13 August 2005

Niobe is still crying

In June 2004, a few days before departing for Turkey for a land snail expedition, I picked up George Bean's classic Aegean Turkey. I had planned field trips on the mountains between Izmir and Manisa (ancient Magnesia) and wanted to get an idea of what ancient stuff we might run into besides snail shells. Rather than well-known ruins of Greek cities that are the favorites of ordinary tourists, I was more interested in isolated, largely forgotten bits and fragments of history and Bean had a generous list of those along with photographs or drawings. One such site, actually a natural rock formation said to resemble a sorrowful woman, Niobe to be exact, was supposed to be on Mt. Sipylus at the outskirts of Manisa.

In Greek mythology Niobe was Tantalus's daughter. After she insulted goddess Leto by bragging over the fact that she had 14 children, while Leto only two, the latter sent her children, Artemis and Apollo, to kill those of Niobe, which they did. Upon seeing this, horrified Niobe escaped to Mt. Sipylus where she turned into stone and a stream formed from her tears.

Bean tells us that until the late 1930s, a rock carving east of Manisa had been identified as Niobe1, before H. T. Bossert located a large rock in the shape of a woman's head closer to Manisa and concluded that it matched the ancient descriptions better.

A couple of weeks later, having finished our snail survey of Mt. Sipylus, we were driving down the mountain to Manisa when we spotted some limestone outcrops at the far end of what appeared to be a crude parking lot alongside the road. We decided to stop and look for snails for the last time―even though the stop before this one had meant to be the last one. A trail alongside a cliff led us to a deep ravine at the bottom of which was a feeble stream barely flowing towards the ruins of an old watermill. About 20 minutes later we were walking back to the car with a bag of snail shells and I had just finished entering the GPS coordinates into my notebook when I looked up ahead of me. Suddenly, one of the photographs I had seen in Bean flashed before my eyes. There was no mistaking it, it was Niobe in front of me, still recognizable after all these thousands of years and still sorrowful2.

Click for a larger picture. Manisa is in the background. The "theater" in the foreground is a modern eyesore.

1. Some apparently still associate Niobe with this carving.
2. An account of another traveler's visit to the site of Niobe is

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