The Journey of a Lifetime
For the last few decades I have developed an unhealthy obsession with The Aegean and Turkey - a land riddled with history, steeped in legend and lore. Every book I have written has been set in or around that region. I have been fortunate enough to enjoy a number of forays around the lands of Constantinople (Istanbul), Greece, southern Thrace (European Turkey and Bulgaria) and around Turkey's western and southern coastal regions. But apart from a few expeditions inland - to Pergamum, Ephesus and Pamukkale, I had never yet truly penetrated the rugged interior or north of Turkey.
Madness! Considering my Strategos trilogy was set up there in the borderlands between the Byzantine and Seljuk domains. Insanity! Given my new Hittite series, Empires of Bronze, was based up there too. And it's this current series that drove me to finally plan and execute this adventure - a trip that would take me from Istanbul, three millenia ago the western edge of the Hittite realm, to Georgia, on the eastern periphery of the ancient Hittite world.
So join me in my travels across this ancient land as I seek out remnants of the once-great and long lost civilization of the Hittites. Join me... on the Great Hittite Trail!
An interactive Google Map of my journey, across northern Turkey and into Georgia, passing through some key Hittite sites along the way ( with all the landmarks, train stations, hotels, restaurants etc pinned for reference.).
Istanbul, Byzantium, Constantinople... the City
Where else to begin the journey, but in the place known to countless millions simply as 'the city'? I've been to this ancient metropolis a number of times now. On every single occassion I have been struck dumb by the aura of the place. It's something sensory and spiritual at once: the balmy heat on the skin, the scent of spices and roasting meats, the storm of colours and spectrum of architecture, the crash of the waves on the sea walls and the other-wordly paean of the call to prayer that - every single time I hear it - sends shivers of awe up my spine as I think back through the many civilizations who have inhabited this hilly peninsula, the people who have walked here, who have lived and died here. Their lives, their stories.
It's always the Hippodrome region that gets me most of all - something about the open space and how it allows the hustle and bustle of the city to just glide over me like a gentle breeze. I could sit there for hours and hours and just contemplate. And while I was here I did just that - equipped with my Kindle, a tasty kebab and a few cold drinks (and abetted in my eating efforts by some of the local street cats).
There are so many Roman and Byzantine ruins to see here (covered in my Walking Through Constantinople blog), but this time I was here in search of the Hittites! The site of Istanbul probably hosted a village or small citadel back in the Bronze Age, but whatever was here in those days was never part of the Hititte Empire, The Hittite 'realm' stretched across most of Anatolia (Asian Turkey), and controlled a ring of vassal kingdoms around its periphery. The closest of those vassals would have been Troy, just across the Sea of Marmara.
So why was I here if there was no direct Hittite connection?
One, because it's where my plane landed!
Two, because I adore this city and
Three... because there is one monumental Hittite artefact here... let me explain:
The Istanbul Archaeological Museum is a must-see. I've been round it several times to take it all in: there is the Alexander Sarcophagus, pieces of Pergamon's Temple of Zeus, Exhibits from Troy, parts of the Gates of Babylon. Roman statues and military remains, Byzantine naval reconstructions. Relics, artefacts... everything.
And the one thing I had neglected to pay due attention to on all those previous visits: the Hititte-Egyptian Peace Treaty of Kadesh.
So what's the significance of this treaty? Well, over 3,000 years ago, the Hittites and the Egyptians were the superpowers of their day. When they went to war - as one old Turkish man described it to me - it was the real first world war. Everyone was dragged to battle with one side or the other. Kingdoms and nomadic tribes were compelled to march with the Hittite Labarna or the Egyptian Pharaoh. They met at a place called Kadesh in modern-day Syria. On that baking field of combat, they nearly destroyed one another. Both sides boasted of victory, and then came to realise, slowly and horribly, that they had each in fact lost immeasurably.
Years later, both still traumatised by the clash, the great states came together and agreed the remarkable treaty of peace and harmony. Neither wanted to see a repeat of that great war. The Hittite version of the treaty was originally recorded on a great silver slab. But the Hittites were meticulous in their record-keeping, and copies were made. We know this because the tablet that survives to this day is a copy, written on a slab of baked clay. When the clay was wet and soft, the Hittite scribes would have marked the treaty details into the clay using a wedge in a writing system known as cuneiform a-script, before putting the clay in kiln to bake it hard and dry. The language on the treaty is very evocative, and the desire for true peace shines through.
"Let the people of Egypt be united in friendship with the Hittites. Let a like friendship and a like concord subsist in such manner for ever. Never let enmity rise between them."
What is remarkable, surprising and at the same time, perfectly apt, is that a copy of this tablet stands proudly on display at the Security Council Chamber of the United Nations in New York - as an example of altruistic peace between nations.
Most electrifying of all was the fact that Hattu - the protagonist in Empires of Bronze - would have been involved in the writing of this tablet, and would almost certainly have held it and rolled his sylinder seal along the completed copy before it was baked. I must admit it brought a lump to my throat to think of that strange temporal bridge, three thousand years long, between me and him. What a poignant and amazing start to my Hittite adventure!
I spent the rest of my few days in Istanbul touring some of my favourite Roman and Byzantine sites and some that I had previously been unable to get to. The Column of Marcian, erected in the 5th century AD in honour of the eponymous emperor, was a wonderful find - nestled away in the tight streets between Istanbul's Fatih and Eminönü wards.
After snapping away with my camera for a while, I felt the afternoon sun growing a little too strong (it was hot that day!) so I retreated to a nearby street cafe, ordered a Turkish coffee (think you've had strong coffee? think again!) and admired the marble column from the pleasant shade.
On my way back to my hotel (Naz Wooden House hotel - charming and very affordable if basic) in the historic centre of Istanbul (the Sultanahmet district), I passed through a quite incredible street celebration - more like a show of defiance - about the recent election results which had confirmed President Erdogan's loss of Istanbul. The atmosphere here was absolutely electric, with skirling zurna pipes, banging drums, crowds chanting and dancing, punching the air. Great banners of Atatürk - Turkey's founding president whose manifesto was something of an antithesis to Erdoğan's policies - fluttered in the air over all of this.
By the time I got through the crowds and back to the Sultanahment region I was so hot and sweaty I decided to go for a haircut to help cool me down. It was a vigorous and quite enjoyable experience involving hot towels, lemon juice, matches and all sorts of implements. The end result was a shorn and much cooler head :)
The following day I skirted around the magnificent Valens Aqueduct - the scene for some vertigo-inducing combat in Legionary: The Blood Road - before stopping for a must-have Istanbul lunch: a freshly caught fish sandwich (who knew sandwiches could swim?) at the run of cafes under the Galata Bridge, overlooking the Golden Horn.
In the afternoon, I finally got a chance to visit one of the city's many subterranean Roman cisterns that had previously eluded me. The Binbirdirek Cistern (the name is Turkish for 'Cistern of 1001 columns') was constructed in the reign of Constantine the Great in order to supply water to the Imperial Palace. It's less well known and maintained than the Basilica Cistern, and on my visit there was nobody else there at all! But that made it all the more atmospheric for me. The weakly uplit vaults, the smell of dampness and the starngely muted echoes of my footsteps and breaths gave me a strange sense that I was not alone down there. The experience was all I hoped it might be - and I even came back out with a creepy book scene planned out in my head. Crazy to think that the place was used as a rubbish dump for centuries.
The last evening in Istanbul was rather pleasant. After enjoying a meal of sea bass and wine on a rooftop terrace overlooking the Bosphorus, I then decided to wander down to the Palatium cafe - a splendid and very relaxed place with an incredible glass floor looking down upon the excavated ruins of the Magnaura Roman Palace. So I had to stay for a while, didn't I? I had no option but to have several beers, did I? I was practically obliged to try a Shisha pipe for the first time, wasn't I?
Anyway, dizzy from beer and smoke but aware that I needed to be up early to catch the train to Ankara, I headed back to my apartment... only to be accosted by this little chap!
Istanbul Travel Tips
A full gallery of my visit to Istanbul is available here on Facebook (Like and follow, please!)
Gordon Doherty: writer, history fan, explorer.
My Latest Book