Sunday, July 15, 2012

Day Fourteen: The Day Of Ruins. Ephesus And After Ephesus. The Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary

This is day fourteen of the Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary.

We woke up that morning with headaches, thirsty, feeling like we had just passed through a strange dream where we were honorary citizens of a fairyland where the days were not days and if you ate the food you would loose all ambition and memory….

We checked out of the resort hotel, ripped off the orange wristbands, and then drove fifteen kilometers to the ruins of Ephesus.

Once a city of 250,000 people, one of twelve cities in Ionian League, one of the seven churches mentioned in the Book of Revelation, its Temple Of Artemis one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, Ephesus was a great city of antiquity.  Now the great theater is in shambles.  The houses of the citzens are buried in the undistinguished earth.  Only a single pillar of the fantastic temple remains.

Between the parking lot and the ticket office a dusty road was lined with shops selling over-priced trinkets and food.  A man called in the diaphragm-forced monotonous call of street-hawkers “Cold water ice cream fresh orange juice” over and over without ever stopping for breath.  Lines of tourists were pouring out of the site, feeling the late morning heat.  It was hot.  We tried to find shade where we could.

The entrance of Ephesus will be familiar to anyone who has visited a Roman ruin.  There were milestones, grave stele, sarcophagi with chunks taken out of them like they’d been gnawing, and the unmatched ancient detritus of an old city—mantles, columns, capitals, bricks and the like, made into semi-organized piles for the archaeologists to sift through at some point in the future.

As my friends looked at the informational plaques in front of a small collection of Roman milestones, I studied the other tourists.  Most were down the path, out of the ruins.  They looked drained and tired, done with the ancient ruins behind them, done with grave stele and informational plaques, done with the sun, waving brochures in front of their faces to cool themselves, marching on, their only hope the tour bus waiting in the parking lot and maybe a ridiculously-priced fresh orange juice from the man in the tourist bazaar to give them a little refreshment.  Is this what we travel for, I wondered?  To limp back to our hotel rooms with empty faces and cameras full of photos?  I saw nobody who could be mistaken for happiness.  I saw no sense of epiphany.—No openness in people’s eyes.  No excitement or curiosity or wonder.  I just saw faces sweaty, red and bloated from the heat.

I remembered seeing a tour group motto: ‘Create Your Best Memories.’  And maybe that’s what we were doing at Ephesus.—We were making memories.  It didn’t matter that now we were hot, tired, and uninspired.  I didn’t matter that at the moment we felt like a piece of wrinkled laundry hanging on a clothesline in the hot sun.  It mattered that we had seen the lost grandeur of a once-bustling city, and held that image in our minds, and that later in the comfort of a dinner party we could tell our friends about it.

Ahead of us on the path was the huge amphitheater, the rows of seats stretching high up the hill.  This was one of the biggest ampitheaters in the ancient world, able to seat 44,000 people.  Now a smattering of sight-seers climbed the rows.  A blue crane framed it, part of the structure covered in scaffolding and mesh.

We went into the theater and my friends fanned out with their cameras drawn, looking for a memorable image,  But the only thing I felt was the profound and rising heat.  I hid in a small shadowy corridor, fanning myself with my hat, watching the other people crawling around in the sun.

The acoustics of the theater are still great, and as we prepared to leave for the next monument, a Korean tour group gathered in the center of what had once been a stage and like that all at once they started to sing.  Their voices were humble and beautiful, carrying clearly up to the others on the higher seats.  “Saranghe,” the song repeated.  “I love you.”

And then it was out of the shade to be returned again to the sweaty sun.  The path was lined with mantles with lines of dentals and egg-and-darts.  Clay plumbing eased its way out of the dry dirt.  Around us was history.  I looked for shade.

The biggest symbol of Ephesus today is the great Library of Celsus, whose magnificent facade faced the east so that early-rising students repairing there to study could make use of the light of the morning sun.  As the rest of the sun-worn tourists meandered up the stairs, I found a pocket of shadow in a depression next to an old wall.  There I crouched and appreciated the library.  Eight columns decorated with almost every effect available to the Roman mason made up the first floor.  Four statues of toga-clad women stood between each pair of columns, representing the virtues, looking out with Roman stoicism at the melting mass of sight-seers below them.  It was wonderful.  I didn’t have to use my imagination to wonder at how the library had once looked.  It had looked like this, with people craning their heads to look at the top—only it was in a bit better repair.

Once we had inscribed enough memories to feel satisfied, we walked to the Terraced Houses, which required the purchase of an extra ticket.

It was worth it, and not just because the complex was covered with a roof that kept the sun off us for long enough that we could feel human again.  The Terraced Houses are a well-excavated stretch pf the rich part of town.  The first house we look at a reconstructed pericourt—an interior courtyard—with a basin, a broken aedicula, the walls hung with plaster stained ochre and yellow, bits of cracked marble tile arranged on boards put on stacked blue milk crates.  Archeologists here are sifting through 120,000 jig-sawed shards of marble floor, trying to piece the court back together again.  A cat prowled its way across the floor—off-limits to humans—looked up at us, and meowed.

The marble wall of the next pericourt had been completed, and it is stunning.  We walked up the terraces, beneath the clear plexiglass walkway mosaics clear in white and black.  On the walls of the houses were stunning frescos in white, maroon and orange, with a drooping vine providing a splash of green.  Heads with lank hair and gaping mouths, ribbons in curls and whorls.  Birds surrounded by flowers, a cupid, a posed Apollo, a room of the nine muses where each panel had a different muse, the paint still fresh after two thousand years.  Two thousand years of burial.  Two thousand years since the artist’s brush touched the wall.  Two thousand years since those rooms were background for human life.

This was a different view of Roman life than the one you could usually see from the monuments and graves.  This was a personal Rome, a Rome of pleasures and daily life and dinner parties.  Staring up at a fine mosaic of a lion and a calf’s head, I could imagine people walking over it, talking about some important Roman thing, nodding, coming to agreement.  In my imagination I filled the rooms with people bathing, playing sleeping, welcoming visitors, arguing, laughing, dreaming.  Some of the walls had been scratched with graffiti from Roman times.  Names, poems, declarations of love.  I wondered what ruins our civilization might lead, and whether future generations would faithfully preserve the scrawls we left on bathroom walls.

When we left the Terraced Houses, the heat was even fuller, and we made our wilted way up the steep climb of the Curestes Street, ignoring the temples and columns that lined our way.  At the top I waited in the shade of a fig tree while my friends looked around the upper half of the city by themselves.  I was too hot, too tired, my head full of too many dreams to look at any more ruins.


Then the rest of the day was full of driving.  Ephesus was the last big tourist site of our trip, and we felt too tired, too broken to glut ourselves on Pergamon or Troy, both of which lie further north.  We talked, but we really wanted to sleep.  We drove, but we really wanted to go home.  The next day we would board a car ferry and go back to Istanbul, to the city in whose wonders we had worked and slept.  But we weren’t sad.  We had seen beauty, we had seen Turkey, and it was time to be ourselves again, to lay on our couches, open up our books, and forget about the wonders of the past.

The next day, on the way to the car ferry, we saw the first signs that we were nearing the great metropolis where we made our home.  A Starbucks in an off-road strip mall.  The first Starbucks of the whole trip.  We pulled in and got lattes.  We were back home.

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