Ephesus – 03

Chapter Three

“Murri, fresh murri”, the stallholder called, waving his hands to draw attention to the jars of thick brown fluid stacked up on his table, the strong smell of the fermented barley sauce wafting across the street. Photius’ stomach growled, they hadn’t eaten breakfast yet, being too excited at entering the city. He could really go for a steaming baked fish drenched in strong murri sauce, though he knew his stomach would pay for it later. There, he noticed a tavern, its door wide open onto the street, people crowding the entrance. He could stop for breakfast, a cup of wine, a grilled fish or a thick sphongata omelette. But he shook his head and pushed on, the Bishop was waiting.

Cries of “plakountos” came to him carried by the scents of hot layered-honey cakes. He found his feet carrying over to the stall without thinking. Before he could change his mind he pushed forward through the crowd, a small roll of copper coins in his hand. The cake-seller palmed the leather coinroll deftly as he dropped a small plakountos square wrapped in a fig leaf into Photius’ hand. The deacon bit into the treat, eyes almost closed with pleasure, hot honey dripping down his chin. Almost as good as old Armin’s cakes back in Constantinople, he thought, the dough layers slightly thicker than back home, and perhaps not enough cheese layered amongst the honey, but otherwise perfect.

But the sweet cake only whetted his appetite rather than satisfied him. As he pushed on his eyes were increasingly caught by the food stands and market stalls along the arcade. Fish, freshly caught that morning, broiling over an open fire, a covered pot bubbling with scents of herb and garlic, a table groaning with bread, still steaming from the oven, fig leaves, wrapped around shreds of meat, stuffed zucchini and grape leaves, almonds roasting in pans. Figs, eggs, cheeses, chestnuts, apples laid out for sale to the morning rush. 

The arcade was lined with open-fronted shops, each one with a sign brightly painted to catch the eye and advertise their wares. A bright red amphora on a wooden board cried out to the thirsty, and a blue fish with bright silver scales carefully etched upon it called loudly to the hungry. Along the stretch of the arcade, every twenty paces, a great statue stood, posed upon a pedestal, each twice-life size, each painted in realistic colours, their faces pale brown or dark pink, or ruddy, their eyes bright, their robes brightly decorated with the most incredible patterns and figures, bright scarlet cloaks proclaimed a famous general, and antique togas, gleaming white with its instantly recognisable deep red stripe proclaimed the consuls of an older and more sedate age.

Halfway along the Arcade, larger than any of the others, was the grand figure of the man who’d given the Arcade its name, the Emperor who had built it and restored much of the city, Arcadius. He was dressed in elaborate armour as a military general, holding his short staff of authority in his outstretched right hand, and his left grasping firmly the hilt of his sword. His military cloak about his shoulders was imperial purple, the colour that was so dark and rich as to be almost black, the only statue adorned so.

Among these larger-than-life statues ruddy-faced women in rough-spun tunics pushed for space among pale-skinned ladies with flowing dalmaticas. Photius looked with envy at the wide-sleeved unbelted dalmaticas, they seemed much cooler than his own tight-girted sticharion. Short-tuniced men with calloused hands and sun-darkened faces rubbed shoulders with powdered and oiled young dandies in the finest silk paenulas, worn loose about their shoulders. They were all here for the same reason, to escape the sticky heat and oil-smoke of their apartments for the summer sunshine, to browse the new goods on sale, to greet their neighbours and friends, to gawk at the newcomers fresh from the boats, to fill their baskets and spend their coin.  

Every one of them was hungry, thirsty, eager for something savoury to fill their bellies or something sweet to whet their appetite, for a cool drink to wash the wool of sleep from their tongue, or a sweet wine to celebrate the day. Stall holders cried for their attention, pushing cakes and pastries, loaves and cheeses out at the milling crowds, and tavern owners ushered people into their cooler rooms to sit and spend, and eat. And through it all, like blood in the veins, rolls of coin flowed like water from pocket to pocket, from hand to hand as people ate and drank their fill.

Photius pushed forward, like a salmon against the current, trying to fight his way upstream into the city, as crowds poured from their apartments down the arcade to the harbour and its waterfront shops and stalls. He anxiously scanned the shop signs for any hint of a litter-service. But this was the wrong place, he realised. As he made his way up the arcade approaching the gates into the inner city, he worried he was getting further away from his goal. Perhaps the litter-runners were more likely to be down at the waterside than up here. He thought he should go back.

Photius was just trying to manoeuvre himself into a space between two stalls where he could turn around without getting in anyone’s way when he noticed a face that looked familiar. He craned his neck to see clearer, cursing his short height. The face of the dark-haired man he saw was clear, even though the crowd.

“Domus”, Photius called. “Domus, over here.” And he pushed forward, waving frantically. The last he’d seen of the man was in Constantinople, several years ago now, visiting with his Bishop, Anastasius of Tenedos. Photius remembered that Tenedos was closer to Ephesus than Constantinople, they’d sailed past it as they left the Dardenelles. So it made sense that Domus and his Bishop would be here before them.

“Domus,” he cried, and finally the man turned and saw Photius approach. His face was wary, suspicious, set in such a hard, narrow look that Photius almost stopped in his tracks. But then recognition dawned upon the man, and he broke into a wide grin.

“Photius!” he cried, and stepped forward to embrace him. “How long has it been?” He reached out and grabbed Photius for an embrace with both arms.

“Where’s your Lord Bishop?” Photius managed, crushed against his friend’s barrel-like chest. The man had been a bricklayer before entering the Church, and though those years were long behind him, he was still as thick-limbed and solidly built as one of his own constructions.

“Anastasius?” Domus answered, releasing the smaller man. “Back at our rooms, bent over his letters as usual. I don’t think he’s seen the sun since we got here. Not that he ever saw much of it at Tenedos.”

“I remember,” Photius smiled. “Ink-stained fingers, and a distracted expression.”

“That’s him,” his friend laughed. “Or was at least. Not so distracted these days though. Like a dog at a bone over the last year.”

“Aren’t we all these days.” Photius sighed. “It’s like the whole Church has sat on an ants nest and leapt up to scratch.”

“Ha!” Domus grinned. “I get that all right.” He grabbed Photius around the shoulders and hauled him out of the packed crowd to a quieter spot beside a pillar. “And talking of which, where’s your own master?” he asked. “The scratcher-in-chief himself.”

“Back at the docks”, Photius looked embarrassed. “We’ve just arrived.”

“What, and no one to meet him?” he exclaimed. “Well, the city’s in chaos at the moment of course, but still…” An angry expression flashed over his eyes. “I’m afraid this may be a sign.”

“What do you mean?”

“Never mind.” He answered quickly. “Let’s get the Lord Bishop out of the dust and settled up somewhere. Have you lodgings?”

“We’ve been in contact with a certain senator in Constantinople, Adrianus. He has a villa here, and promised we could use it. I have his letter…”

“Of course, of course, do you know the road?”

“Just off the Curete’s Street, on the slopes by the Agora.”

“I know it well. Come, let’s go rouse some slaves up and get the Bishop into a litter. The docks during the morning rush hour are no place for a man like him to be labouring along in the dirt like us common churchmen.” He slapped Photius’ back companionably, a wide, yet wry grin on his face.

Domnus’ arm around Photius’ shoulders again, he led Photius back down the arcade to the harbour. Domnus grew excited as they walked, expansively pointing out the sights, naming the statues set up along the street, some of which Photius was sure he was making up on the spot. Caught up in the man’s easy manner, Photius found the tension slipping from his back for the first time since he’d seen Ephesus on the horizon.

After Domnus had found a team of litter-carriers taking a break in the shade and convinced them to come out for another trip, they returned to the pier and the barque. Nestorius was still grim-faced, but he was pleased to be getting onto land, and drew himself up and strode firmly down the gangplank to step into the city of Ephesus. 

Nestorius, mindful of his position straddling both the worlds of elite politics and religious piety, was ever cautious in his dress. He rarely wore the shimmering silks and cloth of gold that a man of his power and influence could have been expected to wear. He had donned a rich, but simply-decorated sticharion over his tunic, well made in fine wool, and dyed a rich yellow. It was a respectable garb for a Bishop, though he had brought more elaborate dress for when he wished to make an impression among the wealthy.  Over his sticharion hung his Bishop’s shoulder-cloth, a wide white band hanging in a loop across his breast, each end hanging down from his shoulders. This omophorion was decorated with a simple cross and tassels at its end. Nestorius stepped up on a wooden stool into the litter, and settled himself among the cushions as the slaves grabbed hold of the poles and heaved it onto their shoulders.

Domnus insisted they stop at his own Bishop’s apartments before moving on to the villa off the Curete’s Street. Nestorius was reluctant, but as Domus explained, the senator’s villa would likely be in a rough state, with a skeleton staff of slaves. The rooms would need airing out and there would be no fresh linen on the beds for the Bishop to rest and refresh himself. Anastasius had spare rooms made available to him for guests, his own host was wealthy, and eager to please. There would be fresh bread, fish, and fruit for breakfast. The Bishop himself would be eager to see a friendly face.

It was hard to say no to Domnus, so Nestorius agreed and Domus gave the slaves carrying the litter the address. It was a short enough distance, though it took almost an hour pushing their way through the traffic of wealthy litters, bustling crowds, and laden wagons being hauled by oxen up into the city.

> Chapter Four

Chapter Two <

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