May 23: Home Again

This final entry of the blog is very brief, and I only have one picture to share, but I wanted to let you know that at long last we are home. Our travel home was smooth — all flights were more-or-less on time, no luggage was lost, and everyone was accounted for.

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It has been a wonderful trip, but I think all of us are tired and ready to sleep in our own beds. Thanks for taking the journey with us through this blog and your prayers!

May 22: Athens: Acropolis, City Tour, Museum, and More

Today our tour began with a visit to the Acropolis of Athens, the high city that contains not only the Parthenon, but many other structures as well.

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Throngs of people filled every nook and cranny by the time we left the Acropolis; fortunately, our early arrival meant only a few crowds for us to navigate.

We arrived early at the Propylaia, the massive gate complex that provides entry to the top of the hill. More than just a gateway, this structure once included a rest area on one side, and a small temple on the other. There had even been plans to set up a restaurant, though that was never completed.

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Kim Whitted in front of the Parthenon

Once through the gates, the first sight that greeted us was the magnificent Parthenon, the crowning structure of Athens. It was built as a temple of Athena, the virgin goddess (parthenos is the Greek word for virgin), the patron deity and namesake of Athens.

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Ancient 1/12 scale copy of the 40 foot statue of Athena that once stood inside the Parthenon

For roughly one thousand years, from the 5th century BC onwards, a gigantic statue of Athena, covered in ivory and gold, was housed inside the Parthenon. Unfortunately, this statue was taken to Constantinople in the 5th century AD, and subsequently lost to history.

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Carving of Dionysus, one of the few statues remaining on the pediments

Sad to say, the statue was not the only thing taken from the Parthenon, nor were ancient peoples the only ones to blame. In the 19th century, much of the rich decoration of the Parthenon, including the statuary of the pediment, the metope (carved panels around the outside), and the frieze around the inner wall were taken to the British Museum, where they still reside today.

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A small portion of frieze remaining around the inner wall of the Parthenon

Even after suffering these losses, even after damage sustained through the ravages of time and of past wars, even partially obscured by the scaffolding of a decades-long and still ongoing restoration, the Parthenon remains a magnificent and awe-inspiring monument. Pictures simply cannot do it justice.

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Painstaking renovation of the Parthenon includes the use of marble from the original quarry to reconstruct missing pieces

As magnificent as it is and was, however, it was not necessarily the most sacred temple on top of the Acropolis, according to our guide. That honor belonged to the Erechtheion, a three-part structure built to protect the three most sacred spots of Athens.

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The porch at the back as seen in the picture above stood over the spot where, according to legend, Poseidon’s trident struck the earth and caused a salt spring to emerge. The middle section protected the olive tree that grew in the same spot where the current olive tree can be seen above. According to legend, this spring and olive tree were given by Poseidon and Athena when they were competing for the honor of being the patron deity of the city. (Athena won.)

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The Porch of the Carytids

The third sacred spot was protected by the south porch of the Erechtheion, known as the Porch of the Caryatids for the six statues of young women serving as its columns. This porch is said to protect the tomb of Erechtheus, mythical king of Athens.

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The modern city of Athens as seen from the Acropolis

Not surprisingly, the Acropolis provides amazing views of the city of Athens – both the modern city and many of the ancient ruins.

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The Temple of Zeus, seen from the Acropolis, about a kilometer away

Also visible from the Acropolis, and quite nearby, was a lump of rock that seemed rather unimpressive … until we learned that it was the Areopagus, also known as Mars Hill.

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Mars Hill as seen from the Acropolis

A little later in the day as we gathered on Mars Hill for a devotional, I reflected on its unexpected proximity to the Acropolis. When Paul talked with the Athenians about being very religious, I never knew that he could see so many magnificent temples, including the Parthenon, as he spoke.

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A group shot on Mars Hill, with the Acropolis in the background

What could Paul possibly offer these highly cultured philosophers that could compare with the glorious works their ancestors had made? He told them about the God not made by human hands, the God who made all things, the God who raised Jesus from the dead – a concept that was too much even for these sophisticates to understand.

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Josh Owens in front of the Olympic Stadium, built as an exact replica of the 19th century stadium that housed the first observance of the modern Olympic Games

After the ancient splendor of the Acropolis, we jumped ahead 2,500 years for a brief tour of modern Athens.

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Golden treasures from the Mycenaen civilization, forerunners of classical Greece

One of the highlights of this tour was the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, attended by guards dressed in the traditional Greek military uniform of the 19th century.

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Golden treasures from the Mycenaean civilization, forerunners of classical Greece

We then went to the National Archeological Museum of Athens, where we were able to see innumerable artifacts tracing the development of Greek culture and art from paleolithic times up through Byzantine times.

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A statue salvaged from the Antikythera shipwreck; the portion that is undamaged was buried in the sand

One of the most fascinating exhibits was of artifacts from the Antikythera shipwreck. This shipwreck occurred when a small freighter sank while rounding the Peloponnese. The ship sank some time in the 1st centurey BC, but it was carrying art and luxuries dating as far back as the 4th century BC.

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Particularly interesting to me was the so-called Antikythera Mechanism, an intricate device with gears and scales that apparently was used for calculating the positions of stars, planets, and the moon – in effect, the 1st century BC equivalent of a GPS!

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The "box seats" in the Theater of Dionysus on the slopes of the Acropolis

After a late lunch, we once again had the remainder of the day free to explore on our own. Bryan Edwards and I decided to visit more of the Acropolis area.

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The Cave of Pan, an ancient shrine on the slopes of the Acropolis

In the process, we wandered off the usual tourist track, discovering a number of ancient shrines, often centered on naturally occurring caves in the rock.

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Eventually we made our way through the ancient forum and visited the Temple of Hephaestus, a structure much smaller than, but clearly following the same basic model as, the Parthenon. Unlike the latter, however, this temple has never been reconstructed; it has stood in essentially the same form for more than 2,000 years.

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Random ruins exposed during construction of a tram line

As we made our way towards the hotel, we saw numerous examples  of a very common phenomenon in an ancient city like Athens – miscellaneous ruins that were uncovered in the process of building something else. We also got a wee bit lost, but eventually we found our way back to the hotel, footsore but content after a very full day.

Tomorrow we make our way home. Stay tuned!

May 21: To Corinth and Back

Today we made the hour-long trip from Athens to Corinth, once again “suffering” with scene after scene of stunning beauty.

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Along the road between Athens and Corinth

The excavations at Corinth lie at the foot of the Acropolis, the “high city” which would not only have housed temples and other public buildings, but which also represented the innermost line of defense in case the city were attacked. Unfortunately, even an impressive acropolis could not stop the Roman army from razing Corinth to the ground in the first century BC, but fortunately it was rebuilt as a Roman colony.

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Shirley Weglarz talks with Pamela Gibbs, with the Corinthian Acropolis in the background

Even more fortunately, the Romans did leave a few structures more-or-less intact, and of course they rebuilt the city over the top of the remains of the old.

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Candace Parker-Autry in front of the Temple of Apollo

A particularly impressive remnant of the old Corinth is the massive Temple of Apollo, which dates back to the 6th century BC. Unlike the columns of later buildings, including the Parthenon, the columns of this building were carved from single pieces of stone.

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The ancient Greeks clearly had an eye for situating their cities in beautiful settings

While we were in Corinth, Tommy Hatcher shared a devotional with the group. He reminded us that the Corinthian church, like the city itself, was very diverse. Perhaps Paul’s most important words to the Corinthians were those near the beginning of his letter to them, as he reminded them that he came to them not with elegant words of wisdom, but rather determined to know only one thing: Christ crucified.

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As we continued our tour of Corinth, two images struck me as particularly significant, even though neither seems very impressive at first sight. The first image is a portion of a road, one which no doubt once was graced with columns all along its length, but which now seems rather forlorn.

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The road to Lechaeum

The significance of this road becomes more obvious when we remember that Corinth was situated on the isthmus connecting northern and southern Greece – an isthmus formed by two deep gulfs, providing Corinth with a port on both the east and the west, only four miles apart. The port to the west, served by the road shown above, was called Lechaeum, while the port to the east was called Cenchrae.

Traveling by ship around the Peloponnese (the southern part of Greece, known in the New Testament as Achaia) was both time-consuming and extremely dangerous. For that reason, ships often unloaded their cargoes at one port and had them transported to the other port. Sometimes the ship itself was transported across the narrow isthmus.

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The Corinth canal, completed in the late 19th century

Not surprisingly, many thought of cutting a canal across the isthmus, starting as early as the 7th century BC. Nero actually made a start on digging the canal. It was not until the late 19th century AD, however, that the canal was completed.

Since Corinth controlled the isthmus, it also controlled all trade going both north and south as well as east and west. It is no wonder, then, that Corinth was renowned not only for its wealth, but also for its licentiousness and its syncretism, as people came here from all corners of the empire.

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The inscription on this lintel, with missing letters shown in parentheses, reads (syn)agoge ebr(aion)

One group of people that live in Corinth were the Jews, many of which came to Corinth as slaves. That brings us to the second image, even less prepossessing at first glance, and yet possibly even more significant. It is nothing more than a portion of a lintel stone with a brief inscription rather crudely chiseled into it. The inscription, however, identifies this as the lintel over the entrance to a Jewish synagogue. Given Paul’s habit of going first to the synagogue, it is possible that he saw this very stone.

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The town of Pachi

On the way back to Athens, we enjoyed a special treat. We made a slight detour to visit the little fishing village of Pachi, home of the mother of our bus driver.

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Gauros, a small fish caught locally, cleaned, fried, and served whole

We ate lunch there in a restaurant right by the sea. The speciality of the restaurant was gauros, a small fish that is supposed to be eaten whole in a single bite. Many of us were a bit dubious, but once we tried it, we found it delicious.

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We weren't the only ones who liked the fish!

After we returned to Athens, we had the afternoon free to explore the city or catch up on sleep as we wished. Several of us followed the suggestion made by Dora, our guide, and visited the new Acropolis Museum, which displays artifacts from the Parthenon and other parts of the Acropolis – a wonderful way to get an overview of what we will see tomorrow.

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A model of the statues that once decorated one of the pediments on the Parthenon

Some of us rode the subway to the museum, while others walked the 2.5 kilometers and saw more of the city.

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In front of Hadrian's Arch. From left to right: Louisa Monroe, Josh Owens, Angela Hopkins, Nathan Morton, Kimberly Whitted, Heather Morton

Some ancient ruins along the way, such as Hadrian’s arch, were freely accessible right on the sidewalk. Others, such as the Temple of Zeus, required a ticket, which we decided not to buy.

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The Temple of Zeus, as seen from outside the fence

After supper, many of us made our way up to the restaurant on the rooftop of our hotel, where we had a magnificent view of the city all around us. Most beautiful of all, though, was the Parthenon lit up for the night.

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The Parthenon at night, as seen from our hotel

Tomorrow we will visit this incredible structure, as we spend the whole day in Athens, including a visit to its acropolis. Stay tuned!

May 20: Berea, Vergina, and the Long Road to Athens

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Mosaic depicting Paul preaching to the Bereans

Today we made our way to Berea, an hour’s drive from Thessaloniki. Here, according to Acts, the Jews were “more noble” than those of Thessaloniki.

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Ancient steps in a modern shrine

The only ancient ruins were a few steps traditionally associated with Paul’s visit to Berea. These were preserved at a shrine beautifully decorated with mosaics, where we had the opportunity to take a group picture.

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From Berea, we traveled a short distance to Vergina, site of the ancient city of Aiges. This was once the capital city of the Macedonian kings; after they moved the capital to Pellae, they continued to use Aiges for royal burials. Macedonian kings built elaborate mausoleums in groups of a dozen or more, which then were covered with an enormous mound of earth.

Not surprisingly, many of these mausoleums were found and pillaged by grave robbers over the centuries, but some survived intact. Some years ago archaeologists made the amazing discovery of the intact tomb of Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, along with that of others of the royal family, including Philip’s grandson, Alexander IV. The treasures that were found include not only incredible gold and silver artifacts, but also something even more valuable – paintings and carvings that include depictions of both Philip II and Alexander the Great.

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One of dozens of cats we have seen in both Turkey and Greece

Unfortunately, pictures are not allowed in the underground museum where the tombs still stand and the treasures are displayed. However, so that there would be at least one image from this site, I am including a picture of some of the local wildlife.

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Some of the beautiful scenery along the road between Thessaloniki and Athens

From Vergina, we made the long drive to Athens, about six hours away. We stopped a couple of times for rest breaks, but also stopped at Thermopylae, site of one of the most famous “last stands” in military history.

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Historical marker for the Battle of Thermopylae. The caption under the statue says, "Come and get it!"

On this site, King Leonidas of Sparta, along with a rear guard of 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, and a few hundred others, held off the Persian army of Xerxes I for three days. Even though the Persian army numbered in the tens of thousands, Leonidas was able to take advantage of favorable territory (a narrow pass between the mountains and the sea) and the passion of his men to defend their homeland.

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Charles and Bryan Edwards at the hill where Leonidas and his men met their end

They lost the battle and their lives, but their sacrifice led to the eventual defeat of the Persians at the decisive Battle of Salamis a few weeks later.

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Beautiful scenery at every turn!

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Mountains and sea, all at the same time -- beautiful!

After driving through more beautiful scenery, we reached Athens, the largest city in Greece. Our hotel is located in the center of the city, not far from the Acropolis.

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The streets of Athens

Tomorrow we visit Corinth and return early enough to have some free time in the afternoon to wander around the city. Stay tuned …

May 19: Lydia’s Baptism, Philippi, and Thessaloniki

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Traditional site of Lydia's baptism

Our morning began with a delicious breakfast and another view of the beautiful Aegean Sea, after which we made our way to the traditional site of Lydia’s baptism on the river just outside of Philippi.

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The Church of St. Lydia

This lovely site is marked by a recently constructed church, richly decorated with mosaics and frescoes. Most of these are based on scenes from Paul’s arrival in Philippi and the conversion of Lydia.

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One of the frescoes in the Church of St. Lydia; Lydia is in the middle, and Paul is to her left.

Another notable feature of the site was the beauty of the roses.

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Emma Snellings takes a moment to smell the roses

A short distance from the church lie the ruins of the ancient city of Philippi.

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The remains of the Forum at Philippi, with shops in front

After Octavian and Mark Anthony defeated Brutus and Cassius, Philippi became a Roman colony, with land given to veterans from the Roman legions.

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The theater at Philippi, originally built in Hellenistic times but later enlarged by the Romans

According to Acts 16, Paul and Silas were imprisoned in Philippi after Paul healed a slave girl possessed with a demon of divination. The traditional site identified as their prison is an old cistern located between the theater and the forum.

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Acts goes on to tell us that the magistrates, whose office was in the forum, were frightened when they realized that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens. They came and apologized … but they also asked them to leave the city!

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The remains of a Byzantine era basilica built on top of the Greco-Roman marketplace

As so often happened in these ancient sites, later inhabitants built new structures on top of the old. In particular, many magnificent churches were built on top of, and making use of the materials from, previous structures.

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A game board scratched into one of the stones that had been part of the market place

Our next stop, like Paul’s, was Thessaloniki. After the extensive remains at Philippi, Thessaloniki was a bit disappointing. No doubt there are existing remains dating back to the first century, but they are buried beneath the second largest city of Greece. Once again, the later inhabitants have built on top of earlier structures.

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City walls of Thessaloniki, originally built in the Byzantine era and later rebuilt by the Ottomans

Most of what can be seen in Thessaloniki is fragmentary remains, dating as far back as the fourth century AD, peeking through here and there in the midst of later repairs and renovations.

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Thomas Farrow, farthest right against the rail, gives a devotional next to a tower that was part of the city walls

Our disappointment was dispelled when Thomas Farrow led us in a devotional. Reflecting on the previous few days, when he and Orrin Autry had been repeatedly asked to pose for pictures – the Turkish people tended to assume they were NBA stars! – Thomas talked about feeling like a celebrity. Then he was approached by someone, not for a picture, but in hopes of eating the scraps of his lunch. As he bought meals for the man and his family, Thomas remembered that his calling, just like Paul’s when he came to Macedonia, was not to be a celebrity, but rather to be a servant.

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Our next stop was the Church of St. Dimitrios, originally built in the sixth century on the site of what had been the Roman baths.

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Since that time, the church has been destroyed and rebuilt twice, first in the seventh century, and again in the early twentieth century. As a result, most of the current structure is relatively new, but it does contain a few remnants of frescoes and mosaics that date back as far as the seventh century.

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Remains of an early mosaic in the Church of St. Dimitrios

More importantly, especially from the perspective of those who worship here, is that the church still contains the remains of St. Dimitrios himself.

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The reliquary containing the remains of St. Dimitrios

Our final stop for the day was the White Tower, an important landmark in Thessaloniki. Once part of the wall around the city, it became infamous as a place of executions, leading to its earlier name as the Blood Tower.

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Our hotel was nearby in the heart of Thessaloniki. Unfortunately, the view from our windows did not match the view we had in Kavala, so I can’t end this entry with a sunset. But once again the dinner was good and the rooms were comfortable! Tomorrow we visit Berea and Vergina, and then make the long drive to Athens. Stay tuned …

May 18: From Turkey to Greece

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The ferry that took us across the Dardanelles

Today was mostly a travel day, beginning with a short ferry ride across the Dardanelles.

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The Trojan Horse constructed for the movie Troy

As we walked to the pier to catch the ferry, we passed by a prop from the movie Troy and had the opportunity to admire the amazingly clear water of the Aegean Sea. Beautiful though the water was, no one was tempted to swim after seeing the countless jellyfish!

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Jelly fish in the clear waters of the Aegean Sea

As we crossed the border between Turkey and Greece, we said goodbye to our Turkish guide and driver, Funda and Mehmet, and greeted our Greek guide and driver, Dora and Chrestos. I found out later that the guide’s name is short for Theodora, “gift of God,” while the driver’s name is not derived from Christ, but rather from the Greek word that means “kind” or “good.”

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Scenery on the drive through Thrace

As we drove through Thrace, the eastern-most province of Greece, we quickly saw that Greece too is a beautiful country with many mountains. After a two hour drive, we reached the town of Kavala in the province of Macedonia, where the ancient port of Neapolis was located. This is where Paul first arrived by ship in Macedonia.

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Church of St. Nicholas in Kavala, marking the traditional site where Paul stepped off the ship

First we made a quick visit to the church built on the traditional site where Paul first stepped foot when he got off the ship. (It is some distance from the water now, due to changes in the level of the sea.)

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Thomas Farrow engaged in an important transaction

The next order of business was obtaining some euros, since, unlike in Turkey, most places in Greece do not accept US dollars. Because it was Sunday evening, the banks were closed, so we had to learn how to navigate the ATM machines.

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The view from the hotel in Kavala

After some free time to wander the town, we drove a few kilometers to our hotel. Unfortunately, as the photo above suggests, this was situated in a hardship location, but everyone was willing to endure the suffering. :)

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A worship service by the Aegean

We ended the evening with a worship service by the sea, led by Nathan Morton. In addition to some lovely a cappella singing, we shared testimonies about our experience thus far, and Nathan shared a message based on 1 John 3:1-3.

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Karen McLamb shares a word of testimony

I have closed the last few blog entries with pictures of the sunset, but this time the sun set behind us rather than over the water. Instead, I will end with this picture of the lights shining on the sea at dusk. Once again, the suffering …

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Dusk over the Aegean

Tomorrow we visit the traditional site of Lydia’s baptism and the ruins of Philippi and Thessaloniki. Stay tuned!

May 17: Pergamum, Alexandria Troia, and Troy

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One of many spectacular views from the Acropolis at Pergamum

Turkey is such a beautiful country that it is hard to pick one place that is more spectacular than any other … but Pergamum would have to be high on the list. We began our visit at the Acropolis, the “high city” set on top of a hill nearly 1000 feet above the valley. This was the location of the sacred precinct, palaces, and public buildings.

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The Trajaneum, the Temple of Trajan

One of the most impressive of the temples on the Acropolis once was the Temple of Zeus, with its massive altar consisting of a single 42-ton block of marble and the elaborate friezes all around depicting the Battle of the Giants – also known as the Defeat of the Gauls (Galatians). Unfortunately, what remains at the original site today is only the foundations; most of the temple, including the altar, friezes, pillars, and more, was transported to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin after the rediscovery of the site in the 19th century by a German road engineer.

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Louisa Monroe and Josh Owens, with the remnants of the Temple of Zeus below

Covered in white marble as this temple once was, sitting at the top of the steep hill, it is easy to understand why many scholars believe it was what Revelation 2:13 refers to as the “throne of Satan.” (Pictures of the altar in the Pergamon Museum are available here: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/turkey/pergamum-zeus-altar/photos.)

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Angela Hopkins leads a devotional at Pergamum

One of the highlights of our visit to the Acropolis was the devotional led by Angela Hopkins, who, with the steep slope just a few feet behind her, encouraged us to heed the warning to repent that Jesus gave to the church at Pergamum.

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Angela was careful not to back up too far while speaking!

Also part of the Acropolis is the theater, famous for being the steepest in all of Asia.

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Entry to the theater is from the top. Many from the group ventured into the upper section, but strangely, no one was tempted to follow me all the way to the bottom. Actually, going down the steps was not hard. Climbing all the way back up was another story!

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With a bit of free time before returning to the bus, some of us hiked further up to catch a glimpse of the Temple of Trajan from above.

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Temple of Trajan from above

In the process, we also saw the beautiful lake that lies at the foot of the other side of the mountain. The lake is the result of a modern dam, but even if it were just a river, I suspect the ancient kings of Pergamum enjoyed the view.

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Tommy Hatcher in the Acropolis

Below the Acropolis lie the remains of the city’s houses and shops, spread down the hill and across the valley to where the Aesclepium was located.

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Charles Edwards and the remains of a pillar carved with the snakes representing Aesclepius

The Aeslepium was a hospital where the famous physician Galen worked. Treatment options, primarily for mental issues, included aromatherapy and the power of positive thinking. Helpful for the latter was the soothing sound of the waters channeled from the sacred spring into the underground galleries of the hospital.

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Underground galleries of the Aesclepium

As we left the Aesclepium, we saw once again the dramatic view of the Acropolis rising above the valley. Remember that all of this would have been covered in white marble – imagine the stunning sight of these structures shining in the sun!

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The Acropolis as seen from the Aesclepium

Of course, we were not the only ones visiting the ancient sites that day. In addition to other tourists, we happened to see a Turkish bride and groom coming to take their wedding photographs at the Aesclepium. They seemed delighted to pose also for us.

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After lunch, we traveled to Alexandria Troia, better known to us as Troas, the place where Paul crossed by ship after seeing the vision of the “man from Macedonia.” Unfortunately the site was closed, but we did get a sense of how these ancient sites might look before they are excavated.

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Ruins of Alexandria Troias

Our final site for the day was Troy, a city that is not featured in the Bible, but which has enormous significance both in history and in literature.

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The oldest level of Troy, dating to 3000 BC

The Troy made famous by Homer is actually only one of nine Troys that have existed on the same site. The oldest layers of the city date all the way back to 3000 BC. The Troy that was defeated in the Trojan War is thought to be the sixth layer, dating between 1700 and 1250 BC.

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One of the ramps that some think was used to pull the Trojan Horse into the city

According to our guide, the cause of the war was not the beauty of Helen, but rather the strategic value of the Dardanelles, the narrow straits that lead from the Aegean Sea into the Sea of Marmara, and from there to the Black Sea. Whoever controlled the straits controlled trade, and all the wealth that came with it.

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Greek temple of Athena at Troy/Ilium

It is no surprise, then, that after the Trojan War, the city was rebuilt by the Greeks, and later enlarged by the Romans. Under the Greeks, the city became known as Ilion, later becoming Ilium under the Romans.

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We are reasonably certain that this is not the original Trojan Horse!

How much, if any, of Homer’s tale of the Trojan War is true is a matter of debate, and even today not all scholars accept this site as the Troy of legend. However, one thing is certain – this is a very old and very interesting site. As we often say when dealing with traditional identifications of sites, even if it wasn’t really here, it probably was somewhere around here, and probably looked about like this.

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Sunset over the Dardanelles

The day ended with a short drive to our hotel, with the added bonus of a beautiful sunset over the Dardanelles. Tomorrow we cross the straits by ferry and drive into Greece. Stay tuned …

May 16: Ephesus

Today we spent most of our time in and around Ephesus. We had a two-and-a-half hour drive to get there, through more beautiful scenery, and arrived at the lovely Aegean coast where Ephesus is set.

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Before entering the site of the main city, we visited a shrine that is traditionally identified as the house where Mary lived.

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Ephesus may seem like a strange place to find Mary until we remember that Jesus called on the beloved disciple, traditionally understood to be John, to care for her, and that John in his later years was associated with Ephesus. Whether or not this is actually her house is, of course, more dependent on tradition than on any actual evidence.

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We also paid a visit to the remains of the massive Basilica of St. John, built on the spot traditionally identified as his tomb. Even as ruins, the size and beauty of this church are impressive.

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Adjacent to the remains of the church are the remains of a 14th century mosque, and not far away are the remains of a 3rd century BC temple. As is so often true in this ancient land, a site understood to be sacred by one religion is often viewed as sacred by later religions as well.

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Next on the agenda was a delicious lunch provided as a “gift” by the tour company. As the old saying goes, “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”; in this case the price was an extended visit with a school and business promoting the traditional art of making oriental carpets by hand.

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Fortunately, the sales pitch was not too high-pressure; in fact, it was rather entertaining, and the multitude of carpets we saw were absolutely gorgeous. For me, though, the best part of this event was the opportunity to see exactly how the carpets were made. I even got to try weaving a few strands myself!

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A few of us left the carpet center with lighter wallets, but all of us looked forward eagerly to our next stop, in the heart of the ancient city of Ephesus.

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Actually, the city of Ephesus moved over the centuries in response to flooding of the Meander River and the silting of the harbor. The ruins we saw were from Ephesus 3, dating back to the first century BC. This version of the city lies between two hills; we began our tour at the upper end of the city (shown above), where the public buildings were located, and stretched all the way down to the harbor (shown below).

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Between these points we saw a number of temples, gates, shops, agora (market places), public baths and latrines, and more. All along the way were statues and innumerable inscriptions, often in the form of dedications. A few of these are in Latin, but the vast majority are in Greek. For a Greek professor like me, it is hard to resist taking a picture of every single one. (Future Greek students beware: deciphering inscriptions may be in your future!)

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A statue with a dedicatory inscription

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The inscription says, “The council and people honored Alexander, son of Alexander”

One of the most impressive buildings in Ephesus is the Celsus Library. While the collection of books that once were housed inside would probably seem very modest by today’s standards, it would be very hard to find a modern library with such a beautiful, intricately carved entrance!

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Another impressive site is the theater, which once held up to 24,000 people. Even today the acoustics are marvelous, as was demonstrated when another tour group began singing – something that I don’t think they were supposed to do, given the looks they were getting from the tour guides. We had hoped to have a devotional here, but that requires special application and permission. According to the book of Acts, two of Paul’s companions were dragged into this theater when Demetrius the silver smith stirred up a riot against Paul.

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Even though we spent a considerable time in Ephesus and viewed most of what has been excavated and restored, we saw only a small portion of what was originally was a very large city, with a population of approximately 250,000. Extensive excavations continue on the city, particularly in the harbor area where the hippodrome (horse racing stadium) was located.

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The day was almost done, but before we reached the hotel the tour company arranged for a “fashion show” featuring locally produced leather jackets. These were indeed beautiful, soft and flexible, but I suspect most of us would have been glad to skip it in favor of an earlier night.

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We finished the evening with a devotional led by Chris Allen, a lawyer and current Divinity School student. He called attention to the fact that the town clerk resolved the riot in the theater of Ephesus by calling on anyone with a legitimate complaint to take it to the courts – advice which Chris heartily endorsed.

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Tomorrow we go to Pergamum and to Troy. Stay tuned!

May 15: Smyrna, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea, and Hierapolis

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Church of St. Polycarp

As the title suggests, this was a very full day. We began with a devotional at the church of St. Polycarp, a 16th century structure dedicated to the second century bishop of Smyrna. Polycarp was a martyr for the faith; according to church tradition, when the flames of the fire did not touch him, he was stabbed. Polycarp’s martyrdom illustrates the words of Revelation 2:8-13, the letter to the church at Smyrna, which reminds us that Jesus is the one who was dead, but lives, and calls on the church to endure persecution even to the point of death.

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A two hour bus ride took us to Sardis, a beautiful site set between striking red cliffs.

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After a visit to the “facilities,” we saw the magnificent reconstruction of a portion of the gymnasium, which in Greco-Roman times was both a sporting facility and a school.

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Just as a modern gymnasium includes a locker room, behind this grand structure was an extensive bath complex. As was usual for public buildings, the structure was richly carved, both with decorations and inscriptions.

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Next to the gymnasium was a large Jewish synagogue.

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Naturally, some members of the group couldn’t resist the opportunity to take a picture in the seat of honor!

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Also at Sardis was the remains Temple of Artemis. Pictures cannot do justice to the breathtaking beauty of the site!

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Next was lunch. Many of us enjoyed kofte, a local specialty consisting of meatballs grilled over a wood fire.

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After lunch, we made a brief stop at Philadelphia. Most of the ancient city lies under the modern town of Alesehir; the only visible remains are the massive columns from the 4th century church of St. John.

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The most extensive site for the day was Laodicea, a city which once contained as many as 120,000 people.

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In the four years since I was last at Laodicea, a great deal of excavation and reconstruction has been done, including the beautiful Temple of Artemis where we took advantage of the steps for a group photo.

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We also took advantage of one of the two theaters of the city for a devotional led by Joyce Hodges.

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She gave a powerful message from the letter to Laodicea in Revelation 3, pointing out the significance of Jesus wishing the church to be cold or hot rather than lukewarm.

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As Joyce pointed out, Laodicea had no adequate local water supply, but relied on water from the hot springs at Hierapolis and the cold water from Colossae – both of which arrived at Laodicea lukewarm. Just as coffee is most refreshing when it is piping hot or ice cold, so also we should be hot or cold, not lukewarm.

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Our final stop for the day was Pamukkale (Cotton Castle in Turkish), a stunning natural formation created by the evaporation of mineral rich springs.

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For thousands of years, people have come to these hot springs not only to enjoy the beauty of the scene, but also to take advantage of the healing properties of the water.

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Many of us sampled the water, pumped up directly from the spring below. Most enjoyed the slightly fizzy taste … at least until we saw the sign detailing the minerals we had just consumed!

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The day was drawing to a close, but fortunately our hotel was nearby.

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After another delicious dinner buffet, some of us were more than ready to find our beds. A few adventurous souls, however, took advantage of the featured attractions of our hotel. One attraction was the pool fed by the mineral springs.

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The other featured attraction was a performance by a belly dancer. Out of a sense of duty, I accompanied several ladies from our group to the performance, but of course I kept my eyes closed the whole time. :)

Tomorrow we head for Ephesus … stay tuned!

May 14: Istanbul

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Entrance to the Topkapi Palace

After a delicious breakfast buffet, we began our tour of Istanbul at the Topkapi Palace, home of the sultans of the Ottoman empire for hundreds of years. This is not a palace of the European sort, but rather reflects the nomadic roots of the Ottomans. It consists of a series of beautiful courtyards/gardens dotted with elaborately decorated pavilions, reminiscent of tents pitched in a natural setting.

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Carl and Margaret Broadhurst at Topkapi Palace

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Inside one of the many pavilions at Topkapi

Also on the grounds of the palace is the church where the Council of Chalcedon was convened.  We did not get to go inside it,  but it was a beautiful building.

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Church where the Council of Chalcedon was held

Of course,  when it comes to beautiful churches,  nothing else can compare to the Hagia Sophia,  the church of Holy Wisdom. Even with what seems to be never-ending restoration efforts, the church is an impressive sight on the outside,  and even more so on the inside.

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Exterior of the Hagia Sophia

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Interior of the Hagia Sophia

Built in the 6th century on the site of an earlier church, the Hagia Sophia features a multitude of domes and half-domes, culminating in the fourth largest dome in the world at the center.

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Once the largest, and still the fourth largest dome in the world

When the Ottoman Empire took over what was then called Constantinople, they greatly admired the Hagia Sophia; rather than destroy it, they converted it to a mosque, which it remained until Ataturk, the founder of the modern state of Turkey, declared that it should be a museum open to all. The result is a rich and sometimes bewildering blend of Islamic and Christian decoration.

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Apse of the Hagia Sophia

Islam forbids the depiction of faces in a place of worship, so when it served as a mosque, all of the mosaics and frescoes from the Christian era were painted over. Since it has become a museum, however, the mosaics and frescoes have gradually been restored, revealing the rich iconography of the Greek Orthodox tradition — and also revealing the fact that politicians seeking to harness the power of the church is not a new phenomenon.

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One of many mosaics in the Hagia Sophia depicting Byzantine emperors (here Justinian and Constantine) with Mary and Jesus

Directly across from the Hagia Sophia is the magnificent Blue Mosque, the latter built at least in part as an effort to match the grandeur of the former.

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The Blue Mosque

Though the effort did not yield a dome quite as large as the central dome in the Hagia Sophia, the result, richly decorated in colorful tiles, was and is beautiful.

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Central dome of the Blue Mosque

Still actively serving as a mosque today, the Blue Mosque outdid its predecessor in at least one respect; where the Hagia Sophia uses dozens of columns to support its dome, the Blue Mosque uses only four columns, each of which is massive.

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One of the four massive columns in the Blue Mosque

Underneath both structures, and indeed throughout the city of Istanbul, there are ancient cisterns.

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Part of the ancient cistern under the Hagia Sophia

We paid a visit to the immense cistern below the Hagia Sophia (of which the picture above shows only a small portion). One of the mysteries of this cistern is the use of two huge carved heads of Medusa used as plinths for two of the columns supporting the roof of the cistern. No one knows where they came from or why one was used on its side (and the other upside down).

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Carved head of Medusa, now serving as the support for a column

Our final stop in Istanbul was the Grand Bazaar, a modest collection of over 4,000 shops selling anything and everything a person could ever want, all for a low, low price — at least that is what every shop owner told us!

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One of 24 entrances to the Grand Bazaar

Long as it had already been,  our day was not quite over. We caught a flight to Izmir (ancient Smyrna) at 7, arrived at 8:30, and then spent some time finding a misplaced member of our group who was wrongly directed by the airport staff to the international arrival area. Fortunately, we enjoyed a beautiful view of the full moon over the brand new Izmir airport, and before long the lost sheep was returned to the fold. After a short bus ride, we reached the hotel at around 9:30 to enjoy a late but delicious supper — and then, with the exception of those of us blogging, to bed.

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Full moon over the Izmir airport

Tomorrow we turn our attention to four of the seven churches of Revelation — Smyrna, Philadelphia,  Laodicea,  and Sardis. It promises to be another long, but exciting, day. Stay tuned…