New Zealand and Turkey – What’s the Connection?

It’s been a bad month for countries located on geological fault lines. First there was the 6.3 quake that devastated New Zealand’s second-largest city, Christchurch. More recently, a tsunami generated by an 8.9 seismic monster levelled coastal towns and cities in Japan.
I have been watching and reading about the tragic events from my home in Istanbul, and I have been struck once again by the kindness and concern of my Turkish friends and neighbours. People here were constantly approaching me and asking about events back ‘home’ – was my family ok? Luckily, they are, but another thing to strike me was how large a part luck, or fate, plays in these tragedies.

Didem Yaman was a young woman from Çanakkale in Turkey – ironically the town on the Dardanelles that Turks associate with the campaign known to New Zealanders as Gallipoli. Unfortunately there is more than one irony here. Didem was interested in the Asia Pacific region and her English was so good that she was accepted by Otago University to study for a doctorate in International Relations. Her area of interest was historical ties between Turkey and Australia and New Zealand. She had been in NZ for four years, living in Dunedin, but she made the ill-fated trip up to Christchurch to visit a friend – a Chinese friend in fact, from a country also known for its earthquakes. Didem’s family continued to hope that their daughter was alive, despite not having heard from her since the earthquake – until (irony upon irony) her body was discovered in the ruins of a health clinic, located in a collapsed shopping centre.

The main reason why Turks are so sympathetic towards people affected by earthquakes is, I guess, that Turkey itself sits astride several major fault lines, and has experienced its share of seismic disasters over the years. The most recent was the Marmara event which left at least 17,000 dead on 17 August, 1999. I wasn’t in Turkey at the time, but I remember it well because I missed it by one day. On 11 August I had been drying out on a beach after a swim in Van Lake. I was out in the east of Turkey visiting places a little off the normal tourist track, and I donned my special spectacles to watch the moon move slowly across the face of the sun – not quite 100 percent blackout, but maybe 95 percent, and quite impressive.  Less than a week later I flew to London, and woke up on the morning of 18 August to read about the 7.6 magnitude quake that had followed the solar eclipse and caused so much damage and loss of life.

The town in Turkey where Didem Yaman’s family are mourning the loss of their daughter, will, of course, be the focus of a minor migration from Australia and New Zealand next month. It is the most convenient base from which to visit the beaches, ravines and ridges which were the stage for the horrific slaughter of young men in 1915 that Turks call the Battle of Çanakkale.
On 25 April, thousands of mostly young Australians and New Zealanders will gather at dawn on the other side of the narrow strait that witnessed the spilling of so much blood and the loss of so many young lives. The day has assumed an importance in both countries out of proportion to its significance as a historical event. The eight-month campaign, which can only really be viewed as a sideshow to the main events of the Great War, and a wasteful defeat which prolonged the bloodbath in the trenches of the Western Front, has taken on a powerful symbolism for antipodeans. Two small nations whose constitutions still recognise the Queen of England as head of state, have come to see ANZAC Day as the defining moment in their search for an independent identity. Lacking an Independence Day, or a Republic Day, and with some misgivings about the traditional days inherited from their origins as outposts of empire, New Zealanders and Australians have adopted the day of the Gallipoli landings as marking the beginnings of the emergence of a national consciousness.
I say ‘the beginnings of the emergence’, because clearly the participants at the time were not suddenly struck with a Road to Damascus experience. It has been a slow, developmental process, but undoubtedly the experience of the ANZACs was pivotal. For a start there was the journey. Although the first convoy set out from Albany in Western Australia, and, passing through the Suez Canal, went only as far as Alexandria in Egypt, the sea voyage, with the benefit of steam engines, took a month. Perhaps it crossed the minds of those young men that their great grandfathers and grandmothers, 75 years earlier, had spent six months on a sailing ship to make the journey in reverse. They must have begun to realise how far removed in space they now were from the land of their ancestors.
And now they found themselves on an alien shore, served up as cannon fodder to a foe against whom they had no grievance, by officers and politicians whose aims and motives had no relevance to their own lives and experience. The survivors who made it back to their southern hemisphere homes were lauded as heroes for defending an empire they had mostly ceased to believe in – and their experiences laid the foundation for the sense of selfhood and nationhood that slowly began to emerge over the next half century or so. The distance from Europe had become spiritual as much as spatial.
In terms of written history, New Zealand and Australia are suckling babes compared to the lands that make up modern Turkey. Here rise the two rivers that bound Mesopotamia, one of the original birthplaces of civilisation. Here can be found the mountain on which Noah’s Ark is said to have grounded as the floodwaters of the deluge receded. So many more biblical events recorded in the Old and New Testaments took place here; so much of what we think of as Greek or Roman history unfolded here. The annals of history stretch back so far that the Turks, who have been here for a thousand years and more, are still looked on as newcomers and interlopers.
Therein lies another connection I want to make between Turkey and New Zealand. Here are the Turks, on the back doorstep of Europe, speaking a language no one can understand, with their roots way out in Central Asia. Show them, however, a TV channel from just across the border in Azerbaijan and most of them experience mild culture shock. As for their Turkic cousins in Kazakhstan, Kirghizstan or Tuva, they may feel some distant twinges of kinship, but there is no going back. Whatever Europeans may think, Turkey is not Asia. Its European credentials go back to Alexander the Great and beyond. For the same reason, whatever Turkish nationalists may wish to believe, the modern Turk has little or no genetic connection to the warrior horsemen that swept out of Central Asia in Europe’s darkest ages.
In much the same way, New Zealanders find themselves well settled on an island group in the South Pacific Ocean – speaking English in a region where Austronesian and Asiatic languages are the norm. Our cultural roots are half a world away, in the British Isles – but when we go there for our customary OE, or to research a family tree, we quickly realise that ‘we’ are not ‘they’, and ‘they’ are not ‘we’. For New Zealanders and Turks, the questions ‘Who are we?’ and ‘Why are we here?’ have more significance than mere philosophical pondering.
I want to return now briefly to that normally sleepy town on the Dardanelles. Unlike New Zealand and Australia, Turkey is a republic. Its head of state is a president elected by its own parliament. The people have their own Republic Day (29 October) on which to unite in pyrotechnic celebrations. The town of Çanakkale, however, awakes each year from its customary drowsiness on 18 March, and it can be argued that this date has more significance to the existence of modern Turkey. I have discussed elsewhere why the Turks celebrate their victory on that date, while we allies of the British prefer to think that we weren’t defeated until our final evacuation from the Gallipoli Peninsula eight months later. Be that as it may, the crucial point for Turkey is that the Battle of Çanakkale represented their one outstanding victory in an otherwise bleak war. The architect and inspiration of the success was Colonel Mustafa Kemal who went on to lead the army of national independence and become the first president of the Republic of Turkey. Most foreign visitors are puzzled and a little incredulous at the manifest signs of adulation directed towards Atatürk – but to Turks, he is the sine qua non of their existence as a nation. Turning back the invasion at Gallipoli undoubtedly earned him the credibility that powered him to his later achievements.
New Zealand is a small country with a tiny population, far from the halls, corridors and stages of geopolitical events – unlike Turkey, which is right there, on the spot and un-ignorable. For decades, Turkey was one of the major bulwarks of NATO and Europe when the former Soviet Union was vying with the USA for world domination. Hard to imagine now, but so it was, until the Soviet Russian Empire began to disintegrate in 1989. Most of us didn’t know it at the time, when the late great President Kennedy was self-righteously ordering the Soviets to remove their missiles from Cuba – but he and his Pentagon buddies had several bases in Turkey with their own nuclear hardware trained on the Russkies. For sure, the Russians knew, though, and had Turkey high on their list of targets for pre-emptive or retaliatory strikes. Even today, the US maintains a military base in the South East of Turkey, and George Bush Snr was happy to use it in launching his Operation Desert Storm. Western Europe has good reasons to be grateful to Turkey – yet it is unlikely they will ever welcome their big, loyal eastern cousin into their EU club. Well, these days you might think that acceptance would be a mixed blessing anyway, but still . . .
New Zealand, on the other hand, has never been of strategic importance in anyone’s plans for world domination – and thank God for that, say I! But we have played our part over the years, following, first Mother England, and later Uncle Sam, into wars which were of very peripheral concern to us: the Boer War, the First and Second World Wars, Korea, Viet Nam . . . We even made one or two offers that weren’t taken up. But when we tried to get involved in the big boys’ games, like asking the French to please explode their experimental nuclear bombs a little closer to their own backyard, did we get any support? A gang of French ‘secret’ agents bombed a protest vessel right in the centre of our largest city. Luckily, they were so incompetent that our police caught them – but then our government was forced to bow to diplomatic pressure and let the buggers go. Thanks, friends!
Well, I’m tired of international politics, and I’m sure you are too, so let’s go back into history, where I, for one, feel a lot more comfortable. There’s a fair dollop of Scottish blood in my family tree, as there is in that of many New Zealanders. Even today, some of us are not averse to donning a kilt, if we’ve got the legs for it, skirling the pipes, or sipping a wee dram at hogmanay. Scottish history is a complex business for such a small country, not helped by the likes of Mel Gibson confusing issues here, and oversimplifying them there. However, most of us like to feel a certain kinship with those mad Gaelic highlanders who needed a wall to keep them from rustling the sassenach’s cattle.
Forests, mountains and fast rivers
in the Turkish Black Sea region

Imagine my surprise, nay, disbelief, when, on a journey into the remote mountains of Turkey’s Black Sea coast, I followed a strange melodious wailing in the village I was visiting, and came upon a young man playing . . . a bagpipe! Sure enough! They call it tulum in those parts, and it’s a more primitive instrument, lacking the drones of its Scottish relative – but a relative nonetheless. No one really seems to know where those Celts and Gaels came from, though some suggest a Circassian or Central Asian origin. From there they spread all over Europe and, yes, Anatolia. Their name is immortalised in the comic strip hero, Asterix the Gaul, and in the country Wales, which Turks, interestingly, call Galler. The New Testament evangelist Paul, renowned for his epistles, wrote one to the Galatians, inhabitants of the region around modern Ankara, whose name again preserves their Gaelic heritage. Even in Istanbul itself, the area beside the Golden Horn where Europeans set up their trade and diplomatic posts is known as Galata, and some say this name has its origins in those early Scottish ancestors!

I want to conclude this discussion of the similarities between Turkey and New Zealand with a nod in the direction of my hippy flower power youth, and a return to nature. Everyone in the world surely knows that New Zealand is the cleanest, greenest country on earth, even if we ourselves know that we are continually doing our best to screw up the beauty God gave us. We are proud that our country was the most authentic place to shoot the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies. Most of us appreciate the chance we still have to tramp through primeval forests and dive into crystal clear pools beneath pristine cascades of snow melt rivers flowing from majestic alpine peaks. We identify strongly with our flightless avian symbol, the kiwi, and take pride in the fact that this word from the language of our indigenous Maori race has found its way into most of the languages of the civilised world. We are less proud of the fact that 277 species of our native flora and fauna are listed as endangered, but we care, we really do.
Everyone in the world may be less aware that Turkey has 167 species on that same list – nothing much to be proud of, until you consider that, at least those species still exist in Turkey, when they have been pretty much wiped out from the rest of Europe and the Middle East. The closest thing I have seen to the forests of West Coast New Zealand is the Black Sea region of Turkey, where a snow-capped 4000 metre mountain range plunges down through rain-forested slopes to the coast, sending fast-flowing rivers through precipitous gorges to the sea. Turkey has huge biogeographic diversity, and is a key location for many species of migratory birds. The largest remaining stands of Lebanese cedar are here, as well as breeding places for the Mediterranean monk seal and the caretta caretta turtle. Contrary to popularly spread rumours, the first episode of ‘Star Wars’ was not filmed in Cappadocia, but it might have been, if George Lucas had got his way – in which case, it could well have been an even more spectacular film.
I confess, there are times when I feel a long way from home – and, measured in kilometres, it’s a major trip, for sure. But most of the time I feel remarkably at home in Turkey, largely because the people are hospitable, just like us.
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