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
engaged.

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
world.'

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:
978-019282500-1

30 November 2008, Sunday
MARION JAMES Ä°STANBUL