Travels in the Mediterranean

In late November and early December 2022 my husband and I finally took the Mediterranean cruise we originally had planned for 2020. The information below comes from our own observation, interpretive signage at various sites, and tour guides at some of the sites.

Our journey started in the city of Istanbul, ancient Byzantium and Roman era Constantinople. A highlight was walking along the Theodosian walls. Several sections, including towers, can be seen today. These amazing fortifications were constructed during the reign of Theodosius II, completed about 439 CE. They were designed to protect Constantinople from the same fate as Rome, which had been sacked in 410 CE. There were three walls, fronted by a deep trench which could be flooded. The walls withstood attacks until 1453, when they were breached by the modern cannons of the Ottomans.

Photo: walls
Ruins of the Theodosian Walls, Istanbul, Turkey

We also saw the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and another, smaller, neighborhood mosque. The Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) is the third religious building to stand on the site. It was completed during the reign of Justinian I in 532 CE. Under the Ottomans it was converted to a mosque. In 1935 it became a museum, and in 2020 was reconverted to a mosque.

Photo: Hagia Sophia
View from the upper story, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey
Photo: Hagia Sofia
Inside the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey

The nearby Blue Mosque, completed in 1723 under Ottoman rule, has thousands of blue tiles and blue paintings in the interior. The neighborhood mosque we visited also had blue tiles, which are known as Iznik [ancient Nicea] tiles. According to our guide, these tiles used quartz mixed with clay and featured blue and white floral patterns with some red added. They appear in many buildings in Istanbul and are popular (both real and fake) as collector’s items.

Photo: Blue Mosque
Inside the Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey
Photo: Iznik tiles
Sample of the Iznik Blue and Red Tiles, Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

The only disappointing part of this journey was our inability to visit the site of ancient Troy near the port of Canakale. Sadly, we experienced high winds—double the velocity that would be safe for our small cruise ship to land. Canakale sits on the eastern side of the Dardanelles Strait (also known as the Hellespont), a passage from the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara. On the western side of the strait is the Gallipoli Peninsula, at which Allied troops were trapped for eight months during World War I. The strait is 61 kilometers (about 38 miles) long, and has, according to our ship’s captain, hazardous currents and countercurrents and unpredictable winds. Homer described it as “windswept Ilion” for a reason.

Our next stop was Ephesus, Turkey, located near the port of Kusadasi and the town of Selcuk. As part of the Roman Empire, Ephesus was an important city during the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, with an estimated population of between 30,000 and 55,000. The main road in the archeological site is Curetes Street, which is lined with columns, and is said to have been traversed by Cleopatra and Mark Antony. Curetes Street also contains carvings showing the location of a nearby brothel, as well as an ornate arch at the location of the Temple of the Emperor Hadrian. The Great Theater in Ephesus, originally built in the 4th century BCE, held an estimated 24,000 spectators.

Photo: Roman theater
The Roman Theater at Ephesus, Turkey
Photo: Curetes Street
Walking along Curetes Street, Ephesus, Turkey

The most famous Ephesus ruin is the partially reconstructed Library of Celsus, built in about 125 CE by the son of Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus. The elder Celsus was a Greek who served as the Roman governor from 105–107 CE and was buried beneath the Library.

Photo: inside Library
View from interior of Library of Celsus (partially reconstructed) Ephesus, Turkey
Photo: Library of Celsus
Exterior of Library of Celsus, Ephesus, Turkey

Nearby lies the site of the ancient Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, of which little remains. figures representing Artemis are often adorned with many spherical items. Scholars argue about whether these represent breasts, bull testicles, eggs, grapes or gourds.

Photo: Statue of Artemis
Statue of Artemis, National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece

About 62 kilometers (39 miles) from Ephesus lie the ruins of another ancient city, Miletus. It is near the mouth of the Meander River. It was a prosperous port with a population of about 100,000, but the port silted up by the early Common Era. The large Roman era theater has covered walkways above the seats, with views of the surrounding countryside.

Photo: theater, Miletus
Covered walkway at the top of the theater, Miletus, Turkey
Photo: Plain of Menander from Miletus
View from the top of the theater, looking out over the plain of the River Meander, Miletus, Turkey
Photo: Orchestra theater, Miletus
View of the orchestra from the top of the theater, Miletus, Turkey

Slightly north of the theater are the ruins of the Baths of Faustina, built to honor the wife of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Interestingly, she is known to have visited Ephesus but not Miletus.

About 17 kilometers (11 miles) from Miletus sits the Temple of Apollo at Didyma, the location of an oracle. This enormous structure contains massive columns, some of which remained unfinished. The interior of the temple is a large grass area below the entrance level, placed over a sacred spring with the roof open to the sky.

Photo: Temple of Apollo
Interior of the Temple of Apollo at Didyma, near Miletus, Turkey
Photo: Columns in Temple of Apollo, Didyma
My husband Hunt standing near one of the columns of the Temple of Apollo, to show the enormous size of the column. Didyma, near Miletus, Turkey

On the island of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, a bronze statue of Helios known as the Colossus of Rhodes, once stood at the harbor, a place now occupied by statues of deer. The idea that the statue straddled the harbor is unlikely according to modern analysis, since it would have collapsed. It probably stood on one side, until it was collapsed by an earthquake in 226 BCE, only 54 years after its construction.

Photo: Statue of deer, Rhodes
Statue of a deer where it is believed the Colossus of Rhodes may have stood, Rhodes, Greece

From the port of Heraklion in Crete we visited the archaeological site of Knossos, excavated by Sir Arthur Evans in the early 20th century. We have all seen pictures of Knossos but visiting the site in person captures the amazing ambiance of the place. It sits at the foot of a line of hills, and in ancient times was closer to the port.

Photo: hills above Knossos
View of the line of hills above Knossos, Crete

The reconstructed columns and frescoes do not take away from the experience at all, but merely give a slight suggestion of what the palace and surrounding structures may have been like.

Photo: palace with reconstructed columns
Ruins of one of the palace’s walls, with partially reconstructed columns, Knossos, Crete
Photo: fresco
Restored fresco of two men carrying vessels, Knossos, Crete
Photo: partially reconstructed room, Knossos
A partially reconstructed room in the palace structure, Knossos, Crete

The signage notes Knossos may be the oldest city in Europe, perhaps settled in Neolithic times. The palace is the largest on Crete and may have been built around 2,000 BCE and abandoned around 1,300 to 1,100 BCE. Like Troy, the civilization was thought to be merely legendary until Evans unearthed the palace in 1900. It was he who coined the name “Minoan” for the builders, after King Minos of mythology.

Photo: throne room, Knossos
The so-called “throne room” in the main palace structure, Knossos, Crete. This room was largely reconstructed on excavation.

The site covers several acres, with one large main structure and many outbuildings. Some of these outbuildings contain large storage jars called pithoi and lead-lined chests set into the floor.

Photo: outer buildings Knossos
Ruins of some of the outer buildings at the Knossos complex, Knossos, Crete
Photo: storage jar
A storage jar set into the floor, Knossos, Crete
Photo: Storage containers,
Storage containers set into the floor, Knossos, Crete

The palace itself had indoor plumbing (almost 2,000 years before the Romans) as well as the famous frescoes. The signs note the ground floors of the buildings were stonework or unbaked bricks with the now-lost upper floors of timber, perhaps with brush and clay ceilings containing skylights.

Photo: stairway, Knossos
Remains of a stairway in the palace structure, Knossos, Crete

Outdoors, there is a structure identified as a theater, with an orchestra or “dancing floor” of a rectangular shape, not semicircular, as were the Greek orchestras at places like the Theater at Epidaurus.

Photo: orchestra, theater, Knossos
View of the orchestra, or dancing floor, of the structure  identified as the theater at Knossos. The spectators would have sat on the steps. Knossos, Crete

The lack of fortifications at Knossos has led archaeologists to speculate the Minoan civilization were probably more traders than warriors. However, after the Minoans, Crete has had many rulers throughout the centuries, including the mainland Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs in 824 CE, the Byzantines in 960 CE, the Venetians who purchased the island in 1204 CE, and the Ottomans in the mid 1600’s CE. Crete became autonomous in 1898 but has been part of the kingdom of Greece since 1913.

In Athens, we enjoyed a trip to the National Archaeological Museum. In addition to the artifacts used by elites, such as jewelry, the Museum contains many humble items used by everyday people. These include items such as oil lamps, musical instruments, stone beads, and spindle whorls.

Photo: stone beads
A necklace of stone beads from the Cyclades, about 1500 BCE, National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece
Photo: spindle whorls
Stone spindle whorls, about 1500 BCE, National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece
Photo: clay tripod
Clay offering tripod, from Akrotiri, (ancient Thera). National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece

On our last scheduled day we toured the time-capsule city of Pompeii. The site has a very modern feel. Proceeding along its cobblestone streets with stepping stones leading over the middle and tracks for cartwheels, one almost expects to hear Latin-speaking shopkeepers offering to sell you bread, oil, or wine from the urns in their stores. Brothels are identified with pictures indicating the various brothel services, since visiting seafarers did not always speak Latin. Many of the tourists at the site were most interested in seeing the casts of bodies at various places throughout the city. They are stunning and quite emotionally draining. However, I prefer to think of Pompeii as a living city bustling with commerce with people from all over the Roman Empire visiting through the port of Stabiae.

Photo: stepping stones on Pompeii street
Stepping stones with spaces between them for cart wheels, a street in Pompeii, Italy
Photo: interior of theater, Pompeii
Interior of the great theater of Pompeii, showing one of the exits/entrances. Pompeii, Italy
Photo: interior of shop
Interior of a shop facing the street. Amphorae of wine and other containers would have been placed in the stone containers to keep cool, and customers would have had their servings dipped out by the tavern keeper. Pompeii, Italy

A few additional notes about Pompeii from our tour guide, an excellent gentleman named Marco. In 79 CE the city, and nearby communities, were buried under four to six meters (13 to 20 feet) of ash and pumice stones with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Pompeii is about 40 meters above sea level and scholars think it was originally settled sometime in the 8th century BCE by Oscans from Italy. The Greeks colonized it in around 740 BCE. By about 540 BCE Pompeii was a member of the Etruscan league. Approximately 290 BCE Pompeii became controlled by Rome and remained faithful to Rome during the second Punic War. Pompeii rebelled against Rome in 89 BCE, and Roman general Sulla mounted a siege. The impact craters from ballista shots against the city walls are still visible. After taking the city, Sulla settled some of his veterans in Pompeii, and the city became a major trading center.

Photo: skylight, Pompeii
Skylight/opening for rain, Atrium of House of Menander. Pompeii, Italy
Photo: impluvium
Impluvium for capturing rainwater, underneath the hole in the roof, Atrium of House of Menander. Pompeii, Italy
Photo: interior with niche, Pompeii
Interior room in House of Menander, showing a niche for household gods, or lares. Pompeii, Italy
Photo: pilons for warm air, house Pompeii
Interior of House of Menander, showing pilons on which the floor rested, to allow warm air from the hypocaust (furnace) to circulate. Pompeii, Italy

Looming over the city is the active volcano, Vesuvius. Pliny the Younger writes there had been tremors and earthquakes for many years before the 79 CE eruption. Most inhabitants escaped the eruption and fled to nearby islands. However, Pliny’s uncle, Pliny the Elder, was the admiral of the local fleet at the time and organized evacuation. He died while rescuing stranded victims.

Photo: Vesuvius
View of Vesuvius from the Forum. Pompeii, Italy

Vesuvius has continued to erupt, but Pompeii was forgotten until the 16th century CE when digging uncovered some of the ancient walls. Excavations in 1920s and 1950s uncovered much of the city. Today, archaeologists are working on preserving the site, treating the walls to increase drainage.

Photo: wall with layered stonework, Pompeii
The remains of a wall showing typical Roman layered stonework, which would often be covered with plaster or marble. Pompeii, Italy
Photo: insula, Pompeii
Exterior of a building showing the corner of one of the city’s insulae (literally “islands” or city blocks). Pompeii, Italy

In conclusion, we felt extremely privileged to visit ancient sites on this trip. It is humbling to stand where people stood so many years ago, and to reflect on how similar they were to us. It is both amazing that many of the sites are extant, but also sad that they are fragile. They are important to our human story and visiting them adds much to our understanding of history and culture.


Kelly Lambert is a member of Kosmos Society. All photos by the author.