Finding gold in Turkey

A stay among remote mountain villagers unearths life-changing riches.


Maxine Rose Schur
January 8, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

At night, when the dishwasher churns downstairs and Stephen sleeps in bed beside me, images come unbidden. Pictures appear and recede, tumble and shift as if badly set in an album. They are the sometimes surprising and sometimes familiar images that only my brain can summon -- mind-photos. Unlike real photographs, posed and pale and partial, mind-photos replicate the real -- what is most real. When they appear to us persistent and unsought, they remind us who we are -- what matters to us. When we die, our mind-photos die with us.

That is why I write about Keben.

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I write about Keben because the picture of this Turkish mountain village has come to me over the years like flute song across a mountain valley. I'm not asleep when I see the vertical village clutching a mountain cliff. A hamlet so isolated that as late as 1972, the inhabitants had never heard of America and in their frustration, asked, "Who is your king?"

We were staying near Silifke, in a tiny Mediterranean fishing village with our newfound friend Huseyn and his wife Eminou, her mother and their two sons, Mustafa, age 4 and Ey|p, nearly 2. It was Huseyn's idea to travel to Keben when Ramadan drew to a close. In Keben we would visit Eminou's family and celebrate Bayram, the culminating feast of this holy period. One morning, Huseyn announced, "Tomorrow we will go to Keben. We will be stoop-id [his amusing way of saying "stopped"] there."

The trip preparation was intense. Huseyn and Stephen fished all day and caught a large bag of mullet and sea bass to bring as gifts. I helped Eminou make an extra vat of yogurt. Then, with several trips to the village pump, she filled the cauldron with water and hung it over the fire. When it was warm, we carried it into the storeroom and there she and I sat on little wooden stools and splashed our naked bodies with the water, scooping it out of the cauldron with hollow gourds. We soaped ourselves luxuriously with the soft white soap she had made from olive oil. Afterward, we put on our baggy trousers and sweaters and combed our wet hair by the fire. Now we were clean enough to visit Keben.

What with making the bread and the yogurt, the packing of it and packing the green olives and the clothes and the coverlets and of course, the bonjuk beading so hands wouldn't be idle -- what with all this activity, it was noon before we left.

Huseyn, Stephen, Eminou, her mother, little Mustafa and Ey|p and I settled into our VW van. We drove north into the Taurus mountains, winding along the narrow muddy roads. Several times we had to push the van out of the mud. At one point on the journey, Huseyn yelled, "You are stoop-id here!" We screeched to a halt at the side of the mountain where an overgrown footpath led upwards. He took his rifle and beckoned us to follow.

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Leaving the others in the car, Stephen and I trudged up the path for about 10 minutes, not understanding why or where we were going until we reached a bluff. "Look!" Huseyn pointed up to a sheer cliff wall that held three enormous Hittite reliefs, each more than 30 feet high.

The sight of the magnificent carvings looming above us was breathtaking. Each carving was in profile. One was of a man, perhaps a priest in a long robe, with a long curly beard and wearing a tall cone-shaped hat. The second was even larger and showed a warrior in a short tunic with a spear. The third carving was the most beautiful -- a woman in a pleated gown with a sort of fan-shaped hat. Her arm was raised, pointing to something in the distance.

"The lady," Huseyn explained solemnly, "she is pointing to the ducks."

While we were still standing awestruck by this hidden treasure, he walked to the edge of the plateau where we could no longer see him -- but could hear the reverberating mountain echoes of his gunshots.

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After a little while, Huseyn ran back, grinning. "No ducks today. We are going!"

Our van groaned up the tortuous road. As it climbed we could look far across the land. We saw pastures and tributaries of the Gvksu River in the shadowed valleys. By a stream, we stopped for a lunch of cheese and bread. Then we wound higher and higher until, in the red glimmer of dusk, we rounded a hairpin bend to see above us several waterfalls pouring over a cliff. As if mimicking the waterfalls, houses built of rocks or carved out of the mountain tumbled down the cliff -- a flowing cascade of homes. From crevices in the mountainside rose delicate dwarf pines the pale green color of sage.

This was Keben.

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Stephen drove the van up to the center of the village where we parked in front of a small pink mosque. A flock of children ran out to greet us with stares and giggles. They were extremely interested in Stephen and me -- our strange coats, our shoes, our language.

"Whoosh! Whoosh!" Eminou's brother, Ali, approached, shooing the children away like pigeons. Ali had deep, slanted black eyes, a big, bushy black mustache and a thick nose and mouth. Like Eminou, he was plump and cheerful.

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There were hugs and tears as Eminou and her mother stepped out of the bus. The women went ahead to the house but surprisingly, Ali led us toward the mosque. We went in through a side door where there was a large bare room with men sitting about drinking tea.

Ali addressed them, and Huseyn translated. Ali told the men in the room and in particular the small group of elderly men huddled by the stove, that we were guests of his to be treated with respect and hospitality. The men sat listening seriously and when he had finished, they asked questions which only frustrated them as they were ignorant of the United States. Only a few had even heard that it existed and even they were not sure where it was.

They asked questions about the land we came from, the name of our king, whether you could see the ocean, the price of brides and the price of good wool sheep. After we had answered as best we could, the elders announced that we were the responsibility of every soul there, to be protected against harm. We were, they said, guests of the village.

We thanked them, then Ali led us out of the mosque along a path that was so narrow we had to walk single file in the now-dim light. "My friends," Ali said to us as we went, "you are much welcome. You are the first strangers to visit Keben."

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Awed by this honor, we fell suddenly silent. We hopped on rocks across a stream to reach his small house, itself made of rocks. We took off our shoes and entered.

Like so many of the one-room homes we had seen in Turkey, this one was warm and cozy. The bare earth was covered with straw mats overlaid with handmade red and orange carpets. In the room's center, pine wood burned in the fireplace where a large black cauldron hanging on a pole bubbled with stewed vegetables. Long, embroidered white cushions rimmed the walls while above our heads, hanging by ropes, floated a wool cradle holding a sleeping baby.

"Please, please, you are much welcome! Please come, you are sitting!"

We sat against the walls, our backs supported by the cushions. We were introduced to Ali's slim and quiet wife, Melek, and his mother, a tanned, wrinkled woman with three horizontal rows of gleaming gold coins strung across her forehead. Melek sprinkled our hands with rosewater and then we were served a vegetable stew of okra, tomato and eggplant with hot flat bread to soak up the juices. We ate scrambled eggs too, and sipped sweet black tea.

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The warm room made us drowsy. After the children went to sleep, Eminou and Melek and their mothers sat in the corner, chatting and beading bonjuk. In these Turkish homes with no traffic outside and no electric light within, the world vanishes fast, giving the interior an intensity. People appear beautifully posed and illuminated like the holy family in a Baroque nocturne. Lantern and candlelight cast the humblest family in high relief and gild them with grace. Now, in the opposite corner of the room, the glow from the crackling fire made dancing shadows on the joyful faces of Huseyn and Ali.

They were hatching a plan.

Ali reached under his shirt and pulled out something that he cupped in his hand. Huseyn took the lantern from the mantel and placed it on the rug at our feet. Sitting next to us, Ali opened his fist to reveal two coins and said with meaning, "Gold."

The coins did not look golden, but rather a muddy orange-brown. Stephen and I took a closer look. We examined them under the yellow lantern light. Perhaps they were gold; they were very heavy. One of the coins had writing on both sides. On the other coin, one side had been completely rubbed away over time, but the other side showed a profile of a woman in a fan-shaped hat. The edges of the coins were crooked yet the warped shapes made them look really old. They looked real, but we had no clue precisely what they were.

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Ali took back the coins and dropped them into a tiny drawstring pouch that tied around his neck.

"I don't know from where they come," he said. "My grandfather, he give them to me when I am a boy. I don't show them to everybodys."

Ali's black eyes grew bright and it seemed to me that his upturned mustache and his mouth were both smiling together.

"Tomorrow, inshallah," Huseyn said, "we get more gold coins."

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"What are you saying?" Stephen asked.

Huseyn then explained their idea. He told us that the mountains here were rich with Hittite carvings. The Hittites lived well before the Osmanli (Ottoman) reign but now the Hittites are dead. Gone. Their gold, though, must still be here. It must be in these hills and he, Huseyn, knew exactly where it was. Exactly.

"But digging for gold or any archaeological thing in Turkey is not allowed," I ventured.

"You don't think anythings!" Ali crowed. "In this moment we are asking the old men of Keben. We ask them. We ask them to give us donkey!"

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Donkey?

Huseyn and Ali talked in rapid-fire Turkish to each other, then stood up and went out the door. In less than an hour, they returned beaming.

"We are very good. Very good." Ali announced. "The old men say, 'It is not our way to let strangers dig in our mountains.' But we say to them we do not want the gold for us but as gift to the village. We give with everybodys! We say, 'We have only good thinkings.' Now they say yes. They give much tools. They give donkey!"

It was not easy to be quick at three in the morning when the air was so cold that clouds of steam rose from our mouths like speech balloons. Thankfully we did not have to dress as we had slept in our clothes. I just pulled my heavy sheepskin coat over my sweater and jeans.

Outside Ali's home lay two shovels and a pick. Tied to a tree stood a donkey. "You are lady," Ali announced. "You are on donkey."

I didn't argue. We hadn't even started and I was already tired. Sleepy. I wanted to go back to bed. But like so many other times on this trip, I gave in to the small but strong voice inside me that said, "Oh, just go!" I found myself hoisted onto the small gray donkey. Ali and Huseyn gathered up the tools and the food bag and off we went into the blackness.

I felt dizzy on the donkey. It trotted and I bounced up and down. My legs seemed too long for the animal. I found it funny that just like on a bike, I could stop by dragging my feet on the ground.

By the second hour, I was getting sore. I hopped off the poor beast and walked with the others, holding the donkey by a rope like a dog on a leash.

The world was silent and we were silent. We walked slowly in single file up a narrow path. Ali led our party. He wore his cap but no coat, only a short jacket. A mountain man, he was well used to the thin, cold air. Huseyn followed in his heavy coat and his too-long woolen scarf. Every now and then he would pull leaves off the trees and stuff them into his coat pocket. Then came Stephen in his heavy flannel shirt and nylon parka, sometimes turning back to help me up a steep side or to mumble encouragement. The donkey was next with our tools now strapped to his back. He clip-clopped over the rocks in a determined manner, leading me by the rope.

The trail got muddier and steeper. The air was thin and I had to stop often to catch my breath. I could feel blisters forming on my feet and cold seeped through my coat. My teeth chattered when I tried to speak and the words seemed to echo in my mouth. Huseyn called back to us, "We are stoop-id here!"

We sat on rocks to catch our breath. The sun rose and burnished the mountaintops with its fire. Slowly, the air warmed. In this hallowed time we just sat and watched the rising sun color everything. The black shadows gradually became green trees and the navy-blue mountains grew a dusky brown. The air smelled of mint.

After a while, we continued on, up the mountainside until about three hours after we had set out we came to a rocky plateau. Huseyn rummaged in the bag until he found our binoculars. He focused them straight ahead to the other side of the valley.

"Look."

He handed them to us. First Stephen looked, then Ali looked, then I looked. Across the valley, straight in front of us, were the three carved Hittite figures. "The lady," Huseyn explained solemnly, "she is pointing to the gold."

I looked again. We were standing at the exact point to which the goddess -- or priestess or queen or whoever -- was pointing. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. I felt tired and suddenly deflated, yet barely hiding my disappointment, I croaked, "Yesterday you said she was pointing to the ducks."

"Yes! Yes! Sometime I am thinking that! But now I am thinking no. The lady -- she is pointing to the gold."

The cliffs of the plateau were carved with rectangular niches that most likely were ancient graves. There was also a small, shallow cave and outside, a boulder that perhaps had once shut up the cave but now stood sentinel in front. Huseyn declared that the cave was a tomb as well and that the gold was inside it -- this was, he said, exactly where the lady was pointing.

About six yards to the left of the niches was an Alice-in-Wonderland door no more than 4 feet high. This interested me more than the cave. I wondered why there would be a door inside a mountain? Huseyn led us there. He pushed the creaky wood door open and gestured me inside -- a little room! A tiny shelter made from the natural cave inside the mountain wall. Inside was a fireplace where blackened sheep bones and a couple of pots lay among the ashes. A wooden bed piled with hay and a horse blanket ran along one wall. On a crude wood table in the corner stood an oil lamp. Strings of garlic dangled like party streamers from the ceiling. The floor was straw-covered earth.

"It is belonging to the shepherd," Huseyn said. Then, sensing my uneasiness, he added, "You are not thinking anythings. Ali knows the shepherd. In this moment he is far away with sheep."

Huseyn went to the bed, fluffed up the hay and straightened the blanket. "Sleep," he commanded.

I climbed into the crunchy shepherd bed. Every aching muscle cried with relief. The bed was heaven. Huseyn made a fire and, peeling back layers of white cloth, he unwrapped lamb sliced into little pieces. He fried the lamb. "We must be drinking ata chai!" he suddenly crowed, leaving the lamb momentarily to pull out from the pockets of his coat a handful of fuzzy green leaves. Stephen put the kettle on and we drank what the Turks call "special tea," a strong wild mint tea that is fragrant and sweet. After the hot breakfast, I fell asleep, warmed by the food and the dying fire.

I awoke to the syncopated sound of picks hitting rocks. Feeling much better, I opened the tiny door. Stooped over and squinting, I came out into the bright world. Stephen and Ali were hacking the earth inside the cave with picks. Huseyn was digging with the shovel. I grabbed one of the picks and began hacking away alongside the men. But my heart wasn't it. Our tools were pathetic; the soil was dry as bone; as much as we dug, we barely reached a depth of three feet, and incessant digging was hard work that made you sweat. Most of all I was not a believer. I was digging for the fantasy, the idea of digging for gold. But even this reason could motivate me no more than a couple of hours. Then I put the pick down and took a walk along our isolated mountain plateau.

As far as I went, I could still hear the echo of the picks striking hard dirt. I walked to the cliff edge, where I sat down on a rock and looked across the peaceful valley. I was enjoying my solitude. With a twig, I made doodles in the soft earth.

After a while, a very clear melody floated up to me -- a haunting, sweet song played on a flute. I climbed down the side of the hill a short way so that I could see where the song came from, but I could find no one. I could hear the lovely melody clearly, yet could not find the source. I scrambled back up the hillside as the music stopped. I resumed my scribbling in the dirt.

Suddenly my stick hit something hard. Something not a rock. Something that made a thin, hollow sound. I dug the earth with my hands, my nails filling with wet soil, until I pulled out a piece of pottery that felt strong but light in my hand. Brushing away the dirt, I saw it was a pot shard, terra cotta with two black stripes.

For a long while I just held it in my hands. I watched it as if waiting for it to tell me something. I sensed it was very old because it looked like it might have been a fragment of the Greek pottery I had seen in museums. My mind took flight. What did the whole vessel look like? How was it used long ago? Who had used it and when?

Musing, I lost track of time, and when I noticed it was turning cold I wondered did time even exist in the normal way here? Keben seemed caught in time -- an old time. The villagers spoke of the Hittites as if they were some kind of neighbors. Time in these mountains seemed hazy, as if ancient and present could converge. Just holding the pottery shard, I sensed the past drawing near.

Suddenly I was on my knees again burying the relic and wishing with all my heart that we wouldn't find the gold. I walked back toward the cave, and as I went, the music began again, sweet and melancholy. Yet looking out over the valleys, I could see only sheep the size of fleas. I ran back to the shepherd's hut and grabbed the binoculars from our bag, returned to the edge of the plateau and focused them on the flock. Sheep by sheep, I scanned the landscape until I saw him -- a dark-haired boy leaning with his back against a tree. I could make out that he wore the odd Near Eastern rectangular shepherd's cape that is so stiff, angular and without sleeves, it gives the impression of wearing a garment bag. He was playing a flute. The boy was several miles across the valley, yet I could hear his song as strongly as if he were beside me. These mountains seemed truly enchanted.

I returned to the cave with a lighter heart and for another hour we all attacked the hard dry soil. In the late afternoon, Huseyn boiled another pot of ata chai and we sat on rocks outside the cave, drinking the yellow-green brew.

"Madame," Ali said to me when I'd finished, "please, you are turning your glass upside down."

I hesitated.

"Yes, Madame, into your hand."

Having long since ceased to be puzzled by odd commands in Turkey, I obeyed. The few tea drops left in my glass drained through my fingers, leaving my palm with a little clump of damp leaves.

"I am looking at your life," Ali said importantly. With a somber face, he stared at the leaves.

We waited a good while until Ali finally looked up from my messy palm and pulled at his mustache.

"Well?" I asked.

"You are having a very big life," he said carefully. "But I am sorry ..."

"Sorry for what?" I asked, alarmed.

"I am sorry, very sorry -- you will not find the gold."

For some reason, we thought this was very funny. We laughed -- even the donkey grunted into his feedbag -- and at that moment I had the delicious sensation that we were a company of happy fools.

By the time we arrived back in Keben, the gold light of oil lamps could be seen through the windows of all the homes and smoke was ghosting from the chimneys.

The next morning a crescent moon in the pink sky announced Bayram. The people of Keben woke early to pray at the mosque. That day, the women looked especially beautiful. They wore their brightest clothes and their gold bangles and even the youngest girl rimmed her eyes with black wax paint.

Returning home from the mosque, Ali said a swift prayer, then with a small, sharp knife, he slit the throat of the lamb tied up at his door. It was the day of tender slaughter. The children watched evenly as he laid the wool across a branch of an olive tree and hung the steaming offal on another. Then he placed the meat in several large enamel bowls and carried them into the house. After the grandmother of the golden coins sliced the lamb, the women took turns grilling it on a great round griddle in the fireplace. It seemed to be an enormous amount of meat. All morning the fat dripped into the fire, making the little house crackle and pop with the sound of sizzling.

When it was my turn, I was so hungry I longed to taste a piece, but I resisted the temptation. Turkish women always cared for others before themselves, and I had come to feel a close bond with these women who spoke and dressed and lived so differently from me. Tasting the meat would have set me apart; I could not break that bond for a piece of meat.

When the entire lamb was at last cooked and seasoned with sage, rosemary and salt, we left the house together as one family. We took the meat in wide pottery bowls to all the neighbors -- from the very highest to the very lowest dwelling in the cliff-rim village. We carried the food and Melek carried her baby as we picked our way across the narrow mountain streams that had now turned pink with the blood from washed offal. We made a procession among processions that day.

Each family in Keben had killed and cooked a lamb and Bayram could not end until each family had eaten a bit of every other family's lamb. Only in this way would the village food be truly shared. All day we knocked at little splintery doors, took off our shoes and entered smiling and chattering, our arms laden with lamb.

We jostled and bumped up against coin-decorated grandmothers, olive-eyed children, toothy young men and shy, holiday-eye girls. The wonder of it was that in every home the people looked upon us as marvelous explorers. Our dilettante treasure hunt was interpreted by the villagers as brave and informed. In each home there ensued serious discussion on where the gold really might be, the immoral ways of the ancients, the relative merits of picks versus shovels and the signification of carved archaeological figures on hunting ducks, fishing, planting crops and finding gold.

The smallest children had their own view of us. When we entered they lined up to bow, kiss our hands, then touch their foreheads to emphasize the honor of meeting strangers from so far away. After this ritual, they huddled in corners giggling and exchanging bright pink sugar candies which they cracked hard between their little teeth.

In the late afternoon, when Bayram had drawn to a contented close, Stephen and I left our hosts and took a walk along the top of the village. Pine needles crunched under our boots. The sun, dropping quickly from the sky, gave the cold air a misty glow. We walked a couple of miles beyond the village and stood at the edge of a cliff where we could see far across the hilltops.

We were both feeling strange but neither of us spoke. The waterfalls created a background music around us and a close moon hung low above us as if it were the village's personal planet. In these moments, this small, true place seemed then and always.

But as night closed in and before we turned to make our way back down the path, we noticed that below, at the Gvksu River, construction had already begun. People in faraway Ankara were changing things. With our binoculars we made out some huge steel towers on concrete pilings. Were they electrical pylons or telecommunications towers? Or the foundation for a dam? In the dark twilight we could know only that whatever it was, it would destroy for eternity all days like this.

That is why I write about Keben.


Maxine Rose Schur

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