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Turkey: Faces and Fables

Between the unexpected mountains and deep turquoise of Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, between her cities saturated with history and the touching simplicity of her villages, likely lie the magic lamps and flying carpets of fables. Something must explain the richness and joy of the country, the warmth and friendliness of her people. Even cacophonous Istanbul, a city of 14 million people where streets twist and turn back on themselves like a Byzantine argument, is to be enjoyed without intimidation – explored for its history, the delights of its cuisine and its place astride Asia and Europe.

For those fearful of getting lost in the endless Grand Bazaar or Egyptian Market or in the café-lined streets with no names, we say, “Go! Get lost.” What you discover will amaze you, and even the least intrepid traveler will find a Tourist Police officer to guide him back, or a taxi driver who knows enough English (or German or Italian) to take her to where she wants to go.

And for those who are just plain fearful, the Turkish government is well aware that one well-publicized mishap with a tourist will result in a 10 percent decline in tourism revenue – that’s millions of dollars – so they bend over backwards to ensure safe, courteous treatment of visitors.

Besides, the Turks naturally avoid loud, rude or threatening behavior almost by instinct. Perhaps it’s their commitment to family and community. Is there crime? Sure. In a city twice the size of New York, there would have to be. Was I ever remotely scared or worried during my recent visit? I’d rather Istanbul than Washington, D.C. any time of the day … or night!

The history of Turkey is key to understanding this complex and contradictory nation. The remarkable Hittite Kingdom flourished here in the 8th century B.C., and the Trojan war was fought on the east coast, leading to Greek dominance and eventual Roman hegemony.

The Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity, shifted the capital to Byzantium (and renamed it Constantinople), which in turn fell to the Islamic forces let loose from the Arabian Peninsula.

Finally, the vast Ottoman empire, under Suleyman the Magnificent, ruled the eastern Mediterranean, Egypt, eastern Europe and the Balkans, the Black Sea and Iran. Not long after Gallipoli in Turkey, World War I ended the empire. Kemal Ataturk wrested success from the jaws of Allied defeat, and created the Turkish Republic – the modern, western-oriented state of today.

These are not bland historic facts.

The voices of the past can be heard as clearly as the click-clack of dice tossed in endless games of street-corner backgammon accompanied by swiftly moving fingers and sweet Turkish tea. You can hear it in the echoes of Ephesus, the only remaining wonder of the ancient world, a nearly intact Roman city where the redoubtable apostle, St. Paul, preached to the weak-hearted Christians. (Ephesians in the Bible).

You can hear history in the gentle mass sung al fresco next to the presumed house of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who lived here with John, the Apostle, after her son died. And you can hear it in the discos and night clubs where raucous sounds blend with the Islamic call to prayer drifting over the country five times a day. How many heed the prayer is hard to determine in this determinedly secular county.

Turkey is a pastiche of colors and experiences easily within the grasp of travelers willing to stretch. There are the rich, vividly colored, fresh fruits and vegetables – cherries, peaches, plums, melons – on every street corner. And the cuisine, a time-honored way to know a country, is a delight surpassed only by the astonishingly low prices. A meal, including the endlessly varied and vivid mezze (starters), fresh grilled fish, kebabs, crisp salads, a medley of fruits and sweets and the ubiquitous Turkish tea or aromatic Turkish coffee costs between $13 and $30 – for four! Or you can eat from the safe and savory street vendors: buy a burek (a cheese and herb-filled filo dough pancake) or a stuffed baked potato and a shaved meat sandwich for a 50¢ or less.

Up in the mountains, in small towns accessible by winding mountain roads that edge glimpses of forests or the startling blue Mediterranean, we sat at rickety tables and laughed with a grandfather as he proudly played with his granddaughter. His son brought us the most wonderful fried egg sandwiches – crisp fresh bread and eggs pressed on a grill and filled with deep red tomatoes, tart cheese and served with tea or juice. Cost? For the four of us: $5, during which we were serenaded with choruses of cheery “Hello’s” and “How are you’s?” by blue-uniformed elementary kids passing to and from school. They gladly, if shyly, posed for photos with me, my wife and two daughters.

We ate, were touched, and drove on up the mountain. Below, the sea unfolded with sinuous grace, a sight comparable to Big Sur – except Big Sur is a preview by comparison. We climbed a narrow goat’s path up a towering mountain, alone, to find an emerald-like lake hidden on top. Instead, we found a nomadic couple living in a tent. We sat with them, the six of us, and communicated as best we could. We drank their tea. We listened to the utter stillness and appreciated their simple hospitality.

Turkey is an enigma. It’s 99 percent Islamic, but it’s so secular that along its unspoiled beaches, bare-breasted European women sun themselves on the pristine sands next to matriarchs, fully clothed in the loose-fitting garments of the region. This is not surprising when one considers that Istanbul stands balanced – literally and psychologically – between Europe and Asia, creating something of an identity crisis.

The country’s military and political establishment looks westward, and though it passionately pursues membership in the European Community (Istanbul feels more European than Middle Eastern), the streets, shops and energy are clearly of the east. The unforgettable covered Grand Bazzar, the biggest in the world, is of Asia Minor and the Middle East. This is the paradox and the complex beauty of the place.
Tourism to Turkey, after steadily rising, was down this year. In part, this was due to the anxiety engendered by the trial of the Kurdish separatist leader, Abdullah Ocalan, and the war in Yugoslavia. Typically, the Brits and Germans are the major tourist groups since Americans don’t travel to Turkey in significant numbers. Greece and Italy attract many more of our compatriots, and that’s too bad, because Americans are missing out on a valuable experience – and travel values in terms of dollars.

But the traveler to Turkey quickly discovers that the Turks are their own best public-relations strategy – they’re friendly, funny and very helpful. And Americans need to know how well the systems work: Communications via phone, fax and email are excellent. The buses, which criss-cross the country, run frequently and are modern, efficient and very cheap. The staff at Turkish Airlines were unfailingly patient and helpful, and not just to me. I saw an agent spend nearly an hour with a non-English speaking tourist (English is spoken widely in the cities), never losing patience.

In a true if somewhat rough measure of civilization, there are more public toilets than one would ever find in Boston, Berlin or Rome. True, you have to pay 15 cents or so to use them, but you can count on their being clean.
A frequent question has to do with Turkey’s record on human rights. Amnesty International has pointed out that in the not-too-distant past, people who opposed the government could – and did – disappear, as they did in Argentina or North Korea or other places in the world.

And Turkey’s relationship with its Kurdish minority is complicated and painful. Yet the papers I read (in English) and the Turkish papers read to me in English were full of criticisms of the government. In particular, a recent scandal involving phone-tapping of officials and citizens by the police received severe criticism by the country’s journalists – signs pointing to real improvements in Turkey’s human rights record and important strides toward democracy.

But what travelers will notice first and foremost, and what they’ll remember long after the discussions of politics have faded, is the feeling of Turkey – the many faces, the smiling eyes of varied hues and the thoughtful gestures. The mind’s eye will long recall the varied beauty of this country, and travelers will be forgiven if they experience a persistent need to return.

A Two-Week Itinerary
Typically, the country is divided into the following regions: Istanbul, the Interior (Ankara, the capital serves the Interior), the Mediterranean, the Aegean and the Black Sea. We suggest the following two-week itinerary, focusing on Istanbul and the Mediterranean and Aegean seas:

Four days in Istanbul will give you a real sense of this city astride the Bosporus River. You’ll visit the Topkapi Palace, the greatest Ottoman museum in the world and the nerve center of the empire. The place sprawls as befits the locus of a nearly 400-year rule. You’ll see the Harem, which was supervised by black eunuchs. The women of the Harem were typically slaves and prisoners of war selected for their beauty and charm and educated within the walls. There are the dazzling jewels of the Sultans, including the Spoonmaker’s Diamond (86 carats) and a seven pound emerald. Courts, chambers and audience halls surround a graceful courtyard, where royalty met and greeted the envoys from the far-flung kingdom. Some of the holiest artifacts in the Muslim world are in Topkapi, reminding the visitor that the Ottoman Sultanate was spiritual as well as administrative and military.

The Blue Mosque (also located in the Sultanahmet section of Istanbul, the must-see center of the city’s attractions) or Sultan Ahmet Cami is the most striking monument in the city. Recognized by its six minarets, the interior is light, airy and serene – and, yes, women are welcome. The stone work is exquisite, and the blue tiles lead the eye upward to a dome of simple beauty.

A short walk leads to the Haghia Sophia (Divine Wisdom), whose domes and buttresses dominate the skyline. A pure architectural wonder, this Byzantine cathedral was commissioned by the Emperor Justinian and dedicated in the year 537. It was an inspiration to Christians around the world. In 1453 the city and the Haghia Sophia fell to the Ottomans who, while ill at ease with the icons, respected (more so than the marauding Knights of the Crusades earlier) the building and turned it into a mosque. Kemal Ataturk converted it into a museum in 1935. Visitors say it rivals St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

The Suleymaniye Mosque (after Suleyman the Magnificent) and the well-lighted and beautiful Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum are important attractions. The museum is a real find. Set in the Palace of Ibrahim Pasha – across from The Blue Mosque – the museum chronicles centuries of Islamic design and art in a lovely garden setting.
After all the sight-seeing, take the Bosporus Cruise. Ferries run regularly (and cost about $1) and are a delightful way to cool off and see the elegant homes and old palaces that line the river. Especially notice the Dolmabache Palace with its 285 rooms, 43 halls, six Turkish baths and the world’s largest mirror and chandelier. President Bush dined here as did Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterand. Consider getting off at Bebeck (still Istanbul) and grabbing a snack at the lovely Bebek Kahvesi (coffee house) run by the attentive and helpful Ayse (Aisha) and her partner. Relax and watch the boats ply the Bosphorous.

After Istanbul, fly (about $125) or take the overnight bus or ferry to Izmir, the major city on Turkey’s Aegean coast. Known in history as Smyrna and regarded as the birthplace of Homer, it’s a pretty cosmopolitan city and the jumping-off spot for a visit to Ephesus, the most spectacular ruin in the world, some say. This was the bustling Asian capital of Rome. You could spend a day here wandering the ruins. Three or four hours is enough.

Then take a rented car or minibus (dolmus) to the best little city on the Turkish Mediterranean: Kalkan. It’s an attractive, five-hour ride with plenty of places to stop for snacks or photos. Though touristy, Kalkan maintains the charm of the fishing village it once was. There are numerous quaint pensions and small hotels to stay at. We thoroughly enjoyed the Kalkan Hahn (242-844 3151) for about $50 per night. Or try the Villa Mahal (242-844-3268). The Hahn’s roof top offers special views of the Kalkan harbor and the Mediterranean, perfect for a beer or breakfast. The Mahal perches on a ledge that grows out of the sea. Dramatic!
Use the town as a base. Rent a car and visit the tiny mountain villages (some with extraordinary trout farms), cove-hop along the inlets of this turquoise coast, view the Lycian ruins in the area, swim, and take a boat ride to the sunken city along the island of Kekova.

What You Should Know, When You Go
• Turkish Airlines offers reliable and efficient transportation to Istanbul (and beyond) from several U.S. cities, including New York. 1-800-874-8875; www.turkishair.com. British Airways also offers regular service via London. 1-800-247-9297.
• Best times to visit: April – June; September – October.
• Currency: Turkish lira. Inflation has eaten into the economy, pegging the dollar at $460,000 lira.
• Language: Turkish. Because of the number of U.K. tourists, English is spoken widely.
• Transportation: Bus travel in Turkey is fast, comfortable and affordable. Car rental rates are high, but deals can be made. Ours cost about $35 a day including taxes and insurance. Turkish Airlines covers the country and has been voted the seventh best airline in the world. Forget the train.
• Communications: Phone and fax service are very good, and Internet access is available in major hotels. The Turkish Daily News out of Ankara is the country’s English-language newspaper – slim, but interesting.
• Tourism offices are located conveniently throughout Turkey. Contact the helpful folks at the Turkish Tourist Office in Washington, D.C., at 202-429-9844.
• The Turkish Embassy has a helpful Web site: www.turkey.org.

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