A Tale in Red: From a fortress to a waterfall. Meeting Cleopatra and the Aspendus legend.

“Come on, Heleny. We need to leave earlier today. Alanya is quite a long way off our planned route, but it’ll be worth it! Come on, Baby.”

There was that word again, ‘Baby’, I wasn’t anybody’s ‘Baby’, the word had bad connotations for me. Why? ‘Baby’ is someone who needs protection, a person not fit to do things by themselves. I’m not anybody’s ‘Baby’, nor a ‘Honey’, in fact, even the word ‘Dear’ is a bit too much for me. Heleny is perfectly sufficient – it’s my name, after all! Each of those polite or affectionate words carry a baggage that doesn’t quite ring true. So, that’s how I confronted Firat–just to see the mix of surprise and misunderstanding on his face. I finished my breakfast, took my luggage, and got into the car. My mood had become dark–He could “Baby offf!!” (Offfff, by the way, is a common word Turkish people used to express a feeling of boredom (ugh!) or when they become sad (to sight); but there is also another meaning, they use ‘offff’ to express happiness or amusement – similar to ‘wow’ in English). However, Firat always used ‘offf’ to show exasperation, and it was that  tone I tried hard to mimic…

“Alanya (Antalya) is 140 km from here, we should get there in about two and a half hours.” I nodded my head in agreement as if I accepted what he was telling me, but silently I thought: “Why so long?” In Brazil, São Paulo is 325km away from Ribeirao Preto and I could make it in 3 hours!” I turned my eyes for the distant horizon, the sun was bright and the air cold, the only option I had was to enjoy the ride. Without asking permission this time, I plugged the pen drive with my favourite songs into the car radio, and we hit the road. I asked Firat if the road was good, he said “Yes”. Then I relaxed and started to enjoy the tracks I had selected. It was Turkish music at that moment–to be exact: Tarkan, Öp. I wanted to sing along, but my preference only to do what I can do well made me keep my lips silent. However, this did not stop my body from dancing, and that annoyed Firat somewhat. “Good”, I thought!

Our destination, Alanya, was a beach resort city on the southern Turkish coast. Situated on a small peninsula projecting into the Mediterranean below the Taurus Mountains, Alanya was a place many Empires had desired to conquer and keep. The Ptolemaic, Seleucid, Roman and Byzantine Empires had left their marks on the city.

Archaeological studies of the Karain Caves indicate that the region has been occupied since the Palaeolithic era–as far back as 20,000 BC. The remains of a Bronze Age port (3,000 BC) have been uncovered; a tablet in the Phoenician language has been dated to 625 BC, and the site is mentioned in a Greek manuscript from the 4th Century BC. The first fortification of the city appeared in the Hellenistic period, but the town’s most frequent rulers were pirates!

The Turks gained control of the city in 1221 when the Seljuk Sultan, Alaeddin Kayqubad I, captured the town from the Armenians. Under Seljuk, the city saw a golden age and became the winter capital of his empire. New buildings were erected, including the citadel, the city walls, renal, and the Kızıl Kule–the Red Tower. Not only buildings, in fact, Alaeddin also constructed numerous gardens and pavilions outside the fortress, and many of his works can still be found in the area.

We arrived on a grey morning, the temperature wasn’t too cold, around 12º C. However, the strong wind made it feel a lot colder. Our first stop was at a café located in a Plato near the edge of a cliff. From there we could see the sea, the castle above the town, and the port.

It was a short walk to the castle. I had never visited a Seljuk castle and was interested to see if I could notice any differences. To my despoilment, the castle was in ruins. But the view from the top allowed me to understand the strategic position in which the citadel had been built. I was interested in a cave nearby, mainly because it is well known to people who suffer from respiratory problems–I am one–but Firat told me it was too far, too cold, and we had to move on in the direction our next stop.

“We’re always in a rush!” I complained. “At least tell me why the city is called Alanya.”

“First the castle. Even in though it is in ruins, you can see in Alanya part of a Byzantine church, Seljuk’s mosque, the baths, and some artefacts. Don’t you think it is interesting to see Hellenistic, Roman, Seljuk and Ottoman structures side by side?”

“I would really like a reconstruction, even a small model to understand the place better.”

“You can always buy a book….”

“And the caves?”

“They are 1 km from the city centre and are called the Cave Damlatas. The cave is beautiful, filled with stalactites and stalagmites, but its main feature is the constant temperature –22 degrees Celsius, regardless of the season, and the humidity at 90%, while it’s the radioactivity that is said to be beneficial to patients with asthma. It’s estimated that this cave was formed between 15 million and 20,000 years ago. But, as I said, there’s no time to see it.”

No time… Our next stop was Manavgat.

Manavgat is a city in Turkey but it wasn’t our destination. Firat was taking me to see the waterfalls on the Manavgat River. The river’s waters flow across a wide bed, and although there is only a fairly small drop, the water fighting against the rocks created a memorable scene. The green river and the white foam surrounded, in winter, by a dry and almost ghostly vegetation, made me remember other waterfalls, different in almost all respects from the one I was seeing now. Niigata Falls, and Iguaçu Waterfalls, both are majestic and powerful, falling into their canyons with a roar. They always sacred and amazed me. Manavgat, on the other hand, was like a painting made by someone who had never seen those other waterfalls.

The place when Manavhat Waterfalls are located is surrounded by tea gardens and small stores.

“Did you like that?” Firat had observed my reaction to the falls. His eyes showed that he did not understand my blasé behaviour when I had first seen the waters. I tried to explain that I had seen other places like that, and even more beautiful, so it wasn’t something new to me.

“But, did you like it?” He insisted.

“I did.”

On the road again, we were driving to Side. At the outskirts of the city and quite a long way from the ruins of the ancient city, a couple was asking for a lift to the city centre. Firat stopped–something I would never have done in Brazil. Our conversation followed the usual pattern of why we were there, and how long our trip would last. The couple, an Egyptian woman and an Arab man, were on honeymoon visiting Turkey and had heard about Side. Firat explained that we were working on a project together, a book.

Arriving in the city, we said goodbye. While the couple headed to visit the ruins, Firat and I found a restaurant.

Our lunch there was absolutely delicious. We ate Sac Kavurmasi, a mixture of meat, cheese, tomatoes and other vegetables. I loved the flavour and savoured each portion with pleasure. We also had yoghurt with cucumber; a kind of pate made with chilli paste and tomatoes; white rice (pilaf), French fries (an addition to cater for the tourists) and bread, a delicious bread. And to complete my happiness, the freshly squeezed orange juice was all I needed.

While we had our meal, Firat told me a little about Side.

‘Side’ is not a Greek word, meaning that the town was founded long before the Greeks arrived in the region. The word means pomegranate. The pomegranate is the symbol of fertility, so imagine how these lands are, full of life, colour, and people.

The town is wholly devoted to tourism, especially in the parts near the beach and the ruins. If you flew over in a helicopter, you would see a peninsula with a small bay at the tip–blue-green waters and the narrow sandy beach where Cleopatra used to swim. You can see many references to Cleopatra and pomegranates in the city. After lunch, çay and Firat’s cigarette, we headed to the Temples of Apollo and Athena, very close to each other. It’s always exciting to walk among ruins, and these near the sea, were breath-taking. Leaving the temples behind, we continued to the theatre, passing the fountain and parts of the city walls on the way. However there is much more to do in Side, it is a trip for two days… We had to do it in just a few hours. I concluded that, one day, I really want to deepen my knowledge of the city’s history.

We left Side to head for Aspendus.

In the city of Aspendus, there is the best preserved ancient theatre. The past wealth of the town has been evidenced by silver coins found in Side. Founded by settlers from Argus who came here after the Trojan War, Aspendus was regularly invaded by the Persians. Alexander the Great reached the city but struck a deal. However, the people decided not to honour the agreement. They thought Alexander would not return once he had agreed to leave Aspendus behind while he went on to Perge and then Side. Unfortunately for Aspendus, Alexander did return and conquered the city.

In 129 AD, Aspendus became part of the Roman Empire and was sacked by Roman political Verres. The city is thought to be the birthplace of the philosopher Diodoros, despite not having any information about the kind of philosophy that he propounded.

We arrived in an open car park, next to the theatre entrance, where a camel was being used to provide a prop for photographs. I don’t like animals been treated as things, and I told Firat that, but he just laughed. One more point of dispute to endure when back in the car…

We entered the theatre, and a wave of images from the past spread over me. The stage, full of actors; a politician making a speech; people coming to the stalls around to buy food and to watch a new play. “It’s magical.” Firat looked at me smiling. “It is, isn’t it? And there is a legend linked to this theatre.” Of course, there was! Firat began to tell me:

“The king of Aspendus had a beautiful daughter, Belkis. Because of its predicates, Belkis had many suitors in the city. The king decided that he would give his daughter’s hand to the artist who could produce the most beautiful work. Many were the works submitted, but two stood out: one was the aqueduct which the king considered to be highly relevant and important to the city and the other was the theatre.

The king was visiting the theatre when he heard a voice saying ‘the king’s daughter will be mine …’ This intrigued him because there was nobody anywhere near him. He then looked across the theatre and saw the man who was responsible for building it, speaking quietly. This proved the perfect acoustics of the theatre. The king then said that, while the aqueduct that brought water fed the body, it was the theatre that fed the soul. And he gave his daughter’s hand to the guy who built the theatre. “

Of course, there are countless versions of the legend. In one, the man who lost the hand of Belkis jumped from the top of the theatre and died. In another, the king was torn between the two suitors and ended up splitting his own daughter in half. I prefer the first version. And you?

We left the theatre and headed for the aqueduct. The sun began to descend, and the images were just beautiful. There, beneath the shadow of the enormous structure, women were selling handicrafts and pomegranate juice. I recovered my energies there, having a glass of pomegranate juice with the sun hidden behind the aqueduct, and dreams dancing in front my eyes, some I had never even previously realised were there.

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