Not quite a delight

Big dogs, ugly false teeth and a dark recent history - Robin Lustig wonders what he's doing in the T

Once, Sivas lay on the Silk Road trade route from China to Europe. These days, it gives the impression that it's halfway to nowhere. True, it does boast an airport, but there's just one flight a day, and frankly, the airport doesn't look as if it could take any more.

This is central Anatolia: big, bare and forbidding. My guidebook describes the scenery in brutally unflattering terms: "monotonous, rolling vistas of stone-strewn grassland, dotted with rocky outcrops and hospitable only to sheep". And as we came in to land, on the morning flight from Istanbul, that seemed pretty much bang on as descriptions go. Not for the first time when landing at an out-of-the-way airstrip, I wondered what on earth I was doing there.

So I climbed into a taxi and asked the driver to take me to the centre of town. He smiled, which was unnerving. His teeth were clearly not the ones with which nature had originally blessed him; they looked as if they had been borrowed from a neighbour, or perhaps they'd been won during a game of cards. (I learned later that he'd lost his own teeth when someone smashed a revolver into his mouth. A family vendetta, apparently, but I decided not to ask for further details.)

There were two good reasons, so I thought, for being in Sivas. First, it is where Turkey's founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, chose to hold a crucial meeting of fellow revolutionaries in 1919. The Congress of Sivas was to be a pivotal moment leading up to the Turkish war of independence, and the town has, therefore, earned at least a footnote in the history books of modern Turkey. Second, and even the guidebooks have to admit this grudgingly, it has some exceptionally fine medieval buildings, including the mag nifi cent 13th-century Çifte Minare Medresesi (Seminary of the Twin Min arets). The seminary itself has long gone, but a very beautiful carved gateway is still standing.

Even better is the Sifaiye Medresesi, half a century older, built in 1217 for the Seljuk Sultan Izzedin Keykavus I. It was originally an Islamic medical school and hospital, which apparently specialised in the treatment of psychological disorders. The Seljuks were once mighty rulers around here - they got the better of the Byzantines, but were defeated in successive Crusades, and by the early 13th century, the area around Sivas was just about all they had left.

Today, the main courtyard of the Sifaiye Medre sesi is a strangely charming jumble of carpet and metalwork sellers, waiting to offer their wares to tourists who never come, and an open-air tea shop next to a rather lovely rose garden. I would have very happily stayed there all afternoon, sipping endless glasses of sweet tea, watching families and young women, most of them with their heads covered by headscarves in the Muslim style, gathering in what seemed just a bit like a medieval version of a shopping mall.

And of course, I wondered: what would Ata türk have said about those headscarves? The staunchly secular republic that he carved out of the ashes of the defeated Ottoman empire decreed that no headscarves be worn in schools, universities or government offices. The ban is still in force, even after nearly five years of a government run by former Islamists.

The modern main shopping street of Sivas is all bright lights and dress shops with mannequins in the windows wearing the sort of thing that would give any self-respecting Islamist a heart attack. I admired the gaily patterned pavements, and the pretty coloured lights embedded in the kerbstones. "Ah yes," I was told. "They've just been put there, because of the elections." The ruling AK Party represents Sivas in parliament, and it plainly wanted to impress the local voters with some well-timed municipal improvements.

My business in the town was done by late afternoon, but my overnight train to Ankara wasn't due in until after midnight. (In fact, it didn't turn up till 2am, but no visiting Englishman is in a position to complain when trains are delayed by engineering work further down the line.) My friendly, toothless taxi driver had already suggested a visit to the local dog breeder - indeed, it had been his first suggestion as we left the airport in the morning - and I'd been left with the definite impression that the dogman could be Sivas's main attraction.

We headed out of town, and then turned off on to a rough track that wound its bone-shaking way up to a high, windswept plateau. It was, as the guidebook had warned it would be, hospitable only to sheep. And dogs.

This is the land of the Anatolian sheepdog, also known as the kangal. Dog-fanciers call them "one of the larger breeds". I call them huge. They don't herd sheep so much as protect them from predators: these days, they are bred to guard against wolves, bears and even, in Africa, lions and cheetahs. The local breeder - who plain ly regards himself as the man who is going to put Sivas back on the map - is Huseyin Yildiz, 42 years old and as tough and muscular as his dogs. In the winter, up here on the plateau, he says, the snow sometimes lies several metres deep. Even at the height of summer, the wind has a bite to it.

And now I have to tell you what no one from Sivas wants you to remember. Fourteen years ago, on 2 July 1993, 37 people were killed in an arson attack. Those who died were intellectuals and artists; among them was the Turkish publi sher of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses. Muslim fundamentalists were blamed, and last month, the Turkish Daily News reported that on the anniversary of the attack, more than 7,000 people attended a protest rally. "One day things will change," they shouted, "and the murderers will pay. Sivas will be a grave for fascism."

Robin Lustig presents "The World Tonight" on Radio 4 and "Newshour" on the World Service