28 May 2010

To Athens and the National Archaeological Museum

17 May, 2010

I flew from Chios to Athens in the morning and I reached my hotel in the early afternoon.  The Hotel Aristoteles is a budget hotel in Omonia, one of the roughest parts of the city centre.  A Police bus with about 15-20 police officers deployed in riot gear used to be parked at nights at the bottom of our street!  (Apparently this was normal and not just because I was there.)

But I was very happy with the hotel itself.  The rooms and sheets were clean, the beds were comfortable, there was plenty of hot water and an adequate breakfast included in the relatively very cheap price.  I had booked in for just one night, as I was due to go on a four-day guided tour the next morning.  Then I was planning to come back to Athens.  I was happy enough with the hotel to book to return for three nights after my guided tour.

Once I had settled in I checked out the opening hours of the various museums that I had noted to visit, so that I could go to one that I had time to see (some close at 3pm).  I was fortunate that the National Archaeological Museum was very close to my hotel and closed at 7pm.  So I headed off to see that.

This museum is very large and houses some of the most important ancient sculpture, pottery, jewellery and other artefacts of Greece (with some also from Egypt).  I started with sculptures and some outstanding vases of the archaic (6th century BC) and classical (5th-4th century BC) periods.  I took lots of photos – which you are generally allowed to do in Greek museums (as long as you don’t use a flash).  Here are just a few of the works that stood out for me.

The first is a grave stele from the mid-6th century. I loved the sense of vital presence this relief sculpture has.

Another favourite was the famous bronze statue of Zeus (or possibly Poseidon). See how beautifully the sculpture is balanced, with the weight at the back supported only on the ball of the foot. This sculpture is dated to around 460BC, and is in the Classical style which typically shows more movement in the body than does the archaic style.

A few of the most beautiful pottery pieces were displayed with the statues, such as the following red-figure stamnos ascribed to the painter Polygnotus, and dated around the period 430-420BC.

I then went on to a series of rooms so full of beautiful painted vases and other pottery that it was almost too much to focus on.

In another room were items from Knossos in Crete and Akrotiri in Thera (the island that is also known as Santorini), dating from around 1700-1400BC.  I loved the solidity and decoration of this storage jar from Knossos, and also the simplicity and delicate beauty of the reed decoration on the next vase.

There were also beautiful frescos from palaces in Akrotiri, such as this antelope fresco:

Finally, the highlight was the display of artefacts from Mycenaea.  The poems of Homer (the Iliad and the Odyssey) were thought by most people in the 19th century to be merely legends of the past.  But others, including Heinrich Schliemann, a wealthy German businessman and self-taught archaeologist, were convinced that Homer was telling his stories with a good deal of historical accuracy.  So, as you will have noted from my post of 7-8 May, Schliemann excavated the ‘tell’ of Troy in 1871, looking particularly for ‘Priam’s Treasure’.  After this, in 1876,he excavated the site of Mycenae, which Homer calls ‘rich in gold’.  Homer tells of five royal graves at Mycenae, and they were particularly what Schliemann was wanting to excavate on this site.  Because Homer only mentioned five graves, Schliemann missed a sixth grave, which was excavated later. Unlike the Troy excavation, at Mycenae Schliemann passed on all his finds to the government, and the National Archaeological Museum was built primarily to house these finds.

The following pictures give you an idea of the scale of what he found, although they show only about a quarter of all the golden items from Mycenae displayed at the museum.

The most famous artefact was a golden ‘death mask’ (an imprint of the face of someone who has died). Schliemann named this ‘the mask of Agamemnon’, who was the king of Mycenae and leader of the Greek forces at Troy, although there is no evidence that the mask was made for Agamemnon himself.

There were some examples of Linear B tablets (the earliest form of written Greek, dating back to around 1200BC, when Mycenae was destroyed in a fire). The tablets would normally have been used and reused, but this fire baked hard the clay of the tablets, which were then left buried under dirt and rubble until they were unearthed).  The Linear B writing was only deciphered, and proven to be an early form of Greek, in 1953.  Unfortunately, the linear B tablets only consist of short lists and legal documents.

This tablet is a list of soldiers, their chiefs and stations, for the defence of the Mycenaean city of Pylos.  We know that the Mycenaean cities were being attacked in the thirteenth century BC, but we don’t know by whom.  The cities were overrun around 1200BC.

And finally, a piece of Mycenaean pottery caught my fancy, with its lovely and somehow light-hearted painting of an octopus.

I left the museum stunned by the sheer volume of amazing pieces of ancient and classical art that I had seen.

24 May 2010

In Chios

14 May, 2010

When I did my Masters degree in Ancient Greek around 30 years ago, I wrote a short thesis on the history of Chios during the Peloponnesian War (5th century BC) as one of my papers. So I couldn’t come to this part of the world without visiting the island, to gain, first-hand, a sense of its past and its present. There weren’t a huge number of tourist sights for me to see but that was okay. I was mainly wanting to get a feel for the place.

I started the day by arranging to hire a car tomorrow to tour the southern part of the island. Then I visited the Chios archaeological museum. It was interesting to read about the archaeological sites on the island, and to see the variety of artefacts they had in this local museum (no photos allowed).

In the afternoon I got on a local bus that was heading out to some local villages. The villages weren’t highly picturesque, but I was going to see some more ‘touristy’ places the following day. It was simply interesting to see what the local area was like. Here is a picture of the village of Dafnonas, taken from a nearby village, Ziphias.

As I went back to Chios Rooms I took a photo of the building from the harbour front a little way away (the window of my room is on the upper floor of the building, fourth from the left).

The next day I hired a car early in the morning and set off to tour the southern part of the island of Chios.  My first destination was a World Heritage site, the Nea Moni monastery that was built in the 11th century. Nea Moni is in the central mountain range between the western and eastern side of Chios (Chios Town is in the southeast). As I climbed up into the mountains I could see the Turkish coast not far away.

The proximity of the island of Chios to Asia Minor and Turkey has had a pronounced effect on its history. While conditions under the rule of the Ottoman Turks were not always bad in Chios, in 1822 there was an uprising against Ottoman rule in the Greek mainland, and a similar uprising was initiated in the islands off the Turkish coast. The Turkish response was brutal. An estimated 70,000 Chians were either killed or sold into slavery in that year. Over 100,000 others fled. According to the sign at Nea Moni, before the massacres of that year, Chios had a population of 180,000 people. After them there were only 1,800 people left on the island.

A memorial to a particular episode of this year is kept in a chapel just inside the gate at Nea Moni. On Good Friday of 1822, 600 monks and 3,500 women and children seeking refuge were all slaughtered at Nea Moni. The skulls of some of those who were killed is kept in a glass cabinet inside this chapel. It is a very sobering sight.  (Photos of the gory details available on request.  Here is a picture of the gate and the little chapel where the bones were stored.)

Nea Moni is most famous for its 11th century mosaics, undertaken by craftsmen from Constantinople. While the mosaics were severely damaged in an earthquake in 1885, many are still in a sufficient state of repair to be memorable.

The monastery is now home to a small number of nuns. Sunday serviced are held, and I was hoping to come back with Don Rodger (the manager of Chios Rooms) and his family to worship the following day. As I left, the church was being decorated for a baptism.

I went over the mountain range and caught sight of Avgonyma, a village on the eastern side. Avgonyma means “a clutch of eggs”, which is not a bad description of what the village looks like, sitting on the mountain side above the sea.

Further down the mountain I turned right to the village of Anabatos.  In 1822, 300 people jumped off the  cliff here to avoid being massacred by the Turks.

Anabatos is now pretty much a ghost town, with only a few permanent residents. It was an overcast and gloomy day, and this matched the sombre theme of all these deaths. One thing that raised my spirits was that as I arrived at Anabatos, I saw a priest and some people come out of a little chapel where they had been having a service. A rather hungry donkey nearby looked up hopefully for some food, and a woman fed the donkey with unconsecrated bread, which he munched gratefully. It was touching to see the woman’s kind act.

When I got to the western side of Chios I turned south and drove through the masticochoria - the mastic country.  Mastic is a resinous gum that comes from a type of pistachio tree and is used in a wide variety of products. 

For some reason, the only place that these trees produce this gum is in the masticochoria in the south of Chios.  This product was prized in ancient times and by the Turks as well.  It is still actively used today.  (There are mastic shops in Chios - but I was surprised to find one in Athens as well.)

One of the chief towns in the masticochoria is Pyrgi, which is distinctive for the decoration of the buildings.  I made the mistake of driving into the town with its very narrow streets, and someone had to shift some of the seats from a taverna there for me even to get through.  I found the way out and parked on the outskirts.  Then I went for a walk and took several photos.

The first place I saw was the local Council Office, which was closed as it was a Saturday.  From there I went down one of the narrow streets (I was very happy with this photo) and into the town square.

Note the Obelix Cafe in the square!

I thought Pyrgi was beautiful, but as I was planning to have lunch in the next town, I didn't stay for long.  I managed to put together enough Greek to ask a local woman the way to Mesta, and set off for there.

Mesta is a medieval town that was built with walls and in a maze pattern as some protection against the pirates of the area.  I remembered my way into the town square from the outside (left-right-left-right) as I wanted to get out again!  It is difficult to give a good impression of the maze as I was not flying above the town.  Here are some of the views along the little streets.

After lunch I rambled on towards Chios, calling in at Emporio, an ancient archaeological site by the sea, and then going on through the "campos" or countryside south of Chios, which has been planted in citrus groves since Genoese times and is obviously a very up-market area.  It seemed beautiful, although a proper view of it was restricted by the high walls of the houses.

I was really happy with this opportunity to "nosey around" the southern part of the island.  It gave me a much clearer impression of the landscape and towns of southern and central Chios.

The following day I went with Don, his wife Dina and their son Alexander, and two Swedish women to a service at Nea Moni.  It was good to go back to Nea Moni as a worshipper rather than simply a tourist.  There were probably around 80 people at worship including quite a few children, and after the service there was a good feeling of community as people lingered to enjoy coffee and cake and to talk.  The monastery felt more alive than it did the day before.

I then had a relaxed day as I prepared to get the plane to Athens the next day.  I very much enjoyed my stay at Chios Rooms including the connection I made with Don Rodger.

21 May 2010

Samos and Patmos

10-12 May, 2010

This morning I was picked up by my tour company and taken to the ferry at the nearby port town of Kusadasi. The ferry left at 9am and we were in Samos by 11.30am. I asked about the ferry to Patmos, and was told that it went from a different town on Samos Island, so I took a bus there. When I arrived I went into a ferry office and found that the ferry timing that I had expected had changed. The ferry was now leaving later in the afternoon, and there was no return ferry on 13 May, so I would have to leave Patmos on 12 May if I wanted to sail from Samos to Chios on the evening of the 13th.

I got all that sorted out, bought a return ticket to Patmos and as I was doing so, met a very friendly Swedish couple who were on their way to Patmos that afternoon as well. We had our own separate things to do for a while, but agreed to have lunch together later. I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with Thomas and Birgitta. I found that we had an amazing amount in common. Thomas, for instance, had been to the Holy Fire ceremony in Jerusalem on a previous Easter Eve, and they had both been to the Ethiopian Orthodox Easter Eve service there. They were active Christians, and Thomas had brought with him a book to read that is one of my all time favourites – God of Surprises, by Gerard Hughes. They are both teachers and Birgitta makes her own clothes and bags and teaches handcrafts as well as being a general class teacher for 11-13 year olds. I felt sure that Helen would have enjoyed their company too, and that she would have a lot in common with Birgitta.

We caught the ferry together, and I took a photo of them during the journey.

When we got to Patmos, we went our separate ways as they had booked accommodation and I was going to the monastery of St John (founded in 1088), on the top of the hill above the town.

Since it was now 8pm, I was in some doubt as to whether it was reasonable to turn up to the monastery at this hour, and on stepping onto the dock I was delighted to see a woman holding up a card with my name on it. This was Anastasia, from the Centre for Orthodox Culture and Information in town. She took me to the centre, phoned the monastery driver, and he came and picked me up! I am sure that I owe this special welcome to the fact that I had faxed, along with my request to stay, a supporting letter from the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of New Zealand, Archbishop Amfilochios.

The next morning, after worship, I had an appointment with the abbot, who is a personal friend of Archbishop Amfilochios from New Zealand. We had a nice meeting, with some very helpful translation done by another visitor to the monastery. The Abbot, the proper term of address for whom I was not certain(!), kindly gave me a book he had written on the monastery, and I gave him a holding cross from New Zealand.

After our meeting, our translator, whose name was Costas, took me to see the icon restoration workshop in the monastery (two people are employed here full-time) and the monastery museum and treasury. The visit to the icon restoration workshop was very interesting, and the museum was impressive, with one of the monastery treasures being an early (fifth century) text of Mark’s gospel, of which two pages were on display. There were many other treasures as well, including a range of icons, illuminated texts, church vestments, chalices etc, edicts form various rulers, and other artefacts. Among the icons a lovely, but slightly damaged, icon by El Greco stood out. Again no photos were allowed.

Later on I headed down to the cave of the Apocalypse, the place where St John is believed to have dictated the Book of Revelation to Prochoros, his assistant and scribe. I managed to arrive at a time when only a few people were there (no photos again!), but as I stayed to soak up the atmosphere of the place there was a sudden influx of people from various tour groups.

I decided to seek the quiet of the monastery and I climbed back up the hill, taking a photo of the monastery as I went.

I also met this local resident along the way.

It wasn't a very big snake, but I have to admit that snakes are not my favourite creatures to come across on a country walk!

When I got back to the monastery, I went to Vespers. I then took some photos in the late afternoon sun,

and following that I spent time reading a book on Orthodoxy before the night prayers at 9pm.

In the morning I rose to attend the prayers and Holy Liturgy.  The chanting of the Orthodox liturgy affected me more powerfully today than at any time since the Armenian liturgy on Good Friday in Jerusalem.  I felt drawn into God's presence.  At the end of the liturgy, as one of the monks (whom I had never met) left the church, he placed his hand on my shoulder.  Again this gesture, from someone I could not communicate with through words, meant a lot. He seemed to be saying something like, “It’s good to see you here”, or “I hope you find what you are looking for”. It was a gesture of encouragement and connection.

After the service I went to take some photos of the monastery at a time when I would not be pushing my camera into the face of the monks.

This photo looks down at the courtyard just outside the katholikon (main church).

And this is the front of the katholikon.

I then took a bus down to the town so that I would be ready for my ferry. The harbour looked beautiful.

I boarded the ferry and before long we were back in Samos. I caught a bus to Samos town, and waited for the next bus to Karlovassi, from where the Chios ferries sail. The bus trip to Karlovassi took us past some picturesque seaside villages. (During the trip I had another of those incongruous moments while travelling, as was watching from the window the heavenly view of the Greek coast and sitting next to a young Indian man who was loudly playing Bollywood clips on his mobile phone.)  Karlovassi itself was more of a town than a village, and had quite a busy port.  I found some accommodation for the night in a cheap hotel and had dinner at a little restaurant on the sea shore.

The next day, as I was simply in transit and didn’t have anything that I wanted to see in the surrounding district, I spent most of my time writing up my diary and preparing for my next few blogs. I caught the ferry at 6.45pm and was in Chios before 10pm. I was immediately struck by the vitality of the night life on the waterfront. It had the feel of a bustling town (I found out later that a part of the University of the Aegean is situated in Chios, so there are a large number of students here.) I found Chios Rooms, my accommodation in Chios, and had a chat with Don Rodger, the New Zealand owner/manager. My room was overlooking the waterfront, so I took a photo or two from my window, and then went to bed.

18 May 2010

Selcuk and Ephesus

9 May, 2010

I was ready for my Ephesus tour at the appointed pick up time of 9am the next day, but the tour guide didn’t arrive. I waited for 30 minutes and he still had not arrived, so I was not too pleased. With time passing and a bus for Ephesus about to leave from my hotel, I decided to catch that, and I texted my contact in the tour company to say that I wanted to have a talk with him that evening but that I was off to Ephesus now.

I had a nice visit to Ephesus, which was a very interesting site in a fairly good state of preservation. The Jerash site I saw in Jordan was probably a bit better preserved, but because of its connection with St Paul and the early history of Christianity, Ephesus had more significance for me. Among the places I saw in Ephesus was an impressive monument known as the ‘Library of Celsus’.

On the steps outside the Library of Celsus, an image of a Jewish menorah has been etched into the stone. This is probably because the Library was used at some stage as a Jewish synagogue.

It is intriguing to think that this might have been where Paul met with the Jews of Ephesus, and for a period of 3 months (until opposition grew in the synagogue because of the number of people being influenced by Paul), spoke to them about the Messiah.  After that, he met with believers and enquirers in the lecture hall of Tyrannus, a location that has not been identified.  Paul and his companions were so effective in their evangelistic ministry that it threatened the market for statues and shrines of the goddess Artemis.  (The local Temple of Artemis was considered one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world, and many tourists visited Ephesus because of it.)  Acts 19:23-41 tells of a riot that took place in the city, led by silversmiths who were concerned about their livelihood with the decline in the number of worshippers of Artemis.  A silversmith, Demetrius, blamed Paul for the threat to their livelihood, and so they began to riot and dragged a couple of Paul’s fellow-workers, Gaius and Aristarchus to the huge theatre, shouting, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians”.

For two hours the mob shouted this same chant, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians”, until they were warned to disperse by the city clerk.

From the theatre I went to the ruins of the Church of the Virgin Mary, which is on the Ephesus site. (I overtook this little fellow on the way.)

The church was huge, and was the setting for the Council of Ephesus in 431. Here we are looking from the courtyard (atrium) beyond the entrance to the nave. The apse is right up the far end where you can see two columns and the top of a third.

I went from this great church to another great church – the Church of St John in Selcuk, built in the grand style by Justinian over a smaller Constantinian church. The Justinian church is in the shape of a cross and measured 130m by 65m.

As with my photo of the Church of the Virgin Mary, this photo is taken from the atrium beyond the main entrance to the nave, looking towards the apse. Before the eye reaches the apse there are some columns. These surround the tomb of St John.

Once I had finished here I went into Selcuk town and visited the Ephesus Museum. In this museum were some fine artefacts from Ephesus. One of the items I liked most was this small picture of Socrates.

There was also a statue of Artemis of the Ephesians with the protuberances on her front probably meant to be eggs as a symbol of fertility.

After this visit and after buying a couple of presents, I headed back to my hotel.  I received the phone call I had requested from a manager of the Tour company, who explained that he had phoned the hotel to advise them the guide would be coming at 9.30am.  The staff person in the hotel whom he spoke had not passed the message on. In the end the manager offered me a substantial refund on my tour costs.  He obviously did care about the various muck ups and made what I thought was a generous settlement.  I was glad that I had sorted this out myself rather than waiting to get back to New Zealand and trying to sort the matter out from there.

I enjoyed my time in Turkey.  I found the people extraordinarily friendly and helpful, even if in Istanbul after being helpful they wanted you to buy something at their shop! In other parts of Turkey it wasn’t like that. People just went out of their way to help if they could speak any English or German and I looked confused or was obviously trying to find somewhere on a map.  I never felt unsafe and thought that Turkey was a great place for a holiday.

After all the time I had spent studying Greek culture, I found it a little odd that the custodians of so many wonderful classical sites (more than in Greece, they claim) are Turkish!  But that was my issue, not theirs. The problem with the Tour came, I believe, from the tour company’s idea that public transport was an acceptable alternative for a guided tour, without even discussing it with me.  But the tour manager was open to admitting that they had got it wrong, and I felt that he sorted the matter out quite generously.

While I did not have in Turkey the sort of amazing experiences I had in Jerusalem and Mt Athos, I still thought that it was a very worthwhile place to visit.