Touching the past – Turkey can give you a personal encounter with history.

“It was amazing, we could go where we liked, we actually touch stuff!” said one guest to me the other week after a day at Ephesus.

As they had recently come from Paris where touching the treasures is forbidden and people snake in strictly marshalled queues for an impersonal brief encounter with one of the treasures of the world Ephesus was like a breath of fresh air to them. They had wandered the ruins, explored the Library of Celsus and scrambled over the ancient stones of the Agora and the Amphitheatre and revelled in the freedom to be part of the artefact, experience it as individuals in a unique way.

Turkey is like that, it is the ancient world up close and personal, and it can give you an encounter with history that becomes deeply personal and memorable because it happens without security lights and heavy protective glass and the drone of commentary and if you are lucky and pick your times, it can give you solitude to drink in the experience.

Goreme Open Air Museum under autumn skies

I remember one autumn afternoon in Cappadocia, the summer heat had boiled away into the apple sharp crispness of a perfect October day. Under a cerulean sky the last of the tourist crowds were doing the rounds of the Hittite subterranean villages and day’s ballooning expeditions had all landed safely when we went to Goreme and the open air museum to see the frescos in the Dark Church.

Amongst the lower, more accessible, fairy chimneys and cave churches small groups were being given the ten cent tour by strident guides but up at the cave that houses the Dark Church all was quiet. For an hour I sat in there amongst fresco’s painted a thousand years ago. Hidden away in the darkness, originally preserved under layers of pigeon guano (five centuries of being used as a pigeon loft does save a lot of sun damage!) and hidden from the light the fresco’s look like they were painted yesterday. Rich blues and saffron yellow, glowing red and clean white, a generations worth of byzantine art in a small cave in Turkey. And I got to enjoy them in total peace.

Crucifixion fresco from Dark Church Goreme

Nobody jostled me as I looked up at Archangel Gabriel, wings spread, announcing the imminent coming of Christ. Archangel Michael looked down sternly, flaming sword in hand, protecting the frescos, looking ready to step off the wall for some serious smiting.

You can take the girl out of Catholicism but you can’t take Catholicism out of the girl and I know what I am looking at as surely as I know that two and two equals four. I see the story across the walls because I was brought up with it and the symbolism and the beauty still fascinates even through doctrine’s hold has faded away.

Alone in that cave, lit by a patch of white sunlight from a tiny oculus, with the smell of hot dust and dried sage wafting from the rocks outside you touch history. You feel it all around you, whispering to you, and nobody moves you on and nobody ruins your contemplation as you feel your way into the past and the people who built it.

Fresco from the Dark Church Goreme

But you can’t do it every day at the big and important sites. You have to pick your moment in time to find peace amongst history. Travel independently, make your own itinerary, if you hire a guide make him give you space to experience things alone. Visit Ephesus in autumn and spring, especially spring, when the wild flowers bloom amongst the tumbled marble and the first swallows swoop over the Library of Celcus. Visit Cappadocia in the autumn when the heat haze has cleared and the light is crystal clear. Go early in the morning to Pammukale to see the sunrise light on the cotton candy stone. Kayak over the ruins of sunken Kekova in May before the summer winds ruffle the water and the sunlight blinds the eyes to depth. Pick your time and you will get a peace and quiet to touch the history in Turkey.

We dug this out of the garden, it's now embedded in my house wall

And when the main sites are heaving with tourists in high season Turkey can still offer you a chance to personally touch the ancient world. All around you are markers of lost civilisations. I have a piece of roman column embedded in the walls of my house; we pulled it out of the hole that we dug for the pool. It was 1.5metres down, a single piece, no doubt salvaged from Ephesus at some point for a more prosaic use by the old goat herder who originally lived here a century or so ago. Beside my pool I have half of an old stone bowl that I pulled out of the waters off the Millipark, polished smooth and lichen patched I stroke it every day as I water the geraniums and wonder who owned it and how it got there.

The fragment of old bowl we found diving at the Millipark

I keep meaning to go back and find the other half, but no rush, it will probably still be there in a decade or so, part of a landscape of history, just like the rest of Turkey.