I actually have a few free minutes now, so I’ll recap the events of our Greece and Turkey pilgrimage class:
Day 1-2: Departure from USA
Day 2: Arrival in Athens and visit to the Byzantine Museum with artifacts covering the entire span of the Byzantine Roman Empire, including many ancient mosaics and icons.
Day 3: Left Hera Hotel at 8 am and got on our bus traveling to Corinth, whose church received two letters from St. Paul preserved in Scripture. We took a tour of St. Paul’s Orthodox Church in the new part of Corinth, where our guide, Jen, and I explained to students the significance of the various icons in Eastern churches. We waled in the ruins of Corinth’s agora and set foot in the place where Paul preached to the Corinthians, and stopped to overlook the impressive Corinth canal. Upon returning to Athens, we took pictures of the Panathenaic stadium where the first modern Olympics were held. In the afternoon we made the trek up Athens’ famous acropolis and visited the Erechtheion temple as well as the Parthenon, temple to the city’s patron goddess Athena. At the end of this long day we ended up at the incredible Acropolis Museum, which houses many of artifacts that once stood in the temple. We then went out for some gyros, in some ways the Greek equivalent to American fast food, but better in my opinion (unless you compare it to Chipotle).
Day 4: Began the day with a 1.5-mile uphill trek to Athens’ agora. My dad described this challenging hike as one of the most grueling physical feats he accomplished in his life. (My 60+ year old parents, who came along with our group on this trip, were very impressive for making these walks!). On the way to the agora, we walked by the well-preserved Odeon (music amphitheater) of Herodes Atticus. We then walked around the Temple of Hephaistos, the most well-preserved of Athen’s ancient temples. Making our way to the Stoa of Attalos, we walked by the site of the prison where Socrates was held before his execution–very cool to think we were standing in the place he stood awaiting his death sentence. Then we headed for Mars Hill or the Areopagus, where Paul preached as recorded in Acts 17. The altar to the “unknown god” which Paul alluded to in his speech is no longer present in the agora, but it stood here somewhere. I got to proclaim Paul speech atop this hill and give a catechesis on its relevance for the relationship of faith and reason. Very powerful getting to stand in the footsteps of Paul in this way. In the afternoon we returned for lunch and caught our bus to head for the port of Lavrion and board our cruise vessel.
Day 5: Spent about 20 hours sailing to Istanbul, arriving in the early afternoon. The time flew by because we were exploring the ship, getting served royally by its staff, and sleeping. The cruise was the only way to hit all the spots we wanted to visit, and it was so great to do our traveling why we were sleeping. The afternoon entry into the port of Istanbul was spectacular. This is one of my favorite cities in the world to visit. You enter the Bosphorous Strait, and you have Asia on one side and Europe on the other. You get to see the great Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque as you approach. The ship did some 360-degree turns in the water just to give us all a view of this impressive city. For the evening, we got hooked up with a private bus which brought us to St. George, the head church of Orthodoxy and see of the Patriarch of Constantinople now that Hagia Sophia is no longer a church. We then went to the Grand Bazaar, sipped some Turkish coffee, and let ourselves get lost in its countless avenues of vendors. Afterwards our bus dropped us off at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church for evening mass and a private talk with the priest, Fr. Julius. The night concluded with a stroll down Istiklal Street, a major nightlife hub in the city, and a long walk downhill towards the port for a snack and long-awaited sleep.
Day 6: Our day tour of Istanbul began when we disembarked the ship and met our guide who brought us through the old city to the Hippodrome, the ancient arena where races were held in Constantinople. In this place still stand obelisks brought to the city by the Romans as a show of their power and conquest of Egypt. On either side of this piazza stand the Blue Mosque, one of the top mosques in all of Islam, and Hagia Sophia, once the grandest church in Christendom. We took a fairly quick walk through the mosque because, like most mosques, it is fairly barren, seeing as Muslims do not allow images to be displayed within them. Instead, you find calligraphy and beautiful mosaics. The exterior is much more impressive, with its several minarets which dominate the city landscape. Just across the street stands Hagia Sophia. We took a prolonged walk and tour through its two levels, admired the remaining mosaics, and lamented the loss of the vast majority of them which were covered up (for the reason given above) when it became a mosque in 1453. It remains one of the grandest buildings in the world. I particularly love its exterior. Even the minarets added to the outside by Muslims look great. I think they even enhance the place. Starving, we ate lunch across the street at the famous Pudding Shop. President Clinton ate here, as did countless hippies who met here in the 60s and 70s on their way to India. After lunch everybody went to the palace of the Sultans, Topkapi Palace. Very impressive site, the highlights of which (for me) are Hagia Irene Church, site of the First Council of Constantinople, and a room housing alleged relics brought from Jerusalem after the Muslim conquests of the Holy Land. They claim to have 1) Moses’ staff 2) David’s sword 3) Joseph the patriarch’s turban 4) John the Baptist’s head and arm 5) Muhammad’s beard, and more. Whether any of these is authentic is another question, but if any of them are I think it is awesome. I give some credence to David’s sword and John’s arm because they were taken from Jerusalem, where you’d most likely find the items preserved if they indeed were.
After this tour everyone was tired out, but a few of us went on to tour the underground Cistern Basilica before getting on the ship. This is an amazing site, and I was thankful some students volunteered to watch our kids while we went in. It is all dark and lit only a little bit in a haunting and mysterious sort of way. It is one of many cisterns in the city which used to be completely filled with water. They drained this one and made it into a museum because of its impressiveness. For centuries the Ottomans somehow had forgotten these things existed. The pillars in Hagia Sophia seemed to sweat and citizens of the city seemed to have magic springs in their yards, but it turned out this was all due to condensation from the cisterns underneath. After nearly collapsing, we got ourselves back to the boat and set sail for Izmir, Turkey.
Day 7: Docked in Izmir (ancient Smyrna) at 1:30. This is where St. Polycarp, disciple of St John, was bishop. We still have a marvelous account of his martyrdom and correspondence between him and St. Ignatius of Antioch which I assigned to students in preparation for the trip. From Smyrna we took a bus to ancient Ephesus, probably the best preserved ancient site in the Mediterranean, which is quite a claim. The whole town had been buried due to earthquakes and other things, but it has been spectacularly excavated. Along the great main drag you can still enter the remains of the Celsus Library, the massive Amphitheater, and more. Our BC students sang the collegeâ€™s fight song from the platform in the massive hall and sent the video to our institutions president for his enjoyment. As if this were not enough, we then drove to the nearby location of Mary’s House, discovered again only a little over 100 years ago through the efforts of the French nun and Servant of God, Sr. Marie de Mandat-Grancey. The story of how she discovered this place is fascinating, and you can read about it in this book. Her beatification cause is currently in the works, and I am blessed to serve on the theological commission which examines her writings to verify their correspondence with Catholic doctrine. The site thus had a unique meaning for me, but it did so for the whole group because this was the place Mary and John lived and quite possibly where she was assumed into Heaven. Popes have made pilgrimage and celebrated mass here, and we got to pray part of the rosary inside. Finally, our bus then took us to the Basilica of St. John, site of the apostle’s burial. It was largely destroyed by natural disasters but is being restored. You can walk along and imagine how grand it once was, and then they have a replica in glass to give you an excellent idea of its appearance. On your way to this place, you happen also to be walking nearby the site where the Council of Ephesus was held in 431 A.D., the council which proclaimed Mary as Mother of God or the theotokos in Greek.
Day 8: Started our morning bright and early at 6:30 as we tendered over to the small island of Patmos. We first visited the cave where John dictated the Book of Revelation to his disciple Prochoros. The icons in the cave and on the exterior of the building testify to this tradition. Inside some Orthodox monks were chanting the liturgy, which provided a solemn atmosphere to the brief visit in this tiny cave. Afterwards we made the hike up the island’s roads to the monastery and museum where monks continue to pray for St. John’s intercession in the very place he was exiled around 95 A.D.
In the afternoon we had to skip our scheduled visit to the island of Mykonos due to rough seas, and instead we docked in Syros, a small but beautiful island where we walked around its friendly streets, ate a light dinner, and bought an inexpensive icon.
Day 9: We were blessed to have a private mass with the island’s Catholic priest who is a Franciscan from the order that has custody of the Holy Land. The Franciscans came to Rhodes at various times throughout their history to serve the needs of the island’s believers, and were present along with the Knights of St. John, the Hospitallers, after the Crusades. These knights later moved to Malta and became the Knights of Malta. We took a tour of the Palace of the Grand Master of this order and walked down the famous Knights Street in the town. We spent the afternoon in the turquoise green waters of one of the island’s beaches, and we walked back to our ship along its beautiful harbor, passing through St. Paul’s gate, which is a fortified watchtower named after the Apostle who was shipwrecked there.
Day 10: Today we visited two islands in one day. First was the city of Heraklion in Crete. You can go visit the island’s famous Knossos Palace, cradle of the Minoan civilization which preceded classical Greek civilization. However, we bypassed this since it is under some renovation, and opted instead to walk around the town. We went into a handful of astounding churches, especially the Church of St. Minas, and were surprised to happen upon the Church of St. Titus who was bishop here after Paul commissioned him for the task. Our last stop before heading back to Athens was then Santorini, the archetype of Greek islands with its quaint whitewashed buildings and cobalt roofs. We paid to get transferred to the city of Oia on the island, walked around, took pictures, and sipped its famous (and tasty) vinsanto or “hole wine.” Tendering back to our cruise ship from the island was one of the most picturesque experiences of our lives. We were in a small boat in the middle of a body of water sitting above an active volcano which blew its top and created the shape of the island in 1628 B.C. From here as we got bashed around by some waves, we could see the sun sent and the moon rise at the same time. For me, the exquisite beauty of such a vista makes it no surprise that many think this sunken part of the island represents the mythical lost city of Atlantis.
Day 11: Sailed overnight from Santorini to Athens. We arrived early in the morning, disembarked our ship-home, and were transferred to the airport on our way to Rome. What a trip, and yet how much more we had in store for us!