[Turkey through a traveler’s eyes] Discovering Aegean Turkey with a dilettante (2)

[Turkey through a traveler’s eyes] Discovering Aegean Turkey with a dilettante (2)

Athene temple, Priene

March 06, 2012, Tuesday/ 17:06:00/ TERRY RICHARDSON

At the end of part one we left gentleman scholar Richard Chandler, architect Nicholas Revett and artist William Parrs, along with their entourage of Armenian, Turkish and (bizarrely) Swiss servants, guides, guards and translators, gazing in awe at the splendid Roman-era theater of Miletus.

The year was 1765. Their mission was to explore the ancient sites of the Aegean coast and its hinterland, a region now part of Turkey, and record their findings.  Although this sun and antiquity blessed area may not have been the Ottoman Empire’s most remote or dangerous, plague, banditry and other assorted trials and tribulations made travel here a daunting prospect -- at least for Western Europeans.

South to Miletus

The daring trio were sponsored by the rich and powerful Society of Dilettantes, based in London, an organization that sought to “improve” the cultural life of the British public.  With the then sultan’s firman (a document giving them right of passage through his domains) in their possession, the explorers had set off south down the Aegean coast from Smyrna (today’s İzmir), reaching Miletus by way of minor sites such as Clazomenae and major ones like Ephesus. Miletus is now one of the most important ancient sites on the Aegean coast, often visited along with the spectacular ancient city of Priene, and the great temple of Apollo at Didyma, as part of a day trip from nearby Kuşadası or Selçuk. Although an important Ionian Greek city back in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C., most of the extant remains are Roman and Byzantine.

Ancient Miletus once stood right on the coast; its ruins are now stranded in the silted-up delta of the Meander (Büyük Menderes) river. Even today parts of the site are liable to be submerged in winter and spring (and play host in March to flocks of flamingos), making exploration tricky. The situation was far worse in Chandler’s time, however, and he reports a site “spread with rubbish and overrun with thickets.” The party spent most of their time measuring, making notes and sketching the theater (most of the other remains visible today were still buried by silt and/or submerged at the time of their visit) but had some respite from their labors in the tent of an ağa (an important Ottoman official). Chandler found the dignitary “sitting on a carpet, cross-legged, with a falcon on his knee, and another, which he stroked and caressed, before him on a stand.” The travelers “were treated to a pipe and dish of coffee” with the ağa declaring magnanimously through Chandler’s Armenian interpreter “that the English and Turks were brethren.”

Temples, monkeys and Easter

Their next stop was the temple of Apollo at Didyma, surely one of the single most impressive ancient buildings in Anatolia. En route they stopped at a poor Greek village to “procure fowls, eggs and other provisions” and were later almost trampled by an enraged bull which “roaring, rushed out of a thicket, close by the road, and made furiously at our guide.” The party survived, however, and Chandler was captivated by his first view of the temple, recording, “The memory of the pleasure which this spot afforded me will not be soon or easily erased. The columns yet entire are so exquisitely fine, the marble mass so vast and noble, that it is impossible perhaps to conceive greater beauty and majesty of ruin.”  The remains of the oracular temple at Didyma (Didim in Turkish) are magnificent even today, hedged though they are by more recent structures and swarmed over by tour groups. How much more spectacular they must have been in 1765, free of the detritus of our modern world. Returning to Scala Nova (Kuşadası) to resupply, the party were entertained in a village by “gypsies of the east, (who) came thither with a couple of large apes, which, their masters singing to them, performed a great variety of feats with extraordinary alertness, and a dexterity not to be imagined.” A visit to another village coincided with the Greek Orthodox Easter, when “a small bier, prettily decked with orange and citron buds, jasmine, flowers and boughs, was placed in the church, with a Christ crucified rudely painted on the board, for a body.” Later the celebrating Greeks gave them “presents of coloured eggs, and cakes of Easter-bread.”

The lovely mountain-side ruins of the Hellenistic-era city of Priene, the party’s next destination, are amongst the most beautiful in Turkey, but anyone who has gazed-up at the dizzying cliffs behind the site will sympathize with Chandler and his companions, who approached Priene from that perilous direction rather than from the plain below. “The way was familiar to our guide, and a lad, his son, who was with us. We listened to their assurances and, enticed by a fair setting out, followed them; but it soon became difficult and dangerous. The steps cut in the rock were narrow, the path frequently not wider than the body, and so steep as to scarcely allow footing. The sun shone full upon us, and was reverberated by the rugged side of the mountain, to which we leaned, avoiding as much as possible the frightful view of the abyss beneath us.”  The famous temple of Athene Polias, now with some of its tumbled columns re-erected, was then in complete ruins, but Chandler still noted “though prostrate (the temple) was a remain of Ionian elegance and grandeur too curious to be hastily or slightly examined.”

Tales of tobacco and the plague

After an exploration of beautiful Lake Bafa, including one journey “in a boat, or rather a few boards badly fastened together,” the party returned to Smyrna, presumably to rest-up and tidy their notes and drawings. They then journeyed even further south than Bafa, to examine the still wonderful and seldom visited Carian ruins of Labraunda, Iasos and Stratonicea. Their base was Milas (know to Chandler and his contemporaries as Mylasa), where tobacco was grown. The crop “hanging in strings against the walls of the cottages to dry” was then fairly new to the Ottoman Empire, with Chandler noting, “The smoking it, now so universal, was in 1610 a novel practice even at Constantinople; where a Turk had been recently led about the streets in derision, with a pipe thrust through his nose, as a punishment to deter others from following his example.” Current government anti-smoking campaigns may be less vicious but appear to be no more effective.

Heading north to Tralles (today’s Aydın), the birthplace of one of the architects of İstanbul’s marvelous Aya Sofya, the travelers heard “alarming intelligence of the plague at Smyrna, the daily havoc it made, and the rapidity with which the fierce contagion was then propagated; threatening to overspread the whole country before the end of the summer.” No matter how obsessed they were with classical antiquities, they must have been terrified they too would succumb to the terrible disease, especially as they were caught in a caravanserai awaiting permission to move on from the local pasha “pent up in a small chamber and gallery, among doves and travellers, chiefly Turks; devoured by myriads of insects; and suffering from extreme heat.”

Fierce locals and travertine terraces

As the party moved inland, up the Meander valley towards Hierapolis (near modern Pamukkale and Denizli) Chandler noted with some misgivings “an alteration in the carriage of the Turks who, in the interior regions, seldom see strangers, and are full of ferocity.” His fears proved grounded, as near ancient Laodicea, their next goal, the Dilettante’s camp was “surrounded by armed men, conducted by the Turk who had recommended this spot. Their business was to demand bac-shish for their aga.” Eventually the sultan’s firman convinced the local ağa that Chandler and his companions were not spies, and they proceeded, via Laodicea, to Pamukkale. Like so many visitors after them, they were amazed by the white travertine terraces and scalloped pools tumbling down the hillside, with Chandler recording, “The vast slope, which at a distance we had taken for chalk, was now beheld with wonder, it seeming an immense frozen cascade, the surface wavy, as of water at once fixed, or in its headlong course suddenly petrified.” They bathed “with pleasure” in the warm thermal pool littered with architectural fragments from ancient Hierapolis. The Dilettantes, of course, bathed for free; today admission to the pool is a steep TL 50.

Chandler and his party got no further east than Pamukkale. Thinking back on the expedition, Chandler wrote: “Our mode of living in this tour had been more rough than can well be described…and we had commonly pitched our tent by some well, brook, or fountain, near a village, where we could purchase eggs, fowls, a lamb or kid, rice, fruits, wine, raki or white brandy, and the like necessities; with bread, which was often gritty… We had seldom pulled off our clothes at night; sleeping sometimes with our boots or hats on…a portmanteau or large stone serving instead of pillow.”  For the average local Turkish or Greek peasant farmer this would have hardly seemed a rough life, but these were pampered, upper-class English gentlemen, and the rigors of the journey for them should not be underestimated, particularly given the ever-present threat of the plague.

The party finally returned to Smyrna in August, having killed time outside the city waiting for the plague to abate. When they re-entered the city, Chandler records “it was striking, as we passed the Turkish cemeteries, to contemplate the many recent graves of different sizes, exhibiting the uncertain tenure of a frail body at every stage of life.”  The plague, though, had passed -- for the time being. As had Chandler’s, Revett’s and Parrs’ tour of Asia Minor. Ten days later they embarked ship for Athens, then still a part of the Ottoman Empire, to spend another year examining classical antiquities at the generous behest of the Society of Dilettantes.

“Travels in Asia Minor and Greece Volume 1,” by Richard Chandler, is reprinted by Elibron Classics (, based on an original published in 1825 by Clarendon Press, Oxford

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