Spa village Pamukkale

The village of Pamukkale is shaped entirely by tourism. This is historically accurate, since it is the successor to the Greek spa resort of Hierapolis, whose business continued into Byzantine times. When we checked into our hotel in the early afternoon, we were just the most recent of a stream of tourists dating from the the second century BCE. I don’t know how the early visitors traveled to this place, but we’d spent longer on the road than we’d imagined by trusting more to GoogleMaps than road signs. One wrong direction had cost us almost an hour of extra travel. So we had a late lunch of gözleme and lentil soup (the Turkish equivalent of alu paratha and dal).

The balcony of our room looked out on the white limestone cliff which gives its name to the village (pamuk means cotton, and kale means fort). We sat in the pleasant warmth of our balcony, lined with roses, and looked out at the cliffs. It was too warm to walk up there. In fact the warmth was making us feel a little dozy. “Do you want an afternoon nap?” I asked The Family. “No, I might oversleep. Why don’t we walk around the village?” That was a easy suggestion to fall in with. We needed to get some bottles of water too.

The village was clearly built on the tourist trade. On our drive we’d passed through a couple of other small villages, and the back roads of Pamukkale looked exactly like them. A mosque stood among little shops and small clumps of houses, with washing hung out in the sun to dry. It was early in Ramazan, so the warm afternoon was very quiet. I suppose you tend to rest, if you can, while on a fast. Closer to the main road, all the restaurants and shops were open for tourists, although there were very few. We found our bottles of water and made our way back to the hotel.

The pool at the front of the hotel had warm water from the spa. A little garden at the back separated the hotel from the house where the owner lived. I’d noticed earlier that the kitchen was in the house, and our waiter had gone through a single door in the separating wall, with the painting that you see above, to convey our order to the cook, and to bring our food back. It was time to have a çay (pronounced chai) before leaving for the springs.

Visiting an Oracle

When we stood in the ruins of the “new” temple to Apollo in Didyma, I wondered how old the Oracle of Didyma was. I couldn’t find a clear answer. The “archaic temple” was built in the 8th century BCE, and the oracle is known to precede the appearance of Greeks in this area. Since there were settlements in this region from Neolithic times, and little written history comes down to us from before the Greeks, you can pick your favourite date out of about 10000 years.

The new temple can be dated rather well, however. After the destruction of the archaic temple in 493 BCE by Persians, the removal of the bronze statue of Apollo to Ecbatana, and the drying of the oracle’s well, the cult of Apollo fell into disuse. Alexander visited Didyma after his conquest of Miletus in 331 BCE, and found that the oracle’s well was full again. Seleucus Nicator I brought back the statue of Apollo in 300 BCE, after which the construction of the new temple started. The architects were Daphnis and Paionios (the latter famous for building the temple of Artemis in Ephesus).

The plan was too grand for the engineering skills of that time. The temple was never finished. The base is rectangular, with sides of length 120 meters by 25 meters. Two rows of pillars were supposed to surround the inner temple, making 122 pillars in total. Only 72 of these were ever built, and even among those, several were not completed. Work proceeded for two centuries, then stopped and resumed only in Roman times. A row of Medusa heads was added to the architrave during this later period.

The Family and I walked around the ruins. The sun had started dipping, and the light was brilliant, just perfect for the numerous sculptures (click on the gallery for detailed views) which can still be seen in the ruins. The Medusa heads were the most recent, dating from Roman times. But the sculptures of Nike, bull’s heads, and Gryphons (a Persian touch?) were probably among the earliest. We kept in mind the little sign that we saw on one of the walls (featured photo) and clamped down on the very strong urge to scratch our names into the stone. If you see Khanewala loves Family scratched inside a lop-sided heart on Apollo’s walls, it is not something that we have done.

A doorway in the wall led into a sloping corridor through the massive walls of the sanctuary into an inner courtyard. The narrow corridor slopes down fairly steeply. I wondered why. It looked like a slope down which cattle could be easily herded. Were there animal sacrifices inside? Animal sacrifice was common in ancient Greece (as in other Indo-European civilizations of that time, including Persia and India) but the sacrifices were usually made outside the sanctuary, and there was no tradition of mass sacrifice. Each killing was treated as a major event, full of mystical rites, and ending in the division of the meat between participants. It is thought that such ceremonies were the source of most of the meat eaten in those days.

The inside of the temple is enormous. We walked up to the oracle’s well and peered in to see that the water table is fairly high today. Standing next to the well at the northern end of the rectangular space, I took the photo which you see above. The far end of the area has steps. It is possible that people sat there and waited for the oracle’s response. There was an inner sanctum built around the well and the statue of Apollo. So actually this inner arena could have been used for sacrifices, and the narrow sloping corridor could have been used to lead a bull in. The other opening in the wall was a much wider corridor.

After spending some time inside, we took the other corridor out and spent some time looking carefully at the bases of missing pillars. These bases seemed to have been individually decorated. Each one was different. Since the temple was constructed over many centuries, some of these differences probably reflect shifting aesthetics. Do some of the differences also reflect individual choice? Unfortunately writing had not yet become so common two thousand years ago that everyone would record their thoughts and feelings, so many of these questions cannot be answered.

We walked slowly around the temple, first stopping to admire the single standing column on the south-eastern end. From close up this column, almost 20 meters high, looked very impressive. There are disks of stone stacked up very precisely over each other. These were the tallest columns attempted by Greek architects. I’m unable to read or translate classical Greek, so I did not attempt to trace down the inscription which says that each column cost 40,000 drachmas. For comparison, an estimate of the daily income of a person working at this site is about 2 drachmas (this would have changed over centuries, since there is evidence of inflation and deflation of currency in Greek and Roman times).

We admired the scroll-work on the capitol of the standing column. As once expects in this region, after Alexander’s time, the columns are Ionic. A board at the entrance had told us that in some of the columns in the front these volutes on the capitals were replaced by heads of Zeus and Apollo. We did not see them in the sculptures displayed at the site. Walking around to the north brought us to an impressive sight (photo above). One of the completed columns has toppled. Each of its constituent disks was higher than me, so they are somewhat over two meters in diameter, and about a meter in height.

Looking out on from the eastern (back) porch of the temple one sees a line of cafes and restaurants around this place. My favourite was the Oracle Pansion. We’d spent more than an hour inside, and The Family agreed that it was time for a coffee.

The Sacred Way

The drive from Miletus to Didyma is short. The distance is about 20 kilometers by today’s roads. We’d started from Kusadasi in the morning, driven through a gap between Mount Mykale (today’s Samsun Dağı) and Mount Thorax to Söke, turned along Mount Mykale to Priene, and then followed the highway across a flat land full of fields to Miletus. Two thousand and eight hundred years ago, this flat landscape between Priene and Miletus was a finger of the Aegean sea. Alluvial deposits from the Meander river (today’s Büyük Menderes) have filled in this sea over millennia, leaving the fingertip of Bafa Gölü as an isolated lake cut off from the Aegean. As a result what was once a peninsula with Miletus on the northern shore and Didyma on the southern, is now just a hilly landscape (featured photo) in the last leg of the drive from Söke to Didyma. How much more difficult would have been Alexander’s campaign against Miletus when he was camped in Priene!

The temple of Apollo in Didyma is ancient. There are writings from the 5th century BCE which describe this as a much older tradition. Equally old is a pilgrimage route between Miletus and this temple. Olivier Rayet discovered part of a paved route which he called the Sacred Way, and hypothesized the remainder of the pilgrimage. Theodor Wiegand later went so far as to identify specific features of the landscape with rituals which are mentioned in texts. Wiegand’s way lies closer to the hill called Akron than today’s road, but runs parallel to it after the lovely bay (photo above) along which modern day town of Mavişehir spreads. The local government has opened a hiking path following this century-old reconstruction.

Modern day reconstructions have used computer models of changing landscapes and reconstructed likely paths based on the segments of road which have been uncovered, and reached drastically different conclusions. The main modern idea is that since the topography of the area changed appreciably over the centuries when the temple was in use, the sacred way was remade several times. In particular, there was never a part of the road which came as close to the coastline as today’s highway. This was partly because the coastline was always in flux, but also because an alternative stable route through a valley was available. Wiegand’s way is then as mythical as flying pigs. But then, why do drivers in this peninsula have to watch out for pigs?


If my trip to Turkey taught me anything, it was the single most visible difference between a Greek and a Roman amphitheater. Greek amphitheaters are built into slopes of mountains or hills, whereas the Romans built them as free-standing structures. The amphitheater in Miletus (featured photo) is therefore clearly built during Roman times. When you begin to explore the structure you realize that nothing that old is so simple. What we see today is the Roman era rebuilding of the theater, after later Byzantine works were removed by 19th century archaeologists. There is a little hill at the back into which the earliest Greek theater was built.

Theaters were largely used for watching games in Greek and Roman times, much like today. I thought for a moment that the relief sculpture near the entrance (photo above) showed gladiatorial fights. But when I looked closer it seems that they are more heroic than that. It is not unlikely that gladiatorial fights were staged here, but there were possibly more uses to the arena.

We saw scattered stones bearing sculpted decorations, and much writing in Greek. Even in the Roman era, the language of this region continued to be Greek. I suppose that this constant linguistic friction between the east and west of the empire was at the root of many problems, including the Great Schism of the later part of the millennium. We should really have taken some time to examine the graffiti on the seats in the theater, but I felt too lazy for that. While The Family climbed up the tiers of seats, I looked for a way into the structure.

It wasn’t hard to find. The theater seated 15,000 people, so orderly flow of spectators must have been a design concern. I climbed into the corridors behind the seats and found them in a remarkable state of preservation. It was easy to walk right around the theater, climb up and down different levels. Eventually The Family abandoned her climb through the seats and joined me in the shaded corridors. The sun was warm, but it was quite pleasant inside the massive stone structure. This area is the delta of the ever-shifting Meander river (today called the Büyük Menderes). In the earliest times the seats of the theater faced the harbour of Miletus.

We eventually reached the top level of the theater and could look down at it. At the center of the immense semi-circle, four columns marked the place where the emperor would sit. One can also see the ruins of the Skene, the building behind the stage, very clearly from this vantage point. Hidden behind the far wall of seats is the remains of a Seljuk eta caravanserai which has been converted into a restaurant. We’d had a relaxed lunch there, and met up with a group of British birdwatchers who told us stories of seeing Dalmatian Pelicans beginning to nest nearby. The Family and I instantly marked this area down as a possible birding destination.

If you look at the featured photo again you will notice fortifications on top of the theater. We were now at a level where we could go out and look at them (photo above). This is a Byzantine era fortress raised during the times before the Turkish invasion. The walls of this fortress ran down to the stage, and were removed when the theater was restored. It is said that a military post was raised at this place earlier in 411 BCE by the Persian Satrap Tissaphernes after he conquered Miletus.

From the top one could also see Ilyas Bey’s mosque, erected in 1404 CE to celebrate the safe return of his wife after being captured by Timur’s army. The dome and the mosque seem to be in good repair, but the rest of the complex, the old Madrassa and the baths, are in ruins. The caravenserai buildings that we’d had our lunch in is also attributed to the same Ilyas Bey, emir of Mentese.

We found our way down through the tunnels used by spectators in the Roman times, and exited through the ruins of the Skene. The wildflowers of spring were everywhere and we stopped many times to take photos. In our times this part of the Aegean coast is beautiful in spring. The weather would have been warmer during the time of the Roman empire, and significantly cooler during the Greek period. I wonder what wildflowers could be seen in those days.

Pigeon Island

It was a windy afternoon as I strolled on the sea face next to the Ataturk Bulvari in Kusadasi. When The Family proposed visiting Pigeon Island, my inclination was to go back to the hotel and have a long hot coffee instead. So this story of Pigeon Island comes from her. The Island contains a sea fort which dates from the 16th century CE, when the Ottoman empire was vying with other European powers for control of the Mediterranean. The walls around it were built in the 19th century. A causeway joins the island to the shore, and it is studded with piers.

This is part of the port of Kusadasi, which, after the decline in commerce in the 19th and 20th centuries, has regained some importance as a port of call for tourist ferries plying the Greek islands. We’d seen these immense ferries come and go. At the time that The Family visited the island, none of these giants were moored there. That made it easier to take photos of the small two-masted sail boats moored at the piers on the causeway. In our search for things to do around Kusadasi, we didn’t come across the possibility of hiring sailboats.

Barbaros Hayreddin Pasha, whose statue can be seen in the fortress, was the Ottoman admiral whose victories gave the Ottoman empire its dominance in the Mediterranean during most of the 16th century CE. He was also instrumental in forging an alliance with France. even in a history filled with great navigators and admirals, his success is quite outstanding. His statue is appropriate here because he was responsible for putting a sea-fort on this island.

The fort itself is a little museum to Ottoman sea power in the Mediterranean. There are rusting cannons on the battlements, and a small tour through the fort which left little impression on The Family. What she came back with was an impressive photo of the skeleton of a whale which had been washed ashore. Once you see the skeletal remains of the pentadactyl flippers, you cannot mistake a whale for a fish. I hadn’t thought of the Mediterranean as a sea where cetaceans could be found, but after seeing this photo I recalled stories of ancient Greek sailors being helped by dolphins. On checking up, I found that there are eight cetacean species in the Mediterranen Sea. Maybe on another trip we will try to spot some of them.

Sports and Politics

It seems appropriate to talk about ancient sports and politics during the cricket world cup. We saw a spirited team like Afghanistan’s coming close to beating India’s, and England’s going down to Sri Lanka’s. I would say cricket is more than a game, but Neville Cardus has said it before. I am sure that in the 4th century BCE, when the city center was planned, the placement of the Bouleuterion, the city council, next to the Agora (the marketplace) was deliberate. We walked into the perfectly preserved chamber (featured photo) and looked around the tiered seats. It didn’t require much imagination to complete the building in one’s mind, and there was a signboard put up very helpfully by the archaeology department of the Goethe University of Frankfurt to help you, in case you needed it.

The city would have held less than five thousand people, and six hundred and forty of them could sit in this chamber. That would possibly be close to one representative per family. The governance of the city was pretty democratic, it would seem. This was the place where Bias, the renowned lawyer of Ionian Greece, would have given his speeches.

The pieces of stone at the corner of the street between the Bouleuterion and the Agora, decorated with lion’s heads, apparently marked the basins of water where sportsmen would wash themselves after coming down from the arenas a little further up. This reminded me of cricket clubs playing in Azad Maidan, in front of Mumbai’s High Court. Again, little imagination is needed to conjure up visions of a lively city center: the crowds in the markets around the Agora, the bigwigs at the Bouleuterion, and the young men washing up after games. All the different ways in which families would try to out do each other were close at hand.

We walked down the street slowly. Next to the Bouleuterion is the Prytaneion, where the elected members of the government sat. Between the two, a group of archaeologists has assembled a massive pediment. This is the pediment of the temple to Athena Polias which stands higher up. For a while I was fooled into believing that this was the place where the temple stood. Only when The Family read some of the signboards carefully did we have our epiphany. Of course the temple had to be on the highest part of this city built on a slope.

Further along the pine shaded street is the Alexandrion, a building where Alexander is thought to have lived in during the siege of nearby Miletus. What is more definitely established is that this later became a shrine to him. A web page on Turkish archaeology told us that the marble statue of Alexander which stood here can now be seen in Berlin

Very close to this was a evocative place: a sanctuary to Demeter and her daughter Persephone. This is supposed to be one of the oldest places of worship in Priene. The myth of Demeter and Persephone encapsulates the experience of farming and growing food, so this is entirely believable. The sacrificial pit into which the blood of animals were poured is now a silent and restful place. We stood in this area and looked out at the surrounding land: calm and still full of farms after so many millennia. It was time for us to walk up one of the avenues to the acropolis.

The acropolis of Priene

Driving up the road from the village of Güllübahçe, we came to a vast and empty parking lot from which a rocky path led up to the well-preserved ruins of the ancient Ionian city of Priene. One thing that we eventually figured out about Greek cities was that it is good to start from the highest point: the acropolis. Priene was one of the twelve cities of the Ionian League of the 7th century BCE, currently proposed to enter the UNESCO world heritage list as an example of classical Greek town planning.

So, I suppose that the avenue which led us uphill was built much later, in the 4th century BCE. We followed it until we saw a sign for the Theatre (featured photo). This was built in the usual Greek style: the seats backing into a slope, facing a semi-circular arena in front of an altar. Behind this sacrificial altar was the pillared stage. We wandered behind the stage and found a Byzantine church (photo above). Priene continued to be occupied through the Byzantine era, until the 13th century, when the Turks arrived.

We walked down the nave of the church, and around a small section of a wall. There right in front of us were the ruins of the temple to Athena Polias. This is famous as a temple designed by the architect Pytheos, whose fascination with the style of columns which we call Ionic is visible in the scrolls of the capitals of the five standing columns. The temple was dedicated in 323 BCE by Alexander the Great. Behind the temple you can see the cliff of the ancient hill which was called Mycale. On the other side of the cliff is the temple to Poseidon called the Panionium. This was the central place of worship for the League, and was excavated in 2004.

By this time we were probably the only people left in Priene. The bright sun beat down on the stones of this temple. It had been sufficiently well known that it was mentioned in the histories of Herodotos. Apparently Pytheos came to Priene after his work on the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, one of the seven wonders of the Hellenic world. The temple was planned and started in the 4th century BCE, but not completed until the time of Augustus in the 1st century CE. As a result, Augustus was installed as a god along with Athena Polias in this temple. The scroll that you see in the photo above is clearly from the capital of one of the Ionic columns whose constituent stones are scattered about in the background.

The few remaining pillars, the scattered stones of a once-magnificent temple, the empty landscape, all came together in a magical place. The Family and I wandered around the open space, reluctant to leave. But we had to go away finally. We crossed the last remnants of a door (photo above), a column of massive of blocks just above a short flight of stairs which took us back to the avenue we had climbed in order to get here.

Wildlife of Priene

After the crowded streets of Ephesus and the markets of Şirince, it was nice to relax in the deserted ruins of Priene. This ancient city never had more than five thousand inhabitants. On the day we were there, the population had shrunk to a handful. Wildlife had begun to take over. Around the ruins of the ancient agora we saw a field of Mediterranean milk thistles (Sylibum marianum). A bee had buried itself between the petals as it looked for nectar. It stayed there long enough for me to move around and take photos from different angles.

In the dirt around the agora a butterfly sunned itself. As I took a couple of photos I realized it was a fritillary. Which one, though? Later, as I looked through field guides I realized that this was the red-banded fritllary, very appropriately named Melitaea didyma. After all the ruins of Didyma were close enough for us to drive there on the same day.

Everywhere poppies raised their bright red flowers to the sun. This is the Turkish red poppy (Papaver glaucum), identifiable by the black patch in the center. The petals are just about three cells in thickness, and the vivid colour is due to an intense concentration of pigments, apparently much more than in any other flower. In fact, the black colour is due to the pigment being present in such large amounts that it absorbs all the light that falls on it.

On one of the ancient marble blocks, shaped by men more than two millennia ago, a Greek tortoise (Testudo graeca) sunned itself. I’d read that they live very long, more than a 125 years in some cases. Even in lifetimes of this extremely long-loved creature the ruins were old: around 20 lifetimes. When our global civilization is not even memories, will the ruins of our cities hold such a variety of wildlife?

Below Priene

We drove into the village of Güllübahçe in the late morning. The UNESCO cultural heritage city of ancient Priene lies in the slopes of the hill at one end of the village. Exposure to the culture of Turkey had revived in us the totally Indian need to sit down with a cup of çay (pronounced chai) every hour. So when we saw a cafe in the middle of the village we parked right next to it.

In spite of the wonderful warm sunlight, the air remained cool. The village seemed completely deserted. It was in amazing contrast to Ephesus and Şirince, two places full of people, which we had visited in the previous two days. I took a photo of the sunlight on the whitewashed rubble wall of Cafe Defne, which promised breakfast, lunch, and dinner, on a faded board. Every place we had visited in three days was so charming that I wanted to spend a week there.

Defne had its complement of aged locals. They sat with cups of çay playing a game which I couldn’t make much of. The Family looked much closer and even tried to ask about the rules. She refuses to use any translator apps, believing that one’s common humanity is sufficient to communicate. Maybe it is, but it is certainly not sufficient to communicate the rules of a complicated game. In the meanwhile, I had better luck communicating our need for çay.

The water tap and trough next to the cafe (featured photo) proclaimed Priene rather than Güllübahçe; the baleful influence of tourism is visible everywhere. The cafe was a rectangular building with an internal courtyard. We would soon find that private houses in the ancient city of Priene had the same structure. I guess the family who ran the place lived inside, so we did not venture in. But it was amazing that for two and a half thousand years houses around this hill had been built in the same style! If you look closely in the shadows inside the door you can see a table set next to an ancient fridge. This looked like a charming place, perhaps a place where we could come back for a bite later. But we decided to move on to Priene before the morning advanced much further.