Friday, July 13, 2012

Our Ephesian Revelations

The concluding leg of our journey to Turkey took us via the previously-unknown-to-us, Pegasus Airlines (Joe said fine, as long as its name isn’t Icarus), to the spanking new Izmir airport. Our final destination was Ephesus, the archeological site about an hour further south along the Aegean coast of Asia Minor. We were aware that it housed the ruins of the 550 BC Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, but beyond that, we knew little of what we were about to find.

We arrived at our hotel in Kusadasi, a few miles outside Ephesus, just in time for dinner. As genuine and serene as the Kelebek Hotel in Cappadocia was, the Hotel Tatlises was not: it was the epitome of factory tourism at its worst. Our check-in coincided with that of the passengers of no fewer than six air-conditioned coaches, which pulled up and disgorged waves of international tourists, each bus representing a different country. Needless to say, check-in took forever. The place was evidently successful catering to and luring travelers looking for a bargain basement deal and for good reason. There was an enormous patio the size of a football field on which meals were served and we joined the crowds for the endless dinner buffet once we learned that our evening meal was included in our room rate. We enjoyed decent Turkish food but suffered through bad ‘80s music (who can enjoy stuffed grape leaves and baklava while listening to a Muzak version of “Get Outta My Dreams and Into My Car?”) while sitting on stained white-on-white faux-satin slipcovered banquet chairs. It was like being at a wedding with no bride, no groom and not a soul we knew.

Our one unfortunate night of impersonal, mass-produced travel behind us, we proceeded to Ephesus, where we had much to learn. We’d done some reading overnight and discovered that the ancient Greek city and then prosperous Roman metropolis had a population of well over 250,000 in the 1st century BC, thereby making it one of the largest cities in the Mediterranean universe. On our way to the site, without warning, the language light bulb over my head went on. Ephesus. The Ephesians. St. Paul. St. Paul’s letterto the Ephesians – now I get it! Now I know where we are! While finally connecting the language derivation dots of Ephesus to its inhabitants was hardly genius, I was genuinely excited by the revelation. (A linguistic breakthrough may not make Joe’s day the way it does mine, but when he discovers a new connection technology-wise – and sometimes it’s very literally a connection, like each time the Monster Cable Electric Powerstrip he’s lugged along with us works in each new country -- he’s a very happy camper.)

Back to our day as part of a small tour group... Our first stop was the Virgin Mary’sHouse, a Roman Catholic shrine on Mount Koressos, which overlooks what remains of Ephesus. The house was discovered in the 1800s when archeologists followed the directed visions of a Roman Catholic nun. Ever since, a steady flow of pilgrims files through the small two-room stone dwelling and chapel every day in the belief that the mother of Jesus was taken there by Saint John (who may have written his gospels there) and lived with him until her Assumption into heaven. It was a sweet little house and a touching story, but my skepticism about this particular vision quest weighed heavily.

It’s difficult to capture our wide-eyed level of surprise at seeing the Ephesus ruins. Unlike so many other sites we’d visited, this one was easily accessible, comprehensive and colossal. It didn’t take much imagination to recreate the city and envision it as it had been at the height of its past glory. We truly had no idea that Ephesus had such historical significance, that it covered so many acres and that it would be so grand.

Our little tour group was a mixed bag of English speakers led by a spirited Turkish guide. He pointed out and identified all the local flora as we made our way through the site -- mulberry, apricot, pistachio and almond trees – and we got to sample some of their ripe fruit. One of our tour compatriots was a lovely young Japanese woman named Hata, who stuck close to the guide and repeated the final few syllables of everything he said in a high-pitched voice with an excited, upward lilt: apricots, theater, BC, Romans, aqueduct! Perhaps this was to clarify his utterances in her mind and I don’t think she even realized she was doing it, but it helped us remember the details of his explanations and gave our group a few giggles as well.

The day’s temperatures intensified, progressing to that uniquely white, dry heat of the Mediterranean midday that washes out color to dull shades of green, gray and brown. We continued on, stopping under the shade of olive trees whenever they were available, to see the remains of various temples, public baths, the 24,000-seat amphitheater, fountains, brothels, public toilets (a fascinating side-by-side with no privacy marble bleacher system with modern, running water drainage canals underneath – just pay your fee, lift your toga and go in comfort) and the magnificent Celsus library. Built by the son to honor his father, Roman Senator Tiberius Julius Celsus, among the earliest men of purely Greek origin to hold an important position in the Roman Empire, the massive public library was the centerpiece of Ephesus. It stored 12,000 scrolls and served as a monumental tomb for Celsus whose final resting place is a sarcophagus beneath the main entrance. The building’s interior and all it held were destroyed by fire in a devastating earthquake that struck Ephesus in 262 AD and only the stunning, reconstructed facade now remains. We were fascinated to find out that Ephesus, currently several miles from the coast, had originally been a seaside harbor. Hundreds of years of silting by the Cayster River had filled the waterfront and slowly pushed the shoreline away from the city and out into the sea.

On the other side of what is now the modern town was the only sight we had anticipated: one of the famous Seven Wonders – the Temple to the Goddess Artemis. In its day, the temple was considered the most beautiful structure in the world, sheathed in glowing white marble with 127 graceful pillars that nobly rose 60 feet high and thrust its massive red-tiled roof towards the sky. But all that is left of the ancient beauty are a few clumps of stone and scattered piles of rubble and debris on a swampy plot of land. Our guide declared it not the 7th Wonder of the Ancient World, but rather the 7th Disappointment – and unfortunately, he was right.

Although happy to make the Hotel Tatlises and the bad ‘80s chart toppers distant memories, leaving Turkey was more difficult than we’d anticipated. Getting to know the country and its delightful, funny people was truly a revelation; Turkey had indeed grown on us. We’d never been able to squeeze seeing a whirling dervish ritual into our schedule, so once again, we pulled out our file of places-to-go-back-to and added Turkey to the growing list.

Pictures of our adventures:

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