Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

November 29, 2021
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A quick guide to Ephesus, Turkey's foremost wonder of the ancient world

It seems that more and more savvy travellers are visiting Turkey these days -- including many Canadian doctors -- and not surprisingly, it turns out there's a good reason. Never mind the history -- although there's tons of it, as you'll see. The fact is that Turkey is enviably situated on the cusp of European sophistication and Oriental mystique.

And it always has been, or at least for as long as it matters. For better or worse, the Ottoman Empire shaped modern Europe, leaving in its wake far more than the fez and the double-knotted carpet. Those heady days are gone but Turkey still benefits from a wondrous mix of influences, a rich tradition which refuses to be easily defined, and an enticingly confusing love affair with free enterprise.

The latter has resulted in runaway inflation that is only now seeing the first signs of reining in. What it's done for locals is created the only million-dollar Big Mac in the world... well, in liras, anyway. Just to give you an idea: Right now, a Canadian dollar will buy you approximately 430,598 liras. Not that long ago, it was closer to five liras per buck. (If you remember the situation in Argentina during the '80s, this will sound familiar.) And of course, while it's been hell for the middle and lower classes, as usual it's been a boon for businessmen. Turkey rode high thanks to foreign loans, but the recent devastating earthquake acted as a wakeup call when few international powers helped with much-needed funds. The resulting lack of ready cash to deal with the disaster has served as a lesson of sorts, as has the EEC's unwillingness to tolerate the economic situation in terms of the nation's participation in the new European union. All signs point to a new economic maturity, which will be disappointing to some but better for most.

For North Americans -- and indeed for many Europeans -- this translates into a unique destination, at least for the time being. The madcap lira means there are many deals to be had as Turks vie to do business in stable currencies. (Who knew the poor old Canadian dollar would be seen as desirable by anyone?) Best of all, though, is the fact that Turkey is truly a staggeringly beautiful destination with natural and man-made wonders to spare and some of the most fascinating, courteous and warm people in the world.

When I first arrived in the port town of Kusadasi, my impression was that I'd landed in the French Riviera -- about 70 years ago. That's the feeling that'll follow you: as though you've gone back not so much to a more classical time, but to the early 20th century in Italy or southern France. Sounds banal? It isn't -- especially if you've grown tired, as I have, of the homogenization of the western world. This is the Europe I've dreamt about, the pastoral settings and emerald-blue seas which sheltered writers and artists when the hustle and bustle of Paris and London wore thin. As we drove up and over the hills around the harbour, I kept expecting to catch a glimpse of Picasso or Waugh, or maybe Huxley in a straw hat at the side of the road. Well, okay -- maybe I didn't. But they'd have felt perfectly at home.


Turn to page 45 for more on Kusadasi and environs; they're worth a trip in themselves. We mentioned history: Well, anyone who lingers in Kusadasi should find some time to visit nearby Ephesus, a vast Greco-Roman ruin which is widely recognized as one of the ancient world's most spectacular -- and certainly most complete -- ruin with the possible exception of Pompeii. But while the latter is a window into the lives of ordinary Romans, Ephesus allows us a glimpse into the ancient world's pomp and grandeur -- with a few prosaic touches for good measure.

Located 18 kilometres from the harbour town near the village of Selcuk, Ephesus is a rambling collection of ruins which, as large as it is, represents only about 30 percent of what still remains to be excavated. Our guide laughed and made an appointment for us all to meet there again when all the work was done -- by optimistic estimates, about 300 years from now. I'm sorry I'll miss it, but what's there now is worth, in itself, a trip across the Atlantic.

During the 11th century BC, the Greeks founded Ephesus, a thriving metropolis which at its height boasted 250,000 inhabitants. In a very short time, it became a nexus of culture, commerce and power -- in fact, quite a few historians believe that it served as the launching pad for much of what we now call Western Civilization. Some of history's greatest tyrants and rulers conquered the city, including Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC, and even though a power shift made Athens the centre of the universe by 600 BC, Ephesus continued to prosper. Over the centuries, various rulers moved the city farther inland due to silt buildup in the harbour until the sea had retreated almost six kilometres from the city's original port.

The Romans gained control of Ephesus in the 2nd century BC and established it as an Oriental capital. During Augustus' reign (34-31 BC), Ephesus began a 200-year period of prominence as the commercial and banking centre of Western Anatolia. Despite efforts by both Nero and Hadrian, it proved impossible to arrest the silt buildup and the sea's retreat. It was this distance from a natural harbour that led to the city's gradual decline before a final malaria epidemic, which essentially wiped out the remaining population.

Turkey as a whole has always been prone to earthquakes; this is also true of the area around Ephesus and in fact may be the reason, oddly enough, that so much of it has remained buried and relatively intact for centuries. The city remained hidden until J.T. Wood, an English engineer, began searching for the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, in 1863. His search was successful but unfortunately very little of the temple has survived, especially when compared to the more complete ruins which surround it. An Austrian team began excavating the site in earnest in 1895, and since then archeologists from around the world, including Turkey, have cooperated in the effort.

When you drive off from Kusadasi along winding roads overlooking the glittering Aegean, you'll pass glorious rolling countryside, all sun-bitten and amber and dotted with dark poplars. To say it's pastoral is a serious understatement. Ephesus appears coyly, a hint of it at a time; there's a glimpse of the Grand Theatre, a monumental stadium which could seat 25,000 and still used until recently by the likes of Sting, until new cracks in the foundations showed that rock music was achieving what mere time and earthquakes hadn't succeeded in doing. Fortunately, only birds and tourists perform there now.

Then before the effect can be ruined by many more glimpses, you're there. There are the requisite stalls of goods, of course, all of them genuine if genuine is defined by "made in Turkey," but avoid the high-price items -- you'll do better in Kusadasi where prices and quality are controlled.

After you've run the gauntlet of young boys shoving postcards and trinkets in your face, you'll be through the turnstile and into a magical landscape. Go early in the morning if you can to beat the heat and the tourists. I was there at 8am and the silence was almost holy. You start at the Varius Baths, one of several such facilities on the site -- the ancients were obsessed with cleanliness. Note the smallish stadium (the Odeon) on the right; it was the city's lesser venue with a 2500 capacity. Intimate, yes -- but still impressive.

What struck me the most was the fact that we could stroll through these streets just as the Greeks and Romans had all those centuries ago. If all you've ever seen of antiquity has been housed in museums, a site like this one is galvanizing, throwing the reality of the ancient world into sharp relief. Marble column fragments of breathtaking beauty and detail litter the ground around you as you walk; your eye can't help but fall on a remnant of mosaic, a fallen marble god, an exquisite bas-relief. We don't realize the extent to which the ancients lived surrounded by marble and alabaster; even when you think you know, the impact of it doesn't hit you until you're there. You'll be amazed by the remnants of the State Agora, where the leaders of the city met; the symmetry of the Heracles Gate will stun you.

But I was particularly moved by a few of the more prosaic sights which for me brought the denizens of Ephesus to life. The public latrines, still surprisingly intact, are where the city's middle class would gather to take care of their needs and gossip. (The upper classes enjoyed plumbing and running water -- you'll see the terraced houses where they lived.) Even the toilets were intended to reflect a civilized ease; the seats were marble and many businessmen would send a servant ahead to warm the seat on cool winter days. Musicians played and fountains sang to obscure the ruder sounds of nature but otherwise all the men sat in the open, exchanging news and discussing the latest political scandal.

There's also the tunnel leading from the spectacular Library of Celsus, an incredibly complete ruin which more than any other illustrates the scale of this city. The façade, which is mostly all that's left, has been restored and some of the statues replaced, statues which stand for culture, justice, virtue and wisdom. Few façades you'll see anywhere in the world's great cities can hold a candle to it. As for the tunnel, well, it ran from the library to... what else, the brothel! "I'll be working late, honey... don't wait up." And right outside the brothel? A graffiti scratched into the wall with a spot smoothed out to deposit your money before you were allowed through the door. The drawing? A buxom woman with a large foot carved in the rock right next to her, which meant, according to the guide, "pay up or we'll kick you out on your a**."

Along with these reminders of only-too-human everyday life, you'll see much that aspires to the divine. Soaring columns, colossal statues and profiles, grandiose carvings of mottos to live by in Greek and Roman. Gods and goddesses smile benignly down or scowl in anger. Generations of rulers are immortalized in stone. You'll also walk down Curetes Street, where many of the artifacts have medical overtones, including one statue which was erected to honour a leading woman physician. As you stroll, remember that the street was lit at night by lanterns which sat on the columns.

Most evocative of all, perhaps, is the Marble Road, which is exactly that -- a wide, brilliantly white road which led to the harbour and was used for ceremonial occasions. Chariot ruts are still visible and I couldn't help but thrill at the thought that here too had walked Antony and Cleopatra, Alexander the Great, Hadrian and the disciple Paul, although he was actually run out of town and imprisoned after preaching at the Great Theatre. His jailhouse is still visible, ruined in the distance and obviously a pilgrim's delight; it was from this location that he wrote his letters to the Ephesians, among others.

Cap your visit with a tour of the Ephesus museum in Selcuk, where you'll find many an artefact from the site. And then -- let's make a date for 2300!

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.


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