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Monday, November 25, 2013

Ruins

This past June The Discreet Traveler was fortunate enough to travel to various parts of Greece and several ancient sites including Efes--the biblical Ephesus--in Turkey. I went along on the lofty pretext of discovering places where the apostle Paul had voyaged, according to the New Testament. Things started off badly, though, in a pub quiz the night before we docked at Piraeus, when the questions were of this "guess what it stands for" type: 39 BOTOT. Imagine my horror when I didn't get this answer--39 Books Of The Old Testament. Some pilgrim I was! 

I was traveling in the company of three companions who have all traveled more widely than I have, been in these parts of the world before, and decades ago. So they have been regaling me, in Italy and Greece, with stories about how much better Europe was in the 1970s, when of course I wasn't there. "You used to be able to walk right up to St. Peter's in Rome," they say, "no lines." "Oh man, I remember when I was first here, you could walk right up and break pieces off the Parthenon! Must be why it's roped off now!" This happened at ruin after ruin, and I could only be grateful that they were roped off, or we'd be in the position of Mark Twain in The Innocents Abroad, watching his devout companions hack bits off every biblical site they visited. 

I was suitably impressed by the Acropolis, the ancient Agora, Hadrian's Arch, and the Temple of Olympian Zeus; I wish I'd had more time in Athens and would love to use it as a future base for visiting more of mainland Greece. What I couldn't find an answer for was why there were dogs everywhere. I mean everywhere, even portraits of dogs (dressed up in clothes) on the walls of a café. They were as ubiquitous as the cats in the Upper Barraka Gardens of Malta. We were touring Athens on our own, but there was a guide on the bus and I asked her about the dogs. She said not to worry about them, they are the responsibility of the municipality and I should see the cats on the Greek Islands! Or, as it turned out, in Turkey.

Turkey was different, not least because the ruins were just there, for anyone to see and walk through. Unlike the Parthenon, people must not have started breaking chunks off the ruins of Ephesus yet, so it is possible to walk down the Curetes Way, a complete Roman street through an entire ruined city, see the Library of Celsus, and walk into the Great Theatre where Paul preached in the Book of Acts. In other words, it was the way everyone kept telling me Greece and Rome used to be, because the nomadic Turks didn't build over the ancient sites, leaving them there. We also went to Milet (Miletus), where Paul gave his farewell speech, and Magnesia, a ruin so newly dug up we appeared to be doing it a favor by visiting it. 

At Didyma, I stood in the ruins of the Temple of Apollo, magnificently pagan, and listened to the muezzin's call to prayer from the mosque across the street. I cannot say what the rest of Turkey is like, but I would love to go back and see for myself.

The Greek island of Rhodes is closer to Turkey than it is to mainland Greece. Rhodes has had layer upon layer of cultures: the mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent, the Church of Our Lady of the Verge, and the new synagogue, rebuilt by survivors, are all within a short distance of each other within the old walled city. The Jewish quarter makes a somber impression, because during wartime occupation, two thousand Jews were deported to Nazi camps; only fifty survived. 

Except for the glorious weather (in Greek mythology, Rodos was the bride of Helios, the sun), there could not have been a greater contrast with the island of Mykonos. We spent a hedonistic day at gay- and family-friendly Elia Beach. It may be possible to get over the blues of the Aegean Sea or the joy of swimming in it, but I wasn't able to. There was a mom--in her 80s--and her five grown daughters along for the trip, and she and one daughter were the very first to whip their tops off and plunge into the cold water. That's what I want to be like when I grow up.

The mark of a good vacation: I wrote in my journal, "I hardly ever think about work, England, or even e-mail, and when I do I don't give a damn."





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