The minefield, he said, was two hundred yards wide. I asked why people risked death to cross it.
“They drive sheep into Syria,” he replied. “Here a sheep brings 500 liras [U. S. $30]. There it is worth twice as much. With such a profit they buy and smuggle in the goods you saw in Kills.”
“What are the odds?”
“Seven times out of ten they are successful.” He watched me impassively. “Three times out of ten they are killed.” His face seemed to soften. “They shoot back, but not at us. In the air. They know we are only doing our duty.”
It came to me that soldiers had done their duty here long before now. Turkey is a necropolis of civilizations, and often—as at fabled Troy, near the western entrance to the Dardanelles—they rest one atop the other. Where we walked, archeologists had unearthed Arab huts, then Armenian structures, then Byzantine ruins, a Roman fort, Greek works, an Assyrian fortification.
At the next level they uncovered the richly carved remains of imperial Carchemish, an important Hittite bastion a thousand years and more before Christ. In 605 B.C., Pharaoh the Lame, King of Egypt, lay encamped here beside the River Euphrates. And here Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, soon to be king, fell on him, bringing “slaughter in the north country,” according to ancient Aramaic texts.
If you come to this place now, on a mild day in early spring, it tells you its own melancholy story. Anemones nod among the tumbled building blocks of antiquity, and pale daisies dance on the horrid greensward where a mere footstep may abrogate your contract with life. The prattle of children tending cattle on a hillside rides gently to your ear. “They know about the minefield,” the soldier reassures you. Scarcely a sling’s throw away, the Euphrates glints in its timeless hurry down the valley of Mesopotamia.
Months mean little in the Turkey beyond the cities; only seasons matter. Spring has done its work in the south with the end of March and is advancing north across the mountain-rimmed high plains. As you drive into the heartland, patches of snow are shrinking on the hillsides, and streams run high with melt. Old men are pruning the vineyards; skeletal apple and apricot orchards show a tinge of promise. A horse, an ox, a mule, perhaps a machine pulls the plow; in its wake, women scatter ammonia fertilizer on the poor soil and bend low to plant potatoes and onion sets.
In the countryside, once the crops are in, there is time to spare. Even clocks are of little consequence. Five times in 24 hours—at dawn, midday, mid afternoon, sunset, and nightfall—the muezzin ascends the minaret and calls the faithful to prayer, often assisted by loudspeakers, and so marks the round of day and night.
One listens, and recalls Atatiirk’s efforts to curb Islam’s role in daily affairs. A Westerner wandering in the hinterland today soon perceives that Islamic conservatism remains strong; it grows stronger every day, some Turks claim, in the old fatalism and hostility to change, putting a brake on progress.