This year's historical research sortie took me back to Turkey, an ancient land that has inspired each of my books. We flew out to the Bodrum peninsula, or as the Byzantines would have called it, the Thema of the Cibyrrhaeots. I stayed in this area before, two years ago. Back then it served as a base to explore the more outlying sites along the Aegean coast (I still have vivid memories of the wonder that is Ephesus). This time I wanted to take in the sights of the peninsula itself; Greek, Byzantine and Ottoman ruins and something I can't believe I never got to first time round: The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus.
So when Sarah and I booked a remote villa in the hillsides between Ortakent and Yashi, it seemed like an ideal base - somewhere away from the bustling beaches where I could get a feel for old Anatolia. Even better, it was only an hour's taxi ride to get there from Bodrum Airport. A nice easy transfer . . .
Well, it would have been, if the taxi driver taking us there from the airport had even the faintest idea of the villa's location. It was over twenty five degrees, pitch black, 1.30am, and we must have stopped at half a dozen local houses and hotels to ask for directions. It was questionable whether Sarah helped matters by referring to that old episode of One Foot in the Grave that started something like this (where Victor Meldrew ends up staying in some derelict barn for two weeks). The poor driver was getting more and more distressed as he circled past the same spots again and again. However, I did manage to out-stress him when I decided to activate roaming data on my phone to try and locate the villa via Google maps. Thirty seconds later (no exaggeration), I received a text from my mobile provider informing me I had used £20 worth of roaming data. Another thirty seconds and many frantic and fumbling attempts to switch off roaming data later, another text - £40. At that point, I pulled the battery out of the phone (possibly breaking the sound barrier in my haste), and I'm pretty sure I invented some new swear words directed at my provider. I thought things couldn't get any worse, then the taxi driver pulled over, turned round and, with a dark frown upon his face, came out with the following line;
'Perhaps it is time to call upon the agentes?'
For those of you who have read Strategos: Born in the Borderlands, you might understand my initial horror at these words - the Agentes being the villains of the piece, and certainly not the kind of folk you would want to meet in the darkness of a foreign land. But my terror subsided as the taxi driver's sinister frown melted into a grin and he held up the sheaf of paper I had given him with the travel agency details on it. 'Agentes, no?' he repeated. Traumatised and laughing weakly, I nodded. We somehow found the villa a short while later, accepted a hug from the elated taxi driver, before stumbling inside to enjoy a long overdue sleep.
The next morning, I awoke to a gentle dawn light seeping through the curtains and the crowing of a strident rooster from a nearby farm. I stepped outside and felt the first of the sun's heat. Our surroundings were just as I had hoped - overlapping hills of burnt-gold earth, scattered with rhododendrons, fig and cypress trees, the valley floors filled with shimmering olive groves. Supping strong tea, we listened and watched as the cicada song grew intense and the sun climbed to paint the sky pastel blue, flawless bar a flock of darting swallows. I tried to capture the essence of this moment. It's the scene I've so often dreamt of in my books as Apion, Pavo and others have awoken to such beauty.
The following day, I even took the method actor thing a bit further (a bit too far, as it turned out). I rose at dawn and went out for a run - trying to relive Apion's dawn runs. I set myself a modest target of 5k, as it was blistering hot already. After 1.5k, I reached a highway with a broad pavement leading up a seemingly endless hill. By 2k, I was seeing spots and running in zig-zags and had to stop for a break. Umpteen passing Turkish lorry drivers took the opportunity to point and laugh at the tomato-red, wheezing foreigner by the roadside. After that, I set off back to the villa, taking a mental note to be less tough on Apion in future - I've been putting the guy through ten mile runs most mornings in that heat! A quick and cooling splash in the pool was followed by a hearty breakfast of fresh bread and pine honey washed down with icy-cold water. Delicious!
After that, it was time to explore. The Turkish Dolmus service is an excellent way to get around these parts, the minibuses connecting our villa with every part of the surrounding lands are frequent and cost no more than a few Lira.
The Ancient City of Myndos
First, we headed over the rocky hillsides and out to the village of Gumusluk, near the western tip of the peninsula. The Aegean coast here is hugged by a tranquil
waterfront of cafes, restaurants and market stalls lining what looks like a natural harbour. But it's not hard to spot the history that literally cradles this site, for the 'natural harbour' is in fact a sunken section of the ancient city of Myndos, a largely unexcavated marvel of antiquity.
The city was formed in the 1st milennium BC by the Lelegians, one of the aboriginal peoples of the Bronze Age Aegean. In the 4th century BC, It then came under the aegis of the Carian King Mausolus, who commissioned the sturdy city walls and famously colossal gates, establishing Myndos as the westernmost settlement in his domain. Some decades later, Alexander the Great then rolled up to Myndos' walls and besieged the city, but the garrison and the walls held good and the Macedonian legend was repelled (not many can lay claim to such a feat!). When the Mediterranean became a 'Roman Lake' in the following centuries, Myndos served as an important naval city, controlling the coastal waterways, particularly the strait between the mainland and the nearby island of Kos. After Rome fell, Byzantine thematic garrisons patrolled Myndos' battlements and then gave way to their Seljuk conquerors after the Byzantine collapse at Manzikert in the 11th century AD. Finally, the city was abandoned in the 14th century AD.
It's not clear which era saw the western edge of the city sink below the waves, but local folklore tells of a ferocious earthquake that shook the land for days. What is clear is the outline of the old city; the tips of the walls lie tantalisingly submerged, just a few feet underwater, leading out to the lonely rock known as 'Rabbit Island' (so-called because its inhabitants are all of the long-eared, furry variety), where the outline of some fortification, possibly a corner tower, remains. So, shorts hiked up, I waded off across the ancient walltops towards Rabbit Island. Unfortunately, once I got across to the far shores, I found that the island has been fenced off to protect the site until further excavations can be carried out (hence my pantomime 'sad' photo, below).
Soaking, but with a good few photos to show for my efforts, I returned to the waterfront of Gumusluk and Sarah and I headed for some lunch.
We opted for the Myndos Cafe, where the waiter, Farrokh urged us to hike up the hilly outcrop of land that swept around the bay like a protective arm, overlooking the waterfront and Rabbit Island. He told us of the many ruins that studded the ascent, plus the recently discovered amphitheatre which awaits excavation, and he insisted that we sample the view of Gumusluk bay from the summit.
After a few chilled cokes, a portion of grilled octopus, Turkish meze and fresh flatbread, we were charged up and ready for this hike. The mid-afternoon sun was fierce, so sunscreen and a bandana were called upon. We picked our way up the scree-strewn hillside, passing the foundations of the walls of Mausolus and the mysterious Lelegian wall that reminds us not to forget the city's founders. Eventually, we reached the summit, where a vast Turkish flag now flutters in the sea breeze. Farrokh certainly earned his tip that day, for the view was breathtaking; a near-hawkeye vista of the submerged city wall and the fortifications on Rabbit Island. We stayed until we had taken a fair few pics, drained our water and felt the heat of the sun grow just a little too strong, then we set off downhill to pick up some olives and cherries from the local market before heading back to the villa.
Halicarnassus, The Mausoleum & The Myndos Gate
A few days later, after a light breakfast of cheese, bread, tomatoes, cucumber and olives (why doesn't veg taste or look
that good in Britain?), washed down with apple tea and water, we set off for the port city of Bodrum. This thriving resort is a favourite of the Turks and of holidaymakers Europe-wide (including pasty-skinned Scots like me).
Bodrum was, in days past, the ancient city of Halicarnassus, the heart of Mausolus' empire and the site of the king's tomb, the eponymous Mausoleum. The Mausoleum site itself is somewhat lost in the sprawl of bougainvillea-clad, sugarcube housing that dominates the gentle hillside leading down to Bodrum's marina. Added to this, our hand-drawn 'map' seemed to excel at contradiction, but after a few false dawns, we turned down one rather unspectacular, cobbled alley to see the entrance to the walled-off historic compound. Inside, the bustle of the city fell away and history was revealed!
The Mausoleum was built in 350BC, and like most historical sites of such an age, little remains of the original structure. Thus, the sightseer must let their imagination loose to get the best from their visit (as Lewis Spence once said 'Myth is the ivy that binds all historical ruins and makes them picturesque to the eye'), but that is half the fun. And, thanks to the excavators, the raw ingredients are there; the foundations and lower strata of the structure have been outlined, and subterranean tunnels are open to those who (like me) can't help humming the Indiana Jones themes tune when presented with such a prospect. The site also houses a welcome air-conditioned room containing
finely detailed blueprints of how the structure was architected and ornamented, and various artists' interpretations of how the Mausoleum might have looked in its pomp. In each depiction of the original structure, the eye is almost magnetically drawn to the crowning sculpture of a charging, four-horse chariot. It is thought that colossal figures of Mausolus and Artemisia once stood in the carriage, together in death as they were in life.
Their story is intriguing and touching. They spared no expense in building what was to be an everlasting testament to their love and their power. They summoned artisans from all over Anatolia and Greece to design and construct the tomb - over twenty storeys tall. It is understood that Mausolus even imposed a long-hair tax on his subjects in order to pay for the structure. But he never set eyes upon the wonder it would become, dying before it was completed. Artemisia finished her husband's tomb after his death, then joined him on her own passing, her sarcophagus laid alongside his in the stucco-decorated burial chamber. They intended to rest undisturbed for eternity, but it was not to be.
I couldn't help but wonder what the Hospitaller Knights might have thought of the ruin as they harvested the masonry when constructing the nearby Castle
of St John in the 15th century. It is thought that they uncovered Artemisia's tomb, intact but stripped of the finery it was surely adorned with at the time of her burial. Did they recognise their part in the flow of history, dismantling one of the last great wonders of antiquity to build a bulwark of the late medieval era? I left the ruins of the Mausoleum with a mixture of emotions. There's a story or ten in there. Definitely.
On the final day of our sortie, we returned to Bodrum for a look at the 'Myndos Gate'. As if bringing our trip together, this was the gate that led from Halicarnassus, westwards to Myndos. The size of the remaining gate-towers give an idea of the sheer scale of the ancient settlement, and gazing over the modern city, I couldn't help but conjure images of the past; the broad streets, paved squares, temples and fortified palaces in the time of Mausolus, the Carian garrisons patrolling the walls. I could have remained there all day, but , once again, was beaten back by the sun (topping 38 degrees).
So, with our flight home looming, we made our way back into the heart of Bodrum to spend the rest of the day recovering from the heat, tucking into doner kebabs, supping iced-coffee and water and reflecting on our expedition. I came here for ideas and inspiration. What will come of it, I'm not sure.
But one thing is certain - this land has not yet seen the last of me . . .
Gordon Doherty: writer, history fan, explorer.
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