Academics and Research

Korbel professor’s journey takes him to Erdemli and back again

For the would-be contender in a geography bee, Erdemli is an obscure speck on the map of Turkey, a little-known burg between the Taurus Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea.

For Joseph Szyliowicz (BA ’53), founder of the University of Denver Intermodal Transportation Institute and a professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, Erdemli looms much larger. It’s the town that starred in his PhD dissertation and then launched a robust academic career. It’s also the town whose hospitality has never failed him.

As a globally minded graduate student in the mid-1950s—first at Johns Hopkins University, then at Columbia University—Szyliowicz was casting about for a region to explore and study. “I decided Europe was dull,” he recalls. “And Asia? I didn’t want to learn Japanese or Chinese.”

But the Middle East beckoned. Intrigued by everything from the “The Arabian Nights” to headlines pulsating with political changes, he began contemplating his options. Turkey seemed particularly suitable for study. It had just joined NATO, for one thing, and it enjoyed a rich history as a geographic crossroads. In addition, the Ataturk Revolution, an array of policy changes designed to transform Turkey into a secular nation-state, suggested continuing opportunities for political and economic development.

Dispatched to Turkey in 1956 to immerse himself in its language, culture and changing politics, Szyliowicz ventured south to see how remote areas were responding to the call of modernity.

Enter Erdemli, population roughly 4,000. At the time, it was a fledgling municipality, cobbled together from three villages and intended to serve as the administrative center of a provincial district. No sooner did Szyliowicz hit town than he began studying the town’s newly formed institutions and grilling its officials, including the mayor, about everything from demographics to political developments.

Szyliowicz’s findings were eventually published as Political Change in Rural Turkey, Erdemli (Mouton & Co., 1966). This volume was the first of many titles to come, and over the next four decades, Szyliowicz emerged as a go-to expert on such topics as sustainable development and transportation security. His renown even netted him the co-chairmanship of a Chinese task force and a 20-minute Q&A with Premier Wen Jiabao. During that remarkable opportunity, Wen grilled Szyliowicz, his co-chair and a couple of his Western colleagues about sustainable transportation. “Somewhere in the closet, I have no idea where, I have a picture of that meeting,” he recalls.

Not long after the publication of his book, Szyliowicz returned to Turkey on a project for the U.S. Navy. Curious about how it had fared over the last decade, he made a pilgrimage to Erdemli. By then, the town had grown considerably, but it still had the same mayor, who greeted Szyliowicz with the same hospitality afforded on his first visit.

Szyliowicz remembers the meeting vividly. “So what,” he asked the mayor, “is Erdemli’s population now?”

“Ten to 15,000, not counting sheep and goats,” the mayor told him.

Sheep and goats? Why bring livestock into the discussion? The mayor’s response so puzzled Szyliowicz that he pressed for an explanation. It turns out that during his first interview with the mayor, Szyliowicz had also asked about Erdemli’s population. And when the mayor responded, Szyliowicz had drilled down for details. “Does that include sheep and goats?” he’d asked.

In November 2012, Szyliowicz made yet another trip to Turkey, this time to deliver the keynote address at the opening ceremony for a new Maritime Security Center. When the event concluded, he ventured back to Erdemli, whose population, at the height of the tourist season, can mushroom to more than 100,000 people.

The Erdemli that greeted him this trip was barely recognizable. Szyliowicz was able to locate a few landmarks, but for the most part, the hamlet of his dissertation was transformed into a modern metropolis.

One thing, hadn’t changed, however: The town’s ever-present welcome mat. Once again, Szyliowicz was invited to spend time with the mayor, though not the same official who had presided over the town’s initial growth spurt. And once again he was toasted for recognizing Erdemli as a place worthy of study, this time with gifts and a Turkish flag.

Missing from the conversation? Any reference to sheep and goats.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *