A tour of what remains of ancient cities in Turkey that were home to some of the earliest churches came with the option of spending three days on a cruise through several Greek islands, culminating with a day in Athens. Who wouldn’t go for that?
The first stop was Patmos, where the apostle John was exiled for some time, and where he received the visions that culminated in the book of Revelation. Local tradition holds that he was holed up in a cave while getting the message from God, and it’s in the land of the Greek Orthodox, which means the interior of the cave is now covered with gold, silver, tapestries, and ornate wooden screens, with little left that looks like a cave.
It’s also complete with the sort of traditions that put my inner skeptic on red alert: “This small niche in the wall is where John, who was an old man, would put his hand to help him get up from the floor.”
“This larger niche near the floor is where John would put his head, like a pillow, when he lay down to sleep.” And if that wasn’t enough, “Notice the cracks in the ceiling of the cave. We believe that when the voice of God came to John, it split the ceiling into three parts symbolic of the Trinity.” Uh-huh. And no pictures allowed in the cave.
Pictures weren’t allowed inside the chapel of the eleventh century monastery at the top of the island, but that didn’t bother me too much since I’m not that great a fan of intricate hanging oil lamps, soot-stained paintings, and icons of various saints.
I try to respect those who find meaning in such expressions of piety, but confess that they don’t connect with me.
I did, however, enjoy the architecture of the monastery, as well as the view from outside.
There’s nothing biblical about Rhodes, to the best of my memory, though its history goes back to Neolithic times. The primary “Christian” connection there is an old walled city built by the knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, a remnant of the misbegotten and ill-fated Crusades. A 15th century hospital for knights now houses an amazing archaeological collection that quickly made it my favorite spot. Room after room is filled with amazing artifacts from early stone-age settlements through the Minoan, Mycenean, Greek, and Roman periods.
I was particularly taken with a painted ceramic drinking vessel called a “lip cup” from the mid-sixth century B.C. It was nicely done and the potter/painter took such pride in his workmanship that he wrote on the side something like “I am a beautiful drinking cup. Eucheiros made me.”
The museum includes a number of funerary monuments, including a depiction of a hollow-faced soldier in the coils of a huge snake, the guardian of the dead, as well as a haunting 5th century B.C. bas-relief funerary marker for a woman named Timarista, shown embracing her daughter Krito.
A stop at Heraklion, on the island of Crete, provided an opportunity to visit the partially reconstructed remains of the palace of Knossos, where Minoan kings ruled until sometime between 1300 and 1100 B.C. The building was quite impressive, with a “queen’s apartment” featuring frescoes of dolphins, and a “throne room” that probably served as a small council chamber, with a throne carved from gypsum built into the wall.
Most impressive (to my way of thinking) is that examples of the early scripts called Linear A and Linear B, a precursor of the Greek alphabet, were found there, though obviously not on display (though we later saw some in Athens).
Santorini is the sort of place that people often think of when they hear the words “Greek islands.” Built around the rim of a huge volcanic crater, the whitewashed houses of the scattered villages give the appearance of snow on the mountains. Given the option of strolling through the quaint village of Oia or climbing an active volcano in the middle of the old caldera followed by a swim in waters heated by volcanic vents, rich in iron oxide (i.e., red mud), we chose the latter. There was no beach: we jumped from the wooden
boat, anchored about 50 yards from shore, and swam into the rocky, muddy cove.
The volcano adventure was fun and still left time for a bus ride through several mountaintop villages, with a cable car ride down the steep slope to a tender boat waiting to ferry us back to the ship. Unfortunately, my camera battery died just as we reached the island, so the amazing pictures of quaint white houses perched above the blue Aegean Sea are preserved in mental synapses rather than digital format. Thank God for beautiful memories.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.