Italy

Messina memories

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Ah Messina! Awash in the Mediterranean sun. Shaken by volcanic roots.

What stories your waterfront has known!

Greek colonists. Tyrants! Carthaginian galleys. Roman soldiers venture off-peninsula.

Richard the Lionheart passes, grim-faced, on Crusade.

Oh no! Black plague! Jesuits.

Hold your ears! Boom! A German Dunkirk. Patton sneers at Montgomery.

And now? After all this?

Your harbor is cupped against Sicily’s breast.

Boats bob. The current shifts. The moon rises. Quiet.

The seas mix as we wait for swordfish.


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A few seats have opened up on our Johnson University Study-Tour to Israel-Palestine slated for March 12-23, 2019. If you are interested in being a part of this high-energy student trip, contact me immediately at markziese@gmail.com. Don’t hesitate. Our roster must be finalized by mid-December. Academic credit is available.

To be moved you must hoist your sails

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We pass a tiny sailboat entering the Strait of Messina. This waterway separates the “toe” of Italy from the island of Sicily. The constriction also marks the meeting place of the Tyrrhenian and the Ionian Seas.

Alternating currents are strong enough to rip seaweed from the seafloor.

Higher up, the horizon appears empty, but the space is rich with memories. Aeneas came this way following the Trojan War. The ramming warships of Carthage and Rome collided in these waters. The Apostle Paul sailed through on the way to confront an empire. Nelson grimly pursued Napoleon. The German army escaped Sicily in their own version of Dunkirk.

Ah, such memories! They howl across dark water. To be moved, however, you must hoist your sails. You must read. You must imagine. You must travel. Without this effort, it is just another windy day at sea.

Years ago I discovered the work of Fernand Braudel. His ten-pound history The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II was inspiring. Now, as we approach this famous strait I find myself whispering his ideas: the Mediterranean is not one, but many seas. Each is uniquely defined by structures, shapes, and exchanges.


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I’ll be meeting a group from Chantilly, Virginia for a tour of Israel-Palestine this week. Temperatures should be on the cool side as we circle the country through Galilee, the Jordan Valley, the Judean Wilderness, and Jerusalem.

Know that you are always invited to participate in one of our adventures in culture and history. See the list of trips scheduled for 2019 here.

il buono, il cattivo, il brutto

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il buono . . .

The encircling walls of Taormina, Sicily, once protected its inhabitants. Today those walls are mostly gone, visible only in a few places. Two exceptions are found at either end of this elongated medieval city. Arched gates are preserved there. Through them runs the major artery of the community, the Corso Umberto. It is named after Umberto il Buono, “the Good,” King of Italy in the late 19th century.

il cattivo . . .

The Corso is crowded on this day. Taormina was once a hangout for European aristocracy, a Italian Monte Carlo. Today it is a popular stop for cruise ship operators. We jostle for position as we window shop. Creamy gelato, cold granita, and sweet cannoli call out my name.

il brutto . . .

Umberto I was loved and loathed. Conservatives loved his expansionist policies. An assassin shot him on July 29, 1900. He was buried in the Pantheon in Rome.


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I’ll be meeting a group from Chantilly, Virginia for a tour of Israel-Palestine this week. Temperatures should be on the cool side as we circle the country through Galilee, the Jordan Valley, the Judean Wilderness, and Jerusalem.

Know that you are always invited to participate in one of our adventures in culture and history. See the list of trips scheduled for 2019 here.


Monty's full view

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The rugged countryside of Sicily impedes travel. Contemplate this corkscrewed road approaching Taormina from Syracuse.

In the Allied invasion of the island in 1943 (which involved more forces than Normandy’s D-Day), the American Seventh Army under Patton pressed Messina from the west. The British Eighth, under Montgomery, pressed to the same goal from the south. Both arms of this liberation effort, dubbed “Operation Husky,” had to contend with terrain like this. And of course, in this “great race” of WW2, the modern network of highways, bridges, and tunnels did not exist. There were just two roads that led all the way to Messina.

As Montgomery put it, “Sicily is very mountainous and [vehicle] movement off the roads and tracks is seldom possible. . . In the beach areas there was a narrow coastal plain, but behind this the mountains rose steeply.” It was evident from the start “that the campaign in Sicily was going to depend largely on the domination of main road and track centres.”*

The terrain you see here was covered by the British Eighth. In fact, the village of Taormina (at the top of this hill) would become Montgomery’s HQ.


*For this quote and more on Operation Husky, see the article here.


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Our boots are about to hit the dirt again. We’re meeting a group from Chantilly, Virginia for a tour of Israel-Palestine this week. Temperatures should be on the cool side as we circle the country through Galilee, the Jordan Valley, the Judean Wilderness, and Jerusalem.

Know that you are always invited to participate in one of our adventures in culture and history. See the list of trips scheduled for 2019 here.

A teen church in an aging community

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The main cobblestone street through Taormina, Sicily, rests upon an ancient counterpart from the Greco-Roman period. Structures beyond its curbs have been razed and rebuilt over the course of two thousand years.

At the center of Taormina is the “Church Courtyard” or Piazza Duomo. It centers on a gushing fountain and is backed by the Duomo di Taormina. This functioning Roman Catholic Church is dedicated to Saint Nicholas of Myra (I’ve written a bit on ol’ Saint Nick, see here and here for example).

This cultural focalpoint is a “teen” church; earliest remains go back to the 13th century. It was rebuilt in the 15th, 16th, and 18th century. Sturdy stone walls topped by crenelations (or battlements) lend a vibe of power to the exterior. There are reasons why it has been dubbed a medieval “fortress church.”

Six columns on the inside support the nave. These were taken from the nearby Roman theater, a structure highlighted here.

The Duomo di Taormina was restored following the Second World War.


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We are headed back to Tel Aviv in less than a week. I’ll be meeting a group from Chantilly, Virginia for a tour of Israel-Palestine. Temperatures should be on the cool side as we circle the country through Galilee, the Jordan Valley, the Judean Wilderness, and Jerusalem.

Know that you are always invited to participate in one of our Bible Lands adventures. See the list of trips scheduled for 2019 here.

Name-dropping

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Yesterday I posted a view to the Messina Strait from the Roman theater in Taormina (see here). From this vantage point one captures the rugged beauty of Sicily’s northern coast as well as a view to the site of old Naxos (on the distant plain). Today I offer a second view.

The 5th century Athenian historian Thucydides suggests how Sicily got its name and how Naxos became its first Greek settlement.*

As for the island: its original name was Trinakia (Θρινακία) or “three-cornered” (consult a map of the island and you will see why). However, it was subsequently settled and renamed by peoples from Iberia (Spain or southern France). These settlers brought with them the name of their river, Sicanus. Hence, Trinacria became Sicanai or “Sicily.” See all this from Thucydides here.

Note 1: modern scholars are not so sure that Thucydides got it right. Archaeologists suggests that the culture connected with the Sicanai shows strong influence from southern Italy** and Mycenae.***

Note 2: The Apostle Paul sailed by this point on his way to Rome around the year 59. See Acts 28:11-13.

As for Naxos, Thucydides continues: This settlement was made by seafarers from the island of Euboea, just east of the Greek mainland. Their original home was Chalcis or Chalkida. Thucles is named as their founder. See the quote here.


*Thucydides was an historian and military man from Athens, Greece. His History of the Peloponnesian War is considered by many to be the first “modern” or “critical” history to be written. The quotes above are drawn from this famous 5th century BC work.

**The Late Bronze Age Fossa Grave culture. Read about this on pages 646-647 in the Oxford Handbook of the European Bronze Age (Oxford, 2013).

***See page 72 in John Fine’s The Ancient Greeks: A Critical History (Harvard, 1985).


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We are headed back to Tel Aviv in less than a week. I’ll be meeting a group from Chantilly, Virginia to share with them a tour of Israel-Palestine. Temperatures should be on the cool side as we circle the country through Galilee, the Jordan Valley, the Judean Wilderness, and Jerusalem.

Know that you are always invited to participate in one of our Bible Lands adventures. See the list of trips scheduled for 2019 here.

A seat with a view

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The theater at Taormina, Sicily was first constructed in the centuries before Christ (possibly 3rd c BC). It was reworked in the Roman period (2nd c AD) into the form we see today.

The view to the landscape from the top row is spectacular, although it is unlikely that visitors to the site in its prime had the same view. The scaenae frons (back wall of the stage area) would have been as high as the top row of seats. A “lid” of canvas and ropes would have shaded the spectators. Such additions would have blocked a view to the sea but would have helped with acoustics in this pre-microphone era.

In the distance you can see the Strait of Messina, a narrow band of water that separates the island of Sicily from the Italian mainland. Below, in the area of the small peninsula jutting out into the sea is the site of Naxos, the earliest of the Greek colonies on Sicily.

On a clear day you can also see the volcano, Mt Etna, from here. Unfortunately, this day was not so clear.


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We are headed back to Tel Aviv in less than a week. I’ll be meeting a group from Chantilly, Virginia to share with them a tour of Israel-Palestine. Temperatures should be on the cool side as we circle the country through Galilee, the Jordan Valley, the Judean Wilderness, and Jerusalem.

Know that you are always invited to participate in one of our Bible Lands adventures. See the list of trips scheduled for 2019 here.

Pure Mediterranean

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Our coach followed a team of cyclists. They seemed quite indifferent to our mass of steel grumbling behind them. Neither did they flinch at the cliff yawning on their hip, just a stray rock, a nudge, a casual flip over the rail. They pumped their fragile tubular skeletons in unison, almost birdlike, down the narrow road. I marveled at these uniformed men for a time, then returned my gaze to scenery beyond. We were headed south from Naples on the Amalfi coast (Costiera Amalfitana).

A brief straightaway presented itself and driver chose his moment. He gunned it. We passed the team.

It was hardly worth the effort. A few minutes later, he pulled the coach over at a viewpoint so we could get pictures. The team passed us back. They never looked up.

I peeked over the edge of the cliff. It was easily 500 feet to the surf below. Could it be a thousand feet?

To my left were the communities of Meta, Sant’Agnello, and Sorrento. These were splashes of color gripping the rock rising out of the Gulf of Naples.

I understand why UNESCO has awarded the honor of a world heritage site to the Amalfi coast. This is the Mediterranean. This is Italy.

Ciao!


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We have several travel experiences planned for 2019 (see list here). These are organized on behalf of educational institutions or church groups. If you are a leader who is interested in crafting a unique travel opportunity for your organization or if you are an individual who would like to join a group, shoot me an email at markziese@gmail.com.

This place has it all

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Between the ancient ruins of sites like Pompeii, the deep blue of the Mediterranean Sea, and cliff-hanging towns of the mountains, the Amalfi coast has it all. The blend of natural and cultural charms is deeply satisfying for Bible Land Explorers.

I now know why Caesar Augustus chose this area for his own private summer retreat.

The view offered here was shot from a bluff in Sorrento. The local harbor is just below.

Just around the point to the north is the Gulf of Naples and the legendary Mt Vesuvius.


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We have several travel experiences planned for 2019 (see list here). These are organized on behalf of educational institutions or church groups. If you are a leader who is interested in crafting a unique travel opportunity for your organization or if you are an individual who would like to join a group, shoot me an email at markziese@gmail.com.

Ugly Italian beauties

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Italy’s Amalfi coast is famous for lemons. One cannot walk down the street in Sorrento without catching the whiff. Fragrant fruits—the size of softballs—are grown in citrus orchards and sold for juices, jams, liqueurs, soaps, dressings, garnishes, gelatos, or as treats by themselves. You can eat them right out of the skin!

The history of these ugly Italian beauties goes back at least to the Roman period. Lemons and lemon trees are pictured in paintings preserved on the walls of Pompeii. They were likely brought to the region from the Middle East. Some claim the Jews were responsible, as the citron (etrog, in Hebrew) had ceremonial use.*

Pliny the Elder, a local Roman historian who died in the eruption of Vesuvius, hints at one source, calling the lemon “a Median Apple” (Natural History 12.7, see text here.). Media is an area of modern Iran.

The limone femminello is the oldest variety. It has celebrity status on the Amalfi coast.

And you thought the only lemon to come out of Italy was the Fiat.


*"Four species” of plants are mentioned in Leviticus 23:40 and associated with the Feast of Booths (sukkot). Rabbinic Judaism connected one of these species with the etrog or citron.


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We have several travel experiences planned for 2019 (see list here). These are organized on behalf of educational institutions or church groups. If you are a leader who is interested in crafting a unique travel opportunity for your organization or if you are an individual who would like to join a group, shoot me an email at markziese@gmail.com.

A communicative moment

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On the day after an election it is good to remember the difference between power that is temporary and power that is eternal!

I stand before Rome’s Basilica of St. Paul's Outside the Walls (San Paolo Fuori le Mura) and look up. The façade of any building is one of its most important features. Designers know that every one who enters will raise his/her eyes; it is a prime communicative moment that speaks in the language of architecture and symbol.

19th century artists Filippo Agricola and Nicola Consoni decorated the façade of St Paul’s using mosaic in three registers. Their work was based on the original 10th century mural that was destroyed by a fire in 1823.

On the bottom are four figures. These are evenly spaced between three windows. The figures represent the four Major Prophets of the Old Testament: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. Each holds a scroll suggesting that the Messiah was anticipated by the Old Testament.

In the center is a key symbol of the Messiah. A lamb reclines on a mound from which four fountains (four gospels?) flow. The flock gathers at the water. The symbol of the lamb is an old one going back to the Gospel of John (1:29).

The central figure at the top, in the pediment, is the enthroned Christ. On his right is the Apostle Peter holding a key. On his left is the Apostle Paul holding a sword.

The original structure here was situated over the tomb of Paul. Paul was beheaded in Rome in AD 67. The 4th century historian Eusebius states that the place of Paul’s burial was known and marked (Eccl Hist. 2.25, see here).


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We have several travel experiences planned for 2019 (see list here). These are organized on behalf of educational institutions or church groups. If you are a leader who is interested in crafting a unique travel opportunity for your organization or if you are an individual who would like to join a group, shoot me an email at markziese@gmail.com.

Intense grace

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The Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls in Rome preserves the memory of the burial place of the Apostle. Several depictions of this sword-wielding, parchment-packing giant of the New Testament are found in the yards, facades, ceilings, and floors of this site.

I found the intensity of the gaze captured here to be astounding. How do you do that in marble?

As an aside, I also enjoyed James Faulkner’s dynamic presentation in Paul, An Apostle of Christ on the flight home. Have you seen it yet? What did you think? The film’s interpretation of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” is moving.

This morning I muse over these artistic presentations and set both beside Paul’s own words found in Galatians 1:13-24. See them here.

An archaeologist's rig (part 11)

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Hiding behind the camo is a 1990-issue Land Rover. She helps to keep the city of Rome free from the bad guys. The nearby soldier was protective at first but once he realized I was a true Rover aficionado, he warmed up. Bravo to Italian security!


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We have many travel experiences to Bible Lands planned in 2019 (see list here). These are often organized on behalf of educational institutions or for church groups. If you are a leader who is interested in crafting a unique travel opportunity for your organization or if you are an individual who would like to join a group, shoot me an email at markziese@gmail.com.

Bubble man

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Ropes and sticks produce millions of bubbles (or even one giant one!) in the hands of an expert. This expert keeps the crowd entertained near the Fountain of Four Rivers in downtown Rome (Piazza Navona).

The area is a public plaza today, but people used to come here for a different spectacle. In the late first century this was the site of the Stadium of Domitian. People came to see the “games” or agones (the source of our word “agony”), hence its ancient name, the Circus Agonalis.

The bridge of meeting

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Yesterday I posted a photograph down the main street of Puente la Reina, Spain (see here). That path continues to the edge of town where it crosses the Arga River by means of this 11th century Romanesque bridge. The elegant span of stone is more than 100 meters long. It bequeathed a name to the village: Puente la Reina means quite literally "the bridge of the Queen." No one is sure of the identity of this queen, but many guesses have been made.

Puente la Reina is a significant waypoint in the Camino network. It marks the meeting place of two ancient pilgrim routes. The Camino Francés crosses the Pyrénées via St. Jean Pied-du-Port (the path I am on) before dropping into Puente la Reina. The voie d'Arles or "Arles route" drops into Spain from a point further east. Pilgrims from Italy would come this way. It is possible that St Francis of Assisi crossed this bridge when he walked the Camino in the year 1214!

These two roads merge in Puente la Reina, pass over the Arga River, and continue westward.

Buen caminó!


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Calling all Bible Land Explorers. Want to start 2019 in a unique way? Walk across Galilee! Hike the Jesus Trail between Nazareth and Capernaum and do some additional sightseeing in Israel-Palestine. This trip is facilitated by the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies and is priced at $2,588 from New York. Dates are Jan 8-16, 2019. Space is limited. For more details click here or contact me at markziese@gmail.com.

Marsamxett Harbor, Malta

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Almost twenty years ago I had a chance to visit Malta with my son. We traveled by boat, city bus, and bicycle on all three islands of this famous Mediterranean archipelago.

I'm excited about the opportunity to return in October of 2018, and hoping you will join us! We will conclude and end in Rome, but cruise to a number of islands and sites along the way. These include Sicily, Mykonos, Rhodes, and Santorini. Naturally, we can't miss the dazzling displays at Athens, Corinth, Naples and Pompeii.

If you or someone you know is interested in this 11-day excursion, see the brochure here or contact me at markziese@gmail.com.

Fancy floors

Yesterday I posted an image and briefly described an excavated house at the site of Kerkouane (see here). Today, I take you to the courtyard inside a house and note two things about the floor.

First, recognize the lovely example of opus signinum. This construction technique is common to Roman Italy--and even draws its name from an Italian site--but in fact, is believed to have originated here in North Africa (the same is true of mosaics in general). Opus signinum is a term used to describe a concrete made by grinding tiles or pottery to powder, mixing it with lime to create a slurry, then pouring and pounding it into place on a gravel bed. It should be "not less than six fingers thick" cautions Vitruvius. The floor above is made in this way; note how white marble tesserae are placed into the ruddy colored matrix to create a pleasing and durable surface.

To get the "six fingers thick" comment and other details see the classic sources on ancient construction. For Pliny the Elder, go to his Natural History (35:46). Read the reference here. For Vitruvius, go to his On Architecture (7.1.1). Read forward from here

The second item of note in this image is the figure placed before the threshold of the room. This is a stylized female character believed to be Tanit, a popular deity of the Phoenician/Punic people. She is there to meet you at the door. More on her on another day.

Packing off Dad

In this partially preserved relief, the pious son carries his lame father while fleeing the sack of Troy. The son's name is Aeneas; the father's name is Anchises. Aeneas is guided by his mother, the goddess Aphrodite (upper left). Anchises carries a box that holds statues of the ancestral gods of Troy.

The purpose of the facade is clear: to communicate the heritage of Rome and underline provincial loyalty. According to the well-worn story, Aeneas was a Trojan hero (a grandson of its founder, in fact) who escaped the epic battle and eventually settled in Italy. His family, called the Aeneads, gave rise to the Romans. As a community foundation story, it is clever; the Romans reject the status of "newcomers" and claim a place of their own in a deep (and mythic) Mediterranean history.

Mentions of Aeneas are found in Homer's Iliad, but his story is played out fully in Virgil's Aeneid (a masterpiece of Latin literature written prior to the birth of Christ).

The detail pictured above is part of a larger set of reliefs recovered at the site of Aphrodisias, Turkey.