Strong Aegean breezes sift through wheat fields on the Thracian plain. In July the sunflower farms will be ready for harvest, adding bright yellow squares to the golden landscape. The plain extends deep into Greece and Bulgaria, the heart of the early Ottoman Empire. But unlike the masses of vehicles which drive past Edirne and into the Balkans and beyond, we stuck close to the northern shore of the Marmara Sea. For a hundred miles, the entire coast was covered with humble summer homes. 2.5 million Istanbul residents own homes on the Marmara, where they move in the summer to escape the traffic and chaos of Istanbul, which for all it’s cultural and historic charm, is a nightmare of urban planning. The endless expansion of these summer homes is as much a testament to the crowded conditions in Istanbul as it is to the rapid growth of the Turkish middle class.
The Gelibolu (Gallipoli) peninsula juts into the Aegean Sea. It’s narrow enough so that when we drove down it, we could often see the Aegean on our right and the Dardanelle strait on our left. Rather abruptly, the roadside cafes and summer villas give way to dense green shrubs and poplar trees. On the Aegean side, steep cliffs rise along the coast, and it is here that the Battle of Gallipoli was fought.
In 1915 Australian and New Zealand troops landed on the peninsula in a bid to control the Dardanelle Straits, which would have knocked the Ottoman Empire out of the First World War. The ANZACs forced open two beachheads but once they reached the top of the hill they met ferocious resistance from Ottoman soldiers under the command of Mustafa Kemal, a brilliant general who would go on to carve out the modern Turkish state and initiate far reaching pro western reforms that brought Turkey into the modern world. The combat conditions were horrific—in some places only 8 meters separated the front lines. The ANZACs pushed hard for several months, trying to break through the Ottoman trenches on top of the cliff, but they never gained much ground. By the end of the year it was clear that the allied campaign had been checked, so one night the ANZACs crept down the cliffs and sailed away.
They left tens of thousands of dead behind and today the hills are covered by well manicured cemeteries of both sides. The graves are truly in a surreal location. Some lay on the very tip of the peninsula, watching out at the boats that float by on their way to Istanbul and the Black Sea. Others sit on breezy hills facing the blue silhouette of the Island of Limnos. The place is pristine—the only sound comes from the wind. It is almost impossible to fathom that less than a century ago these hills roared with thousands of rifles.
Gallipoli is a terribly beautiful battlefield and it’s a wonder that anyone had the heart of fight a bloody battle in such a place.