Adventurer and author Simon Reeve is on a journey around Turkey – a land of beauty and extremes, in a unique position at the crossroads between Europe and Asia. In this two-part series for BBC Two, Simon discovers a country undergoing dramatic and fundamental cultural and political changes.
Until recently Turkey was best known as a tourist destination – but in recent years it has been rocked by crises: a failed coup followed by a huge crackdown on free speech, the war in Syria, the refugee crisis, and terror attacks. While travelling through this huge and varied country Simon is on a mission to see the effect of all this on Turkey’s people.
What did the series teach you?
I didn’t set out with an argument or conclusion to prove. I arrived in Turkey with an open mind, determined to learn about the country and the people from what I saw and experienced. So often Turkey has been under political pressure to decide whether it is European or Middle Eastern. I think Turkey has decided to take elements from both East and West and follow its own path – a new path. That’s not what I was expecting, but it really matters, because Turkey is powerful and influential.
So what are the Western elements?
In terms of the economy and business, Turkey aims to become a leading world power – and for that to happen it’s following the traditional western model of capitalism and consumerism. But now there is an openly Islamic government in Turkey, and religion is becoming an increasingly dominant force, it has reopened the debate on whether the country faces towards Europe or the Middle East.
Do you think it is going down a more conservative path?
Some people may want it to, but that doesn’t mean it will. In the second programme I talk to the head of Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs, a man of enormous power and influence. He says that Turkey has no intention of becoming a conservative country like Saudi Arabia. Women for instance, have more freedom and power in Turkey than in much of the Middle East. In fact President Erdogan has claimed that Turkey is the hope of the Islamic world. It’s certainly at the heart of some of the biggest issues we currently face, from women’s rights, to the war in Syria.
What are your thoughts on President Erdogan?
He is now one of the most successful democratically elected leaders on the planet, winning election after election. Whilst in Istanbul I saw that he has managed to transform the slums of major cities like Istanbul into neighbourhoods with sewerage and electricity, and those basic provisions are powerful things that improve lives. Millions of poorer Turks love him for that. However he does worryingly have authoritarian tendencies and there are alarming aspects to his rule. Many of the problems now facing Turkey are ones he has created.
Did you manage to talk to people who feel under threat in Turkey?
In the programme we spoke to a teacher who has been caught up in the extraordinary purge that followed last year’s failed coup. Tens of thousands of Turks have been arrested, detained or sacked from their jobs. From the President’s perspective, a hidden opposition tried to overpower his democratically elected government. At the same time it’s becoming clear that he is now using his strengthened position and increased popularity to crush anyone who opposes him.
How did you feel being so close to the War in Syria?
I was standing on top of a hill next to the refugee camp with Syria just 200 metres away, and there were flashes followed by the thud of artillery, which you not only see and hear but feel as well. On the Turkish side people continue to plough fields or sell sweets by the side of the road. It’s completely surreal and shocking because although there’s a war raging nearby, you actually feel safe and secure. It is obscene that we live on a planet where a simple line on a map can be the difference between madness and normality.
Tell us about the refugee camp you visited in Turkey?
They are really good. Some experts think they are the best refugee camps ever built. They have street lighting, guards, sewerage, toilets, rubbish collection, and all the basic utilities that are so vital for the thousands of Syrians who now live there. Despite big cultural and linguistic differences between the two countries, I think Turkey as a nation has taken incredible steps to host their neighbours, although sadly most Syrians that have fled the war still face a desperate and uncertain future.
Tell us about your part in a Turkish TV mega-drama?
The Turkish TV series Magnificent Century is bigger than Coronation Street and Downton Abbey, in terms of audiences. I was hoping to have a part as a Sultan, but instead I got the part of a doorman and had just one line, in Turkish! They do take it very seriously so it was a sweaty-palm moment, particularly as I was dressed to the nines in a very extravagant costume. The Turkish team behind the drama clearly has a winning formula. I really enjoyed it, even if it was quite tense.
Any other highlights from the trip?
I loved meeting an ingenious B&B owner in the dramatic Black Sea Mountains, whose property has a major access issue. To avoid cutting down trees to build a road through a beautiful, unspoilt valley, he’s built his own zip-line, which travels 500 metres across the valley, 400 metres above the treeline. I screamed most of the way – in fear and delight. It’s truly death defying!
Turkey with Simon Reeve starts on Sunday 26 March at 9.00pm