Sunday, December 3, 2017

Greece | Thessaly | Meteora | Kastraki

I am staying in the village of Kastraki, which is almost but not quite coterminous with the much larger town of Kalambaka. My hotel is .9 of a mile from the Kalambaka train station. I had intended to walk but just as I started off a downpour ensued. I had already gotten drenched walking to the train station in Thessaloniki but had pretty much dried my clothes with my body heat on the train. I did not want to get soaked again so I took a cab. My hotel, a small guesthouse, actually, is like many such places around here run by a couple who live on the premises. The on-line reviews said they “treat you like family,” which I definitely do not consider a recommendation. I prefer anonymous places with receptionists like those in “American Horror Story: Hotel.” It was one of the cheapest places in the village, however, so I thought I would take my chances with the dreaded “family treatment.” It turned out my fears were ungrounded. After checking in I came and went like a ghost and never saw the owners again for four days. 

The spires and peaks of Meteora loom over Kastraki. I am staying here because the village offers better access on foot to most of the Meteora monasteries than does Kalambaka. It is also much more quiet and laid back than bustling Kalambaka, which caters in large part to big tour groups. Indeed, zoning laws forbid buildings of more than two stories in Kastraki and any new buildings must be made from traditional local materials. This is an apparent attempt to keep out large hotels and maintain Kastraki’s ambience as a traditional Greek village.

On-lines guides rave about the cuisine in Kastraki and there does seem to be an inordinate amount of restaurants for a small village, but the tourist season has peaked and most now appear closed for the winter, even though it is only the last week of November. The one place I do find open at mid-afternoon serves only the most generic Greek grub at ridiculously inflated prices (the house wine, produced locally. is not bad at all, quality-wise, but at €5 a half-liter also overpriced). Fortunately the village boasts of a fine little bakery with excellent spinach and cheese pies and chocolate croissants. These sluiced down with a bottle of local red wine (€4.00 for three-fourths of a liter) make a sufficient repast, even after a long day’s hiking on the roads and trails out of town.
Kastraki from Great Meteora Monastery (click on photos for enlargements)
Another view of Kastraki
Another view of Kastraki
Another view of Kastraki
Another view of Kastraki
Another view of Kastraki
Small church in Kastraki
Massif behind Kastraki. The cliff face is dotted with caves and fissures that were once inhabited by solitary meditators, anchorites, recluses, and misanthropes.
Another view of the massif
Another view of the massif
Another view of the massif. If you look closely you can just make out the ruins of a hermitage in the exact center of the photo.

Church in Kastraki
Upper Kastraki
Valley above Kastraki

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Greece | Thessaly | Kalambaka | Meteora #1

The corner take-out that I frequented  in Thessaloniki raised the price of chicken souvlaki from 2.50 to 2.75 euros. That signaled the end of my love affair with Thessaloniki. It was fun while it lasted, but all good things must end. The next morning I walked a mile through a persistent drizzle to the train station and caught the train south to Kalambaka, home of the Meteora monastery complex. I have Been Here Before, but was eager to return in autumn when it was cooler and the environs less crowded. It is the shoulder of the tourist season, and prices of hotels and meals have started to drop. It is certainly cheaper than Thessaloniki. And the weather is fantastic! Hard frosts at night but warming into the 50s F. in the afternoons. Great for hiking. Gorgeous autumn foliage.
St. Nicholas Monastery, one of six monasteries in the area now open to the public (click on photos for enlargements). 
Monastery of St Barbara
Great Meteora Monastery
Monastery of Barlaam
From the road a trail climbs up 715 vertical feet through the chasm to the left of Barlaam Monastery.


Trail to Barlaam Monastery
Trail side shrine
Avian voyeurs would have a field day here. I saw at least fifteen or twenty different kinds of birds. 

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Greece | Kavala | Muhammad Ali | Imaret

Muhammad Ali (1769–1849), whose Childhood Home, now a museum, I had visited earlier, was born in Kavala. He went on to became the Khedive of Egypt and the founder of a ruling dynasty that lasted to 1952. In 1817 he established in Kavala an Islamic college for the training of imams. Although called the Imaret, it was known locally as the Tembel Hane, or “lazy man’s home”, since those who attended the school were guaranteed free pilaf daily and were exempted from military service. According to local sources the Imaret also operated a soup kitchen which fed up to 1000 indigent people a day. The buildings of the Imaret have now been remodeling into the five-star Imaret Hotel. It is a little out of my price range: the cheapest rooms are $350 a night; suites are well over a thousand a night. Even so, the place is often sold out. Make your reservations well in advance. Guided tours are offered to those to just want to look around without actually staying in the hotel. 
Courtyard of the Imaret Hotel (click on photos for enlargements)

Courtyard of the Imaret Hotel
Courtyard of the Imaret Hotel
Cheapest room of the hotel ($350 a night) are located on this arcad

Another courtyard of the hotel
The second story of this building is a suite that goes for $1450 a night..
Washing facilites at the Imaret’s small mosque (no longer active). 
Swimming pool of the Imaret Hotel 
Looking out over the roofs of the Imaret Hotel

Monday, November 20, 2017

Greece | Kavala | Muhammad Ali

While in Kavala I wandered by the home of Muhammad Ali (1769–1849), who is often called the founder of modern Egypt. Muhammad Ali was born in Kavala and lived here until he was thirty. The house he lived in is now a museum. His family, who were ethnically Albanian, was involved in the tobacco business (one of the mainstays of the Kavala economy at the time) and his father was the commander of the local Ottoman troops. He himself entered the army and very quickly rose through the ranks, becoming Second Commander in the Kavala Volunteer Contingent of Albanian mercenaries that was sent to re-occupy Egypt following Napoleon Bonaparte's withdrawal in 1801. He quickly became the de facto head of Ottoman forces in Egypt and in 1805 the local ulema demanded that he be made the Wali or Viceroy of Egypt. It soon became apparent the Muhammad Ali intended to seize control of Egypt for himself, but Ottoman Sultan Selim III was unable to depose him. Finally in 1841, after he had attempted to seize Syria and parts of Asia Minor from the Ottomans, he was recognized as the Khedive of Egypt and his family made the hereditary rulers of the country. The last member of his dynasty, the notorious King Farouk, was deposed in 1952 by Gamal Abdel Nasser and other army officers.
Statue of Muhammad Ali in Kavala (click on photos for enlargements)
Statue of Muhammad Ali in Kavala 
House where Muhammad Ali lived in Kavala, now a museum 
Austere interior of Muhammad Ali’s house. I wish I had this room in my hovel in Zaisan Tolgoi.
Austere interior of Muhammad Ali’s house
While in Egypt a few years ago I wandered by the Mosque of Muhammad Ali, also known as the Alabaster Mosque. The mosque was commissioned by Muhammad Ali and built between 1830 and 1848. Located on the top of the Citadel, it is visible from most parts of Cairo and is now one of the city’s most conspicuous landmarks.
Mosque of Muhammad Ali
Mosque of Muhammad Ali
Courtyard of the Mosque of Muhammad Ali
Interior of the Mosque of Muhammad Ali 
Portrait of Muhammad Ali by Auguste Couder

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Greece | Kavala | Apostle Paul

From Thessaloniki I took a bus 100 miles up the coast to the city of Kavala. Two thousand years ago Kavala was known as Neopolis (New City). It was one of the main ports in Europe for ships arriving from the Levant. The Apostle Paul, he of Road to Damascus Fame, first set foot in Europe here around A.D. 50. I do not know why, but I seem to keep visiting places where Paul had trod before. First there was Larnaka and Paphos on Cyprus Island, then Athens, Corinth, and Thessaloniki in Greece and now Kavala. This was not intentional, I assure you. I am not a Christian, and certainly not a fan of Pauline Christianity. Indeed, I am perfectly aware that many now consider Paul An Insufferable Douchebag Or Worse. However, I am more than willingly to entertain the idea, posited in the book Jesus and the Lost Goddess, that most if not all the books in the New Testament attributed to Paul are forgeries and that he himself was a secret Gnostic:
Of all early Christians, Paul was the most revered by later Gnostics. He was the primary inspiration for two of the most influential schools of Christian Gnosticism, set up by the early second-century masters Marcion and Valentinus. Christian Gnostics calling themselves 'Paulicians' ran the 'seven churches' in Greece and Asia Minor that were established by Paul, their 'mother Church' being at Corinth. The Paulicians survived until the tenth century and were the inspiration for the later Bogomils and Cathars. Marcion was originally a student of the Simonian Gnostic Cerdo, but when he set up his own highly successful school it was Paul he placed centre-stage as the 'Great Messenger'. 
Even his later Literalist critics acknowledged that Marcion was 'a veritable sage' and that his influence was considerable. Valentinus tells us he received the secret teachings of Christianity from his master Theudas, who had in turn received them from Paul. Based on these teachings, Valentinus founded his own influential school of Christian Gnosticism, which survived as a loose alliance of individual teachers until it was forcibly closed down in the fifth century by the Literalist Roman Church. The number of second and third-century Valentinians that we can still name is testimony to Valentinus' importance: Alexander, Ambrose, Axionicus, Candidus, Flora, Heracleon, Mark, Ptolemy, Secundus, Theodotus and Theotimus. Paul was such an important figure in the Christian community that at the end of the second century the newly emerging school of Christian Literalism could not simply reject him as a misguided heretic but felt compelled to reshape him into a Literalist. They forged in his name the (now thoroughly discredited) 'Pastoral Letters', in which Paul is made to spout anti-Gnostic propaganda. 
Throughout his genuine letters, however, Paul uses characteristically Gnostic language and gives Gnostic teachings, a fact that is deliberately obscured by Literalist translators. Like later Christian Gnostics, Paul addresses his teachings to two levels of Christian initiates, called psychics and pneumatics, describing the latter as 'having Gnosis'. Of himself he writes, 'I may not be much of a speaker, but I have Gnosis.' He sees his mission as awakening in initiates an awareness of 'the Christ within' — the one 'consciousness of God' — by 'instructing all without distinction in the ways of Sophia, so as to make each one an initiated member of Christ's body'. Paul tells us that when he personally experienced Christ it was as a vision of light on the road to Damascus. 'Damascus' was a code word used by the Essenes to refer to their base in Qumran, which suggests that Paul, like Simon, had Essene affiliations. He uses the same language as the Essenes, for example when he describes human beings as being enslaved by the powers of fate, imagined as 'the elemental rulers of the cosmos', the 'archons of this dark cosmos', from which 'Christ has set us free'.
If these assertions about the genuine Gnostic teachings of Paul are true, then what has become known as “Pauline Christianity”—basically mainstream Christianity as it is practiced today—must be regarded as one of the greatest hoaxes ever perpetrated upon the human race.  
City of Kavala (click on photos for enlargements)
Greek Orthodox Church in downtown Kavala. In front is a mosaic commemorating the arrival  of the Apostle Paul in Kavala in A.D. c. 50. 
Mosaic commemorating the arrival  of the Apostle Paul in Kavala in A.D. c.50. 
Detail of mosaic, Note the view must be from north looking south, since Paul  is stepping onto Europe on the right. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Greece | Thessaloniki | Galerius | Rotunda

After three months of semi-occultation in Zaisan Tolgoi, Mongolia, I flew from Ulaanbaatar to Istanbul. The plane left sixteen hours late because of a huge snow storm that hit Ulaanbaatar the night before. I was almost in a wreck on the way to the airport. The roads were horrific; cars were flying around like hockey pucks. Finally at one o’clock in the morning the plane took off. The flight to Istanbul took eleven grueling hours. Oddly enough for this flight, we encountered no turbulence,  not even over the Tian Shan. Because of the Recent Visa Flap I did not go through Immigration in Istanbul, but continued directly on to Athens. As soon as the plane began its descent into the city we hit severe turbulence. For the first time in years I was overcome by motion sickness on an airplane. I would have hurled that there been anything in my stomach to hurl, but there wasn’t. Luckily I had skipped the in-flight breakfast. That would have been really gross.

 I spent the night in Athens at my Favorite Hotel, located literally in the shadow of the Acropolis. The next morning I took the train north to Thessaloniki, where I intend to resume the Role of Flâneur that I was enjoying last summer. I am staying at the same hotel, in fact the exact same room I stayed in on three previous stays in Thessaloniki. The room is on the top floor, at the very end of the hall. It has to be the most remote room in the hotel. I figure the receptionist correctly pegged me as an incorrigible misanthrope who just wanted to be left alone. It is indeed quiet, and having checked in, I move in and out of the hotel like a ghost. The receptionist does not even see me coming or going, or pretends not to. 

From the hotel it is about a twenty minute walk east on Egnatia, the main drag through the city, to the huge monument now generally referred to as the Rotunda. I am particularly eager to see the Rotunda since it was built by the Roman ruler Galerius (c. 260 – c. 311). Galerius first came to my attention when I was in Venice and saw the statue of the Four Tetrarchs embedded in the southeast corner of St. Mark’s Basilica. It was then that I decided I had to further investigate his career in Thessaloniki. 
The Four Tetrarchs, embedded in the wall of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. It is not clear which one is Galerius (click on photos for  enlargements).
The Four Tetrarchs were the four emperors who ruled the Roman Empire from 293 to 313. The emperor Diocletian, sensing that he could not govern the vast Roman Empire by himself, had in 286 appointed his general Maximian as co-emperor, with himself in charge of the eastern part of the empire, and Maximian in charge of the west. Both assumed the title of Augustus. In 293 he delegated even more power by naming two Caesars or junior emperors, each of whom reported to an Augustus. The two Caesars were Galerius and Constantius Chlorus. The four made up a Tetrarchy, or rule by four. The statues of the Tetrarchs has originally stood in the Philadelphion, a square in Constantinople (Istanbul). During the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the Venetians and Frankish crusaders the statues were seized as war booty and taken to Venice, where they can still be seen today.
The Domains of the Four Tetrarch
Galerius erected several monumental structures in Thessaloniki, including a palace, the ruins of which can still be seen, a huge ceremonial arch, sections of which still exist, and the Rotunda. Construction of the Rotunda began in 306. The round structure is eighty feet in diameter and ninety feet high, with walls almost twenty feet thick. Although damaged by the many earthquakes that have plagued Thessaloniki over the centuries it has never been destroyed. Historians are not quite sure why Galerius built the Rotunda. He certainly did not intend it to be a Christian church, since at the time the Rotunda was built he was violently anti-Christian. He may have intended the building to be used as his mausoleum, but he ended up being interred in Gamzigard, in what is now Serbia. Or he may have intended the structure to be temple to one of the Roman gods; if so, he never said which one. 

After Galerius’s death the building stood empty until 326, when Constantine, founder of Constantinople and defender of Christianity, ordered that it be turned into a church. Some Greek historians have claimed that is the oldest surviving church in the world. This seems unlikely. There are probably older Christian churches in Asia and Africa (the dating of old churches is a contentious issue). It may be the second oldest church in Europe, after the Cathedral of Saint Domnius in Croatia. It is certainly the oldest church in Thessaloniki. In the late fourth century a bema, or sanctuary, was added on the the east side of the building and a propylon and chapels were constructed on the north side. The interior of the dome was decorated with the mosaics for which the Byzantines are famous..

The building continued to be used as a church until Thessaloniki became part of the Ottoman Empire. In 1590 it was converted into a mosque and renamed Mosque of Suleyman Hortaji Effendi. A minaret was added at this time. After the Ottomans were ejected from Thessaloniki in 1912 the structure was reconsecrated as a church. It now serves as a museum, although the East Sanctuary is occasionally used for religious services.

According to an informant in the USA, drone footage of the Rotunda recently appeared, very briefly, in the TV show “The Black List”, starring James Spader. I have not seen the show myself. 
The Rotunda
The Rotunda
The Rotunda and eastern Sanctuary
The Rotunda and eastern Sanctuary
The Rotunda and eastern Sanctuary

Another view of The Rotunda
Interior of the Rotunda
Eastern Sanctuary in the Rotunda
Remnants of  Byzantine mosaics on the dome of the Rotunda