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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.