Turkey's Past, And Its Future

A visitor sees modern challenges amid relics

Past, present, and possibly the future converge in one's thoughts while walking on the 2,000-year-old marble streets of Ephesus. Here, in what was the Roman Empire's fourth-largest city, with a population of 200,000, Paul preached and was almost stoned. Today, with the seaport long silted up and the city's vast array of architectural treasures lost for centuries, Austrian archaeologists continue the slow work of restoration.

Western Turkey comprises a vast archeological site. Here at Ephesus was the temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. South of here in Bodrum are the remains of the mausoleum of Hallicarnassus, also one of the seven wonders. Western Turkey is a land of abundant agriculture, with more acreage coming under irrigation each year. The countryside reminds one alternately of coastal California, the mountains of Mexico, or an arid version of Vermont.

If this is a piece of Turkey today, what reminds one of the future? I have just spent several days in Istanbul, a city that not long ago had a population of 5 million. Today, it has 12 million, and the urban sprawl must accommodate as many as half a million newcomers a year. As elsewhere in the developing world, farmers are moving to the city. With unchecked population growth in recent years, many third-world countries now have a majority of citizens who are under 25 years old.

I never saw the "edges" of Istanbul. But driving through Izmir, we saw mile upon mile of six- to eight-story apartment blocks rising on the mountainous hillsides. The building boom is witness to twin factors: the population explosion in the cities, and the rush to convert current wages into some form of real assets that will not depreciate. Turkey has an inflation rate of about 80 percent - one factor that makes the United States dollar widely acceptable in transactions here.

The combination of population growth, the fragility of the infrastructure in cities undergoing rapid expansion, and the problem of providing jobs for young men leaving the countryside has to make one wonder about the future. Turkey is a relatively successful example of what is going on around the world. But even here the Welfare (Islamist) Party was the largest vote-getter in the last election, not because of Islamic fundamentalism, but by its claims to address the concerns of the new urban dweller. Its leader, Necmettin Erbakan, has sounded anti-Western in the past, but has now entered a power-sharing arrangement with the center-right party of recent Prime Minister Tansu Ciller. A period in power, even shared power, will show where Mr. Erbakan would take the country.

Turkey has made substantial economic progress under its secular constitution. It has been a vital member of NATO. Elements within Turkey want to pull it out of its Western orbit, however, and Turkey's inability to gain admission to the European Union strengthens their position. The West points to Turkey's poor human rights record, and many Europeans feel that absorbing a developing nation of 60 million would strain the EU's foundations.

Turkey cannot be ignored. But one's first thoughts on seeing this ancient land in which so many civilizations have left their imprint go beyond present-day Turkey. It is one thing to celebrate the wonders of instant communications and cyberspace. But as one looks at Ephesus, Pergamon, and other relics of amazingly advanced civilizations, and sees the challenges of the global one that economists tell us we are building, it does not take too much prompting to make the connections between past and future: Does human hubris ever allow us to doubt the permanence of what we think we are doing?

Richard A. Nenneman is a former editor in chief of the Monitor.

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