Following the Coast from Izmir to Selcuk to Ephesus to Pergamum
18.05.2012 - 21.05.2012 25 °C
One of the great crossroads of the ancient world is a broad peninsula that lies between the Black and Mediterranean seas. Called Asia Minor (Lesser Asia) by the Romans and Anatolia by the Greeks, this place was phenomenal for a history-junkie like myself!
We landed in Izmir, a very cosmopolitan city, with a large population of ‘Levantines.’ This term seems to refer to anyone not of Turkish-Muslim heritage. We only had a night here, but stayed at the super luxurious Swissôtell (pronounced Sweeeeese-ôtel), happily at a nicely discounted rate, courtesy of Michelle’s connections. A nice stop before heading on our Aegean adventures.
The next morning we were up bright and early for the road trip to Selçuk, gateway to Ephesus! Driving through the rolling hills and fields that were filled with poppies and other spring flowers, I would find myself thinking of what it might have been like when Alexander, Marc Antony, Cleopatra and other amazing historical folk passed through this way. The interior is a high arid plateau, about 3,000 feet (900 meters) in elevation, flanked to the north and south by rugged mountain ranges. Within the plateau a number of ranges enclose broad, flat valleys, where several salty lakes have formed.
Our Hotel, the Kale Han was lovely, very reasonable and super helpful and the town small, picturesque and surprisingly friendly given the amount of tourists that pass through on their way to the famous sites in the area – over 3 million people were reported to visit the sites of this area in 2012. Gerly, a friend of Michelle’s joined the group and then we were off to explore. Guided by Michelle’s handy GPS system, we drove through farm villages to the historical hotspots: first up – Didyma!
Temple of Apollo in Didyma
This was the site of the 4th largest temple in the known world – the Temple of Apollo. The earliest temples here were dated to the 8th century BCE, with the final and most important being complete in 331 BCE. (It was, at 124 columns, only 5 columns smaller than the nearby Temple of Artemis, which was one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World.) At the site’s natural spring, Leto is said to have given birth to Artemis and Apollo – the mythological twins (didymoi in Greek). The spring is said to have flowed until the temple was betrayed to, and destroyed by, the Persian Darius in 493 BCE. Restoration began in 334 BCE and the spring is said to have started flowing once again after a visit from Alexander the Great. The oracle here was the most important in Asia Minor, consulted by all the greats of the time, including Alexander and Croesus.
It was fabulous! At first glance, it seemed to be little more than a platform with fallen columns and large chunks of marble strewn about a field, but walking down one of the two tunnels on either side of the front platform, and you are in the massive temple proper, with all four walls still standing. It was incredibly beautiful and easy to imagine what it must have been like when the prophetic oracles were there to give out advice.
Theatre in Miletus
A short drive on and we arrived at the ancient town of Miletus in the middle of vast fields of cotton. All that’s left of significance here is the Great Theatre, which is fab! You can see it in the distance as you approach and its size and relatively good state of repair let you imagine how great this city once was. Miletus was a major port city from 700 BCE to 700 AD until silt brought the harbour too far from the city. The 15,000-seat theatre, was reconstructed heavily in the 1st century AD and in really good condition. It was also virtually deserted so we were able to clamber about and explore freely.
Priene's City and Temple of Athena
Our final stop for the day was at Priene, and it was also our favourite. High on the forested slope of Mt. Mykale, the ruins of the city leading up to the temple almost completely deserted, with a local goat herder leading his goats home through the ancient streets, filling the air with beautifully resonant goat bells. With its extensive ruins, the 300 BCE city showcased a small 6500-seat theatre, gymnasium, temples, hospital, Byzantine church and stadium. When the city was originally established it was on the sea coast and the temple built on an ocean-side cliff. Today it overlooks a patchwork of farm fields.
The pièce-de-résistance of this lovely ancient city was the Temple of Athena, which was perched on the very edge of the mountain, overlooking the plains below. Alexander the Great actually “cut the ribbon” of this temple, that he funded the construction of, and gave the dedication at its opening. Five of the columns had been reconstructed but the rest were strewn around the temple platform in a beautiful, almost artistically arranged way. We all loved this place and could have spent hours wandering and exploring, but, the sun was going down so we hiked back down to our car and head back to town. This trip was rapidly turning out to be almost as much climbing as Peru and the Incan cities!
Dinner was at the fascinating Ejder Restaurant, seated outside under Roman Aqueducts. The area is famous for its çop şiş -- a kabob of small pieces of lamb. The food was really good and the family so engaging, but the really fun thing was seeing the book of notes, signatures and mementos left by past guests. There are several volumes and people leave some really strange stuff, like their hair and belly button lint! We signed in too and taped a Cdn coin, Air Canada napkin and an old, now defunct, Turkish Lira from Christa’s trip in 1990. They proudly showed us the comments from Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter as well.
It was Saturday and we were off to Ephesus! This was one of my “must sees” so was looking forward to it with palpable excitement. We met up with our guide and set off to what is described as “the best preserved classical city in the eastern Mediterranean and Europe.” And, it didn’t disappoint, although the crowds seemed overwhelming at times after our quiet explorations of the day before. Still, we were apparently lucky. It wasn’t quite high season yet and our guide told us that there are often 5-6 cruise ships docking each day, sending busloads to the site – that day there were none, so yay for us!
Once the Roman capital of Asia, Ephesus (Efes) had a population of over 250,000 and was founded in the 10th century BC by the Ionians. Alexander the Great was there in 356 BC and the Virgin Mary and St. Paul were purported to live here for 3 years. By the 6th century BC, the harbour was so filled with silt, the city began to be forgotten.
Only 20% of the city has been excavated to date, after nearly 150 years of archeological work and still you can get such a good idea of how the city would have been, strolling streets paved with great slabs of marble or more elaborate mosaic sidewalks and lined with the ruins of shops, temples and statues; visiting the terrace housing of the city’s rich and powerful; meandering through the baths and latrines; standing in front of the library’s impressive façade where 12,000 scrolls were once stored, the world’s 3rd largest; climbing up the 5000-seat theatre known as the Odeon, which held municipal meetings; exploring the hospital or Asclepion, complete with the snake ‘pharmacy’ symbols inscribed on stone that we still use today; seeing the clay pipes that supplied fresh water to the city, looking so similar to our own; and joining masses of tourists climbing the Great Theatre, which once held 25,000 people. Although its condition was not as impressive as at Didyma, it was still a sight to see.
After spending hours, exploring and photographing this magnifiscent city, we drove over to the nearby Meryemana (Mary’s house) site, where the Virgin Mary was supposed to live at the end of her life. Considered a sacred sight for this, especially for Catholics, there’s no proof she actually lived in this spot. It’s based on a nun’s vision, and was subsequently authenticated by Pope Paul VI in 1967, however, the oldest evidence of the ruins date back only to the 3rd century AD. Still, nice forest it sits in.
Temple of Artemis
Our last stop for the day was the Temple of Artemis – one of the original 7 Wonders of the Ancient World and where Cleopatra’s half-sister Arsinoe was banished after trying to overthrow her sister’s rule. Public sentiment in Rome at the time saved her life and forced Caesar to send her to this temple sanctuary. She lived here for a few years before Cleopatra was able to persuade Marc Anthony to end her life. She was forcibly removed from the temple in 41 BCE and publicly executed on the temple steps. This violation caused a huge scandal in Rome at the time.
Apart from knowing the history of the site, it was quite sad to see it. Very little remains here – only one of its 127 columns still stands, reconstructed to give you an indication of its once massive size. This temple was a major stop and the largest in the world, beating even the Parthenon in Athens. Where did it all go? This once most important of locations now held a melancholy and wearied air to Christa and myself as we strolled across the grass.
After an exhausting day of sightseeing and ancient wonders it was off for an Efes beer and dinner at Selçuk Köftecisi, touted as one of the best Kofta places in the area to eat at. It was very good, if pricey for this typically cheap fare (think the recommendations are pushing the prices up) but the best was their dessert – The Temple of Artemis. There were only two left, so we quickly grabbed them and shared. Was rather like a really good crème brule flavoured with almonds, vanilla and tahini. Best dessert we had in Turkey.
Ancient City of Permagum
Next day we packed up early and hit the road for the drive to Bergama, a beautiful little town with winding hilly and narrow picturesque streets. There has been a town here since Trojan times and evidence of this is everywhere.
We stayed at a marvelous new B&B, the Hotel Hera. Set in an historic building, with massively thick walls and a really good ancient cellar converted into a very decent wine room. Our friendly and super helpful hosts happily showed us around and we picked a wine to enjoy on the terrace overlooking the town – really reasonable prices for the wine here too! In the courtyard, ancient inscribed tablets and pots, found during the restoration of the house are displayed and arranged among pots of flowers.
After dropping our bags off, we set of to see the Asklepion ruins. This ancient medical centre is one of the most important hospital sites of the ancient world and the destination of all the who’s who of the time: visitors included Marcus Aurelius, Caracalla and Hadrian. It was originally set-up by a local man, Archias, as a holistic healing centre and more spa-like than hospital, offering mud baths from the sacred pools, music concerts and dream analysis (in the Telephorus) – people believed dreams were the result of a visit from the God Asklepios, and held the key to curing illness. To the western world, however, it really became famous in the 2nd century AD under Galen, a physician to Pergamum’s gladiators, who is recognized as perhaps the greatest early physician. His expertise was based on the research he was able to do from the many victims in the gladiatorial arena and his work was considered the authority for western medicine till as recently as the 16th century.
In addition to the ubiquitous theatre, agora, and shop remains, there were sacred wells and a circular Temple of Asklepios, where the dream analysis was conducted. The Sacred Way once led all the way up to the Akropolis of Pergamum, which you could see in the distance.
Monday came and too quickly our last day in the Aegean region. Early in the morning we set off for the Akropolis. We ended up doing things a little backward, which made for some impressive climbing and sweating! Following the lonely planet’s guidance, we found a small hidden passageway that took us to the incredibly steep, in fact the steepest ever built, theatre.
The 10,000-seat theatre was set into the hillside and had an incredible view, but the steepness was surprisingly dizzying. After checking out the upper levels, we clambered on down, sections of which seemed to drop off into nothing. Finally reaching the bottom, taking a quick peak at the adjacent Temple of Dionysus, we set off down the hill on a barely-there path through fields of flowers and grass and fun critters; past temples, city ruins and pillars of old Pergamum town to an excavated house with bizarre but beautiful mosaic carpet of contorted faces. Then…. We climbed back up! So pleased with ourselves, we rewarded ourselves with ice-cream!
Most of the Akropolis site is in ruins, but the some areas were very interesting. The Temple of Trajan, built during the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian was in pretty impressive shape, and to stand in front of the spot where the library stood, formerly the 2nd largest in the ancient world, was similarly imagination-filled. Especially when you learn that Marc Antony stole all the scrolls as a wedding present for Cleopatra. So romantic!
After Pergamum, we popped into the massive and atmospheric === Red Basilica ruins===. Originally a giant temple to Egyptian gods Serapis, Isis and Harpocrates and built in the 2nd century AD, it was a major pagan site, cited by St John the Divine as one of the 7 churches of the Apocalypse. Supposedly the throne of the devil! My kinda church ;-) Christians later built a basilica inside the walls.
We stopped into a cute winding little town called Sirence for lunch. More beautiful rolling hills and cobbled streets, famous for fruit wines, which of course we had to investigate.
This ancient wonders trip too quickly over, we were on the road back to Izmir and our flight to Ankara. On the road, a dung beetle hitched a ride and was climbing up the back of Gerly’s seat! Quick to the rescue, and wanting something more stable than my phone, I grabbed the ‘kitty’ purse – a ubiquitous flying carpet-styled little purse we used to hold our joint moolah – to lure the beetle onto and then put the industrious bug out the window. Michelle, rather obviously I thought, said, “Don’t throw the purse out the window!” “ Ha Ha” say I, as I roll the window down on the highway to let the creature fly free… along with the purse! Letting out a little shriek, I squeaked “I did it!”
Not sure what the locals thought of a car backing up along the highway and a silly foreigner walked alongside scanning for our purse. Which, when located on the road, was immediately run over by a passing vehicle. Safely back on the road, money safe-n-sound, but zipper and purse pretty banged up, all was good! Except for the drama-filled re-enactments of my ‘friends’ that continued... for the entire trip!