Meaghan Wilson-Anastasios reflects on a transformative visit to Gallipoli, as we mark the centenary of the landing.
Before I first visited Gallipoli 20 years ago, I thought I was far too cynical and world-weary to be affected by what I would see there. My soon-to-be husband, Andrew, and I had signed up to one of the many tours shuttling backpackers from Istanbul to Gallipoli, Troy and then on to Ephesus. It appealed to us simply because it was a cheap way to travel down the Aegean coast towards our ultimate destination, Bodrum.
So I was surprised to find myself standing on a neatly trimmed stretch of turf overlooking Homer's wine-dark sea with tears rolling uncontrollably down my cheeks. The tragic juxtaposition of a bucolic Aegean seascape with row after row of tiny white headstones inscribed with epitaphs penned by grieving families half a world away was utterly overwhelming. The Atatürk Monument finished me off: "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."
Since then, I have visited Gallipoli a number of times - to research the novel I co-wrote with my Andrew [Anastasios], The Water Diviner, and also to introduce our children to this spot. And we'll be there for the Dawn Service on 25 April to commemorate the centenary of the landing. For many Australians, this peninsula is as close as we get to a sacred site. It's where we like to think we shook off the yoke of Empire and began to forge our own identity.
But the site is equally important to Turks, and for similar reasons. As many as 53,000 Allied soldiers were lost, but at least 87,000 Turks also died here. For the Turkish people, this was the crucible that spawned the legend of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and gave birth to the Turkish nationalist movement.
The growth of the tourist industry on the Gallipoli Peninsula means it now has all the bells and whistles the modern traveller expects: cafés, a virtual-reality museum (Gallipoli Kabatepe Simulation Centre), audio tours, endless carparks, and walking trails. But because the peninsula itself is a National Park, outside the tourist hubs it is largely devoid of development.
And it remains a heartbreakingly beautiful place. The cemetery at Anzac Cove is graced with substantial trees that would, in a less sombre place, invite picnicking under their spreading boughs. On my latest visit to the Anzac Cove cemetery, in 2013, I led my children down to the narrow pebble beach, and we took off our shoes to wade into the water, gazing towards the purple outline of the islands of Gökçeada and Samothrace on the horizon. But then we turned back towards shore, and I explained the insurmountable task that faced the troops as they landed here in the pre-dawn light. Foreboding cliff faces loom over the beach. With the Turkish troops positioned on the high ground, the Anzacs didn't stand a chance.
Later, we catch a ferry across the narrow Dardanelles Strait, heading for the delightfully quirky restored Ottoman mansion Çanakkale Kervansaray Hotel. Retreating from the waterfront bars and cafés that cater to an endless stream of boisterous Aussie backpackers, we find refuge in Çanakkale's tiny old town. I watch my son as he cavorts with his sister beneath an ancient wisteria vine that shades the open courtyard of the 19th-century caravanserai, Yali Hani. As I sip on a small glass of Turkish tea it's sobering to realise he's almost the same age as the youngest Australian soldier to die at Gallipoli. Private Jim Martin, aged 14.
Seated beside tables full of friendly local university students and soaking up the convivial atmosphere of this hipster Turkish tea garden, it's impossible to understand why so many of our ancestors came here to fight and die 100 years ago. But one thing I do know without a doubt: a visit to Gallipoli is transformative. And I'll never again question why so many of us feel compelled to visit these shores.
Illustration Holly Exley