A cruise through Greek islands of the Aegean Sea sounds like an idyllic and restful way to spend a few days, right? Idyllic, yes. Restful, no – not if you’re traveling with a study tour intent on learning as much as you can in a short period of time.
Pilgrims traveling with Campbell University Divinity School and Nurturing Faith Experiences boarded the “Celestyal Olympic” Friday morning for a three-day cruise that seems longer, mainly because the days are so long and the nights so short.
Friday was devoted to the process of boarding and getting underway. We fantasized about lying in the sun for the afternoon of sailing to the resort island of Mykonos,but cool and windy conditions kept most of us below decks, trying to catch a nap to make up for the last few days of early rising and late nights.
There’s nothing biblical about Mykonos, unless Paul or one of the other early Christians happened to sail by it at some point. Today it’s a small island with a colorful town whose streets are a maze of alleyways winding past restaurants, shops, and art galleries.
Saturday started early, with a 7:00 a.m. arrival at the Turkish port of Kusadasi (pronounced kushadashi, and meaning “Bird Island”). We departed shortly thereafter for a 30-minute bus ride to the magnificent ruins of ancient Ephesus, near the modern town of Selçuk.
Ephesus was an important port city in the first century, located on the central coast of what was then called “Asia Minor,” now the country of Turkey. The city boasted imposing public buildings, temples to various gods, ritzy “terrace houses” occupied by the rich, and public facilities that all could enjoy.
Modern visitors are sometimes surprised to learn Ephesus was once a major port, for it sits several miles inland. In the first century, the Cayster River brought a procession of ships to an accessible and protected harbor, but the river silted in long before modern dredging equipment was available. The loss of the harbor contributed significantly to the city’s demise.
During its heyday, Ephesus was a major city, perhaps second in importance only to Rome. Estimates of its population have exceeded 200,000: the city included a large theater near the port that could seat more than 25,000. Ephesus had a rich history as a Greek and later Roman city. Like most port cities, it was quite cosmopolitan in nature, featuring everything from government buildings to merchant interests, temples, and brothels.
Ephesus served as the capital of Asia under Roman rule and was famed as the home of a large temple to the Greek goddess Artemis, known to the Romans as Diana. Considered one of the “seven wonders of the ancient world,” the temple fell to an earthquake in antiquity and most of its building materials were carried away for other projects: today only a single column remains at the site.
After an obligatory visit to a government-sponsored facility that demonstrates Turkish carpet making techniques and seeks to sell outrageously expensive products to visitors, we made our way back to the ship in time for a late lunch and a short sail to Patmos, where John reportedly wrote the book of Revelation. Church tradition holds that it was the Apostle John, though scholars tend to think it may have been a different church leader who bore the same name.
We were delighted to learn that a study tour group from the divinity school at Gardner-Webb boarded our ship at Kusadasi to join us for the remainder of the cruise, which concludes in Athens on Monday morning.
On Patmos we visited the fortress-like Monastery of St. John, built atop the island’s spine in the 11th century CE and continuously occupied by Greek Orthodox monks since that time. The monastery is home to impressive frescoes as much as 1,000 years old, along with printed books from the 15th century and biblical manuscripts that are even older.
Patmos is also home to the “Cave of the Apocalypse,” a traditional site identifying a small cave as the place where John would pray, receive visions, and dictate the book of Revelation to a student and scribe named Prochorus. Some visitors (okay, this visitor) can be skeptical about things like gold-framed hollows in the rock wall where John reportedly rested his head and pushed himself up from kneeling, or that a crack in the ceiling was caused by the “loud voice” and sound of a trumpet that John described in the book — that conveniently split into three branches to indicate the Trinity.
Even so, standing on the island and contemplating what it would be like to be exiled there and was meaningful, especially when we were encouraged during our devotional time to consider that God can speak, even in difficult and uncomfortable settings.
Getting back to the ship in time for a 9:00 p.m. dinner gave us just enough time to eat and hit the hay for yet another early excursion: tomorrow we leave early to visit the famed Palace of Knossos on Crete, the home of the Minoan civilization, then on to the ruins of ancient Akrotiri, among the islands of Santorini.
It’s a hard life, but somebody has to do it. Tired though we are, we’re glad that this time, that somebody is us.
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.