Ephesus – Efe in Turkish – is pretty much all,about antiquity. We arrived in nearby Selçuk the evening and went for a stroll to a huge field strewn with pediments, capitals and an occasional intact column, with a pool of stagnant water taking up perhaps a third of the area. This was once the Temple of Artemis, one of wonders of the ancient world. A solitary man trailed us, repeatedly offering a Jacob’s ladder of postcards for one Turkish lira. The stroll also took in the fort-like church of St John. The story is that it was here that St John the Evangelist brought the Virgin Mary, and here that her Assumption into Heaven (if you’re a Catholic) or Dormition (if you’re Orthodox) happened. This was all of interest, but my interest, and I don’t think I was the only one of our predominantly Australian group, was more immediately engaged by the storks nesting on pillars and the remains of an ancient aqueduct. We’ve all seen plenty of ruins but storks are fairytale creatures.
A short ride in a van took us to Ephesus early next morning, where we wandered among the best preserved ancient city in Turkey, one group among many being treated to a tourist-rated version of the history. It was odd wandering through these streets, making our way through the roofed and enclosed terrace houses being painstakingly restored by Austrian archaeologists, of what was once an actual town, and realising that this was the local habitation of cultural phenomena that have always been pretty much abstractions to this colonial mind: Diana of Ephesus, the Ephesians of Paul’s epistle, the Amazons, even reputedly the Virgin Mary in old age.
It was incredibly hot among all the marble of Ephesus, and that afternoon we snoozed in our air-conditioned rooms or went to a swimming pool with, I’m told, a fabulous view. I struggled up after a couple of hours to visit the Archaeological Museum, for more wandering among antiquities, among them three statues of the Artemis of Ephesus – that’s the one whose most striking feature is her large number of grapelike breasts, but who also has the signs of the Zodiac around her neck and strings of creatures on her legs. She’s a weird figure, all the weirder for being surrounded by marble statues that are clearly rpresent actual individuals, from a huge head of Emperor Domitian to life-sized busts labelled ‘A man’.
Am I right in thinking that this was the place where the cult of the Virgin Mary had its beginnings? When the Artemis-worshippers arrived here they blended their virginal hunter goddess with the local fertility goddess (Cybele?), so that only here is Artemis /Diana seen as a fertility goddess. Then when Christianity arrived, she transmogrified into the new virgin-mother figure, so the converts to the new religion found ways not to abandon the female principle that had such meaning or them. These are the ruminations of one who was pretty devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary as a Catholic child in Queensland. Them Ephesians sure cast a long shadow.
Of course I’m not the only one to notice that divine women are big in Ephesus. Here’s a snap of an array of them on a stall next to one selling ‘authentic fake watches’ just outside the city exit:
That night, in the comparative cool, we drove to the hill town Sirinçe for dinner. This was a Greek village until the mid 20s ‘population exchange’ in which, as part of a peace settlement after Greece invaded Turkey, something like 1.3 million Greeks and half a million Turks were uprooted and (cough!) returned to their own country. So we visited the remains of the Orthodox Church of St John the Baptist, which is in the process of restoration by a US organisation. The current population inherited vineyards and olive orchards and had to learn from scratch how to tend them. They seem to have done brilliantly – copious. olive oil and brightly labelled wine was for sale.
We had a pleasant dinner. Perhaps it was no coincidence that conversation at my end of the table turned to gender studies. And as we rode down the hill in the dark our driver turned the radio up loud for a Turkish version of Whitney Spears singing ‘I will always love you’.
iPadded on the train to our next destination.