Thursday, December 7, 2017

Roman Villa

Maneuvering eastward in Sicily, we came to Villa Roman del Casale. It's a large Roman Villa dating to the fourth century AD with thousands of square feet of mosaics. It's basically a floor art gallery. That said, pictures serve better to explain. These are a small sampling of what's in this palatial home.

Approaching the villa

A little water, wipe away the dust, and the brilliant colors pop out of the mosaic

Looking around the large peristyle court of the villa

Most of the rooms today can only be viewed from a modern walkway above

The famous "bikini girls" room. They are competing in various athletic events. Notice the older floor beneath on the left and the colorful frescoes on the walls.

One of the children's rooms. This is a race track with birds instead of horses pulling their chariots

Fishing scene

Part of the long Great Hunt mosaic. Some hunters are visible in the upper left. In the center is a boat.

The basilica of the villa, complete with marble floor, served as the audience hall

Friday, November 24, 2017

The “Valley” of Temples

We crossed over from Malta to Sicily, moving from a small island to the largest in the Mediterranean. Now we’re in Roman territory! Actually, not quite. Yes, the Romans were here. They conquered the island during the First Punic War (a series of three wars fought between Rome and Carthage). However, before the Romans arrived, the Greeks were here, as we would see at other locales around the island.

Our first stop was at Agrigento on the southern coast. There are a series of Greek temples built on a ridge, called the Valley of Temples today. (Whoever came up with that name must not have understood what a valley is) The ancient Greeks established colonies to their east (modern day Turkey) and west. Seeing these Greek ruins, I recalled learning about the Greeks in western Turkey when I traveled there. I later visited Greece, seeing their origins. Witnessing these ruins in Sicily, I felt like I had come full circle.
Looking up at the "Valley" of Temples during our approach

Archaeologists don’t know which gods all the temples were originally dedicated to, so they came up with their own names when needed. They are in varying stages of preservation and restoration.

The Temple of Concordia, which is very well preserved and reassembled

The Temple of Juno

A small part of the Temple of Zeus, which would have been one of the largest Greek temples if its construction hadn't been halted by the conquest of the city by Carthage

Part of the necropolis (cemetery) of the city, which has been carved away. Imagine bodies laying under each arch.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Sailing from Malta

After three months we put out to sea in a ship that had wintered in the island—it was an Alexandrian ship with the figurehead of the twin gods Castor and Pollux.
~ Acts 28:11
Paul and his companions set sail from Malta, continuing their journey to Rome. After two days on Malta, we set sail on a ferry to Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean.

Panoramic view of the main harbor of Malta. British cannons are in the foreground.

The harbor has been a harbor for thousands of years. This is likely from where Paul sailed, too. Who else has sailed in and out of this harbor over the millennia? The Romans aren't the only ones to control the island. The Arabs came through. The Normans conquered it during the Crusades. There were the Spanish. Napoleon "liberated" the island on his way to Egypt in 1798. The locals quickly grew tired of the French presence, inviting the British in 1800, who controlled it for a century and a half until they became independent in 1964. British influence is still visible today, like how they drive on the left side of the road. Malta was an important launching point for the Allied invasion of Italy during World War II.

This little island nation has quite a history!

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Maltese Romans

Last time I talked about the earliest evidence of human activity on Malta. Over time, other groups would come. The Phoenicians arrived around the 8th century BC. Phoenicia was the coastal lands north of ancient Israel roughly compromising modern-day Lebanon. They were a sea-faring people, venturing across the Mediterranean. Solomon got cedars from them to build the Temple in Jerusalem (1 Kings 5). He also sailed with them, bringing in exotic items from afar (1 Kings 10:22).

Phoenicia established a city in northern Africa called Carthage. After Phoenicia was taken out by Assyria, Carthage rose up to dominate the western Mediterranean around the same time as the city of Rome conquered the whole Italian peninsula. By 300 BC, the Mediterranean wasn't big enough for both Rome and Carthage. After a series of three wars (called the Punic Wars) in the third century BC, Carthage was destroyed and Rome controlled all their former territory, including the small island of Malta. Thus Roman rule of Malta began.

Then one day around AD 60, a ship sailed near Malta, tossed by a ferocious storm. Crashing into sandbar, all on board made for shore as the ship broke apart. Seamen and soldiers, passengers and prisoners crawled onto shore exhausted. Among them was the Apostle Paul and his biographer, Luke. "Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta." (Acts 28:1)

"St. Paul's Bay" is the traditional site of Paul and his companions arriving on Malta.

What was there when Paul washed up on shore? Evidence of the Romans persists to this day, which we got to explore. First is the Domus Romana, a Roman home built in the first century BC. Today a museum sits over part of it with various ruins and artifacts inside.

The mosaic of the peristyle court. I like the 3D maze look.

Various pottery and glass objects from around Roman Malta

A statue of the Roman emperor Claudius
We stopped at another site called "San Pawl Milqi". This was an extensive Roman agricultural villa. Tradition has it that Publius, the Roman governor of the island, welcomed Paul near here: "There was an estate nearby that belonged to Publius, the chief official of the island. He welcomed us to his home and showed us generous hospitality for three days." (Acts 28:7)

The Roman agricultural villa of San Pawl Milqi.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Arrival on Malta

Land! After two long weeks trapped in a storm aboard a rocking ship, it must have felt great to finally be back on the ground. The Apostle Paul and the others traveling with him had endured a very rough voyage. In the end, their ship ran aground and was torn apart but everyone made it ashore. But where were they? They had made it to the island of Malta.

This is where my latest journey began. Flying in to Malta's airport, we felt some sympathy for Paul and his companions as we endured some rough turbulence on our way in. Once safely on the ground and with our bags in hand, I was ready to pick up Paul's trail. What did he see while he was here? What was it like?

Malta is situated at the center of the Mediterranean Sea. It served as the watery crossroads of ancient shipping lanes. The Romans Paul encountered there were not its first inhabitants. Nor were they the last.

To examine the history of Malta, we need to go back a long ways to the 4th millennium BC. On the island's south side are the Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra temples dating to around 3600-3200 BC. These megalithic (meaning "big stones") temples have been restored for touring pleasure. This was one of many UNESCO World Heritage Sites we would visit over our two weeks of travel.
Exploring the partially restored temple
The largest stones of the temple

A model showing how a temple is aligned for the positions of the sun throughout the year. The light here shows the equinoxes.

A short walk to the Mnajdra temple with a great view of the Mediterranean Sea. There is a large, protective covering over the temple.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

A Three Hour Tour

Waves. Wind. The churning sea. Imagine waking up for the fourteenth day in a row in the midst of a storm that has been battering a ship. Not a modern cruise liner but a Roman grain vessel. The crew has worked tirelessly this whole time, simply trying to keep it all together (physically and mentally). Any hope of controlling the vessel has long past. They just have to wait and see where the winds take them. Sailors have always had this aura of being tough. You have to be in order to battle such elements. Ancient ships stayed close to land. Venturing our of sight of terra firma could be disastrous. Yet here they are, praying to any god they can think of that they will make it safely to land.

One of the passengers is at the center of our story: the Apostle Paul (or Saint Paul in many circles). What's he doing here? He's spent years maneuvering around the Mediterranean by land and sea, spreading the Good News (gospel) about Jesus, primarily in modern day Turkey and Greece. Then while in Jerusalem, he was arrested. He was brought to Caesarea, the capital of the Roman province of Judea. His accusers could not establish a firm case against him. After languishing in prison for 2 years under a governor who was more interested in a bribe from Paul to free him than establishing his innocence. When a new governor came to office, a new trial commenced. When that was at a stalemate, Paul played his trump card: he appealed to Caesar. Any Roman citizen (of which Paul was one) could appeal to the highest court in the empire: the court of Caesar himself.
Caesarea, looking west towards Rome
Before traveling to Jerusalem, Paul desired to visit Rome. While he was at Corinth he wrote the believers in Rome a letter, which has come down to us as the New Testament book of Romans. This book is mostly read for its rich theology, but it has elements of everyday life sprinkled throughout. Take this excerpt:
But now that there is no more place for me to work in these regions, and since I have been longing for many years to visit you, I plan to do so when I go to Spain. I hope to see you while passing through and to have you assist me on my journey there, after I have enjoyed your company for a while. Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the Lord’s people there. (Romans 15:3-25)
Did Paul have any idea when he wrote that how he would get to Rome? I guess he didn't expect to be a prisoner, shackled to a Roman centurion. Voyaging from place to place, they came to Crete. The sailing season was coming to an end. Just miles from the harbor they intended to winter in, the storm came, grabbing the ship like a child playing with a plastic boat in the bathtub. As it was yanked away from land, what went through the sailors' heads? What would you think if you were a passenger? What did Paul think about all this? He was here because of his service to God. Couldn't God make this a little easier? Maybe Paul, like many others on board, thought this could be the end. It says, "When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved." (Acts 27:20) Does that "we" include Paul? I think it does because of what happens next.
After they had gone a long time without food, Paul stood up before them and said: “Men, you should have taken my advice not to sail from Crete; then you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss. But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. Last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.’ So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island.” (Acts 27:21-26)
I think everyone, Paul included, needed the encouragement. "Hang in there! You're headed in the right direction!" Two weeks of insufficient food and sleep takes a toll not just physically but mentally and emotionally. How many of them were on the verge of simply giving up? Stop fighting and let the ship fall apart. Have you ever been there? Are you there? If you currently are, maybe you just need to hear to keep fighting. Yes, it's tiring. Pray to God for the strength to take another step. When Paul became a follower of Jesus, he wasn't promised an easy life. Quite the opposite in fact; he was promised that he would suffer for Jesus (Acts 9:16). Nevertheless, God does promise to be with us each step of the way.

The ship would soon reach land...
A calm sunrise over the Mediterranean. Paul's shipmates would've appreciated this.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Journey to Rome

After all this had happened, Paul decided to go to Jerusalem, passing through Macedonia and Achaia. "After I have been there," he said, "I must visit Rome also."
~ Acts 19:21
Rome. What does that name conjure up in your mind? To those living around the Mediterranean in the first century AD, it represented the power ruling their world. Caesar ruled from Rome. It was a system that either served you, making you rich and enabling a good life. Or you were an oppressed people that had been conquered and heavily taxed, simply trying to eek out an existence. Or you were a slave going about your master's business with no rights of your own. Whatever the case, there was a common message that went out to the empire: Caesar is lord.

I've been journeying throughout the ancient Biblical world for years, aiming to visit as much as I reasonably can. I've been to Israel many times, as well as visiting Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, and Greece. The last few years I've been looking for a good tour to Italy; that trip finally arrived. I had intended to write this while on my trip but time did not permit. I've now been back a week and able to catch my breath. It's time to write.

As the Apostle Paul went around the eastern Mediterranean, he had a message to spread. The responses to that message would vary greatly. Some would laugh; others would be angry; still others would threaten or attack; others believed. His message was in stark contrast to what Caesar claimed. Paul declared that Jesus is lord. Those were controversial words then and remain so down to this day.

What was the world of ancient Rome like? What was it like for Paul as he went there? Why did he go? Stay tuned for my journey to the heart of the Roman Empire!

Places I visited Sept 24-Oct 6, 2017