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Turkey for a week

So much more than an amusing thanksgiving pun

all seasons in one day 13 °C
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There is so much I could write about Turkey. Mostly because I knew almost nothing about it before I arrived. Being a typical Kiwi, I knew it only as a far away place with a mildly amusing name that produces some great kebabs, carpets, delicious sweets with unidentifiable ingredients, and that the people have some odd habits when it comes to public bathing.

Unfortunately it seems that even European tourists come with this limited set of expectations. The main downtown tourist area of Sultanahmet is purpose built to satisfy tourist expectations and is therefore packed full of shops and markets selling kebabs, carpets, ‘Turkish Delights’, and traditional ‘hamami’ bath experiences. All of which is great and delicious and almost convincing. If we had just arrived from Paris or London we probably would have been sold on it and believed we were genuinely experiencing the exotic East. But, we were wiser. We had just arrived from Morocco and Egypt and are no strangers to bazaars, spice markets and the like. The ones in Istanbul don’t feature the mules, carts, motorbikes, snake charmers and loud bargaining exchanges of a real Eastern bazaar. They are nice, but too nice, just a little bit sanitised. We had seen the giant western-style shopping malls on the way in from the airport and so it all just seemed a little contrived.

Fortunately, Sultanahmet is not like the rest of Turkey. The rest of Turkey is the way Turkey actually is, not the way tourists want it to be. It’s actually a modern, fast paced, well-dressed, surprisingly wealthy, surprisingly European nation with a fierce sense of national pride. I think that surprised me the most, and it didn’t sink in until we visited Gallipoli.

Gallipoli is another one of those places that you think you know about because you grow up hearing about it all the time, but when you actually get there you realise you know nothing at all, other than a bunch of place names. I had to find a book and read up on it and realised I was learning most of it for the first time because somehow it never sunk in before. It’s funny how history works like that – the details never seem very important until you are standing on the site of some historic event and trying to understand what you are seeing and how and why it changed the world.

Visiting Egypt and Greece prompted us to spend some late nights in the hotel watching online documentaries to fill the gaps in our collective history knowledge. Visiting Gallipoli made me wonder what I’d been doing every ANZAC day for the last 32 years that I didn’t already know the intricate details of the harrowing tale of that campaign.
So far from home, we suddenly found NZ flags and monuments everywhere, tales of incredible courage by NZ and Australian troops, rows upon rows of graves with familiar names and ranks and regiments. We heard the stories of the brave soldiers and the appalling conditions, dismal planning and gut-wrenching failures of leadership. Finally it all sunk in. I finally understood why it was such a formative moment in the history of Australia and New Zealand.

More importantly, I understood for the first time just how important Gallipoli was in the history of the Turkish nation. The Turks lost more men at Gallipoli than the UK, Australia and NZ combined, but they prevailed, and they ultimately won the campaign. It united a collapsing Ottoman empire, gave new life to a nation falling into obscurity, and ultimately set the conditions which led to modern, proud, independent Turkey. Today, they celebrate the victory at Gallipoli every year with more pride than we celebrate a world cup victory. Ataturk - a leading figure in the Turkish defence at Gallipoli, who later went on to become the first president of Turkey – is revered with almost god-like status. He repeatedly spoke of his respect for the NZ soldiers who fought to invade his homeland, understanding they were simply doing their duty. His famous statement is written on a giant stone plinth near to ANZAC Cove.

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 here in this country of ours. You the mothers who sent their sons from far away 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’d like to think that the values and determination Ataturk saw in the Kiwi soldiers were an influencing factor in his drive to create the nation of Turkey after the war ended. Perhaps some of these values even became enshrined in the constitution.

It’s the only officially secular nation in the region. Islam is practiced by many, but in a modern, liberal way where women have a voice, are allowed out and about, and are not frowned upon if they choose not to wear a headscarf. The mosques are beautiful, open (for free) to non-Muslim visitors and happy to explain exactly what the faith is about – dispelling a lot of western myths.

If it wasn’t for the call to prayer 5 times a day and the obsession with soccer, it could be New Zealand. If only the nations further south would take note.

Posted by iainph 02.12.2012 10:08 Archived in Turkey

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