It was hard to keep my footing on Mars Hill. Its earthquake-battered surface is by turns either too jagged or worn slick by pilgrim feet...
ATHENS — It was hard to keep my footing on Mars Hill. Its earthquake-battered surface is by turns either too jagged or worn slick by pilgrim feet. I hadn’t expected that.
On this outcropping, the Apostle Paul addressed the Areopagus, a sort of intellectual town council that gave its name to this spot and to the building, now long gone, in which it met.
Even now, the view from its two-story summit is one of the best in Athens. The panorama takes in the entire ancient city from the dainty Temple of Athena Nike atop the Acropolis, back across the old agora, all the way to the well-preserved Temple of Hephaestus at the nether end. Those landmarks were a good 400 years old when B.C. changed to A.D.
Anyone standing here almost 2,000 years ago would have been hemmed in by pagan shrines. He would’ve needed a lot of chutzpah to tell the Athenians, as Paul did, that “the God who made the world and everything in it … does not live in temples built by hands.” His message drew a mixed reaction at the time: Some were converted, some took offense and some equivocated with what I interpret as an ancient form of “don’t call us, we’ll call you.”
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But in the weeks since I stood on Mars Hill, something else has occurred to me. Of all the arguments and speeches the Areopagus must have entertained on this spot over the ages, only Paul’s is engraved on a bronze plaque bolted to the bedrock. That’s a connection I may never have made if I hadn’t been there on the front wave of an emerging trend in Christian tourism.
There’s nothing new about religious travel. But there is something different: The niche has gone mass market.
With the entrance of mega-operator Globus into the religious sector three years ago, and the offerings from other secular companies such as Ya’lla Tours USA, Gate 1 Travel and Isram World, individuals can book escorted religious itineraries with a choice of guaranteed departure dates, just as they would a general-interest tour.
Now, people like me who either don’t have a church affiliation or whose schedules don’t mesh with whatever trips their congregation might plan can just sign up for a tour like this.
I traveled Sept. 26-Oct. 5 on Globus’ most popular religious itinerary, the nine-night “Footsteps of Apostle Paul,” based around the saint’s activities as recorded in the Book of Acts, chapters 16-21 — though the logistics of the trip didn’t always allow us to visit places in the same order Paul did.
We went first to ancient Corinth, famed in classical times for its temple prostitutes and black-figure pottery, destroyed when Rome defeated Greece in 146 B.C. and rebuilt by Julius Caesar a hundred years later as a sort of Del Webb for old soldiers. They’re pretty sure that Paul arrived in 51 or 52 A.D.
One of Corinth’s more intriguing attractions is the public toilets, whose line of keyhole-shaped stone “seats” were not at all private. On the contrary, they were positioned around a rectangular courtyard and, by all accounts, quite the place for socializing in Roman times. They sit just off a wide street whose original stone paving slabs lead to the central agora, or marketplace, and the Bema of Paul. The bema (meaning step or steps, our guide said) is just a stone platform, roped off and vacant except for the weight of the words Paul spoke from it.
When we got back to Athens, we made the stop at Mars Hill before tackling the Acropolis — a must on any Greece itinerary, but relevant to a Christian tour for an understanding of the ancient Athenians.
The next morning we transferred from our Athens hotel and were checked in aboard the 364-cabin Orient Queen by 9:30 a.m. — plenty of time to sun, swim, eat lunch and schedule a massage before an afternoon arrival at Mykonos, the island with those iconic white windmills. This picturesque stop had no connection to Paul. But on a trip where the guides would make time for four captive-shopping experiences — two pottery studios, a carpet showroom and an icon workshop — the boutiques of Mykonos’ whitewashed lanes would prove to be one of the tour’s few opportunities for window shopping.
Next day at the island of Rhodes, our Rhodian guide permitted a five-minute photo stop at the Bay of St. Paul, where Paul and Silas once made port. It was sandwiched between an ascent to the medieval Castle of the Knights of St. John at Lindos and a walk through the medieval heart of the city of Rhodes — all crowded into a fast-paced half-day excursion.
Optional jaunts the following day at Patmos and Ephesus were even more compressed. In fact, someone joked that they hoped we enjoyed Patmos by night, so early was our tender to shore.
The main attraction on the Greek island of Patmos is the Cave of the Apocalypse, where it is believed John received and wrote the Book of Revelation. When we arrived, worship was in progress in the small Greek Orthodox chapel, no bigger than a convenience store, built into the cave. Seminary students were chanting, and the scent of citrus incense was heavy in the air. But our group wasn’t the only one there. So after negotiating down steep stairs, standing in line all the way, we were told by our Patmosian guide not to stop inside but to keep moving single-file.
After lunch the same day, we docked in Turkey at Kusadasi for the half-hour bus ride to Ephesus.
Ancient Ephesus was hometown to the cult of Artemis, or Diana — her temple was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World — and supported a thriving trade in idols of the goddess.
Paul’s preaching put such a dent in the idol business that the craftsmen who made the things started a near riot that reached a climax in the Ephesus Theater, reputedly one of the largest amphitheaters of its time.
The ruins at Ephesus are in good enough repair that many of my fellow travelers found it the best part of the tour. Fran Westeringh, of Chilliwack, B.C., imagined “people walking there with their donkeys laden with merchandise and fruits and vegetables, women … standing around the water fountain getting caught up on the latest gossip.”
A night of rough seas kept me up into the wee hours, contemplating all the shipwrecks mentioned in the Bible. The next day took us off the ship at Piraeus on a 330-mile ride north to Thessaloniki by motor coach.
Paul’s own trip to what is now Northern Greece began at Troas, or Troy, in what is now Turkey, when he had a vision of a Macedonian man begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” He didn’t slow down until he got to Philippi.
Greeks hold that classical democracy died in its wide valley in 42 B.C. when the armies led by Marc Antony and Octavian defeated those of Brutus and Cassius.
The archaeological site finds itself divided by a busy two-lane highway. So it was to the noise of trucks that I took my place in line to peer over a gate and down into part of the ancient jail. This is the site traditionally accepted as the prison cell of Paul and Silas, the one in which their chains were broken by an earthquake. Instead of fleeing, they stayed and made a convert of the Philippian jailer and his household.
Outside Philippi’s ancient walls and 10 minutes farther by bus is the traditional baptism site of Lydia: a shady creek where several in our group connected with the past by resting their feet in the rushing water.
Although Paul’s preaching caused quite a stir in Thessaloniki — actually he had to leave town — the modern city offers no archaeological remains from those times. So on we moved to modern-day Veria, the Berea of Acts 17:10.
This mountain village overlooks a misty valley where peaches and apricots grow. House roofs are sloped to shed the snows of winter. Just as Paul did so long ago, we headed straight for the Jewish synagogue, or at least to what is believed to be its only remains: a set of three stone steps, the Bema at Berea, where Paul would have preached. Today they’re framed by mural-sized mosaics, installed some 50 years ago. For Pat Banwart, sitting on the steps with her daughter Amy and getting their photo made was one of the trip’s high points.
From there, the tour took us into the mountainous Greek heartland, where saffron is picked by hand in the Plain of Kozani and goatherds coax their flocks away from the serpentine pavement of Highway E-90. We were going to the monasteries of Meteora.
Wide mix of inhabitants
At Meteora, the Pindos Mountains make a strange compromise with the Plain of Thessaly: otherworldly sandstone spires that rise from the valley floor to heights of 1,200 feet and more. Their sheer rock faces are honeycombed with caves where hermits have lived like cliff-dwellers for perhaps 900 years. In the 14th century, Orthodox monks began building monasteries on the very pinnacles.
To reach Varlaam Monastery, early pilgrims were raised in nets by a pulley system. We took the “easy” way up — the stairs — to walk through chapels flush with frescoes. We had only to cross a bridge to enter St. Stephen, now a nunnery where nuns were tending a garden just a few feet from cliff’s edge. And because women are required to wear skirts or dresses inside the monasteries, I went about in a wrap-around skirt borrowed at the door to each monastery.
When we returned to Athens for our farewell dinner at a piano bar, most of us concluded that the trip had delivered excellent value for the money: a better class of hotels than we were expecting, tastier buffets, cleaner motor coaches, safer drivers. We’d covered a lot of ground, a lot of water, a lot of sights and a lot of history in scarcely more than a week. It felt good to end it with a view of the Acropolis by night.