Book: Ionia: A Quest, by Freya Stark, new edition of a travel classic
Read a terrific interview with Freya Stark in her eighties.
(This is the third of a series of posts about women travel writers, in conjunction with the release of the movie Eat, Pray, Love)
This book, Ionia: A Quest, tells of a journey that the famous travel writer Freya Stark make in the mid 1950s down the west coast of Turkey. At the time, Greece had only recently withdrawn from the coast of Turkey, lands that have been disputed as long as anyone has been keeping records.
Unlike the current crop of travel writers, who start with themselves and radiate outward, Stark does not share her personal motivations and she does not travel to heal something in her soul. She ponders larger questions such as the rise and fall of cities. She follows Herodotus,and other classical writers. Herodotus said that he wrote of smaller cities as well as greater, because the great cities were once small and the small ones might some day become great, and she visited the twelve cities (today some would have been minor towns) of classical Ionia. Stark thinks that there may be some secret to life that these ancients living on the edge of the Aegean had, that we are missing.
…Yet words may reconstruct the landscapes and the thoughts they gave; and the right words have a magic to call up what is not there–the foot as light as thistledown and gone, the robe that is only a silken rustle disappearing, the beam flashing quicker than sight–these things may appear, evoked from their reality as fragments of words or pottery or bronze or marble evoke them, through twenty-five centuries of time.
This passage shows what I think is her strength, combining a poetic presentation with philosophical musings against a factual historical background. Despite the devotion to historical detail, Stark succumbs to the romanticism that seemed to veil every description of that part of the world from Byron to rather recently. She calls this a “land with history for all its dusty silence.”
I only set foot in Turkey once, but it was a wonderful day that I would like to repeat and extend. Ken and I arrived by ferry from Athens to Samos, and although the restrictions may have changed, we had to spend the night on the island before making the very short sail to Kusadasi in Turkey. A few days ago, Travellogged wrote this great description of Ephesus, our destination, and one of Freya Stark’s Ionian cities. The site is simply spectacular, but when Stark was there in the mid-1950’s the ruins had not been excavated and reconstructed and the tourist office told her not to bother.
She actually preferred areas where the ruins still lay scattered on the ground and she was left to conjure the life that once filled the hillsides around them. Today many of those sites have been excavated, at least partially, but there was no tourism industry when Stark was there. Or rather, the only tourists stuck to the shore and heavy drinking, rather than following in the steps of Herodotus, Alexander and Anthony and Cleopatra.
Our trip to Turkey was streamlined and painless compared to the adventures of Freya Stark just forty years before. She explored and wrote about places where women rarely went alone, particularly about the Arab countries. One of the few personal incidents related in Ionia relates how she had to pay for two beds in a three-bed room in order to assure that she would have privacy in a provincial town in Turkey. She explains that men would have to wash at a basin in the hall, but she brought two basins–one to wash and one to rinse–along with her to ensure her privacy.
As I read, I think that she is writing a book about a forgotten time –not just the time of the Myceneans and the Greeks, but of the post-war period when Turkey was just beginning to become a modern nation, and archaeological tourism had not flooded the coast. But then I remind myself that every travel writer writes for a time in the future that will only dimly understand our present. The quality of travel writing might improve if today’s writers kept that in mind.
Although Stark modestly proclaims her inexperience of Ancient History and provides footnotes for a reader who wishes to learn where she got her opinions, modern readers who know as much as she did or will even be tempted to follow the footnotes are probably rare. If you take on this book, and are tempted to give up because of the piling on of ancient history, just skim the history and read this classic for her personal descriptions of the landscape and people of her own day.
If you are building a shelf of travel classics in your travel library, be sure to include Freya Stark. Her quotes from ancient writers alone brought me much joy, let alone her eloquent writing.
This is another in that great series of re-issued classics from Palgrave-McMillan, who supplied a review copy. I have previously talked about their reissues of Norman Douglas’ Old Calabria and the great guide Strolling Through Istanbul. The photo of Ephesus is from Flickr with a Creative Commons license. Click on the photo for more information on the photographer.
Have you shared your favorite travel classic here? Would you read Freya Stark before touring the west coast of Turkey?