LYCIAN TOMBS & BURNING CITIES
Have you ever seen Perge? A plain, under an endless sky, littered with the broken remnants of a city old when Alexander came. There’s a big square stone gate, and through it the remains of a huge fountain: chunks of carved stone balanced on either side; and beyond that an expanse of broken columns, some fallen, some standing, marching off in a colonnade into an infinity of arches and turrets and giant stones lying on the cracked streets polished with centuries of feet. In the center two fragmented towers go up into the sky. Oh, yes, a Roman amphitheater too. This one is all busted up and weedy, next to a stadium with an oval chariot track.
I saw it with Pierre, a French chef turned wandering watercolorist. “They told me of you,” he introduced himself in the Kas square one morning over breakfast. We’d been drawing together ever since. Most of these drawings are from that summer, exactly 12 years ago, when I made so many of the decisions I live with today. They were done on the run, so to speak, and worked on later during a convalescence from an illness. I love them.
In 2000, I ripped up my marriage and my comfortable life in Los Angeles and moved to Turkey. Numb with the pain of divorce and the loss of much of my family, I was also in a tortuous affair with a Kurdish man. There was a deal of passion, but we could not be easy together. We fought in Side, we fought in Istanbul. During a truce we took a night bus to Kas, (in English Kosh), a little town on the southernmost tip of Turkey. We fought again and he left for Side. Exhausted, I stayed in Kas, where my friend Rayan was managing a hotel.
I rented rooms in an old Turkish stone house covered with Bougainvillea. My place had a big balcony with a view of the little boats in the harbor and beyond them the sea. This was Kas before they built the present huge marina.
Kas is in the ancient kingdom of Lycia. Here and there in the sunstruck green and gold of the hillsides are the square carved faces of plundered Lycian tombs. The land has the most amazing color: peach-colored, salmon, saffron, shading down into rose and maroon; the dirt is the color of dried blood. In places where a landslide has broken open a hill, the bright rock contrasts with the grayed stone and growth on the surface like a geode. Pine and cypress trees march along ridges and cluster in gulleys, and olive trees are everywhere. Below the rocks the sea is sapphire-black, turquoise, jade. There are black goats and red rock houses and boats and friends.
I needed all of it. I had realized I couldn’t have Kazim. I craved that crazy love, you know, that wild nutso glorious reckless stuff, and he’d gotten too dark. Still I burned, and the beauty of the land was painful. I drew incessantly.
At sunset these days the people of Kas are waiting to break their Ramazan fast, but back in 2000 they would gather at the ruined Roman amphitheater on the edge of town.
In the middle of Kas is a big tomb that has never been moved since it was placed there 2500 years ago. It looked easy to draw, but when I started it took five hours. At the time it was the longest I’d ever spent on one drawing, and in one sitting, too. The guys in the street brought me sandwiches.
I spent a couple hours the next day drawing down the hill in the other direction. The view is still pretty much the same.
My drawing buddy Pierre and I rode all over Lycia with a cabdriver with an immaculate taxi, stone face and no English, actually named Ali Baba. He’d driven me on a sortie to Side when I’d gone to see Kazim. It was a four-hour drive, and for the last two I sang. Ali Baba kept exclaiming, “No Turkish music! Chok guzel!”–which means Very Good or Fat City or You’re Pretty— Anyway he liked my singing. Since he didn’t speak English I just sang anything regardless of how appropriate it was, from Big Mama Thornton to Rogers and Hart. What really got Ali Baba off was Gilbert & Sullivan. So I wailed away on Pirates of Penzance and The Sorcerer, and we went to Phaselis, where Alexander the Great once wintered:
a high pine forest with stone ruins in the pine needles between two sweet shady beaches, and on to Aspandos, where the theater is as big as the ruined one in Side and completely intact; it still has its looming square proscenium wall, startling after so many open theater craters.
All this history is strung like a pearl necklace along the spectacular Mediterranean coast of Southern Turkey, between Bodrum to the west and Side to the east. We had already been to Myra, where the square-cut Lycian tombs, carved in golden rock, ornament the hill over the ruined Roman arches of the theater built centuries later. The basic drawing below was done in 45 minutes standing bolt-upright in the singing heat, and darkened later.
In Myra a chalky Byzantine church rises out of the sunken ground in perpetual restoration, a church built in honor of and once housing the bones of… Santa Claus. There’s a bashed-in stone sarcophagus, vaguely sleigh-shaped, but alas, no reindeer, only a brass plate saying in several languages: Here lay the remains of St. Nicholas. Italians stole his body in AD1007.
The Church of St. Nicholas is powdery pale with mosaics in the floor, treble arched windows and very old brickwork like embroidery among the ancient stones. It was built by Justinian and Theodora in the 6th Century to honor St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra two centuries earlier. A wealthy man who gave all his money to the poor, his original gifts were dowries for two destitute sisters, dropped down the chimney to save their pride —or, on a hot night, put in the open window in their shoes, depending on which story you read. That’s supposed to be what started the tradition of Christmas stockings.
Ali Baba took me out to the beach the next day and made a serious pass, but he backed right off and I just went on singing at the top of my lungs. And him a family man. He took me to Letoon, where Leto, one of Zeus’ many conquests, took her infants Artemis and Apollo to bathe in the river. The townspeople threw stones at her, so she turned them into frogs. Nevertheless they built her a temple. There’s this one to Leto, one to Apollo and one to Artemis, all Hellenic. The Letoon temple, being built by frogs, regularly floods. It looks beautiful in the guidebook but in the dog days of August, when I was drawing it with sweat stinging my eyes, it was sun-baked, crusted mud. My self-appointed guide Mehmet, a lithe 12-year-old, scampered nimbly across the old scored stones, while I stepped carefully between the clumps of brittle dead reeds and broke through right down into sucking sticky swamp. My foot felt like it was being digested. I pulled up hard, swearing at Mehmet, and nothing happened for the longest time. I was wearing a pair of flip-flop platform sandals from LA. I was fond of them; I would not let my foot slip out, and finally with a great sucking sound the sandal came free loaded with about five pounds of mud. I limped out of the temple swamp and it took a helpful attendant with a hose and a brush ten minutes to get the mud off, but I got a hell of a drawing.
Then Ali Baba took me to Xanthos. The cab turned down a hill and I saw the toothed ridge of old wall. We came around a bend and there was the ridged theater crater and some high capstone sarcophagi; then we came all the way around and I saw it, a city entire all ruined on the hill, excavations for fifty years, ringed with walls in disrepair, chunked rock and old rooms and carvings and columns overgrown with bushes and trees. Much of Xanthos has been spirited away to various museums worldwide but there is plenty of fabulous pitted glory left there in situ: Lycian and Roman with Byzantine overtones. It was so hot in all the ruins that I’d taken to putting my whole head under the restroom tap just before we left each one. It was always sweaty-dried by the next stop.
Xanthos was a glaring furnace with no scrap of shade. I wandered around the sandy mosaics pouring sweat and wondering how on earth I could stand still to draw them. I was too black to burn by then but the sun on my arms and legs was painful. There was a gang of workmen, nice guys I could ask for a chair and some kind of rigged shelter but they were away across the mountain. Before they left, I did some sketches and took a photo. Later I did a drawing from it–my personal favorite from this era– and digitally incorporated it with some Plein Air bits.
That day in Xanthos I had a sarong and a big hat, so I broke off some dead reeds and jammed them into the steps going down to ancient baths overlooking the olive groves and the power lines in the distance. There were cicadas buzzing in a gasping chorus in the heat. I draped the sarong over my hat and the sticks and thought of Lawrence of Arabia. It gave just enough shade to endure drawing for about twenty minutes. Sweat ran down my face and dripped on the page. I looked at the drawing. It was enough to go on.
This is the fabled city where the Xanthians, finding themselves c540 BCE overwhelmed by Persian hordes, slaughtered all their loved ones: wives and concubines, parents, children and slaves– by ringing the walled city with fire and burning everyone alive. Then the warriors put on their armor, charged fighting into the Persian waves and were killed to the last man. Yet the city rose again, and again was besieged, this time in 42 BCE by Brutus, as in Et tu Brute. The Romans would not go away and the Xanthians would not give up and finally the horrified Romans saw a woman with her dead baby slung around her neck torching her roof as she hanged herself. “Enough!” called Brutus and offered a substantial reward for any Roman to save a live Lycian.
Nevertheless they are all gone now. Only the cities and tombs remain, square rock faces shining gold and bronze and red in the gray sides of mountains, all tumbled with emerald and jade bushes. Gray-green leaves mist around the black sticks of olive trees parading down the bright meadows, gold in the afternoon sun. Gothic-arch-topped barrels of sarcophagi rise up like great stone mushrooms in forests, on mountaintops, on the edges of towns and amphitheaters and in that main street of Kas, each with its looted black hole. If I were a Lycian I would never ever want to leave, either. I would tell them to put me on the hill over the sea, and I would arrange an earthquake to hide my tomb to keep them from coming later and stealing my skull and my jewelry. Squint at any hill here and there’s a tomb. Surely some must be hidden, and the Lycians sleeping inside, undisturbed bones clothed in the splendor they deserve for keeping this kingdom so long and so well.
A Slant on Perge, Perge Longshot, and Working Stiffs In Situ were partially drawn from the author’s photographs. All other drawings Plein Air. All drawings done with drafting pens on rag paper in sketchbooks. All save Tiny Rayan measure 18 cm X 26 cm / 7″ X 20.”
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