Friday, April 17, 2015

Turkey in Ruins, Part I

One of my favorite aspects of traveling to Europe and Asia is the chance to see some of the truly ancient sites that mark the roots of civilization. Sometimes you forget how relatively new America is until you visit Eurasia where there’s seemingly a ruined fortress or palace or village in every valley and on every hilltop. While there, you can't help but think of the thousands of years of human history that have shaped the land into the form it takes today.

As you travel through some ancient ruin your mind inevitably turns to the long-gone men and women who built and fought and sometimes died for this piece of land - now merely a ruined tourist attraction for curious passersby.


Turkey itself is overbrimming with ancient towns and cities, some of them dating back 5,000 years and more. We only hit a few of the highlights, but each offered something unique and worthwhile.


After a quick flight from Istanbul to Izmir, we headed out for what is undoubtedly Turkey’s most well-known ancient site - the Biblical town of Ephesus. An inevitable stopover on every “Holy Land” cruise and tour, Ephesus is the town referred to by the apostle Paul in his Epistle to the Ephesians. Its connections to the apostles made it an important city for early Christians, and several ecumenical councils were held there in the early days of the Church.

The city once held 50,000+ people, as well as the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The people and the temple are gone now, but there’s still a great deal to see here. Nowadays, Ephesus’ most well known sight is the Library of Celsus - an incredibly well preserved reconstruction of a 2,000 year old public library.

The Library of Celsus at Ephesus
But there are miles of ruins to be explored.

Of course, with fame comes crowds - tour bus crowds. So at times the place felt a little bit overloaded. You feel compelled to keep moving when you’d rather just sit and contemplate the sights around you. Nevertheless, it’s all quite a sight to behold.

A statue in Ephesus

The modern town of Selcuk is the most convenient stopover for Ephesus, and it's quite an attractive city in its own right. Our hotel - Villa Dreams II - was way up on a hill, and as such the view from our balcony was fantastic. At sunset, you see the town spread out below you, and an ancient fortress standing above it like a citadel. In the distance you can see the thin line of the Aegean Sea.

Unfortunately, none of my pictures of this panorama turned out very well, but here's a picture I took from our hotel balcony in the very early hours of the morning:
Selcuk right before dawn
A Side Tour: The Carpet Making School
Anyone who has ever been on a tour will undoubtedly be familiar with the unplanned, extra “bonus” stop at a locally owned business who has made a deal with your tour guide. Generally, these shops sell cool and interesting and altogether too expensive locally produced items. Upon arrival, the owners give you the royal treatment - glasses of apple tea, tours of the school or factory with an explanation of each step of the production stage - all while they constantly remind you that there is “No obligation, no obligation!” Of course after all that, you feel obligated - or you feel bad if you’re not quite ready to spend thousands of dollars on an authentic Turkish handicraft.

In our case, it was a “courtesy” visit to a local carpet making school. And it actually was quite cool - they explained to us how local women come and spend several months learning how to make various kinds of carpets, and how upon “graduation” the women are turned out to make the carpets at their own home and in their own time - thus providing an extra source of income for impoverished local families.

We were able to see a few women working at their looms, and it was hard not to be astonished at the time and effort required to make the rugs. Apparently, even a medium sized silk rug - with incredibly tight stitching - can take months and months to make. 

The “guide” then brought us to the showroom, where the workers unrolled a dizzying array of invariably unique and attractive rugs made by members of the school. “No obligation to buy,” they remind us. Of course, we’d love to buy one of them - many of them are incredibly beautiful. But, unfortunately, $5,000+ for a silk rug is just a little bit out of our price range. And so you leave, and it’s hard not to notice the looks of disappointment on the faces of the gallery owners. 


Priene - like most of Turkey’s ancient sites, Priene tends to be overshadowed by Ephesus and Hierapolis. However, located halfway up a mountain in a rural part of the country, it’s arguably in a more beautiful location than Ephesus and inarguably features far fewer crowds.

Me, and the view from Priene

It’s hard to keep track of who lived where and when, but I believe his was mostly a Greek settlement, and it never had the population of Ephesus and other ancient cities in the area.

Beyond the extraordinary view of the fertile river valley below and the cliffs above, some of the things that stood out to me at Priene were the sheer number of fallen columns

As well as the large ampihtheater, where I sat on a throne like some sort of king.

The only other visitors we came across were a German family standing in the amphitheater who inexplicably began incanting some sort of (creepy) poetry in a tone and rhythm not unlike something you might hear at some sort of demonic invocation.

No demons appeared, but by this point the clouds were threatening thunderstorms. So we headed back down the mountain and on to my favorite place in Turkey.

Next time I visit the incredible travertine slopes and pools of Pamukkale. Until then, dear reader: Güle Güle.

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