Today we'll journey from Europe back to Africa, but we'll also go back in time. We'll fly over our final site in Europe, the famous Parthenon, a large temple that's stood in Athens, Greece for 2,500 years. Then we'll head southeast across the Mediterranean Sea to see something even older: the great Giza Pyramid complex in Egypt, which dates from an astounding 4,500 years ago! Think of our trusty C-47 airplane as not just a flying machine, but a time machine!
After leaving Rome, we fly east over the Apennine Mountains, which run almost the entire length of the Italian peninsula, from north to south. You may be surprised that although Italy was home base for the Ancient Romans, it's actually one of Europe's newer nations: Italy in its present form did not take shape until very late in the 19th century. Prior to that, the area south of the Alps was a checkerboard of duchies and kingdoms and city states that persisted long after other nations such as France, Spain, and Great Britain consolidated. One reason was geography: the Apennine Mountains are not the highest in Europe, but they're rugged enough to make travel difficult. So the whole area of Italy remained divided until the forces of nationalism became too strong to resist.
Although the process of unifying the Italian peninsula went on through the 19th century and wasn't really complete until after World War I, the country generally looks at the Risorgimento of 1861 as the nation's founding. In that year, a parliament was formed, Rome was declared capital, and King Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia was crowned King. Unlike most nations, Italy celebrates its birthday only every half century, most recently in 2011. Mark your calendars: the next one is due in 2061.
We continue east, crossing over the Adriatic Sea to the Balkan Peninsula, a mountainous region and home to many different ethnic groups and religious faiths (see the map at the bottom of the page). For example: Albania, the nation we cross over before we get to Greece, is Europe's only majority Muslim nation, with about 60 percent of the population practicing Islam. For centuries, the area was ruled either by the Hapsburgs of the Austro-Hungarian Empire or the Ottoman Empire in the East; growing nationalist rivalries in the early 20th century led to the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the Hapsburg throne, touching off World War I. For much of the 20th century, the area was governed by Yugoslavia, originally a Soviet satellite, although starting in 1948 an independent socialist dictatorship controlled by Marshall Josip Broz Tito until his death in 1980. After that, the states that made up Yugoslavia have become independent nations.
And now we fly south into Greece, a land of sunshine and year-round warmth, and which historians consider the cradle of Western civilization. It was here, in the southern reaches of the Balkan Peninsula, that a group of related city-states emerged in the 8th century B.C. They eventually coalesced into a society that pursued philosophy, science and knowledge as a way to get closer to the gods. By the 5th century, the Greek city of Athens in particular experienced a golden age: a century in which Greek culture reached its height thanks to figures such as Socrates, Plato, Aristophanes, and Aristotle. The discoveries of several Greek mathematicians, including Pythagoras, Euclid, and Archimedes, are still used in mathematical teaching today. To celebrate athletic prowess, the Greeks also created the original Olympic Games, which would be revived in 1896.
Although Greek city-states sometimes fought fiercely with each other, Athens gradually rose to be the most important "polis" of Grecian civilization. A sign of its importance endures in the Parthenon, a columned marble temple built between 447 and 432 B.C., during the height of the ancient Greek Empire. Dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena, the Parthenon sits high atop a group of temples known as the Acropolis. Throughout the centuries, the Parthenon has withstood fire, wars, earthquakes, and looting. When Christianity came to Greece in the 6th century A.D., the Parthenon became a church; later, when the Muslin Ottoman Empire conquered Athens in 1458, the Parthenon became a mosque.
The Parthenon survived nearly intact for more than 2,000 years, until 1687, when the Ottoman Turks used it for ammunition storage and a massive explosion turned it into the heavily damaged temple we see today. Although battered, the Parthenon remains a powerful reminder of the achievements of Athenian culture and Ancient Greece. Incredibly, the Parthenon's design does not include any straight lines. Instead, all elements are slightly curved, possibly to accommodate imperfections in the way the human eye perceives shapes. For example: the Parthenon's exterior columns all lean ever so slightly inward; if continued straight up, they would meet at a point about 1.5 miles high in the sky.
Now we head southeast, once more across the Mediterranean, where we'll make landfall in Egypt, which occupies Africa's northeast corner. Egypt, home to 100 million people, is also site of one of the world's great ancient empires. Beginning in about 3,100 B.C. (that's more than 5,000 years ago!) and lasting almost 3,000 years, the ancient Egyptians flourished along the Nile River, which flowed from Africa's interior and created a rich and fertile valley through the North African desert all the way to the Mediterranean. The thousands of years of ancient Egyptian history, culture, and achievements are known because the Egyptians used a form of writing that we can read today. That wasn't always the case: it was only in 1799 that the code of Egyptian characters was cracked with the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, which had the text of a decree in two forms of Egyptian as well as a translation into Ancient Greek. That allowed scholars to piece together an understanding of thousands of years of Egyptian written records.
The Great Pyramids of Giza, just outside the modern city of Cairo, stand today as one of the most famous landmarks of early human civilization. Overall, about 120 pyramids were built by the Egyptians as tombs for the kingdom's leaders, who were called "pharaohs." The three main pyramids at Giza stand as the most prominent survivors: the largest, the Great Pyramid at Giza and known as "Cheops," is 455 feet tall, and was the highest manmade structure on the planet until the cathedral in Lincoln, England, surpassed it in 1311.
Today, Cheops and its two neighboring pyramids, Khafre and Menkaure, retain their immense size and perfect shape. Their appearance, however, has changed: originally, they were covered with smooth white limestone, which would have made them brilliantly reflective under the intense Egyptian sun. Over the centuries, the limestone surface was removed for building projects in nearby Cairo, so what we see today is not what exactly ancient Egyptians were going for. Also part of the Giza complex is the "Sphinx," a large carving of a mythical creature with a human face. Archaeologists believe the statue bears a likeness of the pharaoh Khafre, but much else about the Sphinx is remains shrouded in mystery.
From the site of the great pyramids, it's only a short flight to the 21st century and Cairo's Sphinx Airport, where we'll end today's journey. Our flight shows that travel can be measured in distance, but also in time. Today we saw the remnants of great civilizations that flourished as much as 5,000 years ago. Looking ahead, our next leg will provide quite a contrast: we'll fly east over the ultra-modern Persian Gulf city of Dubai, home to Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building. We'll then continue east, all the way to India, home to 1.4 billion people and yet another ancient civilization. See you then!
Resources to learn more about today's flight: