A Modern Odyssey: Daniel Mendelsohn Retraces the Journey of Odysseus

Stories from Travel + Leisure
April 8 2012 7:30 AM

Cruisin’ Together

A classicist and his father retrace the steps of Odysseus.

Santorini, Greece.
View of a town in Southern Aegean, Greece

Photograph by De Agostini/Getty Images.

This piece is reprinted from Travel + Leisure.

In the end, we never got to Ithaca—never followed “in the wake of Odysseus,” as the brochure for the cruise had promised; at least, not all the way to this most famous of literary destinations, Ithaca (Itháki in modern Greek), the small and rocky island of which Homer sings, and where Odysseus had his famously gratifying homecoming. We saw much that he had seen: Troy, where his war ended and his wanderings began; Malta, where he was imprisoned by the nymph Calypso for seven years; Sicily, where his sailors were devoured by Scylla; the Neapolitan coast, which the ancients believed was close to the entrance to the underworld. But Ithaca turned out to be unattainable. For the hero of legend, that island was the culminating adventure; for us, on our Mediterranean cruise, there were just the inconveniences of modern politics—in this case, a strike that forced us to make a mad nighttime dash for Athens to catch our flights home.

But we weren’t at all disappointed, those of us who’d signed up for Journey of Odysseus: Retracing the Odyssey through the Ancient Mediterranean, one of several history- and literature-themed voyages run by Travel Dynamics International, a small-ship cruise operator. The opening lines of The Odyssey, after all, describe Odysseus as someone curiously like us—he’s the first tourist, the first person in either legend or recorded history who traveled because he thought the world was interesting, because he wanted to “know the minds and see the cities of many men,” as the poem puts it. So did we; and for a brief period, we felt a bit like our hero—for the 10 days we sailed, one day for each of the years he had to travel before he got to the home we never managed to see.

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I was on this Mediterranean cruise less for myself than for my father. As a classicist, I have read and taught The Odyssey many times, and have been to many of these sites before, but my dad hadn’t. Now in his 80s, a retired research scientist—a man more comfortable with numbers than with literature, I had always thought—he decided a couple of years ago that he wanted to read the Greek classics, to know what I’ve spent much of my own career reading and writing about. And so, he’s been studying his Homer. (He even took my Odyssey seminar, enlivening the class with his irreverent comments: “Hero? How can Odysseus be a hero when he cheats on his wife and lies so much?!”) When I saw an advertisement for Journey of Odysseus, it seemed ideal—a perfect way to introduce him to the landscapes, the weather, the flavors of the eastern Mediterranean, none of which has changed much since Homer first sang his songs.

But I wanted him to have more than just a pleasant vacation. I’d been a guest lecturer about 10 years ago on a Travel Dynamics cruise of the eastern Aegean, and had been impressed by the intellectual seriousness of the undertaking. For one thing, the tours are often conducted by the archaeologists excavating the historical sites, a privilege not available to the average tourist. Our cruise on the intimate, 57-suite Corinthian II would include daily excursions to archaeological sites in Troy, Pylos, Malta, and Sicily, as well as a full program of onboard lectures every day—often two in a day—given by scholars of classical antiquity and archaeologists.

And then there was the homework. The hefty pre-embarkation packet came complete with a reading list that suggested six “essential” texts—The Odyssey, of course, but also Henry Miller’s Colossus of Maroussi and Moses Finley’s classic The World of Odysseus—and 15 “recommended” texts. Very soon after we set sail from Athens to our first stop, Çanakkale, in northwestern Turkey—the modern-day site of Troy—a nice rhythm established itself, of morning excursions, a leisurely lunch back on the ship on the aft sundeck, and then a lecture or two. Then there would be cocktails and dinner. It was like a very opulent graduate seminar—rich, but also rigorous.

I didn’t really understand how committed our little group of about 80 or so passengers was until one day at lunchtime, when I turned to the youngster standing next to me at the buffet—a serious-looking boy of about 10 whom I’d noticed traveling with what looked like three generations of his family. I jokingly asked what he thought of Robert Fagles’s rendering of The Odyssey, one of our “required” texts. He leveled a cool glance at me. “It’s very good, although it was pretty clear that Homer needed an editor,” the boy, whose name was Robert, replied. I didn’t dare admit that I myself had neglected to do my homework.

We began, of course, in Troy—the city where The Iliad ends, and where Odysseus’ homeward-bound adventures begin. Troy is not the name that the Greeks gave to the city where the greatest war of myth was fought; they called it Ilion, a word ultimately derived from the ancient Hittite name Wilusa. (Iliad just means “a song about Ilion.”) Homer calls the city “windy,” and it is windy still. On the day we visited, there was, despite the summer heat, a faint, steady breeze, coming from somewhere you couldn’t quite identify, just enough to persuade the spiky acanthus plants to wave their hostile leaves in your direction or the thronging wildflowers to nod their heavy heads. It’s a large, meandering site, and most of what there is to look at—once you get past the pier, which has inherited the giant Trojan horse constructed for the movie Troy—is walls: The remains of what were, in fact, nine successive settlements on the site, a seemingly endless series of massive accumulations of stone, from whose crevices little yellow flowers poke out. Brian Rose, the improbably boyish University of Pennsylvania archaeologist who was one of the cruise leaders and who’s been working at the site since 1988, led us around. He explained to the rapt gaggle of shipmates how the dogleg layout of the walls may have been meant to foil invaders. It seemed pretty good at holding tourists back, too: Troy never feels as crowded as, say, Pompeii, which we later visited.

Rose specializes in Troy’s post–Bronze Age history, and he reminded us that the area was a major tourist attraction in ancient times; wandering around gawking at the famous walls is something people have been doing since the time of the Persian king Xerxes (480 B.C.). Alexander the Great visited, en route to conquering Asia. (He slept with a copy of The Iliad under his pillow.) That thought—the idea that you, as a tourist, aren’t somehow desecrating an ancient site by visiting it, but joining its long history—together with the whispering of that never-dying breeze, makes the place feel alive with ghosts. Unquiet ghosts, to be sure: Across the strait from Çanakkale is Gallipoli. As we first sailed up the strait, Gallipoli on our left—with its heart-wrenching monument to the Australian and Kiwi World War I dead—and Troy on our right, my dad (who has always had more respect for The Iliad than The Odyssey) shook his head and said, “2,500 years, and it’s still the same story.”

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