“Is Paris Burning?” Pics for Notre Dame

“Is Paris Burning?” Hitler reportedly asked the question on 25 August 1944. He had given orders for the French capital to be torched as Nazi forces retreated in order to spite the Allies. The Wehrmacht commanders defied Der Fuhrer’s order and Paris was preserved.* Today, however, one of the great monuments saved from insanity in 1944 is in flames.

As Notre Dame burns, I—like anyone that has experienced the magnificent cathedral—am filled with sadness and reflection. Many others are already holding forth on the cultural loss and meaning of the church. Rather than presume to add meaningfully to that dialogue, I’ll share some of my pictures of the monument in happier times.

Boobah, the Princess, and Mrs Ancient Dan across the Seine from Notre Dame, 12 March 1999 (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

I am very thankful that Mrs. Ancient Dan and I decided to invest in giving our children the experience of travel and, hopefully, an appreciation of cultural treasures and a global outlook. One of the things they enjoyed in person was Notre Dame.

Many of my visits to the cathedral were during long layovers at Paris’ CDG airport while leading student study-travel programs to Mediterranean countries. If I had six hours, I felt it was possible to take a train into the city (about 40 minutes), see a couple of sites, and make it back and through security to catch the flight on to Turkey, Greece, Jordan, or Israel. Notre Dame was always on the itinerary. Some thought I was crazy to try it; but in retrospect the risk was rather worth the reward—especially now that the cathedral is un-visitable (at least for the near future).

The 2015 STEP Greece trip group outside the iconic facade of Notre Dame during a blitz-tour on a layover in Paris (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, )
Notre Dame from the Pont de l’Archevêché, a “Love Lock” bridge, with students on a layover blitz-tour in 2014 (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2014-10-31)
Students at a votive candle stand inside Notre Dame with one of the rose windows behind (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-05-28)
The rose window; irreplaceable, I expect (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-05-28)
The rose windows get all the glory, but I really like the ones around the apse at the E end (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2014-10-31)

So . . . I have not named the General who defied Hitler’s order to burn Paris. This is intentional, because he did carry out other orders from on high and liquidated the Jews of the city during his tenure as occupying commander. That certainly stains his memory. But I am thankful to him for preserving the city and thus Notre Dame to be appreciated for nearly an additional 75 years.

Notre Dame in happier times (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-05-28)

* The story is well told in: Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, Is Paris Burning? Penguin Books, 1966. This engaging book was later made into a motion picture.

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The Hazards of Tax Day (Pic Of The Day, 2019-03-24)

I was considering some sort of “seasonal” post relating to that hazard of early Spring in the USA: the looming April 15 tax deadline. I have not dealt with my complicated tax situation for 2018 yet and need to get on it. Anyhow, my consideration of a tax theme turned to resolve at University Baptist Church this morning; a result of the New Testament passage (Matthew 22) and related sermon on the question posed to Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar. More about the connection below, but stay with me . . .

Panorama of the Roman Forum from the Palatine Hill; the subject of this post is at left center (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-02-21)

In the heart of Rome one can visit the preserved remains of the ancient Forum.  Near the center of the Roman Forum lie an often overlooked and nondescript ruin. It is the foundations of the Temple of Divus Julius; that is, the Temple to the deified Julius Caesar.

The central Roman Forum from the Palatine Hill; the Temple of Divus Julius is the ugly brown mass at lower center with idlers milling about in front, as usual (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-02-21)

Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, while exiting the Senate Chamber. At his public funeral in the Forum, Marc Anthony’s famous speech incited the crowd who then took over. Instead of the planned pyre on the Campus Martius, Caesar was cremated by the crowd across from his office as pontifex maximus (chief priest) at the Regia. A monument was hastily constructed there with an altar, but this was removed by the anti-dictator Liberator party. But two years later Caesar’s heirs (Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus) decreed that a temple would be built on the spot. Thus, Julius Caesar was officially deified and a cult established in the name Divus Julius.

The remains of the Temple to Divus Julius (foreground) in the Roman Forum; it is hard to get a pic clear of people because the railing in front of the nondescript ruins make a convenient spot for groups to wait around (as you can see here, unaware of the significance); note the later Temple of Antoninus Pius and Faustina (converted to a church) in the background (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-02-21)

The Temple’s size (with 40-foot columns on a high platform) is belied by the meager ruins today. Like other Forum monuments, it suffered from robbing and spoilage by the building programs of later holders of the title pontifex maximus (the popes). The entire superstructure and almost all original cut stones of the podium are now missing. A round altar (perhaps a rebuilding of the original crowd-sourced altar) in a recess of the podium is now closed in by a later wall, through which you must pass to view it. Despite its obscurity to the average tourist and somewhat hidden nature, however, I have never seen the altar without fresh floral offerings on top. Caesar was, and remains, a popular figure.

Altar associated with the Temple to Divus Julius, concealed from the crowds by the wall on the right; note the floral offerings on top, and many coins wherein folks apparently “rendered unto Caesar” (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-02-21)

What does all of this have to do with tax season? Above, I note that Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC. Most people don’t know that date, but many can answer the question “when was Caesar killed?” with the well-known day, “the Ides of March.” The Romans counted days of months differently than we do. The “Ides” was the middle day of the month; so, the Ides of March was March 15. The Romans also generally specified due dates for financial obligations by the Ides and, since they allowed a quarter to get previous years’ corporate debts to the government, March 15 was the day such debts were due. It was, essentially, “tax day.” Ironically, this became true under Julius Caesar as he instituted the “Julian Calendar,” which moved the traditional New Year’s celebration to January 1 from—even more ironically—March 15! While it is true that Caesar was supposed to depart Rome on the 18th and the Liberators had to act before then, what better day to choose than the one on which former happy celebrations were now replaced by debts due to the victim? The day very well may have been planned to minimize public retaliation (somewhat akin to issuing unpopular notices at work on Friday afternoons). Certainly the days after the assassination were used by both sides to curry public opinion, as in Antony’s speech and—on the other side—in a coin issued by the famous Liberator Brutus extolling the day’s act.

Silver denarius issued by Brutus (on obverse); with (reverse) “Ides of March” under Pileus (freedom cap) and two daggers (photo: British Museum)

While the Liberator conspirators’ act ultimately backfired and resulted in the deification of the one they wanted to eliminate, the whole affair highlights the political business of public perception. For more on that, and the connection to Jesus’ answer to the question posed to him on paying taxes to Caesar, stay tuned for the next post. For now, I have to go work on my taxes . . .

BTW; “tax day” in the USA used to be March 15 (from 1918 to 1954), but was extended to the “Ides of April”—April 15—two years before my birth. At this moment I am glad.

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Pics of St. Patrick’s Day: How the Irish Saved Civility*

Mrs. Ancient Dan had always wanted to visit Ireland, mainly because her dad had related accounts of his Irish ancestry. I was raised with a Protestant British distaste for the Irish, but with a suppressed knowledge of some Irish blood (revealed by the scattered red hairs visible when I allow my beard to grow). But I, too, wanted to see the place. So, we planned a trip for May of 2016.

Totally unexpected and traumatic things happened 9 days before the planned journey—events that completely disrupted our life and, perhaps worse, seemingly confirmed my cynicism about humanity. Our world was shattered. Nevertheless we decided to go to Ireland anyway, now more for escape from reality than anything else . . . and with dour hearts.

What we found there was a people of considerable politeness, kindness, and civility; just what we needed for encouragement. Mrs. A.D. and I had debated over what the “prototypical” Irish person would be (I argued for a red-headed girl). We were both right . . . and both wrong. I now think of the Irish in terms of temperament rather than outward appearance. And I thank them for challenging me to examine the way I treat others.

Oh, and Ireland itself is pretty nice too. We also “argued” over the “prototypical” Irish scene. We were both right, again. I’ll let pictures tell the story for the rest of this post.

First, the pic-out to St. Patrick: he gestures to Station Island in Lough Derg, site of St Patrick’s Purgatory. On the island, Patrick was shown a cave leading to Purgatory. The island became a center of Christian pilgrimage with penitential stations for preparation to visit that waystation of the Underworld! Those who know me well are aware that I am fascinated with ancient spots considered entrances to the Netherworld . . . but, sadly, the cave has been sealed and covered since 1632 and only genuine pilgrims are allowed out the island today on multi-day visits (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-17)
My pre-trip image of Ireland: abandoned churches with lichen-encrusted tombstones; this is the Hill of Slane (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-09)
Mrs A.D.’s pre-trip image of Ireland: super-green pastures with livestock in the distance; like this scene with the Drombeg Stone Circle in the foreground, one of the many megalithic monuments in the country (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-15)
The Cliffs of Moher on Ireland’s west coast, one of the many natural beauty wonders of the country (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-14)
Ardmore: Church Cemetery and Tower; another of the many ruined churches surrounded by graves in the country (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-10)
Carrigafoyle Castle, one of the many monumental medieval ruins in the country (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-13)
More green pastures and livestock . . . and another of the many megalithic monuments: Parknabinnia Wedge Tomb (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-14)
The Devil’s Causeway, another of the many natural wonders of [Northern] Ireland; sadly, the Korean Tour group and the gaggle of OU fans would neither help me recreate the “Houses of the Holy” Led Zeppelin album cover, nor get out of the way for my pics . . . (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-18)
On of my favorite pics of Mrs A.D. and me: together on the rocks of life, but taking it one step at a time (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-18)

Ireland is a great place to see things and think about life. So, I left there glad to have visited in troubling times and resolved to be conscious of how I treat people and react to circumstances.

BTW, we did DNA tests for Christmas and it turns out . . . I am more Irish than Mrs A.D., much to her chagrin (and my surprise)!
Perhaps that is why , for the first time ever, I wore green for St. Patrick’s Day today.


*A reference to the excellent book by Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization (New York: Doubleday, 1995).

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The Road Between Jerusalem and Jericho and the Road Between Discrimination and Acceptance (Pic Of The Day, 2019-03-10)

I was asked to give the “spoken reflection” at tonight’s Celtic Worship Service at University Baptist Church, and thought I would post my reflection here with a couple of pics. The focal passage is the famous “Good Samaritan” story in Luke 10, which I find very thought-provoking in light of the increased divisiveness and media focus on racism of late in our society. I have done a great deal of introspection on these topics in recent months and even thought of making an Ancient Dan blog post entitled “Confessions of a former Racist.” But my wife and daughter wisely advised against it. The “Good Samaritan” story, I think, provides a way to express my thoughts in a better way.

First, a quick look at the “Good Samaritan” account as I see it. Jesus tells the story in response to the question, “and who is my neighbor?” in the context of discussing the Jewish Law. In it, a man is assaulted by bandits and left for dead along the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. The geography is important here, as it is a desolate road through unoccupied desert, where there were no neighbors.

The Wadi Qelt, along the path of the road between Jerusalem and Jericho in the Judean Desert; the area was only inhabited by those seeking to get away—either from the authorities or for religious isolation (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-11-06)

As Jesus narrates, a priest came along the road and we expect that this religious man will help our unfortunate victim. But, alas, on this road a priest would be headed up to Jerusalem where he would serve his week-long rotation in the Temple. It was the highest religious duty in the Jewish Law and could not be compromised by uncleanness imputed by blood from the victim or—worse—contamination by his corpse should the man be found dead or die whilst receiving aid. The priest crossed to the other side and passed by. And the hearers of this story—all Jews—were not in the least surprised or judgmental. All the same logic was true for the Levite that happened along next. None of those listening expected that he would stop either. What crummy luck; our victim was having a really bad day. But then in Jesus’ telling there is another who appears and nears—a Samaritan! While we now think of “Good Samaritans” or even just “Samaritans” as helpers, this notion destroys the gist of the story. To the Jew, a Samaritan was the worst of rivals. Jesus’ listeners no doubt expected this “bad” (by their definition) Samaritan to stomp on the victim’s head and finish the job. The bad day, they thought, was now the worst of days. He of course, as we know, demonstrated the proper action of kindness.

Wadi Qelt: the monastery of St. George (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-11-06)

But this story is not about how to treat others; it is really about how we perceive them. I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about how I perceive others. I am a white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant heterosexual man. I was raised in a “middle-class” American home which, by any world-wide standard, was a life of privilege. So I am a potential poster-boy for racist and intolerant views. Nevertheless, I’ve always denied that I was bigoted or intolerant. In my extended family, I cannot ever recall having heard the “N” word used or any other racial or discriminatory epithet. BUT, that is a poor gauge on how I have perceived others. Like most folks, I learned from my youth to categorize people with labels like, “the black guy,” “the Mexican woman,” “the gay dude” or “the Alabama Crimson Tide sidewalk fan.” So this is not so much the confession of a former racist, but the admission of an unconscious tribalist.

I am convinced that human beings have an innate tendency for group identification, like the herd or pack instincts of other mammals. Unfortunately, in “civilized” human society it is somehow easier to identify one’s group by isolating those who are not part of it—through creation of the “other.” This is easiest with obvious differences like skin color, but the principle is the same for all discriminations.

Back to the “Good Samaritan.” The key for me is realization that the lesson is not in the story itself, but in the question asked by Jesus at the end, to the one who asked him “and who is my neighbor?” Jesus asked, “which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?”

It is sometimes observed that when the “lawyer” responded to Jesus, he was unwilling to use the designation “Samaritan” because of his disdain for that group. He responded, “the one who showed mercy on him.” The Jewish-Samaritan divide was severe, to be sure, but it was not due to physical difference. The Samaritans were—as an ethnic group—half Israelite. They were the other monotheistic minority in the early Roman Empire period, worshipping the same God as Israel and practicing circumcision like the Jews. The Romans could not tell the difference between Samaritans and Jews that were naked and talking about God. Tribalism and details of theology had created the schism.

It is true that the Samaritan demonstrates that all are our potential neighbors. But I wonder if the lawyer really got it right with his generic description. The main point may be how we perceive others upon first glance or knowledge. Do I continue using categories and labels for people, or can I see them generically, all capable of good and mercy. This is the challenge, and Jesus consistently points me—and all of us—in the direction of acceptance.

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Pic of the Day (2019-03-03): Dry Dry Desert 2, the Sun Temple of Niuserre

Exactly two months after my first blog complaint about this unbelievably wet winter, rain continues to fall and much of the USA is experiencing a renewed cold snap. Thus I am moved to wistfully feature another drier and warmer place: the 4500 year-old Sun Temple of Niuserr­ē in Egypt.

Abu Ghurob: Sun Temple of Niuserrē, with the pyramids of Giza on horizon at right (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2010-06-26)

Several of the Fifth Dynasty (c. 2500-2345 BC) rulers of Old Kingdom Egypt had pyramid tombs constructed at Abu Sir, 11 km southeast of Giza where the more famous Fourth Dynasty pyramids are found. The Fifth Dynasty was dominated by the solar cult of the sun god R­ē, and two of the kings built “sun temples” northwest of Abu Sir. The better preserved—and, naturally, harder to get to—is that of Niuserr­ē (“Delight of Re”). It is 1.6 km from Abu Sir, across the dry dry desert sands at Abu Ghurob. You don’t get this on the bus tour.

Fragment of an inscription with the hieroglyph for “obelisk” (bottom) among the ruins of the Sun Temple of Niuserrē (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2010-06-26)

The sun temple complex featured a platform rather like a truncated pyramid surmounted by an enormous obelisk, the symbol of R­ē. A hieroglyph in the pic above gives an impression of the now-ruined obelisk. The monument is surrounded by a courtyard with various cult buildings and a well-preserved altar. The altar does not get much attention but is cleverly formed by four limestone blocks with upper surfaces carved in the shape of the hieroglyph for “altar.” The Egyptians were great at word/picture play!

View from atop the ruins of the Sun Temple of Niuserrē, at Abu Ghurob; altar lower left, Abu Sir in background, right (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2010-06-26)

From the top of the ruins there is a great view of the altar, the Abu Sir pyramids to the southeast, the Giza pyramids in the distance to the northwest, and the very first Egyptian pyramid—built for Djoser in the Third Dynasty—which peeks over the horizon from Saqqara to the south.

Pyramids of Abu Sir from the Sun Temple of Niuserrē at Abu Ghurob; left-to-right: Pyramids of Sahurē, Niuserrē, Neferirkarē; visible over the horizon at right: the very first pyramid, the Step Pyramid of Djoser, at Saqqara (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2010-06-26)

It was well over 100° F at the site when these pics were taken and I recall running out of water quickly. Still, it looks pretty good from where I sit now.

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Pic of the Day (2019-02-20): The Rachel

To round out my “shipwrecks” POTD posts—of which this may be last, because I think I have run out of shipwrecks—I give you “The Rachel.” After Hurricane Camille in 1969, a mysterious shipwreck appeared on the Alabama coast five miles east of Fort Morgan. Reclaimed by the sea and sand, it reappeared temporarily after Hurricanes Ivan in 2004, Ike in 2008, and Tropical Storm Ida in 2009. Hurricane Isaac then exposed the wreck more than ever in 2012.[1] Apparently, tropical cyclones with “I” names have a thing for this ship.

The Rachel; exposed by Hurricane Isaac in 2012, here shown in 2013 (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-08-16)

Despite speculation that the wooden ship might be a Confederate blockade runner from the Civil War, Fort Morgan historian Mike Bailey is now certain that the wreck is the Rachel, lost to . . . you guessed it, a tropical storm in 1923.[2] Since the practice of naming storms by sequential alphabet letters had not yet begun, we don’t know if that hurricane would have had a moniker beginning with “I” (but I wouldn’t bet against it).

The Daughters and Granddaughter of Ancient Dan (Sarah, Amelia [11 mos], and The Rachel) watch for trouble from the charred bow of the schooner Rachel, near Fort Morgan, AL (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-08-16)

The Rachel has an odd backstory. A Mississippian, Captain John Riley Bless McIntosh, was never able to achieve his goal of owning a ship prior to his death. His daughter and heir, Rachel McIntosh McInnis, took her $100,000 inheritance to the De Angelo Shipyard in Moss Point, MS, to commission a ship in an attempt to fulfill her father’s dream. John De Angelo at first refused to take Rachel’s money, knowing that it was a futile investment.  But with hard times for business at the end of World War I, his sons accepted the job and built a 155 foot 3-masted schooner named Rachel for Mrs. McInnis. It remained docked at her expense from its completion in 1919 until her death in 1922. After that, the De Angelo brothers claimed the ship for unpaid dock fees and sold it at auction.[3]

Amelia revisits the wreck of the Rachel, near Fort Morgan, AL, a year later; a finely-preserved brass rudder hinge, visible when the ship emerged following the 2008 hurricane, has now been cut away from the stern (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2014-08-15)

The Rachel’s buyer hired a crew out of Mobile to operate the schooner for hauling lumber (big business in South Mississippi at the time). The first run successfully delivered a load to Cuba, but ran into trouble—the storm, classified as a hurricane—on the return journey. The Rachel was driven aground near Fort Morgan, with no loss of life. The crew emptied the unnamed light cargo and guards were posted to protect the impossibly beached ship until an insurance settlement could be obtained. Unknown parties burned the Rachel down to near the keel after that, presumably to salvage metal parts.[4] Thereafter, the charred hulk was lost to the sand and tide, to sporadically resurface by the same forces that doomed her.

The Rachel with the Rachel (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-08-16)

The Rachel was an odd and pleasant diversion on the Fort Morgan beach for a few years after 2012. It rests on private beach property, but was quite accessible from the beach. I have not seen the Rachel since August of 2014. A quick check of Google Earth reveals that the eroded beach has “recovered”—itself and the Rachel. So if you want to visit her, it seems you will have to wait for an I-named tropical storm to turn back the sands of time.

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[1] Erin McLaughlin, “Mystery of Shipwreck Uncovered by Hurricane Isaac Solved,” ABC News, Sept. 5, 2012, https://abcnews.go.com/US/mystery-ship-washed-hurricane-isaac-solved/story?id=17152464#.UEel0VQZxjl; Brian Kelly, “Wreck of sailing ship reappears at Fort Morgan beach after Hurricane Isaac,” AL.com, September 05, 2012, http://blog.al.com/live/2012/09/mystery_shipwreck_at_fort_morg.html.

[2] Ibid.

[3] John Sledge, “The True Story of the ‘Rachel’,” Mobile Bay Magazine, July 25, 2016, https://mobilebaymag.com/the-true-story-of-the-rachel/.

[4] Ibid.


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Pic of the Day (2019-02-05): Δημήτριος (Dimitrios); the Shipwreck of State, 2

My previous “Shipwreck of State” post bemoaned the chaos and unrest in Venezuela by featuring Aruba shipwrecks and Plato’s use of the Ship of State analogy to comment on proper leadership for democracies (Republic 6. 488a–489d). This got me nostalgic about shipwrecks I have known and resulted in the this brief follow up Pic Of The Day.

The southern part of mainland Greece is the large and important Peloponnese peninsula. The Peloponnese, in turn, terminates in three finger-like peninsulas pointing south into the Aegean/Mediterranean Sea. The central one is the Mani, whose tip is the southernmost point of mainland Greece. On the east side of the uppermost part of the Mani, there are two very nice straight beaches near Githio. As you come north over the hill from Selinitsa Beach, Valtaki comes into view, with an unusual feature — a semi-beached shipwreck. It is the Dimitrios (Greek Δημήτριος).

View of Valtaki (Βαλτάκι) Beach near Githio, Greece; obviously featuring a shipwreck—the ill-fated Dimitrios (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-05-23)

There are other and better-known shipwrecks around Greece, notably the spectacularly-situated MV Panagiotis, wrecked in 1980 on the island of Zakinthos at now-dubbed Navagio (“shipwreck”) Beach. I’ve noted its appearance in several commercials of late. Not accessible by land, the MV Panagiotis and its small cove is nevertheless mobbed by thousands of bathers a year, brought by tour boats in crowded masses.

The seldom-visited Dimitrios, on the other hand, is well-preserved and quite accessible if you know how to get there. And, best of all, You Don’t Get This On The Bus Tour (or the boat tour). I find it picturesque and eerily enchanting.

The wreck of the Dimitrios (Δημήτριος) on Valtaki Beach near Githio, Greece (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-05-23)

It is tempting to further my Shipwreck of State theme by noting that the Dimitrios looks as though its captain made a wrong turn and ended up aground. One could also compliment Plato’s Ship of State analogy with the biblical warning:

Look at the ships also; though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So the tongue is a little member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!

James 3:4-5

It turns out, however, that the Dimitrios’ story is more mundane and apparently lacks a boastfully inept pilot (Wikipedia has a good overview here). In late 1980 Dimitrios made an emergency stop at Githio, because the captain had a medical emergency. The crew was fired after financial disagreements shut down operations and the ship languished unattended. A year later it broke loose from the dock in severe weather and eventually washed up on Valtaki Beach. There Dimitrios was abandoned.

The Dimitrios under a cloud of uncertainty on Valtaki Beach near Githio, Greece (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-05-23)

Come to think of it, the Dimitrios still offers a poignant object-lesson.

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