Turkey, before Syria

Ah, Turkey.  Land of intense and strange landscapes, incredibly delicious food, and lazy sunsets over the Mediterranean.  That is all still true, but today, Turkey is at the center of a migrant crisis and terrorism network hell-bent on taking the luster out of its burgeoning tourist trade.   Even with its hawkish and conservative president, Recep Erdoğan, Turkey remains vulnerable and exposed.

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Last month’s horrific attack on the Ataturk Airport in Istanbul and this week’s failed military coup, was just the most recent of a series of unsettling attacks on Turkey.  And before these assaults, Turkey found itself overwhelmed with fleeing victims of the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars.  Innocent refugees, along with a few intent ISIS terrorists, streamed over the porous southern border into Turkey seeking assistance or intent to inflict harm.  It has devastated what was a growing tourist destination.  And it looks like it will be a very difficult battle to win it back from fear.

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I was fortunate enough to travel to Turkey back in October 2009, before the shit got real in Syria and the Turkish government began to crumble.  Back then, I was enraptured by the beauty of the land and the friendliness of the people.  I had traveled with a small group of hardy travelers, led by our exceptional tour guide and leader, Cuneyt (Cucu for short), from Istanbul in the north to the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts, then inland to the natural wonders of Pamukkale and Cappadocia before heading back to Istanbul via the capital, Ankara.

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It was a memorable trip for so many reasons, but one encounter in particular sat with me.  The meeting was brief, probably only five minutes at most, but it was a chance encounter along a hiking path that I recall as authentic and fragile.

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Our group of travelers had left early in the morning from a home stay on the outskirts of Kayaköy, a ghost town, created by another dismal government decision to purge Turkey of all Anatolian Greeks in 1922. Until the forced evacuation, the town was a thriving community of over 2,000 Greek Christians who lived in harmony with their Turkish neighbors. Caught up in the political turmoil of the early 20’s, most of the inhabitants had to flee during the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922) when systematic persecution reached a fever pitch. Similar atrocities occurred in Greece to Turkish citizens until it was agreed to forcefully repatriate these people to their country of origin, despite having lived in the other country for generations.

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Our Turkish guide told us that the local Turks kept Kayaköy as it was when the Greeks left, out of respect for their former neighbors. According those left behind, they loved their Greek neighbors and would not take over their abandoned homes in hope that they might return one day. That day never came and now, the village, built on the ancient Lycian town known as Lebessos, has been left to decay.

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It is stunning in its faded glory. The small stone houses rise along a hillside. Cobble-stoned streets and dusty foot paths lead an explorer along what was a bustling downtown and village center where the Orthodox church remains a symbol of hope with its crumbling frescos.

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We have time to reflect upon the stupidity of hate and government ineptitude while wandering this UNESCO heritage site. Then, it is on to the Lycian Way, for a hike over the mountains and down into the tourist town of Ölüdeniz with its turquoise waters, paragliding adventures, and seaside cafés.

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The Lycian Way, a walking path that extends over 300 miles along the Turkish coastline was first established hundreds of years ago between ancient Lycian towns. Considered as one of the world’s top ten hiking trails by the Sunday Times, the Lycian Way is an excellent way to connect to this lost culture. Lycia, was a separate geopolitical region in Anatolia with unique language that once aligned itself with the Persians against the Greeks, but eventually was overrun by both cultures. Now, all that is left behind are these delicate footpaths and the occasional Lycian tomb that dot the area.

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The path led us up and out of the town and into dark and dusty woods. The trail grew increasingly steep until the pay-off of a 360-degree view of the coastline below. Here, where the Aegean meets the Mediterranean, quiet fishing villages rub up against beach resorts filled with German, French, and Italian vacationers. The site is beautiful. Mountains spill steeply into the aquamarine sea below. Here we catch our breath and have a snack before attempting the even more dangerous descent.

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Gingerly, we descend along loose scree and rocks past pastoral vistas.   As we round a corner into a small opening where fruit trees offer a small token of shade from the hot sun, we come upon a woman and her three goats.   She has a weathered face from a lifetime spent outside, and wears the traditional garb of another culture. A floral scarf hides her hair and she sports a brightly patterned shirt with clashing haram pants. She is a workingwoman, herding her goats along the same path as the tourists. She is not entirely surprised to see us and offers a smile.

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Our guide asks her where she is from and she replies in a foreign tongue. Cuneyt explains that she is a nomadic goatherd from the Syria. She nods in agreement, despite not fully understanding his Turkish.

She is beautiful and at peace with her place in the world. I envy her freedom and connection to the ancient way of life. I have no idea at that moment that this life of hers is threatened. In a few short years, its megalomaniacal President Assad, along with ISIS and other extremist organizations streaming in to fill the vacuum created by unrest, will dismantle Syria. This woman and her family will be threatened both physically and economically, despite living a life that ignores borders.

The barriers will go up and traffic – even foot traffic – halted as the war grows. This primitive and free existence will run up against the armies and people fleeing bombed out cities. Our meeting becomes more precious as I now realize the changes that were unfortunately in store for this beautiful soul.

Like the Anatolian Greeks that lived in Kayaköy decades ago, this woman will become the pawn in a larger drama, dictated by those in power or those who wish to grasp it. This meeting is now charged with new facts. I despair for these people who simply wanted to live a life of peace along the ancient pathways of yet another vanquished culture. It reminds me that all civilizations from the Lycians to the ancient Greeks to our own fragile society can be wiped out by the whims of a few.

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