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Mares: Turkish Visit

Travel forces you to take what you already know about a place, add what you see and hear while you’re there, then mix it all up in search of something coherent. In Turkey, the process might be likened to weaving together the threads of a warp and weft to make a Kilim carpet.
On a recent two-week visit to Turkey our UVM travel group visited mosques, museums and markets, walked on beaches and crowded streets and even took a cooking class. In the city of Istanbul with upwards of 15 million people, our senses worked overtime. Our guide was a Turkish Wikipedia, as it were, who could answer almost any question we posed, from education and sports to politics and history.
My Middle East history major in college gave me a modest head start. Then, in preparing for the trip, more Turkish history and novels from three different time periods reminded me that Turkey is a mash-up of culture, history and current affairs. To say that she occupies a vital location on the Europe and Asia border is practically a geo-political cliche.

Our group came to understand how modern Turkey is a cultural and political combination of four previous civilizations - Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman. And much of early Christianity also originated in these parts.
Today, Turkey is torn between aspiring to join the European Union and to be a major player in the Middle East - also between its 20th century secular history and the increasingly Islamist policies of the current government. The key issue in Sunday's election was how much more power the ruling Islamist party could gain. But in a stunning rebuke, they lost their parliamentary majority.

Meanwhile, Turkey is caring for more than one million refugees from the Syrian civil war next door. Yet the country still refuses to acknowledge the massacre of Armenians 100 years ago. And only recently have the Turks given some grudging recognition to their 11 million Kurds.

We were laboring to understand Turkey’s present and its past while it was trying to determine its future. Then, on our last night at a small hotel on the Bosporus, the narrow body of water between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, all these heavy thoughts were washed away as the sun went down and the world floated by on fishing boats, ferries, tankers, and freighters, while muezzin calls to prayer sounded across the water.
Cultural travel can indeed take you out of your comfort zone – but sometimes the experience can be remarkably comfortable .

Writer Bill Mares of Burlington is also a former teacher and state legislator. His most recent book is a collection of his VPR commentaries, titled "3:14 And Out."
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