So I was in Turkey a while back and it was excellent. I know a few people who’ve been there before and since nearly all reports I’d received had been extremely positive my expectations were high. However, over the two weeks I was there Turkey met and exceeded nearly all of them. Istanbul, in particular, seems like a place I could happily live for a longer period of time, especially if I was to return to a situation similar to the amazing accommodation that I was lucky enough to enjoy on the banks of the Bosphorus.
A typical sight on the Bosphorus
Though an enourmous city, Istanbul seems to have more than enough nooks and crannies to retreat into when the heat, traffic, or general commotion becomes too much. There are very few activities more agreeable than spending an afternoon watching vessels of all sizes sail by while having a few civilised drinks with a few civilised friends at one of the crossroads of the civilised world.
Istanbul’s position at the intersection of Europe and Asia has given the city more than a few interesting historical sites. Acknowledging our touristic duty, we reluctantly left the comfort of the balcony and ventured into town, heading across the Golden Horn towards the Sarayburnu.
Naturally, the biggest attraction in the area is the Hagia Sophia. Occupying prime position in the old town, this massive landmark has gone through regular reincarnations, changing shape and religious denomination rather frequently throughout its long history. Destroyed twice during its lifetime, it finally became a mosque in 1453 when, at the age of just 21, Sultan Mehmed II conquered Constantinople after a two month siege. These days the Byzantine landmark is now a museum and is understandably popular year-round. Despite its popularity, I found it perfectly manageable in terms of the unavoidable tourist hordes – nowhere near as bad as the Parthenon in Athens, for instance. Though the conduct of some sightseers always leaves something to be desired, the general brilliance of the Hagia Sophia manages to keep most in line. Unfortunately, I never managed to snap a good picture of it, so this borrowed image will have to suffice.
The Hagia Sophia
Leaving Istanbul heading west, the party I was with felt that, despite the contrariness of a certain frau, it was worthwhile to visit the site of one of the Commonwealth’s greatest military catastrophes, the Gallipoli peninsula. Being someone who is interested in the past and how its remembered, I was all too happy to see what the fuss was about.
Not the best place to land
In all honesty, I hold what I assume to be a rather unpopular opinion regarding Gallipoli. I find the way this disastrous WWI campaign has been given pride of place in both New Zealand’s and Australia’s national identity and history highly dubious. The current state of affairs can be traced back to Australian Charles Bean who as his government’s official war historian began to construct the narrative that gave birth to the ANZAC legend which now dominates the memorialisation of Gallipoli and subsequent ANZAC expeditions. Needless to say, that while it is a suitably solemn and reverent site, I found that actually visiting the area only reinforced what is for me the episode’s central, but nevertheless neglected, theme; that through the incompetence of military officials and organisers thousands upon thousands of men were unnecessarily subjected to prolonged misery and suffering. That’s, of course, if they were lucky. The unlucky ones were killed by enemy bullets or disease.
ANZAC soldiers undoubtedly displayed significant courage even just to maintain any kind of hold on the beach and the ground they won, but instances of heroism were probably far outnumbered by moments of sheer terror and unimaginable horror. These men weren’t professional soldiers accustomed to seeing their friends and comrades die in front of them, they were lawyers, teachers, labourers, and most of them were probably terrified for the entire time they spent huddled behind whatever cover they could find.
“Expeditions which are decided upon and organised with insufficient care generally end disastrously.” Lloyd George 1915
Wandering about the landing area and across the high ridges you realise why the campaign became a textbook example of how not to conduct an amphibious landing. Lesson #1: don’t make your soldiers scale a massive hill once they make it ashore. Tactical thinking was lacking to put it lightly. But that sums up WWI I guess, a European civil war prosecuted on the British side often by officers for whom rank was not due to any merit or insight on their part, but was primarily the result of generations of aristocratic privilege and inbreeding. If anything, New Zealand was supposedly founded in complete opposition to the values which underpin such feudal absurdity. Rather sad that so many had to die because of them.
Though it certainly offers ample opportunity for national pride through brave exploits and tales of gallantry, war in all its forms is about one thing, death. Not heroism or courage, but death. And just because we automatically ascribe our war-dead with heroic attributes doesn’t make them any less dead or, indeed, actually heroic. In fact, this posthumous process whereby we thoughtlessly eulogise our war-dead can be viewed as a rather selfish measure on our part to make ourselves feel better about the fact that we sent some of our best and brightest to the other side of the world to die for a crumbling empire.
One thing is certain, the ANZAC soldiers deserved to be treated better having come from the other side of the world to fight for Queen and country. Whether it was their duty to have done so is another question – they were definitely told it was. Perhaps it’s a case of opportunity lost. Perhaps a true national ‘coming of age’ may have been found in refusing to participate in a regional war that had very little immediate bearing on New Zealand’s national security. Having made such a monumental decision then New Zealand could have proudly stood on its own, as a mature, autonomous nation rather than one humbly grateful for the mere chance to fight under its own flag.
The view from Chunuk Bair
Despite disagreeing with the place Gallipoli holds within the New Zealand national consciousness, I’m glad that I went. The Turks have treated the site well – I wonder if New Zealand would condone memorials to invading soldiers on its soil. Indeed, the story which gets lost in the ANZAC mythologising is Turkey was invaded and that it was their soldiers who responded most admirably. Thousands of their men gave their lives literally defending their homeland. Unfortunately, the ANZACs can’t claim similar stature even though they enthusiastically answered what they believed was a similar call to arms.
Heading south from the Dardanelles, we continued along the mediocre (to say the least) roading system and deeper into ever more rural regions. After retracing our steps - a measure made necessary thanks to a wrong turn brought on by the conversational enthusiasm of both the lead driver and navigator – the convoy crossed into some of the most provincial areas yet experienced on the trip or anywhere else for that matter. Think subsistence husbandry meets arid tundra. Life was thin on the ground, leaving a definite lack of authority. Into this vacuum of law and order, fauna of all sorts had moved in to stake their claim. The police were nowhere to be found as toothless goat herders looked on helplessly as lawless donkeys roamed free, terrorising both tourist and resident alike with their deceptively languid equine ways. Braving such dangers was worth it in the end as the destination that awaited us was one of charming seclusion.
It was isolation which we immediately made full use of, celebrating the end of our road trip by treating the neighbouring villages to a 4am session of Hamilton’s finest, Mobile Stud Unit. Fists were pumped, lyrics were shouted, sanctity was defiled.
Mobile Stud Unit – MSU
While the setting was certainly beautiful, its complete seclusion meant that we needed to generate our own entertainment. For this, we turned first to imported spirits and local Efes, and then to the ever reliable 7 Second Art Game. A few people, pens, scraps of paper, and a timer are all that is needed for an extremely raucous couple of hours. The names of objects, things, or animals are put into a hat and then, one by one, must be frantically drawn in 7 seconds by the participants. I highly recommend this game.
Needing to impress the particular round’s judge, the artists need to use all their creativity, persuasive guile, and political grease to win favour and points – kind of like they do in the real art world. Like all art, the concept of quality is entirely relative and down to the judge’s own opinions, ideas, and prejudice. Naturally, angry disagreement is commonplace and is often encouraged by fellow players hoping to rupture the relationship between artist and judge.
While resentment forged in the emotional furnace that is Art Game risked turning brother against brother and man against nature, cooler heads did manage to prevail and we headed towards Ephesus to get acquainted with the ruins of one of the most important cities of the ancient world. On the way we lost two of our number to the real world as they flew back to their lives in the wintry north. Thankfully, there was an able replacement on standby at Izmir airport, so with her in tow it was time to get into some culture.
Absorbing culture and too much sun
Ephesus has a historical pedigree few locations can match. As a major Mediterranean power centre for nearly a thousand years, the city at times rivalled Athens and Rome for regional supremacy. It also played a major role in the spread of early Christianity. It seems one of Jesus’ twelve apostles, John, wrote a large part of the Book of Revelations during his time in Ephesus. Revelations, of course, is one of the most entertaining parts of the Bible – full of action.
Temple of Artemis, Isa Bey Mosque, and St John Basilica.
John is buried in the nearby town of Selcuk, next to the rather forlorn remains of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Temple of Artemis, who was herself one of the Greek gods John’s tireless work helped replace. Ephesus’ own demise came when its primary source of prosperity, its harbour, began to silt up and move further and further from the city. It was a situation similar to that experienced by another gigantic ruined city, Ostia Antica, Rome’s ancient port. By around 700AD Ephesus was a shadow of its former self, but in 2012 it was a hive of activity, swarming with slack-jawed tourists and their rotund offspring.
After further hours spent navigating the treacherous Turkish roading system we eventually returned to our coastal refuge 400 kilometres to the north. Having driven over 1000 kilometres in less than 48 hours, more travel was not particularly appealing and relaxation took precedence.
The long road back to paradise
To the beach! I’ve never been much of a water-person. I find the New Zealand water temperatures discourage swimming on all but the hottest summer days. This all changes when I reach the Mediterranean. Like a catfish or manatee, I thrive in warm water. Though both my diving and bombing leave room for improvement, I feel the enthusiasm with which I attempt these manoeuvres makes up for any technical deficiency. However, I wasn’t the only one to be taking advantage of the warmer waters. Other mammals were equally at home in the sunny coastal climate.
After bombing the Turkish coastline back to the stone-age, we reluctantly left our little hide-away and started the long drive back to Istanbul. One final crossing of the Dardanelles got us back onto the European side of the country and we made our way up the peninsula for one last stop in the capital.
Meeting up with another long-lost comrade in Istanbul was a great way to finish off the holiday. More sights, more celebrating, more Turkey – my legs and kidneys cried out for mercy. Exploring more of both the city and its nightlife sapped the last of our energy and by the last night all we could do was sit, sip sweet tea, and blankly admire each others’ tans as we began to think about real life again.