Wednesday, March 16, 2011


My trip to Ephesus was nothing if not eventful. I left at 8pm at night, which was a problem because I had to check out at 10am. It was also a problem because I had planned this big walking excursion through the backstreets of Istanbul and I would probably be sweaty and gross by the end. I wouldn't have access to a shower until I got back from Ephesus and being sweaty and gross for the better part of two days did not appeal to me.

But I figured it was what I signed up for and I would just have to be a filthy barbarian for a couple days. It turned out it wasn't such a bad situation. This is because the hostel I am staying in is one of the best EVER. When I came back from my walk over all of creation, they let me have a bed to sleep in for a couple hours. Then, they let me take a shower, and the cherry on top of all this niceness, they let me use the blow dryer in one of the expensive rooms to dry my hair. I felt like that mouse that everyone gives a cookie and then regrets it, but I never asked them for any of it, they always just offered.

So, if you are even in Istanbul, look up the Orient International Hostel. Seriously. Good atmosphere, great staff, very accomidating and very cheap. One of the guys who works there even taught me the special Istanbul greeting – high seven. Since Istanbul is built on seven hills – like Rome – here they do high seven, which is first a high five and then a high two.

My walking tour encompassed almost all of the sights I hadn't seen yet – about five mosques (one of which was supposed to be even more beautiful than the Blue Mosque), the Valens Aqueduct – which was spectacular – and Istanbul University. Really, the whole trip was to see the Aqueduct, which is an amazing piece of archetecture. It was commissioned in 373 A.D. By Emporer Valens and is today used as part of Ataturk Boulevard – traffic is directed through the arches and out the other side. Using no machines the Byzantines, like the Romans before them, built the aqueduct as part of a system that brought water from 400km away to the city of Constantinople. The whole system used simple gravity to move the water.

The bus ride to Ephesus was crappy. That's all that can be said about a 10 hour bus ride overnight. I can't sleep on moving vehicles, and though sleeping pills really did wonders on a plane, with a bus – where people are constantly getting on and off, the bus perpetually stopping for smoking breaks – it didn't help even a little.

But I am nothing if not resilient and 9am the next day saw me joining up with my tour group (originally six people with the later addition of two Japanese boys) for my scheduled jaunt through history.

First, we went to the Temple of Artemis which, though I knew there wasn't much to see, I was glad we went. The ruins were picturesque in a kind of sad and depressing way. And it was interesting to try to imagine what it must have been like in its heyday. In this region of the world, Artemis has blended with the Anatolian Mother Goddess, Cybele, and become a very powerful goddess in the area. The temple was so magnificent, the third time it was built, it was named one of the Seven Ancient wonders of the world. The rest are as follows:

1. The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus (Turkey)
2. The Colossus at Rhodes (Greek Island)
3. The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus (Turkey)
4. The Pyramids of Giza (Egypt)
5. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon (Iraq)
6. The Statue of Zeus at Olympias (Greece)
7. The Lighthouse of Alexandria (Egypt)

I knew the Temple of Artemis was a wonder of the Ancient world, I just forgot it was in Ephesus. I would have made the decision to go a lot sooner had I known it was there. All of these sights, save one, are gone now. The Masuleum at Halicarnassus ('Halicarnassus' being the ancient name for Bodrum, Turkey) was torn down and its blocks used to build a fortress commemorating an Ottoman victory there. The Temple of Artemis was finally destroyed by a mob (organized by St. John Chrysostom) and used to build the nearby Basilica of St. John (of Revelations fame).

The Temple of Artemis was actually destroyed several times before that, once by the goths, and once by a man named Herostratus who started a fire in the temple just to get famous. On one hand I feel relieved that my generation is not entirely responsible for this twisted sense of celebrity that seems to be so popular these days, but on the other: what is wrong with people? If he were alive today there is no doubt he would have his own reality TV show. The Ephesian authorities were no amused, however, and not only executed him, but officially sentenced him to suffer damnatio memoriae, which is the Roman way of erasing someone from history. This effectively banned all mention of his name under penatly of death. It obviously wasn't too effective, because here I am talking about him in my blog.

They say that the reason Artemis didn't stop Herostratus from burning down her temple was that she was in Macedonia that night, assisting in the delivery of Alexander III, more commonly refered to as Alexander the Great. Even Alexander the Great, himself, believed this story and so, when he conquered Anatolia, he made a large donation to have the building – which was already being fixed up - repaired in his name. The Ephesians declined his offer because it was inappropriate to have a temple dedicated in anyone's name but a god.

After this, we went to the main site of the city of Ephesus. It was, in turns, like every other Roman ruin and not. On the one hand, Rome managed to put its stamp on every city it built by making them all contain the same pieces – baths, gates, gymnasiums, forums, market, roads that led to Rome, etc. But on the other, I have never been to a city that was so well preserved and not in current use. Not like it was ready for a population to move in or anything, we are talking about ruins here, but it gave you a good sense of what life was like back then.

The library is the famous structure (one of the first you see when you google image search for Ephesus) and it is awe inspiring. But across the street, a less-than-awe-inspiring structure, is an ancient brothel. Rumor has it that there was a tunnel connecting one to the other so that wealthy men could tell their wives they were going to the library (maybe to study 'anatomy'?) and sneak over to the brothel.

The Great Theatre is humoungous (can seat 25,000 people) and was one of the biggest at the time. It was built into the side of a mountain and has great accoustics as we found out when a Turkish couple got down on the stage and performed a song and dance for their friends in the stands. We were on the other side and heard every word clearly. It is still controversially used for performances and was recently sold (along with the rest of the Ephesus site) to a private company who rents it out for birthday parties (sadly, I am not joking). I do believe this is charge number three laid against the Turkish governemnt concerning their treatment of their own cultural history.

Harbor street, which was the pulse of the city, led down until it hit what used to be the harbor. The natural harbor silted up generations ago and, thus, took with it the livelihood of the city. That was the real reason for the abandonment of the city: after an earthquake diverted the nearby river as well, there was just nothing left there for anyone. The harbor street, with its half ruined shops and columns, looks eerie. Like it's populated still with the ghosts of those ancient fishermen and shop keepers. I could just see the hustle and bustle overlaid with the desolate and vacant structures that are there today.

Most of the city remains buried for future archeologists to excavate. Which just serves to show you how massive the place was. By the time we got all the way through, most of the tourists had left for other sites.

By the time we finished Ephesus I was starting to flag – remember no sleep last night – but I put on a brave face as we were shuttled around to carpet dealers and leather workshops who were in cahoots with our tour guide. We ended at the Virgin Mary's house. Supposedly, she settled here in the last years of her life, and they have found bits in the foundation dating back to the first century A.D., which is when she was alive. It was peaceful (probably due to lack of tourists) and relaxing and we were able to just soak in the atmosphere at her mountain-top home.

The tour dropped us at a hotel my friends, Elise and Monica, were staying at on the premise that it was near the bus station, and it would be more comfortable than spending the next five hours sitting on the floor of said station. I felt awkward at first because the guys who worked there were clearly giving me looks like 'who are you?' but the awkwardness disappeared in the wake of my growing illness. Within the space of an hour, I developed a migraine and nausea so powerful it even overcame my sense of social propriety. I tried sleeping on the cushions in the lounge but that didn't help as it was right next to the TV. It just kept getting worse until I had to finally give in and throw up in one of the hotel toilets.

At which point, one of the guys who worked there stepped in. He went to get me a Turkish headache remedy from the drugstore - which he refused to let me pay for - and then he gave me a head massage. Whether it was because I had thrown up what was making me sick, or because of the remedy and the massage, by the time our bus left at 9:45pm I was feeling just peachy. The ride back to Istanbul was pleasant – well as pleasant as an overnight bus ride can be – because I didn't worry about not sleeping. I knew that I would have a lot of time to sleep once I got back to my hostel in Istanbul.

In the end, the whole experience was worth the horrible bus rides, the hurling, the migraine, and the sunburn on my nose and one cheek. I think.

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