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Riders of the Lost Paths: Seven Days in the Saddle

The photographer Mark Cator shares his vivid diary and images of a ride across ancient Phrygia

The first night was colder than expected – a lot colder, a lot wetter. And the wind blew, carrying the sparks around Serdar’s cooking like a swarm of crazed fireflies. Then there was the lightning and the thunder, and the horses being taken down the road to the safety of the village, disappearing behind a screen of rain, and Serdar seen in silhouette through a horizontal downpour, like a mad alchemist, preventing the chicken from flying the pan, and the rain pinging off the dinner plates, and the tarpaulin winging up into the night sky; and all of us ending up in the shower cubicle attached to the back of the truck, having cocktails and egging each other on to make that final dash to the tents and sleep. The horses were safely tucked up in a stable, and the mountain was throwing down all it had. It was to be a wild night.

It had all begun with a phone call. Ercihan Diları had rung earlier in the year. He was planning a ride from the region around Konya, he had said, along parts of the St Paul’s Way, the Evliya Çelebi Way, the Phrygian Way and on to Kütahya. Were my wife Isabel and I interested? I hadn’t been sure where any of this was on a map, and had never met Ercihan, but had said yes, then forgotten about it.

Now, several months later, it was morning in the village of Yarıkkaya, and I was drying out in front of a roaring campfire, the previous night’s rain evaporating in glorious sunshine, the air filled with the delicious scents of woodsmoke and damp tack, while the horses breakfasted, heads down in their yellow feed buckets, and Ercihan and his crew laughed off the effects of the storm as if this were a nightly occurrence.

I’d heard about Ercihan from other riders, and his reputation was well founded. He’s a horseman with a wanderer’s spirit and an eclectic understanding of life. He was passionate about his horses, and within the next couple of hours we’d be riding them up over the mountain pass, along the St Paul’s Way, making tracks for the village of Çay, at the foot of the northern slopes of this small mountain range.

We’d arrived in Konya two days earlier and headed off to see the tomb of Mevlânâ Celâleddîn-i Rumi, our visit feeling like an unseemly dash, in contrast to the mystic poet’s deeply contemplative verses, and we were soon on the road for an overnight stay in Akşehir, before joining the horses the next day in the hamlet of Hisarardı, close to Yalvaç (which means “prophet” in archaic Turkish – possibly a reference to St Paul).

Day one: The kindness of strangers

From Hisarardı we’d ridden past the ruins of Antioch in Pisidia, and out along the track to the impressive remains of a Roman aqueduct built to carry water from springs in the Sultan Mountains to the city’s fountains at a flow of around 3,000 cubic metres each day. Sadly, we had been too early to gain access to the ruins of Antioch itself, but then, with its long history, from the Seleucid Dynasty (330–280 BC) and Roman colonisation to the Byzantines and Ottomans and through to modern-day Turkey, there would never have been enough time. Named after Antiochus, the father of Seleucus I Nicator, this was where Paul the Apostle preached his first sermon after his Damascene conversion.

Day two: In the footsteps of St Paul

As we climbed higher from the village of Yarıkkaya, we passed through a vast, barren, biblical landscape of hills and high plains, where shepherds watched over grazing sheep as the fertile valley dwindled behind us. At the top we hunkered down and lunched on sausage cooked over a fire scrabbled together out of dead grass, before heading down the thinly forested northern slopes towards the open plain of Çay below.

On the descent we met a farming family who welcomed us in for tea. After much banter we were sent on our way with a bulging bag of apples freshly picked by the daughter, as cheerful as she was beautiful, with a smile to break hearts, and though her hand had been asked for in marriage, her father was clearly unwilling to let her go.

Further down we passed a quarry, complete with grinding lorries, stone-crushing and men in hard hats directing operations – in preparation, we would learn, for the building of a new dam. The horses seemed less spooked by the thunderous activity than they were bemused by our navigation, as for the next two hours we rode into, then out of, then around Çay, before following a man on a moped into the dark and finally out onto a large area of common ground, where tent and table were already set up among the pylons, telegraph poles and other furniture of modern life. Occasionally a truck or car would pass nearby. From a cluster of houses came the odd sound of dogs barking under a perfect night sky. Only when I got home would I fully realise the vastness of this country, in space but even more so in time. The land we were riding through seemed a passive inheritor of a history so much larger than its physical geography. Yet the moment to be enjoyed was absolute, enriched by the generous hospitality of Ercihan and his crew. With the handing round of some rakı, and a fine dinner cooked by Serdar, all was good – and dry.

Day three: Lessons in Turkishness

By morning we were settling into a ritual, or the ritual was being settled around us, and as we emerged from our tents the surrounding air resounded with the morning call to prayer. At the communal standpipe an elderly couple had brought their rugs down to clean, and Serdar had spread out a white tablecloth for breakfast, on which were laid out eggs and olives, cheese, meats and coffee.

Here, then, was our own little caravan, making its way along others’ pathways. And, as the day ahead was to prove, navigating hills and valleys with this caravan was never going to be without its setbacks.

Our tent and baggage were transported in a uniquely customised old truck drawn by a tractor and driven by Mehmet, who looked, along with the truck itself, every bit an extra from a Mad Max movie. For those of us on horseback, the day promised a short ride, heading west over the valley floor to Çobanlar. As we set out, Ercihan began to explain to me that Turkish is not so much about being a people as it is an idea. And what was this idea? To be able to talk, to live and to laugh with anyone. To a traveller, too, these are essential qualities, honed by experience, by watching and listening and remaining sensitive to a universal sense of being.

We were leaving the St Paul Way and beginning to link up with the Phrygian Way. These were no signs on the road, just the lines of history, disputed memories, and the hidden markers of time itself. The landscape reminded me of the Fens back home in Norfolk, with drained land bordered by ditches, and straight roads overhung with hoary old willows.

The weather had grown steadily warmer – the warmth of a threatening storm, or at the very least some rain. On arriving at Çobanlar, Isabel, Sharron, Karin and Katie were hijacked by an excited group of ladies who, on hearing the approach of our horses, popped out of the communal bakery and beckoned to them to come in and watch their bread-making. The men were told to wait, and wait we did, in the heat of the day, in the quiet of the village, gazing at the huge nests of storks on top of the telegraph poles. The white stork is regularly hunted along its migration route, but here in Anatolia storks are regarded as guests and known locally as hacı leylek, or “pilgrim storks”. Every year some 6.5 million birds of many different species migrate between Europe, Asia and Africa, using two major flyways over Anatolia. In the surrounding fields and pastures, scores of swallows were busily feeding on insects, building up their reserves before their own journey south. The complexity of pathways across this land, made by both man and animal, seemed unending.

If the bread-making had been the preserve of the women, the bargaining for a goat was that of the men. Not that I had a clue as to what or where or how the haggling was being directed. Shepherds seemed to be flocking in, an impartial referee seemed to be missing, and the assembled sheep and goats were apparently indifferent to their fate. Then it stopped, as all agreed that the strong taste of goat would not be fully appreciated by us migratory beings. By now the sultry weather had finally turned to rain, so we all made for the spa town of Afyon and a Turkish bath. Here, once more, women and men were strictly kept apart.

Day four: Sheepish observations

We awoke to the sight of swallows pitching and diving and feeding voraciously. Out beyond where the goods train was shunting I spotted a couple of hoopoes and some cranes flying high. In camp, Gökhan and Ahmet were watering and feeding the horses, Serdar making breakfast, Mehmet attending to all things mechanical and any shoeing that might be necessary, while Ercihan and Erdinç were planning routes and rendezvous for the day ahead.

Out along the road shepherds were walking, or riding, the routes out they had taken in the night before, their flocks of sheep and goats loyally following on, or being cajoled into doing so. This timeless observation had me thinking of Ogier de Busbecq’s letters, recalling his experiences while travelling to the court of Süleyman the Magnificent. Busbecq was the Archduke Ferdinand’s envoy to Turkey from 1554 to 1562 and admired for presenting to Europe and his Habsburg masters a more-than-usually balanced impression of the Ottomans. I had read his letters before coming out, and was captivated by his spirited view.

On leaving the area of Çobanlar we rode along a broad ditch, took a shortcut – short enough to bring us back to where we had begun. We then had a magnificent canter, checked the maps and settled down for tea in a small café in the centre of a village, with our horses close by, before standing down for an early lunch in a landfill site that, strangely, didn’t seem far from where we had had breakfast. It had been one of those mornings and, from afar, we must have looked like road-weary gypsies banished to the edge of town.

The afternoon found us on a route out of the plain and into the hills. Ancient sarcophagi were routinely being used as water troughs, shepherds roamed, and as far as the eye could see there were vast areas of unbounded, cultivated land, with earth as red as the sky was blue. Having ridden past several hamlets and small plots of land planted with tomatoes and peppers, we crested our final hill and dropped down to the dam on Seyitler Lake near the village of Bahçecik. The location was idyllic, camp was set and, after a quick visit to Bahçecik for wood, a fire was burning. With a bitter wind blowing out of the east, at this high altitude it was to be another cold night.

Day five: Unhappy the bride

Morning arrived with a clear blue sky and a sharp chill in the air. I walked to the ridge overlooking the lake and fell in step with a shepherd moving his sheep with military precision across overgrazed hills, his long stick twitching like a bandmaster’s baton, and his soft commands of “Tschh, tschh,” audible over the breeze. Down below, the sun was up over the camp, a pink glow hung on the distant hills, duck and geese were rising off the lake, and the horses were being readied. I headed back down and after breakfast we rode out along the edge of the lake, watching black storks and flamingoes feed in the shallow waters while fathers and young sons enjoyed a day out fishing.

On leaving the lake, the landscape was, weirdly, given over to marble. There were quarries and factories, stone walls were patched with marble, there was marble embedded in the track, great slabs of it were used as fencing, or for fixing a hole in a house. Amid this marble world we realised we were lost, and in no time willing guides were pointing this way and that, and mothers appeared from nowhere to hoist their children onto our horses, paying us with apples for the rides.

After crossing a newly constructed, and thankfully not too busy, dual carriageway, we climbed steeply into the hills, had a run-in with a couple of loose stallions, cantered through meadows, ate our apples for lunch, rode through the village of Olukpınar and then a couple more miles to our camp near the village of Alanyurt. The tents had been set along the edge of meadow close to some stone walls and a stream, and the rest of our caravan had unpacked around a blazing campfire.

Since setting out on this journey we had been everywhere welcomed in Anatolia. Riding into villages at dusk, we had been assured of an enthusiastic welcome. Stopping by the roadside, we would be invited into people’s homes or offered gifts of bread or cakes. On the numerous occasions when we lost our way, we had been enthusiastically ushered back onto the right route, even if it did sometimes turn out to be the wrong route. On this night, no sooner had we unsaddled and washed than the chief from Olukpınar drove up in his car to invite us all to a wedding – in half an hour, no less, as the bride was about to arrive. A hasty return to the tents and we had exchanged our campfire attire for something a little more worthy of a celebration.

For those of us brought up in Church of England traditions, the night’s wedding celebrations were to be very different, albeit as ritualised, with feasting and dancing. Some of the village elders, appearing out of the gloom, fired off their pistols, while a mix of European club and Turkish music boomed from a makeshift trailer that housed the two DJs.

Our party were as shy and awkward as kids at a school dance, until the young boys dragged us into the melee. Meanwhile the women had been ushered over to another part of the square to dance with the bride and to attach money to her dress. I’m not sure that I saw the groom, and I wasn’t even sure which part of the celebration we had burst in on, but it seemed the entire village was present and having a wild and happy time – apart from the bride, who, trussed up in her beautiful if tight-fitting dress, appeared at times utterly miserable.

Day six: Over the hills to Ayazini

The weather had become a lot more settled, and before we had finished breakfast the village chief was back, once more insistent that we join the wedding party, this time on horseback. As we rode up the steep hill and entered the crowded square, the two DJs, who appeared not to have moved since the night before, blazed out an ear-shattering club song, as red scarves were tied to our horses’ bridles and small children were launched onto our saddles. If this was all a bit much for us, it was worse for the horses, and almost caused a stampede back down the hill.

An orderly exit was signalled by Ercihan, and we set off with much waving and promises of eternal friendship, as a gaggle of boys on bikes saw us to the outskirts of the village and up over the hills as far as their bikes would allow.

Within a few hours of leaving Olukpınar we were riding along hilltops and among Byzantine tombs now serving as storerooms for hay and housing for animals. Many had their original paintings and carvings, while others bore the black scorch marks from recent fires made by shepherds. The rest of the day was spent scrambling up hills and jogging down valleys, to arrive at dusk in Ayazini.

The villagers were just bringing their animals in from their grazing. Harvested crops were being gathered up from household courtyards after a day’s drying in the sun, while in backyards peas were podded by hand. Our camp had been pitched on the far side of the village, in a gully dotted with old cave dwellings and Byzantine tombs.

Day seven: Lunch with the lions

The rocky hillside rising above Ayazini is lined with tombs, with churches, with tombs converted into churches, and with houses built or carved into the soft stone. In the early morning children were making their way to school around the bustle of traders, farmers and shepherds heading out to the plains with their animals. We rode through the centre of the village, then up along a track that took us to the top of the escarpment and Avdalaz Castle. The castle itself resembles a large rock set within a cluster of the dramatic outcrops that dominate this high plain. It is a honeycomb of interlinked dwellings and stairways with a commanding view of the surrounding land, craggy and pockmarked as a sponge.

On leaving the castle we trailed the Phrygian Valley, by default the elusive Phrygian Way, and, since all “ways” have their own routes, so did ours. Since beginning this ride, local knowledge had been invaluable, even if that knowledge didn’t always seem to square with a given understanding of direction; so for a four-mile stretch we followed a tractor-driving farmer at full gallop.

This little escapade was much enjoyed by the horses but, as we sped past sunken churches and toppled stone sculptures from ancient civilisations, it was far from the quiet archaeological browsing we had intended.

Having decided that none of what we were speeding past was worth bothering about, the farmer finally came to a stop in a cloud of dust and suggested that right here was where we were to have lunch. Who could argue? “Here” was in the shadow of Aslankaya, the great Lion Stone, most impressive of the lion tombs in the heart of the Göynüş (Köhnüş) Valley, as the Phrygian Valley is more properly known.

In the afternoon we cantered through pine and oak scrub, across wide-open fields and along a high ridge before descending into Bayramlılar, a landscape of lunar mapping, fairy chimneys and sculpted sandstone formations that took on an animation of their own. The ancient cart track running through the pass at the top of the valley was deeply rutted by centuries of passing travellers, and subsequently fossilised into a rock-hard carapace.

Our campsite was at the bottom of the adjoining river valley and clearly on the main route of the shepherds bringing in their flocks for the night. It was also on the route of the local fire brigade, returning from practice, who called in with empty stomachs just as the “hot-coal chicken dinner” was being pulled from the ashes.

A riotous night ensued.

Goodbye team, farewell horses

It was the perfect morning for Isabel’s breakfast birthday party of eggy bread, cooked by Ercihan – bright sun, cool air, the tea urn all fired up and the horses at the ready. Today was to be our last ride, taking us out towards Döğer, along the southern shore of Lake Emre, then back along the north shore for lunch at camp. I was keen to get up close to a building visible on the horizon that was a solid square of architecture.

There was little information, only that it had possibly been used as a Byzantine church and then at some time by dervishes. Close by was a rock formation known as Kırkmerdiven Kayalıkları (Forty-Steps Rock). Ours was a gentle ride around this idyllic lake, followed by a quick lunch, a goodbye to a remarkable team (Erdinç, Mehmet, Serdar, Gökhan, Ahmet), a farewell to the horses and a fast drive to Kütahya with Ercihan and Karin Anduleit, his fellow organiser.

We arrived late in Kütahya and took a walk through the old town, with its overhanging houses, small ceramicists’ workshops and multiplicity of trades and stores. In the evening, celebrations continued with Isabel’s birthday dinner, crowned by chocolate cake spiked with a fizzing sparkler, and endless toasts of rakı to the passing of time, Turkey, Ercihan, horses and a sensational ride.

The following day we visited the excellent Archaeological Museum of Kütahya, with its wealth of Byzantine and Phrygian antiquities, including a sarcophagus from the ancient Roman city of Aizanoi decorated with an elaborate scene of a battle with Amazons. In the afternoon we drove out to the ruins of Aizanoi, about 25 kilometres southwest of Kütahya and close to Çavdarhisar. It was an extraordinary experience to walk freely and alone through this site, while to witness ancient history in the theatre of the real was quite bizarre.

Time and earthquakes have toppled much of the original structures, but the theatre and stadium, the Temple of Zeus, the necropolis and the macellum (indoor market), complete with the Price Edict of Diocletian at its centre, are there to be imagined in all their glory.

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