Saturday morning we said good bye to half our group. It was an early flight and they made it home just fine.
The rest of our little group continued on with a tour of Topkapi palace. This was the home of the Sultan. It was a beautiful day, the palace was full of tourists and school children. And flowers!
We flew out to Cappadocia that afternoon and found smaller towns, boutique hotels, and a slower pace of life.
Our days have been filled with visiting Cave museums where Monks created beautiful icons on the walls. We have hiked the valleys and found fairy chimneys, ballooning over the area and found amazing valleys. It is amazing how God has created so many different landscapes and wonderful people.
We began the day at “Chora Church,” a smaller Byzantine church with impressive but more recent mosaic iconography. This was the oldest iconography in a church where we have been able to take pictures freely.
We then headed toward Hagia Sophia, but we walked through the garden below Topkapi palace, now a park, where the tulips were literally in full bloom.
After a stop for lunch where we sampled lahmacun (“Turkish pizza” the guide called it), we arrived at the Hagia Sophia. Perhaps the best way to describe this massive structure is to say I had a very hard time finding a place where I could capture even a significant fraction of it, inside or out. When Western Europe was on the verge of entering the dark ages, Justinian built this awe-inspring church in Constantinople, the largest structure of its time.
The interior of the building is under constant restoration and one half of the nave was occupied by scaffolding. Much of the structure was still visible, though, including some of the restored mosaics. We entered through the imperial door where hundreds of years of guards stamping their feet had worn grooves in the marble. After a tour through the central part of the church, a few of us were able to go up to the second floor of the building, reached by ascending a long winding ramp at the corner of the church.
Much of what we discovered at Hagia Sophia will simply have to wait for another time. After the church we strolled through the site of the ancient hippodrome with monuments the Romans and Byzantines imported from other regions of the world.
Finally we wrapped up the trip with a stroll through the Grand Bazaar and a ferry ride across the Bosporus for dinner. Those of us returning are in the Franfurt airport now. Watch for additional posts from Tina and others in Cappadocia.
We left Alexandroupoli early this morning. By 9:30 we had cleared the border with Turkey and said goodbye to our Greek guide and driver. We began the long trek to Troy and then on to Istanbul. Although the terrain did not change dramatically, the countryside did. Among other things, churches gave way to mosques and minarets.
The trip to Troy took us down the Gallipoli peninsula where we had to take a ferry ride across the Dardanelles or Hellespont. Along the way we began to notice the crowds of English speaking tourists were actually Australians and New Zealanders visiting Gallipoli for Anzac Day two days from now.
Once on the ferry we made the 20 min. trip from Europe to Asia and drove on to Troy on the Asiatic side of the Dardanelles where the strait meets the Aegean. The site of Troy was as fascinating for the way it was discovered and excavated as it was for its multi-layered levels of ancient remains. The guide also observed that Paul left for Philippi by sailing from Troas a short distance south of the ancient site of Troy.
We still had a long way to go to make it to Istanbul, though, so we left after a short visit and caught another ferry back to the European side of the Dardanelles. The potential for disaster struck before we ever got off Gallipoli. We took a short bathroom break and the driver discovered engine problems. Fortunately we were at a relatively comfortable Turkish truck stop, it was a beautiful clear day, and we only had to wait about 45 min. while a mechanic came and resolved the problem. (A leaking radiator hose, we were told, or something to that effect.)
By this time we were too late to make it to Istanbul in time for supper. Our guide made impromptu plans for us to try köfte (a sort of Turkish meatball, although that description does not do it justice) at a restaurant in Tekirdaǧ right on the northern shore of the Sea of Marmara. It was a place frequented more by Turks than tourists, and it was easily one of the most enjoyable and unique dinners we have had yet.
We arrived in Istanbul late. This post will be short. Tomorrow will be the last day or touring, but we have saved one of the grandest sites for last, the Hagia Sophia. Next post tomorrow evening or the following morning from the airport.
We began the morning with a driving tour of Thessaloniki. Thessaloniki is a massive Greek port city on the site of the ancient city of Thessalonica. It has been constantly inhabited since ancient times passing through the hands of the Byazantine and Ottoman empires. Today it is the second largest city in Greece and the largest university town in Greece, as well.
The primary monument is the White Tower, an Ottoman reconstruction of an earlier Byzantine structure. At one time it was a notorious prison painted white to cover the blood stains running down its walls. Today it is a modern museum of Thessalonica. We visited it after a stroll down the seaside walkway that follows an earlier Byzantine sea wall.
We also drove by the Rotunda, originally the mausoleum for the Roman emperor Galerius, who was notorious for persecuting Christians early in the fourth century. It was ironically converted to a church some time after. We concluded the visit of Thessaloniki with a stop in the old town where we could get an overlook of the entire city.
The next stop was Philippi where we began our visit with a stop at a traditional site for the baptism of Lydia, one of the first converts in Europe after Paul crossed over from Asia Minor (Acts 16:11-15). We had a short devotion with the running brook in the background.
Our next stop was the site of the ancient city of Philippi, which caught us by surprise. The site is not nearly as developed as some of the other other sites we visited. With the exception of a few places cordoned off for active excavation, we were allowed to roam freely across the site. What is remarkable about ancient Philippi is the number of very large Christian churches built around the fifth century. The guide introduced us specifically to the octagonal church of St. Paul with its magnificent mosaic floor, complete with the signature of the artist!
The difference between Thessaloniki and Philippi could hardly be more stark. One has grown into a massive living city; the other is an abandoned ruin.
We made a brief stop in Kavala, formerly Neapolis, where Paul disembarked on his way to Philippi, and then we drove a couple of hours to our final stop in the small city of Alexandroupoli. The hotel is comfortable, though, and outside the rooms in the lawn that leads right up to the shore, we can see the island of Samothrace where Paul stopped briefly on his way from Troas to Philippi (Acts 16:11). The island’s mountain tops were shrouded in clouds.
Tomorrow will be hard day. We leave behind the travels of St. Paul for our ultimate destination in Istanbul, the former Constantinople. But we have an international border to cross, hours of driving to complete, and a long detour to the site of Troy. Next post from Istanbul.
When the sun rose over Kalambaka, the sky was perfectly clear, the air was crisp and cool, and we were greeted with a spectacular landscape. From the right location the unique rock formations that cradle the monasteries of Meteora could be seen against the backdrop of the Pindus mountains with snow-capped peaks on the distant horizon.
There are seven monasteries around Meteora. One is never open to visitors and each of the others is closed at least one day a week. You can never be certain which monasteries will be accessible until you arrive. As it happened, we got to visit two.
The first we visited was Stephanos, the newest and most accessible. A few days earlier at Patmos we had a hard time appreciating the iconography we saw. Stephanos gave us a fresh perspective. The walls were covered in (relatively) recent iconography portrayed in vibrant colors, and it made it easier to imagine how the icons we saw at Patmos might have looked. The scenes were much easier to distinguish at Stephanos, sometimes from scripture, sometimes from Christian history, including occasionally gruesome depictions of Christian martyrdoms. The churches do not allow photography, though, and we will not be able to show you pictures.
The second monastery we visited was the sixteenth century Varlaam, accessible only by a wooden bridge that led to a long, winding staircase clinging to the side of a steep rock face. We also got to see the precarious rope elevator driven by a wooden wench that used to be the only means of access.
After seeing a brief demonstration of icon construction at a craft shop in Kalambaka, we had lunch and began the journey to Beria (biblical Berea). There is very little left of the ancient town of Berea although modern Beria is a thriving city on the same spot. However, we know Paul visited and we know the Bereans were particularly receptive (Acts 17:10-14).
There is a relatively recent monument to Paul’s ministry there, and the iconography is accessible even to Protestants unaccustomed to interpreting it. The central component is a full-scale icon of the apostle Paul standing above a set of ancient steps discovered somewhere in the vicinity of Berea. A separate panel to the left depicts Paul’s vision summoning him to Macedonia, complete with the Greek quotation, “Come to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:6-10). Another panel on the right depicts Paul preaching and the Bereans studying scripture.
After a short stop in Beria, we were back on the road where our final destination for the day would be Thessaloniki, ancient Thessalonica. The snow topped peak of Mt. Olympus hovered far in the distance to the south of us. Tomorrow we tour Thessaloniki and begin the trek to Philippi.