Turkish Reflections: A Biography of a Place

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Turkish Reflections: A Biography of a Place

Mary Lee Settle, Simon and Schuster 1991, paperback, 235 pp. List: $11.50, AET: $8.50.

Reviewed by Char Simons

Cities don't change in spirit, and neither do their people. So argues Mary Lee Settle, author of Turkish Reflections: A Biography of a Place, as she takes a fascinating and entertaining look at modern-day Turkey intertwined with references to the country's Hittite, Amazon, Greek, Roman, Seljuk and Mongol inhabitants of the past. Settle is in the enviable position of returning to compare nostalgic memories of her sojourn as an American expatriate in the Mediterranean seaside resort of Bodrum from 1972 to 1974 to the Turkey of 1989. On her return visit, as she follows the trail of 13th century Seljuk ruler Aladdin, Settle's roamings go far beyond what she calls the "tourist zone" of western Aegean Turkey into the Anatolian hinterland.

Besides predictable forays into the commercial and cultural capital of Istanbul, the political capital of Ankara, and a bittersweet return to Bodrum, the trip includes stops in such lesser-known gems as the Black Sea port of Trabzon, the last Roman capital and the land of the ancient Amazon tribe of fierce warrior women; Konya, the capital of Aladdin's empire and the era's great cultural center of the entire Middle East; Gordium, Silk Road city of Midas and Aesop; and Van, home to cave paintings dating from 15,000 B.C.

Not a guidebook, travel tome, or political history, Turkish Reflections is more of a memoir cum social commentary, splashed with fascinating historical tidbits. Settle, author of more than a dozen books and recipient of the National Book Award for the novel Blood Ties, which also was set in Turkey, skillfully draws on her professional experience as writer of both fiction and nonfiction. She shares her impressions and experiences in readable style and without excessive detail. No lists of where to sleep and dine here.

Written for popular audiences, Turkish Reflections appeals to expatriates past and present who consider Turkey their adopted second home, travelers to this non-Arab Muslim land, and to Turks seeking a balanced Western view of their often-misunderstood country. The sprinkling of elementary Turkish words and phrases, along with English translations, also helps conjure up personal memories of readers who have experienced Turkey.

Turkey's negative image, particularly in the West, did not originate with the film Midnight Express or the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. Rather, the idea of Turks as fiercely hostile gatekeepers to the Middle East began when the Pope called for the first Crusade to protect the Christian Byzantine Empire already destroyed by Aladdin's Seljuks. It's a stereotype that has stuck ever since.

Not an apologist for the Turks, Settle's book fills a void in global understanding of an ancient culture and its relevance to today's world. Turkey's contribution to language, literature and other arts has been largely overlooked in the West. Aladdin, Aesop, the Amazons, Midas, and Omar Khayyam, known as the Shakespeare of the Middle East, all lived within the borders of present-day Turkey. Saint Paul was a regular visitor who wrote the New Testament book of Ephesians to residents of the ancient seaport of Ephesus, now located about 10 kilometers inland from the Aegean Sea. Even the English word "meander" comes from the Turkish Meander River which winds through the central highlands.

Perhaps the consummate Turkish contribution to the ancient world was the han, a series of country inns established by Aladdin in the 12th century. A day's march apart by camel caravan, hans provided armed protection, shelter, food, baths, music, sometimes a poet and always news and gossip to travelers free of charge for three days. …