This Mediterranean cruise steers a course through history

On previous trips, modern Athens had seemed a city surging out of control, expanding across the hills of Attica. It had struck me as a city oblivious to its role as inheritor of the Acropolis monuments. But on this balmy afternoon, Athens exuded an aura of imminent revelation. It became a portal to the entire Mediterranean world. That evening I was to embark on a 13-night voyage aboard Swan Hellenic's MTS Orpheus, a Greek ship that would carry me to distant corners of the eastern Mediterranean. It would be a journey of historical poignancy, traversing the center of the ancient cultures that have shaped Western civilization -- Greece, Egypt, and Asia Minor.

What was to distinguish this odyssey from other Mediterranean cruises was the presence of five eminent British scholars whose daily program of talks enhanced the experience. On my particular cruise, they spoke on such inviting themes as ``How the Heartland of Christianity Became Muslim,'' ``Ancient Mariners,'' and ``Byzantium to Istanbul.'' Presented in the ship's Lounge of the Muses -- or at the sites themselves -- the talks were brief but stimulating and often entertaining in unexpected ways.

I soon realized that what takes center stage on the Swan Hellenic cruises are not glittering floor shows but the destinations themselves. It was, in fact, Swan Hellenic which originated the concept of the educational cruise over 30 years ago. Today, accompanying each of its 22 different voyages, are a rotating group of scholars, senior research fellows, museum curators, and authors, whose areas of expertise coincide with the places to be visited. On full days at sea, four 30-minute talks enlivened the day. An added dimension was the availability of books from the impressive library, which could be read on one of the ship's decks or by the pool.

Meals aboard the Orpheus are well prepared and varied but not lavish, with open seating and a choice of either table service in the Dionysus Restaurant or buffet dining in the Jason Taverna. At lunch, passengers can opt to dine on the deck.

Our first stop was on the island of Delos which, in antiquity, had been the sacred center of the Aegean world. It was here that the cult of Apollo flourished from the beginning of the 7th century until the end of the 4th century BC. The site is a maze of ruined temples, altars, oracles, and statues that recall the hundreds of years during which Apollo held sway.

In the center of the ``sacred district,'' we saw the palm tree that, according to mythology, gave Apollo's mother support during childbirth. Beyond was the statue to Dionysus, Apollo's brother, and only a few steps away, the four marble lions of Delos appeared, valiently guarding what was once the Sacred Lake. Nearly lost in the labyrinth of fallen pillars was the pedestal that once supported the 24-foot statue of Apollo, the ancient Greeks' god of light and beauty.

Delos also had been a thriving cosmopolitan center filled with markets, cisterns, grand colonnades, hippodromes, stadia, theaters, and opulent villas. We saw the ruins of many of these.

The island was a great trading center due to its proximity to important shipping routes from the Aegean Sea to Egypt, Asia Minor, and the entire eastern Mediterranean. Today, the visitor can wander through five different markets. In a few of these, slaves were once sold -- as many as 10,000 in a single day, during the Roman period when Delos was the center of slave trade for all of Greece.

From the top of the island's Mt. Cynthus we had an awesome view of the Aegean Sea and the encircling islands -- Mykonos, Naxos, P'aros, Tinos, and others.

On the following full day at sea the Swan Hellenic lecturers presented several talks in anticipation of our two-day excursion into Egypt.

We docked in Alexandria and boarded a coach for the three-hour drive to Cairo. I was struck by the decrepitude of a city that once had been the intellectual heart of the ancient world. Only when we drove along the wide arc of the city's harbor did I sense the mystery that had so stirred earlier visitors.

Cairo proved to be an onslaught of stimuli: sleek glass office towers next to soaring 10th-century minarets, incredibly heavy traffic running parallel to the ageless Nile, luxuriant gardens defying the encroachment of the desert. The city gave me the feeling of a place struggling to find its identity among the forces that have shaped it: pharaonic, Islamic, Coptic.

We spent much of the morning engrossed in the treasures of the Egyptian Museum. Through it's enduring art and architecture, we got a more comprehensive view of ancient Egyptian culture than of any other from antiquity. Thus, the choice of this museum as the starting point for our tour proved strategic.

In the afternoon we visited the Ibn Tulun Mosque, a building with beautiful arches and intricate latticework surrounding the sunswept courtyard, and a commanding view of Cairo from the top of its minaret. Completed in AD 879, it is considered one of the finest examples of pure Islamic art in the world.

Later, we visited Cairo's opulent Citadel complex, the headquarters and official residence of the Sultans until 1850. From an overlook near the Citadel grounds, one could see the Great Pyramids at Giza on the far horizon. But it was not until that night, at the spectacular Son et Lumi`ere show at Giza, that I felt the full extent of their grandeur.

The next day we traveled 20 miles southwest of Cairo to Saqq^ara, site of the famed Step Pyramid. Unlike Giza where one feels the proximity of Cairo, at Saqq^ara one is truly immersed in the desert. And so great is the scale of Saqq^ara (containing over 14 pyramids, hundreds of tombs, art objects, and engravings) that archaeologists estimate only about one-third of the site has been studied.

Here, where the earliest papyrus and oldest mummy were discovered, our archaeologist-guide told us the story of Imhotep who, around 2200 BC, had conceived the idea of piling six mastabas (long, rectangular tombs) on top of each other in diminishing size. This form, which is believed to symbolize the stairway to heaven, became the prototype for the smooth-sided Great Pyramids of Cheops (at Giza) some 100 years later.

Later, after visiting Memphis, Egypt's first capital (3500 BC), we returned to Giza to see the enigmatic Sphinx. As I looked at its human head with a lion's body, symbol of the union of wisdom and strength, the sun began to dip behind the pyramids. I suddenly realized that my own eyes were now seeing the same forms that had once stunned the eyes of Alexander and, it is believed, Moses and St. Paul as well.

After Egypt it was on to Cyprus to see the temples, churches, and splendid ruins that recalled the island's occupation by 17 peoples in the course of its complex history. Then we traveled up the west coast of Turkey to find, at Troy, the expansive plain where the Homeric heroes confronted destiny; from there we sailed through the Dardanelles and into the Sea of M'armara to arrive at Istanbul, city of Byzantine splendor. This ``Rome of the East'' (the site of ancient Byzantium which later became Constantinople) had been one of the world's greatest religious, economic, and artistic centers -- from its founding by Emperor Constantine in AD 330 until the Turkish conquest in 1453. Here, we toured the Hippodrome, the city's illustrious Blue Mosque, the Kariye Mosque, the S"uleymaniye Mosque, Hagia Sophia, the ancient walls, and finally ended the tour at Istanbul's vast bazaar.

The Orpheus continued on a southwesterly course to Aegina, a hospitable and joyful island crowned by the lovely 5th-century Temple of Aphaea, one of the best-preserved temples of ancient Greece.

We then sailed up the Ionian Sea to Corfu. With its lushly forested mountains framing turquoise bays and its elegant Venetian-style town, it is one of the most alluring of all the Greek islands.

Finally, the journey continued north into the Adriatic Sea and up the Dalmatian coastline of Yugoslavia. In Dubrovnik we ended our Mediterranean odyssey. Practical information

Swan Hellenic's cruises aboard the SS Orpheus encompass 14 nations, from Spain to Russia and from Morocco to Israel. Embarkation cities include Athens, Dubrovnik, Venice, Nice, and Naples (with overnight stays in London scheduled before and after each cruise). A special Christmas cruise features Christmas Day in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Swan Hellenic is holding to its regular schedule in the Mediterranean in 1986, with tighter security controls.

Details and a color brochure can be obtained by writing to Swan Hellenic/Exprinter, 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y., 10110, or calling 800-221-1666, in New York (212) 719-1200.

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