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Postcard from Ephesus – Glory, Decline and Resurrection

November 13, 2011

The last stop on our cruise around the religious Mediterranean before we returned to Istanbul was Ephesus. Well, actually, Kusadasi, a port city on the Turkish Aegean coast a few kilometers away from the Graeco-Roman ruins from which this card is posted.

This time, in contrast to the official cruise trip to Jerusalem in which forty-five of us were crammed into a large bus for a route march through the holy places, we were six in a minibus. Much more flexible.

Our guide was a sweet young Turkish woman from Izmir. How you manage to retain a sense of enthusiasm when you go to the same places two hundred times a year I know not, but she managed it admirably.

Her chat on the way to the first stop was subtly revealing. She spoke of the traditions of Aegean Turkey. How the Aegean Turkish were much more European in their outlook than the more conservative people in the East. Code for secular rather than religious. Also of how much culture the Greeks and Turks share thanks to the ancient Greek and Roman heritage of the region. She touched lightly upon the forced expatriations of Greeks and Turks from their ancestral homelands in 1923 based on their religion – Orthodox Christians from Turkey to Greece, and Muslims vice versa – without mentioning that the Treaty of Lausanne was seen by many as the ex post facto ratification of an ethnic cleansing process that had been going on in both countries for years before. But we were simple tourists, so her presumption was probably that we didn’t want to hear too much of that political stuff.

Our first stop was yet another holy place – The House of the Virgin Mary. Tradition has it that after the crucifixion, Mary, the mother of Jesus, was spirited away by St John to Ephesus, and spent the rest of her days living in a quiet place in the mountains above the city.  Our guide faithfully recounted the tradition and its origins, but as an archaeology graduate, made it clear that her heart lay with the sceptics. The location of the house was “revealed” in a dream to a sickly German nun in the 19th Century. When discovered according to the description of Anne Catherine Emmerich’s dream, the ruins quickly became a shrine, despite the fact that  – as our guide pointed out – they dated from well after the 1st Century.

But religious leaders don’t let small details get in the way of basic truths, and the little shrine enjoyed visits from Popes Paul VI, John Paul II and the current incumbent, Benedict XVI. So it must be authentic, mustn’t it?

Authentic or not, it is a beautiful location. High in the mountains, surrounded by pine trees and with a little stream tinkling nearby. A good place for quiet contemplation, whatever your religion. And even better because we were near the end of the tourist season, so were spared the usual throng. If the Virgin Mary hadn’t got there first, I would have been happy to spend my days up there before being called to account. Provided it had an internet connection, of course.

Then back down the hills towards Ephesus, the main attraction. At which point here are four things I didn’t know about Ephesus:

  1. Its name comes from the Hittite word for bee, one of the few words of the Hittite language to survive into Latin (Apis) and so into the present in the form of apiology, the study of bees.
  2. Ephesus lost its power as a commercial centre when the River Meander started silting up. It is now five kilometres away from the coast. As with most of the coastal cities, it was a political football, suffering numerous conquests and sackings.
  3. A big earthquake in AD 270 hastened its decline, and the malarial marshes left by the silted-up river made it an increasingly dangerous place to live. It lingered on until the 15th Century, and finally gave up the ghost.
  4. The famous temple of Artemis, one of the ancient Seven Wonders of the world, was a ruin by the 6th Century, at which point the Emperor Justinian, on the hunt for building materials for the Basilica of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (now known as Ayia Sofia – see previous post on Istanbul) removed many of its beautiful columns for his new church.

Sic transit gloria mundi. But luckily for us, the Ottomans were not much given to archaeology, so Ephesus slowly sunk under the soil, waiting to be rediscovered by British, German and Austrian archaeologists in the 19th Century. And what a magnificent site they uncovered. Theatres, temples, aqueducts, commercial centres, a huge library and a well preserved terrace of houses dating from the Roman period that give as good an insight into the lifestyle of the wealthy as any buildings in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Oh, and a very impressive communal lavatory where the citizens would sit side by side at their ease, gazing out on the city and discussing the events of the day – the waste sluiced away a few feet under the row of marble seats.

It’s not just the big picture sites that impress. Touching small reminders of the lives of the inhabitants – such as the backgammon board etched into a marble slab, and the intimate mosaics on the floors of the terrace – are to be found throughout the city.

Modern Turkey is well aware of the value of its Aegean sites, and continues to discover new wonders all around the region, often with the help of international archaeologists such as the Austrian team that has excavated the Ephesus terraces. I have been to more ancient sites in Italy, Greece and Turkey than I care to remember, but Ephesus is up there with the best of them. Truly magnificent, even if few traces of the earlier Greek city remain.

A brief visit to the Ephesus museum, crowded with statues and sarcophagi, as well as a couple of very un-classical looking statues of Artemis retrieved from the massive temple dedicated to the goddess, and we were away for lunch. For all the photos, grateful thanks to my friend Shon.

On the way to lunch we stopped by the site of the famous Artemision. Very little remains beyond the temple base a and a pile of broken columns. A single reconstructed column stands to show us the height of the building. On the hill above, a sturdy fort built by the Seljuk rulers to defend themselves against the Crusaders in the 12th Century.

Finally, no tour would be complete without the commercial opportunity. Our little restaurant was next to a carpet workshop, where local girls were demonstrating how Turkish carpets are made. My wife sat this one out, muttering to me “you are NOT going to buy another bloody carpet”.  I wasn’t, but it’s always a pleasure to see fine handicraft, even if the finest examples would have set us back $20,000. She also missed a demonstration of silk spinning – from the cocoon to the thread – which I had never seen before.

Back to the port, and a quick stroll the thought bazaar offering “genuine fakes” – branded shoes, tee shirts, Rolexes and so forth. I prefer fake fakes myself. The whole fake business is something the Turks would have to deal with should they finally gain entry to the EU. But that’s unlikely to happen for a while, if at all, so I imagine that the fake business will continue to flourish for years to come.

So ended the last of our excursions, and it was back to the ship a day’s sailing through the straits of Gallipoli towards the cooler air of Istanbul.

In the three countries we visited, the unifying theme was an endless cycle of conquest, liberation and re-conquest, of prosperity, decline and resurgence.

The resurgent country today is clearly Turkey. Whatever its murky past, many aspects of which it denies or glosses over, modern Turkey is vibrant, energetic and, in its cities, sophisticated. Greece is downtrodden but still alive. Israel effectively came into being through a form of conquest, and suffers from the fact that the world acquired a conscience after World War II, whereas its neighbours acquired their domains in a period when conquest was considered something to be proud of, and the names of the conquerors adorn the streets of their capitals today.

For me, Turkey comes out top of the three as a place to visit. Though I believe it is the poorer through the departure over the past century of many of its ethnic and religious minorities, the diversity of its heritage remains in its cities, archaeological sites, customs and culture. Much as it tries to emphasise its “Turkishness”, it has more in common with its neighbours than meets the eye. It is part of Europe and the Middle East, and should rejoice in its ability to speak the language of both cultures, whatever its future political affiliations.

Since we got home from the cruise, Greece has a new government, Turkey suffered a second earthquake in Van, and Israel is rattling the sabre over Iran’s nuclear programme.

Nothing stands still for long in this neck of the woods.

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