Down to a sunless sea

Constantine founded the new capital of the Roman Empire in a promontory jutting into the Bosphorus because it could be defended so easily. Draw an iron chain across the Bosphorus and you deny ships access by sea. Build a defensive wall at the western end of the promontory, and you deny access by land. This was impeccable military logic, and it was a thousand years before an enemy could enter the city.

The lack of drinking water did not trouble Roman engineers, who were experts at building networks of the gently sloping aqueducts which would bring water to a city through a system powered only by gravity. While rebuilding Constantine’s city two centuries later, Justinian built huge underground reservoirs to store water even if an enemy could break the aqueducts. The immense cistern (it can store 800 million liters of water) had a water filtration system, and remained in use until late Ottoman times.

We walked across from Sultanahmet square, stood in a short queue, and then walked down the damp and slippery steps to the bottom of the cistern. Fortunately there is anti-skid bump tiling, and railings on the steps. In the past you could take boats through the cistern, but that more romantic custom stopped in 1985. The two Medusa head columns have become minor wishing wells, as you can see from these photos. The vaulted roofs, the dim lights, the occasional sculpted “hen’s eye” columns, all make this piece of Roman engineering a very photogenic place. So it is not a surprise that several movies have been shot here.

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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.

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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 emperor comes back

The Roman emperor Hadrian was an inveterate traveler, and visited Ephesus at least twice, once in 124 CE and again in 129 CE. The carefully restored structure on the street of Curetes, which you can see in the featured photo, is said to commemorate this visit and is now called the Temple of Hadrian. The open-fronted porch with its four columns and arched entrance leads, through an inner door, into the inner chamber where, it is thought, that a statue of Hadrian once stood. An epigraph found here says that the temple was built by Publius Quintilius Galeria in 138 CE and dedicated to Hadrian, Artemis of Ephesus, and the people of the city by the Asiarch Publius Vedius Antoninus Sabinus.

The reason that this building is so carefully reconstructed is that it was disinterred in 1956, after the Turkish government passed laws against removal of archaeological remains from the country. The Austrian Archaeological Institute was involved in uncovering the structure, as well as the restoration work which ended in 2014. The keystone of the arch at the entrance is decorated with a carving of Tyche, goddess of fortune and prosperity. She is crowned with the walls of the city, in a style that dates from the high Hellenic period, but apparently popular during the era of the Roman empire.

Above the inner door is a semicircular relief featuring a woman who is now called Medusa, surrounded by scrolls and Acanthus leaves. The same leaves decorate the capital of the columns at the front. The four empty pedestals in front of the temple (see the featured photo) would have held statues of four emperors, going by the names carved on the bases. These statues have not been found yet. The structure was refurbished in the 4th century to honour the emperor Theodosius, and the reliefs along the walls were built at that time. On the day I was there, the structure was cordoned off, so I could not get a good look at them. The originals are in the Ephesus Museum in Selçuk.

I could use my camera to take a close look at two of the four panels. In the one you see above, there is an altar at the center. The figure to the left, in Roman military clothing, probably depicts an emperor. The winged figure of Victory (Nike) stands behind him. To the right are figures from mythology. The first one could be Theseus and the bearded figure next to him is Hercules. Four Amazons are shown running from Hercules. The founding myth of the city is that it was built by Amazons, but the story being told here somehow implies that they were driven away.

On the other side of the so-called Medusa was another equally enigmatic relief. Amazons are again shown in flight. This time they are probably fleeing from a figure identified with Dionysius, behind whom stands a Satyr, in front of a figure seated on a small elephant, with a dancing Menead bringing up the rear. I didn’t get a good view of the side panels. One showed the other founding myth of Ephesus: Androclus killing a boar where the city was built. The fourth apparently shows the Christian Theodosius, who banned the worship of the old gods, with some of the banned entities. On my next visit I must go to the museum in Selçuk to see the originals.