In the land of legends, saints and carpet shops

The ancient ruins of Ephesus take your breath away. The tourist patter is pretty impressive, too.
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
The floodlit tip of the minaret glowed yellow against the night sky. I crossed the railway bridge and found a narrow alley leading around the side of the mosque. Through one of the barred windows, I could see lines of men in the throes of worship - standing and kneeling, reciting from the Koran. Turkish music filtered from the balcony of a house behind, creating an almost surreal scene. I watched, fascinated, until my attention was diverted by a rapid movement. About 20-feet away, two children hopped over the four-foot wall into the darkness. I peered closer and just caught an impish glimpse of a face illuminated by a glowing cigarette butt. Just as quickly it was gone.

I had them sussed. All day every day, kids in Selcuk are on the look out for tourists, cheerfully trying to guide them into their uncle's carpet shop whilst reciting well-worn patter about girlfriends in London (or Sydney, Auckland or Cape Town depending on your nationality). Indeed, most of the hassle you receive in Selcuk, a town halfway down the western Aegean coast of Turkey, is harmless - even endearing. It gives you a taste of the present as you come here to look at the past - the Temple of Artemis, the Basilica of Saint John. And, of course, a short walk away is the ancient city of Ephesus.

I was taking an evening tour of Selcuk, filling in time before I caught a night coach back to Istanbul. As I walked along the streets, reflecting on what I had seen, I couldn't help but think that the most impressive thing was Ephesus and the theatre there. It's the first ruin you see and it takes your breath away. This was the place where Saint Paul was invited to preach in the middle part of the 1st century. Thirty five thousand people were packed in - just waiting to be converted. Instead, a riot ensued and Saint Paul was promptly banished from the city.

It was a local Ephesian, Demetrius the jeweller, who incited the riot. He was worried about loss of income since he made statuettes of Artemis, the goddess of fertility (legend has it that in 17,000 BC a meteorite landed - in springtime and in the shape of a woman. From then on she was worshipped under various names and the Ephesus Artemis was the final extension of that cult before the onset of Christianity). Needless to say, as the theatre rises before you like a towering stone fan of epic proportions, it's not improbable to imagine that 35,000 Ephesians baying for your blood could be quite intimidating.

In Ephesus you can let your imagination run riot. The ruins are in a remarkably good state of repair and echo the prosperity of its past. It was Lysimachos, a general to Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC, who founded the city on its present site. It went on to become the capital of the province of Asia during the Roman period, only to fizzle out in the 5th century AD due to Arab raids, the closure of its harbour, and the coming of Christianity.

Two streets, Marble Street and Curetes Street, bumpy, uneven and lined with columns, lead you to the Library of Celcus. Built by Tiberius Julius Aquila as a tribute to his father Celcus Polemaeanus (60-114 AD), once the governor of the province of Asia, the 16-pillared facade impressed me beyond belief. In fact there's a bit of architectural sorcery to make it appear bigger than it is (it's to do with the size of the pillars). Hence the interior (once a three-storey affair) didn't quite come up to expectations.

The privileged Ephesians, who lived close by in terrace houses complete with mosaics and frescos, must have relished such exquisite surroundings (the under-privileged, meanwhile, probably just slunk around in squalor). From the Library you can walk on for at least another quarter of a mile, admiring ruins that seem wedged in on either side of your path. That is if you can negotiate your way through hordes of Japanese tour groups and their cameras. But press on and you get to the large, grassy sprawl of the State Agora and Odeon, once the city's centre of administration.

I felt I could have returned to explore this place time and time again. However, it's also important to apportion at least a day to the sites of Selcuk. The museum has an excellent display of Ephesian remains (including two Artemis statues) and gives an entertaining insight to the city as it was in its prime. Then, there is the Temple of Artemis herself, a low-key affair where one lone re-erected column stands among a series of broken ones. A few cows and sheep graze beyond and you find it difficult to conjure up a vision of the place in its heyday in the 1st century AD, when the temple probably had a total of 127 marble columns.

Much more impressive is the Basilica of Saint John situated high on the Hill of Ayasoluk. Built in the 6th century by the Emperor Justinian, it was conceived as a mark of respect to the saint who, it is said, accompanied the Virgin Mary to Ephesus shortly after the death of Christ. Originally, it would have contained six 95-feet high cupolas over the main aisle and, if completely rebuilt, would be the seventh largest cathedral in the world. The restoration work that has taken place means that the impressive sprawl of red-bricked walls and pillared arches are all in first-class condition.

Perhaps Saint John, lying buried in a marble tomb to the far right of the entry point, would have been a little critical of the man I saw leaning back on one of the walls and lazily staring into space. He might even have had some spiritual advice for the boy who approached me later on that evening as I left the mosque and crossed back over the bridge. There was a faint smell of cigarettes on his breath as he took a "newly dug" Roman coin from his pocket. Little did he know that I had been offered another five during my visit. Then he told me about his girlfriend in London and suggested we visit his uncle's carpet shop. It wasn't hard to say no. I had heard it all before.

Comments