At 4am only 10 minutes away from the historic site of Ephesus, in a sleepy Turkish town, we were woken by the call to prayer. Thus began our exploration of some of Turkey’s most famous, and most striking sites.
Whilst hordes of visitors are drawn to Ephesus (2 million a year) many overlook the neighbouring town of Selçuk, where elderly men share a game of backgammon or chess over a cigarette (or three), rattling tractors roam the roads, and satellite dishes dominate the rooftops. For those who wish to visit, we had a wonderful experience at the family-run Urkmez Hotel, with warm welcome, fairy-tale mosquito nets and a rooftop banquet breakfast (http://www.urkmezhotel.com/ – and their wonderful sister hotel http://ephesussuites.com/). For a comprehensive guide to visiting Ephesus and Selçuk written by a local, http://www.selcukephesus.com/ is very informative.
Selçuk itself has an interesting history. Inhabited as early as 6000 BC by indigenous tribes and as the burial place of St John, the Ayasuluk Hill boasts a majestic Citadel, built in the 7th century. In the 12th century, marauding Crusaders were buried in the Basilica of St. John, which was later plundered in the 14th century when the town was surrendered to the Seljuk Turks. Deserted by the early 19th century and roamed by wild animals, it wasn’t until the archaeological discoveries of J. T. Wood that Selçuk experienced a revival. Today visitors not only flock to Ephesus, but also make the pilgrimage to the House of the Virgin Mary, where Jesus’ mother is supposed to have lived until the Assumption.
Yet the real attraction remains the ancient city of Ephesus, still beautifully preserved to this day.
On a toasty September day, the sun rays were reflected off the gleaming marble columns and beat down on Ephesus’ most recognised landmarks: the colossal Great Theatre and the beautiful façade of the Library of Celsus. Downhill from the Upper Gate, the Curetes Way snakes its way down the hillside, lined by the beautiful remains of the Temple of Hadrian, the imposing Gate of Hercules and the ruined baths – from which the view is stunning, incidentally.
For a small extra fee, a visit to the Terrace Houses helps to bring the city alive. Ascending the walkways with a view of the mosaics and frescoes below (some still under restoration and excavation) gives a real feel for the complex of Roman residences. The views from the top, out over the Library of Celsus, bordered by palm trees and pines, are breath-taking.
Of course, no visit to Ephesus is complete without scrambling over the 25,000 stone seats of the Great Theatre, built as the Roman reconstruction of Lysimachus’ Hellenistic theatre which had previously stood carved into the hillside.
Back in Selçuk, worn out, overwhelmed and post-nap, our day ended with a sunset stroll to the castle and around the Basilica of St. John, followed by a romantic meal at the Old House Eski Ev garden restaurant. An unbeatable Turkish feast with flickering lanterns and pomegranate trees overhead, and kittens playing underfoot – the best meal of the trip, and all for only 20TRY (£5) each.