A major benefit of receiving visitors from abroad – apart from the happiness of catching up with family and old friends – is the motivation they provide for getting out and seeing the sights of Turkey through fresh eyes. We had a family wedding in May which brought guests from the USA, and took us down to Bodrum a month or so earlier than usual. Then some old neighbours arrived from New Zealand, and together we took a slow trip through the Aegean region back to Istanbul.
Here are a few highlights:
Myndos is the ancient name for the modern village of Gümüşlük-by-the-Sea where our journey began. There is no evidence to indicate that it had much more importance in those days than it has today – which is perhaps its saving grace. The Bodrum Peninsula is in serious danger of succumbing to the curse of over-development, but the existence of classical ruins beneath its humble surface has so far saved Gümüşlük from the worst depredations. Its small natural harbour and sandy beaches lined with atmospheric fish restaurants and small shops selling tasteful handcrafts, and jams and marmalades made from locally-grown fruits, attract visitors desperate to escape the English breakfasts, English football and Turkish nightclubs that blight other resorts on the peninsula.
Recently archeologists from Bursa’s Uludağ University have been fossicking around remains of temples, churches, theatres and bathhouses – and council workers laying pipes accidentally turned up a Roman necropolis. So far, fortunately, nothing’s been found that’s likely to attract coachloads of tourists or titanic cruise liners.
Magnesia-on-the-Meander. Certainly there are other sites on the road deserving a visit, but this one is a little publicized gem. My previous visits had been in the heat and dust of July or August, so carpets of red, purple and yellow spring flowers made for an extra delight. The city was renowned for its temple to Artemis Leucophryeno which, in its heyday, was little inferior to the better known temple at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Sadly, not much remains today, but a short walk will take you to a 20,000-seater stadium, wonderfully preserved as a result of being buried for centuries under a landslide caused by a 7th century earthquake. Incidentally, our word ‘magnet’ is said to come from lodestones found in Magnesia.
The modern town of Selçuk is a popular base for tourists wishing to visit Ephesus and other neighbouring cities of classical antiquity. Americans and touchingly credulous Roman Catholics climb a nearby mountain to pay their respects at a site purported to be built over an earlier house once inhabited by Mary, mother of Jesus (or of God Himself, if you are of that persuasion). The ‘purporter’ was apparently a stigmatised ecstatic visionary German nun who, despite never having left her home territory of Westphalia, provided directions to the said house, delivered to her in a visitation from the said Mary.
If you do go to Ephesus, I recommend shelling out a few extra dollars for admission to the terrace houses, a work in progress recreating the lives of well-heeled Ephesians back when the apostle Paul was writing to them (well, maybe not to those Ephesians). An international crew of dedicated archeologists is carrying out unbelievably painstaking work reassembling wall frescoes and floor mosaics from thousands of fragments that you and I would probably not even notice.
It is generally understood that carpet-sellers in Turkey are a local hazard to be avoided at all costs. However, an exception to the rule is a government-sponsored co-operative located behind the (currently closed) Selçuk museum on the back road to the 13th century Mosque of Isa Bey. We stumbled upon it by accident and allowed ourselves to be inveigled in. It did, however, turn out to be a worthwhile mishap. Apart from providing a place for master (or mistress) weavers to work and train young apprentices and market their wares, the centre also gives insights into the age-old art of silk production. One interesting fact I learned – the ancient Egyptians used silk threads to cut the stones used for pyramid building. Well, true or not, I have always wondered how those artisans of old were able to accurately cut thin sheets of marble for lining their temples and churches.
It’s a bit of a trek from Selçuk – and probably you need a vehicle of your own – but Aphrodisias is a magical site well worth a visit. At this point I have to give a plug to my friend Adrian. We were fortunate to find him in town, sipping a cold ale at Eksellans Bar on Saturday evening, and he was gracious enough to let us tag along on his Sunday tour. Aphrodisias is, of course, named for the goddess Aphrodite, since there was a major cult of followers located in the city in ancient times. I wouldn’t be the first to suggest a connection between the Greek goddess, earlier Aegean deities Cybele and Artemis, and the cult of the Virgin Mary that subsequently developed when Christianity became the state religion in these parts.
For my money, Aphrodisias is a more atmospheric site than the better known, and more accessible Ephesus. Precisely because of its lesser accessibility, of course, you will find fewer tour buses from the cruise liners of Kuşadası. The on-site museum is a treasure house of fabulous sculpture, and the almost intact stadium redolent of Russell Crowe’s ‘Gladiator’. If you are lucky enough to have Adrian in your party, you will be treated to translations of the many inscriptions for which this site is renowned.
The modern Turkish town of Bergama is located at the foot of the acropolis of the ancient city of Pergamon. Many of the best finds are more likely to be seen in the eponymous museum in Berlin, but still it’s a spectacular site with a breath-taking theatre built on the precipitous hill. Roman engineers brought water by aqueduct from 40+ kilometres away, and some local inventor came up with the idea of parchment. Apparently commodity traders in Cairo had started stock-piling papyrus in anticipation of a shortage thereby creating a shortage, and got their come-uppance in a big way!
A brisk walk from the bottom of the hill will bring you to the Asklepius Medical Centre, whose residents included the famous physician Galen. Among its patients were some with psychiatric disorders, who were treated with music, dream interpretation and the sound of a sacred spring burbling down the corridor. Incidentally, if you’re looking for place to stay with a little ambience I can recommend the Athena Pension, an old Greek house with a view of the acropolis from its walled garden.
Following our hosts’ recommendation, instead of retracing our steps, we took a back road through Kozak – according to locals, the richest town in Turkey because of its trade in pine nuts. The road brought us out a little north of Ayvalik where we stopped for lunch at a delightful little place called Zeytin Altı Kır Bahçesi – A Country garden under the Olive Trees. As with many of the best Turkish eateries, its menu was limited to what they do best: grilled köfte and gözleme, both of which were delicious! We also picked up a few local products, fruit juice and a kind of molasses (pekmez) made from mulberries, and some tasty sliced olives in tomato sauce.
Our final stopover was the town of Çanakkale on the southern coast of the Dardanelles, where we booked a tour to the killing fields and cemeteries of Gallipoli, that long-ago exercise in military futility that has nevertheless bequeathed a sense of identity to Australia, New Zealand and the modern Republic of Turkey. My guests and I felt a strong admiration for the Turks who have allowed former invaders to maintain cemeteries to their fallen heroes, to build a large memorial on the crucial ridge of Chunuk Bair, and have even erected a signpost directing visitors to Anzak Koyu (Anzac Cove).
One of our fellow travellers on the tour bus was a young Maori lad who told us that he intended to perform a haka in honour of his ancestors who had fought and died for a king and empire to whom they had little cause to feel obligated. It was an impressive one-man performance that brought a tear to my eye – and a little anger against an elderly Anglo-Australian woman who demanded indignantly to know why we had to be subjected to such a spectacle.
A curious incident occurred as we were about to board the ferry that would take us across the water to the town of Eceabat. One of our guides, a young Turkish lass calling herself Zuzu, with a Goth hairdo and numerous body piercings, announced that we would in fact take a later boat because there were a few Turkish police on our intended ferry, and ‘they kill people’. I wonder what what the short-stay tourists made of that.