Aspendos, Hierapolis, Aphrodisias, Ephesus, Assos. Reading the names of many of the sites we visited makes it seems like the weeklong study tour I recently returned from was in Greece, not in Turkey-and 2500 years ago, that would have been the case. While the settlements of Western Turkey are now fully Turkish, the profusion of ancient cities across Turkey’s Aegean Coast and hinterland testifies to the thousands of years of Greek settlement in this area, an era abruptly brought to an end in the wars, massacres, and population transfers of the early 20th century (though just a few miles from shore lie Greece’s Aegean Islands). Needless to say, this trip was heavily focused on history, both ancient and modern. All the previously mentioned sites are ancient ruins from the Greek or Roman ages, most boasting only a theater and perhaps the façade of a temple remaining amid the acres of stone and broken columns that were all that remained of cities that once held tens of thousands of inhabitants until time and the geography of the region-shifting coastlines and earthquakes, brought them down. Much of the history we explored was more recent, however, including the early Turkic citadel of Selcuk, the quaint Greek fishing village of Ayvalik, the cataclysmic and expansive World War I battle of Gallipoli (the Turkish perspective on a battle where they were on the opposite side of America’s allies was enlightening), and the modern city of Izmir, whose bland modernity hides the fact that half the city (then known as Smyrna) was burned – and half its population slaughtered or expelled in 1922. One of the most remarkable occurrences was on November 9th in Izmir, when at 9:10 AM, the entire city froze and turned on its sirens to remember Ataturk’s death – a man who was instrumental in the destruction of the city 80 years ago. Speaking of Ataturk, I’ve mentioned the adulation for him before, but Izmir (Turkey’s most liberal city) probably takes the cake in terms of Ataturk memorial – they have his visage carved out of a mountain overlooking the city, a la Mount Rushmore. The trip was not entirely history, though, as it did include the hot springs and travertine formations of Pamukkale, and we toured a small textile-producing village and an olive oil factory. Remarkably, given the pessimism I’ve developed regarding Turkey’s economic development, both Ayvalik and Assos retained an undeveloped, small town feel that was very relaxing compared to the hectic pace of Alanya. And, given the time of year, many of the sites we visited (save internationally renowned Ephesus and Pamukkale) were fairly empty of other tourist groups, while the weather was the first encounter with an autumn climate in Turkey. A cancelled flight resulted in an extra 14 hour ordeal traveling back to Alanya, but other than that, it was welcome to get back to a road trip style of traveling. But even with a week of traveling, there were still so many places that we came so close to, but had no time to see – it seems every five miles is another ruined ancient city. Back in Alanya, I gained another tie to Turkey when I became a legal resident – for two weeks, thanks to bureaucratic incompetency at the immigration office. It’s crazy to think that only one month remains in this adventure, but now classwork needs to finally replace traveling as my focus while everything winds down.
The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray, and when traveling off the beaten path, this becomes true more often than not. Traveling to the country of Georgia this past weekend was absolutely amazing, but it certainly started off poorly. I arrived in the Tbilisi airport at 3:30 in the morning, intending to meet my rental car driver at 4 to make use of these early morning hours, but as 4:00 came and went with no sign of anyone coming to meet me, I realized that my weekend wasn’t going to go exactly as planned. I ended up taking a taxi down to my hostel, getting a few hours sleep, and checking my email to find out that a typo had resulted in me ordering the rental car for the 11th, not the 1st. Luckily, I was able to reschedule for the next day, but for the first day, I decided to explore Tbilisi, which had been my Sunday plan. Tbilisi is a city that has everything a city could need to be a tourist haven-a wealth of historic and attractive (if a bit incongruous) modern architecture, a well-preserved old town, easy access to all site, numerous dining and retail establishments, and great prices. But because of its history, out-of-the-way location, and a lack of marketing, it was deserted save for the locals (going on a rainy November day may have also played a role in this). I started off climbing to the Narikala Fortress that overlooks the town, and descending behind it into Tbilisi’s sprawling botanical garden, a remarkably attractive and peaceful expanse that I had all to myself, where I got lost in the maze of trees, creeks, and winding paths. After returning for an early lunch of the Georgian specialty khinkali (remarkably cheap and messy dumplings offered with a variety of fillings), I traveled out to the Georgian National Museum, which contains an eclectic but well laid-out collection of artifacts from Georgia’s complex history. The museum was highlighted by the section on Georgia’s Soviet history, containing pictures of hundreds of Georgians from all walks of life, their captions concluding with the sobering phrase “Shot in [year],” as well other mementos of this tragic chapter of Georgia’s past. Next was the main cathedrals of the city, the Tsminda Sameba (Holy Trinity) Cathedral which was built only 10 years ago and towers over the rest of the city (though is relatively bare inside), and the much more ancient Sioni and Metekhi churches on opposite sides of the Mtkvari River, dating to the 13th century. All of these churches were filled with pilgrims, wedding parties, clergy, and individual worshipers, testifying to the continuing importance of Christianity in Georgia, in contrast to the great churches of Western Europe, which accept more tourists than worshipers. Lastly, I ascended to the lower slopes of Mtatsminda Mountain on the west of the city, where I could view the lighted monuments of the city.
The second day was significantly more complex, but luckily my rental car came according to plan. In order to get everywhere I wanted during daylight hours, another early morning was in order, so at 6:00 AM I got in the car and headed out to Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park, along a highway that passed within a few miles of the border of South Ossetia (though the bureaucratic nightmare of getting into the region made me uninterested in trying to enter). While most of the day it poured, some miracle made it so that the rain stopped for the two hours I was hiking in the park, among the largest in Europe, preserving large virgin forests, the slopes of the Lesser Caucasus, and large wildlife populations, and (unique for Georgia) with a well-developed network of trails and shelters. My hike was unfortunately not nearly enough to experience much of the park (which may not have even been open when I arrived), and like my other natural excursions, the wildlife stayed hidden, but it was nonetheless a worthwhile experience, and I hope to return for a longer trip in the future.
The next site was the ancient cave city of Uplistsikhe, which was reached by traveling through Stalin’s birthplace of Gori. This site, while still interesting and easy to explore, was a disappointment after the much more impressive cave formations of Cappadocia.
Lastly, I traveled to the town of Mtskheta, the spiritual center of the Georgian Orthodox Church and a site so holy that my taxi driver crossed himself just driving past on the highway. By now, the rain had ceased its cooperation, and my malfunctioning camera battery forced a citywide search for electricity (and food, which I had not had since 5:30 AM). While the rain and camera problems were unfortunate, the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral was spectacular and spiritually moving, while the Jvari Monastery perched on a mountain across the river provided fantastic views of the town and the mountains behind it. Driving across the Georgian countryside was an eye-opening experience, as while I have definitely traveled in less well-off regions of Europe, rural Georgia looks like it has not improved since the Soviets arrived; with piles of trash, boarded up homes, and any type of feral animal imaginable, it looked like my imagination of rural India or Latin America, not like a “westernized” country in Europe.
Georgia is a beautiful country with a rich culture and history, and certainly a relevant location for studying international relations. Tbilisi is a model for development that countries like Turkey should take an example from, but going around the country shows that Georgia still has far more in common with its enemy Russia than the European Union it has been trying so hard to join. Still, I can say that traveling to Georgia was the perfect weekend trip from Turkey, and it was possibly the best spur-of-the-moment large-scale decision I have ever made, since I had a fantastic time despite the difficulties in communication and weather. I got back to Alanya with no difficulty, but relaxation will have to wait, since this weekend is the start of our weeklong study tour across the historical sites of Western Turkey.