James Tressler / Sunday, June 28, 2015 @ 7:40 a.m. / Letter From Istanbul
LETTER FROM ISTANBUL: Silifke and Anamur
When we arrived last week for our holiday on the south coast of Turkey, I resolutely did not take along a pen and notebook. This time around, instead of scribbling frantically every five seconds, I was going to take a true break, and let the landscape do all the storytelling. I had other reasons besides; I was getting married.
Engaged actually. Özge’s family had arranged a dinner party in Silifke on the south coast, so we decided to just make a holiday out of it.
We took a bus from Istanbul, an overnight trip that took us across the rolling Anatolian countryside, across the Taurus mountains, and down to the coast. Around noon the next day, we arrived in Silifke, a small-ish city on the aptly named Göksu (Green) River, which opens out into a turquoise Mediterranean. Özge’s mother and sister picked us up and drove us to the sister’s apartment. There, we reconnected with Özge’s father, brother–in-law and nephew, a young boy named Deniz.
We were to stay with them for a few days, since the party was going to be in Silifke, and then afterward we’d go with Özge’s parents to their place in Anamur, two hours to the west along the coast.
I’ll skip the details about the party, except to say that it was a beautiful occasion that went off surprisingly well – considering the groom was an American getting engaged to a local girl, and most of the relatives did not speak English, and had never met a yabanci before. I’ll leave the reader with the images of my fiancee Özge and and her father dancing to Elvis’ rendition of “Always On My Mind,” and the father, Mehmet, handing over the bride during the dance, and all the relatives applauding. I’ll skip the speeches, which came later, after all of us had had way too much to drink and weren’t making much sense, in Turkish or English. I also think it best to omit the part where I attempted to dance the halay.
The day after the ceremony (or maybe it was the next, I forget), we packed up our things and headed to Anamur. We took the nephew, Deniz, along with us to give Özge’s sister and husband a break, having hosted all of us the past week.
Anamur, which means “windy cape,” and many of the small cities along the south Turkish coast are rich in history, dating back to antiquity. The whole region, over the ages, has passed through the hands of Assyrians, later Alexander the Great and the Macedonians, the Persians, then the Romans, the Byzantians, and finally the Ottoman Turks. These days, near the border city of Mersin, Syrian refugees, the Steinbeck Okies of our generation, have become the latest addition, residing in tent-camps along the border, but that’s another story.
Özge’s father, Mehmet, is a well-known local archaeologist who has done extensive research on the south Turkish coast. He has even written books, which were translated into German. Also, he is friend and associate of James Russell, the Canadian archaeologist who led the excavations of the Anemurium from the 1970s through the late Nineties.
As you can well imagine, it was quite a treat to have my future father-in-law give me a personal tour of some of these ancient sites. Mehmet, in his late sixties, is mostly retired these days, but he’s still well-connected in the local community.
On his motorbike, we zoomed down a dusty road to where the Anemurium is located, in the hills overlooking the town. The first thing you see, up on the right, is the necropolis, a large cemetery, with the barrel-shaped tombs all nestled into the side of the hills.
Parking the motorbike, Mehmet and I surveyed the necropolis, then walked down a dusty path to the actual city remains. A sign nearby says the Anemurium was built by the Romans, circa 1 AD, and that the city minted coins, and also was a trading and military post, connecting to Germanopolis, and other places.
With Mehmet leading the way, we checked out the great baths, where in ancient times there were two huge swimming pools. Then we went to the Odeon, a theatre, which was in excellent condition (a guidebook claims it is one of the best-preserved of its kind in the world). Others, friends, have long suggested that the Roman remains in Turkey are actually in far better condition that in, say, Italy – that’s only opinion and speculation, of course. But, surveying the remains of the Anamurium – having just been in Rome last winter – well, I’m in no position to make a real comparison. Let’s just say that both are worth seeing. (Mehmet and his wife, Nefise, are going to Rome in July, so when they return perhaps Mehmet can offer a more qualified opinion).
Beneath the theater steps runs an arc-shaped tunnel, which Mehmet invited me to investigate. Walking through the cool passage, nature inevitably called. While answering the call, I noticed I had an observer. A large, green land turtle was hanging out, enjoying the shade.
Past the Odeon and the smaller baths (where, Mehmet pointed out, his associate James Russell found a statue of Athena buried) you can look further up the hillside and see the aqueducts, as well as the remains of the fortress and walls, which run down to the sea. We walked down to a small beach, where some locals were just coming out of the water, which was that crystalline, turquoise color that makes swimming all along this coast such a pleasure.
“How about that?” I exclaimed. “You can swim here right beside ancient Roman ruins!”
“Yes,” Mehmet said, smiling in agreement.
I thought of all those foreign tourists who crowd the famous resorts, in Bodrum, Marmaris, Antalya (180 miles or so to the west), and the prices they pay. Here, in Anamur, you had the same beautiful coastline, and ancient ruins all over the place to boot, and there were scarcely any tourists at all. In fact, that afternoon, Mehmet and I were the only visitors at the Anemurium.
We went into a nearby cafe (the cafe was built recently, much to Mehmet’s displeasure, to serve the tourists; Mehmet was angry mainly because the location of the cafe, right at the entrance to the ancient city, disturbs the aesthetic – it should be a bit further down the road).
We had something to drink, which was served by a young man who, upon introduction, turned out to be an archaeologist as well. He and Mehmet conversed for a while in Turkish, mostly about affairs relating to the upkeep of the site.
I thought it was a bit odd, an archaeologist who was just serving tea and coffee in the canteen. Mehmet saw my point.
“You are right,” he said, “But that’s the problem around here with archaeology: there’s plenty of work, understand – but there’s no work! If that makes any sense.”
Probably we could have launched into a lengthy discussion on the state of government grants and non-profit organizations, and the lack of funds involved in continuing excavations (God knows, there probably are even more, as-yet-undiscovered treasures in those verdant hillsides), but it was getting late in the day, and hot. We paid the bill, went outside and took off on the motorbike back to town, passing once more the necropolis, where the ancient kings slept.
We stayed three days. In the afternoons, Özge and I went out to the beach and went swimming. After the clamor and stress of Istanbul, it’s a whole different world, there, in that quiet town by the Mediterranean. All day long, we heard scarcely one car honk, and most of what you hear is the rocking of gentle waves and the wind blowing off shore. In the distance, the outlines of Cyprus could be discerned through low-hanging clouds.
I see I’m in danger, or maybe past that, of straying too far into the land of purple prose. But in this part of the world, historic, aesthetic and decorative, a land of mythos and legend, it’s difficult to avoid. So I’ll end by saying it’s definitely not the worst place in the world to be getting engaged. Scanning the books given to me by Mehmet, one can get lost in the maze of antiquity, with so many places left to be seen. For instance, there are the deep pits – marking Heaven and Hell gateways – as well as underground cities, full of well-preserved mosaics and ghostly stalagmites … well, there’s always next time.
James Tressler is a writer whose books, including “Conversations in Prague,” “Lost Coast D.A.,” and “The Trumpet Fisherman and Other Istanbul Sketches, can be found at Lulu.com. He lives in Istanbul.