“The bus leaves from here to Malazgirt at 3:00, and returns tomorrow at 1:30. Ok?” he said in Turkish. He was the ticket man at the tiny rural bus station in the tiny rural town of Ahlat, on the north end of Lake Van, eastern Turkey. He was chubby and balding, and possessed a bushy black mustache and a snippy attitude. In other words, he looked similar to just about every other bus station ticket man in Turkey.
I was excited that he had finally decided that I understood enough Turkish to be spoken to in words, rather than a mixture of glares and ambiguous hand signals, as he had been doing for the previous ten minutes. However, I was less excited about what he was saying. If there was only one bus each day, I would have to spend the night in Malazgirt. But I had already paid for a hotel room and left my army duffel back in Tatvan, on the western shore of Lake Van. I had to go back there to spend the night. On the other hand, I did really want to see Malazgirt. How did I arrive at this dilemma?
I was in the middle of an sweeping three-week trip across Turkey. It was my fourth visit to the country, and this time I had resolved to see the great unexplored East. Starting in Istanbul, I had bussed onwards to Ankara, Cappadocia, Trabzon, Kars, Dogubeyazit, Van, and now Tatvan. I hadn’t deluded myself into believing that I could fully experience so much of a region in so little time, but I was confident that I could at least give myself a taste of eastern Anatolia.
Attempting to kill time on the sweltering August bus rides across Asia Minor, I had come across an interesting side-trip in the Lonely Planet guide: the Manzikert battlefield. As a scholar of Middle Eastern history (read: history nerd), my eyes lit up at the name. Occurring in 1071, the battle saw the forces of the Byzantine Empire soundly defeated by the Seljuk Turks under the command of Alp Arslan. The victory threw open most of Anatolia for Turkish colonization, and would lead to the eventual creation of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic. Certainly a pivotal historical battle, not just for Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean, but for the world.
According to the guidebook, the battle had taken place next to the modern-day town of Malazgirt, a couple hours north of Lake Van. The book had a sentence in the blurb about the battle that read something like this: “While certainly off the beaten path, those who do make the trek out to Malazgirt will be rewarded with a sight that few tourists see.” Typical Lonely Planet. But in this case, I ate it up with a spoon. Hell yes…I would go off the beaten path, I would be the explorer, I would relive the glory and tragedy of Manzikert that I had previously only experienced by poring over history books in the dimly lit stacks of a Chicago library.
So I had followed the guidebook’s advice. I had swung around the lake and based myself in Tatvan, a pleasant little city. I had taken another bus to tiny Ahlat, on the north shore. And now I was onto the last leg toward Malazgirt. Only problem was the one-daily-bus issue. Forgot to mention that little tidbit, didn’t you, Lonely Planet?
“Well, are you going, or not?”
I snapped back to reality and tried to quiet the tennis ball going back and forth in my head. Go, or not go? I looked out at the horizon, then to the ticket man, back to the horizon. Finally I turned back to the ticket man. I was not going to get stranded in some random town in the middle of nowhere. “No, I’m not going,” I said, and started to turn away.
I was stopped by a chortle, something of a derisive snort. I turned back, and the ticket man was looking directly at me. Then he exploded.
“What? What??? You came all the way from America to see this battlefield, and now you’re going to turn back when you’re this close? Are you joking? What’s the matter with you???”
As he continued to verbally bitch-slap me upside the head, it all became clear to me. What was I thinking? Was I seriously going to miss this holy history-nerd moment just because I was afraid of double-booking accommodation for one night? Where was my traveler’s adventure spirit? When would I be here again, if ever, in my life? Chubby, mustachioed, grumpy man was right!
“Ok, I’m going! Give me a ticket!” I slapped my money on the table. The ticket man still didn’t crack a smile, but gave a self-satisfied nod and completed my purchase, as if the universe had been righted after momentarily being knocked off-kilter. Charged up by his words, I took my ticket and shoulder bag and walked out confidently to get my bus to Malazgirt.
The first hit to my newfound confidence came when I saw that the “bus” was actually a small white van. The passengers consisted of myself and half a dozen Kurdish villagers. I was immensely grateful that my dark features made my presence in the van at least somewhat plausible to the other passengers.
My confidence continued to wane as the van wound along a long dirt road towards Malazgirt. We passed three or four villages along the way; each one appeared to have a population of about ten. My thoughts began to drift. I’m pretty sure I’m actually the first foreign tourist to ever make this trip. Well not really. But maybe. I’m also pretty sure the Lonely Planet guy phoned this one in. Asshole.
Finally we arrived in Malazgirt. It was larger than the villages we had passed, but not by much. I disembarked from the bus and looked around. The main feature of the town appeared to be a decent looking castle, so I headed towards that.
It was locked, but a bored-looking woman in the robes and headscarf typical of the Kurdish women in the region very kindly called her son to open the door and show me around. He was a good kid, probably about sixteen years old, and gave me a very comprehensive tour of the castle. With my limited Turkish abilities, I was able to understand about 20% of the tour, a 20% that unfortunately did not include whether the castle had been built by the Byzantines or the Seljuks.
Finally, he led me up a rampart, and I found myself looking out over the battlefield that I had dreamed of seeing for the past several days, and that I had read about for the past several years. Glorious Manzikert.
It was a field. A big empty, field.
Yes, it was beautiful, patches of different shades of green lightly undulating off to the horizon. But there was nothing unique or historical about it. It would have looked equally at home in Poland, China, or the U.S. Midwest.
I closed my eyes and tried to conjure that similarly hot August day nearly a millennium prior. Two great armies coming to death grips, swords clashing, blood spilling, men falling never to arise again. Turk versus Byzantine, Muslim versus Christian, emerging empire versus old empire. A great clash of civilizations and turning point of history.
Yet upon opening my eyes, it was the same generic green field staring back at me. No bloody swords. No cracked helmets. No Alp Arslan riding triumphantly amongst piles of disfigured corpses.
It was at that moment that I came to a sharp realization: history is history. Of course the entire present is a product of the past, and the study of history offers immense value in avoiding previous missteps and applying the wisdom of our ancestors. Yet something that happened a day, a week, or a millennium ago instantly enters the realm of memory, and can never be fully conjured again.
We can dress up Hollywood actors in glittering costumes and have them fight CGI armies. We can run our hands over statues carved by ancient hands. We can stand in marble temples and next to gilded thrones and among weathered gravestones. We live surrounded by buildings constructed by our ancestors, and we name streets, carve statues, and dedicate holidays to great figures of old.
But none of those things actually place us in history. Living in history is reserved for the romantics and dreamers. For, to loosely paraphrase the opening lines of the film Gone With the Wind, what is history but a dream long remembered?
I stood there for awhile, having my philosophical revelations, while my tour guide shifted restlessly, probably wondering when he could go back to chilling out. Eventually I figured I had gleaned all that I could (or could not) from Manzikert, and allowed my tour guide to show me out.
After all my wavering about my perceived dilemma, I ended up making it back to Tatvan that evening, thanks to an overly enthusiastic young taxi driver. He drove me out to a main highway at breakneck speed, slowing down only to point out beautiful (albeit fully covered) women walking along the side of the road, and managed to flag down a long-distance bus that was en route to Tatvan.
I certainly don’t regret my bumbling adventure out to Malazgirt, and since then I have visited many other historical sights. But each time I have done so, my mind has flashed back to that languid green field, a memory that has allowed me a more sober and appreciative view of the present’s echoes of the past.