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In an effort to trace a general path taken by the deportation caravans in 1915, I spent August 1, 2008 through August 9, 2008 in Turkey and Syria. I’d written (based on extensive research) much of The Gendarme before I departed, but I wanted to see for myself the land through which people had marched and suffered and died. Although the caravans originated in all parts of Anatolia, our route began near Cappadocia, proceeded over the Taurus Mountains to the Syrian desert and then to Aleppo. As a whole the area is arid, remote and austere in its beauty. Traveling paved highways in an air-conditioned van, I tried to imagine what it would have been like for old men, women and children to make this trek on foot. It is easy to see how many would not have survived it.
Three traveling companions—Will, Bryan and Bill—accompanied me on the trip. While my friends were aware of my reasons for going, I was guarded with our Turkish guides and most of the people we met about my heritage and specific interest in the region. To even refer to the Armenian incident as “genocide” remains a crime under Turkish law. As such, I found that our guides, although quite knowledgeable on all things historical, made scant reference to World War I and no reference to the Armenians. When asked (usually by one of my companions), why the country was 97% Muslim as opposed to, say, Syria or Lebanon, they referenced reciprocal Turkish-Greek relocations after World War I, an event described as difficult on both sides but necessary given the times.
Although I found reference on the Internet to Armenian heritage tours in Istanbul, few people seem to have followed the route of the caravans. We ended up engaging a tour company and telling them where we wanted to go. Particularly after leaving Cappadocia, we saw few Americans. Although our experience entering and leaving Syria (described below) was somewhat hair-raising, on the whole I found the people friendly and engaging, the landscape exotic and fascinating, and the opportunity to visit this area of such historical importance a chance of a lifetime. I recommend going.
Arrive Istanbul from NY JFK. Met at airport, transfer to Hotel Daphne, a small, 5-floor hotel in Sultanahmet, the old part of the city. Discover that the top floor of the hotel is a terrace with a terrific view of the Sea of Marmara and the ships anchored there (by my count over 100) awaiting slots or approval to enter the Bosphorus and travel on to the Black Sea. As our guided tour is not until the following day, we venture out on our own and make our way to the Blue Mosque, a ten-minute walk. There, holding maps like prototypical tourists, we are offered assistance by a young man who then invites us to visit his “shop” nearby. We follow to the Ottomania rug shop, where we meet Varol (a “cousin” of our helpful friend), who offers lengthy descriptions of rug-making, shows a number of carpets and serves apple tea before offering to take us to lunch. Varol is of Kurdish descent, and the one person we meet who willingly brings up the Armenians (“a travesty just like the Kurds”). Lunch is a smorgasbord in which you point to what you want (stuffed peppers, yogurt, stewed tomatoes, various lamb and beef dishes with rice) and a waiter brings it to you. We wander afterward to the Grand Bazaar, which is crowded and full of tourists and pushy vendors. Varol informs us (perhaps for reasons of self-interest) not to buy any rugs there as the vendors must pay upwards of $10,000 a month for stall space and their prices reflect it. Later, we find our way back to the upscale pedestrian street east of the Grand Bazaar which houses Starbucks and numerous outdoor restaurants. Picking one, we order kabobs and baklava. I have rakı, which tastes like licorice-flavored vodka and takes me the entire meal to finish. We watch the sunset from our hotel terrace, listening to the amplified sound of the call to prayers.
Tours today, of Tokapki Palace, the Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque. Our guide is Moratz, a knowledgeable, 40-ish man with tattoos on both upper arms. Each of the venues are spectacular and fascinating, but my favorite is a visit to the underground cistern, built during Roman times and for which a walkway has been constructed. The walkway permits venturing down near the water, to observe the bottoms of columns transported from other parts of the Roman Empire. We observe (an observation to be repeated throughout the trip) that trial lawyers and ADA-like regulations have not yet arrived here, as steep steps and wet walkways are the norm. A more lengthy visit to the Grand Bazaar follows, lunch at another smorgasbord, then a return to Ottomania and rug negotiation (good quality, all vegetable dyes, wool from the back of the sheep which is best and longest—who knew?). We end up at a nearby seafood restaurant, with good food and lots of wine. I stay away from rakı.
Flight this morning from Istanbul to Kayseri (once Caesarea), an important religious center in the history of the Armenian church. We see Kayseri only from a distance, however, setting out in a van for our cave hotel in Cappadocia. Our guide here is Birsen, a 30-year old woman who is from Izmir and has worked in Cappadocia for several years. Our hotel is called Giramsu, a 30 or 40 room facility built from caves carved into the hillsides almost a thousand years ago. The watchword for the hotel (as well as the caves themselves, as we soon discover) is steepness and low ceilings. We venture off immediately to the underground city, a place where early Christians constructed eight stories of underground chambers, living facilities, tunnels and more. Part of their security consisted of narrow, short passageways through which we have to bend double to walk. On then to visit some 12th century churches in caves carved in the hills, then lunch at an outdoor restaurant at which I have an omelet-type dish that comes baked in a pan. Afterward Will and Bryan purchase handmade dolls from a row of women who fight over the sale. Then more churches, back to the hotel for dinner. The very small town where the hotel is located has a very new mosque and minaret, and a recorded call to prayers loud enough to jolt the unwary from his or her seat. Interestingly, the area dogs howl along with the müezzin. Later, in the middle of the night, the dogs howl again, seemingly right beneath our window.
Hot-air ballooning beginning with a 4:50 am pickup. Probably some 25 balloons in the air, six passengers in each (Will, Bryan and I are paired with 3 Korean women who speak no English). Weather is cool but the heat of the blasts of helium at our backs makes it not uncomfortable. The balloons rise to perhaps 2000 feet then drop down to almost tree level, then rise again. It is still, the sun coming over a ridge in front of us, terrain like Texas or Arizona with orange and white hills. When the time comes to land it takes quite some time, as a breeze blows us at treetop level for some ways before our balloon operator finally decides to put it down (and snaps an olive tree in the process). We have warm champagne and toast our success. Then on to the tour, the “fairy chimneys,” odd formations where softer rock has withered away beneath harder basalt. We climb up several of these, then tour the St. Basil monastery in which you can climb up into the cave structures built into the fairy chimneys (again, at your own considerable risk if you fell). It is fascinating to think that Christians (Armenians) survived here for centuries before 1915. We visit a pottery “factory,” watch a vase being made, watch Bill attempt to make something, move quickly to the purchase area, negotiate all-in “deals.” It is hot (maybe 40 degrees centigrade), but Birsen says its gets hotter. Dinner at the hotel.
On the road to Antakya. This is the area traveled by many of the Armenian caravans. Wide changes in topography, from flat expanses south of Cappadocia that look like west Texas to the brown Taurus mountains that on one side resemble New Mexico and the other the Sierras to the craggy whiteness of the coastal plain toward Adana. Everything is dry, dusty; even the trees seem covered in dust. Any trek on foot would be long, hot and difficult, even under the best of circumstances. Are we passing bones and unmarked graves as we journey? The area near Adana is quite commercialized, with high-rise buildings and a multi-laned highway. We follow the coast toward Antakya (the caravans would have proceeded on east, then south to Aleppo). Antakya (also called Hatay, also the Biblical city of Antioch), is a medium-sized city with few visible tourists (particularly few Americans—we are asked several times: “Where are you from?”). We stay at the Hotel Dedmon, a modern facility located just out of town. A busload of Arab tourists arrives, many women in burkhas, some with full face coverings, some with eyes exposed, some with full face exposed (and lipstick). I note that the burkha top-pieces are attached by Velcro. The town has a much more Arabic feel than Istanbul or Cappadocia, and we have dinner at a restaurant located on a narrow street just off an open-air produce market offering nuts, apricots, eggplants, beans and much more.
Antakya. We start with a tour of St. Peter’s church, supposedly the first Christian church in the world, but discover when we arrive that it is closed due to a rock slide that had occurred several months earlier. We are met when we exit the van by a group of four or five dirty kids that want to be our “guides” to climb up the area outside of the church (the first we have seen of this in Turkey). We clamber about with them and Birsen, but then a guard comes and snatches up the smallest of the kids and hauls him off. (We are told they want to scare him, as they don’t want them pestering tourists). As we leave the urchin is being released, whereby he runs back to his cohorts, screaming (obscenities, we are told by Birsen) at the guards. We move then to the Mosaic Museum, evidently the second largest in the world, after one in Tunisia. In the afternoon we walk through Antakya’s covered market, in which the products are more home staples than in the Grand Bazaar, ranging from clothing to food to tobacco and books. (We are told that 65% of Turkish people smoke, which from my observation is low). We walk back to the hotel after, a 5K trek in the afternoon heat. Dinner that night in town, at which we sample kunefe, a crunchy, custard-like dessert.
Syria. The border is a 45-minute drive from Antakya, and we set out around 6. There is a 5km “no man’s land” between the two borders, through which we must take a taxi as our Turkish guide Birsen does not have passport or visa to enter. When we reach the Syrian side and meet our Syrian guide (Fatih), however, we do not have the proper paperwork to enter. In addition, because Bill has a new passport that does not match the number the Syrian officials have, they flag him as having obtained a new passport in order to disguise the fact he has been to “occupied Palestine,” which would prohibit him from entering Syria. With Fatih telling us repeatedly “It is your fault!”, we must go back to the Turkish border, back to Antakya, obtain the correct paperwork and return (minus Bill)—a 3-hour operation. Still there are issues (“we must have the manifest with the blue seal!”) but by 12:30 we have entered the country. The topography, that facing the Armenian deportees on the last leg of their journey, is rocky and bleak, less sandy than stark; inhospitable. Aleppo is only a 45-minute drive from the border in an air-conditioned car, however, and we are quickly inside this city of several million, in which street signs are in Arabic but also, interestingly, in English. One can imagine how it must have felt to finally reach this exotic metropolis in 1915, the few deportees that made it. We make for the ancient city walls and gate and then for the citadel, which rises like a crown in the city’s middle and is truly magnificent. The citadel is huge, its defenses impressive, the degree of its preservation outstanding. We clamber around its stone steps, view the thousand-year old original doors, visit its dungeons (again, climbing via steep steps directly down), smoke a hookah pipe at the café at its crest. We enter also the sûq, the covered bazaar described in The Gendarme that our guide insists is much larger than Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. At my request we head afterward to the Armenian part of the city, where we take pictures of the plaque commemorating the 1915 genocide at the Church of the 14 Martyrs and observe an Armenian church service in process. Afterward we wander the narrow streets looking at old houses that are now restaurants and hotels. By the time we return to the border it is dusk, and Fatih assists in getting the paperwork cleared and puts us into a taxi. However, when the taxi reaches the final checkpoint for leaving the country there is a lengthy discussion in Arabic and our taxi is turned back. We are taken into the border patrol building and into an interior office where an official slams our passports on his desk and a lengthy discussion in Arabic ensues (no one appears to speak any English). After some minutes of sitting, shrugging, looking at one another and trying unsuccessfully to raise Fatih by cell phone, the taxi driver motions us to follow and we reenter the taxi and make again for the final checkpoint. After another lengthy discussion and phone calls back to somewhere (Damascus?), the metal gate is pulled open and we exit the country.
Early flight back to Istanbul, back to the Hotel Daphne. We take the ferry up the Bosporus this morning, looking at the houses that our guide says go for as much as $10 million. Were some once owned by Armenians? Istanbul has mushroomed, prospered, now a modern city of some 18 million. We tour Dolmabahçe Palace, home of the Sultan who was also the Caliph. We buy t-shirts in the spice market, including one that includes a cross, a star of David and the Turkish half-moon in the spelling of the word Istanbul: the city that was once Constantinople, once Byzantium. Juncture of east and west, cradle of history, washed by change, conquest, expulsion. How different would it be now if there had been no World War I, no deportations? We spend the last night again on the hotel terrace, looking out on the boats. As the sun goes down, the call to prayer starts, echoing from minaret to minaret across the breadth of the city.