After the Pyramids of Giza and the Valley of the Kings, in June we travelled forward about a thousand years in time, to visit ancient sites in Greece. During this time, I was reading The Odyssey for school, and so we spent time imagining how the places we visited would have appeared in the time of Odysseus.
In Athens, we stayed in a little hotel with a view of the Acropolis from our balcony. The Acropolis, the most important temple to Athena in ancient Greek history, is visible from all over the city. Over time it has been used as a temple, a mosque, a church, a weapon storage facility, and, during a siege of Athens in 1687, as a target for a Venetian cannonball. It was very interesting to visit, because you could see traces of all of these past events and notice statues both from ancient times and more modern ones. The biggest and most important statue, however, the Athena Parthenon, was stolen and brought to Constantinople and then lost forever. No one knows if it was destroyed or is possibly sitting in some basement or somewhere else — it seems like it would be hard to lose a 12 meter tall gold plated statue! Standing on the top of the Acropolis, it was easy to imagine the ancient Greeks looking out over the same hills and harbor that we can see today — there were even lots of tourists in Athens in those days, though not as many selfie sticks!
From Athens, we drove to Delphi, the site of the ancient oracle of Apollo. This was a pilgrimage site in ancient times, and it was magical to visit. One day we took a trail that connects Delphi to the port city of Kirra. It was amazing, because we could imagine travelers arriving in the port and hiking up the very same trail we took to ask their questions of the oracle. We passed groves of olive trees and wild thyme, just as ancient travelers would have done. Everyone who was important in Ancient Greece seems to have visited the oracle, even Alexander the Great. The famous general supposedly asked the oracle a question that she couldn’t answer. This was not too unusual — many people think that the oracles purposefully gave very vague or mysterious answers to most questions, so that no matter what happened, they could claim that they were right. When the oracle told Alexander to come back a day later to ask his question, he grabbed her and dragged her out of the temple until she said, “Stop, you are unbeatable!” Alexander took this to be the answer to his question — should he continue to expand his empire — and went away satisfied. We learned that before answering questions, the oracle sat in the temple and breathed in vapors that arose between the slabs of stone on the floor and, in a trancelike state, provided her riddle answers to visitors. Today, it is still a very beautiful place, and it is easy to see why the site was chosen for the oracle.
From Delphi, we continued on to Meteora, the site of huge rock pillars that rise straight up out of the plains. They are filled with little caves that were inhabited by monks in the 9th century. These monks originally came to the caves to be alone. Later, as the Turks began to invade Greece, the monks built huge monasteries perched in the hills, to protect them from Turkish threats. We saw the caves and also the monasteries, which were built to be very difficult to get to. The monks used small baskets on ropes to be lowered all the way down to the ground, which looked fun but very scary.
After Meteora, we travelled back to Athens to catch a ferry to the island of Naxos. Looking out from the deck of the ferry at the clear blue Aegean Sea, it was easy to imagine Odysseus sailing his ship past small islands as he went home to Ithaca after the Trojan War. Fortunately for us, however, the journey took us only four hours instead of ten years! On Naxos, we visited a temple to Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, in the middle of the island. The temple is surrounded by olive groves and farms, suggesting that this was an agricultural area even in ancient times. We took a day sail around the nearby islands and jumped from the boat directly into the blue Aegean sea. I don’t know if Odysseus and his men found time to enjoy swimming in the ocean, but we definitely did. We continued on to Santorini, where we hiked along a cliff and looked out at a caldera formed when a huge volcano erupted and caused a big chunk of the island to fall into the sea.
Traveling around Greece was kind of like time travel back to the days of Odysseus. Just as he experienced, we visited different islands, though fortunately we met more friendly locals than killer cyclops or Laestrygonian cannibals. We ate the same foods he would have enjoyed with his crew: olives, cheeses, yogurt, and wine, though we also found some terrific gelato on Naxos that I am sure Odysseus did not get to try. Most amazingly, we realized that beliefs around hospitality really have not changed since Odysseus’ time: in The Odyssey, we learned that the Greeks felt it was very important to provide visitors with gifts and to welcome and care for travellers. This was really important in keeping peace in those times, when the different islands were all separate kingdoms and not one united country. Today, we were amazed at how welcoming and kind everyone was, and how the tradition of giving gifts to travellers continues: at most restaurants, we were given free appetizers, desserts, or drinks, and in one restaurant, the family got to know us personally and brought Jonah extra olives at every meal because they knew he liked them so much.
In The Odyssey, Odysseus spends a lot of time missing his home on Ithaca. After visiting some of the islands of Greece, it is easy to understand why Odysseus cared so much about his amazing and beautiful homeland.