In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great
I blag a new Range Rover to explore the route taken by Alexander the Great in the 3rd century B.C.
I'd been sitting in a small dimly lit, and sparsely furnished room in an army barracks deep in central Turkey for three hours. I had watched patiently as the heavily armed young conscript typed my passport details, together with whatever crime I was supposed to have committed onto a piece of plain paper, which was counter signed by the two Policemen who had brought me in. For the first time in nearly a month away I felt alone, unable to communicate with my captors, relying solely on my Turkish phrase book, which does not have the useful phrase 'I am not a spy' in it.
I remained calm and polite, despite breaking out in the odd cold sweat, and the young officers treated me with courtesy. Eventually I was taken upstairs to be interviewed by the officer in charge, who spoke good French, so at last I was able to tell him, in my well practised restaurant French that I had not noticed the 'No Photography, Military Area' sign at the side of the road as I videoed a street scene through the Range Rover's windscreen. He solemnly watched my recording, leaning back and shaking his head. I then played my trump card and showed him an article I had written for LRO back in 1993 featuring a picture of myself standing next to another Range Rover in Italy. The ice was broken and he then insisted I stayed for supper and we chatted for a further hour about Land Rovers and how they were 'tres fort'. My faith in the Turks as one of the most hospitable people I have ever met restored, I was invited to continue my journey north to Istanbul, some five hours behind schedule, but relieved not to be rotting in a Turkish jail.
I was in Turkey retracing Alexander the Great's footsteps when, at the tender age of 20, he led his army of about 40,000 East, from the ancient Macedonian capital Pella, to conquer the Persian Empire. Within two years he had completed the first leg by winning all of Asia Minor and picking up the enviable title of 'the Great'. His route meandered around Turkey ensuring that he covered all the strategic strongholds within the country and had the makings of an interesting trip for me, combining ancient history with contemporary adventure in this most foreign of Europe's immediate neighbours. I had been working in Turkey the previous October, and visited Ephesus, a city which was in it?s heyday during Alexander's reign. Knee deep in archeology it fascinated me and I felt an urge to return in a car more suited to the pot holed Turkish roads than my rented Fiat, and equally at home on the many miles of motorway just to reach my starting point in Greece. What better than the new Range Rover diesel, it's BMW engine panting for a good thrash across those endless continental Autoroutes, and it's sophisticated air suspension primed for a crack at the potholed Turkish roads.
Crossing the Derdenelles on a small ferry.
After six months research and what seemed endless last minute preparations I left Leicester on a Wednesday evening, in time to catch the 22.15 sailing of P&O's Pride of Dover where I grabbed an hour's sleep in the luxury of club class, prior to slipping onto the empty Autoroute where I was to remain, in one country or another for the next three days, enjoying the effortless cruising capability of the new Range Rover DSE. With cruise control set to 90 mph, the interior temperature controlled at 21 C and the seat adjusted to perfection, countries were dispatched in hours rather than days.
On reaching Thessaloniki in Greece I treated myself to a night in a Hotel, although feet up on the Range Rover dash in a lay bye was becoming very comfortable. Much refreshed and somewhat cleaner after a good shower I ventured up the road to find Alexander's birthplace at nearby Pella. My first impression of the site I had read so much about was disappointment. I had imagined an inspiring hill top location, where Alexander would have planned his campaign. Instead I found the site on flat farming land on a very busy crossroads with lorries roaring past and an overwhelming fishy smell emanating from a recently fertilised, nearby field. Undeterred I spent three hours wandering around absorbing the atmosphere, sharing the site with only six other visitors all morning. From here my pace slowed to a more Mediterranean speed and I had a gentle amble East along the smooth and easy Greek coast road to the Turkish border, turquoise sea to my right and fertile hinterland to my left.
Pottering along at a leisurely 50 mph I suddenly realised I had no Greek money, it was Sunday and the chances of finding a hotel along this remote stretch of road were minimal, so I had to resume my Euro speed to make Turkey and a hotel that I could pay for. The Turkish border at Ipsala took an hour to cross, much rubber stamping and a £10 visa charge. The delay was waiting for the customs officer who was giving the VW Passat in front of me a thorough going over. When my turn eventually came it was swift, but whilst waiting I was offered a seat in the customs hall directly underneath a swallows nest with the resultant guano all over the seat back. The agile little birds had to use the same narrow doorway as the rest of us, and I watched them for some time, admiring their flying skill. By the time I was allowed to enter Turkey it was 10.00 pm and I estimated I had a two hour drive down to Eceabat, my destination. The road, whilst straight and deserted, was irregular in its surface and typical of the roads I would be spending the next three and a half weeks on. However the Range Rover's headlights and driving lamps are excellent and its wide track and big 235 section Michelin tyres ensure predictable handling even on the worst road surfaces, with the reassurance of A.B.S. and airbags. It was an enjoyable blast along a road that resembled a giant bar code, such was the pattern of repairs and I was able to cover the distance in an hour and a half helped by the occasional burst motorway speed.
This is the view the combined Turkish and German forces had of Sulva Bay where our brave lads landed in the Galipolli campaign in WW1.
Eceabat, a windswept one horse town, had a hotel room available for the princely sum of £5. Being the only Englishman in there and in quite the best car ever to grace the place, I soon assumed celebrity status, and was treated to a few glasses of Raki by a chap called Sadat, who told me all about himself and his family as word spread that an Englishman was in town, and despite the late hour people turned up to meet me and look at the Range Rover. Away from the tourist areas of Turkey this genuine hospitality is given freely out of a desire to meet people and share conversation.
The following morning I had to cross the Dardanelles from European Turkey to Eastern Turkey and at my friend Sadat's suggestion, I travelled a little further south on the Gallipoli peninsular to Kilitbahir, a small village where a ferry operated that was both cheaper (£3) and quicker than the bigger one at Eceabat. Driving off the ferry 15 minutes later I was aware of being in the East, the wailing of the mosque surrounded me, as it was time for the Muslim population to face Mecca. When Alexander crossed the same stretch of water 2000 years before he had sacrificed a bullock half way across. As a token gesture in his memory I ate my last beef sandwich, still fresh four days later in the 12 volt fridge I had in the back of the Range Rover.
The ruins of the city of Troy was my first destination where it is possible to see back across the straights to the Gallipoli peninsula, barely five miles away. This famous city which dates back to 3600 BC is now carpeted in poppies and other wild flowers, and the determined visitor can stroll through the nine incarnations of the cities remains as it fell to natural and manmade disasters. From Troy I headed North up the coast, first picking my way through a herd of goats on the small road , prior to joining the main road, which was remarkably smooth running across the flat farming landscape. I was beginning to wonder when I would get my first opportunity to try the Range Rover's off road ability when the following morning I set off in search of the River Granicus, scene of Alexanders first major battle against 50,000 Persian led troops. The exact location of this river is difficult to pinpoint. I had worked out from old maps and descriptions that it must run through the bustling town of Biga. A group of teenage school children I asked in Biga had not even heard of Alexander, let alone the River Granicus. Undeterred I set off up a track at the side of the river. The mud became deeper and I set the Range Rover?s suspension to 'high' and electronically engaged low ratio. In third gear I proceeded gently, listening to the traction control clicking erratically as it operated to keep all four wheels gripping. I had taken care to avoid the deepest of the tractor ruts and eventually came to a spot, which according to the accounts I had read, must have been near to the spot where the great battle took place. With birds singing in the spring sunshine it was difficult to imagine some 90,000 men locked in hand to hand combat, the river flowing red with blood, and Alexander himself nearly killed on that very spot by an enemy spear. Having taken a few photos I turned the Range Rover round and headed back towards the road, daydreaming about the battle and completely forgetting about the deep ruts I had avoided going out, until it was too late. I booted it in third, low ratio, knowing I was too far in to be able to turn back, and hung on to the wheel as the Range Rover bucked and jumped around, the traction control going frantic as it tried in vain to lessen wheelspin. I ground to a halt, all four wheels spinning in light mud and the belly of the Range Rover firmly bottomed out on the ridge in the middle of the track. What an idiot I had been! Alone in a most foreign land with no recovery kit. After a quick appraisal of the situation I realised I was only about 200 yds. from the road and tractors are the most popular form of rural transport, but one big enough to pull out 2700 kg's of loaded Range Rover? Flagging down a tractor was easy, and fortunately he could just see my predicament from the road, illustrated by much arm waving on my part. A rusty wire hawser was produced and off we went. I knew the hawser was not up to the task at a glance, but he seemed confident and relished the challenge. The wire broke immediately, and then the shortened version also broke . It was not until we were down to about a five foot length that the tractor dug it?s wheels in, the Range Rover resumed it?s bucking bronco impression and we just got it out. Back at the road I thrust packets of Marlboro into his hand with the equivalent of a tenner inside. He was very reluctant to take anything, and looked upon the whole incident as a huge joke at my expense that he would be talking about with his mates for weeks to come.
My shining golden chariot was now caked in mud and looked as though it had earned its spurs at last. Shamefaced I headed South and inland in search of the remains of Dascilium, a city that gave in to Alexander without a fight, his reputation having preceded him. Barely noticeable as only a hump in a field, this once great city lies adjacent to a large lake and is approached by a steep, but dry, track so no need for any more heroics. That night I phoned home to find that Britain was enjoying a May heatwave with temperatures of 25 C, whilst I was shivering in Turkey at 10 C even resorting to switching on the Range Rover?s heated seats! The last accessory I thought I would be using on this trip.
My route now took me South, up into the hills of central Turkey, in the direction of the next ancient city, Sardis. These were winding roads with many hairpin bends and logging trucks to overtake, all hideously overloaded with pine trees, reduced to grinding up hills in first gear at a crawl. The BMW engine is positively turbine smooth and the flat torque curve between 1500 rpm and 4400 rpm made passing these lumbering dinosaurs a simple process. I stopped for lunch in the town of Akhisar, it?s back streets a labyrinth of small businesses, proving that if you give a Turk 10 square feet of workspace he will make a living for his family, such is their resourcefulness. This place was so off the beaten track that it wasn?t even in my Rough Guide to Turkey the guide book I used exclusively and yet the area was the world's biggest producer of raisins, and the hardy old vines were either side of the road for miles.
From Sardis, which was rather over restored, I followed Alexander's path to the Aegean Coast, and hopped down the next few sites, Ephesus, Miletus and Halikarnassos all of which were heaving with tourists, which came as a bit of a shock after being in the countryside for a week. I was suddenly aware that the open friendship was now being directed into the sale of a carpet, and accommodation charges, though cheap, were treble what I had been paying inland. Fortunately by the time I reached Antalya, quite the most overdeveloped resort, it was time to head inland again and up to the mountains.
Termessos was the one city Alexander did not conquer, and I soon realised why. I pulled off the main road into a national park, paid £1.50 entry fee and began a five mile ascent to about 3000 feet, a torturous road even in a Range Rover, avoiding fallen boulders and the ubiquitous potholes, then having to walk another 1000 feet up from the car park, glad of my K shoes 'Wainwright' walking boots, a last minute addition to the luggage in case I had to do any serious walking. At the top was the remains of a huge fortified city, complete with spectacular amphitheatre, perched on the mountain top. How on earth men built these structures I cannot imagine, such is their scale. By now it was at last hot, and I treated myself to a snooze on top of the amphitheatre. The long climb deters all but the most determined tourists, so I had only the swallows for company. Absolute bliss!
Parked up in a Blacksmith's yard.
My whistlestop tour of Alexander the Great's conquests was now well behind schedule so I pressed on to Lake Burdur where Alexander had observed locals making salt from the saline deposits in the lake. The salt was still there, but alas the locals now bought their salt at the local shop. I stopped the Range Rover with the intention of photographing a peasant leaning on his hoe, when a family of three pulled up balanced on a moped. This is normal in Turkey. Up to three people on a moped or five on a Jawa 250 motorbike. If you go into farming you then need to add a sidecar for a couple of sheep and your mother in law, who seems to occupy a position in society slightly above a mule. Of course no Turk ever wears a crash helmet, preferring to entrust their fate to Allah. The rider of this moped introduced himself as Mehmet and insisted I joined them for tea at their house nearby so he could practice his English. I was swamped with hospitality and they wanted nothing in return. Mehmet even jet washed the Range Rover for me at the nearby dairy where he worked, so it was restored to a gleaming golden chariot again. We exchanged addresses and having enjoyed two hours of their friendship I continued with my adventure, heading for Gordium, the remains of another city and then on to Ankara, the capital of Turkey. This huge and sophisticated city held no charm for me, but was blessed with a fast dual carriageway, so I was able to cross it quickly and return to the land of the horse and cart and the £4 hotel room. Hotels are not the only thing that is cheap, a tankful of diesel, £44 in England, is half that in Turkey, which was an unexpected surprise, and the all important beer after a long day tramping around ancient monuments was a snip at 30p.
My next destination was Cappadocia, famous for the bizarre towns cut into volcanic rock, resembling giant ant hills and inhabited until recently. I was given a guided tour of one of the less well known ones, and shown churches that the Christian crusaders had cut out of the rock 1400 years ago. In Uchisar I spotted a sign for the Kaya Pension, recommended in the Rough Guide and took the small track up to the right, soon realising that this could not possibly be the correct entrance as I engaged low ratio and raised the suspension. I was, in fact on a now disused track, partially eroded away, since the advent of a new road. My antics gave the locals a laugh as the Range Rover made light work of the ascent.
A church cut into the rock at Cappadocia.
Following a couple of days doing the sights of Cappadocia it was time to head South to my furthest point away from home, just north of the Syrian border at a place called Antakya. Near here Alexander had fought his last major battle in Asia Minor at a place called Issus, now an industrial estate! Earthquakes had altered the shape of the land over the last 2000 years, so it is impossible to stand on the exact spot, however in Antakya I was to witness the most bizarre sight of my whole trip. I had been aware of a great deal of sheep selling at the side of the road for a few days and an English teacher explained to me that it was the Kurban Bayrami (Festival of the Sacrifice) and that the next day country wide 2.5 million lambs would be sacrificed representing Abraham sacrificing a sheep instead of his son in the Old Testament. I awoke at 8.00 to hear the sound of a sheep unaware of it's fate at a house next to my hotel and dashed down, camera ready, only to be 30 seconds too late for the slitting of it's throat, but I was waved in to photograph the whole procedure of butchering the animal. I was even invited to join the family for the meal, but somehow I was off lamb. That evening strolling through the empty town there seemed to be a lot of commotion emanating from the blacksmith?s quarter. Feeling brave I ventured into a yard that looked like the set for a mediaeval horror film. The blacksmith's job for the evening was to prepare the sheep's heads for a ceremonial soup making. This involved poking a steel spike up the nostril of the dismembered head and holding it in the flames to burn off the wool, then scraping off the burnt remains, splitting the skull open with an axe, wrenching the jaw apart, and dropping the remains back into a polythene bag for the owner to take home and wash before cooking. The smell was heady as it was hot, and the energy of the place was enormous. I mingled and watched and took pictures for a while, blending in well dressed in my Marks and Spencer's Spring collection!
Antakia, the furthest south I got.
Potentially off lamb forever, but richer for the experience, it was time to head north and ultimately home. I took the coast road along the Mediterranean which was slow and winding as it meandered around the mountains and shoreline. I calculated that at one point I had been in either second or third gear for 100 miles, and had never done so much steering, but with Van Morrison on the stereo and the wind in my hair, through sunroof and windows it was most enjoyable, sea on my left and banana plantations on my right. The road became more tourist infested as I headed west, so I cut up North, inland only to be 'arrested' for pointing my video camera in the wrong direction at the wrong time, which is where I opened my tale.
Having stormed my way up to Budapest in Hungary via Bulgaria and Rumania on what we would class as B roads, it was great to return to Euro motoring and romp home in seemingly no time, enjoying a shower and Dover Sole on P&O's Pride of Calais to set me up for the last slog up the M20/M25/M1.
I had covered nearly 8000 miles single handed in three and a half weeks, which gave me a tremendous feeling of achievement. The Range Rover DSE had been great company. I had virtually lived in it, and though not designed as a bedroom I can vouch for the fact that if you recline the seat, engage 1st gear, let the hand brake off so it doesn?t dig into your thigh, then kick your shoes off and swing your feet over to rest on the passenger side dashboard, before finally, resting your head on a down filled pillow it is possible to be asleep within 1 minute of stopping.
Many thanks to:
Land Rover Ltd.
'K' Shoes 'Wainwright' walking boots.
Fuji pro film
The Rough Guide to Turkey