Friday, July 17, 2009

Selçuk: An Aegean Home to Art

The historic valley on Turkey's West Coast where we live has more than its share of diverse cultural attractions – from centuries of wonders at Ephesus, a city founded by a mythical tribe of women warriors known as Amazons, embellished by King Croesus, liberated by Alexander the Great and nearly as important as Rome, to the tomb of Jesus' favorite disciple and last home of the Virgin Mary, both sites of Christian pilgrimage, as well as a charming Ottoman village best known for its traditional pleasures of homemade wines and handmade lace.

Nestled amid olive and pine tree-covered mountains, mandarin orange and peach groves, the roughly 12 square-mile Selçuk area's vast offerings are completed by a wide sandy beach alongthe blue Aegean Sea. Named for the pre-Ottoman Turks and pronounced "Sel-chuk", through millennia this region has been home to the Hittites, Carians, Lydians, Persians, as well as the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Turks. Each culture has left its mark on the people who live here now, though the handcrafts of the past are quickly becoming only marketing tools to attract tourists, as modern generations have few opportunities to make a living though the arts.

Today, travelers visit the ruins of Ephesus, the best preserved Greco-Roman city in the Eastern Mediterranean:

Or, they visit the last standing column and a half of the ancient Seven Wonder Temple of Artemis, built to honor the Artemis of Ephesus, the goddess combination of the Greek Artemis, goddess of the moon, the hunt and fertility, and the Anatolian mother goddess Kybele.

This ancient temple, four times the size of the Parthenon in Athens, stood on the southwestern slope of Ayasuluk Hill. The Temple served as both religious institution and marketplace, visited by pilgrims, tourists and merchants from the far reaches of the known world, as long ago as 550BC. Ayasuluk Hill is also home to a Byzantine fortress, the 14th C Isa Bey Mosque, and the 6th C Basilica of St John, all above.

Travelers can also brandish replicas of gladiator's weapons at the Selçuk Ephesus Museum, sip cold mountain spring water from the well at the Virgin Mary's chapel, and wander the stony lanes in the hillside village of Sirince or our larger town of Selçuk, to mix with the locals and experience how people live here now.

Selçuk is inhabited year-round by a pleasant mix of farmers and business people, tourists and travelers, and a growing expatriate community. The town is easily accessible by bus, train or car from big city Izmir's airport 37 miles north, or from the Aegean port town Kusadasi 12 miles south. All sites of interest are within walking distance from the town center or a short minibus ride away. Visitors stay in hospitable family-run hotels of antique-filled, traditional-style stone, or modern accommodations with sweeping roof terrace views.

Restaurants serve savory home-cooked Turkish food and a farmer's market every Saturday abounds in fresh, locally grown produce.

Tall stone Byzantine aqueducts bisect the town, supporting massive stork nests for the revered migratory birds, and propping up my favorite old Ottoman house, which in my ten years here has perpetually been on the verge of falling down. All centered on cobbled walking streets,making Selçuk the perfect travel base and a peaceful respite from the congested Aegean coastal towns.

If this all sounds like a tourism pitch, I suppose it is. For you see, I have a dream for the future of sustainable tourism here, a dream that is shared by a few other small business owners - all women - who also work with local artisans.

A Turkish wish tree – tie a piece of fabric, make a wish, and your dream will come true…

Our dream is reclaim our valley in the name of handcrafts. Yes, we have 'carpet villages', places where women demonstrate the art of weaving to busloads of captive tourists. But how about staying in a small hillside neighborhood of winding lanes and old houses, with workshops where visitors spend a week learning how to shear a sheep, card wool, spin yarn, pick berries, roots and other materials to dye it, and develop the skill of tying a Turkish double knot?

The Isa Bey Mosque, built in 1375 by the Anatolian Selçuk Turks from remnants of Ephesus and Basilica stone, is an asymmetrical mix of Selçuk and Ottoman architecture, with excellent carved decorations, a peaceful courtyard and lovely old prayer carpets for inspiration.

Or, how about lace making classes? Plenty of Turkish women still make oya, the crocheted lace that traditionally edges headscarves and speaks a floral language that only other women of the same village can understand.

Other regions of the world offer knitting tours – why not learn to make these colorful multi-patterned socks? Or the art of feltmaking, more of a southeastern Turkish art, but a practical one that uses every last fiber of wool after spinning and carpet weaving is done.

Other arts abound as well. Our local spoon carver loves to show visitors how he whittles wood into a kitchen utensil that could last a lifetime:

There is always the ancient art of mosaics:

The sidewalks in Ephesus, where terraced courtyard houses were once occupied by the wealthy, are still complete with intricate mosaic floors and frescoed walls. Nowhere other than Pompeii do today's visitors have such an excellent chance to experience life in the ancient world.

Selçuk surrounds Ayasuluk Hill, site of the first city of Ephesus, where artifacts dating to the Bronze Age of 6,000 BC have been uncovered. This is also the hill where we live, in a 70 year old stone house, just visible to the right with the red tile roof. With the wealth of antiquities here, few people live in houses as old of ours, a fact which I find ironic and also sad. The past is preserved only for tourists to visit, but why can't we live there as well? Why not recreate this ancient hill, now home to immigrants from the east and gentrifying big city Turks and foreigners? Let us reclaim these old houses and fill the lanes with artisans' workshops, creating jobs, training future generations and giving visitors hands-on experience in the ways things used to be made!

Saint John the Evangelist, favorite of Jesus and only disciple to attend his crucifixion, with his important role in disseminating Christianity and writing the Book of Revelation, is buried on Ayasuluk Hill, according to several early Christian writers. In the 6th century AD, Emperor Justinian built an enormous Basilica over an earlier 4th C church. Many of the stone walls, strikingly contrasted by horizontal rows of red brick, still stand. From the terrace, there is a wonderful view of Selçuk, the Ephesian Plain and the Aegean, especially at sunset.

Throughout the year, Selçuk holds festivals celebrating local culture. In January, camel wrestling is held near the beach. The traditional and colorful competition sports large beasts decorated in their finest kilims and tassels. While thousands of people come from all over to watch these beasts wrangle necks and kick up dust, it's far more fascinating for me to see what the camels will be wearing.

May and September host art, music, dance and handicraft festivals which are gaining more interest each year. But someday soon perhaps we shop owners of Selcuk will come together and request that Ayasuluk Hill be made an artists' district. Visitors could then come out from behind the glass windows of their big tourist buses and interact directly with the artisans – the carpet weavers, lace makers, copper workers, wood carvers, mosaic setters – and feel truly a part of the past here for a time, not just looking in as observers.

Catherine Salter Bayar lives with her husband Abit in Selcuk, near Ephesus, Turkey, where they own a vintage textile shop and a water pipe & wine bar. Catherine is currently working on a book on Turkish textiles, the carpet trade and life in a small Aegean town.

Visit them at

Bazaar Bayar

About us:

Visit us: Ataturk Mahallesi, 1005 Sokak, 6/B Selcuk 35920 Izmir Turkey
Phone: 90.538.783.5709


  1. Yay, Catherine! Now you have your own blog! This will be fun to follow. I hope you still come on Fiber Focus as a guest every now and then... Cheers!

  2. Thanks - of course I will! No doubt I'll still have plenty to say about Turkish textiles both on Fiber Focus and here on Tales from Turkey!