Turkey is full of surprises. The past of the Turkish countryside stretches back through the histories of forgotten ethnic groups whom we know only from what archaeological digging has turned up in the last century or so. Hittites, Luwians, Phrygians, Lycians, Trojans. Troy and the Trojans at least are well known. The Iliad of Homer is the first achievement of European literature, and it describes the exploits of the Greek hero Achilles and his rival whom he kills in single combat, the Trojan Hector. The discovery of Troy by Heinrich Schliemann in 1871 marks the start of Greek prehistoric archaeology, and that much cannot be denied him though his techniques are antipathetic to modern practitioners of archaeological science and even his integrity has been questioned. The site of Troy is not beautiful or even striking, but it attracts tour busloads and at its entrance there stands a replica of the Wooden Horse. The Turks know what will strike a chord. The Turkish recreation of the Wooden Horse is imaginative but instantly familiar. It is a part of the European literary heritage.
The excavations of Schliemann and his more competent successors at Troy have not quite rescued the Trojan War from myth and delivered it firmly into the purview of history, but at least the Greeks did migrate to Asian Turkey, and they built cities along the Ionian coast which prospered in the classical period. There was still a large Greek population there until 1922, when the Turks expelled the Greeks and Greece did likewise with Turks in Greece, except for a handful left in Thrace. The Lydians dominated the area before the Persian Empire conquered it; the last Lydian King, Croesus, was so famous for his wealth that the saying, 'As rich as Croesus' is still in current usage. He was warned by the oracle at Delphi that if he picked a quarrel with Persia, a great empire would fall. So, full of confidence, he crossed the Halys River, attacked Persia and saw his own empire capitulate. Persia took over and its dominion rapidly stretched to the Aegean Sea. I crossed the Halys River myself this spring with a group of students from the American School of Classical Studies, on the road to Sivas. Close by it is the campus of one of Turkey's new universities. It is a much more impressive stream than the Rubicon in Italy, which Julius Caesar crossed, announcing that the die was cast, but it still falls short of its reputation.
Persia tried and failed to expand into Greece itself, and a century and a half later, Alexander the Great, king of Macedonia, struck back, overthrew the Persian monarchy and conquered a vast swath of Asian territory stretching into India. The Greeks wasted no love on the Macedonians, but it was Alexander and his Macedonian successors who spread Greek culture over the area Persia once dominated, submerging the ancient native cultures. With the conquest by the Roman Empire, the rulers changed but not much else. But Rome left a deep imprint in its eastern provinces. The people developed an attachment to Rome. Christianity reinforced the loyalty, for the new Christian capital of the empire was Constantinople, and the concept of separation of church and state was entirely foreign. The Roman Empire in western Europe collapsed, but in the east, a Greek empire which claimed a lineage going back to imperial Rome controlled Anatolia until 1071. In that year, an army of Seljuk Turks utterly defeated a Byzantine army at Manzikert and captured an emperor.
But it is the small surprises in Anatolia which the traveller remembers. Afyon some 250 km south-west of Ankara was notorious for its opium production a couple of centuries ago. 'This town,' asserts the Blue Guide, 'has another more sinister name redolent of past sins - Afyonkarahisar, the Black Fortress of Opium'. Its poppy fields once supplied the Chinese market until the poppies of British India pushed their product out. The poppy fields now grow sunflowers. But in the little museum at Afyon, tucked away in a case displaying its numismatic collection, is a coin dating back a couple of thousand years. It shows the umnistakable seed pods of the opium poppy, lt belonged to a local city named Synnada, and the citizens of Synnada were pleased with their product. The opium trade in this region is very ancient.
Among the religions which arrived here and flourished, and then lost ground, leaving their mute monuments behind, was Christianity. ln the Taurus mountains, high above the Goksu gorge is the deserted monastery of Alahan. The Goksu river or the Saleph, as it was once known, has its moment in history like the Halys; it was the Goksu which claimed the life of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa when he tried to cross it on his way to crusade in the Holy Land. His knights pickled his body in vinegar and took it to Antioch. The ruined Alahan monastery is a monument to the vicissitudes of early Christianity here. It takes an intrepid driver to negotiate the narrow gravelled road to the ledge where the ruins are perched. But our driver was an inperturbable Turk who knew the area well and he took his bus up to the minuscule parking lot, and turned it around for the descent.
It is difficult in the last months of the twentieth century to comprehend the impulse which prompted the monastic movement some 1,700 years ago. Theology dominated the mentality of the age. The world was full of sin, and paganism had not given up the struggle to survive. Perhaps what brought the first monks to the cave at Alahan was the war they waged against the old gods, for cave sanctuaries were often favourite places for monks to occupy. The pagan spirits which once inhabited them might howl with rage and appear as nightmares to holy men who had invaded their spaces, but the monks were relentless. Perhaps the cave at Alahan had once housed a shrine to a local god. There is no sign of it left, and we can only guess. But something must have attracted monks to this site, high above the gorge, and some speculation is forgivable.
In the fifth century A.D. this was the country of the Isaurians, tough mountaineers who made valuable soldiers, and in 479, one of them who had married the emperor's daughter, became emperor himself, taking the name of Zeno, which sounded more civilised than the name with which he was born. This was the period when a modest basilica was built at Alahan. lt was soon followed by another church to the east, built up against the precipice, so that it formed one of the church's side walls. A colonnaded walkway connected the two churches, and halfway between was a baptistery fed by a mountain spring which is now dry. The builders were skilled stoneworkers; the Isaurians were renowned for their masons who found jobs as far away as Constantinople and Jerusalem. The East Church, with a tower over the centre nave, represents an earlier stage of the architectural experimentation which led to the magnificent church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople belong to the age of the great emperor, Justinian I.
Then suddenly the monastery was deserted. The last investigator to explore Alahan, the late Michael Gough who used to be director of the British School of Archaeology in Ankara, suggested no reason for the desertion. After a period, monks returned to Alahan, and found the place in need of repairs, but they lacked the masonry competence that their predecessors had possessed. Most of the buildings were reused, but the reconstruction was unskilful. What happened to the monks who built Alahan? There is a story here, and the stones cannot speak.
Yet we can speculate, and as I looked over the gorge below the ruined monastery, I recalled what happened in this corner of imperial territory in the sixth century, the period of the emperor Justinian, who was descended from Balkan peasant stock and married an actress in an age when actors and actresses were considered so contemptible that the church refused them the sacraments. The great heresy which divided Christianity at the time was Monophysitism. Rome and the orthodox who accepted Rome's fiat defended the dogma that Christ possessed two natures, human and divine, while the Monophysites held the view, more or less passionately, that the divine nature predominated. In this corner of the empire, Cappadocia, Cilicia and 'Rough Cilicia', the monks were Monophysites, and when Justinian's uncle became emperor as Justin I, he mended the theological fences with Rome and persecuted the Monophysites. For what happened at a Monophysite stronghold called Amida, modern Diyarbakir not many miles east of Alahan, we have the accounts of the historian John of Ephesus, who wrote in Syriac, the language of the countryside which resented the Greek speakers in the cities with their borrowed culture. The Monophysite monks had to leave their monasteries and find refuge where they could. Were the monks at Alahan also forced to evacuate? And who were the monks who later returned to the site? Monophysitism conquered Egypt and the countryside of Syria, but here on the border between Cilicia and 'Rough Cilicia' where Alahan is perched on its precipice, Monophysitism lost ground. The newcomers may have been orthodox.
Northeast of Alahan is Cappadocia which was conquered by the Turks in the twelfth century. Christianity came early to Cappadocia, and it was from there that it spread to Armenia. The land is a high plateau, its strange lunar landscape formed by a series of volcanic eruptions which laid down a deep layer of tufa in the Tertiary Period and then at the start of the Quaternary Period or even earlier, the volcanoes spewed out lava which laid down a layer of basalt and gnawed away at the tufa underneath, creating cones of tufa surmounted by basalt caps. The tufa made ideal material for digging caves, and long before Christianity arrived, Cappadocians made underground dwellings, and even whole cities. This was an ideal place for monks. Cappadocia developed its own brand of monasticism. Here we can find underground cells, underground refectories, and underground churches. At Goreme near Urgup there is a village of underground churches.
Now Cappadocia has been discovered by the tourists. The 'Open Air Museum' at Goreme is crowded. The visitor cannot sit in an underground church there and contemplate the life of monks in the Byzantine world. Alahan is still alone. There it is still possible to wander, and ask if the site is mute evidence for one of the deadliest theological disputes in eastern Christendom, for the Monophysite heresy meant that Christianity presented a divided front when the Arab invaders arrived bringing a new, attractive religion, Islam, with less theological doctrine than Christianity.
Yet one cannot be certain. The archaeological remains that dot this ancient land present many questions. What happened to the Hittites who were almost forgotten until a century ago? Who were the Phrygians whose king Midas supposedly turned everything he touched into gold'? To travellers educated in the European tradition, these intimations from a distant past are reminders that the Turks are immigrants in this land, but the Turks do not see it that way. To them, all these remains going back to the neolithic finds at Catalhoyuk are part of Turkey's cultural heritage. A corner of the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations at Ankara is devoted to Catalhoyuk, where the earliest discoveries date to around 8,500 years ago. Not far from it in this magnificent museum are treasures from the Early Bronze Age 'Royal Tombs' at Alacahoyuk which produced a group of 'sun disks', most of them bronze though two are silver. One splendid 'disk' displays a stag with two bulls on either side, all enclosed in a hoop of bronze, twisted like a rope. It is publicized by many postcards. Yet even so, I was taken aback to see it again standing at a fork in Ataturk Boulevard in Ankara. Its size had been magnified several times; it had become a large statue group, lt had also become a symbol of modern Turkey which has reached back before Islam to recreate its past and find new marks of identification.…