Travel: Turkey in a Time of Change

A passenger ferry in Istanbul, Turkey. Osman Orsal / Reuters-Landov

About two thirds of the way up the Bosporus on Istanbul’s European shore sits Tarabya, a little hamlet of glassed-in fish restaurants. In front, the coast road doglegs around a mini-inlet, snarling traffic while black SUVs drop off designer-shod belles. Behind, steep slopes host an improvised McSuburbia with a fabled Bosporus view—increasingly of other McSuburbias. Not the stuff of myth, perhaps, but a boon to any broker’s slick brochure. Tarabya was not always thus. Legend has it that, in antiquity, the witch Medea, heartsick after fleeing her homeland with Jason on the Argo, recovered her serenity upon glimpsing Tarabya’s bucolic magic and threw away her potions—hence the town’s name “Therapia” in the original Greek.

When I was a boy in the 1970s, some 3,000 years later, you could believe it still: the place could heal you. Seemingly upheld by sea light, lofty trees teetered on the bluffs above beached fishing boats and arthritic jetties. Silent yalis marinated in history. Forests reached to the water’s edge. In Tarabya you felt closely monitored by the spirits. Nowadays, the genius loci is more about real estate than sacred terrain. Today’s Medea would likely arrive at evening, enjoy a peerless fish dish with global pals, pop her daily Zoloft before heading out to the glittering nightclubs along the Bosporus. Who can say which Medea is the happier?

Tarabya illustrates the dilemma of an ancient land surging toward consumer affluence, a developmental phase not unknown to other countries, such as India now and Italy in the 1980s—two nations whose people love to visit Turkey. Is there a Florentine or Milanese of traveling age who hasn’t done the Blue Cruise along the Turkish Riviera? Would they admit such a sin of omission in front of peers? As for Indians, suffice to say that in early May India’s richest man, Lakshmi Mittal, chose Istanbul’s Ciragan Palace Hotel for the nuptials of his niece—a four-day blowout where guests consumed 1,000 bottles of Dom Perignon, according to Turkey’s effusive media coverage. Glamour has come to Turkey with a vengeance.

The Ciragan hotel was itself the pioneering victim of the country’s rushed makeover to luxury. In my childhood, the 1872 palace of Sultan Abdulaziz housed huge plane trees full of crows and storks inside its burnt-out edifice, preserved by time as a Gothic ruin since the 1910 fire that destroyed it. That Istanbul of pure memory where the skeleton of history lay unburied for all to see could scarcely be bettered as a crucible for the imagination. But although ancient places sanctified by the centuries console the poetic faculties, left unexploited they don’t feed a growing population in need of employment.

The Ciragan’s renovation in 1991 pointed a way out of that impasse, albeit with predictable pitfalls. The outside marble, given a new facade by a Japanese company, evoked a newly cleaned old-master fresco—initially shocking but essentially right. The interior décor, done by a Lebanese company, looked like a Mexican soap-opera set—exactly what educated Turks had feared. Yet the hotel quickly became an internationally touted destination. Sure, the interior got a fine redo in 2007, but a generation of local entrepreneurs absorbed a corrupting lesson: make money now, rediscover authenticity later, when you can afford it.

The friction between authenticity and glamour, between reverence for heritage and hunger for luxury, haunts the future of ancient landscapes everywhere. Turkey’s post-Ottoman contraction, aggravated by Cold War isolation, kept its myth-strewn wilderness relatively inviolate for much of the 20th century. The population rose from around 10 million in Mustafa Kemal’s 1930s republic to around 80 million by the century’s end. Istanbul grew from 1 million inhabitants after World War II to more than 12 million today. My generation of educated Turks reveled in the kind of widespread economic conditions that, up to the mid-1980s, allowed you to backpack for mere dollars a day and sleep unmonitored beside a tumbledown shrine to Zeus.

Such pleasures went in tandem with acute shortages. A shipload of oil sent by Libya’s Col. Muammar Gaddafi as a fraternal gift would be celebrated for days on all the front pages. Cities burned such cheap coal that you stayed indoors to breathe freely. No one mourns the passing of Cold War bunker-economy doldrums. But the triumph of commerce ate away Istanbul’s loveliest spots, and now threatens coastal regions or anywhere else that tourists congregate. They tend to congregate where history has dug its oldest roots.

The ancients chose settlements with precise feng shui—they sensed gods there, what T. S. Eliot called “this grace dissolved in place.” Ultimately, Muslims and Christians alike venerated Constantinople as among the earth’s holiest spots. The biblical Seven Churches cited in the Book of Revelations, each devolving from classical and Pagan temples, draw throngs of foreign pilgrim-tourists. From Mount Nimrod’s giant heads to Van castle’s Urartu remnants, old stones invoke the natural pieties that raised great cultures.

My father died recently; he was buried among wildflowers and swaying trees behind a hilltop village—a settlement inhabited perhaps for millennia—an hour outside of Bodrum. The cemetery looks over pristine green peaks to a luminescing Mediterranean miles away. In the 1950s, he had to visit such villages on horseback as a doctor on government service. Electricity only arrived there in the 1990s. These days all the houses have central heating. Some locals grew rich by selling out to developers. Now hundreds of vacation villas mar the frontal views, untouched since classical times.

One wonders what the villagers thought the money would bring to compensate for the loss of their blessed landscape. The same applies to the developers—on what undisturbed view will they rest their affluent eyes to enjoy their wealth? It’s not a matter merely of concrete sprawl or unchecked suburbanization but of what the writer J. G. Ballard called “the suburbanization of the soul.” There’s still plenty enough of enchantment on offer. One still understands what the ancients felt, why they sensed Apollo on the beach in Side and Aphrodite in Knidos. But from the way things are going, Medea would do well to keep her prescriptions updated.

Kaylan was born in Turkey and educated in England. A journalist in New York for 25 years, he writes about cultures in conflict from China to the Middle East. He covers culture for The Wall Street Journal.

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