Mount Moses looms over the harbor Seleucus, one of the generals who inherited provinces from the dying Alexander, established around 330 BCE. The harbor, though very small in the modern eye, was second only to Alexandria in ancient days. When the Romans arrived some centuries later, it was clear that the river flowing down Mount Moses and into the harbor carried tons of silt annually that would eventually render the harbor useless, even entirely buried—the fate that awaited Ephesus, Pergamon, Miletus, Troy. So, between 69 and 81 CE, Roman engineers diverted the river by digging channels and carving the Titus Tunnel into the powerful mountain. The tunnel runs 930 meters. Its ceiling stands more than 20 feet above the carved floor. Even now, the river follows its new course past the olive groves, the citrus orchards, the vineyards, and peach and apricot trees. The aromas mingle with the salt breeze off the Mediterranean, and new recipes hover in the air like imagined fruit.
In 1915 what now seems a peaceable kingdom suffered invasions of different occasions. World War I was well underway and the staggering Ottoman government, fearing Russian invasion from the east, began the Relocation, the transportation of the Armenian population to southern Syria. This forced march, later condemned as genocide, meant that Mount Moses would be stripped of its population. A few days before troops began driving the Armenians from their homes, some Turkish soldiers, friends of the villagers, secretly warned the population. Nevertheless, the majority waited, accepted relocation, and left. Some, however, packed up their belongings, slaughtered their goats for food, and climbed higher up Mount Moses. The fog set in, the troops found empty houses and believed that everyone had left, the fog shrouded the mountain hiding places, and for forty days the villagers hid. After five weeks, a French cruiser appeared in the harbor. (After the war, this area of Turkey was ceded to France as an area of influence; the Brits, Greeks, and Italians got control over other parcels of Turkey resulting, at last, in Ataturk’s great gamble to fight for national independence in 1923). The captain of the French ship was, in fact, Armenian. Somehow word got to him that the villagers on Mount Moses needed rescue. He returned word: I will be back in 8 days; I need to draft ships in Egypt. In eight days, five ships arrived; the villagers came down the mountain, boarded ship, and spent the next several years in Port Said. When they returned, they discovered their homes had not been touched. Life resumed. In 1938 a referendum asked the Armenian and Arab population if they wanted to be annexed to Turkey or Syria. Turkey prevailed.
One of the returning villagers was the father of The Storyteller pictured below. He told us this story before pulling his flute from an inside pocket and playing an Armenian love song: boy meets, loses, laments girl. His granddaughter is studying medicine at, he says, a great American university: Ukkla. After much toing and froing, we figured it out: pronounce the initials all together, you get Ukkla. Separate them properly, you get UCLA. Ah.
Our group stopped at the village school, a small, wildly noisy building so high on the mountain you couldn’t walk there in hours upon hours. You’ll see pictures of the school children, beautiful as they are, but you will not see that some are Arab and some are Armenian. They grow up bi- or tri-lingual—and next year these first graders start on English. Some are Muslim; others go to the Armenian church where the Christian services are held in Aramaic.
We asked if they could sing a song. Their teacher translated, raised her imaginary baton, gave a down beat and the gang of 20 or so sang what seemed like the first two acts of The Flying Dutchman. Endless, flawless, charming, unassuming (“I not Sweetheart, I Cameron” my granddaughter reminded me on the other side of the planet. Her tutoring voice came suddenly to Antakya, and grandfather-love spilled out of me all over this mountain village schoolroom, and it seemed suddenly that all these divine ones understood a white beard and a misted eye and a camera that suddenly couldn’t hold quite steady).
We drove down the mountain and passed the one structure that could end all this wonderful reverie: there’s a fast food chain here named for what it sells: Liverburgers.