THE TURKISH LANDSCAPE
However different we may be, we share our humanity and a common destiny on earth as we continue to shape and be shaped by our environment. As human beings, we appreciate that essentially all our experiences take place in the landscape which at once enables and reflects all of life, both memorable and quotidian. Landscape, like music, is a universal language. The sensitive traveller will no doubt grasp the beauty of the whole; but what does it all mean to the unaccustomed or the untrained eye? To the native person, the landscape is life itself. It is familiar and taken for granted until endangered or lost. Knowledge of it is intimate and intertwined with strong feelings. Others may have to begin by an analytic tour de force before developing a taste for the intricacies. Ultimately, the traveler can catch glimpses in the slices of life represented by places that make up the landscape, and then feel the richness of the meanings associated with them. Our aim here is to whet your appetite by giving you a head start on your journey in reading the Turkish landscape. First, let us be analytical. What is the landscape made up of anyway?
That depends on your perspective. Landscape is nature encompassing all those resources and landforms that a geographer or a naturalist would see. It is also history and culture reflected in the settlement pattern of cities and villages, the architecture and cultural artifacts marking the passage of time and important events. Then there is the idea of the working landscape which is the life support and habitat of some sixty million people. Finally, it is also a mirror of ideology, fashion and impending change, foreshadowing the future and the problems it may pose. These different layers make up an elementary shell of the Turkish landscape. In Turkey you will experience an incredible diversity in nature, culture, history, beliefs and ideas. This in itself may not be a challenge for the seasoned traveller. After all, diversity is the most prized feature of favorite destinations. In Turkey this diversity is high enough to challenge even the most experienced eye because it is packed in spaces with abrupt changes in scenery. This is why people sometimes describe the Turkish landscape as a “symphony of sounds, smells and people in the most unlikely combinations of appearance and action”. The traveller may need some assistance to make some sense of our otherwise entirely logical and beautiful landscape, and to perceive its unity and harmony just like a familiar face with all its different moods and expressions.
THE NATURAL LANDSCAPE
The landscape of Turkey is a magnificent, but threadbare Turkish carpet, hundreds of years old, displaying patterns which had evolved to perfection over the centuries.
The Turkish landscape encompasses a vast variety of geographic zones. If you take a cross section along the east-west axis, you will encounter rugged, snow-capped mountains where winters are long and cold; the highlands where the spring season with its rich wildflowers and rushing creeks extends into long, cool summers; the dry steppes with rolling hills, endless stretches of wheat fields and barren bedrock that take on the most incredible shades of gold, violet and cool and warm greys as the sun travels the sky; the magical land of fairy chimneys and cavernous hillsides; and eventually the warm, fertile valleys between cultivated mountainsides, reaching the lacelike shores of the Aegean where nature is friendly and life has always been easy.
A north-south cross-section begins with the lush, temperate zone of the Black Sea coast, well protected by a chain of high mountain ranges, cultivated with hazelnuts, corn and the tender tea (which will soon become a part of the daily ritual during your stay here). High passes and winding roads offer breathtaking views of the Black Sea, leading to highlands and steppes with orchards tucked into the foothills of lesser mountains; then on to the vast Konya plain, and up the Toros (Taurus) Mountains into coniferous forests, which eventually transform into a scrubby maquis fragrant with bay leaves and oregano as the Mediterranean coast approaches. If you take a turn east on this route, passing by banana plantations and cotton fields, you will come to the most desert-like part of Turkey. Just north of Syria the earth displays all the textures and shades of brown which a civilization can mould it into without dominating it. In short, for every two to four hours of driving you find yourself in a different zone with all the accompanying changes in scenery, temperature, altitude, humidity, vegetation and weather conditions.
This landscape has the combined characteristics of the three old continents of the world; Europe, Africa, and Asia. It has an ecological diversity surpassing any other place along the N40th latitude. This diversity is reflected in the intermingling of all sorts of animals, whose habitats are now dispersed in these continents, before the land masses separated in geological history. Now it is possible to observe the yearly ebb-and-flow of nature as the birds continue on their migratory routes twice a year. The flocks of storks and birds of prey convey a magnificent spectacle that you can watch from the hills of Camlica in Istanbul every fall. The flamingos nest in the river valleys of the Aegean and the Mediterranean and spend the winter in the salt water lakes of the inland. If you happen to be visiting Dalyan (or any one of the 17 beaches along the Mediterranean) on a warm spring night in May you are sharing the sand dunes with one of the most delightful and shy creatures of the world, the sea turtle, which lays its eggs at this time of year.
In addition to the richness of the flora, Turkey is the home of a number of ornamental flowers, the most notable being the tulip. In fact the word “tulip” comes from a Turkish word which means turban. Bulbs brought to Vienna from Istanbul in the 1500s started the craze for tulips in England and the Netherlands. By 1634 this interest in tulips had become so intense that in Holland it was called “tulipomania” with individuals investing money in tulips as they do now in high-tech stocks. This period of elegance and amusement in 17th century Turkey is symbolized by this flower being known as the ‘Tulip Age’
Many familiar fruits such as cherries, apricots, almonds and figs all originated in Turkey. Our common ancestors are said to have evolved in different parts of the world, most likely Africa. Nevertheless, the depiction of Adam and Eve wearing their fig leaves confirms the long-standing view of Turkey as heaven-on-earth…..
HISTORIC AND CULTURAL LANDSCAPE
Turkey’s humanized landscape is inseparable from its culture. Nevertheless, to the outsider, Turkey gives a new meaning to wilderness, because even in the most inaccessible or isolated parts (such as the high mountain tops or the secret places in the valleys) the visitor remains with the feeling that sometime in history this place, now wild and untended, has been the home to civilizations with settled villages and city life for nine thousand years.
These were people of different origin, coming in waves and mingling with those already settled, each time creating a new synthesis. Between 2000 B.C. to 1500 A.D., this landscape was the center of world civilization. Interpretation of the world scene today is predicated upon our understanding of what took place on this landscape during the last four millennia, and which is now manifested in the ruins and monuments which adorn the landscape.
Up until the advent of modernity (which in Turkey is associated with the comprehensive highway program of the 1950’s) the landscape had remained as it was through millennia. When you see a replica of one of the first agrarian villages in the world, dating back to almost 7,000 B.C. years ago, in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara, you cannot miss the similarity between this prototype and all those others that you become what we call the vernacular. When you have got something that works, why change it?
In Anatolia, the settlement pattern is more or less how it was during the time of the ancient civilizations. There is a good chance that the road you are traveling on is the same one on which great warriors of the east and the west trod and colorful caravans passed along, and couriers of mail or secret treaties galloped. Perhaps it is the same road traveled by St. Paul and his disciples or by Sufis spreading divine knowledge.
Graceful aqueducts built by the Romans made urban concentrations possible. Bridges built by Sinan and other Ottoman architects dot the countryside and are still used for the safe passage of goods and services. Caravanserais dating back to the Seljuk Empire of the 11th century offered sanctuary and relief to weary travelers. You can even stay in a caravanserai, for several have been restored into luxury hotels.
In addition to the historic edifices proudly displayed at the main archaeological sites such as Troy, Pergamon, Ephesus, Miletus, Priene, Dydima, Aphrodisias, Heraclia, Caunos, Perge, and Aspendos, many coastal villages and towns are blessed with their very own Anatolian ruins on the outskirts. This is usually an ancient theater commanding a spectacular view of the beach where, the villagers will tell you, Cleopatra often have swam. You don’t have to look far for the agora either. It is probably where it has always been – right at the market place! Several villages are also privileged to have ”sunken cities” or ruins under the sea, which you can see if you look down into the crystal clear, turquoise waters as you swim.
The Anatolian hinterland will show you glimpses of other ancient civilizations: the Hattis, the Hittites, the Phyrigians the Urartians and the Lydians. From these civilizations come many familiar legends: the wealth of the Lydian King Croesus, King Midas with the golden touch, and the Knot of Gordion that young Alexander was able to undo with the strike of his sword.
Then there are the lesser places, both sacred and ordinary, but with profound meaning: monasteries, tombs of local saints, heroes, artists or poets, mosques, churches, walls, fortresses, palaces, fountains, and cemeteries. The hillsides are covered with broken pieces of ancient pottery, contemporary walls often have corner stones which may date back to antiquity. Children play and sheep graze amidst fragile remains. Until very recently God’s Caves in Cappadocia were used by villagers as cold storage or wine cellars.
The very richness of the landscape poses grave challenges for historic preservation in Turkey. Good progress has been made in safeguarding the integrity of the most important sites, and work is ongoing to excavate, catalogue and preserve the country’s tremendous legacy. Strict laws prevent the export of antiquities.