Ephesus, Turkey: an ancient ruined city we knew nothing about in a country we knew nothing about. We stood inside the ship looking at each other, unsure. My husband and I were very careful not to say anything that might dissuade or alarm the children but we were stepping into the great unknown and Royal Caribbean had our passports. Call me crazy, but I had a pretty sizeable knot in my stomach.
A month earlier we had reserved a “taxi-tour” of Ephesus with an “English-speaking guide” based solely on internet reviews and blogs. We didn’t want to pay through the nose for the Royal Caribbean tours – we’d successfully avoided them in other ports. My husband had made arrangements via email – they seemed legit and the price was right but…were we about to pay a very high price for being cheap?
We disembarked and walked through the port authority’s intimidating building (complete with men wearing intimidating firearms). Most of our fellow passengers wandered towards the usual clot of tour buses while we stood in the blinding sunshine, looking for a stranger with a placard. Soon a very tall young man appeared. His English was good; his manners, impeccable. He waved us forward, away from the port building and into the chaotic streets of the port city of Kusadasi. My brief moment of relief was…well, brief.
As we crossed a street, another man approached us. This man, older and who did not speak any English, now gestured toward a mini-bus. My husband and children walked forward willingly while I now entered Phase 2 of Banshee Panic Attack (includes cold sweats and panic-stricken facial expressions).
Yet another man hopped out of the mini-bus, hand extended. “Hello, good morning to you all! I am Fahti, your guide for the day.” He motioned us into the mini-bus. A total stranger in a strange land motions innocent North American family of four into a mini-bus (it had curtains – was that bad?). The door slid shut and the mini-bus pulled away from the curb. I tried not to think of all the ways this could go horribly wrong.
I noticed Fahti wore a badge around his neck. It had his picture on it and said, “Tour Guide.” I relaxed…a bit. Once Fahti started explaining how the day would work, I relaxed a bit more. He asked us if we had water. “Good, good. It is very hot in the ruins. It will be around 40 degrees celsius today.” My daughter gave me a look that would shatter stone.
As we left Kusadasi on a newly paved highway, Fahti launched into the history of Ephesus. I relaxed in the knowledge that we were not being driven to our doom. I began to listen.
About Ephesus: It was once an important port. As Fahti said this, I looked around – we drove through dry, sparse hills littered with huge boulders. In the distance stood more hills with a distinctly Northern California look to them, a soft golden colour. Not a drop of water in sight – not a creek, a brook, or even a pond. Fahti explained, “Ephesus was a port back in Ancient times, and a very important port but there was a massive earthquake which changed everything – the large deep harbour receded all the way back to where you see the water today – and this was the ruin of Ephesus. It declined, over years, in importance.” Ephesus now lies 5 km inland, dry as a bone.
Drier, actually. The first thing we noticed when we got there was the scorching dry heat. As we exited the mini-bus, I felt every drop of moisture being sucked from my body. Fahti promptly opened up an umbrella for himself. Smart guy. He purchased our tour tickets and off we went. There are no trees in Ephesus. There is a lot of glaring white marble . And cats. Loads and loads of eerie, orange-eyed cats. Bring gallons of water, big hats or parasols, sunscreen, sunglasses and maybe some cat food if you go.
Soon, the enormity of what we were seeing became apparent. At one point, Ephesus was a city of over 200,000 inhabitants and second only to Rome in size (and importance, according to our guide). Looking around, it was evident the people who lived here were sophisticated, well educated, and well heeled. Ephesus had one of the most sophisticated aqueduct systems in the ancient world, a large theatre (capacity: 44,000), a large library, a hospital, and several baths. The streets were literally paved with marble. Terrace houses had central heating and running water. Ephesus was something of a tourist attraction even then because just a short distance away stood The Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. “We will take you there!” Fahti assured us.
Funny Ephesus anecdote: The impressive Library of Celsus was right across the street from the brothel. Some enterprising soul connected the two via an underground tunnel. Equally enterprising husbands would leave their wives of an evening saying something like, “Off to the Library, honey! Don’t wait up!” I tend to think it was an angry wife who destroyed the library out of spite as opposed to marauding hordes.
The Temple of Artemis was a disappointing sight after the spectacular ruins of Ephesus proper (there is only one column standing). We were harrassed by gypsies for the first time. I’m not entirely convinced they weren’t Fahti’s in-laws. As part of our “package” we were also driven to a carpet-making “exhibit” which was just an attempt to sell handmade Turkish carpets (which were stunning and stunningly expensive). I don’t like being corralled or pressured but we were in the land of the hard sell. However, the kids enjoyed seeing how silk is harvested from silkworms. Note about Ephesus & kids: unless they’re really into ancient Roman history, Ephesus will bore them. The cats saved the day as did the guy selling slushies at the end of the ruins.
Back in Kusadasi, parched and sunburned we asked Fahti for a restaurant recommendation. He gladly complied and led us to a taverna in the marketplace (the owner rewarded Fahti with a pat on the back and some money slipped into his pocket). The food was delicious as was the ice cold beer. With full tummies, we wandered. I quickly grew tired of the strong-arm tactics of the shop owners. Every trick in the book and a few too many lewd glances at my daughter put me on the verge of creating an international incident. My husband wanted to see the mosque and do more exploring. Later – much later – he confessed to me that he was offered “Turkish Delight” several times (I’m not talking about the sweets). Thankfully, Turkish prison is not on his bucket list and he declined.
As we sailed away from Kusadasi that evening, I felt sad for Ephesus – another great city left in ruins by nature and economics. I felt sad for the strange orange-eyed cats we saw although Fahti assured me tour guides feed them. I worried that Fahti was gonna catch it from his mother-in-law for not pressuring us to buy her trinkets. However, I’m glad we braved it – I learned about a whole new world up in those sparse, dry hills.
Note: Ephesus, aside from its excellent Roman ruins, also has an interesting connection to early Christianity. Paul of Tarsus lived there as did the apostle John. Mary, mother of Jesus is believed to have lived there at the end of her life (in what is known as The Virgin Mary’s House – a short distance from the ruins of Ephesus).