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H - 155 : Taurus Mountains - Geology writes History

On 29th of July 2024., about 2 hours after our departure from Girne (Kyrenia), the faint outlines of the Taurus mountains will come into view. For the next week, our Dragonfly will sail along this mountain range which  at times drops spectacularly into the sea, other times recedes to make space for an alluvial plane. The mountain range is 24 million years old and the result of the African Tectonic Plate crashing into the European Continental Plate. The chain runs parallel to the Mediterranean and separates it from the Anatolian Plateau.


The Taurus Mountain Peaks are covered in Snow for most of the Year

The chain is made from folded limestone, the former floor of the Tethys sea. Its highest mountains reach easily 3’500 meters. The steep flanks are mostly covered with evergreen oaks and mediterranean pines. Higher up with cedars and shrubby junipers. The coastal strip is thin, albeit a few coastal planes were settled since the copper age and supported magnificent ancient towns which we are going to visit. Thermal winds are noticeably strong along the Taurus – they powered the ancient sailboats which plowed these waves for probably the last 10’000 years. The two ships who brought Apostle Paul to Rome in 59 AD used these winds to sail west.


The Taurus Mountains form a formidable Barrier between Anatolia and the Mediterranean

There are a few passage ways between the Anatolian plateau and the coast like the famous Cilician Gates which once were used by caravans and armies. No empire could extend to the west or east without controlling these gateways. Valleys carved by fast-flowing streaks gave access to these passes but the paths were narrow and steep. These gateways also had a reputation for being infested with bandits who prayed on the caravans. Anybody wanting to control these gateways had to build castles and watch towers like the well-known Gülek Kelesi which was built by the Armenian Kingdom during the time of the crusades.

There is not much left of the Gülek Castle - it served Locals as a Quary


When Alexander the Great invaded Persia, he passed through the Cilician Gates with his entire Army of 40'000 in spring 333 BC, a feat which was as audacious as Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps a good hundred years later. The Persian King Darius III did not know which mountain pass Alexander would take and thus kept his large army in the plane of Issus (north of Iskenderun). Had he occupied the Cilician Gates, Alexander would have had great difficulties in invading Persia. But King Darius did not and the rest is history.


The Crossing of the Cilician Gates was vital for the Success of Alexander's Campaign

The Gates lost importance after one of Marc Antony's generals defeated the Parthians there in 39 BC. Rome's eastern border moved to the Euphrates (except under Emperor Trajan who pushed into Mesopotamia). Most commercial traffic was seaborne and followed the coast of the Levant and the gap between Cyprus and Cilicia. There was no need to keep these steep and dangerous gate-ways occupied any longer.


The Taurus Mountain Range became the Borderline between Arabs and Byzantium

All this changed when the united Arab tribes beat the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius at the battle of Yarmuk (in northern Jordan) in 636 AD. With lighting speed, the Arab cavalry – a few thousand riders only – conquered Damascus, Syria, Palestine, Phoenicia and Cilicia. The Byzantine Emperor did not have enough forces to mount any organized resistance.

Things changed when the Arabs tried to push through the Cilician Gates. Despite their small numbers, the Byzantine soldiers were able to block them. The Arab assault petered out and never succeeded. The Khalifs did not give up their plans to conquer Constantinople but had to choose alternative routes. Two major attacks (674 and 717) were conducted via the Aegean and the Sea of Marmara, land-based attacks went through Armenia following the old Persian Royal Road. The Byzantines fortified all Taurus mountain pass ways. For centuries, they remained the borderline between Arab territory and Byzantium, between Muslim realm and Christendom.

There was a large No-Man Land on both Sides of the Border for Centuries


During the Crusades, fighting moved to the east into the Holy Land. The Cilician Gates again lost their importance. For the Seljuk Turks who steadily moved into Anatolia around that time they were no obstacle. The Seljuks used the route through Armenia. The castles and watchtowers were demolished by the newly arriving Turkish settlers who were happy to find stones for their homes which did not have to be quarries. Thus, there are only few intact structures left. The one who still stand are in remote, difficult to access areas.

The Baghdad Railway Project was Turkey's Strategic Response to the Royal Navy in the Med


The Taurus mountains gained prominence again when the British Empire took control of the Suez Canal and seized Cyprus in 1878. With the Royal Navy stationed in Alexandria (Egypt) and Akrotiri (Cyprus), the Ottoman Empire suddenly lost its secure communication to the Levant, Egypt and Northern Africa. The Royal Navy could cut Ottoman supply lines at any moment with their modern fleet. Something they successfully did during World War I (1914 – 1918). From the very beginning, the Ottoman Army in Iraq and Palestine was short of supplies and ammunition. Despite putting up a heroic fight, they had to yield.

The Tunnels and the Bridges crossing the Taurus Mountains were built 1914 - 1918


The strategic threat of Cyprus was recognised early by the Ottomans and plans were made – with German help – to build a railway from Istanbul to Baghdad and Basra. The British and the French were not happy and successfully delayed with diplomatic interventions the construction. Eventually, the German Reich muscled in. Baghdad Bahn was financed by Deutsche Bank. Construction progressed fast. The difficult part though was the crossing of the Taurus which had never been mapped. The preparation took far longer than anticipated.

Originally, it was planned to build one long tunnel. But this proved to be too difficult. The German engineers settled for 12 tunnels and bridges instead.Eventually, the railway was completed in October 1918, one month before the end of the war. It was and is one of the most impressive feats of railway engineering and reminds me of some of the alpine railways built in eastern Switzerland.


One of the impressive Taurus Railway Bridges

Today, the Taurus mountains are calm again. Modern Highways cut the range in 2 places. Otherwise it is a sparsely populated region with untouched nature and a rich flora and fauna. That these beautiful mountains were four times in history of such immense strategic importance that every ruler knew their name is hardly conceivable today. We won’t have the time to go deeper into the Taurus. The Dragonfly sails along the coast line. But every time we climb up to one of the Byzantine and Seljuk forts, we will get a glimpse of the mountain range that Plate Tectonics created 24 million years ago.












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