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xEurasia Odyssey

Ancient Caria, Turkey

TURKEY | Wednesday, 3 October 2018 | Views [600]

Coast near Mili National Park

Coast near Mili National Park

Key Archeological sites in Ancient Caria and neighboring areas

      The Ionian Coast of Turkey is famous for its crystal clear blue waters, lengthy tree-lined beaches, and hidden coves accessed best by boat.  On the coast as well as inland, there are both hidden and well-known treasures, such as Ephesus. Perhaps the most famous of the near coastal archeological sites Ephesus with the Artemision temple complex, the Seven Sleepers Cave, and Mother Mary’s House on Mt. Koressos, the mountain above the ruins, is visited by thousands of tourists from across the globe on a daily basis. People come from Istanbul on a one-day flight excursion, from the large cruise ships that dock in nearby Kusadasi, or by car from anywhere there are roads.  On my latest trip I saw Turkish plates from locals and rental car agencies in the parking lot, as well as license plates from the Netherlands, Germany, France, Italy, Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary. The main site is justifiably renown.  The façade to the famous library and the theater where St. Paul preached are in remarkably good condition and the Terraced Houses have recently been renovated complete with highly intricate mosaics. Walking the 2 km main path is a stroll through history.  The area was first inhabited, probably close to 4,000 years ago.  Hittite documents indicate tributes paid from people in the region, but the first real mention of a city was when the Persians captured the area. From the remains that now exist, these early periods have been lost into the sands and rocks.  What is visible starts from the Greeks through the Romans and Ottomans to the modern era. As is often the case, the later culture used the structures of the previous one to build their ‘new’ city so much of the architecture ancient Greek authors discuss has been destroyed.  New digital technology, however, makes it possible to see reconstructed images of what the temples, palaces, houses, and theaters would have looked like.  What we do not know is how they were painted.  What the images show are clean white structures, but scholars are fairly confident that most of the buildings and sculptures would have been painted. The pigments have eroded, though, so it is impossible to tell what colors were used where. A few years ago there was an exhibition in the Ephesus Museum in Vienna, where many of the artifacts from the site ended up, that showed what the sculptures might have looked like based on the remnants of a few flecks of pigmentation deep in the marble. They displayed vibrant deep yellows, blues, reds and some green so that they looked almost like Marvel Comic Strip figures rather than the serene cold white marble statues we recognize today. Our view of the past is clouded by what we can recover and what we can see; it is not necessarily a true image of what was. Yet, especially Ephesus teaches that the past is not a particular moment in time, but an on-going process.  The colors on a freshly painted sculpture might be in front of a fading or crumbling façade or vice versa. Usually, it is only after tragedy, such as when the Great Temple to the Goddess Artemis was burned down by someone who wanted his name to be forever remembered in the 4th C BCE, and who for that reason I will not name (but he can be Googled), that an archeological site is built at one particular point in time.

     Today, the Great Temple lies across the main highway from the coast to Seljuk, the modern town surrounding ancient Ephesus. It lies in a dip where the coast originally came up close to the temple itself. There are only a smattering of columns left and the outline of the temple’s layout. Many of the columns and stones were reused to build the Basilica of St. John and the neighboring Isa Bey Mosque, although there is evidence that the Great Temple was also used as a Church during the Byzantine period. Throughout the world there are certain sites that remain sacred regardless of which particular religion is in vogue.  This part of the Asia Minor coast has a number of such sites.  Ephesus is just the most famous.

      Easily accessible from Izmir, Ephesus or Kusadasi are some other impressive ruins that are definitely worth visiting. Magnesia is among the easiest to find as it lies directly on the Izmir-Aydin-Seljuk highway. The archeological site is split in two on either side of the main road.  The majority of the complex is on the western side which includes its famous large Artemision temple. This sacred structure was important to the development of construction proportions for sacred temple complexes as it was said to be the most beautiful and harmonious of all temples in Asia Minor. The temple to Artemis may be located on or near an earlier temple to Dindymene, the mother of the gods, in which the exiled 5th C Athenian Themistocles’ relative was a priestess.

     The entire ancient Lydian and Carian regions show evidence of ancient mother goddess worship cults with votiv figurines uncovered throughout the Ionian coastal area. The great goddess’ name and attributes changed over time, from Dindymene, Cybele and Artemis to split into particular aspects of her character as represented by Aphrodite and Athena. Many of the earlier temples in the region were dedicated to Artemis, then to Demeter, then to Athena, and towards the beginning of the Common Era Aphrodite vied with Athena for the most honored position. Many of these goddess temples were later converted into Marian churches before being completely abandoned or destroyed by later more heavily patriarchal traditions.

      Prien is most noted for its large hilltop Temple to Athena, which has some intact tall thick columns at the back facing the woods. The earlier Temple to Demeter is, unfortunately, completely overgrown and is almost impossible to find on the hillside, but the smallish theater and the woods setting make this a very nice site to visit.  What is particularly striking here, as well as at Miletus is the change in the geography since the sites were first constructed. They used to be port cities on the Maeander River and are now considerably inland. What is also striking about this site as well as many of the others is that the goddess sites, unless they still have very impressive columns or were especially important to the region’s history, are uncared for and left to be retaken by local vegetation.  The temples to Zeus, Dionysus, Apollo, i.e., to the male gods, are often in much better shape.  They also have more detailed records in the museums, while the goddess sites are often only referred to in passing or not at all. This is a subtle, but nonetheless very effective, way of distorting history for future generations.

      One of the best small local museums can be found just before the entrance to Miletus. The exhibition changes on a regular basis, so even though I had been there before, I was pleased to find new artifacts and displays. Especially informative are the chronological maps of the region showing the changes as the city morphed from a moderate trading post to a major port to its subsequent decline.  From the maps it is easy to see where the four main goddess temples were and when they were most in use, starting with the Temple to Demeter looking over the end of what was the bay inland, to the Temple of Athena on a hill across the port bay from the large theater, to the Temples to Artemis and Aphrodite on hills outside the city walls, both of which were worshipped here from about the 7th C BCE. Today it is quite difficult to discern which rocks represent which buildings even with a local map. The most easily recognizable structures are the huge theater that dominates the region and the Dionysian temple with the entrance to the sacred path to Didyma and its incomplete Temple to Apollo. While walking through the ruins of Miletus it is almost impossible to imagine all of the various cultures that inhabited these hillocks from the Neolithic through the Ottoman eras. Many of the leading Greek philosophers and politicians lived here, and the city was a main player in the politics of the known world from ca. the 7th C BCE to the 14th C CE. Today, that former glory is no longer. The weeds, scrub grasses and winds have taken their toll on the once grand structures.

      The archeological site at Didyma is really just the Temple to Apollo and a closed off section of the Sacred Path to Miletus. The Temple is quite impressive with huge columns jutting into the heavens and a large courtyard with its sacred well where the Oracle of Apollo was said to predict future events. Even though it was never completed, it is among the best intact of all the Ionian temples.  The Sacred Path was used for annual ceremonies when priests carrying artifacts and images of the gods from one site to the other along the broad white stone 17 km road. Some online travel sites suggest that it is possible to walk this path today, but in Sept. 2018, the road was closed to visitors. 

      During this last trip, I did not go back to Aphrodisias as there was no need to make that journey again.  It is, however, well worth mentioning here, for both the site and its excellent museum.  It takes a good day to do this area justice.  The complex itself is quite large and much of the Roman sections are in good condition.  The museum has the largest regional selection of especially Roman statuary anywhere in this area. While the site is named for Aphrodite, Dionysus, as well as Athena and Zeus, were also worshipped and a number of their marble images are on display inside the museum as well as throughout the complex.

      One of the smaller sites in the region is Euromas, which is just off the main road from Didim to Mugla. There is a sign at that site that states the Temple of Zeus Lepsynos is one of the best-preserved Roman temples in Asia Minor. The temple is a short walk from the parking lot back into the hills.  The site has a welcoming, homecoming feel to it that I found at odds with the temple itself.  This was until I realized that this was earlier a Mother Goddess worship site that the Romans converted to worship Zeus. There is no mention of the Mother Goddess on any of the current local placards, nor is there any mention of the indigenous peoples of the region prior to the Romans. It was only through a closer investigation of the geography, many goddess sites overlook a double knobbed hill with a dip between the knobs that are often thought of as breasts, and through an additional literature search that I was able to validate my first impressions. While this is a small archeological ruin, along with the temple there is an agora and a walkway, it is worth visiting if only for the Carian mountain landscape.

      While the region is dominated by the sea, and for centuries the only way to access the towns on the coast was by water, and inland by the rivers, the mountains form an impressive backdrop. One mountain in particular has shown evidence of continual human habitation on its rocky slopes from about 10,000 BCE.  Known today as Besparmak, ancient Latmos crowns the area around Lake Bafa. The lake was once a gulf of the Aegean, but the sea and Maeander River changed course and silted up, leaving the remaining water landlocked. The steep rocky mountainsides have been places of worship since people started roaming the area.  The Hittite Storm and Rain Gods lived on the top crest of the mountain; the ancient city of Latmos near the top was probably more a cult site than an actual long-term habitation as it was so difficult to access. The newer town of Herakleia, which the Greeks and Romans knew, borders the edge of the lake and was, therefore, much easier to get to for trading and commercial purposes. The remains of the agora, which is now an unpaved parking lot by the hillside Athena Temple where local women sell handmade jewelry, the theater and a number of Byzantine structures, including walls from a castle are all easily accessible.  The prehistoric petroglyphs and the Cave of Christ are best investigated with a local guide as there are no signs or real path to either. The Temple to Athena is at the top of a small hill overlooking the mountain.  The back wall of the temple faces the lake.  From her original position, the statue is long gone, the goddess would have looked directly at the top of Mt. Latmos, which like the Hellenic Olympia was the home of the gods.  Local legend said that this particular mountain was where the moon goddess Selene cast a spell on Endymion, a very attractive young man, so that he fell into a timeless sleep.  Each night she would come to kiss and caress him.  Keats’ poem “Endymion” is about this legend. Thomas Weelkes’ song supposedly in honor of Elizabeth I, “As Vesta was from Latmos Hill Descending,” also references the sacredness of the mountain:

 As Vesta was from Latmos hill descending,

she spied a maiden Queen the same ascending,

Attended on by all the shepherds’ swain,

to whom Diana’s darlings came running down amain,

First two by two, then three by three together,

Leaving their goddess all alone hasted thither;

And mingling with the shepherds of her train,

with mirthful tunes her presence entertain.

Then sang the shepherds and nymphs of Diana,

Long live fair Oriana!

Today shepherds still roam the mountain with their sheep even if they no longer sing praises to either the Queen or the Divine Feminine.  There is a timeless quality on the mountain, however.  Life goes on here has it has for millennia. While there are modern conveniences such as power and hot water, the basic elements of existence, and often subsistence here where hermits lived for years in caves, have not noticeably changed.  Herakleia on Lake Bafa and Latmos Mountain are special powerful yet serene places that hold cultural treasures which are only uncovered through patience and luck. They are filled with mystery and beauty.

     The Ancient Carian coast of modern day Turkey is filled with wonders, geological as well as archeological.  It is a special place, and one I hope to return to again and again.

Tags: cities, landscapes, off road, religious sites


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