Day 10, May 30: Istanbul
As Fatih would say, we "sleep like crazy," and venture back to the Grand Bazaar mid-morning to shop until mid-afternoon. We found many treasures, the most important of which is probably our English-language Turkish cookbook. Gary can't wait to start using it! All prices in the bazaar are negotiable, and I bargain with occasional success. My biggest win was over six spoons for the tea set we bought in Urfa -- the merchant started at 15 Lira (about $12) and talked himself down to 10 Lira when I didn't respond. I immediately offered him 5 Lira -- at which point he laughed and proclaimed I must be Scottish! (I am, as a matter of fact.) But he accepted my offer. Later, Gary and I shared a delicious chicken shish kebab with a local cat who looked like she could use a few more calories.
We spend two hours at the Journalists and Writers Foundation, where we hear about this organization's work in promoting dialog among different religions and political systems. We talk about what needs to change in Turkey, in the U.S., in the Middle East, and elsewhere to foster increased understanding, to move toward peace in the world. We almost always ask our hosts for their opinions about the upcoming U.S. presidential elections. and the writers' and journalists' responses are careful, diplomatic, hopeful. We all agree that the next U.S. president must use diplomacy, not the current policy of violence and aggression, to resolve conflict and promote peace.
After a delicious dinner near the Taksim Square (the heart of modern Istanbul, or "Hipstanbul"), we head back to the hotel to pack and sleep for a few hours before leaving for the airport at 2:30 AM. It's time to go home.
So that, dear reader, is our Turkey trip. I've shared just a sliver of it really, even though it may seem I covered every minute of every day. I have seen the remnants of history as well as history in the making, been inspired by extraordinary people, and felt the love of an entire country. I have been given riches beyond measure.
Thanks for reading.
Day 9, May 29: Istanbul
Funny how perceptions can change drastically in just 9 days. When I arrived in Istanbul, I thought in capital letters with exclamation points: I AM IN TURKEY! I AM IN ISTANBUL! ASIA IS JUST OVER THERE! THIS FEELS STRANGE, FASCINATING, SCARY! But today, the familiar sights comfort me. Istanbul is still fascinating, but it also feels ... easy, and I am grateful.
Our first days in Turkey were on the European side of the city; we spend most of today in Asia. Our day begins at Sema Hospital, which caters primarily to medical tourists -- people who travel from all over Turkey and the world to this hospital for their procedures. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this; I know little about medical tourism, and it's obviously available only to the affluent. Yet this hospital, according to the marketing director leading our tour, sets a lower profit margin and therefore is more affordable than other Turkish hospitals. Sema employs 85 physicians, 20 percent of whom are women. In Turkey, nursing is still a predominately female profession -- so much so that male nurses are called "health care officers."
Next stop -- lunch! Fatih took us to a gorgeous spot overlooking the Bosphorus. For the first time in over a week, we were given menus and asked to choose what we wanted. The pressure! I have become so used to having delicious meals magically set before me that I wasn't sure I could pick the right thing. But the lentil soup, the mixed grill -- a little lamb, a little beef -- and plenty of fresh vegetables were exactly what I wanted.
After lunch we arrive at the Samanyolu television station (STV), which was started in 1989 when 30 different businessmen got together and decided to start their own news channel. They knew nothing about the media but wanted to present news and other programming that promoted peace and global understanding. They started with one camera, 22 employees, and a used satellite transmitter from Russia that no one knew how to use. Today, STV ranks fourth out of 22 Turkish stations and recently earned a top award for its children's programming. We visited many sets, including Beyond the Horizon, a talk-show that focuses on freedom of religion, history, and political issues -- all from the Islamic perspective. My favorite set was the cooking show, hosted by Turkey's most famous chef -- our version of Wolfgang Puck or Rachel Ray.
Our two-hour boat tour of the Bosphorus, Golden Horn, and Marmara (connected rivers running through Istanbul) was chilly but glorious. After temperatures near 100 degrees yesterday in Izmir, the cool breeze on the water is a welcome change. We scanned the city for where we've been -- Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia -- and marvel at the number of mosques in each area. Mid-way through our tour, the call to prayer sounds. I wish I could record them and share them here -- the sounds and smells of the city are as important as the sights -- but the best I can do is a description. Speakers are fixed to each mosque's minarets, and the male voice sings a wavering chant for perhaps five minutes. Mosques in close proximity take turns sounding their calls, which draws out the comforting and haunting conversation across the landscape.
We rush off the boat -- behind schedule, as usual -- to a dinner with members of an extraordinary woman's organization. I am grateful for the opportunity to visit with these women and share stories, but I am frustrated by the language barrier. A few women speak quite strong English, but most know only a little, not enough for the deeper questions we want to ask and answer. Our guides interpret as much as they can, but there are fewer of them than there are waiting conversations. So we ask simple questions, use gestures, and smile. One women does a brief presentation of the aid work her group has done in Asia after the tsunami and in the poorest regions of Africa. I am awed by the direct impact her group has made in the world. By the end of the evening, we all hug and kiss -- three times, I am instructed -- and promise to email each other. I feel blessed to have made these new friends.
Day 8, May 28: Izmir (updated)
Izmir, on the far-west coast of Turkey, is 10,000 years old and was once home to Alexander the Great. Founded in 8,000 BC, it has been ruled by the Ionians, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, and Turks. According to Christianity, Jesus asked the apostle John to take care of his mother, Mary, after his death. When John traveled to this area around 37 - 48 AD, Christians and Muslims believe that he brought Mary with him, and this is where she died. So we started our day at the site of her home.
The house that marks the site was built in 1951, but the kitchen was destroyed in an earthquake. A spring flows underneath the house, and there are three fountains fed by the spring that represent love, health, and wealth. You should drink from the fountain that represents your desire. Our local guide told us that he always fills his bottle with water from all three.
Ephesus was next -- a huge city founded in 11 BC by the Greeks and had, at its peak, a population of 240,000. Earthquakes have destroyed much of the city, and an archeological dig in 1927 began its recovery.
We eat lunch at a local outdoor cafe/model village museum. The cafe serves only gozleme -- bits of spinach and cheese in a pastry -- with arugula on the side. One of our guides, Erhan, says this dish goes best with Ayran, an unsweetened yogurt drink. I am one of the few in our group who hasn't developed a strong preference for it, so I opt for Coke.
Our server/village tour guide is the daughter of the owners and also teaches English at a local high school. Her father has built all the structures, the mechanical mannequins, and the miniature village; her mother made all the costumes and accessories. The entire museum took them five years to create.
Ruins are the predominant theme of the day, so our next stop is St. John's Basilica. You can see pictures of the remaining structures in the the picture gallery, but here is what the basilica used to look like.
Tonight is our final dinner with a local family, and two of our guides, Fatih and Fuat, are reunited with the man who was their mentor when they were growing up in Ankara, the Turkish capital. The English word mentor may not fully capture the profound connection among these men; the word Fatih uses is ah-bee (my attempt at a phonetic spelling). The three of them are clearly moved by being reunited after so many years; I feel intrusive by watching them, but I don't look away. Their joy and tenderness fills the room.
Tomorrow, we return to Istanbul, our final stop. I am tired -- our schedule has sometimes been grueling -- but I wish time would slow down just a little.
Day 7, May 27: Antalya (updated)
The view from our hotel room cajoles me out of bed early so I can sit for a few quiet minutes on our balcony. A veil seems to separate the mountains in the distance from the rest of the world - as if at any moment they might vanish.
Antalya, founded in 200 BC, is primarily agricultural, even though it is also a tourist spot. Greenhouses, where tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables are grown, and agriculture employ 50% of the 800,000 residents. Another 30% work in tourism, and about 20% work in business and retail. Oranges are the symbol of the area, and you can get a glass of fresh squeezed (while you watch!) orange juice on every corner.
We stopped first at the religious gardens, which were established by the mayor about five years ago as a place for Christians, Jews, and Muslims to worship. Antalya has a long history of religious diversity and tolerance: After the Romans invaded, stole everything, and left the area in ruins, the people had no money left to rebuild their places of worship. So they built one structure, which served as a mosque on Fridays, a synagogue on Saturdays, and a church on Sundays.
Aspendos, a Greek amphitheatre, offered Gary a chance to provide a mini-lecture on theatre history. With a politician, two Episcopal ministers, and a number of professors on our trip, we've had a number of opportunities for people to share their special knowledge. Aspendos (the outside off which is shown in the picture -- more photos are in the gallery) was built in 161 AD and, in addition to a theatre, has been a gladiator arena, an open-air church, and a caravan sarai (camel station). The acoustics are wonderful -- a tourist from another group stood at the top of the stadium and sang a bit of opera, and we could hear him clearly at the very bottom.
We left the dusty amphitheatre and drove to a park with breathtaking waterfalls. We had our lunch -- fresh fish -- at the base of the waterfalls. Paradise.
We spent our evening with a local couple and their friend. As always the hospitality was gracious and the food delicious. We talked about American politics, Turkey's proposed entry into the European Union, and our countries' general opinions of the each other. That has been a common question here -- What does the United States think about Turkey? Our answer is that, unfortunately, the U.S. doesn't think about Turkey much at all. It simply isn't on our radar, and those of us who have been here now know what a true shame that is.
Tomorrow, we are off to Izmir!
Day 6, May 26: Antep and Antalya (updated)
Chris, a member of our group, referred to our tour today as "No calorie left behind." And so I start today's entry with an account of this morning's kahvalti, or breakfast. Kahvalti means "bottom of coffee (kavee)," which refers to the fact that food is served first, followed by coffee. Our host served us olives with dried red peppers, braid cheese (made from sheep milk -- it tastes like a very salty mozzerella), feta, tomatoes, cucumbers, hot green peppers, pita, and a mixture of yogurt, honey, and pistachios. Followed, of course, by coffee. We dined in the garden of our host's Sunday house -- his family uses it just on Sundays to get away from the city and grill the traditional kebabs.
As we walked through our host's garden to our bus, he encouraged us to pick some erik (small, green fruit -- see the Day 1 entry) from his trees. We filled our pockets and munched on them throughout the day.
Antep, by the way, is where the best pistachios come from, and here they are called Antep nuts.
Our next stop was a brief tour of the Gaziantep Museum (see the Photo Gallery for pictures of the mosaics), which, technically, was closed. But Fatih is such a skilled guide that he talked them into letting us in for just 20 minutes. In Turkey, you must be licensed to be an official tour guide, and the majority of the time we have been joined by a licensed guide. But we were guideless at this point, and at first they told Fatih that we absolutely could not come in. So Fatih asked to see the person in charge and explained that he was just a student, not a guide, and he was showing his teachers from America the city. According to Fatih, in Turkey, no doesn't mean no -- it just means you need to ask someone else until you get the answer you want.
After the museum, we toured another school filled with bright, energetic children eager to practice their English with us. We are delighted when our tour ends with baklava! But then it is time to jump on a plane to Antalya.
A resort town on the Mediterranean Sea, Antalya feels seven worlds away from the eastern areas of Turkey we just left. This is a popular vacation spot for Western and Northern Europeans, and my dusty German came in handy a few times in local cafes.
Day 5, May 25: Urfa, Harran, and Antep
According to Fatih, our guide, Edesa, the original name of Urfa, was the first area in present-day Turkey to accept Christianity. The king in Edesa had a skin disease on his face, and St. Thomas brought him a letter from Jesus and a handkerchief that Jesus had used to wipe his face. This handkerchief cured the king's skin disease, and so the king sent Jesus a letter, inviting him to come to Edesa to escape persecution. Jesus declined, saying he was exactly where he needed to be. Centuries later, the letter from Jesus was traded to the Vatican for the right to trade slaves.
Urfa's full name is Sanliurfa. Sanli, meaning honored, was added as a prefix to the city's name after the war for independence against Britain and France in 1922. Antep's full name is Gaziantep, and if I heard Fatih correctly, gazi means brave.
The soil here is a passionate, dusty red. The landscape is similar to southern California and other parts of the American Southwest -- arid and rocky. Both the land and the people can be intimidating. Urfa and Konya, in particular, are more traditional, observant Islamic areas than the other cities we have visited so far. I would be dishonest if I didn't admit to feeling uncomfortable at times when being stared at because I look and dress differently. I want very much to show respect for the culture and represent the West well (we have so very much to atone for). As a natural introvert, I find this tiring at times but is always, always, always worth the effort.
We visited Harran Castle first, which was originally built by pre-Islamic people who worshiped the moon, sun, and stars. In 200 AD, Romans took over the castle and turned the first floor into a church. They also surrounded the city with a wall 4 to 5 miles long and with five gates. In 750 AD, Mervan II gained control of the city and the castle and added a third floor that served as a hospitality place for the caravans.
Harran, about 20 miles from the Syrian border, is also home to the first known university, built around 3000 BC by the Syrians. The university included a hospital, mosque, and dormitory.
Near the castle is a typical Harran house, whose cone-shaped roofs draw the warm air up and out of the holes, keeping the inside cool. The one pictured in the gallery is about 200 years old. The women who work in the Harran house dressed us up in period costumes and took our pictures -- then served us tea.
The Euphrates River
Mid-way through our two-hour bus journey from Harran to Antep, we stopped for a refreshing wade in the Euphrates River. The water was incredibly cold but felt great on our tired, dusty feet.
Like Urfa, Antep's name was changed after the 1922 war for Independence and became Gaziantep. Gazi means brave, I think, but I need to confirm that.
We had another lovely dinner with a local family at their summer house outside of Antep, where they served us a traditional Sunday meal of kebabs. Some things are universal, and apparently weekend grilling is the domain of men here in Turkey, just like it is in the U.S. My favorite dish was a grilled eggplant and lamb kebab, which you eat by peeling off the charred eggplant skin, mashing it into a piece of thin pita bread, and adding chunks of lamb. Then fold and eat -- yum! I've never been a big fan of lamb, but I'm definitely developing a taste for it.
Day 4, May 24: Urfa
I have learned today that superlatives can paint a person into a corner. If yesterday was the most magic, then today was the most moving -- literally and figuratively. Literally speaking, we spent the first part of the day traveling to Urfa by way of Istanbul. Apparently Turkey has an airline hub system, too! You can check the locations of these cities on the Map Tracking page, but going from Konya to Urfa through Istanbul is kind of like going from Kansas City to Atlanta by way of Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Urfa's main industry is agriculture -- mainly wheat, cotton, and pistachios. With 1.5 million people, it is the seventh largest city in Turkey and something like 30 kilometers from the Syrian border. The population is approximately 50% Arabic, 35% Kurdish, and 15% Turkish. The GAP (Southeast Anatolian Project) supplies the area with irrigation from the Tigris river, which makes the local agriculture possible.
We quickly checked into our hotel around 4 PM and then went shopping. The bazaar in Urfa is known predominantly for carpets, pashminas, and copper. We purchased a few things, including two traditional Turkish tea sets -- one for ourselves and one for the Graceland University Homecoming auction.
The highlight of the day (and a rival to yesterday's school visit as the most memorable experience of the trip so far) was the gracious dinner and conversation at the home of a local couple, both physicians, who co-hosted with two other couples. I want to write more, but once again, sleep is calling ... insistently ... and I want to do justice to the description of our hosts, their hospitality, and our conversations. You can see a picture of them on the home page, though.
Tomorrow we visit another school, the cave of Job, Harran House, and a local school. Then we take a bus ride to Antep, where we will spend the night in a school dormitory.
Day 3, May 23: Konya (updated)
Today was magic. We cannot possibly experience anything more joyful during this trip than meeting the children at Abdullah Aymaz elementary school. They shouted, "Hello! Hello!" from the playground as we stepped out of our van. "What is your name? My name is ...." They looped around each of us, practicing their questions and responses, and then bounced over to someone else to begin again.
We actually started the day at the Mevlana Museum. Celaleddin Rumi, also known as Mevlana, was born in 1207 in what was then Iran but is now Afghanistan. His father was considered a sultan of scholars and migrated to Konya in Anatolia (a region of present-day Turkey) when the Mongol warriors invaded their homeland.
Mevlana is the founder of Mevlevi dervish sect, which we know as the Whirling Dervishes. He believed that music and dance could induce a state of universal love and could liberate people from the difficulties of daily life. Rumi wrote 25,000 poems that were collected in his six-volume collection, Mesnevi. Here is an excerpt from one of his poems:
The Whirling Dervishes are not an entertainment or dance troupe -- they are a sect within Islam that uses physical movement while they pray. (There's a lot more to it than that simple explanation, but I'll leave you to your own deeper research, dear reader.) You can see a picture of a real Dervish in the Photo Gallery. He graciously consented to complete his evening prayers in a private home where we were having dinner so that we could observe.
Konya ranks first in physical size of all the Turkish cities but only fourth in population (1 million in the city proper, 2.5 million in the city and surrounding areas). Like the American Midwest, the area around Konya is considered Turkey's breadbasket -- wheat and other grains are the predominant crops.
After our visit to the school, we asked Fatih to sing us a children's song. He insisted we sing along with him, so here is the phonetic (kind of) spelling of the words and the English translation:
Kut-chook kor-bah (tiny
Tomorrow morning we tiny frogs are off to Urfa.
Day 2, May 22: Istanbul
I'll start our first full day with a little history. Sultan Mehmet II (known also as Fatih -- "the Conqueror"), captured Constantinople in on May 28, 1453 and renamed it Istanbul. One of his first acts as the new ruler was to establish the religious freedom of all citizens. This was, according to our guide, one of the world's first declarations of human rights. (Speaking of our guide, he is named Fatih because he was born on the same day that Mehmet II conquered Constantinople.)
We started the day at Topkapi Palace, which was built by Mehmet II and, during his time, housed approximately 4,000 other people. The palace was a royal residence, parliament, courthouse, and school. Everyone in the palace had a specific job, and their uniforms and costumes reflected their role. Future political leaders were educated here, and they all started by working in the kitchen. That's where we started our tour.
Pronounced eye-ah so-fee-ah, this is the fourth-largest place of worship in the world and was built by the Byzantines in the 6th century as a demonstration of Christianity's power. Mehmet II turned it into a mosque and a parliament, and the first Friday Islamic prayer was held on June 1, 1453.
The mosque is currently undergoing restoration, although there is some damage that can never be repaired: Following WWI, tourists and British soldiers peeled tiles and gold from the murals on the wall and took them home as the spoils of war.
We were given special permission to sit behind a railing inside the mosque during the evening prayers. After the prayers are over, we were invited to meet with two Imams (spiritual leaders), one of whom is also a Mufti, an administrative position within the government. The Mufti has met with Bill and Hillary Clinton, George H. W. Bush, and the Pope. Apparently, the Pope's visit was the first time any Pope had visited a mosque.
On the Road Again ...
At the end of the evening (and after another delicious meal), we hopped on a late-night plane to Konya. Tomorrow, we will visit another mosque, a museum, and a school. More details later.
Day 1, May 21: Istanbul
So much to tell, and we've only been in Istanbul for half a day. We arrived at 2 PM local time (it's 11 PM as I write this), and Fatih, our wonderful guide, greeted us at the airport and took us straight to an early dinner at Kủbban. Food is going to be a predominant theme on this trip.
The name Kủbban refers to a type of bread baked only in Antep, the restaurant owner's home region. Our meal there was amazing:
Fatih had requested from the restaurant that the food not be too spicy for our first meal -- he said our American palettes were not ready for what a previous tour group had dubbed "chicken of death," which combined equal parts chicken and spices. I'm not sure my palette will ever be ready for a dish with the word death in it, but we'll see.
By 6:30 PM we were checked into our hotel and headed out to explore some of Istanbul. Two of our fellow travelers, Chris and Shari, suggested we hop on the tram and head over to the Grand Bazaar (shopping!), Hagia Sophia, and the Blue Mosque. We'll visit the Grand Bazaar for serious shopping on the last day of the trip and we'll tour Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque tomorrow -- more about those later.
The Bazaar was closing at 7, so we didn't get much chance to explore there. We did manage to get drawn into a carpet store, where Omar and his cousins showed us views of the city, served us tea, and started showing us rugs. It was a bit awkward -- we hadn't intended to do anything but walk around -- and I think we hurt the store owner's feelings by leaving so quickly, but otherwise I'm quite sure he would have had us stay and visit for a long time. The Turks take their hospitality quite seriously, and we were more careful the rest of the evening as we walked by other shops not to engage in too much conversation.
The area around Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque remind me very much of Monte Martre in Paris, only less hilly. There are alleys and side streets shooting in all directions, with open-air cafes everywhere. We had a round of beverages at the Sultan Pub, and then we moved on to the Sah Cafe.
After that, we hopped back on the tram and headed to the hotel.
Here is a partial list of what we’ll be seeing tomorrow and a few scant details. We’ll post more after we’ve seen it all!
Those are our adventures for today -- more pictures and stories later!
May 20: Kansas City
We leave in just a few hours, and I can’t get the song “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” out of my head. Not familiar with the song? Check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H1PrrtxC1Sw.
We fly from Kansas City to Dallas to Amsterdam and finally to Istanbul … not Constantinople. Arrrgh! See what I mean?