Archaeology is an academic discipline different from most others in that it attracts tourists. Most laboratories and library carrels don’t get busloads of vacationers dropping by in season, hoping for something entertaining to do between visits to the beach and forays into the bazaar. But the ruins of ancient temples—or stadia or theaters or whole cities—are not only subjects for academic investigation but also tourist at tractions, generating significant dollars (and francs or pounds or deutsche marks). They are, in fact, theme parks of themselves. The visitors they attract may not know as much as the scholars might like, may not be able to tell a Doric from an Ionic column or a tepidarium from a temenos, but they come, sometimes with guidebooks in their hands, more often with human guides whose more or less set spiel directs their attention here and there, charms them, entertains a little, and helps them to take it in, whatever it is. They have come to be enriched and broadened (as travel is supposed to do), to connect with something.

It is a transaction with obvious risks. The visitors by their very presence change the site as they swarm along the pathways and snap their photographs—of the columns, of a donkey grazing in a neighboring field, of one another or of the guide. Eliot says, “the roses / Had the look of flowers that are looked at.” And the drums of columns, baking in the sun among the wildflowers, are also transformed.

The aesthetic of these encounters is a complicated business, and one’s experience may be much affected by almost irrelevant accidents. The weather can be important. Or the whim of a hotel room clerk. My most intimate encounter with any Greek building was at Agrigento, where I was lucky enough to be assigned the right bedroom in the little hotel near the Temple of Concord. (I could sit out on the balcony and stare at it. Or, retreating a bit into the room and sprawling on the bed, I could look at it, framed through the window, and watch the color of the sun-baked marble deepen as the afternoon light changed and faded.)

The ongoing excavations at Aphrodisias, a large Greco-Roman city in south western Turkey, have been getting a fair amount of attention in this country lately, in part because the director of the international crew working on the project is Kenan T. Efrim of New York University. But it is not impertinent to suppose that some editors may be more interested in Aphrodisias now that there is a flurry in Turkish tourism because of the relative modesty of the prices in that country compared with England, France, Italy, or even Greece. There are travel articles about the “Cleopatra Coast”—or, less fancifully, the Turkish Aegean. And if one is cruising that coast or lolling on the beaches of Çesme or Kusadasi, the obvious places to visit are Ephesus, which is easy to get to and included in the agenda of most package tours, and Aphrodisias, which is a couple of hours inland and less handy, but a large and important site, surely worth the effort.

The difficulty is that there’s no town there. One can’t improvise, as at Delphi for instance. There are no hotels here at Aphrodisias, and you must either rent a car and drive out there, or hire a car and driver, or, more modestly, sign up for one of the tours—as I did.

This could be-and ought to be-a perfectly satisfactory way to visit. Buses in Turkey are comfortable and, mostly, air-conditioned (our unit was malfunctioning). The route is not impossibly long and, if you’re not driving, you can look at interesting things like the storks nesting on the tops of houses, or the course of the Menderes River as it snakes through the plane (the old name is the Maeander; hence our English verb). But no tours go just to Aphrodisias-because they couldn’t fill the buses. Instead, the offering is for a combination of Aphrodisias and Pamukkale. Pamuk means cotton, and kale means fortress, and the combination refers to the travertine formations of calcium oxide that the hot springs have deposited on the mountainside, a kind of stone simulacrum of cotton batting below hot mineral pools in which people can swim. This is what the tourists love—a natural wonder, which is not demanding. Sophisticated or simple, there is nothing to do but say “Wow!” in one version or another, and then pay the 2,000 Turkish liras (a little less than a dollar) for the use of a locker so you can change into your bathing suit and take a dip in the tepid and rather crowded pool. It is only the dedicated ruin-maven who will, after the morning at Aphrodisias, forgo the swim and venture to the adjacent precincts of Heiropolis to nose around the sarcaphogi of its impressive necropolis or look for the Arch of Domitian.

Heiropolis is actually a kind of embarrassment. It just happens to be there, near the hot springs and the petrified waterfall they have created. And if even intelligent tourists are somewhat sated by their morning’s experience of Aphrodisias—a more impressive site, after all-and also a little tired now too, that’s hardly the fault of the tour operators. They are in business to make a profit and are trying to fill their buses. 

It is, indeed, a long day. The bus leaves Kusadasi at 6:35 A.M. and doesn’t get back until 7:00 in the evening. But even with this strenuous ness, Aphrodisias is worth seeing. There is a large first-century stadium that can seat 30,000, probably the best preserved stadium of antiquity. There are the remains of a School of Philosophy, an impressive 1,000-seat Odeion, a large and elaborate bath and another smaller one, a couple of agoras ( closed to the public when I was there because the archeologists were working in them), and a late Hellenistic 10,000—seat theater. There is an important Temple to Aphrodite with 14 columns of its peristasis still standing. (The building was modified into a Christian basilica in the fifth century, like that temple/church in Syracuse.) There are curious columns with spiral flutings, a stone-work style peculiar to this city. It is an impressive site, with a horizon shaped by mountains in the middle distance from which the white and blue-gray marble of many of the buildings was quarried.

There are a number of impressive pieces of statuary in the museum—but the tour doesn’t allow time for a visit. There is lunch on the schedule and then the drive to Pamukkale, and the most one can do is dart into the museum and snatch a copy of the guide book, which is, in various ways, unsatisfactory. For one thing, the pictures of the sculpture are tantalizing we came all this way and never got to see this? And this? And this? For another, the translation into English is approximate and very Third-World. (“According to mythology Eris, bad ness goddess isn’t invited at feast of gods, at the sweetest moment of the feast he throws an apple with written ‘to the most beautiful goddess.'”) And there’s no way to arrange to stay at Aphrodisias and get picked up on the return leg because the route from Pamukkale back to Kusadasi is on a different road.

Ephesus is homier. It has that wonderful latrine, an 80-hole communal toilet with a fountain and gardens in the middle of it. It has a brothel. It has restored houses. It has those colonnaded streets and that magnificent Library of Celsus. It has a large theater that is still in use—Joan Baez appeared there during the time I was in Turkey. It is also close to the coast and takes only a half-day. (Tour operators, exploiting this opportunity, tack on a visit to Sultankoy, a crafts center up the road, where high-pressure Bazaar 54 borax artists try to sell the rubberneckers carpets at shamelessly inflated prices. And Bazaar 54 is owned by a consortium of tour guides!) For all these reasons, Ephesus is the standard offering and Aphrodisias is not.

But that is one of the reasons for going there. It isn’t the actual buildings that people come to see. It is some thing subtle and perhaps even irrelevant that we try to get from them as we climb the uneven tracks and think vague thoughts about their age. It may be that these evidences of human habitation, having survived so long, offer a kind of hope, some implicit suggestion that, if our civilization has been under way for a couple of thousand years, it may be hardy enough to survive for a couple of thousand more. Or pessimists may take a darker and more vertiginous view, figuring that if a city as large and handsome and powerful as one of these can go under, what assurance can there be for Des Moines or Tuscaloosa? Or we may just come to a place like this to say we have been there. I remember a pair of English men across the aisle from me in the bus on the tour to Aphrodisias. The next day they were going to take the ferry over to Samos. “So that there’ll be yet another island to tick off the list,” one of them remarked with elegant languor and, I suspect, with as much truth as irony.