Day 4: Milledgeville, Where Dead Men Tell Tales

At 7am on November 15, 1864, General William T. Sherman and 60,000 Union soldiers started their 300-mile march southeast through Georgia. According to Sherman’s memoirs,

“We rode out of Atlanta by the Decatur road, filled by the marching troops and wagons of the Fourteenth Corps; and reaching the hill, just outside of the old rebel works, we naturally paused to look back upon the scenes of our past battles…Behind us lay Atlanta, smoldering and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in air, and hanging like a pall over the ruined city.

A week later, Sherman arrived at the state capitol of Milledgeville.

And so after leaving Atlanta I spent a lovely evening and following day in this charming small town. After a tour of the gorgeous old Governor’s Mansion, I spent most of the day with Dr. Bob Wilson, professor emeritus and University Historian of Georgia College. He proved to be an extraordinarily knowledgeable, generous, and funny companion.

We drove out to Memory Hill Cemetery, where it seemed Bob knew each resident. I saw the graves of slaves, of Odd Fellows with actual three-link chains (the group’s symbol), and of patients in what had been the world’s largest “lunatic asylum.” I met glamorous outlaw Bill Miner, as well as relative newcomers like Senator Carl Vinson and writer Flannery O’Connor. And everywhere lay the dead sons, brothers, and fathers whose graves were marked by Confederate flags.  
One of the town’s most famous sons is Oliver Hardy, of Laurel & Hardy fame. Hardy interned at the local cinema as a boy, vowed to become an actor, and eventually became world-famous. My history professor turned into just another breathless fan when rapturously describing Hardy’s involvement with the town, and he insisted we look at the marker showing where Hardy had lived.

After lunch and visits to two former cotton plantations on the edge of town, the state capitol building was our next stop, an enormous faux-medieval building now owned by Georgia Military School. I looked at the three upper-floor windows, on whose other side is the room in which delegates enthusiastically declared Georgia’s secession from the Union on January 19, 1861.   

As Sherman’s soldiers had approached the town almost four war-weary years later, the Governor and state legislature left Milledgeville quite abruptly. Some of the arriving troops then held a mock legislative session in the capitol building, jokingly voting Georgia back into the Union.

On June 15, 1870 Georgia was the last Confederate state to rejoin the United States.

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Day Three: The Civil War Ends in Atlanta

The modern city of Atlanta has a fine history museum, with tens of thousands of civil war artifacts donated by world-famous collectors. I spent the morning there among the school children, retirees, and out-of-town descendants of soldiers who’d come to visit.

You could spend a whole day just admiring the museum’s collection of rifles, or medical kits, or personal letters, or any number of other things they have there.

I loved a large silk shawl on display featuring the portraits of Confederate president Jefferson Davis and generals such as Johnston and Hood. The textile was so fine it looked like photography.

And I was touched by a display of sheet music of then-current songs popular on both sides, such as When Johnny Comes Marching Home and The Vacant Chair.

Looking at a full-size wooden supply wagon, my companion Michael Hitt said it’s the single surviving example of its type. Its serial number shows it was used by the 20th Army Corps—the same corps in which his ancestral cousin Lt. Joseph Hitt served under General Hooker.

In fact, just two days before Pickett’s Mill (see Day One blogpost), the wagon served the army at the Battle of New Hope—the battle at which Lt. Hitt died, part of the 2nd Infantry, 66th Ohio.

That was chilling enough, but this wagon and I were just getting acquainted, and would meet again an hour later.

But now it was time to leave the museum for Vinings, a suburb 5.5 miles due west, across the Chattahoochee, the river that so many Atlantans hoped would protect them from Sherman’s army in 1864. While the river runs east-west below Roswell (see Day Two blogpost), it runs north-south between Vinings and Atlanta.

Parking in a corner of the Vinings campus of the prestigious Lovett School (K-12, tuition today some $30,000 per year), I saw the original line of earthworks built by Union soldiers to protect themselves while advancing toward Atlanta. I smelled the earth, gently touching it.

The same supply wagon I’d seen in the museum had been at this very earthworks 154 years ago.

The retreating Confederate army crossed the river east by pontoon bridge on July 6, destroying the bridge behind them. Two days later, the Union army crossed east on its own pontoon bridges.

Of course the supply wagon was part of that army.

Today there’s a modern bridge over the Chattahoochee at the spot where both armies required pontoons. Michael and I walked out onto its wooden pedestrian lane, looking at the wide river to our left and right. “That wagon was right here crossing below us,” said Michael quietly. It was chilling.
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After gratefully saying goodbye to Michael, I headed toward my car. I knew the rest of that summer’s story.

Sherman had decided that a frontal assault on Atlanta was pointless, so he headed south around the city. After a series of skirmishes, an army of 24,000 Confederates met Sherman and 70,000 Union soldiers 15 miles outside the city in the epic battle of Jonesborough on August 31.

It was a Union rout. And who was left to defend Atlanta’s northside? No one. Confederate commander John Bell Hood ordered the evacuation of Atlanta on September 1. The following day a Union captain—a captain!—entered and accepted the key to the city from Mayor James Calhoun.

Nine weeks later an invigorated country reelected Abraham Lincoln President. A week after that Sherman started his six-week March to the Sea, destroying Georgia’s food supply and the South’s will to continue fighting.

I was heading to Savannah myself, although I could get there in a matter of hours, not weeks. As I got into my car, I felt unexpectedly sad. Northern Georgia had opened its treasures to me, and for 72 hours I had lived the smell of gunpowder and the sound of marching. My three days were intensely exciting, and yet the suffering I documented seemed so profoundly pointless.

And brave Atlanta had lost its war.

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Day 2: Treachery at the Chattahoochee; Romance in Roswell

Today was a morning of treachery followed by an afternoon of romance, both in Roswell.

After battles at Pickett’s Mill and Kennesaw Mountain, Sherman’s armies continued to push south and east toward Atlanta. As the Confederates continued their orderly retreats (punctuated by delaying battles), the eyes of both armies focused on the Chattahoochee River. 

Up to 300 feet deep and 200 feet wide in some places, the Chattachoochee curves around Atlanta, forming a natural barrier on its north and west. There were a limited number of bridges crossing it, and the Confederates were blowing them up to stop Union armies from capturing Atlanta.

There was a bridge near the town of Roswell—site of a huge modern cotton mill, powered by a dam and water wheels. It processed cotton from plantations all over the area, manufacturing goods for export while cranking out war materiel such as fine uniforms for Confederate officers.

As Sherman’s armies marched nearer, Confederates destroyed the bridge, torching the cotton bales with which they’d swaddled it. Union soldiers on the other side of the river described the flaming scene as being bright as daylight.

With the last bridge gone, desperate Union soldiers found a place to wade across the river into Roswell. 

When they got to the mill they broke it into unusable pieces, joined in the task by gleeful Southern mill workers who resented the fat cats getting rich from their labor. As the stockholders hastily left town, they had actually assumed the workers would protect the plant.

The Federals then arrested all the workers (mostly women and children)—not as prisoners of war (which would acknowledge the Confederacy as a legitimate country), but as traitors—Americans aiding a treasonous rebellion.

These arrested people were sent on a variety of amazing refugee journeys west and north that ultimately would see some of them imprisoned, some marry Federal soldiers, some become Union hospital nurses, some dumped homeless on Northern streets, and some reunited with captured family members in the Confederate army.

My guide Michael Hitt, author of books and lectures on Roswell, gave me a three-hour non-stop private lecture as we walked to the Union river crossing, the abandoned mill, and related sites. We even saw places associated with the Cherokee and Creek Indians, residents of Northern Georgia before Andrew Jackson’s 1830 executive order banished them to Oklahoma via the infamous Trail of Tears.

Michael showed me a plaque with the quote from General Winfield Scott begging the Indians to leave so he wouldn’t have to destroy their nation. They did march into exile. At least a quarter of them died.

Roswell’s industrial capacity was crippled and its workers expelled. But Roswell didn’t die. It soon became important in ways no one had expected.

Back in 1839 one of Roswell’s first settlers (and an investor in the cotton mill) built his enormous, elegant Greek Revival house and named it Bulloch Hall. It quickly became a center of Roswell social life, and fourteen years later his youngest daughter married Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. A few years later they had a son named Theodore Jr., who became President in 1901. He visited his mother’s old home at Bulloch Hall in 1905, which by then had become a national treasure.

Although not technically open today, I was allowed in with Michael, who seemingly knew everything about the place. I was given a facsimile of a 1923 newspaper interview with an elderly woman who had been a bridesmaid at Roosevelt Senior’s wedding, right there in the house. The interview was by a then-new journalist named Margaret Mitchell, who later wrote Gone With the Wind.

It’s fitting, because Mitchell modeled trader Rhett Butler on James Stevens Bulloch, the settler (and international trader) who had built the house. She modeled Scarlett on his daughter Mittie, who later married Roosevelt Sr. The Bulloch house itself has been used in dozens of movies, and was the model for the film’s plantation home Tara.

Inside I saw a rail from Roosevelt’s private train, and above it the U.S. flag the train flew when it pulled into Roswell. I saw photos of Roosevelt flanked by the freed slaves who had served his mother.

Despite his heavy woolen Union army uniform Michael was still fresh enough to continue exploring the house and grounds. But heat and my fatigue rendered me unfit for additional duty, and we ended our tour in the late afternoon.

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Day 1: Trench Warfare in the Mountains

Eighty-eight years after its founding, America’s precarious future would be decided in the summer and fall of 1864, in the remote mountains of northern Georgia.

After three long years the people of the North had grown tired of the war, tired of the draft, tired of the inflation, tired of incessant debates about The Negro Question.

They desperately wanted the war to end, but the end was nowhere in sight. What was in sight was the upcoming presidential election of November 1864. If Abraham Lincoln won, the war would continue. If Northern war hero John McClelland won, he would sue for peace–and allow slavery to continue and even expand.

If the North didn’t win a tangible victory soon, Lincoln would lose.

Union General Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate General Robert E. Lee were wrestling to a stalemate in Virginia. The Union army had conquered most of Tennessee. So General William T. Sherman was instructed to win the war by capturing Atlanta–the South’s economic and railroad powerhouse that was feeding and equipping soldiers across the Confederacy.

Sherman had to go through those northern Georgia mountains. That’s what I did today, spending the morning at Pickett’s Mill State Battlefield and the afternoon at Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield.

I saw the trenches dug by each side in 1864. I walked the wooden bridge over Little Pumpkin Vine Creek. I hiked the emergency road built by the Confederates to support their interior lines–which saved countless lives when their Right Flank cavalry was routed. I saw the hills and ravines that defined who would attack and who would defend, who would live and who would die.

So many soldiers died that their comrades had to step on their corpses to move forward. I stepped where those dead soldiers had lain.

My world-class guides brought the ground, trees, and rocks to life: one young research historian living full-time at the Pickett’s Mill site, and one retired researcher and author in full Union uniform, quoting soldiers’ letters, using their own words to describe their last hours the night before dying in battle.

We ended the day at Marietta National Cemetery, where the Union soldiers from Kennesaw Mountain are buried–each one lying next to the comrades with whom he had died.

The battle for Atlanta had just begun. Many more men would die.

 

 

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My Ten-Day “March” Through Georgia

In Atlanta, I’m told, you can get your steak cooked four ways: rare, medium, well-done, or Shermanized: burnt to a crisp.

If you remember your high school American History class, you may recall General William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea (see map). sherman

After capturing Atlanta in September 1864, he and 62,000 Union soldiers marched southeast on a five-week campaign, destroying Georgia’s war-making infrastructure and civilian economy while living off the land. He captured the Atlantic port city of Savannah on December 21 without firing a shot.

It was the turning point of the four-year Civil War, which ended less than five months later.

For ten days starting April 10, I’ll be following General Sherman. I’ll spend two days at the mountain battlefields south of the Tennessee border, and a day studying the (futile) Confederate fortifications around Atlanta. Moving southeast, I’ll spend a day in Milledgeville (Georgia’s capitol during the war), and then three days in Savannah visiting the old forts built to protect the harbor, as well as the state’s oldest synagogue and cemetary.

And just as Sherman did, I’ll then go north up the coast for three days in Charleston, South Carolina. I’ll end the trip where the Civil War started—touring Fort Sumter, as well as an antebellum cotton plantation.

Unlike Sherman, I’ll drive, stay in comfortable hotels, and have world-class historians for guides. And unlike Sherman, I’ll know what happened—which no one, of course, ever knows in advance.

Sure, I could vacation in Paris or Tokyo. But give me the 19th century and I’m transported. Do come along—you will be, too. Just click the “Follow!” button at the top of this page, to the right of General Sherman.

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Ending the U.K. Trip in Christchurch

My last day in England was spent in and around Oxford’s magnificent Christchurch College and Cathedral.

To whet my appetite, we started the day at the Ashmolean museum. The airy, multi-story building has a bit of everything, from a full-size Egyptian royal mummy and burial chamber almost 3,000 years old; to the ceremonial robe of Powhatan (father of Pocahontas), the powerful Virginia Indian chief who greeted the English when they first settled Jamestown in 1607; to the robes and sandals of T.E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”); to a case with gloves actually worn by, from left to right, Henry VIII, Queen Anne, and Queen Elizabeth I.

When I exclaimed that surely this case must be among the most treasured objects in the world, my guide unself-consciously replied “Oh, we have much cooler stuff than that in here.”

And so it was on to Christchurch, where the entire trip came together.

Notable Christchurch College alumni include William Penn; John Locke; John Wesley; King Edward VII; 13 British prime ministers, including William Gladstone, Robert Peel and Anthony Eden; Lewis Carroll; and the Winklevoss twins (co-founders of Facebook). But let’s start at the beginning.

Named after the Saxon patron saint of Oxford, St. Frideswide was established as a priory of Augustinians in 1122 under England’s Henry I.

Remember King Henry VIII and the Dissolution of the Monasteries (and other vast church holdings)? In 1525 Henry’s ultimate fixer Cardinal Wolsey grabbed St. Frideswide’s and adjacent religious lands so that he could found a new Oxford college, modestly called Cardinal College. He even had Henry’s personal carpenter construct the ornate roof.

After Wolsey fell from power in 1530, King Henry VIII took over the new college, renaming it (again, modestly) King Henry’s College. The surviving portion of the old church became the chapel for the new college; after Henry broke from Rome and organized the Church of England, he renamed the college Christ Church, and grew the chapel into the area’s cathedral, also called Christ Church.

Its nave, choir, main tower and transepts are late Norman. It’s one of England’s smaller cathedrals, and if a huge stone building can be called cozy, this one is, especially when compared to the stupendous Canterbury Cathedral.

But the story doesn’t end there.

King Charles I made Oxford his military headquarters during English Civil War, and convened his Parliament in the Cathedral in 1645. Still later, when the Puritans stormed through southern England, they smashed as many of Christchurch Cathedral’s stained glass windows as they could reach. I saw the clear windows that replaced the vandalized ones—with the original small colored ones way on top, where Puritan rage couldn’t reach.

And in between Henry and Charles?

Back out on Broad Street, a yellow-brick X marks the place where Thomas Cranmer (legal architect of the Church of England) and other Reformation leaders were executed by the Catholic government of Queen Mary in 1556. A hundred yards away is a memorial to the martyrs erected by the post-Mary Protestant government.

The thing about history is that they’re always making
more of it.

Especially in England. Here’s graffiti near the Christchurch College dining hall–“only” 1.5 centuries old. It was a protest against Prime Minister Peel’s proposal to accept Catholics as full citizens.

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A Thousand Years of Oxford

Canterbury to London to Oxford by westbound trains, and here I am in another ancient English city.

The Saxons settled it due to its strategic location on the Thames (oxford=a place where oxen could ford the river). A century later those pesky Vikings burned Oxford, and kept raiding other parts of England, so in 1002 English King Aethelred ordered the killing of all Viking men in Oxford. The back-and-forth destruction continued until the Norman invasion of 1066.
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I’m staying in an apartment about 3 minutes from the Thames, steps away from Folly Bridge. It’s named after the 13th-century philosopher-theologian-linguist Roger Bacon, who had a workshop nearby. Locals thought the genius scientist (and philosopher and statesman and jurist) a kook, and so called the bridge nearby “folly.”

I spent the day touring Oxford University, which involves touring the individual colleges. These semi-autonomous colleges were founded at various times starting in 1096; business really picked up when English students were banned from the University of Paris in 1167.

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Each college includes a chapel, dining hall, student residence quads, and an enormous green area. Apparently each college spends a fortune keeping up their English gardens and lawns, and are quite competitive about it. In fact, it seems these colleges are competitive in every way possible—croquet, rowing, and of course drinking.

In New College (14th century), one side of the enormous lawn is bounded by what’s left of the original city wall. In Merton College, the chapel is an astonishing achievement of at least six different carved woods.

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I also went to some of Oxford’s more famous buildings—the Bodleian library, the Ashmolean museum, the Museum of the History of Science. In the latter I saw astrolabes, Chinese perfume clocks (different incenses burn at different rates–it’s jasmine o’clock!), Einstein’s calculation of the size of the universe (on a chalkboard stolen by students when he was here in 1931), and a then-newfangled camera used by Lawrence of Arabia.

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The streets and alleyways here are just a riot of medieval and Renaissance buildings, all Gothic arches, yellow sandstone and gargoyles with not-so-hidden meanings–all seasoned with the occasional 300-year-old pub.

Today students at Oxford are expected to work harder than their aristocratic ancestors, who mostly sat around and even had servants carry their books. They dress in modern- day clothes—except when taking their annual exams, when they’re expected to wear their robes. There are even periodic oral exams when mentors grill students in front of their peers. There are, blessedly, no recorded instances of complaints of micro-aggressions or lack of safe spaces. These are, after all, descendants of the people who kicked Viking butt.

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Magna Carta, Sandwich, & the Puritans

The town of Sandwich was already 300 years old when Richard The Lionheart came through on his way back from the Third Crusade in 1194.  

A half-hour east of Canterbury, it was one of southeastern England’s Cinque (Five) Ports designated by King Edward I in 1155. In exchange for annually providing ships and sailors for the country’s defense (there wasn’t yet a Royal Navy), the five ports were given their own powers of taxation, law enforcement, and other commercial privileges.

I walked through the town with two volunteers from the very active local historical society.  The town had recently received a grant to renovate the local museum, so it was closed amid an uproar of construction noise when i arrived. By prior arrangement, however, they opened it for my guides so I could see their crown jewels, as it were: their copy (one of 6 in the world) of the Magna Carta and the contemporaneous (and equally important) Charter of the Forest.

 The two documents were in temporary bullet-proof cases askew in a corner of the room. Amid electrical cords, knee pads, and drafting tools, I gawked. 1215. A king blackmailed into sharing power with non-royal nobles. A king binding future kings to his commitments. Habeas Corpus and trial by jury.

Surrounded by workmen intent on finishing the building in time for the gala opening just a week away.

Before I left, I was shown the town’s gilt mace and scepter, in use since the 15th century.  The museum director even let me hold them. I let her lift them out of the box just laying on the floor that she had opened.

The symbols of royal authority, granted to very important locals, now used in ceremony one day a year. Except for today, when they were tenderly handed to a foreign visitor who was appropriately blown away.

They really wanted us out from underfoot, so we hustled out of the almost-finished museum without–oh wait, you just HAVE to see this, the museum director said. Lying on the floor on a pillow under a chair was a life-size stone head sculpted in Roman times. It had been found in the local river twenty years ago by two boys. Upon bringing it home they were promptly scolded for taking something that wasn’t theirs, and told to put it back. It found its way into private hands, where it stayed until the Museum re-opening was announced. The owner then unexpectedly stepped forth and donated it, where it will be displayed.

How important was Sandwich? Back in the day, even Queen Elizabeth I visited. In the old town hall, I saw the large stained glass window commemorating her visit, her face clearly recognizable. In fact, the Mayor kneeling at her feet is holding the same gilt rods I had held earlier that day.

The old town hall had also been used as a courtroom. The 16th-century furniture was still in place, just as shown in a large contemporary painting that hung opposite the window.

Walking through town, we visited several churches. The recurring theme here was the battle between sate-sponsored Catholicism and Protestantism, as monarchs such as Henry, Mary, and Elizabeth whipsawed the country between Roman and Reformation demands. It wasn’t hard to remember seeing Tyndale’s illicit Bible just 48 hours ago in Canterbury Cathedral’s library.

The next chapter of the story, however, was very much alive here too: the Puritans. Exiled under (Catholic) Queen Mary, they burst back into English life with Elizabeth I’s accession in 1558, becoming a potent political force in the 17th century. Among other things (like going to the Netherlands and thence to America), they went through churches they deemed insufficiently “reformed,” damaging the art, architecture, and religious objects they felt reminiscent of Catholicism. In church after church right here in Sandwich, I saw evidence of their zealous vandalism.

Here in Sandwich’s various churches I also saw the old Norman style arches–fluted and enormously high. One would even say the height was out of scale–except somehow, eight or nine centuries ago, they found a way to make them part of buildings of both gracefulness and power. Incredible.

 

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For Anglicans, the Center of the Universe

Just months after William the Conqueror successfully invaded southeastern England from Normandy, he began to build a church in Canterbury. These Normans were planning to stay.  

Some ten centuries later, I spent the morning in the cathedral that grew from this beginning. “Magnificent” doesn’t begin to describe the soaring, gigantic, yet graceful structure. Hundreds of stained glass windows, miles of delicate vaulting, tombs of notables—all housed within a structure impossibly high and somehow, though built in a dozen different styles, balanced artistically.

Canterbury was in a perfect location—temperate by blustery English standards, and several miles upstream on a river that went to the sea. So successive generations of monarchs expanded it. Eventually royal colleges were opened here. When the weavers of Tours, France were expelled for refusing allegiance to Catholicism, they came here, establishing a neighborhood and transplanting an artistic tradition. To this day, the Cathedral offers weekly services en Francais.

Of course, Henry II’s murder (the “martyrdom”) of Archbishop Thomas Beckett in 1170 was, ironically, what launched the Cathedral’s fame. Today I saw a chapel that listed every one of Canterbury’s Archbishops—and included, without asterisk or other fuss, Thomas Cranmer, architect of Henry VIII’s break with Rome and the establishment of the Church of England. Just another one of those incredibly powerful men who shaped the world’s history.

I saw the spot where Beckett was murdered. A flame now burns where his shrine was located for 300 years until it was destroyed by Henry VIII.

I saw the massive stone chair that has been used for investitures for a thousand years. I revisited the choir stalls where I’d been to Evensong the day before. I saw successive generations of stained glass—from medieval times, all the way to the Coronation of Elizabeth II.

My guide Liz had a special treat for me—access to the Cathedral’s library. It holds some 50,000 mostly handmade books collected over ten centuries. What had Hanna the librarian, selected to show me? A second folio of Shakespeare, complete with introductory poem by his rival Ben Johnson. And a 16th-century English translation of the Bible by William Tyndale—the first to work directly from the Greek and Hebrew texts (he spoke 7 languages). Executed for his dangerous idea that people should read the Bible for themselves rather than rely on priests, his last words were his hope that God would open the King’s eyes.

After leaving the Cathedral we walked through the ceremonial stone arch erected to commemorate the marriage between Catherine of Aragon (daughter of Ferdinand & Isabella) and Arthur Tudor, eldest son of Henry VII. Only teens when they wed, Arthur died soon after, leaving his younger brother to marry his widow and become Henry VIII. Thus do worlds change.

Liz then drove us half an hour south, where we spent the afternoon in Dover Castle. I hadn’t planned to go to Dover at all, but when Liz told me several weeks ago that she had actually lived there for three years (when her high-ranking husband was assigned to be the Queen Mother’s representative in the area), it sounded like a unique opportunity. During the afternoon Liz told me of meeting Prince Philip (“charming but lecherous”), the Queen Mum (“delightful and still sharp”), and non-stop entertaining of dignitaries virtually every night (“you slept with a coat hanger in your mouth so you could smile the next day”).

Dover Castle stands on cliffs (they only look white from out at sea) at the shortest distance between England and the continent. On a site occupied since the Iron Age, Henry II began the enormous structure around 1180. I walked the same stone steps later walked by both Elizabeth and Victoria. I climbed into the main building, now furnished with replicas of medieval furniture, linen, and weapons. Even the massive kitchen is fitted with cauldrons, clotheslines, ovens, and a model side of beef.

Eventually we were back outside, walking a quarter-mile to another building in the castle complex.

Because of its strategic location, the British had built underground tunnels and fortifications here to battle Napoleon. The tunnels were used in subsequent wars, and in the run-up to WWII, the British renovated them yet again. The idea was both a defense of the Channel and a central command for both the military and government should they need to leave London.

In May of 1940, the same location that prompted the castle’s construction so long ago made it the perfect place to receive the desperate evacuation of 340,000 British and French troops from Dunkirk. The tunnels were the command center for the nearly-impossible operation that prevented an Allied surrender.

We took a one-hour underground tour that was heavy on audio-visuals, which made the era come alive. Talking holograms projected onto the tunnel walls, the urgent voices of Army commanders, newsreels, and contemporary maps all gave the tour an eerie immediacy. Dioramas and real equipment filled the rooms off the long corridors, and inevitably we each imagined ourselves down here for the 12-hour sun-less shifts that directed the defense of England and the rescue of 340,000 trapped soldiers.

When we finally emerged above ground after an hour, no one complained about the light drizzle or chilly sea breeze.

Posted in architecture, castles, medieval history, Uncategorized

The Vikings Were Here—Along With Everyone Else

My flight left SFO 2 hours late. Late in first class is better than late in coach, but it’s still late. Better food, wine in glass glasses, but we were as late as the people in the very last row.

So I arrived at Heathrow in the middle of the morning rush hour. Fortunately, they speak pretty good English here, so I found the Piccadilly Line of the fabled underground (subway). I took it for an hour to the huge downtown station of St. Pancras, and switched to a regular train for the shorter trip eastward to Canterbury. After a 10-minute cab ride I finally arrived at my charming little cottage.

“Charming” turned out to mean a lack of right angles, and encouragement to see “patina” instead of wear, inadequate maintenance, and the well-known British sense of wry acceptance. Some 10 hours after today’s noontime arrival, I continue to do my best.

The world-famous Cathedral is down the street. But wait, let’s slow down a bit and give successive waves of people and events their due. And consider yourself introduced to Liz, my guide for today and tomorrow. She’s 69, far more spry than I, and she’s travelled the world with her military attache husband, finally settling here.

Today’s hit parade started with Queen Bertha of Tours (France), who married Ethelbert, the local King of Kent in the 7th century. Her wedding contract specified that she’d be allowed to bring her Christian faith with her, and so of course she built a church here after unpacking and getting
organized. I visited that 7th century St. Martin’s Church, the oldest continuously-used church in Britain. Its front door was fitted into a large Roman-built wall–300 years old when she found it.

The Vikings eventually came, camped on the river, and did some raiding–leaving evidence all over town. They were eventually supplanted by the Normans, led by William the Conqueror–who began the earliest version of what became the Cathedral. Fast-forward through the Plantagenets and War of the Roses, and soon we have King Henry VIII not just establishing a new Church of England, but dissolving the monastery system and grabbing Church land and wealth across the country.

Here in Canterbury he turned one monastery into his own local pied-a-terre. He wanted it used for his wedding to wife number 4, Ann of Cleves; records show he hired 300 plasterers (and hundreds of other workmen) to clean up the place in time for a December wedding; apparently they moved heaven and earth trying to get the stuff to dry in the middle of a very wet winter. The complex eventually became a school and was redone almost two centuries ago by the Victorians. The school is gorgeous; a single, enormous wall is all that’s left from Henry’s time.

I ran into Henry’s Dissolution of the Monasteries many times during last year’s trip to Ireland, and it already figures prominently here. More on that as the week unfolds.

We had hoped to stroll through the town after afternoon tea, but rain and wind arrived with a vengeance. We hustled past the church where Christopher Marlowe was baptized, an inn Charles Dickens wrote about, an inn mentioned in the Canterbury Tales, and then I ducked into the magnificent cathedral to catch the Evensong service.

No, it wasn’t a fit of sudden devotion, but a great musical opportunity. The organ was gorgeous, the cathedral choir was crisp and haunting, and there was even a reading from Genesis on the wandering Israelites eating manna. I lingered a bit to look at some of the cathedral’s endless vaulting, but I hadn’t eaten since my in-flight arrival breakfast, and I needed sustenance of my own.

Authentic Thai food—in the midst of English “cooking,” like manna from heaven!

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Preview: Medieval England, 2017

You remember the Canterbury Tales, right?

In 1162 England’s King Henry II, tired of fighting with the Church, appointed his drinking buddy Thomas Beckett the country’s top religious figure–the Archbishop of Canterbury. Thomas, however, took the job way too seriously, and in 1170 King Henry had him murdered. Becket’s super-quick canonization in 1173 made Canterbury Cathedral a major pilgrimage site (which it remains to this day).

Two centuries later, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote of a bunch of strangers travelling together on that very pilgrimage. The overland journey was long, hard, and hazardous. Chaucer had the journey-master suggest that each traveller tell a story–to entertain the group and bond it together. These stories–variously sad, bawdy, political, spiritual–he “collected” together as the Canterbury Tales.

Six centuries later, on April 25, I’m going to Canterbury. I’ll also be going to Sandwich, Dover, and Oxford. More after I arrive!

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June 10, Mycenae

Today we started the long drive north that would end at the Athens Airport Hotel.
After 90 minutes of twisting country roads up the mountains, we stopped at Mycenae, the ancient home of the House of Atreus, whose two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus, launched the Trojan War. See, Helen of Troy was actually Helen of Sparta before she left her husband King Menelaus for Troy—either as an act of passion or as a victim of kidnapping. Either way, most of the Peloponnese got involved in 10 terrible years of war, as chronicled by Homer’s Iliad and climaxed by the Trojan Horse and sack of Troy.

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Or was it all a fairy tale? Clytemnestra, Iphigenia, Electra, Orestes—fact or fable? Or both?

That’s what amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schleimann was obsessed with discovering in the 19th century. And in 1874, digging right where I stood today, he changed our past by uncovering the ancient citadel, complete with royal chambers, storehouses, and giant tombs. To prepare for this moment, I’d read his biography last month. It includes his exultation at finding an unopened royal tomb, approaching the corpse, lifting the gold death mask and exclaiming, “I have seen the face of Agamemnon.”

Well, he was wrong about that, because the tombs he found were even older, dating back to about 1600 BCE. But oh, what tombs! Cyclopean blocks of stone perfectly edged and aligned. A 200-foot long paved walkway culminating in an entrance you could drive a bus through. An enormous beehive-shaped chamber for the body and grave goods. And when finished, skillfully covered with dirt so that it looked like just another little hill.

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My guide walked me around the outdoor site, shivering in the 70-degree cloudy breeze (I kept my delight about the weather to myself). The Mycenaeans had traded with other local commercial centers like Argos and Epidaurus, and eventually made it to Crete where they conquered the more peaceful and sophisticated Minoans. My guide speculated about the social changes indicated by the change in god-legends that accompanied the conquest.

We eventually left Mycenae and went north to Corinth. We drove up even higher, to the acropolis that had overlooked the ancient city—and had also seen later military use by the usual suspects: Romans, Crusaders, Venetians, Turks, etc.. It commanded an extraordinary view of the plain below, and the isthmus connecting the Peloponnese to the mainland—only 4 miles wide at its narrowest.

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I walked up the uneven stone entryway as lightning and thunder lit the gray afternoon sky. The enormous walls, fortified many times, were everywhere, and yet so skillfully set into the mountain they seemed to have simply grown up toward the open sky. I didn’t even try to climb up to see the old temple of Aphrodite—it was just too strenuous and I didn’t want to get stuck in the rain that threatened to slicken every stone in the place.

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Back down below, the tiny old town was dwarfed by stone columns from the 6th century BCE—and, when my eyes adjusted to the various shades of gray, acres and acres of the excavated old city of Corinth—marketplace, homes, etc.. My guide was quick to point out rough Roman additions to the elegant Greek architecture. And when we saw an exhibit of how column capitals had evolved over time, she was quick to point out all the Greek innovations, sniffing that the Romans hadn’t added much of value or taste.

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The day’s last stop, just a few minutes later, was on a small bridge over the Corinth Canal, imagined by Caesar and Nero but completed only in 1893. Just two miles to the west I could see the blue Gulf of Corinth. Turning to the east, I could see the Aegean’s Saronic Gulf. I didn’t want to leave ancient Greece. But I did in fact turn north, and headed for twenty-first century America.

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June 9, Epidaurus

HOLISTIC HEALING IN ANCIENT GREECE

I’m in the Peloponnese for three days, the mountainous southern mainland containing legendary cities like Sparta, Corinth, Olympia, and Argos.

We drove up and around on steep, winding roads, finally arriving at Epidaurus. I was there to see the gorgeous, almost completely preserved 4th-century BCE theatre. But the site offers so much more.

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The theatre was part of an enormous, internationally-known healing complex, complete with dormitories, athletic arena, clinics, hotel, and spiritual centers. Patients were expected to participate in their own healing in a number of ways: exposure to art, music, and theatre; playing sports, especially track & field; and (after plenty of preparation) sleeping in one of the holy places, and then reporting the advice of Asklepios, god of healing, which was revealed in dreams or images.

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The psychological impact of all this must have been profound. Imagine a sick person making an arduous journey by foot or donkey for days or weeks, to an isolated mountain-top. Once there, you see grand, decorated buildings, all designed to focus the healing energy of the universe. The gods are on duty, attended by priest-physicians. You receive the wisdom of all, fully expecting a positive outcome.

Just as it was 2500 years ago, the hilltop air today was breezy and sweet, a great relief from the oppressive heat down below. The views are still extraordinary: thousands of trees, the sea visible off on the horizon, the sounds of nature in the air and underfoot.

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After 90 minutes of slowly walking and interpreting the site, we finally came to the theatre. Set gently into a small hill, it sat 13,000, to give you an idea of how big this site is. Perfect acoustics, of course. Seats, stairs, entrances, stage–virtually the entire thing is original. As my guide said, “The most famous theatre in ancient Greece is the only one that has survived intact. Almost by Providence.” It’s easy to link fact and symbolism like that when you’re here.

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Remember, the performances weren’t mere entertainment: they were part of a process designed to heal mind and body. That whole “catharsis” thing Aristotle described about classical theatre? This was its highest implementation.

Of course, you’d want the best playwrights for such important work. They had Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides. These were The Who, Beatles, and Rolling Stones of the era. Or the Tom Stoppard, David Mamet, and George Bernard Shaw of the era. If any of these six had invented music or theatre.

After some time absorbing the theatre’s grandeur, we left and drove some 15 minutes west to a lesser-known site called Tiryns. This hilltop palace had been inhabited by Mycenaens, about 1,000 years before Epidaurus was built. Along with the foundation stones of the internal rooms, the external walls were neatly in place—made of stone blocks each as large as I am.

My guide and I surveyed the Argolid plain, more or less unchanged since ancient times: Argos to the left, Mycenae straight ahead, Epidaurus behind us, the sea off to the west. Legends—or history—describe how this triangle of politics and culture had been blessed and cursed by the gods for at least 5,000 years. Schoolchildren around the world still learn the stories of those gods, as did I.

Walking among them today I felt quite small and part of something quite large.

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June 8, Knossos

WAAAY BACK IN TIME

Before Shakespeare, before Julius Caesar, before the Trojan War, before Abraham, there were the Minoans. They lived on Crete, traded around the Mediterranean, and used tools of bronze. Yes, they helped bring us out of the Stone Age, making possible Facebook and Diet Coke.

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I had heard of the Palace of Knossos and the amazing stuff they’d found inside, but didn’t know exactly how excited to be when it was offered on this trip’s itinerary. After all, you’ve seen one excavated ancient site, etc.

The day actually started the day before, at the last stop in Chania. They’d suffered an earthquake there in the 1970s, and various residential areas were rebuilt at different times. By the time the less touristy area behind the harbor was to be rebuilt, the rubble had revealed the remains of Kydonia, a fancy Minoan neighborhood. An entire square block has now been excavated and is open to the public. The original foundation blocks, stairways, altars, and other features were as clearly laid out as your local supermarket.

From 2500BC. It was the oldest thing I’d ever seen outside a museum.

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There was more of that to come today. After a drive east across northern Crete, we stopped at the Palace of Knossos, parking alongside a horde of busses.

Although my trusty guide Emmanuel could whisk us in ahead of the enormous queue of cruise-shipped, bussed-in people, he couldn’t make the people already up on the site disappear. Despite 95-degree heat, the enormous site was covered with selfie-taking, name-tagged (“Group 9, Jurgen”), guide-following, sandal-and-sock-wearing, sweating (as was I), nattering (as I was NOT), toilet-needing (as was I), tourists, herded from one amazing pile of ancient stones to another.

(Memo to self: do not reveal prejudices about people blowing into tiny remote sites on cruise ships that carry 6,000 people, overwhelming local harbors and delicate cultural treasures that can’t possibly accommodate them.)

Ahem. The 4,000-year-old Palace was discovered a century ago by British adventurer Arthur Evans. Using the era’s physical tools, primitive professional standards, and his own can-do enthusiasm (and family fortune), he hired gangs of locals and dug up the site, larger than all of Yankee Stadium. And “restored” all over the place with artists and oh, no—poured concrete.

Bad move. Like discovering half the Mona Lisa and “restoring” the other half with magic marker. Or discovering half of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and asking Miley Cyrus to “restore” the other half. The concrete expands over time (sun, rain, repeat thousands of times), breaking the old stone. Or hides and damages everything beneath it.

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But Evans didn’t loot the place, he meant well, and he generally loved the site and all it revealed. So today we have access to it. The site—again, it’s over 4,000 years old and a city of 18,000 people—is remarkable: A working sewer system. Multiple stories, terraced into a hill. Fronted by the first paved road in Europe. Fifteen hundred rooms (the source of the word “labyrinth”). Perfectly oriented north-south to take advantage of the sun’s rays, with gently sloping flat roofs to capture rain water.

Thanks to no-looting Evans, many artifacts are on view in the newly-refurbished museum in modern Iraklion, just a few minutes from the excavation. We went straight there (ignoring the old Venetian-era town—ho hum), had a quick lunch (Greek salad in a crepe, which tasted exactly like all the other Greek salads I’ve been eating here), and entered the museum. Fortunately, most of the tourists I’d seen at the site were either in town shopping or had headed back to their respective Love Boats.

I never thought I’d say this, but two-and-half hours in the museum flew by like minutes. Artifacts that might have been mildly interesting in New York or London were riveting here, just minutes from where they’d been uncovered back in 1900.

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The gold jewelry—exquisitely delicate. The pottery—amazingly fluid and expressive. The bookkeeping tablets in Linear B (the precursor of ancient Greek)—absolutely thrilling, just hours after Emmanuel had pointed to the royal clerk’s room where they’d been found. Reliefs of the Minoan Bull that was the center of their religion—practically breathing right in front of me, eyes and nostrils bulging. A vibrantly painted sarcophagus featured scenes incorporating many of these images into a farewell scene.

My feet hurt and my shirt was sticking to my body. I was anchored firmly in 2500 BCE, and almost nothing could dislodge me. Except I had a plane to catch.

Which is exactly how modern life works.

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June 6 – THE BATTLE OF CRETE

Exactly 75 years and two weeks ago, the Battle of Crete was the first paratrooper invasion in history, and the first battle influenced by decrypted German messages from the Enigma Machine.

I spent today in western Crete walking the battlefield, visiting war cemeteries, and examining war photos in the naval museum.

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To summarize: in spring 1941 Allied troops retreated south from the Greek mainland to the island of Crete. Germany wanted Crete for the same reason the Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, Ottomans, and British had wanted it: it’s the East Mediterranean crossroads of the world, roughly equidistant from Egypt, Jerusalem, Rome, Istanbul (Constantinople to us romantics), Malta (the Crusader-era Knights Hospitaller from Rhodes, remember?), and—not incidentally—the Nazi oilfields in Romania.

Rough neighborhood. Valuable real estate. But I digress.

The Allies held Crete. Germany wanted it. The Brits, Australians, New Zealanders and Greeks outnumbered them, roughly 50,000 to 22,000. But in the retreat from the Greek mainland, the Allies had left most of their heavy equipment behind. On the other hand, the Royal Navy patrolled the Aegean between Crete and the mainland. What to do? The first full-scale paratrooper invasion in history.

The Germans went for the island’s three airfields, stretched across its long north coast. Today I stood on a hill overlooking the western airfield outside the town of Chania, sweating in the late morning sun.

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After landing by the airfield, the paratroopers ran up the hill, shooting. Lots of them died. Lots of defenders died. Cretan partisans armed with hunting knives stole the revolvers of the Germans they killed. A Maori regiment served with distinction. But German warplanes overwhelmed the Royal navy, and ultimately, the Allies withdrew to the south shore and from there to Alexandria, Egypt.

The combined toll: 8,000 dead or missing. 17,000 Allied soldiers captured, 300 Luftwaffe destroyed, 20 Royal warships sunk or damaged. And in keeping with the Nazi policy of punishing resistance, 500 Greek civilians were executed.

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On the hill above the airfield is a German military cemetery, which I walked. There had been a big ceremony marking the battle’s 75th anniversary, and so there were fresh flowers by each grave. There were also wreaths from the governments of the various Allies. I was quite surprised by the ecumenical messages among the former enemies. Seeing a personal message from the British Ambassador leaning against a plaque commemorating German war dead—men who had died killing Brits—was eerie, almost theatrical.

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From there I drove a half-hour east to the Souda Bay Allied War Cemetery. The setting is a quiet, beautiful harbor (from where I could see three NATO ships in the distance). Again, the graves were freshly attended, and messages from dignitaries marked the anniversary—the last one that will be seen by its survivors. The complimentary observances linked the two sites in real time, as if they had spoken to each other. The two sites were halves of a whole.

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In the chaotic evacuation, some surviving Allied soldiers fled into the hills. They lived there a year or more, fed and clothed (and occasionally married) by Cretans who risked their lives to do so. To this day, Wellington, New Zealand and Chania are Sister Cities, and a main street in Welly has been renamed Chania Street.

The British War Cemeteries Commission oversees the graves of 1.6 million soldiers around the world. Here at Souda Bay the cemetery also includes a German, an Italian, and a French soldier, brothers in death with several thousand Brits, Kiwis, and Aussies. My father could have ended up here. But the 18-year-old medical corpsman happened to be fighting two years later, in a different uniform, half-way around the globe in the Pacific.

He lived to be 80.

I spent the afternoon touring Chania, admiring the remains of its Venetian and Ottoman heritage: synagogue, hamam, palace, mansions, mosque. Their occupations of Crete ended in bloodshed, too. Their cemeteries here didn’t survive the bombing of World War II.

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June 3, Rhodes In Music & Art

On my last day in Rhodes I spent a looooong morning (until almost 3pm) puttering and reading an actual book (something I hardly ever do at home). By late afternoon the temperature had peaked and a few clouds provided some shade, so it was back to Old Town one more time.

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The day was bookended with music of two completely sorts. The first was from one of the 9-year-old Roma accordion players who seem to be everywhere in Old Town—indeed, you hear one before you’re half-way across the drawbridge over the castle moat. All those jokes about “play an accordion, go to jail” are particularly poignant in this case. The kids are dirty and street-wise, the miniature instruments are beat up, the playing so half-hearted (and awful) as to be unintentionally (I think) heart-breaking. I certainly don’t want to encourage them by tossing coins, but at the same time I imagine that if they get home with insufficient cash they get beaten. Either way, it’s not their fault that they’re in such a ghastly situation. So I’ve been conflicted about it each time I see them. And I sure hate the wheezing sounds they squeeze out of those boxes.

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Once inside Old Town I returned to the Grandmaster’s Palace. I climbed six dozen marble stairs to see the ancient life-size statue of Laocoon And His Sons (actually, it’s a copy of the one in the Vatican). Created by artists of Rhodes, it famously stood in the palace of Roman Emperor Titus, and was eventually excavated in 1506.

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From a story later retold in Virgil’s Aeneid, it depicts the Trojan priest and his sons attacked by sea serpents. The young men are dying. The father, muscles straining, face twisting, is in agony, both from his own fatal bites and from watching his sons die. I suddenly remember my own mother telling me, as a boy, that the worst experience a human can have is watching their own child die.

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Laocoon’s two-thousand-year-old face is the epitome of that agony. After this extraordinary artistic achievement, what more can an artist say or show about grief? Somehow Shakespeare managed to show us the feeling anew. Picasso did, too. If you’ve ever heard The Band sing “The night they drove old Dixie down,” you’ve experienced grief as if for the first time. That’s what successful art does—it shows us the familiar in new ways so we can think about and experience our own lives in richer and more nuanced fashion.

I studied Laocoon’s face in this reconstructed medieval castle. In the abstract, I hate the Crusaders for their religious fanaticism. Laocoon reminded me that they were all someone’s sons, too—every single one who didn’t return.

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It was time for some fresh air, and leaving the castle I was greeted by a gentle Mediterranean breeze. Although still early by Greek standards, I was hungry, so I returned to the Rustica Taverna, where I’d eaten two days ago. I was greeted like an old friend, and the same musicians were there from my last visit. An older man played guitar and sang, accompanied by a younger guy playing bouzouki. I stayed for 90 minutes, and they never took a break. All in Greek, the music seemed a combination of love songs, folk tunes, and observations about life. I imagined the usual stories: I Set Off On A Journey…; My Heart Is Broken…; I Never Expected…; and of course Life Is Difficult, But I’ll Manage.

That is, after all, the Greek way.

Tomorrow, off to Crete.

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June 2, Rhodes

We last spoke from Thessaloniki about Macedonia’s favorite son, Alexander, and his father and son. Fly south with me now to Rhodes, an island half the size of Rhode Island (no relation) and only 11 miles from Turkey.

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Rhodes has been continuously occupied since the Stone Age. It witnessed the Peloponnesian Wars (stayed neutral), was part of Alexander’s kingdom, and received Christianity from Paul himself. Rhodes was happily Byzantine until 1309, which is where our story picks up.

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You’ll recall that European pilgrims had been journeying to the Holy Land throughout the late middle ages. The Crusades began in 1099, when thousands of Western European knights marched on Jerusalem (and anything else in their way). Naturally, there were people needing medical attention, so a group calling themselves the Knights Hospitallers of St. John formed to help out. They soon started providing armed escorts to pilgrims, and became a military group aligned with the Pope.

After being defeated in and around Jerusalem, with a quick stop in Cyprus, the Hospitallers took over Rhodes in 1309. Their fate took a positive turn when Pope Clement dissolved their main rivals, the Knights Templar. On the island’s northern tip, they proceeded to build what is now Europe’s most magnificent medieval walled city, which is what I came to see.

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I saw it in the blazing heat—90 degrees at 10am, going higher hourly.

Gigantic walls encircle the city, even along the waterfront. As a bonus, they’re topped by swallow-tail (not the conventional saw-tooth) crenellations, which I’d never seen nor heard of. They’re in extraordinary condition, containing the coats of arms of various important families. On some of the original gates into the city, the heavy wooden doors are original, covered with their original metal plating.

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In the wide dry moat below street level are dozens of leftover stone cannonballs.

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Inside the walls unfolds a charming little town of about 50,000 Greeks and a jillion tourists, disgorged daily by nearby cruise ships (Homer himself praised Rhodes’s maritime location). While there are plenty of tourist facilities, this is also a living, breathing town, where people live, work, and raise kids. Once off the main street, the narrow lanes twist and turn until getting lost is absolutely inevitable. And how charming that is! Bougainvillea here, an old stone chapel there, the remnants of various Knights Inns. The Crusades really happened, and this city was deeply involved.

So involved that the Ottomans couldn’t let it last as a base. In 1522 Suleiman the Magnificent besieged the town with 100,000 Ottoman soldiers. After six months, the survivors were allowed to retreat to Sicily, and later to Malta. A Kiwanis Club version of the Knights exists to this day.

Meanwhile, the jewel of the Old Town is the Palace of the Grand Master, lovingly rebuilt by the Turks after an enormous ammunition explosion destroyed much of it in the 19th century.

The floor mosaics—gorgeous. The ceilings—artistic cabinetry. The rooms themselves are large, airy, and designed for both function and to impress. We walked from one to another, grateful to be doing it without wearing armor. Because of the late hour I had the place essentially to myself. I kept telling my guide to lower his voice—he wasn’t with a large group, and a reverential whisper made it much easier to imagine life there in 1400 or 1500.

Soon enough it was time to descend the wide stone steps and leave the palace. I headed toward the harbor where the Colossus of Rhodes once stood, a lighthouse and an advertisement for the grandeur of the ancient city. Suleiman’s Ottomans held the city 400 years; the Italians grabbed it in the run-up to World War II; and when they had trouble holding it in 1943, the Germans invaded. Soon enough Rhodes’s 2400 Jews were sent to Auschwitz, and the local Greeks were starving.

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May 31, PELLA & VERGINA

Today I spent a day with Alexander the Great out in the Macedonian countryside. Of course, if you’re Bulgarian, Turkish, Albanian, or a citizen of FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia), calling anyplace Macedonia is fightin’ words.

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First I went to Pella, ancient and wealthy capital of Macedonia, birthplace of Alexander the Great and his father, Philip II. Various parts of the city have been excavated, and so I walked the ancient streets. I saw huge floor mosaics just as they had been in the reception rooms of the wealthy—finely executed scenes of gods, humans, and recognizable animals and vegetation.

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Then it was on to Vergina. Back in the early 4th century BCE, Philip II of Macedon ruled this area. There were no national states here, of course. Philip ruled for over two decades and had many wives and many children. When he died, his son Alexander (not yet Great, of course) became king at age 20.

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One of his many acts was building a tomb for his father—a grand building below ground level the size of a house, with an ornate marble façade, columns, and frescoes. Inside were burial goods fit for a king—silver bowls, weapons, the finest libations, jewelry, delicate ivory carvings, and pounds of gold, including a delicate wreathed crown hammered into fine oak leaves.

Fast forward some 14 years. Alexander has been away from home most of his reign, conquering lands from Egypt to India. His wife and son are at home when Alexander dies in Babylonia at the age of 33.

The 14-year-old prince should assume the throne, but he’s young. Alexander’s half-sister (Thessalonike, remember?) could assume the throne, but she’s a woman. So her husband the famous General Cassander becomes regent, and soon enough, murders the young prince and his mother.

Now-King Cassander then builds a monumental tomb for the dead prince, son of Alexander the Great. Marble, ivory, silver, gold, frescoes by the world’s great artists—nothing’s too good for the murdered kid. And he builds the edifice below ground level just yards away from where the kid’s grandfather is entombed.

Each building is covered with a bit of rubble, as grandfather and grandson are, in turn, sent toward the Underworld, equipped with all the burial goods anyone could possibly need.

And then about 35 years later, anticipating invasion (and the looting that comes with it), the Macedonians cover the two royal tombs with tons of earth.

They remain undisturbed until 1977 when Greek archaeologist Manolis Andronikos finds them. Everybody goes totally mental—the biggest find in Greece since the Acropolis and Parthenon. Next question: what to do with these extraordinary burial buildings, and the treasures within?

A year after archeologist Andronikos dies, the government completes the answer: it builds a museum around the tombs. Yes, you enter the museum, walk down a ramp, and in a semi-darkened hall, stroll around looking at exquisite burial goods. And when your eyes have adjusted to all that artistry and wealth, there are the tombs themselves.

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Silently, I sat on the wooden viewing platform in front of each one: Alexander the Great’s father and son. They really existed. This isn’t fiction. And suddenly the familiar artifacts we’ve all seen so often came alive. The silver goblet with delicately worked handle. The gold coins bearing Philip’s profile. The ivory head of Philip, smaller than a walnut, so perfectly carved that the battle-scar on his right cheek is visible. All in perfect condition, because they’d never been used, and weren’t in contact with soil or weather.

It was all too much, exactly the right amount, and not enough all at the same time. I wanted to talk to grandpa, ask a million questions, hear about the Illyrians he conquered. I wanted to absorb this moment, more than half a century after first hearing the name Alexander the Great as a schoolboy, tracing his route across Asia with a pudgy finger.

In the end, I did all that a person could do: I looked. I thought. I thought some more. And then I drove back to my hotel on the Aegean, in the city that replaced Pella as Macedonia’s capital 2200 years ago, and wrote about it.

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May 30, 2016

Somewhere in Macedonia

TIME OUT FROM ANCIENT HISTORY
En route to the ancient sites of Pella and Vergina I stopped at a makeshift camp for refugees and would-be immigrants. Several thousand men, women, and children are temporarily housed at this disused Greek army installation. How long will “temporarily” be? No one knows.

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My driver knew about this place because it’s near where he gets his car repaired.
We pulled off the main road onto a potholed street, and parked near a half-mile long chain-link fence. Just inside the fence were a few kids killing time; when they saw me quietly walking nearby, they approached me. I took their photo, and some adults waved toward me. Stepping over some battered chain-link, I was inside.

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I saw row after row of white tents. People of all ages milled around, or sat here or there. Near me a woman squatted in front of her tent, boiling cabbage on a tiny stove. She motioned for me to sit and eat, which I politely declined. A half-dozen kids and adults of various generations ambled over, curious and friendly. Emboldened, I took photo after photo, and shook hands with the men and kids.

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I walked through the camp with my guide, and was pretty much ignored unless I asked for attention. A few people spoke Greek to my guide. No one refused my request for a photo. I passed a medical clinic, a police station, porta-potties, and various industrial equipment. It was about 1pm, and some men were lined up to receive food.

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I saw a group of about 10 college students who turned out to be Americans on an aid mission through A21, an anti-trafficking organization. Their jobs here include cleaning out the shower room and playing with the children (no unimportant job in such an environment). I asked their leader Troy several questions, and he answered in a direct way. Some of his answers:

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* These people are primarily from Syria and Iraq, with a few from Iran.
* Yes, 100% of these people are Muslim. No, no really orthodox or intensely religious people. Yes, there’s a makeshift mosque here, and some people attend.
* People get along here pretty well, and there doesn’t seem to be much self-segregation. The exception is the Kurds—there’s mistrust and subtle feuding between them and their neighbors here, especially among the children.
* Some people are learning Greek, anticipating they’ll be here for a while, possibly a long while. They all aspire to move onto places like Germany, Sweden, and the UK. Their worst nightmare is being repatriated to Turkey.
* It’s fairly peaceful here. The local police, Greek soldiers, and UN officials do a pretty good job of dealing with disputes and problems.
* No one knows what the Greek or any other government is going to do. Plans seem to change almost daily.
* In response to my question about birth control, Troy said “I don’t know if anyone’s talking about it, but I do periodically see condoms around the ground.” We agreed that’s a good thing.

Camps like this are both today’s news and history in the making. It will be talked about in ten, a hundred, maybe a thousand years. A tidal wave of people—several million—picked themselves up, left what remained of their homes, and walked toward what they hoped was a better life. A million made it. Almost half a million didn’t.

One hears plenty of stories about “these people” taking advantage of the naïve West.

I’m not in a position to disbelieve them. At the same time, it was valuable to see “these people” as just a bunch of men, women, and kids stuck in a miserable place with little immediate hope, willing to smile and offering me a bit of boiled cabbage.

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May 29 – Thessaloniki

THE MANY LIVES OF THESSALONIKI

Adorning Thessaloniki’s seaside promenade is a modern statue of Alexander the Great, sword drawn, facing east to fight the Persians once again.

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Tutored by Aristotle, king at 20, Alexander created one of the largest empires the world has ever seen. Undefeated in battle, he died before his 33rd birthday. Born in Macedonia (whatever that means), Alexander had a half-sister named Thessalonike. When he died, his son was too young to rule. His half-sister’s husband, the famous general Cassander, eventually murdered the prince and his mother, becoming Emperor. He founded the city in 315 BCE and named it after his wife.

The city eventually passed into Roman hands, and when the Empire moved east to Constantinople, so did Thessaloniki’s allegiance. When Byzantine culture emerged, Thessaloniki was one of its jewels, a center of art and commerce. Like most other locations in the Balkans, it went through successive lives, including Ottoman, Jewish, and now Greek.

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Today was a detailed tour through Thessaloniki’s many lives. In the year 300 CE Roman Emperor Galerius ruled here, and had a palace near the Aegean. There isn’t much of it left to see, but he did build a street north to the enormous ornamental Arch of Galerius, half of which still stands on that very same street. The stone carvings of his battle with the Persians (who cower under his horse’s hooves) and his glorious victory speech surrounded by family are as clear as CNN.com today. Imagine walking by these epic stories every single day—as people actually still do today.

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Beyond the arch the processional street north continues, culminating in an enormous round stone temple now called the Rotunda, its walls 20 feet thick. After Galerius died, it stood empty, until emperor Constantine ordered it changed from temple to basilica in 326 CE. Twelve centuries later the conquering Ottomans converted it into a mosque, and 500 years after that the new Greek state took over, which now runs it. It’s bare inside—except for the heart-stopping mosaics Constantine had installed on the dome and curved upper walls. The tiny gold tiles still glint with Constantine’s fervor for his new religion—the single conversion that changed the world from polytheist to Christian.

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I could barely get enough of the Rotunda—and the idea of how the palace-arch-temple dominates today’s downtown, as it did 1700 years ago—but history awaited, and so I headed toward the northern border of the ancient city. In about 390 CE the whole city—even the seaside—was enclosed in thick, high walls by emperor Theodosius (also responsible for the Theodosian walls you may have walked in Istanbul). The Ottomans added towers around the 16th century as part of their century-long quarrel with the Venetians.

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I’m a sucker for ancient walls, so I walked slowly next to them as the day got hotter. Art-warfare-art-warfare seems to be a recurring human motif, doesn’t it? It doesn’t seem to matter who’s in charge: they consolidate power, create art, defend themselves, create art, and eventually give way to the next guys.
Meanwhile, geography is destiny. The Roman/Byzantine/Ottoman port is still there, the climate is still there, the perfect/awful location is still there—and all are now Greek. The scale is different: Constantine’s Thessaloniki had 20,000 inhabitants, while Greece is attempting to manage a city of over a million.
The whole Macedonia question? Tomorrow I visit the birthplace of Alexander the Great, and I’ll revisit this thousand-year-old question, so important during my previous trips to Bulgaria, Montenegro, Croatia, Turkey, and even Italy.

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