Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Turkey

It’s probably not innocence. That was lost somewhere in the haze of the Cairo days. It’s probably not intelligence- two stolen passports in two years will testify to that. Nor is it grace; any of my old boyfriends will tell you that. But I do possess something in the Arab world, some invidious quality that offers me a (sometimes false) air of confidence- the ability to communicate. Not merely that, but the ability to offer progressively complex thoughts, arguments, commentaries, and other grandiose musings. With Arabic, I can comfortably communicate with millions of people spread across multiple countries and continents.

Enter Turkey, land of perhaps 10 English speakers. Upon exiting Jordan, I was regretfully informed that the visa I thought had been renewed had, in fact, been cancelled by my local police station (bloody infidels, all of them), and, if I wished to exit the country, I would need to pay a 50 dollar fine. Well, I presented my argument in increasingly voluble (Arabic) tones until time dictated my terse surrender to the customs official. With a few muttered curses, I handed over my fine and stomped off to Turkey.

I suppose, to maintain a semblance of accuracy, I flew off to Turkey, as stomping to said country would involve crossing into Syria…and I had experienced enough confrontations with border control agents for a few weeks. Mother had brought me a pair of lovely, furry half boots to warm my chilled little tootsies in the frigid wilds of Turkey. But, emerging from Ataturk airport, golden sunshine and mild breezes washed over us, melting away the frustrations of the previous hours. “Maybe I can actually be warm!” Mother exclaimed, referencing, with punctilious frequency, the non-heated nature of my flat in Amman. “Perhaps.” I smiled, dreaming of a long, hot shower, gushing forth from the shower head in torrents….

Our van trailed the shoreline, passing the glittering waters of the Sea of Marmara, young families chasing after screaming children, swooping seagulls, swathes of green grass (remember, it’s been only me and the desert since September) and crumbling stone walls. “Byzantine. Fort,” our driver barked, gesturing towards the ramparts nestled between modern apartment buildings and spindly minarets. The streets narrowed, and the pavement turned to worn cobblestones. Carpet shops, boutique hotels, quaint restaurants, and magnificent ruins all crowded into the neighborhood of Sultanahmet. We checked into the Hotel Pennisula, hauled (well, I and the front desk man hauled, Mother largely followed) our luggage up the narrow spiral staircase, and promptly fell asleep. Yes, that’s right. Our first few hours among the splendors of the Ottomans, and we slumbered. To be fair, the room was pleasantly heated…

By night we feasted on Turkish delicacies (and the ubiquitous French Fry). Lusciously sated, we wandered towards the Aya Sofia and Blue Mosque, a mere 5 minute walk from the hotel. An almost-full moon lit our pathway as we climbed one of Istanbul’s many hills, pausing as our view filled with the impregnable contours of the Aya Sofia. Across a park filled with the ethereal cascades of a fountain rested the Blue Mosque. Younger than its neighbor by over 1000 years, it displayed the whimsical beauty of youth, delicate minarets soaring into the heavens, silvered domes topped by golden spirals. A fairy tale mosque, if they had a place in such fantasies. A veiled princess, trapped in a minaret, rescued by an imam…

But I digress. As usual. With dreams of mosques and starlit (chaste) romances flitting through my dreams, I awoke to a warm, deliciously powerful shower and the steely light of overcast skies filling the breakfast room with tepid warmth. Nonetheless, Mother and I marched off to our first destination, Topkapi palace, a rambling coalition of courtyards, fountains, mosques, harems, treasuries, pavilions, and tiled rooms. Unlike European palace-fortresses, Topkapi sprawled, its one or two-storey rooms stretching out over a vast area, encircling green courtyards and delicate pavilions. Built around 1600, Topkapi harboured the imperial treasury of the Ottoman empire, still on display to incite royal envy in fist-sized diamonds and piles of emeralds. The Ottoman sultans were famed for a number of reasons- their harem, for one, and their exquisite porcelain tiles, for another. Both were shielded from the ordinary citizen behind high palace walls, although the tiles graced many inner walls of the palace, while the women were confined to a rather constricted area where no man, other than the sultan and his sons, could venture.

We spent several hours in the palace, wandering through its echoing chambers and admiring the still brilliant blue, turquoise, and red tiles colouring the Ottoman world. After lunch, we ambled over to the Aya Sofia. “It’s really rather ugly by daylight,” I commented to Mother as we approached the imposing edifice. Indeed, age has not exactly heightened its beauty, although the something must be said for its sheer perseverance. Built by the Byzantine emperor Justinian around 300 A.D. as a church, the Ottoman invasion 1000 years later converted it into a mosque. Today, it functions as a museum, the chipped paint and irregular brick façade supporting an equally dilapidated interior. Walking through the arched doorways, I could not help but gasp at the enormity of the interior domes, totally unsupported by pillars. But the sensation that lingers most is one of ruined grandeur, faded frescoes, peeling walls, and half-intact mosaics offering a sense of sundered glory lost to the ghosts of history.

With my Middle East impermeability stolidly anchored, we fended off the numerous offers to “come see my carpet shop” and “where are you from?” and “Yes, I am here” from touts on the street. I may not be fluent in Arabic, but at least I can resist the pressure to enter a carpet shop! Which really makes my education entirely worth it, in my opinion. Resisting the temptation of Milka, however, requires an entirely different set of principles I have not yet mastered. Milka, is, of course, the best chocolate in the world, smooth milky alpine chocolate filled with such wonders as strawberry yoghurt, rich carmel, or crunchy nuts. In terms of enjoyment, Mother and I enjoyed our Milka candy bars with the same awe as the ruins of Epheseus and the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia. Well, maybe that’s a slight, slight exaggeration. But it was really very good chocolate.

For dinner (which could not be merely Milka candy bars, alas) I had quite scrumptious octopus salad. By morn, I dragged mother from beneath her warm comforters (“But it’s actually warm!”…Yes, mother is no longer envious of my ‘exotic’ lifestyle, which mainly consists of huddling within a 2 foot radius of my heater and taking trickle showers J ) and we headed to the Blue Mosque, intent on penetrating the graceful, domed beauty. The interior was stunning, painted windows casting muted hues over luscious prayer colors, softly illuminating beautiful tiles and the giant ‘elephant feet’ pillars supporting the arched dome. A few men prayed in the direction of Mecca with droves of tourists frantically snapping photos. Merely, of course, adding to the reverent ambiance….

If you know either me or mother, you have likely discerned a void in this tale-shopping! Indeed, we had abstained from art of purchasing (and, trust me, in Turkey, bargaining truly is an art) until that day. Early in the morning, while delivering our laundry to a local service, I espied a sign in the window of a corner shop: “Hand-woven silk products…” Needless to say, we emerged half an hour later with three more scarves to our name; 2 soft, cotton ones and a subtle, raw silk grey one for mother. Although I had fingered the 100 dollar scarves, I regretfully refrained…or my credit card might have protested.

Under my influences, we walked…everywhere….in Turkey. And this day was no exception. We trod upon brown, cobbled streets of Sultanahmet; stoically ignored the many offers to visit carpet shops; passed the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya, both glowing with the still soft light of morn; trekked through the modern district of Eminou, with internet cafes and restaurants wedged between Ottoman baths and ancient tombs; turned onto a side street, mingling with the rest of Istanbul flooding the sidewalks; followed the wall of a 16th century mosque; and finally walked beneath the archway signaling the start of the Grand Bazaar, a truly spectacular collection of shops sprawling under a covered roof, a veritable maze of twisting alleyways, wide avenues, and glittering goods to entice the buyer. Without any signs in English marking the exit, Mother and I soon found ourselves happily lost amid the hand-painted tiles, silk scarves, silver earrings, woolen carpets, and bronze lamps.

After the passage of several hours, we paused for a respite, realizing, rather regretfully, that we should attempt to discern the exit. Otherwise, I, the pack mule, was in danger of tipping over due to the ceramic plates in one hand and the tiles in the other. Hmmmm…”I think it’s over here,” I murmured to Mom, leading us out of the Grand Bazaar into an enclosed courtyard. “Or not.” We returned to the Bazaar, wended our way through the shops until another exit appeared. Although not the one through which we had entered, I took it, anyways. I then proceeded to lead us on a tour of ‘real’ Istanbul. Mother claims I was lost. “You’re lost,” in fact, were her exact words after half an hour of wandering through the back streets of Istanbul. In defense of my honor, I was not lost, merely taking the scenic route. In doing so, we passed several gorgeously ruinous Ottoman-domed mosques and walked through some fascinating residential areas with tall, sagging apartment buildings crowding narrow alleyways full of children shrieking, veiled women bartering for bread, and the men, as always, loitering in doorways and not accomplishing much of anything. Men.

I noticed Mother’s pace had suddenly matched my own. “Where are we going,” she hissed, as the eyes of men (still lingering in doorframes) followed our progress. “Ummm…the Bosphorus?” At least, that was my aim, and I was slowly heading towards it, albeit at a slower and more circuitous route that my guidebook indicated. Soon, I spied a major intersection ahead, and hoped to find a familiar landmark. Alas, the quaintness of Sultanahmet had been transformed into characterless concrete buildings, lanes of traffic spewing pollution, and a drab bridge leading to an unknown part of Istanbul. “Taxi?” We hopped into one, finding a driver who spoke not a word of English and charged us an exorbitant fee. Miffed, we eventually exited near our hotel, deposited the purchases on our bed, and found supper in a couple apples, Milka chocolate, potato crisps, and almonds.

As we were returning to Istanbul at the conclusion of our Turkey travels, we left the large suitcase at the hotel (and with it several of the more fragile souvenirs), and embarked on our next adventure-the Turkish bus station. For some reason, my family thinks I am fairly independent (wherever they found that silly notion, I haven’t a clue), and so mother and I decided to forego expensive tours and visit Turkey’s wonders via public transport.

The bus station exhibited typical Arab world (although, I know, Turks are NOT Arab, they still often behaved quite similarly) chaos, the brightness of women's headscarves and the swish of men's robes causing us to cower in a little corner of the vast terminal until our bus arrived, observing the dramas of everyday life unfold- goodbyes, warm embraces, kisses on the cheek, the transfer of luggage from mother to son...On the bus, we were offered lemon-scented hand cleaner, water, coffee, soda, various snacks, and the enjoyment of Turkish soap operas blaring throughout the duration of the ride. Soap operas, at least, are a universal language.

By nightfall, our bus had reached the Gallipoli Peninsula, where some of the fiercest battles of World War II had raged. Even now, the ghosts of past carnage linger, darkening the shadows of dusk and silencing even the raucous boy seated several chairs in front of us. Our bus boarded a ferry, then soon disembarked in Canakkale, our destination for the evening. We collected our luggage, wheeled it to the Kervansary Hotel, and headed out for a night on the town. Following the recommendation of the hotel clerk, we dined in a charming restaurant overlooking the Med, sampling (really, really fresh!) calamari and a mis-communicated plate of veggie appetizers.

On the way home, we passed the Trojan horse. Although perhaps not the real one the warriors of Greece hid in to deceive the Trojans, this one had the (in my opinion, greater) distinction of hiding the personage of Brad Pitt. It was used in the movie Troy, and then donated to the city.

So, now you’re probably wondering why a Trojan horse is located in Canakkale, of all places. Because the ancient ruins of Troy lie in its fields. And, of course, mother and I took the public bus all the way there J Unfortunately, the public bus to Troy (Truva in Turkish) is not very publicized, and we wandered around the town for half an hour attempting to find it. Finally, we walked under a concrete bridge near a dusty park full of squabbling chickens and found a few minibuses bound for Troy. As the next bus did not leave for another 40 minutes, we whiled away our time observing the vociferous hens and sitting in wobbly chairs under the rattling bridge, Mother perhaps wondering why her daughter had convinced her to embark on this particular adventure. It was not the last of such thoughts, I suspect.

We arrived to the entrance gates of Troy and I climbed inside the uninspiring model of the Trojan horse on display. I mean, it had windows. And a ladder. However, the sight of Troy itself, immortalized in the Iliad and the Odyssey, quickened my blood in a way that few things on this earth can. Desolate, set amid verdant fields, the ruins are nothing more than piles of stone, some in the shape of walls or temples, yet no more remarkable than any other ruins I’ve visited. But to me they evoke the tragedy of the Trojan war, the history of Homer, the audacity of Achilles, the perfidy of Paris, the hubris of Hector, and the heavenly beauty of Helen. In short, I was in heaven, climbing over the walls of Troy, peering into ancient caves, gazing out towards the distant sea, imaging the clanging of swords, the knell of dying men, the wailing of women, and the shouts of triumph echoing over the now-silent land, content to be hewn by plow and hoe instead of spear and blade.

At one point, we paused before a still intact ramp leading to the ruins of the high citadel, where the royalty dwelt. “You can still imagine it,” Mother said to me, and I nodded, smiling as the spirits of the past came alive once more, and the ring of horses’ hooves echoed over the stones. Ahhh, such is the curse of an English major. We ended the tour with a photo shoot among the fallen Roman columns, relics of a later Troy, as 9 cities had been constructed on the site, the first 3000 B.C. See photo link for further elucidation.

On the bus ride back, we bumped through tiny villages, picking up feisty old women with two teeth and wrinkled old men stuffing a tobacco pipe into their pocket. We lunched in a local restaurant and then caught the 5:30 bus to Bergama. Or so we thought. We showed our tickets to the bus ‘steward’, repeating, “Bergama,” and he smiled back at us. However, bus stops in Turkey are different than those in other countries; they don’t actually announce the approaching stops. They expect you to know where to disembark, and, if you don’t, you get to go to Izmir, 2 hours south of Bergama.

Bergama, came, and went, and no one directed us off the bus. So, we sat, increasingly annoyed at the Turkish soaps flashing across the screen, pondering where to go at 11 pm in Izmir. “Well, we could just go to Selcuk,” Mother ventured, and I eventually saw the wisdom in her thoughts. Selcuk, you see, was our next destination after Bergama. Or it was supposed to be. Now, it would be the only destination. We climbed off the bus, gathered our luggage, and found a taxi, a rather expensive taxi, to drive us the distance. Arriving around midnight, we were rescued by Lonely Planet, which provided the hotel’s phone number, and the taxi driver called the hotel to alert the sleepy manager of our presence.

“We made it,” Mother and I sighed before we collapsed into bed, not arising until late the next morning. Stumbling downstairs, we wolfed down breakfast, absorbing our new home with wandering eyes. The Nazar Hotel and Pensiyon is located on a laconic side street of Selcuk, itself a sleepy town in southern Anatolia harboring the ruins of Ephesus, an astounding former Roman city. Our hotel itself was quaint, with hand-crafted robes and colorful quilts brightening the lobby, and an inviting (at least in summer) garden with a small pool off to one side. The manager spoke adequate English, and grew friendlier throughout our 5 night stay, his ruddy cheeks occasionally crinkling in a smile!

Perhaps here it is time to explain the advantages of Turkey in the winter. We were blessed with beautiful weather throughout most of our stay, mild, sunny days interrupted by only a few clouds and fleeting rain showers. And few tourists. Quite often, we had spectacular ancient ruins to ourselves, and were free to wander and explore without the hindrance of hordes of other tourists. For a few nights in the small Nazar, we were the only guests. Without the occupation of tourists, towns like Selcuk, Bergama, and Canakkale presented a relaxed countenance, a return to normality until the beginning of summer, when visitors would once again swarm their streets.

Although we had planned to relax that day, our hotel manager suggested we visit Epheseus, and we acquiesced. Our first stop was the House of the Virgin Mary, an isolated hamlet perched atop a mountain, the site where many people believe Mary spent her final days and died. There is a small stone chapel nestled among discordant pine trees, vibrant flowers, and encroaching vines, offering a sense of tranquility to the visitor. Accustomed to arid desert and scrubby vegetation, I appreciated the scent of green, growing things-fresh pine needles, the sweet fragrance of flowers, the loamy scent of the soil-almost as much as the spirituality of the site.

From there, we proceeded to Epheseus. I would say that Epheseus cannot be described in words, but past behavior reveals that I will try, anyway, being one of those English major types. Quite simply, Epheseus is spectacular. It is an ancient Roman city remarkably intact despite the progress of years. Wandering down its avenues, past archways and fountains, baths and temples, houses and latrines, you can envision how they once lived, worked, and played. With few tourists to hinder our progress, we admired the extensive ruins of the Roman baths, climbed (well, I did anyway; mother merely photographed) on pillars, wandered among the strewn rubble of the old marketplace, entered the vastness of several theatres, sat upon the men’s public latrines (which were quite clever, they had running water beneath them), strolled along the Sacred Way, petted several of the kitties loitering amongst ruins, pondered the naked statue of Hercules, and gazed in awe at the magnificence of the Theatre of Trajan.

From there, we exited the gates and met Lily, a carpet saleswoman who brought us to her shop and introduced us to the world of Turkish carpets. Which are, of course, sumptuous, beautiful, intricate, and…expensive. A man we had met in Istanbul, accosting us while leaving the palace, had been appalled by the fact that we did not want to spend 500-1000 dollars on a rug. Lily’s rugs were more reasonable, but we still politely desisted and wandered from her shop rug-less, but with pockets full of Turkish Lira.

An uneventful evening led into a late morning, when we arose languidly, savored the smooth delicacy of Turkish yoghurt, and toured the other wonders of Selcuk. Near our hotel, a hill rose dramatically above the jumble of houses, crowned with a Byzantine castle at its summit. According to my guidebook and the hotel manager, the castle was closed from visitors, but I rarely let such approbation deter me. We walked a few blocks from the hotel and encountered two small boys. “Castle, castle?” they cried, “come, come!” And they darted up the street towards the hill, crawled through a hole in the barbed wire fence, and motioned us to follow. I gingerly scrambled through, sighing as I realized I had just washed my pants, and turned towards Mom. “You just go,” she said, eying the hole suspiciously. But our little guides paralleled the fence and found a larger hole a few meters down. Mother, being an excellent sport, crawled through, and we began the arduous hike up the incline. It was a bit slippery, but we managed well enough, avoiding the itinerant goat and donkey munching placidly at the swath of green covering the hillside. Near the summit, one boy said, “5 lira, me, 5 him,” and mother and I acquiesced, handing them their payment and watching them scurry away with glee.

Inside the castle walls we found a ruined mosque/church, castle rooms sunk into the hill, and sweeping views of the countryside down to the sea. “See Mom,” I said with a laugh “being illegal has its benefits.” And, despite her better judgment, I think she might have smiled J Another guide ‘appeared’ to lead us out, and we followed the road to the Red Basilica, another site of early Christiandom, believed to be the final resting place of John the Baptist. Whether this is true or not, it was still fascinating, with the lintels of doorways standing long past the supporting walls had collapsed, and the ubiquity of Roman pillars adding an air of antiquity to the site. In Selcuk, as in many Mediterranean cities, new civilizations merely borrowed from old, and some of the pillars of the Basilica had once graced the streets of ancient Epheseus. We encountered a lovely Aussie couple, and together we found the Baptistry, the significance of which I am not quite certain.

From there, I dragged Mother to the local 16th mosque, where we found a couple souvenir stores and a former imam who spoke Arabic! On the way to the local museum, we visited another carpet shop (boring) and then raced through the Epheseus Museum before it closed. Inside it were a number of exquisite specimens, including a ‘well-endowed’ statue of the Roman god Priapus, stunning friezes that once adorned temples, and graceful effigies of Artemis, goddess of the hunt.

By dusk we found ourselves admiring the Byzantine aqueducts scattered throughout the village. Disgustingly quaint, I know. Dinner was in the Edjer Restaurant, a homey establishment of four tables, run by a husband, wife, and son, serving some of the most delicious grilled chicken I have ever tasted, moist and succulent. Because I was unable to eat the rice (which had little bits of gluten in it), they fried up some potatoes and told me to return on Friday, when they would cook special rice just for me. We did return, as they provided another delectable dish amid the strains of Kurdish music and American love songs serenading in the background.










Bergama or bust. That was our motto. I am (as some of you may, to your detriment, know) not one easily thwarted, and I was utterly indurate in my resolution to see the ‘fabled’ city. So, we took to public bus from Selcuk to Izmir, and then from there found a Bergama bus office, whose buses terminated in Bergama. Yay! About two hours later, we approached Bergama, disembarked at the right terminal, and negotiated for a cab to bring us to the Acropolis. Although the Athenian Acropolis is more famous, the Bergama Acropolis is, in my humblest opinion, more majestic. Acropolis, by the way, really just means big hill. Bergama’s Acropolis contained impossibly white pillars and arching doorways perched on the edge of a sheer precipice sweeping towards the modern center of Bergama. In the fluid blueness of morning, the ruins glowed with a whiteness belying their creation, two thousand years ago, surrounded by the craggy wilderness of central Turkey-tumbled rocks, scrubby trees, green fields, trickling streams. My guidebook described the theatre as ‘vertigo-inducing’, and I will not argue. Of then many Roman theatres I’ve seen, this one was by far the most unique, carved into the side of the hill, with sharply angled seating perched on the sides of the cliff. We gingerly scuddled down the stairs of the theatre and exited the site, taking the same taxi to our next objective, the Ascelpion (sp.), an ancient Roman medical center that, in its day, contained baths, saunas, treatment centers, a theatre, and, of course, Roman columns.

Our taxi driver, of course, tried to rip us off, but we offered him a fair price and left him smiling at the side of the road. Not another Roman pillar! I thought as I walked along the Sacred Way towards the site. But it was not merely a location to descry marble columns; amid encroaching weeds and deep wells, we found an underground tunnel, still solidly intact, medical rooms, carved pillars, another theatre, and Turkish children. Yes, while taking photos we were accosted by a trio of three children who began to practice their English on us. I was a bit wary, having had far too many negative experiences with native populations (cynical, me?). But they were fairly adorable. Looking at me in my dark glasses and flowing tunic, they said “You,” and then mimicked a microphone, “like this?” After more pantomimes, I realized they thought I was a singer. I think. “No!” “Yes!” For the rest of our tour at the site, we were trailed by a trio of Turkish children imploring me to serenade them with a song. Mother told me to ‘not ruin the fantasy’, and I eventually convinced them (without singing, thank goodness) that I am merely a normal American. We left them by the alleyway to their home and preceded to the Basilica in town, a fairly unremarkable Egyptian-goddess-temple-turned-church constructed from brick and partially converted into a mosque. How’s that for a mixture of religions?

After aimless wanderings, we found a bus ticket office, fortified ourselves on almonds, pastries, and chips, and made the long journey home. Our hotel staff greeted us warmly when we returned, relieved to see us alive after a day of transportation navigation.

The last full day in Selcuk took us to Sirince, a mountainside village exuding extreme amounts of quaintness, tempered only by the busloads of tourists that arrived an hour after we had. We, of course, took the public bus, and spent the morning bartering for hand knit socks, table runners, stocking caps, and other oddities, poking into the steep alleys of the town and sampling the deliciousness of fruity wines produced in the region. By midafternoon, we returned to Selcuk to experience the wonders of the Turkish bath.

For the uninitiated (and we were definitely in that category) the Turkish bath can be a somewhat daunting experience, particular when you visit a local hamam. On Friday, the bath offered women only hours, and the locals of the town congregated in the steamy heat of the bath room to shampoo, scrub, gossip, and sweat together. Though unsure of what to expect, I dragged Mom through the rite, and she is only slightly less whole because of it J We removed all but our underwear in changing rooms and then entered a series of doors that eventually led into the main, vaulted steam room. Rivulets of water rain in channels on the floor, and separate bathing stalls lined two sides of the room. A raised, central marble platform radiated a deliciously soothing heat to the large room. Against the far wall, water faucets offered warm and cool water to aid the bathing process, and, on the opposite wall, two smooth platforms sat. However, this description excludes the most fascinating aspect of the hamam-women. Young and old, corpulent and lithe, voluptuous and not-so-well endowed, all gathered beneath the tiled dome to participate in a centuries-old ritual. Did I mention most of them were naked? Some wore bathing suits, but most sauntered freely around the room, exposing their chests and freshly scrubbed skin to the community of women. And it was a community. Close friends sat in one corner and shampooed each other’s hair; another cluster sprawled on the marble platform to relax and gossip; several young girls shrieked as they splashed each other with ice cold water.

Of course, a Turkish bath is not really a Turkish bath unless you’re scrubbed within an inch of your life. Everyone took turns beneath the scrubbing mats of the bath attendants, and even I endured the fierce exfoliation of the scrubbing mitt as the coarse material sloughed away every inch of dead skin. After the attendant splashed water over the rectangular platform (uncomfortably resembling a funeral bier) I removed my bra, the last vestige of my modesty, and flinched as the mitt scratched over my face, vigorously moved down my body, and then withdrew, briefly, while I realized it was my cue to flip, and offer my backside to her torture. When she concluded with the scrubbing, the attendant tossed away the mitt, poured a strangely foamy, white substance in her hands, and shampooed my hair while I sat, awkwardly, feeling remarkably vulnerable with my eyes clamped shut and shiny nakedness on display. She splashed water over me a number of times, and then tugged my arm to indicate the completion of her administrations. Somewhat relieved, I scuttled away to lay down on the marble platform, enjoying the brush of warm stone against my agitated skin.

While walking through the abandoned lot and stray cats on the way home, Mother appeared strangely silent, unlike myself, full of ardor over the authentic cultural experience we had witnessed. “Well, yes, perhaps it was authentic, but was it very clean,” Mother countered, and I shrugged. Much to her chagrin, my standards of living have plummeted in the last several years.

At long last, we departed the Nazar Pensiyon, bid a fond farewell to the cold lobby and warm staff, and flew to Cappadocia, land of fairy chimneys and underground cities. And rain, as we discovered as we waited for our hotel to pick us up and the airport. Situated high in the mountains of central Turkey, Cappadocia is truly a land of whimsy, a land of ethereal spirituality, snow-capped dreams and magical beauty. It is like no place on earth, quite simply. We arrived as dusk was cloaking the land in heavy shadows and dark hues, but I still discerned patches of snow on distant mountain peaks and the peculiar thrust of fairy chimneys much closer at hand.

The village of Goreme was our base for exploring, our hotel, the Kelebek. We drove, up, to the highest point in town, unloaded our suitcases, and checked into our room, a small, cozy cave with the bathroom built into a fairy chimney. Talk about ambiance. Goreme, and Cappadocia, oozed it.

The next morning, we exited our cave into a heavy fog. Uggh. So much for the stunning vistas that characterize Cappadocia. Half an hour later, however, the mists had burned away, revealing the landscape of Goreme in its glorious peculiarity. Houses clustered around the towering cones of fairy chimneys, and sometimes into them! Beyond the edges of town, mist still clung to the wild valleys, swirling around the esoteric silhouettes of fairy chimneys held captive by the deep shadows of the surrounding mountains.

We took our first and only tour of the trip that day, and were rewarded with an excellent guide, only two other guests, and a whirlwind introduction to the wonders of Cappadocia. Our first stop was an underground city, one of 36 around the area, constructed first by the Christians to avoid persecution from the Romans, and later used by settlers to evade the Arab invaders. The settlers burrowed deep into the ground, carving entire cities for their communities, complete with baths, wineries, living spaces, air ducts, and trap doors. I feel like humanity has grown since those days, at least height-wise. Their tunnels were more like crawl spaces, and their beds were stone cubby holes.

We emerged from the recesses of the earth into the bright sunshine, and drove through the fantastic scenery of Cappadocia to a series of fairy chimney valleys, admiring the unique sculpting that wind, time, and the elements have wrought upon the rock. Fairy chimneys were originally formed by volcanic tuff, and the peculiar ‘heads’ that some of them bear is basalt rock supporter by lighter stone below. We even took a small hike through one of the valleys, sunken into the shadows of the looming chimneys, lost among their twisted forms. I even got to climb one, the camel, and ‘opted’ to slide down the backside, rather than perform the more conventional controlled descent J “You ok,” Ali, our guide asked, slightly concerned as I fell on top of him. “Yup, figured this was quicker,” I said with a laugh, brushing off the unfortunate accumulation of white dirt on my black pants. Lunch was in a cave, dinner…in our cave room.

We awoke to overcast skies which subtly brightened as we proceeded through our adventures. The Kelebek, our hotel, is built on a hill, with more stairwells and terraces than I cared to count. I think we climbed 4 staircases merely to reach the lobby and breakfast room! Once we arrived, slightly breathless, the sweeping view of distant mountain and nearby fairy chimney took the rest of breath away. After tea, copious amounts of yoghurt, fresh cheese, and eggs, we set off, on foot, to the Goreme Air Museum, a collection of rock-cut chapels and churches dating from about the 6th to 12th centuries.

More exploration ensued, clambering up steep ladders and into darkened corridors. Many of the churches sheltered murals and painting of Biblical scenes, some adroitly painted, and others bearing a more amateur hand. To imagine that Christians, over a millennium ago, scaled rope ladders and cliff sides to worship in the small chapels, however, was remarkable to contemplate. Some contained tombs, hand-hewn pillars, rock-cut benches, tables, and pigeon cotes, symbols of everyday life that allowed one to imagine the procession of humanity once engaged in carving out a living in the fairy chimneys of far-flung Cappadocia.

I took Mother on the scenic route home, off the main road into a few valleys, where we discovered small chapels with fading crosses painted across their facades scattered throughout fairy chimney land. Cappadocia is a land that requires days, if not weeks, to delve into its remote valleys and conquer its towering peaks, although it only required two short days for me to fall absolutely in love with it- the fungible nature of its phallic symbols, the crystalline air, the quietude of Goreme by night, the mystery of its underground cities, and the opportunity to wander, at will, among its beauty.

Alas, we headed back to Istanbul the next morning, back to the Pennisula Hotel in Sultanahmet and the congestion of a major metropolis. Having traveled through pastoral scenes for the past week, the bustle of Istanbul was a bit of a shock. That afternoon, however, we struck out for the Basilica Cisterns, an underground cavern of soft lighting, rippling water, giant pillars, and classical music, all combining to create an ethereal atmosphere only heightened by the ghostly shapes of fish gliding through the clear waters below the walkway.

From there we ventured back to the Grand Bazaar, and I, much to Mother’s amazement, led us back out the same door through which we had entered. “I still can’t believe you did that,” she said days later in Jerusalem. Ever since my first days in Cairo, where became lost amid the heat and harassment of the Middle East, I have developed a keener sense of direction. Sometimes, to get where you’re going, you have to know where you came from.

Our last full day in Turkey was spent…..shopping, mostly. What else, right J I led us to the Spice Market, a riotous bazaar selling oriental spices, Turkish Delight, fresh cheese, slaughtered goat, natural Viagra, silk scarves, painted tiles, and a myriad of other goods I do not care to list. We whiled away many pleasurable hours amid the fragrance of cumin and the whiff of frankincense, emerging to take some repast in a local café, listen to the various café owners argue for our business, and watch the sun set over the hills of Sultanahmet from the Galata Bridge. A nearly cloudless sky burned with molten hues of ruby and topaz, tingeing the silvery domes of mosques with a brush of scarlet. The waters of the Bosphorus burned with colors of the sunset, glinting vermillion and orange for a few, brilliant moments before fading again into an innocuous grey.

We walked home that evening, slowly savouring our final moments amid the resilience of Istanbul-its conversion to Christianity, its acceptance of Islam, its embrace of modernity. Each step of history left behind its footprints, and I placed my own, rather large, feet, upon a moment in time. Balanced perilously between the East and the West, between headscarves or hair, between secularism or Islam, between the Arab world and the European one, Turkey is yet another part to my puzzle of understanding the regional politics of the Middle East. And this piece, at least, was smoothly absorbed, with laughter, good companionship, excellent chocolate, and fascinating travel.














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2 comments:

onur said...

hi laura,

this is a very nice article.
I am sure other travelers will enjoy reading.
I am trying to put up a website about turkey. www.iwasinturkey.com
would you like to add some of your articles about Turkey to my website with a referral link to your blog. you can add it by becoming a member or I can do it for you.
you can reach me via info@iwasinturkey.com

let me know what you think,
thanks
onur

Alkan said...

hello,
i wanted to say that Turkey was never actually involved in WWII, so the bloody battles in Gallipoli you mentioned took place in WWI.