Sunday, 24 July 2011

Travels with Li Dongni – Ephesus and Selcuk, Turkey (September 2010)

Romans, Saints and dodgy fakes…

I can’t begin to describe how excited I was at the thought of going to Ephesus.  For anyone with an interest in Roman archaeology the site is legendary, and I’m pleased to say that it lived up to all of my expectations.

Although I deal with Roman archaeology on a daily basis, we just don’t have the scale of physical remains in England that you get in the Mediterranean and northern Africa.  Remains such as Ephesus are on a different scale to anything else, and the sense of what it must have been like to have lived in a wealthy Roman city is palpable.

I’ve done previous travel posts about our Turkey trip - about hot air ballooning in Cappadocia and about seeing wild turtles in Fethiye.  Our visit to Ephesus came as we were travelling slowly up the eastern coast towards Istanbul.

We had previously been on the hot Mediterranean coast in Fethiye, and took one of many long bus rides to Selcuk, the town just a few miles from Ephesus.  We’d been good, careful travellers, done our research on hotels and booked one that we liked the look of before we left Fethiye (especially as we knew we’d be arriving late at night).  Sadly, Turkey being Turkey, we were let down again by hotels, and arrived to find that the one we’d booked was now full as our bus had been delayed by about 30 minutes and our room given away (we had this on our very first night in Turkey too, in Antalya, when a late arrival from the airport led to a long-booked room being given to somebody else and the hotel outrageously denying any knowledge of us and pretending not to speak English.  This led to us wandering the streets at 2.30am looking for another hotel!)  What is it about Turkish hoteliers not honouring their bookings?

Thankfully, this hotelier had not entirely turned us away, but had had the kindness (or gall, I can’t quite decide…) to book us a room in another hotel run by a family member.  Despite us having looked at this hotel on the internet and deciding not to go for it, it was too late to argue or find somewhere else.  As it turned out, the room was actually rather large and lovely, so we needn’t have worried.

So the next morning we set out for Ephesus, giggling like excited schoolchildren at the thought of the sights that awaited us.  We arrived, as we had expected, into a busy bazaar of stalls and street vendors, selling only the very finest merchandise money can buy.

One thing I instantly liked about Ephesus was that the city wasn’t going to give up all its delights in one fell swoop.  Instead, as you might expect for such a large site, it revealed itself slowly, every corner turned leading to a new surprise.

We entered by one of the impressive theatres, sitting in the back row of which must have been as lovely then as it is now.

A walk through some low shrubs brought us to the most famous of Ephesus’ monuments, the Library of Celsus.  It was built in AD135 by wealthy local Gaius Julius Aquila (and named after his father Celsus) and has the unusual dual function of being both a repository for scrolls and the mausoleum of Celsus himself.

Further up the wonderfully evocative stone-lined ‘Curetes Street’ lies another of Ephesus’ treasures – the excavations at one of the high status insulae.  This requires a separate entrance fee, but if you’ve gone all that way to see Ephesus then don’t go cheap at this point, as the excavations are worth every penny.  The series of wealthy houses, complete with painted plaster, mosaics and plumbing are all contained under a purpose built roof with walkways allowing visitors to travel within the houses, but in a controlled manner.  I’ll just let the pictures speak for themselves at this point, though look out for the images of ‘conservation in action’ – it was fascinating to see the conservators reconstructing and sorting marble and wall plaster as we wandered around.  And I’m not jealous in the slightest…

Opposite the insulae excavations sits the Temple of Hadrian.  It was built following the visit of the well travelled Emperor, who visited Ephesus in AD128.  The carvings on the temple are particularly interesting.  The entrance arch features a bust of Psyche, Goddess of Victory.

Inside is a relief of Medusa and friezes depicting the founding of Ephesus, though these are actually replicas.  The originals are in Ephesus museum (not that the site interpretation actually makes that clear for visitors.  Naughty!)

No Roman site would be complete without a suite of toilets to provide a good photo opportunity, and the chance to make jokes about sponges on sticks (the Roman equivalent of toilet paper).

At the top of Curetes Street we encountered another, smaller, theatre, notable for the carved animal feet decorating the steps.

Close by is an interesting monument constructed in the 1st Century by Memmius, the grandson of Sulla.  Despite being one of the great figures of the late Roman Republic, Sulla somehow seems to be virtually unknown to the general public, especially when compared to figures such as Caesar, Pompey and Mark Antony.  To those who know of him however, the monument to him is rather interesting to see.

As well as visiting Ephesus, we also had the chance to have a quick look around the town of Selcuk.  I’ll come to the tourist bits in a moment, but one thing I did experience is being repeatedly offered some incredibly bad modern copies of Roman coins by a local chap (who assured me that he worked on the excavations at Ephesus and was allowed to sell them).  The thing that got me was thinking just how many tourists would actually buy them.  Now, as they were bad fakes, they deserve everything they get (or rather, don’t get), but to think that people would actually buy what they believed to be genuine ancient coins of such obviously dodgy provenance makes me quite angry indeed.  As it turned out, when I got fed up of humouring the guy and told him outright that I work in a museum, have a specific interest in Roman numismatics, and that his coins were bad fakes and I definitely wouldn’t be buying any, he not only repeatedly told me I didn’t know what I was talking about, but also that western museums and archaeologists bought things from him all the time!  Lord help us all if that turns out to be true!

Dodgy fake coin peddlers aside, Selcuk is an OK place.  It’s mostly a modern little town, but it has a very nice museum displaying the finds from Ephesus, which you can see in the photos below.

Selcuk is also home to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – the Temple of Artemis.  Sadly it’s not easy to find, and we actually ran out of time after wandering around trying to find it, and ultimately failed to see the one remaining column of this giant temple.

One site we did see was the Basilica of St John, built on a hill in the centre of Selcuk.  The story goes that, following Jesus’ crucifixion, St John and the Virgin Mary went to Ephesus to live out the rest of their lives.  When St John died, a mausoleum was built on that hill, which was later turned into the Basilica once Christianity had become the dominant religion in the 4th Century.

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