Tag Archives: turkey

Surviving the Apocalypse — Ephesus, Turkey

Wisdom, knowledge, fortune, virtue: this is the Ephesian recipe for success. It could also be why a nearby village in Turkey was deemed a safe haven to survive the predicted apocalypse of Dec 21, 2012, the end of the Mayan calendar. This little village of 600 people, Şirince (Shee-reen-jay), swelled to 60,000 for doomsday – chosen by virtue of its proximity to Ephesus, where the Virgin Mary spent her final days until her assumption into heaven.

It’s a cute town whose white hillside houses are lined up like soldiers, rows of windows shuttered with dark brown wood. It has UNESCO status but while it is pretty compared to its neighbour, Selçuk, the cultural significance might be more the cause than the aesthetics. The cobblestone streets funnel you through a tourist trap, at least on the surface, of pensions, uninspired restaurants and kitschy shops.

Founded by freed Greek slaves in the 1400s, they named it Çirkince, “rather ugly,” to discourage others from coming. The current name means “quaint,” changed a few years after Turkey’s 1924 population exchange with Greece following the Greco-Turkish War. The exchange was based primarily on religion, ignoring language and nationality: Turkish-speaking Orthodox Christians were sent to Greece in exchange for Greek-speaking Muslims.

The new now-Muslim town retained the local trade in very sweet fruit wine (blackberry, mulberry strawberry, pomegranate, melon) and in 2012 created a special end-of-the-world vintage that had to be consumed before the apocalyptic deadline. Savvy. They also jacked up the $60/night hotel cost to $1600/night.

Şirince had a role in the discovery of the House of the Virgin Mary in Ephesus. With most of the credit going to a paralyzed German nun with visions, it was the people of this hillside village making their annual pilgrimage from the town’s church of St. John the Apostle to a little place in Ephesus that triggered a greater look at the area. 

Mother Mary’s House, as it is called in Turkish, is a lot of guesswork. The two-room structure has only a two-foot base of original walls. The rest is reconstructed. There is some doubt as to the authenticity of the house and site but it has received three papal visits, the first in 1896 and the last from Pope Benedict XVI in 2006, which is good enough for the pious and tourists alike. Outside, the “fountain” is a row of taps mounted in a wall reminiscent of the bathrooms in prison movies. But we gamely washed our hands and I took a sip, unsure if that was required to aid in good fortune. 

Beside the fountain is a wishing wall covered in paper streamers to tie up your wishes. I wrote my wish, more of a freeform haiku, on a bank receipt. My friend felt that could be construed as bribery and elected to use toilet paper instead. I didn’t point out how *that* could be construed. Our guide dashed our hopes by saying the wall is cleaned off once a week so I hope Mother Mary works fast.

Selçuk, the nearest city to Ephesus, takes the knowledge requirement of success seriously. Guiding is a profession, not a summer job. Guides are now required to have a 5-yr tour guide degree that includes courses in History, Archeology, and Mythology. We were fortunate to book a tour that had only two other people on it, an Australian couple married 46 years. The four of us had our pedigreed guide, Nizan, and minivan to ourselves.

Ephesus is a revelation. Expecting only the theatre, we were delighted to find a city of marble ruins with a wide main street, the beginnings of side streets, a harbour street and columns, arches, walls, stairs, and a few key buildings.

The highlight is the Library. My kind of town. Rising two-stories high, it could be the twin of Petra’s Treasury in Jordan, but free-standing. It is intricate with tall Corinthian columns and the four statues of wisdom, knowledge, fortune and virtue guarding the entrance. 

Directly across from it is the brothel with an ancient ad for it etched into the marble sidewalk a block away. The ad shows a broken heart, a footprint pointed towards the building, and the face of a beautiful woman along with a square that once held menu prices. You can almost hear the Ephesians calling, “Honey, I’m going to the library..” as they closed the front door. 

Through the arches, down another street and past the agora, lies the famous theatre. Still in use periodically today, it has hosted Sting, Elton John and Yanni, seating 25,000 people and using the natural acoustics. 

Having the guide brought us to great vantage points that large groups passed by unaware and provided some commentary not found in books. Ephesus is still being excavated. With only 20% of the city uncovered, new artifacts are being found every day. We passed a colonnade that had been discovered in 2013 and the previous week, an archaeologist measuring an area found a tablet with a Maltese cross etched into its face, that she placed casually against a wall.

We left the ancient city to lunch at a small restaurant in the country that is part of a carpet-weaving cooperative. The meal was delicious and fun as we and the other couple good-naturedly out-travel-storied each other. Hard to do with peripatetic Australians. We had a fascinating demonstration of de-silking worm cocoons (the worms had been gassed to death) and watched slackjawed as women wove intricate Turkish patterns into carpets in silk and wool. Then it was time to pay our dues. A large, square room, some Turkish tea and men blanketing the floor with carpet after carpet, twirling them professionally to show how colours shift depending on the angle at which you see them. Despite the timeshare-style full court press, we left empty-handed, but with a greater appreciation of the skill involved and an understanding of the thousand-dollar price tags.

So farewell to Turkey, a warm and friendly country, with a blend of ancient and modern, natural and urban, delicious tea and a McDonald’s that delivers (based on the branded motorbikes with panniers). That’s civilization.

Up, Up and Away — Cappadocia, Turkey

Our cave hotel came with a welcome cat. Cut into the soft, rock cliffs, caves are everywhere in Cappadocia, and make the best kind of boutique hotel. The cat is the Cappadocian equivalent to a mint on your pillow. And a natural byproduct of leaving your window open.

Cappadocia is a large region best seen by car. We used the lazy-traveler method of hiring the cabbie who drove us to the hotel as our guide. I’d had such good luck with my last one.

Our new guide’s name was Ufuk (pronounced oo-fook, come on, now). He was 40 and at mid-afternoon was still laughing at a feeble joke I’d made in Turkish, hours earlier. I was charmed, especially since “joke” and “Turkish” is overstating it. He rejected the standard tour bus routes for a more natural one, which included sites called “Church with the buckle” and “Church of the snakes,” and where he had to chase the keeper of a 9th century monastery down from high in the branches of a tree so that we could pay the $2.50 entrance fee before we left.

Cappadocia is the land of fairy chimneys, rock churches and underground cities of tan, brown and black, softened by shades of green from the cypress groves, apple trees and grape vines. Fairy chimneys are the Turkish counterparts of the hoodoos in the North American badlands, eroded by wind and water out of ancient volcanic deposits from eruptions more than three million years ago. Like Stone Age Rorschach tests, the formations take on many shapes: black-hatted chimneys, a camel, the profile of Napoleon.

The churches were carved out of rock 1600 to 2000 years ago and painted at some point with murals on a black background. While the murals in some churches were still quite colourful, the monastery looked to have unrelenting black ceilings until Ufuk borrowed a powerful flashlight. As the light played over the black, paintings of Jesus and the apostles came out of the shadows, as if being discovered for the first time. There is Greek graffiti (Plato heart Persephone-style) dated 1888 on the walls adding to the sense of history. Ufuk also led me up a set of very worn, just-short-of-vertical stone steps to another church and top of the world moment. He complimented me for making it without any difficulty by saying that even young people in their 20s had trouble. I looked around for my cane.

The underground cities are the stuff of Indiana Jones movies and nightmares for claustrophobes. The region has an estimated 200 of them, linked to each other and to the houses of the ancient residents through hidden trapdoors and courtyards. We toured Kaymakli, a four-level city, walking through slanting tunnels just wide enough for a person and in some areas only high enough to walk fully bent over at the waist. The tunnels were generally well lit, with fresh air due to effective ventilation shafts, and opened every few feet into rooms about five feet high. They were used for retreat when under attack, had their own water source that couldn’t be tampered with from ground level, and could house 10-30k very short people with their tiny horses. The first level was kept as the stable.

Our final moment of wonder was going up, up and away in our blue- and yellow-striped balloon, suspended over the canyons and valleys of Cappadocia at sunrise, one of 100 hot air balloons dotting the sky. The balloons themselves draw the camera as much as the wide vistas. People whisper or gesture. The balloons glide, up and down and rotate in each direction to provide everyone a view. The pilot brings us within touching distance of the cliffs then we rise silently by them. It’s peaceful. Awe inspiring. Not at all scary. And a great metaphor for Turkey itself.

Turkish Delight — Istanbul, Turkey

The whirling dervish spins, arms raised, eyes half open, head tilted, one palm to the sky to receive gifts from God and one facing the ground to give it to Man. Istanbul could be as disorienting; it seems to spin around you even as you stay still. But as our private guide explained, “Once you know Istanbul, you sense the order behind the chaos.” He is right. There are people everywhere, but not in the overwhelming, claustrophobic, stressful sense. Istanbul is colourful and lively, pretty and sprawling. And the number of people is outnumbered only by the number of cats.

Street cats are everywhere. But instead of mangy and scrawny and sly, they seem clean, well-fed, and flealess enough to hold on my lap. They’ve taken ownership of the city: lying on statues; standing by gates; and sitting upright on restaurant chairs like little furry men, spines against the chair back, hind legs stretched out in front of them, and front paws up high waiting for their coffee.

Old Istanbul conveniently gathers most of the major sites in one place:

  • Blue Mosque: more of a pastel mosque with as much pink as blue
  • Aya Sofia: named “Holy Wisdom” (“Sofia” meaning wisdom, not someone’s name), the church has changed from Greek Orthodox to Roman Catholic to Greek Orthodox to Imperial Mosque to museum since it was built in 537 AD
  • Topkapi Palace: home to the stunning 86-carat pear-shaped Spoonmaker’s Diamond that legend says was found by a fisherman who bartered it for three wooden spoons
  • The Spice Bazaar: endless stalls with perfect pyramids of multi-coloured, fragrant spices and dusty Turkish Delight, and the surrounding streets with wall-to-wall shops selling party favours beside prayer beads beside guns with child-sized mannequins in camouflage
  • The Grand Bazaar: much more civilized than expected and both cramped and enormous: small, clean stores with doors and air conditioning, beside busy kiosks selling variations of the same thing: carpets, pashminas, jeweled teardrop lanterns, copper pots, wooden spoons, housewares, hardware, giant rolls of bubble wrap… I regretfully passed up the opportunity to buy the softest scarf of unicorn hair.
  • Bosphorus cruise: a beautiful 2-hr boat ride at sunset on the breezy top deck listening to the incomprehensible, monotone tour guide who sounded like the teacher in Snoopy cartoons but thankfully was so bored by her job that she’d stop talking for long stretches
  • As much as I loved the majesty and variety of the sights, it is the little human moments that I enjoyed the most:

  • My friend and I laughing at the plaque in Aya Sofia that we both read as the minibar, instead of “minbar,” where the priests gave sermons
  • Conservative women in niqabs taking selfies over and over again, going for the perfect expression in their beautiful eyes, I guess
  • The museum’s cat that preened in front of a giant floodlight to a paparazzi of tourists snapping pictures – work it, kitty
  • The mesmerizing whirling dervishes who spun continuously for 30 minutes both on their axes and around a central dervish to mimic the solar system, then slowed to a stop without falling drunkenly over
  • But the highlight was the private tour guide we hired for our last day. Highly recommended, he was more like a rent-a-local-friend. He was friendly with a masters in history and walked us around 15 km (and 52 floors according to my FitBit) of neighborhoods telling us history and stories of current life in Istanbul but never feeling like he should have an umbrella or lollipop sign.

    He took us to local restaurants, chocolate shops and a tea garden. He revealed the creamy sweet deliciousness of balkaymak (literally honey and clotted cream) on bread, and we shared a pot of the richest melted chocolate with fresh strawberries and a crunchy granola. Best of all, we all drank “boza,” bulgur wheat fermented with water and sugar and topped with cinnamon and roasted chickpeas that you eat with a spoon. Like a summer eggnog and apparently very effective in treating cholera.

    And to crown it off, we walked up steep stairs, down a dimly-lit hallway, did a secret knock on an unmarked door, and then waited until the caretaker came towards us. The door to a narrow stairway was unlocked and then we were up and out on the roof above the Spice Bazaar to unparalleled views of Istanbul. Our guide making me climb up on one of the roof-top domes to be King of the World – definitely an afternoon of Turkish Delight.