Trowel was a Turkish word I didn’t know, so I improvised. Hardly had I requested a pocket-sized spade, however, before the ironmonger’s eyes were narrowing to wary slits. It had not crossed my mind that laying my hands on a trowel might present a problem in a place like Dinar. How but with trowels had the chillies, peppers and aubergines that ran amok in the scruffy little town’s kitchen gardens been planted? What of the geraniums that bloomed in rusty cooking oil tins at the foot of whitewashed walls? The potted pine saplings that stood in long rows at the state railway’s nursery opposite the station? And the apple and cherry orchards that blossomed across the springtime plains west of the town? Dinar was where Turkey’s fertile western lowlands, liberally watered by the Meander’s springs, ran up against the plateau interior to breed a last-ditch growing fervour among the locals – but one that their ironmonger did not appear to share.
He stocked, that said, every other item that the practical man might need; his shop was a monument to all the manual work that even now was done in rural Anatolia. Every corner, half-lit and dusty, brimmed with those brunt-bearing objects– axe handles, mattock heads, scythe blades – that interminable usage was apt to blunt or break. There were also whetstones, washers, lengths of plastic piping, buckets of nails, screws and bolts, reels of rope and chain, jubilee clips, bridles and heavy duty sheepdog collars, their blades ferociously skewed to keep the wolves off. Wolves being something, it now struck me, that I hadn’t planned for.
The closest things to trowels, however, were the spade heads. They were royal green, with tapered blades, and so like the shape of medieval shields as to put me in mind of heraldic devices. For a moment I expected to spot adjacent piles of escutcheons, chevrons and bends sinister, as if some alternative history had turned out an altogether more prosperous land; one in which Dinar’s ironmonger instead ran a profitable sideline in knocking up kitsch coats of arms to order, no doubt to adorn the entrance gates that fronted the extensive spreads of the town’s proliferating nouveau class, along with the same fakegrained plastic plaques bearing the carved swirls of manorial addresses standard in the affluent West. It was a fragile fancy, however, which lasted no longer than the time it took to glance through the shop door to the make-do concrete structures that in fact lined Dinar’s gridded streets, the bare block walls with their hanging tongues of hardened cement, and the plots strewn with spoil. I thought of the wider town, with its shattered pavements and the tile-strewn roofscapes of rusting air-conditioning units beneath skeins of sooty cables and wires, and the scruffy villages that lay beyond Dinar, all crumbling walls of baked mud, and I had no more thoughts of entrance gates, heraldry or of prosperity in the Anatolian backcountry.
‘Like them.’ I pointed at the spade heads. ‘Only smaller. With a handle.’ The ironmonger folded his arms. He threw his head back and batted languid eyelids, which eventually reopened to reveal an elsewhere gaze, all interest drained, almost to the point of insult. It was the graphic Turkish negative, but sufficiently aggravated to express something more spirited than a shortage of stock; that the ironmonger was not minded, in fact, to sell me a trowel. On principle. He took me for a treasure hunter.
I had not anticipated such an obstruction quite so early in my journey. I nevertheless supposed it could do the lone traveler no harm to be reminded that Turks resent some things about foreigners. Not least when it comes to digging. I might have pleaded my case (that it was not, after all, a bulldozer, or even a spade, that I was attempting to buy) but for the fact that foreigners in Turkey have the sort of digging form as to discredit even the most plausible excuse.
Anatolia has haemorrhaged treasures throughout its history, to conquering occupiers from both East and West. By the nineteenth century, however, such artefacts were not the spoils of victory but articles of purchase, albeit of questionable process, as the European powers set about filling the Grecian-style halls of their newly endowed museums.
From the 1700s collectors descended upon Turkey to haggle with ruin-weary Ottoman beys and provincial governors for all manner of dirt-caked antiquities. Crated marbles were carted to the decks of waiting brigs all along the ruin-strewn littorals of south-west Anatolia; the spades, crowbars and squealing pulley blocks sounded especially loud, however, across the ancient city sites thickly clustered around the delta of the Meander River. At Miletus, the great port that had once commanded the river’s mouth, the excavators found beneath the accumulated depth of silt such treasures as the monumental entrance gate that had once served the city’s south agora; the gate was removed to Berlin, along with columns, capitals, pedestals and inscriptions from the Temple to Athena at nearby Priene.
The temple friezes from Magnesia on the Meander, a city a few miles inland, were dispatched to Paris; and the statues that lined the Sacred Way between Miletus and the oracular temple at Didyma, the seated figures worn to an oddly modern amorphousness, went to London.
It is a national grievance that the museums of the West, to say nothing of its clandestine art collections, are often rich in finds purchased, purloined or plundered from Turkey. The soil of Anatolia even today conceals perhaps as many carved sarcophaguses, statues and inscriptions, coins, pottery and jewellery as anywhere else on earth. The Turkish state assumes that among the Western arrivals are those intent on persisting, only more covertly, in the ways of their filching forebears. The airports provide stern reminders that the unlicensed removal of antiquities from the country is punishable by a lengthy stay in prison.
It’s a message that clearly bears repetition, though it can often manifest more gently, as an appeal to the visitor’s moral and aesthetic conscience by reminding him, typically, how ‘Every flower is beautiful in its own garden. Every antique is beautiful in its own country.’
Excerpted from Meander by Jeremy Seal. Copyright © 2012. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury USA. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
About the Author
JEREMY SEAL was born in England in 1962. After leaving university in 1984 he wasted no time in acquiring the necessary qualifications to teach English before heading for Turkey, a country which he has since come to cherish. He has been writing journalism and books since 1993; his first book, A Fez of the Heart, told of journeying through Turkey in search of the colourful history of that country’s former national hat, and was published in the UK and US in 1995. He is also the author of The Snakebite Survivors’ Club (1996), which explored exotic ‘cultures’ such as the rattlesnake-handling Holiness churches of the Appalachians. Subsequent books including Treachery at Sharpnose Point (2001) and Nicholas: The Epic Journey from Saint to Santa Claus (2004) took him, in part, back to Turkey. His latest book, Meander, tells of the journey Jeremy made, by kayak and elsewhere on foot, down the original winding river – in Turkey.
Jeremy has written for numerous newspapers and magazines including the Sunday Telegraph, Sunday Times, Conde Nast Traveller, the Weekend Australian, and the New York Times. He lives in Bath with his wife and daughters.