My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.

"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden

Monday, 26 October 2015

Travelling through Greece - in the Steps of St Paul - The churches of Thessaloniki

There are many Byzantine churches to enjoy in Thessaloniki - indeed here is the richest collection anywhere in Greece
We have time to see just two. 

agia sophia
We first make our way to Agia Sophia,  reminiscent of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul on which indeed it is based, with its 9th and 10th century mosaics, and one of 15 UNESCO World Heritage sites in the city. Here we are treated to the beginning of a Greek Orthodox wedding! We were taking plenty of photos between us and no one seemed to mind - but we were surely being disrespectful?
The seats in the church are extremely uncomfortable - but then worshipers are not meant to sit in them for any length of time.
wedding at Agia Sophia
We have lunch all together in a local restaurant - and very good it is too - but they really cannot cope with us all descending on them at once - and there are problems with paying afterwards. But hey go with the flow - there is no Greek word for deadline apparently.
Agia sophia
From Agia Sophia we go to St Demetrius Basilica (church) or Agios Dimitrios, the site of Demetrius' martyrdom, and the largest church in Greece, with a very rich religious history and fine mosaics. The crypt of Agios Dimitrios, where according to Christian tradition Dimitrios died in AD 303, is probably the oldest surviving part of the church, and some mosaics dating from the early 7th century can be seen here. This church gives us an idea of what Basilica A would have looked like at Philippi.
By contrast with our previous experiences in Georgia and South East Turkey on previous pilgrimages, females do not generally wear headdress in church. This we are told is because during the Turkish occupation the Greek Orthodox were made to cover their heads to identify them, and this current practice is therefore a reaction to that!
Agios Dimitrios

Some in church did have their heads covered though - Mara said these would be perhaps Russian Orthodox, therefore they are showing respect in their own way.
There is a rare mosaic of a dead Jesus Christ - a symbolic of hopelessness.

How do I feel in here? We listen to the beginning of Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians, one of his earliest written letters, which he wrote to strengthen and encourage the young church here, and we see the relics of St Demetrius. The mosaics and icons are all very beautiful and there are lots of locals crossing themselves three times in front of everything and kissing icons. In fact many people here make the sign of the cross three times every time they pass a church as a sign of respect. In spite of all of this I do not find this a "thin" or very spiritual place at all.

Agios Dimitrios
Perhaps I am in spiritual overload. We are all certainly very weary and ready to check in to our hotel. There is a Greek man who clearly feels as we do - slumped fast asleep in the church head lolled against a pillar. On our way through the city to our hotel I see a group of students at a busy street corner in a very small green space - cooking a BBQ and having a small party!! And a dust cart working on a Sunday!

Agios Dimitrios
So to the hotel to check in at 4pm for just one night - we are all very glad to get to our rooms - but first we are warned by Andrew that we must not expect the ambiance and quality of our accommodation in Kavala. He was right! The Holiday Inn is very acceptable but certainly not up to the standards of that chain elsewhere as I remember them from my business days - but hey we are in Greece and it has more than its fair share of problems at the moment so let's not be too critical. 

Agios Dimitrios - some of the wonderful mosaics
And the hotel cannot really compete head-on with the wonderful waterside setting of our hotel in Kavala. This hotel has also clearly had its own difficulties. I read that not so long ago it suffered from an influx of Libyan refugees. Those poor people - there seems to be a family group "squatting" on the street corner below my balcony with their few possessions in bags of all description. So much suffering - and we quibble over the niggling defects in our hotel rooms.
Pray for refugees and the homeless everywhere - pray for solutions to the great political and social problems that cause such unhappiness and displacement in so many parts of the world.

And our greatest suffering at the moment beyond small gripes about the hotel is from information overload - so much to absorb, all so interesting.
I for one am still finding it difficult to get into the pilgrim mode; I still feel more of a tourist than a pilgrim, although the chanting in the church at the Orthodox wedding (which we "gate-crashed") touched a spiritual spot with some of us.
Agios Dimitrios wonderful mosaics
We finish the evening as usual with Compline - Mark tells us that Paul would have been influenced by the Stoics - and that Acts is not always a strictly accurate historical record - although Luke is known for accuracy and detail - but in the end meaning is what counts. I was so tired after Compline I tried to open my room door with my credit card instead of the bit of plastic which served as a key!

Today we hear the news that the latest negotiations with Greece and the EU have failed - this poor country - how will it end? And poor Georgia - the destination of our wonderful pilgrimage in 2014 - have just declared a national day of mourning over lives lost when the River Vere in Tbilisi burst its banks on Saturday night and flooded large areas of the city, including the city zoo. 
carpets in Thessaloniki
Many are homeless and animals, many dangerous, wander the streets. It is surreal to see pictures of lions and tigers in the streets, a hippo looking bemused, a bear clinging to the side of a building on an air conditioning unit! So sad that many had to be shot. We pray for Georgia, Tbilisi and our lovely guide Maka who accompanied us on that Georgian trip, and are so happy that she is OK - the wonders of instant communication on Facebook. 

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