Caught by the River


24th August 2012

This is an extract from Meander: East to West along a Turkish River, an excellent new book by Jeremy Seal.

In the upturned canoe, which I had left in the wheat field below the bridge, spiders had set up home. I shook them free, wicking away their cobweb skeins, and dragged the dewy craft down to the water. It was only now I noticed that the river had broadened considerably since absorbing the flow of the Lycus. Remembering how Cyrus’s Greek mercenaries had required a bridge supported by seven pontoons to get them across this stretch of the Meander, it seemed safe to assume that fallen willows, however diabolically they might combine, would no longer block my progress.

The river had also recovered the trademark character it had comprehensively lost all through the gorge; the largely undeviating arc of its steep descent now gave way to windings more expansive yet than the ones that had waylaid me back in the first days of my journey. The loops that now carried my canoe north and south, even back towards the east, were more capacious than ever. This was to be expected; it was along the broad lower valley that the Meander most famously strayed, expressing its freedom by following a course so convoluted that ‘the letters of the Grecian alphabet’, as one seventeenth-century traveller observed, appeared inscribed in it. What struck me was that rivers and humans covered the ground in oddly antithetical ways – the same steepening gradients that put the twists and turns into men’s mountain roads and paths being precisely what led rivers to straighten. The converse was also true; where the ground levelled off, and the kinks disappeared from those footpaths and roads, was where rivers began to wander.

Rivers were not subject, of course, to turned ankles or brake failure, theirs being a life free from all fear of falling; but while this immunity might account for the headlong descents that rivers favoured, it did not explain why the broad plain should cause them to lose all sense of direction, this river most dramatically, as it did that morning.

Men had speculated as to the reasons for the Meander’s windings. Strabo thought it might have something to do with the soil, which he described as ‘dry and easily reduced to powder, full of salts, and very inflammable’. The underlying principle was, in fact, one of differential; what caused the outer wheels of a cornering vehicle to revolve more quickly, covering a greater distance in order to keep up with the nearside ones, similarly encouraged a river’s flow to run fastest at the outer bank – thereby causing the greater scouring to occur there. This erosion necessarily deepened the curve at the far bank even as the silt scoured upstream was deposited on account of the comparatively slack current along the near one; these two forces working in concert, in short, were what deepened the river’s bends. The slightest kink in a river’s course was subject to this cumulative process; a silt transfer, working like strong liquor, which caused the river to weave across the plain.

Not that the Meander’s mazy twists disturbed me that morning. In fact, I hadn’t felt so happy for a long time. I was quite content, mindful of the trouble I had had on the Yenice stretch, to follow wherever that wide and sedate stream took me. It particularly pleased me that the river had come to resemble the one I had initially imagined. As the canoe bow swung through the compass bearings, so my mind wandered free, for once without the least practical consideration to dictate its direction, and the river I travelled at last proved true to its name.

I had often wondered, knowing all that it had come to mean in modern contexts, what the river’s name had originally signified. Its etymological journey had begun in one of the original and no doubt interrelated languages, now all but lost, of the ancient regions where it flowed; from its sources the Meander passed through Phrygia before leaving that land to form the historic boundary between Lydia and Caria – at about the point where I now found myself. Since none of the recovered Phrygian, Lydian or Carian inscriptions makes mention of the river, the earliest surviving form is the Greek Maiandros, which carries no hint of the name’s original meaning. All it gives us is a distorted echo of how the word might have sounded – but an echo that may not be beyond restoration. One verifiable fact about these ancient languages is that their place names commonly concluded with ‘anda’, as this cluster of vowels and consonants is best transcribed, which raises the intriguing likelihood that the modern English version of the river’s name may happen to be a pleasingly phonetic match with the original.

I had had reason to think about the river’s name and the evolution of its etymology the previous evening. I found myself at an empty kebab restaurant in Sarayköy where the waiter, making an exception for the foreigner, sent out for beer, which arrived in a brown paper bag, prohibition-style, along with the whispered request that I keep it beneath the table.

The forbidden brew went down well. In fact, those surreptitious sips on top of the afternoon’s long soak at Hierapolis soon reduced me to a kind of meditative stupor in which the restaurant’s décor had my glazed attention. For a long time I scrutinised the kitsch wall painting of a silvered tumbling river spanned by a timber bridge before transferring my attention to the patterned paper border, discoloured and peeling, which ran round the restaurant walls. I had noticed the same pattern at Hierapolis, where it was engraved across the old masonry, and around the border of the doormat at my Sarayköy lodgings; a repeat sequence of rectilinear spirals, like a succession of cresting waves, and widely known as the Greek key. Since at least the first century BC, when Virgil used the word to describe a cloak hem’s decoration, the pattern has also been known as the meander.

Meander by Jeremy Seal, is out now and available from Caught by the River at Rough Trade Shop, priced £16.99.

Jeremy Seal.