Where continents collide

The plane was delayed and the Istanbul gate (56) is the most distant of all at Heathrow’s Terminal One. Rough patches punctuated the flight and the visa process in Istanbul was messy. Have $US20 in hand. If you are an American, have $US100. The insult is calculated, though still swallowed by many. In Turkey, one is aware of elements of national interest that may seem trivial in an American imperium: Kurdish separatists in Iraq, the question of Turkish deployment to Iraq despite the country’s deep opposition to the war, the role of Turkey in mediation between Israel and the Palestinians. It’s a long way from Texas.

The cab tracked down by the Sea of Marmora. On the other shore the driver identified ‘Asia’. At Istanbul, famously, two continents meet—but as Turkey presses to be considered by the end of 2004 for membership of the European Union, its Asian land mass and the Muslim religion of most are being used against it. Especially by the right: a French politician asked how a Eurasian nation could be part of Europe, while a German warned that ten million Turks would head for his country if acceptance was granted. Sober EU commissioners talk, instead, of human rights problems and a 22.7 per cent inflation rate.

The hotel recommended to me was in the Sultanahmet district. At breakfast time, on the eighth floor, seagulls as big as chickens strutted the balcony. Behind them were the Blue Mosque, Aya Sophia, the Topkapi Palace and the Bosphorus, with ships lying in its roads in a warm haze. This was once Byzantium, then Constantinople as the capital of the Roman Empire moved east. Nearby are the great works of Justinian’s rule—the cistern (525 ad), the dome of Aya Sophia and across the Golden Horn, the Galata Tower, captured by the forces of Mehmet the Conqueror 550 years ago, when Constantinople ‘fell’.

The boat trip up the Bosphorus to Anadolu Kavagi, on the Asian side, at the entrance to the Black Sea, is one of the great (and cheap) journeys in the world. There are palaces and fortresses, luxury hotels and residences coming down to the water in a manner oddly reminiscent of Venice. The end of the trip is a small village with cheap fish restaurants. Through this strait the Allies intended to provision Russia in the Great War—once the Dardanelles, the narrows between the Sea of Marmora and the Aegean, had been forced.

The magazine promoting Sultanahmet declared that ‘the aborigine deserves a special mention as perhaps being the cardinal vegetable of the Turkish kitchen’. Ern Malley’s hand did not seem far away. Nor was Gallipoli, although the often interrupted trip took half the day’s light. Travel is in part about knowing who has been there before you, and what they said. At Gallipoli the legend of a nation born in battle and—ideologically—out of a Germanic Romanticism—was urged into being. For the visitor who has read of this action, the signal advantage of coming in person is to see the topography, climb the slopes, imagine the intimate combat in the hills, then look away to the islands of the Aegean, down to what might be calm suburban beaches in Australia. And on this day, the waters of Anzac Cove echoed with the shouts of an Australian snorkelling instructor.

The tour went the next morning to ‘windy Troy’, still 90 per cent unexcavated but finely marked. Here are the plains where the armies fought, the walls, towers and ramps of the nine levels of the city. Not far away are the Scamander River and the Hellespont. Back in Istanbul, it was time for a walk across the Galata Bridge, lined with hundreds of fishermen catching nothing bigger than sardines. There were bread-sellers and street photographers, shoe-shiners and men with weighing machines, children set to beg with ‘lost’ legs and in surgical masks. Leaving this throng, climbing up a steep hill, there were narrow flights of stairs that resembled Montmartre. Abruptly the mass of the Galata Tower, re-built in 1348 by the Genoese, loomed. It is 61 metres high, 140 metres above the Golden Horn. A lift goes seven floors up and then it is stairs past the restaurant and ‘night clup’ to an unenclosed balcony with wonderful views of the city. Perfect, too, for a vertigo attack. Sadly the Captain Ahab Bar at the base of the tower was not yet open.

The walk went on into the most European quarter of Istanbul, to Istiklal Street, with its elegant covered arcades, luxury shops, couples promenading and a toy tram running down its length from Taksim Square in the north. There, in 1999, two Leeds United supporters were stabbed before a soccer match against Galatasaray. That sad event might portend a European destiny for Turkey: it could have happened anywhere in the EU. But for now, and all around, were confident young Turks, perhaps content with the ambiguity of their country’s place in two continents and far from seeing a national reincarnation as ‘the sick man of Europe’, as Turkey’s foes may bark. 



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