Cappadocia and Pamukkale, Turkey 1987
Updated: Jan 4, 2021
This narrative forms part of our one year-round-the-world honeymoon. We depart the south coast of Turkey, travelling inland to the surreal landscape of Cappadocia, then enter the Holy Land of the New Testament.
After an abundance of Turkish cuisine, we decided to leave the Kas food fest behind. I convinced Elaine the surreal Cappadocia Valley was worthy of a visit, despite a two-day journey from Kas. I'd spent 10 days there on my last visit to Turkey two years previous, and felt it had to be experienced once again while we were in the neighbourhood.
We couldn’t catch a train to the region, but comfortable Mercedes buses were a good plan B. The only drawback was cigarette smoking by men, who seemed to constitute a majority of travellers.
Typical bus conversation: “You want a cigarette.”
“No thanks, I’ll just breathe the air.”
After a rather long but fortunately uneventful journey, broken up with an overnight stay in Konya, we arrived some thirty six hours after leaving Kas in Neveshir, gateway to Cappadocia. The weather was cool compared to the coast, as we found ourselves on the central Anatolia Plateau. Neveshir, ancient Nissa, seemed much more traditional than the coastal tourist region; we counted over 10 mosque minarets in the small town.
We set out for Göreme Valley by Dolmus which took us to Üchisar. Most travellers head for Urgup, tourist capital of this burgeoning region (a “must see” destination in Turkey). But two years previous, I’d discovered an enchanting little hotel called La Maison Des Rèves, or The House of Dreams, which possessed one of the most amazing views along the entire dusty trail.
How to describe the Göreme Region? On a map we’d been given by an American couple on the boat to Marmaris:
“Truly there is no other place like this on earth. Wind and rain have eroded the brittle volcanic soil of this region into a spectacular bizarre landscape of rock cones, capped pinnacles and fretted ravines, known as fairy chimneys.”
The landscape seemed like a set from a Star Wars movie. Layer upon layer of volcanic soil, pressed and folded by a giant hand, rolled down from Üchisar to a mountain range in the distance. Üchisar was carved out of a giant rock mound as if it was a human honeycomb, replete with cave dwellers, a real life Raiders of The Lost Ark.
When I was here two years previous, I witnessed some very impressive sunsets from the top of this mound, along with a couple hundred Frenchmen staying at the Club Med on the other side of town.
Our hotel was built into the side of this huge mound, and we had to walk through dark tunnels to find our room. The walls were solid rock, virtually soundproof, and two huge windows opened out onto a mesmerizing view of the entire valley. The interplay of light and shadow on the faery chimneys and ridges below us, displaying an surreal range of colours from red to yellow, kept us enthralled for hours on end.
Some of these faery mounds were still used as dwellings for the locals; others balanced slabs of rocks on their tops, which threatened to topple in a strong wind, but had actually been there for generations.
The region is a favourite with archeologists, who explore the many citadels carved out of the soft rock by the earliest Christians. The oldest rock churches in the region date back to at least the 4th century AD, but most of the remaining temples are post 8th century AD. These worshippers carved caves in hidden pockets of the valley, building their churches and monasteries, and even burrowing into the ground at Derenkuyu. Here, they could practice their faith with less fear of persecution from the Romans and Arabs (final score at the Roman Coliseum: Lions 21 - Christians 0!).
Dinner that evening was an exotic affair. We were entreated to enter the restaurant, a room carved out of the rock. Joined by several other travellers, all from France, (one of the French guidebooks sung the praises of the hotel). Our host sat with us as we chatted in French about the region and its peoples. The food was brought to us by his young helper, Shallik, who waited on us hand and foot. For a set price, we ate a delicious meal sitting cross-legged on cushions while our host lit a fire for heat and oil lamps for light; the whole scene was right out of the Arabian Nights, to say the least.
The next day, after a breakfast of feta, boiled egg, bread, butter, jam and tea out on the terrace of our hotel, we headed out to capture photos of the region, as it was a brilliant sunny morning. We walked down the steep road toward the town of Göreme, when we spotted a sign pointing to the Valley of Love. As this name captured our imagination, we began to walk down a dirt track past donkeys and Turks working in their fields for the spring planting. The Valley of Love was actually some giant rocks weathered like enormous penises!
We noticed a couple looking down the steep crevice at the phallic rockface, and as was our habit whenever we met travellers or tourists, we bade them a good morning. As we headed down the road toward Göreme, the couple stopped next us in their car and asked if we’d like a lift into the town below.
Volkmar, the driver, and his girlfriend, Heidi, were independently touring Turkey in a rented auto. Elaine and I had just finished commenting on ow the numerous Germans touring the region, as it had become a very popular destination.
In Göreme, set at the bottom of the valley, we found an ancient Byzantine Church with well-preserved frescos. We also spent some time walking around the town peering into some of the faery castles to explore first-hand how locals lived inside these buildings. According to legend, 365 churches were constructed in the Göreme area, so the Christians could have mass at a different altar every day of the year!
Volkmar inquired about our plans for the day. We said we were going to walk around the valley, but he insisted we tour the region with them.Thus, we spent the rest of the day driving around the magnificent valley, visiting places we probably wouldn’t have been able to walk around. Volkmar insisted we travel with them to Pamukkale, our next destination, in two days’ time. For a change, we wouldn’t have to travel by bus!
Our next stop was a U.N.E.S.C.O open air museum, kept under lock and key, guarded 24 hours a day. Man is a greater threat to the churches’ preservation than nature or the effects of time. The site is splendid, nestled in its own valley. Unfortunately, many of the exquisite frescoes have been destroyed by vandals, but the ones that remain are breathtaking in their simplicity.
The ruins at Göreme feature a steep rock face which housed a six-story kitchen and convent, a chapel and cells connecting the nuns quarters to the priest chambers via underground passages (who knows what they were up to?). Other buildings and caves features frescoes and and baptism font.
Actually, one of the best preserved frescos lay just outside the site, in the Church of the Sandals, the Carickli Kilise. The religious figures are painted into domes and separated by primitive columns. St. Basil is a prominent figure in the paintings, as he was one of the early Christian settlers in the region. Other figures including St. George, the patron of Cappadocia and the Bishop of Caesarea.
Next, we drove to Zelve, a city carved out of rock nestled in a small valley. The entire population was evacuated in the fifties as the town became too dangerous as an earthquake had loosened much of the rock. The white walls of this small valley were hard on our eyes in the bright sunlight.
We explored several caves, along with a host of tourists who pulled up right on schedule at the exact time we arrived in the valley. At one point, before the locals were evacuated the valley was divided into two sectors: one for the Christians, and the other for the Muslims. A small mosque with tiny minarets still stands on the site.
At Avanos, along the banks of the Kizilirmak River, we found a centre for pottery and jewellery, mostly tacky and primitive, but at the back of the shops, in deep caves, we discovered fine works that Volkmar purchased.
On the road to Kayseri, a city of some 350,000 people on the edge of the Cappadocia Valley, we climbed over a ridge, stopped for a most impressive view of the entire region. Then, in driving rain, we entered the city, we through ancient Justinian walls into the old quarters. A giant black-domed Mosque of Industry dominated the centre of town.
Volkmar was interested in purchasing rugs and the famous smoked meats from the old market area. We found a place to park the car and passed through the gates of the old city, past the Seljuk lions guarding the entrance. Inside, a different world, ancient buildings and narrow lanes filled with the smells of spices and sounds of merchants engaged in bargaining. We found many rug dealers, but Volkmar felt the prices were too expensive.
“I want to invite you to have dinner with us this evening,” said Volkmar. “we are staying in Urgup, and we know a very good restaurant that serves delicious Turkish food.”
“Sounds good to us,” we said in unison.
Off to Urgup, tourist centre of the valley, with beautiful modern hotels built into the rocks, preserving the skyline and blending in quite nicely with the rest of the buildings. Dinner was another cornucopia of Turkish delights. We ate sis kepabs, stews, a variety of mezes, all washed down with robust local red wines. Then, Volkmar and Heidi took us downstairs to enjoy some traditional regional dancing, complete with bright costumed Turkish men and women, a scene out of the 1,001 Arabian Nights.
The next day, Volkmar said he’d pick us up at 10 am for the journey to Lake Egidir and on to Pamukkale. As we were preparing to pay our bill, we were dismayed to learn the price we were quoted for the room was per person. So, the money we were saved by traveling by car to Pamukkale was spent on the room.
After an hour of waiting in Üchisar’s main square, watching horse drawn carts pulling locals up and down the steep stone lanes, we wondered if our German friends had forsaken us. Eventually, the little blue car came roaring around the bend, and soon, we were on our way to the last stop in Cappadocia, the caves at Derinkuyu.
I asked Volkmar what had caused them to be delayed.
“I finally found the carpet I wanted to buy,” he said with glee. “But the price was very high. I couldn’t act too interested, because I wanted to drive the price down. So, we must drink many glasses of tea, and sit and listen to many stories about his family and the place where the carpet is made. But in the end, I got the carpet for a very good price, and I am very happy.”
At Derinkuyu, he pulled out the carpet. It was quite different from typical Turkish rugs, which favour reds and blacks. His was green, very unusual and of exceptional quality.
“This is the one I have been looking for since we came here two weeks ago. I know it is authentic, because I collect rugs in Germany.”
“Just what is it you do for a living,” I asked, as they obviously weren’t overlanders we’d been hanging out with in Asia.
“I am an industrialist, and my factory in Bavaria makes furniture,” he said. ” And Heidi works for the magazine Das Stern, the biggest publication in Germany. We like to vacation together, and we try to go somewhere exotic. Since so many Germans are coming to Turkey, we thought it must be a good place.”
That mystery resolved, we decided to explore the caves at Derenkuyu. That is to say, excepting Elaine, who didn’t relish the thought of being cooped below ground. The region was non-descript and quite flat compared to the nearby valleys, but the caves descended to a depth of over 400 feet, although tour groups only go descend to about 150 feet.
To escape marauding Arabs, Christians needed a place to hide. Depending upon which account one reads, up to 100,000 people were housed in these caves, on eight separate floors. We climbed down into the caves, with the aid of bright lights and flashlights.
“Well, I hope it’s not earthquake season,” I thought as we caught one last glimpse of daylight.
According to our guide, the entrance was covered by a giant rock, and the site wasn’t discovered until 1950. A central airshaft ventilated the entire chamber, but no smoke was allowed to escape for fear of detection by plunderers. The underground community was entirely self-contained, including cemeteries, churches, kitchens and accommodations. They must have been a race of short people, because Volkmar and I had a sore back by the time the tour was done, as we continually bent over the whole time.
How they managed to squeeze so many people into such a tight area for years is a feat that can only be appreciated by visiting the site. We stood incredulous at the thought of such an undertaking, and were relieved when the two hour tour was over.
Our journey away from the Cappadocia then took us onto a very flat Anatolia plain. The landscape drifted away for miles in every direction, like the western prairie in Canada. Here, however, small herds of sheep (future Donar Kepab!), small villages of mud huts with narry a tree to be seen; gypsy nomads, in their horse or donkey-drawn carts marcheddown the highway. Volkmar made his kamikaze bus-driver counterparts proud as he pushed the little Nissan rent-a-car to new speed limits.
“I drive a Mercedes-Benz 560 sedan in Germany,” he grinned. “We have the autobahn, so I always drive over 180 km per hour.”
“Is it true they have blood transfusions available at service centres to treat accidents victims,” I inquired.
“Yah, we have many bad accidents on the autobahn, but I am a good driver and am very careful,” he said.
His driving abilities were expert, as he steered around donkey carts, slow moving buses, tractors and cars. We passed through Konya, climbed up into the mountains with a final view of the Anatolia Plateau behind us. At sunset, we neared along the shores of Lake Bevshehir, and by twilight, arrived at Lake Egidir.
Heidi and Volkmar checked into a flash hotel, as they had quite a lot of money. While Elaine waited in the lobby, I walked around the old quarter looking for a cheap room. After some effort and the inspection of several disgusting dingy rooms, I managed to find a decent room at a fair price, although we discovered later the washrooms were abominable (we’d been using a clothes-pin on our nose for some time). One of the downsides of travel on the cheap is coming into a strange town and trying to locate a room at night.
We enjoyed another delicious meal by the lakeshore in a fine restaurant with Volkmar and Heidi, eating fresh fish and the familiar but never boring mezzes and got quite sauced on several bottles of wine and beer. Once again, he forcefully insisted on paying for our dinner, despite my protest.
At daybreak, we almost jumped out of our skin as the muezzins call to prayer echoed down the narrow laneway next to our hotel. We found Volkmar and Heidi, who’d already eaten breakfast, and wanted to shop in the quaint town. We walked by the old fort, ate a take out breakfast by stopping at several cafés: yogurt, sis Kepab (great for breakfast!), bread shaped like donuts and rice puddings. With few tourists in this region, prices were geared to local budgets.
I decided to seek a barber, as my beard had grown shaggy since my close shave in Kas. Down a darkened lane, I found a traditional Turkish barber with few customers, who said I was next. Turkish men sport very heavy beards, and barbers are expert shavers. The little barber shop was without electricity, water heated over hot coals. First, a layer of hot soap was vigorously applied to my face, then another. Soon wiped clean, a hot towel was pressed over my beard. After five minutes, this was removed, more shaving cream was added, and only then, after my beard was good and moist, was the shaving performed. The barber was quite deft at beard trimming, and in no time, I was a new man, ready for our ride to Pamukkale.
Volkmar wanted to check out a small island of the edge town, reputedly the site of Byzantine houses. The lake was a beautiful turquoise colour in the morning haze; we crossed a small peninsula to reach the little island. The houses were quite charming, and we watched fishermen tying up to the dock in their small wooden boats.
On the outskirts of town, we passed a military base, young recruits engaged in basic training. All young men have to serve in the military in Turkey, a NATO ally. We’d talked to numerous Turks many who were appalled, and they asked if we had such a draft system in Canada. I was thankful no such policy existed in my country, but Volkmar noted that service was compulsory in Germany.
“I didn’t have to serve in the military, because I was born in Berlin, and we have separate passports,” he explained. “Every German must spend eighteen months in the service, except we Berliners.”
On the road to Denizli, we came into a series of meadows covered with brilliant spring flowers. When travelling by bus or train, it is often difficult to stop for photos, and we’d missed many fine scenes in Asia. Volkmar was an avid photographer, and when he saw the bright scene on display, hit the brakes.
I was surprised to see the fields full of opium plants. A cacophony of purples, blues, whites and reds greeted us, perfect for close up photos of the tall bulbs. We’d heard about the opium production in Northern Thailand, and it was possible to buy postcard in that country with poppies dripping opium. Turkey had long been a centre of opium production, according to our travel pamphlet (Turkey’s tourist ministry produces excellent literature on the country’s diverse regions).
During the Nixon administration, the US applied heavy pressure on the Turkish government to convince peasants to stop cultivating this plant, which had been grown for centuries. This region’s crop had become strictly controlled, with most of the harvest going to laboratories, the remainder toppinsg for the favoured poppy seed cakes in Germany and Austria.
We also passed a fields filled with some type of beautiful purple flowers (I’m no horticulturalist), a veritable 19th century impressionist painting; we looked around for Degas, whose biography I happened top be reading at the time!
The Cotton Candy Cliffs
On to the resort town of Pamukkale and the ancient city of Hierapolis. The temperature had risen as we came over the mountains, in marked contrast to the climate on the Anatolia Plateau in late spring. Soon, we could see the white cliffs of Pamukkale, literally the Cotton Fortress. These looked for all the world like ice-covered hills, which was impossible given the 90 degree temperatures outside. The ivory cliffs rise over 300 feet from the valley floor, out of place in the brown surroundings. Here small pools are fed by hot springs, allowing weary travellers to indulge in therapeutic baths.
Our first order upon arriving was to find a motel. When I had visited two years earlier, the town below the cliffs had a few small inns for travellers, while on the plateau above, several flash hotels catered to the rich and famous. Now, the lower village had more than quadrupled in size, so finding a hotel was easy. As we wanted to be away from the highway, we strolled down a dusty lane to a charming little place with a pool fed from the springs. Then, we walked up the road to the plateau to join Heidi and Volkmar at their flash bungalow.
We passed numerous thermal pools, gleaming in the afternoon sun. Water seemed to be gushing out of every crevice, carving out small pools, like private bathtubs, out of the calcinated cliffs. These formed a series of terraces, mother nature’s champagne float, filling and spilling down to the next layer, turning chalky white the lower it descended. Some of the calcium has formed stalactites below the pools, like a set of teeth ready to gobble up the hordes of tourists who danced from pool to pool.
I enjoined Volkmar and Heidi to come with us to one of the more interesting swimming pools in the area. The Turizm Motel sells tickets to the public for a modest fee. A crystal clear pool was set in a lush courtyard, the bottom was littered with Roman columns and and slabs of antiquities. The waters were 105 degrees, and bubbled like Perrier. It was a most unusual way to explore Roman ruins, soaking in the soothing waters of this swimming hole while sitting on someone’s headstone from the Roman era! Anthony and Cleopatra were said to be among the guests who’d once bathed in the waters of the Turizm Motel.
For the next two days, we spent our time either in the Turizm Motel’s pool, in the baths on the cliffs, or exploring the ancient city of Hierapolis, despite a series of earthquakes and lots of looting by the locals in the past 2,000 years. The necropolis was absolutely astonishing in size, and the ancient graveyard was eerie, headstones and crypts poking out of the ground.
As Romans were fanatics about their baths, the ancient spa at Hierapolis became a “must-do” trip for the gentry. In fact, the reason the necropolis was so large was that many Romans came and simply stayed, so enjoyable were the hot pools. Grave robbing has been an industry around here since the city was abandoned in the 13th century AD, but is now a protected site.
On a full moon night, we walked up to the ancient theatre, almost perfectly preserved. The gates were closed, so we couldn’t enter, but in the bright lunar light, we could see the arena which seated more than 15,000 people, still in usefor stage plays and concerts, as was the site at Ephesus, our next destination.
Huge pillars were still visible, and in the local museum, we were treated to quite a collection of monuments, statues, marble carvings and busts of Roman leaders. Some of the columns had been repositioned to provide an impression of the city; the ancient city gates stood as testament to the architects of the era. Of course, this site paled in comparison with Ephesus and Aphrodite, but to Volkmar, Elaine and Heidi, who hadn’t seen these sites, it was amazing.
Volkmar and Heidi were anxious to head to the coast, but Elaine and I were so captivated with the magic of Hierapolis, we decided to stay an extra day. As our German friends were on their way to Aphrodisias, we thought we’d tag along for the ride. As we headed off the main highway into the hills, we travelled back in time, passing a landscape unchanged since the Roman era, fields of olive tress and rolling pine covered hills.
At Aphrodisias, a huge crowd of Turks dressed in traditional costume congregating at the ruins. A sporting event and parade was scheduled to take place that afternoon, in celebration of a Turkish holiday, whose name we never did discover. Many children were brightly adored in beautiful hand-weaved outfits, while their fathers strutted about with old muskets.
We toured the museum, which was overflowing with Roman artifacts. Aphrodisias housed over 60,000 citizens at its peak in the first century BC. The cult of Aphrodite was a powerful force in Greco-Roman times, and many fine marble statues dedicated to their goddess were preserved in a hall devoted exclusively to the love goddess, her priests and priestesses.
The ruins were under excavation and signage led us down cobbled roads.
We could imagine Romans passing by columns and temples in their horse-drawn carriages. Much of the Agora, or city, remains unexcavated, but the Baths of Hadrian were uncovered, and sent off to the museum at Istanbul, an enormous collection of artifacts that I had toured two years previous. A huge ringwall protected the site; the amphitheatre, filled to bursting with a crowd of Turks here for the ceremonies, was like a college football stadium with a capacity of more 30,000 citizens.
As Volkmar and Heidi headed to the coast, we rode back down to the main highway with them. Then, we parted company with those fine people, who had shown us a good time and treated us to many fine meals. The previous night, in an extremely fancy restaurant near the spa, we’d even indulged in champagne (“I insist you eat meat tonight, because you never order meat,” he’d pronounced).
Almost immediately, a bus came along to transport us to Denizli. On board, a couple from England, Barnaby and Anna, were on their way to the spa. We suggested they book into our hotel, but when we arrived, our proprietor said the place was full, despite the fact many rooms remained vacated. This should have been a tip off that the owner of the AliBaba Hotel was insane, but we weren’t to find this out until the next day.
We spent the rest of the afternoon luxuriating in the hot pools of the motel with Anna and Barnaby. I always enjoyed the expression on people’s face when they jumped into the Perrier-like waters with Roman ruins at the bottom. Like some kind of wild fantasy wish could never end, the waters of Pamukkale lulled one into a state of mellowness.
The next day, same routine, food and soaks. We’d washed our clothes in the morning at our hotel in preparation for the journey to Selçuk the following morning. When we returned to our motel that evening for showers before we were to join Barnaby and Anna for dinner, no water was available to shower off the calcium we’d accumulated over our body at the pools, despite the assertion of the owner that hot water was available 24 hours a day (as it should be, since the water bubbles out of the ground and is channeled through a series of small canals to all the hotels in the region.
I protested to the owner, saying he’d promised hot water when we checked in. He claimed the reason there wasn’t any water was because we’d used it all up to wash our clothes some ten hours earlier! I said this was ridiculous, for the tanks should have had plenty of time to refill, and that we’d used very little water to wash our duds.
To my amazement, he grabbed me and pushed me against the wall. My first reaction was to smack him and make mincemeat out of his face. But I caught myself, counted to 10, turned around and walked back to the room and said to a startled Elaine: “We’re packing and getting the hell out of here.”
It was always safest to walk away from nut cases in the Third World, because you never know if they are psycho or would call in the troops to make you disappear. It just wasn’t worth it, as far as we were concerned. After almost a full year of travel, this was the first time we’d ever been threatened by a hotel owner, not a bad record, considering some of the horror stories we’d heard about robberies, peeping Toms, rapes and more from travellers – and their so-called hosts.
It wasn’t difficult to find another room for our last night, so we just walked out and left behind a family of young girls, obviously living in a state of terror with their tyrannical father. We spent the evening at a delightful cafe with Barnaby and Anna, drinking massive quantities of beer and dining on delicious local fare with some very friendly Turks, but did look over our shoulder from time to time.
Turkish Holy Land
We enjoyed a rather hung-over breakfast on the terrace of our hotel with Barnaby and Anna. They insisted we visit them in London when we arrived in two weeks time. Back on the bus to Selçuk, the closer we got to the coast, the hotter the temperature. We had neared the summer solstice, and the hills fairly baked in the blazing noonday sun.
Selçuk was a dream; the region was extremely rich with ruins and antiquities, a key centre in the development of the Christian religion. Finding a hotel was a bit of work, but eventually we ended up in a very quaint small inn off-the-beaten track, with a Turkish family. Prices were controlled by the government, as so many pilgrims travel to this region, due to the triple attractions of St,John’s Basilica, The Temple of Artemis and the ancient city of Ephesus.
There was much to explore and we hardly knew where to begin, so we took a nap. At sunset, we climbed up to St.John’s Basilica, and were afforded an astonishing view of the town, its 14th century mosque dominating the skyline, a large wall circling the old city. To the west, the valley housed the magnificent ruins of Ephesus.
We entered the ruined basilica, built by the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century AD, whose biography by Gore Vidal is a “must read” for those touring the region; we stood over the site of St. John’s tomb, encased in marble. Domes were set over the site, and roman columns had been re-erected to lend a sense of place.
Nearby, a plaque commemorated visits by Popes John Paul II and Paul VI. Several crosses had been erected by early Christians, to show how the Romans had been converted from the Cult of Artemis. All that remained of the Temple of Artemis was a pile of rocks below us, sacked by the Cimmerians in the 7th century BC. Later entirely rebuilt by Alexander the Great, who conquered a region stretching from England to Nepal, the cult enjoyed great favour among the Greco-Romans until it was usurped by the Christians.
Artemis, daughter of Zeus and his sister Apollo (in-breeding was de rigueur in those days) was the goddess of chastity. She is always portrayed with three breasts, usually feeding wildebeest, as she was also considered the image of mother nature. The feast day for Artemis at Ephesus was set aside for huge orgies, as the cult dictated only one day a year when the vow of chastity could be broken; then, everyone would literally go hog wild! We thought about this and other things as the sun went dow, in a blaze of glory over the ruins, and we could only hold our breaths to capture the moment.
Near the clock tower in town, along silent stone walls, we dined in a pleasant cafe, joined by an Irish professor and his wife who were teaching in Rome, where we gleaned new information about the region. We witnesses the majestic stork nests set atop Roman columns, as the moon rose over the ancient fort and I was able to snap a most spectacular photo of a stork nests and a giant bird rising beyond.
Up before dawn, it was off to visit the fabled Epheses ruins before hordes of tourists arrived from Kusadasi. The site had become famous as Kusadasi became a favoured port-of-call for Mediterranean cruise chips. I’d witnessed these groups completely dominating the site two years previous, and was determined not to make the same mistake this time.
We were the first people to enter the site, but only had it to ourselves for about 20 minutes. Despite the fact I’d already seen the ruins, I was still in awe, under excavation by an Austrian team. There was much to see: to the left, the site of an ancient hotel, bar and grill, (did they advertise the fact they had hot and cold water and good toilets- a lesson for some of the Turkish establishments).
The amphitheatre dominated over the hills as we passed through the gates, featuring a track for the fabled chariot races. The stadium seated 70,000 spectators, and was still in fine shape. We sat at the top row (the cheap seats) and could hear people quietly talking on the stage below, an acoustic marvel. From our lofty perch, the city took on a magical quality, with its wide marble thoroughfares, statuary placed in strategic locations, and many fine buildings.
The centrepiece of Ephesus was the library, reputed to be one of the first in the western world. Four giant marble statues faced the streets, and faced a brothel (“I’ll tell you, Dickus, reading Socrates makes me hornier than the proverbial basket of rabbits. What say we hit the whorehouse!”) The current state of library, though magnificent, only provided a tiny glimpse of the splendour of what once must have been. The Austrian team was working on the site on that bright morning, scrapping away the debris of centuries of pillaging and sacking. Nearby, cranes lifted huge slabs of rock and pillars, trying to rearrange the city back to its former glory, but looking like a giant version of Greek Lego.
Ephesus is a very important site for archeologists, as the city was the centre of the both Greek and Roman Empires, second only to Athens and Rome. Here, paganism segueued into Christianity, with the cult of Artemis becoming the cult of St. John, the Theologian. Both St. John and St. Paul performed famous speeches in the stadium. St. Paul was actually driven out of town by the locals, who didn’t care for his put-downs of their favoured Diana; references can be found in The New Testament, in a chapter titled The Ephesians. St. John supposedly spent his last days here with the Virgin Mary, and a holy site near Selçuk commemorates the place where the Holy Mother is said to have passed.
We were surprised to learn that Ephesus was once a port, connected to the sea by the Kaystros River. There wasn’t any evidence of this body of water, and the sea was more than 6 miles away. We followed one of the many tour groups, and learned the city grew to over a quarter million citizens, second only to Alexandria in terms of population during the Greek empire. The entire city had to be evacuated because of shifting sands from the Kastros River, long since dried up and without a trace.
The swamp surrounding the city became a breeding ground for malarial mosquitos. When this plague spread throughout the city, causing the death of more than 200,000 people, it was abandoned. In the 4th century AD, the Christians rebuilt a city around the nearby tomb of St. John’s, 2 km away in Selçuk.
The Christians then took delight in their plunder of the temples of Ephesus (the city had been sacked and rebuilt several times, including a complete reconstruction by Alexander the Great, which accounts for much of the current ruins), then build the resplendent St. Sophia in Istanbul, one of the oldest and most magnificent Catholic churches.
Heradites, a famed Greek philosopher lived in Ephesus. The central teachings of this sage focused on the ephereal and transient nature of life (obviously, he’d travelled on a few Third World buses!). One of his more famous gems was: It is impossible to step into the same river twice.
As we sat on the top step of the amphitheatre, gazing down on this city, we wished we could be teleported back in time to witness what life was like in Ancient Greece and Rome. There was quite a powerful sense of the aesthetic in Ephesus, an emphasis on open spaces reaching toward the sky, coupled with a strong sense of order. Our glimpse was as if we had tried to see through a foggy window, the image blurred by time and pillaging.
The Return Leg
With some reluctance, we departed our splendid little pension the next day. We realized we the next leg of our journey was the final road home. Although we’d been moving in a circle around the world, we were headed toward the end of the loop. This filled us with a sense of dread and not a little sadness, for we had enjoyed our time in the Mediterranean, and wished we had sufficient funds to travel on to Egypt to see the great ruins of that empire. But truth be told, we were also very tired of the constant moving, and thought it would be good to finally stop for a while.
Our itinerary took us back to Bodrum, the ancient city of Halikarnassos. We arrived in the heat of the day, but easily found another delightful little pension down a side street, away from the hordes. Bodrum had become overrun with Euros, and seemed more in keeping with the Greek Isles than Turkey, the streets lined with tacky shops, cafes blaring western rock and roll.
The Castle of St. Peter, built by the Crusaders, and more particularly, the Knights of Rhodes in the 15th century, dominated the harbour. Of more interest to us was the giant fleet of wooden sailing vessels docked in the large harbour. Most of these served as charters for tourists, the so-called Blue Cruises. Many of these fine sailing vessels featured dining tables off the stern, and we watched lucky tourists sampling Turkish fare at sunset.