“You and you, get off!” says the bus conductor, pointing at us while the driver unloads our bags on a busy street corner. Apparently, we had arrived at our destination, Selçuk a sleepy farming village a couple of kilometers away from our goal, the Roman era ruins of Ephesus in Turkey.
The air is laced with a crisp, almost medicinal but not unpleasant smell of cypress and the quality of the light is flat and harsh making us squint as it bounces off the grey buildings and, of course, it is hot. Why is it that I unerringly choose to travel when it is unseasonably hot?
We set off from our busy street corner bus-stop with our wheelie bags in tow, trundling along the dusty cobbled streets of Selçuk in search of our B&B. Once we leave the main road it is quiet, the only traffic that we encounter is a farmer on his tractor with his wife perched precariously on the wheel arch clutching her shopping bags. They chug slowly past us raising a lazy cloud of dust.
Our congenial B&B host informs us that his credit card machine isn’t working but “it’s fine! Pay me when you are ready!” This is unheard of for us, where we come from you pay first and then you get whatever it is that you paid for. We dash out to the nearest ATM to draw cash and on our return, we find our host sitting outside enjoying a bottle of wine. We can’t pay him now, he is busy! We eventually do pay him, after many attempts, as we check out a couple of days later. Throughout our travels around Turkey we frequently encounter this open trust in our honor to pay up, eventually.
It has been a long day, an overnight flight from Johannesburg to Istanbul, another flight to Izmir and then a bus to Selçuk … it’s time for a beer!
We find the perfect spot for our beer, an ice-cold Efes or two under the ruined arches of a byzantine aqueduct in the town square where a large group of old men play backgammon. It looks like a competition, their focus is intense, and the only sound in the square is the clicking of their backgammon tiles and an occasional groan of despair.
The following morning, refreshed and armed with our new guidebook, which just happens to be written by our B&B host, we catch a short and inexpensive dolmus, a local mini bus taxi, which drops us in the parking lot of Ephesus.
But first, we have an obstacle to overcome before we can get to the ticket booth and entrance. We have to run a gauntlet of touts entreating us to pop into their stalls for the best deals in Turkish carpets, souvenirs and fake branded clothing. One stall proudly advertises their “Genuine Fake Watches” in a large typeface above the stall’s entrance.
The crisp medicinal scent of cypress is even more powerful than yesterday … it’s almost overwhelming. It’s just beyond the ticket booth that we discover the source, massive cypress trees line either side of a modern paved road that curves and gently dips down out of sight, offering a tantalizing invitation to explore further.
We accept that invitation, and find ourselves deposited on the marble flagstones of the Arcadian Way. It stretches for at least half a kilometer, and a row of plinths, some with their columns still intact, flank either side of the road. In Roman times the Arcadian Way was the gateway to the East leading from the once busy harbor to the Grand Theatre on the hillside and further into the interior of Asia. Cleopatra and Mark Anthony, Alexander the Great and the Apostle Paul are all said to have walked along these same marble flagstones that we find ourselves on.
Back in the day, stalls lined either side of the Arcadian Way. We speculate that walking along the Arcadian Way in the heydays of Ephesus would have been quite similar to our experience at the gate. Somewhere behind us someone drops something with a loud metallic CLANK!
Could that be the clank of a centurion’s armour stopping to argue with a stallholder?
“Two denarii! That’s daylight robbery, last time I was here it was only half a denarii!”
In the distance, a woman flings her shawl over her shoulder, could she be a toga clad matron going about her daily shopping?
And the men hastening down towards us?
Could they be merchants on their way to inspect the newly arrived cargoes in the harbor?
Okay, it does require a rather large leap of the imagination to see past the other tourists, but the variety of languages being spoken around us, the different styles of wardrobe according to culture and the partially restored buildings on either side of us contribute to our sense of having travelled back in time.
We both come from an events background, so as soon as we enter the Grand Theatre we simply cannot resist and have to head for the stage area to conduct a sound check. The acoustics are astonishing! We marvel at the architects who achieved this without the benefit of electricity and modern sound equipment.
From our seats high up in the stands we become unwitting eavesdroppers as a stream of tour guides shepherd their charges through the theatre. We learn that it seated up to 24 000 people and was used for entertainment as well as political and religious purposes.
We continue along the marbled road that deposits us in front of the poster child of Ephesus, the famous library of Celsus. The façade towers over the neighboring buildings. It is grand and impressive but our sense of familiarity with this façade means that we don’t really pause to see, never mind examine the architectural beauty before us.
We step into the inviting cool interior of the library of Celsus. Wait! Hang on a second, there is something very wrong here! The interior space is tiny compared to the expectations that the monumental facade has created. We step outside to look at the façade again.
It takes a while for us to notice the cunning optical illusion in front of us. The library is squeezed between two other buildings, supported by sturdy yet seemingly lighter than air columns and the delicate yet imposing design of the façade creates an illusion of monumental size.
Satisfied, we return to the cool interior to consult our trusty guidebook. After all, what is a library for, but reading reference books …
But it is the covered roman terrace houses that give us a true slice of what Roman life might have been like for the rich. It does costs extra to enter but as a bonus we seem to have the place to ourselves.
It is a little eerie. It is quiet and at times we feel like intruders as we stroll along the platform that starts off at ground level leading us over intricate mosaic floors and past frescoed walls through the six terraced houses built up the side of a hill. The lack of crowds affords us the luxury of immersing ourselves, for a while, in the extraordinary homes of the Roman rich that were not unlike our own homes with running water, toilets and even underfloor heating.
By the time that we exit the terraced homes I have to confess to a sensory overload. There is so much to see, to absorb, and to understand in this place that the following hour or two passes in a blur as we stroll through the Agora’s, another smaller theatre, and giggle at the public latrines that are awfully close to each other, almost cheek to cheek for a well-padded wench like myself.
Back in Selçuk we find a quiet bar on the outskirts of the town for a refreshing Efes. On one side of the road, fields lead down to the Temple of Artemis and on the other the first row of buildings of the town.
It is late afternoon. The call to prayer sounds from the nearby Isa Bey mosque and a group of elderly women, all dressed in shades of brown, congregate on a couple of benches next to us, to catch up on the day’s gossip. Their grandchildren play at their feet. A farmer and his wife wave to them as they chug slowly past us on their tractor raising another lazy cloud of dust. Suddenly, our host pulls out a hose pipe and starts to wet down the road. In mime, he explains to us that this is so that the dust doesn’t aggravate us. Such is the kindness of Turks!
After the crowds of Ephesus, the second most visited site in Turkey, this is a perfect place to unwind and attempt to comprehend all that we have seen today as the daily afternoon routines of the people of Selçuk unfolds in front of us.
When I thought of Ephesus while I was planning our trip to Turkey I thought of the poster child, the library of Celsus surrounded by a pile of ruins. Ancient ruins, yes, but a pile of ruins nevertheless! I never expected the size and the extent of the careful restoration of the site, that with a little leap of the imagination, gave us such an immersive experience into this Roman era town.
As we reflect, we realize that we spent about six hours on our self-guided roam through Ephesus and in all that time we didn’t even scratch the surface. But most importantly, Ephesus has opened our eyes and our minds to history. History is not just a bunch of dry facts and dates its about people, real people just like you and I.
Good To Know:
Take plenty of water, there are no shops in the site and there is very little shade.
Basing ourselves in nearby Selçuk was a brilliant idea.
Despite being next door to one of the most visited sites in Turkey, life dawdles along at a snail’s pace giving you an opportunity to kick back and relax after a hard day’s sightseeing. There are plenty of budget friendly accommodations and restaurants to choose from.
But Ephesus is not the end of the story …
Stroll through the town under ancient aqueducts with storks nesting in them to the Basilica of Saint John, visit the Isa Bey Mosque or further afield to the remains of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Temple of Artemis. Further afield you can visit the House of the Virgin Mary and the cave of the Seven Sleepers and of course, Sirince, a village famous for its fruit wines.
Do be warned that the main road,
of Sirince is a bit of a tourist trap but step down an alleyway and follow your nose and you will find delightful shops serving traditional Turkish coffees prepared on a brazier in front of you, bars and massive vistas.
Do buy a Turkey Museum pass.
There are a number of different options depending on where you are going in Turkey. We saved quite a bit money and as a bonus, Turkey Museum passholders get to avoid the queues. You can buy the museum pass at all entrances to museums and sites.
Indie travel around Turkey is easy.
We found independent travel by local dolmus or long-distance bus in Turkey to be surprisingly easy and inexpensive, despite the fact that we don’t speak Turkish. The Turks are generally incredibly helpful and kind, and if they don’t understand your miming or mangled place names they will go out of their way to find someone who can assist you.