Our flight to Izmir, Turkey’s third largest city, took about an hour from Istanbul. We didn’t linger in Izmir but drove directly to Pergamon. However, we did get a pretty good image of the city as we left. Our guide Seyhun was revealing himself to be a master story teller and filled us with interesting factoids about Izmir as we were driven through its outskirts.
The political situation in Turkey has really deteriorated since we were there in 2013. Our travel agent, the International Kitchen, is no longer offering tours to Turkey. The U.S. State Department urges U.S. citizens to reconsider travel there because of the danger of terrorist attacks, especially in popular tourist areas around Istanbul. Laurie, March 2018It turns out that the ancient name of Izmir is Smyrna which in Greek translates to “the land where the myrrh bush grows.” It was the western terminus of the Silk Road and some scholars believe Smyrna or Izmir was the birth place of Homer. It is the olive capital of Turkey and is known for its fig trees. It is also the eastern headquarters of NATO. While Istanbul is the import gate of Turkey, Izmir is the export gate.
Even from our limited view, we could see the immense industrial base of the city. There was a huge influx of workers in the 1990’s which resulted in an acute housing shortage. The shortage led to the building of squatter neighborhoods with no zoning or housing codes. Many of these neighborhoods were wiped out by the 1999 earthquake. 20,000 people were killed in Istanbul alone.
Turkey lies on the Anatolian Fault which runs from Iran to Greece. 10% of the population of Izmir is still living in squatter neighborhoods and there is construction going on everywhere. The government has recently passed a strict housing code and those in substandard dwellings have five years to either move or rebuild to code. That certainly explains the 3 to 4 story concrete apartment buildings that dominate in Istanbul.
Pergamon—a Clinic, Stolen Manuscripts and Satan’s Throne
Before arriving at Pergamon, we stopped for lunch in the town of Bergama which is on the alluvial plain southeast of ancient Pergamon. The Saglam Restaurant [As of March 2018 this restaurant appears closed.] is set up for busloads of tourists from cruise ships. It has a large covered outdoor patio, really good restrooms and offers a buffet lunch. It was quite empty while we were there. The food was okay, on the same level as the Konyali Restaurant at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.
The outstanding thing about Saglam is the proprietor Mehmet Saglam. He asked if he could sing to us and he regaled us a cappella with a beautiful song in Turkish about how all peoples of all colors from “Eskimos to Africans” should live in peace and celebrate each other’s differences. We were quite moved, especially given the events at Istanbul’s Taksim Square in May and the threat of US military action in Syria that was rearing its ugly head while we were in Turkey. Being in the tourist business, Mr. Saglam has a vested interest in peace and tolerance but don’t we all.
The absence of cruise ships meant that we had Pergamon, Greek for “citadel,” almost to ourselves. Pergamon is located on a very steep hillside overlooking a beautiful river valley. You take a cable car up to it. In one story the founders of the city are said to be Trojans who abandoned King Priam during the ten-year siege of Troy. In another the city is said to have been founded by a son of the demigod Heracles.
Pergamon reached its peak during the Roman period in the 2nd century AD when the emperor Hadrian launched a massive civil construction program that gave the city an amphitheater, a forum, a stadium and several large temples. The shrine to Asclepius, the Greek and Roman god of medicine, was expanded into a lavish spa and healing center called an Asclepeion, Rome’s version of the Mayo Clinic. The famous physician Galen was born in Pergamon. There are significant remnants of the clinic left including the colonnaded street leading to the portal of the Asclepeion and the round healing center with its underground tunnel and twelve skylights.
Pergamon was so famous for its library that it attracted the envy of the Egyptians of Alexandria who grew fearful that it would lure scholars away from its famous library. In an attempt to cripple the ability of the Pergamon library to acquire more manuscripts, the Egyptians initiated a papyrus embargo against Pergamon and Rome in general, Egypt being the sole source of papyrus. As a response to the embargo, some inventive folks in Pergamon developed parchment from animal skins and the library continued to grow until Marc Antony appeared on the political scene in 41BC.
Our guide Seyhun told the tale much more elegantly than I can, but the gist of his version is that Cleopatra needed another Roman ally after the murder of Julius Ceasar. Summoned by Marc Antony who wanted to know where her loyalty lay, the young queen dressed herself up in her seductive best, outfitted an elegant, sweetly scented boat crewed by beautifully attired slave women and had herself rowed to an audience with the middle-aged general.
As expected, he was smitten and eventually, at her request, donated all the volumes in the Pergamon library to the library in Alexandria. But the invention of parchment had ended Rome’s dependence on Egypt for papyrus and was key to disseminating knowledge throughout Europe and Asia. You can still see the stone outline of the library with some of the niches where the parchment scrolls were stored.
Pergamon is also famous as the site of the Altar of Zeus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The altar was built in the 2nd century BC. It was a U-shaped construction measuring about 117 feet wide by 110 feet deep and stood 40 feet high. It was topped by a colonnaded portico which stood on top of a remarkable larger-than-life sculptured frieze illustrating the battle between the giant sons of the ancient earth goddess Gaia and the upstart Olympian gods led by Zeus. The Olympians won and their victory supposedly represented the triumph of the civilized world over the barbarians.
In the Book of Revelations of the New Testament the Christian prophet John of Patmos refers to the altar as “the throne of Satan.” It lost its importance with the eventual triumph of Christianity in Rome and in the 7th century AD it was partially dismantled to build fortifications against attacks by the Arabs.
Finally in the latter half of the 19th century the altar was excavated by German engineers and archeologists. The German government, anxious to beef up its collection of ancient Greek sculpture, arranged with the approval of the last Ottoman sultan Abdul Hamid II to transport the altar pieces to Germany. According to Seyhun, the German Emperor Wilhelm II reciprocated with a metal Rococo fountain. The reconstructed altar now resides in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. What remains at Pergamon is just the bare outline of the base of the altar.
The Korumar Hotel, Towels and Tang
From Pergamon we traveled to our hotel for the next three nights, the Korumar Hotel in Kusadasi. The Korumar is a large resort hotel overlooking the very blue Aegean Sea. We had great views of the sea from our good sized rooms and at first glance the hotel is quite impressive. There is a large terrace off the cocktail lounge overlooking the swimming pool below, a perfect spot to watch the sun set on the Aegean.
My first negative observation was that the staff was undertrained. The service in the lounge was well-meaning but clumsy. Because the hotel is all-inclusive except for the alcoholic drinks we had to present our keys to buy drinks, no credit cards, no cash accepted. Okay, no problem. But buying a round of drinks for your friends brought first-class confusion. If I’m paying for the drinks, why does my friend have to have her room key? It was a struggle to straighten out our server on that question. I sensed that the hotel management was afraid of being ripped off by the workers, so there were all these arcane rules that they had to follow and our requests didn’t fit into the hotel’s procedures.
Several in our party of eight complained about the thinness of the bathroom towels. I didn’t notice, but perhaps Noel and I received good ones. We were not happy with the slowness of the elevators and took to climbing the stairs to our room, but that just helped me toward my 10,000 step fitness plan. The staff at the front desk was not very professional or helpful. Noel received a bit of a surly response when he tried to get change. Because it’s an all-inclusive resort, the front desk must not be used to dealing with cash.
For dinner the hotel serves a truly enormous buffet that is excellent and changes every night, but breakfast is a disappointment. With all the fabulous fruit in Turkey, why would the hotel only offer Tang for juice in the morning?! My overall impression of Korumar is that it has seen better days. Most of its guests while we were there seemed to be Europeans looking for a budget vacation.
Several of us tried the Larissa Spa at the hotel. The spa offers a full range of services including a traditional Turkish bath or hammam with Dead Sea salt exfoliating. I didn’t personally experience the Turkish bath because I was under the apparently mistaken impression that it involved sitting in a steam room and I don’t like heat in my face. Instead, I opted for a stone massage which was fine, but nothing special. Our friend Carol thought the Turkish bath was okay but there was a male client (definitely not a eunuch) and his little son in the room where she received her treatment. Odd for a Muslim country. Again, there was an issue with the towels. They were way too small to comfortably wrap around your body.
Ephesus and Female Deities
The next day we boarded our comfortable van for Ephesus with a stop along the way at the House of the Virgin Mary. Located a few kilometers from Ephesus, the house is a fairly recent pilgrimage site. It was “discovered” in the late 19th century by Catholic missionary priests using a book that recorded the visions of a bedridden German nun named Anne Catherine Emmerich who claimed to have seen the house built by the Apostle John for Christ’s mother in one of her “visions.” Considering that Sister Anne subsisted solely on a diet of Eucharist wafers and water, she probably was hallucinating from hunger. While the Catholic Church has never officially pronounced the house authentic, it has elevated it to the status of a “holy place.” Both Muslims and Christians venerate the site. It is a pleasant shady place, but it requires what the English poet Samuel Coleridge called “a willing suspension of disbelief.”
Ephesus was definitely the highlight of our stops at the ancient Aegean sites. The city was founded around the 10th century BC and finally abandoned in the 15th century AD. Ruled by a succession of conquerors, Greek, Persian, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman, Ephesus was one of the most important and vibrant cities and seaports in the ancient world. Its golden age was the 2nd century AD during the height of Pax Romana, a period of about 200 years during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD when Rome was at peace after the death of the republic and the end of its civil wars.
It is estimated that the population within the city walls was about 25,000, but the city controlled approximately fifty miles into the surrounding countryside with a population of about 250,000. Ephesus was eventually abandoned when its port, despite repeated dredging, was silted up by the Cayster River. Silting from deforestation has been a continuing problem for the entire region and continues today in spite of extensive tree-planting. Most of the excavated ruins are from the Roman period.
The dominant deity was, and maybe still is, some manifestation of the goddess Artemis or Diana. Traditionally she is identified as the virgin goddess of the hunt and wild animals, but in ancient Ephesus she was also honored as the protector of women especially during childbirth. So strong was her cult that the Apostle Paul almost got himself lynched when his success converting Ephesians to Christianity threatened the livelihood of the jewelers who made souvenir silver statues of Artemis to sell to visitors. He had to flee. The cult of the Virgin Mary may be a diminished continuation of this belief.
The most iconic reconstructed building is the Library of Celsus which is actually a tomb built by the son of the governor general in 135AD. On the Marble Street between the library and the amphitheater is a marble block advertising the local brothel with a woman’s head, a heart (or possibly a woman’s privates) and a left footprint, meaning the brothel is ahead on the left. Excavation of Ephesus began in the 1870’s when the site was totally covered by earth and it continues today. It is estimated that only about 15% of the city has been uncovered.
From Ephesus we were driven to the Degirmen Restaurant in the countryside outside of Kusadasi. [When checking the website in March 2018, I saw a notice in Turkish upon entering the site. I don’t read Turkish, so I don’t know what the notice said. However, I do know that the Kusadasi area is a major gathering place for Syrian refugees, so it may be that the facility is closed.] The Degirmen is an organic restaurant and farm that grow, raise and produce much of the food and wine they serve. We had an absolutely delightful few hours eating and drinking outdoors in its beautiful arbor-covered dining room, concluding our meal with sheep’s milk ice cream and pudding topped with raspberry preserves and walnuts, all grown and produced on the premises.
Afterwards, we strolled the extensive grounds of the farm with its vineyards, orchards and picturesque lake and suspension bridge. It’s a great place for weddings and special celebrations. Children would be fascinated by the variety of domesticated birds and animals. I certainly was. We finished the afternoon with Turkish tea prepared by an attendant manning one of the many outbuildings on the property that contain demonstrations of traditional Aegean and Turkish culinary arts.
Priene, Miletus, and Didyma— Urban Planning and Apollo
On our full last day in the Kusadasi area we explored three ancient sites – Priene, Miletus and Didyma.
Although Priene was never an important city, it is considered the best extant example of an ancient Greek city that has survived pretty much intact. The current site was built in the 4th century BC on a grid system developed by the architect Hippodamos of Miletus who is considered the father of urban planning. Like Pergamon it is located on a very steep site that is terraced up the side of Mount Mycale. The city once overlooked a deep-water port that in a little over 200 years was silted up by the Meander River.
The quality of life in Priene was quite good with about a third of the population living in homes with running water and private toilets. The most impressive remains are the Temple to Athena and the five-thousand seat theater. Although most of the site is Greek, there are reminders of the Roman period. You can still see grooves in the roads from the shoes of the Roman horses. Romans were the first to shoe their animals. And there are the remains of a temple built by Rome to honor the Egyptian gods. Egypt was Rome’s bread basket. The Romans also built a similar temple in Pergamon. They liked to keep their bases covered. Excavation was going on while we were there.
Our next stop was at Miletus. Human occupation around the site goes back to at least 7000BC, rivaling Ephesus as the oldest continually occupied human settlement on the Aegean. It was an important maritime trading center for both Minoans and Hittites. In the 6th century BC it was at Miletus that Greek philosophers began their scientific inquiries into the material composition of the natural world as opposed to traditional supernatural explanations. In the 5th century BC Hippodamos developed his urban grid system which was later utilized at Priene and eventually became the standard layout of Roman cities.
The city was able to keep its port open in spite of continual silting by the Meander River until the 15th century AD when Miletus was finally abandoned under the Ottoman Turks. Today the land around the site is swampy and agricultural with the sea six miles away. The most prominent remains are the 15-thousand seat amphitheater. Excavation of the site by German archeologists began in the 19th century and one of the most amazing treasures they unearthed was the Market Gate of Miletus. Like the Altar of Zeus at Pergamon, the gate was transported to Germany and resides in tact at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Wilhelm II didn’t see fit to reciprocate the sultan for this souvenir.
As we were leaving the site, we came upon a vendor selling freshly squeezed fruit juices. We needed refreshment and were rewarded with a most delicious blend of pomegranate and orange juices. No Tang for this group.
Our last stop of the day was at Didyma. This is the site of the Temple of Apollo and his oracle, second in importance only to the oracle at Delphi in Greece. Supposedly, the goddess Leto, daughter of one of giants defeated by the Olympians (remember the stolen frieze from the Altar of Zeus now in Berlin?) and Zeus had a secret love affair here and later she gave birth to the twins Artemis and Apollo, thus making Didyma a sacred conception place.
The first temple is believed to have been built in the 8th century BC and to have been destroyed by the Persians in the 5th century BC. In 334BC Alexander the Great threw the Persians out and ordered the reconstruction of the temple. Reconstruction continued sporadically through the centuries, interrupted by earthquakes and lootings by pirates and Gauls until the temple gradually fell into disuse with the triumph of Christianity. It was never completed. For me, the temple was large, empty and melancholy. Almost a forlorn movie set.
We finished our day a bit early with a great sea bass lunch at the Asik Restaurant located just opposite the Temple of Apollo. The early finish gave us a chance to hang out at our hotel’s pool and spa. We were a bit overwhelmed and exhausted by all we had seen over the last three days, so we welcomed the respite.
The next morning we had a later pickup than usual (also welcomed) and were driven back to Izmir for a wine-tasting at the Isabey Vineyard and Wine before flying to Cappadocia. The outdoor setting was absolutely gorgeous. We tasted six wines – three reds, two whites and a late harvest muscat dessert wine.
I have to say that the fine quality of Turkish wines really surprised us throughout our journey. They all share one thing in common. Without exception, they need to be decanted at least fifteen minutes before drinking, the reds perhaps thirty minutes. Noel and I liked the Güney 2011 Syrah the best of the reds. It was a tossup with the whites which are not as interesting as the reds but still good. Isabey Vineyard grows all its own grapes on two sites – around Izmir, a warm climate, and higher up on the Anatolian plateau, a cooler climate similar to the Rhone valley in France.
We learned a couple of interesting things about vineyards while at our tasting. Isabey interplants its vines with roses. Roses are the canary in the mine for grape growers. When the rose bushes show signs of disease, the grape vines are not far behind and the grower has a chance to intervene before it’s too late. Isabey also plants olive trees among its vines to deliberately stress the vines out so the flavor of the grapes is more concentrated.
Sufficiently fortified by wine, bread, cheese and olives, we boarded our plane for the brief flight to Kayseri, the center of the country on the Anatolian plateau that makes up the bulk of Asian Turkey. Kayseri lies at the foot of Mount Erciyes, an extinct volcano, and is the gateway to the unique geological formations of Cappadocia.
Next we explore Cappadocia