Remains of four great civilizations weave a complex cultural tapestry


September 22, 1991|By Scott Ponemone

A place to draw, that was the goal. After scrambling over marble remains of what was once the mighty Roman seaport of Ephesus, I wanted a drawing that told part of the city's story.

The previous day I sat before huge, carved fragments of the Temple of Serapis, an Egyptian cult figure. The jumble of blackened column segments and voluted ears of pale Ionic capitals there moaned in silent dignity. Even the silly blue and yellow faces of wildflowers couldn't break the spell.

The cult bespoke of times when Ephesus, lying halfway up modern-day Turkey's Aegean coast, had trading links with much of the known world including Alexandria, Egypt's main grain-exporting city.

In search of a drawing, I made two trips along the 600-meter length of the marble Arcadian Way. Neither the massive remains the harbor gymnasium at one end nor the 24,000-seat theater cut into the hill at the other held my attention.

Rather I gravitated to memorials to the Evangelists placed midway along the road. These four columns, once topped with statues, were modest. They could be mistaken for yet another example of Roman architecture but for the Christian symbols carved into the pedestals. I chose the one with the eagle of St. John and a cross.

This drawing would remind me that Ephesus existed through two milleniums. Founded by Greeks, it became a metropolis under Rome, yet died a fully Christian city in the seventh century A.D. So while the Serapis drawing would represent Ephesus' reach horizontally (over land and across seas), the column drawing would represent the city's reach vertically (over time).

So I sat down. Pairs of sightseers strolled by -- German, French and English. (Americans are rare outside of tour groups, who after the theater head directly to their buses.) As I drew, I mused on the life that once teemed along this road with its colonnaded walkways and hundreds of shops and warehouses.

Suddenly a gust of wind spat sand in my face. I turned toward the theater. The sky above was nearly black. Thunderheads that politely mushroomed each day over distant mountains decided that day to march to the sea. So I quickened the sketch.

Just when the storm seemed to shroud the theater, Michael Frommeyer, my travel companion, arrived, camera in hand, telling of his perilous duty to the god of photography. He had climbed up the theater steps to witness the skeleton of the city fossilized below. Standing atop one end of the theater that projected out from the hill, he clutched a flagpole and shot one-handed. Bravo, I said, and scribbled a last few lines.

Despite the wickedness of the sky, we managed the half-kilometer hike back to the car and the 3 kilometers into Selcuk, where our pension -- a family-run bed and breakfast -- was, without a drop.

The storm held off until we had a protected view from the third-floor balcony of our pension. The large, scattered raindrops that managed to evaporate before reaching the ground attested to the dryness of the climate except in winter. Soon the ragged veil of clouds yielded to the setting sun, and the monuments in Selcuk -- the ruins of the Basilica of St. John and the piers of the Byzantine aqueduct -- turned pink.

Despite such a distracting view from the balcony, I set about to color the drawing with watercolors. This was no problem since I wasn't interested in naturalistic colors. In fact I would make the sky bleed red, in testimony to the stormy sky and the lives lost in building ancient cities like Ephesus.

While meteorologically that was the most exciting day of our trip, it was typical, too. Centered around one of western Turkey's many ancient historical sites, our day began with exploration and ended with an artistic record of the place and the thoughts it conjured.

But what makes Turkey particularly enjoyable was that besides VTC the archaeology (and there's more to say about it) the day was typical in other ways. In short, we stayed comfortably and inexpensively in the pension. We ate well and inexpensively in the town's restaurants. Think of Turkish cuisine as Greek with more complexity.

Inevitably, the townspeople were friendly and helpful and knew infinitely more English than we did Turkish. Even the rug merchants, who might implore you to enter their premises, were quite civil and restrained compared to my experiences in Morocco.

Like most of Turkey, the landscape around Selcuk was quite varied and mostly beautiful. The jagged profile of mountains filled the western and southwestern horizons. A river valley stretched to the north. Once an arm of the Aegean reached to Ephesus, but a drop in sea level and silt from the river dried up its harbor and led to the city's abandonment. The Aegean now is 7 kilometers (about 4 1/2 miles) away.

While the sea is mentioned almost parenthetically, its jewel-like waters and rocky coast with some stretches of sandy beach are sufficient reasons for a Turkish vacation.

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