Fire on the mountain

If YOU heard about a place where a Greek god had battled with and slain a female monster and, commemorating this victory, the mountain spouted flames — and they had continued burning for more than 2000 years… would you be able to resist going to see it? I couldn’t. The burning mountain is Mt. Chimaera; it’s near the towns people stay in before embarking on an sailing trip along Turkey’s Turquoise Coast.

Steve and I wanted our adventure here to include some time on the water. So after leaving Ephesus, we flew to Antalya on Turkey’s southern Mediterranean coast. We spent a night in its historic core, so picturesque it made Steve blurt out, “This makes Carmel look like a dump!” Then we took a taxi Friday morning to a backpacker joint in Olympos, about 90 minutes southwest of Antalya. I’d read that nightly excursions to the Chimaera would be available, but when we checked in, the affable manager sadly said, due to Covid, these were sporadic. Not many Turks were interested, and foreign tourism, though recovering, was a shadow of its former self. He said he would let us know that evening if a group could be mustered. If so, it would cost 100 lira (about $6.50) apiece.

I felt disappointed, but Olympos isn’t a bad place to chill. A couple of blocks from where we were staying, there were beautiful ancient ruins. The pleasant path that winds among the crumbling stone structures leads to a beach fronting turquoise water. Though the beach was too rocky and the water too chilly to tempt me to plunge in, the scene was archetypally picturesque.

When dinner back at the camp began at 8, we hadn’t heard a peep about the pyro-nocturnal excursion.I’d given up, but Steve wanted to double check. He was all but panting when he came back with the news that a van would be leaving in just 15 minutes, promptly at 9 pm. We threw our walking sticks and sweaters and flashlights into the daypack, then piled on the vehicle, happy to find another couple already aboard. We picked up two more couples at a nearby hotel, then barreled into the darkness.

If you ever go to Turkey and want to see the famous fires yourself, here’s my advice: stay in the town of Cirali, not Olympos. Only a half mile of shoreline separates the two towns, but the deep ravine between them complicates vehicular transit. You have to drive up the twisty mountain road for 20 minutes, go south on the highway for a minute or two, then zoom downhill again to the neighboring town. On the far side of Cirali, we climbed for another 5-10 minutes before reaching a parking lot where the 8 of us piled out of the van.

It was 9:45 pm. In limited English, our driver said we had to be back by 11. The other three couples (all in their 20s and 30s) bolted up the stony path into the dark, disappearing from view almost immediately. Steve and I opened our poles and took off after them as fast as possible.

I’m glad we’re reasonably fit and that we had the poles and flashlights. In the daylight, the hike up the mountain would not have been grueling. In the dark, it felt like a challenge. The night was moonless, and no lights illuminated the stony path; no railings demarcated the drop offs. Gravel made some sections slippery. Stony steps eased the ascent in many places — except when the stairs were a foot tall. OSHA would not have approved.

After about 25 minutes, we made out the orange glow of what appeared to be campfires.

No wood or other obvious fuel was feeding them. The fires looked more than anything like what you see in a phony rock fireplace — burning quietly, small and controlled.The guidebooks say they can be extinguished by covering them, but they will pop up again nearby. Steve judged it to be a natural gas seep, mostly methane. The Greek myth is a lot more romantic, however. According to it, the lady monster had the head of a lion, the body of a goat, and the tail of a dragon. Mounted on the winged horse Pegasus, the hero Bellerophon killed the Chimaera by pouring molten lead into her mouth.

Steve and I spent about 20 minutes amidst the fires and the other visitors — a peaceable assembly who mostly gazed at the flames meditatively. A solitary ginger cat meandered among them (unusual for Turkey, which seems to have almost as many cats as people).I particularly admired the forethought of the guys who’d brought sticks and marshmallows, for toasting.

Fires seemed to stretch up the mountain into the distance. We sat down for a moment to drink in the scene. Cats have an uncanny ability to detect my cat allergies; sure enough, the ginger made a beeline for me and climbed into my lap.

It was time to move. We didn’t want to miss that 11 pm departure and we suspected that the dark descent would be harder than the climb up. It didn’t help that one of our flashlights died, and a spare from the bus dimmed to almost nothing. We made it.

Now I’m writing about it in another place I never expected to be: on the deck of a traditional Turkish gulet, a 2-masted sailing vessel iconic in this area. It’s even more wonderful than the magical mountain (but I’ll wait till the end of our cruise before trying to describe it).

Jeannette’s letter to the Ephesians

Tuesday afternoon, Steve and I flew to Izmir (once known as Smyrna). It’s the third largest city in Turkey, but we didn’t pause to tour it. Instead we caught a taxi at the airport and rode south for about an hour to the town of Selcuk, the ancient site of a once great city known as Ephesus. We spent all of Wednesday in and around it. Following the example of St. Paul, I have a few observations to offer the locals:

Dear Ephesians,

You need to consider expanding your touristic marketing. You’re not doing enough to attract women. Not only feminists but those who don’t embrace that label might go out of their way to visit a place where women thousands of years ago held enormous power; were worshipped as goddesses! I know you’re not trying to hide this information. I read about it in the guidebooks. But you’re not promoting it much.

The guidebooks tell readers that long before the Greeks rose to dominate this region, the locals worshipped a goddess of fertility known as Cybele.

Over the course of thousands of years, she morphed into Artemis, the Greeks’ maiden of the hunt and a divinely Mother Nature figure. To honor her, King Croesus of Lydia (he of the enormous wealth) built one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world here: a temple three times the size of Athens’ Parthenon. The Ephesus museum contains a model that suggests it looked like this:

Only a solitary column of that colossal structure remains today; Steve and I didn’t try to visit it. In the distance, it looked underwhelming. (You can spot it in the photo below.) But why hasn’t someone built a cool multimedia center that would bring the past to life?

The museum does display two marvelous statues of Artemis that were buried for ages and thus escaped the grubby paws of marauders like the Goths, who destroyed the temple in 268 AD.

The Romans called her Diana. Those are bulls at her side.

The big Artemises are next to a gallery devoted to the ancient woman-worshipping fertility cults believed to have flourished in this area between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago. But the statues in it are quite small, the room is dimly lit, and the explanatory signage in the museum isn’t great. It’s easy to blow right by and miss them.

In the gift shop, I did find a pocketbook adorned with an image of the statue of Artemis that’s covered with breast-like follicles — or are they seeds? Or bull testicles? Certainly something deliciously fertile. I would have jumped on a nice t-shirt bearing that image, but this is all there was:

Don’t get me wrong, Ephesians. The big attractions that draw the hordes of visitors didn’t disappoint us. Strolling over the marble streets of the vast archeological site, once home to a half-million people, cut with grooves from their chariot carts, let us connect with Greek and Roman daily life 2000 years ago.

Wealthy members of the community lived quite sumptuously, as these residences attest.
The city of Ephesus offered all manner of attractions, including one of the biggest libraries in the world…
Toilets, very sociable!, whisked away the solid waste with running water.

Our guide claimed that this footprint advertised one of the many brothels.

Resident enjoyed lots of public art, including this relief of the goddess Nike. See where the footwear company’s famous swoosh came from?
All around a great place to hang out.

We spent about two hours there, then drove up a nearby mountain to the site where the Catholic Church has declared that the Virgin Mary spent her waning years. Later in the day, we also roamed the enormous ruins of the basilica erected by Emperor Justinian on the spot where St. John was said to be buried.

The weather was lovely. No place was jammed with tourists. We enjoyed it all.

And yet even Mary’s house left me shaking my head. A humble stone dwelling has been constructed to suggest what her dwelling might have looked like.The Catholic Church says it was somewhere near the house that the body of the elderly Virgin was lifted off the ground and physically assumed into heaven. Catholics all over the world celebrate this event every August 15. But we found not a single plaque on the site mentioning it.

Somehow it felt like just another example of ignoring spectacular history starring women.

Yours, respectfully

Coming clean in Istanbul

Flying halfway around the world is a grubby business. That’s true, even when it goes flawlessly, as it did for Steve and me last Thursday and Friday. We had some tight connections (in Denver and Frankfurt), but we arrived in Turkey’s biggest city within minutes of our scheduled time. After sharing all those toilet seats in all those cramped airborne WCs, however, I always deplane feeling soiled, no matter how spiffed up I am when I start out. In this case, even though we breezed through immigration and quickly collected our bags, we had to wait for our friends Larry and Virginia, who took a separate flight from LA to join us for the first few days in Turkey. They had to get SIM cards for their phones, and then we squeezed into a taxi together and rode for about an hour to the home-exchange lodgings I had secured. By the time we figured out how to get into the building and ascended the two flights of stairs and clomped into the apartment, it was after 8 pm. Steve, Virginia, and I then walked the long block to the Carrefour market on Omar Pasha street to buy breakfast supplies along with cheese, crackers, and wine. We ate some of that, and all I could do was collapse into bed, without showering, grossness be damned. I did know, however, that the next day would bring an extraordinary experience in hygiene.

Virginia and I had made an appointment at one of the most distinguished bath houses in the world, the Hurrem Sultan Hammam. The “hammam,” I have learned, has been a fixture of life in this part of the world for millennia, dating back to the days when Istanbul, then known as Byzantium, was the eastern anchor of the Roman empire. Those Romans loved their communal baths, and apparently contemporary Turks still have a fondness for them.

Virginia’s and my bathhouse was extra special for a couple reasons. The Hurrem Sultan hammam is located in the ancient heart of the city, literally next to Hagia Sophia, that stunning basilica-turned-mosque-and-museum. Just the experience of getting to there from our flat in Kadikoy, on the Asian side of the city, was pretty jaw-dropping. Saturday morning we caught a taxi and rode for about 15 minutes to the Bosporus — the strait separating Europe from Asia and connecting the Sea of Marmara with the Black Sea.

Ready to board the ferry

The city of Istanbul has straddled the Bosporus since a couple of hundred years before Christ. The ferry ride from Kadikoy to the European side only takes about 20 minutes, but for me time seemed to stop as I drank in the iconic skyline.

Our first glimpse of Topkapi Palace in the distance

We disembarked and strolled across the Galata Bridge, filled with fishermen and Istanbul residents, human and feline, sauntering over the Golden Horn inlet.

We detoured through the structure known as the Spice Bazaar (aka the Egyptian Bazaar). It’s amazing we didn’t get trapped there and miss our appointment altogether, considering how beautiful the building is, and how enticing the merchandise crammed into it.But we pressed on and eventually reached Sultanahmet Square, the beautiful plaza that once was the site of the Roman emperors’ palace and today is flanked by two of the world’s most spectacular religious structures (Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.) We grabbed a casual lunch, then Virginia and I checked in for our cleaning extravaganza.

Yet another reason the Hurrem Sultan Hammam is so special is because it’s almost 500 years old and was designed by the greatest-ever Ottoman architect and paid for by one of the most interesting women in history (just my opinion). Roxolana was Ukrainian, the daughter of an Orthodox priest from Poland. Somehow at 15 she got kidnapped by raiders and was bought by a slave trader, sent to Constantinople, taken to the Askaray district, stripped naked and put on sale with all the other captured virgins. She caught the eye of the chief advisor of the sultan — the one who eventually became known as Suleiman the Magnificent. The advisor bought her as a gift for his boss — an addition to Suleiman’s enormous harem, where with luck Roxolana might get his attentions for one single night. Instead the sultan wound up breaking all the rules not only by falling madly in love with her but then, more outrageously, marrying her and making her one of the most powerful people on earth. The bathhouse she commissioned over the centuries fell into ruin, but it was restored in 2011. Here you see Virginia and me about to enter it and check in for our appointment.

I think many elements of what we experienced over the ensuing two hours and 20 minutes are standard features of a Turkish bath, as it has long been carried out in this part of the world. But I can’t imagine it being done in a more sumptuous manner. We had signed up for The Works, and the process started with our being led to beautiful wood-paneled dressing roomswhere we shed all our clothes and donned tiny string thongs, shower slippers, and bathrobes. We each had our own personal attendant who led us to an inner sanctum under a graceful, light-filled dome. Directly under it was a six- or eight-sided marble platform. I can’t be specific in part because I couldn’t take a camera or notebook into that hot, steamy enclave filled with naked women of all ages, sizes, shapes, and colors. Even the attendants wear nothing but towels wrapped around them and tucked in over their breasts and at their upper thighs.

White marble alcoves surrounded the central area. We entered one of them, shed our robes, and took a seat as our attendants dipped copper bowls into fountains fed with streams of hot and cold water. They poured the warm mixture over us, bowl after bowlful, then told us to sit for a while (to let our pores open up, I think.) Then the cleaning ladies returned and began scrubbing each of us — hard! — with mitts that felt like they were made of Scotch Brite. Looking down at my arm, I noticed little brown bits appearing on it, and for a second, I wondered if it was some kind of soap coming from the mitt. Then I realized it was my own skin, being stripped off. I almost fell off my marble bench, laughing, at the look on the face of Virginia, sitting directly across from me and gazing down at her own flesh being scrubbed away. She was clearly horrified.

Also fantastical was the sight in the center of the room, where attendants were laboring over naked women stretched out — face up and face down — on the platform. The attendants were wafting great clouds of bubbles onto the women, then stroking and massaging the flesh under the pillowy white blobs. After our attendants coated almost every inch of us with a mud paste, allowed it to soak in for about 10 minutes, then washed it all off, Virginia and I were led to the bubble platform and instructed to lay face down on it. I lack the power to adequately describe the exquisite pleasure of the mass of bubbles landing on my hot, clean, wet, naked skin, sliding over it, lubricating the massage.

We got lots of helpings of the bubbles and a long and thorough massage. I was drifting to sleep when my cleaning lady poked me and got me to my feet. She led me (and Virginia’s attendant guided her) to a wooden alcove on the first floor, where they served us an icy fruit drink and morsels of Turkish Delight. The final step was to be taken after a while to a private massage room on the top-most floor for yet another massage, this one fueled by oils and a lot of muscle power.

When I emerged, blinking, into the sunshine, I felt dazed. I think Steve and Virginia and I must have chatted on the journey back to Kadikoy, but don’t remember being able to speak.

For at least the next two days, Steve kept exclaiming over how soft my skin felt every time he made contact with it. Not that there was much of that. We were too busy trying to squeeze in more sightseeing and shopping in the Grand Bazaar (which makes the Egyptian Market look a bit like a strip mall, compared to the Mall of America).

Ancient Egypt, the Ottoman sultans… here it all blends together. This is one view of the Blue Mosque.

We also spent some time exploring Kadikoy, which turned out to be a wonderful home base. First settled by the Greeks almost 3000 years ago, it’s the oldest part of greater Istanbul. Today it’s a bustling, densely populated district filled with beautiful parks, great restaurants, and a shopping thoroughfare that kept reminding me of some of the grander boulevards in Paris.

I felt really sorry we didn’t have more time in Kadikoy; I’m sure we won’t get back there when we return to Istanbul two weeks from today. Between now and then we’re traveling to other amazing places in Turkey. When we do return to the Bosporus, we’ll stay in the heart of the old city where Steve and I have long lists of other things we want to see and do. Still I’ll have to restrain myself from going back for another helping of bathhouse pleasure.

Journey to the center of the world

Tomorrow we take off for Istanbul. It’s about as centrally located as any place on our globe, and if it isn’t the actual center of the world (what is?) was the most important city of the most politically dominant land mass (Eurasia) for longer than any other city I can think of (like… 2000 years?) I’ve never been outside the airport there, so for me this visit will make Turkey the 76th entry on my list of Countries Visited. Steve spent some time there once before, though, when on a round-the-world odyssey with his parents. He celebrated his 9th birthday in a hotel overlooking the Bosporus. Though young, he was deeply impressed by the city and always said he wanted to go back. For the life of me, I don’t know why I also didn’t long ago yearn to get there.

Now that I’ve been reading about the Romans and Byzantines and Ottomans who ruled their respective empires from Constantinople (as Istanbul was known for most of its glory years), I’ve been lusting to go. I’ve “learned” 644 Turkish words (according to Duolingo), and if I can remember 30 or 40 of them in the weeks ahead, I’m hoping they’ll be useful. We plan to travel all over Turkey, but we’ll start and end in Istanbul, and I have to confess it’s the city that most fascinates me, at least pre-launch. I know all of Turkey has had some hard times recently — overseen by a brutal, backward-looking leader; and currently enduring inflation that will be the worst I’ve ever experienced first-hand (70% in the past year.) Yet it continues to be an economic powerhouse. Istanbul is still the biggest city in Europe, the rank it has held so many times over the millennia. Even today, it’s the fifth largest city on earth.

Will it be too depressed? Or depressing? We’re betting it won’t. But I’ll do my best to share whatever we find along the way.