Wednesday, December 20, 2006

 

Of Dervishes and The Deep Peace


This will be my final blog from Turkey (at least for this trip). Before I forget, let me wish you a very peace filled holiday, and I hope to see many of you somewhere over the course of the next month. It’s been great having you in mind as I write these reflections. Always nice to know one’s audience.

I have come to truly appreciate the Deep Peace of this universe. We small, self centered, humano-centric creatures tend to place our focus on noise, chaos, war, injustice. These things grab our attention. Yet they are small, in both time and space, compared to the Deep Peace that undergirds all of life. We need only contemplate the gentleness of the wind, the vastness of space, the firm foundation of the earth, the patience of the grass and trees, to know that Peace, not Strife, is the dominant energy of this universe. I intentionally choose to put my focus on Peace more and more these days. Perhaps this has been the greatest gift to come to me in 2006. May you find the Deep Peace as well this holiday season.

Life is wrapping itself up rapidly here in Ankara. The days are getting shorter (must be a Turkish thing, huh?), yet we’ve yet to see any really bad weather (I hope it’s not waiting for my day of departure times—Dec. 21—23). I’ve been able to get by quite nicely so far with a light jacket and a woolen sweater. Last year at this time, I’m told, Ankara was getting some pretty intense snows.

I wonder if returning to the States will be an adjustment for me. I suspect it will, not only in terms of the weather, but most especially in the pace of life. Things just move more slowly here. I’ve gotten used to waiting (with varying degrees of patience) while living here—waiting for buses, waiting for hot water, waiting for taxis, waiting for friends. I’ve even grown to like not having a car. I do not look forward to renewed car payments, high insurance premiums, corrupt Colorado Springs policemen, insane Colorado Springs traffic, and the long commute to and from work each day when my new job begins in mid January. I will miss the simplicity of good mass transit. But life goes on!

Last weekend I traveled to Konya to see the famous Whirling Dervishes. You can see some photos here. Although today they are little more than a tourist attraction, their origin lay in a very old religious ritual known as the sema (sacred concert). The sema was the primary celebration of an order of Sufis (Islamic mystics) known as the Mevlana, the most famous member of which was the great poet Rumi. Konya, of course, is far more ancient than the Mevlanis, more ancient than Islam itself. It’s name may be related to our “icon,” reflecting its pre-Islamic Byzantine Christian importance. It was a major caravan stop in Anatolia for thousands of years, a crossroads where caravans from different parts of the world could meet and do business. The city contains some remarkable architecture, not the least of which is the ancient hall of the dervishes, now a civic museum. In this museum we could see the tombs of Rumi and some of his closest followers as well as some fantastic treasures, including one of the world’s smallest engraved Korans.

The official dervish ceremony itself was interesting but not overly impressive. It took place in a huge modern arena built for the tourists. It opened with some famous religious crooner who got the crowd warmed up with a few empassioned religious songs (in Turkish), accompanied by a band of flautists, ude players and percussionists. This part of the event reminded me a bit too much of a bad evangelical Christian “Call to Jesus” meeting. This, it was followed by an intermission during which the band left, to be replaced by the official sema band, wearing the traditional woolen fez “chimney” hats and playing much more ancient instruments, including a very unique sounding reed flute. As they played the head of the order, the “sheikh,” emerged wearing his special fur lined chimney hat, followed in line by the dancers, each covered by a black outer robe. After some fancy walking around the wood tiled central floor (which reminded me of a gymnasium floor) and some prayers from the Koran, the dancers shed their outer black cloaks (symbolizing the spirit’s shedding of the outer shell of the body) to reveal brilliant white costumes underneath, and the dance began. Slowly each dancer came up to the sheikh and bowed, then emerged from his bow into a slow spin, the hands starting at the navel and moving up as the body would spin faster, until finally emerging into the full spin posture: one hand reaching for heaven, the other for earth, and the white robes of the dancers floating out from their bodies as they spun across the floor. The endurance of these dancers was quite impressive, I must admit. Each dance would last at least ten minutes (you try it! Go ahead. I’ll wait….OK, you can get up now) and they repeated the dance four or five times. I don’t know how they did it. As an ensemble they looked amazing. It was like….well, I can’t quite explain it. It was pretty awe inspiring. Probably the original ritual was not meant for public eyes as was this one, but meant solely for the sheikh and his initiates, each initiate entering into a spiritual trance by means of the music and dance (two activities frowned upon by more orthodox forms of Islam).

All in all I was more impressed by the ceremony than I expected to be, but it still had much more the feel of a tourist event than a spiritual ceremony. The Mevlana museum had a richer, more sacred energy to it. Still, this is Turkey, and you cannot miss the dervishes. So I am glad I caught them.

Now these final weeks have been occupied with endings. The core course is wrapping up, and we all met last night for a class party where we all took our leave each of the other. I’m writing my formal end of the year report for Global Partners Semester in Turkey, the program that sent me here this fall. I am saying goodbyes to faculty and staff I’ve met on campus, and to friends with whom I hope to remain in good contact. And I am saying my goodbyes to Turkey herself, taking my camera around the city and campus here in Ankara and taking pictures of people, places and things that will remind me of my happy stay here. In addition, I’ve busied myself with last minute shopping, visiting the antique stores, the carpet markets, the museum stores. Can’t wait to share some of my discoveries with you when I see you next.

I thank you for reading this and my other blogs. I hope I’ve inspired you to come to see this fantastic country. Of course, as a short term visitor here I can make no broad judgments, and I will always be a yabanci (an outsider, a non-Turk), still I’ve gotten a good sense of these people, their beliefs, their values, their culture. Of all the “Islamic” cultures I’ve visited in my travels this is by far the most interesting, the most rich in history, the most open to visitors, the easiest to navigate, and the safest. More than anything, Turkey’s richness lies in her people. Come meet them for yourself!

O you who've gone on pilgrimage -
where are you, where, oh where?
Here, here is the Beloved!
Oh come now, come, oh come!
Your friend, he is your neighbor,
he is next to your wall -
You, erring in the desert -
what air of love is this?
If you'd see the Beloved's
form without any form -
You are the house, the master,
You are the Kaaba, you! . . .
Where is a bunch of roses,
if you would be this garden?
Where, one soul's pearly essence
when you're the Sea of God?
That's true - and yet your troubles
may turn to treasures rich -
How sad that you yourself veil
the treasure that is yours!

Rumi 'I Am Wind, You are Fire'
Translation by Annemarie Schimmel

Thanks for staying with me during this great adventure.


Monday, December 04, 2006

 

Ephesian Days and Selcuk Nights


This blog begins with a disclaimer. It has been said that “what happens in the hamam, stays in the hamam.” I, however, am going to break that tradition later in this blog, so consider yourself forewarned.

I’ve spent the last four days on a fun excursion to the city of Selcuk, near the ruins of ancient Ephesus. You can see some photos here. This has been my first excursion since my Switzerland jaunt, and it’s been fun to be out of ever colder, ever smoggier Ankara for a few days. I boldly began the trip by courageously hopping my first dolmush in Ankara. The dolmush is a minibus system that, for mere kurush (pennies), takes you to various locations in the city. I hopped one to the Armada, a large shopping mall beside the Varan bus terminal where I was to catch the bus from Ankara to Izmir (ancient Smyrna) on Wednesday morning. Apart from the minibus wanting to fall apart at every bump in the road, all good. Got there with plenty of time. The ride to Izmir on Varan was very comfortable. There was plenty of room, as the bus was only half full. The seats were very spacious and easy, there was a bathroom on board, and a steward who served tea and coffee the whole way. It was like being on a comfortable airplane, only without having to wear a seatbelt.

The trouble arose (and the first major challenge of the trip) when I arrived in Izmir around 6PM in the wrong place. The Varan bus line did not take me to the “Otogar,” Izmir’s central bus terminal. Instead I had to try to grab a taxi to go the extra ten kilometers or so, but there was not a taxi in sight, and I was told the last bus to Selcuk left at 7PM. Finally, one of the Varan employees hastily sped me through the back streets of Izmir (not pretty, believe me, not pretty at all) and we made it in time. I offered him more money than I’d have paid a taxi, and he almost refused it. Almost. Anyway, I was at the Otogar, but again totally lost. No one seemed to know exactly from where the service to Selcuk departed. After some panicky running around though, I finally found the minibus and dashed in at the very last second—actually, it was the last second in my time frame, the bus itself didn’t take off for about another half an hour. Meanwhile, one of the bus driver’s friends who had some English talked me into looking at his brother’s pension when I got to Selcuk. Since I did not have a reservation anywhere else, I agreed.

After an hour in the darkness along the highway between the towns, the bus driver dropped me off at the head of a rather creepy looking alleyway filled with some shady looking characters. Fortunately for me all of these characters were younger than ten years old, so I managed to make it to the Hotel Nazar alive, deprived merely of a few kurush put into small, begging hands. The owners of those hands each made a bee line for the nearest candy store, needless to say.

At the hotel more adventure ensued. Unlike the English speaking brother that had been promised me, the only person in charge was the “anne,” the elderly mother, who had no English. Luckily I had enough broken Turkish to negotiate a fair room rate, settle in (the hotel was actually quite nice, clean and had excellent views of the ruins and the castle), clean up a bit, and head back out to find some food. I walked the streets of Selcuk and felt like I was truly staying in a Turkish town at last; not the westernized cities of Istanbul and Ankara, but something out of an Orhan Pamuk novel (my class is currently reading his “Snow” set in the eastern Turkish city of Kars). Men huddled for warmth inside smoke filled tea shops playing cards or backgammon and smoking argyle (water pipe) or cigarettes. The streets were fairly empty, and I did not notice any restaurants I felt brave enough to try, so I bought some crackers and water at the local corner store and headed back to my room to settle in. Later, the owner of the place, Osman, finally came up to say hello and to return my passport (making a copy is a requirement when checking into a hotel first night). He had plenty of good English, as promised, and we had a good chat. After that, I felt quite at ease. I learned the next morning over breakfast with him and his mother that several of my students had stayed at this same hotel just the weekend before. Small world.

My first full day in Selcuk began after breakfast when Lily, a friend of the family, drove me to the south gate entrance of the ruins of Ephesus. (Lily, it turns out to no one’s surprise, also owns a carpet store and got me to promise to visit before I left town. Actually, she’s a great gal, with great English, who has traveled to more places in the States than I have, and even lived in Colorado Springs for six months. Unbeknown to her family she became a “believer” there when she attended the now infamous New Life Church up on the north side of the Springs. I didn’t have the heart to tell her the latest news about her beloved Pastor Ted.) Anyway, Lily dropped me off at the south end of Ephesus and I went in. I wanted it to be a spiritual experience (the Ephesians are mentioned frequently in the New Testament and St. Paul was even imprisoned here for a time—those Ephesians didn’t seem to care for any new religions at the time). The place was mostly piles of stone. I kept walking and shooting photos (millions of photos—I love not worrying about wasting film any more) of the rocks and stones and carvings, but they just weren’t grabbing me. The library of Celsus was impressive, what was left of it, and the Arena was huge (I’ve seen major league baseball parks in America with fewer seats), but by and large it was, for me, just “more ruins.”

However, after some time in the Arena I sat down for a rest and a drink of su (water) and was visited by one of the Ephesian gods. Ephesus, it seems, is still filled with gods, and this one reminded me of my beloved Smeagol back home in America: the same meow, the same intense eyes, the same raccoon like tail. Anyway, this little guy huddled on my lap for a half an hour or so seeking warmth (which I could offer) and food (of which I had none). Together we stared down the long street that used to lead to the harbor of Ephesus. This was the spiritual moment I’d been hoping for, a genuine connection with a living reminder of the holy. There are few beings more sacred than cats. It killed me to have to say good bye.

The rest of the ruins were fine. Nicely ruined. What I actually enjoyed more than the park itself was the long walk back to Selcuk from the northern gate of the tourist site. This took me past groves of oranges still full of fruit even on this last day of November, past peasants picking whatever it is that peasants pick in their fields, along a long path arched over with gold (well, at least the branches of the trees hovering above sported golden leaves), and finally back to the city of Selcuk. It was a great walk of 10 km or so, and I was ready for some chay (tea) and a bite to eat. While sitting at the corner café I was again swarmed by the deities who infest this city. They know to hang around restaurants waiting for suckers like me to feed them scraps from my table.

After lunch I headed for the Ephesus Museum here in Selcuk. It is a nice little museum filled with items that the Turks were savvy enough to save from marauding European archaeologists. So many other archaeological sites were pilfered by Europe back in the day, so it was nice to see the Turks holding onto some good pieces for themselves. The most notorious display in the place was the effigy of the god Priapus, a male fertility god of Ephesus with a pronounced…. well, you can look it up. Another nice piece is the Ephesian Artemis, the major fertility goddess of the city. Before the Romans named her Artemis the Greeks knew her as Cybele. It fascinates me how this area has also become a major center for Marian worship. In fact the Pope was here just a day before I arrived and said a Mass in honor of the virgin. (Legend around here has it that after the Crucifixion the Apostle John led Jesus’ mother, Mary, here, to finish out their days. There is a small house north of the main Ephesus site called the “Mary House” but I did not choose to visit it. I think the Pope did the other day, however.) Ephesus seems to attract mother goddesses. Or perhaps the word is “evoke.” The museum also held a huge head and arm fragment from a statue of the Emperor Diocletian (one of the major “Christians to the Lions” emperors). The original must have stood twenty to thirty feet tall at least. The head alone was over four feet tall. My personal favorite, however, was the bust of Marcus Aurelius, the only Roman Emperor worth beans in my book because he was a decent amateur philosopher.

After the museum I walked up the Ayasuluk hill to the ruined St. John Basilica (yes, that same John the Apostle). I wasn’t expecting much, but actually found the site to be quite beautiful and took many photographs there. I loved the way the rock structures and architectural remains stood out against the green backdrop of the surrounding hills. The waxing moon was rising behind the Roman columns while I was snapping pics. While there another of the city’s four footed deities befriended me for a time. (Can you tell I miss having a cat?). Behind the ruins of the basilica stands a very old (Seljuq period) mosque, also photo-esque, called the Isabey Camii.

Since it was starting to get dark I headed back to the hotel to recharge my and my camera’s batteries. After a bit of a rest, I decided to try my first hamam.

(Ladies, please close your eyes while reading this section, and Bruce, Bruce J., well, you should probably just leave the room, huh?)

The famous institution of the Turkish bath was Roman before it was Turkish, and likely Etruscan before it was Roman. This particular hamam had a good write up in my tour book and proved to be a decent place. I walked in to find a small lobby area where, as usual, a group of older men sat drinking tea, smoking and watching a football (soccer) match on the television. They immediately realized this poor yabanci (foreigner, non-Turk) didn’t have a clue, so they led me step by step through the routine. After I told them I want “the works” they handed me a small drawer into which I put my valuables. This they locked and then handed me the key (which I wore on an elastic band around my wrist until the end of the ordeal). They then ushered me into a small dressing room where I was told to emerge wearing only a wrap around towel and sandals (terlik in Turkish). Feeling more than a little awkward, I did as I was told. After one of the owners looked at me funny, you know, like, geez, I didn’t know how to wear a Turkish towel or something!, he led me into the hamam proper. Inside I found a huge octagonal marble slab about twenty feet wide at the center of the room, surrounded by washing stations and showers. I was ordered to shower, towel and all, then lie on the slab until the owner could come back and “work me over.” Lying there on the slab felt fantastic, my muscles absorbing the heat like a much needed tonic. Eventually the sauna effect took over. For me that always involves a bit of claustrophobia, but I was tough, I remembered to breathe. This yabanci wasn’t going to wimp out! A few other men came in, washed and slabbed themselves on the other side of the octagon. They ignored me while they chattered on in Turkish. Meanwhile, although feeling quite the Roman Centurion, quite the Ottoman Pasha, I was also beginning to wonder if maybe the owner had forgotten about me. Eventually he came back in and put on his coarse scrubbing mitt, but he called over a couple of other guys first (they were no doubt “regulars” and thus deserving of special treatment) and gave them “the works.” This was helpful, because it gave me an idea of what to expect. When it was my turn, the man with the mitt beckoned me over and told me to lie on the slab near the entrance. (Bruce J, I warned you not to read this!). Well, I’m thinking, here goes nothing. You just haven’t lived until you’ve had a grumpy Turk wearing nothing but a towel around his waist scraping every inch of your skin with a mitt made of some long dead goat’s hide. Although I found it a bit strange, it was not painful, and I’m sure my pores loved it. When done, he sent me over to the other slab where his partner, the massage guy was waiting with his suds. He ordered me to lie down again and started heaping piles of frothy soap suds all over me. Then he started to massage the soap into my skin. Now, I’ve had many a massage in my day, but this wasn’t one of them. After all of five minutes I was done. He dumped a couple of buckets of cool water over me to rinse me off and told me to get lost. I showered again quickly, put on a dry towel and went back out into the lobby where another guy wrapped my shoulders and my head with additional towels (I wished I’d had my camera for someone to snap that picture!), and I relaxed drinking some hot apple tea and watching a soccer game for a while. When I felt dry enough I changed back into my clothes, paid my money, got my stuff back and wished them all an iyi akshamlar (good evening). All in all, it was a great experience to try… once. I’ll admit though, I slept like a baby for twelve hours that night.

On Friday I awoke, late, and grabbed a quick breakfast then headed to the local barber for a shave (I’d forgotten my razor in Ankara, and I love these Turkish barbers anyway). I can never avoid the thought, though, while they are working that straight razor around my adam’s apple, that this would not be a really good time for one of those infamous Turkish earthquakes. After the barber, I had the hotel call Lily and she picked me up and took me to her store. I really enjoyed working with her to buy some beautiful carpets. I always stress out when making major purchases like these, but Lily had a way of reassuring me. She’s the only female Turkish carpet seller I’ve met, and the fact that she knows America and Americans so well, not to mention speaks English well, helped to put me at ease. I trusted her, and I think I made some great purchases that morning. She arranged to have them shipped directly from her shop to Colorado Springs, so they will be waiting for me when I return. I also shopped for gifts for friends and family at other stores in town, and found some nice things to bring home for Christmas.

Saturday I made my slow bus-plodding way back to hazy Ankara, to rest for a night before leaving early Sunday morning for another excursion. But that can wait for the next blog.

As always, thanks for reading and for your emails. –Dan


Thursday, November 16, 2006

 

It's Not All Fun and Games


Still having a great time in Ankara, Turkey. Although I am traveling less, in many ways staying put and making Turkish friends is as much or more an education about this country than visiting ancient ruins. I’ve been fortunate to have made several such friends here, even outside of the campus. In addition, I’ve met on campus some fine fellow Americans who are teaching here on an extended basis. They’ve been a delight, and have shown me the ins and outs of the campus and the city. All have enriched my stay.

For this blog I wanted to tell you a bit about the “Core Course” I’ve been teaching while here and about some of the activities and ideas my students have been sharing with each other during the course. You can see some pictures here. The Core Course is part of the entire study abroad program offered by Global Partners Semester in Turkey, the program for which I am serving as director this semester. It is a 4 credit course on the history and culture of the Turkish people. The course began with a summer “online course” component in which students participated via a web based “bulletin board” system called Moodle. It was a good way to start to get to know each other. Students would submit to the board responses to weekly assignments, assignments covering a wide range of preparatory activities: dealing with money in Turkey, packing for the trip, basic health and safety precautions, practicing simple Turkish phrases. We also “met” once a week in an online “chat” where we got to have a little more fun kidding around and getting to know each other better. The summer component also asked students to read a book on the history of the city of Istanbul, which served to prepare them for their adventures there in August.

In Istanbul we all found rooms in the dormitory of Istanbul Technical University, on their campus near the Taksim district. From there we branched out to explore the city, both on our own and with specially trained tour guides. I reported on these adventures in an earlier blog. One of the things some students did for extra credit during this part of the Core Course was to prepare in advance a “tour guide” assignment, and, when we visited that site in Istanbul, to be our “tour guide” by telling us more about what we were seeing. One student led us to Eyup, the neighborhood containing the ancient mosque of an Ottoman warrior named Eyup (Job). It was at this mosque that, once the Ottomans had conquered Constantinople/Istanbul, every new sultan would be formally recognized by the donning of the Sword of Osman, the founder of the Ottomans. Another student talked to us about the summer palace of the sultans on the Asian side of the Bosporus while we were sailing by it in one of our ferry boat excursions. Yet another student made it his task to inform us about the cemetery at the Suleymaniye mosque complex These special reports added to our appreciation of the sites we saw and were fun for the students to prepare. Also in Istanbul we would gather as a group for three hours every weekday morning to take an intensive Turkish language class. This class was very well taught and we were all pretty surprised at how quickly we picked up a sense of the language and a solid corpus of useful vocabulary terms.

Near the end of August we left Istanbul and headed for Ankara, taking about a week to get there as we stopped at numerous ancient archaeological sites along the way. (Again, I’ve reported on these visits in earlier blogs.) For the purposes of the Core Course, students were asked to compile an “academic journal entry” for each day of the excursion. These journals were due once we arrived in Ankara. The better journals did more than just report on what we’d all seen, but added to our knowledge of those sites by offering new information and insights based upon some additional research or prior learning the students had done. It was fascinating to see what each student chose to focus on in his or her daily journal. Different things jumped out for each of us. They were a good indicator of the unique gifts each student brought with him/her to this program.

In Ankara, after a few weeks to get settled in and get registered for courses at either Bilkent University or Middle East Technical University, we began to meet as a class at my lojman once a week. Bilkent provided me a large enough apartment to accommodate all nineteen of us. For the ten weeks or so of this part of the Core Course we have been reading together a series of books: one on the history of the Ottomans, one on modern Turkey, and one a novel by Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s most famous writer and recent winner (while we were here, actually) of the Nobel prize for fiction. The format for this part of the course has been to group the students into nine “pairs.” On any given week one pair will come to my lojman early to prepare food for the rest of us, while a second pair will be responsible for teaching the class that night. The teaching pair also need to write papers prior to the day of class and email them to all of us so that we have time to read them before class. The first time we met I hosted and taught, presenting them with some of my research on Orientalist and Occidentalist rhetoric, in keeping with the course theme of “Turkey as the Juncture of East and West,” and trying to model for them what a good “teaching session” would look like. Since then the student pairs have been taking turns hosting and teaching. We have explored a number of different topics this way while also having a chance to discuss the assigned readings. We’ve had presentations on the importance of the concept of “devlet” in Turkish historiography, the state of education in the sciences in Turkey, and the issue of women’s rights here, to name but a few. Again, I continue to enjoy the unique perspectives each of my very unique students brings to the course in this way.

We will be concluding the Core Course on December 19th, and of course we will make that evening a great farewell party as well. Shortly after that most of us will be traveling home and returning to our respective colleges and universities. I will miss these folks. They are all so bright and so easy to work with (most of the time) and they have made this an exceptionally delightful teaching experience for me.

As always, thanks for reading, and thanks for your emails, they mean a lot.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

 

A Side Trip to Wonderland


Life in Ankara has become routine. I’ve nearly mastered grocery shopping, getting around town by bus, saying nice things to nice people in my faltering and elementary Turkish. All in all, not too exciting. However, there comes, in the middle of an adventure like this, a time when much of one’s energy begins to focus on the simple things, the small acts of familiar routine that make life in a new and alien place seem more grounded, more real. Without these small joys—shopping at the market, feeding a stray cat, lighting candles, working out at the gymnasium, a phone call to a friend, cooking a healthy meal—it becomes very difficult to keep one’s feet on the ground. Without them, one can get lost in the strangeness. These small things make the strangeness more wonderful, and the strangeness makes these simple acts sacred.

I did have a chance to leave Ankara for a bit since last posting here. I’d long been looking for the chance to visit my dear friends Bruce and Marlene Jannusch at their condominium in Switzerland. So, when I found out that they would be there in October, I took them up on an invitation outstanding for nearly twenty years. It was great to see them and their home in magical Brienz, a small village a half an hour outside of Chur. Chur, one of the oldest cities in Switzerland, is an hour by train southeast of Zurich. You can see my photos from this trip here.

What can I say about this part of Switzerland? It’s like walking around in a children’s story book. I can see why the Jannuschs like it so much (Marlene is a writer of stories and an emeritus professor of early childhood education, and Bruce, a philosopher and a very contemplative soul, delights in people, places and things less touched by time). The trains of Switzerland, which run as timely as the country’s famous watches, were a delight. Even the initial shuttle between terminals at Zurich airport told me I was not in Kansas anymore. It was clean, quiet (except for piped in sounds of mooing cows and cow bells) and swift, and as we passed through the tunnel there appeared scenes of Swiss life flashing along the tunnel walls in holographic image, much like those flash book movies we used to make as kids, but in hi tech 3-D.

The ride from Zurich down to Chur was breathtaking. I traveled first along the broad Zurichsee (Zurich Sea), with its small harbors and yachts and villas. At once I noticed how preternaturally green the farmland seemed. Milch cows grazed contentedly everywhere one looked. Behind them, unnoticed by the Holstein and Brown Swiss, loomed the steep mountains of the Swiss Alps. I had the strange sense that I was in both Wisconsin and Colorado simultaneously. After the Zurich See the track moved through several tunnels carved out of thrusts of mountain reaching for the sea and then alongside the more narrow but startlingly beautiful Wallensee (Walled Sea). Here the dark waters of the inland sea lapped placidly against the perpendicular “wall” of the mountains to the east. (I would make the same journey back a few days later and, at midday, see several hang gliders playing the updrafts of this sea wall). As night fell the train stopped at last at the “end of the line,” the small town of Chur. After a brief search, I found Bruce and Marlene waiting patiently for me, and as we all walked through the town to where they had parked, I began to feel the Swiss-ness of the place: everything orderly, clean, well manicured. There was not a speck of litter to be seen on the streets. Were it not for some extensive street repair, the town of Chur would have seemed almost too perfect for human habitation.

While exchanging warm greetings and tales, Bruce drove us up, up, up, and up along the dark and winding roads leading out of the Chur valley. It was hard to see the countryside in the blackness, but here and there on either side I could spy tiny clusters of lights in the distance, the small villages and hamlets clinging to the lower hills of the alps.

The condo in tiny Brienz was small but lovely. After a good meal of sun cured meats, cheeses, and, of course, excellent bakery goods, we settled in for a restful evening. The next day gave me my first view of the landscape outside the condo. Simply perfect. The long valley, dotted with grazing herds, patchworked with tiny farms and pastures, and surrounded on all sides by stone grey, snow topped peaks, was clearly like something out of a painting. It reminded me of the pristine valley through which C.S. Lewis and the orphaned Douglass walk at the end of the film “Shadowlands.” The air outside was cool and crisp and rang with the sound of countless distant cowbells. The nearby Catholic church tower tolled each hour faithfully. Everything was both alive and yet frozen in time. Magical.

Bruce and I paid a visit to the local church, the altar of which was built in the fourteenth century and is a masterpiece. I was happy to have the chance to help Marlene with some packing and cleaning chores, as they were in the process of getting ready to leave for the States again the following week. Bruce took me to lunch at a small pub where we sat on a patio right beside a horse pasture and I had one of the best meals of my life. The Swiss know good food. Marlene and I enjoyed some walks through the footpaths and small roads that crisscrossed the valley around Brienz. The day before I left we decided to take a drive down to the Italian border. We headed south toward the Julier Pass (Arnold Schwarzenegger named one of his sons after this scenic Alpine pass), then down toward the famous resort town of Saint Moritz. We stopped for lunch in a village not far from there, Sils-Maria, along the Silvablanersee, and after another fantastic meal, stopped briefly to look at the Nietzsche House, a small cottage where the famous philosopher spent some time early in his life recuperating from an episode of his lifelong illness. From there we headed further south to visit the medieval village of Promontagno, then up the pass from there to have desert in the village of Soglio. This region was much more Italian in flavor and character than northern Switzerland. These were all favorite places often visited by Bruce and Marlene, and I was delighted to share in them with them.

The visit was full but brief. All too soon we were back in the car on a Sunday afternoon heading for Chur. After warm goodbyes, two trains, two planes, a bus, a taxi and twelve hours of travel I found myself back in my little lojman in Ankara, around 3 AM, weary but happy to have made the visit.

The succeeding weeks have been quite quiet here, as it was “Bayram,” the Turkish name for the holiday celebrating the end of the month of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, and all the students and most faculty abandoned the campus. I am making some friends among the foreign faculty there, and am enjoying the Turkish people I’ve met very much. They are immensely friendly and go out of their way to be kind and hospitable. I’m also enjoying very much the slow pace, the quiet, the lack of stress, and, of course, those simple things of life. As always, thanks for reading. –Dan


Saturday, September 23, 2006

 

Getting Settled in Ankara


Ankara’dan.

I guess you could read that as “Ankara Dan,” but in Turkish it means “From Ankara,” and that is from where you are receiving this blog entry. We’ve been in the city for about three weeks now. It’s been an exciting challenge for all of us. There is the usual initial stumbling and fumbling of orienting oneself to a new place, new friends, new teachers or colleagues, in a new city in a strange land. Once you get past the discomfort of being constantly confused, it can be rather adventurous. The students are far braver than I, and have ventured far into the city, have combed the two campuses (Bilkent University and Middle East Technical University), and have even taken an impromptu jaunt down to the Mediterranean (an 8-hour bus ride jaunt, each way!) for a weekend. Of course, they have had some help. They have Turkish student hosts and the International Studies departments of the two universities showing them the ropes.

For me it’s been a bit different. I’ve largely been on my own trying to figure things out. When I’m really stuck, of course, I can call someone in the International Students office for help, but generally I like the challenge of figuring things out myself. With a little bit of bad Turkish and many hand gestures, I’ve managed to explore the campus on which I live (Bilkent), the neighboring malls and shopping centers, and even take a jaunt or two into Ankara itself (the campuses are on the city’s outskirts, but provide free bus service into the city).

So here are some of my big accomplishments over the last three weeks:

1. Bought a reading lamp and the right sized light bulb

2. Sewed a button on my trousers (all by myself!)

3. Found the gym and worked out several times (ah so nice!)

4. Threw a Pizza/Birthday Party at my apartment (lojman) for one of the students

5. Spent days cleaning up after said party

6. Actually found and purchased clothes in my size, and they even look good!

7. Figured out the bus systems (sort of)

8. Fixed my shower (again, all by myself—ah, duct tape!)

9. Figured out how to have drinking water delivered to my lojman (carrying several gallons up the 45 degree hill from the shopping center once or twice a week was growing OLD fast!)

10. Have cooked myself countless wonderful meals all seeming to involve in some way, shape, or form the magical ingredient of tuna

11. Procured a library card (and oh, was THAT an ordeal—seven different forms stamped by seven different offices, and I can still only check out books--“DVDs yok”– no DVDs. I recall it is this region that gives us the English word “Byzantine”).

12. Met some wonderful folks in the philosophy department and am enjoying sitting in on a Logic class (as much as anyone other than the great “B” Hisself can be said to actually “enjoy” logic)

13. Met some more wonderful folks who, like me, are relatively new visiting faculty/staff. We’re all taking a Turkish for Dummies class that started just this week, and we’re having a ball.

14. And the biggest accomplishment: finally rounded up all my students and got them to give me their schedules and contact information so we could set up a weekly time to meet for the course I’m teaching them on Turkish History and Civilization. THAT was a major ordeal, but we did it. We’ll be meeting Tuesday nights here at my lojman for class and snacks. It will be good to see them—once a week.

Otherwise, there’s not much to report. I love my lojman; it has a fantastic view of the city in the distance, and I love sitting out on my upper floor balcony late in the evening, smelling the pines, listening to the silence, looking at the city lights, and smoking my pipe. Oh, I almost forgot to mention my biggest accomplishment: I actually found the ONLY pipe tobacco (“pipo tütün”) in all of Turkey! I’m a happy camper when I have my “pipo.” Now I just need a cat.

For pics you can go here.

As always, thanks for reading and thanks for you emails. ---D


Thursday, September 07, 2006

 

From Istanbul to Ankara




Please check out a selection of my photos for this trip here.

It’s not easy to put into words the way a countryside speaks to you. This week we made our journey from Istanbul to our new “home,” Ankara, and en route we visited the ruins of Troy, of Pergamum, of Sardis, of Aphrodeseus, of Midas City. This is a rich land, rich in both natural and historical resources. As we left Istanbul and drove along the western coast of the sea of Marmara, towards the Gallipoli peninsula, the city and suburbs gave way to fields of wheat and corn. These are major crops on the European side of Turkey. The Turkish word for corn, “masir,” probably comes from the Arabic “Misr” or “Egypt,” from where the first corn was likely imported (I’m guessing here; I enjoy making guesses based on language cognates).

As we ferried across the Dardenelles (the strait that runs from the Aegean sea up to the Sea of Marmara) the landscape quickly changed. We were now in Asian Turkey, or Anatolia. Imediately I began to notice that nearly every spare inch of turf was covered with trees: olive trees, fig trees, pomegranates. What was not orchard was used for tomatoes and red peppers, eggplant and lettuce. We saw countless small groups of farmers harvesting these, and we passed numerous horse or mule drawn carts on the road filled with tomatoes or melons. For a time we drove through miles of vineyards, often noting long stretches of cloth spread out on the ground between the rows of vines, covered with grapes drying to raisins in the warm Anatolian sun. This is a land of small family farms, run with pride. Every day is “farmers’ market” day here.

In the New Testament’s Book of Revelation, probably written about 95 A.D. by John of Patmos, the prophet rails against the evils of seven churches in this western Anatolian region: Ephesus, Smyrna (Izmir), Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. Of these, we’ve had to bypass Smyrna and Ephesus, but have seen Sardis, driven by Philadelphia and driven through Laodicea (Denizli?). Although we saw some fantastic Greek and Roman ruins at Pergamum (Bergama) and Sardis, I at least saw no evidence of any wicked churches, nor to the best of my knowledge, has the apocalypse come. On the other hand, maybe John was right, and these cities are now in ruins because each had its own mini-apocalypse.

We had to change our initial itinerary to bypass Ephesus and Izmir (Smyrna) because of some small Kurdish bombings in a couple of seacoast cities. (Some of us hope to travel down to Ephesus later in the season). It’s ironic that just after I posted in my last blog how safe I felt here, these attacks occurred. I’ve had to revise my estimate of Turkey a bit: I think instead of “safest” place I’ve lived, I’d do better to speak of it as the “least aggressive” place I’ve known. People are very patient, very happy (generally), and very polite. It’s the Turkish way.

I’ll spare you details on the sites we saw this past week. If you want to explore them a bit for yourself I’ll provide some links below. I do want to discuss my favorite site, a site we would not have visited had we not changed our itinerary, a little visited place called “Midas City” outside the very rural village of Yazılıkaya (a word meaning “Engraved on Large Rock”). There we were able to explore an ancient Phrygian ceremonial mountain dedicated to the goddess Kybele (Cybele, who would become under the Greeks and Romans Artemis and Demeter and, perhaps, Aphrodite). The Phrygians were an ancient people who inhabited this part of the world before the Greeks. Their capitol was at Gordium, not far from modern day Ankara. The mount was rich in cave dwellings used in old times by shamans seeking oracles. It also was home to numerous well preserved sacrificial altars. It’s most stunning feature was the huge cliff face carved with bas relief’s of warriors, chariots, and Greek and Latin inscriptions. There was a tremendous energy to this place for me. I quickly distanced myself from the rest of the group for a time to sit and contemplate the landscape, the stone, the valleys and mountain ranges visible for miles (the Romans used this hill as an important military outpost precisely for it’s capacity to serve as a watchtower). The energy of the place ran deeper, older than those established by Greeks or Romans. It was very primal.

I also enjoyed very much another “off the beaten tourist path” stop we made, an Alevi village not far from the ruins of Troy, where I made one of my few “big” purchases. I bought a traditional village kilim, a unique carpet, entirely handmade. The Alevis are an unusual “sect” or ethnic group among the Turks. They have a long history going well back into pre-Islamic times when they practiced traditional shamanic religion. They are not Sunni (as are the majority of Turkey’s Muslims), yet are considered not entirely orthodox by the Shi’ites either. For one thing, they do not worship in mosques. Also, they are in many ways the most “liberal” form of Islam I’ve encountered, truly giving to women, for example, the equality promised them by the Qur’an but so quickly erased in later Islam. This particular village kilim design used no dyes, but instead was woven from wools culled from different colored sheep, creating its unique designs in browns and whites and tans and grays. The designs themselves preserve the shamanism of early Alevi culture: symbols of prosperity and abundance. I find it quite beautiful. Moreover, I especially enjoyed giving my money directly to the manufacturers, the villagers, instead of to big city carpet salesmen who take a big middleman “cut.”

We arrived safely in Ankara on a Sunday night, and Monday morning dropped off our students at their respective universities (Middle East Technical University and Bilkent University) where they began the next phase of their adventures. And I, mine. More on this next time.

For a better description than I can provide of some of the major sites we saw this week I recommend these links:

Troy
Pergamum
Sardis
Aphrodesius
Pamukkale
Hieropolis

As always, thanks for reading, and thanks for your emails.
Dan

Friday, August 25, 2006

 

Touring Istanbul














For photos from this week’s adventures, see: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mountaintopdan/

OK, OK, I’m convinced! This is the most fascinating, most delightful, most voluptuous city I’ve ever visited. We’ve been touring some of its traditional wonders this week: the Hagia Sophia, the Sultanahmet (or Blue) Mosque, the Dolmabahce palace, and, of course, the Topkapi Saray, the “home” of countless generations of Ottoman Sultans, Harem Queens, plotting princes, scheming eunuchs, brilliant viziers, and thousands of slaves and servants since the 15th century. I could drone on for hours about these places, and I have included some photos of them, but for me, the test of a city is in the places not frequented by tourists: walking the back streets with no clear destination in mind, talking with locals (as best I can) at tourist-free tea shops or kabob stands, taking the tram into the inner city, walking at night along the Bosporus, just for the sake of saying “I can’t believe I’m walking at night along the Bosporus!” These are the ways I like to get to know a city.

I feel safer here than anywhere I’ve ever lived. This is a crowded city, filled with traffic, but not once have I noticed anything like road rage. Not once have I seen Turks in any kind of heated exchange. People are both patient and pleasant. Now, I’m not so naive to think that no violence occurs here. But neither am I so naive to think I’m safer in the United States. Here, although more crowded, the pace is less fervent, the anger less visible, the compassion for strangers more vivid. We have been treated very well by all whom we’ve met here: neither as tourists nor as trespassers. I’ve neither been accosted to purchase trinkets nor received any indication of animosity. The Turks are pretty clear that they are unhappy with some recent U.S. and Israeli political actions, but they are sophisticated enough to realized that it‘s the current American administration and not Americans themselves that they are unhappy with. I’ve felt genuinely welcomed in Istanbul. Perhaps this is the lasting influence of the Islamic value of hospitality, or perhaps it’s a uniquely Turkish virtue.

Let’s see… a few words about our visits to the tour sites: I found the Hagia Sophia (the church of “Holy Wisdom”) powerful in its sheer massiveness. Built by Justinian in the 6th century as a Greek Orthodox Christian Basilica, it retains much of the original Byzantine style: huge buttresses support a gigantic domed ceiling; large stained glass windows illuminate the place where an altar or iconostasis once stood. The original church was oriented so that its eastern windows faced Jerusalem. When the Muslims took control and remade it into a great Mosque in the 16th century, they removed all the icons but surprisingly left the rest of the church--its stained glass, its beautiful mosaics) relatively in tact. Their primary alterations involved adding some large emblems bearing the names of The Prophet and his early companions and relatives, carving a small niche or “mihrab” beneath the eastern windows, and erecting a large pulpit or “minbar” just off to the side. The niche and pulpit are aligned on a slightly different geographical axis, so that they are pointing not to Jerusalem, but to Mecca. I always find that fascinating. The mosaics were beautiful, and many have been at least partially restored. The Aya Sofya (as the Turks call it) is now neither church nor mosque, but a monument, a major landmark at the heart of Istanbul.

For mosques we had many choices. I think them always more beautiful from the outside, especially at night when illuminated. We learned that the number of towers or “minarets” a mosque sports indicates the status of the person to whom it was dedicated. So, for a Sultan, four minarets became the norm, whereas for a wife or mother of a Sultan two became standard, and for a leader (a pasha, a beylik, a vizier) one minaret was allowed. The only exception to this is the Sultanahmet mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque (for its special tiles). Legend has it that when the Sultan, Ahmet, asked that his minarets be “golden” (Turkish: altin) his builders heard, instead, that they be “six” (Turkish: alti), and thus, against all convention, the six minarets of the new mosque went up. I don’t know if the story is true, but after two weeks of studying Turkish I can empathize with the builders!

Another nice mosque (from the outside) is the Yeni Camii (pronounced “yen-nee jam-mee”) located right at the southern end of the Galata bridge, the first major bridge over the “Golden Horn.” I’ve included a shot of this mosque at night.

The Topkapi Saray (palace), just to the northeast of the Aya Sofya, served as the home of Ottoman Sultans from 1465 to 1863. Having read the students’ journals about this visit it was interesting to note that each found a different part of the palace to be of most interest to him or her. I personally found the entry hall to the Sultan’s chambers, the “third courtyard,” most fascinating, for it was there, I’ve read, one would wait, when summoned in olden days, to see whether or not one was in the Sultan’s favor. If one was, the inner doors would open and access to the imperial “presence” granted. If not, side doors would open and deaf eunuchs would emerge holding garrotes. They were deaf so that no one would hear your final pleas.

The Dolmabahce palace, across the Golden Horn and along the Bosporus to the north, represented the culmination of late Ottoman efforts to become “European.” Designed largely by French and Italian architects, the palace, built from 1853-56, retains none of the ancient Turkic simplicity to be found in the Topkapi. Built with moneys the government did not have (borrowed from foreign powers--sound familiar?), this palace, though dazzling in appearance and décor, did little for me save to remind me that decadence is always the last gasp of empire.

Other adventures this week: a visit to the huge Cisterns built by Justinian to store water for the city in times of siege; the Hippodrome, a former Roman arena now holding “mementos” from Ottoman conquests around the Mediterranean; the Pierre Loti restaurant atop a huge cemetery built at the western end of the “Golden Horn;” and many other places. The students enjoyed the Grand Bazaar and Spice Markets as well, places I tend to avoid like the plague because they are such tourist traps.

All in all it’s been another great week. I was privileged to spend a bit more time with my Canadian friend, Ilene, and we enjoyed some of the city’s better restaurants on a couple of evenings, and the students had numerous private excursions of their own. You will have to read their blogs for information on those.

As always, thanks for reading!

Dan

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