I have just wound up this year’s Turkey: Lure of the East tour and everything went well. Five years ago we were one of the first tour groups to set eyes on Gobekli Tepe. This is an amazing series of religious sanctuaries that date back to 9000BC, long before it was thought organised religion even existed, when we have the first tentative signs of settled communities. This visit there were other tour buses there as well as ours, so its international reputation is growing.
On a less promising note, we were able to see signs of the creeping Islamisation of government and government policy. Turks who grew up under the new Attaturk Republic, especially professional women, are appalled at the way attitudes to Education and social issues are changing in negative ways. The country is being sold off, and the government is turning away from the West with press and internet censorship.
One example that we witnessed as a group was in Trabzon, where one of the sites we visited was the Aghia Sophia Church. It was an early Christian centre which was naturally turned into a mosque when the Ottomans took over their Byzantine Empire. After being out of religious use for many years, it was made into a Museum in the 60s and thus open to visitors in its cleaned up state. This is the way I saw it in 2009 and 2011. This time it has been turned back into a working mosque, with most of the interior curtained off for worshippers, so that tourists can only glimpse a small section of the interior frescoes, and the porticos outside. With so many more mosques available, it can’t be seen as anything other than a show of power. What is worse, there are rumours that they are planning to do the same to the great domed church of the same name in Istanbul!
Nevertheless, Turkey remains an intriguing country, both for its extraordinary natural beauty, and its layers of cultural complexity. Next year in May, we’ll be running our Western Turkey tour (Turkey: Cultural Crossroads) and then in 2016 it will be possible to do both east and west Turkey, individually or serially.