Author Archive for Jeremy Seal

What St Nicholas Did…

Last week I was back in southern Turkey on the trail of St Nicholas, the fourth-century bishop whom I first wrote about decades back in my Santa: A Life (or, more solemnly, Nicholas: The Epic Journey from Saint to Santa Claus in the US edition).

It is a remarkable story – and an almost entirely posthumous one.   The best, and only, evidence for St Nicholas’s life is a sixth-century reference to his original shrine at Myra, now the little Turkish tomato-growing town of Demre; the life of the man is attested only by virtue of one recorded fact in relation to his death.

I write his ‘original shrine’ because his relic remains were famously lifted from Myra in 1087 and removed to Bari in southern Italy.  Since then bits of him have appeared, allegedly, all over the place – in New York, St Petersburg, Venice and Antalya, Turkey to name but a few.  His posthumous existence is all, as much for the journeyings of his relic remains, and for his startling nineteenth-century reinvention as Santa Claus/Father Christmas, as for the fact that the stories about St Nicholas were in most cases first attributed to him after, often many centuries after, his death.

These stories are legion.  Compare with near contemporaries of his such as Saints Valentine and Catherine, revered for their extreme courage exhibited in dying for their faith, but saints with a single story.  What do we know of Catherine other than the firework named for the wheel on which her persecutors attempted to break her?

St Nicholas was among the first of the so-called confessor saints – bearing witness to the faith by the holiness of his life rather than by martyrdom.  It is precisely the wealth of stories that serves as evidence of that holiness.  They tell of St Nicholas rescuing drowning sailors; of saving his people from famine by persuading a sea captain bound for Rome with a cargo of grain to unload at Myra (and discovering to his delight that he is not a peck short when the consignment is finally inspected at Rome); of appearing in visions to the Emperor Constantine and through his offices causing the release of the wrongly imprisoned; of miraculously reconstituting three boys after they were brutally butchered and pickled in brine; and even of exorcising a demon which had taken up residence in a tree.

We may consider these stories as projections of the age in which they flourished – the Pickled Boys, especially popular in the medieval period, may echo colourful and no doubt alarmist famine-period gossip of innkeepers passing off human flesh as ham.    What they all have in common is a measure of the supernatural or miraculous.

Which brings us to Three Daughters.  Writers have a material interest, of course, in what makes one story work and another fail; the question is especially interesting in relation to Three Daughters, the most ‘successful’ and most widely referenced of all the Nicholas stories.  It tells of how the young and affluent Nicholas, hearing of an impoverished neighbour’s intention to prostitute his three daughters, provides each of them with gold sufficient for a dowry which will secure them marriage partners.  Their benefactor comes at night to slip three bags of gold through the nobleman’s window (which you’ll see I’ve circled, for reasons that will become apparent, in Fra Angelico’s 1447 rendering of the story on the Perugia Triptych, now at the Vatican’s Pinacoteca Museum).  It is in Three Daughters – the giving of gifts, clandestinely, to the young at night – that the basics of the Santa Claus/Father Christmas story lie.

Establishing how the story evolved – where the reindeer, and the Far North, and the red suit and the stocking and the rest all came from – was central to the joy of writing this book.  The illustration here shows the earliest instance I was able to find of St Nicholas adopting the chimney rather than the window as his mode of entry (in a late-fourteenth century fresco from a church in Ramaca, Serbia.)

What’s radical about Three Daughters is precisely the absence of the miraculous.  It is simply – I won’t say nothing more than – an act of generosity, and a transforming one.  It has, of course, been cynically exploited, by pawnbrokers who in seeking equivalence between the service they offer and St Nicholas’s kindness have adopted the three gold bags as their motif, and by retailers bent on flogging ever more Christmas merchandise.   But in its pure form it tells of the active charity that defines Christmas – one thing we can all applaud in an often fraught and brutal world. 

A Happy Christmas to you all

Istanbul and Cappadocia 2023

I am just now back from our winter tour of Istanbul and Cappadocia, the third time we have run this distinctive and, as far as I know, unique itinerary.  It will not be the last.

I’ve long been convinced that this is the time to visit Istanbul and Cappadocia, in part because these are among Turkey’s busiest places in the season (which these days may be said to run from March to November).   In those months it can be a proper trial getting into Istanbul’s Topkapı Palace, Grand Bazaar and Yerebatan Cistern, or Cappadocia’s Open Air Museum.   In February there was neither queue nor crowd at any of them.

Then there was the weather, with mainly clear skies in Istanbul and cloudless ones in snow-covered Cappadocia.  It was perfect for exploring Istanbul on foot (which anybody who knows of the city’s traffic problems will especially appreciate).  And the thin covering of snow in Cappadocia even made it possible to walk the region’s wonderful valleys.  Our hike along the Rose Valley was one of the week’s many highlights.  So too, according to our guests, were our visits to the restored Yerebatan Cistern; to the wonderful Sokollu Mehmet Paşa Mosque (which we somehow had to ourselves); our boat journey up the Bosphorus almost unto the Black Sea, coupled with the brilliant Sadberk Hanım Museum; lunch at the wonderful Çıya Sofrası in Kadıköy; Cappadocia’s Keşlik Monastery

One of these days the weather gods will no doubt turn and subject us to a proper week of the rawest winter weather.  Which, while hardly ideal, would only mean spending rather more time under cover.  In Istanbul this would necessarily entail a longer visit to the magnificent archaeological museum, now impressively restored; visits to some of the other museums and the many mosques, churches and palaces in which the city abounds and which we as serial visitors know well; and longer sojourns over tea and hookah pipes.  In Cappadocia, at about 1300 metres, it might mean more time keeping warm in Turkish baths or over bowls of lentil soup.  It might even mean a day holed up at Kale Konak which, as about my favourite hotel in all the world, would be no great hardship.  Not with blazing fires, Cappadocian wine and warming dinners to enjoy.

We will be publishing next year’s dates for this superb tour in due course.




6th February 2023

The horrific, heartbreaking scenes reaching us from southern Turkey and northern Syria speak of unimaginable tragedy in a corner of the world that has seen more by far than its fair share.  To Russia’s war (its previous one), to displacement, political unrest, minority oppression, brutality and poverty we may now add the earthquake which struck in the early hours of 6th February, the worst time of day at the worst time of year, making it the biggest and deadliest to hit the region for centuries.

I know these places, some of them well; I last stayed in (Gazi)antep and (Sanli)urfa in May 2022 while visiting the region with a tour group, having long considered Antep and Urfa, as most Turks know them, among my favourite cities in Turkey.  Our tour began with breakfast, typically outstanding, on the top floor of Antep’s highrise Kule (Tower) Hotel where we had far-reaching views over this city of two million people.  As far as I can ascertain, the hotel is not numbered among the 5,000-plus buildings that have so far collapsed; but I have no doubt that plenty of them will be all too visibly no longer there in those top-floor views.

We visited because it happens that this corner of southeast Turkey, once synonymous with Kurdish unrest, has emerged as a major tourist draw in recent years, both among Turkish and overseas visitors, and deservedly so.  (Only a few weeks ago I contributed a piece to the Guardian on the region for an item entitled ‘Great travel ideas for 2023.)  Antep is considered Turkey’s premier foodie city, not least for its baklava, and is also noted for its wonderful old market and artisanal quarter, for its fine stone buildings and for its world-class collection of Roman mosaics rescued from the frontier city of Zeugma, now largely submerged beneath the dammed waters of the nearby Euphrates River.  Urfa, supposed birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, has a rich Christian and Islamic history but is best known as the epicentre – if we may still use the term – of the astounding neolithic discoveries that have been made across the region, not least at the World Heritage site of Gobekli Tepe.  It also has a fabulous museum (home to the world’s oldest statue) and the most atmospheric market area in all Turkey.  As if all that were not enough, the remarkable mountain-top tumulus at Nemrut Dagi lies within easy reach.

I do not know what still stands of these cities – of their hotels, mosques and museums, of Gobekli Tepe’s 10,000-year-old megaliths and other wonders.  Nor should I care – at least not until the work to rescue the trapped and injured is completed; or, given the freezing temperatures, redefined as a mission to recover the dead.  For now I find myself thinking of all the wonderful people who have fed, housed, entertained and otherwise served us in the course of numerous visits to the region over the years.  My heart goes out to them, to their families, friends and neighbours, knowing that all I can do is reach into my pocket.

A Visit to Sagalassos

A week or so ago I was lucky enough to visit Sagalassos, a Roman city site in the Taurus Mountains a couple of hours’ drive north of Antalya.  I had visited some years before; this time I did so with Jason Goodwin – he of the acclaimed Yashim detective novels, an unputdownable history of the Ottomans and much else besides – and Rupert Smith, famed for his tours of the classical world, Greece especially.

These two may be puerile, as the photographs amply demonstrate, but they are excellent travelling companions, not to say formidably bright and generally possessed of sound judgement; and their response to Sagalassos, which rang with their ecstatic cries all through our day-long wanderings, only confirmed my own conviction that this must be the best Greco-Roman site anywhere in Turkey.

It’s a big claim, of course, southwest Turkey enjoying a greater density of such sites than anywhere else in the world, and one that needs substantiating.  What makes for best?  The setting, of course, high among wooded mountains, as fabulous as it is improbable – in the sense, I mean, that in its grandeur and extent the city patently defied the limitations that its apparent backwater location might have been expected to impose upon it; and in this regard Sagalassos had me shaking my head with something of the same amazement I’ve felt about similarly off-the-scale inland cities such as Aphrodisias, Arykanda and Kibrya.

The location also helps in terms of visitor numbers: keeping them manageable, that is.  Ticket sales, even at 25 lira or £1.25 (which in our judgement amounted to the best-value visitor experience ever), were anything but brisk.  We pretty much had the place to ourselves as we wandered the astonishing bath buildings; the vast paved agoras, one backed by the grand Antonine nympheum (ornamental fountain) where the water still runs; extensive temples and basilica ruins; a delightfully restored laundry house, a library with a fine mosaic floor; and, best of all, the theatre.

We spent a great deal of time at the theatre – the key, perhaps, to Sagalassos’s unique appeal.  That’s down to the exceptional work which Belgian archaeologist Marc Waelkens has overseen in the course of a life-long association with the site.  Waelkens has rebuilt – the term, apparently, is anastylosis – but only where (almost) all  the original stone was available; which is what makes the restoration, among others, of the Antonine nympheum such an accomplishment.  Otherwise, his team has done no more than stabilise, not least at the theatre which remains in a state of such tumbledown magnificence that access really shouldn’t be allowed; thank God that it is, offering, as the excellent signage puts it, the ‘enjoyable experience of a genuine ruin combined with the unique panoramas of the archaeological site and its mountainous surroundings’, not to mention ample opportunity for entirely unrestricted clamberings.  We found ourselves in surroundings effectively unchanged from those which Gertrude Bell had experienced when she first saw the theatre, half-covered in snow, on an April day in 1907; and for that I won’t forget our own time at Sagalassos.

Beyond the heart of the city boardwalks fan out towards the perimeter, leading those visitors with time to spare beyond Sagalassos’s imperial first-century heyday to glimpses of less heralded periods in the city’s long history.   Nothing moved me at Sagalassos quite like the rubble wall built across the lower agora, probably in the ninth century, as part of the much-reduced community’s last-stand defence against raiding Saracens.   Nor was it only Saracens that Sagalassos had to contend with.  Plague, earthquake and a changing world also did for Sagalassos, as they did for so many Anatolian cities, leaving nothing of it beyond these ruins but an echo of its name in that of Ağlasun – the valley’s modern town.

Our trip was to recce a tour I am leading next June, taking in the wealth of ruins in the wider Konya region.  We saw amazing things from a range of civilisations – Neolithic, Hittite, Byzantine and Selcuk among them – but nothing gave us greater joy than Sagalassos.  I can’t wait to return.

Turkish Dates

Turkish Dates (29th May 1453 and 15th July 2016, to name but two)

What is it about dates – and I mean the day and the month rather than the year (easy-peasy) – which lends them such prominence in Turkish public life?  They are everywhere.  In my recent A Coup in Turkey (Chatto, 2021; out in paperback with Vintage in 2023) – where I headed each of the book’s fourteen chapters, along with its prologue, epilogue and postscript, with such a date – I had reason to marvel at the degree to which they serve as the names of streets, neighbourhoods, schools, conference centres, sports halls, stadia, bridges, dams, forests and much else besides.  Such dates tend to commemorate great victories, if often gained at grievous cost; victories for the most part military, like the fall of Istanbul to the Ottoman Turks on 29th May 1453, but also social or political.  It led me to reflect that Turkish dates must be impressed upon the minds of Turks in a way apt to strike Brits – very few of whom could give (beyond the year) the date of Trafalgar, say, or Waterloo, or the death of Churchill – as decidedly curious.

Because I’m interested in Turkey, and because my recent writings have had occasion to reference two such dates, any mention of 27th May and 15th July automatically brings the country’s first (successful) coup on 27th May 1960 and its last (failed) one on 15th July 2016 to mind; but as these happen to be the dates respectively of my wife’s birthday (in 1966) and our wedding anniversary (1995), it may be said that the dates which so graphically evoke Turkey’s lamentable record of military intervention in civilian life have at least done their bit to maintain domestic harmony in this household – by serving as reminders that it’s that time of the year when am to I buy gifts and reserve tables.

It happens that 15th July – now the ‘Democracy and National Unity’ holiday – is enjoying peak prominence just now; it’s hard to move in Turkey without encountering the date emblazoned across some such edifice or other.  Given the see-saw nature of Turkish politics, however, it may reasonably be asked how long the holiday will continue to be observed once its great supporter, President Erdoğan, leaves office, as he must eventually do even if he does not recognise the fact.  Consider the fate of 27th May, the ‘Freedom and Constitution’ holiday which was first celebrated in 1961 before suffering a long decline in observance prior to its abolition in 1982, when the  suppressed constituencies which had resented the 1960 coup, among them the young Erdoğan, achieved sufficient political influence to see it off.  It’s true of most such dates, of course, that they are as much a cause of resentment to some Turks as they are a matter of celebration to others; and as such serve as a truer measure of ideological and political division than of national achievement.  Perhaps, then, they are not such a good thing.

All of which is a preamble to the point of this blog, which is to observe that the centenaries of many of Turkey’s most revered dates are all but upon us.  In fact, if we had but noticed, they have been taking place for some years now, starting in 2015, on 18th March – as Canakkale University calls itself – in commemoration of the day a century earlier when the Turks mounted their successful naval defence of the Dardanelles prior to the Allied landings at Gallipoli; and in 2019, on 19th May – the national holiday known as Atatürk, Youth and Sports Day (and the name of Samsun University), the centenary of the day Atatürk raised the flag of Turkish resistance against the proposed dismemberment of Anatolia.

The rest will be upon us in quite a rush: 30th August – ‘Victory Day’ – when in 1922 the Turks declared victory against the Greeks in the War of Independence; and 9th September – as Izmir University calls itself – when days later they captured the city then known as Smyrna.  Other centenaries – of the abolition of the Ottoman Sultanate on 1st November 1922, and the departure on a British battleship of the last Sultan on 17th November of the same year – may be less heralded; but they are reminders of a momentous, eventful and deeply conflicted history.

It is all due to come to a head on 29th October next year, the centenary of the declaration of the Turkish Republic.  What are we to make of Turkey as it completes its century?  How should we respond to its 100th birthday?  To wish it well, surely, for despite its problems Turkey is a truly remarkable country, not to say an amazing holiday destination; and to hope, perhaps, that with every passing year it achieves the kind of social harmony and prosperity which will allow it to dispense at last with all those infernal dates.


Göbekli Tepe and neolithic Turkey

In January 2018 I travelled with publisher Barnaby Rogerson and writer Jason Goodwin – distinguished Turkophiles both, savvy winter dressers neither – to Urfa in southeast Turkey.   This Kurdish/Arabic/Turkish region, where the Anatolian uplands meet the Syrian plain on the northern fringes of the Fertile Crescent, is astonishingly rich in Biblical, Roman, early Islamic and Crusader history.  But as it is truly exceptional for its pre-history, our main objective was the neolithic site at Göbekli Tepe.

The hilltop site dates from about 10,000BC – two and a half times the age, then, of the Great Pyramid at Giza or our own Stonehenge.  Old to a giddying degree, then, the oldest of all human structures, predating pottery, written language and agriculture, and packing into the site’s extent, about the size of a pair of tennis courts, wonder beyond measure.

T-shaped megaliths are arranged in circular precincts, like miniature Stonehenges.  Exquisitely carved with details of belts and hands to suggest human ideograms, the stones also bear reliefs of the diverse birds and animals – among them ibises, lizards, foxes and pigs – which presumably figured in these people’s diets or their dreams.

But it is the implications of this mysterious ritual site, as we take it to be, which truly amazes in inviting us to – insisting that we – reconsider basic presumptions about mankind’s emergence, not least in relation to the first settlements and the development of agriculture.

For if, as is commonly supposed, we were hunter gatherers at the time under consideration, yet to develop the technologies which only the advent of settled civilisation is supposed to have spawned – engineering, architecture and construction, sophisticated sculptural and organisational knowhow – how are we to begin to account for Göbekli Tepe?   Little wonder, then, that the site has rapidly established itself as a major cultural draw, with UNESCO World Heritage status.

Nor does the story end there.  For decades other neolithic sites have been known of across the region; megaliths from Nevali Cori, rescued from the rising waters behind a dam, one of many that Turkey has built on the upper Tigris and Euphrates rivers, are on display at Urfa’s new museum along with a statue, the world’s oldest, retrieved from a site in the city of Urfa.   At the time of our visit we were alerted to the existence of another such site called Karahan Tepe which we visited in a storm.  The driving rain not only soaked my companions but confused our driver, as did his ignorance of the unsigned site’s remote location close to the Syrian border.  When we finally arrived, it was to a desolate hillside where the only evidence of archaeological interest were a few driven stakes which initially seemed designed merely to prevent us from tripping over the random rocks protruding there; rocks which on closer inspection turned out to be tops of T-stones similar to the ones at Göbekli Tepe.

Four years on, and Karahan Tepe has been extensively excavated; and, if anything, to even more spectacular effect than Göbekli Tepe.  Not only is the site larger but contains areas for dwelling as well as for ritual use, implying that settlement may have begun, however tentatively, thousands of years earlier than was previously believed.   What there is at Karahan Tepe also appears more diverse than at Göbekli Tepe, not least an astonishing chamber from whose walls and floor protrude giant carved phalluses much as you might find, I suppose, in a Berlin sex club.

A dozen or so such sites, all contemporaneous and all carefully buried for reasons and by neolithic persons unknown, have now been identified within 100 kilometres of each other.  Dubbed Taş Tepeler, or Stone Hills, by the tourism authorities’ marketing wonks, they look certain to cause huge interest and yield remarkable revelations from our deep past.  In our own excitement Barnaby, Jason and I will be returning to the area in anticipation of the tour I am planning to run there in May.  I daresay they will dress with more care.  For more information about the May tour, email or text me on 07757 703604.


A Coup in Turkey and the Fight for Democracy

As a life-long devotee of the country, it was with some regret that I chose to call my forthcoming book A Coup in Turkey – in the manner of a news headline, as if coups are to Turkey what school shootings are to the US, missile tests to North Korea and farmers’ strikes to France.

Which, not least after the events of July 2016, they sadly are.

For much of the time that I have written about Turkey, in a number of books and hundreds of travel articles published over three decades, I have focussed almost exclusively on this astonishing country’s overwhelmingly positive aspects.  Throughout those years I have often found myself on the defensive, battling competing visions – of tanks on the streets, of curfews and detentions – in a bid to advance the best of the place, not least its outstanding cultural, culinary and scenic draws, not to mention the winning ease and generosity of the people: in evoking a place, in short, that people might take pleasure in (re-)discovering.

If the book marks a major change in direction, by a writer Turks will know if at all for his holiday copy, I hope it is nevertheless viewed as the act of a friend.  In telling of Turkey’s first coup, of 27 May 1960, I hope to have established just how disastrous that intervention was in sowing deep and lasting lines of division: divisions which led to a long sequence of coups and failed coups, as recently as 15 July 2016, the failure of which the Erdoğan regime is sure to commemorate on the bungled attempt’s fifth anniversary this summer.  Just as it will also mark the 60th anniversary of Menderes’s execution on 17 September 1961, the one event which above all others outraged the many followers of this democratically elected, if increasingly authoritarian, long-serving prime minister.

When Menderes came to power in 1950, in the country’s first fully free elections, his constituency included many, not least among the devout rural populace, who had never embraced the radical secularism of the great Atatürk’s vision; they rejoiced when Menderes’s first act in office was to reverse a ruling which forbade the ezan, the call to prayer, to be made in the traditional Arabic.    He did this, I like to think, because he understood his democratic role was to serve the will of his supporters; not, as his enemies allege, because he meant to drag his country back into a reactionary Ottoman-style twilight that would serve his own autocratic ambitions.  Therein, of course, the blurring inevitably lies.

In his decade in power Menderes did a great deal that was injudicious if not wrong, not least in pursuing a cynical populism, presenting himself as the saviour of a people ill-served by their leaders – like Trump, if you will, and with comparable doses of hyper-sensitivity and vindictiveness, but with considerably more charm, courtesy and charisma.  The putschists of 1960 claimed that they intervened in the name of democracy; but in refusing to let the democratic process run its course, in trampling on Menderes’s reputation and then murdering him, they in fact did enormous and lasting damage to their country.

The wonder is that Turkey’s young democracy has survived, as the overwhelming public rejection of the 2016 coup attempt demonstrated.  The people would make up their own minds as to who ruled them, which the all-important Istanbul mayoral elections of 2019 further demonstrated, this time in resisting the ambitions not of Erdoğan’s enemies in the military but of his own ruling party, which annulled the popular result when the decision went narrowly against it – only for the opposition candidate to be returned with a much-increased majority when the elections were re-run.

It may be, given its history and traditions, that Turkey will always be prey to authoritarian currents, but these recent events have persuaded me that in the long run the tide of democracy will carry the day.  I have high hopes for a brighter future.

A Coup in Turkey: A Tale of Democracy, Despotism and Vengeance in a Divided Land by Jeremy Seal, is published 4 February.   For a copy, and to support independent bookshops, order here.


A Coup in Turkey – An Airport in his Name.

When Izmır’s new airport opened in 1987, it bore the name of one of the Turkish port city’s most famous sons, though many preferred less publishable names for Adnan Menderes, who had led the country from 1950 to 1960.  Chief among these were military officers who had hoped the airport might be named 9 September, the day in 1922 when Turkish forces recaptured the city from the invading Greeks, rather than after the man an army clique had deposed, humiliated and then hanged in 1961.  The airport name not only served to rebuke the army, whose officers traditionally considered themselves above civil censure, but also confirmed the posthumous rehabilitation of Turkey’s first democratically elected prime minister – the national traitor, as the army liked to insist, recast as the young country’s original democrat.   This remaking of Menderes has especially gathered pace in recent years, with President Erdoğan publicly citing Menderes as his political inspiration.

With even today one side despising, and the other revering, the memory of the man, it is clear that the Menderes story goes to the heart of an ideological feud that may not quite define Turkey but certainly preoccupies it.  Putting aside the personal hostility and contempt, however, there was another reason why many queried Izmır’s choice of name: what possible sense, they wondered, was there in naming an airport after a man who famously suffered a fatal air crash – from which he himself barely escaped with his life?

It turns out, remarkably, that plenty of other airports have bought into what we might describe as the Sam ‘N Ella’s Chicken Restaurant approach to brand-naming.  Sydney’s Kingsford Smith Airport is named after a man who crashed into the Andaman Sea in 1935 while Bucharest’s Aurel Vlaicu Airport honours a Romanian inventor-aviator lost over the Carpathians in 1913.  Then there’s Roland Garros (Reunion), who plummeted into the Ardennes in 1918, Antoine de St Exupery (Lille), whose aircraft famously disappeared over the Mediterranean in 1944, and Portuguese Prime Minister Francisco de Sa Carneiro whose name was given to Porto’s airport after he crashed on his way there in 1980.

But back to the crash which Menderes survived, and which took place near Gatwick, England on 17 February 1959.  It’s with this crash, some fifteen months before the army intervention which overthrew him, that I chose to begin A Coup in Turkey and for good reason: Menderes’s very survival among the death of so many colleagues may be said to have spurred his downfall.

In his decade in power Menderes did much to transform Turkey with an ambitious and often hectic programme of aid-funded rural development including surfaced roads, piped water supply, hydro-electric dams, factories and port facilities.  He also adopted an actively pro-western foreign policy, which saw Turkey join NATO, commit troops in Korea and engage in attempts to settle the Cyprus question – the Gatwick crash occurred as Menderes’s delegation was flying to London to sign an agreement on the island’s independence.

But Menderes was also a cynical populist who from the outset sealed his pact with ordinary Turks by courting their traditional, even reactionary, instincts, not least in terms of their religious and social piety.  He began the process, then, of reversing the transformative radical secularism which since the fall of the Ottomans in 1922 and under the leadership of national founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk had characterised Turkey.  This change of direction, which many secularists considered inexcusable, was increasingly noticeable by 1959 when, with the economy in a tailspin, Menderes made desperate attempts to bolster his popularity by identifying ever more overtly with Islam.   It was unsurprising, then, that Menderes’s supporters should have hailed his survival at Gatwick, where he walked from the wreckage with no more than bruised ribs, as miraculous – as the consequence, in fact, of nothing less than divine intervention. On their leader’s return they gathered in vast numbers to greet him at Ankara’s railway station, sacrificing sheep, goats, bullocks, even camels in his honour; the gore is said to have been spectacular.  Posters celebrated his escape with the caption – ‘Allah Has Spared You For a Grateful Nation’.

Allah Has Preserved You for a Grateful Nation

Was this the moment, I wondered, when Menderes’s enemies in the army resolved that the time was nigh to prove that Adnan Bey, as his adoring supporters knew him, was no more immortal than the rest of them?

A Coup in Turkey:  A Tale of Democracy, Despotism and Vengeance in a Divided Land by Jeremy Seal.  Published by Chatto & Windus, 4 February 2021.













A Coup in Turkey: A Tale of Democracy, Despotism and Vengeance in a Divided Land

Just as 2020 saw the 60th anniversary of Turkey’s first coup on 27th May 1960, so 2021 will see the 60th anniversary of the subsequent execution of the deposed prime minister, Adnan Menderes, whom the military hanged on 17th September 1961.  2021 also sees the publication on 4th February of my A Coup in Turkey, a dramatic account of extraordinary events little known outside Turkey but which strike me as key to a deeper appreciation of the ideological divisions which blight this often troubled country.

This is a book that has preoccupied me since my encounter in a Turkish village some eight years ago with Mehmet, an old man in threadbare socks who over glasses of tea professed a passionate devotion to Menderes, a figure I barely recognised back then – along with an indifference to the national founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, that at the time struck me as akin to blasphemy.

It was then I thought I might tell the story of the country’s first democratically elected prime minister, the charismatic but doomed Menderes, who after coming to power in 1950 did much to transform Turkey over his decade his office.  Even today Menderes’s enemies brand him as a national traitor, a shameless populist who courted Islamic reaction and undermined the great Atatürk’s radical westernising programme, while his supporters see him as Turkey’s original democrat and champion of righteous conservatism.

Chief among those supporters is President Erdoğan himself who may be said to take Menderes as his political example, even inspiration; the two men share uncanny similarities not only in their sure-footed populist appeal to conservative constituencies and their contempt for what each has characterized as the godless establishment, but also in their hypersensitivity to criticism.  Just as both made their names as champions of democracy, so they duly proved autocrats whose instincts were to suppress dissent, dispense with a free press, subvert the independence of the judiciary and maintain popularity by combining apparent piety with the provision of a great many jobs, mainly in construction; just as Menderes transformed the countryside by building dams, and running piped water and surfaced roads to the villages, so Erdoğan presides over huge infrastructure projects such as airports and bridges.  In so doing, both have racked up ruinous national deficits, with an especially large figure in the column marked ‘repair and construction of mosques’.

Indeed, in the devotional photograph which Mehmet showed me, Menderes is seen in a pose that would have outraged the reforming Atatürk (a man whose own iconography insistently presents him, even now, in western tails and topper, in suit and tie) but thrilled his devout followers: admiring a mosque – or the architect’s model of one – with ministerial colleagues.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be blogging about other aspects of Adnan Menderes’s remarkable and resonant story – starting, as does A Coup in Turkey, with the air crash at Gatwick in 1959 which miraculously spared Menderes even as it set him on the road to disaster.

email me here


On the Quarantine and on Getting Home from Turkey

In 1785 John Howard – he of the Howard League for Penal Reform – made a journey to Turkey to establish, among other things, the quarantine arrangements that those returning to Europe were required to undergo.  A man for our own extraordinary times, then, even if Howard’s views of the Turks were less sympathetic than our own; dismissing them as ‘little enlightened by the modern improvements in arts and science’, he nevertheless hoped to discover practices and to glean information ‘not unworthy the notice of more polished nations’ – Britain, evidently – and their public health administrators.

In those days of typhus, small-pox and legion other contagious diseases the quarantine system prioritized the spread above all of plague.  For though the means of transmission was poorly understood – another century would pass before the pathogen Yersinia pestis, carried by lice and fleas but also transmitted by respiratory droplets from infected humans, was identified – plague was feared above all diseases for its extreme contagion and high mortality rates.

In Smyrna (modern Izmır) Howard consulted a wide range of medical men on the prevention and treatment of plague.  One physician envisioned plague as a latent condition, the contagion lying ‘dormant in the body for some time without doing the least harm, till set in motion by sudden fear, or the excessive heat of a bath.’  Another described the Christian treatment for plague – to eat caviar, garlic and pork and to drink brandy and vinegar before applying the likes of greasy wool, attar of roses and dried figs to the suppurating buboes.  Constantinople sailors swore by the remedy of throwing themselves into the sea (something sailors traditionally do only when their sinking craft leaves them with no choice) while some infected Turks were known to ‘take handfuls of snow and apply it over their bodies.’

In other respects, however, the advice uncannily echoed that on offer at today’s Covid-19 briefings, with one Giovanelli telling Howard that the best way of avoiding infection was by keeping a distance of ‘five geometrical paces’ from others.  Others stressed the importance of staying to windward of anybody who might be infected while a Jewish physician observed, perhaps without understanding the full implications of his comment, that ‘the air about poor patients is more infectious than about the rich’.  Howard himself claimed the ‘distemper’ was most probably contracted ‘by taking in with the breath in respiration the putrid effluvia which hover round the infected object’, rather as ‘the smell of tobacco is carried from one place to another’, though he assumed such objects to be goods and commodities, especially wool, cottons and animal hides, rather than exhaling humans.

To test the efficacy of the system, Howard sailed on a ship with a ‘foul bill’ – the authorities rarely granted clean bills of health to ships bound for Europe from Ottoman ports, even if no instances of plague had been reported there – to Venice.  The foul bill required the crew to stay onboard during quarantine – the statutory forty days varied depending upon local circumstances – while passengers and cargo were off-loaded straight to the port of arrival’s lazaretto; the word, from Lazarus, originally denoted a leper colony but had come to describe general quarantine facilities.   Howard was placed in a gondola ‘with my baggage, in a boat fastened by a cord ten feet long to another boat in which were six rowers’.  He was quartered in the lazaretto on one of Venice’s lagoon islands, in a cell without bed or furniture, foul smelling and full of standing water.  The indefatigable Howard went to work, mopping the floors and limewashing the walls, rendering the room ‘so sweet and fresh, that I was able to drink tea in it in the afternoon, and lie in it the following night’.

Howard’s remarkable researches – his two-volume Account of the Principal Lazarettos in Europe was published in 1791 – took him on an extensive tour of the European ports.  At Livorno, with its brand-new lazaretto, suspect ships were now received rather than being ‘chased away or burnt, as is the practise in too many places’.  At Malta he witnessed the complex process whereby a letter from Turkey was received (paper was considered especially likely to carry contagion); the document was taken with a pair of iron tongs, dipped in vinegar and then put into a case and laid for a quarter of an hour on wire grates under which straw and perfumes had been burnt.  Howard saw how goods including ‘carpets, blankets, bed covers, quilts, and other manufactures of wool and silk, flax, books, vellum, and all kinds of paper… are continually exposed to the air, moved and turned two or three times a day’.  ‘Animals with wool or long hair,’ he reported ‘are liable to the whole quarantine; but those with short straight hair are purged by causing them to swim ashore’.  Chickens and other fowl were dealt with ‘by repeated sprinkling with vinegar till well wet’.  At Marseilles he learned of arrangements for the provision of wine to those in quarantine and of the ‘parloir’, where those in confinement were able to communicate with visitors, perhaps to issue wine orders, across a ten-foot gap enforced by an arrangement of ‘wooden balustrades and wire lattice’.

The UK government’s recent decision to exempt visitors to Turkey from quarantining on their return should help to bring back visitors.  Especially to those sectors where the risk of infection from Covid-19 is at its lowest, like gulets, which have been in demand this summer as Turkish guests recognize how much safer stays on these small-group boats are than in hotels or other land-based accommodation.  For more on visiting Turkey and the various precautions in place to keep visitors safe, please visit my tours page.