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Turkey and Greece, 2000
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Children playing football, Asclepeion, Bergama Copyright 2000, C. Schmelling and L. Holmes
Turkey: Aegean Coast

Our fortnight in Turkey divided neatly into halves: for the first week we explored ancient ruins near the Aegean coast, and for the second week we toured the city of Istanbul.

We visited four ancient sites during our first week in Turkey: Pergamon, Sardis, Aphrodisias, and Ephesus. Taken as a whole, three things distinguished them from the ruins we saw in Greece. In the first place, the remains in Turkey were less complete. We didn't see a single large ancient building in Turkey which was as well preserved as the Parthenon and the Hephaesteion in Athens, or the temple of Aphaia on Aegina. Second, the ruins here were generally more extensive. All of the sites we saw here were very considerable cities in ancient times, unlike any of the sites in Greece except for Athens. Third and finally, the ruins here came from a later era and showed corresponding differences in style. Everything we saw here dated from Roman times, a great change from what we had seen in Greece, where the ancient remnants are predominantly Classical.

Tetrapylon, Aphrodisias Copyright 2000, C. Schmelling and L. Holmes
We visited Pergamon first. It has the most dramatically sited ruins among those we visited: the main part occupies a hilltop overlooking the modern town of Bergama. The ruins on this hilltop are also comparatively sparse. The only really impressive remains there are a few massive columns from a Roman temple dedicated to Trajan. We also visited the mostly ignored ancient sanctuary of the Asclepeion a few kilometers away. The ruins there include a small theater and a stoa. The local children use the site as a playground, even playing football among the ruins.

Sardis, which we saw second, was surely the least visited site on our itinerary. The only other tourists at the site during our visit were a group of Turkish schoolchildren on a field trip. At one point, we found ourselves amidst a sea of the children, all eager to practice their English on us.

The ancient civic complex and bath is the center of the remains here. The main building faces into a large colonnaded courtyard which was used as a palestra or exercise field. The two story facade facing into the palestra shows many post-Classical touches, including several spirally fluted columns. Off to one side of the palestra are the ruins of an ancient synagogue where we saw some beautiful inlaid marble wall decorations.

Library of Celsus, Ephesus Copyright 2000, C. Schmelling and L. Holmes
Aphrodisias was the most remote site we visited, but we found it well worth the several hours and bus changes it took to get there. The ruins include a pretty well preserved theater and stage, and considerable remnants from some temples, baths, and colonnaded squares. The showpiece at Aphrodisias, however, is the reconstructed Tetrapylon, a majestic ceremonial gateway. The facade has a central arch supported on columns, four of which are spirally fluted -- both Roman innovations in style. The little museum on the site is also worth seeing. It contains some striking statues, a legacy of the school of sculpture which flourished here in Roman times.

We also had a really enjoyable Turkish culinary experience on the way to Aphrodisias. While we were waiting for a connecting dolmus, or minibus, in Karacasu, we went to a local restaurant and tried pide, which is sort of the Turkish version of pizza. It was good, simple food, but the best part was watching the resaurant man make our pide. There wasn't a separate kitchen in the place, so we saw the whole process, from flattening the dough and chopping the toppings to baking it in an open hearth.

Our first encounter with Ephesus, the last stop on our tour of ancient ruins in Turkey, was a surprise. We arrived in the nearby town of Selcuk on the afternoon before the Children's Day holiday, and found out about a free concert scheduled at the ancient theater of Ephesus that very night. The Turkish singer Sertab, who we gathered is hugely popular, headlined the concert. We went, and we saw the old theater brought to life for a modern pop music concert. Sertab has a beautiful voice, but from our point of view it was her opening act, the Belgian a cappella singing group Voice Male, who stole the show.

We got to see the rest of Ephesus the next day, after watching the Children's Day parade in Selcuk that morning. Even in mid-April, we found the place swarming with tourists -- with good reason. Even though just few gates, fountains, and facades have been restored, some of them, such as the Gate of Maxentius and the facades of the Library of Celsus and the Temple of Hadrian, are real architectural gems. The space defined by the Gate of Maxentius and the Library of Celsus also stands out as one of the best preserved ancient public places we have seen.


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