I am vacationing in a tiny village on Turkey’s Aegean coast. Less than a hundred people live in this town, perched on a narrow shelf at the bottom of a cliff that from the top looks like it drops straight into the sea. The town is so small, its cobblestone streets so narrow, no one drives anywhere. On foot they can cross from one end of the town to the other in less than a minute.
I spend the day lying in the sun. Actually, I lie in the shade, shade created by a beach umbrella I guard with a territorial defensiveness probably unbecoming to me given the village’s relaxed vibe. Without the umbrella I would burn easily, my skin pale from many months sitting indoors staring at a computer screen.
To break up the hours snoozing on my chaise lounge, I slip into the sea a few times each day. The water is so clear I can’t tell if it’s one foot deep or ten. The orange and blue and yellow stripes on the fish are so vibrant I wonder if God photoshopped them just for me.
In the evening I dine on a stream of appetizers, cool cucumber slices in yogurt with garlic, red bell peppers marinated in oil pressed from olives grown nearby, and then the main course, steamed fish, accompanied by a bottomless glass of raki, a clear anise seed-based drink that turns white when the waiter adds water.
First-time visitors to this region often marvel at how close the Greek islands are. Some of the islands are so close I can practically stand on the Turkish mainland, pick up a rock, throw it really hard, and watch it land on Greek soil.
Because the Greek islands are so close to the Turkish mainland, they are a hotbed of illegal immigration. Today it is Iraqis, Afghans, Somalians, and Palestinians heading west, trying to enter the EU via Greece. Seventy years ago during World War II, the tide went the other way, people fleeing war-torn Europe for a neutral Turkey and the free world beyond.
But the Greek mainland itself is 150 miles away. Why are these islands Greek?
A couple hundred years ago, these islands were part of the Ottoman Empire. They were controlled by Turkey.
Then as Greece tore away from the Empire in the 1800s, the inhabitants of most of these islands chose to go with it.
The death knell for Turkish control of the islands came in World War I. The Ottoman Empire lost the war, and the Allies occupied Istanbul and began carving up the Turkish mainland. Eager Greeks invaded and pushed to within 50 miles of the new Turkish capital Ankara before being repelled by the Turks and shoved back into the sea. In 1923 the Treaty of Lausanne formally recognized a new Turkish nation. The Turks had overcome the terms of their WWI defeat, terms which would have lost them even the mainland, but in the process they had to formally accept Greek control of the islands.
Then during World War II Germany invaded Greece, occupying its mainland and its islands with the help of fellow Axis members Italy and Bulgaria. Towards the end of the war the Allies pushed the occupiers out and returned the islands to Greece.
Humans have been fighting over these islands for thousands of years. They have been controlled by the Greeks. They have been controlled by the Persians. They have been controlled by the Romans. They have been controlled by the Turks. Someone is always controlling them, and someone else is always lusting after them. Today it is the Greeks doing the controlling, and the Turks doing the lusting. Tomorrow it will be someone else.
Lie in the sun, feel the sand between your toes, snorkel in the clear water. And then at the end of the day, when you watch the sun set behind the islands, remember that you are sitting on the Turkish mainland, but most of the islands you are gazing at are Greek.
I am not saying that the islands should be Turkish, or that they should be Greek, or that they should be anybody’s in particular. What I am saying is that if you have the privilege to travel to this region, don’t get so distracted by its beauty you go home without imagining how edgy you would be if your mortal enemy lived next door to you, where he could stand over his kitchen sink and peer into your bedroom window. The next time war breaks out over these islands, you will be better able to understand why.