Pictured above: Peter on our Empress Zoe terrace, Sea of Marmara and Princes’ Islands in the distance
I am once again in Istanbul sitting on the terrace of my penthouse room at the Empress Zoe Hotel, gazing out at the Sea of Marmara, the Princes’ Islands off on the horizon. It was, amazingly enough to me, 55 years ago that I first came to Turkey as a 23 year old romantic in search of an exotic place, in flight from the boring, prosaic, corn-planted flatness of Illinois.
Not only did Istanbul in those days satisfy all my expectations, but once I flew on to Izmir, where I was to teach at the American College for three years, the drive from the airport into the city seemed to drop me back into another time. Instead of motorized traffic I was excited to see columns of ox-drawn carts loaded with sheaves of wheat, bringing in the fall harvest. Along the verges of the narrow road I was thrilled to see camel caravans at rest, waiting for nightfall so they could pass safely through the city on the way to the Aegean coast. In the unfenced pastures and on the hills herds of sheep and goats under the care of shepherds grazed.
Once settled into my new home away from home I took periodic safaris into the interior of Anatolia, frequently encountering nomads (“yuruk”, the Turks call them), their families, tents and belongings loaded onto highly decorated camels, moving their huge herds of sheep and goats between their summer and winter “yaylas” (that is, “campgrounds”).
Agriculture, I learned then, was carried on by the peasantry huddled in dense little villages, their plots scattered in the surrounding countryside. These peasants chiefly supplied the fruit, vegetables and other foods to the Turkish population in their immediate region, with only a few selling cash crops, such as figs, olives, tobacco, wheat and cotton, to the world market. They distributed their produce twice weekly, on Wednesdays and Sundays, by journeying on donkeys, horsecarts, and camels into the city and town centers. These were the true “farmers markets.”
Now fifty five years later I have just returned from the lower Aegean and Mediterranean coasts where I saw not a single donkey or horse and cart or camel during my time there. Only a few times did I see small flocks of goats and only once a tiny band of nomads camped along the roadside living in squalid, plastic-covered tents. Apparently there is now only one clan of a nomadic tribe living in the mountains of southeast Turkey that makes its migrations by camel.
While I have missed the old daily livestock pageant of Turkish rural life, more disturbingly I have each year become aware of the breakdown of the old agricultural system as the small peasant plot holders sell their tiny holdings to agribusiness (some of them foreign owners), and migrate to the urban areas. A migration that has, for instance, swelled the Istanbul I once knew (in 1961, a city of 1,200,000 people), to somewhere over 14,000,000 people.
Even more disturbingly, the great grasslands, the steppes of the Konya region of south central Turkey, are being plowed up for huge agribusiness sugar beet operations, further displacing the few nomadic clans that are left.
More and more, archaeologists are establishing that it was in Anatolia, not in the Tigris- Euphrates Valleys, that agriculture first began and, further, it was here in Anatolia that wheat, our main staple, originated.
I am realizing that it is a great watershed in Anatolian history that I am witnessing. And that while true benefits of these changes are coming to the Turkish people, it is highly uncertain what the consequences of these changes will be.
Only one site that we visited, some 17 kilometers off the main highway up into the rugged mountains, near the town of Kalkan, took me back to old Turkey. This was the village of Dodurga, built into the ruins of ancient Sidyma, a small, as yet unexcavated Lycian city that dates back to the 4th Century B.C. and had its peak during Roman times, around the time of Christ.
Because it has little in the way of level land, and because of its rocky nature, there is no danger that this village will be swallowed up by agribusiness. In the old style, the peasants there still live in a huddle of cottages, surrounding and mixed into the ancient site, even farming a flat area that probably was once the ancient agora, using broken-open Lycian tombs as animal sheds.
There are numerous marginal areas like Dodurga in Anatolia where the old ways may continue to survive. That is, unless the villagers’ sense of their own poverty and the siren song of joining a consumer society overtake their ancient sense of place.