Bodrum is not just another pretty place. While it is indeed a fashionable resort town on the Mediterranean, with a harbor dancing with flotillas of pleasure craft, it also has deep ties to antiquity.
Most prominent is the captivating castle that sits on a promontory at the tip of a small peninsula bisecting the harbor. When the crusading Knights of St. John arrived from Rhodes in 1402 in search of a new stronghold, this spot seemed ideal. The builders (who, for their efforts, were guaranteed a place in heaven by papal decree) created a fairytale five- tower structure incorporating local stone and scavenged marble from the ruins of the once-magnificent Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, a short distance away.
Each of the five towers is named for a home country of the knights — England, France, Germany, Spain and Italy — with appropriate coats of arms such as those of the Plantagenets and d'Aubussons. I especially liked the English tower, marked on its western façade with the carved relief of a lion above which rests the coat of arms of King Henry IV. Inside were emblems and representations of lions, including some forlornly threadbare trophy heads. I particularly appreciated the inlaid names and dates by the recessed windows, carved by soldiers who I like to believe were gazing out at sea, remembering home.
The castle deserves a visit in its own right, but it appealed all the more to me as the home of the excellent Museum of Underwater Archaeology. Effectively incorporated into the castle's chapel, galleries and vaults, the museum's exhibits offer tantalizing insights into the rich maritime history of the eastern Mediterranean and Aegean.
The best place to begin is in the castle's courtyard. One wall has a large map of the region showing ancient cities and the sites of notable shipwrecks, and there are displays of amphorae (elegant, vase-like ceramic containers) and other vessels used to transport goods. Just across the courtyard, in the chapel, the front third of a seventh-century Roman ship has been fully restored so that you can mount the deck (angled to suggest that it is cresting a wave) and survey displays of cargo.
Among the museum's most valuable holdings are the recovered remains of the world's oldest known wreck, from the 14th century B.C., which impressed me with the sophistication of its design, demonstrating the prowess of shipbuilders even then. Striking me even more, speaking perhaps to the child in me who has never tired of museum dioramas, was the cutaway of a cargo ship showing in detail how amphorae and other pieces of cargo were arranged in the holds to maximize space. There is an extraordinary collection of ethereal glass bowls, cups and flasks that have been recovered intact. When you consider the conditions that would sink a ship, to say nothing of centuries of immersion, their survival seems miraculous. Even more surprising is the delicate artistry of these pieces — some almost paper-thin, others with swirls, curves and colors that could compete with many Venetian enterprises. In addition to these glass masterpieces, you can gaze upon jewelry, statuary and even a gold scarab that once belonged to Egypt's legendary Nefertiti.
The knowledge that I would soon be sailing the same waters once traversed by these ships sharpened my interest in everything I saw, and certainly added to my appreciation of our journey on the Sea Cloud II. Even without that added benefit, I found this institution fascinating, well-organized and certainly worth a solid morning of engaged browsing, made all the more compelling by its historic setting in Bodrum Castle.
Museum of Underwater Archaeology Admission is 10 Turkish lira ($5.63), with a supplemental fee of 5 lira to enter the oldest shipwreck hall. This hall is closed between 12 p.m. and 2 p.m., and the entire museum is closed on Mondays.