Tall stories upon a shallow shore

Gate of Mazeus and Mithridates in Ephesus
Gate of Mazeus and Mithridates in Ephesus

Text by our correspondent from Didyma, Glenn Maffia.

As one can imagine, I do have somewhat of a luxury in that the subject matter of my columns, the ancient past, generally affords me to escape the rigours of reporting current news. Well, almost. Sometimes a snippet of current news does occasionally leap the divide of the millennia.

Another superficial tourist project

Such an occurrence appeared recently, when upon awaking, I sifted through my paraphernalia of different media to search for any overnight correspondence sent to me and any news items upon the relevant appliances. And then there it was, in another publication for whom I write, ‘Voices Newspaper,’ no less. The breaking news of the canal connecting Ephesus, in my eyes, that Disneyworld of commercial illusion, to the sea was nearing completion. That is not entirely reasonable of me, for if one can peer through the crass illusion, there are many facets of wonder to be observed within Ephesus, they are just becoming more difficult to discern.

Middle Harbour Gate from Ephesus, now in the Ephesos Museumi in Vienna
Middle Harbour Gate from Ephesus, now in the Ephesos Museumi in Vienna

Fine, therefore, being unveiled soon shall be yet another frivolous attraction within this once imperious city to seduce the uninformed and the gullible into believing an imposed illusion rather than historical record. I shudder to wonder as to what tall stories those opportunistic tour guides shall be gushing forth. To be fair, I do not believe that the hedonistic tourists shall be moved for a single moment, they shall just want a boat ride, they normally do.

The pronouncement, which first emanated from Hürriyet Daily News, was candid enough to admit that this canal project “is expected to make a great contribution to the country’s tourism”. No illusion there then; it is a tourist project, not a cultural project. Türkiye does tourism far more proficiently than culture. This point is echoed in my recent column (Apollo on my mind) where I implied, quite transparently, that there remains an extremely lopsided preference towards tourism. One that appears to suggest that these odd ‘co-joined twins’ should be separated forthwith; for one, tourism, is sucking the life out of the other, culture. It is worthy to note that the Hürriyet article never even murmured the word culture, which was as revealing as it was truthful.

A brief history of events

There were a number of versions of the city of Ephesus; some people have postulated three, others as many as eight. It depends where, and crucially when, one wishes to start counting. The heights (Mt. Koressos in Greek, Bülbüldağ in Turkish) which stand to look over the area was originally inhabited by peoples of the Neolithic Period, about 6,000 BCE.

According to Greek legend, the founder of what we call Ephesus today was Androklos, son of King Kodros. Though it is wise to remember that Greek mythology is precisely that; mythology, and what enthralling stories they told.

Statue of Androklos in the Ephesus Museum in Selçuk
Statue of Androklos in the Ephesus Museum in Selçuk

Fast forwarding into recorded history, the earlier indigenous peoples named the Lelegians and Carians, whom were not Greek but rather later Hellenized themselves, certainly inhabited this area before the Greek colonization began in the 8th century BCE. These people were also sophisticated builders and there is evidence, outside of mythology, to show that they were indeed the founders of what we call the cities in this region today.

Though whoever was settling in this location, at whatever time, all had to negotiate the common occurrence of what the River Cayster or Kaystros (Kücük Menderes in Turkish) brought within its flow, silt. The city was once an affluent port upon the Aegean Sea, it now stands 8 kilometres inland. The harbours throughout time had to cope with the continuing deposits of silt clogging and choking its harbours. This sedimentation caused the city to shift position upon numerous occasions to allow access to clear ports along the sea, paramount to a major seafaring trading port.

Eventually, as always, nature prevails. But the inhabitants prolonged their destined fate for a short while by cutting a canal through the sedimentation to enable access to the sea, a short-term plan to delay the inevitable. This, I believe, is the canal that the Turkish Tourist Board has now reopened, which has little to do with Culture per se. So beware of what you are told, the locals have learnt much from those fantastical Greek mythological stories.

A balanced conclusion

Naturally, at this present moment in time tourism is the lifeblood, not only of this region where I abide, but the country as a whole. Little wonder when we possess such exquisite and pristine artefacts residing within our midst.

My concern is that by tinkering and adapting such treasures, their gloss and allure shall diminish from the glorious sheen of historic wonders and into the desolate abyss of the pastiche. Stripped of originality and context. A fatal trait I have observed here, where the voraciousness of a financial ‘now’ blinds too many to the consequences in the future.

This is a particular area of concern where the sensitive management of artefacts is far more crucial than the exploitation of our collective human past. The vision must correctly be the preservation of archaeological sites to prevent them from becoming little more than photo opportunity tourist venues. The latter is not sustainable in the future, the former is so.

Unfortunately, transient politicians invariably do not observe the world in that sensitive way. Their gluttony consists merely of immediate votes. Herein resides the battle. One that, in a personal view, depends upon an independent, autonomous body to protect and preserve these glorious artefacts for future posterity. One that lives upon a more elevated platform than the prosaic tourism sector and the uncertain political agendas that are about as solid as the shaking tectonic plates upon which we walk.