Points of Origin

A point of origin, a point of departure. A moment, an incident, a battle, a place that is given a special national importance. A religious or mythological site. I think of a number in Britain: the White Cliffs of Dover, Hastings, the Tower of London, Stratford-on-Avon, Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing Street.

And here in Turkey there are so many. In a previous post, Gallipoli, in December, I mentioned the strategic importance of the Dardenelles, and the failure of the Allies to take them in the Fırst World War through their own blunders and the leadership of Atatürk, then Mustafa Kemal, of the Turkish forces, then allied with the Germans. One wonders what would have happened if the Allies had succeeded. Kemal’s career would not have taken off, and surely he would not have had the authority to unite Turkey and get rid of the occupying forces after the First World War and, especially, defeat the Greeks, who held a part of Western Turkey from 1919 to 1922. 

Leander swam the Dardenelles, or the Hellespont, as it was known, to meet Hero but finally drowned, and Byron swam the straits to show off and prove that it was really possible to swim the distance of less than a mile, thought impossible in 1807!

In the December blog I recounted the legend of the Golden Fleece and the origin of the name of the Hellespont: Athamas, king of the city of Orchomenus in Boeotia in southeastern Greece, took as his first wife the cloud goddess Nephele, by whom he had two children, the boy Phrixus and the girl Helle. Later he fell in love with and married Ino, the daughter of Cadmus. Ino was jealous of her stepchildren and plotted their deaths.  Nephele, or her spirit, appeared to the children with a winged ram with a fleece of gold. On the ram the children escaped over the sea, but Helle fell off and drowned in the strait now called after her — the Hellespont. The ram took Phrixus safely on to Colchis, on the eastern shore of the Black Sea. Phrixus then sacrificed the ram and hung its fleece on an oak tree in a grove sacred to Ares, where it was guarded by a dragon. There it remained until taken by Jason. The ram became the constellation Aries. And the fleece is the Golden Fleece.

Then Troy is very near Gallipoli. Disappointing to many who look for the romantic and grandiose as the fortified town has no grand sights, no amphitheatre, and the walls of the ruins are no more than a foot or two high.

In the Far East of Turkey, it is believed that Noah’s Ark came to rest on Mount Ararat. There have indeed been several sightings of the Ark high up on the mountain…

In Tarsus, on the southern coast, I passed Cleopatra’s Gate, previously rather unkindly called “The Bitch’s Gate”. In 41 BC, Mark Antony, as ruler of the Eastern part of the Roman Empire, which included present-day southern Turkey, sought the military support of the Queen of Egypt and summoned her to meet him in Tarsus.

As she made the final leg of her journey up the river Cydnus she travelled in a magnificent barge filled with flowers and scented with exotic perfumes while she reclined on deck surrounded by her servants and trappings of gold. According to Plutarch [Antony was] “…carried away by her to Alexandria, there to keep holiday, like a boy, in play and diversion, squandering and fooling away in enjoyment that most costly of all valuables, time.”

Some 40 years later St. Paul was born in Tarsus. A well marks the spot, and nearby you can see the ruins of the house which may or may not have been his. I shelter from the scorching sun in the St. Paul Cafe, and it seems St. Paul is being used to attract tourists to the old part of town, now being refurbished.

Often the point of origin is disappointing. Near Antioch, or Antakya in Turkish, near the border with Syria, I visit Harbiye, the ancient Daphne, where the virgin Daphne prayed to be rescued from the attention of Apollo and was turned into a laurel branch. It is now a popular tourist attraction with stalls selling tacky goods, and restaurants where you can eat fish while your feet are cooled by the channelled mountain streams rushing down to the waterfall.

St Peter’s Church, chiselled into the mountain just outside Antakya, is no disappointment. It was one of the earliest places where the still persecuted Christians in the Roman Empire worshipped, and tunnels provided an escape route. The Acts of the Apostles (11:26) tells us St Barnabas fetched St Paul from Tarsus, and in Antioch: “For a whole year they met with the Church and taught a large number of people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians”. Antioch at that time was one of the great cities of the Roman Empire, with some half a million inhabitants until it was destroyed by an earthquake in 526 AD, and half the population was killed.

When living in Istanbul, every day I looked over the Rumeli Hısarı, the castle from which Mehmet II, the Conqueror, prepared his siege of Constantinople, which he finally took from the Byzantine forces on May 29th 1453, a day which is still lamented by many in the West. And just after I arrived in Istanbul two weeks ago I walked along the walls of the old city and saw the area, now a main road, where they were first breached, and where the Golden Apple was finally taken.

St. Peter’s Church 


5 Responses to “Points of Origin”

  1. Marco de Pinto Says:

    Realmente, John, a Turquia é um paraíso para os amantes da história, como você e eu e, creio eu, muitos leitores deste blog. Em duas palavras, não seria exagero nenhum dizer que a Turquia é “medeniyetler beşiği”, ou o berço das civilizações.

  2. leda tenorio da motta Says:

    Dizer que foi aí aquela guerra de Tróia!!
    Bj. Leda.

  3. Petia Botovchenko Says:

    Fascinating, John. You turn a sightseeing trip in the lands where Western civilization was born into a fascinating journey through ancient history! A true traveller in the age of brainless tourists.


  4. jill levine Says:

    John–fascinating historical tour–wish I was there following your footsteps–I agree–you’re a true traveler in these brainless times!

  5. Nina Says:

    Just one word this time: fascinating.
    Now I have to go there!

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