Turkey is a land of surprises. It was in July, 2005 when Kay and I drove out of Istanbul in a rented car heading for Gelibolu. Westerners know this as Gallipoli, where one of WWI’s tragic military campaigns unfolded.
An allied expeditionary force of British, French, Australians and New Zealanders landed on the Gallipoli peninsula with the intention of occupying Istanbul and knocking Turkey out of the war. However, the fierce Turkish resistance they met kept them stuck close to where they landed.
After many months of suffering and death on both sides, the Turks stayed and the allies retreated with nothing to show except an extraordinary number of young lives lost.
The graveyards of Gelibolu are hallowed ground for the Turks . . .
and especially for the Australians and New Zealanders who come by the thousands each year on ANZAC Day to memorialize their ancestors.
As we headed across Thrace towards Gelibolu, we decided on a detour to the small Aegean village of Enez. Today, Enez is remote and of little importance, but it was not always so. Well-known under it’s ancient name of Ainos, the town was mentioned variously by Homer, Herodotus and Thucydides, which makes it one of the oldest cities in Turkish Thrace . . .
a land with monuments dating back at least 5,000 years to Neolithic times.
One reason to go to Enez is to see the remains of a formidable Byzantine defense wall and a ruined Byzantine church of large and splendid proportions.
What’s left of the church contains details ― some painted, some carved ― that point to a glorious spiritual heyday centuries ago.
The second reason, people go there is for the clean beaches on the nearby Aegean.
We were near the beaches searching for another ruin, that of an Ottoman Caravansaray, when we came across a nice looking lodging called the Balci Motel.
Since we had left Istanbul without making any prior arrangements, we decided to spend the night there at the Balci. The rooms we took for the night were an apartment designed for people to spend an entire vacation. Since the kitchen was big and seemingly well enough equipped and since there were no restaurants close by, we decided to eat in, as it were.
Now we come to some differences between motels as we know them in the U.S. and the Turkish variety. This motel ― and I assume it to be representative of its kind ― had no towels, no soap, and no toilet paper. It had a lovely built-in barbecue on a large terrace but no charcoal. The quest for these items together with a grocery list required that we find a market. Here’s the neat part, something that separates this country from others where we’ve traveled, including our own: Our hosts, the owners of the motel who had already welcomed us on their own terrace with Turkish coffee and friendly conversation, offered to lead us to the market. We went on foot with a jovial fellow who knew and greeted everyone we met on the way. Our shopping completed and the groceries on their way back to our apartment in the arms of a young, local lad, our host spotted a vegetable truck nearby. He walked to the truck, grabbed a couple of tomatoes, and after saying a friendly word to the driver, came back towards us without paying. The driver climbed out of the truck and instead of demanding payment ran after us with some cucumbers to go with the tomatoes. Such gestures of humanity have been repeated many times while we’ve been in Turkey. They are one of the Turks’ most endearing qualities.
Another thing worth mentioning happen at the Balci: We changed destinations. Instead of Gelibolu, we decided to go to Edirne, formally known as Adrianople. Edirne, with 120,000 inhabitants, is the largest town in Thrace and very close to the borders of Greece and Bulgaria. It was the capital of the young Ottoman Empire until the Sultan Murat II took Constantinople away from the Byzantines in 1453.
Although Edirne lost its status as capital, it remained an important city in the empire, and the reason to see it today is for the wonderful monuments it contains. First and foremost is the Selimiye, the brilliant architect Sinan’s greatest achievement and perhaps the finest mosque in Turkey.
There are other great mosques in Edirne as well, along with some ancient bridges, still lovely and still in use. Although we were gone from Istanbul for only four days, we had enough experiences that to recount them would make this a much longer account. Several of these experiences were of the kind that we had had at the Balci motel where someone went way out of his way to help a couple of foreigners he would never see again.
I have to briefly acknowledge one of these benefactors here: His name is Cosken Alkis, and he works at the Belediye or town hall in a little place called Vize.
We were directed to Cosken as someone who could tell us how to find a certain nearby cave monastery that had been carved centuries ago out of living rock. Seeing that there was no way to tell us how to find what we were looking for, he took us there, leaving the cool comfort of his office to lead us on a hot, dusty two-mile trek through the hills to the caves and back.
He also had a key that let us see the interior of another interesting, abandoned Byzantine church. Although much of Turkey is mountainous and arid, some almost desert-like, Thrace is a province of rich, rolling farmland. Driving through it, we might have been in southern Pennsylvania or Virginia. It’s a stretch to realize that this peaceful countryside was the setting for centuries of strife between tribes and civilizations now mostly or wholly forgotten. This land was already ancient at the time it entered history.