As I walked through ancient Corinth, a British tourist behind me was narrating the site’s significance to his companions: “Yes, Paul visited here in the middle of the second century. It was during his second missionary journey…”
I briefly considered turning around to correct his mistaken timeline, but his statement instead alerted me to a distinctive aspect of Corinthian tourism in the 21st century: Tourists don’t visit Corinth for the sites.
Of course, Acrocorinth and the Corinthian Canal are spectacular to behold. The geography alone, a thin spit of land connecting the Greek mainland with the Peloponnese, justifies the train ride from Athens to Corinth. But compared to other major ancient cities—Rome, Athens, Jerusalem—Corinth simply lacks the imposing structures that attract droves of tourists. Only the ruined Temple of Apollo dominates a skyline comprised primarily of knee-high blocks and crumbling columns.
Nevertheless, a robust tourist industry drives the economy of Corinth, forever indebted to Paul and his famed letters to the early Corinthian ekklesia.
Corinth, in short, is not a site that you see. Rather, you experience Corinth.
The landscape, despite its decided lack of spectacular sites, becomes a canvas that pilgrim-tourists invest with meaning, inspiring a panoply of religious rituals and experiences. On any given day at Corinth, you will find Christian tour groups singing hymns, individuals sitting in the shade reading through 1 Corinthians, and others simply soaking in where “Paul had walked.”
Religious memory, text, and materiality combine to allow a timeless and acute immediacy to Paul and the Corinthian church. Lacking archaeological evidence of this church, the landscape demands the pilgrim to guarantee her own satisfaction in the site, imagining how Paul might have lived, where the Corinthians may have met for the Eucharist, and what troubles may have prompted Paul to pen his two epistles.
The Corinthian pilgrimage, therefore, paradoxically resurrects a dead ruin to nourish faith in the present, populating the landscape with events, people, and relationships long-since past.