It's All Greek to Me

Travels in Greece and Turkey - Sept 2005

March of the Athens Honor Guard
Near the busy Syndagma Square sits the government parliament building and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, both of which are guarded 24-hours a day by a two-man honor guard dressed in special uniforms and pacing back and forth in a special stiff-knee, stiff-elbow march that quite frankly looks silly (the fuzzy bobbles on the shoes don't help). This was one of the first scenes to greet me when the express bus from the airport dropped me off in the square at 4AM on a Monday morning.

Roof-Top Athens
View from the roof-top patio of my hotel looking toward the Acropolis. Athens has boomed over the last 50 years into an often crowded and polluted city where the few pockets of remaining historic buildings are often drowning in a sea of drab concrete apartment buildings. Even still, I developed a begruding fondness for the city. The neighborhoods have a friendly, laid-back feeling with many small family shops and sidewalk cafes. Trees and small parks line most major streets and many apartment balconies are lined with plants and flower pots which take the edge off the concrete.

Monastiraki Plaza
The neighborhoods of Plaka and Monastiraki near the base of the Acropolis still have many older historic buildings as well as numerous shops and cafes. The large domed building in front is an old mosque dating from the occupation of the Turkish Ottomans (it is now a ceramics museum). Behind the mosque are the few remaining pillars from a Roman-era library and in the background is the ever present Acropolis - visible from nearly every part of the city and a navigational godsend for us wandering tourists.

Party at the Parthenon
Every major Greek city had an acropolis (Greek for 'High City') - the highest point of land in the town and the place where important monuments and temples were located. The Acropolis at Athens became the most famous due to the elaborate and architectually astonding temples built during the peak of Athens power in the 5th century BC. Dedicated to the city's patron goddess and namesake, Athena, the Parthenon is the most famous of the Acropolis buildings. This photo shows not just the size of the Parthenon, but the size of the crowds that mob it from open til close.

Porch of the Caryatids
Near the Parthenon sits the Erechtheion; a temple dedicated to both Athena and Posidon. The temple is famous for the incredible women-shaped pillars known as the Porch of the Caryatids. The name comes from the small town of Karyai where all the men were killed during the Persian Wars leaving only grieving women. However, the exact purpose or meaning of the carvings is not known for certain.

Temple of Hephaistos in the Agora
Below the Acropolis lay the ruins of the ancient Agora (market plaza) which was once home to shops, public buildings, and temples. The Temple of Hephaistos (patron god of metal workers) is one of the best preserved classical Greek buildings in the country (unlike many of the other ruins which have been largely rebuilt from broken pieces, much of this temple is the original structure that survived intact since its construction in the 5th Century BC).

The Oracle at Delphi
In the high mountains west of Athens sits the Temple of Apollo at the village of Delphi. The Oracle (which refers to a place with mystical powers, not a person) was a spot in the temple where priestesses would have visions that foretold future events. The Oracle at Delphi played a huge role in Greek history as many kings, merchants, and adventurers from around the known world would seek its often vague guidance and advice.

Not a bad seat in the House
The huge theater at Epidaurus (near Mycenea) is one of the best preserved in the ancient world (most of the 14,000 capacity seating is original). The theater's acoustics are legendary - from high in the back seats I could easily hear the conversations of the people on the stage.

Istanbul... NOT Constantinople
From Athens, I traveled by ship to the teeming Turkish metropolis of Istandbul; once capital of the powerful Byzantine Empire. The Church of Devine Wisdom (Hagia Sofia in Greek) was built by Emperorer Justinian at the height of the empire in 548 AD. It was the largest church in the world for nearly a thousand years and even today dominates the city skyline. Unfortunately, the garden plaza area between the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque is as popular with touts and scam artists as it is with tourists.

Hagia Sofia - Inside
The size and immensity of the structure can only be fully appreciated from the inside where the single huge central chamber rises up over 150 feet to a 100-foot diameter dome supported on either side by two half-domes. It is like standing inside of a hollow skyscraper. When the Ottoman Turks overran the Byzantine Empire in 1542 AD, the church was converted to a mosque (and later to a museum in 1935). The round green and gold disks date from the mosque period and contain the names of Allah, Muhammed, and the first caliphs written in Arabic.

The Blue Mosque as seen from Hagia Sofia
Only a few hundred yards from the Hagia Sofia, sits the Mosque of Sultan Ahmet - better known as the 'Blue Mosque' for the heavy use of blue tile. The Blue Mosque was built in 1616 AD and is still an active (and busy) mosque. As in most mosques, visitors must remove their shoes before entering the inner sanctuary.

Heavenly Interior
Although not quite as large (or open) as the Hagia Sofia, the interior of the Blue Mosque is at least as eye-catching with the brightly colored ceilings, numerous windows, and circular chandeliers.

Bringing Her into Shore at Mykonos
After crowded Istanbul, it was nice to be back in the smaller Greek Isles. First stop was the whitewashed villages on the island of Mykonos. The village is built around a labryinth of narrow winding walkways that were originally designed to confuse raiding pirates, but now trap tourists in a maze of pleasant cafes, shops, and boutiques.

Quiet Afternoon in Little Venice
This section of Mykonos is called Little Venice for the way in which the houses and shops are built right up against the water. It is a popular place to watch the sunset from the many little outdoor cafes.

Theater at Ephesus
From Mykonos, it was back to the Turkish resort town of Kusadasi and the nearby ruins of Ephesus. Ephesus is one of the largest and best preserved Roman-era ruins in the world and the city that was referred to in Saint Paul's Epistles to the Ephesians. This picture shows the large theater with the pillar-lined 'Harbor Road' leading off to the site of the old harbor (now silted in).

Library of Celsus
Near the center of Ephesus lies the impressive ruins of the Library of Celsus; one of the largest libraries in the ancient world.

Temple of Hadrian or.... the world's first Starbucks?
Historians claim that this impressive Ephesus ruin was a temple dedicated to the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 138 AD and protected by carved reliefs of Medusa. However, looking closely at the carved reliefs over the temple doorway, one can not help notice that the medusa carving bears a frightful resemblance to the Starbucks coffee logo.

Site of the Colossus
From Ephesus, it was back to the large Greek Island of Rhodes with its classical Greek ruins and a large fortified city built by the Knights of Saint John during the Crusades. The Island was also the site of the legendary Colossus of Rhodes - a giant statue of Helios that once stood astride the entrance to the harbor with ships passing beneath its legs. The harbor entrance is now guarded by two pillars topped with statues of deer (the symbol of Rhodes). I always knew that I would get to Rhodes eventually because I like to roam and as the old saying goes... 'All Roaming leads to Rhodes' (yuk yuk).

Winding Road to Santorini
Last stop was the Greek Island of Santorini which is actually the rim of a giant volcanic caldera that erupted and collapsed into the ocean around 1600 BC (leading many to believe it was the basis for the story of Atlantis). To reach the capital city of Fira, visitors must scale the cliffs using either a cablecar, donkey, or steep foot trail.

Sunset at Ia
On the northern tip of Santorini, the famous village of Ia clings to the steep cliff walls nearly a thousand feet above the ocean. The village is a maze of interlocking shops, cafes, houses, and countless blue-domed Greek Orthadox chapels.

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