The Flavour of Anatolia

By Evans, James Allan | Contemporary Review, September 1999 | Go to article overview

The Flavour of Anatolia


Evans, James Allan, Contemporary Review


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.

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