Thursday, December 24, 2015

Sacred and Profane

Here are some things we’ve observed and appreciated about Turkey:
  • Everyone we’ve met has been unfailingly kind, helpful, and friendly.
  • There are at least as many stray dogs and cats as there are people.
  • Both landscapes and edifices are breathtakingly beautiful.
  • The roads are excellent, and pretty well marked.
  • Most ladies' rooms have the option of sitting or squatting.  You may use your imagination as to my choice. (No, please don't.)
  • Raki can be dangerous in large quantities.
Our last three days were spent on the Aegean coast, taking in the ancient Greek and Roman sites. We stayed in the charming fishing village of Foca, which was remarkable in that it had almost no ruins at all (except for part of a castle wall). We arrived late in our rental car, found a seafood restaurant (all the restaurants are seafood, all offering the day’s catch at approximately the same price), ate heartily, had a raki, and collapsed.

In the morning, we headed out – late again – to Bergama, aka Pergamon. The site is perched atop a mountain with a road full of switchbacks (we blessed our automatic shift); no buses were allowed to go up the road and people on tours had to take a cable car to the top. Built by the Greeks, starting in the third century B.C., it flourished as a Hellentistic acropolis, and then was taken over by the Romans.  
Once there, we discovered that we were nearly alone in the site, except for the ubiquitous Chinese tourist group or two that we encountered everywhere in Turkey. This vast complex included an enormous amphitheater carved into the steep side of the mountain
with views of the town and farms below, and temples to Emperor Trajan, who seemed to have declared himself at least a demigod, and to Athena/Minerva (including a library that was emptied by Mark Antony and given as a gift to Cleopatra). The weather was warm and sunny, and we were so thrilled to experience the beauty of the place and its views in peaceful solitude that we spent the whole afternoon wandering around in a kind of classical daze.

Another fishy dinner – though Phil bravely ordered something called Shepherd’s Casserole that turned out to be mutton -- more raki, a good sleep, a massive
breakfast, and we were ready to head to Ephesus. As this is one of the most famous and important archeological sites in the world, we were again startled to find we were nearly alone. Apparently, late December, in the midst of political standoffs with Russia and Syria, is a good time to vacation in Turkey.
Unlike Pergamon, which is an acropolis, Ephesus is an entire town, with well-preserved marble streets, ruins of wealthy Romans’ townhouses complete with floor mosiaics, temples, baths, a brothel, a beautiful library with an amazingly well-preserved façade, and an amphitheatre twice as big as Pergamon’s.  In fact, there are two amphitheatres, one that was used for political meetings.

There was also a public toilet, built in a square so that the users could, I suppose, chat with each other while doing their business.  Like Pergamon, Ephesus was first a Greek and then a Roman town, given to the Romans by a Greek ruler who died childless. It was built at the seacoast, though later it silted up, so it’s now pretty far inland. Cleopatra and Marc Antony vacationed there in the winter (we follow a long tradition, obviously), and Cleopatra’s sister was murdered there.

We spent a good deal of time searching for the Roman statue of Priapus, supposedly housed in the brothel complex, but were disappointed to learn that he and his fabled organ had been moved to the local museum. So instead we moved from the profane to the sacred
and set off for Mary’s House, the reputed home of the Virgin Mary after the death of Jesus. According to legend, she went off with John (the Evangelist?), who had promised Jesus he would take care of her, and settled on a stunning hilltop not far from Ephesus. Her house, built of stone, is small and cozy-looking; inside, it is now a chapel, and people of both Christian and Muslim backgrounds make pilgrimages there. The location was utterly peaceful, and it wasn’t hard to imagine that this truly had been her home.
We passed a sign for the Grotto of the Seven Sleepers, and Phil, who can’t pass a sign for a historical site any more than he can pass a church with an open door,  turned down the bumpy road. In both Christian and Muslim tradition, the legend surrounding them is that they were either imprisoned for their beliefs or fled from a tyrant and went into the caves in the grotto, where they slept for up to three hundred years, guarded by a dog. The site is a series of caves and stone caskets --  rather eerie.

Despite the many rocks, steps, and fallen columns, Phil only tripped twice on our visits to these ancient sites. This dismayed Ben, who had earlier observed of his incessant clumsiness, "The comedy writes itself."
More fish for dinner! And it was just as fresh and tasty. Our waiter was a Kurd who, as with most people with whom we talked, lamented the state of affairs in the country. He told us it was very difficult to be Kurdish in Turkey; there is a lot of prejudice. (Never, in any of these chats, was Ergodan mentioned. But his face is on posters plastered on the tallest building in any town, and one feels he hovers over conversation.)The fish heads are thrown to the multitude of cats that hang out  around the harbor, well behaved and well-fed. There was more raki as well, though I passed it up – I think there’s a raki cut-off point beyond which it may be fatal to stray.*

Because Turkish Air had forced us to change to an earlier flight, and Phil’s cold had flattened him a bit, we only spent a little while the next morning strolling along the paved waterfront of Foca, gazing at the fishing boats and the tiny fish in the crystal-clear water, dodging cats and petting dogs, before loading up the car and heading to the airport. 
 And thus, Turkey.

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

*The following event occurred when Ben and I were having a raki at the local bar: an extremely beautiful couple sat down next to us and started to chat. Turned out they were soap opera stars filming nearby. They joked about how they were married on the show, and he said they would soon be married in real life, which apparently was the first official news she'd heard of it. She seemed not displeased. And then she asked if Ben and I were man and wife. Use your imagination here to picture the hysterical laughter, humiliation, and pleasure this question produced. It was, of course, the highlight of the trip for me. 

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