In the wonderland of ruins

Turkey's history is even more rich and complicated than its convoluted present.

By Gary Kamiya

Published July 10, 2007 11:53AM (EDT)

My family and I just returned from three weeks in Turkey. I've wanted to go there for years, and decided that we'd better get over there before Ankara makes good on its threat to invade northern Iraq to clear out Kurdish militants, an action that would piss off its U.S. "ally" and lead the Turks to take an even more jaundiced view of America and Americans than they do now. According to a Pew poll, only 9 percent of Turks currently say they view America favorably, compared to 52 percent before George W. Bush took office, making Turkey the most anti-American of all 47 countries in the poll. Bush himself rejoices in a 2 percent Turkish favorability rating, three points under Osama bin Laden.

Of course, as anyone who has traveled in the Middle East knows, these kinds of polls do not translate into any observable hostility in face-to-face encounters with people. The Turks are legendarily friendly and hospitable, as well as being legendarily sharp traders, and native warmth -- and the desire to sell Turkish delight and rugs -- trumps any anger at U.S. foreign policy. Again and again in casual conversations with Turks, they would ask, "What do you think of President Bush?" When we would say, "We can't stand him," they would immediately brighten -- one guy burst out "High five!" and exuberantly exchanged hand slaps with us. Then, alas, would come the inevitable next question. "Every American we meet here says they don't like Bush. But if no Americans like Bush, why did he get reelected?"

Hmmm. We would try to explain that the people who like Bush are usually not the kind of people who travel to Turkey. They're scared of Arabs and Islam and are probably so ignorant of the region that they don't even know where Turkey is, let alone that it isn't Arab and has been officially secular since its creation. We'd go on to say that a lot of Americans got scared after 9/11 and voted for him out of fear.

But it was hard to explain these things. It was especially hard explaining them to two brothers, Kurdish Turks, who ran a 24-hour kebab restaurant in Antalya's labyrinthine old city, the Kaleici. "Just outside that gate," the younger one told me, gesturing to a Roman-era wall a few yards away, "a bomb went off last year and killed three people. I walked past there five minutes before." The Turks have been locked in a sporadic guerrilla war with the Kurdish separatist group the PKK for years, and practically every region of the country has been hit by deadly attacks. So the idea that what happened to America was so unique and awful that it justified launching a full-scale invasion of Turkey's neighbor, which had nothing to do with the attacks anyway, did not play well.

Not that the average Turk is necessarily any more well-informed or rational about world affairs than the average American. After we talked a little more about why the U.S. invaded Iraq, the younger brother said, "We have this problem with the PKK. They are Kurds. But you know, we Kurds are peaceful people. Kurds would not do these bombings." Leaning forward with a knowing little smile, he said, "I think it is the USA. The Turkish army is very strong. I think it can even defeat the U.S. Army. So I think the U.S. is behind these bombings. Because you want to control Turkey." Leaving aside his admirably patriotic but somewhat excessive belief in Turkey's military might, it seemed too complicated to explain that, yes, the USA does want to "control" Turkey -- or at least keep it on the right side of the "global war on terror" -- and yes, we're tacitly willing to allow the PKK to maintain their bases in Kurdish-controlled Iraq because we don't want Turkey to destabilize the only part of Iraq that hasn't become hell on earth, but no, we're not so evil and omnipotent that we're putting bombs in minivans in Aegean resorts. So I just smiled and drank my tea.

Politics are much on the minds of the Turks these days, with presidential elections scheduled for the end of July. Turkish politics violate just about every cliché Americans have come to accept about Islam and terrorism. Everything takes place under the shadow of Kemal Ataturk, the reforming soldier-statesman who created the state of Turkey by defeating Greece, England and France, who had wanted to carve up the remains of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. In a kind of revolutionary year-zero move, Ataturk decided that Turkey must face West, not East, changed the national alphabet to use Latin characters, and established secularism, Turkish nationalism and the army at the center of Turkish life, where they remain to this day. In the upcoming election, the army and the secular elites are squared off against the government, which is moderately Islamic.

You might think this means the army is the good guys, keeping Turkey from sliding into dangerous Islamism. But as with everything involving Turkish politics, that would be an oversimplification. Kemalism, as Turkey's founding ideology is called, has become ossified and corrupt, and the moderate Islamic political parties have gained middle-class support not just because of their religious orientation but because they are more transparent and progressive than the Kemalists. In fact, the U.S. has good relations with the administration of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and has made no secret of the fact that it sees a democratic, moderately Islamic Turkey as a role model for the region. This has led the Turkish left, which loathes the U.S.'s foreign policies, to attack the Islamic government not just for being too religious -- the issue of whether the wives of AK politicians should wear head scarves is a flash point -- but as being too pro-American.

In short, Turkey represents a collision between Islam and the West, and between tradition and modernity, so complex and multifaceted that it makes no sense at all if judged by our usual criteria. Actually, it may not make much sense judged by any criteria -- at least if we are to believe the comic-hallucinatory picture painted by Turkey's Nobel Prize-winning writer Orhan Pamuk in his weird and wonderful 2004 novel "Snow," in which Islamists, secularists and revolutionaries interrogate, insult and kill each other as if in a deadly, half-ridiculous dream.

Fortunately, this trip was a vacation, and it was not my responsibility to make sense of Turkey, only to drink in as much of her as possible. It was time to give everlasting politics a rest. Besides, unexplained and unexplored dissonances are one of the best things about traveling. The tourist's perspective may be shallower than the journalist's in some ways, but it has its virtues. As a traveler you amass thousands of vivid single-image frames, which later roll out as a movie that has its own coherence. The portraits of Ataturk you see everywhere in this infant nation, on hillsides, in statues in town squares, in grimy cafes and rug stores and private homes and barber shops -- the great Kemal drinking the national yogurt drink, smiling, holding a child, standing at attention, frowning, always looking hawk-eyed and steadfast -- is part of that movie. So are the working-class Istanbul residents who eyed an American family with wary friendliness on a Sunday boat trip up the Bosphorus. And the soldiers standing inexplicably on a highway high above Kekova beach with machine guns. And the throngs of elegantly dressed people pouring through the streets around Taksim Square in downtown Istanbul. And the dozens of Turks whose faces lit up like suns when, at the end of some prosaic commercial transaction, we smiled at them and shook hands.

As a crucible, a test laboratory, for the fusion of Islam and the West, multicultural strangeness is an everyday occurrence in Turkey. One example: At an evening concert at Aspendos, the best-preserved ancient theater in the world, the Turkish pianist Fazil Say, a flamboyant damn-the-score virtuoso in the Franz Liszt mold, was about to begin playing one of his avant-garde piano compositions, in which Bartok tonalities mingle with Turkish folk motifs. Just as he was ready to attack the keyboard, the eerie amplified atonal warble of a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer floated from some distant mosque into the silent theater. What was the dominant theme of this moment? The Greco-Roman theater? The crowd of sophisticates drinking wine with nary a head scarf to be seen? The hypnotic, inescapable sound of Islam? Say's brilliant modernist music? It was all of them at once.

But the most striking thing about Turkey, for me, is that it is a vast, cavalier garbage-dump of human history. It is the land of ruins par excellence. The traces of human history are so potent and omnipresent here that they act like a drug.

On a scorching hot afternoon in late June -- the temperature had hit 51 degrees centigrade two days before -- we drove our Russian- built, French-powered Renault Dacia rent-a-car down to Miletus, once one of the great cities in the world. Miletus had been on the Aegean coast until the river Meander, which gave us the word, silted up and turned it from a port to an inland city.

I had wanted to see Miletus because when I was a child I used to leaf in wonder through the pages of my father's copy of Bertrand Russell's "The Wisdom of the West," an illustrated history of Western philosophy. Thales of Miletus, regarded as the first Western philosopher, was discussed in the book's very first pages. Russell's account of his philosophy, centering on the proposition that "all substance is one," was far over my 9-year-old head, but I remember looking at the drawings that accompanied it and feeling the excitement of glimpsing a vast intellectual adventure, like an ancient pillar silhouetted against the sky. To go to Miletus was somehow to find a thread that would connect to that childish wonder, now so distant. It was one of those minor pilgrimages we all make from time to time, ones driven by the most vaporous memories. And half the charm of these trips is knowing that when you get there you won't find the font of Western wisdom, but something random, strange and deflating. The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus is the world-champion example: Once one of the Seven Wonders of the World, it is now a barely marked heap of rubble off a nondescript street in Bodrum, a bustling resort full of lager louts from Sheffield whose claim to immortality is now its discotheque, allegedly the loudest in the world. Sic transit Gloria Gaynor.

As we drove toward the ruins we consulted the Blue Guide. In 585 B.C., Miletus was the greatest of the Ionian cities, and Thales was celebrated as one of the world's great sages and scientists. His writings are lost, but according to Aristotle, he taught that "the basic nature of all things is water" and that "all things are full of gods."

Miletus turned out to be a little like the Mausoleum -- a letdown, but somehow an unforgettable one precisely because of that. The ruins covered a vast area, but many of them were covered by roads and fields, and only a fraction of them were excavated. It was too hot to get out and explore the theater, which we could see shimmering in the heat-haze. Instead, we turned down a little-used dirt road a few hundred yards away to see where it went. The road, which looked like it hadn't been driven on for years, dead-ended amid some obscure stone-fenced fields, and we all began squabbling about whose dumb idea it was to turn here. Then, as we turned around, we almost ran over two pieces of an Ionic column, which were either still lying where they fell two millennia ago or had been rolled just off the road next to two scrawny olive trees.

I got out of the car. Somehow the randomness of these columns, their utter forlornness, cut through the guidebook torpor and the long scroll of time unrolled, reaching from a silent afternoon 2,000 years ago to the silent afternoon around me. These had once been. And the moment threw a slant of light, and shadow, on Thales' teachings: All substance is one. All things are full of gods.

There are ruins preserved behind museum glass, which we venerate like the pieces of the True Cross that the Crusaders ripped off when they sacked Constantinople. And there are ruins that just lie where they fell, uncelebrated, as meaningless as bits of broken glass in a vacant lot. To me, these are the most evocative, because nothing except time itself seems to stand between you and that day so many centuries ago when men and women lived among them. There is an innocence to the debris of human history, a cleanness to chaos. It allows you to imagine that you are the first person in two millennia to touch this piece of marble that once held up a temple to an unknown god.

The ancient city of Termessos, just inland from Turkey's Mediterranean coast near Antalya, stands amid towering mountains. As with Thermopylae, the only access is through an extremely narrow pass, which could be defended by a few dozen men against a vast army. As a result of this location, and perhaps the extreme nastiness of the Termessians (who reportedly were frequently forced to subsist entirely on olives, not a diet that would leave one in a good mood), Termessos had the honor of being one of only three cities to turn back Alexander the Great.

We walked up the mountain trail to the ancient city and discovered there were only two other families on the entire site. The gymnasium, the city council, the temple to Artemis -- all these magnificent stone structures were being slowly covered by plants and earth. A large piece of marble with a lengthy Greek inscription lay half-buried in the earth; no attempt had apparently ever been made to dig it out. Fragments of columns and building blocks made up an architectural mosaic floor. The whole place looked like it had been shaken apart by a perverse god and left to rot on its own forever. From the top of the mighty theater, still almost viable but where no actors have trod the stage for centuries, you could look down through a gap in the mountains and see the Mediterranean in the distance. It was silent except for the birds and insects, dancing and singing under the violent sun. It was such a beautiful cemetery that it made the utter extinction of a civilization seem a thing of no concern. This is a thought that comes up a lot in Turkey, and it is oddly calming.

Phaselis, a little farther west on the coast, was and still is a toy city with three toy harbors, all of them tiny, each more beautiful than the last. It appears to have been built by children. It is the happiest site for an ancient city, in fact for any city, I have ever seen. We were only there for two hours -- we didn't want to leave and had to be ejected by angry police. But the sheer playfulness of its location has changed forever the way that I imagine ancient life. In my mind, everyone in ancient Phaselis will always be smiling.

Not that we non-ancients were always smiling. It's a peculiar thing, being bombarded with mind-blowing history while spending more time with your family than you have in years. The sublime and the ridiculous played tag for endless hours as we hurtled through ancient landscapes in the air-conditioned prison of the Dacia, sick of each others' inane witticisms, yet unable to stop repeating them. The familiar terror of family life ground us down as we got lost for the umpteenth time. Turkey has without a doubt the worst road signs in the world. But somehow in the end the experience proved liberating. We were forced to become a little four-person platoon, foraging through unknown territory and unable to escape each other into TV, or work, or the world of parents, or the world of children, or even another room. By the end we had slipped stupidly into that great banal tradition of Family Living we all remember from endless car trips in our childhoods.

Before going to Turkey, my notions of Byzantine art were derived from museums in Italy and America. It seemed to me a coldly absolutist art, artificial and eternal like the nightingale in Yeats' poem, its gold backgrounds revealing a religion of utter, boring transcendence. But the mosaics in the Hagia Sophia and the Kariye church in Istanbul, and the primitive paintings of the hermits in the caves of Cappadocia, tell a completely different story. The Byzantine art you see in Turkey carries an extraordinarily direct emotional charge. Christianity was new and electric, and the Christian art of Asia Minor seems fueled by a belief so new and plastic and passionately felt that it does not even seem to come from the same religion. Moreover, the fact that these naive and profound masterpieces are in a country that is no longer Christian changes your sense of them, making them -- at least for a non-Christian -- at once more distant and somehow more sympathetic. They're on the losing side. They, too, are ruins. And maybe this lets them be seen simply for what they are: professions of the greatest and simplest faith.

All of Turkey's vast layers come together in magical decrepit Istanbul, a cracked kaleidoscope of world history so unlike any other world city as to be almost frightening. At its Ottoman height, Constantinople was the largest city in the world, and it is challenging to reclaim that status: By some reports Istanbul now includes as many as 25 million people in its greater urban area. It combines the labyrinthine charm of Lisbon, the watery bustle of Sydney, the physical drama of San Francisco and Rio and the historical mystique of Paris and Rome. And to these it adds its own special kind of decay, one eloquently described by Orhan Pamuk in his "Istanbul: Memories and the City." As Pamuk notes, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire has left Istanbul more forlorn, impoverished and irrelevant than it has been during its entire inconceivably long history. That sense of having been bypassed adds a peculiar, clarifying dash of bitters to the intoxicating Istanbul cocktail. Crowned by two of the mightiest churches in the world -- the Hagia Sophia, the erection of whose enormous dome in the 6th century may be the most incredible architectural achievement in human history, and the exquisite Blue Mosque -- and ceaselessly refreshed by the rushing Bosphorus, Istanbul's glory days may be in the past. But that past is so big you don't care. Time has stitched a tapestry there so vast and intricate that loss itself becomes radiant, like a setting sun forever frozen just as it dips below the horizon.

Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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