Our Last “Ancient Rocks” visit

Saturday, 15th December, 2012
Athens and Corinth

For all photos for 15th December, click here to view them on my dropbox site. If you don’t have Dropbox, use this link to sign up and you and I will both get a bonus amount of free storage space.

I began this morning by going up to the roof to take some pictures of the panorama in the dawn light. This view is indeed one good thing about this hotel. The location should be good for tomorrow too, as we have a free day and most of the museums and other interesting places are within walking distance.

We boarded the bus for the Acropolis at 8am, and road around to Mars Hill, the scene of Paul’s meeting at the Areopagus (cf. Acts 17), and also the scene of John Paul II’s meeting in 2000 with the Orthodox Archbishop of Athens. I suppose the hill takes its name from the fact that it consists of a large lump of red marble, about the shape of a tiny Ayers Rock. The marble is not of a very good quality, and appears to be crumbling away with the wear and tear of the many visitors who climb it. Unlike Ayers Rock, visitors are positively encouraged to climb this site, and a new steel stairway has been constructed to facilitate this for all but the most frail and least adventurous. Nevertheless, you have to watch your step, as the marble is quite slippery, and you wouldn’t want to end up at the bottom on your bottom. There are two directions from which one may approach this rock – from the north, that is, from the ancient Agora, or from the south, which is the normal approach of the modern tourist en route to the Acropolis which is directly toward the east of Mars Hill. It is on this latter side that a large bronze plaque is attached recounting the whole of Paul’s speech to the Areopagites in the original Greek. Here, before this plaque, Fr Thin read the speech in English to us. We then climbed up onto the rock and wandered around a bit, taking pictures and trying not to lose our footing and slide down the other side. Having seen pictures of this spot labelled “Areopagus” in books and on the internet, I had always wondered what the philosophers of Athens were doing perching themselves on such an exposed and uncomfortable piece of rock. In all probability however, and according to Luke’s own account, the meeting and the speech took place at the base of the Agoran side of the rock, not the side with the plaque on it.

From here we walked up to the entrance to the Acropolis. I felt that we were a part of some peripatetic school ourselves, because our divine Sophia would stop us and sit us down before every significant spot and give us a detailed lecture on what we were about to see before leading us on. I appreciated this – especially compared to the sort of cursory introduction I overheard other tour guides giving their charges – but I was chafing a bit to be let out of school and allowed to rush about taking as many pictures as I could in our allotted “free time”! Thankfully, she gave us plenty of this. The Acropolis was already quite crowded by the time we entered – and this is the “off season” – God knows how congested it must be in the peak tourist season. The main attraction is, of course, the Parthenon itself – it is such an iconic image of Ancient Greece, and has had such a universal impact upon architecture that one gets a kind of deja vu experience just being here.

Of the vast original complex on the Acropolis, there are three buildings more or less standing today: the Propylaea at the entrance, the Erechtheum, and, of course, the Parthenon itself. The Erechtheum is a very attractive building, decorated with Ionic columns rather than the Doric columns of the Parthenon, and distinctive because of the six columns in the shape of women – technically “caryatids”. My first encounter with these figurine-columns was when I was studying classics at Adelaide University, and my tutor pointed out to us that the copy of an caryatid from the Athenian erechteum in our own museum was older than the caryatids on the Acropolis itself. This is because all the figurines on the Acropolis are copies – the originals are in the Acropolis Museum (except for one that Lord Elgin nicked along with half the marble decorations from the Parthenon itself). The copy in the Adelaide Uni classics museum was the first out of the mould when the reproductions were made. A little known fact about the Parthenon is that it was used for about 1000 years as a Christian Church, dedicated, not to Athena, but to the Blessed Virgin. Calling it the “Parthenon” remained appropriate however, as it means “a room for a virgin”. And it was even used as a mosque for a while during the Ottoman period, before being blasted to smithereens during the Venetian-Turkish conflict in 1687 – something for which both sides can be jointly blamed. The Turks were using the Acropolis as a fortification and storing their gunpowder in the Parthenon – the Venetians scored a direct hit from their canons, and the whole thing went sky high. The middle building – the ancient church-mosque – was blasted out of existence, and the rest of it pushed upwards and outwards. The architects, engineers and archaeologists working on the site have been piecing it together ever since.

This means that one can never hope to see the Parthenon in the modern age without seeing some kind of scaffolding surrounding it, as work on the restoration continues constantly. The good thing is that with every passing year there is more of it to see. Since a visit to the Acropolis of Athens is one of the many things that you should do before you die (in addition to swimming in the Dead Sea), may I suggest that if you are on a limited budget and can only make one trip to Athens, you will get your best money’s worth if it is the last thing you do before you die.

We finally dragged ourselves away from the jewel in Athens’s archaeo-touristic crown, and reboarded the bus for the trip out to the Corinthian peninsula, a bit over an hour’s drive south of Athens. The drive there is along the coast, but the coastline today is quite built up and the road itself obscures some of the better views (many long tunnels and toll stations), and as a result is not very interesting. You get a good view of the island of Salamis just off the coast – Greece’s second largest island after Crete. This island has an important place in Athenian history, as it is to here that the Athenians retreated during the war with the Persians and then won a decisive sea battle against them in 480BC before resettling on the mainland and preceding to construct the Acropolis complex in thanksgiving to their gods.

The interesting thing about the location of Corinth is that it is just south of a narrow isthmus of land joining a large peninsula to the mainland in the north, near the ancient village of Isthmia (the word “isthmus” comes from the Ancient Greek for “neck”). This curious land formation was of particular annoyance to the ancients, as it is only 6.3km from one side to the other, and yet to sail right around the peninsula would take them a week. Their solution was to simply offload the cargo on one side and drive it across to the other where they would reload it on another boat. This cumbersome solution was finally bettered in 1893 when the Corinthian Canal was chiselled out from one side to the other, allowing at least small to medium sized vessels to sail right on through. It really is something to see (not on the “must see before you die” list, but still quite neat). It is a mini version of the Suez or Panama Canal, and as a feat of engineering you wonder why the Romans didn’t try it ages ago (it certainly would not have been beyond them).

We stopped for a break here and a quick snack as we were in a rush to head on to the site of ancient Corinth, which closes at 3pm in the afternoon. Nevertheless, I did do some souvenir shopping here: a book on St Paul’s travels in Greece and (cajoled by my fellow pilgrims) a piece of traditional Greek head gear. I objected at first that it was “too silly”, but they pointed out that this had not prevented me from buying headgear in the past, and that my collection would be incomplete if I didn’t purchase a hat in Greece (in fact, I didn’t get a kippah in Israel either – as the French knights say in Monty Python’ Holy Grail say: “He already ‘as one”), so once again, a hat-lover and his euros are soon parted…

As a final destination on our journey, Corinth was a real treat. There is a new modern town called Korinthos, but the ruins of the ancient city are tucked away in the middle of a little village about 4km away called “Archea Korinthos”. Towering above the archaeological site is the “Acrocorinth”, or the Corinthian Acropolis – the site of continual human habitation from Neolithic times to the end of the Middle Ages, but today abandoned, leaving behind ruins of temples, churches and mosques, but principally fortifications. Of course, whenever I see a high mountain, my desire is to ascend it in some manner, and I enquired of Sophia if it was possible to drive to the top and whether this was on our itinerary. The answer to these questions was “yes” and “no”, in that order. Oh well, something to do next time.

But we did have an extensive time in the site below. there is an excellent museum here, with some remarkable pieces in it, including a famous statue of Caesar Augustus depicted as a priest. Two of the most interesting items, from our point of view, are a block of marble decorated with menorahs, and another block, not so skillfully incised, which seems to read “synagogue of the Hebrews”. Both these blocks were apparently found in the shopping precinct, where they had probably been reused – as the synagogue would not have been placed here. Yet this is proof that there was a Jewish community in Ancient Corinth as Luke tells us in the book of Acts (Acts 18). Paul spent a year and a half living, working (as a tent maker) and preaching here – longer than anywhere else on his missionary journey’s except Ephesus. So when we walked around on the old Roman roads, and looked around at the old shopping precincts and agora, we could say with certainly “Paul walked here” and, with less certainty, “Paul’s tent making workshop could have been here”. But it is in fact possible to identify one spot where Paul definitely stood (an even better pinpoint than the theatre at Ephesus). In Acts 18:12-16, Luke tells us about an incident when Paul was dragged before the proconsul Gallio at the “tribunal”. This spot is the “Bema”, the place of judgement in the agora, and this structure has been excavated, and positively identified, with even the seats of the judges visible.

We celebrated mass here, the last outdoor mass at a “sacred site” on our pilgrimage. The birds were singing, the sun shining weakly through the clouds, hardly a breath of wind. It was one of those moments when the past was not obscured by the present, and it felt as if there was a very thin veil between us and the original Christian congregation in this place. In the back corner of the site is a 6th century church, largely intact, and just outside the site is the modern Archea Corinth Orthodox church, so there was even a sense of continuity there too. As the words of consecration were said by the concelebrating priests, I recalled that it was to this community that those words were (as far as we know) first committed in writing, in the first letter to the Corinthians (chapter 11). Thinking back on the journey, it has been those moments and places in the country settings that have moved me most – the baptismal site at the Jordan, the Sea of Galilee, the baptismal site in Philippi, and now here – perhaps precisely because there was no city and noise blocking the vision of the past.

During our drive back to Athens, I had a conversation with Mary Ann, Rosemary and Sophia about the need to be constantly learning about one’s faith, and, as Mary Ann put it, the baptismal obligation to grow in faith. We talked about the unfortunate separation in the Catholic tradition between biblical scholarship and “theology”, and the “academising” of theology so that it daunts simple Christians who want to learn more. This was our last journey with Sophia, as we are on our own tomorrow and will just have the bus to drive us to the airport on Monday morning, so we farewelled her and our driver Panos on our arrival at the hotel. Sophia informed us that in our short week in Greece we had traversed 1260kms.

As we had already celebrated mass, there was just dinner to have in the evening, and I dressed and went down before Peter. In fact, I went down before everyone, as I was the only one in the entire dining room. I must have had the time wrong. I could have gone back and come down again later, but the food was already out and going cold, so I served myself and ate alone (in fact the food was already luke warm…). I then spent the rest of the night working on pictures and the travel blog, before retiring.

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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