DREAM JOURNEY: PART III
Bangkok, 6 May 2015
May has arrived, the most beautiful month in the Mediterranean. It’s time for my wife and I to come out of our long, long hibernation in Istanbul and continue on our dream journey, the next leg of which will be Greece.
It’s warm enough now for us to travel by open-topped car again, so with a click of my mouse I materialize the little MG which carried us so long ago from Venice to Aquileia.
I have it pop up in front of the Hagia Sophia (probably not possible in real life but hey, this is a dream). We hop in and drive off. We will be following the trace of the Via Egnatia, the Roman road which once linked Constantinople to Dyrrachium (now Durrës in Albania) on the Adriatic coast, from whence a short ship ride could bring Roman legions and you to Bari in Italy. As always where map reading is required, my wife is driving. I have her take Divanyolu Avenue, which overlies the trace of the Mese, the main Roman street of Constantinople. Like the Mese, the Divanyolu Avenue starts just in front of Hagia Sophia. When we reach Murat Pasha Mosque, at what was once Constantinople’s Forum of the Ox, and where the Mese angled south-west, I have my wife turn left down Cerrapasha Avenue (never mind that the web informs me that the street is one way against us: this is a dream). The traffic is heavy I would imagine, we are inching along. At Koca Mustafa Pasha Mosque, things get complicated. The modern street plan no longer follows the old streets. Looking at the city map on the web, I muse on what to do next. The cars are beeping behind us, my wife is asking urgently, “which way?” I decide: go left, keep going until you somehow manage to reach Imrahor Ilyas Bey Avenue, turn right and keep going until you come to the old Theodosian city walls, which protected the city until its fall to the Ottomans. There, pass through a break in the walls, leaving to our left the remains of the Golden Gate, through which the Via Egnatia once entered the city.
We are now at the official starting point of the Via Egnatia. But I must say everything is very confused. The recent huge, jumbled expansion of the city has completely effaced any traces of the ancient road. What the hell, I know where I want to go, so I tell my wife to hang a left and head down to John Kennedy Avenue, which runs along the Sea of Marmara. After a while we pick up the trace of the Via Egnatia, and so we bowl along to Tegirdağ, where we regretfully leave the sea’s edge and cut across to Ipsala at the border with Greece (a border which has only existed a hundred years or so and whose creation left much bitterness behind). Now in Greece, we go on through Komotini and Kavala (close to which, at the Battle of Philippi, in 42 BC, Mark Antony and Octavian beat the assassins of Julius Caesar, Brutus and Longinus, thus starting the process which destroyed the Roman Republic and put in its place the Roman Empire). Finally, we arrive at our destination, Thessaloniki.
Thessaloniki … Thessalonica to the Roman and Byzantine elites, just plain old Salonika to the locals, Selânik to the Ottomans. Its nascent Christian community the recipient in the first decades of the Christian era of two of St. Paul’s most famous Epistles, the First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians. Birthplace in the 9th Century of Saints Cyril and Methodius, who converted Eastern Europe to Orthodox Christianity, but also in the 19th Century of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founding father of modern Turkey.
Like Ravenna and Aquileia where I started this dream journey, Thessaloniki has suffered from the ravages of man and nature ever since it was founded by King Cassander of Macedon in 315 BC. Its history under the Romans and early Byzantines was relatively peaceful, apart from some raiding by Thracian tribes in the 50s BC, and a terrible incident in 390 AD, when some 10,000 of its citizens were massacred in the hippodrome as a punishment for starting a revolt. Its troubles really started when the Roman Empire weakened and the Barbarian tribes from the north began their incursions. Like Aquileia, it suffered from repeated attacks in the 7th Century by Barbarian tribes, Slavs in this case, but unlike Aquileia it managed to hold them off. As if the Slavs were not enough, the city suffered a catastrophic earthquake in 620, which did much damage. There followed a few centuries of respite, but after the Byzantines lost control of the Aegean Sea, Saracens seized the city in 904. After a ten day sack they left, but not before freeing thousands of Muslim prisoners while enslaving thousands of Christians and carrying off huge amounts of booty. In 1185, at another moment of Byzantine weakness, it was the turn of the Normans of Sicily to attack and take the city. Their rule, though short, led to considerable destruction. After Constantinople was captured by the Fourth Crusade in 1204, the city became the centre of one of the feudal fiefs which the Crusaders created. It was short-lived. The city and its territory were seized in 1224 by the Greek Despot of Epirus (who in turn was subjugated by the Tsar of Bulgaria). In 1246, a reinvigorated Byzantine Empire recovered the city. After a century and a half, the Byzantines lost it again, this time to the new regional power, the Ottomans. The Ottomans’ tenure was initially short-lived. They were forced to hand the city back to the Byzantines after their disastrous defeat by Tamerlane the Lame in 1402 at the gates of Ankara. But too weak by now to hold it, the Byzantines sold the city to Venice in 1423. Seven years later, in 1430, the Ottomans definitively recaptured the city.
There followed nearly five centuries of relative tranquility, during which the city became one of the great emporia of the Mediterranean and a melting pot of different ethnicities: Greeks of course, but also Turks, as well as Jews – the Ottomans welcomed the Sephardic Jews fleeing from Spain and Portugal – and later Bulgarians. Then, as Ottoman power went into terminal decline, irredentist feelings in Greece and Bulgaria grew. Both felt the city and its surrounding territory was theirs. After various acts of provocation and terrorism, matters came to a head in the two Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. For a while, things hung in the balance but the city finally went to Greece. In 1917, during the First World War, a huge fire, accidentally started in a kitchen, destroyed almost the entire city. This led to an exodus of the city’s Jewish population, many of whom lost everything in the conflagration. They were soon followed by the Moslem, Turkish population as a result of the massive exchange of populations which followed the end of the Greco-Turkish War in 1922. In their place came Greeks expelled from Asia Minor, making the city once again a predominantly Greek city. During the Second World War, the Germans occupied it. As a result, its port facilities were heavily if haphazardly bombed by the Allies. For their part, the SS rounded up what was left of the city’s ancient Jewish population and shipped them all off to the gas chambers. After two millennia of presence (Jews had chased St. Paul out of the city after he had preached there), the Jews effectively vanished from Thessaloniki. The city had not finished to suffer. In 1978, it was hit by a powerful earthquake, which did considerable damage to its structures, both old and new.
With this history, it’s little short of a miracle if any of the city’s early Christian mosaics are left at all. I direct my wife to enter the city along the trace of the Via Egnatia, which leads us straight to the Arch of Galerius and the Rotunda of St. George. Google Maps doesn’t show any parking lots around there, but this is a dream, so we easily find a little parking spot in one of the side streets for our MG. We enter the Rotunda, and walk through to the main cupola. This is what greets us: a badly damaged band of mosaics in its upper registry.
Sad. But what can you expect, these mosaics were installed 1700 years old, in the late 300s AD. Funnily enough, the little that there is left of them may have been saved by the church becoming a mosque. The Turks just whitewashed over mosaics and frescoes, after pilfering whatever gold tesserae there still were.
But let’s get up close – which we can, since this is a dream, we can just float up there. Look at the faces!
Here, we still have Roman art, but with Christian characteristics.
The internet warns me that traffic is terrible in Thessaloniki, so I decide that we will walk to the other churches. On strictly chronological grounds, I further decide that the next church we will visit is St. David’s, built in the late 4th Century. I open Google Maps’ Street View and find that we are walking through a modern, really quite pleasant city, the product of the Great Fire of 1917 and modern planning for the city’s reconstruction. Anyway, we plunge into St. David’s. It has one remarkable mosaic left, tucked away in a lunette in a corner, depicting the vision of Ezekiel
After admiring it for a while, we head on to St. Demetrius, which celebrates the city’s patron saint. The church has just a few, rather wonderful mosaic panels left, probably installed in the late 600s, early 700s, just after the Slavs had given up trying to sack the city.
The first is still Roman art, while the other two are beginning to look Byzantine.
Next stop: Hagia Sophia, Thessaloniki’s not Istanbul’s (although it seems that the design of the Thessalonian version was based on its Constantinopolitan namesake). On the way, we pop into the early 5th Century Church of Acheiropoietos, but there are really only shreds of mosaics left. Discouraged, we go on. And so we come to Hagia Sophia, built in the 8th Century, and whose glory is the late 8th Century mosaic in the cupola.
As we can in dreams, my wife and I drift up to see the Christ up close.
And we see a Christ who is becoming ever more Byzantine in his look and posture. The glories of Rome seem to be becoming a distant memory. This is even more apparent in this Virgin Mary, which reminds me of that other Virgin Mary we visited on the island of Torcello in the lagoons of Venice on the first leg of this dream trip.
At this point, I have to make a decision. My original idea for this dream trip was for my wife and I to go south and visit the walled monastery of St. Luke in Boeotia and further south still to the convent of Daphni, close to Athens. They have lovely, if late-style, mosaics, this one an example from St. Luke’s, a rendering of the Pentecost
and this one from Daphni, of Christos Pantocrator, Christ the All-Powerful
I also wanted to take this road to follow a little in the footsteps, or rather the tyre marks, of my father. In 1937, when still a university student, he spent the Easter holidays driving his Ford, in company of a cousin, all the way from Cambridge to Athens and on to Sparta, and then back. To get there, he drove through the old lands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, across Bulgaria, and down to Thessaloniki. I feel his young shadow passing by us and want to follow it a little while. But it’s too much of a detour, and I want to get to Italy before it gets too hot. So I choose. We will continue along the trace of the Via Egnatia, to the Adriatic, and pick up the ferry to Bari.
No sooner said than done. We are whisked to the car and are now heading out of the Thessaloniki. Studying Google maps in conjunction with Omnes Viae (“The Roman Route Planner”, which I had occasion to use in the first leg of this dream journey), I get my wife to make for Edessa, which in ancient times guarded the entrance of the Via Egnatia to the Pindus mountains but is now known more picturesquely as the “city of waters”. On the web, I watch people cavort in the city’s waters (highly mineralized by the look of it)
before continuing on. We skirt the pretty lakes of Vegoritida and Petron
and veer northwards. We cross the border into Macedonia (sorry, “the Former Yugolsav Republic of Macedonia”; political tempers run high in this region), a border which only came into existence in 1918, and we arrive at the city once called Heraclea Lyncestis but now known more prosaically as Bitola. It was an important way station on the Via Egnatia, so I take a pause and look at a panoramic view
before moving on. We’re heading west now, towards the Adriatic Sea. We skirt the beautiful Lake Ohrid
passing through the city of Ohrid, once Lychnidos, another important stop on the Via Egnatia. I’m tempted to visit the 5th Century Polyconch Basilica to see the remains of its mosaic floor, but everything I read suggests that the remains are too fragmentary. We take to the road again and soon find ourselves crossing yet another border that only came into existence in 1918, this one into Albania.
We pass over gloriously wild mountains
before dropping into the narrow valley of the Shkumbin River, known to the Romans as the Flumen Genusus.
We follow the river as it hurries down to the sea, but shortly before getting there we turn sharp right and head for the port of Durrës. In the summer, the place is submerged in beach-goers
but luckily there aren’t so many people yet. We drive to the ferry port. The web helpfully informs me that there is a ferry leaving tonight at 10 pm, which gets into Bari at 8 am tomorrow morning. Ferrying my wife, me, and our little MG over to Italy will cost us the princely sum of £131.72 (for some reason, the site I visited quotes the prices in pounds sterling). We have time for a bite to eat before we leave. But what do you eat in Albania?
St. George Rotunda-1: http://cdn1.vtourist.com/4/5034576-St_Georges_Rotunda_Thessaloniki.jpg
St. George Rotunda-3: http://dic.academic.ru/pictures/wiki/files/84/ThessHagGeorgMosCosDamien.jpg
St. George Rotunda-4-Saint Cosmas: http://www.ics.forth.gr/isl/fayum/images/image_59.jpg
St. George Rotunda-5-Saint Therinos: http://www.ics.forth.gr/isl/fayum/images/image_60.jpg
St. George Rotunda-6-Saint Philip Bishop: http://www.ics.forth.gr/isl/fayum/images/image_57.jpg
St Demetrios-1-dedicating children to Demetrios: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-EYa9zdAwg9w/Ty_EdArv9MI/AAAAAAAAAJM/Bgpaw1ttHAU/s1600/03.jpg
St. Demetrios-2-Demetrios and children: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-i536vAoKGRc/Ty_FkFneuOI/AAAAAAAAAJs/I68I0jWcfxU/s1600/07.jpg
St. Demetrios-3-Demetrios and donor: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-0C51ycpEZKQ/Ty_FNdSgPEI/AAAAAAAAAJk/rl66Pq0HZlA/s1600/06.jpg
Hagia Sophia-2-cupola-christ detail: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-TgUH5cPxxv0/T3i6LzYE-TI/AAAAAAAABj8/5B_CxlT_GcM/s1600/%CE%91%CE%93%CE%99%CE%91+%CE%A3%CE%9F%CE%A6%CE%99%CE%91+%CE%A8%CE%99%CE%A6%CE%97%CE%94.8.JPG
Hagia Sophia-3-catino-Virgin: http://farm6.staticflickr.com/5104/5737609091_a1ff106e1b_z.jpg
Convent of Daphni: Cupola-2-detail: http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3131/2618506302_de85e9decf.jpg
Lake Ohrid: http://www.rego-bis.pl/bin/images/c77bd7ecc_d95f83717734355.jpeg (in http://www.rego-bis.pl/hotel,hotelcaliforniaresortpobytobjazd2w1,ALBCALR.html?ofrid=0e04c3c867866ee4b5a8f79f6b760f260257028d331141b288f4e709ba8a3720)