THE MARSH KING’S DAUGHTER
Plein Air drawings all, done on-site and at the time.
A few years back I went to Ephesus with my friend Cynthia from Maui. We are exactly the same age, both born in the Year of the Tiger. We both love cats. She even has cat eyes! Cynthia’s former husband had run off awhile before, leaving her in the unfinished mortgaged dream house in the middle of the jungle, all alone. After a year she still felt lousy and came to Turkey with a friend on the Sufi Dervish spiritual trail.
Sufism’s genesis was in Konya, and it was in Konya that Cynthia found true spiritual healing in the form God chose to best get her attention: Hakan, a handsome young carpet salesman. Sound familiar? That old story leading to heartbreak? Surprise, they made it work.
It took some doing. Hakan went to his friend Lewis at the Consulate in Ankara. “I’m in love and there’s a problem,” he said. “How could love be a problem?” asked Lewis. “No permission,” said Hakan, “Nobody believes us.” He explained the huge and visible age difference. “How old are you?” said Lewis. “Oh, about five,” said Hakan. “It was then,” Lewis told me later, “that I knew how much I liked him.” Lewis met Cynthia and told Hakan, “If you don’t marry her, I will.” He stood up for them at their wedding and got Hakan a visa. Hakan and Cynthia moved to Maui and started an import business. She and I went on holiday together on a break during their umpteenth buying trip. Cynthia needed girl time while Hakan stayed with the relatives in Konya, lovely people who adored Cynthia and lived with the TV always on and the halogen light always overhead.
Cynthia traveled with a coffee maker and Hawaiian coffee that dissolved spoons. She had the kind of high-cheekboned, big-lipped blond beauty so beloved by trophy collectors. Wide hips, a lot of good makeup, tons of jewelry, lots of fringe and swishing skirts and cleavage, trailing rose perfume, and these Turkish men just put up their paws and howled. She was ten pounds overweight then and only looked more alluring. We had a great time in Ephesus. “They make a big fuss of us here,” she said with satisfaction.
The ruins of Ephesus are near Selchuk, so we went there. Selchuk is in the province of Izmir, Anatolia, and full of old Roman chunks, Byzantine and pre-Alexandrian wreckage, and the purported last home of the Virgin Mary, which Cynthia was crazy to see. We approached between mountains, turreted ruins on their peaks. Fairy-tale storks nest all along the tops of Selchuk’s ruined Roman aqueduct, each tower topped with its bristling nest and the tall jointed black-and-white stork families, little storklet beaks sticking up. Drawing them, I mused on Hans Christian Anderson’s tale, The Marsh King’s Daughter, imagining… Egyptian princesses flying with the storks, long black hair trailing behind them, the one princess dropping down, down into the marsh, the lotus flower bubbling up later with the savage beautiful daughter of the Princess and the Marsh King.
ST JOHN’S BASILICA Cynthia, jet-lagged, holed up in her room and I wandered Selchuk, drawing. The castle looks down on the town from its hilltop above the vast rambling ruin of St. John’s Basilica, built over his tomb by Justinian and Theodora and later wrecked by earthquake, scavengers and Tamerlane.
Over the tomb is a flat marble platform, erected by the Turks, with four marble pillars framing the original dark, pitted old headstone scored
with Coptic crosses. The ruin meanders all over the hill, stairs going up to nothing, massive chunks of masonry tilting up out of the ground, and some gypsies trying to sell fake old coins. One showed me a hipbone and kneecap sticking out of a wall of dirt, as well as some buried mosaics. Sadly they have now replaced and corrected the old sign that described how Mary came to be in Ephesus. In embossed painted metal, it said:
…AND JESUS LOOKING DOWN FROM THE CROSS SAID TO JOHN TO TAKE HIS MOTHER INTO HIS HOSE.
From St John’s you can see the square double-domed mosque built from stones hauled from the ruined basilica, and beyond it on the marsh the remains of the Great Temple of Artemis, a wonder of the ancient world.
The Great Temple of Artemis was burned in 356 BCE, the night Alexander the Great was born, by a fame-seeking madman whose name escapes me. Alexander declared that Artemis allowed her temple’s destruction because she was preoccupied with his birth, and had it restored. But as the powerful religion of Artemis lost ground to the Romans and then the Christians, the temple fell into disuse. Finished by an earthquake, it was scavenged to build St John’s, Selchuk Mosque, and Hagia Sophia. Only one pillar remains pointing to the sky. Of course there is a stork’s nest on it.
A CONVERGENCE OF GODDESSES This great granite statue of Artemis now lives in the museum at Selchuk, eerie and powerful. In its niche around the corner from the massive marble images of Caesar Augustus and his Empress Livia, crosses hacked and burned into their foreheads, and other effluvia from Ephesus. This Artemis is not Apollo’s kid sister Diana. This Artemis wears a paneled dress and a high crown covered with triple images of creatures: three sphinxes, three bulls, three bees.. Where her chest would be are masses of breasts or bull’s testicles or penises entering vaginas, depending on what you read. I lean toward this last: life creating itself. All of the ideas, though, represent powerful fertility. Some sources claim that the stone polyps really represent the sacrifice made by her priests, who castrated themselves to serve the Goddess, echoed later by Catholic priests dedicating their manhood to the Church. Whatever the Great Mother Artemis has on her chest, she is not human. Alien, squarejawed, a tilted blank gaze and the cryptic closed smile of a Kore, a concentrate of power, purity and fecundity distilled by time into Virgin; Goddess of all things, beginning and end. Standing there I thought about the other local Great Virgin, Mary. Hm…Virgin Mother, moon as attribute, unconditional love for all living things, goddess of women, desexed priests…my spine turned to ice as I realized whose face I was seeing. It was time to wake up Cynthia and go up the mountain.
Meryemana is the house generally agreed by Muslims, Jews and the Catholic Church to have been the home of the Virgin Mary, lost for centuries and rediscovered after a nineteenth-century vision by a stigmatized German nun. Archeologists dug where Sister Mary Emmerlich dreamed, and found a stone foundation on a steep slope in a grove of trees. The Virgin’s attributes abound: roses and orange blossoms. Even her new moon is evident in all the Turkish flags on the trinket stands. The place is packed, and whether or not you believe that Mary was here, millions of people who do believe it have been here, and the collective faith knocks you to your knees. Cynthia sobbed over her holywater flask, down by the wall covered with prayers.
Apostles John and Paul were thrown out of Ephesus because their conversions were putting a hole in the silversmith trade. Nobody was buying the little silver Artemis charms anymore. Perhaps it was then that the New Virgin became the local goddess. More stories: an ecumenical council in 430-something, in a 4th-century church built of her tomb. Now it’s a dark little restored church packed with pilgrims, an Order dressed in turquoise and blue, and many candles. Despite the mob there is deep and pervasive peace. The altar is where the old kitchen was. On the wall in Mary’s bedroom is a naive painting, an Assumption, with a treatment I had never seen. The adult Jesus holds an infant Mary. There’s no graffiti save the little painting above, of her face, far down on the wall, with a little wooden frame hung around it.
ROME Next day we wandered down the main streets of Ephesus, the Biblical town that died when an earthquake robbed it of its harbor, and admired the library, the remaining statues, the massive stadium. In its
heyday Ephesus was a major city with indoor plumbing and heating, covered walkways, a population of 200,000 and a cemetery just for its gladiators, who were dug up in the 20th century by German investigators and subjected to forensic studies to see how they died. The result is a swell exhibit: a museum case with the tombstone and the actual punctured skullcase or fractured femur, along with an illustrated description of what made the wound and how the man died. I drew this one in the Selchuk Museum, just around the corner from the Great Artemis.
THE MINISTRY OF FUN
Two years later, Cynthia and I went back to Selchuk with Lili, also from Maui. The sumptuous villas of the Ephesus rich had just opened. They marched up the hill over the posh section of town just like they do in every city to this day. We’d all seen the HBO series Rome, and the hill villas, like the Roman statues, brought out the scheming passionate Atia in us.
—The Marsh King’s Daughter flew with the storks to a Viking’s home in Denmark. By night she was the toadlike image of her hideous father, with her mother’s generous sweet spirit. By day she had her mother’s beauty and her father’s vicious temper, which her Viking protector adored. Only his wife knew the secret…
A glint at times in Cynthia’s cat-eyes, of fury barely checked. This was the sword-edge of an implacable life force. When administered with smoky voice and exquisite tact, it was capable, in one week, of getting a depressed mutual friend out of fusty hair and bedroom slippers and into spike heels, toreador pants, slicked-back hair and a holiday. Me, I just started growing my hair down to my hips.
On that trip I became ordained in Lili’s Ministry of Fun, of which Cynthia was already a priestess. Here is our creed: DO IT ONLY IF IT IS FUN. IF YOU MUST DO IT, FIND A WAY TO MAKE IT FUN.
In the Greek mountain town of Sirinci we bought white khaftans and drove inland to Aphrodisias. We held a priestess ceremony out in the ruins, each becoming free of something, with flowers and singing and incense. Only with these Aloha Blondes could I carry on so, to the sun’s dazzle on a whole tour group’s worth of snapping cameras. Afterwards I put my wreath on a stone lion. A guard approached. Uh-oh, I thought. “Madam,” he said with respect tinged with awe, “we are all wondering, where are you ladies from?”
Back on that first trip, Cynthia and I returned from Ephesus to discover that a big soccer game had taken over the town. We dressed in our earrings and trailing scarves and went out to dinner. All the way out at the edge of town was the marsh with the one Artemis pillar and a lumpy old weedy hamam. Beyond the fence was a dark poor area, just little cement houses, all deserted with the game on. At the very end of town was a triangular lot at the end of two streets edging the marsh. There was a cafe, lit and open and no TV, with one woman who made us dinner. We sat there under the grapevines as darkness came slowly down on the town. Two men sat down nearby. One joined us, speaking with Cynthia at length in French about their respective youths in Paris. Something creaked in the quiet, and out of the dark trundled a popcorn vendor. “It’s a Fellini movie,” someone said. We stayed for hours, drinking coffee and red wine, the dark silence punctuated by an occasional car full of screaming soccer fans roaring out of the dark and away. A rose man materialized. The man who spoke French had a friend with a huge mustache, who jocularly gave us each a longstemmed, strong-scented red rose.
At last we took our roses and our leave and wandered home through the dark streets, up the hill past the rampart-like gate leading to the ruin of St. John’s church, and started down. At the base of the hill was the road, and across it the town entrance, a huge modern stone fountain with a big arch and a giant reproduction of the Great Artemis. We heard it first, a pounding scream coming from the crowd next to the fountain. As we came down the hill the noise became deafening. Close up it was a Bacchanal.
In ancient times people would fling themselves into a sexual frenzy in the names of their deities: Dionysius, Demeter. When Christianity took over, the people continued to dance in worship. Nothing could break them of it. After six days of backbreaking labor the serfs would dance on the seventh, and they would always do it in the churchyard. Passion and worship, forever married. Now we looked down on a chaotic festival of screaming young men dancing to pounding music simulcast from the stores in the street. Flung water glittered in a strobe light. The dancing became wilder as people fell and leaped into the fountain. They took the winning soccer colors—yellow and blue– and wrapped them around the hips of the Great Goddess and shimmied them. One pubescent kid saw us watching him, strutted shirtless with his chicken chest stuck out and his wet pants plastered to him, stood at the huge stone back of the goddess facing us applauding across the water and danced like a stripling priest. Cynthia and I stood at the lip of the fountain, encouraging the young girls, but in the end, as so often, we were the only women dancing.
In the fairy tale, The Marsh King’s Daughter found faith, which unified her lovely form and spirit. She ascended in joy to the Kingdom of Heaven, leaving only a withered lotus flower behind. Cynthia is slipping away now I am told, across the world in Hawaii, and I write this in the winter’s dark of Istanbul years later. The Aloha Blonde is taking her roses and her leave, those cat eyes and the husky voice murmuring French to some eternal young man. She is flying with the storks, her glory trailing behind her, and I’m posting this for all of us left at the party.
All drawings Plein Air. All art ©Trici Venola. We love your comments.