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Village Voices: Cornucopia 51

Azize Ethem emerges from a wintry sea of mud to excitement over new archaeological finds – a Roman basilica and a mosaic floor – and local-election candidates wooing voters with lemonade and cakes. A trip to Iznik market, meanwhile, turns up those deliciously sweet little Turkish bananas

Ditches and archaeology have been the order of the day this winter. Iznik hasn’t had a sewerage system since the days of the Roman Empire. Septic tanks have been the norm, so when the mayor announced last autumn that the town was to get a sewerage system serving every house, few were impressed. I don’t think any of us had the wit to foresee the total chaos we would be subjected to. Every street and back lane was dug up. The mud was indescribable. Elderly people loath to attempt ditch- jumping had to cross bridges made of wobbly boards, and sales of wellington boots must have gone sky high.

Local treasure-hunters were out in all weathers, monitoring the conduits as they were dug. Ditch-watching is a serious business in a town where rich pickings can lie only a few feet under the surface. Years ago Menekşe’s uncle came to visit Selim to ask if the large yellow lump of metal in his hand was gold. Having spied something glinting as a backhoe dug a trench, he had slipped back after dark to retrieve it. It was gold. Four hundred and seventy-five grams of the finest gold, melted down and hidden sometime in the distant past. It was just the thing a day labourer with eight children needed to change the course of his family’s life. What riches were discovered by the treasure-hunters this time I have no idea, but am sure there are Iznikians with a new spring in their step.

With machines tearing up the roads, it goes without saying that there will be archaeological finds of varying significance necessitating the rerouting of the trench. A Roman road was revealed – which is hardly surprising – but the discovery of a mosaic palace floor was a major discovery. Füsun Hanım, a local retired archaeologist, tells me that a mosaic face one metre in diameter was uncovered. The find was deemed so important that it was immediately covered over.

Unrelated to the roadworks was the unearthing of an impressively large tumulus at the Iznik necropolis on the road to Elbeyli. And early this year it was announced that a large Roman basilica had been revealed in the lake, 20 meters from the shore, close to the marina. It had first been picked up by an aerial photography team. The great excitement brought out museum officials, Culture and Tourism Ministry bigwigs, archaeologists and a professional diving team. Researchers now tell us it is nearly 1,600 years old, built in the 4th and 5th centuries to a plan similar to Iznik’s Haghia Sophia Church. It is the Church of St Neophytos, who at 16, in the year 303, was tortured and killed by Roman soldiers. The church, built where he was martyred, was a place of early Christian pilgrimage until it was destroyed in an earthquake 400 years later.

Of course, all this could have been discovered decades ago if the experts in their ivory towers would lower themselves to spend a few hours talking to the locals. For generations local children have not swum in that area because it was said to be the site of Christian graves. And graves have indeed been found. So full marks to local folklore, none to the authorities.

Along with mud and ancient artefacts we have had local elections. Iznik had eight candidates, so the bunting and vehicles blaring music and slogans reached new heights. Several gentlemen took me aside to explain that Selim always voted for their party and so they were sure I would do the same. I know Selim was special but I am pretty sure he didn’t have four votes. One candidate had a team handing out cakes and lemonade, while another wooed us with ballpoint pens. Is accepting a biro tantamount to accepting a bribe, I wonder?

Our old mayor, who was admired for never doing anything to upset the status quo, had blotted his copybook with the winter sea of mud. The contender who runs a really ship-shape town nearby didn’t have a hope; living eight kilometres from Iznik made him a foreign usurper. And three others had really insignificant little election vehicles roaming the streets, so that ruled them out. The defeated candidates are now insinuating the victor handed out cash for votes. There is no such thing as a good loser in Iznik politics.

I am just home from an excursion to the Iznik market. The 24-kilometre drive along the lakeshore is a relaxing trip, apart from the road through Boyalıca, where stray dogs and the elderly seem oblivious of oncoming vehicles. Turning into the main street of Iznik I encountered a traffic jam with half a dozen vehicles in front of me slowed to a crawl. At the head of the procession were two ancient gentlemen (probably from Boyalıca) with walking sticks, ambling along in the middle of the road. No horns were sounded as the drivers waited for them to reach their destination. It is little events like this that I can’t imagine happening anywhere but in a Turkish country town.

First I had lunch with friends who were in town, and then it was off to the fruit and vegetable market where each of us has our own favourite stalls. Although it is a huge market, with over a hundred stalls, I always have to search for Turkish bananas. Small and sweet, they have far more taste than the big unblemished imported ones, and the aroma of strawberries was everywhere. In London, when I shop for my daughter, Sara, the fruit is packed, wrapped and anonymous. Here I can find mini-mountains labelled tarla (field), meaning the fruit is grown in a field and not in one of those plastic tunnel things.

With the groceries crossed off the list I set off back home. Here, on the edge of the lake, I found Mehmet’s wife and four of her friends chatting as they weeded between the rows of flowering bean plants. The village women have a labour-sharing system. Mehmet’s family will owe each of these women a day’s work, with no money changing hands. Mehmet, meanwhile, is wading in the lake, checking his fish traps. He would die of shame if he realised I have a clear view of him splashing around in his underpants.

Fatih is mowing the lawn in a herringbone pattern, which he considers most attractive. I think it looks a bit odd, but who am I to voice an opinion? My one-day-a-week gardener brooks no criticism, but he is so reliable and honest that I can live with his eccentricities.

Tomorrow they will all have moved on to chores elsewhere and I will once again be alone with the frog chorus and birdsong.

Azize Ethem is the author of ‘Beyond the Orchard’ (Çitlembik), available from at £9.99

Other Highlights from Cornucopia 51
  • Modern Nomads

    With its hundreds of different shapes, pasta is today one of the most widely consumed and enjoyed of all the staples

  • The European City

    Across the Golden Horn from the Topkapı and the bazaars is the European City, where fortunes have for centuries been made and lost.

  • Centre of excellencies

    Patricia Daunt extols the palatial embassiess that adorn the heights of old Pera. Photographs by Brian McKee

  • The Sultan’s New City

    As the old European quarters flourished in their seclusion, Sultan Abdülmecid had a dream – and expanded to the east

  • Steppe Brothers

    The Sakip Sabanci Museum has just celebrated 600 years of diplomatic relations between Poland and Turkey. Jason Goodwin finds deep-rooted affinities between the two countries

  • ...and the prize goes to…

    John Carswell introduces the mesmerising entries in this year’s Ancient and Modern Prize for original research

  • Nights at the Opera

    With 19th-century Istanbul in thrall to the music of Italy, an extraordinary theatre was born, the creation of one rather ‘odd character’. Emre Aracı tells a tale of comedy and tragedy

  • Beyoğlu in the Jazz Age: Dancing Until Daybreak

    Black musicians, White Russian princesses, Turkish flappers… During the Jazz Age, Beyoğlu was a ferment of modernity and decadence. By Thomas Roueché

  • Setting the Scene: The Tower and the Glory

    For 700 years, the European quarter was home to Genoese, Jews, Greeks and many others. Norman Stone charts the district’s changing fortunes

  • Setting the Scene: Spirits of Beyoğlu

    Maureen Freely recalls the artists and writers who enlivened her childhood with their flamboyant bravado and unspoken sadness

  • The Sultan’s New City: A Fragrant Contradiction

    In the very thick of the city, with its fret and fuss, belching traffic and urban sprawl, lies a glade scented with linden blossoms. Here the young Sultan Abdülmecid built a jewel of a palace, grand but tiny, which is still a green oasis and place of escape. By Berrin Torolsan

  • Setting the Scene: Strangers in a Strange Land

    Until the 20th century, visitors would sail serenely into Istanbul to disembark opposite the Topkapi. After this spectacular start, reality would set in. By David Barchard

  • Blooming Marvels

    For more than two centuries the Ottomans were obsessed by the elegance of the tulip and grew over 3,000 varieties, each characterised by almond-shaped petals drawn out into an exaggerated taper.

Buy the issue
Issue 51, Summer 2014 Istanbul Unwrapped: The European City and the Sultan’s New City
£50.00 / $63.80 / 2,065.64 TL
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