We started out from New York making sure everyone had arrived and that all was going well. The flights were remarkably easy/painless, and the hour spent in Heathrow Airport was only problematic because I had no pounds (only euros and American currency) and could find *nothing* near the gate to eat. I eventually found a bag of chocolates (which didn't quite qualify as food) and filled the hole threatening to claw its way through my stomach.
And then, Istanbul! The city is very different now from six years ago, and not at all what I expected. In 2001 when I visited, I loved everything about the city except the lack of presence of women--there just weren't very many women out and about, and most of those who were wore coverings from head to toe. There are so many more visible women in Istanbul now that it blows me away. We heard from a local that the changes really started in 2002, when Turkey started to push toward joining the EU. There are so many more women working now, wearing slacks, wearing bright colors--it's a much more comfortable place to visit, though in the change and modernization that has happened, it has lost just a little of what made it such a unique place. (This could also have something to do with the Starbucks and the McDonald's, both within a block of our hotel.)
I had hoped to spend our free day in Istanbul visiting the Blue Mosque, the Basilica Cistern (which I remembered as the Underground Cathedral), and the Hagia Sophia. Because traveling with a group is always a little less independently driven (and most of our group really wanted to spend some time in the Grand Bazaar), I only managed two of the three. The Hagia Sophia will have to wait for the next visit!
The Basilica Sistern is still beautiful and mysterious, though to help tourists understand what the place is for, they have brought a large, flat-screen filmed explanation down on one end and added a few more signs. It has become quite the tourist location--when I was there the first time, I think the four people from my group were the only ones there. I'm a little torn on how to feel about this--on the one hand, more tourism means that the site will continue to be well kept. On the other, it's hard to feel mystery in a place filled with tourists (even when I'm one among them). So I think I will go back to remembering it the way I saw it the first time: dark and slightly treacherous, pillars stretching from beneath the water up to the ceiling, revealed only by colored luminescence at their bases. The heads of two medusas/gorgons--one on the side and one upside down--are hidden back at the very end of the path, nearly underground, hidden from all but the wariest passerby, who is seeking evidence of the myths in the world around them. Even having visited among a crowd, I captured some of that feeling of mystery, that feeling of being in a place that feels powerful and strange.
The Blue Mosque was just as beautiful as I remembered, but we had both the fortune and misfortune to encounter a guide as we walked in. Being told academically about features of a building also takes away some of the sense of mystery--the Blue Mosque is possibly the holiest building I have ever visited, and I think I would have liked to just sit, breathe in the air, and look at the patterns in the domes above. Again, I shall go next time.
I did get the chance to visit Topkapi Palace, and the Harem/private apartments within, which was great. Those buildings are also beautiful, and their architecture is filled with six, eight, ten, and twelve pointed stars. (Once I started noticing them, I couldn't stop.) One of the best rooms had mirrors on both sides, so that when you stood in the center between these large, ornate mirrors, the world was reflected back a thousand times.
We left Istanbul for the long drive to Truva, the settlement just outside the ruins of Troy. The guide we had, Mustafa (whose last name I can't remember at the moment--I'll correct myself later), has written one of the best guide books on Troy available over here. He's been involved with the archaeological community for years, and was able to tell us not only about what has been found, but about what they're up to these days. Unfortunately for the site, some of the stress in eastern Turkey has discouraged tourism, despite very little trouble occuring here in the West.
It's hard to know what to say about Troy, except to say that the recent Brad Pitt/Orlando Bloom film doesn't really evoke the place as well as being on that ground. You can see where some of the mythic events took place right there in the landscape--Achilles and Hector's path around the old city is now mostly agricultural fields, but the spring and the river between which they had their final battle is still visible.
After the tour of Troy, we drove the long road to Kusadesi and arrived in this lovely resort town, only a short drive from the ruins of Ephesus. Ephesus is just outside of Selcuk, a friendly, kitchy little town with locals who want to know *everything* about where you're visiting from and what you're seeing. (Almost everyone you engage in conversation wants to know where you're from. I've discovered that New York, which not technically accurate, is the easiest answer, because while the United States is not specific enough, Connecticut is completely unknown.)
What I love about Selcuk is both the small town feel and the hospitality, as well as the proximity to ancient sites that really resonate with me. The legends say that St. John the Evangelist (also called St. John the Apostle) wrote the Gospel of John, all of John's letters, and Revelations while at Ephesus, and that he brought Mary Mother of Jesus with him. She is said to have lived here until the end of her days, and her house (which twice now I've been unable to visit) is within leagues of the ancient city. John himself is buried beneath the Cathedral of St. John, where pilgrims traveled for years to be healed by the air off of John's grave. Mark Vecchio, the professor running the tour, mentioned that the word in Latin for breath (which I've inconveniently forgotten) meant, all at once, wind, breath, and spirit--so that those healed by the wind from the tomb were just as much healed by John's spirit, linguistically speaking.
I could spend days exploring the city of Ephesus, though I think I would spend most of the time in the great theater there. (There are two: the great theater and the odion--I mean the first, which seats 25,000 people, larger than the population of the ancient city by an order of magnitude.) Along with the story from Acts that tells of events in that theater, there is a sense of "center" that makes the theater feel special. It is surrounded by mountains on both sides, such that it looks like the mountains themselves are an extension of the amphitheater walls. There is a sense of wholeness that washes over me when I'm there--a fullness that, the first time I visited, made me burst into tears, because I was so filled that the emotion had nowhere to go but out! On this visit I had hoped to figure out why I was so affected, but alas, no new revelations but the continuity of mountains and walls that open into sky and sea.
We also visited the Temple of Artemis, once one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and now sunk beneath a swamp. It was actually originally built on a swamp, but it has flooded in the intervening thousand and more years, putting most of the structure under water. The water was about eight inches lower when we visited than when Mark and I were here in 2001, so we did a great deal more exploring. When you look at the geography of that place and recognize that it was once touching the shore--the sea waters have receded since then as earthquakes and silt changed the landscape--it has a very definite pattern: the mountains surround it on all sides, except for the sea, and it is in the deepest depression in the vally, giving it the feeling of a naval of the world.
Last night I unfortunately got sick from the heat and the exhaustion, so I have spent most of today just relaxing, staying out of the sun, and enjoying a bit of peace and quiet before we voyage out again tomorrow. I would have liked to see the Cave of the Seven Sleepers and the shrine to Cybele--the Anatolian mother goddess who was fused with Artemis here--as well as Mary's House, but those just give me a reason to come back again!
We leave very early tomorrow for Samos, where we will go through customs and spend most of the day (and the night) on the ferry to Pireaus--the port of Athens. Then, on into mythic Greece!