Welcome to the blog for our round the world trip.

09 February 2008

Atatürk and big flags

Turkish Flag
Originally uploaded by rtw2007.
The flag theme continued long after we left the border areas: Turks clearly love their flags. Apparently Turkey holds the world record for “Biggest Flag Flown at Highest Height” – I’m not sure how many other entrants there were for that prestigious title, though! Another continuing, patriotic theme is the Turks’ devotion to one Mustafa Kemal: a solider who was valiant and victorious in the Gallipoli battles; went on to become the leader of modern Turkey in the 1920s and 30s; and modestly renamed himself Atatürk (literally “father of Turks”) in the process. He is utterly revered here: his face is painted 20 feet high on the side of buildings and pictures of him hang on the walls of every building from cafes to petrol stations. This situation is no doubt helped somewhat by the fact that it is illegal to say anything remotely negative or cynical about Atatürk, but the Turks’ devotion to their country’s founding father does seem very genuine.

One of Atatürk’s founding principles for Turkey was that it should be a secular country. Whilst that is still in theory the case, in reality the parts of Turkey which we have visited have felt very firmly Muslim. We have returned to our now familiar habit of being woken by the sounds of the ezan being blared from loud speakers on the local minaret. Every village has its own mosque; many small towns have several of them; and Istanbul has so many that we lost count within five minutes of being in the city (though despite that, there still wasn’t enough room for everyone inside the mosques at Friday prayers, so dozens of men set their prayer mats out on the pavements instead). The hot debate going on here is about women wearing headscarves: many Muslim women wear them (in some of the rural areas we have visited they are the norm and full burqa-style coverings even occasionally make an appearance), yet they are frowned upon by the state. If a politician’s wife wears a headscarf it causes a huge furore and headscarf-wearing women are not admitted to universities because those institutions are supposed to be secular. All of which seems very odd in a country which also has some well-known coastal resorts populated by British tourists sunbathing in bikinis and swilling vast quantities of beer: little could seems less Islamic.

One very unwelcome feature of Turkey is the dogs: big scary dogs. Packs of them seem to roam everywhere and none of them seem too friendly. Upon arriving at camp sites, tiptoeing quietly towards to reception, one is normally met by at least two snarling, drooling beasts bolting towards you as a welcoming committee. On one occasion I was somewhat panicked by said scary barking, so I tried to run, but actually just fell over, grazed my arm and tore my clothes. At which point (the dogs having mysteriously vanished) the camp site owner appeared and gazed bemusedly at the rather pathetic, long haired Englishman lying prostrate in the dirt whimpering to no-one in particular.

Anyway, what have we actually been doing with our time, apart from being attacked by killer dogs? Ah yes, ancient ruins – lots of them. To be honest, neither of us had been all that impressed with the ruins at Troy, which seemed to our uneducated eyes to be just a series of labelled piles of old rocks. We hoped that Bergama (ancient name “Pergamum”) would be more impressive. The town itself is pretty typically Turkish: narrow dusty streets with rundown, ramshackle old houses interspersed with lots of stark, tall concrete accommodation blocks, each one topped with a collection of very ugly solar water heaters. Thank goodness that the people are friendly, because their towns certainly aren’t going to win any prizes! The ruins themselves were an improvement on Troy, the highlight being an enormous Roman amphitheatre set into the steep hillside above the town at the Acropolis. Although the seating was somewhat precipitous, it does create excellent acoustics - I was able to stand on the stage and serenade Helen (and a passing Japanese tour group) with surprising ease!

More ancient stuff followed at Epheseus, which was by far the most impressive site, being much more extensive and rather more intact, which makes it easier to imagine what was once a great Roman city. From there we went onto Hieropolis (more ruins: nice main street; well labelled Roman latrine (!); and a still-in-use antique bathhouse) and the remarkable “travertines” that tower over the nearby village of Pammukale. There is a huge white band of calcium in the hillside above the village, with various caves, stalactites and pools carved by erosion into the rock. The pools fill up over time and people go there to bathe in the calcium enriched waters, which are believed to have healing properties for various complaints such as arthritis and rheumatism. It is a really odd piece of landscape: from a distance is looks like a band of snow and close up it reminded us of the smoking blue thermal springs in Iceland.

We drove north through snowy hills back up towards Istanbul, saving ourselves a few hours drive around the Sea of Marmaris by hopping on a short ferry across the water. Although it is not the prettiest city in the world (not helped by the fact that the weather, which has been cold but gloriously sunny for the past two weeks, has now turned into wet, grey drizzle), there is a lot going on in Istanbul. We took the modern light railway around town and the funicular train up and down the hills of the vibrant Beyoglü district; visited the enormous Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya; wandered streets full of cafes and restaurants (very cosmopolitan indeed compared to other parts of Turkey we have visited); and ate dinner at a restaurant with a fantastic view over the busy shipping lanes of the Bosphorus Straight which (like the Dardanelles) divides Europe from Asia.


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