[Turkey Through a Traveler’s Eyes] In search of Turkey’s soul with Mary Lee Settle

Aya Sofya and Sultanahmet Mosque (Photo: Today's Zaman)

February 13, 2012, Monday/ 16:21:00

“‘The Greeks were terrible to me,’ I said, ‘I have come for the protection of the Turks’.” These words, uttered by American novelist and writer Mary Lee Settle to the local chief of police on her arrival in the Aegean resort of Bodrum way back in 1972 were calculated, by her own admission, to win the hearts of a people she would grow to love unreservedly over the coming years.

Taunted and stoned by delinquent teenagers on the Greek island of Kos, where she had sought sanctuary to write a book (about 17th century England of all things) because “it was cheap and it was warm,” Mary fled by ferry the short distance from Kos to Bodrum, then a small fishing port-cum-resort attracting a modest flow of Turkish tourists. Welcomed, as she had hoped, by the town’s naturally hospitable denizens, Mary stayed for three years, enjoying there “one of the happiest homes I have ever had.”

An Aegean idyll in Bodrum

In the early 1970s the tourism industry was in its infancy in Bodrum, enabling the American writer in exile to enjoy a picturesque town where life had changed relatively little for decades. She describes a wedding party arriving in Bodrum on camels, their gaily embroidered pack-saddles “piled high with rugs and pots and pans” and diving from a boat to explore an undersea world far richer than it is today, swimming after “Turkish lobsters without claws, like foot-long langoustes in heavy armor, scurrying along the sea floor” and amongst “sponges that were orange and yellow in a vertical underwater garden.” In the early evenings Mary found it impossible to resist joining the daily promenade “along the street and the landing pier” along with the “whole town … men, women, children, friends” and later was irresistibly drawn to a lively lokanta where “nobody refused to dance … the mayor, the chief of police, sea captains and sailors.”

In the summer she’d escape the worst of the heat with friends from the local kahve (coffee house). Together they’d “load the boat with vegetables, white cheese, sweet biscuits, wine and, for $10 a day … would go off into Gökova Bay, a five day trip, where we slept on deck, woke at dawn and dived into the glass-clear water.” Mary appeared to have it made -- how many people from harsher climes and fast-living urban cultures have longed to escape to an (apparently) idyllic Aegean hideaway and pen a book? But the realities of the world overtook her final summer there. For the year was 1974, when “that Cypriot Greek right-wing madman Nikos Sampson, editor and bully, was bragging about the hundreds of Greeks he had killed” and the newly elected Turkish Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit would soon feel compelled to order a Turkish invasion of the island to save its Moslem Turkish Cypriot minority. Against this backdrop, though not because of it (she had teaching commitments at a US university), Mary returned to her home country.

Strolling through İstanbul, by ship to Trabzon

She couldn’t keep away from Turkey, though, and in 1989 returned “to begin that circle of curiosity and questions that would lead me all over the country. I was not looking for abstract answers: I was looking for people and past and present, and the validity of memory, which is the most obscure search of all.” She began her journey in İstanbul, a place as far removed from the peace and tranquility of 1970s Bodrum as it is possible to imagine. She wandered all around the city, using the indispensible “Strolling Through İstanbul” by her compatriots Hilary Sumner Boyd and John Freely as her guide, and admired the city’s Byzantine and Ottoman buildings, major and minor. Although she was clearly fascinated by the metropolis, she wrote: “It is all İstanbul, as polite and friendly as a country village, as noisy and clotted with people as any city in the world, old, and sleepy and busy. I felt, not welcomed, but taken for granted there. They are used to so many strangers.” So, perhaps in search of a Turkey more akin to her fondly remembered Bodrum, she set sail on the now sadly defunct Turkish Maritime Lines route to Trabzon, on the far reaches of the Black Sea.

In Trabzon she was looked after, in the Turkish way, by a friend of friends, İhsan, a university professor from Ankara. Mary explored with him the remnants of the city’s splendid Byzantine past. The gorgeous frescoes in the Aya Sofya (Church of the Holy Wisdom), the once fine churches turned into mosques following the Ottoman conquest of 1461 and, inevitably, she made the pilgrimage out to the stunning but melancholic ruins (now thankfully much-restored) of the Sümela Monastery, in the wet, wild and wooded mountains behind the city. Of the city’s Turkish past she wrote, “Ottoman Turkey is there in the mosques, on the backstreets in the center of the city, where lost hans, inns that once welcomed travelers and their camel caravans from far Tartary, are now used as factories for hammering the local copper pans and ornaments, the ancient walls taken for granted by the men who work there.”

A mazy ramble through the Selçuk heartlands

Crossing the Pontic Alps by bus she reached the Çoruh River, today sadly disfigured by a massive dam project. Here she reflected on the central goal of her journey. “There across the Çoruh was the first clue to the kingdom I searched for, the almost forgotten kingdom of the Selçuk Turks.” For unlike the majority of travelers from the West, the American writer found Anatolia’s Turkish past every bit as fascinating and worthy of her attention as their Hittite, Greek, Roman or Byzantine forerunners. Of the Selçuk Turks, who famously defeated the Byzantines at Manzikert (Malazgirt) in 1071 and then set up one of Anatolia’s shortest-lived but most vibrant empires, she wrote: “Of all the Turkish tribes that spilled over the mountains to Anatolia, the Seljuks of Rum had that rare quality that only a few nations have. They had an eye for what was good. Across the endless steppe kingdoms, from Armenia, from Persia, they took what they liked and welded it into a style that is still so individual that it cannot be mistaken.”

Her Selçuk quest took Mary first to Erzurum, then Amasya. Her next stop was Tokat, seldom visited by foreigners today and which, according to Mary, was then “in none of the guidebooks I found.” She uncovered a Selçuk tomb that “had been partly used to make a house” and explored the impressive Gök Medrese, then, as now, the town’s museum. In Sivas, a town of which she says, despite its fine Selçuk buildings such as the Çifte Minareli Medrese and Ulu Camii, “There are dour cities, and Sivas is one of them.” Mary’s mazy ramble through Central Anatolia brought her next to what is probably one of the least-visited sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, the 13th-century Ulu Camii and Darüşşifa (Great Mosque and Hospital). Naturally, she describes the remarkable building complex, with its fabulous relief-carving, but took more pleasure in talking to a “proudly independent widow,” a worker in the local iron-mines who invited her into her humble home, a room in a spotless but dilapidated Ottoman mansion house, to share “thick Turkish coffee in tiny old cups.”

A great admirer of the buildings that were perhaps the greatest contribution to Anatolian prosperity in the Selçuk period, Mary stopped to examine several of the great caravanserais (kervansaray) that so promoted trade across the plateau -- including the most famous example of all, the Sultan Han on the Sivas-Kayseri road. She was accompanied on her Central Anatolian meanderings by Yusuf, “an excited 22 year old, finding his country for the first time” (he’d been born and bred in Germany). Inevitably, she made her way to Konya, once the Selçuk capital and seat of its greatest ruler, Alaeddin Keykubad. Although clearly an admirer of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his reforms, she was not blinkered and wrote of her visit to the serene and beautiful Mevlana complex, “Atatürk may have made it into a museum, but to the Turkish country people the Mevlana’s tomb is one of the most sacred places in Turkey.”

Descent to the Mediterranean, return to Bodrum

Like her heroes the Selçuks before her, she could not resist the lure of the Mediterranean and made her way through the Taurus range and down to Alanya. Having parted company with Yusuf, she found herself “alone in tourist land.” Even in 1989 Alanya was a booming resort, and Mary wrote poignantly: “The mountain that Aladdin captured rises up over Alanya on the coast, a steep sugarloaf with his fortress laced around it, reaching, it seems, almost to heaven, but it overlooks, not the dust of battle, not a thousand tents, but a coast that, between the beautiful mountains and the sea, has been ruined. … One white concrete hotel after another stretches along the coast, and if anyone looks toward the mountain, they must do it only as a duty, to remember that they are not on a cheap package holiday to Spain or Florida.”

The intrepid Mary Lee was to visit Cappadocia, Ankara and Van in the far distant east of the country before making her way, inexorably, back west to Bodrum. Inevitably, she was disappointed. “They had all gone: the carpenter, the sponge-divers, the dolmuşes stuffed with country people. When I looked for the place I had lived I couldn’t even find the street.” Formerly “empty hillside meadows were covered with holiday homes, all alike,” and there were “bars and hotels where there had been bakkals, fairly primitive lokantas and small houses.”

Yet like all the best travelers she was both adaptable and accepting and “stopped searching for what was gone and began to enjoy what was there -- a new Bodrum, shining white in the sun.” But to sum up her love of Turkey, Mary concludes her personal odyssey by relaying the words of a Virginia friend, an ex-GI whose “life was saved by a Turk.” He had been in a prison camp in Korea during the 1950-3 war and told Mary: “We didn’t know how to look after ourselves and the Turks took pity on us. They thought we were babes in the wood. My friend was Hakim. When I was sick he brought me food, and he looked after me like another Turkish person.”


“Turkish Reflections: A Biography of Place” by Mary Lee Settle, first edition 1991, is still in print. Publishers: Prentice Hall. She also wrote “Blood Tie” (University of South Carolina Press), a well-regarded novel set amongst the expat community of 1970s Bodrum.

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