When we went to Turkey, we had dinner with a spice trader. Can you imagine a more evocative and exotic vocation?
Ahmed’s family has been selling exotic spices, dried fruits and nuts for almost 150 years. These days he employs 500 people in a string of shops stretching from Istanbul’s sixteenth century spice market to the Emirates, where they sprinkle the Turkish Delight with gold dust, to appeal to the particularly idle rich.
Ahmed belongs to Hizmit (service), the ecumenical Muslim Turkish centred movement, inspired by the charismatic Turkish scholar, Fetullah Gulen. In Australia, Hizmit members belonging to the Affinity Foundation, organize tours of Turkey, to promote understanding.
We joined the “Spirit of Anzac” tour held over two weeks in April and May this year. The package included airfare, accommodation and as it turned out, most meals.
As you might expect, a Spirit of Anzac tour included admission to the Dawn service at Anzac Cove, a wonderful place for insights on Turkish perspectives on the Gallipoli invasion. I was half expecting drunken Australian yobbos howling at the moon.
But instead there was the breathtaking moment when the dawn revealed the auditorium sat between the gently lapping bay and the little hills beyond.
But the tour was much more than celebrating old colonial battles.
For someone who had never been to Turkey before, there was the chance to taste and savour its unique history.
We began at Istanbul, the old capital of the Ottomans, the Byzantines and the eastern Roman Empire. We saw Hagia Sophia the colossal church, cum mosque cum museum built in the sixth century by the Emperor Justinian.
We drank coffee in the Grand Bazaar, whose closed and colonnaded streets run for kilometers in the city’s old quarter. We visited the Sultan’s Tokapi palace and walked through the tulip gardens where the Sultan’s elite Janissary guard once trained.
From Istanbul, our guide and driver took us through western Anatolia, the heartland of the Turks and Byzantines. Our coach had eight people aboard, our Hizmit guide and advisor, Omar, the driver, myself and my partner, and two MPs and their parties. The other bus, which we met at several points, included the Victorian coroner, retired judges and barristers, a human rights commissioner and business people.
You may be getting the picture, that this was no ordinary tour. Our fellow tourists were people of standing, intelligence and some curiosity. Our itinerary included some of the best sites of the ancient world.
The ruined citadel of Troy, where our local historian guide, quoted the Iliad as we sat in an excavated auditorium.
The hill fortress of Asos, where Aristotle once enjoyed the staggering views across the straits to Lesbos.
The ruined Roman city of Ephesus , where you can still walk the main street, where visiting kings and emperors did their holiday shopping.
The old Ottoman capital of Bursa, where we walked though cobbled lanes to the Sufi centre, where aspiring masters whirled to a local band and choir. Neighbors gave us steaming cups of Turkish tea, It was a profound experience.
What made this tour unique were the many opportunities to meet and talk with local people.
Most nights we dined at the home of local Hizmit members.
- Ali, an expansive business man with an impressive beard and girth, proudly showed us his wife’s exquisite calligraphy.
- We met an upwardly mobile couple of lawyers in their glass and marble tower apartment and talked of their children’s education opportunities.
- In her spotless suburban flat, a homesick young Australian woman wanted to hear the news from Melbourne.
- In his hilltop mansion spread with antique oriental carpets, Ahmed served us aromatic Turkish food; grilled savoury chicken, vine leaves stuffed with rice, juicy ripe tomatoes, shredded cabbage and carrots in an oriental mayonnaise and of course sliced dried fruits; strawberries, apple, lemons, oranges and pine apple, topped off with nuts clustered in dark chocolate. Over tannic Turkish tea and muddy coffee, we talked of Hizmit’s philosophy of seeking peace through dialogue and understanding and progress though education.
During the tour, we had the opportunity to visit the practical applications of Hizmit philosophy. In Turkey and beyond, Hizmit supporters run a network of primary and secondary schools, universities, hospitals, Aysia Bank and Turkey’s largest circulation newspaper.
Kimse Yok Mu ; A relief organisation with its headquarters in Istanbul which boasts of a 24/7 disaster alert room which monitors international media, and a basement fully stocked with everything from blankets, tents, four wheel drives and inflatable boats. Donations to KYM relief operations in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe could be made by mobile phone apps.
SIFA University ; An Izmir based medical facility, which trains doctors and nurses at its four state of the art research hospitals.
Fatih University ; a modern multi faculty international university on Istanbul’s outskirts
In conclusion, we learned so much in this intense and wide-ranging visit.
We were able to reflect on the achievements of antiquity, visit places I used to read about as a schoolboy, and marvel at the ancient artwork.
But we also saw modern Turkey, where sophisticated socially responsible organisations sought to bring the benefits of economic development to wider populations.
Finally, we met people tourists usually never see, sat in their homes with them and talked of the things that concerned them.
From that we learned, the most important knowledge, we are part of a common humanity. They were just like us.