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As we navigate a nearly 3500-kilometre route between a swathe of alluring Aegean and Adriatic ports, we're overwhelmed with a shipboard life full of fine food and wine, stylish private balcony cabins and, above all, the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the history and culture of living cities like Istanbul, Athens, Venice, Dubrovnik and Kotor in Montenegro.
But for the ancient history aficionados aboard it's the four lost cities on the itinerary that we're anticipating the most. These exquisite ancient sites litter our planet like treasure maps to our past. Inhabited by ghosts, their artworks, architecture and artefacts remind us about our humanity as well as our weaknesses – our vanity, cruelty, lust for power and ultimately, our mortality. It was only months ago that an expedition into the Honduras jungle of Central America discovered what they think is the vanished City of the Monkey God, once inhabited 1000 years ago. This contrasts with the feared destruction of Syria's ancient city of Palmyra, highlighting the importance of preserving these cities and their salutary stories.
Islamic State militants, who have already ruined Iraq's ancient cities of Nimrud, Khorsabad and Hatra, deeming them idolatrous, now threaten what UNESCO calls "an irreplaceable treasure for Syria and the world". These distressing events are unfolding as I embark, in happily calmer climes, on a 17-day Ancient Mediterranean APT cruise between Athens, Istanbul and Venice. The objective of this voyage, among other things, is to navigate the layered civilisations and fortunes of four exquisite lost cities – Ephesus, Delphi, Troy and Assos.
Like the stars and planets, the world's myriad lost cities, symbolising our shared past, test the limits of our imagination, inspiring writers and poets. And travel stories.
EPHESUS, LIGHT OF ASIA
As soon as our ship, Le Soleal, docks at Kusadasi on the Turkish Riviera, former English teacher, Ivo-Tin Raguz is captivating us with tales of Anatolia and Ephesus, which he calls "the Hong Kong of the ancient world" though it's hard to get a photo of Nike, goddess of victory, around all of the selfie sticks. Roman occupation in 63BC heralded its first Golden Age, which lasted 200 years. With more than 250,000 people, only Rome, Athens, Alexandra and Antioch were bigger, but earthquakes, the silting of its harbour and malarial mosquitoes eventually led to its abandonment.
Ephesus in Turkey's Central Aegean region, 30 minutes from Kusadasi through orange, peach, olive and fig groves and close to modern-day Selcuk (where the Virgin Mary supposedly lived) is visually the most remarkable of our Mediterranean lost cities, though others, like Troy, have great literary connections. The Ephesus time capsule stretches to the 14th-century BC, hosting civilisations including Bronze Age, Mycenaean, Hittite, Greek, Anatolian Lydian, Persian, Roman and Byzantine. And it's only 20 per cent excavated.
As local photographers stalk us, hoping we'll buy their offerings at the exit (we're too busy examining the genuine fake watches), I wonder what other marvels and mysteries, triumphs or failings still await the 30 more years of excavations?
Ephesus was merely a marble, lead and iron quarry until the 1860s when its archaeological, cultural and historical importance was recognised. Those who visit Istanbul, as we do on our cruise, will see the Hagia Sophia's giant Hellenic columns, brought from the Artemis Temple near Ephesus, one of the world's seven ancient wonders. Little remains of it though the British Museum also has bits, needless to say.
While the plumbing was ahead of its time, the toilet arrangements were not, with the Ephesians apparently happy to sit cheek by, well, cheek in the toilet block. At least the good citizens didn't have to endure icy marble – slaves were used to warm up the seats.
A superior civilisation is evident in the Grand Theatre and Harbour Street, the Library of Celsus, the Temple of Hadrian, the hillside houses with their mosaics and frescoes, and the marble main street, Curetes Way. You also see it in the ornate statuary, sophisticated plumbing, and even in such gems as the "I rule the world" globe appearing at the remnant foot of Emperor Hadrian.
Centuries before Galileo's observations about mass and the solar system, does Hadrian's globe indicate an early complex understanding of the world's dimensions?
Apostles abound. St John is buried nearby, while St Paul spent three years in Ephesus. It became the third-most important city of Christianity after Jerusalem and Antioch. He was driven out ultimately by rioting silversmiths who feared for their trade in pagan silver statues to the goddess Artemis. Nevertheless, the Ephesians pop up regularly in the Bible. What a place!
I can hear people testing the acoustics back in the 24,000-seat Grand Theatre. Excellent, apparently, if someone's rendition of Ray Charles's Hit the Road, Jack is anything to go by. He actually performed here, along with Elton John, Chris de Burgh and others. Everyone's after a piece of Ephesus.
That night, back on the ship, there's a bit of debate among the passengers over post-dinner cocktails about the relative merits of each ancient city. Ephesus with its exquisitely carved marble, still colourful mosaics and feel of a real city, is winning.
TROY, HOMER'S LEGENDARY CITY
Troy, representing 3000 years of history and with effectively 10 cities built one atop the other, is arguably the world's most famous archaeological site and the starting point for the public recognition of archaeology. There is debate, however, over whether its first archaeologist, the German Heinrich Schliemann, was an over-zealous rogue who used dynamite to excavate, destroying significant artefacts.
Troy ultimately fell to the mosquito, from whose malarial jaws the last Trojans fled. Not helped by the usual crumbling empires, earthquakes, fire and slaughter.
The epic tales of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey – Western civilisation's earliest surviving literature, written in the 8th-century BC – have fanned the fascination. Set during the Trojan War, Homer immortalised Troy, writing of events surrounding the quarrel between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles and telling seductive tales of King Priam, Hector, Paris and the beautiful Helen.
The ancient Greeks believed that Troy was an actual city and the Trojan War a historical event. Modern scholars disagreed, seeing Troy as the stuff of myth until Schliemann's excavations convinced them that Hisarlik in Turkey was actually the site of ancient Troy. It's debatable whether the Trojan War has a factual basis.
It's important to know all this before visiting Troy and our guide brings us up to speed as we're whisked the 25 kilometres from our ship moored at Canakkale to the site. Though Schliemann's excavations lent weight to the theory that Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid reflected actual historical events, there's a darker side to his conviction. Schliemann, seduced by Homer's tales of Priam's treasure, discovered a rich horde of gold at Troy II.
He identified this level as Homeric Troy (Ilion) and the treasure as Priam's and quickly smuggled it out of Turkey. Many of those treasures are now in Moscow and St Petersburg. Troy VI has since been identified as the Homeric city and the treasure pre-dated Priam's time.
As we wander the ruins, I detect a bit of unimaginative whining about "all these ruins". but perhaps some are just longing for the sanctuary of the ship (and a nice G&T in the Observation Bar). Me? I'm thoroughly hooked as I pass the giant wooden Hollywood horse at the entrance that recreates the legendary Greek Trojan siege horse. It's important to take your time identifying remnants from the various city levels. Make use of the detailed information plaques because without knowledge, Troy could just be a pile of ruins.
And if all else fails, climb into the Trojan horse, poke your head out of one of the windows and pretend to be a siege Greek. Lifts the spirits every time.
Look out for the Bronze Age ramparts, the ruins of the Temple of Athena and the Great Theatre from Troys VIII and IX, the impressive, partially restored ramp from Troy II, the walls, gates and bastions from various levels. I'd recommend the Troia/Wilusa guidebook prepared by director of excavations, Professor Manfred O. Korfmann. You can buy it at the entrance for 23 TL (about $11).
DELPHI, CENTRE OF ANCIENT GREECE
The ancient Greeks believed Delphi to be at the earth's epicentre. In a gorgeous location on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, this lost Greek city was steeped in a complex belief system. For centuries it represented Hellenic unity, the centre of cultural and religious life. We moor at Itea and head up to Delphi through olive and orange groves.
The Delphi museum is fascinating and one of Greece's largest museums exhibiting a century of Delphi riches – gold, ivory, vases, sculptures and numerous treasures that pilgrims offered to Apollo. Then it's exploration time, best to be fit. The Sacred Way is the pilgrim path, winding up the mountain past treasuries and monuments to the Temple of Apollo. Built in the 7th century BC, the temple exterior was decorated by shields captured from the Persians. All that remains today is one complete column of the façade and portions of five more.
Further up are the ruins of the Senate of Delphi and the pile of stones representing the site of the Delphi oracle guarded in myth by the snake, Python. The influential oracle or priestess was known as the Pythia and was consulted before any major enterprise. The priests of Apollo interpreted her often ambiguous advice. The Byzantines eventually abolished the oracle.
Keep going to reach the Theatre, then on to the Stadium, site of the Pythian games, one of four Panhellenic games, forerunners of the modern Olympics. Its victors wore the laurel crown. Delphi can be traced back to Neolithic times (4000BC). After Christianity, this place of power and prestige was abandoned in the 6th or 7th centuries AD.
ASSOS, PEARL OF THE AGEAN
We're walking where Aristotle walked. And perhaps falling where Aristotle fell – the slope's so steep, I stumble and almost make a quick exit off Assos as others once did for they were harsh, those ancients. Visitors would be strip-searched down at the coast and sent packing if they had a rash.
Assos is the second-most important ancient city after Troy in Turkey's Canakkale province in western Asia Minor, about an hour from our Dardanelles mooring. Local people still live on the steep slopes of the modern village of Behram Koyu, whose historical buildings are built from the same local grey andesite stone as Assos's ancient monuments.
As there's no car access to the pinnacle of the site, visitors walk up the cobbled lanes, adorned with local wares. Embroidered tablecloths dotted with miniature evil eyes are displayed beside cheese and potato gozleme, baklava, local honey and stretchy dondurma, Turkey's addictive ice-cream made with milk, sugar, selep and mastic. The hills around Assos produce Turkey's best olive oil within a striking natural setting and with grand views across the Aegean's Gulf of Adramyttion towards Lesbos.
It's believed the ancient citadel is from the 13th century BC with the "Assuwa" from Hittite annals thought to be Assos. As well, Homer writes of the city of "Pedasus" in the Iliad, also a candidate for Assos. Ruled by the Greeks, Lydians, Persians, Pergamons, Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans, Assos thrived during the Classical period with Greek philosophers, including Aristotle, flocking there.
Its notable site is the Athena Temple built in 540BC. The remains perch atop the Assos acropolis at 263 metres, defended by double city walls measuring more than three kilometres. It's the only example in Anatolia of a Doric-order temple. Look out also for the well-preserved theatre, gymnasium, agora and necropolis, if you can tear your eyes from the view. Assos, as with most of the ancient cities, suffered from earthquakes and pillage.
Probably mozzies too.
FIVE MORE GREAT GHOST CITIES OF THE WORLD
FATEHPUR SIKRI, INDIA
Fatehpur Sikri (city of victory), built in the 16th century, is one of the best-preserved collections of Indian Mughal architecture. For 10 years the capital of the Mughal Empire, it was abandoned due to an inadequate water system and the capital was shifted to Lahore. Untouched for 400 years, its beautiful buildings shed light on an extravagant era. See agra.nic.in
Dedicated to Amon, supreme sun god, Thebes has riches beyond belief – Luxor, the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens and Karnak. Thebes was Egypt's capital from 2040 BC to 1070 BC but corruption, sacking and plunder aided its decline. See en.egypt.travel
Dating back to 515 BC, Persepolis took more than a century to build. Clearly worth it when you view the Gate of All Nations and the ruins of the colossal dark-grey marble buildings remaining on the terrace. Intricate Persian carvings adorn the military quarters, treasury, reception halls and king's houses. See whc.unesco.org/en/
It would be remiss not to include Angkor, capital of the mighty Khmer Empire, arguably the greatest lost medieval city, stretching over 400 square kilometres. Angkor Wat is Angkor's jewel, a Hindu temple with fir-cone towers, stylised sculptures of human faces and carved reliefs of Hindu myths. Climate change killed Angkor and it was abandoned in the 15th century. See tourismcambodia.com
MACHU PICCHU, PERU
No list is complete without Machu Picchu, lost city of the Incas. Built high in the Andes in the 15th century, but later abandoned, Machu Picchu (Old Peak) is renowned for its dry-stone walls, spectacular views and buildings that mysteriously play on astronomical alignments. See peru.travel/
10 MORE LOST CITIES TO VISIT
GREAT ZIMBABWE, ZIMBABWE
The ruins of Great Zimbabwe, legendary capital of the Queen of Sheba, cover nearly 800 hectares, representing the remains of the civilisation that lived and traded here between the 11th and 15th centuries. Abandoned due to overpopulation and deforestation, it has inspired imaginations since the Middle Ages. See whc.unesco.org/en/
Ctesiphon, on the Tigris near modern Baghdad, was a great city of late ancient Mesopotamia. Built in the second century BC by Parthian Persians, its striking feature is the colossal Arch of Ctesiphon, damaged by heavy rain in 2013. Little else is left of the city, once Babylonia's administrative capital and the Silk Route's luxury trade terminus. See tourism-iraq.com
One of the great archaeological sites of the Middle East, this desert city flourished on frankincense, myrrh and spices until an earthquake destroyed its water system. It was lost to Western knowledge for 1000 years. Petra's architectural mix of Roman, Greek and native Nabatean buildings are carved into the hillside's red rock. Known for its intricate tombs, particularly The Treasury (used in Indiana Jones). See visitpetra.jo
Guatemala's magnificent lost jewel, the great Maya city of Tikal (place of voices), was occupied from 900BC to 900AD before being abandoned and swallowed by the jungle. Discovered again in 1848, this beautifully preserved site has five magnificent pyramidal temples and three large complexes or acropoles. See visitguatemala.com
MESA VERDE, USA
The Ancestral Pueblo people lived at Colorado's Mesa Verde for more than 700 years (550AD to 1300AD), primarily on the mesa tops. In the final 100 years they built the 600 cliff dwellings from sandstone, wood and mortar under ridge overhangs. The most famous is Cliff Palace, accessed by ladders. See nps.gov
Abandoned in the 12th century, the golden age of this Maya city-state was in the seventh century under the Mayan king, Pacal the Great. Its sculpture and architecture are superlative and 90 per cent of it still lies beneath the jungle. See visitmexico.com
LA CIUDAD PERDIDA, COLOMBIA
Literally "The Lost City", treasure hunters stumbled on its mysterious jungle-enveloped terraces and plazas in 1972. The Tayrona Indians built it more than 1000 years ago, making it at least six centuries older than Machu Picchu. To reach the 200 structures spread across 30 hectares, you must jungle trek for a few days before climbing 1200 mossy stairs built into the mountain. See colombia.travel/en
Founded in 1350, Ayutthaya became the second Siamese capital after Sukhothai. Destroyed by the Burmese in the 18th century, this once important centre of global diplomacy is now an archaeological ruin. The tall prang (cactus-shaped reliquary towers) and massive Buddhist monasteries still give a clue to the city's grandeur. See tourismthailand.org
"In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure-dome decree," wrote Coleridge about Kublai Khan's summer citadel from which he established the Yuan dynasty that ruled China for more than a century. Marco Polo, visiting in 1275, described a "fine marble palace". But the mighty fall and so did Xanadu, abandoned in the 15th century. Little remains but myth and dreams. See whc.unesco.org/en
Ani, city of 1001 churches and capital of a 10th-century Armenian kingdom, once rivalled Damascus or Constantinople in size and influence. Many of the church ruins remain today, though Ani is a far cry from the days when 100,000 people lived and traded there. Sackings and massacres led to its eventual decline and abandonment. See tourismturkey.org
The featured cruise is a forerunner of APT's 2016 Boutique Collection Cruising program. This includes an all inclusive 15-day Adriatic and Aegean Odyssey coastal cruise between Istanbul to Venice with guided excursions to Ephesus, Troy and Delphi, departing April, July and August next year aboard the small, luxury ship, MS Island Sky. Prices start from $13,295 per person twin share (includes APT's early payment discount). Airfares are not included. See aptouring.com.au or your travel agent.
Emirates flies daily from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Venice, the starting point of the cruise, via its Dubai hub with return flights from Istanbul, where the cruise concludes, via Dubai. See emirates.com
The writer was a guest of APT
ABOUT THE WRITER
Alison Stewart, a regular contributor to Traveller, enjoys excavating below the surface of a travel destination, trying to work out why people long to belong. This cover story was the perfect project. Stewart has written nine books of fiction for adults and young people, some translated overseas. Many deal with place and belonging. Cold Stone Soup, her unpublished memoir, won the FAW National Literary Awards Jim Hamilton Award for a non-fiction manuscript.