Magazine | June 20, 2011, Issue

A Walk in Caria

It is always fun to gather first impressions of a foreign country. Turkey is, John O’Sullivan had explained to me, “upper-tier Third World.” That seems about right. The Third World–itude exhibits itself at once in the streets. The Turks’ own quip about their driving skills is: “In other countries people die by accident; here in Turkey we live by accident.” You get the point at once in Bodrum’s steep, narrow streets. Scooters are the principal peril. You have not tasted fear until you’ve seen a teenage Turk driving a motor scooter with one hand — the other is, of course, holding the cell phone he’s talking into — at high speed towards you down a street eight feet wide with a one-in-three gradient.

Other things: Turkish women don’t seem to come out much. Practically everyone in the streets is male, although of the couple of dozen women I do see, not one is wearing a headscarf. You hear different things about religion in Turkey. A friend who had some construction work done here in Bodrum got to know the young workmen: They were Islamists to a man, he says. If so, they are well provided for. In ten minutes’ walking I have spotted two mosques. “Spotted” is right, though; they are not obtrusive. Yet neither do they have the ill-kempt look sometimes exhibited by churches in Western countries. Passing one, I can see right through the open door to the main sanctuary. It is bright and clean, very finely decorated.

Politics is more in evidence. There are a great many posters on billboards and vertical surfaces advertising various parties. I pass a particularly fearsome one on a lamppost, featuring a candidate with thick neck, grim muscular face, and shaven head. He is wearing a black leather jacket. Hak ve Eşitlik Partisi, says the poster’s headline, with a picture of an eagle. “Justice and Equality Party,” I think it means. It does not appear in the list of major parties given by my Lonely Planet Turkish phrasebook. I’m glad it doesn’t. It seems to me a fairly good life rule never to vote for men in black leather jackets. I think of Sir Roderick Spode, the Fuehrer wannabe in P. G. Wodehouse’s stories, whose dark secret, uncovered by Jeeves, is that he sells lingerie for a living. This fellow looks like he clubs baby seals for a living. Not much humor in Turkish politics, I think.

Climbing up through the winding streets, I pass some fine houses, turreted and whitewashed, behind high walls. The houses get grander toward the hilltop. One seems to be guarded, a man on each side of the street. The man on the right is sitting on a wall eight feet up, where he can see the whole street. He looks to have been sitting there all day. I offer the men a cheery Merhaba! but get only stony stares in reply, and feel their eyes following me up the hill. House of the Mayor? Some local Godfather? Sir Roderick Spode? Best not to know, probably.

#page#On the summit of the hill at last, the sun still above the horizon, the view is marvelous. Bodrum is built around a double bay, the two bays separated by a peninsula. The hill I have climbed is at the seaward end of the peninsula, so that both bays are spread out below me. The eastern bay features a magnificent old Crusader castle. The Aegean glitters away to the south; not really wine-dark — the light is all wrong — and therefore beautiful rather than sublime, but well worth the ascent.

A bit self-consciously I try to capture some of the spirit of the place, summoning up my too-meager stock of classical learning. Bodrum is the ancient Halicarnassus, home town of Herodotus the historian. There are fine ruins scattered around. It was the principal city of Caria, an old kingdom where once, in the third century b.c., there lived a dear friend of Callimachus the poet. The friend died; Callimachus wrote an elegy; 21 centuries later the English schoolmaster William Johnson Cory translated that elegy into one of the loveliest, most haunting of short English lyrics:

And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,

A handful of grey ashes, long, long ago at rest . . . 

Connotations come fluttering round, the sun now setting behind hills. Cory taught at Eton, then (mid–19th century) as now the most prestigious of English boys’ boarding schools. He was a gifted teacher, though with an unorthodox style, and possessed keen insight into the personalities of his pupils, at any rate of those he was especially interested in. There, unfortunately, lay a problem. The evidence is good that Cory was a tad too interested in some of his pupils. In 1872, he suddenly resigned from Eton for reasons never made public. His partisans said that lesser men at Eton, envious of his brilliance, had forced him out. The truth of the matter, whatever it is, no longer matters: We have the poem.

I should like to inspect some of those scattered ruins, but prospects aren’t good. Certainly it’s too late today, twilight as I come down the hill. I am in Bodrum at a four-day conference, but journalistic commitments are backed up as usual, and I have had to spend most of this first day in the hotel room, chained to my laptop. Road-warrior jacket and tourist pants are never a good match. I missed the chartered bus taking my fellow conference-goers off to a beach dinner at some picturesque fishing village. Their departure left the hotel empty; so, my work ended, I took this walk. Sad to have missed the evening’s conviviality, but there are pleasures in solitude too — more, I find, as I age.

For dinner I stop at the most grubbily authentic place I can find, hoping to exercise my language skills. Bodrum is something of a tourist trap, though, so the proprietor wants to practice his English. It turns out to be as bad as my Turkish, which is very bad indeed. For a few minutes we stutter incompetently at each other, then he leaves me alone to think of dead friends, poets in their glory, cashiered schoolmasters, the inaccessible past, and politicians in black leather jackets. The food, to my surprise, is wonderful.

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