A wall from which the plaster had fallen in patches. A grey, mould green and brick red ground in which stalks of straw mixed into the mortar glinted in the light of the noon sun. Suddenly several sailing ships appeared on the wall. They seemed to be all anchored in harbour. In a while the wind would fill their sails and they would head for the Aegean and the Mediterranean. The place was Miletus, the starting point of the Sacred Way which once stretched from the entrance of the Lion Harbour to the Temple of Apollo at Didyma, 16 kilometres to the south. A modest building at the edge of the Sacred Way seemed out of place beside the nearby Ionic stoa, fluted Roman columns and Harbour Monument. Curious, we clambered over to it, crossing a pool left by the recent rains. Inside we found arches linked to the dome by intricate stalactite carving formed by geometric prisms. This was a public bath built by the Turkish Menteseogullari emirate in the middle ages. The Menteseogullari were a seafaring nation, as the freehand drawings of sailing ships incised on the wall indicate.
The building was partially in ruins, but the drawings on the wall opened the door to a world of fables. This part of the Aegean coastal region had always been a place of countless legends and equally remarkable true stories. Herodotus said of Miletus on the delta of the Büyük Menderes river, the ancient Meander, ‘The Ionians founded their city beneath the most beautiful skies and in the most beautiful climate on earth.’ The river emptied into the Gulf of Latmos, now long since silted up, and around Lade Island at the mouth of the gulf the Persians and Ionians fought a great naval battle. If your heart can stand reliving such a tragedy, you can read the account by Herodotus. Nearly two millenia after the demise of the Ionians, another seafaring nation arose on the same soil, and launched their ships in the same waters. They were the Menteseogullari, and one of the surviving witnesses of this period of history is Ilyas Bey Mosque.
What is so fascinating about the Menteþeogullari is their irrepressibility. In the 14th century the rulers of the Aydin and Mentese emirates seized control of the Aegean region from the Venetians, and became the almost unchallenged rulers of the Mediterranean and the caravan trade roads. That is the historical background. But for tody’so traveller, the buildings that remain tell the story more vividly than any dry texts. If you stand in the ancient theatre at Miletus you can see Kalabak Hill where Alexander the Great camped with his army to the southwest, and turning your head slightly, a domed building which is a favourite nesting place for storks to the south. This is Ilyas Bey Mosque, whose brick dome makes a striking contrast to the other ruins at Miletus. To reach it you can either take the road to the village of Balat, or the shorter but obstacle-filled route across the fields. The only sounds are those of rustling leaves, insects, and perhaps the chattering of storks if they are in the mood. To look at this building merely as a mosque would be wrong.It is a friend of the storks and pigeons, and of the breeze. It is hard to believe that this jewel has been so completely abandoned to the arms of nature. Its finely carved inscription and decoration draw you to it, even before you learn its name or story. Human history is filled with war and destruction, but the real victory does not always belong to the victors in the long run. Such was the case at Lade Island. Although the Persians defeated the Ionians, it is the latter who speak of their presence today through their buildings and works of art. Leaving the account of the Menteþeogullari’s battles to the historians, let us examine the carved leaves and fragments of turquoise glazed tile gleaming amidst the stone. It is these that capture our imagination. Why did the craftsman decide to bring together these tiny fragments? Why are granite blocks, keystones, and inscriptions that seem to glide across the stone necessary? Why did he feel the need for the flowing palmettes and lotus flowers that suddenly appear on the marble wall? Or is this a natural inclination born of this soil? The mosque was built in 1404 according to the inscription. Life goes on here, with its good and bad aspects as always. Would it matter if we did not save this building and others like it? Not at all, we would only have destroyed a past for the future! Contemporary culture cannot exist without recognising those that have gone before. Modern man is selfish, but even that selfishness has its roots in the past. We might move on somewhere else, but history survives with all its trappings. We must not forget. The ship, its sails filled by the wind, passes in front of us on the wall of the long gone Menteseogullar.
*Gürol Sözen is a writer and painter.