Athens: Stairways to heaven

By Ewan McDonald

Ewan McDonald walks beside gods, heroes and saints in the cradle of Western civilisation.
Delphi, where the Oracle worked her miracles  and died a nasty death.
Delphi, where the Oracle worked her miracles and died a nasty death.

I'm walking with gods.

I took my first steps beside them 40-some years ago. Not steps; I was in bed. Mum and Dad had come in to tell me and my brother it was lights out.

I'd hidden my torch under the pillow. Dad turned the light off, I waited two minutes, pressed the switch and opened my Classic Comics. Tales of the gods. Dudes with more superpowers than any videogame. Zeus could microwave entire planets just because ... well, there were a lot of politically and ethically incorrect reasons why Zeus zapped entire planets.

On a hot early-summer morning, I'm trudging, brow and everywhere else sweating, the paths that Zeus and his children Apollo and Athene are supposed to have trod.

You might think this is boring old-time swords-and-sandals stuff. But this is Ground Zero for every fantasy videogame blockbuster movie screenplay. Without Delphi and Ephesus and the Acropolis, you don't get Marvel Comics superheroes. Game of Thrones. Or Star Wars.

Delphi, where the Oracle worked her miracles  and died a nasty death. Photo / Jorge Cancela
Delphi, where the Oracle worked her miracles and died a nasty death. Photo / Jorge Cancela


This morning our cruise ship berthed at the dusty little Greek port of Itea.

My travel-buddy Caroline and I decided to hit the dusty little ... and cajole a cabbie to drive us into the hills.

Our cabbie was a genuine local who'd spent the past 20 years in Melbourne and come home to make sure her grandchildren had the passport of their forefathers and -mothers.

Twenty minutes later Caroline and I walked through a security gate and 3000 years into the past, on to a steep (less athletic visitors be warned), barren cleft in the mountains. Zeus, the ultimate god, believed this was the home of his grandmother Gaia. Mother of Earth and everything that crawls, swims or grows on it.

Standing on the golden rocks, the sparse herbs giving off their aromas, the mist clearing above fractured mountains and valleys, the remnants of shrines and temples, the archaeologists peering at ancient texts, before most of the daytripper buses arrived, it felt that Zeus was right: this was where heaven and earth met.

Three thousand years ago they grubbed a flat space to build a temple for Apollo and his prophetess, the oracle who decanted rambling visions of the future. She held a privileged position but it was a bittersweet perk.

The aged virgin sat above a spring, her predictions inspired by vapours which would, fairly quickly, kill her. No matter: the Greeks went to war, made treaties and wrote really cool myths based on her chemically maladjusted and malodorous advice.

It all fell apart when Nero and other Roman emperors I should remember from Third Form Latin rode into town.

Caroline and I had our own battles to fight: with German teenagers, for the best spots to take photos of temples and the stadium where athletes from across the then-known world competed in the games, every four years.

We headed down steep paths to the museum's millennia-old artefacts. A sphinx, marble friezes that ran around temple facades, thumbnail-sized household gods and the life-size, finely-wrought bronze statue of a charioteer. We stared into the face of a man born 2500 years ago.

WHAT Delphi
WHERE Mt Parnassus, 180km from Athens
WHO The gods Zeus, Gaia, Apollo, Poseidon
HOW Day trip from Athens; half-day from Itea cruise port
WHY It's where heaven and earth met, where man was closest to God; temple of Apollo, son of Zeus; where the oracle predicted personal or political matters; where, from 776BC, athletes competed every four years.

 The ruins of the temple Diana at Ephesus, Turkey.
The ruins of the temple Diana at Ephesus, Turkey.

I'm walking with gods and saints.

Because sometimes the stories about superhuman, all-powerful beings and really sweet people who do incredibly nice things collide. One place where that happened is in a dried-out valley in the hills above one of the least-endearing cruise ports in Turkey.

As with Delphi, it's near-impossible to explain the importance of Ephesus in the ancient world, more so in a modern cyber, clickbait and Kardashian culture.

Let me try: without this city, and very few places like it, we don't have any record or awareness of human history, philosophy, everyday life, or our values.

There has been a town here for 3000 years. The Hittites, who were quite probably the first people to create an empire, and a capital city, and a democracy (sorry, Greeks), and write laws and treaties, settled on the banks of a bay more than 1000 years before Jesus Christ was born.

Rich from its location at the centre of known-world trade, everyone who was anyone in the ancient world - Alexander, Croesus (the rich guy), Darius, Augustus, Nero, Constantine - wanted, and took, a slice of Ephesus. When the Romans arrived in 129BC, the city on the silted-up harbour had a population of 33,600 to 56,000 people. London and Paris got there about 1500AD.

The city was famed for the Temple of Artemis, the many-breasted Greek goddess of fertility also worshipped at Delphi. In 550 BC it was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

This stifling, seething, throat-parching archaeological and tourist-huckster drawcard of today was the New York of its day. Poet, philosopher, prophet, if you could make it here, you could make it anywhere.

Possibly because of its by-laws; they allowed strangers to integrate; prized education; valued women's rights and (thanks, Artemis) female artists.

Then Christianity turned up. That most grumpy, intransigent of evangelists: St Paul. He was a Turk and I see him, holding forth, convinced of his own righteousness, in so many of the old men talking and smoking across card-tables from here to Antalya. He lived here from 52-54AD, could not bend the locals to his will, and moved on to find more malleable souls.

They also say St John wrote his gospel here, but they say that about a lot of places. They say John brought Mary, the mother of Jesus, to live out her last years here, but an old nun told me the same story on a beach in Provence.

A young archaeologist from Norway tells me Ephesus contains the largest collection of Roman ruins in the Mediterranean. It is the biggest dig in the world; she believes only 15 per cent of its estimated 415ha has been excavated.

 The ruins of the temple Artemis at Ephesus, Turkey.
The ruins of the temple Artemis at Ephesus, Turkey.


So Caroline and I are walking, with thousands of others, through a town about the size of Warkworth where people like us have walked for 3000 years. We marvel at apartment buildings, frescoes and floor mosaics as vibrant as if they had been painted or laid yesterday. We leave the ancient city. Outside the gate merchants harangue us to buy cheap tat. Ephesus, always at the crossroads of yesterday and tomorrow.

WHAT Ephesus
WHERE Turkey, 30km from Kusadasi cruise port
WHO Artemis, aka Diana, Roman goddess of fertility; St Paul, St John, Jesus' mother Mary
HOW Bus or hotel shuttle from Izmir; cruise ships offer half-day trips from Kusadasi.
WHY World's largest excavated site; Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World; Augustus' capital of Asia Minor; early Christian centre.


I'm walking with gods and saints and heroes.

Athens. The fabled city that a 10-year-old read about by torchlight and dreamed that he might visit someday. Today is someday.

Michael, Chris and I are walking through a Sunday-morning Athens that hasn't quite woken up, to the home of the gods, where that guy who could kapow! zing! and smite an entire empire would recline on marble patio furniture and perform miracles. Fuelled by Greek coffees and pastries, we clamber up the hill and marvel at the symmetry, genius, purity of this hilltop that has claimed a place in human history and philosophy and theology for 8000 years.

So many empires have grasped this Eden Park-sized summit. When the Byzantines held sway, the gloriously conceived and constructed and decorated temple to Athena - the Parthenon - was turned into a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. When Venice ruled, the Acropolis functioned as the town hall with the Parthenon as its cathedral.

After the Ottoman conquest the Parthenon was used as the Turkish garrison. When Venice besieged Athens in 1687 - to drive out the Ottomans - the great jewel of the ancient world was used as a gunpowder and, possibly unwittingly, blown up.

It only remained for the Brits, those valiant defenders of truth, justice and civilisation, to occupy Athens and remove the exquisitely carved marble chronicle of eight centuries of Greek life, history and mythology for "safekeeping". God who made thee mighty, might make thee mightier yet if Britain finally found the decency to send the "Elgin Marbles" home.

 Athens — 'epitomising all that is civilised and cultured about the past 120 generations of  history'.
Athens — 'epitomising all that is civilised and cultured about the past 120 generations of history'.


The night before, three of us met at my hotel for a drink before going down to the square for a meal. We took the rickety lift up to the terrace of my two-star pension and bought three ouzos - and there was everything that is decent and uplifting and civilised and cultured about the past 120 generations of Western history right in front of the peanuts on our faux-marble table.

WHAT The Acropolis
WHERE Smack-bang in the middle of Athens
WHO The pantheon of Greek gods, specifically Athena; the theatre where Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides and Aristophanes gigged; where St Paul spoke; where Plato, Socrates and Pericles philosophised
HOW Walk up the hill from the middle of town; half-day trips from Piraeus port
WHY The most important ancient site in the Western world.

Checklist

GETTING THERE

Emirates flies daily from Auckland to Athens, via their hub in Dubai, with Economy Class return fares starting from $3023. emirates.com

- NZ Herald

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