The Sultaniye Thermal Baths near Dalyan on Lake Köycegiz are mildly radioactive and said to be effective against rheumatism, skin complaints and other medical problems. They have been in use for centuries, with the ruins from the Byzantine era now submerged beneath the lake.

Turkey – Long Read

Cultural center of the ancient world

Photo by Hackenberg

Turkey – Long Read

Cultural center of the ancient world

Hello Turkey, whose Aegean coast is dotted with the ruins of cities that date back thousands of years. With its mild climate, and a wealth based on olive oil, it was a major cultural center of the ancient world and continues to attract visitors with its picturesque beaches and turquoise waters.

Tara Isabella Burton
Tara Isabella Burton Travel Writer

“Come here,” Erol says. He takes me to a grove of olive trees on the outskirts of Çeşme: a Turkish resort town jutting out over the Aegean. “I want to show you something.” He asks me to lean against the olive tree. “Look.” He points to a dumpster, overfilling with trash. A few cola bottles litter the earth. Fallen olives darken the pavement. “That’s what this whole town was like, when I was a kid. Can you believe that?” He laughs. “Everything was falling apart.”

That Çeşme is unrecognizable today. North of the Mediterranean coastline so popular with foreign package tourists, the towns on Turkey’s Aegean shore are the domain of the Turkish élite: well- heeled Istanbullus and Izmiris who come to sun themselves in what Erol assures me are “ten million euro” villas, far from the resort megaliths of Fethiye or Bodrum.

Erol smiles as he takes me up to Çeşme castle: the sprawling Genoese fortification that dwarfs the Greek houses of the old town. “When I was a kid,” he says, “there was nothing here but rats and rat bones.” Today, the castle is a well- signposted museum: a monument to the region’s diversity of conquerors: Byzantine Greek coins share display space with narrow Ottoman graves, sculpted to reflect the deceased’s occupation. Erol points to the ampitheater, a slanted series of stones looking out over the dove-grey morning sea: “But by the time I was a teenager” – in the late '90s – “they started using this place for outdoor concerts.” He recalls taking one of his first girlfriends to see Bryan Adams performing here. That, he says, was the first sign of change.

What space is left for ruins?

But Çeşme – like so many places on the Aegean – is used to change. It was transformed by the population exchange of 1923, in which the Turkish government “swapped” its Greek population with the Turkish Muslim population of neighboring Greek islands, such as Chios, in an effort to end the violent inter-ethnic clashes of the Greco-Turkish War. The town’s Greek influences, once a vital part of culture here on the Aegean, became mere remnants, no more alive than the Hellenic ruins, from Ephesus to Pergamon. It is this vanished Greek influence I have come to seek. In a region that has undergone such drastic transformation over the past two decades, what space is left for ruins?

Erol takes me to the old Greek Orthodox Church of St. Haralambos: now deconsecrated and used as a makeshift exhibition hall for craft fairs. The columns and ceilings have been renovated; they glimmer with that crisp, clean blue so ubiquitous in this part of the country, but the frescoes remain untouched. Christos Pantokrator is muted into nothingness; half his face has flaked away. The only light comes from the slanting rays of fog-dim sunlight through the windows. There are political banners up where the altar used to be.

Still, Greeks return. Leila, a Turk of Bulgarian descent who runs one of the jewelry stalls in the church, says that every Sunday, ferry-loads come from the neighboring island of Chios to buy up her wares, eager to use their strong euro against the struggling Turkish lira. She has been to Chios once, she says, and found it beautiful, even familiar: “They had Turkish-style mosques. They had yards.” She shrugs, “But Turkish and Greek culture, deep down, they are the same.” There is, however, one sore point of contention. To go to Chios, she needed to spend time and money on an EU-standard visa; it is far easier for Greeks to visit here. “But I can’t complain,” she says. “They come, they spend money.”

After Çeşme, Erol takes me to Alaçatı: a 20- minute drive down the peninsula. Even more popular with the Turkish élite than Çeşme, Alaçatı is an immaculately conserved postcard of Greek houses, riotous purple-red bougainvillea trailing over blue thresholds, white stucco walls. Street-sellers hawk honey-dripping donuts, mussels hauled fresh from the sea, silvery anchovies that catch what remains of the October light. Even in the low season, women sit smoking over untouched glasses of chai, letting the ashes fall on the cobblestones.

People were too poor to build anything

I stop to ask for directions at the Alaçatı Tas Hotel, set in a 19th century stone house on the village edge. Inside, the design is immaculate: slender shutters painted pale blue, exposed brick walls, a reception desk nestled under archways of old stones. Vintage panama hats line the hatracks. The owner, Zeynep, introduces herself. She apologizes for not getting up to shake our hands, but she cannot bear to disturb the cat dozing in her lap, and invites us to stay for a drink. Over basil-infused lemonade, she reminisces about founding Alaçatı’s first boutique hotel 20 years ago.

“We were lucky,” she says. Alaçatı escaped the relentless concrete-block-style modernization that came to characterize so much of the middle-class Turkish aesthetic during the economic boom. “People here were too poor to build anything” – even compared to Çeşme. “So the houses stayed beautiful” – often inherited by generations unable to afford the upkeep. When she bought this building, she said, she had to buy it piece by piece from 22 different scattered relatives. Still, nobody believed her establishment would be a success. “We were building ten whole bathrooms for guests,” she said. “Everyone thought I was crazy.” She even had a fortune-teller come to read her fate in the grounds of her cup of Turkish coffee – a popular local custom. “She took one look at my coffee-grounds and said ‘I see water – everywhere’. She knew I was building those bathrooms.” Even today, she laughs, the story gives her shivers.

But now, she says, her establishment is the most popular of the many in town: catering to Turks, some foreigners, and those Greeks who return in search of their grandfather or great- grandfather’s old house. “Sometimes they find it,” she says, “sometimes they don’t.” As we head back to the car, Erol takes one look at the bougainvillea, the whitewashed walls, the cafés with their minimalist décor. “It’s more beautiful now,” he says. “But sometimes I miss the solitude.”

Uncanny, almost ferocious, melancholy

Having seen the remnants of the Greek presence of a century ago, I take my leave of Erol to head north in search of older ruins: boarding a bus to Bergama, site of the remnants of Pergamon: a vast Hellenistic metropolis that exists now only in columns and shattered walls. Smaller and less showy than the splendidly preserved Ephesus – its main touristic rival – Pergamon is nevertheless possessed of an uncanny, almost ferocious, melancholy that sets into relief how much is really absent, how much we do not see. Much of this is contextual – after all, the greatest of Pergamon’s treasures are storehoused so many hundred miles away at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

I ride the cable-car – sleek and chrome, newly constructed – to the acropolis. Below me, the ruins sprawl and snake along the ridges. The ground is bare of everything but rock. In the distance, a few dark trees dot the unremittingness of cliff, slope, plain. As we reach the peak, I start to make out shapes: once-houses, once-temples, once-streets.

Tourists come less often here than to Ephesus, and on this October evening I am alone with ghosts. Even the few souvenir sellers at the entrance do not bother hawking to me as I pass. The solitude is thrilling. I rack my mind for relevant poetry – Shelley’s Ozymandias, Tennyson’s Ulysses – and start to whisper them under my breath. The wind whips wild around me; I turn a corner, around another column, and still there is nobody but me.

The savage loneliness of this place – bereft of its past, bereft even of so many of its remnants, imprisoned in Berlin – is thrilling. Every step brings another column, another shattered cornerstone, stones so big close up that it is impossible to imagine them as one of so many in a temple’s wall.

I am alone among the lizards

I arrive at the old Temple of Trajan, where a Roman Emperor became a god, at the narrow corridor that leads out into the gargantuan splendor of the acropolis: narrow but impossibly tall, carved into the acropolis hill itself. I am alone among the lizards, among the black leaf-bare trees, among the ruins. The sky darkens. A storm is starting. A few puppies seek refuge under a half-vanished archway. It is time to say goodbye to ghosts.

I return rain-soaked to Bergama and to the ferocious ministrations of Aydin, proprietor of the Athena Pension, a ruddy-faced man in his 40s whose bald head is as red and brightly scrubbed as the rest of him. He offers me a drag of his stalwart remedy: “vitamin Z”, his phrase for cigarettes. Barring that, he insists on offering me his friend’s cherry-tart homemade wine, harvested and pressed right here in Bergama.

Aydin has converted an old Ottoman house into a guesthouse with a courtyard, piled-high pillows, views of the acropolis, a three-month- old kitten that nuzzles me whenever I come into the common room in search of tea. He takes fierce pride in his establishment, in the convivial atmosphere he establishes in the courtyard. “Next door,” he scoffs, “they put down AstroTurf in the courtyard to make it look greener. But here we have real grass.” People come to Bergama for the ruins, but they stay for Athena. Just recently, he says proudly, he had a girl who stayed for three or four days in the guesthouse. “She didn’t go see the ruins once!” Instead she drank his tea, his red wine, his less- lethal “fresh wine”, as he calls the grape juice he presses daily, and accepted the hospitality which is his great pride.

This is Turkish muscle

“I built this place myself,” he looks around. “Just me and my muscle.” He sighs and looks down at the curve of his pot belly. “This is Turkish muscle,” he says, pointing down at the roll of fat, patting himself, stretching out on one of the cushions that surround the salon. He pours himself some raki from a water bottle. He believes in beauty, he says. The concrete blocks on Bergama’s outskirts, where hotels for business travelers are found, are a disgrace. “You cannot be hospitable there,” he says. You have to sell so many rooms per night – you’ll invariably attract “bad people”, as he describes unsavory types. Here, in the guesthouse with its eight chambers, he can entertain as he pleases and drink until dawn. He offers me a ride on his motorcycle. I gracefully decline.

I finish my trip in Assos, a village on a steep cliff overlooking the island of Lesbos: known as the one-time visiting-place of both Aristotle and St. Paul. The ruins here, among these slanting, rain- slicked cobblestone streets, are even less visited than those at Pergamon; on the pathway to the Temple of Athena, a single craftsman is selling his wares. A few columns remain of the splendid temple at the top of the hill; but the glory of Assos is in the juxtaposition of those few stones against the endlessness of sea.

The streets here are silent. Assos, unlike Alaçatı or Çeşme or even Bergama, has never established a clear tourist identity, despite the historicity of its streets, the quiet lull of its harbor, a half-hour walk down past another ampitheater, more scattered ruins. Baby chickens cluck and peck among the cobblestones; fishermen at the harbor toss anchovies to neck-craning kittens straight from their nets. The center of town is dominated by old men: sitting in silence, drinking tea.

He takes me into his courtyard

One such man, Hussein, invites me for a drive, in a mixture of broken English, broken German, and vague, enthusiastic Turkish. While he waits for one of his five grandchildren to get the car, a broken-down blue Lada, he grabs my hand and drags me across town to his home. “Das ist my house,” he says. He points across the way. “And my papa’s house.” He shows us his brother’s house, his son’s. His grandfather, he says, came over from Lesbos in the population exchange; they have been in Assos ever since. He takes me into his courtyard, where his wife is bent over a broom, sweeping the same patch of floor over and over again.

He plucks a pomegranate from a crate in the corner and cracks it open, handing me a sticky mess of seeds. Hussein, I learn, is an archaeologist; for years, he was in charge of taking care of the Athena ruins. “Not now,” he says. “Now ich bin grandpapa.” He is well into his 70s, although that does not prevent him from making a few abortive romantic overtures to me as we drive. “I am old, old,” he sighs when I refuse.

He forgets his heartbreak soon enough, and continues to show me the sights of the town: the Eastern Gate, where trade flowed onto the vast networks of the Ottoman Empire, the statue of Aristotle, the Greek sarcophagi on the side of the road. We are “kleine Asia” he says – Asia in miniature. So many civilizations have passed by here: Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman; all have left their mark. All have left something in the ruins. He points out his own bullet wounds – from his military service in the southeast.

No problem. One Allah.

He points out Mount Ida in the distance, closer by the necropolis, and tells me about the work his archaeological successors are doing on a Christian basilica nearby, which attracts its fair share of pilgrims. “I am always their guide,” he says. He considers. “You are Catholic?” Unwilling to discuss the precise ecclesiastical categorization of Episcopalianism, I assent. He puts out his hand, ignoring the manic swerving of a car. “No problem,” he announces. “One Allah.” We shake hands.

“You must come back,” he tells me. He will take me for another drive. He will take me among more columns, more stones. He will show me the necropolis properly. He will show me the Greek island of Lesbos and the vanished cities along the Troad coast, where tourists do not go, because there are just so many ruins to see, here where the Aegean is wine-dark, here where Odysseus first set sail from Troy.

“You and me,” he says. “Old grandpapa and young madame.” He slaps my knee and chortles. “I will be your guide.” When we pull up at the bus station, he does not give me his telephone number, nor his full name. “When you come back, ask for ‘Hussein the Archaeologist’,” he tells me. “They will help you find me.”

He drives off into the mist: back toward the sacrophagi, the Ottoman gate, toward the ruins.

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