Virgin Mary, an astonishing theatre, and some clothes.

Countless religions have been born and died since the first civilisations embraced the idea of a creator. No place has more reminders of different religions than Anatolia. All the Greek gods roamed there, in the mountains, or on the shores, playing games with the mortals. Hittites, Persians, Romans – the gods of many, blessed and cursed those lands, tinting each corner with hope and r despair. Not only ancient religions flourished in Asia Minor, the three-major monotheistic of our time: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – the Abrahamic religions – can trace their origins back to the plains and valleys of Anatolia.

Have been born in a Christian country, most people expect that I would have a deep knowledge of the religion. Firat was no different, questioning me on everything I knew about Christ and Mary. I disappointed him when I explained that I wasn’t a believer. Either religion or god had tried to silence my reason and make me see the world with eyes other than those of science, logic and facts. Rolling his eyes, Firat told me I would change my mind in the future. I answered that he’d better stay seated, because nobody had won that game with me so far. “They aren’t me.” was his answer! Now it was my time to roll my eyes.

It was a warm winter morning, and we were on the road to visit one of the most famous archaeological sites in Turkey, Ephesus. I had read about the ancient city – trying to picture how people had lived there, and now I was about to see if my imagination had come close to the reality.

It was a surprise when the car took a different direction and headed up a hill. When we reached the top it was possible see the blue sea waving and sparkling in the sunlight. Firat then told me the reason we had come here. “This place is called Mary-Panaya Kapulu or Mary’s House…” His voice became more solemn, “…and there is a story behind it. Catherine Emmerich was a nun who bore Christ’s stigmata and although she had never visited Ephesus, she had a vision and accurately described to the writer Clemens Brentano, the place where the Virgin Mary would have lived after the crucifixion. After the death of Catherine in 1884, only in 1891 did Paul, the Superior in the order of Lazare’s in Izmir, read about the story of Catherine, and found a small building that matched the nun’s vision. Archaeologists have dated the current main structure as being from the 6th century AD, but its foundations are from the first century AD. ”

It’s interesting how we can always find something to confirm our beliefs. I never found enough proof in all texts I read to consider that Jesus was a real person – I always thought of him as a fictitious combination of different men who fought against the cruelty, unfairness, and selfishness of the Roman authorities; a rebel, maybe driven by love, or by some personal belief. To me, Mary was another mythical figure; an idea used by the religious leaders of the time to establish control and to subjugate women more and more.

Firat was expecting some comment from me, but I preferred to let him continue. “Mary and John had left the city soon after the crucifixion to avoid Roman persecution. John brought her to Ephesus, but as the city had pagan customs, these were rather inappropriate to the mother of Jesus! Thus, John would have built this house away from the town.” I listened to his words with respect, but none of them changed my perspective on the Jesus myth. However, on this occasion, I did not say anything about my own convictions; I preferred collect information, simply asking questions to make Firat think.

The house called Mary’s House was now a chapel, consecrated in name of the Virgin Mary. It was both a Catholic and Muslim shrine located on Mount Koressos near Ephesus. The house is not large, it’s made of stones, and similar to others built in the Apostolic Age. A small stage was mounted in the garden, which important religious and political leaders use to speak to believers. The gardens were modern, with flowers (even in winter), birds, and the kind of respectful silence you typically find in ‘sacred’ places. A fountain, outside, is source of water that is considered blessed and is as visited as the chapel itself. Entering the ‘house’ you can see a room with an altar and the Virgin Mary’s image. To the right is another room, the place where people think Mary once slept. The interesting thing about this room is that, in some legends, it is claimed that the water from the fountain outside also runs through it. You can only photograph inside with authorisation. Walking outside, Firat pointed me towards a shrine called the ‘wishing wall’ where people left requests written on paper or fabrics.

Firat thought my silence while visiting the site was a bit awkward. “Normally you‘re very talkative!” he said, observing my reaction. I told him, religion was a topic I preferred discuss calmly, and pointed out that (I had consulted google) neither archaeologists, nor the Catholic Church had pronounced about the authenticity of the site. Firat’s comment was typical: “Religion is not about facts, but about belief. If you try to use logic, you’ll get nowhere.”

We left Mary’s House and headed in the direction of Ephesus. We made one more stop on the way, at a golden statue of Mary, in the middle of the road. While Firat photographed the statue, I admired Ephesus in the distance.

Until now, most of the sites I had seen were in the mountains, or spread in valleys and on hillsides. Ephesus was a bit different. The ancient city was once near the sea, squeezed between the brown-green mountains and the blue Aegean Sea. Today, the sea is 8km away from the city.

As I entered the city I was impressed by the size of the buildings. The first building I saw was the Baths of Varius, from the 2nd century AD. Then, there was a vast square and the Agora where trading used to take place in Ephesus. The Agora was built in the 3rd century BC, but the remains we can see are from 211 – 217 CE (reign of Caracalla).

Walking around the site, the next remains were of the Nymphaeum of Trajan, built by Claudius Aristion between 102 and 114 AD, and dedicated by him to the Roman emperor Trajan. When it was erected the building was impressive and adorned with numerous statues: Aphrodite, Dionysus, the satyrs, and the imperial family. In the centre, there had been a gigantic statue in marble of the emperor Trajan himself.

Going a little further we found the Temple of Hadrian. It was dedicated in the year 138 AD by P. Quintilius Gallery to the emperor, who was still alive at the time. This temple seemed to possess a kind of private character, with structural characteristics that made it unique. It should have been magnificent in its day, as a small and rare jewel, but in the same city, there was also a massive temple dedicated to the cult of Hadrian.

One of the buildings that interested me the most was the Celsus Library. Its construction was ordered by T. Julius Aquila in 110 AD in honour of his father, Celsus Polemeanus. The building is one of the best preserved at the site. The library contained a huge number of documents, rivalling the libraries of Pergamum and Alexandria, the largest then in existence.

As I walked, observing the many parts, in my mind’s eye I tried to reconstruct the ruins into their past glory. I liked to imagine the people walking past, going shopping, the children running through the streets and animals crossing back and forth.

Right then, Fırat told me: “I’ll take the car over near the other entrance, and I’ll pick you up from there. Can I leave you here alone for a bit? Just follow this path, and get some pictures of the theatre and then the church, it stands a little back from the main road”. He always doubted my orientation ability – is that a man thing? Having previously travelled quite extensively on my own, naturally, I would do what he was asking me. I was eager to see the theatre because I knew it was one of the largest remaining from the ancient world.

Moving as if walking in my dreams, I headed towards Ephesus’ Theatre. I turned on my iPod and let the Linkin Park album, ‘A Thousand Suns’, play…. Climbing through what once was where the audience sat, I went to the highest point allowed. Far from the stage, and from the other people in this world, I just took my seat there, observing all the grandiosity of Ephesus. What amazed me more, was our capacity to destroy and rebuild, century after century. We’re still doing that now, with our lack of acceptance and understanding of differences, the outdated notion of race, and our no ending wars. All these is counterpointed by our capacity to help others in moments of crises, concerns about the environment, and the will to overcome our own limitations

I stayed there contemplating the theatre, mesmerised, considering the human race, and listening to music for twenty minutes to half an hour. Following Firat’s instructions, I photographed the place before moving on towards the church, wondering if Firat had already returned. Distracted by the beauty of the place, I didn’t notice Fırat seated on a rock waiting for me. I only became aware of his presence when he called my name.

I will not dissect Ephesus in this post. I have left that for my book, where I tell the legend about the settlement of the city, and its connections with one of the seven wonders of the ancient word, and the Book of Revelations.

It was almost three in the afternoon, so we decided to have lunch. My meal was meat skewers, with flat bread, salad, and a drink of ayran. While having our meal, we talked about Ephesus: what is considered the first advertisement pointing to the brothel, and the another one, next to the market. The brothel with a subterranean connection with the library. The Roman bath with their ‘toilets’… All those stories, sites, and impressions were on my book.

After we had finished our meal, we went to ‘Naturel’, a company that made leather goods (coats, jackets, bags). Their sales process is fascinating. Tours are first directed to a site where there is a fashion show. Young, attractive models show off the different articles in an enjoyable way. During the show, they invite people to participate. It was interesting to see how the Koreans behaved in this situation. Laughing, enjoying themselves without any trace of shyness. When the show ended we were led to the store. There were high quality items at prices that reflected that quality. Firat was a bit disappointed that I didn’t buy anything. I am not a very compulsive consumer, and leather is not my thing.

Tired, we went to our hotel, knowing that the next day would be a day off from travelling, allowing me to write, organise my photos and have some time for myself; but not alone. Firat would be there throughout Asking me about what I was writing, how I had organised the photos…

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