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Turkey: Between West and East

Paul A. Fabry

There is only one NATO country that borders two of the three “Axis of Evil” nations and another suspicious one in the ongoing Mideast conflagration: Turkey.

With Iraq and Iran looming at its southeast border and the European democracies not far to the north, secular Turkey remains a key bridge between Europe and Asia. But relations between its pro-Islamic government and Washington have been badly damaged. Turkey is a model of coexistence between democracy and Islam, and a favorite destination for Americans travelers, but few Americans are considering the fabled country for a vacation this summer.

Age-old conflicts continue in the Kurdish enclaves in Iraq. Turkey itself is fighting a separatist movement by a huge Kurd minority. Terrorists in Afghanistan and the Israel-Arab tensions are close by. In such a neighborhood, Ankara has a hard time continuing its traditional pro-Western stance.

In recent weeks, anti-American protests flared up and the Turkish press revived old headlines about “the ugly Americans.” Confrontations between two staunch allies of 50 years have created an air of mutual suspicion.

Is Ankara blacklisted in Washington? Do Turks distrust Americans? Has the popular anti-war feeling of the Turks, which prevented the U.S. troops’ entry to Northern Iraq, created a diplomatic standstill? With such open questions, many Americans stay away from Turkey’s popular tourist attractions, cosmopolitan Istanbul, the Mediterranean beaches and the historic sites of Anatolia.

It is not broadly understood that Turkey is the only Muslim country that has successfully opposed religion. Deep-seated fears of Islam as a political force have characterized Ankara’s policies for eight decades. Still, it is the only present-day NATO country with a pro-Islamic government.

Ignoring pessimists and possible anti-American bias, my wife, Betsy, my daughter, Alexa, and I returned for a tour of Turkey in June. It is a long trip, but it opens up a fascinating world.

After breakfast in Colorado, dinner on a trans-Atlantic flight, another breakfast in Paris and lunch on Air France, we finally relaxed in an Istanbul cafe over coffee and baklava. I reset my watch, rubbed my red eyes and looked at the city on the waters dividing Europe and Asia.

I knew that the post-Saddam Middle East is a different world from what it was when I lived here decades ago. But the ambience and beauty are the same. As “infidels” in the vast, 99 percent Muslim country, we moved around safely. Betsy and Alexa did not for a minute feel uncomfortable.

Istanbul

Arrival in Istanbul is dazzling. The city rates with Rome and Jerusalem as a top depository of art and history. It is a world-class backdrop for storied fantasies, the Levantine amalgam of 100 nationalities. Monuments of failed empires, changing religions, 3,000 years of great civilizations and other intrigues are juxtaposed in the sprawling city.

No one knows for sure how many people live in Istanbul, but they must number more than 12 million. Older than any European city, it dwarfs all of them. Is it Oriental or Occidental, dirty or glorious, a poor Muslim enclave or a wealthy Western metropolis? Probably it is all of the above.

Founded in the seventh century B.C. on trading crossroads, it became the great capital of the Byzantine Empire and later of Ottoman sultans. It remains the cultural center of a country that shrank in World War I but now has a fast-growing population of more than 60 million.

For old or new visitors, a pilgrimage in Istanbul starts with its two towering symbols, a mosque and a museum, overlooking the Sea of Marmara. It usually ends with a shopping spree at one of the world’s oldest and largest market places, the Covered Bazaar that houses a busy population of 15,000.

We began with the Hagia Sophia. It was a church for 916 years and a mosque for 481. Restored as a museum for the last 70 years, it delivers architectural perfection without requiring decoding. Almost facing it, the Blue Mosque, famous for its blue Iznik tiles, with six slender minarets, was built in the early 17th century. The imam was conducting one of the five daily prayers inside, but we entered quietly. The mysticism of the service was both inspiring and threatening.

While Allah’s praise is heard day and night from the minarets, the military that toppled several governments is the real guardian of Turkey’s staunchly secularist ways. Surprising both the Turks and Americans, however, the Muslim-led government defied the military and followed popular opinion by preventing U.S. forces from entering Northern Iraq. Ankara thus lost much of its foreign aid and tourist dollars.

Few tour buses visit the famous sites these days and prices are low. A single exchanged dollar made us instant millionaires, with over 1,400,000 Turkish Liras. The economy is in shambles while Turkey spends its savings on one of NATO’s largest armies.

But we are looking for what remains here from Byzantium, which already attracted visitors when Emperor Constantine established his imperial capital here in 330 A.D. and named it Constantinople. For the next millennium, as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, it was a center for traders from all over the medieval world.

After the Turks captured the city in 1453 and renamed it Istanbul, much of the Near East, the Mediterranean and even Central Europe was controlled from the palaces and mosques that modern-day visitors come to see. The empire collapsed in World War I, and in 1923 General Mustafa Kemal, known as Ataturk, repelled the British and the Greeks and made Turkey a modern, secular republic.

Ataturk felt that popular Islam had become a “morass of superstitions” and needed a civic-minded president, not a sultan or caliph. Today, the much-revered founder would be shocked to see his people still follow the path of Islam. At the mosques, worshipers recite prayers from the Quran in Arabic, a language they don’t understand. And pilgrimages to Mecca are again popular. The identity question is back in everyone’s mind.

On a visit to the large Istanbul Technical University, I talked to students with my fragmented Turkish vocabulary. Their attraction to everything American was counterbalanced by critical comments. “You cannot expect to impose your will everywhere and be loved for it,” one young man said. A teacher stressed that Turkey remains one of America’s oldest friends, but said “we feel abandoned for the sake of oil and Israel, although you are now our neighbor as Iraq’s master.”

The cosmopolitan metropolis, with glass-walled office buildings, chain hotels, fashionable boutiques, McDonald’s, cell phones, bars and miniskirts does not show much of its Islamic roots. The issue of religion only shows up in politics. “Turkey is safe from militant Muslims and we are watching the fundamentalists,” a student insisted.

Talking about the hope for democracy in Iraq (Mesopotamia under the Ottomans), an old Turkish friend, Izzetin, referred to its rulers today as the “American viceroys.” He reminded us that the only significant and lasting reform in any Muslim country in a century occurred in Turkey.

“You will not find a hero like Ataturk in a defeated Iraq,” Izzetin warned. “Turkish democracy was the result of a victory over Western policies and forces here, and not of defeat.” The Arab and Islamic world has always reacted to defeat by turning to religious fundamentalism, not to modernism.

Anatolia

Enriched with historical wisdom, we went on to find a continuum of conflicting cultures. Crossing the Bosporus to Asia by a commuter ferryboat, we experienced a sudden change in geography and way of life.

Once in Anatolia, it is easy to understand the country’s failed effort to join the European Union. “It is not a European country,” the French had insisted. “It has a different culture.” But it was that amalgam of Egyptian, Roman and Greek cultures and the Ottoman heritage that we wanted to see.

Driving along the Dardanelles, across from Gallipoli, the scene of Ataturk’s victory over the Allies, we headed to Troy. It conjured up visions of Helen and Paris, the star-crossed lovers of mythology. Alexander the Great was here in 333 B.C.

Along miles of city walls erected by the ancient Greeks, we turned off for Assos. From the hilltop citadel temple to Athena, we could see the sunny green island of Lesbos and the turquoise (the word appropriately came from “Turk”) waters of the Aegean.

A road trip to Anatolia is an encounter with mythology and the birthplaces of Homer, King Midas, Herodotus and St. Paul. The layers of history mix with posh Mediterranean resorts and tiny villages where colorful rugs are still woven by young girls. Betsy and Alexa could not resist the prices.

Anatolia, the real Turkish homeland of farmers with mule carts, is nearly a thousand miles wide with seven climate zones. Our route highlighted Izmir, a major port city; Ephesus, the remnants of the stunning marble capital of Roman Asia Minor; the bustling resorts of Antalya and the travertine cliffs of Pamukkale. “More ancient art can be seen here than in Rome or Athens,” exclaimed Betsy.

We stopped at the Aphrodisia in the midst of a rich fruit-growing region. The local marble served the classic era’s sculptors and architectural masterpieces. Just as the Romans did for their health, we immersed our tired bodies in the calcium-laden mineral waters that cascade over the snow-white stones of the Cotton Castle.

Left for the end was an incredible valley, once part of the Hittite Empire, Cappadocia. Volcanic eruptions spewed out the rocks all around, sculpted by wind and rain. In this richest of central Turkey’s agricultural lands, early Christians carved monasteries from the rock, painted the walls and inhabited the underground towns.

This wonderland of honeycombed caves in the soft-rock cones is still inhabited, and visitors can go inside some of the dwellings. We even had a good shish-kebab lunch on top of a spindly cone with paintings of Byzantine saints. Our time was too short to discover all of the hidden treasures and prehistoric hieroglyphs in the labyrinths. But it was worth the trip to see this unique biblical fairyland.

Ankara

Our week’s drive in Asia Minor ended in Ankara, the somewhat bland capital. Founded by the Hittites around 1200 B.C., it features, appropriately, a monumental mausoleum of Kemal Ataturk, who chose the ancient Romans’ Agora to be his political center. Today, as some Muslim activists wait in the background, democratic politics is the only real business here.

It was time to fly back to Istanbul. From many visits here, I learned that exploring only the musts would take weeks for Betsy and Alexa. Just touring the great mosques, the Topkapi museum and the bazaar took five days. A lot had to be left for another visit.

On our last day, we sat down at the century-old bar of the Pera Palace hotel. Here, Mata Hari and spies of a less romantic Cold War era, such as Kim Philby, used to gather. The original ceramic wall-fountain is still working. It was put there to neutralize the whispered gossips of Ottoman officials and their Western contacts. The new “suspects” are the Kurds, the terrorists, the Islamic militants and the Greeks on Cyprus. But there are good electronic listening devices today.

In the balmy evening, from a fish restaurant near the Bosporus Bridge, we watched the colors of the mosques and tower slowly change from gold and silver to blue and gray. Here Europe and Asia connect – and divide.

Spotlights enhanced the skyline’s grandeur. The muezzin’s “Allah akbar” call to prayer from dozens of minarets was heard through loudspeakers all over Istanbul. Still a true tapestry of Levant, proud of its cosmopolitan Western image, this city refuses to be ruined by modernity and progress. Turks are not Arabs, and the demons of that restless world are absent here.

We left for the airport on J. F. Kennedy Avenue, loaded with souvenirs. In the holding area, a “no alcoholic beverages allowed” sign reminded us that Islam is stubbornly alive. From posters, however, Ataturk confidently smiled, assuring passers by that his spirit will prevail. Well-known for excessive drinking and womanizing, the “Father of Turks” still watches over the nation he so brilliantly westernized.

We toasted him with the nation’s favorite drink, the anise-flavored raki. We flew home convinced that Turkey would stay democratic, pro-Western and secular in the troubled Middle East. But I doubt the Turkish example will soon be duplicated.

Paul and Elizabeth Fabry contribute travel articles to several newspapers and divide their time between a West End Victorian in Aspen and a French Quarter home in New Orleans.


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