Saturday, September 30, 2006


After Helen

Most airports get pretty forlorn at three a.m. Delhi is no different. Stifling yawns, I walk into the departure lounge and look around to see who else will get airborne with me. The sight wakes me up. This Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul is full of burly men wearing Daler Mehndi T-shirts.
Most seats are taken. I find myself a place next to one of the men in Daler T-shirts. He is a big sardarji. We say hello. It turns out that he is Daler paaji’s elder brother. The whole Daler troupe is on its way to a performance in Istanbul. Balle balle on the Bosphorus, I tell myself.
Less than six hours later we’re over that famous waterway. From a kilometre up in the sky, it looks like an arm of the blue sea thrust into the belly of the green-gold land. Dots that are ships weave long white trails in the water behind them.
Istanbul airport is pleasant and thoroughly modern. The first impression, for the visitor from Delhi, is that this is more Europe than Asia. The city itself is more confusing. On the ride from the airport, it looks neat and Western – but there are those ancient minarets rising into the sky. And every now and then, there’s a glimpse of a Byzantine ruin here or an Ottoman one there.
It’s quite clearly a fascinating place. For now, though, it is not my destination. I am on my way to another place out of myth and history, older than Constantinople. I am headed for Troy.
A flying carpet or winged horse seems the appropriate mode of transport to a place like that. Unfortunately, however, I can only get a ticket on an air-conditioned bus. It’s a long ride – more than six hours – to the quaint little town of Canakkale at the mouth of the Dardanelles Strait, 310 km away, where we will halt for the night. Gentle hills clothed in sunflowers roll past on one side of the road for most of the way. On the other side is the Sea of Marmara. We stop once for a cay (chai-tea) and corba (dal-lentil soup) break at a highway restaurant that has a zoo in its backyard. Meal over, some of us from the Troy bus wander around, looking at the strange birds and sad monkeys.
By afternoon we’re at the site of an old battleground. Around 250,000 soldiers died here on the Gallipoli peninsula at the far end of Europe during World War I. Across the Dardanelle Strait, in easy view, is Asia – and the town of Canakkale.
The Battle of Gallipoli was one of the bloodiest ever fought anywhere. In 1914, a combined Anglo-French naval attack orchestrated by Winston Churchill was defeated by the Ottoman Turks at the mouth of the Dardanelles near Gallipoli. The aim of the attack was to open up the sea route from the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas to the Black Sea in order to help Russia. Following this defeat, the Allies realised that a land attack was needed to support the naval offensive. In 1915, Australian, New Zealander, British (including Sikh and Gorkha) and French troops attacked Gallipoli. They were held off till January 1916 by Turkish forces, including some led by Kemal Ataturk, and departed in defeat.

Today the wooded green hillside and the gentle Aegean Sea are the only remaining witnesses of this epic battle. They show no evidence of the slaughter. Captain Ali, our guide and a former submarine captain in the Turkish Navy, points to two narrow ditches on either side of the narrow road. Those are the trenches, he says. Barely 10 feet apart. Men shot each other at that range. They killed each other in thousands without either side gaining an inch.
Eventually, the Allies won the World War, and the Ottoman Empire was dismembered. Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Palestine (now Israel) were among the territories carved out from it.
A massive statue of Ataturk stands at the site in Gallipoli where he was shot – and saved by a watch he kept in his chest pocket. He was the hero for the Turks. He went on to lead Turkey.
We click pictures, and depart, shaking our heads at fate, will and the boundless inhumanity of the human race. The bus drives down the hill and onto the ferry.
Night comes late in these parts. It’s 9 p.m., and still light. We are in Canakkale, Asia. We have a dinner of octopus and fried calamari in a seaside restaurant overlooking the Dardanelles. Drinks follow, interrupted only once by the cry of the muezzin. Our Turkish friends put down their beers and cigarettes, uncross their legs and sit up straight until the call to prayer is over. Then everyone picks up where they’d left off.

Next morning, bright and early, we head for Troy. The first sign that we are on the land where Achilles, Hector and the beautiful Helen once walked is a touristy wooden horse. The replica Trojan horse is as big as the original, we’re told – the only design changes are windows from which sheepish-looking adults and excited children stick their heads out for photographs, and a sort of hut on its back.
Little remains of the famed seventh city of Troy that was immortalised by Homer, and much later, Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom. Captain Ali walks us into the city through the main gate – the one that Hector supposedly walked out of in the movie, for his last battle with Achilles. The real gate is just a gap in the stone walls now. It’s less imposing than Warner Brothers would have you believe, but more clever.
The gate is not visible from outside. It’s hidden by an outer wall, and is set at a sharp turn. This construction feature made it impossible for attackers to use battering rams against the gate of Troy – one reason that the Greeks had to employ trickery to get into the city.
We walk around looking at the remains of the legendary city. Three thousand years have taken their toll. The temple where Paris and Hector worshipped is a few small piles of stones. The tomb of Achilles, where Alexander the Great came to pay his respects in 334 B.C., is nearly obliterated.
Looking out over the Trojan plain we see a peaceful scene; fields and, in the distance, the glimmering sea. It reminds me of Gallipoli. Captain Ali takes us to an ancient amphitheatre and insists we sit on the seat where royalty used to sit. I wonder if Helen ever sat there, and feel both incredulity and goosebumps.
Excavations are still on in Troy. Archaeologists are still trying to peel back layers of time from this place where so many cities have been built, and legends born. The last of the nine cities of Troy was built by the Roman emperor Augustus in days when Jesus walked the earth. It fell into decline about 400 years later, after the birth of Constantinople, and was lost and forgotten in the course of the centuries until a German grocer-turned-indigo merchant- turned archaeologist named Heinrich Schliemann found it in 1873.
Schliemann later discovered a treasure at the site, said to be the treasure of King Priam. He dug out the jewelry, gold cups and silver goblets, and weapons that were perhaps wielded by the Trojan heroes, and smuggled them out of Ottoman Turkey. The treasure eventually found its way to Nazi Germany. It disappeared from Berlin at the end of the Second World War, and resurfaced in Moscow in 1993. It can now be seen at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. It is a bone of contention between Russia, Germany and Turkey to this day.
Only a few artifacts from Homeric Troy are at the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul. On my return to that city, I spent the better part of a day wandering around the place, and still saw only a little of the museum’s collection. The Trojan collection here isn’t very impressive – it could hardly be, considering most of it is in Russia. However, there are enough Greek, Roman and Ottoman treasures there to take one’s mind off this absence, at least for a day.
Up the hill from the Museum, at the corner of Sultanahmet square next to the Hagia Sophia, there’s a lovely little cafĂ© where one can watch the trams and the people flow by, and reflect on life and its evanescence over a cup of delightful Turkish coffee. It’s the sort of place that evokes such strange moods – thoughtful, melancholic and joyous, all at once.
The view from there includes the magnificent 17th Century ‘Blue Mosque’ of Sultan Ahmet, where worshippers still gather at prayer times. The Hagia Sophia, once the centre of power of the Byzantine church, and later a mosque after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, is now a museum.
I sat there, alone, reading Orhan Pamuk and wondering where I might see more of the huzun – melancholy – of Istanbul he wrote so much about. Only a businesslike, modern city with a colourful past and a split personality showed itself.