CLASSICAL FINALE, Athens, Greece
After reunited with my two travel buddies in Cairo, our homeward odyssey official began. From Cairo, we flew to Athens, then to Zurich, before crossing the Atlantic back to Canada. In Greece, our plan was to spend a few hours to visit the Acropolis, had supper, and took a bit of rest before heading out to the airport. We expected to see some crowds at the world famous Acropolis, but watching hundreds if not thousands of cruise ship tourists wearing the same cap marching up the citadel hill right below us was still a shock. Despite the crowds, seeing one of the most recognizable icons of Western civilization was definitely an impressive experience.
The Acropolis is home to some of the most recognizable Classical Greek structures: the Parthenon, Propylaea, Erechtheion, Temple of Athena Nike, etc. Most of the Acropolis was constructed under Pericles during the golden age of Athens in the 5th century BC, the century that saw Athen’s victory against the Persians. The Acropolis was a magnificent collaborative work by architects including Iktinos, Kallikrates, and Mnesikles, and sculptors such as Pheidias, Alkamenes, and Agorakritos. This iconic hill was also the birthplace of democracy, philosophy, and theatre art of the Western world.
After seeing the Classical ruins, we headed down the northern slope to the Plaka quarter, a colourful and lovely neighbourhood full of lively restaurants, souvenir shops, and eye catching street art. In the evening, we picked a cosy restaurant for dinner. With English menus in hand, we ordered our dishes and I chose sirloin steak. The server tried his best to match our selections from his Greek menu. Somehow my sirloin steak was lost in translation and I ended up getting a whole grilled squid. It was a pleasant surprise and I had zero intention to swap it back to beef. The Mediterranean squid was fresh and delicious, and lived long in my memory. If it was a typical steak dinner, I would definitely not remember a single thing from that particular meal after all these years.
COPTIC HANGING CHURCH, Cairo, Egypt
Built upon the 3rd century ruined gate of the Roman fortress, layers of palm tree logs and stones were used to construct the foundation for the Hanging Church. Probably the most famous church in Coptic Cairo, the Hanging Church is also one of the oldest. Between 7th and 13th century, the Hanging Church was the residence of the Coptic Patriarch. Although much of what we see today of the church’s exterior is from the 19th century, many of the interior architectural features and objects date back to various periods in history, including the 110 Christian icons in which the oldest dates back to the 8th century. Some parts of the church was off limits to tourists during our visit, but nonetheless the Hanging Church was the highlight of our visit of Coptic Cairo.
After Coptic Cairo, we spent much of the afternoon at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the huge museum filled with treasures from ancient Egypt since 1901. The exhibits seemed disorienting at times, though its collection of the 120,000 ancient Egypt artefacts, such as papyrus, stone statues, jewellery, royal mummies (famous pharaohs such as Ramses II), and funeral accessories were truly magnificent. The most impressive of all was undoubtedly the treasures of the tomb of boy King Tutankhamen. According to plan, the Cairo’s Egyptian Museum would be replaced by the new Grand Egyptian Museum at Giza in 2021. Unfortunately, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic would likely affect the visitor numbers for the new museum at its grand opening.
Leaving the museum, we strolled along the Nile and saw a few felucca owners cleaning their boats. We didn’t have the interest to hire a felucca. Instead, we headed to Cafe Niche for a quick bite. Back at Luna Hotel, my two travel buddies rested a bit before heading to the train station for their quick visit of Upper Egypt. For me, I thought more time would be needed for a decent visit of Luxor and Aswan in Upper Egypt. Instead, I planned to spend the remaining few days in Egypt on my own. My destination was off the beaten track at Siwa Oasis and the Western Desert.
THE TRAGEDY OF APAMEA, Hama, Syria
From Aleppo we took a morning bus to Hama, a laidback little city between Aleppo and Damascus. Under the morning sun, the combination of shading palm, olive and fruit trees, centuries old stone houses and winding alleys, Hama looked like a photo perfect Middle Eastern town. At first we had trouble orienting ourselves. A taxi driver came by and helped us for the right direction towards town centre and Cairo Hotel. Cairo Hotel was clean and the staff was friendly. We joined one of the tours they offered for the Crusade castles and archaeological ruins nearby.
Our first stop was the massive ruins of Apamea. From the 2 km-long Great Colonnade, we could truly appreciate the enormous scale of the ancient city, which was once a major trading hub with a population of up to half a million as some researchers estimated. After the conquest of Alexander the Great, Apamea was ruled under the Seleucid kings before the Roman arrived. Because of its strategical location on the trading routes, the city continued to flourish in Roman times. For all the wrong reasons, Apamea made news headlines in recent years as satellite images revealed the Luna landscape like destruction of the site due to massive looting. Irreversible damages, especially along the famous Grand Colonnade area, were discovered after the government army regained control of the site. During the civil war, thousands of holes were dug in the ground by treasure hunters. Mosaics and all kinds of precious artefacts were brutally removed and sold in the black market by amateur treasure hunters, including desperate civilians from nearby communities who might not have other economic means to survive the war. It was a story of how a local warfare would lead to a terrible loss for the entire humanity. In the 21st century this should never have happened, but in reality these kinds of tragedies have never ceased to exist in our history.
Apamea withstood different challenges in the past two thousand years, but the recent destruction would probably be proven too much for the ancient city to bear. “Once a great city, now just empty holes” was how University of Glasgow recently described the site in an article titled Count the holes: the looting of Apamea, Syria.
From the conquest of Alexander the Great to the Romans, Apamea thrived as an Hellenistic city, then a provincial capital during the Roman times.
Many remaining structures are dated to the Roman era.
Anything decorative or with artistic values are probably gone by now.
The 2km Great Colonnade was one of the longest in the Roman world, but sadly it also suffered the most damages during the civil war. Thousands of holes were made in the area for treasure hunting. Uncounted artefacts have been stolen, including many priceless mosaic floors that have gone into the black market. Since 2012, Interpol has been involved in searching for the looted items.
It would take a long time to even comprehend how extensive the actual destruction was.
Ancient Roman Latin inscriptions and detail carvings might be gone.
Google aerial views reveal the site is now filled with holes all over. Many of the unexcavated treasures hidden from our sight in 2006 are gone by now.
Let’s hope the tragic story of Apamea would not repeat again somewhere else.
RUINS OF EPHESUS, Selcuk, Turkey
After breakfast, a staff of Homeros Pension drove us to a bank for money exchange before dropping us at the world renowned archaeological ruins of Ephesus (Efes). Ephesus is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Turkey, thanks to its close proximity to the cruise port and airport in the resort town of Kusadasi. The magnificent facade of Ephesus’ Library of Celsus is the signature image of Classical ruins in Turkey. Two thousand years ago, Ephesus was one of the greatest Greek and Roman cities in Asia Minor. Founded in the 10th century BC by Attic and Ionian Greeks, Ephesus reached its peak after the Roman takeover in 129 BC. From 52-54 AD, Paul the Apostle stayed in Ephesus and probably wrote his Gospel in the city. Ephesus was named as one of the seven churches of Asia in the Book Revelation, indicating Christianity was quite popular back then. In the Byzantine era, major earthquakes, shifting of trade routes, and sacking by the Arabs all contributed to the downfall of Ephesus. Its glorious past was eventually forgotten, and Ephesus was eventually abandoned in the 15th century. Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the magnificent Library of Celsus and the 25,000 seat theatre exemplify the former grandeur of the city. Already in ruins since 401 AD, the Temple of Artemis has little remained except a restored column. The restored facade of Library of Celsus remains as the biggest draw for visitors.
Seats for up to 24,000 spectators, the splendid great theatre of Ephesus was the first impressive building that we encountered in the site.
It was the time in the year where poppies flourished.
Right by Celsus Library, the Gate of Mazeus and Mithridates was a arch of triumph built in 40 AD during the reign of Augustus, the first Roman emperor and the great nephew of Julius Caesar.
Popular with tourist advertisements, the facade of the Library of Celsus is the most famous image of Ephesus. Named after Celsus, a Roman consul in Rome and later the provincial governor of Asia, the library was built by Celsus’ son Aquila and filled with over 12,000 scrolls of reading materials acquired by the money of Celsus left behind.
From 117 to 262 AD, the Library of Celsus served as an important public space in Ephesus for 145 years, where people came to read the rare scrolls under natural light at the main floor. In 262 AD, the library was destroyed by fire caused by earthquake or Gothic invasion.
The statues at the library facade symbolize wisdom, knowledge, intelligence and valor.
Episteme, the Greek philosophical term of “knowledge”, was depicted as one of the statues at Library of Celsus.
The imposing Library of Celsus is the most popular photo spot in Ephesus.
After the destruction in 262 AD, the facade survived for another 800 years or so until the tenth or eleventh century. Lying in ruins for about a thousand years, the facade of Library of Celsus was restored in the 1970s.
As an important Roman city, Latin inscriptions can be found all over Ephesus.
Beyond Mazeus & Mithridates Gate, a Corinthian colonnade marks the Agora, the former commercial heart of the ancient city.
Paved with marble stone and flanked by colonnade, Curetes Street was one of the main treets in Ephesus.
Along the street, there are lots of interesting architectural details for all visitors to discover.
The Odeon was used for political meetings, concerts and theatrical performances.
Roman relief of the Memmius Monument
Nike, the goddess of victory, was depicted on a marble relief.
Arch with relief sculpture at the Temple of Hadrian.
Headless Roman statue at Curetes Street.
The Hercules Gate at Curetes Street marked the separation between uptown and downtown.
Beautiful frieze at Hadrian Temple revealed the high craftsmanship of the Roman builders.
ACROPOLIS OF PERGAMON, Bergama, Turkey
At 19:00 we bid farewell to the hostel staff and left Sultan Hostel of Istanbul. We took the T4 bus from Hagia Sophia to the Taksim Square. We headed over to the office of Kamil Koc and waited for the departure of our first night bus in Turkey. At 09:00 the next day we arrived at Izmir, where we transferred to another bus for Bergama, the town where the famous Classical Greek city of Pergamon once stood in the 3rd century BC. We hired a taxi from Bergama’s otogar (bus station) to the acropolis archaeological park. I was quite excited for arriving at the ruined acropolis of Pergamon, largely due to my 2003 visit of Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, where the Great Altar of Pergamon was restored and displayed for the past 90 years. Seeing the Great Altar of Pergamon in Berlin’ three years prior to the trip was probably the main reason why I chose to stop by Bergama on our way to Selcuk from Istanbul. In the archaeological park, the acropolis where the high altar once stood was pretty much in ruins. A few notable structures, including the Trajaneum (where a headless marble statue in Roman armor stood in a courtyard) and the Greek Theatre, claimed to be the steepest theatre in the ancient world, represented the highlights. Near the base of the theatre lower, we stopped by the ruined Temple of Dionysus to pay a little respect to the God of pleasure and wine.
As the capital of Kingdom of Pergamon during the Attalid dynasty (281-133 BC), Pergamon was one of the major cultural centres in the Greek world. After 133 BC, Pergamon became part of the Roman Empire, and assigned as the capital city of province Asia. As trading routes shifted to Constantinople during the Byzantine era, the once Greek and Roman metropolis was transformed into a medium size city, but maintained its religious importance as it was mentioned in the Book of Revelations as one of Seven Churches of Asia. Then came the Ottomans who transformed Pergamon into a Turkish city with mosques and bath houses that we know today. From the first visit of German engineer Carl Humann in 1864 to WWI, the Germans had made numerous expeditions and archaeological excavations at Pergamon. Most of their findings are now on display at Berlin’s Pergamon Museum. After WWI, artefacts found on site were being restored and exhibited at Istanbul or the Bergama Museum.
Probably the most famous Classical artefact in Berlin, the Great Altar of Pergamon has been moved to and reconstructed in the German capital about a century ago.
The statue of Athena Parthenos was found in the ruins of Library of Pergamon in 1880.
Today, the most prominent remaining structure at the Acropolis of Pergamon is the Greek Theatre. With a seating capacity of 10,000, the theatre was the steepest in the world.
Below the theatre lies the town of Bergama.
Off to the side at the base of the theatre once stood the Temple of Dionysus.
Looking up the theatre from the Temple of Dionysus allowed us to fully appreciate the scale and steepness of the theatre.
A series of stepped walkways allowed the ancient audience to disperse efficiently.
Fragments of classical cornice and frieze could be found all over the archaeological park.
One of the most remarkable structures in the acropolis is Trajaneum, the only Roman building on site.
Completed by Emperor Hadrian, the Trajaneum was used to worship Zeus as well as Emperor Trajan, Hadrian’s predecessor.
Occupying the summit of the acropolis, Trajaneum sent a clear message to the citizens of Pergamon that the Romans were fully in charge of the once Hellenistic city.
The Corinthian column capitals still look spectacular after 2000 years.
It was a pleasure to wander around the ruined acropolis and looked for the remaining architectural details.
The statue of Hadrian could still be found in the acropolis.