“Dr. Mannack is currently writing his first blog ever. Apparently, this is something young people do on a regular basis, and it does not normally include footnotes. The choice of subject, a highlight of the July cruise of MV Aegean Odyssey from Athens to Istanbul, is difficult, since there were more highlights than in a West End dancer’s hair on our far too brief cruise.
Delos and Mykonos
I was a guest lecturer on Classical Archaeology on the ship on a perfect journey: perfect destinations, perfect weather, and excellent company and colleagues (among them my wife Sigrid, and my daughters Lilith and Pia Fidelis). It is impossible to choose the best stop on a route that included Mycenae, Knossos, Delos, Samos, Ephesus, Aphrodisias, Troy and Istanbul, and Delos has therefore been chosen almost at random.
The ship sailed each night, and we had breakfast in the open air overlooking the island of Delos. Delos has been a particularly holy place since the beginning of history (and before), because the ancient Greeks probably mistook Bronze Age burial mounds for the tombs of heroes. Therefore, it was forbidden to give birth and/or to die on the island, a restriction the happy-go-lucky inhabitants of the island did not always adhere to. After an excellent breakfast, we were ferried across the absurdly blue sea in the ship’s tenders, arriving by boat like ancient Greek pilgrims.
Delos was especially holy to the Ionian Greeks living in what is today western Turkey, the islands off the Turkish coast, and Athens. Their offerings enriched the fairly barren island of Delos. Apollo, the god of the sun and bringer and healer of plagues was born here, when his mother Leto sought a safe place for his birth after a brief fling with the father of the gods, Zeus. Important sanctuaries tend to reflect the power of Greek states, and Delos is no exception. The ancient Greeks developed ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ to a high art. First were the inhabitants of nearby Naxos: a woman called Nikandre dedicated one of the earliest known statues of a woman to Artemis (now in Athens). Other Naxians offered some of the earliest known kouroi, statues of naked young men, some wearing belts.
We strolled through Delos like time-travellers, passing the lion terrace (a terrace lined with archaic lions), which is testimony to the influence of Egypt on early Greek sculpture, and passed the temples to Apollo. The Athenians, the most powerful Ionian Greeks, built one of them to put their mark on their sanctuary. When they founded the Delian League after the Persian occupation of Athens in 479 BC, it was decided to keep the League’s money in Delos (until the Athenians took it in 456 BC).
From Greek Delos we wandered into the Roman town with a superbly preserved theatre. Some of the surrounding houses were adorned with copies of paintings and mosaics showing theatrical scenes. The tour ended in the museum, which houses the original finds and is filled to the brim (although, strictly speaking, museums do not have rims) with paintings, mosaics and sculptures discovered in Delos.
After staying a little too long in the museum (not too long, because it was boring, but too long, because there was so much) we rushed back to the harbour to return to the ship. While we stayed on the island, a swell had come up, and the tenders danced back to the ship on dark blue waves.
While we had lunch, the Aegean Odyssey steamed to the neighbouring island of Mykonos (you are old, if you are not propositioned in Mykonos, and I had to realize that I am old). The crew was, as always fantastic, and put up with my constant queries whether we would be in time for the museum. Buses ferried us to the town centre, and we arrived at the museum of Mykonos with 28 minutes to spare. The museum is not part of the official itinerary, since it is filled with old wooden showcases full of Greek painted pottery, admittedly an acquired taste. Nevertheless, several passengers scrutinized it (testimony to the superb quality of passengers, I thought), and we were helped by the guard, who pointed out the most interesting pots, among them a Thasian relief amphora with the Trojan horse; unlike the real thing (long discourse on the reality of the Trojan horse deleted), this horse has little windows so that we can see the warriors inside.
Many of the vases/pots in the Mykonos museum come from graves in Delos. It was forbidden to die and to give birth there, but the inhabitants (not really supposed to be there because the impossibility of avoiding or even timing death and birth) procreated and died with abandon. Therefore it was occasionally necessary, to decree the ritual cleansing of the sacred island. We know from the Greek historian Thukydides that one such purification happened in 425 BC. All the graves were dug up, and mortal remains and accompanying pots were transported to the nearby island of Rheneia, and buried in large pits.
After a brief contemplation of life and mortality, we went sightseeing in Mykonos. Its white houses, windmills, and beach in the bright sunshine, and a short rest in a seaside tavern dispelled all morbid thoughts, and we returned merrily to our floatel.
One of the nicest characteristics of Voyages to Antiquity aka Aegean Experience is their choice of worthwhile sites, even if they require some hard work. One of these is Aphrodisias, a two and a half hour bus-ride from the coast. After conquering the inner Schweinehund, which baulked at the idea of 5 hours on a bus, we set out early in the morning. The journey was unexpectedly pleasant, the ride broken by a pause in a roadside restaurant and enlivened by an excellent and highly informed guide, and the landscape breathtaking.
Aphrodisias turned out to be worth every second of the trip. No doubt here about the highlight: the Sebasteion (temple to Augustus and Aphrodite) is unique. The original building is largely lost, but has been lovingly restored by the excavator. The original reliefs of the highest quality showing emperors in various heroic settings, subdued provinces and some gratuitous smut, are in the superb modern museum, while the restored building is adorned with plaster casts. Of great interest was a private guided tour by the Lincoln Professor of Art and Archaeology, RRR Smith, through the excavation workshop. My wife and I were also granted a glimpse at the back of the Sebasteion, which is coarsely built in stark contrast to the superbly crafted facade.
On the ship I felt that for once I had deserved my opulent dinner and three expertly mixed Margueritas. Here endeth the blog of Thomas Mannack.“
Related posts:“There once was a girl called Exell”
Voyages to Antiquity: The First Year, from one of our lecturers
We love to hear from our guests – Janita Ochse