Voices of the Past by Beverley Byrne.
Published in The Lady, Britain’s oldest weekly magazine for women, June 2 2009.
I have just stepped back in time to the year 266 BC. Together with a group of fellow time travellers, I’m exploring the ancient ruined city of Phoenix on the south west coast of Turkey. Spectres from the past stalk the remains of well constructed fortress walls and, beneath our feet, the eerie evidence of ordinary daily life, amphora, tiles and domestic ceramics, lie shattered in the soil. As we pick our way through these relics from antiquity, the cisterns and wells, statue bases and strange pyramidal stones, our temporal guide, historian Peter Sommer, reads the runes of this forgotten city.
“Look over here,” he urges, “I’ve something special to show you.” Hidden away in a remote corner, we discover a tall stone tablet inscribed with lines of carefully carved ancient Greek letters. Kneeling beside it, Peter translates. “These words represent a pledge by the people of Phoenix to raise money to establish a temple dedicated to Dionysus, the god of wine and festivity. See this,” he continues, indicating one particular line. “This chap here has kicked off the fund raising by donating the land on which the temple can be erected. The rest is a list of townspeople who are pledging various sums of money.” “So,” quips one of our group, “This is the ancient Greeks’ version of the Rotary Club!”
Her quick observation neatly sums up what is proving to be an enlightening and entertaining voyage to the past. We are cruising the Carian coast of Turkey, and visiting two Greek islands, to understand how little known sites like Phoenix and archaeological blockbusters such as Rhodes, played their part in history. And through Peter Sommer, our erudite time lord, we are hearing the voices of long dead citizens and glimpsing a way of life which has been extinct for over two thousand years.
Thankfully, rather than a functional retro Tardis, we are travelling in style on the gulet Almira. Constructed to a traditional design developed in these waters over generations, this handsome, spacious and supremely luxurious vessel is meticulously maintained by her attentive and dedicated crew. Captain Mehmet, first mate Suleiman and talented chef Bayram love to sail and in between exhilarating cruises, we moor in often deserted bays to swim in the clear and sparkling sea. There couldn’t be a more relaxing way to navigate the space/time continuum.
Peter Sommer has been conducting classical tours on board the gulet Almira since l997. An award winning documentary film maker, he fell in love with Turkey as a student when he walked 2,000 miles in the footsteps of his hero, Alexander the Great. One starry evening, as we enjoy another of Bayram’s supremely delicious suppers, I ask Peter why Alexander had captured his imagination.
“Alexander was a heroic figure; visionary, mad and passionate,” he tells us, eyes shining. “He single-handedly changed the face of the world on a scale never since surpassed. By the time of his death at the age of 32, he had travelled across Europe establishing Greek cities and creating an empire stretching as far as Afghanistan, Egypt and India. Travelling so far in those days must have seemed like dropping off the planet. He was also an inspiring leader whose troops literally (?) followed him to the ends of the earth.”
In this Peter shares an affinity with Alexander. My shipmates, a congenial selection of archaeology enthusiasts from Britain, Australia and America, respond enthusiastically to Peter’s knowledge and passion. The complete antithesis of a dry and dusty academic, this youthful raconteur has evolved a personal style combining factual revelation with dramatic tension. His carefully prepared, painstakingly researched walks lead us through ravishing landscapes scattered with the wreckage of the ancient past. By placing flesh on the bones of these skeletal remains, he builds up the tension gradually by revealing architectural clues and inscriptions which make the past sing. Inevitably, he concludes with a grand archaeological flourish which leaves us flushed with excitement and cheering for more.
Mooring in the pretty inlet of Ağlımanı, we trek up a stony path to the ancient city of Lydae. On a hill top, two reasonably well preserved Roman tombs overlook a valley scattered with piles of stone which were once ‘the beating heart of the city’. “It may look like broken walls and jumbles of stone, but this is down town Lydae,” Peter enthuses. “The place would have been bustling with people who lived, loved, danced and worshipped. Just use your senses. Hear the baker’s cry and the children at play. Smell the scent of perfume mingling with sweat. Re-erect the columns in your mind. This is a snapshot of a provincial Roman town which was around for about eight hundred years.”
It is a similar story in the fabled city of Kaunos where the famous rock tombs overlooking the Dalyan River date from the fourth century BC. “It took time, money and willpower to create this city of the dead,” Peter observes as we navigate the languid reed lined lagoon towards the city. Kaunos is an impressive and extensive site littered with the remains of monumental public buildings. In the well preserved theatre, Peter points to the silted up harbour below. “Can you imagine this as a military harbour filled with Greek vessels and thronging with sailors and stevedores? It would have been protected by a metal chain which could be raised to prevent invasion by an enemy fleet. There is no doubt Kaunos was an important, wealthy, vibrant city which certainly played a major role in the drama of antiquity.”
Leaving Kaunos, we sail into Greek waters. As the Almira navigates Homer’s ‘wine dark sea’ en route for the medieval city of Rhodes, Peter says, “If you believe Cecil B de Mille, we should be sailing into the harbour once straddled by the bronzed Colossus of Rhodes. Although in reality, the statue was probably situated on a high point overlooking the city. However we are following in the wake of Suleiman the Magnificent when his army attacked and finally took the heavily fortified city in 1522.”
Built by the Knights Hospitaller, the city of Rhodes is a living breathing world heritage site. From the temple of Apollo and the stadium where audiences of up to 28,000 people watched sporting events designed as training for battle, to the mighty castellated walls guarding the old city, the history of Rhodes is evident in every stone and cobble. Dominating the city is the Palace of the Grandmaster, which was restored as a palace for Mussolini after Italy took the island in 1912.
Impressive as this is, it is nothing compared to Peter’s interpretation of the siege of Rhodes. Leading us away from the stifling tourist trails, we follow the moat to the rear of the walled city. Apart from swallows screeching overhead, we are alone as Peter reveals in thrilling detail, all the savagery, drama and desperation of this sixteenth century war. Cecil B de Mille himself could not have made the event more cinematic.
We sail on to the Greek island of Simi, where the busy harbour is embraced by elegant houses with classical roofs, their facades painted in fondant fancy shades of blue, yellow, toffee and violet. During Ottoman times, Simi prospered as a centre for sponge diving and ship building until occupation by the Italians and the introduction of the steam ship brought this golden age to an end. However, the island is now undergoing a reversal of fortune due to tourism and many of these glorious mansions have been restored.
Our final destination, Loryma, is a wild deserted cove guarded by a magnificent Rhodian fortress. Nothing remains of the city, but as we climb to the ruins of this garrison fort, Peter conjures up images of a thriving metropolis serving countless triremes, oared warships, moored far below us in the bay. As the sun sets, again I can almost hear the whispers of Loryma’s ancient inhabitants carried on the warm breeze.
Perhaps, their lives may not have been so very different from our own. Like us, they lived to defend their families, their faith and their freedom and it is the visions of these ordinary people which have been brought vividly to life on this unique cruise. Thanks to Peter Sommer, and the crew of the Almira, there has never been a more inspiring or civilised way to discover ancient civilisations.