Sailing Through History

Pleasure Cruising the Turkish Coast

I'm sailing the Turkish coast, cruising from the mouth of the Aegean Sea into the Mediterranean, following a route known today as the Blue Voyage. Blue it is, with rays of sun slanting into dark indigo water, while closer to shore, a gradient blends from turquoise to near green. But when the sun sets, the calm surface takes on a pink hue. Homer called it the "red wine sea."

Our boat is the Southern Cross II, a 60-foot wooden gullet, a cruising vessel with a broad bow and wide fore deck for sunbathing and canopies that stretch over the stern for cookouts and big meals. For days now, a dozen passengers have been on board, following the course of the famous Turkish writer Cevat Sakir Kabaagach, the fisherman of Halicarnassus, who set out in a fishing boat from Bodrum to explore Turkey's southern shores and seek the roots of Anatolian Turkish culture.

By day, our hair is wind-whipped as we round inlets, peek into bays, and cross headland draws. I watch islands pass in the distance as slowly as the sun crosses the sky. In the evenings, we eat eggplant moussaka, shish kebabs, and ripe tomatoes with feta cheese. With our Captain and crew, we drink rocky, the local liquor, and dance Turkish steps late into the starlit night.

Like Cevat Sakir Kabaagach, who sailed this route years ago, I'm aware all the time that Europe lies on a brief starboard tack. Across Asia, Jill and I have often heard that, "this is the place where East meets West," but geographically speaking, Turkey is in fact where the two continents join. Istanbul, the only city on two continents, was once Constantinople, the provincial capital of Rome's Asia Minor. It later became Byzantium under the Ottoman Empire, which controlled much of the Mediterranean. And modern Turkey, despite its territorial disputes with Greece over ownership of Cyprus, is eager to join the EU.

For the people of this region where mountains meet the sea, living in two worlds is nothing new. Carved into the hills of this jagged, rocky coastline are the tombs of an ancient, nearly forgotten culture. The Lycians lived for nearly a thousand years, resisting hostile invasion from both continents while maintaining their own language, coinage, and culture for much of that time. It is to see one of the major Lycian tombs that we're headed this afternoon, towards present day Dalyan.

It's midmorning now, and we're anchored in a secluded cove, surrounded by cliffs and sloping hills covered with low brush. There is no sign of human habitation among the pine trees that grow right down to shore. Some of the passengers are swimming off to a nearby cliff to test their bravery, some are snorkeling, and I think the Aussies are already drinking. Everyone, though, is shaking off a rocky hangover. I'd like to tell you exactly where we are, but I'd have to ask our captain, who's sleeping on the aft deck.

This is our routine: We wake early to the clanking of a thick chain hauling the anchor off the sea floor. Then we cruise along the coast, as mariners of old did, before GPS devices and modern navigation computers. On the bow, we watch the islets and rocky promontories pass slowly pass us by. The sun gets hot by 8:30, when the bright light shimmers off the lapping white crests. I've yet to see a cloud in the sky, and the air is salty and fresh.

It's hard to imagine that this tranquil scene, this calm coast between two continents, has had such a long history of conflict—conflict of ideas, fear of invasion, and attempts to prevent the mixing of races and neighboring cultures. The written history of Lycia begins with a chronicle of resistance against the Persians, who took over Asia Minor around 450 b.c.e. When the Persian general Harpagos reached Lycia's chief city of Xanthos, the inhabitants knew all was lost, and rather than surrender they committed mass suicide.

Over the next century, other loosely connected cities managed to repel the Athenians, but in 340 b.c.e. Alexander the Great stormed out of Macedonia, conquering all of the Middle East from Greece to India. The story goes that he became so frustrated trying to untie the Gordian knot—an act that was said to ensure a leader the domination of Asia—that he severed it with his sword. The Lycians must have known his power, because they welcomed the young strategist and general with open arms in order to throw off the domination of the hostile Carian dynasty. Under Alexander the region adopted the Greek language and solidified into the United Lycian Union, but they also lost some of their distinctive indigenous culture, like their use of matrilineal family names.

Then, in 189 b.c.e., the Romans stormed through and offered Lycia to Rhodes for their support in recent wars. The Lycians spent twenty years fighting the Rhodians and petitioning Rome. In 74 a.d. the Lycians were finally incorporated into the Empire. They seem to have prospered, as most architecture in the coastal ruins are from the Roman period, while numerous sculptures and theaters have been excavated and either shipped to museums or turned into tourist attractions.

We're still cruising now, and are nearing the port of Dalyan. It's relaxing to look out at miles of uninterrupted coastline and watch other boats passing. Among the junks and sloops are shallow fishing boats with small putting engines. Weathered fishermen trawl with heavy nets, hauling them in by hand. We met some last night, having anchored next to one of these small, open boats. The fishermen were thin and wore stained, ripped T-shirts. We ate our meals under the same bright moon, us with our salads and fresh fruit desserts, and they with their stingy fish and loaf of bread, spread on a newspaper among their tangled lines, wicker baskets, and small red-and-white Turkish flags. Raising their glasses of rocky, they shouted "Serefinze." By first light, they were gone. Gone like most of the civilizations that lived here.

Ahead of our boat now is the Iztuzu beach, a long stretch of smooth sand that grabbed the world's attention a few years back when large developers wanted to erect a high-rise hotel that threatened endangered Loggerhead turtle nesting grounds. The public and international outcry squashed their plans. I can now see people lounging on the beach, but much of the sand is clearly off-limits, and I'm told the area is closed at night as well as during the nesting season.

Hopping off our gullet, we board a small wooden boat that takes us through a maze of six-foot reeds. Nearing the shore, what looked like deformations in the towering red rock face turn out to be elaborate facades carved right into the cliffs: the Lycian tombs. Columns and arches with script are set like relief mansions into the earth.

The boat stops and some of us climb to the ruins of the town that left these monuments. Kaunos was founded in the early 9th century b.c.e., and being at the Lycian border with Carian, it shared aspects of both cultures. The town suffered from endemic malaria, and its people were famous for their yellow skin and eyes. Now, there are just remnants of the baths, a basilica, and a great compass. Jill and I walk through the theater, a semi-circle stadium of large square-cut stones for seating and a small stage below. Trees grow where the audience once watched plays and listened to concerts. Today, it is serenely quiet.

We climb the steep hill to the acropolis, the highest and most defensible part of the city. Nothing remains but the crumbling rock of two high defensive walls overlooking the sea and a few archways. There's a herd of goats ignoring us, eating grass that encroaches on the ruins. I wander through the remains of a culture that managed to live amidst two worlds, East and West. They had impressive architecture, art, and diplomacy, yet they failed to survive.

The Lycian nation supposedly made it to the 4th century, long after the arrival of Christianity. Paul made three trips to the region, spreading the teachings of Christ (in nearby Ephasus, he nearly started a riot with the idol sellers who complained that he was hurting their business). The Lycians accepted the new religion, eventually producing the famous Bishop of Myra, a man revered throughout the Byzantine Empire as the patron of children. His name was Saint Nicholas, whose feast day on December 6 eventually coalesced with the celebration of the birth of Christ. St. Nick, an Asian, became an indispensable part of Western culture in the figure of Santa.

So as I look around at the crumbling ruins of a culture caught in a crossroads, I realize maybe this ancient society has been preserved in our culture after all.

Until the next time,
Safe travels.

All Original Material Copyright © Dan Kaplan. All Rights Reserved.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication



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