My husband, Bishara, and I had been utterly awestruck by the allure of Kas; a quaint and breathtaking town on Turkey’s southwest coast. Nestled within the Taurus Mountains and adjoining the Mediterranean Sea, Kas was a scintillating amalgam of prismatic blossoming trees, red-hued roofs, sea craft hovering on glistening waters, and billowing braids of locals and visitors engrossed in the delights of the town.
A four and a half hour road trip from Kas, abounding with striking views of snowcapped peaks, would bring us to our next destination, Ephesus, located in Selcuk just inland from the Aegean Sea within Turkey’s western reaches. The site of magnificent well-preserved ruins from the Greek and Roman periods, Ephesus, during its heyday, was a bustling metropolis, second only to Rome, in size and influence.
Before journeying back in time to ancient Ephesus, however, we would need to check into our boutique hotel in the historic section of Selcuk. Despite having GPS, the cobblestoned maze of the old district proved too arduous, and we, ultimately, succumbed to asking locals for directions to the Urkmez Hotel. Eventually discovering a partially obscured placard for the hotel, we clambered up a flight of stairs to reach the reception area where a diminutive older gentleman in a beige suit sat on a connecting balcony drinking tea. After alerting the man to our presence, he entreated us to “wait, wait,” and soon returned with a younger man who revealed that the accommodating senior was his father. A team of two brothers managed the hotel and were obliging in arranging a tour of Ephesus for us the following morning.
Our accommodations, embellished with mosquito netting and swan-shaped towels framing a red carnation atop the bed, a cozy balcony, and handsome view of the Ayasuluk Fortress (dating back to the Byzantine era) on a nearby hillside, were unassuming yet comfortable.
Abbreviated naps, and a stroll through the old district’s stone streets incorporating a probe of Turkish coffee sets with intricately engraved silver cupolas, were capped by an alfresco dinner at a family owned restaurant where we relished fresh creamy tomato soup, salads, chicken kabobs and rice, amidst intermittent spitting rain, and an abundance of neighborhood vitality.
Although we had looked forward to a conventional tour of Ephesus the next morning, the wait for the 9:00 AM shuttle bus to take us, and other tourists, to the primeval and historically significant site, reinforced our sense that a formal expedition would be far too circumscribed for our personal tastes. Thus, ten minutes into the wait, we jettisoned our tour group with the vapid excuse that we would take the tour the following day. Feeling unencumbered, we sought out our rental car, pulled out our brochures and guide maps for Ephesus and kept a conscientious eye on roadside markers.
Serendipitously, a nondescript signboard led us to the caves of “the Seven Sleepers,” a venue, thankfully, not overrun with visitors; in reality, our only human encounter was with a groundskeeper who doubled as an informal tour escort, as we consulted him on a couple of occasions regarding access to specific cave locations. As is common in Turkey, where eastern and western cultures converge, the tale of “the Seven Sleepers” traverses faiths, and relates the legend of seven Christian youths hiding in a cave near Ephesus in 250 AD to avoid the persecution of Roman Emperor Decius. Asleep for nearly 200 years, the men awake during the reign of Theodosius II, when Christianity (and monotheism) had come to the fore.
Eager to continue our journey back to the Hellenic era, Bishara and I drove to the proper entrance of the Ephesus grounds. Feeling culpable over not pursuing a traditional tour, Bishara ensured that I received headphones with a pre-recorded docent dispensing comprehensive historical descriptions of noteworthy sights, designs, backdrops, and such.
Treading from the modern world, (a contemporary roadway), to the Greco-Roman ruins of Ephesus we found ourselves transfixed by sections of rippled pillars and scattered stones across a swath of dirt and grass, once the backdrop of the State Agora. This space reportedly housed a temple commemorating an ancient Egyptian god built for the 42 BC visit of Cleopatra and Marcus Antonius, and in the first century AD served as Ephesus’ administrative center steeped in state business and official meetings.
Bordering the State Agora just to the north is the Basilica, where once majestic undulating Roman columns now stand in ruin; markers of a formerly flourishing tract where toga-clad merchants engaged in commerce and bankers in financial concerns. Members of the city council met in the Odeon, a theatre-style structure, which flanked the Basilica, and doubled as a concert location seating up to 1,500.
Steps away, along the eastern edges of the Agora and the Odeon, the Varius Baths are perched on a delicate incline. Conforming to the Roman Bath design, serving both practicality and sociability, the baths have an intricate network of chambers, including a sweating room, hot room, lukewarm room, undressing room, and a cold room, along with an orderly array of unobstructed latrines.
On the other side of the Odeon sits the Prytaneion (municipality building) in the form of two pylons with a stone abridgement on top, a locale where, purportedly, priestesses, and perennial virgins, from eminent families were responsible for the protection of the eternal sacred flame, and Ephesian executive council members held meetings and hailed esteemed guests.
Gingerly making our way over heaps of venerable stones and grassy patches from the Prytaneion to the southwestern perimeter of the State Agora, we encountered the Temple of Domitian, constructed in the name of an emperor, and the Pollio Fountain, formerly bedecked with statues of Odysseus, Polyphemus, and Zeus’s head. These imposing structures overlooked Domitian Square and the Water Palace, which was built in 80 A.D. and provided storage of, and distribution for, the city’s water supply.
Ephesians returning from a day’s work at the State Agora in the first century A.D. would have ambled northwestward along a stone pathway past the Memmius Monument, relief of the goddess of victory, Nike, and Hercules Gate, which opens to Curetes Street. The street so named due to its column bases framing the roadway, displaying the names of priests, or curetes, who were responsible for state and religious interests. Advancing a short distance along Curetes Street, the townsmen would have observed the commanding Trajan Fountain to the right of the avenue before veering left to their residences on a gentle slope. Although modest on the exterior, the “houses on the slopes” were the multi-story residences of the wealthy class and were adorned with lavish interiors, including frescos on the walls and mosaics on the floors, multiple latrines, and atriums encircling pools.
Opposite the private abodes stand the striking remains of the Temple of Hadrian containing friezes relating the story of Ephesus’ inception, with engraved images of Athena, Artemis, Apollo, Hercules and the Curetes. Adjacent to the Temple of Hadrian are the Scholastikia Baths, public latrines, and brothel. The Baths, a three-storied complex, containing a gymnasia, libraries, and a resting room, accommodated up to 1,000, and allowed townspeople the prospect of relaxing and mingling for protracted periods in the tepidarium after bathing.
Looming conspicuously at the end of Curetes Street is the fabled and stately Celsus Library built over the tomb of Tiberius Julius Celsus, Roman senator and General Governor of Asiana. Constructed by Celsus’ son and grandson, the grandiose structure accommodated 12,000 manuscript scrolls, incorporated an auditorium where philosophers imparted wisdom, and held statues conveying virtue/valor (Arete), destiny/intelligence (Ennoia), knowledge (Episteme), and wisdom (Sophia).
Wandering through the Gate of Mazeus and Mithridates, (built in gratitude by freed slaves of Emperor Augustus), we entered the Mercantile (or Marketplace) Agora, a pillared and grassy expanse that teemed with shops, merchants, commerce and trade in a bygone time. Entrenched as the largest trade center in Ephesus, the thriving Mercantile Agora received goods entering through the nearby Aegean harbor.
Just to the east of the Mercantile Agora, Marble Road, once filled with rustling carriages and Ephesian residents in tunics, flowing stolas, and laced-up sandals, connects the Celsus Library and the Theatre, a colossal structure built in the 3rd century B.C. on Mount Pion. Home of gladiator games, wild animal brawls, concerts and plays, as well as philosophical, political and religious discourse, the Theatre, (largest theatre building in Turkey seating 24,000), was reportedly the site of a sermon by Apostle Paul denouncing idol worship.
The neighboring Theatre Gymnasium served the educational pursuits of the players and housed classrooms, libraries, and baths, and was the site of competitions and award ceremonies.
Harbour Street, running along a verdant hillside, and stretching from the Theatre to the Harbour, held shops and welcoming parties for visiting kings and emperors.
We concluded our momentous Ephesus excursion in the northwest corner of the city, awash with lush grass, towering conical trees, and vibrant flowers where, it is believed, the first church in Asia was built for Virgin Mary.
Feeling sated, spiritually, Bishara and I retraced our steps through the transcendental Ephesus on the way back to our car. Turkey continued to inspire and fill us with wonder.