Inside Anatolia

Taking the road less traveled in Turkey, too, makes all the difference

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 Bogazkale, 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.

We fast-forwarded 2,000 years while driving south to the Cappadocian cave churches. In the historical interim waves of invaders washed over Anatolia: Phrygians, Persians, Alexander the Great's Greeks, Romans. Constantine moved the center of the Roman Empire to the Bosporus in A.D. 330 and on his deathbed converted to Christianity. By the sixth century A.D., when the great Byzantine Emperor Justinian married a showgirl, reconquered lost lands, and built the magnificent Haghia Sophia church in Constantinople, monastic communities had been established among the "fairy chimneys," the guidebooks' phrase for Cappadocia's tall volcanic stone formations. These wind- and water-carved tufa towers with basalt helmets appear, ahem, unmistakably anatomical. At a lookout over a valley full of these extraordinary protrusions I caught two German women glancing wordlessly at each other and stifling snorts of amusement.

Contrary to appearance, the gravelly, grayish soil of the area is extremely fertile, loaded with minerals. When composted with pigeon droppings, it is exactly what grapes, apricots, and squash delight in. Throughout the cone-studded valleys of Cappadocia, farmers have for centuries attracted pigeons by gouging dovecotes into the cliff walls. Guano is still spread in the vineyards, producing lush vines that crawl along the ground. In September they were weighed down with grapes. Even along the sandy back alley where we slept in the cozy cave rooms, above the town of Urgüp, everyone seemed to tend a tiny plot of tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and grapes.

Several times during my heavy-breathing trudges up the steep hill from Urgüp's center I was invited (though I always declined) to have tea with neighbors whom I'd never met and couldn't converse with. "The usual Turkish hospitality," Vedat said with a dismissive shrug. Along the way I would unintentionally attract a lively little circus of urchins, who pranced and chanted hopefully, "Madame, bonbon, madame, bonbon." My dozen-word vocabulary of Turkish was frustratingly inadequate for these encounters.

FROM Cappadocia our path turned west to follow ancient routes over which, 800 years ago, silk and spice traders bore their wares from caravansary to caravansary. These free hospitality centers, financed by the ruling sultan, were at the disposal of all traveling merchants, thereby encouraging transcontinental commerce. I could imagine daily life in, say, 1250 in these magnificent walled enclosures where salesmen and their families could bathe, eat, sleep, and have their boots mended in safety. If your camel ailed, there was an in-house vet. A resident accountant could balance your books. The goal was to keep the economic river flowing -- sell a carpet, buy some henna.

A number of caravansaries today lie in sorry heaps along the main highway from Aksaray to Konya, many of the stones and columns having been carted away to build a mosque or a farmer's shed. Sultanhani, however, has been magnificently restored. A guard there, the ever-present cigarette drooping from his bottom lip, ushered us through the gargantuan portal, elegantly carved with swirls, loops, and quotations from the Koran. A small mosque sits in the middle of an open courtyard lined by stone colonnades, above which, on a second floor, travelers slept. Cargo was stored with the donkeys and camels in an adjacent stable, an echoing limestone cavern as big as an airplane hangar.

With the bloody arrival in the eleventh century of Seljuk Turks, the ferocious Islamic horsemen from central Asia, Anatolian nomads were in for some rude changes. No more floating about the great plateaus -- they would plant vegetables and worship Allah. Meanwhile, the Seljuks built mosques, hospitals, and Islamic schools. Konya, the Seljuk capital, is still a conservative Muslim city; we should probably have anticipated the chilly reception we got. But one late afternoon, uncovered and alone, I ambled into the marketplace, a web of narrow alleys peppered with tiny stalls selling everything: Reeboks, priceless saffron, lawn mowers. "Merhaba," I politely greeted the dried-fruit merchant, who looked disapproving. When we had finished negotiations for bags of salted chickpeas, apricots, and pistachios, he bowed ceremoniously and said in English, "Welcome to Turkey." Civility triumphed. Or commerce, more likely.

Mevlana, the thirteenth-century poet and mystic who established the sect of the Whirling Dervishes, is buried under the Green Dome, a beautiful fluted tower of turquoise tiles in the Mevlana Museum. Everyone removes his or her shoes at the entrance and then carries them in a borrowed plastic bag; I pulled up my scarf. For many the museum, a former monastery, is a sacred shrine; for others it is a curiosity. In one of the anterooms a wrinkled, white-bearded man knelt on the ground over an open book. He appeared oblivious of the tourist bustle, even of the camera flash when a young man snapped his picture. Out of nowhere sprang a woman who had to be the old man's wife, to berate the photographer for his insensitivity, on and on. Her tirade didn't need translation. And still the aged Muslim bent over his prayers, never lifting his eyes.

Our droning bus rocked us to sleep on the high, flat plateaus that grow wheat and more wheat. We woke amid apple and pomegranate orchards looking out on a thirty-mile-long lake, an endless sapphire expanse on which nothing stirred. Infused, perhaps, with natural sulfite, the water is poisonous to most kinds of life, we heard later -- though certainly not from Vedat, who assured us that this was holiday heaven.

The lakeside restaurant at Egirdir served a typically delicious Turkish meal that noon. From the meze table of cold hors d'oeuvres we could choose crumbly white sheep's cheese, the pastry börek or fresh flat pide bread, eggplant any which way, yogurt with minced cucumber, freshly cut-up tomatoes, garlic pickles. If we wanted fish, the waiter would make the choice for us. A perch arrived whole on my plate, deep-fried, melt-in-the-mouth moist, with a wedge of lemon. We ate sweet melon for dessert. I ruined almost every fabulous meal by finishing it with a tiny cup of unsweetened Turkish coffee. It seemed a simple matter of training the palate. But to me, that silty black sludge still tastes like warm mud with a dash of diesel fuel.

VEDAT and my tour-mates disappeared down the runway in Izmir as Bill thundered in. Our first challenge was getting through a tollbooth as we tried to head south. We were trapped between a traffic gate that wouldn't open (the tickets had run out in the automatic dispenser) and a line of furiously honking Turks wondering why we didn't press on. It took exhausting hand gestures to explain that everyone must back up and enter a neighboring booth. This kind of thing seems to happen all the time in Turkey. Elevators open between floors, electricity can quit at any moment and remain off for hours (thereby also suspending all plumbing), planes are inexplicably delayed, and reservations (of whatever variety) may be canceled or reinstated quite arbitrarily. These are the growing pains, I guess, of a young nation rushing to catch up.

The new mountain roads east zigzag abruptly into impressive heights. We drove through fragrant pine groves to upland plateaus backed by craggy peaks. Rows of hundreds of beehives ribboned the steep alpine meadows. Honey of all colors, dark amber to blond, lined tables at roadside stands, only rarely tended. We stopped at one to buy dried figs and walnuts. Forget bargaining with the cheerful, round peasant woman. She smiled, rubbed my arm, insisted that I sample all her nuts, jams, and sweet vinegars. Still chattering away in a language meaningless to me, she helped herself to Turkish liras from my outheld wallet, collecting a healthy sum barely short of robbery. For just a second I missed Vedat's protective chaperoning.

And so we wandered, past the shepherds' black-felt tents, drifts of goats being led to a communal fountain, tattered canvas lean-tos sheltering women at their rug looms, fields where men hung on to wooden ploughs behind their donkeys. Then up ahead, sparkling in the sunlight, a new gas-station palace loomed: four lines of pumps, free car and truck wash, restaurants, a cafeteria, clean washrooms, a convenience store. As a traveler in Turkey today, you can have both ancient and updated caravansaries, at convenient intervals along roads that have been transporting people and goods for almost too long to fathom.

Tours are the ticket for those unprepared to go it alone. For more information on IST Cultural Tours write to the company at 225 West Thirty-fourth Street, New York, NY 10122, or call 800-833-2111. The Turkish Tourist Office (821 United Nations Plaza, New York, NY 10017; 212-687-2194) can make other recommendations or suggest independent itineraries. The liveliest guidebook I found was Lonely Planet's Turkey; A Fez of the Heart, by Jeremy Seal; Turkish Reflections, by Mary Lee Settle; Alexander's Path, by Freya Stark; and The Towers of Trebizond, a novel by Rose Macaulay.

The Atlantic Monthly; February 1998; Inside Anatolia; Volume 281, No. 2; pages 38 - 42.