Dispatch from Turkey and Jordan: How soil affects civilizations

June 08, 2007

In a series of dispatches produced by Research Penn State magazine, Josh Ambrose, a recent Penn State graduate from the Department of English in the College of Liberal Arts, writes from the Middle East while exploring soils of ancient and modern civilizations. Ambrose and five classmates will spend four weeks traveling Turkey and Jordan with Kate Butler, senior lecturer in soil science. Stay tuned for dispatches as Ambrose discovers and describes the relationship between soils and society.

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Dispatch 3: Ephesus and Troy, Turkey

One of the main premises of the Soils 497H course that sponsored this trip is that soil affects civilizations and civilizations, in turn, affect the environment around them. Yesterday, we saw a perfect example of this premise in the dramatic ruins of Ephesus. Wandering around the classical ruins of the bygone city, once over two hundred and fifty thousand strong, the barrenness of what was once a thriving harbor-side metropolis was hard to ignore, even amongst throngs of photo-snapping tourists. What had happened?

Settled centuries before Christ, the city's deep harbor and strategic location on the Aegean Sea helped bring it to prominence as a powerful city-state from the time of the early Hittites up through the impressive reign of the Roman Empire. It was at Ephesus that the Christian apostle Paul provoked a riot in defense of the cult of Artemis. And it was at Ephesus that the disciple John was rumored to have retired with Mary, the mother of Christ, during what would have been the most prosperous and populous period of the city's history. With an extensive sewer system, meandering piping bringing central heating to the wealthy, and a library, amphitheatre, and arena to rival any in Italy, the Romans took advantage of the harbor and the fertile valleys around Ephesus to build up a truly extensive city-state. As we walked over the ancient quarried stones and joined with the wide-eyed tourists from around the globe, it was impossible not to be impressed by the testament of tall marble columns and the mystery of half-eroded statues of gods and generals.

Yet their grandeur was not realized without significant cost to the beautiful environment around the sprawling city. As Ephesus continued to expand and grow upwards, the mountainsides and riverbanks increasingly eroded by deforestation and over-zealous development. As the once-fertile soil around the city slipped into the sea, the harbor steadily filled in, despite persistent dredging efforts of its governors and, eventually, the oversight of the Byzantium Empire. As Arab militants repeatedly assaulted the city in the eighth century AD, its dwindling population finally gave up the fight and moved out. By that time, the once close Aegean Sea was separated from the paved roads and extensive shop systems by several kilometers of firm earth. When we looked in the direction of the sea, orchards and farm roads met our gaze. While the land was ultimately able to bounce back from its one-time abuse, the costly lesson was still clear as we looked out from the crumbling ruins of a civilization at the sparsely-populated, eye-catching, countryside around us.

The day before our trip to Troy, we had taken an afternoon off from study and rented cheap motorbikes. Braving a chill rain, we rode throughout our nearby hamlet of Selchuk, noting the farmers' tractors parked outside the low-lying roofs of their white-washed homes. As twilight fell, we drove up a mountainside, where women in scarves filled plastic bottles from a high road-side spring that used to feed far-off Ephesus' aqueduct. The sun set--amazing purple and yellow light over the orchards below us--and in the idyllic scene, horses crunched on grass in a nearby pasture. We drank in the uncluttered scene. That the land today was green and the people content seemed to be a fair assessment. Yet I couldn't help to compare it to the farms we had visited earlier in the week, increasingly threatened by large-scale land-holdings and dangerously affected resources. What would be the fate here as it is so many other places in our world, if the local population exploded once more? Back home in United States, our own country's small-scale farmers are increasingly facing similar challenges as we increasingly import our groceries and buy our food from large corporations. From what history has told us, proper management and respect for the land and resources we all utilize is absolutely essential.

Today we observed soil in an entirely different manner as we explored the ruins of what is popularly believed to Troy. An ancient grassy mound or "tell," early excavations began in the mid-nineteenth century. While little remains were found to definitively pinpoint its authenticity as the city that Homer wrote about in the Illiad, the differing layers of soil were found to show nine distinctive time periods in the city's development. Layer six or seven is now believed to be the one that hosted the famous battles over treacherous love, marked by heroic feats and military cunning. Today, all that remains of former ambition are some salvaged bricks and metal artifacts, wild wheat now growing in and around the ruins. As elsewhere in our travels, clusters of grape vines and groupings of olive trees dot the landscape below the ruins. The beauty and promise of Turkey's resources continues to impress us at every step. It is our hope that her farmers--and the powers of society the world over--continue to grow in their appreciation for the wealth beneath their feet.

As we head to Istanbul tomorrow morning, we are excited to see the Haggia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and a few other notable sites of one of the east's most historic and revered cities. Then, in less than forty-eight hours, it's off to Jordan. As we go along, we continue to look forward to encountering cultural situations far outside of our normal realm of experience and worldview. Additionally, we look forward to observing the arid soil and climate of Jordan, where we will see first-hand the numerous creative ways that both farmers and citizens alike value and utilize one of their most valuable resources--water, the most necessary of all resources for all forms of life.


See additional photos and previous dispatches at http://www.rps.psu.edu/undergrad/ambroseintro.html online.

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  • IMAGE: Ken Dennis

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