Cry Me a River

Meander by Jeremy Seal
South From Ephesus by Brian Sewell

The Meander, surely the most seductively named river in the world, is not particularly long or large. In fact you can probably drive from its source near Dinar (some 100 kilometres east of Denizli in western Anatolia) to its mouth near Didyma in less than four hours. But the river is famously bendy, and runs through a landscape that has been fertile and prosperous for as long as history is recorded. So it is easy to see why Jeremy Seal had the idea to meander down the Meander in an ingenious collapsible canoe (a Packboat Puffin, for canoe cognoscenti).

This is one of those travel projects that appear delightful in principle. But the canoeing aspect of the journey is a disaster almost from the start. Even near its source Jeremy Seal finds the river cluttered by rubbish and choked with fallen willows. Early in his journey downstream he encounters the first dam, beyond which the Meander is unnavigable, even for a canoe, and remarkably short of pastoral allure. “The river was almost empty. Glazed patches of its bed, humped slicks of mud, had broken surface. No birds, for all their abundance on the adjacent lake, frequented the half-lit mire. The only living things were midges.” The canoe is hauled up the bank and he proceeds by dolmufl to a point further downstream where canoeing is again an option.

As he descends, and agriculture becomes more intense, the state of the river becomes steadily worse. In fact the state of the river becomes the central fascination of the book. There are fewer and fewer birds or turtles. River fish, seen in a restaurant, look greenish-yellow and diseased. The water becomes malodorous and polluted; even its mud looks toxic. Below Çal “a familiar gloom settled on the river, a drowned cow… floated upright among the willow brakes”. Below Çetin “…the river loped like a bowel, carrying its foul load, and me, to evacuation… It was time to get off this river… before it finally died and I risked doing the same.”

The sad truth is that the Meander, like the Tigris, the Yangtze or countless other rivers in parts of the world that have seen rapid industrialisation, has been mercilessly barraged, siphoned off for irrigation, and filled with effluent and pesticides to the point that it hardly resembles a river. In its sorry state we see a negative side to Turkey’s economic achievement of the last 50 years. Growth has come at a high price to the environment.

Jeremy Seal has disarming honesty as a travel writer. He does not try to make things seem more beautiful or glamorous than they are, and Meander is all the better for this. He is likeable, modest, self-deprecating, well informed and humorous – all good qualities for a travel writer.

I found myself laughing at descriptions of terrible maps that seem deliberately drawn to confuse rather than guide, and of people he encounters along the way. There is much in this book that will be familiar to anyone who has travelled in inland Turkey, in particular the contrast between great kindness and hospitality frequently encountered (in the upper part of the river he is almost never allowed to pay for food or lodging) and a remarkable lack of comfort or man-made beauty.

His conversations with the various people he meets on his journey – a lawyer, a hotelier, a farmer and others – are not always very exciting, but you feel they are real and from them we learn much about modern Turkey and its priorities. Mostly these people are astonished that he wants to make the journey at all. They tend to be less interested than he hopes in their own recent history. You feel that he would like to engage them in discussions of the Greek War, the Exchange of Populations, the arrival of industrialised agriculture and other topics of interest to the curious tourist, but they are strangely unwilling to do this. They are keener to watch Valley of the Wolves, a Turkish TV gangster drama showing in every café.

This is a pity, because when Jeremy Seal turns to recent history he writes about it very well. There is a fascinating account of events around Aydin in 1919. Perhaps less successful are the chunks of classical history that regularly parachute into the text.

Brian Sewell’s South from Ephesus is published unaltered from the original edition in 1988. In style this is at the opposite pole from Jeremy Seal – no one would describe Brian Sewell as modest or self-deprecating. It combines intense personal idiosyncrasy with formidable scholarship – a highly unusual combination that is undoubtedly compelling. The book is a tour of the archaeological sites of southwest Turkey, an amalgamation of different visits made between the mid-1970s and the mid-1980s. There is a very gloomy new author’s preface written “with profound melancholy”. “The book… was written by a much younger man, vigorous, curious and optimistic, physically strong and almost fearless, whom I can barely remember.”

The preface finishes on an even sadder note: “I mourn for Turkey too… [the book] records a coastal Turkey that no longer exists, lost to every manifestation of mass tourism, the most obliterating layer of the palimpsest.”

This is an exaggeration. Tourism has destroyed a great deal since the mid-1980s. Bodrum, Marmaris and Fethiye are no longer villages but sprawling towns. Very few sites are now unvisited, covered in scrub and only reached by long, bumpy journeys down kilometres of dirt track.

Those days are gone. But prosperity and mass tourism have brought some benefits, and this is particularly true of archaeological sites. At Old Cnidus Brian Sewell finds “one of those cities so derelict that it requires a prodigious effort to see it as a working city”. But over the last 25 years, careful re-erection of columns and excavation of the stoa and Sacred Way by archaeological teams from the University of Konya and the British Museum have hugely improved the site. Great things have been done at Aphrodisias and others cities. As with the Meander, there is some cause for cheer amid the gloom.

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