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Christmas in ruins

Last Christmas, the art historian Francis Russell escaped the festivities for a hectic week revisiting the Aegean’s most fascinating historic sites, in readiness for a new, enlarged edition of his guide ‘Places in Turkey: A Pocket Grand Tour’. Here is his diary of an action-packed week

December 27

Milas, Stratonicea, the Temple of Hecate at Lagina and Labraunda

Milas, the ancient Mylasa, is conveniently placed for the airport that takes the name of more distant Bodrum, which in antiquity succeeded it as capital of Hectomid Caria. The town is now an uncompromising commercial centre, but nearby Beçin, the successor of what may have been its original acropolis, was far more appealing in the morning sunlight than I remembered.

Seeing the flight of Hellenistic steps incorporated in the medieval fortress is as good a way as any of reintroducing oneself to the complexities of the strata of former civilisations; and the restoration of the key Islamic building has been reasonably tactful.

Stratonicea (above), Mylasa’s neighbour across the hills to the east, was my next stop. When first I went, the village on the site of the ancient city was still inhabited: a helpful man was visibly puzzled by my gift of a packet of, to me, precious Bath Olivers. On my last visit, the charming little mosque was in advanced decay. That has now been carefully restored, but the houses have continued to disintegrate and no one bothers to pick the pomegranates. Excavation has continued, and sense has been made of the gate to the Sacred Way leading to the temple at Lagina.

The friendly dog that followed me may not realise just how much his world will be affected by the new line of the main road that will skirt the site to the north.

Fine as the major monuments are, I am more touched by the recycled blocks incorporated in a Byzantine fortress, and by a crisp relief of an axe built into an abandoned house near the eastern wall.

Always short of time in the past, I had imagined from George Bean’s account that Lagina was hardly worth the detour. But Patricia Daunt, always so generous with advice, told me how beautiful the site is. And she was wholly correct. The curved propylon is one of the most appealing buildings of its type; and enough survives of the Temple of Hecate for one to sense how important the cult was to those who erected the numerous monuments that lined the stoas.

Ancient cities had rival shrines. Mylasa boasted that of Labraunda, on which its Hectomid rulers lavished their architectural attentions, with results that were magical in the soft afternoon light and the lengthening shadows.

It was not for the ruins, however, that well over a hundred cars were parked beside the road that winds up to the site: Milas’s drivers are on a pilgrimage of a different kind: a picnic in the gentle sunlight…

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Other Highlights from Cornucopia 54
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Good places to stay
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Issue 54, June 2016 Dive into Summer
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