Travels In Turkey, or
A Busload Of Texans In
King Midas' Court

Shirley H. Wetzel

© Copyright 2002 by Shirley H. Wetzel

Drawing of a pyramid with a treasure inside.

In the summer of 2000 I had the pleasure of traveling through Turkey with a group of fellow Texans called the Friends of Archaeology. The theme of the tour was ancient Anatolia. The leader of our group of thirty-two was Father Ed Bader, university professor and archaeologist, who was determined to make sure that we saw as many sites as possible during our twenty-three day sojourn. Consequently, we have several blurred photos from the bus window of what we call "drive-by ruins", and we weren't really sure what all we saw until we got our photos back and compared them with our travel journals. A good time was had by all nonetheless. Here is the story of this wondrous experience. It is a story of lovely scenery, ancient ruins, wonderful food, but most of all it is a story of the kindness and generosity of the Turkish people.

We arrived in Istanbul after an all night flight. The exotic sights, sounds and smells hit us as soon as we stepped off the plane. The adventure was on! We groggily checked into our hotel near the Grand Bazaar for a little rest. Some of us rested, that is; others set off immediately to explore and shop. Turkish rug stores abounded, and children selling postcards, Turkish caps, and other souvenirs were everywhere. I opted for resting until time for a seafood dinner in a restaurant overlooking the sea. This was the first of many memorable dining experiences during the trip. The food was always delicious, whether it was a simple bowl of lentil chorba with ek mek in a truck stop or aubergine and Izkenderkabob in a fancy hotel restaurant. After the first few days we became accustomed to having goat cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, and olives for breakfast, washed down with strong cups of chai - Turkish tea, which was far more prevalent than Turkish coffee.

Our stay in Istanbul was short, as our main interest was in visiting archaeological sites. We did the usual tourist thing: museums, Topkapi Palace, the magnificent Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, and of course the Grand Bazaar. We could have spent days wandering the through the shops full of amber jewelry, ceramics, spices, rugs - always rugs - and just about everything else under the sun, but Father Bader only allowed us two hours. He never could understand the attraction of shopping, which was understandable for a priest, but sometimes frustrating to his fellow travelers. He thought the archaeological sites were more important than souvenirs, and he was right. You can only have so many pieces of amber, so many rugs, but the things we saw and the experiences we had are worth far more than baubles and beads.

We traveled from Istanbul, at the northwestern edge of Turkey, eastward along the Black Sea, which is actually a gorgeous turquoise color, to the Georgian border. There we swung south, skirting the borders of Armenia, Iran, and Iraq, then west along the Mediterranean and the Syrian border. We then headed north and northwest, ending up in a full circle in Istanbul. Our intrepid driver, Imaan, took that huge bus up mountains so high we were above the tree line, around twisty, narrow dirt and gravel roads a goat would have trouble with. He was equally as skilled with the more dangerous driving in the big cities, squeezing through impossibly narrow spaces, negotiating through streets filled with cars, trucks, pedestrians, and horse carts as if by magic. Through it all, he never lost his patience, or his smile. He and his assistant, Mustafa, spoke little English, but after dinner some nights they sang for us and invited us into their dance, shared their raki and apricots, and treated us as honored guests.

Some of the highlights: staggering, gasping, half crawling up the side of Mount Nemrut (a trek our beloved guide Tamer described as "an easy 15-20 minute walk"), finally arriving at the summit feeling like a champ. I posed, a la Rocky, atop the sacrificial platform, then wandered among the great stone statues of gods and kings, many broken, pieces tumbled across the summit. This was to have been an eternal monument to a mighty king whose name I forget; as I walked through the ruins of his great memorial, I inwardly recited Shelley's poem "Ozymandias." Other memories: drinking cold, pure water from the well in Antioch used by Saint Paul. Walking the streets of the mud brick village of Harran where Abraham and Sarah once walked. Exploring the Neolithic city of Catal Huyok, which I had studied in grad school many years ago, never dreaming I would one day be there. Sleeping in a 14th century caravanseri by the Tigris River, having a photo op on a Seljuk bridge over the Euphrates. There was much more, but the museums, archaeological sites, villages and cities have begun to blur together.

What stays in my mind are the people we met, and the kindness and hospitality they showed us. Our guide, Tamer, was a Turkish Lord Byron with a passion for poetry and for his country. He shepherded us over hill and dale without a single casualty, led us through the bewildering array of food choices, helped us deal with a monetary system in which change for the bathroom attendant was 100,000 lira, and one million lira was worth $2.50, enlightened and entertained us, and never once lost patience with us. He gamely tried out the Texas English I taught him: "Howdy, y'all; I reckon so; over yonder," and he gave us daily lessons in Turkish, praising our feeble attempts to speak it. I told him the story of the Alamo, which appealed to his Turkish love for grand adventure tales and doomed but valiant heroes. He told us stories of King Midas, Alexander and his battle with Darius, of knights and Crusades, and of Attaturk. His knowledge of his country's history was phenomenal, his skills as a guide amazing.

As we traveled through the towns and villages, the locals waved to the bus as we passed, and shyly approached us when we got off, smiling, offering flowers or tea, shaking our hands. Students in their blue and white uniforms asked if they could practice their English with us - always the same questions, "what is your name? Where do you come from? How old are you?" In a spectacular eighth century church on the island of Akhtamara a Turkish family asked us to pose with them in a group photo. Foreign tourists were rare in much of the area we covered, and we were treated as exotic treasures. It was really a let down to reach the big cities, like Ankara, where there were actually other tourists and we didn't get special treatment!

In the southeastern city of Van, where terrorist activity is not unknown, my friend Rita and I got lost one afternoon in the old part of the city. The streets were narrow and meandering, lined with open front shops where old men sat drinking tea and playing backgammon. The sun was going down, and all the lined, weathered faces seemed to be scowling at us, letting us know we didn't belong there. Finally I spotted a young boy with a bicycle delivery cart who looked sympathetic, and walked up to him. He smiled and said "What is your name? Where are you from?" "My name is Shirley, and I'm from Texas, in America, and we're lost!" I showed him the hotel brochure Rita had luckily brought along. "Texas - yes, cowboys!" he said, then pointed down the street, telling us, in Turkish, how to get there. A younger boy joined him and they both pointed and directed us, but obviously we didn't understand. Two of the scowling old men came over, looked at the brochure, and pointed as well. When we still stood there confused, one of the men, no longer scowling, told the boys to guide us to the hotel, and they did. They spoke in Turkish, we spoke in English, but we somehow understood each other. When they brought us to the hotel door I tried to give them each a dollar bill, although I knew they had not done it for money. The younger boy took the bill, but the older one would not, and scolded the little one for doing so. I told them to buy a coca cola with it, and we thanked them as best we could for their kindness.

I could go on, there is much, much more to tell, but I'll stop here. I haven't even touched on the rug buying frenzy, the nights I hung out with the locals in the hotel bar, the other-worldly landscape of Cappadochia, also known as Smurftown, or the wonderful bonding experience of the Turkish bath. Oh well, perhaps another time ... The day of departure came much too soon, and we climbed from the bus for the last time. I told Tamer to "Remember the Alamo," and he gently said "I won't forget." As he left us at the airport, he hugged each of us - not a typical Turkish behavior, so we knew that he truly cared for us. He called out to us as we entered the terminal: "Y'all come back now, ya hear?"

I am a librarian at Rice University, Houston, Texas. I have an M.A. in Anthropology as well as an M.L.S., and my passion is traveling to archaeological sites all over the world. I also like to write about my travels. I have made other trips with the Friends of Archaeology to Peru, Honduras, Guatemala (where I did archaeological fieldwork 20 years ago), and Mexico. We will be traveling to the Yucatan in February, where I'm sure we'll have more adventures and lots of fun.

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