Monday, May 26, 2008

Big Ephesus Day

Friday 23 May 2008

Today is our big Ephesus Day. It dawns pearly blue and pink. From the hotel balcony, I watch a white liner cruise languorously into Kusadasi. It is soon followed by another. We were warned that thousands of tourists come off these liners with the explicit purpose of visiting Ephesus.

Ephesus is Turkey’s Pompeii. Twenty years ago you could have the site to yourself. Ten years ago you could still have visited in relative comfort, if you timed it right. Today the big cruise ships come into nearby Kusadasi and the coaches are out of the starting gates at 7.30 to get to the site when it opens at 8.00am. There is very little chance of having the site to yourself.

We get to the site at 8.10 and there are already three parties ahead of us. Unlike Pompeii, Ephesus was not frozen in Flavian times, but kept on growing. I have to be careful not to have Flavia and her friends visit buildings that weren’t there in the first century AD. That means no ‘Library of Celsus’. I can have the theatre, the Harbour Agora and lots of fountains and baths. And I can have the Arcadian Way, leading from the harbour, lit by torches at night.

Visiting the site gives me a feel for how big the mountains are, how flat the plain, where the harbour would have been. I also note the types of trees found there: pines, figs, olives, mulberry, and I think those are oak trees on the hills. A famous Christian hermit lived on acorns not far from here, so there must be some oaks about.

But Ephesus is just another sun-baked collection pretty columns and rubble, only bigger and crowded with tourists. This experience is no longer fun. In fact, when was it ever fun to visit one pile of ruins after another? Few people have the imagination to reconstruct what the original town or city would have looked like. Once you have seen one Greek odeon or Roman theatre, you’ve pretty much seen them all. This is why we latch onto a lizard or a wildflower or an interesting bird so eagerly. It’s a sign of life in what is not much more than a pretty rock quarry.

The part I enjoyed most about Ephesus were the Terrace Houses. Although the frescoes are not as bright and well-preserved as those in Campania, there were some nice ones. I particularly liked a plump pigeon. And on another frescoed wall, someone had scratched a record of the day’s spending:
hazelnuts 10 ½ asses
small figs 2 ½ asses
barley 12 denarii
wood 3 asses
onions 3 asses
caraway ½ ass
entrance to thermal baths 12 asses

Leaving the site we come across what seems at first glance to be a life-sized stuffed camel. A plump lady tourist is attempting to climb onto its back. Then its nostrils flare and several of us jump back in alarm. It's alive! It proves this by peeing into a bucket held by its owner. Hmmn. I wonder what use the Romans might have found for camel urine?

After lunch we visit the site of Meryemana, the site where Mary the mother of Jesus was supposed to have lived out her life. The first time I came here fifteen years ago, I did so on the suggestion of some people we were traveling with. I stepped out of a taxi into the gold-green light of late afternoon my eyes suddenly filled with tears... and I hardly ever cry. The place was soaked in an almost tangible sense of poignancy and beauty. What the Romans called the numinous. I’ve only felt it once or twice before. Whether Mary lived here or not, it is a very spiritual place.

We stop at a Turkish Delight factory, really just another chance to spend money on Turkish goods of all descriptions, but even so are back at the hotel by 5.00pm. I decide to visit the hammam now, rather than break up our free day. Some of the other women on our tour agree to go with me. We get a taxi into town for only 10 Turkish lira, about £1 each. It is Friday evening and the Kaleici Hammam is empty. The domed steam room is far too cool, but the English ladies are happy with this, not being used to intense heat and steam of a proper bath. Our biggest shock is that a burly Turk named Osman is going to give us our body scrubs and bubble massage. Are we prepared for this? We decide what the heck. You only live once. Osman does a great job; he is always discreet and never too rough. We come back feeling squeaky clean and surprisingly virtuous.

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