Around The World

Rome, Italy

     On April 15 we docked in Civitavecchia, the port for Rome (a mere 1.5 hour bus ride away).  Docked right behind us was HAL’s newest & largest ship, the 2700 passenger Koningsdam, ending its maiden voyage (I think).  As a special treat, HAL invited the Amsterdam passengers over for a special tour of the new ship.  But we were only here for 1 day & the tour would take all morning, so there would be no time left to go to Rome or any of the other interesting sites in the area, beyond Civitavecchia itself.  So, Rome or Koningsdam?  It seemed like a no-brainer to us, but to our amazement almost half the passengers chose to tour the new ship!  I get it that many of these are veteran cruisers who have been here numerous times before, but really do you ever run out of things to see & do in Rome & its environs?  And this is, after all, just another cruise ship. There must be something here we are missing.

     We had been here before,, but to us this choice was easy.  So early in the morning we boarded a bus for the trip to Rome.  We would be dropped off in Rome, have 6 or 7 hours on our own, then picked up at the same spot & driven back to the ship.  This turned out to be a good choice, at least for us.  We were dropped off in the Piazza del Popolo & walked down Via di Ripetta past the mausoleum of Augustus to the Piazza Navona.  We had visited here briefly in 2013, under time pressure of a deadline for rejoining our tour group, but this time we were able to explore it at leisure.

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     As you can see above, the Piazza is very long & narrow.  This is because it started life as a race course built in the 1st century AD by the Emperor Domitian.  In the mid-17th century Pope Innocent X, whose family palazzo faced this plaza, had it converted into a masterpiece of Baroque design, with a church in the middle of one side and three fountains down the middle.  Today it is usually full of visitors & locals, including artists selling their work & itinerant vendors.  When we were there the product of the day seemed to be selfie sticks (the fellow with a backpack in the 1st picture above is holding one).

     We entered the Piazza from the north & stopped at the first fountain there.  The Fontana del Nettuno (Fountain of Neptune) was originally constructed in the late 16th century as a terminus for a new aqueduct.  For 200 years it was a utilitarian source of drinking and washing water with no statuary.  The fountain was elaborated with statuary in 1878, after Rome became the capital of the new nation-state of Italy.  In the center is Neptune fighting an octopus, with other statues around it. This is also the fountain in the picture above, left.

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     The center of the Piazza holds the masterpiece of the group, Bernini’s 1661 Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers), the dynamic design of which was revolutionary in its time.  The four rivers, representing the four continents to which Christianity had spread, are the Nile (for Africa), the Danube (for Europe), the Ganges (for Asia) & the Rio de la Plata that runs by Buenos Aires (representing the Americas).  The four river gods are readily identifiable:  the Ganges carries an oar, indicating navigability; the Nile’s head is covered by a cloth, because its source was unknown at that time; the Rio de la Plata is sitting on coins, indicating the riches of the Americas; the Danube is touching the Pope’s coat of arms, because it is the closest major river to Rome.  All of them lie back a little from the center of the fountain where they are dwarfed by a tall obelisk, originally created in the 1st century for the Emperor Domitian and reconstructed here from the several pieces into which it had broken when it fell n the 5th century.  It is often said (even by tour guides) that the fearful figure of the Rio de la Plata sculpture was intended by Bernini to be expressing horror at the church next to the fountain that was designed by a rival of his, but in fact the fountain was completed before the rival began work on the church.

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     On one side of the Piazza behind the Fountain of the Four Rivers is the church of Sant’Agnese In Agone, built just after the fountain was completed.  It is named after St Agnes, who was martyred here when this Piazza was still the Stadium of Domitian.  The primary architect was Francesco Borromini, a student and then a rival of Bernini’s.  The name does not refer to the agony of martyrdom, but to the Greek for “site of competitions” that was an early name for the plaza: “piazza in agone.”  We walked inside & were blown away by the stunning beauty of the interior space.  Sadly, photography was not allowed inside so the only pictures here are of its façade (see also the first picture of Piazza Navona, above).

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     The Fontana del Moro (Fountain of the Moor) sits at the southern end of the piazza. Originally constructed circa 1575 with a statue of a dolphin in the middle & four Tritons around the edges, Bernini’s sculpture of a Moor was added in the middle with the dolphin in 1653.  In 1874 the original statues were moved to a museum so the ones seen there today are copies (but good enough to fool us).  An accordion trio was playing near the fountain.

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     Leaving Piazza Navona, we continued walking south toward the Capitoline Hill & the Forum, our major objectives for the day.  We passed an archaeological site and several typical Roman streets and before long the Capitoline Hill with Michelangelo’s famous staircase came into view.

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     The Capitoline Hill. one of the original seven hills of Rome, has been a center of government in Rome for some 2500 years. This was the location of the ancient Temple of Jupiter and the entire hilltop was redesigned by Michelangelo in the 1530’s into what is now the Piazza del Campidoglio.  At the top of the stairs are the twin statues of Castor & Pollux, considered in ancient times to be protectors of Rome, and in the middle of the square is an equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius.  The original of this statue is in the museum here; it survived the general destruction of pagan statuary because it was mistakenly thought to be Emperor Constantine, a Christian hero.  The Capitoline Museum is in the two identical buildings on the sides of this square, which are connected by a tunnel, and the building at the back is the Palazzo Senatorio, now the mayor’s offices.

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     As we walked around the left side of the piazza toward the back of the hill facing the Forum we passed a copy of the famous statue of a she-wolf suckling Romulus & Remus sitting on a tall pedestal.  The original is in the museum.  Apparently it was just a sculpture of a wolf when first made in the 13th century & the statues of the boys were added during the Renaissance. From the back of the hill one has quite a view of the western end of the Forum, in particular the Arch of Septimus Severus, built in 203 AD, that stands just below the Capitoline Hill.  In the first picture below you can also see the Temples of Saturn & Vespasian (pillars on the right) — the Basilica of Julia, a civil law court in the center where the rows of column bases are — the Column of Phocas to the right of the Arch — the Rostra, a forum for public speaking, at the low brick wall under the Column of Phocas – and the Palatine hill in the center background.

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     The Forum was the center of Roman life for 1,000 years.  After the fall of Rome the city fell into neglect, with the result that the forum was filled up with dirt & debris to a depth of several yards.  During the Renaissance interest was renewed in this historic area that still had the tops of columns & arches sticking up from the ground, but scientific excavations did not begin until the late 18th century.  The original ground level was discovered in the 19th century and most of the ruins were uncovered only in the 20th century.  Today, despite the tourist crowds, walking down these streets where so many famous ancient figures walked & lived provides a personal connection to history.

     A lot of work was in progress in the western part of the Forum & there was no entrance from the Capitoline Hill.  We had to walk out on the street about halfway down the Forum before finding a ticket booth & entrance.  There was a long line so it took a while to get in (we almost gave it up, having limited time in town, but were glad we stuck it out).  We saw a lot of ancient buildings & ruins in our tour of the Forum, and each of them (at least the ones we photographed) is addressed below.  I hope it doesn’t prove too tedious.75a. Rome, Italy_stitch

     We started our tour of the Forum at the Arch of Titus, which is at the eastern end, a short walk up the road called the Sacred Way from the Colosseum & the Arch of Constantine, both of which we visited last time we were here.  Constructed after Emperor Titus’s death, this arch celebrates his victory in squelching the Judean uprising in 70 AD, which included the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.  The inside of one side of the arch contains a relief showing Roman soldiers carrying off the menorah & other booty from the Temple.  The other side shows Titus in a chariot being crowned by the goddess of Victory & at the top is a relief of Titus riding an eagle to heaven.

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     Today the Basilica of Constantine is a very large & impressive building containing three huge arches.  But originally this was only one side of a much larger building with a matching row of arches on the other side & a huge pitched roof 130 feet high over a center hall between the rows of arches.  This building, about as long as a football field, was the hall of justice & there was a gigantic statue of a sitting Constantine filling up one end of it. At the top of the ruins you can see the remains of the taller supports for the central roof.  We couldn’t go inside this building because it was undergoing restoration work.

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     To the left when facing west is the Palatine Hill, another of the original 7 hills of Rome where the emperors had their palaces.  In fact, our word “palace” comes from “Palatine.”  Quite a few people were standing on a terrace on top of that hill, thought to have been part of the palace of Caligula.  We didn’t go there because our time was limited and, as you can see, it is pretty far uphill.  At the lower end of the hill are the ruins of the Horrea Vespasiani, originally a warehouse that was later converted into a two level shopping center.

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     The 4th century Temple of Romulus, probably actually dedicated to a member of the royal family rather than Romulus, was used as the vestibule of a church beginning in the 6th century.  The massive bronze doors are original, still on their original hinges & with a working lock.  It is circular in design with a cupola on top.

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     The Temple of Antoninus & Faustina is an amalgam of the columned portico of a temple built in 141 AD & a church built inside it at the beginning of the 17th century.  It is named for the Emperor Antoninus Pius and his wife. Across the Forum from there is the site of the house of the Vestal Virgins whose garden is lined with statues of some of the more notable Vestals.

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     Nearby is the Temple of Vesta, goddess of the hearth, tended by the Vestal Virgins.  A recruit spent 30 years as a Vestal: 10 to learn her duties, 10 to perform them & 10 to teach new recruits.  A Vestal who violated the oath of virginity was to be buried alive, which apparently happened 10 times, and the man involved would be whipped to death.  The temple was round with a ring of columns and a sacred flame inside that the Virgins had to keep burning at all times, on pain of whipping by the head priest, the Pontifex Maximus.

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     There are several other sets of columns in this area that are the remains of ancient temples. The Temple of Castor and Pollux was first built in the 5th century BC, but the three remaining columns were erected in 6 AD after a fire.  The 44 foot tall Column of Phocas was erected in 608 AD by the Byzantine Emperor of that name who had just visited the city.  It was the last monument built here.  The Temple of Saturn dates back almost to 500 BC, but the 8 columns on a platform that can be seen today were erected in 42 BC.  The next to last week of December was the celebration of Saturnalia, when gifts were exchanged and social distinctions (including master-slave) were disregarded in a show of good will, a precursor to our modern Christmas holiday.  Next to it are the three remaining columns of the Temple of Vespasian.  The Basilica Julia was a large building housing civil law courts, begun by Julius Caesar in 54 BC & completed by Augustus.  All that is left is the floor & rows of bases of columns.

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     The Temple of Julius Caesar stands on the spot where Caesar was cremated at a funeral where Marc Antony gave the speech that Shakespeare paraphrased (“Friends, Romans & countrymen, lend me your ears”).  Caesar’s house was just behind this temple & he walked by this spot on the day of his assassination.  The temple was erected by Augustus, making Julius Caesar the first actual Roman citizen to become a god.

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     Not far away is the Curia, the spot where the Roman Senate met from the beginning of the republic. The building’s reconstruction by Julius Caesar was completed by Augustus. Because of this reconstruction work the Senate was meeting elsewhere when Julius Caesar was assassinated.  It was rebuilt again by Diocletian after extensive fire damage in 283 AD & converted into a church in 630.  We were unable to go inside because it was undergoing reconstruction.  The bronze door is a copy of the original, which was moved to a church.

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     That’s it for our tour of the Forum.  We had one more item on our agenda, the Church of St Peter In Chains.  This church contains not only the chains supposedly used to bind St Peter but also Michelangelo’s great sculpture of Moses.  It turned out to be very difficult to find, up some streets, then up a stairway & around a corner.  We probably wouldn’t have found it but for the bright red spray-painted sign on a wall at the top of a very long stairway that helpfully said: “S Pietro –>”.  But after spending quite a while seeking it out, it turned out that the church was closed until 3:00 PM, too late for us since we had to meet the bus across town at 4:00.  Next time we will check the closing times of places we want to visit much more closely! The church had several signs emphatically noting that visiting the church is free and warning visitors not to pay anyone to gain entrance; this scam on tourists must be a problem to prompt the posting of such signs.

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     We walked back toward the meeting place for the bus (it was a little early, but we wanted to be very sure we wouldn’t miss the ride back to the port). On the way we passed the Forum of Augustus, built to commemorate his victory over Brutus & Cassius at the Battle of Philippi in 41 BC.  It originally had a statue of Mars that reputedly looked very much like Augustus.  Next to the sidewalk near this excavation is an actual statue of Augustus, so you can see what that might have looked like.

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     We also passed Trajan’s Column, erected in 113 AD at one end of Trajan’s Forum to commemorate the Emperor’s victories over the Dacians (in present day Romania).  It is covered by a continuous shallow relief spiraling up from the bottom telling the story of the Dacian wars with some 2500 figures.  There was originally a bronze statue of Trajan on top, but that was replaced in 1587 with the statue of St Peter that is still there today.  Behind it is the domed church of Santa Maria di Loreto, also completed near the time when St Peter was placed on top of the coumn.  The ashes of Trajan & his wife were originally interred in its base.

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     It was a good bit further to Piazza del Popolo, where we were to meet our group for the trip back to the port.  Most of the way we walked along the Via del Corso, one of the premier high end shopping streets.  We got back early enough to stop for a delicious margherita pizza with very large beers and some gelato just before reaching the Piazza. 

     On its northern side, Piazza del Popolo is just inside of what was the northern gate of the walls of Rome.  Once called the Porta Flaminia, this gate is now called Porta del Popolo.  The gate was restored to its present appearance by Bernini in 1655.  To the right of the gate is the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo, which gave the piazza its name.  The current church was built in the 1470’s on the spot that was supposed to have been the burial place of Nero’s ashes.  It is full of important artwork.

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     In the middle of the Piazza del Popolo is an Egyptian obelisk that was carved during the 13th century BC and brought to Rome from Heliopolis in 10 BC by Emperor Augustus.  Originally placed in the Circus Maximus, it was moved here in the 16th century.  This is the 2d oldest & 2d tallest obelisk in Rome, rising some 120 feet. Around the obelisk are four lions spouting water, and behind it at the southern entrance of the Piazza (where we entered) are twin 17th century domed churches.

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     On each side of the piazza is a fountain with elaborate sculptures above it.  On the eastern side is Rome standing between figures representing the Tiber & the Aniene rivers.  Note the she-wolf suckling Romulus & Remus under the feet of Rome in the center.  On the western side is the Fountain of Neptune, holding a trident.

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     We met our group as arranged on the steps of the Basilica, just inside the Porta del Populo.  It was a sunny & warm afternoon & it felt good reclining in the sun on the steps waiting for the rest to show up (maybe the extra large beer helped).  Amazingly, everybody was there on time.  We walked to the bus & returned to Civitavecchia after yet another full and rewarding day.

Katakolon, Greece (Olympia)

     On April 13 we were docked at Katakolon, a very small town in western Greece.

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     The main attraction in this area is Olympia (not Mt Olympus, which is not near here), the site of the ancient Olympic Games.  So that is where we elected to spend the day.  This entailed a bus trip through the beautiful countryside with hillsides of olive trees.  Near the towns were large piles of bags of trash & garbage.  Our guide was clearly embarrassed by this, but we didn’t fully understand her explanation which was mostly about the closing of disposal facilities in the area & controversy about how to replace them.  Why would you close the facilities before ensuring an alternative, and will this piling up go on indefinitely? Maybe we missed something, but its pretty clear that the locals are not happy about what this does to their image, particularly with their big moment in the spotlight coming next week when the Olympic flame is lit at the site of the ancient Olympics.

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     As mentioned earlier, we visited the week before Olympia’s big moment, the lighting of the Olympic torch.  When we arrived there was a local celebration in progress.  The big turnout seemed mostly to be school kids.

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     The archaeological site, a sacred religious compound to the ancient Greeks established long before the athletic games, was a short walk down the road.  This was not a town, but a religious enclave.  The first recorded Panhellenic athletic games here were held around 776 BC and continued for more than a millennium until the Roman Emperor Theodosius I banned them in 393 AD as part of a general campaign against pagan rituals.  Earthquakes began to destroy the buildings in the 3d century and the site was abandoned in the 7th century after repeated floods & earthquakes.  Floods deeply buried the site, which was rediscovered only in the mid-18th century.  Excavation was begun in 1875.

     Our first stop after entering the site was at the Gymnasion and the Palaestra. Participants were required to spend the month before the games training on-site & these buildings housed the training facilities for racing, javelin, and discus in the Gymnasion & wrestling, boxing and long jump in the Palaestra.  Women were not allowed here.  The men competed in the games naked, wearing only olive oil mixed with sand to protect from the sun.  There were only two rules for wrestling: no poking in the eye with a finger & no biting.  As our guide observed, many men will instantly think of another very vulnerable body part that was not protected by these rules!  While a large portion of the pillars lining the Gymnasion are visible, some of it is still buried under the road that brings visitors to the site, which gave an idea of how deeply the entire site was once buried.  Throughout the area Judas Trees were covered with pink flowers on this nice Spring day. (Note that we have labeled the pictures to the best of our recollections, but our recollections are not always reliable a month after the fact.)

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     Across from the Gymnasion is the Philippeion, the only round building here & the only one dedicated to a human.  It was begun by Philip of Macedonia to commemorate his conquest of Greece in 338 BC, and may have been completed by his son, Alexander the Great.  The building, now partially restored, originally held gold & ivory statues of Philip & his family.  It marked a turning point for the enclave’s evolution from a religious to a more secular nature.

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     Next to the Philippeion, but much larger, is the rectangular Temple of Hera, originally built around 650 BC.  It may originally have been wood, but the columns were replace by stone over the centuries as the wooden ones rotted.  This is the oldest & most complete building on the site. Like the other buildings here, this one was made of local limestone rather than marble, with a coating of stucco made with marble dust to make it shine like marble.  The stucco is long gone, so that what you see now is the limestone itself.

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     Since 1936 the Olympic flame has been lit at the Altar of Hera, just outside the end of the Temple of Hera closest to the athletic grounds.  The torch is ignited by sunlight in a mirrored bowl & then the flame is transferred to a ceramic bowl. This year the official lighting of the flame was scheduled just 8 days after our visit, and we were treated to a view of a rehearsal.  The women who play the temple priestesses are all professional actresses who donate their services, and they rehearse on site for about a week before the ceremony.  The high priestess is a well known Greek movie & TV actress named Katerina Lechou. The two pillars behind them are remains of the Exedra of Herodes Attticus, built in 160 AD, which was a circular water fountain..

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     We walked over toward the athletic grounds, entered through an arch covered passageway that was once fully covered.  On the hill to our left – the Hill of Kronos where Zeus was supposedly born & his father Kronos tried unsuccessfully to eat him — were the “treasuries” of the various cities, which held their equipment for sacrifices & athletics.  Along the wall leading to the passageway was a row of pedestals that once held bronze statues of Zeus (called “Zanes,” plural of Zeus).  They were built using fines paid by athletes found to have cheated in the games and each had an inscription on the base naming the violator, his father & city, and his offense.  This walk of shame was a pretty dramatic warning to the competitors who passed them on the way to the Krypti, a 100 foot long vaulted tunnel that was the entrance to the stadium.  Today there is a only single arch representing the long roof that covered the entire walkway.

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     The stadium isn’t much more than a large rectangle of dirt with gentle grassy hills on each side & a few rows of stone seating on one side.  Rehearsals were in progress there as well, so we didn’t have an opportunity to explore it or take any interesting pictures.  We walked back into the archaeological site & headed toward the Temple of Zeus.  We passed some workmen who were using a pulley system to reassemble a huge pillar inside a scaffolding.  We also saw a rectangular stone that had once been a pedestal for a bronze statue (perhaps of one of the Olympic champions).  The two holes cut into the top were for the statue’s brpmze feet; this was only done for bronze statues.

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     The Temple of Zeus was completed in the middle of the 5th century BC.  This was the largest building at Olympia, its shape & size being comparable to the Parthenon. The temple was some 68 feet high & 235 feet long.  In front was a large statue of Nike, goddess of victory (now in the museum), standing on a high pedestal. This was where the Olympic victors were crowned with Olive wreaths. Inside was the colossal gold & ivory statue of a seated Zeus, some 43 feet tall, which was one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world.  The sculptor Pheidias spent 12 years at the site creating this statue.  The statue sat in the temple for about 1,000 years before being destroyed sometime n the 5th century AD, perhaps by fire after being carried off to Constantinople & perhaps with the destruction of this temple itself.  In 426 the Roman Emperor Theodosius II ordered this pagan temple burned, and two earthquakes during the 6th century competed the job.

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   Finally, situated at the southwest corner of the area is the Leonidaion, which contained living quarters. Near it is the Workshop of Pheidias, where the sculptor spent more than a decade crafting the great statue of Zeus.  It was identified by sculptural tools & a cup inscribed “I belong to Pheidias” found in the building.  The two pictures of a brick building below are probably the Workshop rather than the Leonidaion (we didn’t get close enough to be sure).

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     We left the archaeological sight and headed for the museums.  Near the entrance we passed the Hill of Kronos that overlooks the sight & some bright red flowers (geraniums?).  On the road to the museum we saw a roadside shrine, which we were told are common in Greece to commemorate those killed in accidents, and an olive grove.

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     We visited the Ancient Olympic Games Museum, set on a hill above the archaeological site.  Originally built in the 1880’s, this museum was abandoned after being damaged by an earthquake in 1953, but was repaired & reopened in 2004.  It has a thematic organization focusing on the Olympic games.  Among the items here were an ancient discus, the wheel of a chariot, small jars in which athletes carried their olive oil & iron scrapers they used to remove the oil & sand after competition, and pottery jars with athletic themes.

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     We drove to the Archaeological Museum on the other side of the site, opened in 1982, which houses a rich collection of ancient artifacts found at Olympia.  In the central hall were the reassembled statuary that had been on the pediments above each end of the Temple of Zeus.  Pediments were triangular in shape and these groups of statues were made to fit those dimensions.  The west pediment, pictured below, depicts a battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs (half man, half horse). This is considered some of the best surviving examples of so-called severe style of early Greek sculpture. The central figure is Apollo, attempting to restore order.

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     The Temple of Zeus also displayed reliefs of the twelve labors of Hercules.  Called Metopes, these were situated just below the pediments, six on each end.

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     The Nike of Palonios is the statue that originally stood on the tall base sitting in front of the Temple of Zeus, shown above with the temple.  It is quite large & its dress was originally red. An image of this sculpture was prominent on the medals awarded at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. In the Ancient Olympic Games Museum is a model of what it originally looked like, standing on its tall base.

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The statue of Hermes holding the infant Dionysus was probably sculpted by Praxiteles in the 4th century BC.  It was rediscovered in several pieces in the Temple of Hera in 1877.  This is considered one of the masterpieces of Greek sculpture.

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     Two more statues we noted are from the Roman period:  one of Emperor Hadrian & one of Poppaea Sabina, Nero’s second wife. We also saw some lion heads that were originally water spouts on the tops of buildings.

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     A couple of interesting ancient helmets were in a glass case together.  One was a Persian helmet from the 5th century BC, with an inscription in Greek identifying it as “booty” the Athenians “took from the Medes.”  The other was a helmet with the inscription “Miltiades offered to Zeus,” dedicated by the victorious general after his victory over the Persians at Marathon in 490 BC.

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     Leaving the museum we headed for lunch.  It was a pretty good walk back to the bus, passing an area with shops & a café whose patio was covered with blooming Wisteria.  We had a HUGE and delicious Greek lunch at a lovely restaurant with a swimming pool & brightly colored flowers in its garden.

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     We made one more stop, in the modern village of Olympia, where we spent some time exploring the many shops (this is, after all, primarily there for tourists).  Then we headed back to the ship for a fairly early departure. The next day, just north of Sicily, we passed the island of Stromboli, one of the most active volcanoes on earth.  We passed this island at night in 2013 and, although you couldn’t see the island very well in the dark, it was erupting regularly every 10 or 15 seconds, sending fire into the sky that was clearly visible rather far away.  This time it was daylight and we passed a lot closer, but the volcano was only smoking, no fireworks.  Amazingly, this island is inhabited; there’s no telling where people will choose to live!  We spent one more night at sea on this welcome sea day.

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Athens, Greece

     We woke up with the sunrise on the morning of April 12 near Piraeus, the port for Athens.  We wanted to disembark early to maximize our time in Athens, where we would be on our own.  We had toured the Acropolis & its new museum and seen other highlights on our last visit here,, so our objective this time was to see the National Archaeological Museum, one of the world’s greatest museums of antiquities.

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     We were docked at a terminal about half a mile further from the port exit than the one we were at in 2013.  This made for a much longer walk to the subway than we had anticipated, maybe 2 miles.  But when we finally got there, it turned out that tickets could be purchased from real people (rather than machines), although ours didn’t speak English.  However the signs were in English as well as Greek so it was easy to find our train & get into the city.  The train was pretty slow until it got out of Piraeus, but we got to our stop fairly quickly overall.  It was less easy finding our way from the Metro stop to the museum but it didn’t take too long. Although the neighborhood seemed a little seedy, with a lot of graffiti on the buildings, the museum is quite impressive, with some colorful flowers in the beds on the grounds.

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     This is a vast museum, too much to really cover in one day, but it is helpfully arranged largely in chronological order, beginning with the 5,000 year old Cycladic artifacts from the islands around Delos.  We will only be able to touch on some of the things that stood out for us as we perused the museum’s collection (or at least a large part of it).

     Displayed in one of the early rooms (right through the door in the picture above) were the hoard of gold artifacts from Mycenae first discovered by Heinrich Schliemann (the discoverer of Troy) in the late 19th century.  Mycenae was the center of Greek culture in the time of the Trojan War, a period known as the Mycenaean era.  These artifacts were recovered from a circular tomb called “Grave Circle A” that held 19 bodies, apparently members of the ruling class of the day.  The most famous item is what Schliemann (jumping to desired conclusions, as was his wont) called the “Mask of Agamemnon,” a solid gold mask made to cover the face of a dead man (notice the tiny holes under the ears for tying it around the head)..  This could not have been Agamemnon because it dates to about 250 years before the fall of Troy around 1300 BC, but it is still a stunning artifact.

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Other items from Mycenae included wall frescoes, an amphora (storage jar) & a bone helmet made of boar tusk, which was strong but also flexible. All were similar in style to items we had seen in Crete in 2013, suggesting a Minoan influence on Mycenaean style.  Note that the raised stone pieces in the frescoes are original, while the completion of the painting around them is a speculative modern reconstruction.

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     The earliest Greek sculpture (from about 700 to 500 BC) are called kouroi:  Kouros (male) & Kore (female).  They are stiff & straight & stylized, apparently influenced by Egyptian statues.  The men are naked & the women are clothed & all of them had slight smiles (or smirks) and were brightly painted, even the skin.  The first Kouros below, dating from about 600 BC, once stood at the entrance to the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion. Typically, he is naked with his left foot forward but his hips straight rather than swiveled.  The second, a Kore, is from about 550 BC. She holds a flower in her left hand & tugs at her dress with her right (an attempt to show movement). Her dress was once painted red & has flowers & swastikas (good luck symbols to the ancient Greeks) down the front (see closeup).  The third is a later funerary Kouros from Attica, dated to the 530’s BC.  It is a bit livelier than the earlier one.  The fourth is a woman, seemingly in a very early flat style, notable for the traces of red paint still clearly visible on the marble.  Nearby was a base for a Kouros from Athens, circa 510 BC, depicting a wrestling match in relief with the bodies in a much more animated light.

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     The large (6’ 10””) & imposing bronze statue below is called the “Artemision Bronze” because it was found in a shipwreck off Cape Artemision, north of Athens, in 1928.  The weapon he is throwing was not found, so it is not clear whether this is Zeus, throwing a thunderbolt, or Poseidon, throwing a trident. It has been dated to 460 BC, the beginning of the Classical period of Greek sculpture (although this is more in what is called the Severe Style that preceded it).   His eyes are hollow but were once filled with white bone.

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     An interesting sculpture that looks like it lined the roof of a building (possibly at Epidauros) includes a row of water spouts in the form of lions’ heads.  A funerary urn from Marathon (probably) dating from the 420’s BC, made by a painter called Polygnotos, depicts Helen’s abduction, by Theseus.  Then there is the much more dynamic “Artemision Jockey,” circa 140 BC in the Hellenistic period.  It was recovered in pieces from the same shipwreck as the Zeus/Poseidon above & pieced back together in 1971.  It is a large sculpture that dominates a room otherwise full of Roman copies of Greek sculptures (this was an industry for the Romans). The jockey appears to be a young boy, originally painted black with non-Greek looking features, which may indicate he was at least partly Ethiopian.

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     A bronze statue of a young athlete was found in the sea off Marathon, dated circa 330’s BC.  Notice the white eyes still in this one. The appendage pointing up from his head is a leaf from a victory garland around his head.  The bronze Statue of a Youth, circa 330’s BC, was recovered from a shipwreck near Antikythera.  Some think this is Perseus, who would have been holding the head of Medusa, and others (more likely correct) think it is Paris, presenting the apple to Aphrodite as the most beautiful goddess. Found in the Aegean sea is a statue of Augustus Caesar,circa 10 BC, which was originally mounted on a horse.

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     Finally, perhaps the most interesting & unusual artifact in the museum is the Antikythera Mechanism, recovered around the turn of the 20th century from the same shipwreck near Antikythera as the Statue of a Youth, above.  It is in many pieces and badly corroded after a couple of millenia under the sea.  It is clear from its surface that it is a mechanism operated by gears of various sizes & examination of what is inside with x-ray and other technologies has disclosed its complexity and inscriptions.  After a century of study it has been concluded that this was an astronomical calculator, combining several different calendar systems, predicting eclipses, calculating the dates of various Panhellenic games, and perhaps locating the positions of the sun, moon & the 5 planets then known on any future date.  It has been called the first computer and mechanisms of comparable complexity did not again appear until the European astronomical clocks of the 15th century.  Several modern versions a working model of the mechanism are on display in the same room.  After seeing this we left the museum, to be sure we would get back to the ship in time for our fairly early departure.

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     We returned to the subway & boarded a train headed for Piraeus.  The train was not crowded but there were several young men standing around us making it impossible to move into the train from the area in front of the door.  As we approached the next stop they circled around us and one of them started pushing Rick aside, as if trying to get to the door even though he was already there.  He politely said “excuse me” a couple of times.  When the door opened they all got out & Rick felt a hand reaching into his pocket from one of them who had a sweater draped over his arm.  Obviously, this was a pickpocket gang.  Although the whole experience was rather unnerving, the bottom line is that they got nothing before getting off the train because Rick’s wallet was well secured in his front pocket.

     As the ship was preparing to leave the Captain made an announcement pointing out that there were a number of Syrian refugees camped on a dock not too far away.  Of course, everyone has heard about the Syrian refugee crisis in Greece this Spring, but this was our first actual exposure to it.  We don’t know what the status of these people might be, perhaps they are being vetted before being admitted to Europe.  But it seemed clear to us that people, & whole families, would not choose to live like this unless their conditions at home were truly desperate.

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     It was very sunny & the water was very blue as we sailed away.  We did not visit the Acropolis on this visit, but you could see it clearly from the ship leaving the port, probably some 6 miles away.  We had beautiful views of Piraeus (a city in itself) & of Athens as we reached the deep water.  It seems the light is different here & makes everything sparkle on a nice day.

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Haifa, Israel (Caesarea, Akko)

     [Note:  As I write this we are at home.  As you can see, the blog fell behind a bit in the last portion of the trip, but rest assured that the entire thing will be completed, despite all the competing demands on our time here in our natural habitat.  Hopefully, it won’t take too long, although we are leaving town again in June for a few weeks.  It should be completed by then, but who knows?] 


    On April 9 we docked in Haifa, Israel.  When we visited here before,, we arrived at night after a two day tour of Israel and thus had no time to see the city.  This time we took an excursion to the ancient cities of Caesarea and Akko that was promised to finish with a visit to the Bahai Gardens in Haifa.  But to our disappointment it didn’t.  So after two visits we have not had a chance to see Haifa at all beyond the view from the port.  Maybe next time.


     Located on the coast halfway between Haifa & Tel Aviv, Caesarea was initially built on some Phoenician ruins by Herod the Great in the last two decades BC.  Named after Herod’s patron, the Emperor Augustus Caesar, it was an important port & served as the capital of the province of Palestine under the Romans and Byzantines. It was conquered by the Muslims in the 7th century & then by the Crusaders in the 12th.  The Crusaders were ousted in 1265 by the Mamluks, and the town then lay largely uninhabited until 1884 when a group of Bosnian Muslims settled there.  It was occupied by Israelis at the beginning of the 1947 war, when the remaining occupants were expelled and the village houses destroyed.  Since then the area has been largely devoted to archaeological excavation, and is owned today by a foundation.  A lot of these ruins have been reconstructed & it is difficult to tell what is original and what has been added.  There are about 5,000 inhabitants in the area.

     Our first stop was on the beach outside the town where a Roman aqueduct traverses the beach.  This is one of three aqueducts that served Caesarea. It has two channels, built at different times, which are visible from below as a seam in the ceiling of the arches.  An impressive structure, it originally extended some 11 miles.2a. Haifa, Israel (Caesarea & Acre)_stitch2. Haifa, Israel (Caesarea & Acre)1. Haifa, Israel (Caesarea & Acre)5a. Haifa, Israel (Caesarea & Acre)_stitch

     Our first stop inside the city was at the Roman theater.  It has been restored and often hosts concerts.  While we were sitting in the seats another group of visitors standing on the stage sang a hymn.  It was very nice, but seemed a little out of place in a Roman theater.

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     After viewing a movie we walked down to the harbor, which is broad and picturesque.

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     On the left of the harbor are the ruins of the palace built by Herod that was the residence of the Roman governors of the province.  Notably visible is the swimming pool built on the edge of the sea.  A stone was unearthed near here inscribed with the message that “Pontius Pilatus” had erected a building dedicated to the emperor Tiberius. Part of the palace was later partitioned into private quarters & the palace was abandoned entirely at the end of the Byzantine era.

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     In the middle, facing the harbor, was the Hippodrome, built in 9 BC and described by Josephus.  The “Actian Games,” instituted by Herod & named for the naval battle in which Augustus defeated Marc Antony & Cleopatra to claim the empire, were held here every four years.  In addition to athletics & gladiatorial combat, they included chariot races that went seven laps of this track, one of the largest in the Roman Empire.  One part of the wall in front of the grandstand was covered by faux marble fresco, but we couldn’t tell whether that was original or a modern demonstration of something that might have been there.

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     Beyond the hippodrome was a complex of walls of various buildings, some with (rebuilt?) archways.

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     Some of the buildings in this area had mosaic floors (some reproductions?) that must have been beautiful when in use.

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    Of particular note is the public bathhouse, which is particularly well preserved (or restored), with marble columns & mosaic floors.  This was a public meeting place where, in addition to bathing, one could exercise & get a shave, haircut or massage.

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     On our way to a huge & delicious lunch in a restaurant near the water we walked along the city wall built by the Crusaders, complete with moat.  Near the restaurant we saw some Roman sculpture & the minaret of the mosque built by the Bosnian settlers in the 19th century.  No work was being done because it was Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.  Across from the restaurant was a hillside covered with ongoing excavations called the Crusaders’ Market, thought to contain houses & commercial buildings.

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     After lunch we left the city through a gate built by Crusaders, designed with sharp turns inside to deter invaders, and boarded the bus for the trip to Akko.

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     Before leaving Caesarea, here are some of the flowers we encountered there.

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Akko (Acre)

     First settled about 5,000 years ago, Akko is one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in the Middle East.  During the Biblical period it was a Phoenician city.  While Akko is its official name today, it was known as Ptolemais during the Hellenistic through the Byzantine eras & as Acre during its occupation by the Crusaders.

     Acre was an important port in the middle ages under Islamic rule starting in the 7th century.  It was captured after some four years of siege by the Crusaders in 1104 and became their main port.and provided great wealth to the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem.  Saladin recaptured it for Islam in 1187 but in 1191 it was restored to the Crusaders by forces under Richard the Lionheart of England & Philip II of France.  They retained it until 1291 when the Mamluks took over.  Acre was the last Crusader foothold in the Middle East.

     Our first visit was to the ruins of the fortress built in the 12th century by the Knights of St John Hospitallers.  It was unearthed in recent times under a prison built by the Turks.  A number of Zionist underground fighters were imprisoned here by the British during the period after World War II when the Zionists were pushing for independence, and some were executed here.  Apparently in the movie Exodus Paul Newman’s character was imprisoned here.  In 1947 the Irgun, Zionist independence fighters, broke into the prison & released the Zionist inmates (and more than 200 Arab inmates as well).

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     Inside the fortress were several halls and/or chambers with vaulted ceilings, all nicely lighted with historical exhibits and some art on display, called Crusader Halls.  Our guide told us that before the underground fortress was discovered there were rumors of underground passage.  Some of the Zionist prisoners dug down through the floor of their cell & discovered a bit of stone ceiling of a room filled to the top with dirt.  Obviously this was no use for escape, but it was apparently the first modern evidence that the Crusaders’ fortress was still there.

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     The largest Crusader hall is the Refectory, or dining hall.

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     Under the Refectory is a tunnel.  There is a famous tunnel here that leads to the waterfront, thought to be a means of escape in the event of a successful attack, but this was not that tunnel since it ended in what was once the Crypt of the Crusaders’ Church of St. John.  The Turks used this area as a post office.  This tunnel was very narrow & there were parts where even short people like us had to bend over to avoid the ceiling.  It was fairly dark in the tunnel & we were moving the whole time, so the pictures are a little unfocused.  As should be obvious, Mary was in front of Rick in line.

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      We walked up some steps to the street level where we passed through a shop & into a corridor that seems to have been part of the old prison.  Today it is something of a shopping mall, with restaurants & shops (many closed for the Sabbath).  We left through the souk, teeming with vendors & shoppers, & walked back to the bus through the very crowded streets.  Then we drove back to Haifa, without stopping at the Baha’i Gardens.

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     We sailed that night to Ashdod, the port nearest Jerusalem.  But we had visited Jerusalem & Masada, the prime sites in that area, just three years ago.  We thought about going into Ashdod for a look around (it is a very ancient port city), but Mary was still not recovered from the desert fever she picked up in Dubai & we were both quite tired.  So we stayed on the ship & treated it as a sea day in the hope that some extra rest would prepare us for the port-intensive run through the Mediterranean (7 ports in 9 days).

Suez Canal

     The first canal in this area was built almost 4,000 years ago, connecting the Red Sea to the Nile River.  It was used off and on for a thousand years, alternately silting up and being cleared again for use.  Napoleon looked into building a canal here in 1799, but his engineers erroneously calculated that the Mediterranean was 33 feet lower than the Red Sea.  Forty years later it was discovered that the two seas are at the same level and in the 1850’s Said Pasha, the Ottoman governor of Egypt, approved a French canal effort directed by Ferdinand de Lesseps.  Because the canal required no locks it could be built primarily by digging and moving sand & in 1869 the Suez Canal was opened to shipping.  When de Lesseps tried to use the same method to dig a canal through Panama, of course, he failed miserably.  Opening the canal also provided a route into the Mediterranean for numerous flora & fauna previously resident only in the Red Sea, altering its ecosystem permanently.  This is called the Lessepian Migration.

     After a sea day sailing around the Sinai Peninsula we found ourselves anchored before sunup on April 8 off the city of Suez at the northern end of the Red Sea.  There were a lot of other ships anchored nearby.

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     We were to be the second ship in a convoy that was set to enter the Suez Canal before sunrise to spend most of the day sailing through it into the Mediterranean Sea.  The Canal is about 121 miles long and and at least two convoys of ships traverse it every day, one north bound and one south bound.  Our lead ship, which looked like a small military vessel, headed for the canal as the skies began to lighten & we followed it in.

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     As we began sailing slowly north, the city of Suez was on our left & the barren Sinai Peninsula was on our right.

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     Entering the canal behind us was a huge container ship which we were told was one of several identical ships that are the largest container ships in the world.  If memory serves, it has a capacity of 22,000 containers and was carrying 14,000.  Each container is the size of a large tractor trailer.

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     All along the canal were military posts & watchtowers.  Some were obviously occupied & some less clear, & some had messages for us on the ground outside.  They looked like lonely places to be stationed.

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     We continued up the canal, which is actually the dividing line between Asia, on our starboard (right) side, and Africa on our port (left) side.  We saw some of the tall conical dovecotes common in Egypt.  The pigeons drop guano on the inside that is used for fertilizer and are also eaten as squab.  We came to the first of several lakes in the canal where convoys used to wait for ships going the other way to pass by (no more, as we will soon see).

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     We passed an oil tanker that had become disabled and had been sitting here for several months while its oil is drained into another ship, repairs are made, and the oil is pumped back in to complete the canal journey.  This must be pretty unpleasant for the crew, not to mention very expensive for the owner.

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     We next came to the place where the canal divides into two parallel channels, one for northbound and one for southbound.  This is brand new; the channel on the east (right) side for northbound ships just opened in August.  Before this one of the convoys had to wait in a lake until the other passed by, slowing everything down considerably since there are quite a few ships in each convoy.  The new parallel channels will enable traffic to increase by about 40%, and this will greatly increase Egypt’s income from the canal.

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     In this area from the lakes to the divided channels were a number of small fishing boats.  After entering the parallel channel we continued to sail north.  Most of the scenery consisted of large hills of sand, but they are laying asphalt roads on both sides along the waterfront.

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     The ongoing canal upgrade project includes more than the new channel.  They are building several tunnels under the canal & a new town on the Sinai side, which we were told is expected to be a vacation destination for Egyptians.  We saw a mosque & apartment buildings under construction there. Currently crossing the canal is done mostly by ferry, of which we saw a few.  There is an old bridge at one point that rotates to let ships through, but it doesn’t reach across the new channel, so its difficult to see what use it will be in the future, unless they build a tunnel there to complete the journey to the Sinai side.  In this area there were some statues & logos in the area between the channels relating to the canal.

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    We passed Ismailia, where the canal headquarters are located, but it was on the side of the other channel so we only got a distant view.  This town was named after Ismail, the Egyptian pasha at the time the canal was opened.  It has two noticeable monuments: a concrete monolith commemorating World War I dead, and a monument shaped (we were told) like an AK-47 to commemorate the Egyptian dead in the 6 day war with Israel.

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     Once we reached Ismailia we began to see ships from the southbound convoy in the opposite channel.  the hills of sand (perhaps the material removed in digging the second channel) made it impossible to see more than the very top of the ships at first, but later the sandbanks in the center became lower & a better view of the ships was available.  As you can see from the pictures, the ships maintain a pretty good distance between them, presumably for safety reasons.

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     As we neared the northern end of the canal we came to the one bridge that spans the entire canal.  It was built by the Japanese & is called the Japan Egypt Friendship Bridge.  We spent a long time approaching it at the slow speed used by canal traffic, & only saw one car cross this imposing bridge.  It reminded us of the infamous “bridge to nowhere” that was supposed to be built in Alaska a few years back.

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     After the bridge came Port Said, the city at the Mediterranean entrance to the canal that was named for the Pasha who granted de Lesseps authority to build the canal.  We had docked in Port Said during our Grand Mediterranean cruise in 2013, although we spent the day visiting Cairo rather than in Port Said. See The canal was widened long ago to permit northbound ships to exit directly into the Mediterranean, bypassing Port Said.  We did that, so our only glimpse of Port Said was from a distance.  Having thus completed our interesting encounter with the Suez Canal, which is so different from the canal in which we crossed Panama, we sailed on toward more adventures in the Mediterranean Sea.

239. Suez Canal, Egypt