for the Pythian Games, similar to the original Olympic Games.

The extensive remains are mostly from the 6th-century BCE and are scattered on several terraced levels right down the side of the mountain. The small museum holds artifacts found at the site. The modern town of Delphi is right there, with lots of hotels, restaurants and shops. Staying a night instead of doing the roundtrip to Athens in one day is a good option. There are motor coach tours either way.

Lion Gate, Mycenae, Greece

Lions Gate, Mycenae, Greece

Located about 60 miles southwest of Athens on the northeastern Peloponnese, in the region of Argolis, Mycenae was a major center of power in the eastern Mediterranean from about 1600-1100BCE. The Mycenaeans were culturally influential and the period is the source of a lot of Greek legend. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey sprang from this time. In the Iliad, Agamemnon, the legendary king of Mycenae, led the Greek forces in the Trojan War. War sparked when Helen (of Troy) ran off with Paris, prince of Troy. Helen was the wife of Menelaus, King of Sparta and Agamemnon’s brother. It’s a good story, really. Whether any of the bones of the story are factual is debatable but there’s no question that it was inspired by some complex power struggles, think Game of Thrones.
(See my brief retelling of the Iliad here and here.)

Excavations at Mycenae represent different periods, ranging from 17th-century BCE shaft tombs to the 14th– century cyclopean walls (so called because the stones are so large the Cyclops must have built them) and the 13th-century Lions Gate. A fair bit of walking over very uneven ground is required to see the site. Good, sturdy shoes are a must, and a big bottle of water.

Theater of Epidaurus, Greece

Theater of Epidaurus, Greece

About an hour drive from Mycenae is Epidaurus, on the Saronic Gulf. In mythology, Epidaurus was the birthplace of Asclepius, son of Apollo and god of healing. The Asclepion sanctuary there was an active healing center from the 6th-century BCE to the 4th-century CE and then continued as a Christian healing center for another century. The area thrived on the popularity of the sanctuary and the spectacular theater is one indication of that prosperity. The theater seats 15,000 and the acoustics are so perfect that normal voices on the stage can be heard clearly from every seat. The theater is still used for performances today.

Napflion, Greece

Napflion, Greece

The capital of Argolis is the sweet seaside city of Nafplio, widely considered one of the prettiest towns in Greece, which is really saying something. If you’re on a day trip from Athens, at least stop here for lunch and walk around the narrow alleys of the Medieval Old Town. If you’re on a longer tour of the Peloponnese, this is a good place to overnight.

Aegina Island, Greece

The island of Aegina is just 16 miles from Athens in the Saronic Gulf. Ferries travel regularly from Piraeus and take about an hour and 15 minutes.

With ancient ruins, idyllic fishing villages and lots of beaches, the island makes a good day-trip from Athens.

Sites of interest include:

Temple of Aphaia

The 5th century BCE Doric Temple of Aphaia (Afea), a local goddess of fertility, is a beautiful monument in its own right, but it’s especially interesting because it is built on the site of a Mycenean Mother Goddess sanctuary, which dates to at least the 13th century BCE.

Kolona archaeological site

Kolona archaeological site

Near the Aegina harbor, the Kolona archaeological site is easily recognized by its  lone column, all that stands of a Temple of Apollo, which was destroyed by Christians in the 4th century. The site was continuously inhabited for two thousand years from about 3000BCE and sporadically thereafter. There are remains (mostly rubble) of a theater, a stadium, numerous temples, civic buildings, a synagogue, tombs and a port. If you’re an archaeology nerd, you’ll love exploring this place. If not, it may try your patience. The lovely views should satisfy anyone. The Archaeological Museum helps make sense of this very complex site and documents the history of other parts of the island as well.

Paleochora

Paleochora

Paleachora (which means Old Town) was the site of the island’s capital for a thousand years (9th-19th centuries CE). Remains consist mostly of Byzantine churches, 38 of them, to be precise. Scattered across a steep hillside, the churches are connected by footpaths and range in condition from newly restored to quite decayed. Nearby, the very beautiful, 20th century Agios Nektarios church honors a saint who died in 1920 and is a popular pilgrimage site.

Perdika village

Perdika village

Perdika is a sweet fishing village, with cafes and bars facing the small harbor and Moni Island beyond. It’s a popular place for fish lunch. Across from the harbor is the Camera Obscura, built in 2003 for the Light & Image Exhibition. A 360-degree image of the surrounding landscape is projected, upside down, on the inner walls of the cylindrical building though small holes in the walls.

The coast road is dotted with equally quaint villages.

And now a plug for Animal Protection Aegina Agistri, just because. It’s an animal welfare charity and founding member of the Panhellenic Animal Welfare Federation that shelters dogs and cats, vaccinates, neuters and finds homes for hundreds of animals annually. Check out their FB page!

 

NAME THAT COUNTRY

Pyrgi is a medieval village on the island of Chios. It’s often called the Painted Village after the unique geometric designs, xystra, covering many buildings. This type of decoration is found nowhere else in the country. It may be of Italian origin, a cultural remnant of Genoese control of the island from the 14th to 16th centuries. Pyrgi is a fortified village, with narrow lanes and buildings connected to form impassable walls.

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