The Night of the Sphinx

 

Awaiting the Dawn Service, the Sphinx towers above the crowd
 

I am currently lying on the slopes of ANZAC cove, the cool grass beneath me and nothing but inky skies and a few drops of light above. Behind me are thousands of my countrymen and New Zealanders. The great TV screen to my left plays documentaries every half hour or so and there is a general buzz as people continue to filter into the site. I have exchanged words with the New Zealand Prime Minister, aussie journo David ‘kochy’ Koch and one of my tour mates is currently chatting footy with Eddie Macguire, who Andrew and I have just finished saying G’day to as well. It is the tightly controlled media varnish of the ANZAC mythology. 

The peninsula seems awash with a who’s who of Australian and New Zealand who’s who… Well… I’ll let you be the judge of that. Overall there is a carnival atmosphere that has descended upon the crowd, spirits are high, larrikanism seems to be the order of the day. 
It has been an interesting journey here and a whirlwind of Turkey. Moving from Ottoman palaces to Ancient Greek and Roman cities. You can’t help but feel how Turkey has played host to every major power the world creating thousands of myths and legends that have endured time and empires. And now Turkey is playing host to thousands of Australians and New Zealanders remembering their own myths and legends that Turkey is now a very gracious and proud custodian of, as they are their myths and legends too. These myths are like the cats and dogs you will meet all over Turkey; looked after by everyone and yet owned by no one. 
 
The Trojan Horse used in the film “Troy” with Gallipoli in the background
 
It’s now 3am and the whole of ANZAC cove is alive with 10,000 people, we’ve moved from laying down to sitting and now to standing as we fill to capacity. But I think we are all feeling grateful that it is a rather mild night in ANZAC, a very soft breeze is blowing and it is roughly 4 degrees. Everyone seems to be in good spirits as we stand awaiting the dawn. The spirit of ANZAC seems to be in the air this morning, keeping the crowd calm and cooperative and the word’s “a fair go” never too far from someone’s lips. 
Perhaps it is mere sentimentality, but if it is then it is an atmosphere of sentimentality shared by thousands. And perhaps that’s what we as Australians could use right now. Gallipoli is a mythology, an Iliad of heroism on both sides that reads like a Homeric tale. A foolish venture ordered by an aristocracy and amidst blood and tragedy three national identities were formed. Names like Simpson, Sing, Birdwood and Throssel and their actions are the stuff of legend. It is easy to criticise the occasion as a glorification of war, but the place of mythology that Gallipoli occupies in our national consciousness makes it so much more complicated than that. 
This ANZAC day we should remember those values we possessed as a nation that turned us from invaders to brothers, that taught us that war is nasty and horrific and wholly lacking in any kind of Glory. For what is ANZAC day but not a reminder that blind patriotism and nationalism is a dangerous business? That there is more to who we are than blindly following the words of others into conflict, whether they be King or Prime Minister. Most importantly of all it should be a reminder that the other people we fight are human just like us. 
Perhaps if we could invest a little more in thoughts of sentimentality surrounding our national mythology our nation would be the better, more sympathetic and more tolerant for it. After all it is a day for reflection and introspection, a time to think about who we are as a nation and how we will always be defined by our actions. 
     
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Sailing to Byzantium

It is the city that has endured. Empires have risen and fallen. Armies have surged at its gates. The ebb and flow of the world has threatened to overwhelm, but Istanbul has endured.

Descending through the ubiquitous haze into Istanbul is like being swallowed into the belly of the beast. After two weeks in the orderly land of Germany, it was a real culture shock. The streets were chaotic – traffic weaving everywhere, hawkers pushing their products onto us, the trumpeting of car horns competing with the quavering calls to prayer. There was a vitalism here that I’d never encountered before. For the first time, I truly understood why Istanbul is considered one of the great cities of the world. 

The Sultanahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque), Istanbul

It is a city of many names. It began as Byzantium, a thriving trading hub on the shores of the Bosphorus. Becoming part of the Roman Empire in 73CE, it would later be renamed Constantinople as it transformed into the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. Even as the Western Roman Empire fragmented and collapsed in the fifth century, Constantinople cemented itself as the heart of the Orthodox Church. In 1453, the Ottoman Empire captured the city and declared it their capital. Finally, after the collapse of the Ottomans in 1922, it became known as Istanbul.

This long and violent history is visible throughout the cityscape. Modern Istanbul is built on the ruins of previous cities. Ancient structures and fortifications rise out of the pavement, creating a confusing melange of old and new. Decay and modernity exist side by side.  

The Basilica Cistern, Istanbul – ruins beneath the surface

The most impressive monument is the Aya Sophia. Built in 573CE, it was the largest church in the world for over a thousand years. I’ve been inside some of the worlds biggest cathedrals – St Peter’s in Rome, St Paul’s in London, the Sagrada Família in Barcelona – but there’s something awe-inspiring about Aya Sophia. The dome seems to hover in the air, defying the laws of physics. The galleries on the second floor bear graffiti that is centuries old. Golden mosaics decorate the walls, painstakingly constructed in an age when Christianity was still in its infancy. Aya Sophia breathes – I could feel the organism inhaling and exhaling around me. When the Ottomans captured Istanbul in 1453, it was converted into a mosque. Islamic symbols exist alongside Christian markings. Now that the building is a museum, this strange fusion of religions is being preserved, a reminder of the potential for cooperation and peace between religions that is sorely needed. 

Mary and Christ flanked by Muhammad and Allah, a potent reminder of shared beliefs

Our time in Istanbul included a cruise on the Bosphorus, that narrow channel of water which connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara – one of the busiest waterways in the world. It was utterly congested with ships. Small yachts dodged around Russian tankers and stately cruise ships. Upriver from the old town, impressively straddling the shores, was the Bosphorus Bridge, connecting Europe and Asia.

The cruise lasted until the late afternoon. The tepid sunlight reached us through the greasy haze, turning the sky a brilliant yellow. As the day faded, we could see the silhouettes of minarets and mosques clustered on the skyline. 

Sunset over the Bosphorus

Looking over the city, I couldn’t help but imagine what the skyline would look like if the British fleet had managed to force the Dardanelles and reach Istanbul. I often indulge in these exercises of alternate history. The far shore of the Sea of Marmara was visible through the haze; the Gallipoli peninsula was not far. If the fleet had broken though the Turkish defences, the whole of Istanbul would have been under the guns of the British cruisers. Which of these buildings would have been razed to the ground? Would the Aya Sophia still be standing after 1,500 years? What would have been lost in the attack? 

Given such high stakes, it doesn’t surprise me that the Turkish celebrate their equivalent of Anzac Day on 18 March – the day in 1915 when an enormous Allied fleet charged into the Dardanelles, only to be soundly defeated by a combination of shore defences and sea mines. The mighty British fleet was devastated, losing three battlecruisers in a matter of minutes. It was this defeat that prompted the British War Council to begin planning a landing on the peninsula. Istanbul was spared, and millennia of history was preserved. 

Inside the Aya Sophia

In reaching Istanbul, we’ve begun our tour of Turkey which will culminate at the Dawn Service at Gallipoli on April 25th. The tour bus is full of Australians; each one of us has a personal connection to the Anzac legend. There’s a sense of excitement as we embark on the journey, and a sort of somber anticipation of what lies ahead. All around us are constant reminders of the Anzacs: memorials, monuments, exhibits in the museums. Most importantly is the sense of camaraderie we share with the Turkish people. They are our brothers now, our nations forged in that same crucible on that blood-soaked shore. We are bonded not in a celebration of war, but in commemoration of our fallen sons. 

Dawn over Istanbul

Berchtesgaden

After five nights in Munich, it was a relief to escape to somewhere less crowded. Our time in Munich can only be described as a Hedonistic divulgence in drinking and eating. Each night found us at the local beer hall, drinking the famous litre steins and devouring pork knuckles or curry wurst. I’ve never been so full in my life. So we were both feeling a little haggard by the time we left the city, and were looking forward to some time in the mountains.

Berchtesgaden is a picturesque Bavarian village hidden in the Alps. The mountains rise above the valley, rocky grey summits appearing to slash at the sky. Forests blanket the slopes, their trees changing colour as the sun dips towards the horizon. And even though it’s halfway through Spring, there’s still plenty of snow around: many of the roads above the town are still closed. This isn’t my first time to Berchtesgaden. I came here a few years ago and fell in love with the mountains and lakes. But for all of its beauty, Berchtesgaden is a town with a dark past. 

Berchtesgaden in the evening

Hitler was incredibly fond of the area, having owned property on the Obersalzburg mountain since the 1920’s. After he came to power in 1933, the Nazi Party began to occupy the Obersalzburg mountain, buying up property for party leaders and driving out the locals. In fact, Berchtesgaden was so beloved by the Nazis that it became their southern headquarters. German tourists would flock to Berchtesgaden in the hope of seeing their leader in his Alpine haunt. It was a valuable military target. An extensive bunker system was constructed beneath the Obersalzburg in case Berlin was lost. A fog machine built into the mountain could create a thick cloud that could hide the mountain from enemy aircraft. Most famously, Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest was built on the summit of the mountain. It’s still quite visible from the streets of Berchtesgaden, a grim reminder of the town’s past. 

The Eagle’s Nest can be seen on top of the mountain behind the town

Berchtesgaden wasn’t bombed during the war, so many of the buildings built by the Nazis are still standing. The train station, in particular, still bears the angular lines and symmetry of Nazi architecture. Built in 1937, there are still recesses in the walls and above doors that once housed swastikas.

Berlin and Munich had been full of memorials and museums dedicated to the two world wars that had shaped the country – they offered insights into the past, along with the aim of preventing it from happening again. It some cases it was overwhelming, with the sheer number of casualties or the heart-reading stories of persecution and mass murder simply beyond comprehension. But in Berchtesgaden, we saw how a small community was impacted by war.

There’s no doubt that the people of this town suffered under the Nazi regime. The cemetery here is full of memorials to fallen soldiers from both wars. It was strange to see memorial plaques to soldiers who had fought for the Nazis. We’d spent the last couple of weeks being taught that the Nazis were the epitome of evil, yet here were their memorials, still lovingly maintained, with haunting epitaphs from grieving mothers who had lost their sons. In some cases, two or three brothers from the same family were on the same plaque. These children were so young; their boyish faces in the faded sepia photos knew nothing of the horrors of war. It was staggering to see how many of them lost their lives in April 1945, during the last weeks of the war. These kids didn’t look like the epitome of evil. They’d been caught up in the manipulations and oppression of a totalitarian regime. It brought home the fact that the first country invaded by the Nazis was Germany itself.

At night, the cemetery was lit by a field of red candles, forming rows of flickering light that flanked the dead. 

A chapel on the hill above Berchtesgaden

We wanted our time in Berchtesgaden to be more than simply visiting the sites of past oppression. One of the highlights of our time here was the hike we did from Lake Königssee to the Eiskapelle (ice cave). Setting out from the shore of the lake, we climbed through Alpine forest up the side of a ridge. It was a crisp morning, with a few clouds breaking against the crest of the mountains.

The top of the ridge was covered with snow – sporadic patches at first, but soon becoming deeper, until we were trudging through calf-deep drifts. The plateau on the other side of the ridge was nestled between the mountains, and the biting wind rushed down their flanks, a remnant of Winter even in the middle of Spring. The snow was deep here. Our shoes weren’t made for this type of terrain. We could hear streams rushing beneath our feet, with the realisation that one misstep off the side of the narrow path could end in disaster. 

The plateau above Lake Königssee

The Eiskapelle itself was inaccessible, buried beneath the snow. So we stood on a rock at the centre of the plateau and watched the myriad small avalanches in the mountains around us. They sounded like the waves breaking on Cottesloe Beach. 

On the plateau near the Eiskapelle

On this remote mountain plateau, the only other hikers we encountered were also Australians. Typical! So as we descended down towards the lake, we shouted out the occasional “coo-ee!” and laughed when we heard their response. 

The view from Lake Königssee

The Sublime and the Cynic

Every travel narrative should aspire to have one sublime moment, a moment when the traveller encounters something so beautiful – so vast and profound – that they are overwhelmed by the experience. The spirit soars and the mind boggles. Seeking such moments is the whole point of travel.

I admit that I was utterly cynical about Schloss Neuschwanstein. Built by the mad King Ludwig II, it has served little historical significance except as a drawcard for tourists and Disney fans. I’ve seen so many photos of it – in Spring, Summer, or Winter – that I didn’t think I could be impressed. I’m always wary of such obvious tourist traps. It’s just a castle, right? 

Just another castle, according to cynical Andrew

We started the day by catching the cable car to the top of Tegelberg, a nearby mountain that serves as a launching point for hang-gliders.  After a furious (yet obligatory) snowball fight, we spent some time admiring the view. The snow-draped Alps stretched to the horizon, under a blue sky that was a checkerboard of contrails. 

On the summit of Tegelberg

We descended Tegelberg and went on to Schloss Neuschwanstein. It was only as we got closer that I realised the position it commands. It straddles a hill in front of the mountains, so that no matter where you view it from – the mountains or the valley – it’s framed against a spectacular backdrop. And as we walked up to the door of the castle, I could no longer deny that I was captivated. Here was a unique piece of architecture – a kind of fairy-tale gothic – surrounded by the sublime majesty of the Bavarian Alps. Snowy peaks rise above it, a river cuts a deep gorge alongside it. I was converted.

The best views of the castle are from the nearby bridge, Marienbrücke. It was thick with tourists – the clicks of camera shutters could be heard long before we reached the bridge. And it was a battle to push through the crowd. I’m pretty sure I’m lurking in the background of a dozen photos. 

Neuschwanstein and Marienbrücke

 We climbed a little higher than the bridge and, ignoring the numerous danger signs, emerged onto a precarious ledge that overlooked the castle. It was the best view yet, and we clung to the tree roots as we leaned over the edge. Here was the sublime in its purest form – a stunning mountain panorama, with the Alps rising high above us, coupled with the danger of falling to our deaths. I felt like a character in an Ann Radcliffe novel.  

Posing on the cliff’s edge

A hike along the river finished the afternoon. A hike in the Bavarian Alps on a sunny afternoon, with the last of the Winter’s snow still melting on the ground. Our trip has been so focused on history – on the two wars that have ripped this country apart – that it was good to finally appreciate the scenery.