The territory of Ancient Ionia begins south of İzmir. Its undoubted highlight is the ensemble of ruins that span numerous eras: most notably at Ephesus and Priene – perhaps the most dramatic site of all the Ionian cities; at sprawling Miletus, further south; and at Didyma, with its gargantuan temple. Kuşadası is an unabashedly utilitarian resort that serves well for excursions to the major antiquities and the nearby national park around ancient Mount Mycale. Nearby Selçuk is a prettier, more relaxed, base.
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One has to admire little SELÇUK. No more than a farming town only a generation ago, it has been catapulted into the limelight of premier-league tourism by its proximity to the ruins of Ephesus, the second most visited site in the whole of Turkey. Despite this, and its status as the burial place of St John the Evangelist, Selçuk remains an incredibly relaxed, easy-going place – swallows squeal and wheel from eave to eave, storks build nests atop Roman columns, and life dawdles by at a snail’s pace.
Selçuk has maintained its relaxed air largely because Ephesus is also very close to the coast – the overwhelming majority of visitors to the ruins base themselves in nearby Kuşadası. Unless you absolutely need to be by the sea (which, in any case, is less than half an hour away), Selçuk is an excellent travel base, with super-cheap accommodation, good restaurants and a pleasing, backpackery feel.
As far as sightseeing goes, Ephesus is not the end of the story – stay a couple of days here (or in Kuşadası) and you’ll be able to see the hill village of Şirince, the shrine at Meryemana, and Selçuk’s own array of antiquities, most pertinently those in its excellent museum.
Of Turkey’s superb array of ancient cities, Ephesus (known as Efes in Turkish) is by far the best preserved. In fact, with the possible exception of Pompeii, one could argue that it’s the world’s finest surviving example of a Greco-Roman classical city. A big claim, but with so much to back it up – the ruins here are not merely rocks on the ground, but near-fully-fledged incarnations of what life must have been like in ancient times.
The tantalizing prospect of delving back so many centuries in architectural time makes Ephesus a cast-iron must-see if you’re in, or anywhere near, the area. As one would expect, the ruins are mobbed for much of the year, particularly with summer cruise-ship arrivals from nearby Kuşadası – after the Sultanahmet district of İstanbul, this is the most visited tourist attraction in Turkey. However, with a little planning and initiative it’s possible to tour the site in relative peace.
There are two entrances to Ephesus, both surrounded by stands selling souvenirs and overpriced snacks. The prevailing current of people heads downhill from the upper entrance – a particularly good idea in summer – which is the route followed in this guide. You’ll need two to three hours to see Ephesus, and in summer you’ll need a hat – there’s next to no shade, meaning that the acres of stone act as a grill in the heat of the day. Whatever the season, you’ll probably need to carry water too; this is only sold at the entrances, from which multilingual audioguides are also available.
Legends relate that Ephesus was founded by Androclus, son of King Kodrus of Athens, who was advised by an oracle to settle at a place indicated by a fish and a wild boar. Androclus and his entourage arrived here to find natives roasting fish by the sea; embers from the fire set a bush ablaze, out of which charged a pig, and the city was on its way. The imported worship of Artemis melded easily with that of the indigenous Cybele, and the Ephesus of 1000 BC was built on the north slope of Mount Pion (Panayır Dağı), very close to the temple of the goddess.
Alexander the Great, on his visit in 334 BC, offered to fund the completion of the latest version of the Artemis shrine, but the city fathers tactfully demurred, saying that one deity should not support another. Following Alexander’s death, his lieutenant Lysimachus moved the city to its present location – necessary because the sea had already receded considerably – and provided it with its first walls, traces of which are still visible on Panayır Dağı and Mount Koressos (Bülbül Dağı) to the south.
In subsequent centuries, Ephesus changed allegiance frequently and backed various revolts against Roman rule. Yet it never suffered for this lack of principle: during the Roman imperial period it was designated the capital of Asia and ornamented with magnificent public buildings – those on view today – by successive emperors. Ephesus’s quarter-million population was swollen substantially at times by the right of sanctuary linked to the sacred precinct of Artemis, allowing shelter to large numbers of criminals. Of a somewhat less lurid cast was the more stable, mixed population of Jews, Romans, and Egyptian and Anatolian cultists.
The evocative, well-preserved hill village of ŞİRİNCE, 8km east of Selçuk, was originally built by Greeks. It’s surrounded by lush orchards and vineyards – you can taste the wines, and buy bottles at many shops. Laden with pesky hawkers in season, it’s much more pleasant and relaxed outside summer and genuinely lives up to its reputation as one of the region’s most idyllic villages – this despite being a cab-ride from Selçuk.
The late nineteenth-century church at the edge of Şirince has a pebble-mosaic floor, plaster-relief work on the ceiling, and wooden vaulting, while the larger stone basilica nearer the centre dates from 1839. The main reason to visit, though, is the idyllic scenery and the handsome domestic architecture, which these days attracts wealthy urban Turks in search of characterful vacation homes.
The ancient Greek city of Priene represents the best-preserved Hellenistic townscape in Ionia, without any of the usual Roman or Byzantine additions. It also occupies perhaps the finest location of any such city. Perched on a series of pine terraces graded into the south flank of Samsun Dağı, this compact but exquisite site enjoys a situation to bear comparison with that of Delphi in Greece. Despite all this, and the fact that it’s just 35km south of Kuşadası, Priene remains far less visited than Ephesus – even in summer, you’ll largely have this wonderful place to yourself.
Visitors to Priene who are dropped by dolmuş at the western edge of the strung-out village of Güllübahçe face an uphill walk to the site ticket office, and then another good steep walk up the hill to the northeast gate into the city itself. Beyond that, the ruins are strewn over a wide area, and all major points of interest have English-language information boards.
The town was set up along a grid pattern made up of various insulae (rectangular units), each measuring roughly 42m by 35m. Within each rectangle stood four private dwellings; a public building had its own insula, sometimes two.
The original settlement of Priene lay elsewhere in the Meander basin. Following the receding shoreline, however – now just visible to the west – its inhabitants re-founded the city on its present site during the fourth century BC, just in time for Alexander to stop in and finance the cost of the principal temple of Athena. However, the city enjoyed little patronage from Roman or Byzantine emperors – which, of course, adds to its modern-day appeal.
Watery fun in Kusadasi
Watery fun in Kusadasi
The main appeal of Kuşadası is that the sea is right next to it. Besides the posse of beaches that fringe the city, two huge water parks lie just to the north, and it’s also possible to organize short boat trips around the bay.
In the town centre itself, though not terribly appealing.
The closest “real” beach to town, and quite a pleasing one too. It’s within walking distance of the centre, though you’ll have to navigate a small hill; failing that, jump on any minibus heading that way.
Kuşadası’s most famous stretch of sand, 3km southwest of town, is a rather scrappy affair, but very popular in summer. Regular dolmuşes from town.
One cove further along from Ladies’ Beach, and accessible on the same minibuses, this is smaller and quieter with fewer bars.
A nice, long stretch of hard-packed sand, 5km north of town, that’s famed for its adjacent water parks.
The best beach in the whole area, 15km north of town, and also easily accessible from Selçuk, though the sea can be rough on windy days. Regular minibuses from both Kuşadası and Selçuk.
A clutch of boats lies in wait just off Pigeon Island, their skippers eagerly drumming up custom in the morning, then again in the evening for the next day’s venture. Most offer a similar itinerary, leaving at 9.30am, visiting three isolated beaches and returning by 4.30pm. The price hovers around TL25 including lunch; chat with the skippers before you make your choice.
Village food in Cherry Valley
Village food in Cherry Valley
One of the Aegean’s most interesting restaurants lies just a short drive from Kuşadası, beautifully set amid the orchards in the village of Kirazlı Köy in “Cherry Valley”, and readily accessible by minibus from Kuşadası. While it remains all but unknown to foreign travellers, it has become hugely popular with Turkish visitors.
Riding the crest of the home-cooking wave that’s washing over western Turkey, Köy Sofrası translates as “village feast”, and that’s exactly what you’ll find if you make your way out here. Diners are treated to round after round of superb food, using the freshest ingredients from the surrounding countryside. This is the Aegean, so a mixed meze plate will best showcase the area’s wonderful herbs, pulses and veggies; otherwise the breakfasts are phenomenal, if you can get here early enough in the morning.
When in Turkey… Hangover cures, local style
When in Turkey… Hangover cures, local style
As westerners around the world can tell you, at the end of a night on the booze the best way to say sorry to your body is by throwing a kebab into it. A handy Turkish (and, of course, Greek) cure to an international malady, but what do Turks themselves do? One answer is işkembe çorba, a soup made with cow offal, often with a dash of lemon juice to cut straight through the offending alcohol. Its success as a hangover remedy may be behind the fact that, for many Turks, it’s the first meal of the year, consumed just after midnight on New Year’s Day. A few soup kitchens around the back of the Hanım Camii sell işkembe çorba; some stay open all night long.
Consulting the Oracle of apollo
Consulting the Oracle of apollo
Pilgrims visiting the sanctuary of Apollo would first purify themselves at a well below the resting place of the Medusa head, then approach the still-prominent circular altar to offer a sacrifice before proceeding to the steps of the shrine itself. As at Delphi, prophecies were formulated by proxy – supplicants would first deliver their queries to the priest of Apollo, who would disappear to consult the priestess, who (accounts disagree) either drank from, bathed in, or inhaled potent vapours from, the waters. Her subsequent ravings were rephrased more delicately to those waiting out front; the priest would reappear after a suitable interval on a terrace some 2m higher to deliver the oracular pronouncement. Questions ranged from the personal to matters of state; prophecies were recorded and stored for posterity.
The Ionian coast was first colonized by Greek-speakers in the twelfth century BC. The culture reached its zenith during the seventh and sixth centuries BC, when it was at the forefront of the newly emergent sciences, philosophy and the arts. Enormous advantages accrued to those who settled here: an amenable climate, fertile, well-watered terrain, and a strategic location between the Aegean – with its many fine harbours – and inland Anatolia. Partly thanks to the silting up of local rivers, the coastline soon began to recede, and by mid-Byzantine times virtually all of the Ionian cities had been abandoned; with the declaration of Christianity as the state religion, religious centres and oracles met a similar fate.
Today’s inhabitants have found the silver lining to the cloud of the advancing deltas, cashing in on the rich soil brought down from the hills. Vast tracts of cotton, tobacco, sesame and grain benefit from irrigation works, while groves of pine, olive and cypress, which need no such encouragement, adorn the hills and wilder reaches. And with the sea, though more distant than in former times, still beckoning when tramping the ruins palls, tourism is now threatening to outstrip agriculture.