"I didn't even know Troy was in Turkey," marveled a British fellow passenger, as the minibus bounced through the hilly terrain that was once Homer's Asia Minor. "I thought it was in -- well, actually, I never did think."
People generally don't. Troy, city of Priam and Aeneas, is not a place you expect to be able to visit. Even for people under Troy's literary spell -- people who, like me, felt the city leap out of sweated-over Latin and Greek lessons into concrete reality -- Troy is less a place than a touchstone. Troy's fall lies at the center of Western cultural identity, the very root of literary imagination. And yet Troy itself -- the little park and museum and archaeological site that the Turks call Truva -- is quite a long way off the map.
You'd think literary romantics would flock to these ruins, however far away, however sparse. But Troy is in Turkey, a country whose exchange rate is never posted at Western currency exchanges and whose modern-day language is related to no other tongue except, possibly, Hungarian. When I told friends I was going to Turkey, half of them immediately asked if I had seen the movie "Midnight Express," in which a young American caught with drugs is tortured in a barbaric Turkish jail. The other half made jokes about the infamously primitive Turkish toilet.
With connotations like these, plus the political problems the country has had, it's no wonder that Turkey seems at times the most alien of all the non-Communist countries. All the more astonishing, then, to find in Turkey not only Troy but innumerable other remnants of the West -- remnants which, for the most part, we remember only as parts of dream or myth, monuments that have been invisible for centuries to standard Grand Tour tourists. Finding them again, in Turkey, teaches a worthy lesson by jumbling permanently -- in my mind at least -- the idea of a cultural East and West, the boundary between what is foreign to us and what is familiar.
The Turkish tourist authorities are casual about St. Sophia and the Burnt Column of the Emperor Constantine and Justinian's vast, pillared underground cisterns; understandably, they lavish most of their attention on the mosques and palaces of Ottoman rule. The older monuments have a weird, dreamlike feel; Turkish Istanbul calls to mind a once-popular genre of teen science fiction, in which the next generation after the nuclear apocalypse grows up innocently among the extensive but incomprehensible ruins of the old civilization. In Istanbul the gargantuan Theodosian land walls are everywhere, cracked and rambling and unmarked.
Istanbul is the least of it. People forget or never hear that biblical Ephesus, where St. Paul preached, survives in startlingly preserved ruins halfway down the Western Turkish coast; that a putative House of the Virgin Mary stands 20 minutes away from it at Selcuk; that all up and down that same Aegean coastline, cities such as Miletus and Didymus and Pergammon still have inhabitants. More recent myths crowd in as well; transliterate "Uskudar," the name of a posh Istanbul suburb, and you are in Scutari where Florence Nightingale first tended to wounded troops. Turkey -- alien, invisible Turkey -- is crammed with our own past.
Troy's profile amid all this is low to the point of obscurity. Many popular guidebooks warn against the ruins at Truva, calling them hokey, and paltry, and hard to get to. The last is true. The Trojan pilgrimage involves a bus and then a ferry to a fishing village called Canakkale, whose tourist office indulges Western literary romantics by sending the occasional minibus half an hour over the plains to where someone has set up "Welcome to Troy" signs in English and French. Aeneas's country is hillocky and pale with knotted, sun-bleached underbrush.
The great plaint of the guidebooks is that Heinrich Schliemann, the quixotic amateur archaeologist who unearthed Troy on a hunch, found barely enough to hint at the mythic city's splendors. But even a little is a lot when you're talking about the setting for events that already have so much reality on their own. By that measure, what Schliemann found on the heights of Troy was far more than a little.
Consider, for instance, the matter of city walls. Genial legend has it that at one time the British universities would graduate a young lord if he could answer one question: "Who dragged whom around the walls of what?" Schliemann found walls, chunks of two concentric ones, each of them angled to slope slightly inward; you can walk along between them in a narrow sunken avenue, feeling their solidity. Before Achilles dragged Hector around those walls, the Greeks of the Iliad -- perhaps even the historical Greeks as well -- assailed them for 10 years in vain, desperate to take back Helen.
Along the walls, within the circle of the town, Schliemann found houses' square foundations and the shell of a tower. Andromache, wife of Hector, watched the dragging from a Trojan tower. Later, her infant son Astyanax was thrown from one. (Later still, millenia later in France, the classicist playwrights brought the baby back to life to figure in Andromache's further adventures.) Further on, at the ruins of the city's western gate, Schliemann found a perfectly preserved, wide, smooth stone ramp leading up to what is left of the gateway's pillars.
It is here that one's literary romanticism begins to tumble over into what can only be called sentimental gullibility. The ramp looks as if horses and chariots might have been drawn up it. One glances, embarrassedly, over one's shoulder at the monstrous, tasteless, playground-style Trojan Horse which the Turkish tourist authorities have erected at the entrance. One giggles at one's ability to fall for such a snare. Troy? Horses?
Halfway between the gate and the tower is a discreet sign pointing up the bluff to "the temple of Athena." One dutifully follows. What the path leads to is better than any temple: a high promontory from which you can see the immense Trojan plain and a far glimpse of sea. The Greeks moored their ships, crossed that plain and camped in front of the citadel before each battle on the "windswept plain," the "echoing plain of windy Troy." They had quite a march of it. The sea is barely visible from the promontory; you have to climb what is left of Athena's temple and stretch and strain, gauging the distance by the ring of hills, feeling the steady beat of the Homeric wind. The wind is still there, hissing through the stunted trees, carrying away the centuries. It is warm and blanketing and makes the citadel seem very high, impregnable to attack. "Windy Troy" is just as Homer described it.
On the minibus back to Canakkale I fell into conversation with a Turk holding a six- year-old on his lap; he was squeezed between me on the right and his mountainous mother on the left. Just before piling his family off the bus, he said a few words to the driver, and I realized that he -- like nearly every other Turk I had met in Izmir or Istanbul or Ephesus -- had paid my fare. The first few times this had happened, I had dismissed it as an advance; later, meeting the same openness from Turkish women, couples, aging businessmen, I junked that explanation in favor of things I'd vaguely heard about "Eastern hospitality."
Now, with my head still full of city walls and winds and Homeric battles, I thought for the first time of the reassurances given by Telemachus, son of Odysseus, to his unexpected guest. "Enter, stranger, welcome to our feast! There will be time to tell your errand later." And: "We are commanded to care for the stranger; the stranger is sacred. The stranger comes from Zeus."
A civilization can drift a long way from the root of its traditions. Nodding out the bus window at the Turkish family from Truva, I wondered how they had managed to remember.