Queen of the Crapsellers

by wjw on July 15, 2009

Flashing back now to April 12, when we came booming up from Bodrum to our base at Selcuk, on the way looking at places like Eurotas and Herakleia, then going in search of Apollo’s temple at Didyma.

Signage sent us astray. It turns out that Didyma is not precisely exactly quite the same city as the modern Turkish Didim, which is an overdeveloped seaside resort community. We drove through this town several times looking for directions to the Apollonium, then went farther into the country, where we encountered tractor-loads of entire Turkish families going out into the fields for . . . whatever . . . maybe a picnic. Despite driving a piece of farm equipment, the paterfamilias was always well-dressed, complete with a jacket— the Turkish male generally has a good sense of style, as does the female, at least if she’s not adopted form-concealing Islamic clothing.

Eventually we followed signs to something called the “Apollonium,” which turned out to be the prefabricated headquarters of an as-yet-unbuilt resort development. “Don’t forget your cameras!” I said as we drove into the parking lot.

On our way back we had a pleasant lunch on the terrace of a local restaurant, overlooking the Aegean.

We gave up and headed north, but then found on our way to the other Didim, the town built around the old Temple, across the bay and inland from the modern ocean paradise.

The Apollo temple was the second-most-important oracle after Delphi. Priestesses fasted for three days, then drank from the sacred spring and prophecied. Unlike the custom at Delphi, the prophecies were actually written down.

The first temple was destroyed by the Persians after the Ionian revolt, and the cult statue carried off to the Persian capital. Alexander donated the money to rebuild the temple, and one of his generals returned the statue.

The temple was never actually finished, which argues that the Miletese city fathers embezzled at least some of Alexander’s money. If it had been finished, it would have been the largest temple of the Greek world, with 122 Ionic columns. The temple structure never had a roof— pilgrims hiked along the 17km Sacred Way from Miletos, then took a tunnel down through the temple foundations into an open courtyard surrounded by massive cyclopean foundations and the enormous Ionian pillars. The sanctuary of the god was at the far side— about the size of a large U-Haul trailer— with a statue of Apollo killing a bear. (Strange, because bears were symbols of his sister Artemis, who had her own sanctuary nearby.)

The temple is freaking enormous— even ruined, with only 3 pillars left standing, it delivers an almost physical impact to the eyeballs. I’ve yet to see a photo that does it justice. Certainly mine don’t.

We slogged to the temple across ground sodden by the sacred spring, which is in front of the temple and still produces water in copious amounts. (The local turtle population is much enhanced.)

The parts of the temple that are finished are highly ornamented, with pictures of gryphons, medusae, bulls, tritons and other fantastic figures, and lots of geometrical decoration including swastikas and scales. The unfinished bits are plain, though still very imposing. Scratched on the walls of the huge inner cell are the actual blueprints to the structure, which would have been polished away once the temple was completed.

After feasting our eyes, and feasting our cameras with interesting bits of detail, we slogged back across the wet ground to the street, where we checked out one of the local souvenir shops. Every monument or public square or place of interest in Turkey features people who want to sell you guidebooks, plates, scarves of “genuine pashmina,” postcards, evil eye pendants, and other junk. At Herakleia we had been chased down by platoons of little old ladies in headscarves and baggy pantaloons (not a flattering fashion choice, by the way). We had taken to calling these people “crapsellers,” because most of them were offloading stuff that no one would actually want. (A crapseller is distinct from a merchant selling something you might actually care to buy.)

Little did we know that in Didyma we would encounter the Queen of the Crapsellers. Her store was loaded not only with useless junk from all over Turkey, but from all over the world! There were cheap ceramic pyramids from Egypt, statuettes of jazz musicians from New Orleans, miniature replicas of the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building, ceramics of Chinese sages, hand-painted toy Roman legionaries— tons of stuff that no one in their right mind would come to Turkey to buy! We were particularly struck by an evil eye pendant featuring Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, which Melinda really wanted. Ataturk’s aspect was really eerie, with his light blue eyes staring out at the world, but Melinda couldn’t talk the Queen into dropping her price to something like the object’s real value (which, to be honest, would have been zero).
I decided that the supernatural had not yet forsaken Didyma, that the shop of the Queen of the Crapsellers was some kind of unnatural cthonian apparition sprung from the sacred soil. Perhaps we should have asked the Queen our questions, and written down the answers. But what would she have asked in return? Would she demand that we buy her junk?

Perhaps the price would have been too high to pay.

Sean Craven July 16, 2009 at 2:49 am

She sounds like one of the Devourers from Leiber's Bazaar of the Bizarre…

(And holy smokes — my captcha word for this comment? Sorcesse… That's a bit spooky.)

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