As the bus rolls southwest from İstanbul to Çanakkale, you’ll probably have your mind so firmly set on the battlefields and cemeteries of Gallipoli that you’ll barely give a thought to anywhere en route.
Then the bus pulls into Gelibolu ready to make the ferry crossing to Lapseki and out of the corner of your eye you’ll notice a pretty little fishing harbor tucked up just beside the terminal. The thing to do at this point is jump straight out of the bus. There’ll be another one along soon, so why not make the most of the chance to explore a small town that receives only a fraction of the visitors of Eceabat a little way further down the Gallipoli Peninsula, even though it’s a hundred times more attractive.
The fishing harbor is the heart of town and brooding over it is the one truncated tower that survives from fortifications that once ran right along the waterfront. The tower serves as a museum in memory of the town’s most famous son, the Ottoman admiral Piri Reis (1470-1554), who was responsible, in 1513, for the first map to show the Americas in their entirety. It’s a fascinating map, both modern in its attention to detail and medieval in its adornment with images of all sorts of extraordinary monsters. Today Piri Reis is so revered that it comes as quite a shock to learn that he was beheaded for insubordination when a very old man. (Whisper it -- he may actually have been born in Karaman anyway.)
The downstairs part of the museum contains a collection of prints showing Gelibolu as it was in the past, but the upstairs is devoted to Piri Reis, with a model of one of the multi-oared galleys that would have been in use in his day and a series of paintings of the admiral as he went about his business provided by the Azerbaijani artist, Refik Aziz. Once you’ve finished looking round you can turn right out of the front door, cross the busy traffic junction in front of the ferry terminal, and then stroll a short distance along the shore to find a statue of the admiral gazing out over the sea.
The tower would have been standing in Piri Reis’ day. Otherwise you need to look hard to find other structures that he would also have been able to see, and then they are quite spread out around town. Even the small İskele Cami just inland from the statue was built in 1559, which means that Reis missed it by five years. What he would have been able to see, however, was the original Gazi Süleyman Paşa Cami that was built in 1385 in honor of the Ottoman leader who had captured the Gallipoli Peninsula from the Byzantines in a lofty location that would then have commanded a view over the Dardanelles. Today that mosque has been completely rebuilt and is one of the hidden treasures of Gelibolu. In place of the conventional dome, a huge lantern-like rectangular second storey lets light flood into an interior filled with wonderful wooden carvings. Pop outside and inspect the porches on all four sides and you’ll see old Roman columns from the ancient town of Gallipoli reused in the masonry.
Gelibolu’s other specific attraction is a small Gallipoli War Museum just behind the statue of Piri Reis and impossible to miss because its exterior comes ringed with trenches and sandbags. Depending on how much time you will be spending visiting the actual battlefields you may or may not want to visit it. Be warned that it closes on Sunday as well as the more usual Monday.
It would be easy to think that that is all Gelibolu has to offer, but actually it’s home to a surprising number of ancient tombs and burial places that are worth the effort of seeking out. Most can be found east of the centre as the road strikes out towards the small seaside suburb of Hamzaköy. You’ll come first to a little mosque with, in its grounds, the tomb of Mehmed-i Bican Efendi (?-1451), the author of the Muhammediye, a popular commentary on the Quran. His son Ahmed-i Bican Efendi is buried in the park across the road while a holy man known as Şerbetçi Baba is buried behind it. Then further along the road you’ll see what looks like another small mosque, but is actually the tomb of an Ottoman named Hallac-ı Mansur about whom virtually nothing seems to be known.
If you amble down to the beach at Hamzaköy, you’ll pass on the way a cemetery with high whitewashed walls that is dominated by a tall white bell tower. Built by the French, it served as the last resting place for soldiers who died in the Crimean War (1854-56) although if you peer through the locked gates you’ll also see a rather unexpected memorial to 11 Africans from Senegal who died “for the French” during the Turkish War of Independence. Right next door another early Ottoman tomb contains the remains of Sarıca Paşa, a commander during the reign of Sultan Bayezid I who set up Gelibolu’s first shipyard in 1391 and went on to restore the fortifications along the waterfront and embellish the town with hamams and medreses that are long gone. After a brief interlude in Istanbul, Sarıca Paşa returned to Gelibolu to die in 1453.
If you walk along the beach at Hamzaköy and out the other side, you won’t be able to miss a two-storied Ottoman tomb vaguely reminiscent of the one built for Admiral Barbarossa in Beşiktaş. This one houses the remains of Sinanpaşa, the son-in-law of Sultan Bayezid II. Across the road a much more discreet tomb was the last resting place of Emir Ali Baba, the 14th-century admiral who captured İmralı island in the Sea of Marmara and after whom it is named. He is also credited with having organized a wedding between the Byzantine Emperor John VI Cantacuzene’s daughter Theodora and Orhan Gazi, the second Ottoman sultan.
But the crème de la crème of Gelibolu’s many burial places is back up on a headland with a lighthouse that is close to the Hallac-ı Mansur tomb. This is the shrine to Bayraklı Baba (“Flag Father”), an Ottoman standard-bearer actually called Karaca Bey who cut up his flag and ate the pieces rather than surrender it to the enemy. When his colleagues refused to believe him he cut open his own stomach to prove it and in doing so sowed the seeds of a very lucrative niche market for sellers of Turkish flags who now line the road above the shrine selling miniature flags that visitors can pin to the canopy around it.
If all that seems a tad tacky, walk speedily to the headland where a graceful structure featuring a mihrab set between two marble minbers goes much less noticed, even though it has much greater historical significance. This is a namazgah dating back to 1407 that is thought to have been Turkey’s first open-air mosque (the Azebler Cami). It’s still used during Ramadan, although the spectacular sea view straight ahead must surely act as a considerable distraction.
Gelibolu has one last trick up its sleeve, which is a grand Mevlevihane, said to be the largest lodge built for the whirling dervishes in the world. It’s a little way inland from the Hallac-ı Mansur tomb right beside a military base that has commandeered its once grand marble gateway. You won’t be able to miss it since its façade boasts two double-staircases looping up to the doors.
Depending on the time, you may want to press on to Çanakkale for the night. If not, Gelibolu has a limited selection of places to stay but many more places to eat ringing the harbor, where the thing to do is dine on freshly caught sardines while being enthusiastically serenaded by gypsy musicians.
WHERE TO STAY
Butik Hotel Gelibolu.
Tel.: 0 (286) 566 66 00
Hotel Oya. Tel.: 0 (286) 566 03 92 Hotel Öztürk. Tel.: 0 (286) 566 60 21Otel Hamzaköy.
Tel.: 0 (286) 566 80 80
HOW TO GET THERE
There are regular buses from İstanbul to Gelibolu. Gestaş (www.gestasdenizulasim.com) operates half-hourly car ferries between Lapseki on the Asian shore of the Dardanelles and Gelibolu.