East of Ephesus - by John Sealander


It is early morning in Ephesus. I am standing at the base of the Odeon, looking down Curetes Street toward the Celsus Library. As far I can see, a profusion of well-preserved Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns protrude through the arid Turkish soil, competing for space with the nárthex bushes that have grown here since antiquity. The Ephesians were traders and businesspeople. Unlike many of their contemporaries, they erected temples to all the gods, attempting to make happy customers out of the many Egyptians, Greeks, Arabs and Romans who traded with them. This ecumenical and entrepreneurial spirit explains why a city of over 250,000 people was able to thrive for centuries without a heavily fortified Acropolis or a garrison of centurions to protect them. I am not familiar with this part of the world. East of Ephesus I know nothing, but even a cursory inspection of this remarkable excavation confirms my belief that throughout history, people have been interested in one of two things: killing each other or selling stuff to each other.

These two opposing forces still define life in the Middle East, and I suspect, the rest of the world as well. Rug merchants in Kusadasi discretely hawk expensive hand-woven Kilims to vacationing American doctors and dentists over a cup of hot apple tea as F-16 fighters fly overhead from staging bases in Crete toward Iraqi no-fly zones. Even though the Turks aren't all that wild about this latest effort to contain Saddam Hussein, they don't let it get in the way of commerce. At the main entrance to Ephesus there is a man who will take your picture standing next to a Camel. Even though Camels are not native to Turkey, Americans familiar with an iconography learned from smoking Camel Cigarettes expect them. In the spirit of the ancient Ephesians, this enterprising Turk imported his own Camel from Egypt and is doing a thriving business exploiting the gullibility of the geographically challenged.

Americans may be abysmal students of history and geography, but it's hard to make a strong case that they are any more short-sighted than their Mediterranean counterparts. The signs are everywhere. The citizens of Athens have become so enamored with the automobile that every man, woman and child seems to own one. Cars in the city appear to multiply like rabbits and are parked everywhere: on sidewalks, in front of fire hydrants, even on entrance ramps to busy throughways. The collective emissions from this avalanche of automobiles is slowly destroying the impressive Hellenistic marble monuments that have held fast against less subtle invasions from Romans, Turks, Crusaders and foreign tourists. The seas fare no better environmentally. Spend a few days sailing in the Aegean and you will quickly discover that your wake stirs up a cloud of plastic detritus. Milk cartons, plastic bags and containers of every shape and description float a few feet below the surface seemingly forever. Much of this debris eventually ends up lining the shores of some of the world's most picturesque beaches, but still littering appears to carry no more stigma than the common practice of urinating by the side of the road. In Ephesus itself, there is an impressive 24,000 seat theater where Roman gladiators battled and St. Paul preached the gospel to early Ephesian Christians. This theater survived almost intact for centuries until several years ago when enterprising Turkish promoters decided it would make a unique venue for a rock concert featuring Sting as the headliner. After a single performance, the theater became so severely damaged it was closed for three years for structural repairs.

It is interesting to compare the conservation efforts of different cultures. Almost every modern house in Greece and Turkey has a spiffy new solar collector on the roof that is used to heat hot water. Lighting fixtures are routinely turned off in public and private buildings when not in use. Toilets are designed to use less than half the water of their American counterparts. And even though automobiles are ubiquitous, most are small and extremely fuel-efficient. On the other hand, air quality in larger cities is horrendous, a sizable percentage of the population smokes tobacco and nobody seems to worry about excessive salt or high-cholesterol foods. It is almost as if all conservation efforts in this part of the world are focused on economic issues. Energy is expensive and solar hot water heaters or fuel-efficient cars save money. Americans seem more interested in conserving themselves. They spend a fortune on massages, pills, special foods, heart-smart diets, smoking cessation programs, stress reducing regimes and other forms of personal pampering while wasting huge amounts of energy driving to thirteen shopping malls to purchase these items. The Greeks, in sharp contrast, are almost religious about turning off light switches and using less toilet paper, but continue to smoke their unfiltered Camel and Marlboro cigarettes with reckless abandon.

Even though cultural differences abound, the similarities I see are even more abundant. The trend is definitely moving in the direction of a homogenous world ruled by corporations with ubiquitous and universally recognized logos. The Nike swoosh is as familiar in rural Turkey as it is in downtown Manhattan. There is a McDonalds in the heart of the Pláka in Athens. Cell phones are abundant on even the smallest Greek Island. Santorini is so full of trendy bars and nightclubs that it seems remarkably like Aspen, Colorado, except with a nicer view. American brands are a big deal everywhere you go. One of the most impressive status symbols you can have in Athens is a Harley Davidson motorcycle. Hard Rock Cafe T-shirts are everywhere and are frequently sold in towns with no Hard Rock Cafe. In market stalls throughout Turkey, vendors hawk counterfeit Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein shirts while claiming that the hand-crafted purses they make from antique Kilims are also available in the United States at Neiman Marcus for double the price.

Nevertheless, there are still small treasures to be found if you are patient enough to sift through this sea of global conformity. In one small Turkish leather shop I saw a fairly normal black leather motorcycle jacket with a Briggs & Stratton logo carefully embroidered on the back where you would normally expect to see the Harley Davidson eagle. I broke out in spontaneous laughter, but I must have been the only person in town to find humor in the idea of wearing a tough looking biker jacket with the logo of a lawn mower company on the back. In the Athens airport I saw an attractive female security officer carrying a machine gun who had seemingly decided to accessorize her military uniform with skin-tight toreador pants and high heel shoes that matched the blue armored personnel carrier behind her. In the small town of Oia I met an eccentric and talented silversmith who made rings and jewelery using ordinary beach stones mounted in exquisite gold and silver settings and then enigmatically refused to sell most of his merchandise because he liked having it around him. In Rhodes I had the pleasure of listening to the colorful proprietor of a New York City seafood restaurant chew out a local Greek Taverna owner for serving him frozen fish.

I love this kind of quirky eccentricity. Unfortunately, judging by the ruins I've seen on this journey, much of recorded history appears to be a history of wars and battles fought to perpetuate conformity. A world of ruined castles, fortresses, moats and battlements bear witness to the unflagging efforts of centuries of true believers to root out and annihilate anything that didn't match their narrow world view. This is why I found Ephesus so exciting. This place was different than the rest. There were no walls. No fortified Acropolis. No moats filled with crocodiles. There was, in fact, no effort made to keep out the infidels at all. Everyone was viewed as a potential customer. I don't know what lies East of Ephesus. The wide marbled streets of this remarkable city in Turkey are as far away from home as I've been in my life. I do know that these people had the right idea centuries before globalization became a mantra among major corporations. The Ephesians were not defeated in battle. They were traders. They might still be here today if a major earthquake hadn't caused their perfectly situated harbor to recede and silt over, destroying the city's access to trading partners and subjecting the population to mosquito-borne diseases.

If New York or San Francisco were unearthed four centuries from now, I wonder what future archeologists would conclude? We are basically a nation of traders much like the Ephesians. But we complicate life unnecessarily by operating within a rigid set of rules and laws written and enforced by true believers. America's Puritan roots are still strong. There have always been infidels to be kept out in this country. One year it may be the Communists. The next year it may be illegal aliens. Someday in the future it may be people who are HIV positive. The problem with being right is that it creates whole classes of people who are by definition, wrong. Unless you can look at the world through the eyes of a trader, these people tend to become enemies instead of potential customers.

In the dogmatic world of right and wrong I must admit I have little use for a nation that still thinks a round ceramic hole in the ground is a toilet. As a trader however, I can see that quirky plumbing is just a small part of an intricate tapestry that includes wonderful grainy breads, cool looking concrete houses, sleek ocean-going yachts, over twenty types of delectable cheeses, innovative earthquake resistant construction techniques, an abundance of Citroën and pressure washers dealers, a sense of design that mixes new and old with impunity and a unique opportunity to look backward in time.

It may be a long time before I come this way again, but I leave with a better knowledge of who I am. I have never been a true believer. Better to throw a token peace offering to all the gods. I am, and will always be a trader at heart.

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