A Tale in Red: Parchment, Zeus, and meeting Fırat relatives.

Firat, my tour guide was a young man who had a tendency to consider any woman an inept, stupid and weak human being. Probably that was the reason he chose me as the next target to make fun of. At first, I was uncomfortable, but by the end of the week , I just let him say whatever he wanted, and kept my mind fixed on ‘The Project’, that was the most important thing to me. So, all along the road to Pergamum (Pergamon) he insisted on singing Turkish songs, while goading me by saying that I was unable to learn the language. He criticised everything. How I walked, spoke, dressed. When we weren’t talking about Turkey, he was bullying me. The two most common comments were: “You’re stupid.” and “Your English is broken.” I see, now, those outrageous behaviours were more a defence, than anything else. But defending what? He was defending ‘his’ beliefs, the image his country has about women, his family values – ‘values’ where I did not fit.

On my side, the professional relationship between us made me aware how three or four hours of conversation is not enough to form an accurate picture of a person, and indeed, can lead you to make significant errors of judgement about a person. When I first met Firat, I had had a clear impression that he was a modern, westernised man. As he was in his middle twenties, I simply was not expecting such patriarchal, ‘macho’, behaviour. Now I was facing two challenges: finding out how to live in another country, and trying to develop a relationship based on mutual respect with a Turkish man. Neither of these was easy.

The car radio was playing Turkish music, Firat was singing, while I watched  the ever- changing landscape. Suddenly, he asked me what I thought about the idea of visiting his hometown. Of course, his idea was ‘kill two birds with one stone’. Firstly, he would be able to visit  his parents who were still living in the city and could give them some money, second, he would be able to catch up with his old friends. I accepted: to observe the family dynamic would be a great opportunity, especially if we add that his city, Akhisar, has a fascinating history and some archaeological ruins. My only concern was about how to communicate with them, it was evident I would be facing a group of people who only understood Turkish (and Turkish culture).

My questions had to wait, because before Akhisar we stopped in Pergamum.

After the death of Alexander, the Great, his general, Lysimachus, decided to keep the absolute[T5] treasure protected in Pergamum. The general appointed Philetaerus to be responsible for keeping the wealth secure. However, after the death of Lysimachus, Philetaerus used the treasure to found  a new dynasty in 381 BC. The Atallid, founded by Philetaerus, made Pergamum the capital of its kingdom, and the town rose as the major centre of Hellenistic culture. Pergamum had great importance in the Ancient World; it was rich enough to have a library that rivalled that of Alexandria. It’s saidMArcus Antonius invaded the city and took all the volumes from the library and gave them as a gift to Cleopatra, everything in Pergamum being transferred to Alexandria.

Today, the ancient Pergamum has become Bergama. A modern city focused on trade in carpets, textiles and leather goods Around the town, the fields are used for growing tobacco and cotton, and there are also vineyards

To reach the ruins of the old town we had to cross the modern city, continuing to one of the hills in the outskirts of the city. The site contains one of the earliest references to the Roman Emperor Trajan, another historical character I was chasing in time. Trajan nephew Adrian built a temple on his behalf in Pergamum. Another famous ruin is the Temple of Zeus. There isn’t actually much has been removed from the site letting little  to be seen nowadays. A platform and nothing else. Only when I later went to Berlin and visited the Pergamon Museum, was I able to see the altar in all its splendour.

At most of the archaeological sites we had visited so far, the most beautiful structures were the theatres. Pergamum was no exception. In fact, Pergamum’s theatre was built into a hillside, with a magnificent view. I imagined how, in the past, the people seated there could watch the performances against the ever-changing backdrop of the sea.

Firat used some of our time there to teach me the names of the different parts of a theatre. The location of the performances: the orchestra; where the audience sat: the cavea; the stairs that gave access to places[T10] : the krepidoma; the area that separated one group of seats from another: the diazoma. The access to the seats was  via the vomitorium …  That’s what I remembered … After that, at all the theatres we visited, he asked me to name the parts.

To be honest, the place I loved the most was the library. I walked along the corridor imagining the papyri and parchments rolled up on the shelves made of stone. Each niche was protected from light and carefully ventilated. I leant against the wall, closed my eyes, and let my mind fly…crossing thousands of years. The scholars studying at wood tables, or walking, organising and cataloguing all the volumes. Then I felt the devastation of how the entire stock of volumes moved from Pergamum to Alexandria were lost in the great fire

After we had visited the acropolis, our next destination, was the entrance of the Ancient city. Just outside was located the hospital. The hospital was used to apply various therapies, including music, aromas and baths. It’s impressive how the spaces were distributed to guarantee the best care for the patients, for example, they had a theatre for their own use and a room where the drugs were prepared (a pharmacy). Firat told me that the reason the hospital was here was a need to keep all the ill people well away from the main part of the city.

When we returned to the car, we’d had a surprise visit. A small herd of cows was grouped around, were they curious about the white car (another animal?). While Firat tried to encourage them to move on, I went to the small museum near the hospital, and enjoyed reading about the possibility that parchment had actually first been created in ancient Pergamum.

Our word ‘parchment’ comes from the Latin pergamenum, referring to the city of Pergamum, a major centre for producing this material. The city had dominated the trade in ancient times, so a legend had arisen claiming that parchment had been introduced by Pergamum to counter the use of papyrus, the production of which had become monopolised by the rival city of Alexandria. The tale is actually improbable, since parchment had been used in Anatolia and other places, long before Pergamum was founded.

Our visited over; now, I would face another challenge. Firat’s family. The road to Akhisar was modern, with heavy traffic, including many lorries and buses. By then, the day was inauspicious, cold and grey, making my anxiety even worse. Our first stop was a private condominium where Firat’s relatives had a grocery store and a billiard saloon. The reception was warm, and even the language barrier was not enough to prevent a bond forming between us. While the women served me tea, and asked Firat many questions about me, I entertained myself with the youngest girl (she was six at that time, 12 today), playing word- games.

We left the grocery to find a restaurant where one of Firat’s cousins worked. Again, the reception was warm and joyful. Firat insisted that I taste some of the region’s delicacies: meatballs. When he said we would be eating meatballs, I was expecting the Italian or Swedish versions that I knew. Instead, the dish consisted of a flatbread nesting two or three skewers of minced meat, covered with yoghourt and salad – lettuce, tomatoes, parsley. “Don’t eat too much, my parents are expecting us for dinner.”

The meatballs were delicious. We left the restaurant and headed for Firat’s parents’ house.

The reception from Nesrin and Zaki was very warm. It was evident to me that Nesrin, Firat’s mother, was feeling quite emotional. Only later did I understand why. Firat had been in the army for the last 15 months, not visiting his parents during all that time. A mother’s love is mother’s love.

We had a meal seated in the traditional Turkish way. A round base was put on the carpet in the living room, and we were seated on the floor around this table. Nesrin served aubergines, bread, rice and grilled chicken – the food was simple but delicious.

“Are you OK to stay with my parents for a couple of hours? I want to meet some of my friends.” The question took me by surprise – how I could stay there if nobody spoke English? Well, it was challenge, and I was looking for challenges! – I said he could go, I would be alright.

For two hours, Nesrin and I talked about family, Firat’s childhood and his time in the army. She proudly showed me some photographs of when he was a baby. When Firat returned home, he was surprised by our laughter and conversation – made partly in Turkish, partly English and French.

We left Zaki and Nesrin at home while we went to find a hotel. “Do you want to watch a football match?” It was an unexpected invitation, and naturally, I accepted. Later, after the game was over, Firat said that inviting me to the match was the biggest mistake he had made. Throughout the entire game he had been worried about my security, how the men around us would behave. “I know my countrymen too well!”, he added, before I reassured him of my ability to look after myself.

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