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Sacred city of antiquity "Milas"

Milas lies on the lower slopes of Mount Sodra, from whose quarries came the marble which adorns so many ancient cities in southwest Turkey. This region between the Büyük Menderes (the ancient Meander) and the Dalaman rivers was controlled by the Carians. They were succeeded by the Persians, Macedonians and Seleucids before becoming part of the Roman Empire. Milas was a bishopric under the Byzantines until the city became capital of the Turkish Menteşe principality at the end of the 13th century. Its proud and dignified aspect today is hardly surprising after such an illustrious past.

Mylasa was a city of temples, many dedicated to Zeus, who was patron deity of the Carians and known by numerous different epithets. So in antiquity the city was a place of pilgrimage. In his book on Caria, George Bean relates how the harpist Stratonicus who was famous for his wit performed here, and as he was about to begin was so moved by the multitude of temples that instead of the usual introductory phrase Give ear to the people, declared Give ear to the temples. Today, sadly, they cannot make their voices heard.

We set off north from Bodrum to Milas. After passing Lake Bafa the hills around were covered with olive trees as far as the eye could see. This is a region with more olive trees per person than any other place in the world. As we entered Milas we were met first by storks, and later when we were strolling round the city we frequently saw them perched on the chimneys of old Milas houses and ancient ruins.

In Milas three colourful houses first caught our attention. With their brightly painted walls, and white painted window grilles and balcony railings, they reminded us of the gingerbread houses of fairytale. At first we thought we had come across some of the celebrated old houses of Milas, but it turned out that they were Hungarian style houses made by Hungarian and Italian builders in the 1930s.

The traditional wooden houses of Milas are hidden in narrow labyrinthine streets in the heart of the city. Most of the two storey houses are derelict, and stand arm in arm with their neighbours, attempting to keep their balance. They date from the 19th century and were evidently once grand establishments belonging to prosperous families. Some have bay windows, and others jettied upper storeys to catch the maximum amount of sun, light, and breezes. They all have distinctive chimneys and decorations over the windows and on the doors. Some of them are painted blue or yellow with colourful decoration, but the original bright blue has faded, lending the houses the same wistful air that we saw in the eyes of an elderly woman, the last inhabitant of one of the loveliest old houses which we saw in the market place.

The market itself is lively, crowded and colourful. It takes place every Tuesday, and is so popular that day excursions are organised here for tourists from resorts in the area. Attractive tablecloths, pillow cases and other household linen made of locally woven cotton fabrics, trinkets and gifts and summer clothing fill the stalls in one half of the market, while the other half is given over to a mouthwatering array of fresh fruits and vegetables.

The arasta, an Ottoman period openair bazaar, is lined by small oldfashioned shops, occupied by tailors, shoemakers, antique dealers, corned beef makers, and offal butchers. Close by is Çöllühan, a typical example of a han which provided rooms, storage and stabling for merchants and artisans. The han was built in 1768 by Abdülaziz Ağa. Passing between the packsaddle maker’s and a shop making bead ornaments for horses and camels which face one another at the entrance, I entered the courtyard. A tumbledown wooden staircase led to the upper gallery, where there is a workshop spinning and weaving goat’s hair. Kilims made from hair and patterned felt rugs had been hung over the balustrade.

Milas is famous worldwide for its handwoven carpets made of vegetable dyed wool that are mainly produced in mountain villages in the southern part of the province. Since they are bought up by dealers while still on the looms for the domestic market or export there are very few shops selling carpets in Milas itself. The typical pastel designs of Milas carpets date back to the 17th century, and their value derives from both these and the quality of their weaving. Dominant colours are in the brown to yellow range, with lesser quantities of peach red, green and white. Their patterns consist mainly of geometric motifs and stylised flowers.

There are 27 ancient cities dating back as far as 1000 BC in the vicinity of Milas, including major sites like Euromos, Labraynda, Heracleia, and Beçin. Of the ancient Mylasa itself, the most fascinating structure to have survived is Gümüşkesen, a tomb whose unusual design is thought to have been inspired by the Mausoleum, one of the seven wonders of the world situated in Bodrum, the ancient Halicarnassus. Dating from the 1st or 2nd century AD, the most spectacular part of this building is its pyramidal roof surrounded by a colonnade. To get onto the roof you must call the watchman, who obliges by bringing a ladder. The pyramid made of stones piled one on top of the other is unexpectedly beautiful when seen from the inside, where the ceiling is carved with elaborate floriate and geometric motifs, which were probably once painted. In the floor is a funnel shaped aperture through which wine was poured down onto the occupant of the tomb chamber beneath.

Another structure which has survived almost intact to the present day is Baltalıkapı, the north gate of the ancient Mylasa built at the end of the 1st century BC. The name, meaning Gate of Axes, derives from the carved double bladed ax, symbol of Zeus, carved on the keystone. In the early Christian era water channelled from the mountains to the east of the city was carried along aqueducts to this gate. The remains of these Roman period aqueducts can be seen on the Beçin road.

The only surviving temple in Mylas is that of Zeus Carios on a hill at the east end of the district of Hisarbaşı. The single standing column is home to a stork, whose nest perches on the summit. Appropriately the column is known locally as Uzunyuva or Tall Nest. Firuz Bey Mosque dating from 1394 is one of the oldest Turkish monuments in Milas. Faced entirely in marble, the portal is the place which I found most imposing. The diverse carvings on the stone exterior combine to create a harmonious whole. Around the portal and above the windows is superb red and white stonework.

To the traveller passing through Milas at a distance the city might not excite the interest it deserves. This is a place where first impressions are well worth ignoring, as the city is in fact home to many fascinating sights and delightful people awaiting discovery for those who explore its backstreets.

* By Bahar Kalkan
* Photos Önder Durmaz
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