Bookworm has a “Wow” moment in Ephesus

Wow!  Ephesus is a wow!  Or maybe an “Oh, my God!”

A former Greek and Roman port city near the modern Turkish port of Kusadasi (from roughly 300 B.C. to, very roughly, the 4th century), Ephesus is breathtaking. Although it lost its port through silt, had its buildings knocked down by an earthquake, was pillaged by locals for building materials, and was eventually covered by mud, archeological work over the past many years has revealed structures, carvings, mosaics and wall paintings. The Turkish government gets kudos for its careful excavation and for the way in which it has made these treasures, including the Terrace houses once occupied by the town’s wealthiest, accessible.

Of course, Ephesus isn’t interesting only because of the archeological marvels. It’s also a site of great historic interest. During the Roman era, it was the fourth largest city in the world, with a fixed population of 250,000, a full 90% of whom were slaves (or so our guide claimed).

The city’s wealth proclaims itself in the aforementioned Terrace houses, the three story library (of which the restored facade still remains), the marble EVERYTHING (quarried nearby), the elaborate carvings decorating just about every surface, and — get this! — the 48 seat public latrine, which used to boast a decorative fountain, beautiful mosaics, and an orchestra to mask embarrassing noises.  

But back to Ephesus’ historicity: Mary, mother of Jesus, retired (and died) there. St. John the Apostle lived and died there. And Paul of Tarsus lived there several times. His most famous sojourn in Ephesus occurred when he tried to use the giant amphitheater to preach the gospel to tens of thousands, only to be chased off the stage by the local silversmiths, who were afraid that Christianity would interfere with their profitable trade with pilgrims heading to the famous Temple of Diana (which no longer stands) (Acts, 18-20.)   You are familiar, of course, with his letters to the Ephesians, which still comprise important parts of the New Testament.

The port town of Kusadasi is an amalgam of East and West. As our guide reminded us, geographically, when we stand in Ephesus and Kusadasi, we stand in Asia — or, as they used to characterize it in the old days “Asia Minor.” The city is remarkably sophisticated and Europeanized in buildings, advertisement, the look of so many of the people and the wares sold, yet the vast marketplace near the port, except for bring immaculately clean, had the feel of a suk anywhere in the Middle East.

Actually, that last statement isn’t really fair. Aside from being clean, the marketplace was pleasant. The vendors were extraordinarily pushy, but they didn’t have that angry edge I’ve felt in the Arab suk (and that’s true whether I was in Jerusalem or Morocco).  When we stopped in a restaurant for lunch, not only was the food divine (I went back later for more of the garlic/dill/mint yogurt), the service was lovely too. Oh, and the price was reasonable for a delicious, healthy lunch in a clean environment.

On our tour, our guide, a pretty, very sophisticated young woman, was at pains to remind us that Turks are not Arabs but, instead, are “soft” Muslims, who drink, don’t pray five times a day, and have a secular government.  People are allowed to practice their religion freely, without state interference, so that there are Jewish and Christian communities intermingled with the Muslims.  Regarding the drinking, she said that, when other Muslims chastise Turks by telling them that that they are not allowed a single drop of alcohol, the Turks reply that, when they get their drinks, they dip their fingers in, flick out that single forbidden drop, and enjoy the rest of their drink in peace.

Even our guide conceded, though, that this relaxed attitude is more prevalent in Western Turkey than in the East, which is bounded by Syria, Iran and Iraq. She claimed, however, that 80% of the country is and enjoys being secular. The problem, she said, when someone mentioned Erdogan, the hard-line conservative leader who is trying to drag Turkey into the Muslim bloc, is that the liberals are “stupid.” In a parliamentary system, they are fragmented into too many small, competing, parties, which allows the conservatives, despite their smaller numbers, to gain a sufficiently large bloc to control government.

If she’s right, I hope the secularists get their act together. In a way, Turkey today reminds me of Iran in the 1970s. That too was a country with a liberal, sophisticated, secular society that failed to appreciate the growing ferocity of the Islamist theocrats in the country’s midst. Here, of course, because there’s no tyrannical Shah, there won’t be an explosive revolution.  Instead, there’ll just be a slow drip, which eventually turns into a full scale Islamic takeover. Fifteen hundred years of history, after all, show  that the Islamists NEVER give up.  None of this bodes well for Israel, against whom Turkey launched that disastrous flotilla and from which Erdogan now demands an apology for the death of Hezbollah killers in that same illegal attack against Israel’s sovereignty.