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All Their Yesterdays: South From Ephesus

South from Ephesus
by Brian Sewell (1931–2015)
IB Tauris

Brian Sewell wrote South from Ephesus less than fifteen years ago [in 1988], but it already qualifies as a classic, and not just because so much of the terrain he describes is now covered with high-rise hotels. His book, he himself admits, is a “self-indulgent narrative” that “reveals obsessions and prejudices that surprise even me”.

When he first visited Turkey in 1975, Sewell’s plan was to “escape the tyranny of Western Art”. He thought there would not be much to see there. He assumed that anything he did find would have no relevance to what he knew about art and architecture. He would, he hoped, be able to enjoy it for its own sake, and without feeling the “compulsion to stitch them into the dense fabric of my art-historical memory”. He soon found out how wrong he was. South from Ephesus is his book-length mea culpa. It weaves together his memories of several trips along the coast of western Turkey. But it is mostly about his journey from Ephesus to Side, in the middle of the winter in the middle of the Eighties, with Petter, a Norwegian skiing friend, and Ayhan, a chauffeur-cum-guide provided by the Turkish government.

Ayhan had firm views about itineraries and the proper viewing of monuments, so he and his charges were at war from the outset. This was exacerbated almost every evening, when Ayhan consoled himself with rakı. He was, as Sewell says in his preface, “the grit in the oyster, without which many of our days might have been dull – but never can a man have been more glad to see off his companions at the end of a journey, and return to the bosom of his unloved wife”. To be fair – and Sewell is forever straining to be fair – he is just as hard on himself. He admits to being obstinate, petulant, bloody-minded and one of the world’s great sulkers. His accounts of his tiffs with Ayhan are as good as anything Gerald Durrell wrote about his brother. But Sewell is at his most eloquent when railing against archaeologists.

He does try to be fair to them, too. The Library of Celsus at Ephesus, for example, is not as bad as it was. “There was a time when this resembled the work of a demented pastry cook whose wedding cake had been demolished by a misdirected bull,” he recalls, “but work on the library is now finished and the building makes sense as a Vitruvian design with a hint of Westbourne Grove about it.” It doesn’t make much sense. It is “more than slightly absurd, with tilted horizontals and wayward visuals”. He still cannot help feeling that “the whole façade has a heavily chewed look about it”. Perhaps this is no accident: the site is “full of starving dogs”.

Again by his own admission, Sewell loves dogs more than he does people. He gives full and often moving descriptions of the dogs he meets en route. We also get daily updates about plumbing and laundry and what he thought about breakfast and why it might be that he keeps dreaming about David Hockney and Haile Selassie. He is less confident about history and so goes for a frantic, scattergun approach, deferring wherever possible to Fellowes and Bean. Although he rarely goes beneath the surface, what he has to say about the surfaces is always engaging, and his uncomplicated love for Turks and Turkey is evident throughout.

Other Highlights from Cornucopia 27
  • Parallel Lives

    Both were ambitious men with a penchant for poetry who suffered extremes of fortune. David Barchard charts the ties between two dominant figures in nineteenth-century Turkey, the British Ambassador Stratford Canning, and the Ottoman sultan Mahmut II

  • Grape Expectations

    Wine is now the most popukar alcoholic drink on the planet, says Esat Ayhan, ‘and we in Turkey are benefitting from this positive wind.’ Owner for the past twenty-two years of a fashionable Cihangir şarküteri, stocking everything from De Cecco pasta to bacon and paté, Esat Bey took the opportunity to expand its renowned La Cave wine section into an entire floor devoted to the grape.

  • Beaufort’s Hunt

    Francis Beaufort’s epic 1812 survey of Turkey’s southern coast and its classical sites sparked a European treasure hunt. It also very nearly cost him his life. By Nicholas Courtney with photgraphs by Kate Clow and James Mortimer

  • Wish you were here

    Max Fruchtermann (1852 –1918) was the publisher who took the postcard to Turkey and thereby took Turkey to the world. His cards sold by the million. Mert Sandalcı – historian, archivist and librettist – has assembled thousands of these cards into three mammoth volumes. Elizabeth Meath Baker leafs through their pages.

  • The Birth of the Big Apple

    Wild apples, with their pink or white blossom in spring, are still a common sight in Turkey. They are collected in the autumn, when they ripen, and preserved for winter.
    More cookery features

  • The Platonic Bowl

    The pots of Alev Ebuzziya Siesbye have an ideal serenity and timeless beauty, as visitors to her retrospective in Istanbul have discovered. But their cool simplicity belies the passion that goes into creating them. Alistair McAlpine met the artist in Paris.

  • Drama in the Round

    Robert Ousterhout, who fell in love with the Kariye Camii, the Church of the Chora, 25 years ago. Here he makes an impassioned case for preserving this 14th-century masterpiece.

  • Travels with Turhan

    Brian Mathew pays tribute to the late Turhan Baytop, Turkey’s pre-eminent botanist

  • Fine fast food

    Most fast food is heavy, greasy and bad for your health. Güllaç pancakes, by contrast, are beautiful organza-thin leaves, light as a feather and made from the simplest ingredients. What’s more, they keep for an age. Berrin Torolsan sees the best gullaç in the making

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