On the Via Ignatia

Wednesday, 12th December 2012
Philippi, Neapolis (Kavala) and Thessalonike

For all photos for 12th 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 am writing this at quarter to six out in the corridor outside my room on Thursday morning. Yesterday’s itinerary was just too full to allow me the time or energy to do anything more than upload my photos before I had to pack it in for the night.

We did a lot of travelling, driving about 300km along the northern coast of Greece from Alexandroupolis to Thessaloniki, travelling via the ruins of the ancient city of Philippi and the modern/ancient city of Kavala (Kabala/Neapolis). Our task was to catch up with St Paul, who had taken the route by sea from Troas via the island of Samothrace (Acts 16:11) and making landfall at Neapolis before heading out to Philippi. We passed Samothrace on land on the north side, and went to Philippi first. Our constant companion on this trip was the old “Via Ignatia” or “Egnatia Hodos” as it is still called in Greek today. This road runs all the way from Constantinople in the East to the Adriatic sea in the West, from whence ancient travellers would catch the boat to the Italian Peninsula and the road to Rome. At least on our part of the journey today, we were following this road almost exactly, and from Philippi to Thessaloniki – and more today as we head out to Boroea – we followed St Paul’s footsteps literally as the new double lane freeway is built more or less directly over the old road (here and there we could se the old Roman road still peeking out from underneath the highway where it took a different turn to us).

All of which reminds me of an old joke:

There once was a Scot named MacCarter,
who drove his car(t) faster and faster.
While speeding t’wards Rome,
which was on his way home,
he was killed on the Via Ignatia.

Along the way, Sophia gave us a running commentary on various things Greek, including the current political and economical situation (which is, as you know, on hard times) and some commentary about the Greek Church (which is undergoing something of a renaissance). I was surprised to see mosques in the villages we were travelling through. It appears that quite a large Muslim population lives in Northern Greece, and that there are some tensions politically because of this. Nevertheless, they have complete freedom of religion in Greece, which contrasts a little with what passes for religious freedom on the other side of the border. The territory of Greece in the north is not very broad on the north-south axis, as just over the mountain range is the border with Bulgaria. We were driving along the sea plain between the mountains and the coastline. We passed fossil fuelled power stations (they look nuclear but Greece does not have nuclear power) and fields of solar panels, which, together with windmills, provides an alternative source of power in Greece. The road frequently went through tunnels, as Greece is, in Sophia’s words, mainly mountains and rocks.

We stopped for morning tea at about 9:30am at the cafe at the entrance to the archeological site of ancient Philippi, which is just 14kms north-west of Kavala. There is a town today called “Philippi” a bit east of the ancient site, but the ruins are actually closer to the location called “Lydia”, with the entrance located at a town called Krinides. As we were having mass soon, I skipped morning tea and sat smoking my pipe in the sun contemplating the beautiful scene of snow covered Pangaion Hills to the south. Although the sun was out, and the air still, it was a bracing 6 degrees. (There are cats and dogs all over this part of the world – as you can see from my pictures – and near me was a small black kitten being bothered by a skinny black and white dog which was trying to carry the kitten around in its mouth like a pup. The kitten didn’t seem to put up much of a fight, but was obviously annoyed by the dog’s overly maternal interest.)

When the group had finished their coffee, we boarded the bus and headed around to the other end of the archeological excavation, which is where the traditional site of the baptism of Lydia on the small Gangites River is located (Acts 16:14-15). The Greek Church has done this very nicely. There is a fairly new building which I suppose one should call a “baptisterion”, that is, a baptistery which also has a sanctuary and altar attached. This building is a traditional eight-sided shrine, decorated in the dome with the icon of the baptism of Jesus, with additional biblical baptism scenes (including St Paul baptising Lydia) around the eight walls on which the dome is suspended. Below this is a sunken marble baptismal pool with steps going down into it, and in the centre of the pool is a font for infant baptisms. In the narthex is a floor mosaic showing the second missionary journey of St Paul, on which he came to this place.

A short walk outside, and you come to the banks of the fast rushing creek which is the River Gangites. Here too the Greeks have done very well. They have diverted a part of the river to run through a channel over which they have built two small footbridges to the resulting island in the middle. There is a small shrine to St Lydia here, and in front of this, in the artificial channel between the two footbridges, is a baptismal pool, with steps down into the pool from both sides. On the island is a small stone table, quite low and obviously designed to hold the required bits and pieces for a baptism, and on the other side of the baptismal pool is a small odeon going up several levels on the banks. Sitting in the seats of this theaterette, we celebrated Mass, presided over by Fr Bhin on the island (using the small stone table as an altar) with the water of the river rushing through the baptismal pool between us.

It was very cold, and the water was a consistent roar in the background, but at the same time I found it one of the most spiritually moving experiences of the entire trip. Looking back over my shoulder, I could see where the town of Philippi would have been on the slopes of the hill, and easily imagine Paul asking for directions to the local synagogue and being shown down to the river in this place, where all he found were the women doing their washing. The fact that Paul didn’t do what any red-blooded Jewish male should have done – ie. high-tailed it out of there quick smart – but took the opportunity to proclaim the Gospel to these women, and the fact that one of them – St Lydia – was ready to receive the message and be baptised together with all her household – and that it all happened right here, was a great deal to take in. This was, in a way, Europe’s “Jordan River”. You may recall that at the beginning of this journey, I expressed a fear that I would go in search of the past only to find it buried under the present. That has certainly been the case more times than not, but in a few cases – such as in Galilee and here on the banks of this river – the past has been tangibly present. As always, there was a shop here where one could buy religious souvenirs. I passed on the opportunity, but now wish that I had picked up an icon of St Lydia, just as a reminder of this place.

Sophia then took us around to the archeological site itself. Here the major feature is the large Agora or “market place” where Paul was (according to Luke in Acts 16:19-20) dragged before the magistrates. We could see the very place where the magistrates sat to give judgement. Besides the Roman baths and an excellent theatre which is still used for concerts, most of the ruins are Byzantine from the 4th and 5th Centuries. There are a number of ecclesiastical structures – one is the main basilica that was used by the city. This one is very early, and also quite large. There is also a kind of martyrion, although it is not clear what its use was. It is octagon shaped, and has some very good mosaic floors (which are roofed over). There is a tomb in this spot, but it is an ancient Macedonian tomb, not a Christian one. And then there are the ruins of a second church – Basilica B – which is built on the south west side of the Agora. For its construction, in the sixth century, a large part of the old Roman agora area was demolished. Yet it was never used. Sophia described it as a “folly” of the bishop at the time: despite the point that the city already had a very large and serviceable basilica, the bishop wanted a building to rival Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (this was during the time of the second Hagia Sophia before the current one). But it seems that the bishop’s architects simply didn’t have the know-how, and the dome collapsed and the building was never finished.

There is one other significant place on the site: the “prison of St Paul”. Of course, with the gaol playing such a huge part in Luke’s narrative of Paul’s stay in Philippi (Acts 16:24ff), there must be a site with which to identify it. And there is: just on the north west side of the Agora near where the Magistrates seat is located and across the Via Ignatia (the original Roman road runs right along the edge of the Agora) there is an old Roman cistern. Constructed to be watertight, it would have been deep and dark, and could quite possibly have been used later as a prison cell. Sophia is of the opinion that tradition is always worth something, and that this is, in the local minds, a “capital T” tradition. The Church, Basilica A, is very close to this, but then so is an ancient pagan temple.

The whole excursion over the archaeological site had taken until about two o’clock, and by now we were very cold (the fingers of my right hand were frozen around my camera) and hungry, so the bus took us into Kavala for lunch. Kavala (Greek: Kabala – with a meaning associated with horses) is the modern name for Neapolis, and is, as I have said, where St Paul landed (together with Silas, Luke and Timothy) for the first time in Europe. This event is commemorated by a large modern mosaic in front of a church on the spot where Paul is thought to have disembarked (about 50 metres up from the current harbour line), showing, on one side of the panel, his dream in which he saw a man saying “Come over here” (Acts 16:9), and then, on the other side, Paul stepping off the boat onto European soil.

We had lunch nearby in a restaurant on the harbour. First I needed to go to the bank to get some Euros. I wasted about 15 minutes of our break waiting in line in the bank to try to change my remaining 30 Turkish Lira into Euros (they wouldn’t do it), so then just used the ATM to get some cash. The Euro is running at about $1.25, which is a lot better than when I last travelled to Europe three years ago, when it was about $2. I had been looking forward to my first meal in Greece (discounting the hotel fare which differed little from Turkey except for the appearance of bacon at breakfast for the first time on the tour!), and was not disappointed. Given that it was now almost 3pm, my appetite was encouraged by my hunger. We were able to choose our meal from the display, and could have had any number of different kinds of fresh fish cooked whichever way we wanted, but I chose a good fish soup followed by mousakka and Greek pastry for dessert washed down with a glass of white wine.

We did not explore any further in Kavala, but hopped back on the bus for the drive to Thessaloniki, still some distance away. It would be dark when we arrived, but Sophia wanted to take us on a tour of the city centre and to the church of St Dimitrius. We road down an ancient valley along the Via Ignatia, which was, as I said, exactly where Paul would have travelled. There were snow topped mountains down one side, and the whole scene was quite picturesque. When we stopped for afternoon tea at a roadhouse, I took the opportunity to go for a walk into the country side a little more – I had spied a small church out in the fields, and wanted to capture it in a photograph. I passed a young mother dog with a little puppy – she looked desperate for some food but I didn’t have any to give her. After returning to the road house, I just sat and looked at the countryside around me for a bit as I smoked my pipe. On a trip as rushed as this, we don’t get much time to sit and take in the fact that we are in a new country, an old country, with the past all around us, and just be present in it. I may be killing myself with my smoking, but at on the positive side, it does give me space for such contemplation.

We did arrive after dark in Thessaloniki – and late too – about 6:30pm. But Sophia wanted to show us some of the sights of the city even if we couldn’t actually see them very well (photographs were useless from the moving bus in this light). I would have liked to have had a whole day – or at least an afternoon – explore this very interesting city. It is the second largest city in Greece with a population of about 1 million, and has a history dating back to the 4th Century BC, and was established King Cassander of Macedon. He named it after his wife, a half-sister of Alexander the Great and daughter of King Philip II. But we did stop the bus and get off to have a close up look at the Church of St Dimitrius. Dimitrius is the patron saint of Thessaloniki. He was a soldier, martyred under the persecution of Diocletian in the late 3rd Century. A church was built here – on the spot of his martyrdom – very early in the Constantinian era, but was destroyed and rebuilt a number of times, and even used as a mosque during the Ottoman period – which only ended with the “liberation” of the city in 1912. Bits and pieces were damaged by the communists during the 2nd World War, and there have been more modern restorations too, which give the whole building a jig-saw appearance. There are fresco icons which date back to the very earliest constructions, and the columns of the church come from all dates – from the very beginning to the medieval restorations to the modern reconstructions.

We arrived just as Vespers was finishing – it was very good to enter a church while the changing was still going on and to see a Byzantine Church being used as a place of Christian worship still. But again, one joy was to be able to venerate the very relics of St Dimitrius himself. These had been stolen (as so much was) by the Crusaders and were in Rome until they were returned by Pope Paul VI in the 1970’s. For not the first time, I thanked God for these greedy Crusaders. If they had not stolen the relics, would they have survived until today? I had no coins to buy candles, so I bought an icon of St Dimitrius and then lighted my customary three candles for my wife and daughter and asked for the holy saints intercession for them.

We then went in search of our hotel. Rosemary had chosen the hotel based on the fact that it was next door to some excavations which she thought were of the old city forum. It was indeed near excavations, but not the ones that Rosemary thought – they were later Byzantine houses or some such. The bus could not navigate the narrow street to the hotel door, so dropped us off on the other side of the excavation site and we needed to off load our luggage and drag them around to the Hotel Esperia. The name “esperia” means “western” or “evening” (and it was indeed evening when these westerners). One should always be careful choosing an hotel off the internet for a tour group without checking it out first. Having so far taken advantage of the off-season prices and stayed at 5 star hotels (in the main – the Ma’agan Village in Galilee had its own charms, as did the aged Richmond Thermal at Pamukkale), it was a bit of a shock to find ourselves in a hotel that would struggle to qualify as 3 stars. There were no porters, so we lugged our own cases into the old elevators (these had swing open doors and were big enough for two people – as you moved up and down, you knew what floor you were on as you watched each one go past on the open side of the lift). Our rooms were very small – the bed were old single mattresses on camp-bed style springs. The bathroom did not have a bath – the open shower cubicle was fighting for space with the toilet which encroached upon it. There was a balcony overlooking the street below, but there was no chair in the room or on the balcony, so I dragged the single chair that was out in the corridor into our room to use out there while I smoked by pipe and downloaded the day’s photographs. The hotel did at least have a good internet connection. We did not eat in the hotel – there wasn’t actually a restaurant – just a breakfast room, but walked around to the other side of the block where we ate at a very nice local restaurant. It was already about 8pm, and we were all once again hungry (thank goodness for the late lunch). We had a good meal – a variety of shared entrees, and a choice of ten main courses (I had the grilled sardines) and very nice cheap wine served in 500ml beakers for 3 Euros. We even had a chap on an accordion who knew all the classic tourist tunes which had some of the team singing along. It was very enjoyable, and except for a few communication problems, we could have been in a restaurant in Brunswick street. I chose to leave a little earlier than the rest of the group to start writing. But I was far too tired, and chose to go to bed and do the writing in the morning.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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