The antique charms of Assos

The antique charms of Assos

Assos harbor (PHOTOS: PAT YALE)

June 24, 2012, Sunday/ 12:49:00

At the top of the steep hill that forms the main street of Behramkale, between Ayvacık and Ayvalık, stand the ruins of a Temple of Athena dating back to c. 530 B.C. Half a dozen of the many columns that once made it resemble a Parthenon in miniature have been re-erected to give visitors an idea of what it would have looked like in its heyday.

Then, its Doric capitals sat beneath a frieze depicting a hunt scene that was removed long ago and is now split between the İstanbul Archeology Museum and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

To be frank, the remains of the temple are not particularly dramatic, not a patch, for example, on what can be seen at Pergamum. Were they all that the site of ancient Assos had to offer, visitors might be recommended to hang onto the lira required for an entry ticket. But to stand on the site of the temple and gaze out across the glorious blue of the Gulf of Edremit to the Greek island of Lesbos (Mytilene) is to confront a view so magnificent that you’ll struggle to find words to describe it. The sea here is a sheet of the purest lapis lazuli, so blue that you could almost imagine it having given rise to the word. Silent, motionless, it yet speaks loudly of a link between the lands on either side that stretches right back to the eighth century when colonists from Lesbos are thought to have established the first settlement on the site.

Today’s Assos is a strange place, abruptly divided into the modern village of Behramkale that slithers down the hillside to the main road junction, and Assos itself, a cluster of half-a-dozen absurdly picturesque, old stone warehouses lining a small harbor that were once used to store leather tanned using a substance extracted from the acorn cups of the Mediterranean (Holm) oak that covered the hillside. Today the warehouses have all been turned into upscale hotels with sea views that are the main reason to come here. Most people pop up to Behramkale to see the temple and run the gauntlet of the souvenir stalls lining the road up to it. But the road from the harbor to Behramkale is steep and most people drive up and down it, thereby missing out on what’s to be seen in between.

If, instead, you walk down to the harbor you will see, in the middle of a road junction, an incongruously small statue of Aristotle (Aristo in Turkish), the great philosopher who left Athens to live in Assos from 347 to 344 B.C. Those were the city’s glory days when what is now a backwater difficult to reach by public transport was an important place whose eunuch ruler Hermias was trying to put into practice Plato’s idea of the philosopher king. It was probably in his reign that the city’s dramatic walls that once stretched for three kilometers were built, and it was certainly in his reign that Aristotle would have walked in the agora and stoa, the shattered remains of which lie half-buried in the undergrowth on the flat land beside the road directly beneath the temple.

Hard though it is to imagine it now, Hermias and Aristotle’s dreams were brought to an abrupt end by the Persians, who tortured and executed Hermias. Aristotle, who was by then married to his niece, fled to Lesbos.

The ruins of Assos were first excavated in 1881 by the Americans, Joseph Thatcher Clarke and Francis Henry Bacon. They were joined in their endeavors by a young man named John Henry Haynes (1849-1910), who was the first American archeological photographer and whose black and white images of the work on the site (including the retrieval of the temple frieze from inside the village) were shown at the Pera Museum in İstanbul last year.

That exhibition highlighted the shenanigans and duplicity behind the dig at Nippur in Iraq but things weren’t a great deal better at Assos, where Clarke was soon distracted by the fleshpots of Smyrna (İzmir), leaving Bacon to get on with the hard work of excavation while still taking much of the credit for it himself. Bacon, meanwhile, married the daughter of Frank Calvert, the archeologist whose work at nearby Troy was overshadowed by that of Heinrich Schliemann.

Tourism sometimes casts a distorting lens over history, and these days when Assos is a popular holiday destination it’s hard to believe that in the past it mostly played second fiddle to nearby Alexandria Troas, a site that is almost forgotten nowadays. It’s known that St. Paul walked to Assos from Alexandria Troas before taking a ship for Lesbos during the course of his third missionary journey. After that, though, the town more or less vanished from the pages of history.

In 1330 it was captured for the Ottomans by Orhan Gazi, and shortly afterwards, in the reign of Sultan Murad I, the cute little Hüdavendigar (Creator of the Universe) Cami was built, reusing in its portico materials obviously taken from the ruins of the nearby temple. Sadly today it’s kept locked up. You can, however, inspect the fine Ottoman bridge of the same date that crosses the Tuzla River just before you come into Behramkale from Ayvacık. One of Haynes’ most dramatic photographs shows the silhouetted figure of a man on horseback pausing in the middle of the bridge.

If you take your time to explore the ruins, you’ll come across the remains of a theater with a spectacular backdrop of the azure sea as well as a number of tumbled sarcophagi, mostly with their lids torn off. According to Pliny these were made of a stone that contained a substance that would consume the flesh of the deceased within 40 days (the word “sarcophagus” meaning “flesh-eating” supposedly reflects this fact). Most of the ruins lie to the left of the road as you walk down it and are accessed via two separate gates, but there are also remains of a Byzantine basilica and a stretch of Roman road to the right of the road shortly after it starts its descent.

Exploring the ruins aside, there’s not a great deal to do in Assos, although Behramkale, with its pretty houses made from the same reddish-brown andesite as the Temple of Athena, are very pretty. Down in the harbor all the hotels boast restaurants, although the quality of what they offer tends to reflect a captive market (all the hotels will insist you book half-board). Increasingly they also have sundecks crammed with loungers and swimming platforms to make up for the absence of a beach. A long shingle beach is to be found a few kilometers further east along the coast at Kadırga, where hotels now overlook the site of an ancient shipyard (“kadırga” means “galley” in Turkish).

Public transport is thin on the ground in these parts but there are daily services to Gülpınar, home to the ruins of a temple to Apollo Smintheion (Apollo Lord of the Mice), and to Ayvacık, which hosts a lively Friday market. With your own car you might like to explore some of the nearby villages which are still mercifully free of concrete blight and all the more picturesque for it.

WHERE TO STAY

Accommodation comes under pressure

over summer weekends. Try and visit midweek.

Biber Evi, Behramkale. Tel.: 0 (286) 721 74 10

Dolunay Pansiyon, Behramkale. Tel.: 0 (286) 721 71 72

Old Bridge House, Behramkale. Tel.: 0 (286) 721 71 00

Kervansaray Hotel, Assos. Tel.: 0 (286) 721 70 93

Yıldız Saray Hotel, Assos. Tel.: 0 (286) 721 70 25

HOW TO GET THERE

Dolmuşes from Ayvacık may take you up to Behramkale but usually drop you at the junction with the road to Gülpınar. Ditto with the dolmuşes coming from Gülpınar. There are several daily services in each direction but they stop in the early afternoon. This is a part of the country best explored with a private car.

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