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Francis Russell’s Places in Turkey: A Pocket Grand Tour straddles several distinct literary genres. In part it is a practical guidebook; in part it is travel literature somewhat reminiscent of Freya Stark’s series of books on Turkey from the 1950s, and in other parts again it is a work of impressive scholarship that ranks with Bean or Akurgal. These are difficult genres to combine, but in this case it definitely works. Francis Russell has produced a book that will undoubtedly enhance any off-the beaten-track tour in Turkey and can also be read with great pleasure at home.
From his amusing introduction we learn a good deal about the author, that he was well into his 30s when he first visited Turkey in the spring of 1987, arriving from London in a “much-loved white BMW” on a sabbatical from his work at Christie’s. This was a surprisingly late first visit, but it soon becomes obvious that in the past 23 years he has more than made up for a slow start. We also learn that he has refreshingly strong prejudices about what he likes in an ancient site: “I am more interested in extant buildings than foundations,” he writes. “I prefer unexcavated sites to those where the hand of the archaeologist is obviously evident. And I love most those whose settings are unimpaired.”
Russell starts with a superbly compressed historical introduction to Istanbul, followed by a hectic but brilliant scamper around the great sites, taking in Ayasofya, the Byzantine churches, the imperial mosques, Topkapı and the Theodosian walls, all in 15 brilliant pages. But he admits that a “sensible itinerary demands time – at least a week – and calls for a good deal of walking… Istanbul is not a city that can be taken by storm. It yields its secrets slowly, and those who have the patience to unravel the impacted strata will find the process deeply rewarding”.
From Istanbul he moves on to some 80 other places in Turkey, organised into an approximately clockwise tour that proceeds from Bursa to Ankara, moves on to the Georgian and Iranian borders, heads south via Van to Urfa and Harran, then westwards along the Mediterranean coast, with excursions northwards into Anatolia, on into Lycia, Caria, and then up the Aegean shore. There appears to be no expectation of the reader attempting the whole circuit in one go.
The places described vary from the very well known to the seriously obscure – such as Çengeli on the Armenian border (featured in Cornucopia 42), Takmar Kalesi in Cilicia, and Istlada and Hoyran in Lycia. It is an idiosyncratic, wide-ranging selection that includes ancient cities, Armenian churches, Seljuk hans, Cappadocian churches, Rhodian fortresses and much more. Russell is remarkably – indeed astonishingly –knowledgeable about the architecture, history and literature of all these diverse places. The enormous breadth of his scholarship and familiarity with places he has visited – in some cases several times – become more and more apparent as you progress through the book.
Most entries include delightful nuggets of personal colour. The reader is with the author as he slams on the brakes to avoid a “fearless tortoise” on the road to Nemrut Dag, and in the theatre at Termessus where he has once read a Canto of Don Juan (“only a masterpiece of that order can hold the attention there”) or fighting his way through the wild cistus as he walks the periphery wall at Heraclea. Frequently he visits sites at dawn or dusk, or in the snow and ice. He seems always to have visited those places within ancient sites that less energetic people do not quite manage to reach – the upper acropolis at Pinara or Cnidus, for instance. Frequently there is a fine turn of phrase – the subterranean churches of Cappadocia are “eloquent of the fear in which the early Christian communities of Cappadocia lived”. There is also humour: somewhere in Lycia “guard dogs, happily chained, make it clear that they do not share their owners’ unfailing sense of hospitality”. And he is not afraid to express opinion – describing the stage building at Sagalossus where among the “prodigious tumble of blocks… the original positions of many can be worked out with absolute precision. One can only hope that they will not be coaxed back into place”. At Termessus “untidiness is now one of its attractions”.
Only occasionally does Russell criticise the omnipresent ugly modern buildings of contemporary Turkey, as in Kars where “development threatens, sooner rather than later, to overwhelm the measured rhythm of the Russian garrison town”. But, as he says in his introduction, “Without the prosperity such development represents, travelling in Turkey would be far less easy than it is. Places until quite recently almost impossible to reach are now readily accessible by road.”
The book is illustrated with fine photographs taken by the author. However, there is a total absence of maps. Endpapers, or a fold-out map marking the places described, would have been a useful addition. The assumption has clearly been made that any tourist carrying the Pocket Grand Tour will be also be carrying a conventional guide book, such as the excellent Rough Guide to Turkey, which has very good maps.
Francis Russell has been travelling in Turkey for more than twenty years, and with the eighty three recommendations here he provides a fascinating and comprehensive itinerary. More interested in extant buildings than excavations, and favouring unexcavated sites over those where ‘the hand of the archaeologist is officiously evident’, from the lost classical world of the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine sites, and the Armenian and Georgian churches which are offshoots of the same growth, to the great monuments of the Seljuk and Ottoman civilizations, from the much visited southern coast to the heartlands of Anatolia, Russell’s deep understanding of the history and culture of the region, and his keen eye for detail, make him the most delightfully erudite of travelling companions.
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Spirited impressions of Ottoman Istanbul in the 16th century from a mischievous Danish artist and an acerbic Flemish envoy.
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