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In Greece, Philippi made history

King Philip II had a wider vision for establishing the new city of Philippi in the 4th century B.C.E. than just another outpost in his expanding Macedonian kingdom. Within sight, across a fertile plain, were the 6,400' Pangaion Hills, already legendary for their gold and silver deposits. Philippi would be a doorway to Asia Minor; it would be a major player in creating history. Three centuries later Philippi would be at the very center of a Roman civil war, and at the dawn of the Pax Romana the disciple Paul would baptize Christianity's first European at Philippi, a gesture with international ramifications.

Neolithic sculpture at the Archaeological Museum of Philippi, Philippi & Lydia, Greece
Neolithic sculpture at the Archaeological Museum of Philippi, Philippi & Lydia, Greece
Marc d'Entremont
An arc framing the Pangaion Hills and the plains of Philippi
An arc framing the Pangaion Hills and the plains of Philippi
Marc d'Entremont

Philippi served three empires, and the ruins of this once influential city are a pleasant ten mile ramble from the seaside city of Kavala – itself founded in the 7th century B.C.E. Access to Philippi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, requires a modest fee. The ticket booth is located through a picnic park with a children's playground. The colorful, tree shaded park is in contrast to the dramas played out as explained in the multilingual signs throughout the 1,400 year old city.

The gold and silver of the Pangaion Hills did indeed enrich the Macedonian Kingdom and fund the construction of a sophisticated and fortified trading center. It would be Alexander the Great, son of Phillip II, who would use Philippi as the doorway to Asia Minor. Within a short period of time, Philippi was a wealthy, strategic city at the crossroads of Alexander's empire.

The city became a center for the cult of Dionysius. Not only did the god favor the Pangaion Hills, but evidence of wine production in eastern Macedonia and Thrace goes back 4,000 years. A sizable amphitheater, partially restored, is still a site for summer theater and music events. The size of the agora attests to the region's food productivity and as an international trading center serving a population that grew to exceed 2,000 within the city walls.

Despite conquest by the Roman Republic in the 2nd century B.C.E., the city's position straddling the most important route connecting Europe and Asia, the Via Egnatia, added to its importance. Drama in 42 B.C.E. on a grand scale would play out not in Philippi's theater but on its fertile plains. Dramatized for real in Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," the republican forces of Brutus and Cassius were defeated by Anthony and Octavian in the climatic battle on the pastoral plains of Philippi. Octavian would soon defeat Anthony in Egypt and become a god as Rome's first emperor.

Philippi greatly expanded under the Romans. The vast forum was laid out in two terraces on both sides of the Via Egnatia, and the theatre was enlarged to accommodate a variety of Roman games. Today's ruins of the forum frame iconic images of Greece captured by young artists during the 19th century Romantic Period whose best-selling lithographs would ignite tourist interest adding Greece to the grand tour.

What would have been in the suburbs of Philippi, within a half-mile, is a shady meandering stream along the Via Egnatia, the Zygaktis River. History and the Bible record that after landing at the port of Kavala, Philippi was the first stop in disciple Paul's first pilgrimage to Europe. His party – tradition has it that Luke, Timothy and Silas were along – was the houseguests of a wealthy businesswoman; a manufacturer and seller of purple dyes and fabrics, a lucrative luxury trade. Lydia of Philippisia (aka Lydia of Thyatira) according to tradition, was already interested in the Judeo concept of one god. She became St. Paul's first convert in 49 A.C.E. receiving baptism in the Zygaktis River. She became an important ally and the future St. Lydia of Philippisia.

Remnants of a Roman cemetery and sections of the Via Egnatia lay near a cool shady amphitheater that overlooks St. Lydia's baptismal site where present day Greek Orthodox services take place for adults. The Church of St. Lydia, circa 1970, facing the river, is atypical Greek Orthodox starting with its octagonal design. Yet its design and use of sun-illuminated stained glass reflecting off white marble intentionally focuses attention on the main element of the structure, the central baptistery. Philippi and Lydia are essential stops for the popular and growing following in the footsteps of St. Paul pilgrimage tours.

Philippi reached its zenith in the 5th and 6th centuries under the Byzantine Empire. The city expanded on the flat plain surrounding the Roman forum. Seven Christian churches, including a basilica dedicated to St. Paul, were constructed along with thriving shops and warehouses. But outside pressures on the empire, coupled with some serious earthquakes, slowly weakened the city leading to its abandonment by the 11th century A.C.E. Under Ottoman domination, the nearby port of Kavala took over as the trading center linking Asia with Macedonia.

Rediscovered by French archeologist and artists, the site was uncovered in the 19th and 20 centuries. The multilingual signage provides ample information to piece together the life of a city that existed for more than a millennium. Tucked into an inconspicuous corner of the site – so as not to interfere with the historic landscape –the modern Archaeological Museum of Philippi tells the 4,000 year story of East Macedonia and Thrace through its priceless collection of objects from everyday glassware to royal gold and art from Neolithic to Byzantine.

Next door to Lydia are the naturally occurring volcanically heated Krinides Mud Baths. Known for centuries, the therapeutic hot mineral mud baths are the central feature of a municipal park. Men and women bath in separate private communal pools. This modesty is dictated by the therapeutic requirement that the bather be naked. An 18th century brick and stone Turkish hydro bathhouse has been fully restored for modern use. After a few hours of immersion into the epic story of a once great city, the hot comforting mud is a unique way to process the experience.

Location: In northeastern Greece Philippi/Lydia is an easy ten mile drive from Kavala. Many day-trip tours can be arranged in Kavala and through hotels. Kavala is a three hour all expressway drive from Thessaloniki International Airport. Domestic commercial flights are available from both Athens and Thessaloniki to Kavala.

Recommended Hotel: The Lucy Hotel, Kavala, is a first class resort with panoramic views of the harbor, Aegean and the castle topping Panagia peninsula.

Disclosure: The author was a guest of the Municipality of Kavala Cultural Tourism Department and the Lucy Hotel. The author thanks his hosts and guides Maria Karofilliduo of the Cultural Tourism Department, Antonis Mitzalis, proprietor of the Lucy Hotel and Angelca Comsion, archaeologist and guide at the Archaeological Museum of Philippi.