An American in Turkey

Ancient glories, modern realities exist side by side in a country that shares a border with Iraq.

January 05, 2003|By RICHARD O'MARA | RICHARD O'MARA,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WE MAY BE THE ONLY Americans in Turkey," remarked Eric Tawar, a tourist from New Jersey, as we entered the uncrowded confines of the Library of Celsus, in Ephesus, a 4,000-year-old Greco-Roman city in western Anatolia. He wasn't entirely wrong.

Ephesus draws tourists of all nations. Normally, access to the library, which once sheltered thousands of papyrus scrolls, and to the temples, baths and other antique edifices that line the marble-paved streets, requires patience and a little deft elbow work to advance through the crowds. Ephesus, visited by Alexander, Cleopatra and St. Paul, is a stunning example of the art of archaeological restoration, the finest among Turkey's 200 Greco-Roman cities.

"We have more Roman ruins than all the other countries together," exulted Oguz, our guide. Not to mention more than 33,000 other archaeological sites.

Millions of Americans have visited Ephesus. But they're not coming these days, not to Ephesus, not to Istanbul, nor to any of the other cities and sites we saw during a recent 3,000-mile journey through Anatolia.

Of course, my wife, Susana, and I didn't come to Turkey to find our own kind, and at first I didn't notice their absence. We were too engaged by the scene in Istanbul, the mystical architecture of the Blue Mosque, the Aya Sophia (a 1,400-year-old church, then mosque, now museum), the dazzling Byzantine mosaics, as well as the vigor of commerce in the Grand Bazaar, and the unsubtle approaches of the men (always men) importuning us to buy this rug or that ceramic plate.

The merchants were forward, crass, ingratiating, insistent; they were fun: "Hey, I'll bet you're an American! Have I got a deal for you." Another opened: "You know, I've got a cousin in New Jersey." A third, his arms thrown above his head, beseeched: "I like you both so much I'm willing to sell this carpet to you for nothing!" Hard to beat, that.

Susana was dizzied by the glitter and flash of the merchandise, the clanging colors of hanging cloth -- run through with threads of gold, by the gleam of brass on every side, by the human swarm itself, but mostly by the confusion of trying to calculate in a currency where the basic unit is a million lira, worth 6 cents American.

All this was pleasurably distracting, so it was not until two days later, as we cruised eastward through grassy hill country toward the Bolu Mountains, that Eric Tawar's realization in Ephesus began to creep into my mind. We may be the only Americans in Turkey, my wife and I and about seven others who shared a bus with an equal number of Canadians and Australians on a voyage through this land I learned as a child to call Asia Minor. The reason was obvious: The prospect of war.

In Ankara, Turkey's capital since 1923, we visited a large establishment where fresh-faced young women from the country were weaving and knotting beautiful carpets of intricate design, rugs to last a century. The manager, a gracious fellow named Ugar Aricioglu, said: "We are hurting. Where are the Americans? It is because we are so close to Iraq? Don't you agree?"

How could I not? Susana and I began planning our visit to Turkey before the drumbeat of "regime change" grew so insistent. By midsummer, friends were giving us odd looks when we revealed our vacation plans for the fall. Our children worried, even urged us to cancel. Turkey was just too close to Iraq. The two countries share a border, in fact, and Baghdad is less than 300 air miles from the southern Turkish city of Diyarbakir.

Somebody suggested we masquerade as Canadians. This is an old gambit: In 1970, I went to Europe on Icelandic Air, then known as the "hippie" airline; it was cheap and popular with young Americans, and aboard were more than a few with rucksacks decorated with maple leaves. Our misadventure in Vietnam was in full cry then. So was anti-Americanism in Europe.

No masquerading

I would feel uncomfortable hiding behind the flag of another country. This is not a patriotic reflex so much as a conviction that most people you encounter who disapprove of your government's policies will not hold you personally responsible.

And there was another consideration that grew out of many years of newspaper work, mostly gathering and analyzing foreign news: I was aware that press reports of political and social unrest in foreign countries, even when plainly told, tend to become exaggerated in the minds of readers by the distance, a phenomenon I have never understood.

Also, we both knew that the larger events in the world will always be beyond our control, and that we must live around them as best we can; avoiding them often means to shrink from the rewards that travel has to offer. So, we flew off to Turkey wondering if we would be welcome there. And before our tour was over, we would learn something about the legacy of warfare.

We were part of a group tour, our second of these in 27 years. The first was disastrous. This time we had an efficient guide and a congenial group.

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