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by Nicholas Nicastro

"Antiquities Near the Beaten Path"— a travel article published in The New York Times, 10/6/96
—by Nicholas Nicastro

October 6, 1996

Antiquities Near the Beaten Path

By Nicholas Nicastro

When it comes to surging crowds and pitiless sun, midtown Manhattan in August 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 20 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 north 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.

After rounds of tea and conversation, the man stood up, produced an official-looking cap from somewhere, and fixed it on his bronzed 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, then lead them up the hill at a 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 facade 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 harbor 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, commercial and political 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 little mosque far above, we snacked on a few figs and watched the sun dip toward the horizon asthe lights came up on Lesbos.

The ancient theater 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's 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 just off the harbor, one suspects all Assos needs is a wider stretch of asphalt from Canakkale to 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 past, the other north, peering through the haze to see who is coming up from the valley bearing liras and enthusiasm.

Heading south along Highway E-87, we skirted a coastline peppered alternately with tourist destinations like Kusadasi and Bodrum, grim, industrial centers like Izmir, and forgotten cities—Cyme, Gryneum, Adramittium Thebe—barely poking their marbled ribs from the dirt. Priene lies a full day's drive from Assos, but just an hour south of storied Ephesus, and has long been better known to students and scholars than the wider public. Tours there are usually packaged with Miletus and the Temple of Apollo at Didyma, but lacking the elephan tine remains of either of those places, and with an acropolis accessible only by mountain goat or jet-pack, Priene suffers by comparison. That's too bad.

As the archeologist R. E. Wycherley wrote in ''How the Greeks Built Cities'' (W. W. Norton, 1962), ''We must not let our natural interest in the great and famous cities of Greece make us forget that there were few like Corinth, hardly any like Athens, but hundreds like Priene in size, and they all rightly claimed the name polis.''

Like Assos, Priene encompasses in its limited area both the form and the spirit of the Greek polis. But where the more or less continuous occupation of Assos has reduced that town's ancient details to impressionistic smudges, Priene preserves its internal arrangement. Under the influence of Hippodamias, the fifth-century B.C. architect and guru from neighboring Miletus, Priene was laid out along a gridiron plan that organized the city into private, commercial and religious districts, all enjoying southern exposure on the lower slopes of Mount Mycale. This Hippodamian gridiron requires a curious mental adjustment: where one tends to zigzag all over Assos and Miletus, approaching each building in a direct fashion never intended (or being shunted down a chutelike main drag at Ephesus) one tours Priene like a living town, respecting the courses of the original streets. As such it has something of the ghost-town feel of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Most of the city's points of interest—its pristine little theater, its network of off-set walls suggestive of Bronze Age Troy's, the remains of its fourth-century B.C. Temple of Athena Polias—can comfortably be toured on one's own, with a guidebook, in a few hours. The temple enclosure is shaded by evergreens, and looks out over the Meander Valley, long since abandoned by the sea. The temple floor is still grooved from centuries of openings and closings of its front doors.

But the residential districts are perhaps the most unique. Carpeted with pine needles, and not just shaded but roofed by a pine canopy, the mansions four blocks west of the theater still have impressive on-street entrances. The floor-plans are mostly still traceable, though occasionally interrupted by automobile-sized boulders fallen to rest from the slope beyond. Some of the walls bear traces of fresco painting, long reduced to daubs of mottled pigment.

Above it all glowers Mount Mycale, rising sheer and battleship-gray above its skirt of trees. Impressive as the living city must have been, Priene's ingenuity always bloomed beneath the great rock. Far from the sea-and-sun-kissed exuberance of Assos, Priene's pride seems decidedly measured under Mycale's shadow.

Not that these cities were ever particularly important in their time. Despite Aristotle's tenure, Assos was mostly renowned for turning out a line of admirably impartial judges; Priene was known primarily for its architecture and for a brief visit paid by Alexander the Great in 334 B.C. But for those interested in the quality of antique life, instead of the biggest, oldest or foremost, it's astonishing how little all that matters.

A visitor's guide to the region
For discovering and exploring the smaller ancient sites in Turkey, a rental car provides the optimal flexibility. We used Europcar Interrent, telephone (90-212) 254-77-88, which offers small, Fiat-sized cars for less than $10 a day, at a rate of 90,579 lira to $1. Highways in Turkey vary in quality from the smooth double lanes of American Interstates to the most abject donkey tracks.

Assos is some 40 miles south of Canakkale, which is a full day's drive around the Marmara Sea from Istanbul. Take E87 south to the 17-51 turnoff near Ayvacik. The Assos acropolis and the Temple of Athena are open to the public daily during daylight hours; admission $1. We stayed at the Yildiz Pansiyon, Behramkale Iskelesi; (90-286) 721-7025. Just off the ancient harbor, this is a modest 10-room pension with good food, an accommodating staff and reasonable prices. A clean double room, dinner and breakfast is $11.

One should allow another full day's drive to Priene, lying some 30 miles south of Ephesus (take main road 550 to Route 09-55; look for signs near the town of Gullubahce). The site is open every day from 8:30 A.M. to 6 P.M.; admission $1.50. A notable place to eat in the area is the Selale Restaurant-Cafe, where you can net your own trout lunch or dinner from the cafe's Byzantine-era fishpond. Dinner for two, with wine, is around $10.

We did not stay immediately nearby, but in Didim, about 25 miles due south on Route 09-55. The aptly named Oracle Pension is right next to the ruins of the Temple of Apollo. Conditions are a bit Spartan, but the view and the prices are miraculous: $8.80 for a double room and breakfast.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company


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