Alexandria's founded by Alexander

Alexandria's founded by Alexander the Great (by year BC): 334 Alexandria in Troia (Turkey) - 333 Alexandria at Issus/Alexandrette (Iskenderun, Turkey) - 332 Alexandria of Caria/by the Latmos (Alinda, Turkey) - 331 Alexandria Mygdoniae - 331 Alexandria (Egypt) - 330 Alexandria in Areia (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Drangiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Ai-Khanoum OR Termez, Afghanistan) - 328 Alexandria in Margiana (Merv, Turkmenistan) - 326 Alexandria Nicaea (on the Hydaspes, India) - 326 Alexandria Bucephala (on the Hydaspes, India) - 325 Alexandria Sogdia - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria on the Indus - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The grandeur of Ephesus

It is quite unusual that after so many years and so many visits, I never put anything in writing about beautiful Ephesus, the number one excursion for any tourist to the west coast of Turkey.

The first time I visited the site was during my very first tour of Turkey and it must be said, with an incompetent guide who claimed he knew it all and treated us as little children. So I gave up listening to his incorrect explanations and drifted off into my own world. He took us to Ephesus in the morning, when huge crowds of visitors were spilling out of the many buses on what seemed a large parking lot. I remembered my lack of breathing space, the loud talking of the many guides in different languages and how a solid mass of people pushed me and carried me through the streets of old Ephesus – my greatest apprehension when I visit an antique site. Useless to point out that these circumstances were far from ideal and that my perception of this old city did not match any of the many photographs I had seen over the years with near-empty streets to temp vast crowds of visitors.

Luckily this unfortunate experience was soon to be obliterated by my next visit with Peter Sommer during his tour In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great. To my greatest surprise the parking lot turned out to be much smaller than what I remembered, hardly filled by a handful of cars and maybe two or three buses. The streets of antique Ephesus seemed deserted this late in the afternoon and the different buildings now truly showed at their best – the true way to look at the city from Alexander’s point of view. Only now did I see how beautiful this site really was! What a relief!


Ephesus, the Turkish Efes, has a magical ring that may go back to antiquity. I always saw it as the ideal Greek city in Asia Minor where Alexander and so many other great men from times past had written history. So it was no surprise that my heart was skipping a beat! My first steps over the old pavement were insecure for my legs were shaking and my knees felt weak. How many sandals had stridden over these polished stones? How many people through the ages had walked here, all carrying their own burdens and having their own dreams? I ran my hands over the columns and walls, just to make sure they were real – and maybe, just maybe, they had something to tell me? I know this sounds crazy, but I can’t help it. At last, I was face to face with the past; it was so palpable, so very much alive!

Before heading to the main street, I follow the water supply system to a rather large round construction where the water was collected based on Archimedes’ laws. From here and thanks to an ingenious system of earthen pipes the water was distributed all over the lower city of Ephesus.

As I stroll down further, my imagination is taking wings! Past the Temple of Domitian lies the Odeon from 150 AD with beautifully preserved arches, originally used as Bouleuterion with enough seating for 1400 officials. Like so often, the Odeon could be entirely shaded from the sun or the rain, if needed. Behind me are the Baths of Varius, now richly decorated with bright red poppies and I marvel about the well-preserved and perfectly connecting terracotta water drains all over the city.

At the Gate of Hercules the passage suddenly narrows to open up again into the Curetus Street. It seems that originally this 4th century gate had an upper floor and was decorated with winged goddesses of victory. Curetus Street runs downhill, straight to the Library of Celsus and lined with columns on both sides from where wealthy and powerful citizens once looked down on me. Behind these columns runs a mosaic paved sidewalk giving access to the cool vaulted shops and some official buildings. These are mere marble skeletons with drafty doorways and gaping windows that once must have created a feeling of safety and a certain complacency. Wooden doors with copper and bronze fittings would have locked out the street-noise. The houses had no windows on the street side, only on the inside looking out onto the Atrium or the Peristyle. In summer these spaces were shaded to keep out the sun and the heat, while in the colder winter months the rooms were comfortably furbished and enhanced with floor heating. This luxurious main street, I am told, was lit at night with torches – how I envy those days!

Further down the street I pass the large Fountain of Trajan, once showing the emperor’s stately statue, and in its shade stands the marble Temple of Hadrian. The friezes from the entrance walls are copies of the originals now visible at the local museum of Selçuk. Yet it is great to have works of art, even copies, back in place to give an idea of what it must have looked like. With nobody walking in my feet I can step back for a better look and the low sun adds just enough to the atmosphere to drift back in time. Behind this Temple of Hadrian, the Romans built their Baths in the fourth century AD, without forgetting the basic need for latrines, the public toilets, in an adjacent room. They are simple cosy seats, next to one another, where you sit above your own hole to do what you have to do. The underlying ditch is at least one meter deep and runs downhill like the main street. I just hope the water was running fast enough to keep the air clean. I front of the seats there is a gutter through which water would be flowing and where you could dip the sponge on a stick to clean yourself.

Across the street from Hadrian’s Temple I notice two spiralled columns, definitely marking a special entrance. It is here that for many years, archaeologist have been working hard to restore two of the seven villas of the rich and famous, generally called the Terrace Houses (see: Ephesus and its Terrace Houses). Two houses may not seem much but they do total 78 rooms, no small residences dating generally from the first to the third century. The elegant fresco’s and marble or mosaic floors have nothing to envy to Pompeii or Herculaneum, they are simply superb. Many tourists skip this corner of Ephesus simply because a separate entrance fee is requested, but I think this is entirely unjustified. The glass walkways and stairs lead the visitors through the premises without obstructing the panoramic view. The colours are as fresh as if they were applied just yesterday, unbelievable! If there is one place to get a true feeling of the Roman’s lifestyle, this is the place!

With or without the stop at the villas, the visitor now reaches the Library of Celsus that has been beckoning from the onset. It is indeed a very impressive building with a carefully reconstructed façade, yet it is consistent with the grandeur and wealth of Ephesus. The high Corinthian columns support richly decorated ceiling caissons and frame the statues of four goddesses on their high pedestal, i.e. Sofia, (wisdom), Arete (virtue), Ennoia (intelligence) and Episteme (knowledge). It was Consul Gaius Julius Aquila who built this Library around 105-107 AD for his father, a worthy present I would say. The inside walls were once covered with coloured marble and still vaguely show traces of the niches where the papyrus scrolls were kept. The space is quite grand, measuring 11 x 17 meters and inevitably I am reminded of Ptolemy’s library as shown in OliverStone’s movie Alexander. How I would have loved to roam here in those days!

Behind me is a strange round structure that seems unidentified at the time of my visit but I recently heard that this could be the tomb of Arsinoe, Queen Cleopatra’s sister.

Through the three arches of the adjacent Gate of Commerce (first century AD), I reach the Agora, the market place that was surrounded by an impressive Stoa with Corinthian columns. This huge Agora covers a surface of 110x110 meters – quite incredible. The road running from here to the connection with the road to the harbour shows deep ruts in the pavement, testifying of the heavy traffic that must have passed through. Excavations towards the harbour are still under way and the area is not accessible yet. At the landside end of that street lays the huge theatre, originally a Greek construction, masterly nestled against de slopes of Mount Pion that was renovated and enlarged by the Romans to offer seating to no less than 25,000 spectators. From one of the top rows, I have a sweeping view over the entire city, all the way to the green marshes now covering the ancient harbour. It is wonderful to sit here for a while to take in the scenery and imagine the hustle and bustle of antiquity.

Alexander saw, of course, a different city with different buildings, but the location and probably the lay-out of Ephesus were very much the same. For more about this, see Alexander’s presence in Ephesus.

[Click here to see all the pictures of Ephesus]

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