Category Archives: 2015 Greece

Travel Report from Thessaloniki, Greece, Sept. 28, 2015

Hello everyone. I am on the road again, for the third time in 2015. I am intending to spend just under 3 months exploring much of Greece, though my first week has left me a little shaken. I flew Sept 16 from the US through Amsterdam directly to Thessaloniki, 2nd largest city in Greece. The Greek operated flight of the last leg was delayed in Amsterdam 4 times, without explanation, putting me into Greece about 4 hours late. Otherwise the trip was the usual series of long flights and challenging airports. I am staying in a decent hotel right in the heart of the old city, within a couple blocks of the seafront.

The negative event, that has me a little shaken, was a successful pickpocket effort made as I was exiting a crowded city bus returning from visiting the archaeological museum. The thief, or thieves, struck when the bus was crowded at the town center and I was trying to exit. I knew I had been jostled heavily, but kept firm hands on my pack and camera. Within seconds, however, I realized that it was my closed front pant pocket that had been targeted. They got my wallet with perhaps around 400 Euros, but most importantly a couple of debit cards. This brought back memories of Barcelona where 6 years ago my backpack was hit for a bunch of cash and my passport – I was stuck there for 10 days awaiting a replacement passport. I have for many years split my cash and cards into separate places so I never lose everything, and secret my passport deep in my day bag (in most countries, including Greece, one is expected to always have the original passport available for inspection by police). That worked well for me here, as I had left most of my cash and my other credit card locked in the hotel, and the passport was protected. However, I strongly desire at least one of my debit cards for ATM cash replacement, and so am again stuck, this time in Thessaloniki, awaiting replacement cards. I have found all the international toll free numbers, the national toll free numbers and/or the collect call phone numbers, which the banks provide for such emergencies, DO NOT WORK either from cell phones or hotel phones (at least in my hotel). What a pain. The numbers do work from the rare, derelict and grimy few remaining public payphones out on the very noisy street. Otherwise one is left calling the bank’s local non-toll free number internationally – from my hotel that set me back 107 Euros, charged at 2 Euros/minute. From my international cell phone sim card service, 24 out of the 27 calls to the banks got dropped within less than a minute – always while waiting for some computerized answering service to run through its program – really really frustrating. I will laugh heartily about this after I return to the US and give a piece of my mind to the two financial institutions involved, regarding the complete inability to easily and effectively get a living person with whom to talk. Anyway, one replacement card, Ally, is scheduled to be delivered to my hotel tomorrow, just under a week from the theft. The other card, from Vanguard, has not even been re-issued yet.

Back to the good stuff. Wow, is the food ever terrific here. My guide books talk about restaurants (estiatorias), which are expensive and open very late, but I have not seen one. Instead, the little streets and alleys here in city center are lined with tavernas and ouzerias (basically taverns and ouzo joints) where most of the people seem to congregate for food and drink. They all spill into the streets as sidewalk cafes, and only really fill up after 8:30 pm or so, though open all hours. A majority of the items on the menus are appetizers, ala carte plates, mezedhes, etc., basically large plates of hors d’oeuvres. I have tried at least a dozen different dishes, and all are just excellent, if not quite cheap. These include very lightly crusted fried calamari, zucchini or sardines, various roasted dishes of eggplant and wine & leak roasted meats, as well as a huge variety of cheeses and salads. All of the places also serve great house wine (in the range of 3-5 Euros for half a liter) and small 200 ml bottles of the terrific Varvalianni ouzo. A little different is the very popular Turkish type grill cafes, where grilled meats and sandwiches are very cheap and filling. The grocery store nearby sells me very decent red wine at 1.75 Euros per liter, which blesses my late afternoon pre-meal reading sessions out on my room’s little balcony overlooking the major Tsimisky Street.

My first full evening in Thessaloniki was Saturday over a week ago, the day before the national elections (in which, surprisingly to me, Tsipras again pulled out an easy victory); I was late going out to eat, when a major political protest march passed by my hotel and my outdoor cafe. The thousands of marchers, mostly seeming quite young, carried black and red banners, and my restaurant owner said he thought it was the Anarchist Party. I have included a photo (but note the party did not get the necessary 2% vote in the elections sufficient even to have a single representative in government). I also have included two photos of myself seated in two different, but by now favorite, sidewalk ouzerias, one with house wine and the other with the great Varvalliani Green ouzo. These are actually pre-supper drinks – I really do eat my full meals at the same places.

I have spent close to 4 full days, not successively, wandering the streets of old Thessaloniki viewing ancient sites. The city was founded shortly after Alexander the Great’s death, around 320 BC, and named for his half sister. It first was a major Hellenistic capital in Macedonia, after Pella, then a fairly major regional city under Roman rule between 146 BC and 330 AD, where several Roman Emperors, including Galerius, lived. It became the second capital of the Byzantine Empire, alongside Constantinople, from 330-1453. It fell to the Ottoman Turks with the sacking of Constantinople in 1453, until liberation in 1923. In short, its ruins include Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman. Funerary artifacts from the region include also much older bronze age, archaic and classic Greek period objects.

No Hellenistic ruins are within the city, though numerous tombs with funerary goods have been found all through the region. These are displayed in the wonderful Museum of Archaeology. The earliest architectural ruins within the city are from the Roman period, and include the Arch of Galerius, the Galerius Palace, the Agora or Forum and the round Rotunda, which was converted to use in the 4th century as the first Christian church of the Byzantine period, and then subsequently to an Ottoman mosque in the 15th century. Starting from the 5th century, Byzantine churches were built throughout the city, and many of the oldest remaining churches in the world are here. A number of 5th century churches are still in use today, and many contain remnants of 5th through 8th century mosaics and frescoes. The Ayios Sofia is modeled after the church of the same name in Constantinople (Istanbul), though smaller. It dates from the 8th century, though it has been heavily restored since then. The 5th Century Ayios Dhimitrios serves as the city’s basilica, and contains the oldest 5th through 8th century mosaics and friezes. Under the church one can visit the crypts where Saint Dhimitrios was imprisoned and martyred. The oldest church, built as a church, is the Panayia Ahiropiitos, built in the 5th century, which contains wonderful intricate carved capitals on the marble columns, and remains of mosaics on the undersides of the arches.

Parts of the Byzantine defensive walls remain along the mountain crests in the high parts of the city, and where the walls used to reach the sea still stands the White Tower, the final defensive part of the system, and now the symbol of Thessaloniki. Also there are a number of bath houses and other structures from the period of the Ottoman Turks rule. The Ottomans actually converted a number of the Byzantine churches into mosques, which within the last 100 years have been converted back into churches.

Last Monday I traveled by bus to the small community of Pella, where lie the ruins of the second capital city of the ancient Macedonian Kingdom, 4th century BC through the Hellenistic era, around 2nd century BC, which Kingdom culminated in the rule of Philip II who conquered and united all of Greece. His son, Alexander the Great, who conquered the rest of the then-known world, was born and raised in Pella. The ruins are considered less than 10% excavated and known, but the site museum has a trove of wonderful objects. Some of the private house mosaic scenes are famous, and this is where Aristotle spent his final years teaching (including Alexander as his most famous pupil).

Last Friday I traveled by bus to the city of Veria, and from there to the tiny hamlet of Vergina – from the 6th to the 4th century BC called Aigai, this was the first capital city of the Macedonian Kingdom, and here lie the very recently excavated Royal Tombs of Aigai, which include the Macedonian Kingdom style rock-cut tombs of the royal families, including most famously that of Philip II. The “museum” actually exists underground under the giant earthen “tumulus” mound which covers the royal tombs. Inside one can see the entrances to 4 of the royal tombs, with their sealed marble doors set between false pillars and under friezes with paintings. The contents of Philip’s tomb are quite astounding, including large amounts of gold, military weapons and metal and ceramic containers and artifacts. Unfortunately, for me, this appears to be the one museum in Greece with a “no photography” rule, so if you wish to see any of the artifacts, you will need to search the site on the internet. Back in Veria I visited its local Archaeology Museum which houses a terrific small collection of funerary artifacts from the Macedonian Kingdom tombs which lie everywhere under the modern city. I was here most impressed with the terracotta female figurines, which to my eyes look just like Victorian porcelain figurines – I suppose these Veria figures provided the model.

I hope to receive one of my two replacement debit cards tomorrow, and probably will not wait for the other; I feel the need to move on, as I will have spent almost 2 weeks in Thessaloniki. I think next I will head down to the small village of Litohoro, on the side of Mt Olympus where the Gods reside. I may not climb the mountain, risking the anger of Zeus, but hope to visit some nearby ruins and a castle, before moving on to central Greece. Later. Dave

PS – I note the longer captions under the photos below are being cut off – however, if you click on any photo, the slideshow displays the full captions, as well as a much better view of each photo.

Travelogue Reporting on Litochoro, with Mt Olympus & Dion, & Meteora, Oct. 9, 2015

Hello again. I stayed in Thessaloniki almost a week longer than anticipated because of the loss of my wallet with 2 debit cards. It took 10 days to get both cards replaced, and a pin number for just one of them to allow for ATM withdrawals. The other pin should be available in a few days. Unbelievable – about 2 weeks, and with Ally Bank, over $200 in international phone charges, to get replacement debit cards with pins.

While extending my stay in Thessaloniki I spent a fair amount of time further visiting the Byzantine churches with frescoes and old mosaics.

On Saturday a week ago I traveled by bus from Thessaloniki to the village of Litochoro, set just a few kilometers upslope from the Aegean Sea on the eastern foothills of Mt. Olympus. Immediately above Litochoro opens the steep and awesome Epinea Gorge which splits the eastern face of Mt Olympus. On clear sunny mornings, looking west through the gorge, are the 3 main stony peaks of Mt Olympus, rising well above tree line. The more spectacular is Stefani, at just over 9,500 feet the third highest, which forms the top back of a giant bench known as the “Throne of Zeus.’ On the left side is the second highest peak, Scolio, just 6 feet higher than Stefani. Between the two aforementioned is Mytikas, the highest peak of Mt Olympus, just 30 feet higher than Stefani,. the Throne. By late morning, even on clear days, the clouds form to cover the high peaks.

Just 10 kilometers north of Litochoro is the little village of Dhion, beside which sits the ruins of ancient Dion; I took a taxi to Dion my first afternoon. Dion was first established around the 6th Century BC, next to the ancient oak grove and springs which form the Macedonian Kingdom Sanctuary of Zeus Olympus. This was a very sacred site to which all Macedonian Kings came, including Philip II and Alexander the Great, to make sacrifices before their great military exploits. The ancient city lies along a great paved causeway which runs north-south, along both sides of which lie ruins of Hellenistic, Roman Period and very early Byzantine workshops, villas and baths. The city was a major center from the mid-4th century BC to the 4th century AD. The Great Bath House and many villas contain wonderful floor mosaics. At the west wall of the city a late 4th century AD Basilica was built shortly before an earthquake destroyed the city. South of the city walls lie multiple Sanctuaries dedicated to various gods. The original site was for Zeus Olympus, but the oldest remaining ruins are the 6th century BC ruins of the Sanctuary of Demetrius. Also here are the Roman period Sanctuaries of Isis and Zeus Hypsistos. Further south of the city walls are the foundations of the Hellenistic period theater and a small Roman period theater. The site is filled with water from flooding springs and is much overgrown with tangles of raspberry bushes and great oak trees.

In the middle of the modern village of Dhion is the Dion Site Museum, small but with a delightful collection of marble statuary and cemetery markers from the ancient city and the various sanctuaries surrounding it. Here also is displayed the only remains ever found of the ancient bronze musical instrument called the hydraulus, a 1st century predecessor of the pipe organ.

The following day I hiked a few kilometers west of Litochoro up into Epinea Gorge on the trail which ultimately leads to the top of Mt Olympus. The trail was rocky and a very steep climb for an hour, but provided spectacular views up the canyon and out to the sea to the east. At several points the trail passed through very thick dark oak forest, and then would emerge climbing rocky outcroppings over the canyon.

From Litochoro I traveled on the 6th by train to Kalambaka – the first train, which I caught at the little Litochoro Beach train station, was quite new and clean, with few passengers. At one station the train took an unscheduled 15 minute break for everyone, including engineer and conductor, to get off and smoke cigarettes. At a track junction in Paleofarsalo I changed trains to a much older, dirtier and more crowded one heading west to Kalambaka. All in all, travel by train, at least for longer trips, seems far preferable to bus, as one can move around and see the sights from both sides. I think the trains are faster as well, particularly with tunnels through all the hills as opposed to winding roads. Of course, they don’t cover most of the routes I wish to take. From Kalambaka I took a taxi just the couple of kilometers to the neighboring village of Kastraki, where I am in a delightful hotel called the Doupiani House, with views of the expanse known as The Meteora.

Kalambaka sits at the southeastern base, and Kastraki the southwestern base, of “The Meteora” – an unearthly site. Along the foothills rising northward to a small mountain ridge, and encircling a couple of valleys below the ridge, rise mighty, grey rock pillars, towering hundreds of feet into the sky – sheer cliffs on all sides. Perched on the sides or tops of some of the pillars are monasteries and convents dating from the 14th century. Hermits first came and lived in caves up in the pillars, where eventually as many as 24 monasteries were constructed. Today, six monasteries and convents remain somewhat active, with resident monks and nuns, who seem to spend their days dealing with the masses of tourists who come by the busloads. Each monastery charges a 3 Euro entrance, and looking at the numbers of visitors, a quick calculation suggests they no longer need to sustain themselves by donations. The Ayios Triadhos (Holy Trinity) Monastery famously starred in an awesome aerial scene in the James Bond movie “For Your Eyes Only.” I have always remembered that scene and wished to see the actual site – mission now accomplished after 34 years (see photo at top of this page, or below in slide show).

A paved road, some 15 kilometers in length, winds through the pillars and up the mountain, and provides access to the “entrance” ways to each monastery. “Entrance” is a euphemism for the point at which one leaves the paved parking area and starts toward the monastery. All but one require a steep climb (mostly steps cut into the sides of the pillars) to reach the actual entrance to the structures. Two require a long descent to a bridge connecting the mountain to the pillar, followed by a steep climb up steps to the actual monastery. Over a two day span, I took the local bus each morning to the top points of the road, first at the eastern end, and the next day the western. From these points, with perhaps 18 kilometers of walking and 1200 feet of climbing I visited each of the 6 structures. All contain courtyards around which are arrayed the living quarters. Near the center of each property lies the two-chambered chapels, which have all interior walls and ceilings completely covered with fabulous 15th and 16th century frescoes, depicting various scenes of the saints’ lives, and multiple depictions of saints in the process of being martyred. Every chapel, over the door from the outer to inner chamber, contains a scene, from roof to floor, of judgement day, with people lined up before the scales of justice, and to the right side scores of people being cast into the mouths of the monsters of Hell. Unfortunately, at least for me, no photography is allowed inside the chapels (I suppose either for religious reasons or, more likely, because camera flash would quickly deteriorate the delicate colors of the age-old frescoes).

I hiked all of the roads between the monasteries, and some trails between the Meteora pillars, looking for vantage points for the exquisite panoramic views – sometimes waiting for the sun to appear through holes in the clouds to try to capture the ethereal quality of the scenes.

With my hiking and walking I should be losing weight. I cannot weigh myself, but it seems clear I am gaining girth. Apparently the food agrees with me; I think I am eating way to many dishes of lamb chops, roasted pork chunks, Greek sausages, fried calamari and tsatziki (cucumber and yogurt dipping sauce), or perhaps it just is the quantities of red wine and beer – well – maybe it’s both.

Tomorrow I head southeast for a long travel day, 3 bus changes, to Delphi, the site of the ancient Oracle. Later. Dave




Report on Delphi, Osios Loukas, Acropolis & Athens, Greece Oct. 19, 2015

My last day in Meteora, the other-worldly site of 14th century monasteries perched upon the rock pillars, I hiked up a short canyon around the base of several pillars to view ruins of some old monastic dwellings in caves, including what are referred to as hermitages. Some of the rock pillars have small caves, alcoves and cracks into the rock face, ranging from 40 to over a hundred feet up the pillar’s wall. Within a number of these openings, religious hermits constructed wooden platforms and railings, often on multiple levels connected by rickety ladders; they apparently lived out their lives here partially exposed to the elements (see photo below). I took also one last panoramic photo (actually a composite of over 60 photos) of the Meteora from the south with Kastraki in the valley below; two monateries are visible perched upon high pinacles, but appear tiny in the photo.

On Saturday 9 days ago I traveled from Kalambaka by bus to Delphi, site of the Sacred Sanctuary Precinct of the Oracle of archaic and classical Greece. The travel, although not far in distance, occupied much of the day as I had to board 4 different buses to make the journey. The modern town of Delphi, which exists solely to provide tourist services to those who visit, consists of several parallel streets running around the edge of a steep mountainside, one above the other, overlooking a deep olive grove filled valley with the Bay of Corinth to the southwest. Nice view from my hotel balcony.

Just around the corner of the mountain to the east, on a steep slope under the western end of the rocky ridge that rises into Mt Parnassus, lies the Sacred Precinct of Delphi. From the late Bronze Age through the early Roman-Greco period, this was a most sacred place where people came to seek prophesies and advice concerning all manner of life questions, from whether engaging in war would destroy an empire to prospects for successful marriages. These prophesies, rendered by priests and conveyed to the seekers in metered rhyme, first were interpreted from the ravings of the sibyl or priestess, known as the Pythia, an elderly, “blameless” woman who sat over an opening in the earth within the Temple of Apollo, breathing rising fumes of perhaps ethylene or burning oleander (either somewhat toxic and probably producing trances). Delphi also was the site, every four years, of the Pythian Games, archaic period predecessor to the Panathenaic Games at Olympia and, much later, the modern Olympics.

For the Oracle and the Pythian Games, the Sacred Precinct was filled with temples, sanctuaries, treasuries, theaters, stadiums and monuments, constructed by the powerful city-states and surrounding kingdoms of the time. Though much of the site itself now is not much more than foundations, having suffered through a number of huge earthquakes, sackings and fires, the site museum contains some remarkable finds – to my eye the most spectacular the three restored life-size chryselephantine statues, produced in the late Archaic Period (6th-5th C BC), found in the “Repositories” in front of the Stoa of the Athenians. The adjective “chryselephantine” derives from the Greek words for gold and ivory, and so denotes objects made of gold and ivory. Chryselephantine statues of people or gods were carved wooden bodies completely covered with gold, except for all exposed “skin” parts which were carved of ivory (the face, arms, hands and feet). See my pictures of the two outstanding chryselephantine statues’ heads – the ivory faces somewhat blackened from the offering fire with which they were buried millennia ago. Also see the bronze “Charioteer”, from the Archaic-Classical boundary around 480 BC, the first and perhaps the most famous of the handful of great life-size Classical bronzes ever found. It was preserved intact in a deep burial resulting from an earthquake in 373 BC, though almost all of the attached bronze chariot and horses were looted millennia ago. Finally see the marble statue of the Sphinx, which the powerful kingdom of the island of Naxos offered to Delphi around 560 BC during the Archaic Period, sitting atop a 40 foot pillar.

From Delphi I made a day trip by taxi to the Byzantine Monastery of Osios Loukas, built in the 11th century. The larger of the two Monastery churches, the Katholikon, is famed for its well-preserved Byzantine mosaics, considered by many the best in all of Greece. The Monastery, unlike those at Meteora, sits on the side of a low mountain overlooking a green valley. I have included several photos of the mosaics, most of which are within concave curved surfaces giving them a special dimensionality. Within the crypt under the church are a number of well-preserved frescoes, particularly on the ceiling.

On Wednesday last I traveled from Delphi to Athens – exactly 4 weeks to the day after arrival in Greece, I finally arrive in its main city. I am ensconced in a fine little hotel called the Acropolis House, known for providing mid-term stays for various students and professors of the classics; it is located in the heart of the area know as the Plaka, within walking distance of just about all of importance, including the Acropolis and Ancient Agora.

My first full day I toured the Acropolis and Agoras (Ancient & Roman), the “must-sees” for any visit to Greece. The Acropolis, for those who have not visited, is a rocky hill rising straight up sheer cliffs over 200 feet above the level of the surrounding ancient city of Athens. The top is approximately flat, mesa-like, about 1000 feet long and half as wide. Below the cliff face of all sides the talus is covered with dirt forming sloping areas – various ruins of sanctuaries, temples, theaters and stoa occupy the lower these dirt-covered talus fields, particularly below the southern cliff face. An ancient causeway, now converted to trails and stairs, provides access to the top from the west. At the top, today, survive just four Classic Period Greek structures, set among older foundational ruins. One enters through the great pillars and halls of the Propylaia on the western end. It shelters and hides the very small but beautiful Temple of Athena Nike which sits right on the southwestern corner over the cliff-face. On the northern side of the Acropolis sits the Erechtheion and its famous Porch of the Caryatids. Finally, at the center south, and the highest point, towers the monumental Parthenon, much larger than the presentation provided by pictures.

Unfortunately and, to my mind, obscenely, practically the entirety of the views of the Propylaia, the Temple of Athena Nike and the Parthenon are marred by scaffolding, work-crews, canvas and giant cranes. Further, on the southern approach, the Sanctuary and the Temple of Asclepion, the Stoa of Eumenes II and the Theater of Herodus Atticus and its entire stage are roped off with scaffolding and work equipment. I understand some reconstruction and repair work was initiated to be completed in time for the 2004 Olympic Games held in Athens; that work apparently has now been ongoing continuously for 15 years, with expectations it may go on for that much longer into the future. Restoration and consolidation work on the world’s great monuments is necessary and understandable – but ordinarily this is done on small segments at a time so as not to mar the entirety of a World Heritage site for decades. I suppose the economic crisis has resulted both in reduced government funding available at the same time the government is trying to employ more for public works. By my calculation, the only photos in existence of the entire Parthenon, unblemished by scaffolding and cranes, are photos taken on film – no digital photos of a clean Parthenon exist. Still, for all my complaining, the overall impression of the towering structure is exhilarating.

In ancient time, the eastern, larger, chamber of the Parthenon served as a Temple to Athena, and contained a 40 foot chryselephantine statue of the Goddess known as the Athena Parthenos. The gold used to cover the statue was recorded to weigh 2,400 lbs. (in round numbers worth about $50,000,000 today), and accounted for a substantial portion of Athens’ Treasury, which was housed in the smaller chamber at the west end of the Parthenon. The statue was constructed around 447 BC, but had its gold removed around 390 BC in order to be able to afford to pay troops (the statue thereafter covered with gold-covered bronze plates). Over a millennium later the statue apparently was moved to Constantinople, but since has disappeared.

The much smaller structure called the Erechtheion, to the north, is the only building now without reconstruction obscuring its beauty. The east and west ends have the roof supported by Ionic columns. On the southwestern side is a lower porch extending out from the building with its roof famously supported by six statues of women known as the Caryatids; the original statues now are displayed in the nearby wonderful Museum of the Acropolis – see the included photo. The Museum also displays remaining fragments of the pediments, metopes and friezes of the Parthenon, the sculptured architectural details at both ends and around the roof edges of the building. The frieze, which extended around all four sides of the inner structure, was 524 feet long, and the entirety displayed a massive procession, perhaps the Panathenaic Procession, starting at the southwest corner of the Parthenon and extending both directions around the building to end at the eastern entrance. Although the majority of the remaining parts of the frieze were hauled off by Lord Byron 200 years ago, and now sit in the British Museum, many of the great scenes of the horsemen are displayed in the Acropolis Museum, of which I have included sample photos.

Below the Acropolis, on the slopes of the north side, lies the Ancient Agora, or public gathering place and marketplace, of Athens, with the beautiful Temple of Hephaistus and various Stoa among other structures. The completely rebuilt Stoa of Attalos now contains the Site Museum for the objects found in the Ancient Agora, mostly funerary ceramic items from the many burials found in this area.

Yesterday I finally got to visit one of the world’s great archeological museums which I so far have missed, the National Archeological Museum of Greece. Unlike the regional and site museums I already have visited, this museum covers, of course, the entire archeological record of the ancient Greek world. Interestingly, this coverage comes to a chronological conclusion with just a relatively small collection of late Hellenistic and Roman artifacts, and no Byzantine coverage at all; those periods are considered well into the historical rather than archeological record. I spent six solid hours on my feet within the museum’s halls, and kept finding rooms I had missed. I am quite sure I still have missed much, and hurried past most, and hope to return before leaving Greece.

Among the museum highlights are – 4 life-size bronze statues of the Greek Classical Period, including a very young jockey riding a very large galloping horse, recovered from the sea from an ancient shipwreck – a huge collection of marble statues and grave markers, extraordinary pottery – and, most popular, the many finds of the famous 19th century German, Heinrich Schliemann. Schliemann was the famous pioneer who insisted the major actions and places recounted in the Iliad, the story of the Trojan War between Troy and Mycenae, were not myth but real historical references. He proceeded then to locate both Troy, near the western Dardanelles in northwest Turkey, and the 16th–12th century BC Mycenaean Capital in the Peloponnese of Greece.

A brief digression to put Greek ancient history in very rough perspective. Greece had not one, but two separate eras which saw great flowering of the arts and construction of monuments. The latter, from about 700 to 323 BC, was referred to as the Archaic and Classic Periods; these periods saw the production of the city states, democracy, the great philosophers and playwrights, along with the bronze and marble sculptures, fine ceramics and the written classics. Prior to these periods was a 400 year gap sometimes referred to as the Greek Dark Ages, during which little development and no writings are found (possibly a result of not digging in the right places). Prior to the Dark Ages, from 2500 to about 1100 BC, a millennia before Classic Greece, two great civilizations emerged and ultimately merged; first was the great Minoan civilization of Crete, followed by and ultimately merged into by the great Mycenaean civilization from the Peloponnese. From this period two forms of writing was developed, the latter of which which morphed into ancient Greek. The Mycenaean/Minoan merged civilization of the 16th through the 12th centuries BC comprised the canvas upon which the mythic heroes and gods of Greece roamed and played out their stories. During the early 12th century BC the Mycenaeans apparently fought a real war with Troy, the archeological remnants of which are present at Troy.

From excavations in the Mycenaean capital, Schliemann unearthed a mass of precious artifacts and relics, including a very large number of fantastic gold objects. See the picture of the famous death “Mask of Agamemnon”, though whose royal corpse it actually covered is unknown. My favorite Mycenaean artifact is a fragment of a bronze dagger, perhaps 5 inches long, the side inlaid with gold and silver to portray an amazing tiny and intricate scene of two felines chasing through flying ducks, running over a watery patch with fish and papyrus reed flowers. Consider that the view of attached photo on an ordinary monitor screen displays the blade at about twice life-size.

Also a museum highlight, the statue of Athena Parthenos, a marble copy (called the “Varvekeion Copy”) of the original Chryselephantine statue, which at 1 meter (1/12 size) still gives some sense of the awesome presence the original must have instilled in the Parthenon. I have included photos also of a large decorated spherical clay vase from Dimini, which astounded me by the fact it is 7,000 years old, and Cycladic (from the Island group of that name) clay vessels from the early bronze age (2800-2300 BC) called “frying pans,” a reference to their shape although their use is unknown.

I am taking a few days breather to catch up on captioning photos, and am researching how best to attack my visits to the Peloponnese and islands. Some have inquired why I include no bird and wildlife photos; for this trip I chose not to bring a heavy telephoto lens for bird shots, partially to reduce the weight I carry, but also because Europe just does not have the wealth of bird diversity found in other continents; this trip is for the archeology. The food and red wine continues to be good, and I enjoy my late afternoons sitting on my little balcony reading sci-fi and drinking the red.

Later. Dave





Report on Ancient Corinth, Ancient Olympia, Ancient Sparta & Byzantine Mystra & Monemvasia, Greece, Oct. 30, 2015

Hello all. I last reported from Athens. On Wednesday over a week ago I traveled by train to the Peloponnese, the large southern dangling section of Greece that just barely is connected at the “Isthmus” to the rest of the landmass. Actually, now, as of the last 122 years, it no longer is connected (except by bridges), as a canal has been built, without locks, across the 6 kilometer neck. The Peloponnese played an outsize role in Greece’s history, producing first the Mycenaean Civilization, and during the later Classic Period producing those great warriors of Sparta and hosting the major original ancient Olympic Games. The Peninsula, on the eastern side, has a greater concentration of ancient ruins than any other part of Greece.

I first stopped in Archaea Korinthos (Ancient Corinth) for a few days. This was one of the oldest continuously occupied cities, from the middle Helladic Period (middle Bronze Age, from 2000 BC), through late Helladic (Mycenaean late Bronze Age), and on through the Greek Dark Ages, the Archaic, Classic, Hellenistic and on into the Roman Period. Here, in the mid-1st century AD, Paul claims to have spent a year and a half attempting to convert the Jews, then the heathens to Christianity, with limited success; however his influence was sufficient to first get him brought before fthe Roman Proconsul on heresy of the faith charges – he was aquited as his teachings were viewed as internal Jewish disagreements. Paul is credited with composing perhaps the greatest Christian letters; those to the Church of Corinth. Today a modern Greek church, standing overlooking the ancient city ruins, has in front a large stone monument engraved with 8 famous verses from Chapter 13 of Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians. After 50 years, I still can almost recite the passage by heart

“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.

 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”


Powerful words even for one who no longer believes.

The ruins of Ancient Corinth are very concentrated and compact, and sit on the slopes above the Corinthian Bay to the north, and under the shadow of the 2,000 foot limestone mountain, with shear cliffs, called Akro Korinthos (Acropolis Corinth). The Akro always has served as a fortress, although today the impressive remains are all medieval (mostly Byzantine and Ottoman). The largest structure in Ancient Corinth was the famous Temple to Apollo, which still crowns the highest hill.

From Ancient Corinth I traveled by bus around the northern coast of the Peloponnese, by the city of Patra with its huge suspension bridge over a narrow neck of the Corinthian Bay, to connect the Peloponnese to the mainland of central Greece, and on to Pyrgos. From there a short hop further inland to the ancient site of Olympia, where the original games were produced for almost 1,200 years – makes our 120-or-so-year history of the “modern” games seem rather weak, although with 200 nations now participating, the world coverage is somewhat better than existed in ancient Greece. I think I previously wrote stating that the games at Delphi, called the Pythian Games, were the archaic predecessor of the games at Olympia; this is not true as both started during or before the Archaic Period, although the start date of either is uncertain. During Archaic and Classic Period times, games were organized at both sites along with two other sites (together all called the Panhellenic Games), at 4-year intervals at each site.

The site ruins at Olympia spread over quite a large area, and a confusion of archaic period through late Roman period construction makes the site in some places difficult to understand. Upon entering the site, the first really large structure, with double rows of marble columns on all 4 sides, is the Palestra, the school for wrestling, one of the Olympic sports. The Temple of Zeus is at the heart of the site, along with the older 7th century BC Temple of Hera, for whom earlier games (among women) were established. The Temple of Zeus during the 5th century BC contained a 45 foot chryselephantine statue of Zeus seated (see my prior report for explanation of “Chryselephantine”). Both the Chryselephantine statue of Athena, from the Parthenon (previously reported), and the one of Zeus at Olympia were created by the famous Phidias at his workshop during the 5th century BC. Both were monumental and must have been breathtaking, with the carved ivory skin (Zeus was seated and his entire upper torso, perhaps 10 feet high, was bare, and so covered with ivory, along with his face and hands), the rest covered with gold. The statue of Zeus was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Both statues disappeared in the 5th century AD, with independent reports suggesting each was brought to Constantinople, and there lost to mankind.

The Olympia Archeological Site Museum has some wonderful treasures from the ancient sanctuaries. The marble statue of Hermes, photo below, is considered a masterpiece of the Classical Period. Also, the well preserved marble pediments of the Temple of Zeus, especially the Western end showing the battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs, contains some wonderful marble work.

From Olympia I traveled on Saturday to Sparta, where I stayed in a relatively modern hotel right on the city center. Of Ancient Sparta, very little remains. The ancient theater still sits at the foot of the Acropolis, which contains some ruins of structures. A fair amount of work is ongoing in the area trying to expose and consolidate other ruins, but nothing is labeled. A small museum exists for artifacts found at the Acropolis and nearby Sanctuary of Orthia Artemis, but takes less than half an hour to see everything, and is rather disappointing. Bottom line, Sparta is not worth visiting for Ancient Sparta.

But, 6 kilometers west of Sparta, tumbling down the extremely steep slopes of a rocky mountain at the edge of the Taygetos Range, lies the remains of the medieval Byzantine city of Mystra, and very well worth a visit. At the rocky summit of the mountain sits the ancient fortress, first built by the Franks in the early 13th century, along with that at Monemvasia (my next visit). Within 2 decades Byzantine forces captured the fortresses, and for 2 centuries, as Constantinople declined, Mystra and Monemvasia became the major Byzantine cities in the Greek world. By the mid-14th century, the town of Mystra held 20,000 people, spilling down 900 feet of slopes from the fortress into the “upper” and “lower” cities. By the late 15th century, the town was taken by the Ottoman Turks, and later by the Venetians, before independence in 1821. Today Mystra has been abandoned (except by one small convent of nuns), and the ruins of the city follow the alleys and passages down the mountainside. A number of monasteries and churches remain with magnificent 14th century frescoes covering much of their interiors – I have included photos of 4 of my favorite frescoes, including one unusual view of the Last Supper (over 100 years earlier than Da Vinci’s), and one taking Jesus down from the cross. Mystra now is a World Heritage Site.

From Sparta I traveled yesterday by bus southeast to the coast and the rocky island fortress town of Monemvasia (a sister Byzantine city to Mystra). Monamvasia is a fortress town, like Mystra, which sits on the side and top of a massive rock island which juts almost 2000 feet from the sea, shear cliffs surrounding the upper island, with a low narrow shelf on the south side on which the lower city was built. It served for 200 years as the Byzantine commercial seaport during the 13th and 14th centuries. Unfortunately, the Byzantine ruins of the Upper City are closed (for construction – don’t get me started again). The Lower City has the original alleys and passageways, but is now small hotels and shops for the tourist trade.

I travel next to Nafplio as a center from which to visit half a dozen ancient sites, including Mycenae, finally.   Later. Dave

Report on Nafplio, Palamidi, Mycenae, Tiryns, Epidaurus & Rhodes, Greece, Nov. 10, 2015

Hello. I last reported from Monamvasia. From there I traveled by bus to Nafplio on the SE Peloponnese, where I spent 7 days visiting nearby ancient sites. Nafplio is a delightful small town; the “old town” an ancient port city. Today’s narrow passageways and streets mostly date from Venetian periods (15th-18th centuries) and it became the first capital of Greece for a decade or so, right after independence in 1829, until the capital was moved to Athens. Nafplio is surrounded by not one, but 3 different fortresses; the most imposing is the Venetian fortress known as the Palamidi, which encircles the top of the 720 foot mountain top overlooking Nafplio from the east. The ancient staircase switches back and forth as it climbs straight up the cliff face to the battlements. The Fortress has 7 different bastions, or castles, within its walls, all built in the early 1700s. I had a small hotel room at the top of an old building in the old town, with a small balcony overlooking the red-tiled roofs of much of the town spilling out to the sea, and a full view of the western face and staircase of Palamidi Fortress. I watched from the balcony each evening, drinking wine, as the bastions, great staircase and cliff sides turned completely gold in the setting sunlight, and visitors like ants marched down the 999 steps from the Fortress.

Nafplio lies just a few miles from the two major Palace-Fortresses of the very ancient Mycenaean Kingdom, Mycenae and Tiryns. I pointed out in a previous report that Greece enjoyed two great eras of flowering of ancient civilizations, separated by several hundred years of the Greek “Dark Age.” The flowering which followed the Dark Age was the Archaic-Classical-Hellenistic era which generally is considered “The” Greek culture, and forebearer of Western Civilization. The earlier flowering era, prior to the Greek Dark Age, was during the middle and late bronze age, and is divided into 3 separate groupings by geography, though all interacted. The islands produced the earliest civilizations, on Crete the Minoan civilization and on the smaller island group known today as the Cyclades, the Cycladic civilization. Both persisted through the 2nd millennium BC, although the Minoan civilization was subsumed into the third group, which flowered on the Peloponnese mainland from about 1500-1100 BC – this latter was the great Mycenaean Kingdom, famed by Homer for engaging the Trojan War. The palace and tombs of Mycenae are real, as discovered along with Troy by Schlieman, in the 19th century, and produced as stunning a collection of treasure as ever found. Most of those artifacts are in the Athens Museum of Archaeology, and I previously have uploaded photos of some of my favorite pieces.

Last week I traveled by bus to visit the hilltop Palace Fortress of Mycenae. One enters through the famous “Lion Gate,” built as a megalithic stone lintel; all fortress walls are built of giant stones, each cut individually to fit without mortar over those below. The ancient Greeks that came after the Dark Age were amazed at the size of the rocks, and concluded the fortresses only could have been built by the giant cyclops, so the Mycenaean fortress construction is referred to as “cyclopean”. Just inside the Lion Gate is one of the several amazing circular tombs – Tomb Circle A excavated by Schlieman; giant royal interments used over centuries, from the Tomb Circles multiple royal graves came the many treasures in the museums. A couple of days later I visited the nearby ancient Mycenaean port Palace-Fortress of Tiryns. Today, due to silt, it lies several kilometers from the sea, but served as the port and major trading city of the Mycenaeans. It also is constructed of cyclopean walls. Mycenae and Tiryns together comprise a World Heritage Site.

I spent one day traveling by bus to the Archaic-Classic-Hellenistic Period ruins of the Sanctuary of Asclepius and ancient Theater of Epidaurus, another World Heritage Site. The Sanctuary of Asclepius was dedicated to the healing arts, Asclepius being the God of healing, and made much use in ancient times of serpents, although it is not clear exactly how they figured in the practice. The rod of Asclepius, with entwined serpent, has become the worldwide symbol of the medical profession. The Theater, dating from the 5th century BC, is considered by many to be in the finest condition of any Classical period theater, and is in use today for the summer presentation of plays.

From Nafplio I traveled back to Athens last Thursday, and the next day flew to the Island of Rhodes. Rhodes Town, the capital on the northern tip, sits less than 12 miles from the coast of Turkey, and I was surprised to find it is just 50 miles from Fethiye and Oludeniz from where I sailed on a Turkish Gulet 10 years ago. Rhodes had major seafaring settlements through the Greek Dark Ages, Archaic and Classical Periods. Indeed, the Rhodes Town harbor was the location of the Colossus of Rhodes, a titanic bronze statue of Apollo erected in 305 BC, and one of the 7 Ancient Wonders of the World. Rhodes of Classical Greece held a population of 100,000, much larger than it is today. What is known as the “Old Town”, completely enclosed within massive 40 foot double walls, and 30 meter wide moats, is almost entirely medieval, with just a few patches of Classic Period ancient walls excavated here and there. The Old Town, another World Heritage Site, was mostly constructed and maintained for over 200 years (1309-1522) by the Order of the Knights of St John, better known as the Knights Hospitaller, for centuries the last bastion of parts of Greece against the Ottoman Turks. The Knights were differentiated into seven different language groups of medieval western Europe, including Castillano, Italian and French, and were housed in seven different “Inns” or quarters, all built along a long sloping street now named the Street of the Knights. Each “tongue” (group by language) was responsible for the protection of a different Gate and segment of outer walls and bastions of Old Town. At the top end of the Street of Knights is the Palace of the Grand Masters, the headquarters and residence of head of the Knights Hospitaller Order. At the lower end, now converted to the local archaeology museum, is the great structure of the Knights Hospital. Rhodes finally fell to Suleyman the Magnificent of the Ottoman Empire, more than 70 years after the fall of Constantinople; according to records Suleyman arrived on the island with 400 ships carrying between 100,000 and 200,000 troops, and still took a 6 month siege to defeat the force of 7,000 Knights defending the Old City. After the defeat Suleyman permitted the remaining Knights to return to Malta. For 400 years Rhodes Old Town declined under Ottoman rule, until liberated in the very early 20th century by Italy, which promptly removed almost all traces of Muslim construction, restoring the Old Town to the medieval gem that it is today.

Two days ago I traveled by bus down the eastern coast of Rhodes to the tiny white-washed village of Lindos, sitting at the sea edge under the mountaintop Acropolis Lindos, where the Venetian Fortress surrounds ancient temples dating from the Greek Dark Age through the Archaic and Classical Periods. The town of Lindos, although practically empty when I was there, has such narrow cobblestone passageways that all traffic, including motorbikes, is banned. Tour buses, when they come, must stop at the highway hundreds of meters up a steep road, and only foot-traffic is allowed down and into the town. Unfortunately, at least to me, the town itself seems alive today solely for catering to tourists (which apparently simply fill the streets in the summer season). When empty, it is quite a sterile, but very clean, set of white curio shops and crepe restaurants waiting for the throngs. As the climb up to the Acropolis is steep and long, the town’s foot-traffic includes donkeys which are happily provided (for a fee) if one wishes a lift up the mountainside.

Today I fly to Heraklion, capital of Crete, finally ready to explore the oldest of the great Greek civilizations, the Minoan. Later. Dave



Report on Heraklion, Minoan Palaces, Roman Gortyn, Hippie beach at Matala & Old Chania, Crete, Greece, Nov. 23, 2015

Hello all. I last reported from Old Town, Rhodes. On Nov. 10, I flew a small prop plane from Rhodes to Heraklion, capital of Crete, where I lodged in the Hotel Kronos overlooking the old Venetian Harbor on the north-central coast. The Old City part of Heraklion mostly still is surrounded by very thick Venetian fortress walls, built in the 13th century, and has the remnants of the Venetian ship-building structures around the old harbor. The major attractions for me were the Archaeology Museum, which houses all of the great artifacts of the Minoan civilization, and the most famous of the Minoan Palaces, Knossos, which lies just south of the present city.

I previously have written of the great Mycenaean culture, which produced the original flowering of Greek civilization on the mainland. Occurring roughly from the start of the 15th through the 12th centuries BC, the Mycenaean culture preceded the Greek Dark Ages. The Mycenaeans borrowed much of their culture, including styles of architecture, frescoes, pottery, metallurgy, religion and writing script, from the earlier Minoan civilization which grew without major antecedents on the island of Crete (the Minoans, of course, influenced and were influenced by the neighboring Egyptians, among others). Although present on Crete throughout the Bronze Age and before, the Minoans reached their cultural heights during the periods known as the First and the Second Palace Periods, which occurred from 1900-1700 BC and 1700-1450 BC, respectively. After the Second Palace Period, there appears to have been a blending or merging of Mycenaean and Minoan cultures, with perhaps Mycenaean occupation on Crete or Minoan occupation in the Peloponnese, or both.

Western civilization or European civilization has its roots in the Roman Empire, which in turn very heavily borrowed from and was influenced by Classical Greek civilization. The Classical Greeks were influenced, in religion and mythology, concepts of honor and heroism, as well as art and metallurgy by the preceding Mycenaean civilization, which itself adopted heavily from the Minoan civilization. Thus it is that the well-known historian Will Durant famously referred to the Minoans as “the first link in the European chain.” I feel, in tracing my own culture back through archaeological time, with the Minoans I have arrived at the beginning.

During the Minoan Palatial Periods, from about 1900 through 1200 BC, several great palace complexes, the centers of large urban populations, existed throughout the island of Crete (there were two major events of destruction followed by new construction, creating the distinction between the Old, the New and the Mono Palace Periods); the two perhaps most important Palaces were Knossos, just south of Heraklion, and Phaistos near the southern coast of Crete. Just a few kilometers west of Phaistos was the somewhat smaller Minoan palace of Agia Triada, referred to as a “villa.” Most of the great artifacts in the Heraklion Museum of Archaeology came from these three sites, and so these were, of course, on my “must visit” agenda. Knossos, the most famous, is claimed to be the palace of Homerian King Minos, and the minotaur jailed in its labyrinth. Knossos lies on a low hilltop just south of the north-central coast. It probably is not the best place to visit a “real” Minoan Palace, though it remains the major tourist attraction on the Island. It was excavated first at the end of the 19th century by Sir Arthur Evans, who, although he correctly extracted and deduced much of Minoan culture, and discovered many famous artifacts, unfortunately “reconstructed” many parts of the Palace stylistically under the influence of his “sense” of how 19th century European royalty would have used various parts of the buildings; the reconstructions are controversial, at best. This detracts from getting a decent and accurate overview of the ruins, as well as enclosing many of the most important rooms, thereby limiting access by tourists. Further, even now in the middle of low-season, great busloads of tours still arrive from the cruise ships docking daily in the Heraklion port.

Knossos produced many of the best artifacts to be seen in the Museum, and almost all of the discovered palace frescoes, the great wall paintings done on still-wet plastered surfaces. Most of the frescoes exist as fragments, which have been removed from the palace ruins and are reassembled in the Museum over panels which attempt to reproduce the missing portions, so the entirety of the scenes can be appreciated. I wonder at some of the reproductions of missing parts, but overall the frescoes are one of the huge highlights of Minoan art. I have included photos of the best of the restored frescoes, including the famous “bull-leaping” fresco (the Minoans had a number of different artistic representations of people using a charging bull’s horns to leap acrobatically over the top).

From Heraklion I traveled, Sunday a week ago, south across the island by bus, traversing the central mountain range, and dropping into the Messara Plains to the small town of Moires, situated centrally for the visitation of four target sites. Moires is not a tourist town, and is not mentioned in either of my guide books, nor in online research sites for hotels and restaurants. I found a hotel with a large relatively modern room, but plagued by mosquitos. I was not bothered, finally, on my last of four nights, after eradicating close to 2 dozen of the nuisances the previous 3 nights, using a fairly effective, rolled-up, damp hand towel to throw at them sitting high on the 11 foot bright yellow walls (successful “hits” were easily determined as most left behind a small bloody spot, establishing that each already had enjoyed my company). The first day in Moires the electric power went out for 8 hours, leaving many restaurants unable to serve customers. The next day the power was restored, but in the interim the town water supply stopped flowing, somehow related to the prior power outage and the pumps. Water was finally restored late afternoon allowing me my first shower in over 2 days of sweaty walking. The owner of my hotel stated this was the first time this had happened.

Phaistos Palace and Agia Triada “Villa” are both situated just west of Moires, and easily visited by hiring a taxi. At Agia Triada I was the sole visitor, and was informed by the gate keeper, who arrived half an hour after I did, that many days would have no visitors. Yet this was a most fascinating site, and source of many of the most famous Minoan and Minoan/Mycenaean artifacts. Because the site was not used by any later peoples after its collapse at the end of the Minoan occupation, and because the archaeologists wisely excavated and consolidated but did not “reconstruct” based on invalid assumptions, the site retains original walls, rooms, stairs and stone paved streets, as well as the many stone channel water delivery and sewage systems for which the Minoans are famous. I walked the 3 kilometers from Agia Triada around the side of the mountain to the site of Phaistos, a full Minoan Palace system. It, like Agia Triada, has been left relatively intact without annoying reconstruction, and I shared the site with perhaps only 4 other tourists. One of the more interesting features of the palaces is the large areas of “storage magazines,” rows of enclosed rooms built off of long corridors, which still contain huge pithoi, ceramic storage jars larger than barrels, where food stuffs apparently were kept.

Along with photos of the Minoan sites themselves, I have included a number of photos of the most famous artifacts, all of which reside in the Heraklion Museum. My favorite is the tiny gold “Bee Pendant” (from the Palace at Malia, which I did not visit) – it is a masterpiece of delicate jewelry design, said to combine all four types of gold metal working, and should appear on a computer monitor about 3 times its actual size of 4.5 cm.  During the Old Palace Period (1900-1700 BC) the Minoans produced a famous and beautiful style of luxury pottery called Kamares ware, which is quite spectacular considering the age; I have included several photos. During the later New Palace Period the Minoans produced many fine ceramics displaying “Marine” style images, especially octopuses (I prefer the term “octopi,” but am informed that that form of plural has no etymological basis, although accepted in use), which wonderful creatures likenesses later were adopted copiously by the Mycenaeans on their ceramics. Also famous is the Phaistos Disk, a ceramic disk engraved on both sides with a still undeciphered hieroglyphic script which appears to travel circularly in a coil, though unclear whether to read from the center out or outside in. The spectacular solid limestone sarcophagus from Agia Triada, from the Mono-Palatial Period after the Mycenaean merger, completely is covered with painted scenes of funerary significance. Too much to absorb!

I spent one day visiting the ancient site of Gortyn, the Roman capital of Crete and northern Africa during the early centuries of the 1st Millennium. The ruins cover several square kilometers, spread through the most ancient olive trees I have ever seen; the city must have had a population of over 100,000. Although most of the ruins seen today date to the Roman Period, the city actually dates to the Archaic Period (about 700 BC), and contains the famous early 5th century BC stone wall inscribed with what today is called the Gortyn Law Code; only about 10% of the original remains, but still covers huge cut stones forming a curved wall of over 30 feet in length. My guide books state it contains such arcane rules as the requirement for the testimony of five men to convict a free man of a crime, but the testimony of one is sufficient to convict a slave.

On Wednesday the 18th I took a bus south to the tiny town of Matala, population a few dozen this time of year, but apparently receiving many thousands of visitors daily during tourist season. On the southern coast of Crete, the village sits above the beach in a pretty half moon bay facing west. On the north side of the bay is a cliff face of limestone, penetrated along its length by rock-cut Roman tombs (popularly referred to as caves), many having double and triple chambers, with benches for several bodies per chamber. In the late 1960s Matala attracted a large number of hippies, and was immortalized by Joni Mitchel who recorded a 1971 song (Carey) concerning her relationship while there. Internet sites claim Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, Joan Baez and Janice Joplin all stayed there for a time, all claims almost certainly untrue, but, the hippie occupation was real. Many apparently took to free living quarters in the Roman tombs, until after some years the scandalized locals, led by the Bishop of Gortyn Province, had the squatters evicted. The Roman tombs now constitute a fenced off, and, thankfully, cleaned-up archaeological site, but the rest of the village is filled with rainbow colors and peace and love and flower-power signage on much of the commercial businesses. A short hike over the mountain to the south leads to another bay enclosing the Red Beach, reputed to be an infamous nude beach. I hiked up and over the mountain for scenic photos – not a living person anywhere on the trail or on Red Beach – one elderly couple, perhaps returned ex-hippies, on Matala Beach. The guide books state the tourists who visit in high season are aged hippies who claim to have spent time in the “caves” in the 60s and 70s. Who knew. I was, I guess, a hippie by all counts in the late 60s, and have no recollection of hearing of Matala, but then I was hardly at the center of everything that was “happening.”

On Thursday I returned to Heraklion, and spent hours the next day exploring again the Archaeology Museum; easier to navigate and understand now that I have seen the principal Minoan sites. On Saturday I traveled 3 hours by bus to the northwestern end of the island to the old city of Chania. The Old Town is surrounded by massive inner Byzantine and outer Venetian stone fortress walls. On the harbor, at the south-western corner of the walls, is the 400 year-old home converted to boutique Hotel Alcanea, where I now am staying. My window opens with a view out onto the harbor and the Venetian lighthouse built in 1600. The Old Town has the usual fascinating tiny passageways which penetrate maze-like in all directions though the ancient and sometimes crumbling buildings. Many little restaurants, seaside cafes and shops, most geared to the huge tourist influx during the “summer” season (April through October). Things are very quiet this time of year, though the weather has been beautiful.

I now have visited all of the places I had listed as must-see prior to arrival in Greece, plus a number of places I only learned of after arrival. I find I have about 12 extra days remaining before my previously purchased return flight to the US. Rather than returning to areas I already have passed through, I have decided to spend 12 days in Cyprus, never having visited before. I fly back to Athens tomorrow, and from there fly to Larnaka, Cyprus the following day. I have purchased a Kindle version of Lonely Planet’s guide to Cyprus, and am buried in reading through that book, and doing quick online research, to try and get the most out the side-trip. I will return to Athens for a couple of final days back at the Archaeology Museum, before returning to the US Dec. 9. Later. Dave

PS – I have noticed that many of the photo captions do not appear in the photo thumbnails as set forth directly below – PLEASE click on any photo to start the slideshow.  In the slideshow the photos display larger and better, and all captions correctly display.

Report on Cyprus, including Larnaca, Choirokoitia, Limassol, Ancient Paphos & King’s Tombs & Nicosia, Dec. 5, 2015

Hello all. I last wrote from Chania reporting on Crete and the very ancient Minoan civilization. From Chania I flew on the 24th back to Athens for one evening. The day I arrived in Athens, a huge police presence had blocked off a commercial street 2 blocks from my hotel; turns out a bomb had been detonated in the middle of the night in the Association of Industries Building, apparently by a radical political party averse to large business. The insurance adjuster, with whom I spoke as he was waiting for the forensics team to let him in the building, told me the bomb had been called in 15 minutes before detonation to ensure the building was evacuated, and had done only damage to the improvements. Early the next morning I flew on to Larnaca, Cyprus.

In Larnaca I stayed at the nice Hotel Achilleos with its good buffet English breakfast (includes fat sausages, baked beans etc.). The first afternoon, after purchasing a sim card to obtain a local cellphone number, I visited the Agios Lazaros Church, originally constructed in the 9th century, and said to be built over crypt and tomb of St Lazarus, the very one and same said to be raised from the dead by Jesus. Tradition says he fled to Kition, the original name of Larnaca, Cyprus, and, after being appointed the first bishop of Cyprus by Paul, died and was buried here, only to have his remains removed to Constantinople 900 years later (like the fate of the chryselephantine statues of Olympia & Athens Acropolis). Anyway, the Church is very nice and full of little ladies lighting candles and kissing all the icons and images of various saints, including Lazarus.

The next morning I took the Intercity Bus from Larnaca half way to Limassol, where I got off near the World Heritage Site of Choirokoitia (pronounced Kirokiteeya with the accent on the “tee”).

Cypriot Recent Aceramic Neolithic Culture

Warning: If you do not wish to read a fairly long exposition on a 7th Millennium BC culture, tracing its development extending backward to the ice age, skip this section. I am utterly fascinated and delighted by being able to connect the farmers and herders, who constructed a walled stone-age town, back to their ice age progenitors. I have not found this information easily available in any single document, but have pieced it together from various archaeological information signs posted at the site, together with information from several different artifact displays at two different museums, plus internet research. The major source of information comes from a large poster, detailing the culture, on the wall of the Neolithic Room in the Cyprus Museum in Nicosia.

Choirokoitia is the oldest major village site found on Cyprus, dating to the early Neolithic around 7,000 BC, and was abandoned around 5,500 BC. The community is fascinating in that the village construction is so advanced, built by a culture now called the Cypriot Recent Aceramic (without ceramics) Neolithic – which occupied the island from about 10,000 to 5,000 BC (nine other sites have been identified as being of the same culture and time period). The people practiced animal husbandry with goats and pigs (and cattle with ancestors at a nearby site), and farmed a variety of cereal grain crops. Only partially excavated, visible in the village now are the lower remains of the walls of some 80 circular rooms (hundreds must be unexcavated), the basic architectural unit, with stone and mud brick walls constructed up to 1 ½ meters thick at the base, with inside diameters of from 2 to over 7 meters. The interiors often were further partitioned for various purposes. Evidence was found for flat roofs built of clay upon a thick wood thatching, fragments of which are in the Larnaka District Museum. The circular rooms were arranged into larger groupings forming houses consisting of several rooms around small common communal areas outside. The entire village, with its very dense packing of structures, sits on steep slopes straddling the top of a small mountain. Several dozen human burials were found under the floors of the circular rooms, indicating perhaps continuing relationships with ancestor spirits. Together with the burials often were artifacts and occasionally juxtapositioned animal remains.

Most impressive, the village is surrounded by perimeter earthen and brick walls (from 2 different periods) with stone facings, of almost 300 meters in total extent. The walls were up to 4 meters in height, with a single entrance; the entrance to Village 2 penetrated the outer wall with a series of 3 sets of stairs set at right angles to each other, requiring a sharp turn and climb inside a narrow opening beside an inner second wall, finally entering the village against the wall of a building. This pattern suggests clearly, to me at least, a defensive purpose. It took some powerful social organization and cohesiveness to create the pattern of houses with stone walled circular rooms, and to construct the massive community perimeter walls with defensible entrances; this greatly surprised me, realizing this village was first constructed almost 9,000 years ago, double the age of the First Kingdom of Egypt from whence came the pyramids. I generally pictured stone-aged peoples of 9,000 years ago as living in caves or wood-framed pit houses covered with thatch or animal skins, not in plastered stone-walled houses in villages with huge perimeter walls. In the attached photos, I have included some examples of the sophisticated stone goods, and an absolutely unique anthropomorphic bust of clay.

I also have included a photo of a unique 9,000-10,000 year old zoomorphic bust made of serpentine, with feline features, which came from Parekklisia-Shillourokampus, a nearby earlier period site of the ancestors of Choirokoitia, which was occupied from about 8200 – 7500 BC. The bust is a remarkable and beautiful piece. The site had collective human burials in designated areas, often positioned with intact animal burials; these reportedly are some of the earliest such burials in the world. One recent excavation of a burial found a cat in association with the human burial, suggesting the earliest known domestication of cats, far earlier than that at Egypt, and, to me at least, supporting the identity of the serpentine piece as representing a cat. Dogs also were domesticated. Evidence from genetics suggests that certain cereal grains were first domesticated in Cyprus at this particular site. Remarkable also are the presence of domestic cattle remains at this site, and also at an earlier site (9000 BC) named Kissonerga-Mylouthkia. Cattle were not among the native fauna of Cyprus, and so had been imported from the mainland by these very early Aceramic Neolithic peoples at this time. Cattle disappear from the record by the time of Choirokoitia, suggesting to me that cattle husbandry could not be sustained (domestic cattle reappear in the record around 3000 BC). Also in this early phase, around 8200 BC, obsidian, imported from Anatolia (Turkey), was used for blades – evidence of trading with the mainland. Obsidian disappears from the excavations, replaced entirely by local flint and chert, by the time of Choirokoitia. Structures in the earlier settlements were of wood within perimeter trenches. Both Shillourokampus and Mylouthkia had a number of deep, circular, man-made water wells, up to 25 feet deep to reach underground streams, with built in hand and foot holds down the sides. At the earlier Mylouthkia site one human skull, buried in one of the well structures, clearly displayed cranial deformation with flattening of the occipital, a custom found on the nearby Asian mainland (also common in Mesoamerica 8,000 years later). In the latest phase of Shillourokampus, the architectural units began to become curved stone walls, presaging Choirokoitia.

The Cypriot Aceramic peoples first arrived on Cyprus around 10,000 BC (12,000 years ago), and occupied a rock shelter site called Akrotiri-Aetokremnos, about 40 km west of Shillourokampus. Cyprus was home then to dwarf elephants and pygmy hippos, which survived at the end of the most recent glaciation, and bones of both were found at the rock shelter, the hippo bones together with the strata of human artifacts; many of the hippo bones showed burning, though no evidence of cuts. Experts have debated “hotly” whether the arrival, at the end of the Pleistocene, 12,000 years ago, of the ancestors of the Cypriot Aceramic Neolithic culture, was associated with the extinction of these creatures.

Absolutely fascinating, to me, is starting with the of arrival of man on Cyprus, near the end of the Pleistocene; then being able to trace these people through early settlement formation, the domestication of animals and importation of cattle, domestication of cereal grains, production of very sophisticated stone ware, and gradual evolution of architecture to the multi-use circular building units, cohesively arranged into housing units, within a town with huge perimeter stone walls, and defensible entrances, at Choirokoitia. The culture seems then to have disappeared around 5000 BC (over 1,500 years before the start of the Mesopotamian, Indus Valley or Egyptian civilizations), but perhaps future work will reveal a continuation, or connections with subsequent cultures.

End of Cypriot Aceramic Neolithic Discussion

The day after visiting Choirokoitia, I visited the recommended Pierides Museum in Larnaca, a private foundation museum for display of the extensive archaeological collection of the Pierides family, mostly accumulated during the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries. As with most such collections, this one was started with the claimed purpose of preserving on Cyprus the ancient artifacts extracted for sale by tomb robbers. It seems to me that these large private archaeological collections simply increase the value of the trade in stolen ancient artifacts, thus supporting and expanding such trade. The sad result is that these artifacts never can be properly placed in context. Further, the sites from which the objects were removed are irrevocably damaged for further study. Finally, because so many of the artifacts are sufficiently unique and in relatively good shape, questions must invariably arise regarding authenticity. Similar museums I have visited include Amparo in Puebla, Rufino Tamayo in Oaxaca, Mimbres pottery collections in Deming & Lordsburg, the Gold Museum in Lima, and Popol Vuh in Guatemala City. The Gold Museum was exposed 20 years ago; up to 90% of the “precious” Peruvian artifacts being viewed as fakes by investigators.

I did a walking tour visiting several areas of Larnaca where excavations have revealed the sanctuaries and walls of the ancient city of Kition, a major center during Hellenistic and Roman Periods, and also visited the little Larnaca District Archaeology Museum which had several stone vessels and roof fragments from Choirokoitia.

On Saturday I traveled by bus from Larnaca to Limassol which sits on the central southern coast. The first afternoon I hopped a local bus west to the Kolossi Castle, a medieval tower built by the Order of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, aka Knights Hospitaller, Knights of Malta, Knights of Rhodes or just Hospitallers. This was one of the two powerful Catholic military orders of the medieval period of the crusades (the other order being Knights Templar). I previously reported on Old Town Rhodes, where the Hospitallers had their headquarters for two hundred years. Prior to acquiring Rhodes, and after losing their base in Acre in northern Israel to the Arabs in the 12th century, they briefly established headquarters in Cyprus and built the initial Kolossi castle; it was destroyed over the intervening 300 years by earthquakes and various attacks, and a new castle was built in the mid 15th century which stands today. I particularly admired the single small closet sized outer room on the 2nd upper floor which served as the private toilet of the Master. From the outside I could see the extruding drain which would have carried the waste outside the castle walls.

Sunday the 29th I traveled by bus to Ancient Kourion, a great Hellenistic and Roman Period city just west of Limassol. The area actually was first populated during the 12th century BC by the Mycenaeans, and remained a center through the Greek Dark Ages, Archaic Period and Classical Periods, but all structures which are visible today are from the Hellenistic and later periods (after 325 BC). The Roman Nymphaeum, Stoa and Agora create a great jumble of walls and columns, and on one side are great areas of Baths, with the underground water systems visible today. The most interesting remains, to me, are the two great houses of late Roman design (early Christian period 4th C. AD), both of which contain well preserved mosaic floor designs left in situ (much better than removal to a museum – of course one must accept huge modern roof structures overhead to protect what has been exposed). The site of Kourion is spectacular, sitting on the edge of low limestone cliffs overlooking the southern Cyprus Mediterranean Sea.

While waiting for the return bus from Kourion, sitting on the bus-stop bench under trees in the middle of nowhere, a half grown kitten took a liking to me; I stroked it for some minutes, and then it would not leave me alone. While I sat on the bench, it proceeded to climb all over me, draping around my neck, up over my head, and down my back returning to my lap. I finally got up and stood several feet from the bench; it stood on the bench mewing pitifully at me for some minutes, then took a great leap landing on the left side of my chest with four paws splayed and 20 sharp claws extended to catch itself on the verticle surface. OW! OW! OW! That hurt, and brought little spots of blood traced onto my shirt. I did not consider taking that kitten home with me.

On Sunday the 30th, a rainy day, I traveled by bus from Limassol to Paphos on the southwestern coast of Cyprus. It has a very pretty old-town promenade along the sea and harbor, but most of the town seems deserted now; except for the restaurants facing the sea, the streets are lined with dozens of closed taverns, sheesha houses, discos, bars, restaurants and car rentals. Apparently they simply shutter the doors from October through sometime in March.

Nea Paphos (New Paphos) is the “new” ancient city which grew massive from the Hellenistic through the Roman Periods (about 325 BC through 300 AD – the old city of the Archaic-Classical age lies to the north). The central Agora (market), theater, Asclepion and a number of homes have been excavated overlooking the sea at the very southwestern corner of the island. At the south side of the ancient city are several “villas” of astounding size, with dozens of rooms with extensive floor mosaic designs – all left in-situ. The House of Dionysus covers 22,000 sq. ft., with the mosaic floors covering 6,000 sq. ft. of the villa. That represents enormous wealth. Large protective buildings have been built over the sites to protect the now exposed mosaics. This is the densest collection of mosaics I have seen, and many are stunning. I particularly liked the Mosaic of baby Dionysus in Hermes lap, surrounded by a number of personages, the five panel-mosaic in a room of the House of Aion, and the Mosaic of Icarus in the House of Dionysus, photos of all of which are included below.

Several kilometers north of the villas and the Agora are the “Tombs of the Kings”; it is in fact one of the cemeteries of the Romans of ancient Nea Paphos, where the very wealthy had entire “houses” carved into the limestone rocks to serve as tombs. In arrival at some of the tombs, one is confronted with an opening into the ground, and looks down into a solid stone courtyard surrounded by verandas behind carved stone pillars. Upon climbing down steps into the tomb, the “courtyard” is surrounded by underground rooms carved into the soft sandstone in which are various chambers where the dead were laid to rest. All artifacts, of course, were looted millennia ago. Nea Paphos, Old Paphos and the Tombs of Kings together are a World Heritage Site.

On Wednesday I traveled to Nicosia, capital of the island, which lies in the heartland on the border between the Republic of Cyprus, recognized by the UN, and all nations but one, as the legitimate government of the island, and North Cyprus which, for 45 years, has been governed and occupied by Turkey. After decades of strife, the border now is easily crossed, and as of this year, new talks are underway by both sides which may ultimately lead to some lasting resolutions to the old conflicts. I spent several hours yesterday on the Turkish side of the border, after an easy crossing where only a passport must be shown going either direction. The Selimiye Mosque (originally the St Sophia Cathedral), built in 1208-1326 AD, is a marvel of Byzantine-Gothic-Ottoman construction mix.

I visited for 3 ½ hours the Cyprus Museum in Nicosia; it is reputed in many sources as the must-see archaeological museum in Cyprus, and highly recommended. It was a let-down. I did get to see the available artifacts from the very earliest culture, the Cypriot Early Aceramic Neolithic, discussed above, which established Choirokoitia 9000 years ago. The museum certainly has a number of nice pieces, including from Kition and Nea Paphos. I will not dwell too much on its short-comings, but the lighting was very bad, with little spot beams inside small glass cases which shone like the sun on narrow spots, leaving the rest in darkness. Little was labeled, and much that was labeled often identified artifacts as “from various”, or “provenance unknown”, or listed half a dozen sites without telling what was from where. A majority of artifacts apparently were donated or on loan from various private foundations or families; this emphasizes the sad fact that the majority of great Cypriot ancient pieces have been pilfered over the last two centuries by grave looters, gathered into various private collections, and what has been recovered or donated now makes up the bulk of the museum’s pieces. I intend no blame for the curator or country; the fault almost certainly lies with the political chaos that Cyprus has endured for a couple of hundred years.

I have delighted in the evenings, while drinking wine on my balconies, in watching the small insectivorous bats which whirl through the air around the buildings of the coastal towns. I watched what I believe to be the same bats in Rhodes, and by my recollection they are identical to the ones that amused me 10 years ago in the southern ancient Roman port of Antalya, Turkey. These were replaced, to my astonishment, in Nicosia which lies at the interior of the island, with large flocks of wagtails, which would circle overhead after sundown, calling constantly, reminding me more of the common swifts of the western Mediterranean. Without binoculars or my long lenses, I am uncertain of the species. I never have seen wagtails congregate in this manner.

While in Cyprus, I have been eating often at Kebob Houses, which are common in the western Mediterrenean. They serve up not just kebabs, but dozens of various grilled dishes and veggies, at very reasonable prices. The last two days the weather finally broke, and turned cold (50 degrees F) and windy. I have been spoiled with sunny beautiful warm days for almost 3 months, with only a handful of rainy periods.

Today I have returned to Larnaca from Nicosia. Tomorrow I fly back to Athens for 3 days, and probably will again visit the Archaeology Museum – a world class museum. On Wednesday I depart for the long return trip to Arizona. I reflect back that on the island of Crete, studying the MInoans, the oldest link in Western Civilization, I feel I completed my archaeological trip through Greece. On the island of Cyprus, I have been able to examine one of the oldest sophisticated cultures in the world, and trace it back to the Ice Age. I apologize to those of you who would rather see photos of birds and wildlife. I will return to that hobby soon. Dave