The ancient city of Ephesus, Turkey, has the most miraculously intact ruins in Europe

If anything exists that could possibly upstage the pleasure of a pilgrimage to Ephesus, the most extensively and miraculously intact ruins of any ancient city in Europe, it's that most imperious of creatures, the feline, the domesticated origins of which can be traced to ancient Egypt itself.

Cats probably also inhabited Ephesus, built in the 10th century BC and located in Turkey's Central Aegean region, with their descendents a feature of the ruins to this day. Yet today's felines are superior strays, sustained by staff of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed treasure.

As soon as the visitor enters the site, preferably in the forgiving cool of the morning in the warmer months, he or she will find the cats of this lost city. There they are, variously curled around the contours of the remnants of a relief, supine atop stonework smoothed by successive centuries, warming themselves in the sun's early rays or perhaps simply mooching endearingly between the crevices of a marble column that's survived millennia.

I'm visiting the ancient Greco-Roman city, which at its epoch was a trophy of empires as well as being once considered the most important Greek city, on a Regent Seven Seas Voyager cruise ship shore excursion from the coastal town of Kusadasi, the nearest accessible port.

My excursion to these treasured ruins, or ruined treasures, is one of the highlights of a 10-day voyage around the Mediterranean. The ship visit to Turkey, including an overnight stay in Istanbul, is among the first following cruise lines' withdrawal from the country after a succession of heinous attacks by extremists from which it is still recovering.

Cruise ships berth at Kusadasi – a popular summer playground for holidaying Turks who find the more vaunted and glamorous resort town of Bodrum, favoured by foreigners, beyond their budget – with passengers transferred by coach to Ephesus.

Ephesus was itself once one of the Mediterranean's most important ports with modern-day Turks even harbouring, as it were, grandiose ambitions to reinstate the silted-up former channel leading to the site.  That would allow ships and boats better access to the site and its riches, more than two-thirds of which remain unexcavated,  and it would also restore one of the site's most important features and functions.

The city's illustrious Roman period, one of a number to which Ephesus was subject, produced along Curetes Street, the main thoroughfare, the splendid Library of Celsus, the Great Theatre and the Temple of Artemis.

The latter ranked as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and in its heyday was four times larger than the Parthenon in Athens. Then there is the complex of terrace houses, also known as "the houses of the rich", which afford a remarkable sense of the daily professional and private lives of the inhabitants.

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One of the more offbeat sights at Ephesus is the still largely intact communal latrine section of the city where toilet seats were ritually warmed by slaves prior to their masters committing their posteriors to them.

But this grand ancient city is not the only place in Turkey where cats hold court. On the teeming and tangled streets of Istanbul, the nation's largest and most captivating city, cats also reign. There's a renowned cafe where the owner at a specific time each day ceremonially ejects the resident cat from an armchair, carrying it outside to the street, only for it to return, in typical style, soon after to resume its upholstered residence, much to the mirth of patrons. Then there are the Istanbullers who place armchairs on the street outside their homes or businesses for the sole purpose of a cat's comfort. In winter, neighbourhoods across the city are dotted with streetside shelters built by residents to keep felines warm from the cold and occasional snow.

It's all a feature of the uncanny affinity of Turks with felines with experts attributing the Turkish love of these mercurial, at times confounding, creatures to the nation's Islamic heritage, a faith, while entertaining an aversion to impure canines, considers felines clean and pure. Yet there are also those that are at pains to point out that, paradoxically, other Muslim countries are devoid of such a devotion to cats.

But, for some, Turkey's feelings for felines have their limits. Take its authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has dragged the country in a more conservative Islamic direction while half of Turkey defiantly holds on to its modern secular roots formed by cosmopolitan and still revered Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish republic and its president from 1923 to 1938. During Erdogan's period as prime minister in 2004, the notoriously touchy politician – never one to pussy-foot around an issue – infamously, and as it eventuated unsuccessfully, sued a political cartoonist who depicted him as a cat entangled in a ball of wool. Even Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author – and no fan of Erdogan and vice-a-versa – has had his say about cats: "A woman who doesn't love cats is never going to make a man happy," he wrote cryptically in his 2008 novel The Museum of Innocence.

But for me, a man who once maintained a fierce aversion to cats and who learnt to love and even admire them in order to please a woman, the cats of Ephesus represent a delightful addition to a visit there and, indeed, to the ruins themselves.

In their own mainly somnolent way the cats, in the absence of the city's once thriving human citizenry, help provide a sense of what life may have been like in this extraordinary place – at its peak with a population of 250,000 – since surely they were a presence in those distant times, too.

Unlike the street animals of other places I've visited in the world, I don't pity the stray cats of Ephesus as they seem healthy and happy. They also lend a certain elegance to these most elegant of ruins and, while they don't have specific human masters, with so many people passing through the ruins on a daily basis, they're the recipients of untold affection, their silky and shiny coats rendered nearly as smooth as the marbled ruins of Ephesus.

TRIP NOTES

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CRUISE

There are nearly two dozen Mediterranean sailings, ranging from seven to 40 nights, scheduled aboard Regent Seven Sevens Voyager in 2020. In addition to the Mediterranean, Regent Seven Seas offers itineraries in  Africa, the Middle East, Asia, the Caribbean, South America, Australia and New Zealand and Northern Europe. Fares for Regent Seven Seas Mediterranean itineraries start from $4755 a person twin share in a deluxe verandah suite. Children are permitted on Regent Seven Seas Cruises. See rssc.com

FLY

Emirates operates regular flights to and from Sydney and Melbourne to Athens and Rome, the start and end points for the featured cruise. See emirates.com

Anthony Dennis travelled as a guest of Regent Seven Seas Cruises.

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