Straddling the continents of Asia and Europe, Turkey played a significant role in the history of the world. Cruise across the country and discover war monuments, ancient ruins, and delicious food, all the while surrounded by kind and generous locals. Text & Photographs by Rishaad Saam Mehta
I am staring into the turquoise waters of Dardanelles, the strait that connects the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara. My car and I are on a ferry across the water body, from Çanakkale to the Gallipoli Peninsula. Today, the waters of these narrows are peaceful and sublime, but in 1915 this was a war theatre, playing out a long and bloody campaign that caused half a million casualties. Eager to beat the stalemate on the western front that had already left a million men dead, Winston Churchill, serving as the First Lord of the Admiralty at the outbreak of the First World War, suggested an attack on Istanbul through Dardanelles. This would clear the way for supplies to Russia from the Mediterranean Sea through the Bosporus and across the Black Sea. With his usual pompousness and scant regard for the prowess and bravery of people who were not white, Churchill gravely underestimated the resilience and determination of the Turks to protect their homeland. He had disregarded the Ottoman Empire as ‘the sick man of Europe’, but the Allies’ navy, the British, and the ANZAC troops involved in the campaign were in for a cruel shock. Mines destroyed warships, and the troops who landed on the peninsula (mostly ANZAC) were almost entirely decimated on the beaches.
Today’s Gallipoli, a beautiful green peninsula with tranquil beaches, is a place of pilgrimage to pay homage to the bravery of troops—on both sides. I am here in search of the graves of Indian infantrymen who had taken part in the campaign. As I drive the well-tarmacked roads on a beautiful April day, I stop at museums and monuments and am overwhelmed by the stories of compassion and companionship that knew no sides. The most poignant, immortalised by the Respect to Mehmetçik Monument, is the story of a Turkish soldier raising a white flag and then carrying a wounded Australian soldier back to the Australian lines before crossing over and resuming firing.
I find the graves of three Indian muleteers at the Ari Burnu Cemetery that looks out at the North Aegean Sea. Here, etched in stone is the famous letter that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk wrote to the Australian and Kiwi mothers who had lost their sons at Gallipoli. When Atatürk became the president of the newly formed Turkish republic in 1923, after the Ottoman Empire was dismantled, he went to great lengths to apply diplomatic salve on the wounds inflicted by Gallipoli so that they wouldn’t fester over the years to come. This is why ANZAC day services commemorating the fallen of Gallipoli are carried out on April 25 every year, not only in Australia and New Zealand but at Gallipoli as well. There is even a road in New Delhi named after Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
I spent the first three days of my Turkey trip in the mysterious and mediaeval, yet modern, city of Istanbul that straddles the continents of Asia and Europe. Since it was my first time in the historic city, previously called Constantinople, I spent my time walking around and observing the dexterity of cheeky ice-cream vendors and the efficient cast iron juicers used to squeeze out every drop of ruby juice from pomegranates. The usual sights were ticked off, and I crossed over often from Europe to Asia on the busy commuter ferries that ply the Bosporus. I then drove from Istanbul to Çanakkale, and am now heading away from Gallipoli towards the ruins of the ancient city of Troy made famous by the mythical beauty of Helen, which is said to have launched a thousand ships. The story of how Helen of Sparta stowed away on Paris’s ship to Troy and led to the Trojan War is the premise of Homer’s Iliad and many modern interpretations of it. But whether the mythological Troy is actually geographically located on Turkey’s west coast, 30 kilometres south of Çanakkale, is an ongoing debate. However, as I find out, it is an interesting place to visit for its excavations that tell, by way of artefacts and constructions unearthed, a timeline that stretches from 4000 BC to 300 AD. Driven by a lifelong ambition to find Homer’s Troy, the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann started excavation digs here in 1870, and in 1873 he stumbled upon a horde of gold and silver jewellery that he claimed belonged to King Priam, the tragic last king of Troy and the father of Hector and Paris. The loot was carted away for display in a Berlin museum but vanished during the Second World War. It turned up again in the Pushkin State Museum (pushkinmuseum.art) in Moscow in 1996. It remains there to this day, even though efforts are ongoing by both Germany and Turkey that it is returned, with each claiming to be its rightful owner.
I surreptitiously stay close to a group of school children out on a field trip in the hope that I can hear some interesting stories from their guide, but he delivers the insights in Turkish. Soon, he’s on to my game and starts repeating the most interesting titbits in English with a smile in my direction. It is the first of many such gestures of graciousness that I will encounter during my days in Turkey. From Troy, I point the nose of my car south towards İzmir, 300 kilometres away, and arrive at half-past nine in the evening. My Airbnb host is a soft-spoken college student who helps me unload the car and then tells me that he’ll watch over my luggage as I find a parking spot. When I arrive 15 minutes later, he has already carried my bag up three flights of stairs to the apartment that has staggering views of the Aegean Sea. He also tells me that a 10-minute walk will take me to the Karataş metro station. The next morning I am riding the tram from Karataş to Konak İskelesi, which is in the heart of İzmir’s Konak suburb and adjoins the historic bazaar district of Kemeraltı Çarşısı.
I have an appointment with Celaledin Arpat, a college professor and foodie whom I had approached on Instagram for local gastronomic recommendations. He had kindly offered to show me around. The day I spend with this pleasantly mannered gentleman quickly becomes one of the highlights of my trip. We start with a delicious breakfast of hot crusty bread with bal kaymak (clotted cream doused with honey), and as the day progresses, we snack on borek (wafer-thin filo pastry filled with spinach and cheese), simit (a pretzel-like bread), pide (mince and onions and spices set on flattened dough and baked), fried çiger (pronounced jigar, meaning liver), and kokoreç (prepared like doner kebab, but instead of meat, it’s lamb intestines wrapped around the revolving spike). Arpat knows the best places for local food and steers clear of touristy joints. In fact, the owners of these hidden restaurants and snack houses welcome him like an old friend, often refusing payment.
Over the next few days, I continue to drive south, and while I find Fethiye and Ölüdeniz pretty like paintings but very touristy, it is the ancient city of Ephesus that leaves me mesmerised. The scale of creation in this great city, which was built 300 years before Christ, is mind-boggling. It was founded by Lysimachus, who succeeded Alexander the Great. But it was during the Roman rule that this city grew to become one of the most important trade ports on the Aegean. I arrive early thinking I’ll beat the crowds, but South Asian tour groups have had the same idea. Chattering tourists notwithstanding, the soft morning light shines beautifully on the Library of Celsus, endowed with statues of Sophia (wisdom), Arete (valour), Ennoia (intelligence), and Episteme (knowledge) that are graceful 2,000 years on; the Temple of Hadrian; and the Ephesus Great Theatre.
Ephesus has whetted my appetite for forays into the past by way of enigmatic ruins that stand silent and resilient. So I punch in ancient Lycian names into Google Maps: Patara, Pinara, and Letoon. Located in southwestern Turkey, Lycia was an important geopolitical state during the Greco-Roman era. All three sites have magnificently preserved theatres. I enjoy Pinara the most because I am the only one there, and the man at the ticket counter waves me through without asking me to purchase one. Pinara’s amphitheatre sits in an open meadow with the snow-capped Taurus Mountains looming over it. A big shaggy dog appears from behind one of the ruins and seems to beckon me to follow her. I comply because she seems to know her way around. At a ruined temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, I see that the ancient builders had a cheeky sense of humour—a phallus is carved into one of the steps. Further ahead, as I follow the dog past pillars and columns—some preserved, some forlorn—I come to a rock face that is honeycombed with tombs. It feels eerie since I am all alone; the dog has disappeared as soon as the tombs have come in sight.
I hotfoot it back to the ticket office, taking a path through the ruins of an agora (ancient marketplace). The man at the counter invites me in for a glass of tea and some bread. Alleviating my concerns about the disappearing dog, he assures me that she is very much real and has many hiding places among the ruins. I stay overnight at Kaş, which is popular with British tourists, who often turn lobster-red after sunning themselves on the beach. The Aegean looks really beautiful from here, so after days of being on the road, I spend a day on a deck chair with a glass of cold raki by my side.
The next day, I leave early because my destination is Gaziantep, in the southeastern corner of Turkey. It’s a 1,000-kilometre drive that I manage to complete in around 13 hours. Since the city is very close to the Syrian border, I get stopped at checkpoints as I near Gaziantep. The police and the army are very thorough and very polite. I once get stopped for speeding too, but the jovial policeman whose wife is a big fan of Indian TV soaps waves me off with a wagging finger as a warning.
Gaziantep is a beautiful city of gardens, open spaces, and glorious food. There is the food you eat in Turkey, and then there is the food you eat in Gaziantep. My friend, Celaledin from İzmir, has given me a list of places that I must try. On the top of the list is Kebapçi Halil Usta (kebapcihalilusta.com.tr), literally meaning ‘the kebab place of Chef Hali’. Usta means master chef in Turkish, especially for kebabs. Each usta has his own secret ingredients that go into the mince mix, and he uses his expertise to gauge the texture of the mince so that the kebab stays firm on the skewer but crumbles under the fork. Then there is Ciğerci Ali Hydar Usta, who is known for his succulent liver kebabs served for breakfast on flatbread with sumac, parsley, onions, and a squeeze of lime. But Gaziantep is best known for its baklava, katmer, and künefe—all sweetmeats that use the big pistachios that are unique to the region. For the katmer, I go to Katmerci Cumaali Usta. Katmer is a thin flaky pastry that is filled with pistachios and clotted cream made from the milk of a water buffalo. When I press down on it with a fork, the cream comes oozing out. Künefe, on the other hand, is made with shredded wheat, margarine, and soft white cheese, drenched in sugar syrup, and coated with pistachio dust.
Satiated with meat and sweetmeats, I decide to pack in some sightseeing on foot to work some of it off. Gaziantep’s most interesting attraction is the Zeugma Mosaic Museum (muze.gov.tr). The mosaics kept in this museum were unearthed at Zeugma, a city that was founded by Alexander where a bridge of boats crossed the Euphrates in modern-day Gaziantep. The star of the museum is a mosaic called Gypsy Girl that was buried away for centuries under rubble. It is somewhat of an enigma because no one seems to know for certain whom the mosaic represents. Some scholars have suggested it is Alexander the Great.
From Gaziantep, it is another 1,000 kilometres back to Istanbul, the drive cutting right across the heart of the country. The roads are fantastic and the traffic well behaved. In fact, at pit stops, I get invited by truckers to share lunch with them that is mostly kebabs, peppers, and yoghurt. My road trip in Turkey has been haphazard and unplanned, but the generosity and unfailing kindness of its people has made sure that I will return.
Weave Your Way Through History In Turkey
Many airlines fly to Istanbul, including Qatar Airways (qatarairways.com), Emirates (emirates.com), and Etihad Airways (etihad.com). But the most convenient is Turkish Airlines (turkishairlines.com) that flies non-stop from Mumbai and Delhi.
In Istanbul, Shangri-La Bosphorus is centrally located and close to the Beşiktaş ferry terminal, from where ferries can be boarded to plenty of locations in Istanbul. Doubles from INR 27,901; shangri-la.com. In İzmir, Swissotel Büyük Efes offers a spectacular view of the Kordon Promenade. Doubles from INR 8,295; swissotel.com. In Gaziantep, Divan Gaziantep Hotel is the perfect base for exploring the ancient city. Doubles from INR 5,751; divan.com.tr.