The ruins of Pergamum

The ruins of Pergamum

Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
23 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Lisa Cohen and William Meppem

We left Ayvalık in the cool early morning, bound for Bergama and the ruins of ancient Pergamum. On either side of the main road, gently rolling hills were thickly covered with olive trees, their leaves flashing silver-grey in the light breeze. As in ancient times, the olive makes a significant contribution to the local economy: around three-quarters of the region’s farming land is used for the cultivation of close to two million trees. In fact, Ayvalık is known throughout Turkey as the olive capital and renowned for the excellent quality of its oil.

As we sped further south, the landscape began to change. The hillsides became rockier, the vegetation more sparse and olive trees gave way to groves of cypress and pine trees. It wasn’t long before we turned off the highway, heading inland towards the small modern town of Bergama, and, beyond it, the massive peak that rises up more than 300 metres from the plain.

Of all the ancient cities that are scattered along Turkey’s western shores, Pergamum surely has the pick of the sites, with its dramatic views of the surrounding countryside and the glittering Aegean Sea in the distance. According to Homer, Pergamum was such an excellent lookout that Zeus popped over from Mount Olympus to check out the action in the nearby Trojan wars.

Archaeologists believe that the site was settled as early as the eighth century BC, but Pergamum’s golden years were in the third and second centuries BC, when it was one of the most powerful and richest city-states in Asia Minor, rivalling Athens and Alexandria as a cultural centre. Not much remains of Pergamum’s former greatness and glories, it must be said, but we spent a happy few hours clambering among the ruins and taking in the expansive view. By Roman times, the city had a population of more than 300,000, and helpful posters around the site show that it was laid out in a strictly hierarchical manner. Palaces and temples enjoyed pole position on the peak, and government buildings, shops and houses spread out further down the hillside.

We wandered over to the spot where the massive altar to Zeus, with its famous frieze depicting the battle between the gods and the giants, once stood. The remains of the altar itself have been transported to Berlin as a kind of reward to the German archaeologists who were responsible for much of Pergamum’s excavation. The altar has been reconstructed in the Berlin Museum and there were more helpful posters showing us how splendid it looks in its new location.

Pergamum is perhaps best remembered for its magnificent library, built by Eumenes II in the second century BC. The library reputedly held 200,000 volumes, a clear sign of Eumenes’ pretensions to cultural grandeur. Legend tells us that the quality of the Pergamum library was viewed by Ptolemy of Egypt as such a threat to his own great library at Alexandria that he cut off the export supply of papyrus from the Nile. As a result, the ancient method of using animal skins to write on was revived and refined in Pergamum. It was known as ‘pergaminus’ – pergamum paper – from which the English word parchment originated.

A little way down the hill past the library ruins is the spectacularly sited amphitheatre, unfolding fanlike in the steep slope of the hillside. We perched ourselves at the top of its eighty-odd rows of stone seats and gazed out at the view, feeling just a bit dizzy in the midday sun.

The car park was filling up fast with tourist buses, which seemed a sign for us to head off for lunch. Dodging the attention of the ice-cream vendors near the ticket office, we pointed the car down the hill and manoeuvred our way carefully along the steeply winding road back to Bergama.

After our exertions clambering around the hilly ruins, we felt the need for something substantial; however, the guide books were worryingly silent on the subject of Bergama’s eating establishments. But a short while later, seated in a clean and tidy restaurant, we were tucking into generous bowls of mantı dumplings.

We’d been quite surprised to discover that pasta is such a feature of Turkish restaurant menus, but a little research had revealed that mantı is one of the original dishes of the steppes, dating back, in all likelihood, to the nomadic Uyghur Turks in the mid-eighth century. The Uyghurs were strongly influenced by the culture of Northern China, and the same tradition of stuffing little dumplings can be seen in both cuisines to this day.

The Turks brought mantı with them when they migrated west into Anatolia, and although they’re generally considered a specialty of eastern and southern Turkey, they now feature widely on restaurant menus around the country. The very best mantı are homemade, the pasta dough slippery and soft under a creamy blanket of garlicky yoghurt. This version was a little on the chewy side, but on the surface of the yoghurt was a delicious swirl of sizzling butter, spiked with dried mint.

Thus fortified we decided to walk off a few calories at Pergamum’s other major attraction, the Asklepieum, on the outskirts of Bergama. The Asklepieum was a kind of ancient health-spa, catering to stressed Roman officials and gladiators in need of a spot of pampering or purging. Much like today’s spas, treatments included mud baths, mineral springs, massage and dietary advice, and even a spot of dream analysis.

The Asklepieum became world famous in the second century, largely thanks to Galen – the wonder doctor of his time. Physician to the stars, he treated gladiators and emperors, and more importantly made a significant contribution to modern-day medicine with his theories about the human circulatory and nervous systems.

Like visitors to this famous health centre two millennia ago, we wandered down the broad colonnaded street towards the grand entrance foyer. Off an open forecourt were treatment rooms, a medical library, a temple to Asklepios, the god of healing, and a handsome amphitheatre where waiting patients were entertained by plays and gladiatorial wrestling matches – the modern-day equivalent of the waiting-room television set.

We seemed to be the only visitors to the Asklepieum that afternoon and all was peaceful as we ambled past the sacred well, easily resisting the temptation to sip from its scummy waters. We paused for a moment in the sunshine; a few basking lizards scuttled out of sight under a fallen column and a small tortoise lumbered its way slowly through the daisies. Around us the grass was splattered with red poppies.

Making our way back along the colonnaded bazaar to the car park, we passed a cluster of souvenir stands and juice vendors offering freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. ‘Madam! Please madam! Have you had your vitamin C today?’ they entreated. Our eyes were drawn upwards to the Pergamum acropolis, high on the hillside. The white marble ruins gleamed in the sunlight and we couldn’t help but think that in its golden years this would have been a pretty good place to live.

Breads and pastries

Savoury pastries appear in a seemingly endless repertoire of shapes, sizes and fillings; made from either crisp wafer-thin yufka pastry, a type of flaky puff pastry, or denser yeast doughs, then fried or baked, or toasted on a hot griddle. Fillings can be anything from spicy minced meat, poultry or offal, lemony spinach or silverbeet, meltingly soft eggplant or tangy cheese. Favourite shapes are little triangles, cigars, crescents, rectangular parcels and little pies.

The Turkish fondness for breads and pastries has been passed down through many centuries. Historians suggest that the Turkic tribes of Central Asia knew how to cultivate wheat, and developed many of the techniques for making dough and cooking breads and pastries that are still used today.

Of the countless varieties of savoury breads and pastries made, it is the category known as börek that is most distinctly Turkish. Although the genealogy of börek isn’t clear, it is thought they evolved from Turkish flat breads. In the days before they had ovens, pastoral nomads cooked unleavened breads on assorted griddles. Layered pastries emerged as doughs were rolled ever thinner and then stuffed with all sorts of fillings to make a more satisfying snack or meal.

One of the more unusual members of the börek family is su börek (meaning water börek), which is closer to a lasagne than other baked or fried pastries we’d eaten. While in Turkey, we spent a wonderful afternoon with eminent local food writer Engin Akin in her sunny Istanbul home, learning the mysteries of making this legendary dish.

We watched Engin and her friends preparing egg-enriched pasta dough and using the traditional oklava – a special long, thin rolling pin – to roll it out as thinly as possible. The sheets of pasta were boiled in a massive pot of boiling salted water until soft, and then laid out to dry on a cloth. Engin has a large circular pan that she uses specially for making su börek. After brushing it with melted butter – not too much, Engin insisted – an initial layer of uncooked pastry was arranged in the pan, and six more cooked sheets layered on top. There are always seven sheets of pastry, Engin explained, one for each day of the week.

The filling that day was a mixture of white cheese and chopped parsley. Three buttered sheets of pastry were arranged on top of it and the pie was completed with a final uncooked pastry sheet. More melted butter was brushed over the top and the pastry sheets were tucked down the sides of the pan to make a neat pie. We were fascinated to see that Engin cooked her su börek on the stove top rather than in the oven. It was a very low flame, and required constant turning to achieve a crisp golden pie base. After about forty minutes, the base was ready and the whole thing was inverted in the pan to cook the top layer.

It did seem like a lot of effort. But then we sat down to eat the fruits of Engin’s labour. On the table were dishes of preserves: tiny wild figs, gleaming like bright green emeralds, and gorgeous amethyst plums, sugar-dense and dripping with syrup. Our hostess poured us glasses of chilled homemade lemonade, explaining that su börek is best accompanied by something sweet. Then the serving spoon broke through the crisp golden crust of the pie to reveal the silky-soft cheesy layers within, and after a few mouthfuls we understood that any resemblance to the humble lasagne was purely superficial. Here, perhaps, was the most sublime expression of the simple act of rolling out dough; an act that’s been refined through the centuries to achieve its zenith in su börek.

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