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DRAWING FROM A WEALTH OF TURKISH HERITAGE Remains of four great civilizations weave a complex cultural tapestry


A place to draw, that was the goal. After scrambling over marble remains of what was once the mighty Roman seaport of Ephesus, I wanted a drawing that told part of the city's story.

The previous day I sat before huge, carved fragments of the Temple of Serapis, an Egyptian cult figure. The jumble of blackened column segments and voluted ears of pale Ionic capitals there moaned in silent dignity. Even the silly blue and yellow faces of wildflowers couldn't break the spell.

The cult bespoke of times when Ephesus, lying halfway up modern-day Turkey's Aegean coast, had trading links with much of the known world including Alexandria, Egypt's main grain-exporting city.

In search of a drawing, I made two trips along the 600-meter length of the marble Arcadian Way. Neither the massive remains the harbor gymnasium at one end nor the 24,000-seat theater cut into the hill at the other held my attention.

Rather I gravitated to memorials to the Evangelists placed midway along the road. These four columns, once topped with statues, were modest. They could be mistaken for yet another example of Roman architecture but for the Christian symbols carved into the pedestals. I chose the one with the eagle of St. John and a cross.

This drawing would remind me that Ephesus existed through two milleniums. Founded by Greeks, it became a metropolis under Rome, yet died a fully Christian city in the seventh century A.D. So while the Serapis drawing would represent Ephesus' reach horizontally (over land and across seas), the column drawing would represent the city's reach vertically (over time).

So I sat down. Pairs of sightseers strolled by -- German, French and English. (Americans are rare outside of tour groups, who after the theater head directly to their buses.) As I drew, I mused on the life that once teemed along this road with its colonnaded walkways and hundreds of shops and warehouses.

Suddenly a gust of wind spat sand in my face. I turned toward the theater. The sky above was nearly black. Thunderheads that politely mushroomed each day over distant mountains decided that day to march to the sea. So I quickened the sketch.

Just when the storm seemed to shroud the theater, Michael Frommeyer, my travel companion, arrived, camera in hand, telling of his perilous duty to the god of photography. He had climbed up the theater steps to witness the skeleton of the city fossilized below. Standing atop one end of the theater that projected out from the hill, he clutched a flagpole and shot one-handed. Bravo, I said, and scribbled a last few lines.

Despite the wickedness of the sky, we managed the half-kilometer hike back to the car and the 3 kilometers into Selcuk, where our pension -- a family-run bed and breakfast -- was, without a drop.

The storm held off until we had a protected view from the third-floor balcony of our pension. The large, scattered raindrops that managed to evaporate before reaching the ground attested to the dryness of the climate except in winter. Soon the ragged veil of clouds yielded to the setting sun, and the monuments in Selcuk -- the ruins of the Basilica of St. John and the piers of the Byzantine aqueduct -- turned pink.

Despite such a distracting view from the balcony, I set about to color the drawing with watercolors. This was no problem since I wasn't interested in naturalistic colors. In fact I would make the sky bleed red, in testimony to the stormy sky and the lives lost in building ancient cities like Ephesus.

While meteorologically that was the most exciting day of our trip, it was typical, too. Centered around one of western Turkey's many ancient historical sites, our day began with exploration and ended with an artistic record of the place and the thoughts it conjured.

But what makes Turkey particularly enjoyable was that besides VTC the archaeology (and there's more to say about it) the day was typical in other ways. In short, we stayed comfortably and inexpensively in the pension. We ate well and inexpensively in the town's restaurants. Think of Turkish cuisine as Greek with more complexity.

Inevitably, the townspeople were friendly and helpful and knew infinitely more English than we did Turkish. Even the rug merchants, who might implore you to enter their premises, were quite civil and restrained compared to my experiences in Morocco.

Like most of Turkey, the landscape around Selcuk was quite varied and mostly beautiful. The jagged profile of mountains filled the western and southwestern horizons. A river valley stretched to the north. Once an arm of the Aegean reached to Ephesus, but a drop in sea level and silt from the river dried up its harbor and led to the city's abandonment. The Aegean now is 7 kilometers (about 4 1/2 miles) away.

While the sea is mentioned almost parenthetically, its jewel-like waters and rocky coast with some stretches of sandy beach are sufficient reasons for a Turkish vacation.

But when people asked me (and they did) why go to Turkey, I didn't mention the sea. Nor the cooking, though I've loved every Mediterranean cuisine I've tasted. (Just bring on the olive oil, olives, garlic, tomatoes, goat cheeses, eggplant and lamb.) Nor the inexpensiveness of room and board. Nor the abundance and relative inexpensiveness of Turkish flat-weave rugs (another infatuation).

I told them I longed to see the remains of western Turkey's four great cultures -- Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman. These represent a nearly unbroken expanse of more than 3,000 years, ending with the fall of the Ottoman Turks in 1918. They attest to the area's strategic position (between Europe to the west, Asia to the east and Africa to the south) in the commerce of ideas and material goods.

The physical record of these civilizations is stunning. Archaeological interest in Turkey began in earnest in the 19th century -- when Europeans, especially the Germans, often took home significant finds -- and flourishes today in the Republic of Turkey, which insists on keeping its heritage at home.

Thanks to decades of work, many sites clearly show the glories of the past. Just the extent of the town's original street plan can bring on awe. Sometimes facades tumbled by invaders, neglect or earthquakes have been resurrected. While some restorations are somewhat speculative, they help breathe life into the ruins. In the best of cases, much of the original structure is still standing, particularly the relatively recent Ottoman mosques (14th through centuries) and some Byzantine churches converted to mosques by the Ottomans, namely the wondrous sixth century Aya (Hagia) Sofia in Istanbul.

If you go . . .

Visa: Americans need only show their passport upon entry into Turkey to stay up to three months.

Car rentals: Compared to public transportation, car rental is very expensive, but doing so allowed us to explore a great deal of western Turkey during the 16 days we spent outside of Istanbul. No international driver's license is needed.

Bargaining: Turkish handicrafts -- leather goods, carpets and kelims, copperware and pottery -- are often enticing, but few shops mark prices. A buyer is obligated (to himself) to shop around, ask prices and learn about the quality of the items that interest him. Only if serious about an item, should a counteroffer be made.

Travel guides: For historic background and step-by-step guidance through museums and archaeological sites, we relied on the Blue Guide series. For practical information on rates, restaurants and hotels and pensions, we used the Lonely Planet's book on Turkey. The Baltimore Museum of Art bookstore carries the Blue Guide series. Travel Books Unlimited in Bethesda, (301) 951-8533, carries the Lonely Planet guide.

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