Transport systems in Turkey have been revolutionised since I first came to this country back in the 1990s. Last week we took a trip on the High-Speed Train (YHT) that now connects Istanbul to the capital Ankara.
In fact, we only went as far as the city of Eskishehir, a two-and-a-half-hour journey – and I have to say I was less than impressed. I have a memory of riding the TGV in France years ago, hissing along almost silently at 300 km/h as power-poles and scenery flashed past the window. According to the video display, our Turkish train did hit 250 km/h on a couple of occasions, but for the most part we cruised along at more sedate speeds.
To be fair, Turkey’s geography is a factor. Much of the country is high altitude steppe once you leave the coastal regions, and getting up there requires a few twists and turns. You can actually feel your ears pop as the train climbs from sea-level. Probably, if you continue to Ankara or Konya, you’ll have a better high-speed experience.
Our main purpose, however, was to check out Eskishehir itself. The city has become popular with Istanbul day-trippers in recent years, reputedly thanks to a go-ahead mayor and council who have worked a 21st century miracle of Europeanisation on their dusty Anatolian town.
Well, in general, I’m happy to save my European experiences for when I visit Germany, or other pinnacles of post-modern development. I love Turkey for what it is – but still, I confess it is nice to enjoy a few modern comforts. The Eskishehir City Council have indeed laid out some pretty parks; and encouraged development of a buzzing bar and café scene along the banks of the Porsuk River, catering for a youthful population augmented by the presence of two large universities.
Personally, however, I was more interested in scratching the surface to find what lies beneath the face presented for public consumption.
One peculiarity of Eskishehir is that many of its people have Tatar ancestry. According to Wikipedia, the Crimean Tatars “are a Turkic ethnic group that formed in the Crimean Peninsula during the 13th–17th centuries, primarily from the Turkic tribes that moved to the land now known as Crimea in Eastern Europe from the Asian steppes beginning in the 10th century. . . Since 2014 Crimean Tatars were officially recognized as indigenous peoples of Ukraine . . .
The Crimean Tatars emerged as a nation at the time of the Crimean Khanate, an Ottoman vassal state during the 15th to 18th centuries . . . The Turkic-speaking population of Crimea had mostly adopted Islam already in the 14th century.”
That was probably their big mistake. After Russia defeated the Ottomans in the War of 1768-74, they began expelling Muslim Tatars from Crimea – and continued during the wars with Napoleon in 1812. Further expulsions took place during the Crimean War (1853-56) and another war with the Ottoman Empire in 1877-8. In those days the Russian government was implementing a policy of Russification and Christianisation, and the Tatars didn’t fit into either category. Soviet Russia continued the ethnic cleansing in the 1920s, culminating in 1944 when Josef Stalin’s regime exiled the entire remaining Tatar population to Central Asia. Over that period of 170 years, hundreds of thousands of Tatars sought and found sanctuary in the Ottoman Empire and later, in the Republic of Turkey. Many of their descendants live in Eskishehir today.
I hinted above that the city is getting a reputation with well-heeled Istanbulites as a beacon of European enlightenment in a country many of them see as descending into an abyss of Shariah Islamic fundamentalism. Whether or not that is the case, I have no intention of discussing here. It is certainly true that the Mayor of Eskishehir is unabashedly affiliated with the opposition CHP – the Republican People’s Party that claims direct descent from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk himself.
Turkey has probably one of the most complex histories of any country on Earth. Empires have come and gone over many millennia, of which the most recent are the pagan Hellenistic creation of Alexander the Great, the equally pagan Roman Empire, the Christian Byzantine Empire, and the Islamic Seljuk and Ottoman Empires. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the Muslim religion practised in Turkey differs considerably from that of its Middle Eastern neighbours in Syria, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
Much of this difference stems from the work of a fellowship of mystical Sufi philosophers who exerted considerable influence on the people from the 12th to the 14th centuries. The best known in the West is Rumi – Mevlana Jelalettin, founder of the sect sometimes referred to as “Whirling Dervishes”. Another poet, well known in Turkey, is Yunus Emre (1238-1320) whose use of the Turkish vernacular made his spiritual insights accessible to common folk. He is said to have been buried in a village not far from Eskishehir. We came across the tomb of another Sufi mystic, Sheikh Shehabeddin Shuhreverdi in the old part of town – although apparently the Sheikh’s last resting place is claimed by several other cities, and not only in Turkey.
Shuhreverdi is said to have founded a sect known as Fütüvvet (I’ve no idea what that is in English), whose followers were known for their humility, courage, generosity, kindness to others, not giving importance to material possessions, tolerance and adhering to firm moral principles (can’t see much wrong with that!). The Sheikh claimed to have derived his eclectic philosophy from Zoroastrian sources and Greek philosophers such as Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Shuhreverdi’s views were considered heretical by some orthodox Sunni leaders, and threats were made on his life. Apparently, he met a nasty end, executed in 1191 CE on the orders of an Islamic judge in Aleppo – so maybe his remains are somewhere in Syria.
Be that as it may, Shehabeddin Shuhreverdi’s name is still remembered in Eskişehir, and his shrine is known to some in Turkish as “Salı Tekkesi”, the “Tuesday Chapel”, since local folk used to gather there formerly on Tuesdays. Why, I can’t tell you, but it is possible that some of that holy gentleman’s unorthodox opinions and independent streak have passed down to present-day Eskishehirians.
Another of the city’s many claims to fame is that it is the main source of the world’s supply of sepiolite, more commonly known by its German name meerschaum, from which elaborately carved pipes were much prized by aficionados. The German word means “foam of the sea” since the stone is so light it will actually float on water. Luletaşı, in Turkish, I was surprised, and not a little shocked to learn, is also used for cat litter – one of its qualities being the capacity to absorb unpleasant aromas.
A highlight of our visit to Eskishehir was visiting a museum commemorating Turkey’s War of Liberation (Kurtuluş Savaşı). I am quoting here from the website of The Turkish Coalition of America:
“The Ottoman Empire . . . had been carved up as a result of its ill-fated decision to join World War I on the side of the Germans. The defeated Ottoman government signed the Mondros agreement with the Allied forces, securing its own existence, while relinquishing almost all of its territories, except for a small Anatolian heartland, to Britain, Italy, France and Greece. The Mondros agreement, designed to decimate the Ottoman nation, was being implemented step by step under the watch of the surrendered Ottoman government. The final insult to the Ottomans came with the invasion of Izmir by the Greek army and its violent advance into Anatolia. Civilian resistance began building up against the occupation, but without a sense of direction or coordination.”
Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk) formed a national parliament in Ankara on 23 April 1920, organised an army of national resistance, and was elected commander-in-chief. The war “lasted four years and culminated in the international recognition of Turkey’s borders through the treaty of Lausanne July 24, 1923 and the founding of the Republic of Turkey on October 29, 1923”.
Several crucial battles were fought in the vicinity of Eskishehir, and the museum, located in a historic wooden mansion, contains maps, artefacts and explanations of the war’s course. There is also an excellent film screened in a small theatre that brings to life the events of those turbulent years. An extract can be viewed on YouTube. It’s in Turkish, of course, but the visuals tell some of the story:
Of less geopolitical significance, but still a high point of our self-guided tour was sipping a beer in one of the riverside cafes and seeing a “muster” of storks circling overhead. These are migratory birds that return to their nests in Turkey every spring to breed and raise their young, before flying off to warmer climes for the winter. So, spring has arrived, I’m happy to say!