Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Ephesus: Under a Roman Sun

Off on a day trip from Izmir to Ephesus in western Turkey, an ancient city with a rich Christian history. My companions are an elderly couple from Johannesburg, South Africa who introduce themselves as Anton and Paula. Paula impresses me as one of the old school Afrikaner types I remember from the Donald Woods book, Biko. I have to stop myself from gawking at her because she weaves such outlandish gestures in her conversation. Much of the time she looks as though she is practicing a Balinese folk dance. But very friendly.

Ephesus… Earliest beginnings of the city are tied to the 10th century BC, but the ruins we are seeing date from the 2nd century AD and at one time epitomized the golden age of Ephesus. During the 1st century AD, apostles John and Paul both preached in the city.

Everything shimmers beneath a blanket of heat as heavy as a Roman anvil. The half-buildings, or ruins are monumental. Looking around though, I can’t help thinking that at such an important historical excavation more care might be given to maintenance of the grounds. Foundations, individual pieces, stones, are all in place, ‘put back’ in a way to give visitors a feeling of what it once was, but the caretakers have allowed grass and weeds and scrub to run wild all over the site. I am certain that such was not a part of the original—weeds did not grow at the base of statues in Roman cities. Neither did plastic water bottles and Coca Cola cans rest in piles all around the city. Excavation and restoration are all beautiful, and though I am an no authority, that at least impresses me as very well done.

One of the excavations at Ephesus is the bath, and of course it is a Roman bath with all the marvels of Roman engineering. At one time, water constantly flowed through concealed channels to sluice away waste, while other channels brought a fresh flow of bath water. There remains a fountain that once produced noise to cover the indelicate sounds of citizens sitting upon marble toilets in the open bath area. Today these marble toilets are being vulgarized as posing benches for tourists with cameras. I can’t helping thinking that many would even be happy to see a headless plywood cutout of Paul behind which they could pose for more photos.

Walking from one end of the city to the other is a challenge in the furnace of midday sun. Heat and glare reflect from every surface and crowds of people jostle for views or camera angles. I imagine the splendor of seeing all this on a night lit by the shadowy gold of a full moon, minus all the clicks and whirring of a hundred cameras.

From Ephesus we go to the House of the Virgin Mary. This turns out to be a quiet and beautiful park-like setting of trees, with a fountain of bubbling water whose beneficence is described as spiritual healing. And then the house itself, now converted into a small chapel. Many believe that Mary passed her last days, under the care of Paul. The apostle came to Ephesus, city of idol worship and profit, to pass on to gentiles the teachings of Christ. He brought the aging mother of Christ with him, and she lived in this house.

We visit a museum which holds many of the objects excavated from Ephesus. I like it best for its design and atmosphere, constructed in a series of connected courtyards and open-air rooms. The overall museum is meant to echo the feeling of an ancient Roman terrace house of Ephesus.

Back in my hotel by late afternoon, numb with heat and exhaustion, and poorer by fifteen million lira.

Photos: The Library at Ephesus viewed through an adjacent archway; journal pages (Ephesus) with brass bowl and brass seal from the area.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America