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
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.
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.
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.
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
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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assos © 2000
by kind permission of the author