The Sanctuary Atop the Hill

When planning our trip to Greece, Ron happened to be doing a job for someone who had gone to university in Athens, so he asked her for suggestions of things to see and do. A couple of days later, she gave him a sheet of paper filled with handwriting. Easily half the page was was an essay on why not to order Turkish coffee. There was an overview of the tensions between the two nations, a description of the likely angry reaction we’d get were we to order Turkish coffee, and an assurance that Greek coffee is the same thing.

Neither Ron nor I drink coffee.

Still, it was interesting to see the level of importance that can be attached to something as simple as coffee when it becomes representative of something much larger. And while she did suggest a few places to see, in truth, it wasn’t much help. We were going on a cruise, so our itinerary was quite rigid, and most of the suggestions were either on islands we weren’t landing at, or taking place during hours we were at sea.

But if it hadn’t been for that piece of paper, I’d have walked right past an important sign when we debarked at Mykonos. It was for boat tours to Delos, an island that had been flagged in bold pen strokes as something not to miss. So minutes after coming ashore, we were on the water once again, heading to explore a place we knew nothing about based on a vague recommendation from a near-stranger half a world away.

We wouldn’t be disappointed.

Delos, according to legend the birthplace of the gods Apollo and Artemis, is an uninhabited island full of ruins. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, although you’d never know it based on the state of the presentation. Signage is random, both in terms of placement and language, the paper maps available at the entrance bear only a passing resemblance to the actual grounds, and the map boards along the paths are … not particularly useful.

But …

When we landed on the island, we realized we wouldn’t have time to see everything. Ron asked which way I wanted to go and, glancing at the map, one site in particular jumped out at me: the Sanctuary for Zeus and Athena. I jabbed my finger at it and said, “There. Take me there.” (My extreme lack of a sense of direction means Ron’s the navigator on all our journeys.) He glanced between the map and the landscape a few times, then struck off, me trotting along beside him, happily gawking about.

In this case, I probably could have managed to find my way, though, as the general direction one has to go to reach the Sanctuary is ‘up.’ It’s atop the island’s highest point, and is a bit of a climb. Now, I can walk for forever, but I’m not good with either steep uphills or stairs. So this was a bit daunting.

It was worth every step, though. When we reached the top, it was like stepping into a bubble. There were a couple of dozen people around, and while the Sanctuary’s footprint is actually quite small, it didn’t feel crowded. There was a quietness to it, a heightened silence, like sound was being dampened. Hardly anyone was making any noise – many of the people there were sitting quietly, some soaking in the sun while gazing out at the ocean, others reading or sketching – but those who were engaging in more traditional sightseeing activities seemed somehow remote. Even the sound of our footfalls seemed less intrusive.

But the most extraordinary thing was the inuksuit.

The inuksuk is a very Canadian image. It originated with the Indigenous peoples of the northern Arctic regions, who use the piles of stones as landmarks. Over the years, though, inuksuit have become more and more prevalent in mainstream culture, especially since the creation of the Nunavut territory, which features an inuksuk on its flag. I was a teenager before I saw my first one – a soapstone carving in a touristy gift shop – but now they’re everywhere.

Although when I say everywhere, I mean everywhere in Canada. I did not expect to see a hundred or more of them scattered about an archaeological site on a hilltop in Greece.

The Sanctuary on Delos planted a seed that I’ve carried ever since. Although it’s a bit woo for me, it was the first time the idea occured to me that some places give off a kind of energy, that after so many years of so many people being in the space with the same intention, the ground itself absorbs it and gives it back.

I don’t really believe that, of course. The reality is that I went in search of a Sanctuary, and a Sanctuary is what I found – because I made it one in my own head long before I got to the top of the hill. But as I stood there, leaning against the only remaining plinth, in the silence and the sun, surrounded by inuksuit, I felt as at peace as I ever have in my life.

It was a profound moment, and it felt like it needed to be memorialized somehow. And while the traditional use for inuksuit is as landmarks, nowadays many people build them as a way of saying, “I was here,” as a way to leave a mark. They build them on beaches, in parks, along hiking trails, beside highways.

And, sometimes, atop a Greek island.

Our inuksuk sits apart from the rest. It’s a little thing, really, but I’ve attached great importance to it. One day I hope to return to Delos and sit next to it, (because of course it will still be there – please allow me that pleasant if unlikely thought), and find that peaceful feeling once again.

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