A glimpse of history

Turkish delight

A glimpse of history

A land of ruins that gave birth to modern Turkey, Izmir is one of the oldest Mediterranean settlements. Preeti Verma Lal collects memories of the past

The path to the Odeon was flanked by carved beefy stone columns. Its podium higher than the orchestra section; the stage two-storied, the doors opening into the podium and the roof wooden. In the ancient city of Ephesus, I set foot on the roughly-hewn stone steps and got beamed into 10 BC, when the oracle of Delphi turned into reality and Androclos, the prince of Athens-Kodros, settled Ephesus in western Anatolia. The seats of Odeon were vacant, its acoustics hushed. I close my eyes and the olden hum of a choir drone in my ears. The onomatopoeic sounds of the horses’ hooves reverberate in the alley and purr of the senators discussing the affairs of the city cram the air. Odeon lay at the heart of the ancient city of Ephesus, now one of the largest Roman ruins outside of Pompeii spread in the Turkish province of Izmir.

Old & new

“Izmir was one of the oldest settlements in the Mediterranean Basin. The Celsus Library in Ephesus was the third largest in the world. The first church dedicated to Virgin Mary was built here. The first advertisement of Antiquity showing the way to a brothel is on the Marble Street. There’s a public toilet where people sat side by side with no partition. Before the rich nobles used the toilets, their slaves sat and heated toilets’ seat for their masters...,” Altug Dayioglu, the Turkish guide, was rattling off countless did-you-knows, but my mind was trapped in an advertisement, on the etching of a left foot and a heart speckled with dots that lay on a sidewalk not too far from the library. No one corroborates whether it was an invitation to the brothel, but the excavation of a peristyle house on the corner of Marble and Curetes Street with a statue of Priapus with oversized phallus creates the buzz that Ephesus did have a brothel. 

However, what takes the breath away in Ephesus is the Grand Theatre, perhaps the most magnificent structure amidst the crumbling walls and mutilated statues. Constructed in the Hellenistic period, the theatre could seat 25,000 and was the largest in Anatolia. The commoners could perch on the 66 stone rows while the Emperor and nobles had seats with marble backs. The monumental structure was used for concerts and plays as well as for gladiators and animal duels.

Beyond the Roman ruins in Izmir province lies a wonder. One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. In the Temple of Artemis, probably the world’s first temple made of marble. Built in 550 BC, the temple also known as the Temple of Diana was rated by Antipater of Sidon as the most glorious of the seven wonders. Sadly, nothing remains of the temple. Just a marble column standing lonesome in a swamp. 

Izmir is not only about the past. Turkey’s modernity began somewhere here. After World War I, the first battle cry for independence was made in Izmir. In the Konak Square, where stands the elegant 112-year-old Clock Tower. The Square, which once reverberated with the cry of freedom fighters, now rings with the noisy cooing of thousands of pigeons. The bullets have fallen silent, but the red flags with Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s photographs still find several takers. In the pigeon-packed square, freedom is a forgotten word, what you hear is the hollering of cragged women selling bird feed for a lira. 

Culture curry

Walk the overbridge painted in vibrant colours and the port with ancient houses and palm-fringed seaside cafés wake up to life. The Konak Pier is magnificent. Designed by Gustave Eiffel, it is replete with low stone buildings and steel/glass coverings. Hugging the Aegean is the Kordon, a seaside promenade where lazy men throw baits for mackerels and bass and women sit by the sea, eat simit, sip Turkish tea and play backgammon. Turkey’s third most populous city is a far cry from the nation’s traditional orthodox image. No wonder ‘Infidel Izmir’ is the epaulette that this progressive city proudly wears on its puffed chest. 

It was not in Konak Square that I last saw the Ataturk, Turkey’s first president. In Turkey, Ataturk is everywhere. So ubiquitous is his presence that it is often referred to as the world’s longest personality cult. In 2012, The Economist wrote that Ataturk’s personality cult “carpets the country with busts and portraits of the great man.” But no where is it more colossal than in Izmir. By the ancient Roman aqueduct, he lords from atop a hill, his bust carved out of a dark mountain. Look unto him and you notice the hair combed back, the eyes deep-set, the hint of a laughter line, the tie knotted perfectly and no creases on his blazer. So animate is the sculpture that you almost wait for the Ataturk to whisper his famous quote: How happy is the one who says ‘I am Turk’. 

In Izmir, I flitted between centuries and collected memories and moments. Of an era sepia with age and remembrance. Of martyrs who vowed to die for freedom. Of Romans who lived in glory and opulence. Of the white flour dough with which an old woman taught me to roll flat bread. Of the aroma of heady Turkish coffee that wafted in the historical covered Bazaar. Of the dry maple leaf that I picked from the Basilica of Virgin Mary. In Izmir, I collected dirt on my black boots. In Swissotel, I sat on a high leather chair, put my feet on the brass stand where Egodan Guliyeri, the shoe-shine man, had countless vials of boot polish. He can shine any drab shoe bright. I felt like an old-world Turk. I left the dirt behind in Izmir. I brought home the maple leaf. And the yearning to return to Izmir. 

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