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World War I Battlefields and Ancient History Where Europe Meets Asia

July 24-27

Some six hours after leaving Greece, we made it to the town of Gelibolu (Gallipoli) on the European side of the Sea of Marmara. Looking out from the town's small, pretty harbor, you can see Asia, only about 10km across the tranquil water. Turkey actually straddles two continents -- most of it is in Asia, but part of the country (including most of the city of Istanbul) lies across the Sea of Marmara in Europe, attached to the Balkan Peninsula. We chose Gelibolu because it seemed to be the best stopping-over point for us on our way south from Greece.

On the ride to Gelibolu, we had our first taste of the highly-acclaimed Turkish bus system. Taking an inter-city bus in Turkey is actually a pleasurable experience. Every bus is modern, air-conditioned, comfortable and super-clean. And every bus has an assistant whose job it is to see to the comfort of the passengers. A few minutes after climbing on board, the young assistant, dressed in a pressed white shirt with tie, came to us to offer complimentary spring water and soft drinks. Near the end of the ride, he returned with a bottle of watery citrus cologne, which he sprinkled on our hands. The idea is to rub the cologne on your hands, then on your face and in your hair to freshen up. This quickly became an addictive ritual on every bus ride we took in the country. Watching the huge yellow fields of giant sunflowers pass by our window, we were suddenly very happy to be in Turkey. Pampered on a bus ride, now there's a novel idea!

During this first day in Turkey, we already began to notice some of the striking qualities of the people, and how different they were from the Greeks we had just spent a month amonst. First of all, physically speaking, there is a much greater variation in people's looks than we expected. There are a lot of blue eyes and light complexions in Turkey. Nearly everyone we met in our first few hours was anxious to offer their help when we needed it. And, perhaps most notably, everybody is just so mellow, quiet, and low-key here. This was a major change from Greece, where, as friendly and welcoming as the people are, there is just too much noise! The Greeks seem to be addicted to noise -- buzzing motor scooters, crying babies, ringing cell phones, animated and loud private discussions in public -- you name it, it's noisy. Ah, but the Turks...people on the bus are mellow and discussions are made at reasonable sound levels. People have cell phones but they're not constantly ringing. Cell phone use is actually prohibited on buses! Welcome to a much mellower place.

Hey, we're suddenly billionnaires! It was in Gelibolu when we finally found out what the official exchange rate was for U.S. Dollars into Turkish Lira. Turkey, like Italy, has long had a problem with runaway inflation. The current exchange rate is about 630,000 Lira to the Dollar, and counting. It will probably be a percentage point or two higher by the time we leave, it moves that fast. We really are billionnaires! At least in Turkey...

The next day, we moved on to the town of Canakkale (Chanh-AH-kalih), across the Sea of Marmara and down the coast a bit. After a twenty minute ferry ride we had officially crossed from Europe into Asia. Canakkale has an amazing history, but now it's just a large town which serves mostly as a stopover for people wanting to see the nearby areas of Gallipoli and Ancient Troy. But its grand, ancient past deserves some mentioning. Considered by many historians to be the oldest city in Turkey, Canakkale was built to be the guardian city of the Dardanelles, the strait which marks narrowest point on the Sea of Marmara. European Turkey lies barely 1.5km across the water here. The long sea of Marmara separates Europe from Asia and connects the Black Sea in the north to the Aegean in the south. For this reason, the city has always been a strategic point of military control. King Xerxes of Persia and his army crossed here on a bridge built of boats on his way to Greece in 481 BC, and Alexander the Great later used the strait for his army's advance into Asia. In World War I, gaining control of the strait was a key objective for the Allies, as this would allow Allied Russia's naval fleet ice-free access to the Mediterranean. It was with this objective in mind that the Allied campaign in Gallipoli was started.

Turk Soldier

Impressive Turkish Soldier Statue, outside the Turkish Cemetery

Anzac Cove

Anzac Cove, where the Australians and New Zealanders landed in WWI

While in Canakkale, we took a tour of the battlefields of Gallipoli, just across the straits in European Turkey. It was a moving experience to learn about the terrible, bloody battles that occurred here between the Allied troops (in this case mostly British Crown subjects) and the German-led Turks between April, 1915 and January, 1916. In this short 9 month period, 36,000 Allies and 55,000 Turks lost their lives on the battlefields of Gallipoli. The Australians and New Zealanders suffered most of the Allied casualties -- the place where they landed at Anzac Cove (by mistake) was heavily guarded by the Turks in the hills above. In these hills, we visited the sites where some of the heaviest, bloodiest fighting occurred -- at places with names like Lone Pine, Johnston's Jolly, and the Nek (where the famous battle scene in the movie "Gallipoli" took place). In some areas, the Australian and Turkish trenches were as close as 9 meters (27 feet) from each other! Just off the roadside, there still lie the remnants of some of the Australian trenches. They're weathered down and partially filled in by pine forest, but they're still there. We walked down into the aging trenches and suddenly the abstract concept of what had happened here 85 years earlier became very real to us -- young boys fought and died here, right under our feet. It was an eerie feeling, facing this legacy of a war fought not so long ago.

Ataturk Message

Ataturk's Memorial

It was in the Gallipoli campaign that Lt. Colonel Mustafa Kemal (later to be known as Ataturk) first acheived the widespread recognition that would ultimately lead to his role as the founder of modern Turkey. He successfully foresaw the Allies' plan of attack and became a war hero at Gallipoli. In 1936, as president of the Republic of Turkey, Ataturk had a memorial built in honor of the Aussies and Kiwis who had lost their lives here 20 years earlier. His words, inscribed on a memorial at Anzac Cove, are incredibly moving:

"Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives...you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies (Australian-New Zealanders) and the Mehmets (Turks) to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours...you the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well."

The silent beauty of the Gallipoli battlefields today lies in sharp contrast to the terrors that occurred here in World War I. Today, the area is filled with pine trees and beautiful panoramic vistas of Anzac Cove and the other coastal areas below. This place that had once seen so much war and death is now a peaceful, beautiful place.

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