The quest for the Great Goddess has led us all the way by air from India to Izmir via Istanbul. At Izmir, we take a Turkish shared taxi called dolmus and get to Efes via Selcuck. Efes used to be called Ephesus earlier and it was the Roman capital of Asia Minor. At its zenith, which began at the time of the Christ, the megapolis had a colourful population of over a quarter of a million souls including saints, slave-drivers and sinners.
Ephesus was also renowned for its Temple of Artemis. The temple was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. We are going to visit the site of the great temple, at the very location where Alexander the Great worshipped her.
There is much to see along the way: 150 years of archaeological excavations at Ephesus have unveiled the most complete Greco-Roman classical port city on earth, which got listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2015.
As we walk towards the Artemision – Greek for the temple, also called Artemis Tapinagi in Turkish – a pair of showy peacocks flutter across our path. The birds are believed to be sacred to Hera, the queen of gods. As her hundred-eyed sentinels, the birds were meant to keep watch over the peccadilloes of Zeus, the king of gods notorious for his glad eye!
The brilliant blue ‘eye’ of the peacock has been morphed into a ubiquitous good luck charm called Nazar Bongcugu in Turkey today. Meant to ward off the so-called Evil Eye, Ayn Harrah in Arabic, the circular blue glass and ceramic talisman is a common sight in Turkey and elsewhere.
As the peacocks vanish into the verdant bushes lining our pathway, I wonder if the birds could have been the descendants of birds that Alexander brought from India.
Of course the emperor’s tutor, the world-renowned philosopher Aristotle, called them ‘Persian birds’ in his fabulous History of the Animals. Unlike Aristotle, Heraclitus, another world renowned philosopher, lived in Ephesus. He is remembered for his philosophy of change as the only constant and a fundamental constituent of the universe, which is summed up in his one-liner: “No man ever steps into the same river twice.”
Not only the streaming river, but also the person stepping into the flow, is changing constantly. That was the essence of Heraclitus’ insight – that with every thought, with every breath new atoms and molecules come into our being, whether from the mindscape or from the atmosphere, which is but a vaporous extension of our awareness.
Heraclitus deposited his masterwork, On Nature, as a dedication in the great temple of Artemis. In ancient times, temples were regularly used to store treasures and down to the time of Plutarch in the 2nd century CE, the little book of Heraclitus was available to any reader who chose to seek it out.
Today, however, the Artemision of the Goddess turns out to be an eye-popping example of change. Only one column from the original 323 BCE version of the temple, which is reported to have had 127 pillars, stands in the centre of a vast green meadow dotted with marble fragments.
As if to add insult to injury, the ruined pillar also seems to have been crowned with cartloads of dry twigs and vegetable debris. Closer examination shows these to be vast communal nests that successive generations of sparrows have built over the centuries.
(To be continued)