Twice a year, the men who raise silk cocoons in the mountain villages of northwestern Turkey converge on a sunny courtyard market in the city of Bursa. Sweating vigorously in their wool caps, heavy shirts and pants, their chest-high woven baskets overflowing with the inch-long white pellets, the buyers and sellers gesture, shout and cajole as they bargain. The words are indecipherable -- Turkish is a language far removed from anything even remotely familiar to western ears -- but the body language of the marketplace is as universal as it is ancient.
Just as a traveler must go beyond Washington or New York to really know the United States, so you must travel beyond Istanbul to know Turkey. And so we found ourselves at the start of a journey around western Turkey that began in Bursa.
The 400-year-old Koza Han silk market lies in the heart of this bustling skyscraper city of more than a million inhabitants. The men who gather here represent a continuing thread of living history and living theater performed for its own sake. Elsewhere, the market might have been a ruin or a museum by now, but here in Turkey it is instead a vibrant little center of commerce, a haven from the relentless roar of the 20th century outside its walls, a welcome break from the routine of village life for those who gather here. Outsiders, especially women, don't come through for the show often, one senses from the surprised stares. A visitor's presence and every move are keenly, curiously noted.
Turkey is a country of subtle and breathtaking discoveries waiting to be made by travelers willing to stray from the beaten path. It is not an easy post-card destination, not an instant snapshot image snatched from the same vantage point by millions before and millions to follow. It is a place where people do what they do, whether it's trading cocoons or weaving kilims or sacrificing sheep or selling water from a tin backpack, not as a sullen obligatory performance for tourist hordes but because that is how they live. It is a place that can make a traveler's every sense brim with the thrill of the new.
Yet few Americans have seen Turkey. Some do explore the magnificent mosques and palaces and bazaars and twisting cobbled streets of Istanbul, the ancient capital that straddles Europe and Asia. And some take a day trip through the fantastically excavated ruins of Ephesus -- one of the largest archeological sites in the world -- as part of a tour of the nearby Greek islands.
But for the most part, Turkey's profile has been low to the point of invisibility. And that's a shame. With its beaches, its warm clear waters, its rain forests and deserts and mountains, its exotic Eurasian culture, its knotted carpets and woven kilims, its abundant fresh food, its exquisitely excavated Greek ruins and its startlingly low prices, Turkey deserves better. On the other hand, the lack of self-promotion makes Turkey that rarest of gems, a relatively undiscovered country that richly rewards travelers who are willing to go where few others have gone before.
And many of those rewards are the same pleasures that draw visitors to Greece. When my husband and I strolled along an Aegean marina between the glowing whitewashed houses and the darkened evening sea, eyeing in turn the gorgeous long-traveling yachts, the tempting displays of fish in front of each outdoor restaurant, the stylish clothing of other vacationing strollers and the families gathered on their stoops to catch the evening breeze, we could easily have been on a Greek island instead of in the Turkish town of Marmaris -- except it was less crowded, less commercial.
Eleven years ago I lived in Greece for seven months and loved it, but the Turks seemed to me less jaded than the Greeks. Turkey is the road less hyped and less traveled, and is a fresher place for it.
It is a road we might never have considered, except that a close friend, a Canadian diplomat, was transferred to Ankara in 1984. On return trips and in letters, he and his wife persuasively detailed the pleasures of exploring their new home, and urged us to visit.
When we did, late last June, they shared with us their nouveau-insiders' view of Turkey, one that included a selection of must-sees as well as seldom-seens in the western third of the country. We drove hundreds of miles together through town and countryside, and spent a week on a chartered boat on the Aegean with 10 other friends. We traveled an erratic loop that included Istanbul, Bursa, the resort town of Erdek on the Sea of Marmara, the landlocked modern capital of Ankara, the petrified hot-springs waterfalls of Pamukkale, the Aegean marina towns of Marmaris, Bodrum and Datca, and the NATO stronghold of Izmir. By the time our three weeks were up, we had a vivid, positive image of the country.
We began in Istanbul, the former capital and still the cultural heart of the country, with its jostling throngs of urbanites and transplanted peasants, its ferries and freighters, its day-and-night horn-blasting traffic, its breathtaking pollution, its embarrassment of riches and its embarrassing hardscrabble poverty.
It is all distilled on the Galata Bridge, the floating two-level structure that spans the Golden Horn Inlet in the center of the city. Men and boys peddle bread rings, roasted ears of corn, hair clips, shoe heels, shoeshines, sherbets and water. Buses, taxis and dolmus (pronounced DOLE-moosh) cars -- vintage American monster mobiles straight out of "American Graffiti," which serve as shared taxis along fixed routes -- jam the four-lane bridge around the clock. Commuters pack the ferryboats that shuttle between the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. Luxury liners, jewel-colored fishing boats and Soviet ships fill the choppy waters of the Bosporus Strait and the Golden Horn. Beaming mothers parade their 10-year-old sons in sequined satin capes and plumed hats -- the costume worn for the circumcision ceremony. The little boys look very serious.
Our friends, Bas and Kathy, guided us through several must-sees, starting with the musty unlit baroque opulence of Dolmabahce Palace, the last sultanic residence. We were then properly dazzled by the airy geometrical beauty of Ayasofya (Sancta Sophia), the majestic domed sixth-century Byzantine basilica that was converted to a mosque in 1453 and finally to a museum. In the upper galleries we feasted our eyes on the expressive mosaics of Christ, St. John and the Virgin, and also on a stunning young woman, wrapped in a canary-yellow chador. She ducked behind a column when we lifted our Nikons, her dark eyes flashing indignantly.
Before entering the cool sanctuary of the expansive Blue Mosque -- the country's most famous mosque, with its six minarets -- we had to remove our shoes, and Kathy and I were given large scarves to cover our heads. (Turkish women are seldom seen in the mosques; they are expected to pray at home. If they do enter, they stay in a sequestered area in a back corner.) Inside was a collage of textured surfaces comprised of the glazed blue-tile walls, the lacy lapis blue of the stained-glass windows and the geometric and floral patterns of the prayer rugs that completely covered the floor. (There are no pews or chairs.)
"I am sorry to tell you the mosque's kilim museum is closed," an enterprising young shopkeeper told us as we were putting on our shoes outside the mosque. "The good news is, my kilim shop is open." This said with a winning smile. Willingly snared, we let him lead us to our first lesson in the leisurely rituals of Turkish shopping.
When we entered the welcome shade of his shop around the corner, the shopkeeper became our host, sending a boy out for refreshments. As we sipped tea in little glasses, he peeled one kilim after another off a tall heap and laid the pileless woven rugs at our feet. It was not yet the time to ask about prices or even linger over any that we fancied.
After we'd seen everything once, he went back through the entire pile, this time extracting any kilims we'd murmured about favorably. More tea was fetched. The selected kilims were pulled into the courtyard outside the shop. Some lost their luster in the harsh sunlight and we easily eliminated them. Finally we began inquiring and amiably haggling over prices, settling on a runner and a prayer rug, each a few decades old.
We moved on to the Covered Bazaar, the exotic forebear of shopping malls, built and rebuilt several times since 1461. It is mazelike with its 18 entrances, miles of aisles and more than 4,000 shops grouped according to merchandise -- gold and brass, diamonds and glass, leather and cloth, beaded dashboard talismans and misspelled ersatz Benettons, kilims and carpets and kerchiefs. "Bienvenue!" "Welcome to my shop!" "S'il vous plait, mesdames!" "Bitte!" "Hello -- I am here to help you!" "Prosze pani!" the shopkeepers called after us, trying any phrase they thought might lure us in.
The overstimulation of the claustrophobic bazaar, and of all of Istanbul, made us eager to hit the road, to begin to put the country in some sort of perspective. Istanbul, like New York, is a heady perfume blended from a complex national bouquet, but the United States and Turkey are far more than the sum of the parts that are gathered in the two cities. We found, too, that we liked Istanbul better when we returned to it from the provinces. We could see the city in the context of the country, rather than in the isolation of our initial visit.
The drive from Istanbul around the tip of the Sea of Marmara to Bursa and then on along the sea to Erdek was reasonably short and nondescript, except for frequent sightings of the splendid black-and-white European storks. Near Erdek we spotted a frowzy brushy nest full of young storks atop a telephone pole 10 feet from the highway. Their parents circled above, and sparrows darted in and out of the bottom of the nest, feeding on insects.
In Turkey, storks are a sign of prosperity, so homeowners often lay crossed planks atop their chimneys, hoping to encourage good fortune to build a nest and stay awhile. Ironically, the planks atop the visitors center at the Kus Cenneti (Bird Paradise) National Park near Erdek lay bare. It was the off season when we were there, between migrations and nestings. Still, we spotted an array of cormorants, egrets, herons, cranes and spoonbills perched in leafless trees in the park.
From Erdek to Ankara, the drive was gruelingly long and hot, even in an air-conditioned car. We saw few signs of habitation along the highways leading in and out of Ankara, across the rolling harvest-ready wheat fields of central Turkey, aside from an occasional nomadic tent providing the only shade for miles. A solitary tree in the middle of a field invariably had a few peasants sitting under it with their goats, hiding from the brutal sun.
Some of the fields we saw appeared to be part of large commercial farms. Others were small, tended by horse and hand, often with scythes. There are plenty of tractors and wagons in Turkey, but they are most often used to bus peasants into the fields to work, or into the cities from the remote villages.
Compared to the dusty plains of central Turkey, the countryside of the southwest seemed lush with orchards and green crops. Hopeful farmers set up lean-tos along the highways on the edges of the larger towns. All day long their crates of ripe peaches, apricots, watermelons and tomatoes soaked up the sunlight and road dust, waiting for passing travelers to stop and buy. On desolate mountain roads, we were sometimes startled when lone men and boys appeared out of nowhere, plaintively offering small plastic bags of pears and apples and figs for sale.
We only meant to stay in Turkey for nine days but quickly found ourselves liking the country and its people far more than we'd expected to. The more we saw, the more we wanted to see.
I longed to venture into the really remote regions to the east, where village life and conditions are still those of an earlier century, where women and little girls still pass the long winter months weaving traditionally patterned kilims on hand looms and knotting silk or wool into fine carpets of dizzyingly intricate design. But we also relished our hours of swimming, snorkeling and sailboarding, plus it didn't cost us much to stay on.
In Erdek, a beach resort area frequented by vacationing middle-class urban Turks, we had six meals and two nights in a pleasant room for only $55 for two. In Bursa the fine old hotel we chose cost a bit more, but it included a hot-springs-fed Turkish bath under a skylight dome.
When we returned to Istanbul, we stayed at the Pera Palas Hotel, the turn-of-the-century grande dame built by the Wagons-Lites Co. to suitably accommodate members of western aristocracy at the ends of their rides on the Orient Express. The royal, rich and famous guest list included the kings of Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania and England; the shah of Iran; Matahari; Sarah Bernhardt; Greta Garbo; Agatha Christie; Julio Iglesias and Jacqueline Onassis. Room 101, the old room of Turkey's first president, Kemal Ataturk, has been converted to a museum of his personal effects.
The hotel appears to be as elegant and classy as it must have been in its heyday, with its high ceilings, ornately carved woodwork and fine old furniture. And yet even here we found the rates quite reasonable, at $75 a night, including breakfast.
The more time we spent in Turkey, the more we realized how the Turks embody the oil-and-water combination of disparate cultures. They are Middle Eastern; they are European. They hear the sacred call to prayer five times a day; they also hear the profane call of Prince, Madonna, Duran Duran and other secular voices. They read the Koran; they read, too, the newspapers with astonishing full-color nearly nude models on every front and back page, every day. Many urban girls and women wear long wool coats and scarves over their heads regardless of how hot it is; many others wear snappy European fashions, chic hairdos and -- on the beaches of Erdek, Marmaris and Bodrum -- string bikinis.
The ancient Islamic taboo against capturing the human image causes some Turks to duck at the sight of a camera, while others suffer the camera bemusedly but often only after eliciting the photographer's solemn promise to send them a print. In the Sunday produce market in Ankara, ruddy young vendors of eggplants and cucumbers and watermelons and tomatoes clamored to be photographed. Some of them posed suggestively with their produce.
Near Afyon, in west central Turkey, we stopped the car to look at one of the few poppy fields we spotted from the road. While Steve photographed the blossoms, which had faded to white, I approached a peasant couple near the edge of the field. In the universal sign language of travelers and natives, I asked if I could photograph them. They consented, but only after hastily smoothing their hair and rumpled clothes. They stood as formally as they could, without smiles, hands at their sides, barefoot. Then the man wrote his name and address in labored script on a scrap of paper and gestured for me to send a copy of the picture to them.
Another out-of-the-way encounter we had was far more casual, and at the same time provided a rare glimpse at day-to-day rural Turkish life. Wandering ashore one afternoon during our week of boating, we came upon an older couple sitting in the doorway of their tiny one-room summer home. Inside there was a whitewashed hearth with smoldering coals, a thin small sleeping pad, a stack of rugs on a shelf, an Electrolux refrigerator and a corroded Coleman thermos. The floor was packed-down dirt, with a woven mat over it. The door was carved with the name Dede Kiral -- Grandfather Kiral.
We sat under a canopy of grape vines on a bench carved with greetings in Turkish and English, and the words, "Let's drink together." The old man crouched, leaning against the wall. His wife sat in the door. Neither was reticent about being photographed, nor did they feel compelled to pose. We fired off some candid shots while, in Turkish, Dede Kiral told us they live in Marmaris, but they have a few good cows and chickens and some fields in this hidden valley. They also had some corn, tomatoes, basil, mint and rugetta lettuce, which we bought for our dinner on the boat. The woman also brought out some colorfully stitched wool bags -- a welcome infusion of cash for her, a souvenir of an unexpected encounter for us.
The most pervasive presence in Turkey is that of Mustafa "Kemal the Perfect" Ataturk, its first president from 1923 until his death in 1938. His image is ubiquitous; masks, statues, paintings and photographs of Ataturk cast a stern Big-Brother gaze in every corner of private and public life.
It was Ataturk who forced the unheard-of separation of religion and state in the nation that bears his name. He decreed that the Roman alphabet replace Arabic. He foisted the 20th century and western ways upon his people, forcing profound changes that have yet to be completely assimilated.
Ataturk championed the equality of men and women, a notion that has yet to truly take hold. For the time being, women toil in the fields while men sip tea, smoke cigarettes and talk about matters of the world in cafe's. For the time being, the wives, daughters and infants from the villages have no place in the sweltering chaos of the Bursa silk market. Clad (like the women in the fields) in long skirt-like flowered pants with the crotch below the knees -- these are called salvar (pronounced SHAL-var) -- they squat in the cool shade of the second-story arcade around the courtyard, outside the small shops that sell finished silk. Further layers of fabric guard the women thoroughly from the eyes of the curious and forward.
Ataturk had sophisticated tastes and was often photographed in white tie. But even 47 years after his death, Turkey still clings to centuries-old customs.
One afternoon we were lazing on the boat, anchored near a tiny village, when we noticed a villager coming down the dock with a live sheep on his shoulders. He boarded the gleaming white cabin cruiser next to ours, owned by a Turkish man who lives in London.
The owner nodded. The villager quickly drew a knife and just as quickly slit the sheep's throat. Suddenly the back deck was awash in blood and chaos as the villager struggled with the reflexively thrashing animal. Within a half-hour it was over; the sheep was skinned and quartered, ready to be roasted in a celebratory feast. In Turkey, that is how a new boat, even an American-built cabin cruiser, is christened. In spite of Ataturk's determined efforts to westernize and secularize his country, tradition dies hard in Turkey.