In western Europe, I thought Renaissance was old. In eastern Europe, I realized, no, medieval is old. But since arriving in the land of Odysseus, Herodotus, and Leonidas, my mind is short-circuiting from trying to fathom how long ago these places were inhabited. And the weird thing is the more ancient Greek and Roman ruins I explore, the more familiar these people's lives seem. It's almost surreal to know they were chilling in libraries, attending local government meetings, and squeezing into bleachers at sporting events before they'd even figured out how to harness the power of steam.
Spanning from inland Turkey to the mountains of Greece, here are some highlights of my jaunt through the Hellenic world:
Probably considered a remote outpost of the empire, the Romans did what they could to make Pamukkale feel like home. It has all the requisite features - an agora for trading and assembling, an amphitheater cut into the hillside, and of course, a public latrine - but Pamukkale's trademark is the white cliffs pocketed with terraced pools brimming with springwater from the travertines above. The Romans knew how to pick a location.
On the Aegean coast of Turkey, Ephesus was a harbor town and central hub in Roman times. Ephesus was so big it needed two theaters - one for gladiatorial competitions and one for council meetings and musical performances. The site's crown jewel, though, is the Celsus Library with a grand facade of columns and statues that illustrates how highly the citizens valued the pursuit of knowledge. Also of note, some big names in early Christian history passed through Ephesus, including Saint Paul, Saint John, and Mary herself, who lived out her days on a hilltop just outside the city.
The birthplace of western civilization! Philosophy! Theatre! Civics! and... toppled stone blocks? It was difficult at times to imagine the bustling metropolis that was once the center of the world, but once I got a sense for the layout of the old city, I could see where people would have walked across the agora to attend a concert at the odeon or through a particular avenue to reach the library. Easier to picture thanks to reconstruction was the Panathenaic Arena, home to the games that would later become the basis for our Olympics. And crowning the whole scene is the Acropolis with its center piece, the Parthenon. Ravaged not so much by time as turmoil, the Parthenon has changed allegiance each time it changed hands, serving in turn as a temple to Athena, a basilica to Our Lady, and a mosque complete with minaret. It was even bombed by Venetian cannonballs in 1687, and later raided by the English for their British Museum collection of artifacts. Nevertheless, the outer frame still stands today to receive her pilgrims, though now they come bearing cameras instead of offerings.
Here's where the ancient Greeks get a little kooky. Set into the hillside of Mount Parnassus, Delphi was known to be the "navel of the world," with a stone marking the exact spot of Mother Earth's belly button. It was here within a temple at the Sanctuary of Apollo where the famed Oracle of Delphi, also called the Pythia, would deliver her prophecies. Rulers from city-states across Greece would travel to Delphi with votive offerings for the Pythia, who was usually an older woman from the local area. On prophecy days, she would stand over a crack in the earth that emitted ethanol vapors and enter a trance from which she could voice the word of the god Apollo. Since Apollo's word usually came out garbled and shrieked, priests were always on hand to translate the Pythia's rants into intelligible prophecies. And this is how matters of state were handled for centuries until the Romans took over and politely (and understandably) declined the Oracle's counsel.
It's eerie to walk amongst the remains of a society that had so much influence on us. Even little things like months of the year - e.g. July and August - betray signs of Roman authority. I think it's an especially poignant experience for Americans, whose philosophies are so heavily modeled on classical Greek ideals of democracy and civic duty. I'll even say for Christians in general, whose core beliefs didn't really catch on until they were filtered through the perspectives and traditions of the Greek and Roman Gentiles. It's everywhere you look, really, and so ingrained that we barely notice it. But it all started here, on the coast and throughout the islands of the Aegean Sea. So while the structures may be in ruins, and modern-day Greece may be in shambles, their ancestors' contribution to contemporary humanity remains stoic and intact as a marble column.