Goddesses, Empresses, and Femmes Fatales

Istanbul and Turkey’s Aegean Coast

(Originally published in The Boston Globe, October 31, 1993)

In late May, I spent two weeks visiting Istanbul and the classical sites of Turkey’s Aegean Coast, looking for traces of goddesses, empresses, Amazons, and other mythical women of the ancient past.

I saw temples to the Grecian goddesses Aphrodite, Artemis, and Athena, and their later Roman incarnations Venus, Diana, and Minerva.

I visited the tomb of Roxelana, a Frenchwoman who rose from the Harem to be a queen of the Ottoman Empire —

and the Christian church built by Theodora, a circus dancer who became Empress of the Holy Roman Empire; and Troy, where Helen‘s legendary beauty launched a thousand ships. And I saw the remains of an even older religion: the cult of the Earth Goddess Cybele.

I travelled to Turkey to look at ancient art, but I found a country whose mythical past and vibrant present are richly intertwined. In Istanbul, near Ayasofya, the great Byzantine Church built in 563 by Justinian and Theodora, I drank a cup of tea in a garden, surrounded by broken columns and fragments of antique sculpture. My table was the huge weathered capital of an ancient column. And the tea was delicious ‑‑ hot and sweet.

And the roses! I saw roses everywhere ‑‑ roses in bud, roses in bloom, roses climbing the old stone walls of the garden around Roxelana’s tomb. I bought a tiny bottle of rose oil from an old man in front the Sultan Suleyman Mosque, which was built in 1550 by the great Ottoman architect Sinan. The mosque is beautiful ‑‑ a vision of paradise in light and stone. And the fragrance of roses surrounded me all day.

Many different cultures created this fabulous city whose winding streets and visual complexities are truly byzantine. Istanbul was Byzantium before it became Constantinople, Eastern Capital of the Holy Roman Empire, and then Istanbul, center of the Ottoman Empire.

From the 15th to 19th centuries, the Ottoman sultans lived at Topkapi Palace, a royal residence as large and luxurious as Versailles, but with a light, fairy‑tale feeling, like a Persian miniature painting. And as in every good fairy‑tale, there was a dark side, too. The sultans’ wives were sequestered in a labyrinthine series of exquisitely decorated and securely locked rooms called the Harem.

Inside the Harem, everything is hidden and veiled, like an elaborate architectural strip‑tease ‑‑ Victoria’s Secret carved in stone.  The walls and ceilings are covered with luminous turquoise and dark blue tiles glazed in designs based on trees and flowers that still grow in the palace gardens ‑‑ the lyrical cypress and the lavish rose. It’s a beautiful prison, silent and cold.

From Topkapi’s gardens, you can see the Bosphorous, the narrow sea that divides the city in two. In the evening, I took a ferry down the Bosphorous, past villas and mosques and old wooden houses, to the village of Arnavutkoy. Using my Turkish phrase book and lots of sign language, I found a charming small restaurant with fresh fish displayed in a cool glass case, white linen tablecloths, and a view of the sea.

There was no menu. I ordered by pointing to little dishes of roast eggplant and yogurt with garlic and cucumber. Then the waiters brought out several kinds of raw fresh fish, with glistening eyes and gills. I chose a small sea bass, and soon it came to back to me, grilled and garnished with a sprig of fresh arugala. For dessert, fresh raspberries and cream. The Turkish wine was a nice, light accompaniment to a lovely meal of fresh ingredients prepared with simplicity and grace. After dinner, the restaurant owner invited me to come back again the next day. When I told him I was leaving Istanbul, he smiled and said, “We will wait for you.”

Turkey’s hundreds of miles of Aegean coastline are dotted with Grecian temples, Roman baths, Selcuk mosques, Ottoman castles and Byzantine churches. The light is different near the Aegean. It’s warmer and softer, and the hills are covered with olive trees.

This land has undergone many transformations. It belonged to Greece in ancient times, then Rome, then the Holy Roman Empire, then the Ottomans. The Selcuks lived here, and the Amazons, and the Trojans whose war with Greece was immortalized in Homer‘s Iliad. After the long drive from Istanbul to a beach near Troy, I stretched out with a late‑afternoon run beside the sea. The air smelled of roses and jasmine, olive, oleander, and pine ‑‑ a true aromatherapy session.

Troy! I saw a pile of stones that once had been the Temple of Apollo where Cassandra prophesied the fall of Troy. I stood where once had stood the walls where Helen waited and Andromache wept; the rooftop where Paris aimed his fatal arrow into Achilles‘s heel. Anemones grow among the fallen stones of Troy ‑‑ bright, blood‑red flowers among the pale, clay‑colored stones.

Troy is all rubble and poetry. Pergamon, further South along the coast, is a splendid classical site, with the ruins of several temples and a magnificent amphitheater. For the ancient Greeks, theater was a Dionysian ritual, and in Pergamon’s amphitheater, you can still feel that mythical intensity. The steep incline of the stone seats creates a tremendous focus of energy on the stage. When I stood at the center and sang, I felt my voice amplified, sound waves vibrating in the air.

The Temple of Athena is high up on a hill; marble columns reaching to the sky. Nearby, I saw a bush with bits of white cloth tied to its branches. Later, I learned that it was a wishing tree. Women climb up here and tie cloth to its branches to wish for a baby, a lover, a husband, a job. Athena’s Temple was once the site of a temple to the ancient Earth Goddess Cybele, and something about this windy hilltop seems sacred still.

Ephesus is even more spectacular than Pergamon: the marble ruins of an entire city, with thousands of columns and fragments of sculpture from Greek and Roman times. Ephesus was the center of the worship of Artemis; several ancient scultures of the Goddess are in Ephesus’s Museum. The Ephesian Artemis was not the elegant Diana of later mythology, but a powerful ancient Earth Mother. She is massive as a column, with a hundred breasts and hypnotic eyes, surrounded by her animals ‑‑ lions, tigers, cows, and birds. Just outside the museum, I saw hundreds of wishes tied to a wishing tree.

The amphitheater at Ephesus was once used for Greek tragedies and Roman circuses; Saint Paul spoke here to the Ephesians. But on the day I visited, there was an international rock music festival going on. The two thousand year old marble seats were filled with Turkish families settled in for the day with paper bags full of plums and pistachio nuts. On the stage, four young men were rapping in bright blue jumpsuits.

In Izmir, which was once Smyrna, an ancient city founded by Amazons ‑‑ the legendary women warriors and riders of horses ‑‑ I dined on fried mussels, grilled fish, and the famous Smyrna figs, stuffed with walnuts and soaked in honey at a waterfront restaurant called Deniz, which means “the sea.” By day, the Aegean is soft and grey, but when the sun goes down, it turns turqoise for about an hour before turning black. Turquoise: the word means Turkish blue.

My last classical site was Aphrodisias, a city dedicated to Aphrodite. It was an ancient center of art and sculpture ‑‑ appropriate for a goddess who presides over both love and beauty. Aphrodisias is set in a fragrant valley, surrounded by dark blue mountains. Dark pink roses grow among the fragments of pale blue marble columns of Aphrodite’s Temple, which was built on the site of a temple to Cybele. In the Museum, two marble Aphrodites trace the transformations of the goddess from Earth Mother to serene, sensual goddess of love. The older image is rigid and iconic, with great staring eyes. The other is just a fragment showing a woman’s crossed legs. But it hints at a divine vision of beauty embodied in a woman who’s fully alive.

Back in Istanbul, my first stop was the Cagaloglu Hamam, where I had a Turkish bath in a 14th century bathhouse. I lay upon a cool marble slab, surrounded by pale grey marble columns, while an old woman poured buckets of cool water over me, then washed me with rose soap, scrubbed me with loofahs, and washed me again. When I walked out, light and clean, I heard the long, lyrical sound of the call to prayer that sings out from the minarets five times a day.

I dined at Daruzziyafe, in a domed arcade near the Sultan Suleyman Mosque: grape leaves stuffed with rice, pinenuts and currants, roast chicken with pale yellow saffron, and pistachio baklava. Instead of wine, I drank fresh strawberry juice. When I left, the owner asked me to come back soon. I told him I was leaving Istanbul, and he said, “We will wait for you.” Above the dark blue silhouettes of the domes and minarets of Sinan’s mosque, I saw Venus shining in the sky.

On my last day in Istanbul, I had planned to go back to the Archaeological Museum to look at Greek sculpture, but instead I took a walk through the city. I strolled down winding streets, past domes and doorways hung with copper and rich red rugs, and climbed the hill to Topkapi.

The roses that had been in bud a week before were now in bloom, and, to my surprise, they weren’t red or pink, as they had been on the Aegean, but white. Big white roses clung to the rosebushes, and in the early morning light, they looked to me like wishes tied to a wishing tree.

I knew what my wish was: to come back. And the roses seemed to whisper:

“We will wait for you.”

by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com

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