Surviving the Apocalypse — Ephesus, Turkey

Wisdom, knowledge, fortune, virtue: this is the Ephesian recipe for success. It could also be why a nearby village in Turkey was deemed a safe haven to survive the predicted apocalypse of Dec 21, 2012, the end of the Mayan calendar. This little village of 600 people, Şirince (Shee-reen-jay), swelled to 60,000 for doomsday – chosen by virtue of its proximity to Ephesus, where the Virgin Mary spent her final days until her assumption into heaven.

It’s a cute town whose white hillside houses are lined up like soldiers, rows of windows shuttered with dark brown wood. It has UNESCO status but while it is pretty compared to its neighbour, Selçuk, the cultural significance might be more the cause than the aesthetics. The cobblestone streets funnel you through a tourist trap, at least on the surface, of pensions, uninspired restaurants and kitschy shops.

Founded by freed Greek slaves in the 1400s, they named it Çirkince, “rather ugly,” to discourage others from coming. The current name means “quaint,” changed a few years after Turkey’s 1924 population exchange with Greece following the Greco-Turkish War. The exchange was based primarily on religion, ignoring language and nationality: Turkish-speaking Orthodox Christians were sent to Greece in exchange for Greek-speaking Muslims.

The new now-Muslim town retained the local trade in very sweet fruit wine (blackberry, mulberry strawberry, pomegranate, melon) and in 2012 created a special end-of-the-world vintage that had to be consumed before the apocalyptic deadline. Savvy. They also jacked up the $60/night hotel cost to $1600/night.

Şirince had a role in the discovery of the House of the Virgin Mary in Ephesus. With most of the credit going to a paralyzed German nun with visions, it was the people of this hillside village making their annual pilgrimage from the town’s church of St. John the Apostle to a little place in Ephesus that triggered a greater look at the area. 

Mother Mary’s House, as it is called in Turkish, is a lot of guesswork. The two-room structure has only a two-foot base of original walls. The rest is reconstructed. There is some doubt as to the authenticity of the house and site but it has received three papal visits, the first in 1896 and the last from Pope Benedict XVI in 2006, which is good enough for the pious and tourists alike. Outside, the “fountain” is a row of taps mounted in a wall reminiscent of the bathrooms in prison movies. But we gamely washed our hands and I took a sip, unsure if that was required to aid in good fortune. 

Beside the fountain is a wishing wall covered in paper streamers to tie up your wishes. I wrote my wish, more of a freeform haiku, on a bank receipt. My friend felt that could be construed as bribery and elected to use toilet paper instead. I didn’t point out how *that* could be construed. Our guide dashed our hopes by saying the wall is cleaned off once a week so I hope Mother Mary works fast.

Selçuk, the nearest city to Ephesus, takes the knowledge requirement of success seriously. Guiding is a profession, not a summer job. Guides are now required to have a 5-yr tour guide degree that includes courses in History, Archeology, and Mythology. We were fortunate to book a tour that had only two other people on it, an Australian couple married 46 years. The four of us had our pedigreed guide, Nizan, and minivan to ourselves.

Ephesus is a revelation. Expecting only the theatre, we were delighted to find a city of marble ruins with a wide main street, the beginnings of side streets, a harbour street and columns, arches, walls, stairs, and a few key buildings.

The highlight is the Library. My kind of town. Rising two-stories high, it could be the twin of Petra’s Treasury in Jordan, but free-standing. It is intricate with tall Corinthian columns and the four statues of wisdom, knowledge, fortune and virtue guarding the entrance. 

Directly across from it is the brothel with an ancient ad for it etched into the marble sidewalk a block away. The ad shows a broken heart, a footprint pointed towards the building, and the face of a beautiful woman along with a square that once held menu prices. You can almost hear the Ephesians calling, “Honey, I’m going to the library..” as they closed the front door. 

Through the arches, down another street and past the agora, lies the famous theatre. Still in use periodically today, it has hosted Sting, Elton John and Yanni, seating 25,000 people and using the natural acoustics. 

Having the guide brought us to great vantage points that large groups passed by unaware and provided some commentary not found in books. Ephesus is still being excavated. With only 20% of the city uncovered, new artifacts are being found every day. We passed a colonnade that had been discovered in 2013 and the previous week, an archaeologist measuring an area found a tablet with a Maltese cross etched into its face, that she placed casually against a wall.

We left the ancient city to lunch at a small restaurant in the country that is part of a carpet-weaving cooperative. The meal was delicious and fun as we and the other couple good-naturedly out-travel-storied each other. Hard to do with peripatetic Australians. We had a fascinating demonstration of de-silking worm cocoons (the worms had been gassed to death) and watched slackjawed as women wove intricate Turkish patterns into carpets in silk and wool. Then it was time to pay our dues. A large, square room, some Turkish tea and men blanketing the floor with carpet after carpet, twirling them professionally to show how colours shift depending on the angle at which you see them. Despite the timeshare-style full court press, we left empty-handed, but with a greater appreciation of the skill involved and an understanding of the thousand-dollar price tags.

So farewell to Turkey, a warm and friendly country, with a blend of ancient and modern, natural and urban, delicious tea and a McDonald’s that delivers (based on the branded motorbikes with panniers). That’s civilization.

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