April 13, 2012
IZMIR, Turkey — My grandfathers called this port city Smyrna, but the name of it came out of their mouths with regret and pain, because they remembered it as a Greek city, and the great fire and the unspeakable things that happened as the Greeks tried to run when the Turks took it in the 1920s.
Cities change hands in this part of the world, something that has continued over millennia, and the memories of blood and tragedy have faded as new people shape the old places, even the stones. Similar terrors plagued the Turks on Greek soil. It is the way of humankind. New kings bring new gods and topple old ones.
It is something common for people with a past, yet unknowable and literally inconceivable to Americans, because we are still in control of our own history and we're new in a new country.
But this is an old country, and now, in this most secular city of Turkey on the far western coast, the waterfront cafes are full, tourists eating delicious seafood in the restaurants at night, fine new cars jockeying for scant parking, and groups of lovely, dark-eyed women dressed for the clubs and not a headscarf on them.
In the cafes down the way, smoking water pipes and cigarettes, the men pack together to watch the soccer match on big flat-screen TVs. The oyster sellers push their red carts up the street.
But a short drive from here, up in the green springtime mountains, are old places that offer no nightclubs, just the quiet of the wind on the stones:
One is the amazing ruins of the ancient city of Ephesus, marble columns and colorful mosaics and theaters and the great library, a metropolis that grew to a population of some 200,000 people during Roman times when St. Paul preached the radical new religion.
And beyond the walls, and about 1,500 feet up the mountain of the nightingales, next to a living spring, is a single tiny stone house.
It is said to be the home of a woman whose son had been crucified. She came for refuge from Roman persecution around 40 A.D. She'd been brought here by St. John the Apostle.
She wept here. She prayed here. She died here.
Her name was Mary, the Theotokos, the mother of Jesus Christ.
Off a parking lot is a path, and once on it, the crowds hush and walk reverently. Whether they're Christians on pilgrimage, or Muslims who have read the verses dedicated to her in the Koran, or nonbelievers on an excursion, everyone is quiet and respectful.
"I have been taking tours through this place for 40 years," said our guide, Faruk Ozer. "You can see which ones are reverent. Their eyes change. Their posture, faces, everything. You will see the difference from the people who are here to just see something, and people who are here for faith. You will see. This is Meryem Ana's house. Do you see how peaceful it is?"
There were about a hundred people lining up, from Germany and Poland and Korea, and Muslims from far South Asia and elsewhere, and a Polish priest walked past, a rope belt swinging from his waist. The only sound came from the songbirds in trees that filtered the sunlight.
There are closets in master bedrooms in America larger than this. It is dark and cool and clean. A Roman Catholic statue is to one side. A Greek icon is to the other. There is an altar and gifts from popes. The people file in, and those who want to pass through move to the right through the other door to light candles outside.
And there are those who stay to the left. There were three women there, heads covered, and they were in no hurry to leave. Two seemed of the Levant, one from Eastern Europe, and she looked up at me for a moment. I could see it in her eyes and in the tears on her face, and it was beautiful. She smiled at me and returned to her prayers.
Outside again, there was a group from Izmir, women mostly, but one man had been with them earlier. He'd brought a little spaniel dog on a leash, but by the time I walked up, a soldier had already sent him away.
A dog? Here?
"On this side it's a public park," said the Turkish jandarma, somewhat embarrassed. "But of course we won't allow anyone with a dog to go near Meryem Ana's house. He's gone."
I engaged the secular women of Izmir in a debate about headscarves, which, for all the talk of an ascendant Islam in Islamic Turkey, are prohibited in Turkish universities. They smoked cigarettes and said they wore their scarves out of respect for Mary, but added that headscarves for general use was the practice of illiterates.
"Do women wear headscarves at American universities?" asked one of the younger women.
Of course, I said, if they wish.
"Well, they can wear them in American universities, but not here," she insisted.
Why is it acceptable in American universities and not in Turkish universities?
"Oh, you'll just have to go find the answer yourself," she said, and with a huff she walked away.
Down the mountain in Ephesus, our guide told us of the various peoples who had lived there and built it and rebuilt it; the legend credits the Amazon women, and we know the Greeks held the city, then the Romans.
It is stupendously beautiful, and only about 15 percent of it has been excavated, the white marble carved to show where the hospital was, the doctors, the public baths, even the prostitutes.
From the ancient amphitheater that held some 20,000 people, I tried to imagine St. Paul here, causing a riot. There were ancient games and ancient theater in this place, but modern times brought concerts starring Elton John and Mikis Theodorakis.
Up on the green hills above us there was a goatherd and his flock. The copper bells around the necks of the goats sounded as they grazed on the new growth.
"One civilization goes and another takes its place," said Faruk, with a wave of his hand, gesturing along the ancient avenue, "one city building on what was there before."
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