It’s all very well deciding to follow Gertrude Bell around Turkey but the obvious snag is that she didn’t make just one trip to the country. Instead in the quarter century between 1890 and 1914 she made so many visits that she had quite a nice little social life going on in places such as İstanbul, Izmir and Konya where her visits became a virtual fixture on the calendar.
What to do then?
Well, I’ve decided to merge all her itineraries into one big loop, starting in İstanbul, transiting the archaeological sites of the Aegean coast, crossing Anatolia to Karaman, heading down to the Mediterranean at Silifke, then shadowing the Syrian and Iraqi borders as far as Cizre before returning via Diyarbakır, Elazığ, Malatya, Kayseri, Aksaray and Eskişehir. That seems a manageable trip even though I’ll put off copying her assault on Mt Hasan in Cappadocia until after I’ve completed it rather than risk breaking an ankle and wrecking the whole project midway through.
The rough route is easy enough to sketch out. What is not quite so easy is to fill in the detail.
The problem lies in the fact that almost every settlement in Turkey has undergone frequent name changes. Sometimes these are easy to discover but when it comes to the smaller places that Bell mentions in passing I may not actually be able to work out exactly where she went until I’m much closer to it and can check with the locals. To further complicate matters even the phonetic systems used to transliterate Turkish into English can mean that place names look initially confusing and don’t correlate with what is on the maps. And while today even the smallest settlement has a handy sign at its entrance showing the correct contemporary spelling of its name Gertrude often had to depend on what she had heard and written down phonetically. Great linguist though she was, sometimes she may not have heard quite correctly.
As far as I can ascertain she never made it to Göreme where I live. But this is a village which perfectly exemplifies the problem, having started life as the twin settlements of Corama and Matiana. Matiana then became Macan. By the 1970s Macan sounded too “foreign” for the authorities and the village was renamed Avçılar, a name that still appears in some old guidebooks. Now it’s called Göreme by all but the waggish dolmus drivers who tease the tourists by calling it Macan. Plenty of scope for confusion there, I’d say, and it’s a problem that crops up all over the country – it was only today, for example, that I discovered that Gertrude’s Misthia is now Fasıllar, near Beysehir.
The picture I’ve attached exemplifies another problem. It’s the sign by the bridge in what the Turks call Hasankeyf but the Kurds call Heskif, a settlement that was visited by Bell who called it Husnukeif. Throughout eastern Turkey most settlements have alternative Kurdish, Arabic and/or Suryani names, as well as historic names in Armenian. Until recently none of these could be used in official contexts. That restriction having been lifted in 2014, the local names are starting to reappear which is all well and good but does add yet another layer of complication when it comes to mapping an early 20th-century itinerary onto a modern map.