The following article, published as “Apostolic Visitor” on June 20, 2015 in the British Catholic magazine The Tablet, explores the travels of Europe’s first Christian missionary- St Paul.
Now, it is being reproduced here nine days later, on the annual celebration of St Paul’s mission to Greece. The article introduces readers to the full territorial reach of Paul’s known travels, with some tips on how best to enjoy following in his footsteps. See below for the slightly-longer original article transcript.
An invaluable guide for pilgrims is the classic St. Paul in Greece (Lycabettus Press, 1972). Updated in 2006 by the publisher, this slim but informative guide contains detailed descriptions, photographs and critical assessments of the timing and location of Paul’s visits in Greece, balancing biblical sources with subsequent scholarly research.
Philippi and Kavala are easily accessible from Thessaloniki, while Athens makes a good base for visits to Pauline sites in the city and Corinth. Athens and Thessaloniki are connected by frequent flights (35 min.) or trains (5.5 hrs) and buses. Crete is also a short flight from either city, though accessing the island’s far-flung coastal sites is more of an adventure, though highly worthwhile.
Seeking Out St Paul in Greece
The easier way to ascend the Areopagus Hill, where St Paul addressed the Athenians, is obviously via the attached modern stairway; I instead chose the hard ascent, as Paul would have done, up the craggy and cracked slippery rocks; they are as smooth and amber as the lit candles in the Byzantine churches below, structures which attest to the enduring legacy of Paul’s mission in Greece.
The relentless sun dazzles the whole rugged surface in streaks of white light, as if they were flashes of revelation; it is not hard to imagine the gospel being sung from these enchanted heights. Nevertheless, most of the tourists balancing themselves at precarious angles and aiming cameras have their attention focused on less Christian things: the famed Acropolis, after all, decorates the hill adjacent.
The Areopagus Hill (which shares its name with Paul’s local disciple, the first Bishop of Athens) is one of several important places to visit for those retracing the steps of St Paul in Greece. This route stretches from the port city of Kavala in the northeast to Corinth in the Peloponnese, and finally to the southern extremity of Greece, the island of Crete.
Near the first, at Philippi, is where Paul famously baptized Lydia, Europe’s first Christian. Corinth is where Paul enjoyed his most notable successes and from where the first document of the New Testament (the First Epistle to the Thessalonians) was written. And Crete, an accidental but fortuitous stop, is where Paul baptized the island’s first believers while braving maritime disasters due to the infamous Cretan winds.
All across Greece, Christians are now preparing to celebrate the feast day of Ss Peter and Paul on 29 June. Paul’s feast day is observed most robustly in places central to his ministry, such as the fertile inland town of Veria, where the Pavleia celebration (now in its 21st year) is overseen by the local bishop and clergy, and attracts a wide audience. At the location where Paul is believed to have preached (the ancient vima), stands a large and lavish memorial shrine. Veria’s is one of many memorials, churches and plaques dotting places associated with St Paul across Greece.
Veria is in the west of today’s province of Macedonia. Paul’s first visit to Greece was prompted by his vision of a ‘man from Macedonia’ (Acts 16:8-10) pleading for Paul’s intercession- a vision presented in the monumental mosaic at Veria. At the time of his vision, Paul was in Troy, in Anatolia. In spring of the year 49, he arrived by ship in the eastern Macedonian town of Neapolis (today’s Kavala), the port of ancient Philippi, accompanied by Timothy, Silas and Luke. A column drum in Kavala commemorates the spot where Paul is believed to have stepped ashore, bringing Christianity to European shores for the first time.
An attractive city in its own right, Kavala is also the base for visiting the archaeological sites and locations associated with St Paul. Philippi is a well-organized site, with remains of ancient structures (including early basilicas). In Paul’s day, it was an important Roman garrison town. Among the ruins is a squat stone enclosure where Paul was briefly imprisoned following his performance of Europe’s first exorcism.
Local tradition attests that Europe’s first convert, Lydia, hosted Paul in her home, in today’s village of Lydia. Although no ancient remains are here, a modern chapel has been built in commemoration. Lydia was important for Paul in several respects. She too had been born in Asia Minor, but unlike Paul, Lydia was a woman- and successful in high-end business (the trade in purple-dyed cloth).
As a prominent businesswoman in Philippian society, the conversion of Lydia and her household was very significant. The emphasis that the Acts place on Paul’s success in Greece in converting many women (and, when noted, the ‘leading women’) attests to the perceived influence that women in ancient society had over family religious belief. Indeed, the concept of family worship as an essential aspect of Christianity was developed in Paul’s travels, and epistles, while in Greece.
Lydia’s hospitality to Paul and his entourage also represented a concept that would be emphasized in the apostolic letters, such as the lovely sentiment of Heb. 13:2 (“do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it”). As any traveler to Greece knows, the concept of philoxenia (love of strangers, or simply, hospitality) is as solidly set in Greek society as its churches are in the earth.
This sort of hospitality accompanied me to Thessaloniki, further west along the ancient (and now, redeveloped) Via Egnatia highway. Paul and his fellow evangelists reached the important trade city after their adventures in Philippi. Here, in Greece’s vibrant second city, everyone from mathematicians to shopkeepers to priests offered their time and thoughts to addressing my curiosity in Paul and his exploits.
Although it had a Jewish community, Thessaloniki’s was smaller than in other Greek cities and the synagogue where Paul used the Old Testament to win hearts might – or might not – lie under the streets near an unremarkable car park by the sea. But this uncertainty did not deter one enthusiastic local from leading me around by the arm to investigate on a rainy May morning.
While no one is sure where Paul preached most often in Thessaloniki, the Acts suggest that he had more success with the Gentiles than with the Jews. A possible place mentioned to the early 18th-century English traveler, Richard Pococke, was the underground crypt at the Church of St Dimitrios, Thessaloniki’s patron saint. While in Pococke’s day this magnificent structure had been converted into an Ottoman mosque, it is fully-functional today and visitors can even enjoy, as I did, the special crypt mass which occurs each Friday at midnight. The simple service and its location attests to the realities faced by Christian followers centuries after Paul, when imperial persecution under Diocletian and Galerius, in the early 4th century drove Christians literally underground into crypts like this. Dimitrios, a young Christian and martyr, is entombed in this 5th-century church. He would become one of the most important Orthodox saints.
That Christianity in Greece survived many centuries of adversity is only slightly less astonishing than the fact that it ever took root at all. Paul’s series of visits were marked by trials and tribulations that included imprisonment, banishment and shipwreck. Less than two decades after the death of Christ, we find this impassioned evangelizer from Tarsus – an unbeliever until his own revelation – showing up in a foreign land, one with its own rich sophistication of cultures, trying to win over the Jews by recourse to their sacred texts, persuading the Gentiles with philosophical and moral arguments, overseeing the travels of his fellow-disciples and supporting himself through his traditional craft- the making of tents.
This would hardly seem the recipe for success in bolstering any faith, much less the one that would eventually become the world’s most popular religion; yet somehow Paul’s perseverance and persuasion achieved results. And at the moment when he dictated his first epistle to the Thessalonians, later on from Corinth in early summer of the year 50, Paul became not only an adventure traveler, but also a travel writer of a kind. His pastoral letters reveal a keen awareness of his local surroundings, of the world as he experienced it and as he hoped it could become, through faith and devotion to God.
It was in Corinth where Paul would have his greatest success in Greece. The conditions were auspicious: a thriving commercial port that attracted people, goods and ideas from across the ancient world, Corinth also had a large Jewish population, giving Paul a natural starting point. Corinth also had direct ties with Rome, after Caesar rebuilt it in 44BC. The emperors revitalized its cult of Aphrodite (which had long given the city a certain reputation for lasciviousness), and retained its popular Isthmian Games, the local version of the athletics events held at nearby Olympia.
Corinth thus provided fertile soil for Paul to challenge the Jews, the pagans, the wealthy and the immoral in turn, while it was large and affluent enough for Paul to support himself during an 18-month stay without being perceived as a threat to the establishment. As a sort of antithesis to early Christian values, wealthy Corinth presented an ideal opportunity for the apostle to present a contrasting view. Here Paul was kept informed of the situation in Macedonia, write, and evangelize new converts, including the refugee Jewish couple from Rome, Aquila and Priscilla. Like Paul, they were also tent-makers.
Corinth today is a bustling commercial city rebuilt after modern disasters; its cathedral church of patron saint Paul was built after a 1928 earthquake. Although modern Corinth is less charming than Athens, Thessaloniki or Kavala, the nearby ruins of the ancient city are significant, with an outstanding on-site archaeological museum and ruins including temples, a Roman basilica and the vima tribunal facing the agora; here Paul was brought before the Roman proconsul, Gallio, following spurious charges made against him by local Jewish leaders (Acts 18:12-17).
When Paul was released uncharged, it fulfilled his earlier vision in which God said: “do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; for I am with you. And no man shall attack you to harm you; for I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:9-10). Every June 29th at the vima of ancient Corinth, the city’s bishop holds vespers, celebrating Paul’s feat of almost single-handedly establishing the church in this once-great city.
Some 3.5km from the ancient ruins rises the massive, 575 metre-high rock outcropping that once served as the town’s upper fortress (Akrocorinth); like the Areopagus Hill in Athens, it is also slippery but a much more strenuous walk that nevertheless affords great views and a chance to explore other ancient ruins. Finally, visit the eastern harbor of ancient Corinth, Cenchrae, where Paul bid a touching farewell to his flock before setting sail back to Ephesus. Although the harbor has sunken in over the centuries, the ruins of an ancient Christian church fittingly meet the lapping waters today.
Other places associated with Paul in peripheral areas of Greece, like the islands of Crete and Rhodes, were less impacted by his immediate preaching, due to his short stays. Nevertheless, the church would develop under his successors, most notably Titus, Paul’s co-evangelizer and first bishop of Crete. Paul’s (accidental) stops along the island’s rugged southern coast were caused by bad weather that obliged his ship to seek safe harbours. This occurred on Paul’s final trip, from Jerusalem to Rome, and was recorded in dramatic fashion by St Luke in the Acts.
Today, visiting the places where Paul sought harbor, like Kali Limenes and the glittering port village of Loutro, remind of the fortitude of the earliest apostles and are meditative places in their own right, marked by the spectacular sights of stark mountains meeting the sea and chapels dedicated to Paul.
At Kali Limenes, a cave-chapel marks where Paul preached to the locals while waiting out a storm. And on a lonesome beach located between Loutro and Agia Roumeli (where the much-trekked Samaria Gorge ends), a tiny ancient church near a stream commemorates where Paul baptized his first Cretan converts. Although accessible most easily by boat, the chapel is still visited each year on June 29 to celebrate Paul’s brief but fortuitous visit to Crete.