I had always read of how History was full of Laments. The most powerful stories of mythology have been laments. Of Cities, Kings, Peoples, and Prophets. We middle class Indian boys are never brought up to dream of being one with such things except through the most ancient of ways: that of storytelling – reading and imaging in our own unique ways, the ebbs and flow of human history. For us, more that anything else, ancient history is the story of lands distant and mythical, even if they are of what is today modern-day Patna.
So imagine how transfixed I was when I was standing in front giant stones hewn by people 3000 years ago, staring into the very gates that Homer’s Greeks had found impossible to break through. And then as the guide unravelled the stories of these walls as we walked around them, touching them, feeling the interlocks of the gigantic stones which had stood against everything Nature and Man had to throw at them – absorbing the fact that these walls were from a later period of Tory’s history, and the city had been first settled over 2 millenia back. Only when I stood in front of old brick homes which were now home only to bees and ants, and archeologists dare not touch them lest they crumble to dust, did it sink in that I was in a truly ancient land. As we walked around the hill ruins, the wind kept battering us and the guide told us about how these winds were the reason Troy was such an unparalleled city. It used to be a port city, situated in a bay that ships used take shelter in before moving on. Those same winds were buffeting the hills and plains of craggy beautiful modern Channakale, home to ancient Trojan aqueducts, Gallipoli, picture postcard clock towers, cobbled streets and Kahve shops. And it was these winds which when they curved around the stones to sweep across your face, carried the whispers of old hearths, echoes of children’s laughter and the screams of dying soldiers.
It was in our very first port of call that I realised why this country was home to the Fertile Crescent. A land very hard to describe in words, because it rests between continents, between adjectives, between Myth and History. Ours was mostly a road trip in German built luxury buses on 4 lane expressways and intersections, but it was just as much a small pilgrimage by two lovers of humanity to old watering holes full of myth and legend. And in the old ruins of Roman and Greek ruins of cities of the erstwhile Asian provinces, we felt the majesty and power of Man’s story. Walking down marble causeways, past Corinthian columns, into a theatre which houses 25000 people – words are of little help.
Those experiences of grandeur and hubris in Ephesus & Heirapolis also prepared us for the utter sadness and emptiness that filled us when we saw a lone column bearing testament to having once been a part of an ancient wonder of the world – The Temple of Artemis. A single lone column, over-run by wilderness, as Angor Vat once was, only there is nothing left to discover or behold there anymore.And again, in the Hagia Sofia, where we had to imagine the grandeur of the greatest Church in all Christendom, because the vagaries of time and religion have left it little more than a hollow shell.
But it was the story that probably has not been told enough, or a lament that few poems have captured that moved me the most. It was in the surreally beautiful village of Goreme, Cappadocia. We were visiting what, like everything else in Turkey, has been turned into a fanatically preserved museum: The Open Air Cave Museum. But this museum was in fact a vast monastery. Filled with cave chapels and churches that a persecuted people had hewn out of solid rock. The lament of a people driven to live just like in prehistoric times; lives full of the stories of the Bible, thinking of each legend, each character, and using that to survive and prosper against all odds. Living in times which led them to paint on the rock with true devotion and fervour. Such fervour in fact that I have not experienced something so sad and beautiful at the same time, anywhere else. A place of such spiritual power that it stays with you for days after.
The phallic shaped fairy chimneys of volcanic rock make for dwellings and picturesque hotels in Goreme village just a few kilometeres away even today. Except now we have air-conditioning, and heaters and electricity. Making it a major tourist destination. For all the wrong reasons.
There are some things that guide books, Wikipedia, history lessons and most guides do not prepare you for. And for that I am truly glad.