History was always a bit of a no-go area for me at school. Our history teacher was more renowned for his remarkably somnolent lectures, rather than his history teaching abilities. For that reason, amongst others, history was never my favorite subject and instead my interests thrived in other areas, such as biology. However, my jaded view of history was brought to an abrupt end in October of 1998 on Zegrahm's Crossroads of Empires expeditions.
I was appointed as the natural historian on board, as we sailed the eastern Mediterranean and on to the Red Sea. I anticipated several weeks of excellent birding with our group, spotting plenty of Europe's migrant species heading south. Sure enough, the autumn migrants were there in abundance, but to my surprise, I found my focus of attention under siege from a most unexpected quarter.
I remember my historical "Road to Damascus" experience well. Our group was standing in the precincts of the ruined city of Ephesus in the refreshing cool of morning. The hillside was filled with the sweet sound of European robin songs and I was tracking a blackstart through my binoculars. The blackstart alighted on the beautifully preserved portico of the Temple of Artemis. My binoculars focused first on the bird and then on its perch of exquisite carvings, looking as fresh as if they had been carved yesterday. The blackstart flew off, but I remained fixated on that remarkable building, spending the next half an hour marveling at its extraordinary form. Luckily, we saw plenty of blackstarts later on in the trip, but the Temple of Artemis (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) was truly one of a kind.
Aided, as ever, by our excellent team of lecturers, my historical interest in this remarkable region burgeoned. During the course of the voyage, it became apparent that even though we were covering comparatively small distances, the cultural distance that we were traversing was truly huge. It was as if we were traveling through an area that had borne witness to a cultural big bang -- the birth of the modern cultural universe.
A combination of rich natural resources, superb climate, geographical location, and the beautiful Mediterranean Sea nurtured a succession of empires in this cradle of civilization, including the Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders, Minoans, and Ottomans. Today, the same reasons that attracted these empire-builders still lure curious explorers to this area's fabled shores.
Another surprising transformation took place on the past Crossroads voyage. I am not usually a shopper. Those of you who have traveled with me know that if there is shopping to be done, I'll be found leading a birding walk somewhere else. But how could I resist the lure of a shopping trip through a souq? It is an experience that accosts all (and I mean all) of your senses. I emerged from my first souq with a Bedouin rug that weighed 14 pounds and smelled of goats. My airline luggage allowance has never been so stretched!
In a world where history is increasingly separated from everyday life by fences and tariffs, a journey through the Mediterranean offers a chance to visit a part of the world where many historical monuments are real, living buildings still used and cherished by the local people. The ancient Lycian fort overlooking the lagoon at Kekova is a fine example. Our evening walk up the hillside took us along dusty paths and tracks where lizards scuttled out of our way. We reached the ancient village of red-roofed stone houses, in the middle of which stood the fort, a playground for local children, and grazing grounds for the ubiquitous goats. As we rested on sun-warmed stone fortifications, our twilight view was inspirational: our sailing vessel lay illuminated in the lagoon below, whilst lamps began to alight in the windows of houses, crickets chirped, and geckos emerged from the cracks in the walls to scamper after drowsy insects. The scene was timeless.
There seem to be few places in the world where such a sense of continuity between the historical past and the present day exists. But here in this cradle of civilization, history interweaves itself into modern daily life.