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Traveller's gifts

"When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiPped Him.

"When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiPped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh."

Matthew 2:11

The gifts brought by the magi to honour baby Jesus — gold, frankincense, and myrrh — can all be found among the colourful mazes of the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul, Turkey. The labyrinths of the five-hundred-year-old markets and courtyards also include lamps to be rubbed, slippers with toes curled up, and rugs that conjure images of flying carpets, as well as digital clocks and modern toys. When a muezzin calls for Muslim prayers, some of the shops close up, but many others continue bargaining or offer hospitable sittings for some tea.

Amidst stalls with gold jewelry and the aromatic bags of spices, there are also lumps of different colours. Both frankincense and myrhh are organic resins or saps that have hardened from wounds in specific trees, yet ironically are known to heal people.

Both have been used for millennia to improve spirit and body by Judaic, Christian, Ayurvedic, Chinese, and Arabic traditions for medicinal, perfumery, and purification purposes via ingestion, essential oils, or incense.

Frankincense was purportedly introduced by the Frankish crusaders who brought it to Europe, but it is not named after them. One theory is that the "frank" (meaning "free" then) was before the "incense" because the substance burned freely. Myrrh comes from the Aramaic and Arabic words meaning "bitter" and also shows up in the Talmud and New Testament.

These were just some of the tantalizing bits of information gleaned during my "Ancient Mysteries" cruise run by Holland America — a trip that takes your through time, history, and the Mediterranean. Our port of embarkation was Istanbul, with its truly grand bazaars, mosques, temples, and waterways. The journey included cruising the Dardanelles; enjoying the windmills, white-washed shops, and hip beaches of Mykonos; getting scholarly in Rhodes; exploring Athens, and seeing ancient wonders on shore.

This time of year though, I think of the visits in and around Ephesus, on the Ionia coast of the Mediterranean. The area has archeological draws from civilizations a thousand years before the birth of Jesus, but it is the Mother of Jesus and one of his favorite disciples, John, who have attracted religious pilgrims through the AD centuries.

Many believe that Apostle John was given instructions from Jesus to preach in Asia, and that, when banished from Jerusalem, he headed to Ephesus, where he wrote the Gospel of John and, perhaps nearby, Revelations. In the 6th century, an extraordinary "Basilica of St John" was built over the spot where his tomb is thought to be. It became a major pilgrimage goal in medieval times. Now, some imagination is necessary to envision the edifice, or to go back further in time and conjure the youngest apostle looking out at the hills, preaching Christianity, and honouring Jesus' dying request to look after his mother, Mary.

"The House of Mary," where the Virgin Mother of Jesus is believed to have spent her last years, is also a site pilgrims have approached as sacred for centuries, and it was included as part of Holland America's "Best of Ephesus" excursion.

After navigating a parking lot full of tourist buses, I walked past the shops of jewelry and religious souvenirs, intrigued by the sight of the blue evil-eye charms, seen throughout Turkey, for sale here with a Christian cross attached.

There was a long line to get into Mary's rock-walled, peaceful-looking home. Once inside, the stone walls seemed to embrace a religious hush and wonder. The collective respect of the visitors created an almost palpable, gentle sensation. For many, it was a shrine. For others, a contemplative pause. Had the mother of Jesus breathed air here too? And prayed and hoped here? What would it have been like to be the mother of Jesus?

Outside, ancient olive trees wrapped around the rocks and signs quoted the Bible and the Koran about the importance of Mary as the mother of the prophet Jesus.

The ramped passageway leading down from the home to gardens had a high stone wall. At quick glance, a long portion looks like an art installation — thousands of various textures and sizes of paper are rolled up and placed inside crevices. It seems to be organic, growing up and out.

The papers hold prayers — rows, columns and bunches of praise, pleas, supplication, requests, and gratitude. Different languages and penmanships express expectations and hopes of people from around the world. The curious reader in me wanted to unroll them all, read them, and tuck them back in.

Instead, I found paper and pen and added my prayer for peace, joy, and love in the world — the messages of Mary's son whose birth is celebrated and honoured worldwide.

Peace. Joy. Love.