Turkey in Ruins!

There is something special about roaming around old graveyards and contemplating the who’s, why’s and wherefores of the interred. Not so much the war graves like Gallipoli with their cargo of mown-down youth, a stark reminder of lives unlived, potentials unfulfilled; so tragic and wrong. A few weeks later and we are roaming a blasted necropolis that has been turned over by Mother Earth through successions of earthquakes over the centuries. Hefty tombs stand at odd angles all broken and collapsed, strewn across acres of landscape like a carelessly tossed box of granite Lego blocks…

Whilst our visit to Gallipoli gave us pause for sad reflection, our next few locations in Turkey left us totally awestruck… Leaving Çanakkale, we plodded along the coast on a road that would deliver us in turn to Pergamon, on to Altincum for a family reunion, then back to Selçuk and nearby Ephesus and finally a ride inland to Pamukkale with its world famous calcite travertines. These sites all lie within Anatolia in the lower southwest corner of Turkey and gateway to the Asia Minor coastline, facing off against Greece and Europe. The area has been a conduit for colonists and invaders with Ancient Greeks building cities along the coast and opening trade with the interior, in turn inviting eastern invaders such as Persians and Seljuk Turks to go the other way. The Romans too used Anatolia as a staging point for further eastern escapades and conquests and ultimately it would host the capital of the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire right on its doorstep at Constantinople that would finally fall to the rising power of the Ottoman Empire.

The first record of Pergamon was by Xenophon around 400 BC. The Romans later enlarged the city to a thriving metropolis of around 200,000 souls and by the second century AD it had become a major Christian city. Earthquake and invasion reduced it to the ruins we see today, with the modern city of Bergama sprung up at its feet. Pergamon delighted from the start as we rode up a meandering draw that delivered us to a most beautiful accommodation in the form of the Akropolis Hotel with its shady rooms up on a veranda overlooking a little courtyard complete with swimming pool. With the bikes cooling off inside the gates we wandered off for what turned out to be a gourmet lunch of local Mezze at the Aristonicus Boutique Hotel in their garden full of art and sculpture; beautiful food in beautiful surroundings, probably the best accolade for any eatery. All of this was within an easy walk of the cable car that would take us to the Acropolis (upper city).

On exiting the cable car we ran the gauntlet of souvenir hawkers to pay the entry fee (25TL) that gave us access to the site. Initially it seemed unimpressive, a large football-field sized area full of tumbled blocks and scattered columns, with the odd outline of a ruined dwelling here and there. We wandered over to the far side of the ruins where the land dropped away to reveal a stunning Hellenistic Amphitheatre carved straight out of the hillside. Arriving rather late in the day, the ruins seemed empty as we further explored the interior delights of the Sanctuary of Trajan with polo-mint white marble columns, a photographer’s delight against cornflower blue skies.

Treading the marble paving downhill, we imagined Pergamon as it would have been in ancient times with its commanding views over the River Caicus until disturbed from our daydreams by the three-foot form of a lithe black viper darting across the path before us. It stopped for a split second to look at us, offering a glimpse of a scarily human visage on its olive green head, before turning to disappear under some tumbled blocks. Visits to subsequent ruins now have us treading carefully and watching where we put our hands and feet.

Pergamon was beautiful but our next halt, Altincum, was certainly not. A sprawling resort aimed at ‘Brits-Abroad’, we were suddenly dumped out of Turkey into an ersatz Blackpool only this one had real sunshine. In spite of the location, we had a lovely time with my sister Gina and celebrated her husband Robert’s 50th in fine style. It was great too to spend a little time with Ryan and Becky, leaving off our motorcycling mantle to become plain aunty and uncle for a few days. We would dearly loved to have brought them with us for what came next…

When researching our trip through Turkey the big three seemed to be: the ruins at Ephesus, the calcite pools at Pamukkale and the fairytale landscape of Cappadocia. A short hop took us to the little town of Selçuk, our base for exploring the first of the big three: Ephesus. Selçuk itself proved to be a little jewel of a town where we spent an afternoon wandering more ruins, Christian this time.

One of the things I love about travel is when you suddenly find yourself stood at a location where historical characters actually roamed. We have crossed paths with characters as diverse as Caesar, Napoleon and Churchill. Here, at Selçuk, for the first time we were literally treading biblical footsteps, the town having provided refuge for both the apostle John and the Virgin Mary as they fled persecution following the death of Christ. John is alleged to have settled here, indeed written his Gospel and then died of old age in his nineties. The Emperor Justinian built a huge Basilica over the tomb of St John and, like many ancient sites in Turkey, this was later tumbled by an earthquake.   The Basilica would actually be the 7th largest cathedral in the world were it reconstructed today and remains an impressive site, especially against the backdrop of the Ayasuluk Fortress that dominates the whole town.

Of course the star attraction was a day in Ephesus, reached by a 10-minute Dolmus (little mini-bus) from the town centre. Our day started under a haze of cloud that initially made Ephesus seem a dull shambles of grey and off-white slabs, just so much rubble against a drear backdrop of khaki foliage. We climbed the vast amphitheatre to gain views over the ancient paved highway that led to the harbour. It was our first glimpse of the scale of Ephesus, the largest classical site in Turkey. Built at the mouth of a river this once thriving seaport, one of the largest on the Anatolian coast, was doomed when the harbour silted up and the trade moved on to easier access ports. Like Pergamon, earthquakes and invaders did the rest and the walls came tumbling down.

The sun came out, the sky turned blue and the morning cloud collected into little flak-ball puffs carpeting the canopy above for an hour before transforming into thin wisps that drifted off towards the distant mountains. This all led to some fantastic illumination for Ephesus, now revealed in all its grandeur and a delightful day for us exploring the ancient city and fantastic marvels such as the reconstructed Library of Celsus.

You could spend months exploring the multitude of ancient sites in this area so steeped in history but we had to be moving on. A short Sunday hop took us to Pamukkale, which on approach looked like a huge white spoil heap in the midst of the rolling hill country. The small town itself was a cluster of tacky tourist shops and mostly mediocre restaurants nestled up close to the foot of this natural wonder.   The centrepiece was ‘Aqualand’, an incongruous piece of town planning with crappy multi-coloured water shutes that offended the eye and blaring Turkish pop music relayed over a tannoy-system that was even more offensive to the ear. Unsurprisingly, there was hardly anyone in it. We wandered up to the south (lower) gate to obtain information for our visit tomorrow and were horrified to see what looked like a queue of zombies trudging along the trail up the side of the white mountain, relayed here in droves by the packs of air-conditioned buses from near and far. Maybe it was just like this at the weekend?

Next morning we were at the lower entrance gate at 8am sharp, paid our way in and, with only a few others, had the place to ourselves. Pamukkale means ‘Cotton-Castle’ in Turkish, a reference to the stacked terraces that cascade down the mountain in ‘travertines’, large shallow bowls that fill up with mineral rich water from underground thermal springs. As the water first cools, calcium carbonate is precipitated and then, as the water evaporates under the hot sun, the pools shrink leaving a hard rim. Over the eons these rims have built up to create a series of natural cascades that then overrun with calcite organ pipes to create a natural wonderland.

A short gravel path deposited us at the start of the trail. From here on all footwear must be removed to avoid damaging the calcite underfoot. The main path is mostly underwater and looked like slippery marble but it is crisscrossed by millions of little channels that give surprisingly good grip. We hobbled like constipated penguins, slowly up the mountain, alternating between huge smiles and slack-jawed awe at these most serene surroundings. We found one of the bigger travertines and had it all to ourselves for a while, plunging into the cool waters and scrubbing down with the soft loam. Peering over the rim of our infinite perspective spa-pool we took in the view of distant mountains and all was well in the world… at least for a while.

By 10:30 more penguins had arrived, busloads of day-trippers, dropped off at the top-gate so they could waddle downhill a bit and dip their feet. By lunchtime it was mayhem and the upper courses were literally jam-packed with people waiving selfie-sticks, all vying to get to the edge for a partially unobstructed photo-shot. Having gained the top, we retreated under the shade of some trees and became voyeurs of the throng. I found it strange that folk would bring a camera to this place of unique natural beauty and then decide that the most important image is not their surroundings, but to capture themselves with a smart-phone selfie-stick; the wand of hedonism. The Japanese seemed particularly afflicted but this offered some great photo opportunities to ‘shoot the vain’. Some women had even dolled up… This left us even more bewildered; why would you don make-up, party dress and glitzy high-heels to visit a national park?

The entrance ticket to Pamukkale also permits access to the ruins of Hieropolis, another ancient city at the top of the travertines. We’d initially dismissed this as just another ruin but in the afternoon it offered welcome refuge from the crowds. It proved to be quite spectacular in its own right, especially the reconstructed theatre. Hieropolis grew around the travertines (which are of course ancient in their own right) as a health spa town for wealthy Romans. They claimed that the treatments here would heal all ailments and success was maintained by screening prospective clients; anyone who looked too ill was turned away to maintain the 100% record.

It was here at Hieropolis that we found ourselves wandering that quake-scattered necropolis all alone in an ancient landscape amidst the ruins of a city from another time. Turkey is proving to be a fantastic travel experience and now we must leave these ruins to continue our journey across the Anatolian plateau to wonders anew…

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