These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Turkey 2016: Learning from History

Posted on January 14, 2016 by Binyamin Cohen

Tags: , , ,

We got off our minibus at the top of the ridge, sparse trees all around us. We began to follow the road up to the peak, and as we do we begin to see signs of the reason we’re here: trenches, tunnels, foxholes. Gallipoli became much more real at the top of the hill: from ANZAC Cove down below it was just a beach, some rocks, and a cemetery.

As we continue past the trenches – the everlasting memorial of the First World War in all the lands it touched and scarred – a pair of large monuments rise out of the trees. The first is to the New Zealanders who fought and died on that spot, half a world away from that homes. Gallipoli is in many ways the birthplace of both the Australian nation and the New Zealand nation, where subjects of His Majesty came to foreign lands to fight in a war not their own, and were forged in fire following directions and orders of generals who didn’t care about them.

The other monument is to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, both of whom were in some ways “born” on that site. His face is everywhere in this country, on the money, on signs, on ads, on tourist trinkets, on the new backpack I bought earlier in the day. He is the symbol of Turkish independence, of Turkey becoming part of modernity, part of the twentieth century.

As the sun turns the sky purple and pink and orange over the Greek isles to our left, we finally reach the monuments on the summit on the hill. We finally see why the ANZAC forces landed on that beach on that fateful day in April 1915, and why they remained there for over 250 days, entrenched and immobilized, fighting foes who were sometimes dug in only 30 feet away. From the top of the hill you can see two continents. You can see the narrow strip of water that separates the two of them, the straits that connect Europe to Asia, that bring the world through Istanbul, that for millennia have been highways of the world. The Dardanelles make Istanbul the Queen of Cities, place her at the apex of the world. Spices and plague and war and faith have passed down those waters, spreading to the corners of the world. Such a small piece of land, a small stretch of water. The ANZAC troops only held the hill for two days. For two days out of eight months they were in sight of their goal. For two days they might have felt like the orders coming down from the British generals in the Greek isles were worth fighting for. For two days they could see the end.

The Turks had a different reason to be up there. The Ottoman Empire, the sick old man of Europe in its waning years, was fighting for its very survival. Ataturk, newly in command of the forces defending Gallipoli, knew that if the ANZACs ever got over that hill, ever got down to the Dardanelles, ever let a single British battleship down the straits to Istanbul, everything he knew and loved about Turkey and its people would come to an end. Less than ten years later he would take matters even more into his own hands, re-form and revitalize Turkey. Different situations, but the same reasons.

The First World War is one of the ultimate tragedies in human history. North Americans in particular don’t really understand what a World War really means. Sure, there are some battle fields around, that people visit, or sports teams visit for inspiration. But we don’t really get what it means to have your whole world torn apart and stitched back together. The ANZAC forces suffered 70% casualties at Gallipoli. Most of them were fighting another people’s war. Most of that war was being fought for almost no reason at all. But out of that Great War were born national identities, identities which are strong and powerful and important to this day.

To be able to visit such a site, feel the power of it, see the natural beauty that surrounds it, and to touch, even just a little, the lasting effect it has had on the world, is one of the reasons that history is so compelling and powerful.