No country in the world presents, perhaps, more interesting associations to the geographer, the historian, and the antiquary than Turkey. It is no exaggeration to say that there is scarcely a spot of ground, however small, throughout this extensive peninsula, which does not contain some relic of antiquity, or is not more or less connected with that history, which through an uninterrupted period of more than thirty centuries, records the most stirring events in the destinies of the human race, and during which time this country attracted the attention of the world as the battlefield of powerful nations.
As children we once read of the dazzling deeds of the Amazons, of Gyges and of how he, a simple shepherd, became a mighty king. We learnt of Croesus and Midas, and of the fatal golden touch. It was here in Asia Minor that these legendary events took place.
As early as 675 B.C. a tribe of Greeks known as the Megarians founded a colony on the Thracian Bosphorus. From this humble beginning sprung Constantinople, that famous city which, in the years to come, was to outshine Rome in beauty and magnificence and for the possession of which the leading powers of the world were to engage in savage warfare.
Nine hundred and fifty years after the first Greek settler had established himself on one of the green, rolling hills overlooking the dream-like loveliness of the Bosphorus, the Christian Constantine, advancing at the head of his mighty fleet, wrested the city from the hands of his weak brother-in-law Linceus.
There is a legend to the effect that Constantine, sleeping in his tent one night not long after the fall of the city, beheld, in a dream, the white-haired matron who was the titular genius of the city. Old and tottering, she appeared to him, her back bent with the burden of many years. Saddened by her plight, he held out his manly hand to her and lo, her eyes suddenly shone with the fire of many stars and the withered body rose, beautiful and strong, a picture of virile youth. Constantine, the early Christian, the superstitious Roman, read in this dream God’s command ordering him to build a new city on the ruins of the old. He at once placed himself at the head of a brilliant procession and, lance in hand, rode over hill and valley tracing the outlines of Constantinople, now known as Istanbul. Within a hundred years of that memorable day the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire boasted of one circus, one capitol, two theatres, eight public and one hundred and fifty-three private baths, and eight aqueducts.
With the dawn of Mohammedanism in the East the power of the Byzantine empire, already weakened by luxury, intrigue, religious dissension, oppression, and vice, began to crumble, and eventually the Ottoman Turks obtained control of the country and Sultan Mehmet, better known as the Conqueror, ascended the throne in 1451. Three years later he captured Istanbul and put an end to the Byzantine empire.
Foremost among the nations of the earth was this new and powerful empire which, for centuries, flourished on three continents and the boundaries of which at one time stretched from the sunny shores of Africa in the south to the gates of Vienna in the north.
But as the years fled the Ottoman empire in turn weakened and waned until, in the nineteenth century, it was looked upon by European statesmen as the Sick Man of Europe. Then came the World War, the Gallipoli campaign, the loss of Syria, Jerusalem and Irak. It was then that that man of destiny, Kemal Ataturk, arose and, from the sad remnants of a weary nation, recruited an army of men and women of all ages and stations which he suffused with his own burning patriotism and led on to a startling victory. Then was a new nation born, powerful, virile, progressive, a new republic founded through which foreigner and Turk alike may travel unarmed and unafraid, safe to enjoy in peace and civilisation the beauty of the country with its sunny climate and countless monuments which tell in a language more eloquent than words of civilisations now long since dead.
The above historical account would be of little interest to the casual traveller who to-day visits Turkey were it not for the fact that each of the many civilisations that flourished and died in this territory have left strikingly interesting traces.
But do not think that Turkey is a “museum country” in the sense that its historical monuments and other relics are of purely academic interest. There is nothing of any importance in Turkey that the visitor might not enjoy as—shall we say—a show, apart from historical associations. And most “monuments” are part of the atmosphere.
The domes and minarets of Constantinople are Constantinople, just as the modern buildings that have risen everywhere in this glamorous city, its busy traffic, and the conspicuous absence of fezes, are part and parcel of the Istanbul of to-day.
Even the Efkaf museum in Istanbul is part of the life of Turkey, with its unique collection of Mohammedan art. Here you will find hand-woven rugs of intricate design, costumes fashioned hundreds of years ago, articles of decorated leather. But the extraordinary collection of illuminated manuscripts and rare books is undoubtedly the most interesting exhibit of all. The gold foil, the brilliant colours, the black ink are as bright and as definite to-day as they were when first applied to the parchment hundreds of years ago. This gold foil never dims. In spite of science it is impossible now to obtain the same perfect result. The knowledge of this art was a family secret, jealously guarded, which, for many a generation, was handed down from father to son. With the passing of these families the art of applying gold leaf to parchment also passed away and was forgotten.
The most perfect collection of oriental china, collected from all over the continent of Asia, is to be found at the Top Kapu (Seraglio) palace. Here, too, we find the Persian Shah’s throne of massive gold set with rubies of extraordinary size. And, on the various shelves, we may admire diamonds, emeralds, sapphires so perfect, so large, so rare that, their worth exceeding the buying capacity of individuals and governments, they must remain without monetary value. A “show” worth seeing.
From the palace treasury we will pass on through the garden, along the winding paths, to the harem. Here, the guide will inform us, once lived and plotted and loved the most beautiful women of all times. The gloomy rooms still ring with the laughter, the shadowed walls still drip with the tears of blue-eyed Circassians, ebonyhaired Arab maidens, tall, strong Bulgarians, and the captured beauties of Europe. And passing thence back into the garden we come to a pond filled with sparkling water into which, during the Period of Lilies, strong-limbed maidens dived and, in the ruddy light caused by a thousand candles attached to the shells of living tortoises, sought the gold coins which a watching sultan had, in sport, cast away.
These are only a few of the “sights” of Istanbul and perhaps not the most important. The most important things in Istanbul are the Turks who, in spite of all the intensive westernisation they have undergone in recent years, have remained true to their national characteristic and are all the more interesting on that account. You will learn to know them as you roam about in the streets of the city, or sit in the cafés, or visit a real Turkish bath, some of which are so deep underground that as you descend you may wonder whether you will ever return to the surface alive.
I may leave you to get acquainted with the Turks in your own way and to discover the breath-taking scenic beauties of the Bosphorus, the picturesqueness of your surroundings wherever you go.
The climate in Istanbul, and all along the shores of the Marmora Sea, is ideal practically all the year round, though in Turkey as a whole the climate varies so much from district to district that it would satisfy any requirement, even that of an Eskimo.
In the circumstances you can indulge within a hundred mile radius of Istanbul in a variety of sports ranging from the more individual games of tennis and golf to swimming, rowing, sailing, yachting, fishing, hiking, riding, driving, camping, hunting, and, in winter, ski-ing.
The sea of Marmora, which, in reality, is a beautiful inland lake of incomparable blue connected with the Black Sea and the Mediterranean by two narrow strips of water, forms an ideal yachting ground, and the many bays encourage rowing and canoeing. Small boats can be rented by the hour at reasonable rates and the many islands and beaches afford excellent bathing facilities at a ridiculously low figure.
But specially interesting to the sportsman is the art of fishing. The tax is low—approximately 10s. (British) a year. The waters of the Bosphorus and the Marmora contain a large variety of fish of all sizes. Here one may catch various kinds of mackerel ranging from 6 inches to 3 feet, red mullet, dab, sole, turbot, sea trout, ray, swallow fish, sunfish, sardine, sturgeon, tunny, and swordfish. Lobster, crab, shrimp, crawfish, oyster and mussel abound in these waters. Swordfish and tunny weighing from 800 lb. to 1,000 lb. are not uncommon, the average weight being around 650 lb. Another point in favour of the fisherman is the entire absence of man-eating sharks which, off the Florida coast, often destroy the catch before it is hauled on board. Many of these fish are migratory and travel from the Black Sea down through the Bosphorus and the Marmora to the Mediterranean. Millions of fish must, at certain seasons, therefore pass through a strip of water which, in places, measures less than half a mile in width. It is possible on such occasions to catch within an hour as many as forty 3-foot mackerel.
There is a fish measuring from 6 to 24 inches in length which in Turkish is called lufair and which resembles in shape and colour a silver trout. Its flesh is considered a rare delicacy and it can only be caught during the months of August, September and October. It possesses all the fighting characteristics of the trout and is difficult to catch because, its mouth being delicate, the hook can easily be torn out if the line is hauled in too rapidly. On the other hand, if the fisherman is too slow the fish will quickly free itself. The lufair will not strike during the day and can only be caught on quiet, moonlit nights. Coupled to the thrill of fishing you have all the loveliness, all the exotic beauty of the Bosphorus as it lies asleep. Here and there along the shore a few yellow lights. Above and in the misty, silver-grey of the water we see the moon. The old houses, the old yalis, white and ghostly in the dim light, rise out of the massive shadows. Stretched across the colourless sky there rises a solitary pine. Then, from afar, we hear the voice of a fisherman, melancholy and high-pitched, reciting some forgotten song of Asia as, out on the sea, he broils his catch over a charcoal brasier and quaffs down the white, transparent rakki.
The vicinity of Istanbul also abounds in game. The price of a hunting licence is also 10s. All tourists are allowed to import five hundred rounds of ammunition providing they are also equipped with a shot gun. Permission for the introduction of rifles of heavier calibre to be used in the pursuit of big game can be obtained by applying to the Turkish Embassy. Hunting permits can be obtained directly through one of the travel agencies placed in Turkey or by personal application upon arrival. The hunting season extends from September 1 to March 15 inclusive.
Quail, red and grey partridge, silver pheasant, wild duck and goose, woodcock and snipe abound in the region of Istanbul. Wild boar, deer, rabbit, hare and gazelle also are plentiful in this district. Bears are found throughout Asia Minor and, in the hinterland of Izmir (Smyrna), Antalya and the Taurus mountains, fallow deer, elk, mountain sheep, leopard, grey wolf, fox, ibex, mountain goat, lynx, and in the mountains of the east, close to the Persian border, an occasional tiger.
Boar are so plentiful in Turkey that the Mohammedan peasants who do not eat pork but must protect their fields from the ravages of these creatures are obliged to shoot them down on sight. Nor is the hunting season in this case limited to six and a half months, but open all the year round. In spite of all these factors the boar thrive and are just as numerous as ever.
The white villas set off against a sea of dazzling blue, and the cool green pine trees of the Prince Islands, situated in the Marmora within a few miles of the city of Istanbul, make an ideal summer resort. Here one can engage in fishing, swimming, picnicking, painting, and dancing. A fee of approximately £4 sterling per season (six months) will entitle the tourist to play tennis on one of the numerous courts.
A special feature of the islands, on which no motor vehicle is allowed to circulate, are the organised or impromptu donkey tours and races. In the early part of summer is staged what is known as “the Battle of the Flowers,” when many carts drawn by horses or oxen and decorated with multi-hued flowers parade up and down the streets as the prettiest society girls of Istanbul fling bouquets to the cheering multitudes and laughingly dodge the fragrant missiles tossed back in jest. Then there are boat races and swimming and water-polo meets and, along the quays, casinos where, day and night, one may sit or dance and, listening to soft music, watch the silent beauty of the sea at sunset or the white misty beams which travel earthward from the moon. And, later in the season, towards the end of summer, up in Luna Park 50,000 spectators follow, spellbound, the intricate movements and the gay, colourful costumes of the peasants of six nations as the latter dance at the opening of the Balkan Festival with the happy carelessness of youth against a background divinely blue interspersed with the dark green of the many pines.
Cooler yet but not so active is the Bosphorus, once undoubtedly the most lovely spot in the world. Along its shores white yalis, built overhanging the water, remind us of days forever gone when proud pashas sailed along in their slender caiques and slim, mysterious girls walked silently along the Sweet Waters of Asia, their oval faces covered with a veil. The Bosphorus is beautiful; beautiful and rather sad. All around us lie the broken remnants of a past once fraught with feasting and moonlight and the tears of sad, captive women.
Men of all nations, of all times, and of all creeds have struggled and died for the possession of Istanbul because of its important position, its ideal climate, and its unusual beauty. And, having in turn struggled and won, had but one aim, namely to make the city of Istanbul the most beautiful spot on the earth. And so it is indeed. One look at Istanbul with its domes and minarets outlined against a sunset which, in itself, is different from all other sunsets, will convince the visitor standing on the shores of Harem of this fact. Or, for that matter, the tourist may stand on the parapets of Selimiye, or at Eyub on the Golden Horn, or on top of Chamlidja. Almost any spot will do. The only thing essential is that the visitor should come and view the surroundings for himself for no description, no matter how detailed, can be adequate where brush and words alike are bound to fail. To try to portray the unusual beauty of Istanbul would be as useless as trying to describe the delicate scent and the colourful charm of a rose to one who has never seen or smelled such a flower.
As regards the usual amenities—hotels, restaurants, etc.—you will have gathered from what has been said about the life of Istanbul that the city has the usual modern establishments, ranging from the luxury to the medium class. Any travel agency in Istanbul itself, or in London, will advise you on the subject.
But although Istanbul is the loveliest city in Turkey, Angora, the capital, is well worth a visit. You can reach it by the express from Haydar Pasha. At Angora, too, we will find classic statues and an ancient temple and the remnants of an old castle perched high above the town. But these old monuments are of little importance when compared to the work that is going on day and night everywhere. Here the foundations of a new nation are being laid, a new civilisation adapted to the people and the climate is being created. Here is being planned the education of the peasant and urban masses, the network of railways which will soon be completed, the many modern factories. Here, again, we find institutions of higher learning, provided with the most up-to-date equipment and methods, where young girls and earnest, bright-eyed boys are taught the requirements of the nation which soon they will inherit. Of the greatest interest to the sociologist and the educator are the Ghazi and the agricultural institutes, and the Ismet Pasha Institute for Women. For those who desire to see a new civilisation, a new country, a new city in the process of creation, a visit to Angora is imperative.
There are many other places you will enjoy visiting. You can take the ferry at Galata and sail over the blue sea of Marmora to the opposite shore of the Gulf of Izmit, and thence travel by bus over a fine asphalt road to Yalova, the Bath of Byzantine days. It is an entirely novel sensation to enter the old building, intact in spite of the passing years, and to take a bath in the very same pond where, in days gone by, countless Byzantine emperors and their wives sported and laughed and listened to poetry or music as they washed away their ills in the warm mineral water which gushes from the earth.
But 40 miles removed from Yalova is Brussa, that ancient capital of the Ottoman Turks, green, fertile, overshadowed by the majesty of Ulu Dag, once Mount Olympus. We drive up the mountain and, from our point of vantage, view the wide expanse beneath our feet which stretches until it meets the dreamy beauty of a purple sea, and through the distance, dim and mist-wrapped, we behold the Green Mosque and Nicaea and the pale islands which seem devoid of all support. Here again, as in a dream, we see the glint of armour against an azure blue, hear the battle cry of Crusader and Turk and the savage crash of steel on steel. Having looked we may, if we feel so inclined, mount another 1,000 feet until we reach the hotel and the ski-ing grounds above and, glancing over the top of the white clouds, contemplate the exotic silhouette of Istanbul some 80 miles away.
Set in the wall at either side of the main entrance to the Green Mosque in Brussa are two short columns of dark green marble. Either one of these columns will spin on its axis at the slightest touch. The great Turkish architect inserted those columns when he built the mosque several centuries ago in order to be able to detect immediately any possible sinking of the structure.
There is a museum in Brussa rich in old relics of pre-Ottoman days, but then in Brussa antique statues are as common as pebbles on a beach.
Less than a day’s trip by sea will carry us from Istanbul to Chanakkale, better known to the Western world as the Dardanelles or the Hellespont. Here a narrow strip of water flowing between Europe and Asia connects the Sea of Marmora and the Aegean. On the little peninsula of Gelibolu (Gallipoli) was fought one of the most terrible campaigns in history. Every inch of ground, every stone and rock drips with the best blood of Turkey, England, Australia, New Zealand, and France. The surrounding seas are clogged with the remnants of many a proud vessel. Here, on the European shore, we see Anzac Cove where young men landed only to be mown down by the machine-gun fire they were not afraid to face.
Then, preferably taking the legendary route followed by Byron and Haliburton alike in their swim across the straits, we may move over into Asia and visit that spot of ground which, to the ancients, was known as Troy. Troy! The magical name that has inspired countless poets from the days of Homer down through Marlowe and Poe to modern times! When the dusk of twilight has settled over the earth and the stars have appeared faint and very far away, we may stand there on the brown soil and dream of that immortal woman whose name the years have surrounded with a halo of glowing passion.
And then we can walk along the plains of Troy to the spot, half-way between Simoeis and Scamander, where, we are told by the ancient poets, the gods of antiquity descended from Olympus and engaged in sporting contests with human beings.
It is not at all surprising that they should have done so. Turkey was irresistible even to the gods.
Is it unreasonable to assume that she will prove irresistible to you?