Can I Buy a Vowel: Ephesus/Aphrodisias/Hierapolis

Selcuk, Turkey

I landed in Izmir (near the Aegean coast) late Saturday afternoon and Ali, a driver from the Hotel Bella where I staying in Selcuk (a small town south of Izmir), was there to meet me. The ride was uneventful, but I couldn’t help but be struck by how much the landscape resembled the area north of Los Angeles. Mountainous and arid with farm land interspersed here and there. We arrived at Hotel Bella just as Erdhal, one of the owners of this highly rated hotel (on TripAdvisor), was there to meet me. This hotel is charming, with a lovely rooftop terrace. But what really sets this place apart is the service… second to none. (I think if you look up service in a Turkish dictionary you will find a picture of the Hotel Bella).

Anyway, I got settled and immediately walked up one floor to the rooftop terrace for … what else… a cup of chi (tea) and an introduction to the area by Erdahl, complete with a walking guide book to Ephesus. I decided to hang out on the terrace, have dinner and watch the Fenerbahce-Kayseri football match that was just starting. (Apparently everyone in Turkey cheers for Fenerbahce because Erdhal was also a fan. Unfortunately, they were upset 2-0.) One delicous fish dinner and more chi later and I was about to head down to my room when Erdhal told me I should stay because the FIBA semi-final basketball game between Serbia and Turkey was about to start. Good choice as it turned out. The game was a fantastic back and forth affair. Turkey won 83-82 with 4 seconds left in the game and a last second blocked shot… The hotel, the street and I think Turkey lost it. Great fun!

Statute of Fertility Goddess Cybele/Artemis

I got up the next morning and planned to tour the area and Ephesus, but then decided to spread it out over 2 days instead of 1 so Sunday would be a relaxing day with a little walking tour of the area. First up was the Ephesus Museum, which contains artifacts excavated from Ephesus. The highlights for me were (1) an original, completely in tact statute of Priapus, the god of Lampsakos (protector of the countryside, gardens and vineyards) who has a rather ah … exaggerated erectile area symbolizing fertility and abundance. I wasn’t expecting to see it and when I moved on to the statute behind a glass window I burst into laughter. (I know … immature… but when you see it in person and aren’t expecting it is rather surprising (impressive, but surprising – unfortunately my picture sucks because their was a glare on the glass from a window behind me, but click here (Bes picture )and you can see what it looks like); (2) a statute of Eros (god of Love) riding on a dolphin; (3) two in tact statutes of fertility goddess Cybele/Artemis; and (4) the mammoth remains (head and hand) of Emperor Domitian – when I say mammoth I mean it. This thing was apparently 23 feet tall and was built to honor the Emperor after he freed some folks from slavery. I thoroughly enjoyed the museum and spent about an hour and half walking around what was actually a very tiny place.

Next up and a short walk down the street was the Temple of Artemis (or what remains of the Temple which was actually bigger than the Parthenon in Athens with 127 columns). However earthquakes, plundering and sea water took their toll and only one column now remains. The site where the temple sat is huge, but now it is actually just a marshy area with one lonely, large marble column. (Ephesus and Artemis were at one time large Roman cities, but earthquakes and a receding sea caused their demise.)

Courtyard of Isa Bey Camii Mosque

I then walked down the street past several groups of men gathered around tables playing backgammon and cards (this is a very common site in the small towns in Turkey and nary a woman in sight) and down to the Isa Bey Cammi Mosque built in 1375. The Isa Bey Cammi Mosque is one of the oldest mosques in the Anatolian region. This mosque was beautiful with a very peaceful (tranquil) courtyard. I took my shoes off, covered my head and shoulders with a shawl and walked around the mosque – the floors of mosques in Turkey are covered in beautiful Turkish carpets. It was small mosque by the stanndards I had seen in Istanbul, but actually quite pretty. I walked back outside and there was no one around. I ended up sitting on a bench watching a cat play in the grass (hey I’m on sabbatical … time spent on mindless activities is my specialty).

I finally decided to move on and climbed the hill to the Basilica of St. John where the remains of the Apostle St. John are believed to be buried. St. John was said to have to come to Ephesus once between AD 37 and AD 48 with the Virgin Mary and then at the end of his life. A tomb in Selcuk was thought to house his remains and in the 6th Century, the Emperor Justinian built the Basilica on top of the tomb. Over the centuries, the Basilica was left in a pile of rubble by earthquakes and plundering, but the walls and arches were reconstructed from the rubble (like a jiggsaw puzzle) and the site is now quite impressive.

The Tomb of St. John

I walked around for about an hour as the site has some really interesting ruins including the treasury, the baptismal area and of course St. John’s tomb surrounded by marble columns. The Basilica sits up on the top of a hill and has fantastic views of the area surrounding Selcuk all the way to Ephesus.

I left the Basilica and walked the block back to my hotel. I had planned to do nothing for the afternoon, but Erdahl suggested that I go to Serince for lunch. (Serince is a little mountain town that was once inhabited by Greeks that sits amongst olive groves.) I thought it might be fun so Erdahl drove me up the hillside on a very winding road, dropped me off with instructions to go to a little restaurant at the top of the hill by the old church named Pervin Teyze specializing in Gozleme, a Turkish flatbread stuffed with feta cheese, spinach, mushrooms, potatoes and tomatoes (or any combination of the ingredients). One 20 minute ride later and I was deposited in Serince. I made my way up the VERY long path to the top of the hill and one more set of stairs later and I was on the doorstep of the out of the way restaurant. I was seated on cushions, gave my order and waited. As I looked around I realized I was the only non-Turk in the restaurant. I also realized that there was a table of young girls with their family who were staring at me. Now at this point I had become accustomed to Turkish men staring at me (because of my blue eyes), but this was a new one.

Selvi and Hacer (my two fans in Serince)

Lunch came (delish) and the little girls continued to stare. About half way through the meal two of the girls mustered up the courage to come over to my table. “ Merhaba” I said to them smiling (hello in Turk). One of the kids held up a camera… foto? Uh really? Sure why not. The two of them then proceeded to exchange the camera and take multiple pictures with me. Do not ask me why. I haven’t the foggiest idea why I attracted attention, but the two of them continued to watch me and smile throughout lunch.

Once lunch was finished the proprietor, Pervin, came over to my table and pointed at me and said “baklava”? Uh oh. My weakness found its way all the way up the hillside to this restaurant. Sure why not. Ten minutes later I had 4 little pieces of the most sinful sweetness you have ever tasted. Pervin managed to convey to me that she had made it that morning and OH MY GOD… dripping with honey and flakey goodness. I wanted to stay there amongst the cushions forever and just wait for the next batch of baklava to make its way to my little table.

Pervin – the maker of the finest baklava ever

I finally hauled my very happy butt out of there and walked back down the hill the long way. Through the little alleys and winding cobblestone paths to the shops, stalls and wineries at the bottom of the hill. Unfortunately, it was the Turkish election day (evet or hyir on the amendments to the constitution) and the wineries were closed. (In Turkey, every person over 18 has to vote and if you do not, you are fined. This results in an almost 100% turnout. Contrast this with Canada and the U.S., countries that pride themselves on democracy, yet face a pathetic 40% or less turnout in elections. I am not sure about the fining idea, but there is so much social pressure in Turkey to vote that you are considered to be a bad citizen if you do not cast a cherished ballot the citizens worked so hard to obtain with the ouster of the sultans in the 1920s.)

Anyway, I spent the next couple hours wandering around the stalls looking at jewelry, produce and every conceivable product that could be made of olive oil. (Yes, I bought some soaps.) Erdhal finally picked me up and took me back to the hotel about 4. Now Erdahl and his partner have a carpet shop next to the hotel and I had told Erdahl I was looking for a large carpet for my living room, knew what I wanted and would like to have a look at his supply. A half hour after I got back to the hotel, I was seated, drinking chi and looking at some gorgeous area carpets for my living room. I finally saw something I really liked, but it was a bit out of my price range. A half hour of negotiations later we were close. I was firm on my price and so were they. Finally, after more chi and discussions, we split the baby, but instead of paying the difference, I agreed to ship them each a pair of Merrill hiking boots (seriously….), which apparently cannot be purchased in Turkey.

I then made my way upstairs to the lovely terrace for drinks and dinner before the highly anticipated U.S. – Turkey FIBA basketball championship game. As I was sitting at my table, I was introduced to David and Lisa, from…. Bellingham, Washington (just up the road from Seattle). They both work for Western Washington University and were on a month vacation of Turkey and Germany. Really super couple. We talked about my trip and the fact I would be in India and it turned out that David had a relative (96 years old) living in a convent just outside Darjeeling. They promised to give me her address and I promised to try and visit her. (I later learned she is bed ridden, but apparently able to have visitors. The convent is in Silguri outside Darjeeling, but on the way to Bagdora, the airport I would be flying out of so I would try to visit on my way to the airport after my stay in Darjeeling.)

I then watched the basketball game (the U.S. clobbered the Turks, to the despair of my hosts) and headed to bed. I planned to visit Seven Sleepers, Ephesus and Meryemana (believed to be the last residence of the Virgin) the next day and wanted to be rested.

The Grotto of the Seven Sleepers

I spent a lazy morning and then got ready to head out about midday. I decided I would go to the sites later in the day so that I would avoid some of the very large bus tours. I made a quick stop at the Seven Sleepers Grotto and stopped for some lunch before heading to Ephesus.

The Seven Sleepers, as legend has it, were seven Christian men who lived during the time that paganism was still the practiced religion of the Roman empire. Emperor Decius gave these seven men time to recant their Christian beliefs and when they failed to do so the men traveled to the mountains to escape. The guys ended up falling asleep in a cave, which Emperor Decius ordered sealed. Two hundred years later, the landowner decided to open up the sealed cave to use it as a storage facililty. When he opened the cave, he found the sleepers inside. They awoke, imagining that they had slept a day. They walked into town and tried to spend old coins from the reign of Emperor Decius only to learn it was two hundred years later and Christianity was not an accepted religion. After the sleepers dies, they were buried in the cave along with others in what many believe is the first Christian cemetery.

So after the Seven Sleepers, Erdahl picked me up and took me to Ephesus about a mile down the road. It turned out to be a good idea waiting until later in the day to visit the site. I only ran into a couple tour groups and was even able to get a picture of the fabled Celsus Library with no one in front of it. Anyway, I entered the south gate, rented a set of headphones (the tour was helpful, but the over the ear headphones were a pain in the ass) and set off. Ephesus, in case you are not familiar, is considered to be the best preserved city in the eastern Mediterranean (and excavation continues). Ephesus was a great Roman trading city sitting on the Aegean and was at one time the capital of Asia Minor. The city was devastated by earthquakes, floods and a receding sea and was eventually abandoned in the 6th century A.D.

Odeion Bouleuterion at Ephesus

Anyway, the ruins are really spectacular and draw hundreds of thousands of people each year. I had been really looking forward to Ephesus, and I wasn’t disappointed. It was incredible. I started out at the Baths on State Street and from there wandered over to the Odeion Bouleutrerion (think mini stadium). This was actually a pretty cool place. I climbed to the top and had the whole stadium to myself. If I had any kind of voice I would have broke into song just to see how the accoustics were. (I opted for keeping the Turks on my side and kept my mouth shut). From here I walked across the ruins to of the Pollio Monument and the Fountain of Domitian and the Temple of Domitian and then I spotted one of the monuments I really wanted to see … the Relief of Nike (Nike was the Roman goddess of Victory). This is the statute from which Phil Knight developed his famous Nike swoosh. It was fabulous and I must have spent about 10 minutes just staring at it. Huge highlight.

Just do it! Relief of Nike – Goddess of Victory

Then it was on to Curetes Way, one of the main streets in Ephesus (this was Ephesus’ Main Street U.S.A. – a very wide street made of marble cobblestones.) From the top of the street you can see all the way to the end and the Celsus Library. I wandered through Hercules Gate and amongst the myriad of ruins on either side of me and down the marble street which was VERY slippery. I saw more than one person slide and almost fall. I then reached another highlight: the Terrace Houses. This is a covered area of wealthy homes that is the subject of ongoing excavation and reconstruction. There is an extra 15 TL charge and as a result, most people opted out (including the tour groups). Pity, although good for me. There was virtually no one inside, and I wandered around from terrace to terrace with few people to impair my view or bother me. It was terrific.

Curetes Way at Ephesus

One of the sites that absolutely blew me away was a series of tables on which there are thousands of tiny pieces of what was once a brilliant mosaic wall. There are people putting this mosaic back together one piece at a time (like a jigsaw puzzle) and the work already accomplished blew my mind. The patience these folks must have to sift through the pieces is incredible.

Anyway, I wandered through the multiple levels, looking at partially repaired rooms, artifacts and mosaics. The largest residence was apparently owned by a governor and the place was huge. (This is actually the site of the largest mosaic restoration.) The lower levels of the Terrace Houses appeared to be smaller residences and the upper residences were much larger and much more elaborate. (I guess nothing has changed over the centuries as larger homes are still built where the views are best.)

Public toilets at the Latrine of Ephesus

I left the Terrace Houses and walked across to the funniest ruins in Ephesus: the Latrine and House of Pleasure. This is the site of the mens’ communal toilets, a series of elevated marble holes for doing your thing. The toilet “hour” was a very social event during Roman times where men would sit and discuss the days events with their friends and colleagues while relieving themselves. The wealthy would even have their servants go and warm their spot before they took up their position. I don’t think I can really do these ruins justice so I will of course include a picture. In looking at these communal toilets, I can now understand why men take reading materials into the bathroom with them…. its part of their heritage.

I moved from this rather comedic site to the most famous site of Ephesus: the Library of Celsus which was built by Roman governor Celsus Polemaenus (according to the sign) and at one time held 12,000 scrolls. The library is absolutely beautiful and reminds me of the Treasury in Petra (which I will see next month). The facade of the library is adorned with four statutes representing four virtues: Arete (goodness), Ennoia (thought), Episteme (knowledge) and Sophia (wisdom). When I arrived at the ruins, there were only a few people around. I really wanted a picture with no one in front of the library (a tough feat considering how many people visit this place). Anyway, I waited and waited and waited and finally there were only a couple people in front. They moved on and I snapped my pic. I thought it was perfect, but noticed later that there was a single jackass who wandered into my picture and sat down while he was talking on his cell phone. (I’m going to have to figure out how to photo shop that dude out of my pic… otherwise perfect.)

The Celsus Library at Ephesus

I then wandered through the commercial Agora (think huge field with a bunch of stones and broken bits of ruins) which was at one time the market area. I then moved on to the Great Theatre, a large amphitheater that once had a capacity for 25,000 on three levels. As you climb the grade becomes steeper and steeper giving those in the Bob Uecker seats amazing views. (The pitch of the stadium actually reminded me a bit of the old Kingdome in Settle with the very narrow staircase and very step steps) . Again, I lucked out. There were few people around and I climbed to the top and had a fantastic view of all of Ephesus.

I was near the end of the ruins and made a brief journey down Harbour Street (which obviously was the street that led to the harbour before the water receded putting an end to Ephesus) and then took a detour to the last site, the Church of Mary. By this point, I was done and headed to the exit. The folks from my hotel picked me up and took me on to my last stop for the day, Meryemana.
Me at the Great Theatre of Ephesus

Meryemana is believed to be the last residence of the Virgin Mary who was brought to Ephesus by St. John after Christ entrusted St. John with her care as he was dying on the cross. The location was discovered after a 19th century nun had visions about the site and described the area (despite never having been to Turkey). Clergy from Izmir in Turkey discovered the foundation using the nun’s description and the site was authenticated by the Catholic Church in 1967. The location has been visited by popes and is a popular Christina pilgrimage site. The area is nestled amongst trees and flowers and is quiet and very peaceful. And, again… luck was on my side (and perhaps the late hour) …. no one was in the chapel that covers the residence. I stayed for a few minutes and moved on. Really quite moving.

So I got back to the hotel just as the sun was setting, but the sound level had been kicked up a notch as an outdoor wedding was in progress across the street. I had some dinner and wandered across to have a look. The music was in high gear as was the traditional turkish dancing. As I watched, guests motioned me in. Uh… talk about the ultimate wedding crasher, Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson have nothing on me. I traveled 7,000 miles to crash this gig. So I wandered in with much thanks and watched the proceedings for a bit. Aside from the different food and the different dancing, this could have been a wedding anywhere in North America. Little kids running all over the place. Mom and Dad beaming. Bride and Groom glowing. Really fun to wander around for a bid. Then I thanked my hosts and excused myself.

The happy bride and groom

The next morning (Tuesday) I had a driver from the hotel, Ali, for the day and was off to Aphrodisias and Pamukkale (pronounced Pama kale ee) with the ruins of Hierapolis. First up Afrodisias and in hind sight, if I could have spent the whole day at these ruins I would have been a happy woman. Aphrodisias was about an hour and a half drive north east of my hotel. I spent the time in the car reading a book Erdahl had given me about Aphrodisias and it was well worth it. Aphrodisias was a small town with a population of 15,000 at its peak and famous for its pilgrimage to worship at the Temple of Aphrodite. (The first temple apparently dated to around 600 B.C.) The city lost most of its luster under the Byzantines (who were Christians) who obviously changed the city substantially including converting the rather “hot” temple of love into a very chaste church. It turned out, however,that Aphrodisias is a wonderful archeological site that has few visitors. Although Ephesus has more ruins that have been excavated, Aphrodisias is a real work in progress. While the major sites have been revealed, there are still areas that are being excavated and it was splendid to see.
My man at the Baths of Hadrian at Aphrodisias

As I entered the site, I noticed that there was hardly anyone around. In fact, I could count the number of people I ran into on two hands (and maybe two feet). It was a wonderful experience to walk amongst such history in virtual solitude. First up was the magnificently preserved Theatre and Theatre Baths. The Theatre was capable of holding 7,000 people. There were remnants of “luxury” boxes on the lower level and the seats had markings that were apparently individual names of the seat holders. I moved on to the back side of the stadium to the Baths of Hadrian where there was a magnificent marble headless statute of a man. We hit it off as the picture evidences.
Me at the Temple of Aphrodite

I then wandered past the Bishop’s Palace and on to the highlight of the site the Temple of Aphrodite dedicated to the Greek god of love (known as Venus to the Romans). The temple must have been amazing in its time. The marble pillars were huge and magnificently carved. I wandered around and hung out at this site for a bit. These ruins were lovely. I ended the site visit at the beautiful marble bouleuterion that was apparently covered in mud for over a thousand years, but which allowed it remain exquisitely preserved. (I had no idea what a bouleuterion was so I had to ask one of the guards. Turns out it used to house the counsel of citizens … ie a town hall.)

The Three Graces at the Aphrodisias Museum

Then the surprise of my visit…. the museum. Now, I am not a huge museum freak (although from these blogs I guess most of you think that I am), but the Aphrodisias Museum was absolutely incredible. The number of statutes and relics that have been recovered in good condition was amazing. I wandered around among the statutes big and small, and various art works and tools. I could have spent hours in the museum. It was far better than anything I saw at the Ephesus Museum and actually approached works of art I saw at the Hermitage (the statues and detail were that well preserved).

Next up was my trip to Pamukkale, about an hour an a half past Aphrodisias. Pamukkale aka the Cotton Castle, sits on the side of a mountain and is made up of travertine shelves and pools that were built by the areas calcium rich mineral waters that bubble up out of the ground and flow over the edge of the cliffs leaving the stunning white mineral deposits forming the Cotton Castle. Now going to Pamukkale, I already knew that a lot of the pools had been destroyed by construction in the area, and the Turkish government was working to undo the damage (with limited success). What I did not know, however, is how ridiculously overrun the place would be. Ugh. I wandered around for a bit, took a dip in one of the pools and called it good. (I think I had become spoiled the past couple days with minimum crowds, but this was insane.)


I opted to instead wander around the ruins of Hierapolis for a bit, which are adjacent to Pamukkale. I walked about 1 km to the end of the ruins and doubled back wandering through the Roman Baths, past a number of spectacularly carved crypts in multiple shapes and sizes, (not sure why the crypts and the baths were so close together – seemed odd to me) then down Frontinus Street with its multiple colonnades (the main thoroughfare in the ruins), past the Arch of Domitian (that Emperor had an arch in every city it seems) and past a church to the Byzantine Gate. One thing I notice as I wandered around is the striking difference between the ruins in Ephesus and Aphrodisias and the ruins is Hierapolis with its heavy emphasis on Byzantine design and stone work versus Greek and Roman design and use of marble. Much more stoic and dark than Ephesus and Aphrodisias. (I don’t want to say the Byzantines weren’t a fun lot, but their effort to bring Christianity to the masses seemed to make them a bit of a dour lot.)

Arch of Domitian at Hierapolis

Anyway, last up was the enormous Roman Theatre that sat at the top of the hill overlooking Hierapolis. By this point, I was very hot and rather tired, but dammit I wasn’t going to come all the way to Hierapolis and not see that theatre. So I began what I knew would be a brutal hike up the hill and was I ever right. Visions of the death stairs at Machu Picchu crossed my mind as I trudged up the road to the top of the hill. In the distance the hill had not looked so bad, however, the fact that I was tired, had not eaten and was incredibly hot in the not a cloud in the sky 90 plus degree heat was taking its toll. By the time I got to the top of the hill it was all I could do not to collapse on the stair case. Fortunately, (or unfortunately) I was not the only one feeling this way. The few brave (or foolish) soles who made it to the top were all lying on the stair case with me out of breath. (Somebody could make a fortune with a few golf carts running folks to the top of the hill and back….)

Once I caught my breath and gulped down the last of my water I was able admire the incredible theatre that was apparently constructed in two stages by Emperors Hadrian and Severus. It at one time could seat 12,000 and like Afrodisias had front row boxes on the lower level. Most of the original stage is in tact and was really remarkable to see.

I then hiked back to the car, met Ali and called it a day. My time in Turkey had come to an end and the next day I was headed to Samos Island, Greece off the Turkish coast. I was very sad to leave Turkey. I am already contemplating when I can return to this beautiful country with its equally beautiful people.

Author: lawyerchick92

I am a lawyer by trade, but long to be a full time traveller. My life changed for the better when my brother donated a kidney to me on October 14, 2002.

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