It was one of those moments of being a tourist I dread. I had just driven up the winding mountain road with its hairpin bends and thousand foot unprotected drops and arrived in the vilage of Zerk, some 50km from the southern coast of Turkey and some 100km from Side and Antalya, in order to visit the old Roman town, and particularly, the Selge amphitheatre.
The previous night I had seen La Traviata at another Roman amphıtheatre in Aspendos, built in the second century AD, built along the Greek style but with an elaborate stage on which scenery could be lowered, and which seats some 15,000. When Atatürk visited, he ordered it to be used for the performance of opera, theatre and ballet, the Western arts which were imported in the early years of the Republic and played an important role in the Westernization of the middle-classes. But now many of the spectators are Western tourists, and also Russians.
I arrived in the mountain village and the locals crowded around the car. The village boys told me where to park. The village women crowded around to sell me their beads and embroideries. Neredesiniz? Where are you from? Inglizim, I told them. I hold on to my money bag. I worry about scratches on the rented car. I feel uncomfortable. I think of bolting. How do I get out of the situation? I examine the beads and embroidery and buy one from both of the women still following me. They ask fifteen Turkish lira. I offer ten, still much more than they are worth, but it is an act of appeasement, a transfer of a small sum I can afford, and things get easier. Fatma seems to be the head women, knows a few words in German and takes me up to the amphitheatre together with a pair of boys from the village, Bayram and Ramazan. The whole village is built on the Roman ruins way up in the mountains. The crumbling amphitheatre seats 5,000, and there was a population of 20,000 in the town. How did they survive in such an inhospitable and remote spot where little seems to grow? It seems an aqueduct brought the water and the town prospered till Byzantine times.
Relations become more relaxed. It is a good opportunity to practice my Turkish. I am invited in for tea. One of the few things that grows in the village is wild thyme, and Fatma dispatches one of the boys to collect some wild thyme. I take off my shoes and enter the home, three rooms, brick, not poor. Granny is rocking the cradle of baby girl Bilkent, one-year old, who doesn’t want to sleep. Where are the men? I ask. Gitti, they’ve gone away from the village. İş yok, there is no work, no water to irrigate the land, and they have all gone to the coastal resorts to work in the hotels. I am complimented on my Turkish and escorted to my car. I give a couple of lira to the boys and am waved away.
I drive back down to the Köprülü Valley, where the German and Dutch tourists are being initiated into the skills of rafting. In Side the tourists are back from the beach, relaxing in their posh hotels, strolling around the Roman ruins, drinking their Efes beer, for there are no alcohol restrictions here, shopping and getting ready to go out for the night.