11 February 2012

A Thin Strip Between Continents

We are just across the water from ancient Troy, at the point where the Persian emperor Xerxes built a bridge of boats to connect the continents, where Alexander the Great broke through the other way, where the Russian fleet blockaded Napoleon's supply line, along the stretch of water that made Constantinople rich. The Dardanelles Straits are less than a mile wide, the land we stand on not much wider. It is both a major water-route and a divider of ideas. Standing here in Europe, one can look square across at Asia. It isn't an arbitrary land boundary; here, one feels that they're at the edge. This is the Gallipoli peninsula.
On January 9th, 1916, British naval forces - led by a young Winston Churchill - retreated from this clay-and-scrub spit, leaving nearly a year of fighting and forty-five thousand dead behind them. The Ottoman troops who had defended Gallipoli were even more devastated. Eighty thousand men had died, one hundred and sixty thousand wounded. It was one of the bloodiest spots of the First World War. The land here is covered with cemeteries and monuments.
In fact, we found a peninsula littered with relics from millennia of war. The long strip of land borders one of the most contested waterways in history. The Dardanelles straits run a narrow line between Europe and Asia, connecting the Mediterranean to the Sea of Marmara and ultimately to the Black Sea, to Russia, Ukraine and Romania. The interior of the continent has long relied on this passageway with the outer world - on the other side of the Marmara, Istanbul stands sentry at a second narrowing point.
Turkey is mostly an Asian country. Only three percent of its land lies on the European side of the divide, in what has come to be known as Thrace - after the ancient and vanished Thracian empire that once ruled the territory. It is a fascinating triangle of land, and is Turkish mostly because it is so close to Istanbul.
To most westerners, of course, this would hardly seem like Turkey at all. Cappadocia and Ephesus, the mountains of Anatolia - those are the names that play to our mythology of Turkey, and for good reason. That's the heart of the country, the part to see if you want to experience the culture (supposedly). But that's not what our journey is about - we're interested in this part, where the land of Mehmet the Conqueror bleeds into the Iliad and Roman legend. This is where the two continents meet, where rusting artillery mounts stand guard over swift water, where WWII bunkers are dug in next to medieval castles.
We arrived in Turkey as the national gaze turned inland, towards the unusual blizzard that's gripped the interior. Several feet of snow had halted trains and buried houses. Ankara had more snow than it's had in years. Even here, with the waters of the Aegean lapping against the western beaches, the air is cold and small drifts of snow survive. Any thoughts of a warm Turkish spring dissipated. It's still winter, the season of Anchovy fishing and thick, seafaring sweaters. The locals are entrenched in the offseason, the economy is fishing and farming, hotels and restaurants are mostly quiet.
Such a peaceful place now, the Gallipoli has given its land up to a whole universe of stories, which seem part of the very stone and sand. At breakfast this morning we overheard a British man grilling his teenaged daughter on Heracles and Triton. Atatürk himself was forged here, Mustafa Kemal having cut his teeth fighting on the peninsula. To the ancient greeks, the idea of an Asian and a European continent would have seemed strange - this was the center of the world, the famous Hellespont. It was here that Helle drowned when she fell from the ram of the golden fleece, it was here that Paris brought Helen. To the Australians, it was a place that helped forge a national identity - the fledgling country's understanding of war was shaped by its involvement in the 1915 campaign.
There are more stray dogs than tourists at the moment, but millions of Turks visit Gallipoli (or "Gelibolu," as it's known to them) in the high season. For Anatolians, this isn't "un-Turkish," it's the heart of the national identity, the border that they defended against Europe's imperial powers. If Istanbul is their great city, than this land is a necessary part of the whole - Istanbul was made great as Constantinople because it bridges this division, because the Ottomans were able to control both sides of the waters. The fighting during WWI gave birth to this modern nation, to its democracy. There are monuments from lots of nations, but the Turks have built the tallest. It is part of their pride that they didn't give in, that this land - more so than the Eastern plains and the border with Persian - was never lost, that the people here are still, almost unbelievably, Turkish.
Ships stream by, carrying goods into and out of the Black Sea. They lurk huge in the waters, brought close enough to shore by the narrows to see people on board, to hear - when it's calm enough - engines churning against the current. There are smaller boats too, fishing the rich waters. A strange double movement of water occurs here, with a flow from the Mediterranean slipping underneath the surface, which streams outward from the Marmara. Nutrients and species mix in the depths, the fish markets overflow.
In the Caucasus, we felt sometimes that the land there was only a vestigial part of Europe. Far removed from the rest of the continent, gerrymandered together from ideas and old boundaries, those lands felt more like an idea than a fact. Here, the land is suddenly, solidly Europe. It has to be - it is such a historical immensity, part of the line between places. Surrounded by this much mythology and confronted with this divide, it doesn't matter that we have to qualify and explain why we're here in this corner. This is Europe and this is Turkey. There is no argument. Sometimes, standing at the edge of something gives a better feeling for the whole than being lost somewhere in the middle.

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