Thoughts on travelling in Turkey

Turkish flags and huge portrait of Atatürk with Fes, in Ankara

Scarred Christian frescoes in a church in Goereme Open Air Museum

“Here you see St Constantine and his mother, St Helena,” the German guide explained to his group in one of the byzantine rock-churches of the Open Air Museum in Göreme. “And these are Ali and Kemal again, the bad boys.” He pointed to the graffitti on the red and black geometric pattern over the entrance. We are travelling in Turkey, and our thoughts go back to China.

Again we are shocked by the vandalism we see. Images and faces are scratched out at many sights in Turkey, the Christian ones in particular. In Ani for example, the old Armenian capital that is now on the Turkish side of the border, the only well-restored building was a Seljuk palace, while the Christian Armenian churches were left to decay – and to the Alis and Kemals.

Thoughts about Armenians in Turkey

Natascha and Ruins of the Church of St.Gregory in Ani, Turkey

“Armenians? We had no problems with them until the Russians intervened!” That was in the 19th century. Mehmet and his brother Taran had clear opinions about the Turkish- Armenian relations. While we were in Anatolia, the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, whose book Snow mentioned atrocities against Armenians. “I used to like Pamuk’s books,” Taran exclaimed, “but not anymore! He has two faces.” That Orhan Pamuk has written Snow just in order to gain international fame seems to be the predominant opinion. In bookstores, the books of the Nobel Prize laureate are not easy to find, and it took us several weeks to get hold of an English copy of Snow.

Giant portraits of Atatürk – with Fez

statue of Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, in Ankara

Officially, Turkey is a secular state since the revolution led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. At least in Anatolia, it does not appear as such. In the modern airport-like bus terminal in the capital city of Ankara, the Muezzin’s call for prayer is broadcasted over the main speaker system. The pompous personality cult of Atatürk himself largely ignores the secularism he introduced.

For instance, Atatürk outlawed the traditional brimless hat that can be worn for prayer [thanks, Ursula] – but an older picture showing him with just such a hat is almost as ubiquitous as the more Westernized “1920s magician” type portrait with the piercing eyes.

Although women have the same rights on education and job, Turkey is a very male dominated society. During the seven weeks we spent in Turkey we almost exclusively spoke with men. In the Anatolian countryside we saw no woman without a headscarf.

Our thoughts so far

We are still not sure whether or how much we like the country. Turkey has an amazingly rich cultural past, and we both enjoy exploring Hittite and Urartian castle sites and marvel at the Seljuk Islamic mosques, madrassas and mausoleums. We are also quite surprised by the geographical diversity of the landscape. On the other hand we never found travelling as exhausting as in Turkey. For the first time in all these months we worried about safety and security on the street, in hotel rooms etc. Some people are extraordinarily friendly, but we also had more bad encounters and rip-offs than in other countries. Yet every other day someone asks: “What do you think of the Turkish people and of Turkish hospitality? Don’t you think Turkey more beautiful and much nicer than Germany?” Often the people who ask are nice enough. But we are weary of confirming preconceptions and at the same time regret being critical of a country that feels so close after years of living in Berlin.

ancient fortress of Chavushtepe, Turkey

So much for our thoughts on travelling in Turkey. Perhaps we will get different impressions at the culturally quite different coast. In Antalya we have finally reached the Mediterranean. Suddenly the sightseeing spots are Graeco-Roman, couples hold hands, and oranges grow in the streets. Depending on the weather we will spend some more days climbing and hiking at the coast. Afterwards we are planning to travel southwards around the sea to Egypt via Syria and Jordan.

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