Gary Leiser

Gary Leiser lived in Turkey for almost eight years where he worked as a Middle East specialist for a Department of Defense Liaison Group and then as the U.S. Air Force Historian for Turkey. With a Ph.D. in Islamic history from the University of Pennsylvania, Gary has taught several courses in Middle Eastern history and published nine books, most on the early history of the Turks in the Middle East.

Q: Of all the wonderful places travelers will see on the Legendary Turkey and the Turquoise Coast program, which one is most likely to transport us to another time, e.g., the time of the Roman Empire or ancient Persia?
A: One place where you can have such an experience is at Ephesus while visiting the complex of elegant Roman houses. These houses are on the side of a hill opposite the Temple of Hadrian. Austrian archaeologists have been clearing them for several decades. The houses are extremely well preserved so that one has the feeling of walking unannounced into functioning Roman homes. A few are three stories high. Each is arranged around a central courtyard open to the sky and often with a central fountain. The walls are decorated with delicate frescoes and the floors have splendid mosaics. There are even cooking utensils in some of the kitchens. You almost expect to be offered fresh bread or wine by a Roman lady of the house.
Q: What is your favorite Turkish meal, based on your eight years living in the country?
A: This is a difficult question. It is often said that the four greatest cooking traditions are French, Italian, Chinese, and Turkish. The Turks take pride in using lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, and they offer a great variety of dishes. Many dishes are regional. My favorite lunch is a garden salad and manti. The salad consists of a bed of lettuce covered with a colorful variety of red cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, and corn, all sprinkled with olive oil. Manti are small ravioli stuffed with ground meat and cooked in a yogurt and garlic sauce. Fresh bread is included and a cold beer is a perfect complement. For dinner you can almost close your eyes and point at anything on the menu. One standard is kufte, "Turkish meat balls" made of ground lamb and stuffed with pine nuts. They are usually served on rice covered with yogurt and with eggplant on the side. If you like eggplant, Turkey is for you.
Q: Do you agree with Napoleon Bonaparte that "if the Earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital?" Is it fair to characterize Turkey as the hinge between the East and the West, as it is often classified?
A: Well, it might certainly be the capital of Europe and Asia, spanning as it does the two continents, thanks especially to the bridges over the Bosphorus. Historically, Constantinople or Istanbul has been the most important meeting place of East and West. It was a terminus of the Silk Road from the East and the trade in furs, amber, forest product, and other goods from the West. Merchants from the "known world" converged on it. As both a Byzantine and a Turkish city, it has been one of the largest cities in the world since its creation in A.D. 330 At the height of the Ottoman Empire, it was the capital of a state that included the Balkans and much of Central Europe, the Middle East, and most of North Africa. Istanbul has certainly been a city that has connected East and West like a hinge.
Q: One of the highlights of the Legendary Turkey program is a four-day voyage on a gulet, a hand-crafted, wooden sailboat. What is that special maritime portion of this Smithsonian Journey like?
A: The gulet (pronounced goolet, from an Italian word meaning "little galleon") is a pleasure craft unique to the Mediterranean. For Smithsonian Journeys, the largest gulets are chartered, each measuring about 80 feet stem to stern. Each gulet has a crew of three: captain, first mate, and cook. Generally we do a lot of motoring, but if weather conditions are ideal, the captain will put up the sails. He will do his best to avoid rough seas and will anchor in quiet coves. The clear waters off the Turkish coast are—what else?—turquoise. They are at their warmest in the fall. The gulets provide snorkeling gear. The crew will drop a ladder from the deck to the surface of the water for swimmers, or one can dive in from the deck. Be warned, however, that the Mediterranean is saltier, or "thicker," than the oceans, so if you do a belly flop you will really feel it! Topside, the stern is a spacious area for relaxing and dining (and good conversation). It is covered by a tarp for shade and is appointed with thick cushions. Guests often choose to sleep there at night, in addition to taking naps. Some choose to sleep on the foredeck, where there are also cushions, so they can watch the spectacular night sky.
Q: Considering the flexible boundaries of regions in Asia Minor throughout history, what are the most prevalent enduring regional cultures and languages in modern-day Turkey?
A: Turkish is, of course, the predominant language in Turkey, but other languages are spoken as well. Kurdish is found in many places. The Greek and Armenian communities have retained their languages. The Laz people of Northeast Turkey speak a Georgian dialect. And some members of the Chaldean or Assyrian Christian community can speak Aramaic, which was the language that Jesus would have spoken. Along the border with Syria, Arabic is common. Turkey has given refuge to many Turkic people fleeing persecution. Thus there are some villages in Turkey comprised of Turkmen from Afghanistan or Uyghurs from Chinese or Eastern Turkistan. Many Turkish citizens who have worked in Germany speak German. Culturally, Turkey is a synthesis of Europe and the Middle East.
Q: After disembarking the gulet, the group stops in Demre. Tell us about the history of this town and its connection to St. Nichols of Myra.
A: In the center of the modern city of Demre, the ancient Myra, located on the Mediterranean Coast, stands a large statue of Santa Clause. It was erected, I believe, by the Turkish Ministry of Tourism. On the eastern edge of Demre is the Church of St. Nicholas, who was born in Patara, about 60 miles to the west, around A.D. 300. According to one legend, he secretly provided dowries for the daughters of a poor man, thus safeguarding them from a life of prostitution. This was supposedly the origin of the custom of giving presents in secret on the Eve of St. Nicholas, which was later transferred to Christmas Day. In any case, St. Nicholas became the patron saint of children and later of Imperial Russia. In 1087, Italian merchants carried off his bones to Bari. Nevertheless, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkey has become a magnet for Russian tourists and the Church of St. Nicholas has become a place of pilgrimage for Russians.