Junior Scholars Haunt Turkey's Ancient Ruins

At the airport for a new voyage of discovery, I saw a newspaper headline about Jaipur and its "princely past." Suddenly I was back in a pink-walled city of India I had not heard of before our "smart travel" several years earlier. After many trips on our own - which can be educational too - my wife Joan and I had tried our first academically sponsored tour.

Now I'm home from the latest one, sponsored by Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and the Wellesley College Clubs of New York and Boston. The tour took 41 of us by land and sea to the ancient Aegean and Mediterranean lands now part of Turkey. Already I'm seeing things that mean more to me than before.

Waiting in an office, I choose an outdated National Geographic. It has a cover story on contemporary Turkey, and I've gained impressions to compare with it. In church a Bible passage refers to Paul at Ephesus. Joan squeezes my hand and whispers, "We were there."

In the evenings we're reading Rose Macaulay's witty old novel about missionaries in Turkey, "The Towers of Trebizond." Small cries of recognition, small arguments about just what the heroine's Pelagian heresy means.

It's like seeing that Jaipur headline. I thought of the professor steeped in India who enhanced our journey by explaining things great and small. The painting on a residential wall? Done for a recent wedding. A hotel astrologer keeping office hours? When an astrologer fails to help an inquirer forestall a predicted problem, the inquirer gets another astrologer.

Such memory bites are footnotes to four main parts of educational travel:

* Preparation. Reading lists usually arrive with the itinerary. Some passengers bone up so much they second-guess the local guides. I prefer a once-over-lightly, and stay ready to be surprised.

* The trip. A guidebook with the basic facts is handy to recheck each day of sensory and scholarly overload. Passengers have been known to doze during even the best shipboard lectures after a fine lunch and a swim. A shirt-pocket notebook keeps sights in sequence and is vital for identifying snapshots. Local newspapers and radio may have information about events worth catching in addition to the tour schedule. We heard a symphony orchestra under the stars in the Roman theater at Ephesus. Local supporters had had a pre-concert reception in the mammoth restored library with its double "thermos" walls to keep scrolls dry.

* The return. It helps to pack your goodies - purchases, museum brochures, souvenirs - in one place. Something completely different, maybe a paperback or newsmagazine, can be a decompression device on the plane.

* The afterglow. Back to business as usual but with a store of new knowledge to be triggered indefinitely into the future. Time to catch up on related books or videos. We rented the vintage movie "Topkapi" for the fun of seeing Melina Mercouri and Peter Ustinov where we had just been in Istanbul.

Istanbul! Constantinople! Byzantium! Yes, but somehow all these years I haven't thought "Turkey" when I've read such other resonant names on our route as Smyrna, Ephesus, Aphrodisias, Myra, Cnidos, Phaselis, Antalya, Miletus (where Paul summoned the elders from Ephesus and delivered that poignant farewell), Patara (where our ship followed Paul's and we swam in the same glorious waters), or Bodrum (where we saw results of underwater archaeology on ships sunk long before Paul).

This used to be Asia Minor, or just Asia long ago, where the Hittites negotiated with a fertility god in a famous rock relief carving (we saw a museum reproduction in Istanbul) and where Alexander the Great preceded us by some 2,400 years.

"Alexander's Path," by Freya Stark, was one of our companions. With a few books like that, individuals can make up their own "smart travel," enlisting local guides along the way.

Even organized educational trips can be unpredictable.

Following the route of explorers along South America, we found our distinguished professor's specialty was US political history, interesting in itself but not why we had come. We were glad we carried Darwin's "Voyage of the Beagle" about a similar route in the 1830s. He told us about things like the hundreds of porpoises he saw in a spot where, under today's environmental conditions, we were thrilled to see a dozen.

Signing up for Turkey, we found the scheduled experts were bowing out because of illness. But the fabled age of gods and goddesses, heroes and villains, came alive in the hands of the scholarly pinch hitters: Mary Lefkowitz, Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Wellesley College, and her husband, Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones, formerly Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford University.

Their two-week permanent floating seminar began casually over refreshments at the Frankfurt airport before the plane to Izmir (Smyrna in antiquity). Soon they were Mary and Hugh to everybody. And it's good they loved their subjects because, except for an occasional dip in Homer's "wine-dark sea," they would be "on" the whole time, giving mini-lectures, holding question-and-answer sessions, endlessly chatting between and during meals.

Typical sequence: In a lecture Mary discusses the Greek tradition of oral poetry, noting that Homer's dialect came from a place on our route. Hugh mentions that the poets had certain formulas and ready-made bits of verse - "rosy-fingered dawn," for example - to rely on between more inventive passages. Later, in conversation, a passenger (in this case I) asks if these ready-mades can be compared to the musical clichs jazz musicians call upon in the midst of improvisation. Yes, says Hugh, adding there are equivalents in classical composition, too. Smart travel, yeah!

In Izmir our hemmed-in bus had a hard time getting out of the airport's hot and dusty parking lot. Minor grousing began. Not for the last time I quoted Freya Stark traveling in Lycia where we would soon be: "One of the chief blessings of travel is that ... the pleasant and unpleasant days are almost equally agreeable to remember, once they are over."

One of the chief blessings of educational travel is that a Hugh or Mary will have something more to say. Hugh recalled Virgil's Aeneas rallying his storm-struck men after the fall of Troy: "You'll enjoy remembering this later." Back home I find the full quotation with a cross reference to Homer: "Even his griefs are a joy long after to one that remembers all that he wrought and endured."

We endured a delay when our ship was diverted to the Greek island of Samos for some unexplained bureaucratic reason. But Samos itself was a joy, not only for the orange juice and bouzouki players at a sidewalk cafe, but also, of course, for the Temple of Hera, the spouse of Zeus - with Mary and Hugh reminding us of the divine couple's earthy marital arguments.

On the Turkish mainland, we visited many stone theaters, from the largest of the Roman period (24,000 seats at Ephesus, a tenth of the population) to the smallest (seven rows of seats in a castle at Simena).

What a dividend when Hugh took the stage and declaimed in ancient Greek to us continuing-education Argonauts - some clambering like the nearby goats for photo angles, some relaxing in the rock-carved seats, some swigging from the recommended bottles of water, all getting smarter by the day.

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