A Tale in Red: Wondering about fake hills, synagogues, and Greek Temples.

Sunday, January 30th, and outside it was another blue but cold day. I went to the window, and opened it, looking outside and breathing deeply. “Are you ok?” Firat was observing me attentively, curious about what I was thinking. I turned to him and said, “I love cold, blue days; they‘re my favourites.” To my surprise, he said that he, too, loved days like that. After 10 days together, 24 hours a day, I could sense in the tone of his voice that his view of me was changing; how he was now listening to my opinion.

The road was inspiring and there were picturesque  small villages passing by the car window… while the music on the CD rolled. For the first time since we began the trip, I was relaxed, with few preoccupations. Suddenly, we slowed down. In the distance I could see some hills. I started to wonder if they were natural, since they were so symmetrical and perfectly rounded, I commented on it to Fırat. The surprise on his face informed me that not many people had made the same observation to him before. Firat told me then, that the ‘hills’ I could see, were tombs; the tombs of kings and influential people from Lydia.

My question then was: why did they bury their tombs under tons and tons of soil. Why give themselves all that hard work, hiding their loved ones, the famous people of their society? Fırat didn’t have an explanation, but in my mind, I wondered if, in some way, they had aimed to build a palace in the underworld.

Ten minutes later, we arrived at the site of Sardis, one the most prominent city of Lydia. The visit was to be split into four key pieces: the tombs I had seen, the gymnasium, the synagogue – one of the oldest known – and the Temple of Artemis. I was particularly interested in the Temple.

Sardis was important for its prestigious and powerful king, but it was also the final connection point with the Royal Road that comes from Susa (today’s Iran). The road was and old highway reorganised and rebuilt by the Persian King Darius The Great (Darius I) to facilitate rapid communication throughout his very large empire, this in the 5th century BC. I was amazed to find a synagogue there. Firat observed that the presence of a synagogue in the middle of the city meant that Jews were influential there. Well, that was a sensible conclusion, but was it actually the case? The actual village near the site had no remains from Jews or its culture. The bath-gymnasium was a fascinating place. Participation in sport was an important part of education for the ancient Greeks. This complex had taken boys between 7 and 12 years old to learn maths and reading. Once they were 12, they were introduced to astronomy, science and medicine, but throughout their attendance here, sport was always important too, as were the bathing rituals.

As we were about to leave for the Temple of Artemis, we stopped at a trailer selling food and hot drinks. Naturally, Firat ordered two çays so he could enjoy his cigarette. I seated myself on a rock and enjoyed the silence. The sky was now grey and the wind, sharp, but I was immersed in the past and all such things seemed unimportant.

When I saw the Temple, or what was left of it, the only word that came to my mind was: enormous. Artemis, the daughter of Leto and Zeus, was the twin sister of Apollo and was associated with wildlife, animals, and hunting, but was also the protector of young virgins. Hers was one of the most important goddess cults in ancient Greece.

I wandered between the columns, feeling very small in the middle of such imposing structures. It was evident the temple had been colossal. How might be the religious ceremonies have been performed? Would there be a priestess? Offerings to the goddess for protection? I imagined the pilgrims following the road to the temple with offerings of money, food and other suitable donations, hoping that the goddess would bless their requests, whether they be for hunting success or protection.

Firat was wandering near the river that flowed through the village next to the temple. I approached silently, trying not disturbing his concentration as he photographed the Temple from a distance. I looked at the river, the green of the water contrasted with the grey of the day. Few trees still had their leaves, most stretched out pleading, folorn branches from their trunks. This, and the mist rising from the water made the scene ethereal. “Did you know that this is the river where Midas washed his hands?” Firat was behind me, pointing to the river. I turned to him, trying to understand what he was saying. “You do know about Midas, don’t you?”

Sure I knew about Midas and his golden touch, but how was the myth related to the river? “Midas was rewarded with the power to transform everything he touched into gold. But, soon he realised the gift was actually a curse. He couldn’t pick up food to eat, couldn’t even touch his daughter without turning her into gold. Begging to the gods to help him, they sent Midas to wash his hand in this river. It’s said that people can find gold here even to this day.”

It was an interesting legend. Midas represented the greed inherent in many people who attain positions of power. Not satisfied with the power and gold they already have, they are always demanding more. Sometimes, things don’t happen quite as they expect…

Sardis had been very interesting. The Temple, the gymnasium, the synagogue, and I had also enjoyed the short conversation with the lady who served us the çay. I appreciated the stories Firat told me about the region, and its relations to gold, money, Cicero, and the Persians. These are all stories you can find in my book: The Other Turkey, The Other Me.

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