The contrast couldn’t be greater. We’d come from the crowded splendour of Ephesus, one of the world’s most visited sites, to the remote tranquillity of Miletus on the Turkish coast. There, hordes of tourists jostling each other to get the best shot of the elegant Library of Celsus, here a few people testing the echo effect in the enormous theatre or just sitting on one of the marble seats enjoying the panorama laid out in front.
I was on the ‘Ephesus, Miletus and Didyma’ day tour from Celebrity Cruises ’Reflection’ at Kusadasi. Like many, I’m not a huge fan of organised trips; you’re often shepherded from site to site without time to really see anything and sometimes bombarded with facts that are impossible to take in. However, if you’re on a cruise and have only a day or so to visit a place then tours can be an excellent way to pack a lot in at one go.
Our guide Noor had excellent sheep dog skills and yes, she kept up a running commentary of dates, statistics and intriguing tales. Her audience listened attentively, very few doing what I did which was to keep escaping to explore on my own. My radio headphones ensured I could hear her commentary even when a little distance from the group.
Built at the mouth of the Meander River (from where we get the word ‘meander’), Miletus was one of the most important Greek cities established around the Aegean, its maritime empire reaching as far as the Black Sea and Egypt. It had a reputation as a great centre of learning and was also renowned as the first place to apply the principles of modern town-planning. You can still see the outlines of the grid system of streets designed by Greek architect Hippodamus. The site encompasses a vast swathe of history from Ancient Greece via the Roman Empire to Byzantine Turkey.
Only slightly smaller than the one at Ephesus, Miletus Theatre has a grandeur that is easily assimilated as it is far less visited and very well preserved. The city was rebuilt a number of times and Noor pointed out the different levels of building clearly visible in the theatre’s construction. (I got very confused with all the dates but if you want a brief history then here’s Wikipedia on Miletus.)
Originally seating up to 15000, it measures 140 m in diameter, which to be honest meant far less to me than the fact that we could sit virtually on our own and enjoy the view in peace and quiet. In the centre, four pillars mark the ‘Imperial Box’ and on top of the theatre is a square observation tower which was built in the Byzantine era. Turkey’s red flag fluttered over us in the gentle breeze. Nearby a marble plinth has engravings depicting the gladiators who would have entertained latter day Greeks and Romans.
Walking up through a tunnel we emerged to find ourselves overlooking a vast area of ruins, in the centre of which is the Temple of Athena and the Agora, or market place.
Not far away is a stadium and bouletarium or council chamber. To the east are the Baths of Faustina, all worth a wander round, especially if you love archaeology. (The hugely magnificent Market Gate of Miletus is no longer here, having been reconstructed and is in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum. We didn’t have time to visit this section of Miletus but Noor showed where the harbours would have been and told us how the silting up of the Meander led to the eventual decline of this ancient cosmopolis.
The place is littered with fallen columns, engraved pedestals and great chunks of old marble. Gleaming brightly in the midday sun was a little cluster of yellow crocuses forcing their way through the stony ground.
As we took a last look around a man came ambling through the ruins leading a horse. He turned to look at us as we grabbed our cameras and phones to capture the scene. He seemed quite unfazed by all the attention; maybe used to it, as he probably lives nearby.
We finished this part of the tour with a quick visit to the excellent Milet Müzesi, home to artefacts from Miletus and surrounding areas. It’s a delightful museum; not too many things to look at and each one is beautifully presented. A particular favourite was this splendid reclining statue (maybe Neptune?) with a sketch of how he may have originally been placed.
In another cabinet were tiny pottery heads and a headless goddess, beside which was this marvellously reconstructed figurine.
Before leaving, we all made good use of the excellent toilet faculties, always important on a long tour! As we headed off to Didyma we glimpsed the terracotta domes of the İlyas Bey Mosque, built in 1404; a reminder of more recent Turkish influence in tranquil and fascinating Miletus.
Many thanks to everyone on Celebrity ’Reflection’ for providing a lovely cruise with so many memorable experiences. Read fellow travel blogger Elle Croft’s excellent article on the Ephesus Tour and my trip to see some of the highlights of Istanbul.