123 Places in Turkey: A Private Grand Tour by Francis Russell
published by Wilmington Square Books, an imprint of Bitter Lemon Press
ISBN 978-1-908524-874, price £16.99
Published in Cornucopia, issue 57, 2018
Guidebooks occupy the very lowest shelf of literary existence. I am not even sure that they count as being 'written', for they are often compiled by an editorial team, working for publishers who have assumed the copyright. They are seldom reviewed for the very good reason that they are routinely over-written by the next generation of advertorial hacks, cutting and pasting together information from web searches and rival publications. Sometimes they even evolve into a malign influence, turning independent travellers into tourists on an established rat-run of routes or for-ever questing after untouched villages and authentic local restaurants to ruin by their presence. They have no second-hand value and though the frequently updated editions of Lonely Planet, Time Out, Bradt, Footprint and Rough Guides may be fondly kept as a record of past travels, they are all ultimately doomed to be pulped. I speak not with malice, but with experience, having written half a dozen guidebooks myself.
123 Places in Turkey is an exception. It is not so much a guidebook as a pocket book of inspiration which returns us to the animating purpose of travel: to journey, to look, to marvel and if it is memorable enough, to learn also. It’s written with passion by a man of exceptional physical and intellectual stamina, who has spent thirty years pursuing what is visually remarkable in the vast landscape of Turkey. Francis Russell's eyes have been well trained. His day job is at Christie's, which has given him a lifetime of experience in assessing how the combination of provenance, craftsmanship, patronage and rarity affect our assessment of an object's worth. He understands how each culture identifies itself through built structures (of equal importance with language and food) and how they also lean on the achievements of their rivals from the past.
So to travel in Turkey with Francis Russell is to embark on a modern Grand Tour. It is visually Grand but unlike its 18th-century exemplar is also rather Spartan, for there are no restaurant or hotel recommendations, no shopping hints or tips for good bars. We are entertained by the quest for aesthetic beauty and in the process we get to know the geological layers of human culture, how the rich tilth of Hellenistic, Roman, Armenian, Byzantine, Georgian, Seljuk and Ottoman look in their prime and how they influence each other. We are shown the purest historic architecture: ancient neglected temples, mountain-top castles, the melancholic ruins of medieval churches, the shattered hulks of ancient bridges as well as the rich and still working heritage of mosques, medresa and han. Russell confesses to be 'more interested in buildings than foundations”' and to 'unexcavated sites to those where the hand of the archaeologist is officiously evident.' So on this Grand Tour we are not going to be taken to see the reconstructed walls of Troy and Catalhüyük or the somber evidence of the Hittite period etched unto their unlovely taste for dark basalt stone.
He earns your respect by his eye for the telling detail, his love of nature, for taking the hard path, for chatting-up local shepherds, for giving hitch-hikers lifts (even farmers bearing ploughs) and for respecting the Kurdish, Armenian, Georgian and Greek elements which have all helped form the heritage of modern Turkey. He acquires the right to make an emphatic judgement through the breadth of his experience, through repeated visits to favourite sites and meticulous attention, so that one listens when he announces that the oracular temple at Didyma is the 'single most beautiful classical monument in Asia Minor’ or when he compares the shelving used for scrolls in the Roman library at Nysa with that at Ephesus.
There are useful directions here for the right approach track once you are within a day's walk of your destination, but most mortals will need an additional guidebook, map and maybe even a local guide. You will also require a stick, thick trousers and tough boots if you aspire to follow in his footsteps, let alone join him in enjoying the view from the acropolis. Do not be led astray by the sub-title into thinking you can pack all this into a single Grand Tour. I have been exploring Turkey for thirty years (with what my family regards as an obsessional interest in ruins) and have only made it to about a quarter of the 123 Places in Turkey. Though small, the book has been beautifully made by the publishers, with sewn sections, clear typeface, blue silk ribbon and a sprinkling of photographs that adorn - yet do not suffocate - the text.
When the first edition came out, I tested it on a trip that took me in Russell's footsteps to the melancholic ruins of a line of imposing Roman warehouses by the old docks of Andriake, to stand, strangely moved beside the 'waterlogged' site of the sanctuary of Letoun (still haunted by frogs), to be bewitched before the monumental rustic simplicity of the Carian temple at Gerga, to pace the walls of the Rhodian fortress that still commands the near perfect natural harbour of Loryma and to follow the line of the Hellenistic walls that sprout from the granite tors that encircle Heracleia – where the goddess of the Moon fell in love with the sleeping Endymion.
This new, expanded edition arrived too late for my recent trip, but reading it it gave me the chance to double check my own experiences in south-eastern Turkey. His advice to walk around the rock-hewn moat of the citadel at Urfa was spot on, as was his appreciation of how an 18th century architect had consciously doubled the glory of th mosque, by playing with the reflecting waters of Abraham's Pool. Nor could I disagree with his description of the temple of the Moon God Min at Sumatar 'as unquestionably one of the most atmospheric religious sites in Turkey.' But was appalled to find that despite walking in the company of two of Britains leading Turkophiles (Jason Goodwin and Jeremy Seal), we had missed out on a 13th-century caravanserai, a Roman village and the quarry from which the walls of Harran were carved.
A lesson has been learned. I will not travel in Turkey again without Russell: idiosyncratic and trustworthy, impeccably researched on the ground and in the library; fit to stand as a prologue to the four volumes of T.A.Sinclair's survey of Eastern Turkey and George Bean's four volumes on the classical sites of Western Turkey.
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by Barnaby Rogerson