Category Archives: Post-retirement travels

Oxford Geeks and Crafty Greeks

September 2019

Oxford Geeks
The Man and I had to go to Oxford a few weeks back and, naturally, we took a plane. It was a night flight via Addis Ababa and we were lucky enough to be seated in Comfort Class. At the very last minute, a harassed business-type person hurried up the aisle and found his seat just ahead of us. Well didn’t he then stand up and start removing his clothes! The sight nearly left my eyes. As it turns out, he was changing into his jammies (tasteful, black, suitable for an executive). After some skilful Houdini-type stuff, he handed his suit, shirt, and tie to the flight attendant, made his seat into a bed, pulled the blanket over his head, and was snoring in no time. He woke for breakfast, cleaned his teeth and whatever, then changed back into his suit to deplane, as they say, in Heathrow. Way to go, man – you could be an advert for the airline! That was the highlight of the flight.

One wet and misty bus trip later, we were in the Towery City itself. Being early on a Sunday, the streets were quiet while numerous bells told the intervals of the hour and called the faithful to prayer. After the lushness of the vegetation on the shores of Lake Victoria, so much stone looked, well, heavy, and rather dull to our eyes, but the history! And so we oohed and aahed at every corner, and peered into the quads of the colleges at the manicured lawns, trying to imagine them in times gone by. But since we hadn’t had the foresight to change into our jammies on the plane the tiredness got us after a while, and, rather sinfully, we slipped into The Randolf, and the wonderfully-named Morse Bar for a reviver.

During the week we caught up with friends, made new ones, attended some great presentations – my own was good (said The Man) – indulged in a little retail therapy, and drank a few GnTs. But one of the nicest things was having breakfast in the great hall of Christchurch every morning. Munching on toast and marmalade at the high table, surrounded by portraits of the great and good, the not-so-good and the apparently holy, transports you to another age and has you marvelling at the amount of learning that went on since the college was founded – a religious house has stood at the Christchurch site since the eighth century. But it also transports you to Hogwarts and you can pretend you are Professor Minerva McGonagall peering down at her favourite students of Gryffindor. This gives you the idea.

christchurch

And then, all too soon, it was time to go. But it was full of satisfaction that we made our weary way down St Aldate’s to catch the first bus to Heathrow. Still full of sleep and anxiously checking the time every few minutes, The Man asked if I had remembered to take the passports out of the room safe. Whoops, I thought he always did that. So there’s me sprinting up the hill to the porters’ lodge for a new room key, getting the passports, and shifting it all the way back down the hill again. Last time I moved that fast was with an angry German Shepherd behind me on a country road in France. Missed the first bus. But another one was soon on the way, and The Man had built in some wriggle room. He’s like that. Sometimes I laugh; this time I was grateful, if totally winded.

Crafty Greeks
And because we were in Europe, we decided to have a bit of a break on the island of Crete. Rather silly really, going almost halfway back towards Addis given that our return flight to Kampala was from Heathrow. But that being said, what an eye opener! For a start the weather was just like Uganda (a tad warmer at times, but lovey), the room overlooked the old Venetian harbour, and the food was just what the doctor ordered – if you like cheese, salads, olives, and stuffed vine leaves.

A brief wander through the streets saw the Harry Potter and London-themed tourist trinkets of Oxford’s High Street replaced by Athenian owls and pottery, mediterranean herbs, Cretan slippers, Turkish plates and bowls, and all sorts of colourful stuff. But apart from the atmosphere and the scenery, there were two things that made Crete memorable for me – old fogey that I am – the ancient archeological site of Knossos and the Museum of Ancient Greek Technology.

First Knossos. The earliest traceable signs of human settlement at Knossos appears to have been around 7.000 BC according to archeologists. Minoan civilization – so named after the mythical King Minos – was at its height during the second millennium BC, and Knossos was one of four of the great palace-cities of ancient Crete (the others being Mallia, Phaistos, and Zakros). But the palace was not simply the residence of the king: it stood at the centre of the administrative, economic, religious, and cultural activities of the people who may have numbered 100,000 in its heyday. The palace covers an area of 20,000 sq metres around which the city sprawled. The architects were a clever lot and built the palace into the hill with many parts being storied. They also constructed “light wells” to allow for air circulation and a sense of spaciousness.

stories

The rooms of the inner chambers were plastered and painted, and some are magnificent. One room depicts dolphins swimming amid smaller fish, while another (the Throne Room) shows the most wonderful griffins seated majestically amongst lilies.

dolphins

griffin

But can you believe that those Minoans, like the Ephesians, had rainwater drainage, clean water supply, sewerage, baths and indoor loos four thousand years ago? The rest of Europe was still having a yearly bath! One strange thing about the Minoans though: they had tiny waists, even the men. Look at the Priest-King.

king

But what struck me most was the size of the jars used for storage – they were huge, almost the height of me – and they were made with an eye for detail.

big pot

I loved it all, not only because Knossos was a wonderful example of human craft, but also because it evoked the old Greek myths. The daughter of King Minos was Ariadne (she of the Ariandne’s Thread method of solving puzzles) who gave her suitor a thread by which he could find his way out of the labyrinth of Daedalus having killed the Minotaur. They haven’t found a labyrinth there yet, as far as I know.

However striking the place may be (and it is a significant tourist attraction), it has been the focus of much scholarly and archeological debate. One school of thought has it that British archeologist Sir Arthur Evans (who started work there in 1900) reconstructed somewhat enthusiastically, extrapolating from the available evidence to create structures that bear scant resemblance to what they may have been: the making of ancient Crete in a sense! He gave the various parts of the site names based on supposed function: The Schoolroom, the Lapidary’s Workshop, the Royal Road, the Sanctuary Hall, the Corridor of the Draughtboard … and a lot of these places do need a fair degree of imagination to join the dots as it were. The famous “Ladies in Blue” fresco from the East Wing was, in reality, drawn by Swiss artist Émile Gilliéron (he had only a few fragments to go on), and my lovely dolphins (and the griffins) were the work of Dutch architect Piet de Jong! In the end, I suppose Evans and his artists were working “according to their own lights”, but it was rather a disappointment to find out that tiny waists and frolicking dolphins were probably a twentieth-century fiction. You can read more here.

But this great civilization and its palace-city disappeared, like Ephesus, Maya, and so many of the cities and civilizations of the ancient world. Sometime between 1,375 and 1,100 (perhaps due to the after effects of the Thera volcano) Knossos faded from history, leaving behind great piles of crumbling stones for later generations to walk through and make sense of.

And now the best of all: winner of the EU Museum of the Year Award 2019, the Kotsanas Museum of Ancient Greek Technology. This unassuming-looking building on a side street knocked our socks off – The Man even went back for second helpings. The ancient Greeks were famous for a lot more than philosophers and one-armed statues: they were the poster boys for the cutting edge technology of their time. Housed in the Venetian Palazzo d’Ittar (built around 1500 AD), this small, hands-on exhibition has re-built and demonstrates internal screw cutters, pistons and cylinders, hydraulic valves, gears and sprockets, and much more. It all sounds a bit, well, technical, but the demonstration of these uses of steam, fire, water, and air are genius. Take the robot servant of Philon (third century BC). I won’t bore you with the technical details, but when Philon’s party guests wanted a refill, they simply pressed their glass to the robot’s decanter and, voila, the glass was full in no time. Here she is.

wine robot

Philon seems to have been a oenophile because lots of his inventions have to do with the stuff. He had a cup that allowed you to pour wine to a specific level. If you had a shaky hand or were just a bit too greedy, you lost the lot! Another very clever invention was his water/wine jug. Lots of stuff going on inside (basically tubes and air holes) meant you could pour your guest wine, watered wine, or simply water depending on how mean you were or how drunk you thought they were. Love this one!

Fire, the expansion of air, a closed container of water, some weights, and a syphon could create a miracle if you were Heron of Alexandria. Visitors to the temple who offered sacrifice to the gods could see the doors of the temple open automatically as if the gods were pleased with the offering. The Antikythera calculating mechanism was used to calculate very complex astronomical and calendar events via a series of gear wheels and graded circles. And did you know that the vaginal speculum was used in the fourth century BC or that Plato invented an alarm clock? Neither did I.

From automata and cryptography to musical instruments and useable domestic appliances, from gadgets and jet propulsion to cranes and pulleys, this museum richly deserves the 2019 EU Museum of the Year Award. If you can’t make it to Crete, do visit the website and prepare to use up your monthly data allowance. kotsanasmuseum

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Mary, John, and the Ancient City of Ephesus

Some three and a half hours from Jerusalem in a leafy glade on Mount Koressos (the Turkish name translates as Mount Nightengale) lies the House of Mother Mary (Meryemana), a unique shrine venerated by Catholics and Muslims alike. Located near the ancient city of Ephesus, legend has it that Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the apostle John lived here after they fled the persecutions of the Romans in Jerusalem.

The Mother Mary House was located only relatively recently, following visions by a generally bedridden Augustinian nun in Dülmen Germany. Apparently Anne Catherine Emmerich’s descriptions were accurate enough for French priest Abbé Gouyet to uncover, in 1881, a crumbling dwelling house where Sr Catherine said it would be. In 1891 priests from Izmir “re-discovered” the site. But the locals had been going there for centuries, venerating it as a holy place for both Christianity and Islam.

While the Ephesus story (dating from the fourth century in Christian literature) is at odds with the long-held belief that the mother of Jesus died at the site of what is now the Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem, it appears that Pope Leo XIII was a supporter of the Ephesus story; he visited the place in 1896, and apparently bestowed special privileges to those making a pilgrimage there.

The legend cannot, of course, be proved or disproved. However, there is strong support for John’s presence at Ephesus, and the sad ruins of what was a magnificent church (built on the hill of Ayasoluk by none other than Justinian) in nearby Selçuk reputedly house his tomb (according to second-century sources Polycrates and Irenaeus).

Basilica

The sad remains of St John’s Basilica

On the day we visited Mother Mary House, there were busloads of tourists queueing to enter the small chapel, drink or collect water from the holy well, or simply light a candle and say a prayer. Nonetheless, it was a tranquil place, and the prayers of centuries doubtless cast a spirit of peace over us. As we left this holy place and drove to Ephesus itself, I was struck by how close Turkey was to the beginnings of Christianity. If indeed John and Mary made the journey to Ephesus and set up home there, I wondered briefly how they made a living while he was writing his Gospel. And finally, I thought about the bed-ridden German nun who knew exactly where this place was. “There are more things in heaven and on earth …” as Hamlet wisely put it.

Ephesus must have been some city in its heyday. From its earliest beginnings in the tenth century BC, right up to its abandonment around the fifteenth century AD, it was coveted, fought over, conquered, sacked, vandalised, and rebuilt by many, including Ionians, Commerians, Lydians, Persians, Spartans, Syrians, Romans, Goths, and none other than Alexander the Great who liberated the city from a tyrant in 334 BC. The Lydian King Croesus — he of much gold – also had a part of play in the building of the city, notably the Temple of Artemis (of which only one column remains today).

One of my favourite images of this ancient city of marble streets is the communal men’s loos on Curetes Street. Running water made this a not-so-stinky place, and with seats placed close to each other, no doubt a lot of gossip and information was passed from one to the other as these cosmopolitan citizens went about their daily business.

Loos

Intimate toilet seating

Another building that gave me a sore neck was the magnificent library of Celsus. Built by a son in memory of his father (Roman Senator Celsus Polemeanus), it held up to 15,000 scrolls – a modest rival to the great library at Alexandria. A tour guide told us that there was an underground passage between the library and the nearby brothel. I can find no confirmation of this, but can imagine a John Cleese-type gent telling his wife he was off to the library to catch up on some light reading dear! Given that Ephesus was a bustling port city and the brothel was likely to be a place of much activity, I wondered how the brothel workers had protected themselves against pregnancy and venereal diseases, the age-old hazards of the job.

LibraryLib2

The library of Celsus

In contrast to the sex workers, four elegant female figures guard the entrance to the library: Sophia (wisdom), Episteme (knowledge), Ennoia (intelligence) and Arete (virtue). Unfortunately these are copies because the originals were hauled off to Vienna by Austrian archeologists in the nineteenth century. Ravaged by the Goths in 262/3 AD (later to be substantially re-built by Constantine), and demolished by many earthquakes, the library, like most buildings of ancient Ephesus, eventually stopped trying and simply crumbled away. What did happen to all those scrolls?

Sophia

Christianity took an early hold in Ephesus after the visit of Saint Paul, although it was a tough task battling the centuries-old worship of Artemis. He almost started a riot after a silversmith named Demetrius complained that Paul would be the cause of their loss of income and damage to the reputation of the goddess Artemis (New Testament, Acts of the Apostles 19). But given its rocky start, Christianity flourished in the region, and the Patriarch of Constantinople was a significant figure in Christian circles in the centuries to come. The place also appears to have been a hotbed of theological activity: the Christian bishops held the third ecumenical council at Ephesus in 431, a meeting full of doctrinal shenanigans and theological intrigue.

In geographical terms, however, it would appear that Ephesus was doomed. Constant earthquakes – which kept the stonemasons busy for centuries – coupled with the silting up of the harbour, had serious economic consequences for the city. By the time of the crusades it was barely a village, and by the fifteenth century, its inhabitants had grown weary, even the stonemasons, and simply upped sticks and moved on. European archeologists in the nineteenth century – keen to unearth the romantic roots of Greek and Roman civilization – did much to excavate parts of the city, but they removed many artefacts that should have been left where they were found. The British Museum has more of the Temple of Artemis than currently remains in Turkey!

We really enjoyed our tour around this most ancient of cities and were stunned by the obvious wealth of what it must have been in the Byzantine period. It makes you think: in the days when the inhabitants of Dublin and Belfast were just out of the cave, living in mud and wooden huts while eking out a living in unsavoury hygiene conditions, the citizens of Ephesus had running water – some even had indoor loos – spacious bathing facilities, wide, oil-lit streets paved with shinning marble, a library and a medical school, alongside a theatre that seated 25,000. And yet … the city just crumpled away. As a fascinating place to visit, I give it full marks, pipping Hierapolis and Pamukkale to the post by a good few lengths. I really do recommend a trip away from the coast for those willing to embark on the longish road trip.

Main street