A half millennium ago Edirnekapi was battered by the cannon balls and berserk attacks of the Turks. It’s still a rough spot; dull concrete apartment buildings and workshops overshadowed by the ancient ramparts. Smoke from cigarette and tailpipe hangs on the air. Five minutes away, however, is Chora Church. From the outside it is the same pinkish-red as Hagia Sophia but miniature. Inside the eyes are greeted by a riot of color: cobalt, lemon, ocher and gold. Bible scenes, portraits of emperors and saints emblazon every ceiling and wall. The Anastasis fresco–Christ clad in white robes rescuing the Old Testament patriarchs from the fires of hell–is unforgettable. It’s a Greek Sistine Chapel lurking in the ghetto.
Chora Church is my litmus test, separating those who have only superficially browsed Istanbul’s major monuments from the aficionados. The best historic sites are like that. They challenge you in some way, be it a bad neighborhood or uphill climb. They also are the ones that stay with you when memories of the Eiffel Tower and St. Peters fade into stereotype. This article is a personal highlight reel of such sites.
The road winds at first through the outskirts of Kos Town, where empty fields strewn with weeds and column drums alternate with gas stations and convenience stores. Beyond the path becomes steep and lined with narrow conifers. You can hear the lazy hum of apiaries set in overgrown meadows festooned with wildflowers. The temple is likely to be deserted. The brown bulk of Anatolia rises only a few miles away, beyond a thin veil of haze and a cobalt stripe of the Aegean. The Asklepion was a place of healing, where the sick came for fresh air, prayer and the holy intercession of snakes. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, trained here. Now this former outdoor clinic is an image of ruined paradise with lizards basking on marble and violet orchids nodding in the breeze.
The ruins of Segesta crown Mount Barbaro, a dome of a hill with a sweeping view of the orchards and farms stretching toward the Gulf of Castellammare. The amphitheater is impressive and has a fine view but the Doric temple is the real attraction. Built during the 5th Century BC, the Temple of Segesta is astonishingly well preserved: columns and pediments all standing much as they did two and a half millennia ago. In keeping with the Doric style, there is little ornamentation but the clean lines and symmetry of the structure more than compensate. Best reached by car, Segesta is about halfway between Palermo and Trapani.
The Romans annihilated Carthaginian civilization. But on a glorified sand bar in a stagnant lagoon a rare fragment of that society is being unearthed. The road to Mozia passes through the iridescent checkerboard of the region’s salt pans. The island, reachable by private ferry, is only 2.5 km in circumference and therefore easily strolled. Along the shoreline the boxy inlets that were once commercial and military harbors as well as the submerged causeway to the mainland are still visible. At a gorgeous spot where once a villa stood, archaeologists unearth a pair of prowling lions rendered in black and white tile. The tophet is not much to look at but here the Carthaginians buried their dead and, in times of crisis, may have sacrificed an unlucky few of their own. In the island museum wild-eyed figures of Punic gods speak in riddles about this lost race.
Trajan’s Theater: Plovdiv, Bulgaria
Plovdiv may be one of the oldest continuously inhabited towns in Europe. Traces of the Stone Age settlement have been uncovered on one of the hilltops. A statue of Philip of Macedon graces the town center, honoring Plovdiv’s most famous conqueror. Trajan’s theater is Plovdiv’s best-preserved ruin, a notable relic of the Roman Emperor’s propagandistic building campaign. Built into the natural crook between two hills, the theater can hold up to 7000. On a summer night you can grab a marble seat and take in a classical concert or a play, though the view of the city and the Rhodope Mountains stretched out beyond might be a distraction.
The Greeks called it Nicaea. Here in 325 Constantine the Great convened the First Ecumenical Council, which formulated that enduring statement of Christian faith, the Nicene Creed. After a fast ferry ride from Istanbul to the port of Yalova, you can take a shared taxi. The town is bounded by the cigar-shaped Lake Iznik on its western flank. To the east rise hills forested with olive, pomegranate and fig trees. Roman walls girdle the whole town and in all four directions you’ll find an ornate military gate. There are few tourists; the townspeople are convivial but also mind their own business. You can walk the walls or check out the ruins of a Byzantine church, a 14th century mosque and an utterly neglected Roman theater at your leisure.
Visegrad rises over a bend of the Danube an hour’s ferry ride north of Budapest. The Upper Castle was constructed after the Mongol invasion during the 13th century and once held Vlad Dracula prisoner. The site commands the surrounding countryside and on a clear day you can see well into Slovakia. Roaming the small town you’ll find hillside restaurants serving wild boar and shooting galleries where you can fire off arrows for a few hundred Forint.
When the harbor dried up, the inhabitants left. Thus Ephesus stands today, temples, libraries, theaters and baths mouldering in the sun as though a neutron bomb went off a thousand years ago. The Library of Celsus is the most iconic ruin, although the main road is lined with other recognizable edifices. A few miles north, you’ll find the utterly underwhelming remnants (a single column of mismatched marble drums) of the Temple of Artemis, which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Of greater interest is the Basilica of Saint John, burial place of the disciple and Gospel writer. The roof of the Byzantine edifice fell in centuries ago but I think that actually makes the setting more beautiful. Doorways open on nothing. Columns and arches hold up the sky. At sunset the grave of the apostle is lonely, idyllic spot attended only by stray cats and the wind.