Bodrum to Gallipoli – A week’s wandering in Aegean Turkey

A major benefit of receiving visitors from abroad – apart from the happiness of catching up with family and old friends – is the motivation they provide for getting out and seeing the sights of Turkey through fresh eyes. We had a family wedding in May which brought guests from the USA, and took us down to Bodrum a month or so earlier than usual. Then some old neighbours arrived from New Zealand, and together we took a slow trip through the Aegean region back to Istanbul.
Here are a few highlights:
Myndos is the ancient name for the modern village of Gümüşlük-by-the-Sea where our journey began. There is no evidence to indicate that it had much more importance in those days than it has today – which is perhaps its saving grace. The Bodrum Peninsula is in serious danger of succumbing to the curse of over-development, but the existence of classical ruins beneath its humble surface has so far saved Gümüşlük from the worst depredations. Its small natural harbour and sandy beaches lined with atmospheric fish restaurants and small shops selling tasteful handcrafts, and jams and marmalades made from locally-grown fruits, attract visitors desperate to escape the English breakfasts, English football and Turkish nightclubs that blight other resorts on the peninsula.
Recently archeologists from Bursa’s Uludağ University have been fossicking around remains of temples, churches, theatres and bathhouses – and council workers laying pipes accidentally turned up a Roman necropolis. So far, fortunately, nothing’s been found that’s likely to attract coachloads of tourists or titanic cruise liners.
Magnesia-on-the-Meander. Certainly there are other sites on the road deserving a visit, but this one is a little publicized gem. My previous visits had been in the heat and dust of July or August, so carpets of red, purple and yellow spring flowers made for an extra delight. The city was renowned for its temple to Artemis Leucophryeno which, in its heyday, was little inferior to the better known temple at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Sadly, not much remains today, but a short walk will take you to a 20,000-seater stadium, wonderfully preserved as a result of being buried for centuries under a landslide caused by a 7th century earthquake. Incidentally, our word ‘magnet’ is said to come from lodestones found in Magnesia.
The modern town of Selçuk is a popular base for tourists wishing to visit Ephesus and other neighbouring cities of classical antiquity. Americans and touchingly credulous Roman Catholics climb a nearby mountain to pay their respects at a site purported to be built over an earlier house once inhabited by Mary, mother of Jesus (or of God Himself, if you are of that persuasion). The ‘purporter’ was apparently a stigmatised ecstatic visionary German nun who, despite never having left her home territory of Westphalia, provided directions to the said house, delivered to her in a visitation from the said Mary.
If you do go to Ephesus, I recommend shelling out a few extra dollars for admission to the terrace houses, a work in progress recreating the lives of well-heeled Ephesians back when the apostle Paul was writing to them (well, maybe not to those Ephesians). An international crew of dedicated archeologists is carrying out unbelievably painstaking work reassembling wall frescoes and floor mosaics from thousands of fragments that you and I would probably not even notice.
It is generally understood that carpet-sellers in Turkey are a local hazard to be avoided at all costs. However, an exception to the rule is a government-sponsored co-operative located behind the (currently closed) Selçuk museum on the back road to the 13th century Mosque of Isa Bey. We stumbled upon it by accident and allowed ourselves to be inveigled in. It did, however, turn out to be a worthwhile mishap. Apart from providing a place for master (or mistress) weavers to work and train young apprentices and market their wares, the centre also gives insights into the age-old art of silk production. One interesting fact I learned – the ancient Egyptians used silk threads to cut the stones used for pyramid building. Well, true or not, I have always wondered how those artisans of old were able to accurately cut thin sheets of marble for lining their temples and churches.
It’s a bit of a trek from Selçuk – and probably you need a vehicle of your own – but Aphrodisias is a magical site well worth a visit. At this point I have to give a plug to my friend Adrian. We were fortunate to find him in town, sipping a cold ale at Eksellans Bar on Saturday evening, and he was gracious enough to let us tag along on his Sunday tour. Aphrodisias is, of course, named for the goddess Aphrodite, since there was a major cult of followers located in the city in ancient times. I wouldn’t be the first to suggest a connection between the Greek goddess, earlier Aegean deities Cybele and Artemis, and the cult of the Virgin Mary that subsequently developed when Christianity became the state religion in these parts.
For my money, Aphrodisias is a more atmospheric site than the better known, and more accessible Ephesus. Precisely because of its lesser accessibility, of course, you will find fewer tour buses from the cruise liners of Kuşadası. The on-site museum is a treasure house of fabulous sculpture, and the almost intact stadium redolent of Russell Crowe’s ‘Gladiator’. If you are lucky enough to have Adrian in your party, you will be treated to translations of the many inscriptions for which this site is renowned.
The modern Turkish town of Bergama is located at the foot of the acropolis of the ancient city of Pergamon. Many of the best finds are more likely to be seen in the eponymous museum in Berlin, but still it’s a spectacular site with a breath-taking theatre built on the precipitous hill. Roman engineers brought water by aqueduct from 40+ kilometres away, and some local inventor came up with the idea of parchment. Apparently commodity traders in Cairo had started stock-piling papyrus in anticipation of a shortage thereby creating a shortage, and got their come-uppance in a big way!
A brisk walk from the bottom of the hill will bring you to the Asklepius Medical Centre, whose residents included the famous physician Galen. Among its patients were some with psychiatric disorders, who were treated with music, dream interpretation and the sound of a sacred spring burbling down the corridor. Incidentally, if you’re looking for place to stay with a little ambience I can recommend the Athena Pension, an old Greek house with a view of the acropolis from its walled garden.
Following our hosts’ recommendation, instead of retracing our steps, we took a back road through Kozak – according to locals, the richest town in Turkey because of its trade in pine nuts. The road brought us out a little north of Ayvalik where we stopped for lunch at a delightful little place called Zeytin Altı Kır BahçesiA Country garden under the Olive Trees. As with many of the best Turkish eateries, its menu was limited to what they do best: grilled köfte and gözleme, both of which were delicious! We also picked up a few local products, fruit juice and a kind of molasses (pekmez) made from mulberries, and some tasty sliced olives in tomato sauce.
Our final stopover was the town of Çanakkaleon the southern coast of the Dardanelles, where we booked a tour to the killing fields and cemeteries of Gallipoli, that long-ago exercise in military futility that has nevertheless bequeathed a sense of identity to Australia, New Zealand and the modern Republic of Turkey. My guests and I felt a strong admiration for the Turks who have allowed former invaders to maintain cemeteries to their fallen heroes, to build a large memorial on the crucial ridge of Chunuk Bair, and have even erected a signpost directing visitors to Anzak Koyu (Anzac Cove).
One of our fellow travellers on the tour bus was a young Maori lad who told us that he intended to perform a haka in honour of his ancestors who had fought and died for a king and empire to whom they had little cause to feel obligated. It was an impressive one-man performance that brought a tear to my eye – and a little anger against an elderly Anglo-Australian woman who demanded indignantly to know why we had to be subjected to such a spectacle.
A curious incident occurred as we were about to board the ferry that would take us across the water to the town of Eceabat. One of our guides, a young Turkish lass calling herself Zuzu, with a Goth hairdo and numerous body piercings, announced that we would in fact take a later boat because there were a few Turkish police on our intended ferry, and ‘they kill people’. I wonder what what the short-stay tourists made of that.

Another Anzac Day in Turkey – Modern myths and legends

Another Anzac Day is just a few weeks away. It’s not the big one. 2015, in fact, will see the centennial of that dreadful exercise in military futility known in English as the Gallipoli Campaign, and to Turks as the Çanakkale War. Next year visitor numbers will be limited, I understand, to politicians, celebrities and ordinary folk lucky enough to have their number drawn in a ballot.
‘Evacuation’ – Anzac statue in
Australian War Memorial Museum
This year, I guess, there are fewer restrictions, and the usual crowds of pilgrims from Downunder will converge on the beaches, battlefields and cemeteries where more than eleven thousand of their grandfathers left their mortal remains during eight months of bitter trench warfare.
One reason I am writing this a little early is that I wanted to bisect the dates selected by Turks and Anzacs to commemorate the event. For Turks, in fact, it has passed. 18 March is when they celebrate their victory – sadly ironic for Australians and New Zealanders who remember 25 April as the day our boys first came ashore at Anzac Cove. As far as Ottoman Commanders were concerned, the major threat came from battleships of the combined French and British navies attempting to storm through the Dardanelles, heave to at the entrance to the Bosporus, train their 15 inch guns on the Sultan’s palace and offer him the chance to come out quietly with his hands up.
Like many well-laid and not-so-well-laid plans of mice and men, the naval gambit didn’t come off. Three battleships (one French and two British) were sunk by the shore batteries and mines inhospitably emplaced by Ottoman defence forces. The Royal Navy and its French allies beat a strategic retreat, and Plan B was put into action. Plan B was, of course, the beach landings with which we antipodeans are more familiar. For their part the Ottomans, trusting in conventional military wisdom which favours the defenders in a marine-based invasion, backed themselves to turn it back – which they ultimately did, after eight months of fairly pointless slaughter.
These days, however, what we descendants of those Anzac lads choose to commemorate is something more symbolic. At the time, of course, the British Empire was still claiming to rule the seas and an empire on which the sun never set. New Zealanders, at least, were still colonials and thinking of Britain as ‘Home’; the King and Country they were fighting for, George V and Mother England. Many of us these days, rightly or wrongly, look upon 25 April 1915 as the date we began to grow up as a nation, to cut the imperial apron strings and to forge our own identity. The brave young men who performed above and beyond the call of duty in those Gallipoli valleys and on the ridges planted the seeds of independence and self-determination in our national psyche.
The actual day of commemoration in Turkey may be different, but that bloody struggle has an equally important place in the popular consciousness. Defeat in the First World War heralded the end of the 600-year Ottoman Empire. Victory in the Çanakkale War marked the beginning of the rise of Mustafa Kemal who went on to lead the resistance movement that turned back a military invasion, expelled occupying forces and founded the modern Republic of Turkey.
Legends abound on both sides of extraordinary courage, heart-rending pathos and minor events with major repercussions. One such is known to Turks as ‘the watch that changed a nation’s destiny’. One of the crucial engagements of the campaign took place on the ridge of Conk Bayırı (Chunuk Bair). During that closely fought encounter, a piece of shrapnel is said to have struck Col. Mustafa Kemal in the chest – the watch in his breast pocket taking the impact and very likely saving his life. Turks often say, ‘If not for Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, there would be no Turkey.’
‘A Man and his Donkey’
Melbourne War Memorial
On the Anzac side, an enduring story is that of Private Simpson who, with his trusty donkey, earned fame and gratitude by ferrying wounded comrades back to the shore under constant fire in an area known as Shrapnel Gully. Prints of the man and his beast hang on walls of RSA clubrooms, and a statue by sculptor Wallace Anderson in the Australian War Memorial in Melbourne enshrines the legend.
In Turkey too, statues are to be found that embody the courage and self-sacrifice of young men who managed to retain their humanity in those inhuman conditions. There is Corporal Seyit, a gunner who is reputed to have carried single-handedly three artillery shells weighing 275kg to the shore batteries silenced when the shell crane was damaged.
Another, in a location known to Anzacs as Pine Ridge, immortalises the deed of a Turkish soldier who carried a wounded Allied officer to safety.  According to an article in The Daily Telegraph, the officer, a captain, ‘lay in no man’s land while a ferocious battle raged around him. A white flag tied to the muzzle of a rifle appeared from a Turkish trench and the shooting suddenly stopped. A Turkish soldier climbed from the trench, picked up the officer, delivered him to the Australian lines and returned to his own side.’ The story is considered reliable since it was reported by a Lieutenant Richard Casey who later became Governor-General of Australia.
It is a surprising thing to me that Turks seem to harbour no resentment against the descendants of those Anzacs who invaded their country and killed eighty thousand of their young men. On the contrary, I have found that my New Zealand nationality seems to give me a special status in Turkey. We are accorded free-of-charge a three-month visitor’s visa when we enter the country – a gesture, I am sad to say, our government does not reciprocate. The magnanimous words of Atatürk to the mothers of Anzac soldiers killed in action are often quoted:
Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives . . . You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent your sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well
I was a little saddened, then, to read the following article in my local Turkish newspaper last week (I am translating directly from the Turkish):
“On the 99th anniversary of the Çanakkale Naval Victory, and as Anzacs prepare for ceremonies commemorating their war dead, an 89 year-old insult has come to light.
A statue entitled ‘Evacuation’ in the collection of the War memorial Museum in the Australian capital city Canberra depicts an Anzac soldier leaning against a gun carriage with a Turkish flag under his feet . . . and beside the flag a human skull assumed to belong to a Turkish soldier. The gun carriage on which the Anzac soldier is leaning represents war and the disaster of Gallipoli. The Turkish flag and skull on which he is standing symbolize the territory they invaded and the enemies they killed.
The Museum’s website contains photographs, and information that the statue was modelled in clay in 1925, moulded in plaster in 1926 and cast in bronze in Melbourne in 1927. According to notes on the website, the 82 cm-high statue was later bought by the Australian War Memorial Museum and added to its collection.
While our boys during the Çanakkale War were waving a white flag to pause hostilities and behaving like gentlemen in carrying a wounded Anzac soldier back to his own trench, the continued presence of this statue in the collection after 89 years has drawn a reaction from history scholars.
Every year on Anzac Day, April 25, Australians and New Zealanders coming to pay their respects to their forebears are welcomed at Kanlısırt on the Gallipoli Peninsula by a monument depicting a Turkish soldier carrying a wounded Anzac soldier in his arms.”
Well, I checked it out and it’s true. There is such a statue in the Australian War Memorial Museum, and it seems to contain the details the Turkish columnist was objecting to. The sculptor referred to earlier, Wallace Anderson, served in France during the First World War, so he had first hand experience of the conflict. Apparently he saw it as his artistic mission ‘to show the public the qualities of Australian servicemen, rather than just the details of war’. This particular piece, entitled ‘Evacuation’, according to the museum website, portrays an ‘idealised depiction of Australian manhood’, an admirable sentiment, as far as it goes. We should recognize, however, that what may have been important to Australians and New Zealanders back there in the 1920s may have been superseded by the requirements of living in the 21st century global village.
One of the myths of Gallipoli, from an Allied point-of-view is that, although we were unsuccessful, we put up an almighty fight, and in the end, by remarkable feats of ingenuity and cunning, managed to spirit ourselves away from under the noses of the Turkish gunners without major loss of life. It is just possible, however, that those Ottoman commanders, seeing the invaders were obviously intent on vacating the premises, and buggering off back to wherever they had come from, elected to let them go without inflicting more unnecessary casualties. It may have been deemed necessary, in Australia in 1925, to maintain the myth by suggesting that, in spite of the manifest failure of the Gallipoli invasion, our boys had trampled on the Turkish flag and inflicted heavy casualties on those young men defending their homeland – but 90 years on we may want to accept that such jingoistic imperialism belongs, at best, to the footnotes of history.
One of my favourite New Zealand writers, Maurice Shadbolt, produced a book based on interviews he carried out in the early 1980s. Realising that the Gallipoli generation would not be around much longer, Shadbolt hunted out a number of survivors and visited them in old folks’ homes around New Zealand. ‘Voices of Gallipoli’ is a collection of transcripts of the interviews he conducted with these men, now in their 80s, some of whom had not spoken of their experiences from that day to this. Their poignant recollections convey, with dramatic simplicity, the contrast between the idealised heroic glamour of war and the dehumanising squalor, terror and personal loss of the Gallipoli experience:
“I lost my dearest friend, Teddy Charles, that day.  We joined up together and saw the campaign through together until Chunuk Bair.  There were no officers left, no NCOs. Just soldiers.  Teddy led thirty men forward to try and hold the ridge.  He called, “Come on, Vic”, but I was impeded by Turkish fire.  We never saw those thirty men again.  Later, in the dark, I thought I heard Teddy’s voice calling for his mother, then for me. But then the place was crawling with Turks and I couldn’t get to him.  He’s still on Chunuk Bair, a pile of bones.”
“Veterans of the Wellington battalion remember a member of the machine-gun section being sentenced to death for sleeping at his post. It happened in late July at Quinn’s Post. The sentence was remitted on medical grounds as the man had not been relieved from sentry duty at the proper time.  He continued to serve on the peninsula and was killed in the August battles.”
Interestingly, there is very little information about this book online – it seems to be out of print and I was unable to find an in-depth review. How many years must pass before we are able to view historical events with dispassionate objectivity? Very occasionally we are permitted a glimpse into a ‘familiar’ event through the eyes of another observer – and the experience can be sobering.
I read another Turkish source suggesting that, if the invasion of Gallipoli had succeeded and Allied forces had been able to supply and reinvigorate the Czarist Russian military, as was their aim, the Bolshevik Revolution might have been delayed and perhaps never have occurred. The red tide of British Imperialism might have flowed a little longer – and that of Soviet Communism faded before it began. The world might have been spared the mindlessly suffocating half-century of Cold War threats and posturing.

History is full of ‘Ifs’ and ‘might-have-beens’ . . . and it’s worth remembering that there are at least two sides to every story.

What Would Atatürk Say – if he came back today?

One of the things that impressed me in my first years living and working in Turkey was the seemingly unabashed patriotism in evidence everywhere I looked – pictures of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic in every school classroom and government office; statues of the great man in every public square throughout the land; the national anthem sung with fervour at football matches, public ceremonies and school assemblies; the army held up as the sacred guardian of democracy and secularism; the nation’s flag an object of pride and revered symbol of those who had spilt their blood, even given their lives to establish the Republic of Turkey.
‘That watch changed the destiny of a nation’
For me, coming from a country where the gloss of patriotism had been long since tarnished by the lies of scheming politicians, it was a touching experience to be amongst a people so clearly imbued with such loyalty to their nation and belief in the rectitude of their young republic. I remember, in New Zealand, a time when cinema audiences would stand, as the curtain rose, to a stirring performance of ‘God Save our Gracious Queen!’ Younger generations would hardly imagine that such naïveté was ever possible.
That gracious lady was queen, not of New Zealand alone, but of the British Empire, whose star was beginning to fade. The loss of India, embarrassment in Egypt, Iran and Malaya, and the rise to global supremacy of the USA and the USSR, were beginning to push Westminster, London, to the sidelines of world affairs. The threat of nuclear global annihilation, the madness and hypocrisy of the war in Vietnam and a growing awareness of the plight of minority peoples were producing a generation of youth cynical about those in power and not afraid to express their opposition. As New Zealanders remained seated prior to watching the latest exploits of James Bond on cinema screens, the British national anthem was sent happy and glorious to the trashcan of colonial history.
Of course, there are those who may still shed a tear for the passing of a great age, which undoubtedly brought benefits to the world as well as harm. So it is understandable that, in Turkey, there are fears in some circles that abolishing the requirement for primary school students to recite the Oath of Turkishness marks the end of Atatürk’s secular experiment, and clearly demonstrates the anti-republican agenda of the incumbent government. But is it really so?
The secular republic that Mustafa Kemal and his followers established in 1923 was paradoxically overwhelmingly Muslim in the composition of its population. The imperial ambitions and expansion of its northern and western neighbours over two centuries had seen a huge influx to the Anatolian heartland of Muslim refugees expelled from their ancestral homelands, and the encouragement of nationalist secessionist activities within the Ottoman Empire.
When that empire was fighting vainly for its very existence in the First World War, and shortly after its death republican forces expelled foreign armies of occupation, the continued presence of Christian minorities became virtually untenable outside of cosmopolitan Istanbul. The freedom-fighting spirit that Mustafa Kemal harnessed to fight the invaders was a pragmatic coalition of Turkish nationalists, patriotic Ottomans and proud Muslims of many backgrounds. There was a need to unite against a common enemy that inevitably masked differences which later emerged: indigenous groups (Kurds, Laz, Arabs) and refugee immigrants (Circassian, Crimean Tatar, Greek) with their own distinctive languages and cultures; Muslims who did not identify with the Sunni majority (Alevi); Jews and tiny remaining Christian groups, all of whom, to a greater or lesser extent, found themselves obliged to mouth jingoistic slogans of Turkish nationalism with which they felt little affinity.
So the oath that children in schools had been obliged to recite since 1932 has finally been shelved as part of the democratisation package recently introduced by the Turkish parliament. Will that mean the end of secular Turkey? I don’t think so. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk laid down six principles as the foundation stones of his new republic: republicanism, nationalism, secularism, populism, étatism, and reformism/revolutionism. Since his day, the country has been ruled by a ‘secular’ elite. When an elected government strayed too far from the ‘approved’ path, the army could be relied on to step in, remove them and guide the nation back . . . to what?
Nationalism is only one-sixth of those six principles – and to retain its integrity in the long-term, the republic must formulate a definition of ‘nation’that is inclusive rather than exclusive. Secularismmeans separation of church (or mosque) and state – it doesn’t mean the abolition of religion. The vast majority of Turkey’s population is Muslim. All democratically elected governments have to pay lip service to this, and most have done far more. Populism means equality, but you don’t have to be long in Turkey to see that there is an unofficial class system lurking not far below the surface, and the military has been intimately bound up with its preservation. Etatism was a mixed economic model that allowed for private enterprise while acknowledging a need for state involvement and oversight – perhaps the ‘Third Way’ that Tony Blah’s New Labour Party in the UK was seeking but never found. Free market capitalists hate it, of course, since it implies state-imposed limits on human greed – and this Kemalist principle fell from favour. What happened to reformism/revolutionism? Successive governments became conservative and used Kemalism/Atatürkçülük as a stick to ensure conformity.
Alongside the statues and pictures of Atatürk you will always find sayings attributed to Turkey’s great founder and leader. Once again, however, there has been a tendency to pick and choose which ones will be remembered and which laid aside. Perhaps the most important of these is the one which goes (freely translated): ‘It is not enough to see my face. The important thing is to understand my ideas and my motives.’[1] Atatürk himself said, ‘There are two Mustafa Kemals: one is the creature of flesh and bone you see before you; the other is the spirit of revolutionary idealism that lives inside all of us.’[2]
Being a true Kemalist, then, is not about hanging his picture on your wall and admiring his steely blue eyes. It does not mean just taking on board the principles that suit your interests and quietly sidelining the others. The words in Atatürk’s Address to Turkish Youth cut two ways – if your fortresses and shipyards are under foreign control it is your duty to rebel and fight. He achieved what he did, founded the republic with vision, determination, popular support and strong leadership. Following him now and in the future means studying his ideas and understanding what he did and why he did it.
For one thing, Atatürk recognised that military victory was only the beginning of the new republic’s struggle. In the long-term, all the achievements of the army would be lost without continued economic development and sharing of prosperity amongst all citizens, not just the privileged few. Leadership does not mean sitting comfortably in your palace enjoying the benefits of civilisation while sending others to do the fighting and the dying. Ataturk won the respect of his people and the right to make hard decisions that not everyone agreed with – including many of the privileged elite – by being a leader who led from the front. He was prepared to put his credibility and life on the line. In the 1915 action known in Turkey as Anafartalar, and to Anzacs as Chunuk Bair, he was at the head of his troops setting an example for others to follow, and the fob watch that stopped a fragment of shrapnel from entering his heart is a powerful symbol of this.
Atatürk is often called the first teacher of the new republic. He emphasised the importance of education for all, and one of the aims of his alphabet reform[3] was to make literacy more accessible. Everyone knows that the education system in Turkey is in desperate need of a makeover. The state system is seriously underfunded, and allowing the private sector to take up the slack is not the answer. It may quieten the privileged minority who can afford to send their children to private schools, but it does not provide quality education. In the end, the main aim of private business is to maximise profits, which, whatever idealistic slogans are propounded by the owners, translates to bums on seats, window-dressing and reducing teacher salaries, which are always the largest item of expenditure.
In recent years the government of Turkey has been pushing ahead with moves to revamp the constitution. These moves have met with considerable resistance from the conservative opposition. From their objections, an outsider might get the impression that the existing constitution was the sacred one written by Atatürk and his brothers-in-arms back in the 1920s – a document akin to the Ten Commandments, set down in stone for all time, infallible and immutable. In fact, the document they so staunchly defend was penned by the generals who carried out the military coup in 1980. It instituted provisions to keep Kurds out of parliament, suppress left wing politics, and used religion and extreme nationalism to gain support for its moves. That constitution is desperately in need of change, but it takes time to carry out serious structural reform in a democratic environment. When criticism comes from both extremes, we may think that the reformers have got it about right. The first necessary change was to pull the teeth of the military who had been the force behind those wishing to retain the status quo. Europe and the US may secretly prefer to deal with dictatorial regimes when doing so simplifies the business of looking after their own interests – but they will never welcome such countries into equal partnership. For Turkey, accepting the result of the ballot box is an important step on the road to establishing a truly democratic republic.
The foreign policy of the government is another area in which Turkey comes in for considerable criticism. On the one hand, it is said that Mr Tayyip Erdoğan’s government is in the pocket of the United States, slavishly doing their bidding like a well-trained lapdog. On the other hand, the accusers assert that Turkey is following a Neo-Ottoman path aimed at undoing secular democratic reforms and restoring Islamic Shariah law. It’s hard to imagine that both accusations can be true – although US friendship with the hand-amputating, woman-flogging Wahhabi extremist Muslim Saudi royal family suggests that they have fewer objections to fundamentalist Islamic dictators than they would have us believe.
Interestingly, the government of Turkey is about to purchase a new rocket defence system from China. The project was put out to tender and the Chinese bid was not only the lowest, but the Chinese also included in the deal an undertaking to share technological expertise, and help Turkey to carry out much of the manufacturing of hardware within its own borders. Tenders from Western nations (and Russia, whose bid was also passed over) did not include such cooperation. Of course, no country, especially one as strategically located as Turkey, can afford the luxury of divorcing itself from the world’s only superpower. However this government has proved to those with eyes to see that it is by no means in America’s pocket, and is capable of formulating and following its own policies for the good of its own people.
A recent news item announced that New Zealand had been visited by several Chinese warships – I wonder what US leaders think of that. NZ, however, unlike Turkey, is far from the highways of geo-politics and strategy, and like a small child, can count on a little parental indulgence. When NZ’s Labour government back in the 70s instituted a ban on nuclear-powered and armed vessels in its waters, the US were naturally peeved, but they lived with it. I wonder if the Chinese vessels currently in Auckland Harbour have nuclear technology on board, or if the Chinese government would let on if they did.
Getting back to Atatürk, he sought and received help from Soviet Russia during Turkey’s War of Liberation. Atatürk was not a Communist but he was a realist. The West would divide and annihilate his country. They were supporting the Greek invasion. If the new Soviet state would aid his struggle, he would accept their aid and deal with the consequences later. As far as I understand, there were none. No doubt Turkey’s membership of NATO meant that it had the backing of the US and Western Europe to discourage Soviet incursion during the Cold War – but the West too undoubtedly benefited from Turkey’s large military, and from being able to locate bases on Turkish soil. It wasn’t a one-way street.
The second decade of the twenty-first century is shaping to be an interesting one for Turkey. The economy continues to show strong signs of good health and growth. Undoubtedly, political problems in the region continue to pose problems, not only locally, but for the world beyond. Turkey is on the spot. It has a long history of dealing with its neighbours, and Western powers would do well to soft-pedal their criticism and lend an ear to what Turkish spokespersons on foreign policy have to say. As for the people of Turkey, I have heard some express a nostalgic wish for a resurrected Atatürk to return to the nation’s helm. It can’t happen, of course – but I suspect that, if he were looking down from somewhere on high, he would not be totally disappointed with the current state of the republic he founded.

[1] Beni görmek demek, mutlaka yüzümü görmek değildir. Benim fikirlerimi, benim duygularımı anlıyorsanız ve hissediyorsanız bu kâfidir.
[2] İki Mustafa Kemal vardır: Biri ben, et ve kemik, geçici Mustafa Kemal… İkinci Mustafa Kemal, onu “ben” kelimesiyle ifade edemem; o, ben değil, bizdir!
[3] Abolishing the Arabic alphabet in favour of a Latin-based one.

Turkey and New Zealand – Border Monuments

Regular readers may remember a piece I wrote a year or so ago about the Turkish dessert, ashure. My short essay won a competition on the website ‘Changing Turkey in  Changing World‘.  I attempted to retain my title in their second ‘Big Idea’ competition, but this time I could only manage runner-up.  The topic was:

Border monuments are often designed to celebrate mobility and interconnectedness. According to the architect Cecil Balmond, “A border offers identity but one that is enriched by neighbours, so that it’s not so much a line of separation as a local set of interconnected values.”
We are seeking short essays (max. 1,500 words) on any European border monument. Entries are invited on these or any other border monuments located in Europe. We are particularly interested in learning why those monuments were built in the first place and how they contribute to the connection between two separate communities.

And here’s my response . . . 


The question calls for a European border monument, so I should briefly explain why I am focussing on four – two of which are far from Europe. In doing so, I have in mind questions of my own: If borders are lines drawn to keep people apart, is their real existence on a map, or in the human mind? Do values connect on the ground, or in the mind? Does the uniting of people take place in a physical location – or in the mind?


My home these days is in Istanbul, but I come from a country about as far from Turkey as it is possible to get. My hometown, Auckland, New Zealand, is 17,000 kilometres away. Carry on a little further, you’ll cross the International Dateline into yesterday, and be on your way back. When my father’s ancestors left the old country, Scotland, in June, 1842, they endured a four-month sea voyage. When I board my Airbus 340-600 on 13 January, I’ll be looking at a trip of 31 hours and 20 minutes. I will check out with Turkish Police at Atatürk Airport, and get a going-over from the NZ border people when I arrive in Auckland. In between, I will fly over half the world, mostly at an altitude of around 10,000 metres.

It is self-evident that borders these days are not as straightforward as they used to be. Turkey has an almost 10,000 kilometre-long border on land and sea – but where do customs officers do most of their business? Airports, I guess. New Zealand has 15,000 kilometres of coastline, and no border with another country – yet we are one of the world’s most peripatetic people, constantly crossing international borders, especially to destinations in Europe, where most of us have our roots.

Not many New Zealanders have roots in Turkey. However, a surprisingly large number visit the country each year – many of them on a pilgrimage that has become an annual event towards the end of April. They flock to the town of Çanakkale, attend a solemn dawn parade with politicians and neighbours from Australia, and visit the cemeteries and killing-fields of that long-ago exercise in military futility, the Gallipoli invasion.

The first time I visited that desolate landscape was with a group from the Turkish school where I had begun working as a teacher of English. The date was 18 March, a few weeks before the latter-day Anzacs would arrive, but the day on which Turks commemorate their victory. The highlight for me was ascending to the ridge overlooking the peninsula, known to Turks as Conk Bayırı, and in Anzac legend as Chunuk Bair. This narrow strip of land was the key to the campaign, and the objective of a twelve-day battle in August 1915. Reports tell us that it was the only Allied success of the entire Gallipoli invasion – sad when you consider that a small force of New Zealanders fought their way up and held the ridge for a mere 48 hours, suffering horrendous losses, before being driven off by the Ottoman counter-attack.

The positive thing, from a New Zealand point-of-view is that there, on that ridge of ghosts, stand two memorials. The larger one commemorates the hero of the Ottoman defence, Colonel Mustafa Kemal, who went on to become the founder and first president of the Republic of Turkey. Alongside is a second shrine, to the memory of the young men from New Zealand who fought and died on that lonely ridge, so far from home and family. It is this latter monument on which I will focus, and to which we will return.
Atatürk Memorial,
Wellington, NZ

Seventeen thousand kilometres away, on a hillside near Wellington, the capital city of New Zealand, a site chosen for its remarkable similarity to the terrain of Gallipoli, stands another monument, this one to the memory of that same Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk). There is no line on any map linking or separating the two countries. The distance between them is as great as possible between two places on planet Earth – yet these two monuments so far apart, represent an interconnectedness, a sharing of history and values, that transcend mere physical distance.

Young men from New Zealand and Australia, loyal citizens of the British Empire, spent a month travelling by ship to Europe, to fight for King and Country in the Great War.  Thousands of them never returned, but left their remains on foreign fields. One might expect that Turks, at least, would harbour some ill-feeling against people who travelled so far with aggressive intent – but it is not so. Inscribed on that monument near Wellington are the magnanimous words of the Turkish leader:

“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives . . . You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours . . . You, the mothers, who sent your sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”

It was in recognition of this great-heartedness, that the government of New Zealand raised a memorial to Atatürk on the ridge above Tarakena Bay, and in acknowledgment of the Turkish government’s allowing the building of the NZ shrine at Chunuk Bair – commemorating the 850 Kiwi ‘Johnnies’ who ‘lie in the bosom’ of the Turkish Republic. These two monuments link the hearts and minds of two nations whose birth pangs can be traced to those bloody months on the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915. The words of a Turkish poet, Necmettin Halil Onan, are inscribed in huge letters on a hillside overlooking the Dardanelle Straits, and the lines could be as true for New Zealand as for Turkey:

Traveler, pause. An era ended
Where you heedless tread. Listen
And hear, in the silence of this
Mound, a nation’s beating heart. [1]

But there is more to this connection. A few years ago I was wandering along Raglan Beach, on the West Coast of New Zealand’s North Island, when I chanced upon three carved wooden sculptures, unmistakably Maori: a traditional tattooed male figure, a bird and a dolphin, all silver-grey and weathered by the winds and salt spray sweeping in from two thousand kilometres of one of the world’s wildest seas.

Aotearoa, as the indigenous Maori people call New Zealand, is a lonely, isolated land, bordered on all sides by vast oceans, and, it goes without saying, no contiguous neighbours. Anthropologists tell us that these islands were the last habitable landmass to be populated by humans, who made their landing less than a thousand years ago. Those first arrivals, the Maori, maintained their splendid isolation for perhaps five centuries before Europeans began to arrive from the late 1700s. For the next hundred years, immigrants from Europe faced a journey of four months on a sailing ship. And there we are to this day, descendants of those intrepid pioneers, inhabiting a cluster of islands in the South Pacific Ocean, far from our roots in the British Isles, speaking a language whose closest relations are half a world away. The carved figures are not of European origin, yet they speak eloquently of our isolation, and search for identity.

I have seen a lot of Turkey, but there is a line I have yet to travel – east from the capital Ankara through the Anatolian cities of Sivas, Erzincan and Erzurum, to Kars and the Armenian border. Out there, 1174 kilometres, and a universe away from the European metropolis of Istanbul, lies the town of Manzikert (Malazgirt in Turkish) in the province of Muş. As every Turkish school child will tell you, this was the site of a battle in 1071 CE, when the forces of the Seljuk Turkish Sultan Alparslan defeated the army of the Byzantine Emperor, Romanus Diogenes. His victory opened the way for Turks to sweep into Anatolia, where they remain today – in defiance of the feelings of many Western Europeans, who wish they would return to whence they came.

My fourth monument is there, in that remote East Anatolian town – erected in 1989 to commemorate a long ago battle. It may be debatable whether this edifice is in Europe, but the Turks indisputably are, as out of place with their language and traditions as we white New Zealanders are down there in the South Pacific. It’s a strange world we live in, and sources of conflict are easy to find. The borders we draw, on the ground and in our minds, are often lines of defence. Crossing them to make connections requires imagination and breadth of vision. My four monuments can be seen as unconnected and irrelevant – or as pointers to a new world where we seek the values we share, rather than the differences that divide us.

Word count (including Preamble) = 1495

1 My translation

Beyond Futility – Gallipoli Revisited

One of my first expeditions out of Istanbul was a school trip. I’d started working at a small private high school as a teacher of English. My English colleague and I tagged along with a coach-load of Turkish students and teachers. Our itinerary took in the small town of Çanakkale on the Asian shore of the Dardanelles, the archeological excavations of Troy, and the Aegean seaside village of Behramkale, alongside another historical site, the ancient city of Assos.

I was really looking forward to seeing the ruins of Troy, but it turned out that Çanakkale was, in fact, the most important destination for us. It was 17 March and the town was buzzing. We stayed overnight in a hotel, rose early on Saturday morning and found vantage points near the town square to watch the parade. There was music and dancing, military bands, students from dozens of local schools regaled in traditional folk costumes – all the ingredients of a major celebration. And what was the occasion? Çanakkale Victory Day.

Well, it’s possible that you may not immediately get the significance of this, so let me go on. After the parade, we crossed to the European side of the strait and were taken on a guided tour of the graveyards, museums and battle sites of what we grandsons and daughters of the British Empire know as the Gallipoli Campaign. We saw row upon row of gravestones in neatly kept cemeteries preserving the memory of the estimated quarter of a million young men who died in this tragic sideshow of World War I. We climbed to the highest point on the peninsula, Conk Bayırı in Turkish, known in English as the ridge of Chunuk Bair. There we saw the larger-than-life statue of Mustafa Kemal, the Turkish colonel whose success here began his rise to eventual founder and first president of the modern Republic of Turkey.
Nearby, on the ridge whose name is immortalised in a play by New Zealand author Maurice Shadbolt, there is another, slightly smaller monument. No statue adorns it – merely a laconic inscription in English, ‘From the Uttermost Ends of the Earth’. It commemorates the hundreds of New Zealand soldiers who died while capturing and holding, for a brief 48 hours (undoubtedly an eternity to the few who survived) this desolate peak which, it is said, held the key to the entire campaign.
Of course others died too. West Country men, from Gloucestershire and Wales fought and died alongside the New Zealanders . . . and hundreds of Ottoman soldiers fell too, urged on by their commanders who well understood the strategic importance of Conk Bayırı. They recaptured the ridge on 10 August, 1915, and Allied forces never again succeeded in getting so near to achieving their goal, though they remained four months more on the peninsula, pouring out their blood on the beaches, the slopes and in the ravines of Gallipoli, before the bitter Thracian winter convinced their commanders that the campaign was a lost cause.
Anyway, I guess you’re with me now. You’ve realised that the futile exercise in human slaughter we refer to as the Gallipoli Campaign, is known to the Turks as the War or Battle of Çanakkale. They didn’t have much to celebrate after the so-called Great War, so they are justifiably proud of their success in defending their homeland against Allied invasion. What bothered me, however, as I toured the trenches, trying to imagine the carnage that had taken place here, eighty years before, was . . . how come the Turks are celebrating their victory on March 18, when we hadn’t even got here till April 25?

My first thought was that it might have something to do with the Islamic calendar. After all, the Ottomans continued using the old lunar reckoning based on the Prophet Muhammed’s journey to Medina, right up until their final dissolution. But, no – 18 March, it seemed, was 18 March; and 25 April, by anybody’s calculation, comes five weeks later, so long as they occur in the same year, which they did, on this occasion: 1915.
What to make of that? So I did a little digging, and it turned out that the Turks, of course, have a very good reason for their choice of dates.
It’s important to understand, first of all, what exactly the ANZACs and other sons of the British Empire were doing on that desolate peninsula, some 2000 kilometres from the action on the Western Front. In fact, the situation in France and Belgium had bogged down pretty early on in the war. First Lord of the British Admiralty, Winston Churchill, came up with the idea of supporting Russia to mount a major offensive from the east. Problem was, the only realistic supply route for Russia was via the Black Sea and the Bosporus Straits, which were controlled by the Ottoman Empire, who, of course, were fighting on the German side. So, you take out the Ottomans, open up the Bosporus to Allied traffic, bolster up the Russkies and pincer the Germans and their allies by opening up a second major front in the east. Very neat. And who better to sort out the Ottomans than the Royal Navy, in those pre-air force days, the world’s premier fighting force.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work. The Ottomans had had fortifications on the Dardanelles for 500 years, and, with a little help from their German allies, had some fairly serious shore-based firepower at a point where the straits are less than two kilometres wide. They’d also had sufficient warning of the impending assault to lay mines as an extra deterrent. Nevertheless, the British, aided by the French, felt confident of their naval superiority, and sent a force of eighteen battleships plus assorted cruisers and destroyers to force their way through to Istanbul. Despite possessing such imposing names as ‘Irresistible’ and ‘Inflexible’ (and their French equivalents) three battleships were sunk and three more severely damaged. Discretion was deemed the better part of valour, and the Entente navies retired to lick their wounds. The sea approach was crossed off the list of strategies, and Allied thoughts turned to Plan B.
Plan B? You guessed it – a land invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula aimed at neutralising the Ottoman shore defences so that the battleships could sail through with less discomfort, heave to in front of the Sultan’s Palace in Istanbul, and order the Grand Turk and his Sublime cohorts to come out with their hands up. Well, Europeans had been making jokes about ‘The Sick Man of Europe’ for so long that they didn’t expect much serious opposition. Perhaps a little less gung ho jingoism, and some knowledge of history might have resulted in a more realistic approach. It hadn’t been that long since the Ottoman army was feared throughout Europe; and while they were no longer threatening to overrun Christendom, they might have been expected to put up stiff resistance to an invasion of their homeland.
Carrying out an invasion from the sea is a notoriously difficult military activity. The Allied forces achieved it at Normandy in 1944, as a result of elaborate planning, enormous investment of manpower, equipment and supplies, huge naval and air force support, not to mention the participation of the United States of America. Even so, there were horrific casualties. In 1915 aerial warfare was in its infancy, and naval bombardment seems to have been as much of a curse as a blessing for the Allied troops on the ground. Nevertheless, Plan B went ahead. Regiments of young men from all parts of the British Empire were landed on Gallipoli beaches to face the machine-guns, artillery and bayonets of entrenched and determined troops fighting for the defence of their homeland.
Predictably, Plan B was a worse failure than Plan A. A two-day naval engagement was followed by a nine-month attempted invasion. Where the loss of three battleships and around 1000 sailors had been deemed unacceptable, a war of attrition was allowed to continue from April 1915 until January 1916, in which hundreds of thousands were sent to die in inhuman conditions with no realistic hope of success.
Some semblance of justice can be said to have been effected with the metaphorical rolling of heads that followed back in London after the withdrawal from Gallipoli. Winston Churchill lost his prestigious job as First Lord of the Admiralty. The British War Secretary, Lord Kitchener, kept his job, but lost his reputation, and, in fact, died the following year. General Sir Ian Hamilton, overall commander of the campaign, was nudged into retirement, as was General Sir Fredrick Stopford, who is reputed to have slept through the landings at Suvla Bay which he was, in theory, in charge of. The Liberal Government of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith lost its majority and was forced into a coalition with Conservatives led by David Lloyd George, who not long after, replaced him as Premier.
Little enough consolation for the families of the men who had died; and it is even more shocking to learn that, as far as the Turks are concerned, the war had been won before the first Allied soldier set foot on those fateful beaches.  The Royal Navy was the number one fighting force in the world at the time, and if they had succeeded in forcing a passage through the Dardanelles, the war, for the Ottomans at least, would have been pretty much over. Turning back His Majesty’s battleships reduced the threat to a land invasion, which the Ottoman military backed themselves to repel.
As, in fact, they did, despite the best efforts of the Allied soldiers who fought and suffered above and beyond the call of duty for upwards of eight months. In later years, as the truth of the horror and crass stupidity came out, one positive has been the growth of a sense of nationhood among the former colonies that sent men to fight for Britain. For the Turks, of course, the Çanakkale War threw up their one victorious commander, who subsequently went on to lead the struggle to establish the Republic of Turkey from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Thousands of pilgrims who journey to the peninsula of Gallipoli on 25 April this year, and are welcomed by locals in a spirit of friendship, will have cause to remember his magnanimous words:
Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives… You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours… You, the mothers, who sent your sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.
As an epilogue to the foregoing, I would like to mention an interesting tale I came across recently while reading a novel by the Turkish author, Buket Uzuner. One detail of the Gallipoli campaign that is often mentioned in Allied reports is the fact that the first landings were made in the wrong place. Instead of coming shore on a gently sloping sandy beach, the unfortunate soldiers found themselves facing steep ravines and cliffs. Generally the mistake is attributed to the pre-dawn darkness in which the landings were made. In her 2002 novel, ‘The Long White Cloud’, Ms Uzuner has one of her characters, Ali Osman say:
. . . [A]ccording to local legend, Turkish fishermen noticed an unfamiliar buoy moored out near Kaba Tepe and grew immediately suspicious, being already in a wartime state of mind. They reported the incident to police headquarters in Gallipoli, then, that same night, with the help of a few soldiers, moved the buoy fifteen hundred metres north to Arıburnu Cove, a most unsuitable place for a military landing. At the time, there was only one Turk who believed that the enemy might land at the Arıburnu/Anzac Cove, and that was a colonel named Mustafa Kemal. Indicating that even the Turks did not take the signal buoy very seriously at the time.’
I haven’t been able to verify the story, but it’s an interesting and not implausible one, it seems to me.