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ANKARA: `On Horseback Through Asia Minor' by Frederick Burnaby

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  • ANKARA: `On Horseback Through Asia Minor' by Frederick Burnaby

    Today's Zaman, Turkey
    Nov 30 2008

    `On Horseback Through Asia Minor' by Frederick Burnaby

    With just over a week to the bayram break, many people still haven't
    decided where they are going to spend the vacation. Newspapers are
    still packed with advertisements for wonderful destinations, both
    within Turkey and abroad.

    In 1876 British Army Capt. Frederick Burnaby had a similar dilemma. He
    was entitled to five months' leave during the winter. He writes: `It
    was the autumn of 1876. I had not as yet determined where to spend my
    winter leave of absence. There was a great deal of excitement in
    England: the news of some terrible massacres in Bulgaria had
    thoroughly aroused the public. The indignation against the
    perpetrators of these awful crimes became still more violent when it
    was remembered that the Turkish government had repudiated its loans,
    and that more than a hundred million sterling had gone forever from
    the pockets of the British taxpayer. This was very annoying.'
    Rather than believe all of the anti-Turkish rumors that started in the
    press, fuelled by Russian sympathizers, Burnaby decides to travel to
    see for himself the state of the Anatolian people. `It was difficult
    to arrive at the truth amidst all the turmoil that prevailed. Were the
    Turks such awful scoundrels?' How do Turks and Armenians get on?

    On another level, Burnaby was continuing an exploration described in a
    previous book, `A Ride to Khiva' -- that of the threat posed to
    British interests by Russian expansionism in Asia. Turkey's eastern
    frontiers with the Russian Caucasus were looking extremely vulnerable
    to a Russian invasion. In his preface, expert on Anglo-Russian
    relations Peter Hopkirk says: `[Burnaby's] object was to try to
    discover precisely what the Russians were up to in this wild and
    mountainous part of the Great Game battlefield and also to gauge the
    capacity of the Turks to resist a vigorous Tsarist thrust towards
    Constantinople. ¦ For at the moment relations between Tsar and
    Sultan were rapidly deteriorating. ¦ War seemed imminent and likely
    to involve Turkey.'

    Whether Burnaby's trip was pure adventure holiday, an attempt by a
    reasonable man to discover the truth behind anti-Turkish sentiment or
    a military foray to discover the lie of the land, `On Horseback
    Through Asia Minor' is a fascinating, entertaining and illuminating
    account of his travels.

    The military man has planned his trip like a campaign. And he needs
    to, because eastern Anatolia in winter is hostile territory. Its muddy
    tracks and snowdrifts, treacherous mountain passes and dangerous
    chasms are the enemy. But the trip starts pleasantly enough: `The morn
    broke bright and glorious. Winter was left behind and we were in the
    land of orange trees and olives.' When he arrives in Ä°zmir, a
    traveling companion takes him ashore to sample nargile -- this friend
    imagines himself to be a pasha as he sups the water pipe! Their
    steamer reaches Ä°stanbul in time to hear the less than positive
    results of a peace conference held between Turkey and Russia.

    Every traveler at the start of a journey is waylaid by horror stories
    of those trying to put them off their aim. Burnaby is told by an
    Armenian in Ä°stanbul that `he will find it very difficult to
    reach Van at this season of the year on account of the snow, and he
    will run a considerable risk of being robbed or murdered by the
    Kurds.' When Burnaby asks this gentleman if he has ever traveled from
    Scutari to Van, he learns that the expert advising him has never made
    the trip.

    With his faithful companion and servant, Radford, and local Turkish
    help, Burnaby hires horses and sets out toward the east. Radford, as a
    typical Cockney, drops the letter `h' from the `orses, and adds it to
    the name Osman. Sadly his complaints about Osman always falling to the
    ground praying the moment there was work to be done and cheating his
    master turn out to be true, and Osman has to be fired and a new helper

    Burnaby's account is full of adventure. He passes the lake of Sapanca
    in the mists, and the mountains of Erzurum and Erzincan in the
    snow. He stays in hans and caravanserais, in the comfortable homes of
    governors, and in the flea-ridden stables of the poor. But wherever he
    goes, the Turks show him great hospitality. Burnaby muses that those
    in Britain who write pamphlets declaiming the Turks should, instead,
    travel to Turkey to discover their prejudices are not true.

    He even discovers that the Armenians, despite Russian provocation, are
    no more keen on becoming Russian citizens than they are in the current
    situation. Rumors of bad treatment abound. At every town he is told
    that `Christians are treated well here, but in the next place they are
    held in prison and beaten.' At the next stop he investigates the
    prison and is told once more, `Oh no, we are treated well here, but at
    ...' and so it goes on, all the way to the border.

    As one of the clearest descriptions of Anatolia under the Sultan, `On
    Horseback Through Asia Minor' was for me fascinating because it
    clearly showed how much had to be done by the new republic, 50 years
    later, to modernize Turkey. On many occasions they pass through fallow
    land that could have been farmed: `The country which we next traversed
    was entirely uncultivated, although it would have repaid a
    farmer. This, however, is the case with millions of acres in
    Turkey. There are no laborers. The country is depopulated to the last
    degree, and land which might have produced wheat enough for the whole
    of Great Britain is left fallow.'

    Passing through Ankara (interestingly enough -- for this is five
    decades before talk of it becoming a capital) they discuss the
    possibility of a parliamentary system in Turkey. The mayor, who is
    Burnaby's host, says, `It is possible in theory, but impossible in
    practice. ¦ We require more liberty ¦ and for religion to not be
    a topic of politics.'

    Transport was also a challenge. Roads sink to mud, and the towns of
    the East are cut off due to the lack of railways. Many rivers, such as
    the 100-meter-wide Kızılırmak, have no bridges,
    and they have to cross at fords or by floating barges. When a new
    constitution is proposed, the reply is, `Give us roads and railways,
    and they will be worth 50 constitutions.'

    Mines are filled with water, or undug and unexploited. Burnaby
    comments, `With intelligent engineers to explore the mineral wealth of
    Anatolia, Turkey would be able not only to pay the interest on her
    debt, but would speedily become one of the richest countries in the

    His conclusion, which was to see its fulfillment in the 20th century,
    was, `Give the Turks a good government and Turkey would soon take her
    place amongst civilized nations.'

    `On Horseback Through Asia Minor' by Frederick Burnaby, published by
    Oxford University Press, 8.99 pounds in paperback, ISBN:

    30 November 2008, Sunday