Palace of Galerius in Thessaloniki

Palace of Galerius

Parts of the Palace of Galerius can still be seen and visited for free in a square in modern Thessaloniki, though much if it is covered over  by the surrounding blocks of flats.

Galerius was one of the four tetrarchs, (one of two junior emperors, the other being Constantius) appointed by Diocletian in 293 AD to rule a quarter of the Roman Empire alongside his co-emperor, Augustus. As well as building the Palace and part of the city walls, he also built a hippodrome, triumphal arches and the Rotunda.

On the ground it is difficult to get a sense of what the different parts of the ruins relate to the Palace as a whole, though as with many sites in Greece it is well signed and the information boards are written in excellent English.

Much of the lower part of the city of Thessaloniki was destroyed in the fire of 1917 and had to be re-built. It is interesting to note that the lower storey buildings (3rd from the right in the top right hand corner of the above photograph) are typical of the housing that was re-built after the fire. Much of this old style of building was however destroyed in the German bombardment of the city during the Second World War or replaced in the building boom from the 1950s onwards.

Thessaloniki – city of the car and the parking lottery

The first lesson I learned on this trip to Greece was to bring a map of the place I am staying in. I thought it would be easy to find a street map of the city at Thessaloniki airport, but there was nothing in the arrivals area. Not to worry, I’m sure we’ll get one with the car hire.

No, of course it was foolish of me to expect it really.

Thus it was that we find ourselves driving into the city with a small map printed from Google at the last minute just before we left home. It soon becomes clear that it’s totally inadequate for finding our way round the city. Apart from the fact that we don’t know where we’re going there is also the huge volume of traffic on the road. Normally I like to ease myself into driving abroad (on the other side of the road and in an unfamiliar left hand drive vehicle) with some quiet roads. No chance of that here.

After what seems like several circuits of the city, some of the buildings are becoming familiar. Didn’t we go past that University building a few minutes ago? None of the signs seem to indicate ‘centre’, so I am navigating blind, grasping at the names of some of the areas that I recognise vaguely from reading the guidebook, desperately trying to put together a mental map of where we are against where I think the hotel is.

Eventually I stop at a car spare parts shop and ask the way and am plunged straightaway into using my Greek and more importantly trying to understanding the answers. Amazingly it turns out that we are only 1.5 kilometres away from the hotel, but it might as well be 100, as once again we start to make another circuit of now familiar landmarks.

I stop again, this time at a garage and a very helpful man draws me a clear map. We are now really only a kilometre or so away and the key is to look out for the Cathedral of St Demetrios.

Finding the hotel after two hours of circling the city was only half the solution. Where on earth can I park? For Thessaloniki is indeed the city of the car. Traffic chokes the roads and there are parked cars everywhere. If anywhere is remotely parkable, there will be a car parked there and, out of necessity, cars are frequently double and triple parked.

Our hotel is near the ancient Roman Agora and I circle the square several time looking for an empty space. The only one I can find is in a public car park charging 1.90 Euros an hour. The ticket looks a bit like a lottery scratch card as you have to scratch off the date, hour and minute of the time when you parked your car so that the traffic warden or parking inspector can tell how long you have been there.

Having settled into the hotel, I keep returning to the car and in the hope that I might spot a parking space for a longer spell of parking, but in vain. Eventually I give in and decide to buy enough tickets (13) to cover me for the following day we are spending sightseeing in Thessaloniki. Which is why the top of my car’s dashboard gives the impression that the driver is desperately seeking to win the lottery. Parking LotteryAnd, of course, the second lesson I learnt was to hire a car in the city before we left on our travels and not at the airport – otherwise you just end up paying for the privilege of parking a car you’re not using.

Fire and Ice: sorcery and superstition

One evening a few years ago we were having dinner with a friend in a tiny village in northern Belarus, not far from the border with Lithuania. Our visit was in connection with setting up community development projects that we might work on together and our conversation ranged widely. Towards the end of the evening I asked our host, an educated man with liberal values and a practising Catholic if he knew anything about znakhari (healers, though my dictionary translates it as ‘sorcerers’) in the local villages.

He then gave me an example from his experience of a znakhar curing a horse that appeared to be sickening and close to death due to some unidentified ailment. I would have liked to find out much more about what they did and actually meet one but, as is often the way, the conversation moved on and the following day we had to leave.

I was prompted to ask the question from reading a fascinating book called Solovyovo – the story of memory in a Russian village by an American anthropologist called Margaret Paxson. She lived with a family in a village some 300 miles north of Moscow to study their lives and particularly their attitudes to time, memory, beliefs and rituals.

One of the people she writes about is a healer called Mikhail Alekseevich Belov who learnt his skills from his father, who in turn had learnt them from a nun. People came from all around to seek his help with everything from cancer and alcoholism to family problems and hauntings. His method of treatment was to have a conversation with the person seeking a cure to find out what their problem was. He would then fill a bottle with ordinary water and, beneath the icons in the icon corner of the bedroom, whisper prayers over the water and then give it to the person seeking a cure to take away and drink.

Ms Paxson explains that Mikhail Alekseevich is an example of what are called in Russian those who know (tye, kto znayet). In other words, people who through a form of sorcery use incantations, prayers and spells to effect cures. This is quite different from a znakhar who uses food, plants and herbs to cure people.

It is interesting that these folk beliefs still exist (the book was published only in 2005) alongside, and often in harmony with, more recent Orthodox beliefs and practices.

She also records the belief in the evil eye (sglaz) which she puts down to envy of improved social or personal circumstances.

Of course, belief in the evil eye is prevalent in Greece too, as you can see from the number and variety of blue eye talismans throughout the country. When I first came across it, in my ignorance I thought it went back to the time of the Frankish occupation after the Fourth Crusade when the country was overrun by fair-haired and blue-eyed northern Europeans. How much more unlucky can you get than to be invaded? But the belief is certainly much older than that and goes back to at least Ancient Greece.

In my first Greek class, I remember one of my fellow pupils recalling an incident when she was staying in Greece. She did not feel particularly well, but couldn’t work out what was wrong. The friends she was staying with suggested that they do the test for the evil eye (kako mati) to find out whether she was a victim of it. The test involved putting a drop of olive oil in a glass of water: normally it should float, but if it sinks this indicates that the eye has been cast. In her instance, it sank. So her concerned friends took her off to the Sunday liturgy to see the priest after the service. He asked her some questions, said some prayers over her and suddenly, as she described it she ‘felt something leave her’. She was soon back to her old self.

The Orthodox Church recognises the evil eye (which it calls vaskania) as ‘simply a phenomenon that was accepted by primitive people as fact. They believed that certain people have such powerful feelings of jealousy and envy, that when they looked on some beautiful object or individual it brought destruction. Vaskania is recognized by the Church as the jealousy and envy of some people for things they do not possess, such as beauty, youth, courage or any other blessing…The prayers of the Church to avert the evil eye are, however, a silent recognition of this phenomenon as a morbid feeling of envy.’

It even has a specific prayer for its removal:

Let us pray to the Lord…Lord have mercy… we pray you and beseech you: Remove, drive away and banish every diabolical activity, every satanic attack and every plot, evil curiosity and injury, and the evil eye of mischievous and wicked men from your servant (Name); and whether it was brought about by beauty, or bravery, or happiness, or jealousy and envy, or evil eye, do you yourself, O Lord who love mankind, stretch out your mighty hand and your powerful and lofty arm, look down on this your creature and watch over him(her), and send him(her) an angel of peace, a mighty guardian of soul and body, who will rebuke and banish from him (her) every wicked intention, every spell and evil eye of destructive and envious men; so that, guarded by your, your supplicant may sing to you with thanksgiving … 

Yes, Lord, our God, spare your creature and save your servant (Name) from every injury and brought about by the evil eye, and keep him (her) safe above every ill. For your are our King and all things are possible to Thee, O Lord. Therefore, we ascribe glory to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Living in a Protestant northern European country imbued with Enlightenment ideas of rationalism and the dismissal of the supernatural, it’s easy to look down on such beliefs. But you only need to scratch the surface to find that similar superstitions were part of everyday country life until comparatively recently.

My father was brought up in a little village in Shropshire in the 1910s and 1920s and I remember him telling me that there was an old lady in the village who among other things was able to cure warts. The ‘cure’ consisted of rubbing the wart with a piece of raw meat, reciting the Lord’s Prayer backwards three times over it and then burying the meat in the ground.

My parents were full of old superstitions and it has taken me years to be able to rid myself of them: don’t walk under ladders; don’t cut your nails on a Friday; if you spill salt throw some over your left shoulder to get rid of the devil; if you break a mirror, it’s 13 years bad luck. I’ve done quite well, but the salt thing I still used to do until about 10 years ago. As for mirrors, I’ve never quite got past my fear of that one…

 

 

 

Visiting Ancient Aptera in Crete

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The site of Ancient Aptera is in western Crete, not far from Khania, high up on a plateau with beautiful views towards Souda Bay. It’s an interesting site because it has such a wide range of buildings reflecting the fact that it has been occupied since Minoan times, though most of the site that is accessible today seems to be Roman.

From the Classical Greek period onward it was a city right through the Hellenic period of the Roman occupation. Indeed the monastery of Agios Ioannis Theologos (pictured above) was occupied right up until the 1960s. In the courtyard of the monastery, rather incongruously, is a pile of stone cannonballs:

Cannon balls

One of the most impressive things to see on the site are the Roman cisterns, designed and built so well that they are still remarkably well-preserved. The cistern openings do not give a true idea of the size of the underground cisterns themselves.

Cistern heads

Cistern

Cistern 2There’s no sign of water anywhere on the site today, so it is hard to imagine how there was sufficient water in the past to store in the cisterns and to feed the Roman baths below. In amongst the baths are other buildings whose purpose is difficult to make out from the remains:

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On the wall of one of these buildings is a stone block with chisel marks on it. I am not sure but I think it may be Minoan, as it reminds me of blocks with similar markings that I have seen at Knossos.

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On its own on a promontory overlooking the bay itself is a Turkish fort, unfortunately fenced off so that I can’t get closer to have a look inside.

Castle

To the rear of the site is are the remains of a small amphitheatre, probably Greek:

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and this may be a Greek temple with niches to hold statues of gods:

Church

Finally, I found one of the most evocative parts of the site the remains of a Roman villa, strewn with the debris of its columns. There was a particular atmosphere on this spot and I seemed to get a sense what it must have been like for the people who lived there with its views looking south towards the White Mountains.

Roman Villa

Today the site is extremely hot under the scorching midday Cretan sun and there’s very little shade to provide any relief.

Sun dried flower