By Trevor Joyce | 25 May 2020
Smyrna, now Izmir, used to be the cosmopolitan melting pot of the Levantine Coast of Turkey; all religions, all languages and with theatres, fabulous residences, restaurants and bars lining a seaside version of the Champs Elysees. All were tolerated by Rhami Bey the local governor, contrary to the strict Islamic doctrines prevailing elsewhere in Ottoman Turkey.
Asia Minor produced an agricultural abundance along the Levantine coast and shipped it off to Europe from Smyrna; sultanas, wine, figs, apricots, almonds and tobacco. Many of the founding fathers were Christian and still more had Greek ancestry but Turkish language, having descended from the Byzantine Greek Empire, headquartered in Constantinople.
At the end of the First World War Venizelos hatched “The Big Idea”, encouraging the Greek army to invade Anatolia with the backing of the French, British and the Italians. The result of which is history - the destruction of Smyrna was the full stop at the end of that sentence!
Our trip though will begin where it must, in Istanbul and it matters little how many times you have been there. For sure you will never have been there for long enough.
After an overland day trip and the embarkation of our traditional Turkish gulet in Canakkale, the first stop on the water will be in front of ANZAC Cove at the port of Kabatepe. Kelan Celik, our ANZAC historian, who has the OA medal for his dedication to the memory of the ANZACS, will host our visit to the site.
Our gulet is 42 metres long with 16 air-conditioned cabins on two decks and ample space. She has a crew of eight and if you ever need a break from the boat just ask one of them and they’ll run you ashore. The sea at this time of year is calm and if the wind blows it will come from the north east. Temperatures in June will be in the mid to high twenties and the June full moon is due on the 5th to enhance your night viewing.
The beginning of the Levantine Coast is probably the Turkish island of Bozcaada (previously Greek Tenedos), with a port overlooked by a Genoese fort and wineries still producing drinkable wine. Back in ancient Greek times of course it was Brad Pit, Eric Bana and Orlando Bloom who landed on Tenedos before launching their assault on Troy to rescue Helen!
The next port, Ayvalik, has a whole archipelago in which to hide but there is a lavish Setur marina to go to if the wind is in the wrong direction. Alexander the Great occupied nearby Pergamon before the Romans and towards the end of the Roman era Pergamon became famous for its library, which lead to an Egyptian ban on the export of parchment to Pergamon to curb their rivalry.
Further along the coast and in the direction of the prevailing wind is Smyrna where the surrounding topography will lift the history from the pages of your book, assisted of course by the presence on board of the author Giles Milton. His renowned historical narrative Paradise Lost reads like a novel with the happenings caused by the leaders of the political world at the time. The British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, the Greek Prime Minister Eleftherio Venizelos, Sir Harry Lamb the British consul in Smyrna in 1922 and the US President Alexander MacLachlan, were all party to a monumental disaster in Smyrna.
From the embers of Smyrna came the victorious Kamal Ataturk, who gloriously created the modern Turkish republic, but even he had no tolerance for religious diversity. If you wanted to stay in Turkey you had to have Turkish blood and lead the life of Islam. Most Greeks left Turkey and Turks left Greece in the disastrous ‘exchange’ and only now do they meet again. The hatchet has been buried and many people have discovered their mixed heritage; Pontic Greeks with Turks, Armenians and Kurds among others.
This is only the first half of our trip, with ancient Ephesus, the Greek theatre at Milletus, Didim and our terminus in magnificent Bodrum in the second week. The Knights of St. John built a spectacular fortress in Bodrum, which has today been converted to a museum by an Australian woman and her Turkish husband.
The mid-point on our journey along the west coast of Turkey, modern day Kusadasi, is unfortunately dominated by modern day tourism and is not really very pretty. The harbour can handle four or five cruise ships at a time, and they disgorge their hapless thousands onto waiting buses so they can visit the nearby ancient city of Ephesus. Here they roll in massive wads of humanity down the hill through 3,000 years of civilization.
Actually this excursion is a ‘must do’, but it takes some planning and time management. It is important to get to Ephesus at the right time of day and in a small group - so as to appreciate what life must have been like in in this extraordinary place during ancient times.
For example the apartments still being excavated have marble wall tiles one metre square, cut millimeter perfect. This begs the question - how did they cut those slabs with that accuracy? “With silk thread and water”, came the reply. Then my imagination went wild as I pondered the delivery time for an order of 2,000 tiles. Twenty years might have been the answer but I guess time was something they had more of in those days!
Inland from Selcuk, where Ephesus is located, is the Greek town of Sirince, (pronounced Sirenchee). It was evacuated in 1924 when the remaining Byzantium Greeks were invited to pack what they could carry and given 24 hours to leave Turkey. Fortunately they took their wine making expertise with them to Thessaloniki, improving the Greek wines enormously.
Further along the coast our gulet will pass through the spectacular Straits of Samos. Here the Turkish military still look through binoculars at the Greeks across the straits, looking at them through binoculars from the shores of the Greek island of Samos
We will then come to the ancient Greek theatre of Miletus which appears to pop out of the flat featureless countryside. A breathtaking experience is to walk out onto the theatre stage surrounded by 60 rows of seats. Imagination runs wild - “I’m fighting Gladiatorus today”, or perhaps you’ll be offering a recital of Homeric poetry to the 3,000 seated guests.
The towns along this shore had their own ports in bygone days and it was the silting of those ports and the accompanying mosquito plagues that led to their abandonment and the following transition from rock into rubble with the passage of time.
The terminus for the gulet trip is magnificent Bodrum. Famous in ancient times for the seventh wonder of the world, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, but today dubbed the Saint Tropez of Turkey. Many ruins still remain in the surrounds but there is little of the mausoleum to see today as the Knights Hospitalier used much of the stone to build the castle of St. Peter. The castle, however, stands sentinel over the modern harbor, which is home to the biggest gulet fleet in Turkey.
Traditional Turkish gulets are crafted from timber and built largely without the use of paper plans. They offer an extension of the Turkish experience on the water. The accommodation, decoration, music, food and wine are all distinctly Turkish, as by this time you will have discovered after ten days cruising the coast on the luxury gulet we have chosen for this event.
St Peter’s castle has been converted to a museum and Australian Chris Drum, with her Turkish husband Pahadir Berkaya, will host our tour of this unique museum. Pahadir, an underwater archaeologist, was involved from the time of the discovery of the wrecked trading vessel on the sea floor to its transfer and set up in the museum. He is modest but passionate about his country and the history of this coastline.
After the final night dinner perhaps finish with a nightcap at a bar on the way back to the gulet. I remember on the waterfront a bar named ‘Blue’ near to the castle, where we joined a group of vacationing Turkish sea captains playing traditional Turkish music non-stop until the approach of dawn!
The story of ancient Turkey will be told on board the gulet by our own very experienced guide, Yavuz Ozdeniz. He is an avid student of the subject for over 30 years, but you will hear the story in many episodes, in small groups, or in one on one conversations, perhaps as you gaze across the sea to the setting sun from the deck of the gulet.