Thoughts reverent and irreverent from the road in Turkey


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I amble up the road to Laodicaea expecting a quick whip round a site I’d visited some years ago without much enthusiasm.

“Ten lira,” says the man at the gate.

“Ten lira! It was free last time I came here,” I squeak.

“Yes, but it’s much more interesting now,” he replies.

“I very much doubt that. It was just a pile of old stones,” I moan but already ticket and money are exchanging hands.

The man grins at me broadly. “For that you get a free toilet,” he says.

“For that I expect a luxury toilet with shower,” I retort before stomping off to give the site the once-over.

But, you know, he was right. Sometime, just sometimes, you can arrive at an archaeological site and so much work has been done to it that it seems completely new. Now I find that I can stroll along Syria Street in the footsteps of the Romans, pausing to inspect the ruts carved by wheels in the marble paving slabs, and to admire the pieces of masonry reused as seats in the shade of the portico by economy-minded citizens. Off to the left lie the remains of the agora and of a huge bathhouse; off to the left a temple with some of its pillars reerected to give an idea of what it would have looked like in its heyday.

Last time I came here, some ten years ago probably, I was the site’s only visitor. Today though Laodicea is clearly being prepared for a higher profile existence and as I walk along the street three separate coach parties of Germans trail along behind me. Then at 12.30 something rather wonderful happens. The coach parties depart for their lunch dates at exactly the same time as the archaeologists down tools and head for the canteen. The silence that falls is palpable, the sort of silence I remember from the half-hour before iftar in Göreme, the sort of silence that must have given birth to the phrase “hear a pin drop”.

The great thing about this is that I need silence for my imagination to take wing. I’m no   Charles Dickens, able to whip up a David Copperfield while standing in the corner of a party. Me, I get distracted by the sound of a dog barking. Me, I have to turn off the radio if I’m to get a thing written. But now, suddenly, in this glorious, unexpected stillness I stand at the top of the crumbling theatre and hear the sound of togas being tucked up beneath cold bottoms, the sound of Latin as excited Roman voices exchange notes on the latest Terence comedy. Then beind me I hear a window thrown open as the neighbours rush to see what’s happening while old granny in the corner complains that she’s been kept awake by the noise.

Back at the temple I find that a glass floor has been laid to let visitors look down on columns densely covered with figurines. The trouble is that I don’t like glass floors. A friend of mine has glass tiles in the floor of his İstanbul shop so that visitors can admire Byzantine mosaics below it. I always tiptoe across it using the joins. The Anatolian Houses hotel in Göreme has glass stairs. I always climb them gingerly, clinging to the handrail. Damn it, I have reinforced glass covering a tandır oven cut in the floor of my own cave house, and I never set foot on it. Now, though, I’ve seen entire German coach parties standing on the glass. I know that it’s strong enough to take their weight, ergo it must be able to bear mine.

Unfortunately this is not about logic. I teeter round the edge of the floor holding on to the rail as if my life depended on it. Then briefly curiosity gets the better of me and I step out onto the glass. And freeze. I’m completely paralyzed, unable to move backwards or forwards, stuck as firmly as a poor mouse trapped in glue.

Close your eyes and walk forward, I try telling myself. You know it’s not far. You know it’s safe. But my legs adamantly refuse to respond to my commands.

Walk along the joins, I try again, but unfortunately they’re not as wide as my boot. So there I stand, turned to stone as effectively as a Greek who’d dared to look at Medusa. It begins to look as if I will have to sit down and crawl back to the railing, much to the hilarity, no doubt, of the archaeologists now returning, shovels over shoulders, from their lunch. In truth I was so afraid that I don’t remember exactly how I did get back to the railing although obviously I must have managed it or this blog could never have been written.

After that some of the gloss had rubbed off Laidocea for me although I did note that the basilica built on the site of the church mentioned in the Bible is now being rebuilt. Painstakingly, slowly, albeit with the assistance of a crane as large as those that dot construction sites in the City of London. When the work is finished Laodicea will make a great deal more sense and the tour parties will pour in in their thousands.

Back at the gate I nod to the custodian. “You were right,” I say. “It is much more interesting.” Then I spot an outcrop of plastic bottles with blue plastic caps still on them nestling in the grass. As I pause to gather them up, he comes to join me. We part company the best of friends.

 Oh, and the nasty plastic toilet block was being replaced with a much more environmentally sensitive one made out of wood. If that were to happen at all Turkey’s archaeological sites it would, in one stroke, improve their appearance immeasurably. 400 DSC07232

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