As I recall the story, the builder of the Hagia Sophia set out to enclose a space in such a way that it would command a sense of awe. Any visitor to that grand edifice would testify that the aim was certainly achieved. In the past two weeks I’ve entered many spaces that have evoked an equal sense of reverence – from the commanding expanses of the mosques of Süleymaniye and Sultanahmet to a simply adorned wooden mosque in southern Anatolia. Today I again stood in a profoundly holy space.
As the waters of the Aegean brushed the beach in rhythmic calm, the members of my group walked back and forth along the lines of simple grave markers, speaking in hushed tones – if we were able to speak. Away from the shore and up the hill amongst still more graves, the wind amongst the branches of a lone pine echoed the same rhythm: the sigh of human breath or – perhaps the only sound left to you in the aftermath of a pounding shell strike – the sound of your own heart still beating.
The Turks call this place Gelibolu Yarımadası. We know it as Gallipolli.
I wasn’t expecting this place to move me so, not before today. I’ve been aware of its’ significance to my Aussie friends, didn’t realize that Newfoundlanders died here and had no comprehension of the enormous losses the defending Turkish forces suffered. Like Vimy Ridge where Canada came of age, Australia and New Zealand also discovered their identities on the battle field – this battlefield. Huddled into the trenches yards away, the Turkish were also fighting their way to independence and nationhood. The site commemorates their losses equally and in addition pays tribute to moments of shared humanity.
I’d read this statement by Mustafa Kemal Attatürk – the father of modern Turkey – but finding the quote here on this shore in sight of the graves was deeply touching:
Heroes who shed their blood and lost their lives: you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.
There are many ways to enclose a space, to set it apart, to declare holiness and engineer awe. In Gallipoli, in a place of such immense sacrifice and loss – sun, water, wind and a few carefully chosen words will move you as profoundly.