When we mentioned at home that our cruise would also take us to Turkey, our family expressed alarm.
Greece, that was borderline to all the problems that are lingering on Europe’s doorstep. But Turkey, that’s pretty much right next to the conflict zones of Syria, Iraq and Iran. Sure, we were only to stop for two days, sleeping on the ship, and right on the other side of the country too. But still we couldn’t quite convince our loved ones around us that we were not willingly getting ourselves into trouble.
Yes, Turkey might be a Muslim country, but a moderate one. There was a shooting at Istanbul airport, but wasn’t there also one in Brussels? These days, geographic proximity means nothing. You can fall victim to a terror attack at home just the same as abroad, even though it’s incredibly unlikely in the first place.
Here is how I see it: If we choose to stop travelling and learning about new cultures, we will never overcome the great divide that has started to tear our human race apart and that separates us into “us” versus “them”.
You have to weigh your options and apply common sense. But Turkey, beloved tourism destination for Northern Europeans for two decades, is not on my red altert list yet.
Off the beaten path in Turkey
So we assured our family that we would take caution and we promised that we would send signals once we would leave the Turkish ports in one piece. Little did we know that danger did arrive just one week later, in a way we didn’t foresee. President Erdogan claimed just a couple of days later that he had overthrown a coup. Thousands of intellectuals had to go into hiding or ended up in detention. Not the kind of thing we would have expected from a supposedly democratic country.
Our first port of call in Turkey was Kusadasi. Now, I was familiar with the place, having visited it twice as a twen in the early days of mass tourism. I don’t have very fond memories of the place per se, but I remembered it as a gateway to fantastic archaeological sites of the Ancient Greeks.
So we gave Kusadasi the cold shoulder in favour of some cultural tourism in the region. Turkey is fantastic when it comes to visiting archaeological sites. In many places there are hardly any visitors which makes visiting a breeze. Plus, you get the feeling that you are seeing things that most people in the world didn’t even know existed. The coastal areas of Turkey used to be colonised by the Ancient Greeks, and very often you will find that the sites are in much better shape then what you would find in Greece itself. If you are into that kind of thing then Turkey is definitely a place for you to check out.
The small village of Didyma is such a place where you will find a Greek heritage that is hardly known but overwhelmingly beautiful. The small village is dominated by a massive Greek temple, the Temple of Apollo. After paying a small fee to enter the site you are given free reign. Imagine that for Greece where you are not allow to walk, touch or climb on things.
Not that you should climb on things but in Turkey nobody would even raise an eyebrow if you did that.
The stunningly huge Temple of Apollo
Anyway, the beauty of the Temple of Apollo was that there was pretty much nobody around besides our small tour group. Such a relief after the masses of tourists that we encountered in Athens. You could actually take your time, separate from the group, let the place have an impact on you.
The sheer size of the Temple of Apollo dwarfed all the visitors. Those columns that were left standing were staggeringly high. But even those where only the base was the only thing left we felt the oppressive mass around us. Walking between these columns and their beautifully carved bases was like walking through an ancient forest. A very humbling experience.
It is said that there used to be 124 of these columns on site but not all of them can be found today. You can certainly see the leftovers of the ones that have toppled over from earthquakes. These fragments are scattered around the temple, like giant puzzle pieces, lying there where they have fallen. The eternity that this place oozes suddenly made us feel pretty insignificant.
To give you an idea about the dimensions – at some stage the locals decided to build a windmill in the middle of the temple. This is how big the site is.
The most important oracle after Delphi
There is a lot to discover as you make your way around the site. The craftsmanship is extraordinary, and those pieces of art that have been discovered are wonderfully preserved. There is a fantastic carving of a Medusa head for example, and the carved figure of a lion. The bases of the Ionian columns have beautiful reliefs that wrap all around the bases.
Previous visitors have left their mark too. There are crude carvings everywhere. On the floor, on the walls. At some stage in history, the Ottomans used the enclosed area of the temple, the so-called dayton, as a prison. It looks like it’s about the size of a small football pitch. A prisoner has left a graffiti there, sharing his despair. It supposedly says “So help me God”.
Speaking about the adyton, you can still make out the spring here, probably the reason why the Greeks built the temple in the first place. Archaeologists believe that the spring played a role in oracle rituals. For some time, it was the second most important oracle in the Greek world. To get here from nearby Miletus, an important seaside town in ancient times, people would walk the 17km of the Sacred Way. You can still see the Sacred Way today at the entrance of the village.
I think as we left the site we were fittingly impressed by the significance and the site of a temple that we had never even heard of before. And it had made us surprisingly hungry.
Unmatched Turkish hospitality
With only moments to spare we make a beeline further up the road and into the village of Didyma in the hope of finding a small supermarket or a place that would sell us food. We arrived at a square. A woman and two men, locals, were sitting in the shade of trees, sharing a meal. We spotted a colourful rug seller but the only other shop in the vicinity, a bakery, appeared closed.
Disappointed we turned around to return to the bus but then we heard a friendly voice telling us in French that the bakery was “fermée”. Yes, we had already seen that so we smiled and nodded and turned around to go back to the group.
But the friendly voice insisted, asking us what we were after. We took a closer look. The lady pointed at the free chairs, asking us to join in. There was bread and cheese and tea on the table. We came closer, weary because they were strangers, but their hospitality was real.
Now, our French isn’t the best but we managed to express that we were hungry but had to return to the bus. Without batting an eye they ripped their bread into two pieces, broke off a piece of the cheese and handed this to us. We were stunned. So much friendliness was unexpected. We thanked them profusely and went back to the bus.
Don’t let politics take away our humanity
Let me tell you something. This cheese was the best cheese I ever tasted. Not because it satisfied my hunger beautifully but because it was an artisan cheese that had been produced locally. Compare this to the cheese that you buy everyday at the supermarket, sealed in plastic and presented under fluorescent light. Now, and we consider our Western civilisation the superior one? I don’t think so.
These villagers at Didyma have taught us an important lesson that day. Screw world politics. Behind the facade, disregarding all the differences, we are all human beings. We are all the same people. We just need to learn to be a bit nicer to each other. Not to be scared of our differences. To accept these differences and embrace them. This is what makes us human and sets us apart from the animal kingdom.
Yes, it’s a terrifying world at the moment. But if we shut down and don’t let anybody in anymore then it will not become a better place. It will become a more separated, divided world. We will not be able to learn from each other anymore. Our wisdom will be lost. It will be a step back in civilisation, a massive loss for humanity. Overall, don’t stop travelling.