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Aegean Odyssey

Explore the archaeological wonders of Turkey and Greece on a cruise.

Celsius library at Ephesus in Turkey, image
Photo caption
The Celsius Library in the ancient city of Ephesus, Turkey, draws tourists.

Weaving through the parched mountains of western Turkey, past the meandering Maeander River, the road to Ephesus gave little hint of the grandeur that awaited. A patchwork of tangerine groves and cotton fields rolled past the window of the tour bus, and judging by the rural scenery, I half expected to be met at the drop-off site by a few surly goats, a sprinkling of tenacious olive trees, and some toppled Roman pillars lying along a dusty path.

What greeted me instead were the ruins of a Greco-Roman city of such splendor that it shimmered under the bright October sky. The reason: Nearly everything in this long-abandoned metropolis—from the ornate facade of the library to the paving stones dimpled with the cleat marks of chariot wheels—is made of bone-white marble.

If the name Ephesus rings a bell, it’s probably a church bell. Saint Paul preached here as part of his roving ministry almost two thousand years ago, nurturing the city’s fledgling Christian community. You’ve probably read their mail—Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians.

Revered by Christians for its religious significance, Ephesus also awes archaeologists by being one of the best-preserved and most historically important Greco-Roman cities ever excavated. Its boondocks location—about four miles inland from the shores of the Aegean Sea—belies the fact that in Paul’s day Ephesus was a bustling port city of about 250,000 people.

As far back as my 10th grade Western Civ class, I had assumed that Greco-Roman history took place mainly in Athens and Rome. I dismissed the seemingly off-the-beaten-track lands of the Aegean—in particular, the Turkish coast and Greek islands—as perfectly fine places to deepen my tan but not to deepen my knowledge of world events.

But that was before I spent a week zigzagging across the Aegean by cruise ship. Far from veering through historical backwaters, the ship took me smack-dab down the dividing line between East and West. For thousands of years the Aegean, linking Asia and Europe, has been the place where civilizations have clashed, mingled, and merged into a cultural bouillabaisse. We stopped daily at destinations along the Turkish coast and in the Greek Islands and explored archaeological sites that rivaled anything found in Italy or mainland Greece. The region is such a hotbed of ancient history that I actually brought along the Bible and the works of Homer for their practical value as travel guides.

Why such historical wealth in this tucked-away realm? Three reasons: location, location, and location. The Aegean lands belonged at various times to the Greeks, Persians, and Macedonians (under Alexander the Great) before becoming absorbed into the Roman Empire.

Many of the epic tales I associated with mainland Greece—from Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece to Odysseus’s hapless voyage home from Troy—actually took place largely in what is now Turkey and the Aegean islands. As the strategic waterway between the Aegean and the Black Sea, the Dardanelles Strait on Turkey’s northwestern coast has witnessed cataclysmic military campaigns that span Western history, from the Trojan War to World War I’s Battle of Gallipoli. In 1810, the visiting British poet Lord Byron, enraptured by the strait’s mystique, swam from one side to the other.

Granted, I could have explored Turkey by car rather than by ship. But the Aegean, is the stuff of poetry and myth. Short of following Lord Byron’s chilly example, there’s no better way to connect with those still resonating legends than to grab a copy of The Odyssey, settle into a deck chair, and travel in the wake of Odysseus across what Homer called the "wine-dark sea."

My trek down the seam between East and West began in Istanbul, the only major city that straddles two continents. The city is carved in two by the Bosporus Strait, the narrow waterway that divides Europe and Asia. Thanks to its fence-sitting proximity to competing civilizations, Istanbul (originally called Byzantium and later Constantinople) holds the distinction of having been the capital of both the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, each of which left behind world-class architecture. Indeed, Istanbul didn’t so much replace older cultures with newer ones as stack one atop the other.

To see this baklava-like layering of influences, I headed to what is easily Istanbul’s grandest landmark—Ava Sofia. This immense domed building was completed in A.D. 537 and served as the principal cathedral of Byzantine Constantinople for almost a thousand years. The sixth-century emperor Justinian beheld its enormous size and cried, "Solomon, I have outdone you!" Even by today’s standards, it’s huge: The Statue of Liberty (minus the pedestal) could easily fit under the ceiling.

Aware that Aya Sofia was as much a seat of power as a place to pray, I made a beeline for a roped-off area in the middle of its vast interior. What looked like empty marble floor space about the size of a dining room table was actually the former location of the Byzantine emperor’s throne, a spot of such enormous importance that the people of that era deemed it the center of the world.

In the 15th century, the Ottomans conquered the city and converted Aya Sofia into a mosque—an overhaul that included tacking on four minarets and adding swooping Arabic calligraphy to an interior already adorned with Byzantine icons.

The Ottomans also constructed the multidomed Blue Mosque across the street. So arabesque that you’d swear the architect must have been paid by the curlicue, the Blue Mosque was controversial for having six minarets, blasphemously equaling the number at the mosque in Mecca. The Ottoman sultan quelled the grumbling by funding a seventh minaret at Mecca.

Nearby stands the Topkapi Palace, where the sultans ruled an empire that sprawled from Hungary to Algeria to Iraq. Now a museum, the palace functioned through most of its history as part White House, part Fort Knox. Its walls encompass a vast complex of gardens and exuberantly decorated buildings—including a treasury, an armory, and a harem.

Put the words "jewel-encrusted" in front of pretty much any noun you can think of and that about sums up Topkapi’s collection. The sultans were fond of anything, from walking sticks to headdresses, embedded with Tootsie Pop–size gems. Easily the most famous item is the Topkapi dagger, an emerald-studded knife in a glittering diamond-laden scabbard that inspired the 1964 heist movie Topkapi.

After seeing how the sultans lived, I boarded the Radisson Diamond and got to experience the royal treatment firsthand. The ship boasted three sumptuous restaurants—an elegant dining room serving five-course dinners every night, a festive Italian trattoria with singing waiters, and an informal café that featured lunchtime cookouts.

Departing from Istanbul shortly before dusk, the ship sliced through the Sea of Marmara and the Dardanelles en route to the small Turkish coastal town of Dikili, gateway to the nearby ruins of Pergamum.

A little more than two thousand years ago, Pergamum was a bustling Roman city of 200,000 people. The Athens of Asia Minor, it had a library second in size only to Alexandria’s—until Mark Anthony carted off its collection of 200,000 scrolls as a present for Cleopatra.

In general, only the bones of Pergamum’s great buildings have survived. But as I prowled around the tumbled-down edifices and scrambled up the steps of the still intact 10,000-seat outdoor theater, it was stunning to reflect on the prevasiveness within the modern world of that bygone time’s innovations, from the fluted columns found on big-city bank buildings to the holistic treatments offered at spas.

The next day we docked farther south on the Turkish coast at Kusadasi, a city spilling over with carpet shops, sidewalk cafés, and tour buses offering treks to the ruins of Ephesus. Two thousand years ago, visitors arriving by boat would have docked in Ephesus itself, but over the centuries, the harbor silted up and pushed the coastline westward.

As if waiting for a high tide that will never come, Ephesus’s layout is still oriented toward the sea. Walking down the central streets, I could easily picture the city as Saint Paul might have seen it when he arrived at the city’s now-high-and-dry harbor.

In keeping with an Ephesus tradition, I walked between two white columns, dubbed the Gates of Hercules, that promise 10 years of good fortune to anyone who touches them both at the same time. With a voyage across the Aegean Sea still ahead of me, I could think of nothing more useful than some legendary good luck.

Though less than 30 miles from the Turkish coast, the Greek island of Pátmos could just as easily be half a world away in terms of beliefs, language, and architecture. Crosses rather than minarets punctuate the sky; street signs are written in fraternity row–style Greek letters instead of Latin; and unlike the prefab-looking concrete buildings springing up across Turkey, the picturesque stucco dwellings favored by the Greek islanders look as white and geometric as sugar cubes.

From the port town of Skala Oropou I hopped a tour bus to the Holy Cave of the Apocalypse, which according to tradition is where Saint John dictated the Book of Revelation. The cave is now the Monastery of the Apocalypse and home to 500-year-old religious icons, silver lamps that dangle from the stone ceiling, and rows of simple wooden chairs. According to church lore, Jesus’ thunderous voice created the huge crack that runs across the ceiling.

After leaving the cave, I stopped off at the thousand-year-old Monastery of Saint John, a fortress where black-robed monks maintain an astonishing collection of ancient religious artifacts. For example, I was able to peruse a remarkably well-preserved copy of the Gospel of Mark dating to the fifth century.

As if shifting to the book of Ecclesiastes, the ship spent the next three days visiting the eat-drink-and-be-merry Greek islands of Samos (famous for its muscatel), Mykonos (renowned for its nude beaches), and Rhodes (brimming with boutiques).

Sailing into the harbor of the city of Rhodes, I looked over the ship’s railing at what must have been a daunting sight for the invading armies of centuries past—a high-walled stone citadel, now 700 years old. Used as the setting for the 1961 film The Guns of Navarone, this medieval fortress is home to hundreds of shops and cafés that line the labyrinthine streets. The typical Greek products sold here include natural sponges, leather sandals, ouzo, and decorative vases made from olive wood.

We next journeyed to the island of Santorini, a surreal destination since most of the island is no longer there. About 3,500 years ago, a volcanic eruption blew out the island’s center, replacing it with a harbor. The island’s remnants form a crescent of sheer cliffs with photogenic resort towns that cling to the peaks like whipped cream.

To see one of the luckiest archaeological discoveries ever made, I headed to the ruins of Akrotíri, a once thriving city that the ancient eruption entombed in ash. It might still be buried had workers not stumbled upon it in the 1860s while mining volcanic ash for use in the building of the Suez Canal.

From catwalks that allow visitors to roam this Pompeii of the Aegean without interfering with ongoing excavation, I had a bird’s-eye view of streets, courtyards, and even artists’ lofts that hummed with activity more than three thousand years ago. The only thing missing: the inhabitants. The absence of any human remains suggests to scientists that the locals may have cleared out prior to the fateful blast.

After touring the ruins, I stopped by the island’s Archaeological Museum, where clay lamps, bronze daggers, wall paintings, and other artifacts found at Akrotiri are on display. The wall paintings were like vividly colored snapshots from a distant age, depicting the rosy-cheeked women and lush vegetation that once flourished on this nearly barren moonscape of an island.

In Athens, the final stop on the cruise, history seemed to seek me out as much as I sought it. The Parthenon, perched atop the mountainous Acropolis, is visible from nearly every neighborhood, just as the ancient Greeks intended. Partially unearthed Greek ruins and 11th-century Byzantine churches share the same streets with sidewalk cafés and trendy boutiques. Even the subway stop next to the Greek Parliament has a wall with a cutaway section of excavated Athenian soil, complete with an exposed tomb.

But of all the museums I checked out in Athens, my favorite was one that tourists could easily walk right past—the Benaki Museum, which achieves the Herculean feat of covering the full sweep of Greek history. Named after its founder, Antonis Benakis, the scion of a prominent Greek family, the museumdisplays over 20,000 Greek artifacts ranging from Picasso-like prehistoric clay figurines to Grecophile Lord Byron’s mahogany writing desk.

Gleaned from the very lands I’d just visited, the collection gave me the chance to relive the voyage—and to reflect on whether 10 years of good luck might really have rubbed off from the Gates of Hercules. All I can say is, if my weeklong trip across the Aegean is any indication, I’m in for one amazing decade.

Photography by Djenan Kozic/Wikipedia

This article was first published in May 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.