Selcuk: Aegean Hot Spot

By Catherine Salter Bayar*
This historical valley on Turkey’s West Coast has more than its share of diverse cultural attractions – from centuries of wonders at Ephesus, a city founded by a mythical tribe of women warriors known as Amazons, embellished by King Croesus, liberated by Alexander the Great and nearly as important as Rome – to the tomb of Jesus’ favorite disciple and last home of the Virgin Mary, both sites of Christian pilgrimage, as well as a charming Ottoman village best known for its traditional pleasures of homemade wines and handmade lace. Nestled amid olive and pine tree-covered mountains, mandarin orange and peach groves, the roughly 12 square-mile Selçuk area’s vast offerings are completed by a wide sandy beach along the blue Aegean Sea.
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Ephessus.

Named for the pre-Ottoman Turks and pronounced “Sel-chuk”, through millennia this region has been home to Hittites, Carians, Lydians, Persians, as well as Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Turks. Visit the ruins of Ephesus, the best preserved Greco-Roman city in the Eastern Mediterranean, see the last standing column of the Temple of Artemis, one of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World, brandish replicas of gladiators’ weapons at the Selçuk Ephesus Museum, sip cold mountain spring water from the well at the Virgin Mary’s chapel, and wander the stony lanes in the village of Sirince or the larger town of Selçuk to mix with the locals and experience how people live here now.  

Selçuk is inhabited by a pleasant mix of farmers and business people, tourists and travelers, and a growing expatriate community. The town is easily accessible by bus, train or car from Izmir’s airport 37 miles north, or from the port town of Kusadasi 12 miles south. All sites of interest are within walking distance from the town center or a short bus ride away. Stay in hospitable family-run hotels of antique-filled, traditional-style stone, or modern accommodations with sweeping roof terrace views. Enjoy restaurants serving savory home-cooked Turkish food and a farmer’s market held every Saturday and abounding in fresh, locally grown produce. Tall stone Byzantine aqueducts bisect the town, supporting massive stork nests for the revered migratory birds. All of this is centered on cobbled walking streets, making Selçuk the perfect travel base and a peaceful respite from congested coastal towns.

AYASULUK HILL
Today’s Selçuk surrounds Ayasuluk Hill, site of the first city of Ephesus, where artifacts dating to the Bronze Age of 6,000 BC have been uncovered. The city was founded for the second time in 1050 BC by the colonizing Athenian Prince Androklos. The ancient Temple of Artemis stood on the southwestern slope of Ayasuluk. The Greek Artemis, goddess of the moon, the hunt and fertility, and Anatolian mother goddess Kybele together became Artemis of Ephesus. Her multi-breasted statues are in the Selcuk Ephesus Museum nearby, along with major archeological pieces excavated since World War II. The largest building in the ancient world, three times the size of the Parthenon in Athens, the Temple was dedicated in 550 BC. The last Lydian king, Croesus, of the expression “as rich as Croesus” fame, contributed to the temple and enlarged the city around it during his reign, until his defeat by Persian King Cyrus in 546 BC. The Temple served as both religious institution and marketplace, visited by pilgrims, tourists and merchants from the far reaches of the known world. Columns and marble plaques from the ruined Temple eventually became part of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, and decorative pieces can be seen at the British Museum.

Saint John the Evangelist, favorite of Jesus and the only disciple to attend his crucifixion, with an important role in disseminating Christianity, and thought by some to have written the Book of Revelation, is buried on Ayasuluk Hill, according to several early Christian writers.  In the 6th century AD, Emperor Justinian built an enormous Basilica over an earlier 4th century church. Many of the stone walls, strikingly contrasted by horizontal rows of red brick, still stand, and from the terrace, there is a wonderful view of Selçuk, the Ephesian Plain and the Aegean, especially at sunset. Above the remains of the Basilica is the Byzantine Fortress of Ayasuluk, built in the 5th century for defense but closed to visitors.   

The Isa Bey Mosque, built in 1375 by the Anatolian Selçuk Turks from remnants of Ephesus and Basilica stone, is an asymmetrical mix of Selçuk and Ottoman architecture, with excellent carved decorations and a peaceful courtyard. Selçuk is also dotted with numerous stone mosques and tombs from the Selçuk period.   

EPHESUS
Ephesus became the Roman capital of Asia Minor in 129 BC, a metropolis second only to Rome in size and commerce. At its peak in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, the city had a population of about 500,000 residents. Archaeologists say that the ruins visited today - baths, fountains, temples, gymnasiums, a brothel, a public latrine and two large agoras, or market places - only comprise about 10% of the city’s remains and predict they will be excavating the site for centuries to come. Terraced courtyard houses once occupied by the wealthy, complete with intricate mosaic floors and frescoed walls, can also be visited. Nowhere other than Pompeii do today’s visitors have such an excellent chance to experience life in the ancient world. Ephesus is less than 2 miles from Selçuk, along a lovely plane tree-lined lane. In warmer months, the ruins are best viewed in early morning or late afternoon to avoid the crowds and lack of shade.
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Ephesus became the Roman capital of Asia Minor in 129 BC.
 
The 25,000 capacity open-air theater built into Mt Panayir near the old harbor was used for dramas and gladiator competitions.  In recent years, archeologists have discovered a gladiator graveyard, greatly adding to the knowledge of how these men actually fought and died. A popular exhibit at the Selçuk Ephesus Museum contains real wounded bones on view and reproduced weapons that can actually be held.  
 
The elegant Celsus Library, which held 12,000 scrolls as well as the tomb for this consul and former governor, was built in 135 AD in Celsus’ honor by his son. The monumental white marble façade of the restored library is a prime example of a Roman public architecture. The massive steps leading to the library hold interesting evidence of a Jewish population in Ephesus, in the small carving of a menorah on one of the treads.

Ephesus was an important center of the early Christian community. Saint Paul lived in the city for several years, converting enough followers to establish the Church of Ephesus. His Letters to the Ephesians and famous sermons in the theater were met with great resentment by the followers of Artemis and craftsmen who had accumulated great wealth making silver idols of the goddess.
 
The Virgin Mary’s final home was in a serene pine forest high above Ephesus on the peak of Nightingale Mountain (Bulbul Dagi in Turkish), five miles southeast of Selçuk. Jesus entrusted her care to Saint John, so she came with him to Ephesus. The small stone house, now chapel, of Meryem Ana, as she is known in Turkish, has been verified by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches as authentic, and is a place of pilgrimage today.
 
SIRINCE
The Ottoman hillside village of Sirince, pronounced “Shir-in-jeh”, five miles east of Selçuk, means ‘lovely place’ in Turkish. It was originally populated by Christians from Ephesus escaping the collapse of the city. Monastery ruins in the hills date from the 11th century. Later, freed Greek slaves inhabited the village in the 15th century.  By the early 20th century, the community of 20,000 contained nearly an even number of Greeks and Turks, with small Armenian and Jewish populations.

Today, only about 200 whitewashed, tile-roofed houses remain, many having been restored in recent years, some with naïve decorative painting trimming window and door frames, and others with vibrantly colored interior walls and intricately carved woodwork. Two Greek Orthodox churches and an old stone schoolhouse, now a restaurant, can be visited. Sirince is renowned for lace making, filled savory crepes called gozleme, and wine, made not only from grapes, but every fruit grown in the region – blackberries, peaches, melons, and black cherries, to name but a few.

FESTIVALS
Throughout the year, Selçuk holds festivals celebrating local culture. In January, camel wrestling is held near the beach. It is a traditional and colorful competition involving large beasts decorated in the finest kilims and tassels, but no harm comes to the animals. May and September see art, music, dance and handicraft festivals, with additional food and wine festivals to start in the summer and fall of 2008, with the opening of a new agricultural museum in the town center.
 
* Designer and writer Catherine Salter Bayar has happily called Selcuk home for the past 9 years. Contact her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. with comments and questions. 

(February 2008, Tourism Special Issue)

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