A Lakewood Lens

What is fascinating about the country of Turkey is sometimes what it isn’t.

Or no longer is.

It is not a place of flying carpets and silky slippers that curl up at the toe.

Its cities sprawl with vacant apartment buildings and more motor cars than ever in its history. Western Europeans flock to Turkish beaches along the Mediterranean to stay in posh hotels.

Starbucks is here. And McDonalds. Turkish children amble down the hallways of dusty museums with their classmates taking pictures with their iPhones.

But if you wander to the end of the road (just far enough) you may find yourself standing beside the deserted ruins of a Grecian amphitheater, or crumbling stone houses inhabited during the Stone Age.

To stand anywhere in Turkey is to stand on top of layers of ancient history. A beautiful temple complex built 11,500 years ago is undergoing excavation in Eastern Turkey. Archaeologists believe it may be the oldest known structure ever built by human beings.

Turkey has more Greek cities than Greece and more Roman cities than Italy. There is so much history that managing a tour here, as I am, includes a dizzying array of names and dates and civilizations. Julius Ceaser was here after all: This is the place he came, saw and conquered. Alexander the Great rode through this land and untied the Gordion knot, and it’s the place that the Virgin Mary may have lived during the last years of her life.

The past is everywhere.

One intriguing story is that of Heinrich Schliemann, who, in the late 1800s was a wealthy German merchant with a taste for travel to exotic places and a love of archaeology.

When he was young, his father sat him on his knee and told him the story of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Schliemann was convinced that Homer’s tales were not myth, but that there was an actual place called Troy. All he had to do to prove Homer right was to use his descriptions in the books as a guide.

Using the ancient names of places, Schliemann narrowed down the possibilities. He had heard from an Englishman named Frank Calvert who was living in Turkey that a hill called Hissarlik in Western Turkey may be a good candidate for hiding the remains of Troy. After walking the site and reading the Iliad on a rooftop for two hours, Schliemann was certain that this was indeed the site where the ancient battle had taken place.

Now a wealthy man, Schliemann could afford to excavate the site. Of course, Troy wouldn’t be found in the first level of soil because new cities would have been built on top of it in the ensuing years. Understanding that Troy would be somewhere near the bottom, he had his workers destroy the newer cities to get to the bedrock.

In 1873, Schliemann believed he had found Homer’s Troy. Gold ornaments and artifacts, city walls and buildings were discovered among other things. The treasures were smuggled out of Turkey for “protection” and brought to Germany where they were bought by a museum. When the Turkish government found out, they demanded compensation, and Schliemann paid them a mere $15,000, although the treasure was worth more than $80,000. He was banned from digging at Troy again.

Excavations continued after Schliemann’s death throughout the early 20th century. It was discovered that Schliemann’s Troy was dated too early in history to be Homer’s Troy, and so it was renamed Troy II. It is now understood that at least nine cities were built on the site, including the original Troy, dating back to 3,000 B.C.

But the story doesn’t end there.

Schliemann had traded some of the treasure back to Turkish officials in exchange for permission to dig at Troy again. The rest was acquired by the Royal Museum of Berlin where it was displayed until 1945, when it was hidden beneath the Berlin Zoo in a bunker during World War II. It disappeared, and it was later learned that it had been stolen by the Red Army.

The government of the Soviet Union denied any knowledge of the fate of the treasures of Troy. But in 1993, the treasure turned up in a museum in Moscow.

The items were slated to be returned to Germany through an agreement between the two countries, but the move is still being blocked by museum directors in Russia. They say they deserve compensation for the destruction of Russian cities during the war.

Treasures, fortune seekers, self-proclaimed archaeologists, emperors and other great men on horseback are part of the stories that bring Turkey to life.

Today as I was strolling along on an old Roman road, I saw the top of a marble column protruding from the path.

You can’t help but walk on history here.