Nothing endures but change.
We stay in the Ayasofya Hotel in Istanbul, an extremely welcoming establishment run by Gaye Reeves, an Australian who has had a long-time love affair with Turkey. Our first night is spent in a rather cramped little room on the second floor, but the following day Gaye moves us to a studio apartment just around the corner from the hotel where she suggests we will be much more comfortable. We are indeed very happy with the new arrangement – it’s a very charming space with a little kitchen, a big bathroom and a small balcony that offers pleasant views across our small street in Sultanhamet. We’re close to the Hippodrome, the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sofia, Topkapi Palace and many of the other major tourist sites. We had been advised by friends to stay in Bayoglu rather than this side of the city, but decided it was safer here because of all the civil unrest that had been escalating on the other side since late May. It is probably less touristy on the other side, but we like it here and Gaye and her wonderful staff look after us like family. We find out towards the end of our stay that she is connected by marriage to the photography technician at the Tasmanian College of the Arts, who prints all my digital images for me. It is indeed a small world.
Gaye also very conveniently runs a travel agency and arranges our three day trip to see the ruins of Ephesus, Miletus, Didyma and Priene which are on the south west coast of Turkey. I really want to go to Capadoccia to see the cave houses and to Pamukkale to see the travertine terraces, but our time here is just too limited.
We fly to Izmir and are transferred by mini bus to Selcuk where we have been booked into a lovely family run hotel called Nilya in the old part of town. Selcuk itself lies beneath a huge fortress adorned with Turkish flags and images of Ataturk. It is also home to the Basilica of John the Baptist and the Ephesus museum but both of these sites are closed for renovation. The owner of our hotel drives us up into the hills to the village of Sirince where we spend a couple of hours exploring the market and wandering along a windy path that leads uphill to a small crumbling orthodox church. It is a peaceful afternoon, followed by a quiet evening wandering about the streets of Selcuk and dining in a rooftop restaurant with views across to the fortress.
The next morning a mini bus picks us up and we head for the House of the Virgin Mary, the ruins of the city of Ephesus and the famed Temple of Artemis. Our trip is also punctuated by a visit to a carpet making workshop, which I enjoy because I learn about a little about what makes a good carpet and because Gerard, who collects carpets and knows a thing or two about them, has an entertaining conversation with the carpet spruiker. But of course, the most wonderful part of the day is visiting the ancient sites and I find myself overcome by a deeply romantic sense of aesthetic awe.
The House of the Virgin Mary is where the mother of Christ is supposed to have lived out her last days. The house itself has been modified over the centuries and looks more like a little church than a home. We enter and leave with many other tourists. I am not quite sure what I am supposed to feel, but I do feel something – perhaps the energy of all the tourists who come here in the hope of having their souls appeased and their prayers answered. I buy a votive candle and add it to the hundreds of others that visitors place in glass cabinets just outside the house and then watch an attendant remove them all only moments afterwards to make way for the next lot of tourists. I drink a little of the sacred water that springs from a small fountain in the wall beneath the house, and I leave a message in the prayer wall, covered with millions of hopeful requests asking Mary for divine intervention. I am not catholic, and I am not religious, but I believe that certain places attract concentrations of positive energy, and this is one of them.
We then head for Ephesus, one of the greatest and wealthiest Ionian cities of the ancient Greek world that was subsequently taken over by the Persian, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires at different times in its long history. The city was renowned for its architecture which includes the magnificent Library of Celsus, a superb theatre and the temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Ephesus is also the home of Heraclitus, the pre-Socratic philosopher who told us that you can’t step in the same river twice, that the road up and the road down are one and the same, and that nothing endures but change.
It is an extraordinary and dreamlike experience to walk through the ruins of this once glorious series of civilisations. We are very fortunate that we are only contending with excursionists from 3 cruise ships – our guide tells us that sometimes, at the height of the tourist season, there can be up to 10 ships in the nearby port and then it is impossible to stop anywhere along the way, you just have to keep walking. We see the ruins of the city hall, the agora of the government, the gate of Hercules, the fountain of Traianus, the baths of Varius, the temple of Hadrianus, the public lavatory, the marble street, the main street of Kuretes, the grand theatre, the library, the harbor street and so much more that I can’t remember. It is very hot and we rest now and then in the shade, or amongst a field of broken marble pillars. There is actually too much to take in in one visit and I find it hard to focus on everything that our wonderful guide is telling us. I do remember him saying that the site was once completely closed to the public while Bill and Hilary Clinton were given a private tour. How wonderful it would be to walk through these ruins solo.
I am stunned at the vastness of Ephesus and surprised to discover that only around 15 percent of the site has been uncovered. It is an archeological wonder, its excavation first begun in the 1860s by John Turtle Wood of the British Museum. In 1895 the Austrian Archeological Institute began to work on the site and still continues to play a major role in its excavation.
At the end of the day, we visit the famous Temple of Artemis, a short distance by bus from the main archaeological site of Ephesus. It was originally four times larger than the Parthenon, but is now represented by a single fully upright column crowned by a stork’s nest. It sits in field of overgrown grass with a boggy looking marsh at one end.
We spend the evening strolling around Selcuk again. We buy Turkish delight, chat with some of the shop owners and notice all the men-only cafes.
The next day, another mini-bus picks us up and takes us to 3 more ancient sites – Priene, Miletus and Didyma. I was overwhelmed by Ephesus, but these smaller sites, for some reason unbeknownst to me, have an even greater impact on my psyche. I suspect it is partly due to the fact that our little group of 10 or so is almost completely on its own at each of these special locations. There are virtually no other tourists so we wander about the ruins with a great sense of freedom and discovery – and a silence that feels pregnant with past.
I think that Priene, an ancient Greek holy city with superb views across a huge valley that was once an expanse of water and a history that goes back to the 8th century BC, is my favourite place of all. The heart of the site is dominated by the Temple of Athena and it also boasts a large amphi-theatre that features five magnificent throne-like seats. But what I love most about this site is wandering amongst the collapsed remnants of hundreds of columns that look as if the gods themselves had scattered them across the ground like great handfuls of dice.
Miletus feels quite different. It is another important ancient Ionian city, once with four harbours that have been silted over so it now looks as though it is sitting in the middle of a large flat plain. It features a huge theatre that can seat 25,000 spectators and St Paul was supposed to have stopped here on his way to back to Jerusalem during a missionary journey.
We then head for Didyma, our final ancient site for the day. Before we arrive, the bus stops by a vast stretch of cotton fields and some of our passengers, including Gerard, do a bit of cotton picking.
We then have a wonderful lunch in Didyma, directly opposite the stunning remains of the Temple of Apollo, which was the second most significant ancient Greek religious site next to the Oracle at Delphi. It was visited by many pilgrims including a number of Alexander the Great’s generals and the Roman Emperors Augustus and Trajan. There was a complex ritual associated with consulting the oracle. The priestess fasted for 3 days, then took a special bath before sitting on an axle that was suspended above a sacred spring. When consulted, she would dip one of her feet into the spring and then give her answer. Although construction of the temple was never fully completed, and much of it was destroyed by an earthquake in the 15th century, the ruins still provide a powerful sense of how magnificent it once must have been. It feels surreal to be sitting in an outdoor restaurant just across the road from such an extraordinary part of history, and even more surreal to be walking amongst its ruins.
Our guide takes us to a big Turkish delight outlet store on the way back and then waits with us by the side of the road for the special bus that takes us to Izmir airport and our flight back to Istanbul. We have to come back here. I had no idea it would be so extraordinary, that the ruins would be so magnificent, that it would feel like being inside a Piranesi print come to life.