Tiger-striped and thick-furred, a friendly cat pushed her cheek against my tentative hand before lithely flipping on her back, inviting me to a tummy rub. Taking her up on the invitation, my fingers gave a hearty scratch but I could feel thick oily dirt coating my fingertips, so I withdrew my hand with thoughts of vermin and the unpredictable nature of feral cats. Here, in southern Turkey’s ancient city of Ephesus, these wild cats live off tourist handouts or catch small rodents in the surrounding grasslands.
I am here for the first time, walking the 6000-year-old stone streets and soaking up the ancient vibes of Hittites, Greeks, Romans, and even Antony and Cleopatra. The exotic pair traveled here with their entourage, among them Cleopatra’s sister, who was murdered in Ephesus in 41BC. Cleopatra was here on these very stones.
Nineteen hundred years later these streets are now home only to scrappy felines.
The juxtaposition of modern day wild cats curled up on acanthus leaf-adorned granite columns is part adorable and part allegory. I want to connect the cats to a story of this mysterious ancient city, somehow bridging past to present, as if the cats themselves convey the story of everyday life so long ago. We belong here, they say to me. We have a story to tell.
All these years later my brain jumbles the many phases of Ephesus together, as if its history happened in a month-long period instead of six thousand years’ worth. My new found cat friends help me separate the times into neat categories and I can see the projected images on a stone wall like some movie festival from the ancient past.
First of all, I see Ephesus as it was so many years ago. The first people here made rock tools by striking another hard rock upon it, creating a sharp edge. They wore animal skins and progressed little over 4,000 years. My guess is that the cats of those days had to fear for their lives as they became dinner more often than they were given a friendly scratch behind the ear.
Walking along Arcadian Way, I now see how Ephesus got a new layout with columned streets and definite purposeful structures. My tabby companion lets me know that was around 500 BC. – And what structures they are! Grand marble and granite columns adorn every building front, sidewalk, and entryway. I try to imagine what effort – and how many people – it must have taken to build this expansive city. Stunning relief sculptures, such as Medusa, (a nod to the mythology they believed at the time), adorn every door, every column top and bottom, and even as signs of what a particular merchant sells, such as weapons or statuettes. The product pictures were carved in stone! Think of the expression, “It’s not carved in stone,” and then think of Ephesus where they actually DID carve everything in stone. What a life!
The people of those days had no electricity, no industrial machines with which to construct or lift the stones weighing tons. So they must have been driven to create such a magnificent place – to toil for years to create one building.
In the case of The Temple of Artemis, their toil would last a decade. The all marble columned tribute to the Greek Goddess was one of The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Today the only remains are the temple’s footprint and historical writings found carved in stone elsewhere in Ephesus.
What were the people like who lived or traveled here? (An aloof cat looks up and away, a sign he tires of my ignorance.) I think they must have worn flowing robes of white – the whiter they were signified wealth and stature – and enjoyed hammered jewelry of metal, silver or gold.
Strolling the big city sidewalks of Ephesus surely felt like the knowledge and progress of the world was at their fingertips for the sophisticated inhabitants.
The Byzantine period of the 5th and 6th century AD saw the Ephesians prospering. They had running water and a bath house with heated water. They had the Celsus Library, home to 12,000 scrolls of learning, second only to the library at Alexandria. For entertainment they flocked to the 24,000 seat theater to witness gladiator fights or later, after Christianity took hold, human sacrifices to lions. (Let’s just say the entertainment felt like progress to them at the time.)
I’m guessing it was around that time that cats became companions to people, as structured homes were built, prosperity meant availability of food, and cats could keep vermin away. In 2004, not too far from Ephesus, an ancient grave was discovered in which a cat had deliberately been buried with a human, suggesting domesticity of the felines as far back as 1,500 years ago. My constant companions here today just may be the descendants of those furry friends that trotted here along Arcadian Way or Curetes Street. They would surely have been welcome at a food merchant, keeping mice out of grains stored there.
One fact keeps smacking me in the face: this place is a ruin. That means the great city of Ephesus was eventually abandoned. It took a thousand years from its heyday for the people to leave, but from my perspective, it feels like a sad blink of an eye.
The cats are the keepers here now, watching over the thousands of fascinated tourists visiting here every year – and hoping for a discarded French fry or two to keep them going for the next generation of Felines of Ephesus.
Wishing you happy and safe travels always and all ways