Balsan was very fortunate to receive permission from the Turkish Government to visit the eastern borderlands of Turkey in that period, as he had been told in an initial enquiry to the Turkish Consulate in Paris that “regarding the visit … to the Van district, I hasten to inform you that … the districts detailed in your letter are incorporated in a prohibited area.” Republican Turkey was naturally suspicious of representatives of imperialist France who, following the defeat of the Ottoman Turks in World War I, had sought to incorporate parts of southeastern Anatolia into their overseas possessions. What’s more, the eastern provinces had been rocked by a series of rebellions by the region’s dominant ethnic group, the Kurds. The last and most serious, in the mountainous Alevi Kurdish district of Dersim (modern Tunceli), had only just been quelled.
Within a couple of days, Balsan and his wife, accompanied now by the enthusiastic Setke Bey, were on a train bound for remote Elazığ. The Frenchman was not enamored with the Anatolian landscape, ‘pretty though it is most of the way, it’s all pretty much of a muchness’
Balsan’s firm saw Anatolia as a source of wool for “uniform cloth” which, in the months leading up to the outbreak of World War II, was in very short supply. Turkey, with an ultra-protectionist economy, was in desperate need of foreign currency. Money talks, and a few months after his initial enquiries Balsan learned that not only had “the Turkish Government agreed” but that he would be given a “guide provided by the government … to smooth out all complications in the military areas.” So confident was the Frenchman of success that his wife, Marie-Laure “at once decided to accompany me.” Balsan’s account of his travels, “The Sheep and the Chevrolet: A journey through Kurdistan,” would go on to win him the prestigious “Prix Gallois 1945 of the Societe de Geographie de France.”
Akdamar Church, Van.
Capitals old and new
The couple reached İstanbul in style, on the Simplon-Orient Express. But Balsan leaves us with few impressions of one of the world’s greatest cities, saying, “I would not be so foolhardy as to attempt to describe İstanbul; after [Pierre] Loti and [Claude] Farrere it would be presumptuous.” He spends rather more time on the city which had replaced İstanbul as capital of the new republic, Ankara, which he reached on the overnight train. The station he describes as “constructed in the cubist style and furnished with every modern amenity” and expressed his admiration for a city where “the size and length of the avenues planted with trees already well-grown were on a scale with the buildings, a little too vast for my taste but most effective when viewed as a whole.” But Balsan was not here to admire Ankara’s fine modern architecture but to chase sheep, and soon found himself face to face with the director of “Zootechnical and Veterinary Services,” who told him that “we have chosen as your guide one of our youngest and most brilliant veterinary officers, Setke Bey.”
Kebabs and a Chevrolet
Within a couple of days, Balsan and his wife, accompanied now by the enthusiastic Setke Bey, were on a train bound for remote Elazığ. The Frenchman was not enamored with the Anatolian landscape, “pretty though it is most of the way, it’s all pretty much of a muchness.” He was more struck by the impact the railroad had on what was then a very remote, rural region, writing: “The great stations of Caesarea [Kayseri], Sivas and Malatya were scenes of animation alive with chatter. The passing through of the train was an event, the Messenger of the Republic; people came to see it even if they had no one to meet.”
Despite the presence of Setke Bey, the travelers were the objects of suspicion in Elazığ, with both the police and gendarme scrutinizing their travel documents doubtfully. To compound matters, the hotel was a “regular heat and fly-trap” where the owner received them with “a suspicious affability” and the smell of the evening meal, mutton kebab, overpowering. Still, things improved the next day with the arrival of the car which would take the travelers on their East Anatolian sheep chase “a magnificent Chevrolet shining like a wardrobe mirror” -- and its driver, Halil.
A new order
The road east from Elazığ was awful, with “gaping trenches a yard wide” but the countryside, then with the harvest in full swing, looked, to Balsan’s practiced eye, prosperous. He attributed this in part to Atatürk’s reforms, noting, “It should not be forgotten how the Ghazi’s legislation has assisted agriculture. Tithes, consisting more than a third of the imperial revenue, were abolished in 1925. The new taxes that replaced them are levied on income, not on the area of land farmed, and the old animal taxes have been reduced by about thirty five percent.”
The Frenchman was aware that the region he was entering, then predominantly Kurdish in character, had, until the deportations of World War I, also been inhabited by Armenian Christians. He mentioned this to the zealous young Setke Bey, who replied, “The elimination of the Armenians was both salutary and urgent. Even their name should no longer have any significance. All memory of them, their monuments, every trace should disappear! The new order desires it!” But Balsan was a pragmatist, and although he wrote, “I was too honest to conceal that I was, to say the least, concerned at the drastic solution applied to the Armenians,” he went on to say: “I doubt whether the Armenian case actually deserves the pity with which it is normally reviewed in Europe. Why taunt the modern Turks with the subject?” Setke was rather more sympathetic to the Kurds, telling Balsan: “We have been driving through Kurdistan ever since Elazik [Elazığ]. They have given a lot of trouble but they are a fine people.”
The Harput Castle in Elazığ.
Even today few travelers take the road from Elazığ via Palu to Bingöl. Impressed by Palu’s remote but attractive situation on the Murad, a major tributary of the Euphrates, Balsan wrote, “I was sorry to leave the old Turkish houses of Palu; they have preserved the true cachet of the imperial age, of which İstanbul has been bereft by fires and reconstruction.” Here also the Frenchman witnessed the social engineering that marked the early years of the republic, as the modern-looking houses he saw roundabout were those of Pomaks, Bulgarian Muslims forced to leave their homeland when the former Ottoman province won its independence in the early years of the 20th century. They were given houses here, almost certainly on vacated Armenian land, to dilute the “Kurdish nationalism” which “was particularly rife around here.” In fact it was in Palu that the leader of the first major Kurdish revolt in 1925, Sheikh Said, made a last-stand against the Turkish army.
The Church of St. Bartolemos, Albayrak.
Onto Lake Van
The party now drove on towards Lake Van. Balsan was delighted to see flamingoes and pelicans on the Murad and, deciding to wade across the river, found himself walking on a veritable bed of terrapins. After lodging in a government guesthouse in Muş they headed down to the vast, blue and alkaline expanse of Lake Van. The town of Tatvan, at the western end of the lake, now boasts several multi-storey hotels and a new shopping mall complete with bowling alley and cinema. At that time the sole, bungalow-style hotel was brand new and the town occupied by “a small garrison” of soldiers. To Balsan, the atmosphere of this Kurdish village with its brand-new Turkish veneer was “thoroughly colonial.”
They reached the provincial capital of Van by its beautiful southern shore, though all the Frenchman could find to say about the 10th-century Armenian island church of Akdamar, situated en route and one of Turkey’s most sublime sites, was “as the exterior of the profaned temple seemed to be intact, we could only suppose that the interior had been pillaged.” In Van they lodged at a semi-official institution, the Sports Club, opposite the then shiny new town hall. They visited the Rock of Van, famed for its Urartian tombs and inscriptions, and swam in the soda waters of the lake, which Balsan described rather unfairly as “an unpleasant experience. …The waves were curiously sticky. They had no tonic effect like seawater.”
End of the chase
The party then headed south towards Hakkari. As they wound up in to the mountains in search of sheep on their summer pastures, the car radiator boiled over several times and it had to be pushed up steep gradients and out of rutted tracks. Eventually they found themselves above a vast yayla (upland) and Balsan wrote, “Was this the goal of my dreams -- the phantom I had tracked for months, over interminable miles.” It seemed so and soon the travelers were receiving traditional hospitality from a Kurdish notable called Bey Nafi, in a black-goat hair tent surrounded by the bleating of countless sheep. They were 3,000 meters above sea level, with mountains soaring a further 1,000 meters all around them. Nafi, had, by his own reckoning, some 15,000 sheep. Balsan was fascinated by the timeless way of life on the yayla, with women milking the flocks twice-daily, weaving kilims and preparing the evening meal. Of the women he wrote: “We stood watching the cooks, who stared back unveiled. Atatürk need have decreed none of his Draconian emancipation for these regions.”
After returning to Van, the party pushed on south to Başkale, from where they planned to head east to the Iranian border. En route they paused to explore the remains of the Armenian church of St Bartolemos at Albayrak. This fine ninth-century Armenian church still stands today, despite the efforts of the Turkish garrison who, Setke delighted in informing Balsan, were “a bit short of explosives. But whenever they can get their hands on any … the cathedral gets its share of them.”
A long journey home -- to war
Unfortunately for the French couple, their valiant efforts to enter Iran (and those of Setke and Halil) were to prove in vain. A couple of over-zealous customs officials guarding the godforsaken Khansur Pass between the two countries refused to let them exit unless they left behind the sum of money (250 pounds) which they had declared on entering Turkey -- and was registered as such in their passports. Their adventures were far from over though. Returning to Van, Setke informed them that “there’s no doubt about it; it’s war. All the bridges are blown.” They were forced to make their way to Trabzon, on the eastern Black Sea of Turkey, then return by ship to İstanbul. Ironically, their fellow passengers included 4,000 sheep! Finally the couple made it back to France and Balsan concluded his adventures with the words, “Not long after that, and with the same glasses that had surveyed Khansur, I was seeking my regiment’s objectives in the hills of Lorraine.”