The olive-planted hills rolled on, behind them the far-away jagged mountains. The landscape looked mythical—the kind that Heracles and Odysseus might have romped around in before there were cars, and roads, and helpful signs to guide the wayward tourist to photo-worthy sites. Against a hill in the distance we could see our destination: a huge slope of white, as white as snow, seemingly cut into the rock. This was Pamukkale—Cotton Castle in Turkish. Behind the white, crowning the top of the hill were the ruins of a Roman city.
We parked the car and walked towards the entrance. We could hear people, but the cicadas and the crickets susurrating in the summer heat were louder. Ducks led ducklings padding across a pond in a park at the bottom of the hill. And above us was that startling band of pure white.
We slipped off our shoes before walking up Pamukkale—you have to go barefoot. The sun was hotter than it should have been, reflecting off the white cliffs. The limestone was wet with cool water, which eased the heat a little.
I took off my sunglasses just to see how things looked. The white was too white. A thousand times whiter than the whiteness of a blank sheet of paper. A whiteness so pure it made me squint and pull away.
Man-made pools staggered up the hill in ascending plateaus, the water the majestic blue usually only seen in advertisements for beach hotels. In the folds of the rock, the white was sometimes tinted a subtle pink. On the higher ridges, stalactites and stalagmites of limestone met to make hungrily grinning mouths.
“Seeing natural phenomena like this, it’s not surprising why people need to invent gods,” my friend said.
And seeing it, so strange, so different, so unexpected, you need to think of an explanation for it. Eternal curses against the landscape itself, the anger of Zeus, ancient aliens. The accepted explanation is that the springwater is supersaturated with carbon dioxide and limestone, and as the water bubbles over the mountains, it forms dribbles of stone called travertines. It’s true enough. But it doesn’t explain the wonder.
A head-scarfed mother led a half-naked toddler by the hand while he splashed in the pool, her other hand holding her skirt up, the hem brushing the surface of the water. Next to her, a pair of Russians, bejeweled and bikinied, poured water over their big breasts, and then indolently laid face down in healing clay. A large-bellied Italian stood in front of his wife’s camcorder and lustily narrated the scene behind him. A line of Chinese made their way up the hill like ants, in street clothes, holding their shoes at their sides, a tour guide barking liked a provincial official. We played around in one of the lower pools, slapping the jelly-like white sediment over our bodies and observing the other tourists.
But I was impatient where I should have relaxed. While my friends enjoying the feeling of the warm water and the majesty of the scenery, laying on their backs, staring at the sky, I was hunched forward with my hands around my knees, wondering whether the higher pools were any better. Were we just wasting our time? Was the really amazing stuff just a little ahead?
I left my friends and climbed alone to the higher pool. It was the same as the lower pool where my friends were. I looked over at them below me. And then I looked above me as the parade of tourists continued, a tutti-frutti splatter of swimsuits and skin.
The heat was incredible. The light was magnified by the limestone and the sun glinting off the waters. I could feel my skin burn and crack.
At the top, a waterfall pushed over the edge of the hill, and person after person lined up next to it to snap photos. No one stood under it, though. I cut in line and made funny faces while reveling in the warm water.
After climbing Pamukkale, we made it to the ruins if the Ancient Roman city of Hierapolis. A tourist trap has been planted here. A broad pavilion, called Antique Pools, welcomes the sunburned tourists to buy overpriced ice creams and coffees. There was a booth where for 30 lira you could get a video of you and a friend flying on a magic carpet through the tourists sites of Turkey. In the pool itself—which you have to pay to enter—people lounge on the Roman columns, fallen, broken, and submerged in the water.
On the way from Pamukkale to Kusadasi, we took a small detour to visit Aphrodisias, one of the best preserved Roman cities on earth. The place was completely silent. Besides the attendant who sold us our tickets, we could see nobody. For a moment, it was easy to believe that there was no noise at all, and that the place had been untouched for thousands of years. But after a moment, I realized that I simply couldn’t hear the noise of people. The cicadas were wild. The birds sang. The grass sashayed in the hot wind.
The entrance was lined with the detritus of archeology: emptied sarcophagi decorated with funereal scenes, mantles from the tops of walls, grave stele. Iconoclasts and demon-wary Christians have defaced most of them, snapping off the noses of the carved figures, rubbing away the faces, scrawling protective crosses in the rock.
A stack of marble mantles stood in the shade of the building with as much ceremony of out-of-use deck chairs. They are decorated with faces, still expressive, their eyes still happy and lecherous, their cheeks still full or hollowed, their expressions knowing and arch, gluttonous, pedantic. Between them run garlands of stone fruits. These mantles are stacked three high and four deep. A lazy brown cat wandered in between them, looked up at us, and gave a lazy meow.
We descended some steps to the Sebasteion, the temple to the cult of the Divine Emperors. High friezes, triple porticos, a courtyard, all stood reconstructed in the empty summer heat. Only a tenth of the building stands. Looking at it, I tried to imagine what it was like when it once was real.
We moved on to the Temple of Aphrodite, the city’s patron god. A gate remained, towering as high as a small hotel, proud and marble and white in the sun. In another stretch of the Temple, tumbled marble columns scarred by fire lay in the vine-choked ground. In 500 AD the temple was converted into a church, and people prayed here until the Seljuk Turks came around 1200 AD and emptied the city.
The city is vast. It is amazing. It is stunning to think of the labor which once raised these stones, and the lives which once pulsed through these streets.
The tops of my feet had been so sunburned that they looked like plums. My arms felt like they’d been turned into Brendan Jerky. My girlfriend forgot to put on sunscreen at all and so she teeters on uncertain legs, her whole bare back red, sweaty, asking for water. We are dusty and travel worn.
But the city is also boring and hot. The ruins are just ruins, and it takes a bit of mental effort for me to see the wonder in the bricks and the marble porticos, effort that I don’t have after twelve days of travel, and after the sun reflected off the limestone, and after the driving, and after the beauty I have already seen.
We hurried through the ruins, past the theater and the agora, past the Hadrianic Baths where archeologists labored in the heat. Then we circled around to the entrance and retired to the museum which—pleasure of all pleasures!—was air conditioned. It was only there, once we were comfortable, that we could appreciate how sun-baked, dehydrated, over-traveled, and tired we had become.
The museum was filled with the artifacts of Aphrodisias that were too fine to leave out in the open air and the unshaded sun. There were statues, friezes, monuments, and coins, the broken pieces fit together, the scenes explained with helpful informational plaques. Where the items have been badly damaged, they provide small helpful drawings that show how the site would have looked like when it was whole.
Most of these fine antiquities blur together, passing by, undistinguished even by their age. We have seen so much already. But some touch me. I wonder why. It is not by virtue of their superior craftsmanship. I can hardly tell what separates a good statue from a great statue. Some works of art just touch me, and make me curious again when for whole museums I have been bored.
Here it is two statues of boxers that excite my attention. Their strong arms and chests rippled with tough-toned muscles. They hold themselves with the proud and beaten posture of someone who has fought with their whole heart against defeat. But time has defeated them, when no opponent could. One is missing its forearm, his shin is broken, his face has been cracked in three pieces, and is only half-recovered. His bald head and empty eyes make him look like a man losing his power, surprised at how quickly he became so old. The other boxer suffered from a shattered leg, a lost neck, and a head cleaved in two. They stare across each other, silent.
In a hot side-room of the museum, the friezes of the Sebasteion have been restored and put up on pedestals. There are dozens of them, showing emperors and gods. One frieze depicts Day, Hemena, a cloak rising behind her head, lifted by a gust of wind symbolizing the epiphany of the gods. Her face has been gouged away and her hand snapped off her body. Beside her stands the god of the Waters, Oceanus, also throwing a cloak to the wind behind his head. His features have been dulled by rain. But these two friezes are lonely. When they stood up on the porticos of the Sebasteion, Day would have been paired with Night, together representing the eternity of the Roman Order. Oceanus would have been paired with the earth, and show how the Roman Empire commanded the lands and the seas. But now these two great symbols stand lonely and broken, symbolizing only the eventual victory of time.
We felt broken. We felt tired. We limped out of Aphrodisias to our car. Then we drove up winding mountain roads, feeling more broken and more tired as the sun sets over the mountains, as we pass through more kilometers of mythological landscape. We passed over the top of a mountain road to find the Agean Sea spread out before us.
There we improbably checked into an all-inclusive beachside resort to wash the salt off our bodies and sleep the sun out of our minds with an all-you-can drink bar and an army of holiday makers. Tomorrow it’s going to get weird.