The sun having set upon the Jewel of Santorini, our ship cruised through the many islands of the Cyclades in return to the port of Athens, Piraeus. Our docking, we were told, was at 4:30am; our disembarking was at 7:00am. Each of us for the last time walked the gangway with our carry-ons in tow and memories in hand of the wonderful crew and amenities of MV Louis Cristal.
We found our larger luggage, which we had placed outside our staterooms the night before, under a large tent-like structure grouped by deck. Only one of our group had to search for his — with the gracious help of a crew member. With all luggage in hand, we moved toward our bus, loaded up, and were quickly heading into the melee of Athens’ morning traffic, our destination, Ancient Corinth.
Ancient Greece, First Century A.D.
Some history: “Corinth’s commanding position on the Isthmus of Corinth, the narrow strip of land that separates the Peloponnese from northern Greece, was the primary basis of its importance. Corinth controlled the “diolkos” (Greek for “haul across”), the 6th-century BC stone-paved roadway that connected the Saronic Gulf [Aegean Sea] with the Gulf of Corinth [Ionian Sea}. This overland route was highly valuable in that it allowed passengers and cargo to avoid the difficult and time-consuming trip around the southern end of the Peloponnese.
“Being a leading naval power as well as a rich commercial city enabled ancient Corinth to establish colonies in Syracuse on the island of Sicily and on Corcyra (modern Corfu). These colonies served as trading posts for the richly ornamental bronze works, textiles, and pottery that Corinth produced.
“Beginning in 582 BC, in the spring of every second year the Isthmian Games were celebrated in honor of the sea-god Poseidon. The Doric Temple of Apollo, one of Corinth’s major landmarks, was constructed in 550 BC at the height of the city’s wealth.
“Corinth was conquered by Philip II of Macedon in 338 BC, but it was named the meeting place of Philip’s new Hellenic confederacy. After Philip was assassinated, Alexander the Great immediately came to Corinth to meet with the confederacy, confirm his leadership, and forestall any thoughts of rebellion. At the Isthmian Games of 336 BC, the Greeks chose Alexander the Great to lead them in war against the Persians.
“Corinth was partially destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC, but in 44 BC it was rebuilt as a Roman city under Julius Caesar. Roman Corinth prospered more than ever before and may have had as many as 800,000 inhabitants by the time of Paul. It was the capital of Roman Greece, equally devoted to business and pleasure, and was mostly populated by freedmen and Jews.
“The Apostle Paul[, according to the writings of Luke (Acts) and Paul], visited Corinth in the 50s AD[. The New Testament reflects his writing of] two letters to the Christian community at Corinth (1 and 2 Corinthians[the latter may be a compilation of no less than three letters]). When Paul first visited the city (51 or 52 AD), Gallio, the brother of Seneca, was proconsul of Corinth.
“[According to Acts 18:1-18] Paul lived in Corinth for 18 months, working as a tent-maker and converting as many… pagans as he could. Here he first became acquainted with Aquila and Priscilla, who became his fellow-workers.
“Although Paul intended to pass through Corinth a second time before he visited Macedonia, circumstances were such that he first went from Troas to Macedonia before stopping at Corinth for a “second benefit” (2 Corinthians 1:15). This time [according to Acts 20:3] he stayed in Corinth for three months.
“Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, [purportedly] written from Ephesus, reflects the difficulties of maintaining a Christian community in such a cosmopolitan city.
“A canal through the isthmus of Corinth was begun under the emperor Nero in 67 AD. Wielding a gold shovel, Nero himself was first to break ground, but the canal was not completed. Up to the 12th century, ships were dragged on rollers across the isthmus.
“In 1893 [the] 4-mile (6-km) Corinth canal was finally completed, providing an essential shipping route between the Ionian and Aegean seas [the loan from France to build the canal was paid off 100 years later]. Like its ancient predecessor, modern (or New) Corinth is the center of commerce between northern and southern Greece. Today, it has a population of about 30,000.
“Systematic archaeological excavations of the area, initiated by the American School of Classical Studies in 1896, are still continuing today (see photo below) and have brought to light the agora, temples, fountains, shops, porticoes, baths and various other monuments. The finds are exhibited in the on-site Archaeological Museum of Ancient Corinth”. (Source of history: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/greece/corinth. Emendations [ ] my own, based on Father Eugene Hensell’s excellent pilgrimage talks aboard ship, and our guide of the day).
Our day: New (modern) Corinth lies about 48 miles southwest of modern Athens. Our journey took us over modern highways (once we were free of Athenian morning traffic!) We skirted the seacoast a number of times, arriving at our first stop, a roadside cafe within easy walking distance of a bridge over the modern canal noted in the history.
Canal linking Aegean and Ionian Seas, looking to Ionian
Pilgrims enjoying breakfast on our first stop
Once all had their turn at taking in the canal and breakfast, we embarked toward Ancient Corinth. Wending our way, our guide spoke of many “Corinths” — acropolitan Corinth (upon the acropolis), the Corinths up to Roman Corinth, the devastation of Roman Corinth by earthquake and conquering armies, the 19th century devastation of successor Corinth, and the modern or “new Corinth” now sitting on the edge of the Ionian Sea and serving as a minor port city.
Having entered Corinth proper, we wound our way (another very skilled driver) through the upper town near the ruins. We passed the parish church of St. Paul, relatively new and a pride of the local folk. The grounds, well-kept and pristine, were ready evidence of their pride.
Parish Church of St. Paul (Orthodox), Corinth
Outdoor mosaic, Parish Church of St. Paul (Orthodox), Corinth
Ever looming over the parish, town and ruins is the acropolis, the “city on the height”, or most ancient of Corinth’s embodiments. We did not climb to its heights; if we had, we would have seen some ruins of temples (especially that of Aphrodite) and a medieval Christian fortification wall. Little else remains.
Acropolis, viewed from Agora, Ancient Corinth
Acrocorinth, note walled gates (Source: Wikipedia, Ancient Corinth)
Under the gaze of the acropolis we arrived at Ancient Corinth. Leaving our bus behind, we walked the short distance to the entry, lead by our guide. Tickets procured and submitted, we traversed first sidewalk and then ancient stone pavers to stand in the midst of the ruins, the Temple of Apollo to our left, the ancient marketplace and shops to our right. In this location, under the shade of local trees, we began as pilgrims are wont, with Eucharist. Father Bob Mazolla presided, Father Eugene preached, and all filled the ancient grounds with the sweet sound of hymn, response and silence (Saint Paul would have recognized what we were about, especially that no one was going hungry or getting drunk — I Corinthians 11).
Father Bob Mazzola preparing to preside at Eucharist, Ancient Corinth
Father Eugene Hensell, OSB, preaching, Ancient Corinth
The Assembly (Ecclesia, the Church), Ancient Corinth
Filled so well by the Word and Eucharist, we went forth and took in the sprawling ruins.
Fountain of the Glauke to the West of the Temple of Apollo, Ancient Corinth
Temple of Apollo (6th Century B.C), Ancient Corinth (only Greek structure surviving)
Ruins of Agora (marketplace), Ancient Corinth
Plaza Area of Agora, Ancient Corinth
Shop ruins, Agora, Ancient Corinth
Statue of Unknown Goddess (Aphrodite?), Ancient Corinth
Bema (legal rostrum, noted in Acts -- Paul before proconsul Gallio, Ancient Corinth
Archaeologists at work in area of Bema, Ancient Corinth
Lower Peirene Fountain of the Agora, Ancient Corinth
Lechaion Road (port of ancient Corinth now silted in as witnessed at Ephesus), looking south, Ancient Corinth
Latrine, Ancient Corinth
West Shops, Agora, Ancient Corinth
Agora, with Temple of Apollo, looking south-east, Ancient Corinth
Temple of Octavia, elevated, west of Agora, Ancient Corinth
As we left the immediacy of the ruins, we came upon some displays of artifacts recovered during the excavations. Both those outdoors and within the museum reveal the craftmanship of the ancient Romans.
Artifacts: in background - samples of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian pillars with capitols; center -- samples of plinths, small cistern; foreground - bird bath and foundations, with ship's anchor (holed, cone-shaped)
Headless Goddess or Roman Lady, Ancient Corinth
Statue of Lucius Caesar, son of Augustus, Ancient Corinth
Statue of August Caeser, Ancient Corinth
Many female and male figures, Ancient Corinth
We took leave of site and museum with some reluctance. Our time had been both a spiritual awakening and connecting to our ancient ancestors, especially those in the faith.
Our next stop was a shop which specialized in Corinthian pottery. Below are three examples of such magnificent work, some ancient, some modern in origin. (For a vast sampling for viewing, simple Google “Corinthian pottery”, and pages upon pages of photos of such are available).
Corinthian pottery, flagon
Corinthian pottery, bowl
Corinthian pottery, water flagon
The shop offered other items (including icons). Few of us pilgrims left without something to take home (or shipped home).
A late lunch was to follow at an open cafe near the mouth of the Corinth canal (Aegean Sea). We had hoped for a direct route to a parking lot with a walk across a bridge spanning the canal; alas, the bridge was down (literally!) What ensued was a bus ride of some 3 miles to circumvent the obstacle.
As we sat at our tables, enjoying each other’s company, quaffing a local beer, wine, or water, we were taken in by the passing of yachts, and finally, the raising of the bridge (how resurrectional, as it dripped clear of the water in the canal!) Fine entertainment, along with the Corinthian cat, as we dined well.
Drawbridge (?) submerged, Corinth Canal
Ship heading from Aegean to Ionian, Corinth Canal
Yacht swiftly moving from Ionian to Aegean Sea
A mythical brew
Bridge rising from the depths (a curious way to draw a bridge!)
Bridge carrying traffic once again
Our guide, Alexandra, accompanied us back to our hotel, the Imperial. She and our lodgings were to be, in one sense, the bookends of our journey, for they greeted us September 15 and sent most of us forth on September 24.
Arriving at the hotel, we found the lobby a sea of people — local and otherwise — some tourists, some from around Greece attending a conference in the hotel, and still others locals on holiday. Plowing through this sea of humanity we gained our keys, our rooms, and a few hours of rest. Some went for walks; others napped; I went down the street to purchase a ferry ticket for Saturday’s noon ship to Syros.
Our evening meal, the last for us together, was delicious. No one went away hungry. All went to bed weary, awaiting a wake-up call for 4:00am. My plan was to meet the group as it disembarked; I was so anxious to do so that I arrived in the lobby one our early (this would not be first time I arose earlier than needed!) All did arrive on time to depart, carrying their luggage and most their box breakfast provided by the hotel (not all took theirs, and so I had a fine breaking of my fast in my room later!) As the bus withdrew the curb for the airport, I waved, the gesture being returned by those not yet already asleep!
As I turned to the lobby and thence to my room, a wave of aloneness washed gently over me. 37 people whose lives had intersected for 8 days were now away, I remaining. The intersection was not as a passing at a highway juncture, but a connecting to lives. The promised sharing of photos (already begun as of this writing), and of correspondence (again, begun) lessened the momentary loss.
A once-in-a-lifetime experience is not lost, if one makes the effort to be tied to people, place, and shared memory. ‘Tis the stuff of living; ’tis the stuff of the Gospel, and of shared faith.