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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Ephesus: An Ancient City More Grand than Pompeii

We took a cruise to the Eastern Mediterranean last summer (July 2015) and one of the most interesting stops was Ephesus (Efes in Turkish).

Your first question (you’re going to have a lot more):  What the hell is Ephesus and if I’ve already seen Pompeii, why would I want to go there?  Gather ‘round studly, well-traveled men of the world, and glamorous, sophisticated ladies.  Glamorous ladies, feel free to find a spot on my knee, while your husbands tremble with jealously.

The ancient city of Ephesus has many ties, not only to antiquity, but to the Bible.  Yes, it’s in Turkey, just below Izmir, but it was a Greek city, founded a thousand years before Christ, and it may have been a Hittite settlement even earlier.  Then came the Romans. The Middle East is like that.  A wedding cake with too many layers to count.  You can only take a bite at a time and in the limited time we were there, about a six-hour tour, all you could do was lightly nibble, like a tiny, sunburned mouse on a 30 second diet.

Hot?  Oh lordy!  Talk about needing some slaves with fans.  I should have brought a Camel Pack, or a six pack of Efes Beer, brewed in Istanbul.

But, enough about my dehydration. How big was Ephesus back in the Greek/Roman days?  Some 300,000 people.  It was often referred to as the Gateway of Asia.  In fact, back in the shadows of antiquity, it was the fourth greatest city of the world, after Rome, Alexandria (Egypt), and Antioch (Syria).

We walked in, marveling at rubble, reconstructed edifices, and cobbled streets. Recognizable names sprang out of our guide’s mouth and we chewed on those for a bit.  St Paul probably wrote here and he certainly preached in the great amphitheater more than once.  He had a close call when merchants who made their living selling magic charms of The Goddess Diana (Artemis in Greek) thought he was cutting into their business and took it personally. 

It is believed that St John wrote his Gospel here. (see the following photos)

The Ruins of the Church of St John

The Amphitheater
The amphitheater at Ephesus offers one of the best microcosms of Greek and Roman life. How do archeologists know the size of an ancient city?  A rule of thumb:  Take the number of people the amphitheater held and multiply by ten.  Not exact, to be sure, but the amphitheater was in many ways the focus of social life.  Discussions, political and philosophical, athletic contests, gladiator fights, live theater, and executions all took place here. 

Not into the Biblical and historic aspects?  Ok.  Sting and Elton John played the ancient amphitheater and after one raucous performance, when powerful speakers the size of tanks threatened to make the walls come tumbling down, the government put a limit on volume.  Other cities could take a lesson.

The Arcadian Way. In the distance is the Library of Celsus

Cleopatra and Mark Anthony strode the flagstone-covered main street, the Arcadian Way.  At one time it was a hundred feet wide and even today it’s impressive.  It's startling to realize your Nikes are striding along exactly where famous Roman sandals trod.

Onward, with far more to see. There are elaborate terraces where the rich lived, and even now many of the delicate tiles and frescoed walls survive.  For a long time, these homes were not excavated because archeologists hadn’t devised a means of protecting them from the weather.  Now the whole area is tarp covered and digging continues.  A walkway allowed us to wander up the side of the digging and permitted a god’s eye view of  the wonders from top to bottom.  Below us, archeologists in ones and twos dusted and cleaned, reclaiming the past.  Much more activity here than in Pompeii.
 (see the following photos)

Note the archeologists at work.

One thing you will not see is the Temple of Artemis (Diana), which was four times the size of the Parthenon in Athens, and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  The Goths destroyed it in 268 A.D.  It may have been rebuilt, but another John, St John Chrysostom (a noted anti-Semite) led an angry mob in 401 A.D. to finish the job.

Immediately, you find yourself asking:  What were the other six Wonders of the Ancient World?  Second question:  Where the hell is my guidebook?  Gotcha covered, bro.  The Great Pyramid of Giza (still standing), The Colossus of Rhodes, Lighthouse of Alexandria, Mausoleum at Halicarnassus (all three destroyed by earthquakes, Statue of Zeus (like The Temple of Artemis purposefully destroyed), and The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which may or may not have existed.

The Library of Celsus
Back to Ephesus’ stone streets.  A most impressive structure is the fa├žade of the Library of Celsus, built to hold some 12,000 scrolls.  Completed around 135 A.D., 130 years later earthquakes and fire wrecked it, and a thousand years after that, a similar catastrophe completed the destruction.  Archeologists reconstructed the face of it in the mid 1970s.

I’ve given you just a few tidbits, a small hors d’oeuvre at a banquet of archeological and historical delights.  If you enjoyed Pompeii, you’ll suck up Ephesus like an alcoholic historian. Both cities lead you back thousands of years, into the still beating hearts of lost civilizations.

Applause follows.  Light kisses on the cheek from the glamorous, sophisticated ladies.  Boisterous slaps on the back from the well-traveled men of the world.

The Temple of Hadrian as it looks today

The Temple of Hadrian as it once looked.

Remains of the Roman (and Greek) baths.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Time to Watch Some Fooooootbawl!

If you watch college football, and by that I mean anyone who isn’t visually impaired, a communist sympathizer, or doesn’t salivate at the mere mention of BBQ, fried chicken, and cheerleaders dancing to “It’s All ‘bout Da Bass,” you may have heard football terms tossed around by announcers addicted to exclusive use of the present tense and fuzzy metaphors.  The unfortunately sober among you may even have wondered what these muddled, descriptive terms can possibly mean.

I’m here to help:

Red Shirt Freshman:  Incarcerated last year.  Charges now reduced from breaking and entering to “meandering.”  Some players like to be ‘red shirted.’  It gives them a chance to visit family members. On release, the “fine young man" is declared “just a kid who is trying to move on.”

Fine Young Man:  Never missed a child-support payment.  Once attended class.  Loves his mother.

Just A Kid Trying to Move On:  You heartless bastards better not mention his extensive criminal record again.

Gives 110%:  Failed math.  Balancing a checkbook stumps him.

True Freshman:  Charges dropped.  The university sent a note of apology and a ‘little something,’ so the girl’s family could pay off her student loans, buy a new car, and take her to Paris for a two-week stay at the Ritz.

Student Athlete:  Runs faster than a speeding bullet, as noted in the police report.

Physicality:  6’ 5”, 300 pounds and can stop a bullet with one raised hand, while promising to “tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

Can Beat You With His Feet:  Arresting officers, don’t stop with just cuffing him.

Showed Great Leadership:  Won the game.

Has To Step Up:  Stepping down and sideways hasn’t worked.  Lost the game.

Showed Poor Leadership:  Cut in line at Bobo’s Chicken Shack. Ripped off the manager's arm and ate it.

Overcame Great Hardships:  Charges reduced from willful homicide, to “causing extreme oxygen depravation.”

Suspended For Violation of Team Rules:  Prepubescent sex, firing an automatic weapon with intent to “fuck you up bad,” and skipping practice to participate in an armed robbery.

Enjoy the game!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

World Gone By - by Dennis Lehane

I don’t usually blog about two books in a row.  But, this is summer and my hands are never empty when there’s a good book around.

Dennis Lehane’s tale of wartime gangsters in Tampa falls into the page-turner category.  World Gone By reads like a well done TV series.  Think of the Sopranos, or Boardwalk Empire. Complex characters.  Twists and turns that sugarcoat nothing and make it hard to sleep.

It’s 1943 and Joe Coughlin is a fish out of water, but essential to the mob’s operations in Tampa and Cuba.  Yep, he’s Irish and from Boston, but he has a knack for making money.  Heaps of it.  That makes him important to his Italian-American bosses and gets him a place on the Commission, where every important decision, from business to killing is made.

He’s safe, right?  No longer.  Somebody, for reasons unknown, has threatened his life, or at least that’s the rumor.  It’s a rumor loud enough to get his attention.

Complications drive a plot and give depth to characters.  In Joe’s case, the complications run in his veins, right back to his childhood.  His background and choice of professions, and ability to keep the cash flowing make him “one of us.”  At the same time, being a non-Italian keeps him outside the fold.

With a Lehane book (Shutter Island, The Drop, Mystic River) nothing is ever exactly as it seems.  World Gone By is an onion begging to be peeled chapter by riveting chapter.  Friends are friends, or are they?  Enemies?  Friends?  Hard to tell.  What day is this?  Mutations occur with every passing hour.  It’s like trying to keep up with a basketball game when every player wears a different color jersey and shoots at both nets.

Lehane added something more.  He carefully hid a morality play inside a crime novel.  Everyone’s actions have consequences, even yours and mine.  The characters in this book wrestle with deeds done and undone, just as much as we do.  The ‘business’ is important.  Friends are more important.  Family is the most important, except perhaps when money steps in.

But, Joe has a quick mind.  He’s a member of the walking dead, sudden resurrected.  Wait a minute.  Nothing’s settled.  He has to protect those he loves and to do that he must first protect himself, while keeping his value among stone cold associates.  Feed and water the tigers, but don’t get forget they are tigers.

Edgy is not a word I use carelessly, but World Gone By is a razor that you have to balance on, even as the blade cuts into your feet.

You like gangster books and films?  Don’t miss it.  You’re more attuned to morality plays?  Don’t miss it.  You just like a good story?  Lehane never, but never disappoints.

Hungry for more?  The Given Day, and Live By Night are two previous Joe Coughlin novels.

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Truth and Other Lies: a mystery that sets you on edge

I’ve had it with most American mystery novels, invariably centered on a detective who’s a recovering alcoholic, still in love with his ex-wife, and recently fired for his hard nose methods.  Of course, he’s too smart and effective for the Police Captain not to bring him back in to solve a hopeless case. To be precise, a deeply flawed, washed-up, anti-hero.

Ok.  I get it.  And I’m tired of it.

So, I turned to European mystery writers, many of them Germans, but some English writers as well.  Erudite.  Laugh-out-loud funny.  A twisting plot that makes your mind twist.  Forget the detective.  Let’s concentrate on a manipulative narcissist, who attracts women like moths to worsted wool.

Henry Hayden, hedonist, best selling author – make that adored author – the toast of every book signing, and commonly swooned over in the vegetable aisle, has a big problem.

His wife loves him, in spite of all his faults, which is a trait essential to a happy marriage.  He also loves her, which he should since she anonymously wrote every one of his best selling books and made him the man he is today.

They live in a home worthy of an article in a large, slick architectural magazine.  His chosen car is an eye-catching compliment to Italian luxury.

But, there is a hitch.  His mistress is carrying his child.  Something clearly must be done and endless possibilities roam in Henry’s self-centered world.  He entertains no objections to any of them.  Where, how, and will it work? are the utmost concerns.

Sascha Arango, in his first novel, creates that most interesting of characters, an ambitious, multi-faceted rogue, with an uncanny sense of self-preservation.

What would you do?  Confess to a loving wife?  Talk your mistress into an unwanted abortion?  Morals are certainly no impedance, but preservation of self and life style are writ large.

You can see why I’m drawn more and more to European authors, especially if they’re male and German.  Finely etched characters stand out, but also the plots avoid the expected flow of wide-river stories, and instead follow the tributaries and rivulets that trickle in unexpected directions, leading to unexpected endings.

 The Truth and Other Lies fills the bill.  Wanna guess what will happen next?  Good luck.  Think the laugh out loud situations make this a comic opera?  Good luck again.

Mysteries are supposed to keep you in suspense, with a dashing plot, and indelible characters that make you flip pages and yearn for the author’s next book.

I’ve only got a few words for Sascha Arango:  Write faster!  I can’t wait!