Assos, August, 2015
Time spent in the Nesin Mathematics Village is a holiday. For my spouse and me, it is usually a working holiday, because some of our time is occupied with preparing and delivering lectures. Before going to teach for two weeks at the Village in August of 2015, Ayşe and I had a purer holiday, in Assos.
If you just want to see photographs from that holiday, you can skip ahead. During the trip, we tried to recall our first visit to Assos, but the memories were vague. Afterwards, I remembered that I had kept a journal when our first visit to Assos would have been. This was just after my first arrival in Turkey, seventeen years ago. I had a remarkable holiday with Ayşe then, using Herodotus as a tour guide.
I have lately been reading the journal of Henry David Thoreau. When he knew he would die of consumption, Thoreau spent his last few months revising and cross-referencing his journal. This is roughly what I am doing now, although I have no expectation of dying soon, except in the sense of C.S. Lewis, through the words of Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia: “I call all times soon.”
Twice before we had been to Assos. In the summer of 1998, Ayşe and I travelled clockwise along the Turkish coast. Leaving Ankara on August 6, we took an overnight bus to Fethiye (which we visited again in 2007). After five nights, we continued on to Bodrum (locus of an unpleasant night with drunken foreign tourists in 2008 before a peaceful cruise in a gulet). On August 15, we proceeded to Selçuk (which we now visit frequently, as it is the gateway to the Nesin Mathematics Village). Finally, on August 16, we ended up at the cottage of Ayşe's family, in a cooperative development called Ay-Ko, south of Ayvalık. Ayvalık was connected by ferry to Mytilene in Lesbos. We could see this Greek island from the beach near the cottage.
On Tuesday, August 25, Ayşe's father arrived at the cottage from Ankara. He immediately rented a minibus. This was to hold himself and his wife; Ayşe and me; Ayşe's brother and his future wife; and the family dog. Knowing that I was interested in old ruins, Ayşe's father began taking us all to the ancient sites of the area. In fact, the day before Necip Bey's arrival, Ayşe and I had used mass transit to visit Pergamum. (We took a dolmuş to Dikili, then another one to Bergama. Ayşe and I would see the movable treasures of the site nine years later, at the Pergamonmuseum in Berlin.)
- a waterfall called Sütüven and lake called Hasanboğuldu (“Hasan was drowned”);
- a village called Güre where men drank tea beneath an enormous plane tree, but there was also a new outdoor theater in the ancient style;
- the Tahtakuşlar Ethnographic Gallery, which specialized in Turkmen artefacts (according to my notes, nine of the 23 villages on Mount Ida are of Turkmen origin, but I do not know where I obtained this information: it is not on the size-A5 printed sheet that I have retained from the gallery itself, but it may have come from a museum booklet now lost);
- a hotel called İda Çiftlik Evi (“Ida Farm House”), from which hikes could be made up the mountain itself, and to which Ayşe and I dreamed of returning in the fall.
I have wonderful memories of these daily trips around the Gulf of Edremit (Ἀδραμύττειον). At the time they may have felt like forced marches, at least to some of the participants. I came to think of myself as the beneficiary of the hospitality demonstrated to Socrates and Glaucon at the beginning of the Republic: a hospitality that would not take no for an answer.
On Wednesday evening, the question arose from Ayşe's father: Where are we going tomorrow? No answer was forthcoming from anybody else. If we were going somewhere, I said, it might be Sardis. This was the capital from which Croesus had ruled the Kingdom of Lydia, until (as Herodotus describes) he foolishly attacked the Persians and was defeated by Cyrus the Great. Sardis was also rather far away. Ayşe pointed this out, but her father would not allow my suggestion to be withdrawn. We reached Sardis at 7:15 on Thursday evening. We had had a leisurely breakfast at the cottage, and then a long detour for lunch in the seaside town of Foça (the ancient Phocaea, which Ayşe and I visited again in 2014). We also had to struggle with the evening rush-hour traffic of Izmir. The Sardis guard was going to close the gate at 7:30, but agreed to keep it open 20 more minutes for us.
On Friday we returned to the foothills of Mount Ida, this time driving as far as Assos. First we dropped off Ayşe's future sister-in-law in the seaside town of Altınoluk, where her mother was staying with friends. We continued to a supposed Altar of Zeus, which was a big rock overlooking the sea. This was one of the attractions that went unmentioned in the Rough Guide that Ayşe and I had brought from the United States. We had lunch in a stone village called Adatepe, in a mom-and-pop restaurant called Villa Antalyalı. Pop held forth in Turkish to his guests, while mom prepared our mantı (which is normally made with mince, but cheese was used for the vegetarians, who were Ayşe and I). According to my notes, the spectacular outdoor seating area had three or four tables and was decorated with hanging gourds, both live on the vine, and dried and painted; strings of dried okra; and a cactus growing in a hanging bull's horn.
After lunch, we continued west along the coast to Assos. From among the Doric columns of the Temple of Athena near the peak of the Acropolis, the three remaining young humans of our group saw the countryside, the sea, and the nearby island of Lesbos. We saw the sun set. We went down to meet the old folks and the dog at a cafe, and then we headed back to the cottage. This had us travelling a winding road above the sea: the views would have been spectacular, had the sky not been dark. On the radio, Ayşe's brother picked up a Greek radio station playing songs like “Blame It on the Bossa Nova,” “Barbara Ann,” and “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree.” So there I was on a dark Turkish highway, with a Lesbian station coming over the air, playing American hits from my childhood and before. It was my closest encounter so far with surreality.
The rented minibus was returned the next day.
We made a second trip from Ayvalık to Assos a few years later, with the same personnel as before, except that my mother took the place of Ayşe's brother. The year was probably 2002, but this time I kept no written record. I did keep a memory of sitting on a shaded terrace surrounded by a stone wall looking out over the land. On our third visit to Assos, Ayşe and I recognized this terrace.
After ten in the evening of Tuesday, August 4, 2015, we caught a taxi to Taksim Square in Istanbul. From there, a minibus of the Truva (“Troy”) bus company took us to Esenler bus terminal. The terminal was crowded with the friends and family of boys who were off to perform their military service. These crowds are a problem on summer evenings at bus stations in Turkey. At least we often encounter the crowds; whether they are to be considered a problem depends on one's point of view. Nationalists may look proudly upon the crowds, seeing in them a reassuring enthusiasm for the defense of the great Turkish nation.
Our bus to Ayvacık did leave more or less on time. (That's Ayvacık, “Little Quince,” not the previously mentioned Ayvalık, “Quince Orchard.”) The bus took us along the northern coast of the Sea of Marmara, then over to Asia by ferry at the Dardanelles (the Çanakkale Strait, the Hellespont). By then it was light, but we continued to try to sleep: this is a feat that seems to become easier to accomplish, for me at least, as I grow older. We drove across the Troad (the Biga Peninsula). At Ayvacık, a man loaded the baggage of us and other holiday-makers onto a dolmuş. Off we went to Behramkale, the modern town at the site of Assos.
First we dropped passengers at Kadırga (“Galley”) beach, east of Behramkale; then we ascended the old acropolis, and Ayşe and I were let off at the entrance of our hotel, called Assosyal (“asocial” in Turkish is asosyal). Leaving our things, we wandered down the road to a restaurant called Ehl-i Keyf (“Master of Pleasure”) and had breakfast.
We would spend most of Wednesday at the seaside below the acropolis of Assos. Thursday, we took the dolmuş to Kadırga beach; in the evening, we had dinner with rakı on the terrace of our hotel, overlooking a landscape that was mostly black, free from the artificial light of civilization. Friday, we explored the ruins of Assos before descending again to the bathing platform that we had used on Wednesday; in the evening we visited the Acropolis itself, with its Athena temple. Saturday morning, we met the sculptor of all of the works that decorated our hotel. We packed our bags, caught the dolmuş back to Ayvacık, took a bus to Izmir, caught the dolmuş to Selçuk, caught another dolmuş to Sirince, then got a ride out to the Nesin Matematik Köyü. This is where I selected photographs and started composing these words.
I did not attempt to document our whole trip with photographs. Kadırga beach in particular did not inspire me to take any snapshots. I also avoid taking photographs when first in a new place. Here are the photographs that seem best of the ones that I (and sometimes Ayşe) did take.
To get to Assos harbor and the bathing platforms beyond it, we had the impression that we could cut through the ruins of Assos itself, avoiding most of the car road. The ruins seem to be in two parts: the Acropolis, for which admission is charged, and then the bulk of the city below this. The latter ruins are still fenced off, but the turnstiles in the fence are unlocked. We walked along the grand old road through the necropolis to the main gate of the city, where workers were having a tea break. They suggested that one could indeed reach the sea via the old theater. We walked to the far end of the agora, then made our way down to the theater, but not by a proper path. At the harbor of Assos, we walked past the old stone buildings, and then past many bathing platforms, which displayed signs forbidding outside food or drink. The next-to-last platform along the shore had no such sign and almost no occupants, and so we sat there.
After a while, a few more guests did come. A boy took an order from some of them, then asked if we wanted anything. He did not ask any money for the privilege of using the platform. We asked for beer.
I thought the beer might put me to sleep, especially after an overnight bus trip. It did not. Maybe tea with breakfast helped: I normally do not drink it. Also the sea and the sun kept me stimulated. We periodically bathed and sat. During the sitting intervals, I read from Thoreau's Journal (New York Review Books, 2009). Thoreau's main occupation is to describe the natural world around him, and himself in it. In Istanbul, hardly any nature is left, and Thoreau is escapist reading. The seacoast opposite the island of Lesbos is nothing like the inland world that Thoreau describes; but still his words seemed to fit the site.
The seacoast at Assos is latitudinal, with the city to the north. Assosyal hotel is northeast of the Acropolis, with a terrace facing the rising sun. On Thursday morning, unsurprisingly but happily, I slept later than usual; but still I was up before sunrise, and before everybody else.
We were served breakfast at the stone table that I had staked out. The fig tree over the table did not provide full shade, but it seemed to provide the most shade that was available, unless one wanted to retreat behind a stone wall.
After breakfast, as I said, we took the dolmuş to Kadırga beach. A girl took a few lira for the use of a couple of plastic şezlong and a wicker umbrella. There was indeed a proper beach, though it was more shingle than sand. The chaises were not too tightly packed, and the development behind the beach was low key: no building had more than one storey. But if one is not looking for family fun, Assos may be the better place to swim.
Back at the hotel in the evening, the buildings provided shade for the terrace.
A three-legged cat occupied the terrace.
Sculpted beasts also occupied the terrace.
We visited the ruins of Assos again. Modern exercise equipment was set up near the ancient wall.
The first archeologist whom we met on Friday in Assos was an undergraduate from a nearby university. She was sorting through the remains of a medieval church. We would find other workers scattered about, digging or surveying. Some of them were foreign: we overheard German and English.
In the modern village, gendarmes had been keeping cars out. We seemed to hear that the President was going to visit. This would be an inconvenience, and a disappointment: we would rather stay as far from him as possible. A coast guard vessel was on patrol.
We found a better way down to the theater. There we picked up the modern road and continued down to the shore. Cars could not enter, but pedestrians could.
The visiting dignitary was not the President though, but perhaps a Governor General: the Queen's representative in one of her countries besides the United Kingdom itself. This is what the Turkish sounded like; but we never learned why such a person would be visiting.
How does one back up one's car to within a foot of the edge of a cliff? It takes some nerve, or else lack of awareness.
We returned to the platform of Wednesday.
Out in the sea, people could stand on the remains of a mole from the ancient harbor.
During our last bathing excursion of the day, Ayşe stepped on a sea urchin. She could still hobble back to the hotel (or rather to the dolmuş that took us back up to the hotel). People said sunshine and olive oil would take the spines out: it didn't. But neither did one of the disastrous scenarios occur that I read about on the internet, in which the victim goes to the hospital for intravenous antibiotics.
The local sculptor had supplemented the branch of a fig tree with some rusted steel leaves.
I thought the sculptor might be one of the two eccentric-looking gentlemen who wandered about the hotel.
In addition to Thoreau, I was reading Julian Baggini, Freedom Regained: The Possibility of Free Will. I had been intrigued by an excerpt in the Guardian Weekly, and then I had encountered the book itself in Pandora Bookshop in Istanbul. Perhaps Baggini does the best that can be done in a popular book on the subject of free will. I think Baggini could have benefited from the work of Collingwood, whom he seems not to have read. I have not understood why there is even a debate on the subject of free will. The observation that we are free is basic, like Descartes's “I am thinking.” But people called philosophers seem to enjoy defining free will, then proving that what they have defined cannot exist. Their conclusion should be that they got the definition wrong, if they were not wrong to think that there even was a definition.
A storm threatened as we visited the Acropolis in the evening. There were wind and clouds, though only a few stray drops of rain.
The Assos acropolis is the most spectacular site for a mosque that I know in Turkey.
Cats leapt onto the terrace of a restaurant in the village. The table behind Ayşe seemed to consist of a man and his two daughters: they spoke German amongst themselves, but the man used Turkish with the waiter.
Before dawn on Saturday, the hotel bar was lit up by a blue light. The wall under the counter was made from the door of an aircraft.
I spent some of the last morning recording the odd features of the hotel.
The sculptor of the jellyfish and other works turned out to be Ali Abayoğlu, who was the nephew of the hotel proprietor. He talked to me about some of his works and his shows. His website has a good account of his inspiration: the car crash that severely injured him and gave him an interest in the skeleton. I like his idea that he is reducing entropy by sculpting out of junk. With him, I observed that one of the human figures in his portfolio seemed to have adopted a yoga pose. It was almost a yoga pose, he said. Now I see from the website that the title of that work is indeed “Almost Sarvangasana.”
The dolmuş came along and took us away.