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Eastern Turkey – excavation vacation

South Sydney Herald distributor Eleanor Boustead recently spent four weeks in Turkey. A retired nurse, the Redfern local is also a keen reader, traveler and amateur historian. Eleanor has been fortunate enough to visit a different country every few years. 

Eleanor first visited Turkey with her son and late husband back in the 1970s, and has long been interested in its culture, from prehistory to the Assyrian, Hittite, Roman and Byzantine periods, the Ottoman era and modern times as a republic.

A flight across Turkey took the tour group to Kars in the northeast. It was spring but it felt more like winter. “We arrived in Kars on a cold, wet day in May. We could see the snow-capped mountains in the background [comprising part of the Turkish-Armenian border],” says Eleanor, who returned with more than 2,000 photographs. “There were 12 of us altogether,” she explains. “Our tour-guide Michael, a local guide and driver, plus nine others.”

The tour’s first site of interest was the remains of once wealthy medieval city Ani, a former capital of Armenia on the silk route. Located in the Kars province, on a little plateau surrounded on three sides by a steep gorge, Ani was well fortified. Its massive walls resisted military attack on many occasions, but finally succumbed to an earthquake. Eleanor recounts stories of lives lost and ideas exchanged. “It’s a deserted site now,” Eleanor says, “with just a few former churches still standing.”

“Kars itself had been an Armenian city and was invaded though never deserted. The last to invade were the Russians, who occupied much of eastern Turkey for about 50 years, until about 1920. You can see that in the architecture.”

It’s soon apparent that for Eleanor travel is motivated by more than mere curiosity. She is indeed curious, but also respectful of cultures other than her own. Her attitude is one of openness – to people, places, customs, ways of life. “A vacation by the pool has never appealed to me,” she says. “I like to do something different, to learn something – and to challenge myself.”

Their tour bus made its way south to Lake Van, Turkey’s largest lake. Like the Dead Sea, it has no outlet due to a blockage caused by a volcano or earthquake. The water is alkaline, as normal river salts remain after evaporation. There are few fish species. “On a previous trip I saw a group of people there washing a fleece. The water helps to whiten the wool.”

There is an island on which still stands a lonely former Armenian church. It has been there for 1,000 years and its outer walls feature reliefs of biblical stories. The surrounding monastery is gone yet these unique reliefs remain.

The Van region is also famous for its unusual cat breed. The cats are pure white, with one yellow and one blue eye. The local university is breeding them. Visitors can buy small sachets of food to feed the cats in the cattery.

The bus continued to Diyarbakir. “It was lovely to enjoy the warm, dry weather,” Eleanor says. The city still has its old black basalt walls near the banks of the Tigris River and is known for its Kurdish citizens.

In the old section, down narrow roads, the tour group visited three Christian churches. The Chaldean church holds monthly services. The Monophysite church conducts services in Aramaic. In 2007, Eleanor had seen the remains of the Armenian church. She was delighted to find it fully rebuilt, thanks to donations from the USA. All three churches have very few members but are free to worship.

Turkish people always seem generous and relaxed, Eleanor recalls, even though many do not speak English. This is reflected, for tourists, in easy access to mosques. Eleanor could tell the main mosque in Diyarbakir had been built before the Ottomans because of its rectangular style.

In 537 CE the Byzantine emperor built Hagia Sophia, which remained for about 900 years. In its time, it was the most famous church in Christendom due to its dome and size. Then the Ottoman Conqueror entered the city. It is said that he admired this building so much that it became the style for all Turkish mosques. This can be seen in Sydney, in the Gallipoli Mosque in Auburn, a gift from Turkish Australians.

The next destination proved to be the most ancient – 12,000 years! In the southeastern Anatolia region lies the site of an unexplained structure. Göbekli Tepe (“Potbelly Hill”) comprises massive carved stones, crafted and arranged by prehistoric people who apparently had not yet domesticated animals, cultivated cereals, invented writing, developed metal tools or even pottery. Unearthed just 20 years ago, the tell (archaeological mound) is currently undergoing excavation by German and Turkish archeologists. It’s a fascinating find. Evidence suggests multiple sites over millennia; monolithic pillars linked by coarsely built walls to form circular or oval structures.

“We learned there’s no evidence of people having actually lived there,” Eleanor explains. “It seems they attended the site for some kind of ritual activity. It reminds me of Stonehenge, but Göbekli Tepe is 6,000 years older. Unlike Stonehenge, the pillars bear animal reliefs – lions and boars, birds and insects. I just find it mind-boggling. It’s a big mystery.”

Near Adiyaman, on top of remote Mount Nemrut (in Roman times called Commagene), the group visited the site of an independent kingdom. About 2,000 years ago the king had built a burial structure consisting of colossal statues and tumulus (mounds of shingles or small stones). “It’s a great feature. The kingdom lasted for only a little while but this was a time when the monarch represented all the gods within his person. King Antiochos I (69-31 BCE) was a typical megalomaniac. The statues represent gods – in the form of a lion, eagle and human – and the king. At some stage an earthquake knocked off the heads of the statues, which now lie near the bodies.” All this was forgotten until 1835 when the site was rediscovered.

Eleanor describes a joyful scene on a bridge over the Tigris river. “Young men started dancing, spontaneously. The same happened elsewhere, again on a bridge. I thought it was great! These old stone bridges are so well built that with some work they look like new. I love the bridges, which tend to have a peculiar peak in the arches.”

On her visits to Turkey, Eleanor says, she has always felt safe. This was the case during the general election on June 7, the result of which was unexpected. The long-standing ruling party did not win the necessary majority seats. For the first time ever, the Kurds did win seats. Since then a coalition has not been formed, which is why the country is holding another election on November 1. The recent killings, since July, may have something to do with this uncertainty. “A history of violence and distrust is not easily overcome,” Eleanor says.

Before going to Turkey’s capital, Ankara, the tour group visited the site of Catal Hoyük, founded almost 9,000 years ago and believed to be one of the oldest towns in the world. The population is thought to have been between 3,500 and 8,000. Evidence shows that houses were of mud with only a common wall between. They did not have doors or windows. Access was by way of the roof. Tools were made of stone and obsidian (volcanic glass).

Ankara is well known by tourists for its Museum of Anatolian Civilizations. “We saw an obsidian mirror that had been found in Catal Hoyük,” Eleanor says. “The museum contains a large collection of stonework and carvings from the Hittites. These people occupied Turkey for about 1,000 years. The earliest known parity peace treaty was between the Hittites and the Egyptians in 1269 BCE. They are also mentioned in the Bible.”

Did the tour live up to expectations? “Yes. Our world is full of wonders, and history shows that humans don’t change that much. It’s fascinating to find out how knowledge is passed from one culture to another. I did find it hard sometimes to cope with the walking and climbing. On occasion my arthritis made itself known but I had a helper for those times and I took a walking stick with me,” Eleanor smiles.

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