Antiquities with Mom

Morning in Bergama, bustling little town in the shadow of the ancient mountaintop city of Pergamum. From the window of our quaint pink, pagoda-topped hotel, we look up to see the colonnades and great theater in profile against the rising sun. We’re traveling with Tamara, my mother (biblical scholar, expert on antiquities and ancient civilizations, all-around great company) up the west coast of Turkey from Bodrum to Istanbul, trying to squeeze in as many of the “Greatest Hits of Western Civilization” as we can in the entirely unreasonable three days we have together.

Leaving Bodrum yesterday (skipped the Mausoleum), we wound our way north in a rented Minivan with our hired driver Fuat. He speaks only slightly more English than we speak Turkish, but is competent and accommodating – he handled the tire we blew out less than a mile into our journey with grace and cheer, especially considering our discovery that the car’s jack didn’t fit this particular vehicle.

Past the appropriately-winding Meander River, up through coastal mountains, our first stop was Ephesus. One of the great ruined cities of the world, in blistering noon heat. The scale and preservation of the arches, street, theaters and the like are truly remarkable. The picturesque library of Celsus – that archetype of tourist photo backdrops – was as inspiring as expected. T wryly observed that, of the four statues at the libraries entrance – Sophia (wisdom), Arete (virtue), Ennoia (intellect), and Epsiteme (knowledge) – only wisdom and virtue had kept their heads.

But the real breathtaking sight of Ephesus was something given only passing mention in all the guides we’ve read, simply noted as “private houses; featured murals and mosaics”. A series of excavated homes of the Ephesian rich and famous, rising on a slope as staggered townhouses, were in remarkable condition. The restored area was protected by an industrial-looking awning that provided much-needed shade, so we decided to pop for the extra 10 lira per person to go in.

And what a sight it was. Take the finest apartments on Avenue Montaigne, or High Street today, where the ambassadors or the remaining landed gentry still hold court, and leave Time to do the housekeeping for a couple of millennia. Then take what’s left, and put it all back together as best you can. I like to think I’m good with words, but I just don’t have any for what we saw there – ceilings had fallen and been cleared away, but by and large, the walls and floors were intact and just needed a little sprucing up. We walked through sitting rooms with intricate geodesic tile floors, walled by detailed frescos of Ephesian birds, an immaculate hallway fresco of young ladies illustrating the latest fashions of two thousand years ago. For some perspective, this is what people were looking at, wearing and thinking about when the second temple still stood in Jerusalem, when Jesus was teaching in Galilee. Pretty humbling.

I don’t have any pictures of the inside of the houses – photography is prohibited in that area, but oh boy. If you have the chance, run, fly, drive or crawl on your elbows to see this.

Fuat is waiting in the shade as we lure the kids out the gate with promises of trinkets and more ice cream. Into the car, and out past Selcuk as we look for lunch. We stop at a typical roadside kebob-truck-stop in the shadows of the town’s citadel, and play the now-routine game of “so, what will Andy actually eat here?” We’ve given up actually ordering anything, since we end up eating it while she nibbles on the bread. Lots of cherry juice and water.

Next stop Bergama.

Oh heck. It’s been too many days to keep the groove in my head. As of the last two paragraphs, we’ve not only seen Pergamum and Troy, driven the length of Gallipoli and survived a late-night we’re-not-really-lost tour of Istanbul. Spent a day exploring new parts of the old city with Tamara, made it to the airport the next morning, and are now southwest-bound over the Labrador coast on our way home. Plenty of highlights, but I’ve lost the thread.

North from Ephesus to Pergamum to Troy was an odd step in archeology – Ephesus so well preserved, and Troy a pile of rubble with less than half a dozen walls of any kind still standing. But for me (and T, I think), the magic of Troy was not the leftover traces of civilization, but the sense of place, and its connection to us in human history. The magic moment was standing on the pile of fallen stones marked as Athena’s temple and looking out – down from where the ramparts stood, down where Priam wept, across the plain where Achilles and Hector stood at last, and into the bay where the thousand ships of Menelaus anchored. And from which Odysseus sailed into history by simply forgetting to stop and thank Athena for her efforts. Ironic, given where we stood.

Arrived, bleary and exhausted in Istanbul close to midnight and carried the sleeping kids in to the hotel lobby. Said goodbye and thanks to Fuat (mustn’t forget to thank those who help us, now), while D went to check us in. She was remarkably calm when she explained to me that I appeared to have reserved us rooms for the wrong night. But the nice man at the desk was able to find us rooms for the night nearby, so I’d live to see daylight again. No, she was really quite gracious about it.

Next morning, made the usual Sultanahmet loop with T (hippodrome, Blue Mosque, bazaar) and managed to add a few new sights: the hidden mosaic museum, tucked away under the bazaar in the only remaining portions of Constantinople’s Grand Palace. Took a little looking to find, but the museum is covered in gorgeous mosaics, in-situ, from the time of Justinian. The details, the skill with which their creators captured whimsy, concern, disdain and joy on the faces of their subjects is breathtaking.

Found the Baths of Roxlena (Suleymain’s ambitious wife) housing a carpet shop, then retreated for lunch at the kids’ favorite Gozleme shop.

A little more bribery got us all to the Archeological Museum, across the street (“hey Jem – want to see a real live, er, dead mummy?”). The kids lasted surprisingly long, but D was fading too, and herded them back to the hotel for a movie.

That left me and T to explore the main building together. Sheer heaven. The sarcophagus of Alexander, with pathos carved in every stone face, 3rd millenium (BCE) Cypriot art that shames the best coming out of Europe thousands of years later. The Siloam inscription, documenting the construction of Hezekiah’s fabled tunnel. And the cuneiform: lost Hittite legends, detailed marriage contracts, accounting ledgers, and letters of complaint. We could’ve spent the entire day there, except for the feeling of guilt at leaving D to hold the fort down against kids who have had too much of Istanbul and are bored of everything we brought along.

So, back to the hotel. Uneventful dinner, early bedtime, then pack up and go in the morning. And here we are.

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