Anthony Sattin

Twists and turns through history

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Meander: East to West Along a Turkish River

Jeremy Seal

Chatto, pp. 416, £

Jeremy Seal is a Turkophile, but don’t look to him for a grand history of the republic or lives of the Ottoman sultans. That is not his way. He prefers to approach things obliquely and, in particular, to come at them from an angle dictated by chance and beginning with a discovery. His first book, A Fez of the Heart, looked at Turkey and Turks through the prism of their most iconic piece of clothing: the fez. His previous book, Santa: A Life, was decided upon when he discovered that St Nicholas was a Turk. And now another discovery: the Meander.

We all know the idea of meandering. The word, with its sense of twisting and turning, and also of being convoluted, of going slowly, taking time, was used by ancient Greeks and Romans. It was inspired by the course of a river in Anatolia, one that Seal assumed was like the Styx and the Rubicon, lost to time. But looking out of the window of a bus some years ago, he approached a bridge with the sign, ‘Menderes, Meander’, and this journey was born.

Writer and river are happily matched. The Meander rises in a place called Dinar and winds its way through south-west Turkey to the Aegean Sea near Miletus, one of the wealthiest cities of ancient Greece, and the modern Turkish resort of Kusadasi. Its total run, including the detours and windings, is just over 300 miles, an easy paddle in an inflatable canoe, Seal’s preferred mode of transport, you might imagine. But while it may be short and old, the Meander is also a rollercoaster.

Take the morning, about half way through his narrative, beyond the hot springs and ancient ruins of Hierapolis. Seal had eaten two borek for breakfast, made a mental detour around the decorative motif we know as the Greek key and which the ancients knew as a meander, launched his canoe into the water and was paddling happily in the sunshine when the river disappeared. Gone. Drained off for hydroelectric and irrigation, leaving nothing more than a damp patch on the riverbed and Seal ‘slack-jawed’.

History is his travelling companion. When the journey leaves him high and dry, as it does when low water forces him out of his canoe and onto his feet, the tales of those who lived or travelled there before him provide rich material.

The Meander valley cuts through the ancient provinces of Lydia, kingdom of gold-fingered Croesus, Phrygia and Caria, and was of great importance in antiquity, its rich farmland and strategic location bringing it to the attention of the likes of Alexander the Great and Byzantine emperors. Seal calls them ‘the marching lands between two worlds’, between East and West. Christianity flourished here in its first century, and Crusaders trampled through a millennium later. Seal musters the shades of the ancients as easily as he describes the passage of 18th and 19th century travellers and his encounters with modern-day Turks. Success and enjoyment in this book spring from the fact that he is equally at home in the past as the present. He knows which of the myriad tales to conjure from the past, filleting out unexpected stories — as, for instance, that of Lieutenant Ben Hodder caught up in the Greco-Turkish struggle for the Meander region in 1919 in the wake of the Ottoman collapse.

But Seal’s great ability here is to convey something of the lives, the concerns and the nature of the people of the region. Bound by tradition, strict in their observance of the obligation of hospitality to a stranger, they have struggled for identity. The ancients thought of them as barbarians, yet Miletus produced some of the great minds of the classical age.

More recently, since the Greeks left, this has been a poor and forgotten backwater. Seal casts fresh light as the shadow of political Islam, global warming and other external forces are felt. Everywhere old men remember better times for themselves and the river. Yet in spite of the hardship, everywhere he stops, the author is fed, accommodated and helped along on a journey that none of the Meanderers really understand. ‘All this kindness in a blood-soaked land,’ he writes poignantly towards the end. All this life recorded, I thought, towards the end. Not the lives of sultans nor the great history of the republic, but of those who helped produce greatness, now caught in this sleepy backwater.