My new book DELPHINE takes place partly in Turkey, one of my favorite countries of the Middle East -- or anywhere, for that matter. On my third trip to Turkey, I explored some remote areas in the eastern part of the country. One morning, after a breakfast of olives, tomatoes, feta, bread and honey, and hard-boiled egg, some friends and I set out from the extremely vertical city of Artvin to find some of the ninth and tenth century Georgian churches and monasteries in the area.
The driver of our van had to make wide turns to maneuver each of the zig-zagging switchbacks. Skinny minarets like rockets pieced the sky from behind cliff-side buildings.
A thousand and more years ago, fortresses, castles, and churches were built in this remote area to protect the trade route to the Black Sea. After a long drive along a narrow road clinging to the side of the canyon, we left the paved road and began climbing a steep, winding, even more narrow road.
For some time, we climbed and jolted along, my palms getting damper and damper as I gazed into space from the van, until we reached a small village and the little ninth century church. A girl about eight years old ran to get the key to the abandoned church. Soon, several boys and another small girl appeared. One of the smaller boys wore a faded Pokemon tee shirt, but -- since there were no televisions in this tiny village -- he probably had no idea who the cute yellow creature was. We never did see an adult in the village.
Beneath the cone-shaped steeple, the remains of many ornate carvings of angels, saints, and stones cut to look as if they were woven together illustrated the skill of the long-ago craftsmen. Inside, we found pieces of a few faded frescoes. Handsome as this church still was in its decayed glory, it was just the first course of what was intended to be a feast of ancient treasures.
Driving back to the main road, we traveled for a while along the valley edge, then left it, again climbing a very narrow dirt road that rose rapidly, twisting along the cliff edge, unpredictably rising and falling and rising again. The so-called road became worse and worse. At one point, the driver asked some local people we met if the road ahead was even passable.
As we climbed and the road became steeper and narrower, we progressed from being nervous to being scared to being terrified. Much of the side of the road had washed away, leaving a precipitous drop just inches from the van's wheels. At one point, the driver made us all get out while he made a sharp turn.
The road led through a village of ancient wood houses and log barns; cows and other livestock wandered over deep tracks between the houses. The few women we saw were completely covered in their colorful but very modest traditional dress. We continued on, around narrow curves on steep, sheer drops, finally arriving at the stone church that was all that remained of a once famous ninth century Georgian orthodox monastery.
The church and monastry had been well situated for defense far above the valley floor. The conical stone dome and exterior carvings of Biblical figures were evocative even in their ruined state, but not much remained of the interior decoration. The place obviously had been used as a barn in its more recent past. Weeds grew around and over piles of firewood and debris, lizards and small birds darting here and there. We weren't exactly disappointed by the condition of the church, but more sad that such a treasure had ended up like this.
To avoid the worst of the cliffside journey down the mountain, I started walking downhill. Now, I saw clearly just how far we would have plummeted if the van had gone over the edge. The views were spectacular, but not to be appreciated from a moving vehicle.
When I finally walked into the village, people seemed astonished to see a foreigner strolling among them. Each time I encounter a man or small group of men, I put my hand over my heart and said "Merhaba." They nodded and responded, but looked perplexed by my appearance. When I asked with gestures if the road continued down through the village -- I wasn't sure about an apparent crossroads I'd passed -- one man with huge black moustache nodded yes. I continued walking, detouring around some skinny cows and meeting some younger men.
"Merhaba," I said and they responded. One of them, a soldier, held out his hand to shake mine.
"Where from?" he asked.
"America," I replied.
They all nodded, surprised.
Farther down the hill, I came to a boy and girl about nine and eight. The boy said, "What is your name?" in English. I told him and asked his name, but he didn't understand. "Where are you from?" he asked. "How are you? I am fine, hello."The pair grinned, the girl giggled, and they ran off, shouting with excitement.
Eventually, I waited near the paved road until the dust-coated van with my friends appeared. They all agreed that coming down was the most frightening drive of their lives. Twice, the driver had them get out while he maneuvered around sloping hairpin turns. Continuing on down, we drove through a deep, narrow gorge next to a jade green river. I glimpsed a rope bridge slung across the river and a woman in many-layered traditional garb coming up from it, where she'd been washing clothes.
This part of Turkey was unlike anything else I had experienced on previous trips -- a stunningly beautiful and thought-provoking glimpse into a past not entirely past.
Bruce Douglas Reeves, author of DELPHINE, winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition, published by Texas Review Press. Available from University Press Books-Berkeley (800-676-8722), Amazon, Texas A & M Corsortium, and Barnes & Noble and by order from your local book store.