Quick message Order a brochure

Hugh Ellwood explores the Isles of Greece in spring

Spring is a fantastic time to cruise in the Aegean and explore the region’s many wonders before the heat of summer takes hold. Recently returned from touring the islands of Greece on board Aegean Odyssey, Hugh Ellwood, architect, artist and NADFAS accredited lecturer, recounts his experiences visiting this extraordinary part of the world.

“In May 2015, I was a lecturer aboard the Aegean Odyssey, a 350-passenger cruise ship run by Voyages to Antiquity. For two weeks we toured the Isles of Greece. What I found fascinating about the voyage was that we came face to face with the story of art and architecture in the West. The period ranged from 3,000 BC to 1,600 AD, from Minoan to Islamic, with Classical and Hellenistic Greek, Roman and Byzantine periods in between.

The Minoans lived on the island of Crete from about 2,500 BC. The island was peaceful, there is no evidence of fortifications, and engaged in trade. The early palaces and houses were built in the 19th century BC. The largest at Knossos now just outside Heraklion, survived until about 1375 BC. The site was excavated by Sir Arthur Evans in the 19th century and a new museum has been built to display marvellous treasures and frescoes from the site.

The Palace of Knossos, Crete. Home of the mythical minotaur

The Palace of Knossos, Crete. Home of the mythical minotaur

The island of Santorini lies between Crete and the Greek mainland. Around 1600 BC it exploded in a cataclysmic volcanic eruption. The eruption destroyed the island and the resulting tsunami probably wiped out Crete, thus bringing to an end the Minoan civilization. This incident gave rise to the legends of the lost city of Atlantis and the minataur kept in a maze. In 1967, a Greek archaeologist discovered that at the time of the eruption, Santorini had been a flourishing island kingdom, culturally linked to Crete. At Akrotiri, on the south side of the island he found the principle port, its houses and contents preserved by ash and lava. It was the Greek equivalent of the later Roman Herculaneum and Pompeii disasters.

Picturesque Santorini

Picturesque Santorini

The art and architecture of ancient Greece evolved to such a sophisticated degree that it laid down the principles that were followed for centuries in the West. To worship their gods, the ancient Greeks created a sacred architecture regarded nowadays as one of the supreme glories of their civilisation. Greek architects honed and adapted this monumental form, but the essentials never changed. The colonnaded Greek temple constitutes a cultural phenomenon in itself. The Parthenon, on the Acropolis, is the supreme example of the Greek temple.

The Parthenon, dominating the Athens skyline for millennia

The Parthenon, dominating the Athens skyline for millennia

Philippi, near the modern town of Kavala is a city in northern Greece, the principle sea port of Macedonia. It was founded in the 7th century BC by settlers from Thasos and named Neapolis. According to legend it was the birthplace of Apollo, the god of the sun, music, light and beauty. The old harbour of Philippi is located some 9 miles from the city. It supported Athens against Sparta in the 5th century during the Peloponnesian wars and was the location of Thucydides’ exile.

The ruins of ancient Philippi

The ruins of ancient Philippi

Ephesus, according to Herodotus, was founded by colonists coming from the West during the first Millenium. Ephesus was later ruled by Alexander the Great, then passed into the hands of the Ptolemies and finally became part of the Roman colony of Asia, being named their capital.

There are magnificent remains in Ephesus; the main street of Curetes, with shops on either side; the Celsius library, with its ventilated double walls to protect the niches holding manuscripts; and the Great Theatre, the largest in Asia Minor, with seating for 24,000. The recently excavated houses give a rare glimpse of Greek wall painting.

Ephesus - one of the best preserved ancient sites in the Aegean

Ephesus – one of the best preserved ancient sites in the Aegean

Pergamon emerged in the 3rd century BC and is the best preserved late Hellenistic city. It occupies an impressive site overlooking the Caicus Valley and was built on the slopes right up to the summit. This incredible site means that everything, including the theatre, is steep and dramatic.

Few theatres, ancient or modern are as spectacular as that at Pergamon

Few theatres, ancient or modern are as spectacular as that at Pergamon

Istanbul is amazing. It started as the Greek city of Byzantiun, was then taken over by the Romans and in 330 AD the Roman Emperor Constantine moved his capital to the city an renamed it Constantinople, thus founding the Byzantine Empire.

During the reign of Justinian, the population had nearly doubled from 400,000 to 700,000. Defence of the city became a major problem so Theodosius had already built a new wall to enclose the enlarged city. In case of a siege, there had to be a store of provisions, particularly water, so Justinian also built a number of cisterns or reservoirs.

In the 6th century, Justinian built the cathedral of Hagia Sophia, with its huge domes, symbolizing the unity of the Christian religion with the power of the state in the Byzantine Empire. It is the masterly ordering of the space, domes and vaults that is most apparent in the design of this highly original structure.

The majestic Hagia Sophia

The majestic Hagia Sophia

When the Turks took Constantinople in 1453, they were so impressed by the church of Hagia Sophia that they spared the building. Not only did they spare the building, but they turned it into mosque and added four minarets to the exterior. Then something quite extraordinary happened. They began to copy the Hagia Sophia and mosques, following the form of the Hagia Sophia, began to spring up not just in Constantinople, but across the Ottoman Empire.

We also visited Troy, Kos, Rhodes, Mykonos and Gallipoli. The visits to all these places vividly illustrated how this area became the cradle of Western civilization and culture. For a full travelogue, visit my website at www.hughellwood.com