Back in the summer of 1962, waiting to start university, I took myself off for a few weeks in Turkey. Early in the morning, on my first day in Istanbul, I walked into the medieval Grand Bazaar. Feeling a little lost in this strange and totally unfamiliar city, I asked a stall-holder how to find the Blue Mosque. “I don’t have time to talk to you,” he said, “but I’ll point you in the right direction”. Leaving his stall unattended, he started off into the tangled web of streets. We walked quickly and some ten minutes later arrived at Sultan Ahmet, the Blue Mosque.
“I don’t have time for this,” said the stall-holder, “but it’s a very large mosque, you might get lost.”
After a full tour of the mosque, my new-found friend looked at his watch. “I’m a busy man, I can’t waste my time with you. But, you must see the Basilica Cistern; you haven’t been to Istanbul if you haven’t seen the Basilica Cistern.”
We finally parted company around five o’clock after an exhausting day seeing as many of Istanbul’s sights as possible. His last words — “I really don’t have time for you,” have echoed over the years.
I have returned to Turkey many times and have found my way from Izmir on the Mediterranean to Kars on the border with Armenia, from Trabzon on the Black Sea to Iskenderun on the border with Syria. From huge, over-populated, cities to small villages, the Turks were all friendly, outgoing people, delighted to meet a tourist who could manage half-a-dozen words in Turkish.
My last visit was in 2006. I was in a small field, high on the cliffs not far from Antalya. Together with a handful of other hopefuls, I waited to see a total eclipse of the sun. With a cloudless sky, we watched the sun disappear behind the moon. A few minutes later, as the light returned, a woman in traditional Turkish peasant dress came out of the nearby farmhouse carrying a large tray laden with humous and pitot. Smart, we thought, good business sense to make some money from the eclipse. But we had forgotten that we were in Turkey. Turkish logic was clear: if we were in her field, we must be her guests. Payment for the delicious snack was out of the question.
With Tayyip Erdogan overturning the last remnants of Kemal Atatürk’s political and cultural reforms that built a modern democratic and secular state on the ruins of the decrepit Ottoman Empire, I wonder how my stall-holder friend would greet me today. The English schoolboy is now a proud Israeli grandfather. Erdogan, strongly anti-Israel, if not downright anti-Semitic, has brought great prosperity to Turkey since he came to power in 2002.
In 1962, most English people would have had difficulty in placing Turkey on a map. Certainly, none would have thought of visiting this forgotten land. Now Turkey gets nearly 40 million tourists a year.
In 1962, the Turkish Lira was worthless, and Turkey’s main product was Lockum — Turkish Delight. Now Turkey is a developed country with the world’s 17th-largest GDP. It is a leading producer of agricultural products, textiles, motor vehicles, ships construction materials, consumer electronics and home appliances.
Would the stall-holder’s warm Turkish welcome still be waiting for me, or have the many years of Erdogan’s carefully calculated mix of hate and financial success changed the Turkish man-in-the-bazaar. Sadly, I have no answer; in the present climate, I am not about to go back to Turkey.
The writer, a retired physicist, is the author of the Len Palmer Mysteries (lenpalmerbooks.com)