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. 

Lest We Forget, 1915-2015

“I could pour into your ears so much truth about the grandeur of our Australian army, and the wonderful affection of these young soldiers for each other and their homeland, that your Australianism would become a more powerful sentiment than before. It is stirring to see them, magnificent manhood, swinging their fine limbs as they walk about Anzac. They have the noble faces of men who have endured. Oh, if you could picture Anzac as I have seen it, you would find that to be an Australian is the greatest privilege the world has to offer.” 

– Keith Murdoch, “The Gallipoli Letter”, 23 Sept 1915

We could see them across the gulf of a century. They huddled together in the boats in the bitter grey twilight as they approached the shore. We stood on the beach, cliffs at our back, eyes cast out to sea, waiting for them. When they came ashore, amidst a maelstrom of bullets and shrapnel, they were disoriented and scared. Imposing cliffs rose above the thin strip of sand and rock. This wasn’t where they were supposed to land! It was the wrong place! Across the span of time, we welcomed them in silence, here on this dismal shore in the biting cold, standing shoulder to shoulder with their former enemies. We stood here with them, here at Anzac Cove. 

Nothing I’ve experienced in my life can compare to commemorating the centenary of Anzac Day at Gallipoli. We arrived on the Gallipoli peninsula in the early afternoon of Friday, 24 April. There was a great sense of migration, an inward press of people converging on the same place. We were fortunate to cross the Dardanelles so early in the day; we heard that over 300 buses were waiting in line at a crossing further up the channel. After passing through the bus registration point and various security checkpoints, we arrived at the holding area at Kabatepe. 

Looking south towards Kabatepe, April 1915. Photo taken by William Henry Cameron
 It was our first view of the desolate Gallipoli coastline. Kabatepe was where the Anzac soldiers were supposed to land – a flat beach leading to the inland plains. To the north, we could see the beginnings of the Sari Bair range – rugged ridges rising up from the beach. 

Walking north from Kabatepe, 25 April 2015
 The walk to the commemorative site took forty minutes. The cluster of grandstands and stages were nestled under the cliffs, looking down onto the beach. The imposing rock edifice known as the Sphinx towered over us. It’s only now that I truly understand just how steep the cliffs are – photos don’t do justice to their sheer scale. This was the worst possible place along this entire peninsula to attempt a landing. How the Anzac troops managed to even establish a beachhead is entirely beyond my comprehension. We settled down on the grass (and my parents settled down in one of the grandstands) and watched night fall over the Aegean. A long night was ahead. 

Dad, Mum, myself, and Garreth at the Anzac Commemorative Site
 Because we’d arrived so early (bus number 87 out of an estimated 500), we were lucky to be able to lie down for the first few hours. But around midnight, the continued influx of people meant that we had to first sit up, then stand to make room. At 2am, there were still 1,500 people waiting to enter the site.

But it was a night full of simple moments too. Walks with Garreth and my parents along the promenade. Watching the spotlights play over the Sphinx. Chatting to the New Zealand Prime Minister, taking a selfie with Kochie. Having a joke around with Eddie McGuire and telling him that I’m a huge Eagles supporter. And an interview I did for ABC radio. The cove felt like a little slice of home, here on his distant shore. 

The Sphinx spotlighted above the crowd in the night

“In no unreal sense it was on the 25th of April, 1915, that the consciousness of Australian nationhood was born.”

– Charles Bean

The dawn was announced by a dusky red glow above the cliffs. As the service began, the sky changed to a grey twilight above us. Dignitaries made their speeches, and a procession of naval ships passed by the coast. There was a palpable swelling of emotion from the crowd. The Last Post has never sounded so haunting as it did in that morning twilight.

When the main commemorative service had finished, the Australians hiked up Artillery Road to Lone Pine, while the New Zealanders continued on to Chunuk Bair. The Australian ceremony at Lone Pine was so much more relaxed than the main service, for which we were all pretty grateful, because most of us had been awake for over 30 hours at this point. The view from Lone Pine was also quite stunning, with a sweeping vista up the second ridge to Chunuk Bair. During the minute of silence, the chirping and whistling of birds sounded across the hilltop – it was hard to believe this peaceful place had once been a site of ferocious battle. 

Lone Pine, 25 April 2015
 Seeing the memorial at Lone Pine was a sobering way to end this day of remembrance. The Dardanelles campaign was a disaster for the Allies. 43,921 dead, 97,112 wounded. The Turkish losses were even more staggering: 86,692 dead, 164,617 wounded. We were constantly reminded that every step we took was on a grave of our ancestors.

A century after the landings, it’s worth asking what the Anzac legend means to my generation, and what role it plays in defining our nation. It’s something that is hard to articulate, because it is something that exists inside us, something that is part of our identity as Australians. Gallipoli is Australia’s foundation myth. It is the story we learn in school – the story of Simpson and his donkey, the story of brave Hugo Throssell, the story of a desperate clamour up the side of cliffs, and the story of a withdrawal that didn’t cost a single life. It is our French Revolution, it is our War of Independence. It is the single moment when we became aware of ourselves as a nation – a moment when we stood up and announced ourselves to the world. As long as Australia endures, the word Gallipoli will resonate in its people. And as I grow older and think about one day having children of my own, it seems more and more important to remember the sacrifices of our ancestors, to commemorate and celebrate their lives. 

Atatürk’s famous address to the mothers of Anzac soldiers is a prominent part of the Anzac memorial
 And what about those Australian values that crystallised in these trenches – mateship, bravery, larrikinism? It seems to me that those values are more important than ever. Having spent the last ten days on a tour with a group of Australian and New Zealanders, the sense of camaraderie we shared by the time we reached Gallipoli was only possible because of these shared values.

As our nation continues to grow into the next century, it becomes increasingly important for our leaders to reflect on the values and lessons learnt at Gallipoli. Australia is a different place to what it was in 1915, but many of the challenges are the same. After spending the last week experiencing gracious Turkish hospitality, and hearing about how this country has made room for millions of their neighbours fleeing from religious and political persecution, my feelings on some of Australia’s issues have been reinforced. The second verse of our national anthem says that “for those who’ve come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share”, and I would like to see the current leaders of Australia remember these words and be as welcoming as our Turkish hosts have been. 

Dad and I at the Anzac Commemorative Site
 Sitting at the commemorative site, I thought about my grandfather as the dawn blossomed above me. I remembered visiting Albany, all those months ago, to commemorate the departure of the first convoy. (And how similar the coastlines of Albany and Gallipoli!) It had been the start of a long road, a journey that bridged across a century. And now I was standing in the place that had been the end of that road. My grandfather had been here, scrambling up the side of these cliffs, gasping and shouting into the dawn light. He was only here a few days before he was shot in the leg and evacuated. His story was short and furious, a mere drop in the tidal wave that washed up on this shore in 1915. 

My grandfather, William Henry Cameron
 I am humbled and honoured to be here. I know that, no matter where I go or what I do, I will always carry today in my heart. On those quiet mornings, when I lie awake and listen to the birdsong through my window, or on those tranquil evenings at Cottesloe, when the breeze is cool and the waves lap contentedly at my feet, my thoughts will return to this desolate stretch of coast and the profound and desperate events that occurred here. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.

The Sons of Gallipoli

As our tour makes its way through Turkey, we’ve seen some incredible sights – the urban sprawl of Istanbul, the olive groves of Sirince, and the surreal Moonscape of Cappadocia. We’ve seen the mausoleum of Atatürk, the ruins of Hierapolis, and the ancient chapels of Göreme. We’ve explored the tunnels and chambers of Kaymakli underground city. We’ve watched demonstrations of the Whirling Dervishes, the ancient art of pottery, and the weaving of carpets. We spent an afternoon wandering the ruined city of Ephesus, where Garreth performed a Shakespearean sonnet in the Great Theatre. And we’ve watched the sunrise from a hot air balloon above the calcium terraces of Pamukkale. Each day has brought a wealth of experiences. 

Sunrise over the calcium terraces of Pamukkale
 Something we’re rapidly learning is what Gallipoli means to the Turkish people, and the significance it played in inspiring a revolution and developing the modern Turkish nation. This isn’t something we could pick up from a text book: it’s something we’ve gathered from conversations with locals, watching adverts and documentaries on Turkish television, and seeing how the nation is approaching the centenary of the battle.

As soon as we’re recognised as Australians, there’s an instant kinship with our new Turkish friends. More than one local has used the term brother to describe the relationship. Australians are welcomed here – we fought in the same battle, we were forged in that same crucible. It doesn’t matter that we fought against each other; all has been forgiven. There is a distinct sense that we are travelling to Gallipoli to remember not just the Australians and New Zealanders, but the many Turkish soldiers who also lost their lives.

The Turkish experience of Gallipoli was an entirely different narrative to what we hear in Australia. The soldiers were repelling an invasion of their homeland. In many cases, they were fighting for land that had belonged to their families for generations. Many of them sacrificed their lives to protect their nation. It requires a strange sort of cognitive shift to think of Australia as an invading force, but that’s what happened. 

Anzac soldiers in Cairo, 1915. Photo taken by my grandfather, William Henry Cameron
 When the First World War began, the British Empire may have been at the height of its powers, but the Ottoman Empire was in a state of decline. The Committee of Union and Progress were removing power from the Sultan and placing it in the hands of the people. An empire that had lasted for over 600 years was close to imminent collapse. And suddenly they found themselves embroiled in a war between the empires of Europe. The people knew that defeat could signal the end of the Ottoman Empire. So they were fighting not just for the defence of their homeland, but for the preservation of their way of life – their traditions, their culture, their very history.

As I’ve previously written, the Turkish commemoration of Gallipoli occurs on 18 March, the day when frantic Turkish forces defeated one of the largest naval fleets ever assembled, as the British tried to storm the Dardanelles. It was an incredible victory for Turkey. A declining empire had defeated the mighty British fleet.

It’s not hard to draw parallels between Australia and Turkey in the development of nationalism after the events of the war. Gallipoli was the place that crystallised those traits that defined what it meant to be Australian – mateship, bravery, larrikinism, and a healthy disrespect of authority. It sparked the birth of our national consciousness. But in that same crucible, the modern Turkish nation was born. It was the final defence of the motherland, even as the Ottoman Empire crumbled. When Mustafa Kemal said to his soldiers “I don’t order you to fight, I order you to die,” the willing sacrifice of those soldiers bespoke of great loyalty to Turkey. 

The Atatürk mausoleum, Ankara
 Finally, part of the kinship between our two nations is due to one man. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the commander of Turkish forces at Gallipoli, who later became founder of the Republic of Turkey, singled out the Anzacs in his letter to the mothers of the fallen soldiers in 1934:

Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives… You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours… you, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

By separating Australia and New Zealand from the British, Atatürk created a bond between the nations. Our sons became their sons. The blood that had fallen on the Gallipoli peninsula was mixed between all soldiers, regardless of nationality.

When we gather on the shores of Gallipoli in just a couple of days, I will be proud to be standing side by side with our Turkish brothers. The legacy of Anzac isn’t confined to Australia and New Zealand – it is still alive here in Turkey, where it all began.

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