Cruising Down The Centuries The Ancient Past Was Everywhere Present On A Voyage Along The Turkish Coast And Through The Eastern Mediterranean. It Was As If The Old Testament Had Come To Life.

Posted: April 14, 1996

ISTANBUL — Even a skeptic like Mark Twain was enraptured upon seeing Istanbul from the sea - ``a noble picture,'' he called it in Innocents Abroad, ``by far the hand-som-est city we have seen.''

Now, 128 years later, from the deck of the Radisson Diamond, the city on two continents still foists itself on the eye; it looks much the same - bulbous mosque domes, slender minarets, and the towers of Topkapi Palace silhouetted against a sky of fleecy white clouds, flushed pink with the dying day.

From a distance, the only visible concessions to modernity are the yellow rivers of taxis on the streets and, on the roofs, satellite dishes eavesdropping on the world.

Gliding through the Bosporus, the narrow strait that divides Istanbul and separates Europe and Asia, I began a slow cruise along the Turkish coast and through the eastern Mediterranean, with stops at the Greek islands of Santorini and Rhodes, then on to Cyprus and finishing up in the Israeli port of Haifa for an overland visit to Jerusalem. The voyage would take me past towns and cities right out of the Old Testament like Salonika and Antioch. Every stop was steeped in history, resonating with the centuries, reeking of the ancient humus of humanity. And everywhere, ruins - the heaped debris of history. Indeed, the journey quickly came to be called the Road to Ruins.

St. Paul, that noted traveler and correspondent, made a similar journey 20 centuries ago, roaming up and down the coastline by boat, stopping at many of the same cities.

I would be visiting the sites of man's earliest ripples on the waters of history - places of ancient battles, ancient hatreds, warring nations and warring religions. How far have we come from those days?

* Because of its strategic location, there's been a trading post on the site of modern Istanbul for 3,000 years, but the Spice Market is a relative newcomer to the city - it's been here only since the 15th century.

On Saturday mornings, the market is a chaos of odor - an olfactory version of all the musicians in a symphony orchestra playing a different score. Smells from mounds of black peppercorns, red paprika and yellow saffron mingle with more exquisite scents of lavender, lilac and musk. There are natural dyes, like indigo and henna, and roots, barks, herbal remedies and, of course, the sultan's own aphrodisiac. Everything is displayed in an open heap, ready to be weighed and wrapped.

Shouts echo all up and down the food section - ``Buyrun!'' (``Come in''), ``Taze!'' (``Fresh''), ``Yeni geldi!'' (``Just arrived''). The air is varnished with the odors and putrefaction of land and sea - vegetables, flowers and fish. Apples are piled upon each other like giant jewels, oranges shine as brightly as planets, and aubergines are stacked like cordwood. Pastahanes - pastry shops - dispense gooey concoctions with names like ``lady's navel'' and ``lips of the beautiful beloved,'' as well as the more standard baklava.

And in Istanbul I see that, as in so much of the world, there are no trash cans - a concession to bombings by Kurdish terrorists, who have been waging a guerrilla war for autonomy in southeastern Turkey since 1984.

That evening, as I pitchfork a bowl of pasta in the main dining room, the Radisson Diamond weighs anchor and heads into the open sea. When I awake the next morning, I am in the Turkish port of Dikili, gateway to the ruins of Pergamon, a 2,500-year-old Greek city that became a Roman province.

The current town on the site is Bergama, and it is built right over the Roman ruins that were built over the Greek ruins. The cities and civilizations build upon each other like rings on a tree trunk.

Modern Turkish life vanishes in the dust of the dirt roads of the countryside, where farm cottages with bleached red roof tiles guard pastured cows. One cow is wearing a blue medallion in the form of an eye; this is the talisman against nazar, the evil eye, which can cause great misfortune. A recent government survey showed that 30 percent of all Turks believe in nazar.

And from the windswept acropolis of Pergamon, I see tanks rumbling on maneuvers at a nearby Turkish army base.

The next morning the Radisson Diamond, escorted by screeching gulls, glides into the Turkish resort city of Kusadasi, whose harbor is prickling with the masts of ships from around the world.

Kusadasi, a major tourist destination for Turks and foreign cruise ships, is a place of casinos, of billboards, and of Club Meds, but soon I am back on the Road to Ruins heading toward Ephesus, which is arguably the best place in the world to get a feel for what it was like in this part of the world during Roman times. On the way, I stop at a roadstand and buy figs from a woman whose bright brown eyes are bracketed by crow's feet of cheerfulness. The figs were picked early this morning, and they are still cool with the night air.

Ephesus was founded about 3000 B.C. and lasted until the sixth century A.D., when it was wiped out by malaria - a fortunate turn of events for posterity because no one tried to build another city atop it, as conquerers are wont to do. Thus Ephesus is better preserved than most ancient cities.

Ephesus reached its zenith in the second century A.D. under the Romans when its population was 250,000 (which historians concluded by multiplying the number of seats in the theater by 10). Ephesus was the third largest city of the ancient world, behind Rome and Alexandria. Antony and Cleopatra honeymooned here around 50 B.C., and about A.D. 20, St. Paul visited Ephesus, which later inspired one of his most profound epistles - to the Ephesians.

Main Street in Ephesus was the Arcadian Way, which had water and sewer lines beneath its marble paving, streetlights and shops with columns and arches; and, still in evidence on a downhill section of the marble road, perforations designed to prevent people from slipping. Some houses had running water and a kind of thermal central heating, and there were public latrines, separate ones for men and women - a practice that is still adhered to today. Most impressive is the facade of the library, which had a double wall to trap humidity and prevent damage to the collection of 120,000 parchment scrolls.

Among the visitors today are a dozen Turkish army cadets wearing plain brown uniforms.

* From the deck of the Radisson Diamond, the cliffs of the island of Santorini seem to be topped by snow, but then it comes into clearer focus - and the snow becomes villages of whitewashed houses.

Archaeologists are excavating the ancient Minoan city of Akrotiri, which was buried 35 centuries ago in a volcano eruption. Only about 3 percent of the work is done, and the city is an unraveling mystery where last year's theory is exploded by last week's finding.

As I walk down a street where other people walked 4,000 years ago, I see a piece of pottery lying slightly aslant, in situ - just as it was found. A dozen workers are cataloguing potshards and drawing maps. Much of their work is done by computer and ground-penetrating radar, and they are not so much on a dig as on a drag. But in the end, they still must carefully sift through the volcanic ash, and as they do the Aegean sunlight touches artifacts for the first time in 35 centuries.

Lunch is at Selene's restaurant on a terrace overlooking the Aegean in the capital city of Thira. There is enough food to feed an army - and render it defenseless. Taramasalata (a carp roe dip), fava with capers, tomato fritters, aubergine stuffed with octopus, tomato and goat cheese, phyllo filled with spinach and raisins, monkfish, rabbit, quail, lamb in grape leaves and beef-stuffed crepes - all washed down with a local white wine called Boutari. Dessert is phyllo filled with mild cheese and cinnamon, and as it is being served, the meltemia, a gentle, cooling north wind, begins. It is 4 p.m., and I won't eat again until breakfast the next day.

Although it's a scant 11 miles off the Turkish coast, the island of Rhodes belongs to Greece - but its war-filled history is a story of colonizing Greeks, besieging Turks, crusading knights and occupying Italians. Today, trying to spend Turkish money on Rhodes will get you a look that sticks two inches out your back. Old hatreds die hard.

It is believed the island got its name from the Greek word for rose - rodos - and the local tourist association has been trying to promote a name change to Rodos, but so far Rhodes has stuck. This rose by any other name has one spectacular feature: a remarkably preserved medieval city left by Crusaders who used the island as a base from 1309 until 1522.

The time to see Rodos town is early, before the sun and the tourists become intolerable, when the tavernas are just putting out the chairs and the umbrellas, and the shopkeepers are cranking up the awnings, and the dogs are looting last night's restaurant garbage, and the slanting morning sun drives everything into long shadows, and the gray-haired, black-dressed women are coming back with bread from the bakery. . . .

I enter the old town through an original gate and stroll along a pebbled pavement beneath flying archways especially built to resist earthquakes. A boy passes me carrying light-blue lottery tickets, shouting, ``Ado ta kala lahia'' - ``Here are the lucky tickets. . . .'' I sneak a look through an open window at a family saying grace over breakfast, and the tinkling of bouzouki music reminds me of Zorba the Greek.

Nowhere in sight is the Colossus of Rhodes, believed to have been a 100-foot bronze statue set up in 305 B.C. to celebrate a military victory. It was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, but historians know little about it because it was toppled by an earthquake about 50 years later.

Next is the Turkish port of Antalya, on the Mediterranean, and it is downright ugly. At the pier, thousands of Russian-built Lada cars sit in the sun, covered with dust, waiting to be shipped to Africa but right now stalled in a months-long customs dispute.

Israelis come here to gamble in the casinos, and Russians come here to gambol on the beaches and play roulette with the sun's rays.

But beyond the great heave of the Torus mountains is the Pamphylian plain, gaunt and biblical, and home to the ancient city of Perge. The Perge ruins are Roman, second century A.D., but the city goes back to the Greeks in the 12th century B.C.

Perge is mentioned several times in the Old Testament. St. Paul preached here, and Cleopatra may have been here; it is certain that she bargained with Perge for the cedar logs to build ships.

There are chariot ruts in the stones of the main street, and with my foot I scratch the dust from an 1,800-year-old floor mosaic on the street of the marketplace.

At the stadium, which could accommodate 12,000 spectators for chariot races, there are parts of vaulted chambers that were refreshment stands, and each bears the name of the proprietor and the nature of his specialty.

* We go ashore at Limassol on the island of Cyprus, that strife-torn Mediterranean island set at the crossroads of three continents with a turbulent history dating back 9,000 years. Stores are offering ``Cyprus Delights,'' which used to be called ``Turkish Delights,'' but anything Turkish is out of favor in Greek Cyprus today. Whatever the name, the product is still a confection of jelly, almonds, sugar and starch, dredged for good measure through sugar, designed to gratify the sweetest of sweet tooths.

Over the centuries Cyprus came under the sway of various rulers including the Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians, the successors to Alexander the Great and the Romans, before Cyprus became part of the Byzantine Empire. Later came the Crusaders, the Lusignans and Venetians, Ottomans and British.

After independence in 1960, a civil war between the Greek and Turkish populations of Cyprus ended in an uneasy peace in 1974, and ever since the capital city of Nicosia has been divided, Berlin-like, by the so-called Green Line. Today, Turkish and Greek Cypriot soldiers glare at each other over the Green Line from behind sandbagged dugouts. They wear camouflage fatigues and carry carbines with fixed bayonets. Blue-helmeted United Nations soldiers patrol between them.

All along the Green Line, there are burned-out villas, and street and water lines abruptly end; there is even disagreement over the name of the capital city - to the Greeks, it's Lefkosia, to the Turks it is Lefkosha. Most outsiders call it Nicosia - the name given it by old European conquerers.

From the Greek side, I can see the slogan ``Proud to be a Turk'' carved into the white stones of the mountain slopes, and every evening on Greek television screens, they flash ``Den Xechnoume'' - ``We have not forgotten.'' Neither have the Turks.

* The final port of call is Haifa. On the 70-mile drive from there to Jerusalem, the motorway is lined with rusted Israeli army trucks, destroyed by the Arabs during the war for independence in 1948; they are left there as monuments.

Jerusalem, host to the world's three great monotheistic religions - the place where Muhammad entered Paradise; site of the Western (once Wailing) Wall, holiest place in the world for Jews; where the tree for the True Cross was felled; where God created Adam; where Cain slew Abel; where Abraham was ordered to sacrifice Isaac; where Jesus is entombed . . . 1,000 acres where it seems every place is sacred to somebody. The spirits of Abraham, Jesus and Muhammad are everywhere.

Near the Western Wall, the 2,000-year-old connection between the Jews and Jerusalem, Israeli soldiers in brown uniforms stroll the streets; they are men and women - actually, boys and girls, their faces wearing that look of youthful invincibility without which few wars would ever be fought. They carry M-16s and Uzis, even when they're off-duty.

From the Arab sector wafts the sound of the muezzins chanting the first chapter of the Koran, calling the Muslims to prayer. The Arabs of Jerusalem have refused Israeli citizenship, and they keep their own time system one hour ahead of the rest of the nation.

Their religious focal point is the Dome of the Rock, a kind of inverted golden bowl, which was erected to mark the spot where Muhammad ascended into heaven on his horse, al Barak.

Christian pilgrims are kneeling and praying at the original Stations of the Cross along the Via Doloroso leading to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, site of Jesus' crucifixion. This holiest of Christian sites is rather shabby because Christians cannot agree who has the right of maintenance. As a result, Orthodox Greeks control most of the Holy Sepulchre, but Roman Catholics, Egyptian Copts, Armenians and other sects also vie for power. One group is authorized to change light bulbs, another to clean stairs, a third to fix plumbing. . . .

In the distance, arhythmic church bells debate the exact moment of noon.

By the end of the eight-day cruise, I have traveled 1,200 nautical miles, crossed international borders four times, and bargained in Turkish liras, Greek drachmas, Cypriot pounds and Israeli shekels.

Nearly all the traveling was done at night while passengers dined and slept. There were full days ashore, with lunch at local restaurants. The major drawback of any cruise - the isolation from the people and places you are visiting - was substantially reduced.

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