Bodrum, ancient Halicarnassus and birth-place of Herodotus, is nowadays the quintessential resort town of western Turkey, brash and modern and home to one of the flashiest discos in the world. As I tend to be unable to work up much interest in anything less than three or four centuries old, this all goes right over my head, but fortunately Bodrum has a rich history and you can easily scrape beneath the dross and vulgarity to arrive at much more interesting layers of the town’s medieval and ancient heritage.
Until quite recently Bodrum, in common with most of the other heaving tourist resorts of the region, was an unassuming little fishing village. A bit farther back in time it was occupied by the Knights of St John in the 16th century. This famous religious order had by then been booted out from the other Aegean and Mediterranean islands they’d occupied and began to concentrate on attacking Ottoman shipping and generally making a nuisance of themselves, using Bodrum as their base for operations. The castle which dominates Bodrum harbour and is the main attraction here was built in large part using stones from the ancient Mausoleum on the hills behind the town.
The Knights were no antiquarians and couldn’t have cared less about local history, and as a result the Mausoleum was left in ruins. On the plus side, they did leave their remarkably attractive castle behind. It is divided into a number of different halls which were the homes for knights from different countries, who were responsible for the upkeep of those parts of the defences. Unfortunately the whole place was being renovated when I was there recently, along with the prestigious Museum of Maritime Archaeology which is housed within its walls.
Fortunately there are plenty of other places of interest to visit in Bodrum, whether you’re interested in flinging yourself around on a dance floor all night, slurping cocktails, sniffing coke, shagging drunken fellow tourists or, for that matter, exploring some of the fascinating ancient sites of the area.
First stop for me was the Mausoleum, built for the deceased Carian ruler Mausolus by his grieving and inconsolable wife Artemisia II and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. This is the place that was later trashed by the fanatical Knights of St John. Incidentally, it was a sober and strait-laced representative of the British Museum who completed the work of destruction by carrying off the remaining best bits with the assistance of the Royal Navy in the early 1800s. The British at that time, having defeated the French at Trafalgar, started cosying up to the Ottomans, who granted an imperial firmen for them to excavate at the site of the Mausoleum. The Turks didn’t show much interest in protecting their ancient monuments until quite recently, presumably because nearly all of them were of Greek origin and therefore beneath contempt.
Even in its abject ruin, what is left of the Mausoleum is still hugely impressive. If this is what the foundations were like, one wonders, what was the monument to Mausolus like in its prime? Pretty impressive, to say the least, as illustrated by reconstructions in a small building next to the site. The foundations are the size of a football pitch, and the numerous scattered columns and broken fragments of cyclopean dressed blocks are most evocative of the Mausoleum’s lost glory. You stand there under the blazing sun and reflect that hundreds of real men worked here as a team, under a master builder, heaving these monstrous lumps of stone and marble into place 350 years before Christ. As ever, there’s all the difference in the world between reading about these ancient wonders in books and actually seeing them on the ground for yourself.
In an amusing but poignant aside, I might mention Cevat Sakir Kabaagacli, nicknamed the ‘Fisherman of Halicarnassus’, a modern novelist and classicist who did much to promote Bodrum and instigated the Blue Cruise program in the 1960s. Towards the end of his life he petitioned Queen Elizabeth to return the stolen parts of the Mausoleum to their original site, as he said that the skies of London were too grey for them. They needed light and colour for their proper appreciation and wellbeing. The message was apparently ‘noted’ by the authorities and passed on to those in power at the British Museum. As a result, the ceiling of the room where they were displayed was painted bright blue, but there was no mention of them being returned to Turkey, and they still occupy the Carian rooms in the museum, not far as it happens from the Elgin Marbles.
Next stop for me was the Roman amphitheatre, situated on a steep hillside above the town as they generally are. It was a bit of a hike but I pride myself that even at my advanced age my body is in magnificent shape (!), and the route took me through some fascinating back streets where the locals were engaged in picturesque activities like hanging out washing and eyeing foreigners with open suspicion. The amphitheatre turned out to be fenced off but then again when you’ve seen one you’ve effectively seen them all as the Romans were superb at making templates and knocking the same things out like a Ford production line: forts, roads, villas, you name it. Some of them, it’s true, are especially fine, such as the one at Aspendos farther to the east near Alanya. If you’re an amphitheatre fanatic you’ll appreciate the finer points of their individual design and construction, and linger over their idiosyncrasies, but my own view is that life is too short.
Returning to the harbour on a leisurely downhill route that did however place a strain on the ankles, I took a detour to visit the last remaining monument on my list. The Myndos Gate was in ancient times the main gate into the city. Some sections of the associated city walls are also still standing, and the whole structure is approximately the size of a small English castle’s barbican. There’s not much else to say about it, except that judging by the empty bottles of Efes Pils strewn about the area the gate is a favoured spot for Bodrum’s nocturnal intelligentsia to gather and debate the finer points of Classical architecture and philosophy. After all, Socrates himself was by all accounts a regular drunk, and at places like this where past and present intersect it’s always fun to speculate on this and many other matters.