Sunday, September 14, 2008

Heaven and Earth

Well, I'm back from points east and beginning to integrate what has happened to me in the past 2 weeks. I'm to the point now where my body has figured out which hemisphere it's in, and what is happening now is that I am beginning to realize the richness of all that I was exposed to. When you're in it, you're just going from place and concentrating on what you are doing at the present moment. Now the sweep of the trip and the expanse of what it represented is beginning to sink in. I have had more than I even dreamed of.

The trip was entitled "Heaven and Earth in the Ancient Aegean" and it was organized by the Cornell Adult University. My friend Scott MacDonald, the Chair of the Philosophy Department, was one of the leaders and the other was Frank Rhodes, former President of Cornell and before that a Professor of Geology. They are both splendid lecturers, and I've never had a trip that was filled out and contextualized so deeply as this one was. We explored the meaning of the part of the world we were in from the point of view of what it gave to the history of ideas, and especially what it gave to the formation of the Christian religion (Heaven) and the geological forces that formed that part of the world (Earth). That's one reason I'm feeling so filled with the richness of the experience.

I began to realize what the experience was going to be like when I first entered my hotel room in Istanbul on the first morning. We arrived in the late morning, so there was a bit of a pause before our rooms were ready, but it wasn't long, and when I got my room card I went up and opened the door and there before me was a wall mostly of glass and beyond it at my feet was the City with the Bosphorus flowing through it. I was looking at Europe on the near side and Asia on the far side and had my own balcony to view it from and without even thinking about it I said "Ohhhhhh". At that moment I began to realize how much I was in for. It was a lot, as you will gather, and it won't all be told in one writing, but I'll share at least some of the adventures.

From the point of view of time, we covered about 5,000 years of history. Near the beginning of the trip we visited Troy, which was first built in about 3,000 BCE. There are 7 cities piled one on top of the other, and the last occupiers were the Romans, when the harbor finally was so silted up that the city was abandoned, like so many in this part of the world. It was a very moving experience to be there and it was the place that I realized how skilled our guide was, because without Yaman (his name) I could have wandered through those miscellaneous ruins - a foundation from the first city, a gate from the 3rd city, a temple from the last city - and not gotten any impression at all except for mixed ruins. As it was we came out of it with a feeling for all those cities and the people who lived there and the lives they lived in that spot for more than 30 centuries.

And we went to Knossos on Crete, which was abandoned about 1,500 BCE (perhaps because of the explosion of the volcano on Santorini, which we also visited) and saw a completely different civilization, who used wood for their columns instead of stone and painted them deep red and black and had an art that was different from anything else that we saw. And for the centuries following, we saw Greek and Roman buildings aplenty, many different places, many different styles, so many centuries while time flowed on.

To start in Istanbul was to have a mini tour of a lot of those centuries. We saw there a vibrant 21st century city on the move, and breathtaking ancient mosques filled with exquisite tile work, and cruised up and down the Bosphorus, seeing the land and the city and we explored what is arguably the greatest church in the history of Christianity, the Hagia Sophia, where the dome seems to float on light and to be held up by the Holy Spirit rather than by the pillars on which it rests. It was from this place that Russian envoys, looking for a religion to embrace, returned to their homeland and reported of that church that "we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth."

To our west (Turkey) we saw many of the cities where Christianity took its form and shape, including Ephesus, which revels in the title of "The Best Excavated City on Earth", and to our east (Greece) we saw Delphi, spiritual home of the Greek nation for many centuries, which still clings to the sides of an almost vertical mountain, and Thessalonikki, which preserves its very ancient Christian Churches, many of which have 7th and 8th century mosaics, created when the churches were already old.

We saw excavations done exactly the way they are "supposed to be", most especially in Ephesus, and there we wandered through the most recent example of this work - a hillside that contained several 2nd and 3rd century "condos" - homes of some of the wealthy Ephesians, terraced into a hillside. The mosaics and frescoes and walls and foundations have been left in place, just as they were, and a skillfully constructed walkway has been built through and above the houses, so that you can explore the whole neighborhood but not disturb it. We also saw the great theater, seating, so they say, 25,000 people where the crowd wanted to tear the Apostle Paul to pieces and shouted for hours on end: "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians" (see the Acts of the Apostles for the story).

We also saw excavations that defied all the rules, especially Sardis. "The Rules" specify that you aren't supposed to reconstruct excavated ruins, except perhaps to set up a column or two, because your ideas of how the site might have been could destroy evidence of what it was actually like. And you never, never, never are supposed to set out on a major reconstruction project, especially if it has to use modern materials to fill in the gaps. But the people in charge of Sardis have made several major reconstructions and all I know is that when I wandered through the immensity of those Roman walls and arches and looked up at the facades of that columned hall I felt like I knew something about those cities and what it was like to be in them that I had never imagined before. And they've restored much of a splendid synagogue and left the floor mosaics in place so you can actually walk on them, like people did at the time, so I could feel with my feet what the city was like, which I had never felt before. And when we got to the huge Temple of Artemis, which really isn't much restored, I could still feel the place and have some experience of it and carry that experience to Ephesus, where the famed Temple was destroyed by the Christians centuries later to make the Church of St John the Evangelist (which incidentally was the largest church in the world at the time.)

And we ate fresh-from-the-sea octopus and shrimp in Santorini, and meses at any number of places in Turkey (we would call them 'appetizers' - a selection of vegetables, mostly cooked, served with a variety of olive oil-based sauces) and organically raised lamb on the farm in Crete where it was raised, followed by a dessert of freshly made yogurt with toasted nuts and honey.

And we saw Thermopylae, which I've always heard of and knew nothing about, and places called Priene and Stilida and Vergina, which I never even heard of.

Everyone wants to know what the highlight was. What an impossible request! Well, if pushed I guess that really has to be two consecutive evenings. The first was in Ephesus. When we had done seeing the site, we were served a superb banquet on the terrace in front of the Library of Celsus, which is in the center of the city, and as the evening darkened all the of columns and walls of that fabled city were lit with spotlights and candles and a string quartet from the Izmir Philharmonic Orchestra played. And then at the end of the meal, just to send it over the emotional edge, all of us who had ever sung in the Cornell Glee Club (which I did for 4 years) were called forward and everyone rose to sing "Far Above Cayuga's Waters" - talk about a cultural clash!

The very next night I sat with Bob, who was the other single man on the trip, and who became a good friend, at a terrace cafe overlooking the sea from Fira - the capitol city of Santorini and built at the peak of the volcanic mountain which composes the island, and watched the sun set over the sea and then saw the lights of the city come slowly on as the evening darkened and the moon rose high over the Aegean. As they say, it doesn't get much better than this.

That's enough for one week. You get the idea. And lots of other stuff happened, too, which will come later. I haven't even begun to talk about the people stuff, which was a whole other dimension. I'll unfold some of that stuff as it unfolds in me.

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