EVERY morning the Muslim call to prayer, an adenoidal chant whining from as many as five minarets in Urgüp, our small town in central Turkey, incited roosters and posses of roaming dogs to join the chorus. This curious cacophony was my wake-up call, buried as I was in a windowless hollow sculpted from a cliff of soft rock. For a breath of dawn I would bolt from bed around a stairwell to a balcony that looked out over a hillside pockmarked with cave dwellings and across a vast, dusty valley of undulating vineyards planted in tawny volcanic grit. There at eye level one hazy sunrise last September bobbed sixty, eventually a hundred, brilliantly colored hot-air balloons -- gaudy bubbles drifting above the Cappadocian landscape of walnut orchards and erosion-sculpted rock.
Central Anatolia, Turkey's Asian heartland, is mined with surprises, as I discovered on a three-week tour of the country. While the World Air Games whistled by overhead that day in Urgüp, I beamed a flashlight on thousand-year-old Byzantine cave frescoes depicting lovely almond-eyed Marys and baby Jesuses.
My interest in Turkey was first piqued by delighted reports from friends who had recently visited Istanbul, the Greek ruins at Ephesus, and the fishing villages on Turkey's Aegean and Mediterranean coasts. Intriguing though coastal Turkey is, however, cheap cement-block construction is smothering the landscape day by day, as the region strives to accommodate hordes of vacationing sun seekers. There was more, I discovered, to interest me in the less-visited hinterlands, because they remain so visibly engaged in a tug of war between Eastern and Western sensibilities, ancient traditions and modern expectations. A camel driver leading a string of haughty beasts talks on his cellular phone; a veiled cotton picker in baggy flowered trousers squats in the fields silhouetted against a smoke-belching detergent factory; at an outdoor bazaar lacy hand-crocheted doilies are laid out for sale next to a stack of Johnny Cash cassettes. Central Anatolia is a land of double-takes.
ANKARA is the place to start. Kemal Atatürk decreed as much when, in 1923, he anointed the then-dumpy angora-wool trading town the new capital of the Turkish Republic. Ankara sits at a focal point along what for a few thousand years has been a well-traveled continental corridor, Anatolia being the rectangular land bridge over which marauding armies have tramped to and from Asia in the east and Europe in the west. In Ankara I joined a guided tour, organized by IST Cultural Tours, of New York; afterward my husband would meet me for a ramble through the countryside. Having flown from Istanbul to Ankara on Turkish Airlines (for a reasonable $60), I stepped off the plane amid a throng of dark-suited, gravely important government types to the beat of "Mustang Sally" pulsating in the cabin.
My tour companions were seven other women, aged twenty-six to eighty-one. Vedat was our shepherd, a tall, doggedly patriotic, and courtly Muslim who agonized over his teenage son's having pierced an ear and applauded his wife for having arranged their daughter's marriage. The daughter, it turns out, is an accomplished translator of economics textbooks. Her arranged marriage caused our group to raise a communal eyebrow, but no one put forth a challenging word. Vedat made his feeling known, however, that there was something a bit peculiar -- besmirched, even -- about our being at large in the world without men of our own to look after us.
Our itinerary would hook southeast from Ankara through high, arid steppes to ravine-sliced Cappadocia, curl west along the old trade routes and through the lake district, and eventually hit Turkey's western shore midpoint at Kusadasi. Here Bill, my husband, would join me -- legitimate at last -- and together we would snake inland up into the mountains.
In Turkey you can't knock a clean, air-conditioned bus with an experienced guide and a nonmaniacal driver (a true find) as a means of getting about. Except that being hermetically sealed works only so long for me. Then I get a little crazed. In our rented car Bill and I were free to stop at roadside stands to buy fresh green figs, meander narrow lanes for a closer look at the games Gypsy children play in the dirt, offer a goatherd a Hershey bar for the privilege of taking her picture, and soak up the vibrations of a Roman ruin without the prod of a set schedule.
Still, Vedat's commentary often fleshed out the stone monuments our group was trotted past. On the day we visited Atatürk's massive mausoleum, the creamy marble building lined with squared columns stood out against a fiercely blue sky, commanding a clear view of Ankara below -- a rare sight in this city of three million where new construction never ends and pollution can be choking. Stone-faced guards patrolled the colonnade after an impressive boot-stomping, gun-wielding routine. From the austere courtyard we climbed gleaming steps to enter the tomb through enormous bronze doors. Under an immense cenotaph, Atatürk is buried directly in the ground on his side facing Mecca, according to Muslim law, Vedat explained. The hall was hushed.
"Of course he is revered," Vedat proclaimed about the great reformer who expelled the invading Greeks, re-energized a broken nation, replaced Arabic script with the Latin alphabet, secularized the schools, and abolished polygamy, all in the twenties. Quite simply, Vedat declared, lifting his chin, "without Atatürk we would be Iran."
From Ankara our bus sped east past wheat, corn, and sugar-beet fields, many of the farms tidily enclosed by rows of poplar trees. Acres of sunflowers nodded, too heavy with seeds to hold their heads up. Along the roadside bags of onions were neatly stacked next to towering heaps of yellow-and-green-striped melons that wouldn't be ripe until January. Mixed flocks of sheep and goats grazed on beige stubble. We kept an eye out for the occasional white angora goat, whose soft hair has been highly valued forever. As the story goes, when Queen Victoria requested a herd of her own, the crafty Anatolian goatherds shipped barren does to the United Kingdom. Less than amused, the monarch sent her own emissaries to make the next selection. "But, of course, good wool will not grow in England -- so wet," Vedat proclaimed with satisfaction.
In order to absorb the meaning of the Hittite ruins at Bo
gazkale, I tried to delve backward in time to 1600 B.C. Even though I knew I was surrounded by some of the most remarkable late Bronze Age finds in archaeological history, amounting to the rocky foundations of a city of 20,000, my own frame of reference kept elbowing its way into the picture. Walking through the dark, cleverly engineered subterranean stone passage leading to a 4,000-year-old citadel, I was suddenly milling with a crowd in a tunnel to the Yale Bowl. Maybe it was the light. Instead of hot-dog vendors and raccoon coats at the other end, we were met by dark-eyed hucksters who reached into their jackets to flash hand-carved onyx horses or tablets etched with preposterous erotic poses.
"For heaven's sake, let's not encourage this behavior," one of our well-traveled members said. "The thing is," another countered, "I really love those green sandstone medallions. And think about it -- it is their living." With world-class shoppers on board, the bus filled up with copper oil lamps, stuffed toy camels, embroidered vests, silk prayer rugs, peasant dolls, and leather ottomans. There may even have been a drum.