Sunday, October 6, 1996

TURKEY                              ...Aegean Towns With Ancient Roots              by Nicholas Nikastro

Assos preserves traces of acropolis and agora...

WHEN it comes to surging crowds and pitiless sun, midtown Manhattan has nothing on Ephesus or Pergamon during summer tourist season. Corralled, jostled, baked and ultimately soaked at the gateside concessions, the modern visitor can hardly share the impressions of such early modern travelers as William Lithgow, who came to Ephesus in the early 17th century and wrote of finding a lonely ruin “ pleasantly adorned with gardens, fair fields and green woods of olive trees, which on the sea do yield a delectable prospect.”
   But for those willing to overlook the  temptations of easy monumentality (Ephesus, Pergamon) or determined hype (Troy), two very attractive sites, Assos and Priene, lie less than twenty miles off the main highways of Turkey’s Aegean coast.
   I and my wife, Maryanne, approached Assos (modern Behramkale, about 40 miles south of Canakkale) from the north, via the serpentine, one-and-a-half lane Route 17-51. In the late summer this road wanders through hard-bitten countryside suggestive of Southwestern chaparral. Topping the crest of  the Tuzla Valley, the hazy blue of the Aegean coast rises at last, and against that, the butte of the Assos acropolis.
   The inhabited town shambles up the northern face of the hillside – built landward, it is said, out of fear of medieval piracy. Pulling into the town square, we were immediately directed to park next to the local tea garden by a genial middle-aged man sitting at a table surrounded by other cay-sipping men. Taking his attention for typical Turkish courtesy, we left our car with the others blocking the street, and joined him at his table.
UP   After rounds of tea and conversation, the man stood up, produced an official-looking cap from somewhere, ad fixed it on his bronze baldness. Resembling a uniformed Pablo Picasso, he then introduced himself as Huseyin Elibol, the bekci (superintendent) of the Assos ruins; he was about to lead us on a private tour of the ancient city.
    This is apparently standard procedure for Huseyin Bey (Bey is a polite form of address in Turkish, used after first names). If tourists happen to catch him on his tea break, he will allow them to buy him a few glasses, them lead them up the hill at not inconsiderable clip. Formalities like tickets are dispensed with: he not only allows his guests to avoid the main entrance by hopping a side fence, but he actually leads the way.
     Soon we were standing at the very summit of the acropolis, some 700 feet above the waves below. Though much of the façade of the city’s Temple of Athena now resides in the Istanbul Museum, five complete columns, carved out of the local purple andesite, were recently re-erected. The columns frame striking vistas along the arcing coastline toward Kucukkuyu, and out toward the island of Lesbos, floating in a shimmering haze eight miles offshore.
   As we admired the view, Huseyin Bey recited elevations, dates, historic populations. Another couple joined us, and he started over again in German, directing our attention to the ancient harbour below, from which St. Paul and St. Luke once hopped a freighter to Mytilene. To the right, near the city’s well-preserved west gate, he pointed to the site of the gymnasium where Aristotle held classes for three years before moving on to his next job as tutor to the young Macedonian prince, Alexander.
   Protected by fine city walls, ancient Assos does not hide from the sea. It descends toward the water like an apron spread on a broad staircase, pausing at the sheer cliffs above the harbor.
UP   On the first step, the outlines of the ancient agora (the social, political and commercial center of the city) are still visible. We strolled along its quiet length, noting the holes for roof beams set like clenched teeth in the lava hillside. A single fig tree grows there; as the recorded voice of a muezzin called faintly from the village mosque far above, we snacked on a few figs and watched the sun dip toward the horizon as the lights came up on Lesbos.
  The ancient theatre lies only partly excavated on the next step below, and is spectacularly situated. Indeed, when visiting Assos one is conscious not merely of an extinct community, but also of an extraordinarily privileged one. There is a quality of brashness in a population of just 5,000 or so having such a formidable city on such an ostentatious site – a brashness born, no doubt, of Greek zeal for city life, and the conviction that participation in it was the essence of civilization. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Aristotle, in his “Politics”, agreed with Plato that the ideal city should be about the size of Assos. In modern America, a community of that size would barely warrant a post office.
   Though Assos receives a number of European visitors, by mid-September it is virtually deserted. With more than its share of sea, sights and history, and plenty of good food and inexpensive lodging off the harbor, one suspects all Assos needs is a wider stretch of asphalt from Canakkale be inundated.
   Running a gauntlet of children hawking the local needlework, we returned to the same table in the tea garden. Belting, not sipping, his cay, dark eyes fixed before him, Huseyin Bey told us some more ancient history – how his grandfather emigrated from Lesbos during the traumatic Greek – Turkish population exchange in the 1920’s, how he was born and lived all his life in this little town. Janus-like, both Assos and Huseyin Bey present two faces to the world, one looking south, to the deep south, to the deep past, the other north, peering through the haze to see who is coming up from the valley bearing liras and enthusiasm. . . .
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