Pristine Greek Ruins at Priene, Turkey

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After five restful and lovely days in Sirinçe, I made a move to see a highly-regarded ancient site about one hour away by car. I could not reach it by minibus or train, so the only option was to rent a car and make the drive myself. All the preliminaries–rental car, cost, accommodation–took a couple trips to Selçuk to figure out and finalize, but at 11:00 I was in my car, headed out of town for the ancient city of Priene, which is today in the Turkish village of Gullabaçe.

It was fantastic and a little scary to be under my own power after all these months of depending on various drivers and modes of transport. I guess the last time was in Indonesia, when I rented a scooter for 24 hours on Karimunjawa island. The car in Turkey was an old Fiat 5-speed shift, filthy on the outside but clean within. It cost $35 to rent the car and then $25 for gas to make a 120 km. round trip of an hour each way.

I will let the photos of Priene take precedence over the description. It didn’t rain when I visited but the clouds were so low and thick that rain seemed imminent at any moment. Wind from the west was strong and persistent, but shortly after checking in to my one-night pension, I was geared up and on site. The only shortcoming was my optimism that the sun would come out and therefore long-underwear was not needed. I didn’t linger in any one place too long, but man, long-underwear would have been bliss. Uniqlo “heat-tec” were in my bag all the time.

What makes Priene special to visit is two things. First, there are no security guards so the visitor is free to move through the site at will. This means walls can be climbed, grassy or weedy paths can be walked, and the tenuous balance between excavated ruins and the flora of the place often has flora taking the upper hand. Whereas Ephesus is tightly managed, neatly manicured, and rather stark in its presentation of all these meaningful stones, Priene is wooded and delightfully green. Its ancient stones are framed and buffered by weeds, bushes, wildflowers, grasses, and trees in the most marvelous way. I’ve always loved those etchings from Victorian-era Europe, made by artists on a “grand tour” of the principal countries of Greek ruins emerging from the landscape, and at Priene, I had a version for myself.

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From the entrance to the site, a visitor walks up a path where each block of stone is pockmarked with at least four millennia of climatic and human activity, which is rather staggering when one thinks about it. Who were these ancient people who slogged up this path to the city they called home? They were nominally “Greek” but the word doesn’t hold the same kind of significance as it goes today. Perhaps a more accurate way of thinking about these people living on a mountain plateau above a big bay of the Aegean Sea is that they were part of the federation of clans that reached all the way to Athens (some of the time), and to Persia the rest of the time. Easily conquered, they shifted their markets and gods according to the political regime in power and thus survived from one generation to the next. They also had to worry about pirates, as if power-hungry empires to the west and east wasn’t enough.

I walked the assigned paths and read the explanations for the first 20 minutes, then sought out a protected corner next to a moss-covered stone wall. I could sit zazen without any sound other than the wind and my own breath whistling in my ears.  Superb!

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From there it was all uphill–steps, walls, terraces–leading to the base of a mountain where, way on top, is the city’s acropolis (but not accessible to visitors). My first stop was the temple of Athena, where archaeological excavations rebuilt a few of the 50+ columns from the original. With a rocky mountain as background, the 4 meter high columns stand out starkly and dramatically. Collapsed columns look like huge stone cogs to be fitted in a stone gear-machine that some Greek god will operate.

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The temple occupied one of many terraced plazas on the hillside, with the flat and fertile Meander River valley visible in the background. Gazing out over this flatland, one has to imagine it as all water some four thousand years ago. It must have been wonderful to have been a merchant and watched ships dock safely just below the slopes of the city, with goods brought uphill to the Agora for trade and distribution. The same view would have yielded not-so-pleasant scenes as well: invading navies approaching, pirates on the attack, or perhaps a strange ship from unknown parts that may bring plague or pestilence. The ancient gods served a real purpose to help lessen anxiety and give a meager sense that there was an order, even if whimsically administered, to reality.  In the 6000 person theater, the best seat in the house was reserved for Dionysus.  Thanking him for the gift of wine and song, I played him a couple numbers on my Nepali bamboo flute.  There were no earthquakes or hailstorms, and the next morning had better weather, so perhaps he was pleased to have a little music on a blustery March afternoon.

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The other place that drew me in was the temple to Demeter, goddess of grains, agriculture, and food in general.  The setting was about 200 meters above the Athena temple, with an expansive view over the Meander valley.  A small sign identified it as “Demeter Sanctuary” and that is exactly how it felt.  A little impromptu altar had some random stones and branches on it, so I added three pine cones and built a little chorten, leaving behind a cookie as well.

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I will make a separate entry for my stay at the Priene Garden Pension and the windstorm that happened all night long. The morning brought sunshine, and that’s why there are two varying contrasts in the photos.

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