Kids love camels, and kids also love wrestling: two persuasive arguments for a family holiday to the Turkish province of İzmir over the third weekend of January. This is the place and the date for anyone who enjoys watching, or is curious to see, the raucous spectacle of camels wrestling.
The event is probably more fun for the spectators than it is for the camels. January is the peak of the rutting season. The fighting camels — all male — have one thing on their minds: females. Full of primal anticipation, they are brought by their owners from all across Turkey to a natural arena packed with 20,000 people, close to the ancient ruined city of Ephesus. With not a female camel in sight, the males vent their angry frustration on each other.
The camels’ mouths are muzzled to prevent biting. One on one, bout after bout throughout the festival, they battle each other using their necks and legs for leverage. There is more huff and puff than violence, more slobber than blood. Victory is achieved when one of the combatants flees the ring.
During the festival, the nearest town, Selçuk, is gripped with a carnival-like atmosphere. Prior to the fights, the camels, decked out with colorful saddles and escorted by traditional musicians, are paraded through the town’s crowded streets. Individual camels are often named after celebrities, both local and international. This is the only place in the world where you can see, for instance, Barack Obama wrestle Michael Jackson.
Despite nods to the West, the festival is unashamedly Turkish. Here are people (and their prized camels) engaged in a tradition that reaches back centuries. The gaudy, noisy pandemonium is wrapped in aromatic smoke from the kebab stalls. Drums pulse. Singers warble Turkish favorites. The crowds cheer as each bout reaches its culmination. The modern world falls away. For a visiting youngster, this is not just a window into another culture but also into another age.
The layers of time are even more spectacularly revealed among the nearby ruins of Ephesus, one of the best preserved of all classical cities. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence here of human settlement reaching back 8,000 years. From humble beginnings, Ephesus expanded to become one of the most important cities of Ancient Greece. By the time of the Roman Empire, it was the second-largest city in the world after Rome.
In January, it tends to be reasonably quiet, though during the summer tourist season it is advisable to visit the ruins as close as possible to the 8 a.m. opening time. You can then amble along the remarkably preserved marble-paved streets with only your family’s footsteps for company. You can peer into the bathhouses (and the Roman public toilet). You can pose for photos in the ornate doorways of the great Library of Celsus. You can sit on the age-worn stone bleachers of the Great Theater. And, for an extra entry fee, you can view the original painted interiors of a cluster of Roman terraced houses.
By mid-morning, Ephesus is no longer an abandoned city. Battalions of skimpily dressed, sunburned tourists arrive on daytrips from the Aegean holiday resorts. By now, everything — including your family — will be wilting under the fierce heat of the Mediterranean sun.
For cool relief and a temporary diversion from serious sightseeing, Aqua Fantasy
(www.aquafantasy.com) at Ephesus Beach is an extensive
water park offering slides and rides. The dividing line between adults and kids
is eroded amid the watery fun; everyone can behave like a child here.
From the ridiculous back to the sublime. Not far from the water park is Mary’s House, a tiny stone cottage in which the Virgin Mary is reputed to have lived in her old age. It is a place of pilgrimage for Christians and Muslims alike. Pilgrims traditionally tie pieces of cloth inscribed with prayer requests to a nearby wall.
Heading north from Ephesus, we reach Turkey’s third-largest city, İzmir. Historically, this is one of the great, turbulent meeting places between Europe, Asia and North Africa. For much of its recent history, the city was known as Smyrna and had a predominantly Greek population.
Everything changed in 1922. A Greek invasion of Turkey was defeated by Turkish nationalists. In the final battle, much of the city was burned to the ground, prompting a huge exodus of its surviving inhabitants back to Greece; families who had lived here for generations were displaced.
History was reset. The city was reborn as İzmir. Yet the echoes of the long past remain, especially in the bazaar, where there is a sense of timeless continuity. For centuries, this part of the old city has been the focal point for international trade. This is where the camel caravans from the East arrived. Deals were struck; products were bought and sold.
At the heart of the bazaar’s bustling labyrinth of narrow streets is the covered market, Kızlarağası Han. Here you can explore the vaulted indoor alleys while traders attempt to lure you into their shops to buy souvenirs, jewelry, fabric and spices.
Nearby are the excavated ruins of the bazaar’s ancient forerunner, the Agora, which dates back at least 2,500 years. As you tread beneath the Agora’s reconstructed arches, it is easy to imagine the noise and bustle of the traders.
İzmir has a complex history, reflecting its strategic position. On a high hill immediately to the south of downtown is the Kadifekale Fortress, originally built in 334 B.C. by Alexander the Great. Subsequent rulers — the Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans — all defended the city from here. From the stone battlements, you can enjoy spectacular views of the city and İzmir Bay, though be prepared for the imbat, the strong wind that gusts off the Aegean most afternoons.
In the evening, many locals gravitate to the shore. Starting at Konak Square with its landmark Ottoman clock tower and the mosque calling the faithful to prayer, you can stroll for miles along the Kordon, the tiled pedestrian path that runs first along the old wharf, then opens up into a broad waterfront park. Families sit together on the grass. Friends meet at outdoor cafés. Children skateboard in the shadow of the dramatic monument commemorating Turkey’s independence.
Offshore, ferries shuttle back and forth across İzmir Bay while cargo ships
bring their wares from beyond the horizon, as they have done for centuries.
İzmir is a modern city, but its rhythms are ancient.
Info To Go
Flights arrive at İzmir Adnan Menderes International Airport (ADB), 11
EGE PALAS BUSINESS HOTEL
Enjoy great views from the guestrooms on the upper floors of this high-rise
SWISSÔTEL GRAND EFES İZMIR
This popular kebab chain with six restaurants dotted around the city of
ARTEMIS RESTAURANT & WINE HOUSE
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