Meander: East to West, Indirectly, Along a Turkish River

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The Meander is a river so famously winding that its name has long since come to signify digression, an approach author Jeremy Seal makes the most of while traveling the length of the river alone by canoe. A natural storyteller, Seal takes readers from the Meander's source in the uplands of central Turkey to its mouth on the Aegean Sea, with as many historical, cultural, and personal asides as there are bends in the river.

In a rapidly industrializing Turkey, the river itself has...

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Meander: East to West, Indirectly, Along a Turkish River

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The Meander is a river so famously winding that its name has long since come to signify digression, an approach author Jeremy Seal makes the most of while traveling the length of the river alone by canoe. A natural storyteller, Seal takes readers from the Meander's source in the uplands of central Turkey to its mouth on the Aegean Sea, with as many historical, cultural, and personal asides as there are bends in the river.

In a rapidly industrializing Turkey, the river itself has been largely forgotten, but the Meander was the original conduit by which the cultures of Europe and Asia first met, then clashed. The city at the river's mouth, Miletus, was home to the earliest Western philosophers, while the one at its source, Dinar, commanded the mountain pass that carried the earliest roads east. All manner of legendary adventurers, soldiers, and visionaries passed through: the Persian king Xerxes, Alexander the Great, Saint Paul, and Crusader kings, to name just a few.

In the course of his travels, Seal meets any number of people eager to share stories with a stranger. This rich mix creates a portrait of extraordinary insight and sweep at a time when Turkey is busy rediscovering her historic significance. An enchanting blend of past and present, at once epic and intimate, Meander is an atmospheric, incident-rich, and free-flowing portrayal of the essential meeting point between East and West.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
“I had never been up a minaret… the question was whether it was wise that I should begin with a derelict one.” Seal (A Fez of the Heart), who has long rambled the highways and byways of Anatolia, ponders this and a thousand other timeless queries as he travels the length of the river that gives his book its name. The Menderes, as it is now known, once boasted the world’s most fabulous cities along its windy banks, and caravans passed by carrying the treasures, and warriors, of Rome, Persia, Byzantium, and Egypt. The ravages of time, earthquakes and deliberate erasures have conspired to leave a forgotten region of dusty provincial backwaters, full of menacing dogs and peculiar personalities. Seal takes advantage of his circuitous route to meditate on the joy of the open road in the style of Paul Theroux or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Along the way, he interweaves his river’s history, from the march of Xerxes to the spread of Christianity to the atrocities of the Greco-Turkish wars, with his own observations on rural Turkey and the societal convulsions since, he muses to himself, “eople like you began to arrive.” Lively and richly detailed, this will appeal to all those who love reading about epic travelogues of arduous journeys. Photos. Agent: David Miller, Rogers Coleridge and White (U.K.). (June)
Library Journal
Armed with a canoe, luggage, a box of baklava, and a jar full of water, Seal (The Snakebite Survivors' Club: Travels Among Serpents) began his canoeing adventure down the Meander River (now known as the Büyük Menderes River) from its headwaters on Turkey's Anatolia plateau to its mouth in the Aegean Sea. As he recounts here, things don't go quite as well as Seal had expected. While there are moments that Seal truly enjoys, he also experiences the river's low water levels and pollution, and contemplates its uncertain future. But the book is about more than a trip down the Meander; it's about the rich and highly complicated history of the river, region, and country itself, as well as the kindness and hospitality of the people who live beside it. Though Seal is a stranger doing something strange (a solo canoe trip), they are still willing to offer him a cup of tea or a car ride. After seeing a sign on a bridge that said Meander and discovering that the historical river actually exists, Seal decided to run the river—or at least try to. VERDICT Readers of history and travel will enjoy this charming book.—Melissa Aho, Univ. of Minnesota Lib., Minneapolis
Kirkus Reviews
A whimsical, winding journey by canoe and foot through the layers of Anatolia's history. A British travel writer who focuses on Turkey, Seal (Nicholas: The Epic Journey from Saint to Santa Claus, 2005, etc.) casts himself as a wandering scholar in the tradition of his earlier European compatriots William Leake, Richard Pococke and Francis Arundell. However, Seal attempted what they did not: a solo waterway trip down the 500-kilometer Menderes River (aka Meander), running from the fertile plateau of Anatolia's interior to the tourist meccas of the Aegean. The river's name, thanks to the earliest allusions by historian Herodotus, geographer Strabo and others, propelled it on a fanciful etymological odyssey that endures to this day. On his journey, Seal was harshly confronted by the befouled and eroded effects of industrialization, as many parts of the winding river have been used extensively for hydroelectricity and irrigation. Beginning at the river's source at Dinar and ending near the great classical port city of Miletus, Seal traces age-old migrations of peoples through Asia Minor--including the Hittite, Phrygian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Turk--all who transformed the land in their fashion. While delving into the murky historical depths and recent tensions between the country's secular and Islamist elements, Seal was keen to befriend the locals on whom he largely relied for food and shelter as he made his way by a collapsible canoe or, when there was not sufficient water for navigation, by foot. The portraits of these simple farming people are fond and charming, but the lack of maps renders this more of a literary exercise than usable travelogue. Enlightening tour through Anatolia, rich in history and visceral detail.
The Barnes & Noble Review

For much of its course, the Meander — rising on the Anatolian Plateau and spilling into the Aegean 350 miles later — is a dithering, mazy affair. With its modest drop in elevation, the river was not built for speed; otherwise, why would it be called Meander? But it's not built for comfort, either. Slow and uncomfortable — so much of traveling moves to that unpromising two-step. Still, Odysseus made good business of it, and so does Jeremy Seal in Meander, his journey down the river by canoe and, when that wasn't slow or uncomfortable enough, by foot, dragging the canoe behind.

Seal, who lives in England, has made Turkey his bailiwick: he has traveled far, wide, and deep; he speaks the language; he wrote A Fez of the Heart, in which he roams the country in search of a hat and all it signifies. A few years back, while taking one of the little buses that run between villages, he crossed a river that he was stunned to learn was the fabled Meander. It was like taking the bus to Delphi, crossing a lazy stream beneath, and learning it really was the Styx. And, he discovered, you could float the river stem to stern, without bureaucratic obstacles, if more than enough downed willows and vicious farm dogs.

Seal schools himself in the history of the place, for if the river has always been a lazybones, its valley home has always been busy-busy, connecting the Aegean to the vast Asian hinterlands. Xerxes brought his army through the valley on his way to Greece in 481 B.C.; Xenophon and Cyrus did the same with theirs, though in the opposite direction, as did Alexander. Midas and Croesus knew the valley; St. Paul cruised it on his first missionary journey in A.D. 47. Crusaders, for better or worse, pushed through; after the Saracens were finished with it came the Turks, pigtailed nomads, horsemen and archers out of the northeast grasslands, who promptly put down roots. The British built a railroad line there for the Greeks — talk of geopolitics. It has been home to Turcoman raiders and outlaw zeybeks, popular rebels against Ottoman rule.

This background stands Seal in good stead as it pumps a ready supply of oxygen into the breathtaking landscape portraits: "The river yawed gently left before spilling into a still lake, which the low sun had slicked with gold," while that night "the lake was skeined in moonlight." He walks through plains bathed in lemon sunlight, following "the road through strawberry fields"; there are the old parts of the river towns, where gardens shaded by orange trees sit behind elegant gates. But this river will prove a study in extremes, for shortly after he pushes off, he pushes out: a gorge presents water too fierce for his canoe. Seal must continue on foot, but he is a good road companion, and he doesn't need to be on the river to float his story.

He finds his way back to water, but then the river simply disappears, which, you will admit, is professional-grade meandering, the ultimate walkabout. What it really underscores is the corruption of the river industries that have poached and poisoned the water, the lack of vision or responsibility. It's a galling fate for a river that once fed great orchards and an agricultural empire, and Seal has a sure hand goading our sense of gall.

But gloom is hardly the only note here. Seal's journey is full of the serendipitous, indelible experiences that shape a life. In an abandoned town, he climbs a derelict, towering minaret of blue- glazed brick to the muezzin's walk, finding the gumption to do so as he considers his epitaph: "Died in a Minaret He Himself Had Caused to Collapse." He visits anchorite caves hewn into a hillside of gneiss, which must have been like chewing diamonds. And there is the fowl: "A ragged chicken watched me retrieve my canoe from the deserted schoolyard. It flexed its stubby wings to follow me across the empty road and down to the river, apparently caught, in the village way, between seeing me off its patch and shipping out itself."

Peter Lewis is the director of the American Geographical Society in New York City. A selection of his work can be found at

Reviewer: Peter Lewis

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781608194353
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
  • Publication date: 6/18/2013
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 416
  • Product dimensions: 5.81 (w) x 8.22 (h) x 1.12 (d)

Meet the Author

Travel writer Jeremy Seal fell in love with Turkey twenty-five years ago. Since then, he has returned regularly to write books and articles. He is the author of The Snakebite Survivors' Club, A Fez of the Heart, Treachery at Sharpnose Point, and Nicholas.

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