Rewriting The Iliad

IMAGINE THE THREE PROUD GODDESSES OF MT. OLYMPUS, HERA, ATHENA AND APHRODITE, HAD NOT FALLEN INTO A FIT OF JEALOUSY AND NOT ASKED WHICH OF THEM WAS THE MOST BEAUTIFUL. WOULD WE STILL HAVE BEEN SO CAPTIVATED BY THE AEGEAN AS A SEA AND A REGION? I DOUBT IT.

I doubt it because the Aegean Sea and region have been engraved in the collective memory of mankind thanks mainly to Homer’s epic, The Iliad. So what is this Iliad all about?

Everybody knows that the Iliad tells the story of how the Achaeans, aka the Hellenes of mainland Greece, conquered the city of Troy on the Aegean coast of Anatolia, aka Asia Minor, whose inhabitants were also ethnic Hellenes, aka Greeks.

The reason for all the fracas is the jealousy referred to above. For heir to the Trojan throne Paris, whom Zeus has appointed to judge the contest, singles out Aphrodite from among the three candidates. Aphrodite is ecstatic and rewards Paris with the lovely Helen, wife of Menelaus, King of Sparta. The hot-blooded youth loses no time in abdusting his prize.

But not without cost. Stung by their loss in the contest, Hera and Athena burn for revenge. Joining forces, the two goddesses incite all Greek city-states to attack Troy to avange their honor. Homer also opens his Iliad as battle galleons set sail for the eastern Aegean from Peloponnese, the Cyclades and the coast of Thrace.

Yes, the Aegean is identified with a Greek epic, but that’s not whole story of course. The mere fact that Homer describes both the Achaeans and the Trojans as being fair-haired and fair-skinned is enough to put paid to any notion that the people of the Aegean were Asians. But this much is true:

Thanks to their location, the Hellenes that inhabited the Ionian coast were indeed closer to the Asian tribes than to their racial brothers on the Greek peninsula. Indeed, little was said about the pronounced ‘hybridization’ that, in contrast with Athens and Sparta, took place at Ephesus, Pergamum and Troy. Plus, when the city of Troy was defending itself against the Achaean siege, again unlike its opponents it numbered foreign soldiers in the ranks. So let us sum it up like this:

Turning its back on the rough terrain stretching from Kaz Dağı, aka Mount Ida, all the way to the Taurus, the eastern coast of this inland sea faced mainly west. But it called the sun’s rays that crept over those mountains every morning ‘Ex oriente lux’ , Light out of the East. To put it another way, the waters of the Anatolian Aegean all the way from Saros at the top to Fethiye (Telmessos) below simultaneously sparkled with an oriental phosphorescence. It came to me when I mentioned the mountains. Yes, the Aegean is of course identified first with the sea.

It was always so for the Hellenes in any case. Nor was it any different for us Turks, who were completely alien to the sea. Indeed, even today we call almost all our fish and other seafood by their Greek names. Plus, if our entire maritime vocabulary, our nautical terms in particular, are from the language of Dante, the reason is again the Aegean.

Because we learned that terminology from the Genoese and Venetian pirates who settled on the Aegean islands and built galleons and fleets. So does the overwhelming role of the sea suffice to relegate the land to second place? No! No, because every hill and dale perpendicular to the shore, from Mt.

Ida above to Tmolos (today’s Bozdağlar Mountains) and on to Asteles (Mt. Simav), constitute inseparable aspects of the Whether they sing ‘Rita Abacı’ in Greek or the Turkish folk song ‘uzun olur efelerin bıçağı’ of Aydın, what is their plaintive ‘aman’, sung by both to the same rhythm, but an elegy to the Aegean legends of the Trojan hero Hector and of Atça’s other hero, Kel Mehmet? Yes, with its sea and mountains, its plains and coves, its islands and coasts, but especially for its sublimated people, the Aegean remains today as yesterday a magnificent legend that Homer is going to rise from his resting place and rewrite.

Everyday life is intimately intertwined with the sea around the quay at Urla, one of Izmir’s loveliest coastal settlements. Historic and natural beauty are in the forefront even the region’s furthest inland settlements. Birgi in the Izmir township of Ödemiş exhibits some of the Central Aegean’s characteristic treasures. Perched on a green slope in the foothills of Mt. Bozdağ, the town looks pretty as a picture in the distance. Resisting time’s depredations, Birgi’s stately mansions await guests in their shade of their poplar, cypress, laurel and plane trees.

Did you know that the oldest olive processing factory in history was set up in the ancient city of Klazomenai near Urla? High quality Aegean olives are used in a range of products from olive oil to soap, even jam.

The Aegean region is laced with history, and traces of a number of ancient settlements from Lydia to Caria can be found here. The ancient city of Stratonikeia near the Muğla township of Yatağan stands like a surreal island surrounded by small hills. At Birgi, which we met as we were making our way to Izmir through the Aegean countryside, everything is like something out of a giant museum. This town to the north of the Küçük Menderes (ancient Scamander) River has faced a major influx of tourists in recent years.

Olive oil is still produced by traditional methods at Urla, the Aegean’s never-ageing fisherman. Following the trail of history at Bergama (ancient Pergamon) after taking in the sea air at Urla is an Aegean treat. Pergamon, where parchment was first produced from animal hides long before the papyrus of ancient Egypt, boasts a library even bigger than the famous Alexandria Library.

On the occasion of 2011 UNESCO Evliya Çelebi Year you can visit the house in Birgi where the famous traveler stayed. This house, where Evliya Çelebi lived briefly, is known to have belonged to Atıf Çelebi, a grandson of Mevlana Jalaladdin Rumi.

The Bay of Gökova looks magnificent from the foothills of Sakartepe as you approach Marmaris. And Akyaka almost on the shore is an authentic Aegean beauty with its red-roofed wooden houses, flower gardens and motorized fishing boats. For those who prefer the excitement of football to Akyaka’s quiet streets, Izmir is just the place. Fervent fans of the Aegean’s oldest team, Göztepe, turn the avenues of Güzelyalı into a carnival on match days.

The Aegean is famous for its wild mountain herbs, like turnip greens, marsh mallow, fennel, marsh samphire and blessed thistle, which can be used with olive oil, lemon juice, vinegar, garlic and various spices to produce spectacular tastes.

With its breezy summer evenings along the Kordon, its elegant houses with traditional cantilevered balconies, and its fashionable patisseries, Izmir is the Aegean’s modern heart. But judging by what the locals say, the Aegean does not flaunt its beauty. Instead you need to take time and tour it extensively to discover its treasures. For the Aegean is a land of both nature and ancient cities. And it’s up to the traveler to complete the picture.

Turkish Airlines has flights in both directions between Istanbul and Izmir, Bodrum, Dalaman, Denizli and Uşak.

For spa and health tourism, you may choose hotels in Afyon and Pamukkale; for sea and culture, hotels in Çeşme, Bodrum, Marmaris, Foça and Kuşadası.

For a colorful and vibrant Aegean market cheek by jowl with historic monuments, stop at the town of Tire. You can find everything here from olives and olive oil to, country cheeses, wild herbs and felt..

Olive oil and seafood play the lead role in Aegean cuisine. Besides ‘kumru’ (a kind of sandwich), iced almonds, and ice cream made with gum mastic, the native Aegean herbs are also among the treats of the local cuisine.

The Railroad Museum at Çamlık on the Selçuk - Aydın highway attracts the interest of train and nostalgia buffs.

Birgi with its historic houses is like a time tunnel. Among them, the 18th century Çakırağa Konak is an architectural masterpiece. Open to the public, it boasts magnificent stencil work and carved woodwork well worth seeing.

Starting point of the first Ottoman railroad, the historic Alsancak Railroad Station is one of Izmir’s icons. The station, which opened in 1858, connected all the cities of the Aegean region.

Famous for its cooling offshore winds (Turkish ‘imbat’), Izmir is one of Turkey’s leading touristic centers with its vast hinterland stretching from Çeşme to Foça. The city, where summer is mostly spent out of doors, boasts a vibrant urban life. To enjoy the cool offshore breezes, you need to branch out to the ‘Kordon’ (esplanade) in this city known for its warm, friendly people.

 The long-standing rivalry between Göztepe and Karşıyaka fans the flame of football in the region. Likewise the Super League competition between regional teams Tavşanlı Linyitspor, Denizlispor, Altay and Akhisar Belediyespor.

The serpent-entwined staff of Asklepios which is the symbol of modern medicine was first seen in the ancient amphitheater at Pergamon (modern Bergama), the steepest in the world.

The ship-breaking plant at Aliağa, last stop for giant ships, is like a movie set specially built for photography buffs. World-famous ships are brought to this plant, which is recognized as one of the best in the business.

Some suggestions for getting to know Izmir: See the Old Agora near Basmane, home of one of the oldest Temples of Athena in Anatolia. Then follow it up with a spin along the Kordon in a phaeton.

If you happen to go to Alaçatı, you can try ice cream flavored with marjoram, an endemic Aegean herb. Add to your notes: in and around Muğla they toss of sprig of marjoram into the Turkish coffee, and at Bodrum they are especially fond of çay (tea).

MUTLU TÖNBEKİCİ
“I recommend Birgi to those who want to get to know the treasures of the central Aegean. Otttoman life lives on here. The Çakıroğlu Mansion is magnificent. The depiction of Istanbul in one of the rooms is a must-see. There is a similar depiction of nature in an historic mosque at Bademli. The Gölcük Highlands above Birgi are also worth going to. The natural beauty surrounding the lake is outstanding.”