Thursday, 4 August 2011

Turn Left At Aristotle

The Hellespont. A name fabled in history, the narrowest point of the Dardanelles Straits separating Europe from Asia. The place where Xerxes with his Persian army of 300,000 in about 480 B.C. crossed into Europe on his way to Thermopylae and ultimately Salamis where his fleet was destroyed by  Themistocles. Frustrated at his initial failure to cross the straits Xerxes ordered his army to give the swiftly flowing passageway 300 lashes to show it who was boss. It must have worked because his huge force was able to cross on a hastily constructed bridge – the only time a bridge has crossed the Hellespont.

About 150 years later Alexander and his army of 30,000 tough Macedonians and their allies together with a cavalry of 5,000 had a smoother crossing on rented galleys. The crossing was unopposed and Alexander turned the transport over to his general Parmenion while he dashed off to nearby Troy to pay homage to Achilles. As his galley neared the Asian shore he hurled his spear onto the beach to declare his intention to conquer Asia. A few days later he began his long march to India  by crushing a much larger force of Persians and Greek mercenaries at the River Granicus. About a year later Alexander repeated  by this feat by destroying the Persian army once and for all at the Battle of Issus in what is now southern Turkey.

As we waited for the ferry near the 15th century fortress of Kilit Bahir (Lock of the Sea) to Canakkale these images of ancient history suddenly seemed not so ancient. The landscape has not changed very much, and the area has been spared the worst of the unlovely development that plagues much of the Turkish coast. You can’t help thinking of people like Xerxes, Alexander, Leander and Hero, and Byron. After Bryon made the difficult swim across the straits in 1810 he admitted that he didn’t see how Leander had much energy left for his tryst with Hero after he repeatedly swam across the straits to be with her.

Friends had invited us to their home in Assos – just across from the Greek island of Mytilene – and told us to take a left at the statue of Aristotle, go past a defunct cheese shop and wind up at their house literally on top of the ancient city where Aristotle once taught. It’s a long drive from Istanbul, but, once beyond Tekirdag, the road goes through beautiful farm land with fields of sun flowers before winding down to the long Gallipoli peninsula separating the Dardanelles from the Gulf of Saroz.
Aristotle at the entrance to Assos

One reason the Gallipoli peninsula remains relatively free of development is that most of the area is a national park dedicated to the memory of the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915 when allied forces tried, and failed, to knock Ottoman Turkey out of World War I. The entire battle field is dotted with monuments and cemeteries – none more poignant than the one at a place called Lone Pine where hundreds of young Australian soldiers of the Light Horse Brigade are buried. I have often swum at ANZAC (Australia New Zealand) cove, looked up at the imposing cliffs and thought “They never had a chance against the Turkish forces perched on top.” It was curious sort of battle where the soldiers developed a grudging respect for each other. One monument captures this attitude well. A giant Turkish sergeant carries a wounded British soldier to the British trenches, puts him gently down and returns unmolested to his own side of the battle.

As the ferry pulls into Canakkale on the Asian side you can see a replica of the real hero of the naval operations at Gallipoli. Not some grand battleship bristling with guns, but a tubby little mine layer named Nusret. It was mines very cleverly placed by the crew of the Nusret that caused so much damage to the allied fleet that it gave up the idea of forcing the straits.

Once on the Asian side you wind up a steep hill and suddenly the plain of Troy opens in front of you. A small sign indicates a dusty road leading to the excavation of several layers of cities, once which could have been the fabled Troy of Homer’s epic poem. Perhaps, perhaps not. But it does not take a great deal of imagination to sit on the walls looking over the plain toward the sea and picture Achilles, Hector, Agamemnon, Priam, Patroclus, Odysseus and all the others involved in that long war more than 3,000 years ago.

One thing Homer, or other poets, got right was the description of the geography of the region. Our friends in Assos had descriptions of 19th century British travelers who rode all over the Troad with their copies of the Iliad in one hand and a map in the other. According to them the descriptions in the Iliad of the hills, streams, islands, and distant mountains match almost perfectly with the current topography – at least the topography of the mid-19th century.

In this part of the world ancient history is not ancient at all. It is with us every day as another bit of this history is uncovered by your door step. The feats Alexander should be considered part of the current affairs curriculum, not history.


A Seasonal Cook in Turkey said...

David,it was so lovely to see you and Mariella last week. Your love of history is infectious: what a memory you have! Do come back soon, this time when Turhan and Peter are here! The baby loves her little outfit : )).

A Seasonal Cook in Turkey said...

David, just checking .....!!!