Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Roman Istanbul

Friday 16 May 2008

I always like to go to the countries where my books are set to get details about the geography, flora, fauna and cuisine. Many aspects won’t have changed since Roman times and those are the things I’m looking for. I am like a detective, trying to find the past in the present. At the moment I am researching the penultimate Roman Mystery, The Prophet from Ephesus.

On our first day in Istanbul we are taken to the site of the hippodrome, the ancient chariot racecourse. Nothing much is left of it, apart from one or two columns, but there is a nice relief sculpture of important Romans watching the races.

Then our tour takes us underground, to some cisterns below an ancient church. I am in for a treat.

When I was in Alexandria last year, I wanted to see one of the many cisterns that lie below that city, but was told by our tour guide that there weren’t any! This was an Egyptian guide who didn’t even know what lay beneath the city. (Bad Kuoni Tours!) But I have found what I’m looking for here in Istanbul. As in Alexandria, these catacombs have columns and vaulted roofs. There is even an upside down head of Medusa.

Hagia Sofia church, the Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Palace are beautiful, too, but there is nothing Roman here.

I slope off early from the Topkapi Palace and I make my own way to the nearby Archeology Museum. There is a peaceful garden here among the sarcophagi and columns, shaded by pines and patrolled by feral cats. In the museum I see some of the best pieces from sites like Miletus, Ephesus and Aphrodisias. One of my favourites is a woman wearing the distinctive Flavian hairdo. (That doesn’t mean her hair is like Flavia’s, it means she lived in the time of the emperoros Vespasian, Titus or Domitian, all of whom had the nomen Flavia.)

The next day we are given an hour in the Egyptian spice market. There are all sorts of goodies for sale, including a man who sells leeches by the jar. Richard buys £30 worth of spices from a dealer who calls himself Al Pacino Turko, the Turkish Al Pacino. He has photos of himself with lots of famous people, like Julio Inglesias and Miss Denmark. So I get a photo, too! I think we could have bought the same spices for half the price in ASDA but I guess it's not every day that your grocer is Al Pacino.

After our tour of the spice market, we take a cruise on the Bosphorus. The following day we drop in on the Sunday service at the Greek orthodox church. I see women writing prayers on scraps of paper. In Roman times people scribbled prayers on paper or cloth or even metal and hung them on sacred trees or left them in the temple of the appropriate god or goddess.

Later, in another service at the Anglican church in Istanbul, the rather formal liturgy is enlivened by a cat chasing a cockroach back and forth beneath the pews.

But the highlight of my time in Istanbul is a visit to a three hundred year old hammam...

A Day at the Roman Baths

Saturday 17 May 2008

OK, it’s not a real Roman bath, but it’s probably the closest thing. A hammam - or Turkish bath - is a direct descendant of the Roman bathhouse. I describe my visit to a Moroccan hammam in From Ostia to Alexandria with Flavia Gemina. And what better place to experience a Turkish bath than in Turkey? There are several here in Istanbul but our guide recommends the 18th century Cagaloglu Hammam because it is nearest to our hotel, the Yashmak Sultan.

Men have the privilege of using the main entrance. Of course. The women’s part of the baths are reached on a sidestreet called ‘Hamam’. You enter a white marble vestibule to find rubber and wooden bath slippers in a rack on one side. Ancient Romans wore wood and leather clogs in the baths, too! You take a pair and go to the admissions desk. At this point the woman will ask you what tariff you want.

I choose the super but not deluxe as I only have an hour to spare. The super includes body scrub and massage but not the bubbles. It costs 68 Turkish lira, about £25. In Morocco a similar experience can be bought for under £5. But in Morocco you don’t get your own private cubicle with couch, shelf, mirror and hairdryer. This cubicle also comes with a heavy brass key which tells the bath assistants which tariff you have opted for. In addition, the numbered keys let them know in which order to serve you. On busy days it can get quite crowded, but at 5.45pm on a Saturday afternoon it isn’t too bad.

In my cubicle I find a light towel, like a tea towel: only bigger. It’s called a peshtemal. This is to cover your modesty as you pass through the rather public camekan, or changing room (the equivalent of the Roman apodyterium). In my cubicle, I take off my clothes, keeping just my briefs on. In a plastic carrier bag I have shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, a hairbrush and a scouring mitt from the Marrakech bazaar.

With my peshtemal wrapped around me, I pass through the camekan and proceed to a warm room where I find a lots of fluffy, clean, proper towels on a table. This room is called the soglukluk and is probably the Roman equivalent of the tepidarium, the warm room. You could sit here and chat to your friends without beads of sweat dripping from the tip of your nose.

I take a warm, fluffy towel (you have to bring your own to the hammams I visited in Morocco) and head towards the hot room, but an assistant sends me back, telling me the towels are for afterwards.

I put the towel back and move cautiously across the wet marble floor into a beautiful, steamy domed room lit by beams of sunlight. This is the hararet, the equivalent of the caldarium or the sudatorium. There are columns here supporting a high dome pierced by flower-shaped holes to let in air and light. Around the walls of this room are marble benches and marble shell basins with two brass taps above each - one for hot and one for cold - so you can mix the water to your liking. Shallow tin bowls float in these basins; you use them to tip water over yourself. The bowls look just like pateras, the flat, broad bowls Romans used to pour libations.

In the centre of the hararet is a hexagonal marble plinth. This is called the gobek tashi and it is where the bath assistants give you your scrub and massage. The female bath assistants wear bathing costumes. They are mostly Rubenesque of figure so I feel sylph-like in comparison.

I find a seat by one of the marble shell-basins and pour cool water over myself as I watch the masseuses at work. In the Fes hammam I received a rough but cheerful buffeting at the hands of an old Moroccan crone. I send up a prayer that I’ll get someone gentle. After fifteen minutes in the hot steamy room, one of the women calls me over.

Her name is Phyllis, which she indicates means ‘happy’. She doesn’t speak English, but knows enough words to get me to lie down on the warm, slippery, wet marble with a rubber cushion under my head. Then she takes my own scrubber and rubs first my front and then my back. Phyllis then sits me up and takes great delight in showing me the grey worms of dead skin she is sloughing off my body. Ewww! Fifteen minutes in the hot steam room have done their work.

After scrubbing me from neck to sole, she has me get off the platform and follow her to one of the shells. She sluices me down with lukewarm water, just the right temperature. Then it is back to the slab for a massage with a banana-scented mixture of soap and oil. She does my front, back, scalp, hands, feet, arms, everything. She is firm but not rough and it’s so relaxing that I almost drift off.

Finally she moves back to the marble bench and has me sit at her feet. If I hadn’t already washed my hair, she would have done it for me now. Instead, she sluices me over and over with cool water, just the right temperature. I’m done!

I slip on my clogs, and move carefully out of the domed steam room to the warm room. Here I take two of the proper towels – one for body, one for hair – and discard my peshtemal in the bin provided. Then back to my cubicle to put on some body lotion and lie down for five minutes. You must do this. I discovered the hard way when I left the Fes hammam in too much of a hurry and nearly passed out.

Phyllis is waiting in the camekan, sipping apple tea. If I didn’t have to rush, I could enjoy one, too. I give her a nice tip and go out into the warm Istanbul evening feeling relaxed, fragrant, tingly and cool. Later, looking at the literature about these baths, I discover that the Cagaloglu Hammam is one of 1000 Places to See Before You Die.

[The Roman Mysteries are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans as a topic in Key Stage 2. Carrying on from the Roman Mysteries, the Roman Quests series set in Roman Britain launched in May 2016 with Escape from Rome.]

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Life in the Shade

Monday 19 May 2008

My husband Richard and I are in Turkey for ten days, researching the penultimate book in the Roman Mysteries series, The Prophet from Ephesus. This book takes place in AD 81, when St John the Evangelist was still alive, and we're travelling with a tour which aims to visit the sites of the seven churches mentioned in the book of Revelation. These churches would have been flourishing around the time my book is set.

Today Pergamum (church 3) and Thyatira (church 4) are on the itinerary...

We set off for Pergamum just after 8.00am across flat, ugly, marshy ground, with factories spewing smoke. After half an hour the landscape becomes more pleasant, with fruit and olive trees. We are skirting the coast as we travel north and pass a pretty harbour with no houses but some big ships. Must be an industrial harbour. After an hour or so we are in golden hills studded with olive trees. The sea is still to our left, to the west. This was the area the Bible calls Galatia.

We pass a shaggy donkey by the side of the road and our coach slows to avoid a tortoise. We reach the site shortly after 10.00 in the morning. In ancient times, papyrus had to be imported from Egypt. The Anatolians from this area used sheepskin, instead, and we get the word ‘parchment’ from ‘Pergamum’. It is very hot, so we shelter in the shade of a big mulberry tree. The leaf of the white mulberry was the preferred food of the silk worm, but I prefer the fruit itself, picked right off the branch, sweet and sun-warmed.

The theatre here clings precipitously to the hillside. Was this what the writer of Revelation meant when he refered to ‘Satan’s Throne’? Probably not. He meant that Pergamum was the prime center of the emperor cult.

We scurry from the shade of the mulberry to the shade of a large fig tree. I’m sure that’s what ancient Romans spent most of their time doing: scurrying from one patch of shade to the next. That’s why Cicero’s term for the luxurious life of ease in Roman times was ‘life in the shade’, vita umbratilis. I imagine the scholar sitting in a breeze-cooled shaded colonnade, sipping chilled posca as he writes poetry or letters.

We hurry to the shade of a big plane tree while our guide informs us that there was a sanctuary to Asklepios here in Pergamum. Our guide calls it a health centre. There are lots of big green lizards here that throw their feet out when they run. I also hear the thin cry of a cicada or cricket and realise it’s the first I’ve heard. This is the only time I hear them on the trip, despite the heat. We leave the shade of the plane tree for the echoing coolness of a tunnel to the Asklepion. The sound of the cheeping sparrows is very loud here.

Our itinerary says we are going to lunch at the Caravan Restaurant, which sounds lovely, but we end up at a big new restaurant by the side of a busy road. Our lunch is flavoured with diesel fumes. But at least you can choose your own food. I have the delicious pickled red cabbage (Pliny the Elder would approve), white goat’s milk cheese and cold chicken. As usual, I only eat what Flavia and her friends would have eaten. I breakfast on olives, cheese and fruit and sometimes on yogurt with honey. Yum.

On our way to Thyatira, we pass through olive groves with the occasional dark finger of a cypress tree pointing to heaven. There are poplar trees everywhere, and beautiful red poppies in the grasses by the side of the road.

We make a ‘comfort stop’ at what seems to be a dreary service station. But we discover a wonderful lush grape arbour and a Turkish woman making stuffed pastry in a little kiosk. I love it when your expectations are confounded like this.

Thyatira is a fenced off square in the middle of a town, a scattering of fallen columns shaded by a pine tree, a palm, a pomegranate and an acacia. This was the Temple of Apollo, or the basilica, or both.

We head back to Izmir, passing through fertile fields and also past neat looking buildings for battery chickens. Our guide tells us something interesting. In England or America the farmer has a house surrounded by his fields. Here in Turkey, and the rest of the Med, the farmer lives in the village and commutes to his field. This makes me think of the passage in the New Testament when Jesus tells a parable about the farmer who builds a watchtower in his vineyard, so that someone can guard the fruit when it ripens. (Matt 21:33) The farmers’ modus operandi probably hasn’t changed in two thousand years.

On our way back to Izmir we pass through Manisia and traverse a pass through mountains forested with pines, birch and cypress. Ah! Life in the shade.

Sardis, Philadelphia, Hierapolis

Tuesday 20 May 2008

This morning we say goodbye to our Izmir hotel and by 8.30 we are on our way to Sardis, the capital of ancient Lydia. We arrive an hour later and when I step down off the coach, I see our entire group surrounding something and gazing down with delight. It is a pale brown dog lying on the ground and fawning for her adoring public. Every site seems to have its mongrel and they all seem to be related. We notice she has a tag in her ear, the Turkish equivalent of a collar, I suppose.

Sardis was located at the crossroads of a trade route, but it seems an odd place to have a crossroads, surrounded by strange hills, one of which has a rock formation which looks like a giant pointing to heaven. There are also a few standing columns from a Temple to Athena here – one of the biggest temples in the ancient world – and a building which might or might not be a synagogue.

What I never realised was what a big Jewish population Asia Minor had in Hellenistic and Roman times. Apparently, Alexander the Great sent 2000 Jewish families from Babylon and Mesopotamia to this part of the world. These Jews flourished here. This might explain why Christianity caught on so quickly here, in the first century AD it was little more than another sect of Judaism.

The day is overcast with a medium high scum of clouds, but it is still very hot and sultry. A congregation of sparrows are having an excited conference in a pine tree and in a mulberry a dove is cooing what sounds to me like ‘Chicago’. The Greeks thought she was saying ‘dekaocto’: eighteen. In Gerald Durrell's delightful book Birds, Beasts and Relatives, Theodore tells Gerry why the collared dove is called ‘the eighteener’:

‘The story goes that when Christ was carrying the cross to Calvary, a Roman soldier seeing that he was exhausted took pity on him. By the side of the road there was an old woman selling milk and so the Roman Soldier went to her and asked her how much a cupful would cost. She replied it would cost eighteen coins. But the soldier had only seventeen. He pleaded with the woman... but the woman avariciously stuck out for eighteen...the old woman was turned into a collared dove and condemned to go about repeating dekaocto...’

Philadelphia is a small collection of Graeco-Roman rubble in a town called Aleshehir. The ruins are so tiny they aren’t even marked on the map, but someone has planted lots of roses here, and it’s very pretty. We leave Philadelphia and set out for one of the most extraordinary places on earth, the calcium cascades of Pamukkale, known in ancient times as Hierapolis. Warm calcium-rich water bubbles from a mysterious spring somewhere on the mountain. Over thousands of years it has left semi circular pools of steaming water, framed by chalk white crystalline mineral deposits. Pamukkale means 'cotton castle', because it looks like white cotton but also because this area now produces cotton. At the top of the sparkling cliff was an ancient city, Hierapolis, which means ‘holy city’: it was originally a shrine which grew up to be a city. The cascades are going to be the setting for the climax of my next book, The Prophet from Ephesus, so I want to get details of the topography right.

We are heading east with the sea somewhere behind us and dramatic mountains ahead. We cross and re-cross the Meander River. From this distance, perhaps ten miles, the cascades look like a horizontal chalk cliff or perhaps the white gash of a marble quarry. It is quite low compared to the mountains behind. As we get closer, the cascades drop out of sight behind the trees which grow in this fertile soil. Everywhere are pomegranate trees with their red-orange trumpet-shaped blossoms. By late summer these blossoms will be pomegranates.

Now we are climbing a winding road through gorse dotted scrubby brown hills. I can see the Meander Valley to my left and pine woods to the right of the cascades. The coach lets us out into the heat of the day, the hottest yet. We pass through the barriers and into a long necropolis, tombs lining the northern approach to the city. The heat is ferocious and some of the older members of our party have taken a mini-bus. We pass between tombs and finally arrive in the delicious cool shade of a row of tall, dark, flame-shaped cypress trees. I notice that no birds perch in these trees. But there are hundreds of them excitedly chirping in the pine trees nearby.

Now we are passing through a gate built by Domitian, and wishing there was still a colonnade here and a monumental fountain there. How nice it must have been in Roman times to pass through the arch of the city gate and find a cool, shady colonnade and splashing fountains right by the side of the road.

We visit the Antique Pool, where bathers can still swim in warm sulphur-scented waters among ancient columns. Then we take off shoes and socks and wade in some of the pools along with a couple of hundred other tourists. The water is warm and the ‘floor’ quite rough. If you were pursuing a criminal mastermind and slipped and fell here, you could hurt yourself.

Finally our bus takes us on to our hotel. I’d hoped the hotel was within walking distance of the cascades, so I could go back at sunset, but it isn’t. It’s one of a group of four big hotels a couple of miles from the cascades. It has an outdoor swimming pool and an indoor thermal pool.

Once we’ve checked in we check out the pools. I love the thermal pool. It's like a big hot smelly bath with geese spouting water. You have to put on little plastic shower caps but it’s still delicious. I have a good soak, and a dip in the outdoor pool, then get dressed and hire a taxi to take me back to the cascades in time for sunset. Only about a dozen people are up here now and it’s worth the extra expense. I can hear the sound of rushing waters and feel the warm breeze. The sky blushes pink, orange and apricot. The scallop-shaped pools mirror its beauty. Dusk lasts a long time and it’s nearly an hour after sunset before the first stars appear.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Laodicea and Aphrodisias

Wednesday 21 May 2008

Laodicea is a sun-baked site with no shade, located in the valley below Pamukkale. Recently, archaeologists from the University of Denizli have uncovered a colonnaded road. But the ruins of Laodicea are similar to many other sites and our group latches onto the living: a little owl sitting on a column watching us with wide eyes, the site mongrel and a giant dandelion. Some workmen are clearing grasses from the site with sickles, just like ones from Roman times.

This was the site of one of the churches mentioned in the Book of Revelation. God, speaking through his prophet John, says ‘Because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.’ This is fitting because by the time the hot water from Hierapolis/Pamukkale got down here, it was only lukewarm. God also says through his prophet: ‘I counsel you to buy white garments…’ This region, near modern Denizli, used to be famous for woolen garments and is now famous for cotton. Finally this is the church to which God says: ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door I will come in to him and dine with him…’ Rev 3:20

We leave Laodicea and drive through Denizli. When I stayed here fifteen years ago, it was a charming if scruffy town, despite its open sewers. I remember a bread seller coming by with a tray of warm rolls balanced on his head. Now it is a big ugly sprawling town that takes us ten minutes to drive through.

We drive on towards Aphrodisias. It was a large town off the main roads and it therefore enjoyed some safety. The land here is green and fertile, with vineyards, olive groves and pomegranates. Some of the houses have red-tiled roofs and you could easily be in Tuscany. In a field I see a farmer with his big three-pronged rake resting over his shoulder as he goes home for siesta.

It is the beginning of National Tourism Day and some schoolchildren have come in traditional clothes to do a dance. The girls pose for some tourists and other fans.

The famous Turkish archaeologist Kenan Erim spent 30 years of his life excavating here and his grave is in a patch of green near an impressive tetrapylon gate.

In the Museum I find a wonderful character. He is Flavius Palmatus, a governor of the province of Asia. He has effeminate curly hair and a look of great disapproval on his face, as if he had just smelled a bad smell and was trying to puzzle out what caused it. He is four centuries too late for my story but I can use his face for one of my minor characters.

I remember the last time I came to Aphrodisias. We got a taxi to drive us and when we came back out of the site our driver was lying on the back seat in the shade of a tree. As we got closer we saw his sightless eyes staring up into the leaves. He was dead! But no, it turned out he was one of those rare people who sleep with their eyes open. I used that idea in my fifth book, The Dolphins of Laurentum, when Lupus goes to the baths to hire a killer and finds the bath attendant apparently dead.

We go to lunch at a restaurant called Anatolia. I buy a little clay bird whistle from a lady who lives in a tree house. I tip a man whose parrot dances to the tune of his mandolin. Best of all are the loos. You go through a bead curtain into a room with a skylight above a tiny lush patch of green. Coming out of the dim cubicle into the cook green brightness of this little garden courtyard must have been very like living in a small Pompeian townhouse. Only without the flushing cisterns, of course. Despite the fact that it caters for busloads of tourists we have one of the best meals here. This is one of the highlights of the trip for me.

We drive on towards the coast, through fertile undulating hills. We pass an olive oil factory, testimony to the groves and groves of olives here. But we also pass pomegranate, fig and peach. I’m not sure what the crops in the fields are, but my faithful Blue Guide says ‘the Meander Valley has long been famous for the production of liquorice from the roots of Glycyrrhiza glabra [lit. ‘smooth sweet root’] a hardy shrub which grows wild here and on the slopes of the surrounding hills.’ Maybe Floppy can give up mastic gum in favour of liquorice root.

Around 4.00 in the afternoon we stop at the Turkmen carpet factory near Selçuk, which is the modern town near Ephesus. My favourite bit is seeing some of the natural dyes that were used and a kind of Kurdish tent they have pitched behind the sales room.

Finally we arrive at our final stopping point on this tour, the Korumar hotel in Kusadasi. It is very big but beautiful, especially if you are blessed with a sea view.


Thursday 22 May 2008

Today we’re visiting three ancient sites: Priene, Miletus and Didyma. On the excursions board in Kusadasi they call this PMD. *hee*

We set out fairly early, heading south along the winding coastal road with the blue sea on the right. This is the reverse route Flavia and her friends will take when they go from Halicarnassus to Ephesus. There is a row of charcoal-sellers beside the road, something I have never seen before. The hills are clothed with pine, gorse, grasses, red poppies and silver-green olive trees. Straight ahead is a dramatic range of mountains, the Taurus range. Flavia et al will have to cross that from Halicarnassus.

We pass a horse standing in a river up to the knees of his forlegs; he’s drinking water and tearing the lush grasses there. Two shaggy brown goats are tied to stakes by the roadside.

Priene lies at the end of a spur of smaller hills. It’s up in the hills, away from the malarial river plain, and there are pine trees everywhere. It has a lovely little theatre, a bouleterion and two lofty columns marking the Temple of Athena. There is a lovely cool breeze up here among the scented pines, and birdsong everywhere. No wonder it’s many people’s favourite site.

Now we’re going down into the Meander valley. We get the word meander - to wander sinuously back and forth - from this famous river, which Herodotus called ‘The Great Labourer’. The part we are driving on used to be the sea. Like the Tiber, the Meander lays down silt every year, causing the coastline to advance. This was even a problem in ancient times. Ephesus was a port town but is now a few miles from the coast. Just like Ostia Antica.

We pass Miletus, saving it for our return trip, and press on to Didyma, which didn’t used to be by the sea but is now. There is a massive sanctuary to Apollo here complete with tunnels for his priestesses, and the famous Medusa reliefs which you often see in guide books. I discover an interesting tree on the site with fat bright green seed pods. I ask our Turkish guide what it is. She only knows the Turkish name: keçi boynuzu or ‘goats’ horns’. I later find out it is a carob tree. The pods are also called St John’s bread because John the Baptist may have eaten them when he lived in the wilderness. The Greek word 'akridas' either means carob pods or locusts. I think I’d prefer carob pods. They are used as a chocolate substitute today.

After lunch at a place with long tables which caters to coach parties we go on to Miletus. It’s now the hottest part of the day. Even the chickens have enough sense to stay under the shade of the bushy pine trees.

We’re the only party here and I look longingly at the little cafés set out in the shade of a strand of rustling eucalyptus trees. Swallows are swooping over the bleached grasses and the theatre. This one also has lions’ feet decorations, but it has an interesting inscription on one of the seats: ‘For Jews and God-fearers.’ St Paul came here to Miletus to say farewell to his Ephesian friends. They wept when he said they would probably never meet again. Our guide takes us up to a vantage point and I can see there is virtually nothing from the first century still standing. She gives us free time to explore the ruins, but Richard and I head for the outdoor cafés.

Sipping our cold drinks in the breezy shade on a hot afternoon, we look out at the ancient theatre and enjoy the complicated and joyful song of a swallow above us. This is one of my best memories of the whole trip. It’s the bits between the ruins I love most.

When people ask me what I enjoyed most about Turkey, I tell them the hamams and the comfort stops.

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.

Fun Things about Turkey

Saturday 24 May 2008

It’s our last day in Turkey - and my birthday! - and we are enjoying a day off after a grueling schedule of ancient sites. We have been upgraded to the five-star Korumar Hotel overlooking the bay of Kusadasi. Once Kusadasi was a collection of little white houses on a brown hillside overlooking a blue harbour. Now it’s a major centre of tourism, with luxury hotels stretching out along the coast on either side. In the tourist season, between May and October, it is visited by up to seven massive cruise liners every day. They come in at dawn, disgorge tourists on coaches to Ephesus then depart in the late afternoon. A few months ago one got stuck in the harbour and it took the efforts of several hard-working tug-boats to dislodge it. Just as well it wasn’t high season.

Originally I had intended hiring a taxi to retrace Flavia’s route from Halicarnassus to Ephesus, but I am just too tired. Instead I go into town early to take some photos. I get a nice one of a collared dove at an old caravanserai, now a hotel. But it’s too early and only a few shops are open. There are even fewer tourists about, making me easy prey. ‘Hello, Lady,’ say the shopkeepers. ‘Where you from?’ ‘You alone?’ ‘You want jewelry? Turkish delight? Minaret?’

I smile and try to politely rebuff them but they have answers for everything. They employ a very sophisticated blend of ironic honesty and humour, and they capitalize on the British hatred of being impolite.

Shopkeeper 1: ‘Come here, Lady. I need your money.’

Shopkeeper 2: ‘Look, Lady. I sell genuine fake watches.’

Shopkeeper 3: ‘You want carpet? Very nice carpets here.’
Me: ‘I don’t have room.’
Shopkeeper 3: ‘I give you free suitcase.’
Me: ‘I mean I don’t have room in my apartment.’
Shopkeeper 3: ‘I give you new apartment. Free with carpet.’

Shopkeeper 4: ‘Hello, Lady. You want to buy something?’
Me (smiling): ‘Just looking.’
Shopkeeper 4 (smiling): ‘Just selling.’

Shopkeeper 5: ‘Hello, Lady. You alone? You married? You want nice husband?’
Me: ‘No, no, no.’
Shopkeeper 5: ‘Yes, yes, yes.’

Shopkeeper 6: ‘Hello, Lady. You from ship? Hello! Lady! LADY! Why are you being rude to ignore me?’

At least they are not as bad as the Egyptian shopkeepers, who physically grab hold of you and practically wrench the wallet from your hands.

I return to the hotel for their wonderful buffet breakfast and have yogurt with honeycomb so fresh that you can eat every bit of it.

Later Richard and I go back into the old part and he does some water colour sketches as an excuse to sit and have a Turkish coffee (before noon) or an Efes Bira (after noon). Kusadasi is still pretty empty. The six massive cruise boats must have sent all their passengers to Ephesus today. We buy Richard a couple of shirts made from Denizli cotton and I get a small shoulder bag with camels on it.

We walk up to the fort on Pigeon Island and find most of the people from our tour have had the same idea. In the fort there is a crafts market and the skeleton of a whale that once beached itself here.

At a café Richard does a watercolour and I watch a beautiful young Turkish couple eat lunch. They seem very much in love. I ask if I can take a photo and they tell me they are engaged.

I also observe an interesting difference between the Turks and the British. The local cat gang is watching a Turkish family eat. The family is not happy. They hiss at the cats, trying to shoo them away. The handsome fiancé from the next table gets up and chivalrously throws some of his bottled water at the cats. The gang of cats flee. How romantic! If the group having lunch were British they’d be feeding and petting the flea-bitten creatures.

That evening I we have our final dinner on the terrace of the Korumar as the sun sets. The tour group leader has organized a birthday baklava for me and it’s the perfect end to a great trip.

Here are some fun things I learned about Turkey:
1. The toilets have a little spigot at the back so you can wash your bottom after you’ve been...
2. But you have to put used toilet paper in the bin next to the loo. You are not allowed to flush paper down the toilet.
3. The famous Apple Tea (Elma Chai) is just apple juice with hot water added, served in pretty glasses.
4. You get covered with warm puffy bubbles in the hamam (Turkish Baths).
5. In olden times a man in the female part of the hamam would be executed.
6. Today, chances are a burly Turk will give a woman her puffy bubble massage in the hammam!
7. They splash you with lemon cologne on the buses.
8. Children only go to school for half a day, either morning or afternoon.
9. The Turks love a sour cherry drink called 'vishne'; it is delicious
10. Turkish spelling of English words is very efficient. Group is ‘grup’ and toast is ‘tost.’ Who needs those extra vowels anyway? My favourite is ‘oto’ for auto.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Ideas from the Turkey notebook


Those who have read From Ostia to Alexandria with Flavia Gemina know I take a notebook with me on all my research trips.

Here are some of the ideas I jotted in my notebook this past week. I probably won’t use all of them, but some will definitely appear in The Prophet from Ephesus

Idea: As Flavia and her friends pass vineyards, they pull grapes right off the vine and eat them: sun-warmed and sweet, with a slight tannic tang.

Idea: Flavia gets an upset tummy from eating salad.

Idea: Jonathan eats cheese with little maggots in it.

Idea: Nubia is always feeding the feral cats even though Flavia warns her they are flea-bitten.

Idea: Lupus likes the salted yogurt drink you can get in Turkey.

Idea: one morning at the hospitium, everyone shares their dreams from the night before.

Idea: on entering a new city, the first thing Flavia does is ask for the public latrines.

Idea: Flavia and her friends eat traditional Turkish breakfast: olives, goat's cheese, hard-boiled egg, sour cherry jam on a sesame-seed ring and apple tea.

Nubia: ‘What is meander?’

Birds I saw: cinnamon-coloured collared doves, swallows, storks, sparrows, magpies, and a little wide-eyed owl on a column.

Plants I saw that would have been there in Roman times: vineyards, olives, carobs, palms, pines, figs, cypress, poplars, pomegranate, peach, ash, oak, birch, beech, white mulberry, plane trees, gorse, and grape arbours. Also white and pink-blossomed oleanders.

Things they have now that they might have had in Roman times: the hamam or Turkish Bath, hot thermal pools, shady colonnaded walkways, carpet workshops, pushy shopkeepers, sesame-seed-covered bread rings, salted yogurt drink, sour cherry juice, clay bird whistle, farmer with three-pronged hoe, worker with scythe, roadside charcoal-sellers, beehives, chickens pecking in dust, cocks crowing, donkeys, goats, sheep, horses, mongrels, feral cats, lizards, geckos, centipedes, snakes, grasshoppers, tortoise crossing the road, a farmer digging in his field...

In the Roman Mysteries Travel Guide, From Ostia to Alexandria with Flavia Gemina, Detective Assignment IX is to find as many smells as possible while travelling in another country. Here are some of the smells I encountered in Turkey:
1. Spicy smell of hot pine trees
2. Sickly-sweet smell of latrines
3. Pungent incense in a church service
4. Steamy sulphur smell of thermal pool
5. Salty sea breeze
6. Banana scent of soapy oil used in the Cagaloglu Hammam
7. Fishy smell of grilled sea-bass served at lunch
8. Pleasant smell of apple peel tea
9. Heady aroma of jasmine
10. Sharp scent of Turkish lemon cologne