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THE True Turkey

Turning up delightful discoveries in the country's less traveled heartland.

January 26, 1997|DALE M. BROWN | Brown is a writer and editor based in Alexandria, Va. and editor of Time-Life Books' archeological adventure series, "Lost Civilizations."

ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey reminds me of the Europe I first knew in the '50s when prices were low, the people friendly and discoveries could be made at every turn. And so last July my wife and I embarked on our third visit: a two-week, 1,600-mile journey by car into the heartland, visiting regions relatively unknown to Americans.

Most first-time travelers to Turkey begin in Istanbul and work their way south and then east along the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts. But the wanderer interested in seeing more of the real Turkey must travel inland, as we did, onto the vast Anatolian plateau, 3,000 to 5,000 feet above sea level. There, and in the mountainous realm farther north, we found the country's heart.

Our previous experiences in Istanbul and on the Aegean Coast had emboldened us. We knew the Turks to be polite and hospitable, ever willing to help strangers in need. We had learned, too, that Turkey has a good road system and relatively little traffic outside the big cities. Rather than sign up for a guided tour, we ventured out on our own. We even made arrangements to rent a house in the village of Uchisar, in the otherworldly province of Cappadocia--dead center in the country--where we would stay for a week before driving north over the Pontic Mountains to the Black Sea.

This time we bypassed Istanbul, flying directly to Ankara, the country's capital. The city came as a surprise to us. We had read how it lay on the Anatolian Plateau, and we had expected flatness. Instead, we found hills. One of the first things we did was to climb to the top of one, which was crowned by the Hisar, or citadel, a fortress ringed by thick stone walls more than 1,000 years old. From these we had panoramic views of the city . . . or rather of the two cities, the new and the old. In front of us spread 20th century Ankara, white and gleaming, laid out by European planners under the direction of Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern nation. But when we turned in the other direction, red tile roofs and the pencil-strait minarets of a more traditional Turkey filled our gaze.

The Hisar, we were pleased to discover, contains a village of narrow, meandering streets and ancient houses, some leaning against each other or tipped forward in the exhaustion of age. Despite the presence of several attractive restaurants and a steady stream of European tourists, life goes on pretty much as it did 50 or 100 years ago. We saw women crocheting in the shadow of their doorways, a baker carrying a box of warm bread to a grocery shop, red peppers threaded on lines and hung out to dry like laundry in the sun. And just outside the gate we stumbled upon the old bazaar, with stalls and stands offering everything from herbs and spices to Angora, the silky goat hair from which Ankara took its name.

On the same hill as the bazaar and Hisar stands one of the world's great museums: the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, a repository of fascinating artifacts dug from the Turkish earth and encompassing 10,000 years of history. The museum is housed in a warehouse and a former 15th century covered market, converted into sky-lit exhibition spaces. It gave us a sunny overview of the great cultures that have come and gone in the region of Anatolia, from the Hittites, whose empire rivaled that of the Egyptians, to their powerful successors, the Phyrygians and Lydians.

I was intrigued by a recreation of King Midas' log-built burial chamber, discovered west of Ankara in 1957 under an enormous man-made mound. Curiously, for this Phrygian king who was said to turn everything he touched to gold, not a bit of the precious metal had been buried with him, though there was treasure of another kind: inlaid furniture that miraculously had not crumbled to dust. These extraordinary pieces--which took conservators 15 years to restore--were on view in glass cases that we could walk around, enabling us to examine the workmanship of craftsmen who lived 2,700 years ago.

On another of Ankara's hills sprawls a monument to Turkey's recent history, Kemal Ataturk's mausoleum, the Anitkabir. We taxied there and walked down a wide, vehicle-free avenue lined with grimacing stone lions to a plaza the size of several city blocks. It was flanked by arcaded stone buildings and guarded by members of the armed forces whose marble demeanor made them appear to be made from stone. The largest of the buildings--reached by a broad staircase of 33 steps--contains Ataturk's tomb, a block of red marble weighing about 40 tons. Dwarfed by the scale of the dark, shadowy chamber, in which gold mosaics glimmered faintly, even we Americans could feel some of the power of this man who wrenched Turkey from its Ottoman past and set it on its path to the future.

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