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.