We didn’t visit Kuşadası, only the sites around it: Sirince and Ephesus, but the little I could see was enough to understand that the city was a pleasant place for summer vacations. The hotel we stayed at wasn’t bad – one of the best I had been in until now (a limited budget is a curse, sometimes). Because of that, I was a bit sad to leave the place. “Don’t feel sad. The next places we’re going to see will be worth the price.” I was hoping we could find another comfortable and clean hotel to stay at. “We’re going to see Miletus.”
“Miletus? Not the city where Thales was born?”
“I don’t know anything about Thales, but yes Miletus”
Our trip to Miletus wasn’t direct. First we had another stop, another site: Priene.
After you have visited few places, you learn to recognise when there are aspects of interest to tourists. You notice the souvenir shops and cafes; the buses parked nearby, and if you still have doubts, the different languages being spoken around you finally confirm it. On that Thursday, two or three buses full of German tourists were in the museum car park. Fırat went to the box office and bought my ticket. Being a tour guide, he does not have to pay to get into most of the museums in Turkey. “Are you ready?” He asked. “Sure I am!”
What I did not expect was the stairs; so many that I lost count. It was hard, and when I got the top I was very much out of breath. Once I had recovered, I could focus on the scene laid out before me. The city was amazing. Priene has a long history. It is believed to have been rebuilt on the site of an earlier pre-Greek or Cretan city. An example of a planned city it had a rectangular layout. You can see this easily while walking through the ruins. My first impression was that it resembled a chess board.
The ancient city of Priene, is about 25 km from Miletus, and was part of the Ionic League. The city once overlooked the sea and was set on steep slopes and terraces rising to around 380 metres above sea level. But today, after many landscape changes, the ruins are inland. The city was famous for its art and architecture, and is estimated to have had around 4 to 5 thousand inhabitants.
Priene was divided in four districts: the political – consisting of the bouleuterion (council house, assembly house or senate house) and the prytaneion (the seat of the executive); the cultural district – containing the theatre; the commercial – agora (public space); and the religious – three famous sanctuaries were located there: the Temples of Zeus, Demeter, and the most important, Athena.
Fırat showed me other interesting aspect of life in Priene, like the VIP seats in the theatre, the water timer that he said served to warn those who were delivering speeches when their allotted time was about to run out. The acropolis was at the top of the mountain, and the idea that Priene was once a port started me wondering what it would have been like with the sea right there on its doorstep. Today, Priene is far from the sea, the main culprit for this being the Büyük Meandros River. Was the river, perhaps, jealous of the city’s success, and connived to separate it from the sea? I knew the real answer, sediments, erosion, etc., but I canromanticise, can’t I?
I left that place with a strange feeling that I had to return one day, to find answers to some of the questions that still lingered in my mind. In particular, how and why a city like this would become abandoned? What was Alexander’s role in the city? What languages did they speak? Why can we find Egyptian temples there? I was a pile of whys. But I bought some books, and post cards, and still had Firat to question.
Our next stop would be Miletus.
On our way to Miletus, we crossed a bridge, and Meadros River was there. Its dark water flowing to the sea, made me think about how, sometimes, strength comes from the small steps we make. We stopped to photograph the river, then followed to Miletus.
Miletus was an Ionic city, and is said to be related to the city of Milagros situated on the island of Crete. Hittite documents mention that the Kingdom of Ahhiyava, the location of which is still unknown, was founded in the region of Miletus. The city of Millavanda also mentioned in the same source is identified with Miletus, I don’t know where is the truth, but every time Firat said the word Miletus, or when I read the name, Thales and his theorem: “Straight parallel lines cut by transversals form proportional segments”, came to my mind. My question: was this really the town where Thales was born? Yes, it was. Thales was born in Miletus around 625 BC and is considered the first Western philosopher. Uneasy about the, then perceived, relationship between gods and men, he believed in another explanation of all he saw around him, and wanted to demonstrate that the world consisted of a primordial “material”. Today, we reflect his ideas in our concepts of the atom, fundamental particles, DNA…
It was another cold, grey day, but Firat was excited to get me to try something special before we explored the city. “You’ll love it. It’s pomegranate juice.” I took me some seconds to relate pomegranate and the fruit I knew – romã. I had eaten pomegranate before, but had never drunk its pure juice. I accepted. The juice was just delicious, and I pointed out to Firat that I had never seen a pomegranate so sweet and red, actually almost Bordeaux in colour.
Our first visit in Miletus was to the theatre. Seated there, I imagined Thales making speeches, or the crowds sitting on these very steps, watching dramas re-enacted. There was so much to see in Miletus. The city walls, the sacred gate – the south entrance to the city, the Byzantine citadel, the Herron (a monumental tomb), the caravernserai (shelters for caravans that were passing through), the Athena temple, the Faustian baths, and many others places (you can read about them in my book: Turkey – West to East).
There was some disappointment in my visit to the city, though. Maybe I was expecting a less-altered place, but the Persians, Byzantines, and Ottomans had all invaded and taken the city, changing its looks to suit their own agendas and cultures. Mentioning this to Firat, he said: “But you always say that change is inevitable, don’t you? What did you expect here?” He was right, we are forever changing in ourselves, and the world around us changes too.
After I had bought a book in the museum shop, I complained to Firat about how, on our journey, there had been a general lack of shops selling books. He replied: “There are bookshops, but I’ve just never stopped at them. Most tourists aren’t interested in books!”…But I was!
Now we were on our way to Yeni Hisar in the Söke district of Aydın province. Our principal target was the Didymaion. The word Didyamion means “TwinTemples” and there has been discussion over whether the town contained temples related to Artemis and Apollo, the twin gods. Recently, excavations going on along the sacred road, connecting Miletus and Didyma, have revealed the location of an Artemis cult, which suggests that the hypothesis was right; that the name, Didyma, originated from the existence of two temples: Didymaion and Artemision.
It was four thirty when we arrived in Didyma. It was cold, and a light rain was falling. There were many tourists, wandering here and there, some with tour guides with umbrellas and telling stories about the past; others, like me, walking, alone, between the ruins. (Firat was observing me cautiously, probably because my face was serious and I was silent). There were many reliefs portraying Medusa, and other gargoyles. The temple was gigantic, it was clear that whoever had begun the construction had the intention of impressing visitors (the peregrines). Firat commented that the Temple was never finished, even when the Roman emperors in the first and fourth centuries had tried, they didn’t succeed. You could see the differences in the columns – some were made of marble, other only coated in the material. I guess this temple was destined never to be complete!
The rain increased. I was very wet and cold, so Firat decided it was time to find a hotel. Didyma, the village near the temple, was a seaside resort in the summer, but totally abandoned in winter. Luckily, we found a hotel that accepted us. The room on the thirteenth floor overlooked the sea. The ocean was as grey as the sky – perhaps the twins Artemis and Apollo were angry because their temple wasn’t finished…