Certain novels, not many but a few, are awarded places on my Top Shelf. These books are more than entertainment. Each opens a window, revealing an education, insight, revelation, cultural, historical or philosophical perspective I had never imagined. Here’s an example.
Birds Without Wings is not an easy read. The novel introduces us to the inhabitants of a small Turkish town, Eskibahçe (meaning Garden of Eden) comprised of Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Christians and Muslims. Tolerant of one another’s religions, they live and worship side-by-side until the nightmare of WWI tears them and their peaceful part of the world apart.
Their story is interwoven with the destruction of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the first leader of modern Turkey. It is certainly harrowing in its depiction of war and the endless capacity of human beings for cruelty, but also beautiful in the way it portrays characters’ kindness and sympathy for each other as people first.
My trip to Turkey began on Gemiler or St Nicholas Island, where Christian churches dating from the 4th century are still visible. The landscape of the coast is that Mediterranean rich ochre rock mixed with dusty green of olive trees and startling blue seas, with kingfishers darting into the shallows like neon tetras.
It was pure coincidence that I read de Bernières’ novel before my holiday but what a happy accident. History and geography spanning an immense time span, as narrated by the rock tombs above Dalyan. These mausoleums for the rich were carved by slaves suspended from the rocks above and date back over 2500 years. What they have witnessed beggars belief.
For me, Turkey was all about eye-opening experiences (especially the traditional hammam – I’ve never been so thoroughly cleansed in my life). The best part? It expanded my knowledge of European history. Note to self: read more before you travel. It enriches the journey.