Night location: Selcuk, Turkey
Today we went on a private guided tour of the region around the ancient city of Ephesus. According to legend, in the late Bronze Age, the famed female warriors the Amazons founded the city which has moved in location three times due to flooding and the rising silt. The Aegean Sea is now 7km away from what was a coastal trading hub, but the new plain is fertile agricultural land ideal for fig, olive and peach trees.
We started on the Ayasuluk Hill at the Basilica of Saint John, which was built on the purported tomb site of the apostle John in the 6th century by the Emperor Justinian. Originally measuring 130 by 65 meters, in the shape of the cruciform with six Byzantine domes, much of the basilica was constructed using recycled marble from the Temple of Artemis and other disused pagan temples. A severe earthquake levelled it in the 14th century and was excavated and partially reconstructed in the 20th century up until 2006. The Baptistry was interesting with converts entering the pool from the west and leaving new born in the east.
The Ayasuluk Hill was surrounded by the Byzantines with defensive walls, and the impressive fortress at the top of the hill looms over the Basilica and the valley below. The sky was threatening to rain while we were inside the castle, but after a few spits, it cleared which was very fortunate.
Our next stop was the popular pilgrimage site of the Virgin Mary's house. Supposedly, she moved to this region after the crucifixion with the apostle John and lived here until her assumption to heaven. We were shocked at how many tour buses were here, but then it was Sunday morning, and a Catholic Mass, (in English) was taking place. The historical accuracy of this claim seems quite dubious, but evidently many people experience the sanctity of the divine here.
Lysimachus, a commander of Alexander the Great, founded the Hellinistic and Roman city that is visited as Ephesus today. It became one of the most important cities in the Mediterranean, and was the capital of the Roman province of Asia Minor with a population of 200,000 at its peak. It took us two hours to walk from the top of the city to the ancient port down the treacherously slippery marble streets, lined with fountains, shop fronts and columns. The Great Theatre which originally overlooked the sea and seated 24,000 people was impressive, but with its intricate facade, the Celsus Library was our favourite. A hub for learning, the Celsus Library was the third largest library in the ancient world and housed the second school of philosophy in the Aegean.
Unfortunately, there was a large cruise boat docked nearby so the streets were crowded with paddle waving, loud speaking tour guides leading their flocks around the major sights. We had chosen to add on a visit to the Terrace Houses which were a calm respite from the masses. Austrian archaeologists have excavated what are now known as six terrace houses that are fantastic examples of luxury Roman living during the 1st and 2nd centuries CE. Huge peristyle courtyards lined with Italian marble, bath complexes with running hot and cold water, and artfully decorated frescoed walls meeting intricate mosaic floors gave us a picture of the wealth in this city. The houses have been carefully conserved with the building of glass walkways over the original mosaic floors and the whole excavation zone was covered with a roof to protect it from the elements in 1999.
After leaving the crowds, we enjoyed a Turkish feast before being invited into 'Alladin's Cave', a tourismo trap that offered the finest Turkish rugs in the land. We politely sat through a demonstration drinking apple tea, before numerous carpets were rolled out for our 'no obligation' delight. David was particularly unimpressed with this part of the tour as he hates being conned into anything. In 2012 the Egyptians labelled him as Scottish due to him not spending enough money on their wares, and today Amber saw her Scottish husband once more! To be fair, the rugs were beautiful, particularly the silk ones, but God knows how much is a fair price for them. After turning down a rug for 2800 Euro (yes, Euro!), we walked away before being offered the final pitch at 1180 Euro! As you may imagine, we walked away from that price also.
Back on track, we concluded the tour with a stop at what was the site of the Temple of Artemis. Today only a lone reconstructed patchwork of a pillar stands where once the ancient wonder awed worshippers and travellers alike. Pliny the Elder described the temple as 'The most wonderful monument of Graecian magnificence,' as it was entirely constructed out of marble and featured at least 127 18.3 meter high Ionic columns. We walked around the scattered remaining pieces before returning to our hotel for a rest.
Tomorrow we leave the warm weather and head to Stockholm which is forecast to have a maximum temperature of 7 degrees. It will be a rude shock to go from the balmy Mediterranean temperatures, but we are excited to begin the northern part of our journey.