Ionian Odyssey

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The library of Celsus at Ephesus
The library of Celsus at Ephesus

Many countries enjoy a moment in the sun, a time when the drama of human history unfolds upon their territory with unprecedented intensity before moving on to the next stage. But few places—if any—can lay claim to as much history as Anatolia.

Anatolia means “Land of the Mother Sun,” and for some 10,000 years, the sun, soil and sea of what we now call Turkey nurtured a succession of civilizations that shaped our world. The Trojan War was fought here. Classical Greek culture peaked here. The Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans ruled here.

Two of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World stood here.

Turks are actually relative newcomers to this ancient land. Although the Ottomans built a remarkable empire that endured for 600 years, Turkish nomads first galloped into Asia Minor only 1,000 years ago or so—a short span in Anatolian time.

Anatolia, after all, is home to one of the world's oldest known settlements, Catal Huyuk, whose remains have been dated to roughly 7,500 B.C. Down through the millennia, a number of storied kingdoms rose and fell here, including the Hittites, the Phryigians, Carians and Lydians.

Enter the Ionians
The rich lands and wealthy kingdoms of Anatolia attracted invaders and colonizers from east and west, including the Greeks, Persians, Goths, Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans.

But it's the Greeks and the Romans—and the spectacular ruins that survived them—that concern us here.

The Ionians, Greeks from Attica fleeing Dorian invaders, crossed the Aegean Sea around the 11th century B.C. and settled along a stretch of the Western Anatolian coast that subsequently bore their name—Ionia.

These settlers exploited Ionia's superb natural advantages to create a brilliant civilization based on history's first city-states.

The Ionians were blessed with a mild climate, a coastline peppered with natural harbors, fertile valleys fed by the Cayster and Meander Rivers and a strategic location astride the traditional trade routes between east and west.

What a Life
Ionia assumed the mantle previously worn by Mesopotamia and Egypt before her as the epicenter of civilization, fostering an incredible flowering of art, architecture, philosophy, science and literature that marked the zenith of classical Greek culture.

This great humming hive of dynamic city-states boasted theaters, stadiums, public schools, baths, paved streets, running water, temples and the earliest forms of representative government.

These were a people who believed in exercising both their bodies and their minds.

The gifts of the Ionians are many. They laid the foundations of western philosophy. They were the first to plan cities using a grid system. Two of the greatest literary works in history—the Iliad and the Odyssey—were written by an Ionian, Homer.

The Ionic column, which still supports many a modern building, originated here. And Hellenistic civilization, that exquisite blend of Greek and eastern culture that flourished between the death of Alexander and the emergence of Rome, first took root here.

Fantastic Four
Our journey covers four of the most famous and well-preserved Ionian cities: Priene, Miletus, Didyma and Ephesus. All four sites lie within a 40-mile stretch of former coastline that now sits several miles from the sea.

Although all four sites were settled by Ionians, many of the ruins date from the Roman period. The Romans, who eagerly aped Greek art, architecture and religion, rebuilt and expanded most of the Ionian cities.

Even in a state of ruin and thousands of years of neglect, the remains of these Greco-Roman temples, theaters and baths make an indelible impression. Because unlike the sprawling, haphazard eyesores in which most modern urban dwellers live, these cities were designed as works of art.

These aren't pale imitations sitting along the mall in Washington D.C. These are the real deal, the fantastic remains of a classical civilization to whom we shall forever remain indebted—and at least aesthetically, never surpass. Will tourists 2,500 years from now travel thousands of miles to marvel at the ruins of Yankee Stadium?

So step back into antiquity, to a heroic age before television, traffic jams, strip malls and suburban subdivisions, to a time when people lived in masterpieces masquerading as cities.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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