By the time you read this blog post, I will be back in Athens, coming off a week-long expedition to the island of Lesbos. Yes, Lesbos. This is the third largest of the 2000 Greek islands. And yes, it’s the place where the name ‘lesbian’ comes from. The reason for the name and its association with female-to-female sex is due to the classical Greek poet, Sappho. She lived here on Lesbos and founded a finishing school for girls. Apparently (the historical documents need to be pieced together, if I recall), part of what she taught in the school was how to love one’s husband. But since it was inappropriate for the girls to be with men, they were taught such techniques by older women. Hence, the name lesbian.
The Lesbians actually don’t care much for their name being co-opted by a socio-political group with an agenda. One of the ways they’ve dealt with the problem is to have an alternate name for the island: Mytilene. But no one here, as far as I know, is known as a Mytilenian.
One travel guide book mentioned that one could frequently see women holding hands on Lesbos, since the island was a magnet for such people. The only problem with this statement is that European girls in general hold hands with each other, without any sexual connotations at all. We’ve seen absolutely nothing unusual here, nothing out of the ordinary for the rest of Europe.
But that’s not what brought us to Lesbos in the first place. We finished our photographic work on Patmos and decided to spend a week on another Greek island in search of manuscripts. Lesbos has one of the largest collections of any Greek island, so we decided to come here. The manuscripts are to be found in something like seven monasteries, spread all over the island, and two other places. That’s the interesting part of the story. One of those other places is a high school! It’s an old ‘gymnasium,’ founded in 1840, and dedicated to the highest levels of learning. They even have a professor who is earning his doctorate in paleography at Oxford University. Pretty impressive place. The gymnasium (now called the Experimental Lyceum of Mytilene) is in downtown Mytilene, but it took us a day and a half to find it. We knew of two Greek New Testament manuscripts there, but discovered that the real treasure is a third one, unknown to us previously. We are hoping to get permission to photograph these manuscripts later this year; this trip was simply intended to make initial contact. We met Vasilis Vlachos, the Oxford-trained professor. Delightful fellow, good scholar.
The other place that was a surprise is an institute called ‘Club Benjamin.’ At least that was the name of the place listed in the Kurzgefasste Liste, the standard reference book on where New Testament manuscripts are located in the world. The K-Liste is basically a Bible on Bibles. We always bring a copy of it with us on expeditions.
Club Benjamin is in a town known as Plomari. That’s all the information we had. We drove to Plomari on hairpin mountain roads without guard rails. The drop off was deadly. The many crosses erected on the sides of this twisting, turning, tiny road are mute testimony to the treachery of driving in Greece. The one thing we didn’t want to do was to drive back in the dark.
Unfortunately, we arrived in Plomari a little late in the day due to my underappreciated navigational skills. (Anyone who knows me knows that I should never be assigned the navigator! I get lost going home!) Anyway, after a 40-mile detour, we finally found Plomari. But we didn’t find Club Benjamin. We got out of the car and asked all the locals if they had heard of the Club. No one had. We then drove another half a kilometer (on Lesbos, everything is allegedly half a kilometer away), right into the heart of this harbor town. We found some parking and Billy Todd, veteran of several Patmos expeditions, got out of the car and looked up at the two-story building right in front of us. The title of the old building was “Beniamin, o Lesbios.” Benjamin the Lesbian. Could this be the place? We found a way up to the second story (a back staircase) on this unnamed street. When we got up there, the folks in the place were surprised to see us there. In part, because we were younger than all the patrons by a good margin! This ‘club’ was not a nightclub, but a retirement home of sorts. It was a place where old, retired Greeks could play backgammon, billiards (though the pool table hadn’t been used in years), drink Ouzo, and gawk at the folks walking below in the town square. It was a place where gossip and old yarns could be spun without anyone looking at a watch. Very charming in its own way.
We noticed some glass-covered book shelves with some very old books in them. But the shelf number we were looking for was not there. So we spoke with one individual about what we were looking for, but he could hardly understand our impeccable English or Erasmian-slaughtered Greek. So, I wrote out in Greek what I wanted to say and he immediately placed a phone call. Answers were coming.
About 25 minutes later, the president of the ‘club’ and a friend came on the scene. It was about dusk now. We figured that we had better leave in the next few minutes if we were going to miss Death Trap Highway. I gave us fifteen tops before we could kiss our lives goodbye.
These gentlemen were most helpful, especially the friend. His English was excellent, making communication much easier. I asked where he learned it. He said, in a thick Australian accent, that he had been living down under for the past 44 years. Giorgio was just in town visiting old friends when the phone call came. Timing is everything.
We learned that the manuscript was no longer there, but we didn’t know where it was. Another phone call was placed and the owner of the club indicated that he had the manuscript in Athens currently (where he also happened to be). It was being photographed so that it could be published in a book, coming out next month.
Although this was disappointing news, we were able to buy a pre-release version of the facsimile with a handshake and exchange of some Euros. Before we could leave, however, food was served. Food and drinks and more old-timers showing up. Ouzo, the national drink of Greece, is especially big on Lesbos. The local Ouzo distillery was just a couple of kilometers away, and it had a great museum. The CEO of the distillery was soon at our table inviting us to take a tour of the place with him as our guide!
By the time we could say our goodbyes, daylight was a thing of the past. We were going to have to grope our way home on those unforgiving mountainous roads. When I thought that the Lord would surely protect us, I was reminded of the many crosses I had seen on the way to Plomari. Obviously, God doesn’t always work that way for his children. Sobering thoughts, but the kinds that get one to pray a bit harder.
As it turned out, driving in the dark ended up being a blessing in disguise. We could always see when an oncoming vehicle was approaching, and both could slow down and make the necessary adjustments. I suspect that many of the highway fatalities in Greece are due to small cars having to swerve to avoid big tourist busses that give no quarter. But our driver, Michael Schumacher (a.k.a. Brian Wright) himself gave no quarter. I’m just glad the police were sleeping off their Ouzo in other parts of the island!
Such are the adventures in looking for ancient copies of the New Testament. Now, we are back in our hotel—which has no telephone, no alarm clock, no television, and no air conditioning. And the Internet is unreliable, shutting down by 11 pm every night and hardly running well at other times. But since we’re on the coast, and the Aegean is especially calm tonight, I can get reception from another hotel half a kilometer away. Yes, half a kilometer away. Everything in Lesbos is half a kilometer away.