Then and Now: Bodrum, Ephesus, Luxor, Pyramids at Giza, Samos, Siwa Oasis

Sunday, January 11, 2009


About 290 miles southwest of Istanbul, Bodrum is a Turkish resort town on the Aegean Sea; at the time Herodotus was born there, it was known as Halicarnassus.

Herodotus wrote: "One of the mercenaries of Amasis, a Halicarnassian, Phanes by name, a man of good judgment, and a brave warrior, dissatisfied for some reason or other with his master, deserted the service, and taking ship, fled to [the Persian king] Cambyses." Other than tales of Phanes and other brief mentions of Halicarnassus, Herodotus never writes of his birthplace.

Update: A half-century after Herodotus's death, Mausolus became ruler of Halicarnassus, then part of the Persian empire. Upon his death, Mausolus's widow built him a burial tomb so grand that it became known as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Over time, the structure fell into disrepair and was dismembered, partly by Crusaders, who used its stones to construct the fortress known as St. Peter's Castle. By 1404 only the base of the Mausoleum was recognizable. Its ruins can be visited; the Masonic temple on 16th Street in Northwest Washington was modeled on the ancient structure.


About 230 miles southwest of Istanbul and about 60 miles north of Bodrum, the city of Ephesus was founded in the 10th century B.C.; many ruins of its ancient buildings still stand.

Herodotus wrote: "The Ephesians, when [Croesus] laid siege to the place, made an offering of their city to Diana, by stretching a rope from the town wall to the temple of the goddess, which was distant from the ancient city, then besieged by Croesus, a space of seven furlongs," referring to the Temple of Artemis (a.k.a. Diana), built around 550 B.C. and considered one of the Seven Wonders, and about which Herodotus later writes, "the temple of Ephesus is a building worthy of note."

Update: The Temple of Artemis was destroyed by an arsonist in 356 B.C., then rebuilt. It was sacked by Goths in the 3rd century A.D., then demolished by Christians 200 years later. (Some of its columns were used in Istanbul's Hagia Sophia.) In the first two centuries A.D., the Romans conquered Ephesus, St. Paul visited and wrote some of his Epistles, and the Romans erected a 25,000-seat theater, the Celsus Library and the Temple of Hadrian, restored remnants of which stand today.


About 320 miles south of Cairo, Luxor was called Thebes in Herodotus's time and was home to the Oracle of Jupiter.

Herodotus wrote: "The priests of Jupiter . . . led me into the inner sanctuary, which is a spacious chamber, and showed me a multitude of colossal statues, in wood . . . and the number of them was three hundred and forty-five."

Update: The ruins of the temple complexes of Karnak and Luxor stand within the modern city. Luxor has been called the world's greatest open-air museum.


About eight miles from central Cairo, the pyramids are in a complex just outside the bustling suburban city of Giza. Built between 2580 and 2560 B.C., the three largest pyramids are tombs for three kings, with smaller pyramids, temples, statues and cemeteries for queens and other royals.

Herodotus wrote: "Cheops reigned, the Egyptians said, fifty years, and was succeeded at his demise by Chephren, his brother. Chephren imitated the conduct of his predecessor, and, like him, built a pyramid, which did not, however, equal the dimensions of his brother's. Of this I am certain, for I measured them both myself." No wonder, then, that Cheops's pyramid is the one that's called "Great."

Update: Of the Seven Wonders, only the Pyramids at Giza are still standing.


This Greek island, about two miles off the coast of Turkey, was a trifecta for Herodotus because he found three technical wonders there: the Tunnel of Eupalinos; the great Temple of Hera, wife and sister of the god Zeus; and the mole, or breakwater, in the harbor.

Herodotus wrote: "About the Samians I have spoken at greater length, because they have three works which are greater than any others that have been made by Hellenes: first a passage beginning from below and open at both ends, dug through a mountain over 900 feet in height; . . . through which the water is conducted and comes by the pipes to the city [then Samos, now Pythagorio], brought from an abundant spring. . . . The second is a mole in the sea about the harbour, going down to a depth of more than 1,200 feet. The third work which they have executed is a temple larger than all the other temples of which we know."

Update: Once four times the size of the Parthenon, Hera's temple has been reduced to one column. The present 1,400-foot jetty protecting the harbor on the southeast coast rests atop the ancient one (and more recent additions), which was built during the rule of the tyrant Polycrates. One can visit the twin underground tunnels of Eupalinos (one right above the other), ordered by Polycrates so enemies could not cut off the water supply to the ancient town of Samos.


About 340 miles west of Cairo, Siwa is an oasis town in the desert near the border of Libya where the Oracle Temple of Ammon was constructed in the 7th century B.C. During the Persian invasion of Egypt, the oracle at Siwa predicted the death of Persian King Cambyses.

Herodotus wrote: "At Thebes, which he [Cambyses] passed through on his way, he detached from his main body some fifty thousand men, and sent them against the Ammonians with orders to carry the people into captivity, and burn the oracle of Jupiter. . . . It is certain they neither reached the Ammonians, nor even came back to Egypt. Further than this, the Ammonians relate as follows: That the Persians set forth from Oasis across the sand, and had reached about half way between that place and themselves when, as they were at their midday meal, a wind arose from the south, strong and deadly, bringing with it vast columns of whirling sand, which entirely covered up the troops and caused them wholly to disappear. Thus, according to the Ammonians, did it fare with this army."

Update: One hundred years after Herodotus's visit to Siwa, Alexander the Great is said to have trekked there, and he received word from the oracle that he was both divine and the legitimate pharaoh of Egypt. Centuries later, in 1103, after Siwa had been invaded numerous times, residents built a fortress, whose ruins remain. The oasis was also invaded in the 20th century, during both world wars.

-- Nancy McKeon and Christina Talcott

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