Part XXVI: Selcuk, Turkey
The Church of Saint John. Selcuk, Turkey
The Church of Saint John. Selcuk, Turkey

The drumming begins at 4:30 AM. In the pre-dawn darkness, great sticks smack the skin head of a kettle drum in a straight two count: One-two One-two. The sound grows louder as the drummer trudges through the village streets, inexorably drawing closer. Today marks the beginning of Ramadan. For the next thirty days, devout Muslims will fast during the hours of daylight. Hold two threads in the palm of your hand, one white, one black. When there is enough light to discern a color difference between the threads the fast begins. Since it is only permissible to eat in the dark, the local drummer is waking the village up. People will rise, and eat hurriedly before the sun arrives.

The drum shakes the whitewashed stone homes with its summons. One-two, One-two, the heartbeat of Islam, the call to the faithful, ruiner of sleep for indolent Christians and less fervent Muslims alike. ONE-TWO, ONE-TWO, the drummer is below our window. Then slowly ― too slowly ― he passes the Mayor's mansion and moves out of earshot. At least fifteen minutes elapse from the opening crack of the drum to its last dying pulse.

Thanks to the drum, we arise early today. We have decided to devote our morning expedition to the city of Selcuk. This is the small city we passed through on the way to Ephesus. But Selcuk is much more than a convenient place to change mini-buses. It has many attractions of its own, including the Church of St John.

The Church of Saint John. Selcuk, Turkey
The Church of Saint John. Selcuk, Turkey

Legend holds that after the early Christians were driven out of Jerusalem, the Apostle John made his way to Ephesus, where he spent the rest of his days, writing, evangelizing, and caring for the Virgin Mary. The Church of St John was a large church (130 meters in length) constructed around the tomb of the blessed apostle. Tradition identifies this John as the author of the Gospel and Letters of John, and the prophet whose visions were recorded in the Book of Revelations. Modern New Testament scholars question whether all of these accomplishments belong to the same person, but their academic reservations have not tarnished the certainty of the local tour guides.

As Ephesus was silted in and began to die, many people migrated to Selcuk. Two churches had been constructed over the tomb of John before the Emperor Justinian decided to build a church worthy of an apostle on the site. Justinian's church stood until it was destroyed by Mongol invaders in 1402, but the extent of the ruins testify to the grandeur of what had been built.

Today the basilica is a massive yard of bleached marble bones. Fragments of columns and dislocated capitals litter the ground. Some of the columns still bear the monogram of Justinian and the Empress Theodora scratched into their bases. Red baked bricks form inner walls, held together with aggregate mortar. These ancient walls, now stripped of their marble facing, provide a guide to the dimensions of the demolished church. The walls of the baptistery are still quite high, surrounding an octagonal space to the north of the church aisle. On the eastern end of the church is a marble platform, marked with four columns: the tomb of John.

The Tomb of Saint John. Selcuk, Turkey
The Tomb of Saint John. Selcuk, Turkey

The Church of St John draws many tourists. It is one of the “must sees” for the American Christians who take religious tours through the East, and our guidebook suggests that it is particularly popular among Evangelical Protestants. I find this slightly ironic given the ferocious rejection of Catholic traditions and legend by most Protestants. Somehow John is different. In the short time we are at the site, I count three different American tour groups working the site. And we are entering the off season for tour groups.

The Isa Bey Mosque. Selcuk, Turkey.
The Isa Bey Mosque. Selcuk, Turkey.

Another religious alternative stands down the western slope of the hill from the Church of St John. The Isa Bey Mosque was built in 1375 by the son of Mehmet Bey, but was badly damaged by an earthquake. Restoration has been underway for the past 25 years. We had been encouraged to visit this mosque, and when we arrive, have the good fortune to meet its Imam, who is substituting for his son in a pottery shop outside the mosque's walls. He and I have a lovely discussion about Islam, Allah, and his life as an Imam, but the moment Mary and the girls stroll over, he immediately changes the subject to pottery, dragging out bowls for our inspection.

Pottery. Selcuk, Turkey
Pottery. Selcuk, Turkey

We manage to break away with no pottery added to the weight of our backpacks, and enter the courtyard of the mosque. Inside we find large Roman columns, recycled from either Ephesus or the Church of St John. The courtyard was once partly covered, but the earthquake brought the roof and the minarets down. We stroll around the quiet space, peek inside the mosque, then head back into town for lunch.

Courtyard, Isa Bey Mosque. Selcuk, Turkey
Courtyard, Isa Bey Mosque. Selcuk, Turkey

After lunch we spend an hour in the Ephesus Museum. This museum contains many of the valuable objects found during the excavation of nearby Ephesus. There is a king's ransom of statuary, ranging from tiny carvings that would easily fit in your hand to the leering, colossal head of the Roman Emperor Domitian, at least six feet from chin to curls. The museum offers a clue to how glorious Ephesus once must have been, before the world began hauling its treasures away. I must give my strong endorsement to the museum. All of the signage is bi-lingual (Turkish/English), and its small size encourages you to linger over the marvelous treasures on display.

Bust of the Emperor Domitian, Selcuk Museum. Selcuk, Turkey
Bust of the Emperor Domitian, Ephesus Museum. Selcuk, Turkey

Back up the hill in the minibus to Sirince. We are rather stunned when we learn that the temperature has risen to 36 degrees (around 100 Fahrenheit). But it's a dry heat, one that we barely feel as we collapse into our lounge chairs.

There is a dusty corner at the entrance to the town where the Sirince horse wranglers gather. We have seen them out there in the evenings, a couple of men with six or eight tired horses tied to the wooden fences. I don't know who first had the bright idea that we should pay them a visit, but this silly plan slowly gained critical mass until it became an accepted fact that our expeditionary team would join the Turkish horse wranglers for a ride in the early evening calm.

Now bear in mind that my younger daughter, Grace, is the only team member with any real affection for horses; the rest of us would rather keep our feet firmly on the ground. It has been at least 35 years since last I mounted a steed and about the same for Mary. Ann had riding lessons when she was younger, but has since moved on to other pursuits.

So it was with tears in our eyes that we strolled up through town to the horse wranglers. The operation is run by a man named Mehmet. His assistant is also named Mehmet, which cuts down on the number of names we have to memorize. The horses are a bit smaller than I remember. The saddles are made of wood, covered with a thin veneer of leather. My horse is brown, short, and has a Turkish name that I never learn. I elect to call him Job for he surely suffers greatly under my weight. Or at least he leads me to believe that he is suffering.

The long-suffering Job. Sirince, Turkey
The long-suffering Job. Sirince, Turkey

My stirrups are quite short when I mount Job, leaving my knees just south of my chin, Job groans, his middle sags perceptibly earthward. I feel as if our roles should be reversed ― I should be carrying Job around. Everyone else looks dashing on their horses,.

The Mehmet brothers snap lead ropes onto Grace and Mary's horses. Ann and I are left to shift for ourselves. Up the road we go, winding slowly into the mountains. Job and I reach an immediate understanding: we are out for an enjoyable evening and nothing disturbs contemplation more than unseemly haste. We'll just take our time and relax a bit.

Mehmet II does not understand our arrangement and he keeps sneaking up behind us, towing Miss Mary, shouting “yee” and hitting poor Job with a piece of rope. Job shudders, staggers into a creaking trot for about fifty paces, and then relapses back into the sedate pace we both favor.

Mehmet II. Sirince, Turkey
Mehmet II. Sirince, Turkey

I must say that the view was lovely and it is much easier to gain altitude on horse than foot. On the other hand, I couldn't just pop off Job whenever I wanted to snap a photo, especially with Mehmet II dogging our heels like a horsefly with the blood lust. So, some pluses and minuses.

Coming back down the mountain was harder on both horse and rider. Job groaned with every step and I gripped him fiercely with my thighs to keep from toppling over his head.

Well, all good things must come to an end and it was the same with the great Turkish horse expedition. Job caught sight of the end of the trail and suddenly there was a bounce in his step, a swing in his stride, and a great last trot to get there first. We parted friends, although it may be another 35 years before I try it again.

Many of the restaurants were closed tonight as we passed through town on our way home from dinner. Not only that, but many of the people manning the market stalls had already packed up their wares and headed off. They were undoubtedly trying to make it home for dinner as soon as it became dark. It is Ramadan, after all. As soon as night falls we can hear the rattle of plates and cutlery tinkling across the valley. Let the feast begin.

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Copyright, 2017 Richard J. Goodrich