Tuesday, July 22, 2014

yoghurt and sour plums

The heat hits its peak at around one in the afternoon and everything goes silent, save for the buzzing of insects. The few birds who brave the intensity flit from shadow to shadow, their beaks wide open in an attempt to cool themselves. The only ones who seem to revel in the sun are the lizards, who bask with their heads high, on toasty rocks.

We patrolled Akseki for lunch, which was a little bit of a challenge as it is Ramadan (Ramazan, to Turks), a holy month of fasting for Muslims, and most eateries are closed. Fasting for Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam upon which the faith is built— the other four being: testimony of faith, prayer, giving alms to the needy, and making the pilgrimage to Mecca if possible. The fasting begins at sunrise and ends with the call of the azan at sunset, when iftar is held; the meal that breaks the fast. Luckily for us, a small pide shop was open for business, with two other customers quietly munching away.

After lunch we headed back to the hotel, where Yusuf bey insisted we sit with him for a while with a çay. This lead to stories about the past, about how Yusuf bey coincidentally lived in Büyükçekmece for a time, and about the Dutch birders who had previously passed through his doors. Eventually I ended up sketching him for a very patient hour, and even more çay.

He offered us yoghurt, and sour plums.

Monday, July 21, 2014

wood and stone

We rolled into Akseki sometime in the afternoon when the sun's strength had started to wane and the birds were getting cheekier. The landscape had turned Mediterranean; rocky hills with green pines and shrubs, olive trees and wild thyme. The little town gracefully spilled down a hillside onto a dry valley, and within the boxy concrete buildings stood some beautifully constructed old stone houses. There are stone houses throughout Turkey, but the way in which these were built, with wooden support beams layered between the stones, was quite unique. The exterior walls of some houses were smoothed with a layer of dung or cement, some were painted, and others were left natural.

Akseki is a very small town, but it has two hotels— fortunately the receptionist in the first one turned us off with his brusque manner, and we were able to find (with some help from cheerful, loitering older men) the much more affordable Star Hotel and its charming owner, Yusuf bey. The spartan, clean room was just what we had hoped for, and once we had settled in, we headed out to explore and to find some birds.

We came across a village named Çanakpınar, which though it seemed to be quietly crumbling into the earth, was still inhabited. A handful of children played in the street, and an ancient, trembling lady stared at us from her doorstep. I imagine she had seen the village when it was alive with families, when the wood of their roofs was fresh, and the walls of their homes were not sinking into the dirt. I wonder what that must have been like— when the hunter brought home his ibexes, and hung the curved horns above his window with pride.

We stopped a while to sketch one of these marvellous houses— one that we thought had been forgotten, but as I looked closer at one of the windows, I noticed a hand was grasping the wooden lattice. I strained to see the face to which the hand belonged, but it was too dark inside the house. How long had they been there watching? I smiled, and hoped there was a smile in the darkness too.

Saturday, July 19, 2014


Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like if I had gone down the art history and archaeology path; digging up ancient figurines in Middle Eastern dust, sketching and writing about my findings while wearing a wide-brimmed hat. I have always had a keen interest in history— from our Paleolithic ancestors to the New England whaling industry of the 1800s. Turkey is built upon so many layers of history, that I feel lucky to be living in a place where I can explore Neolithic settlements, Greek temples, Roman temples, Byzantine basilicas, Seljuk tombs, and so on. The depth of time can overwhelm, and I find myself getting lost in circles of thought, wondering about peoples who lived and loved and fought and died.

Knowing that the Çatalhöyük archaeological site was so close to Konya, we made a special detour on our way to Akseki to see what there was to see. I had heard that the site was not much to look at, but I couldn't resist and had to find out for myself. The sun was mean, and as we pulled into the graveled parking lot, I felt the back of my skirt stick to my legs with sweat when I shifted in my seat.

We were met by a friendly face who introduced himself as Tunç. Tunç was volunteering at the site as a guide, offering his knowledge of the excavations and the region's history to curious visitors. He led us up the dry hill to the first dig site, which was buzzing with activity. Archaeologists and their students from Turkey, the US, Spain, Italy, and Poland were busy scraping, brushing, and measuring in the yellowed dirt. Ancient walls formed the remnants of homes made of mud brick, which were then plastered smooth— in some places it was possible to see the intricate designs that had been painted on the plaster in red ochre.

Çatalhöyük is the oldest human settlement of this size found so far— at its height, there were an estimated 8000 people living here. There appears to have been no system of government, and no organised religion, according to Tunç. People buried their loved ones beneath the ground of their homes, in small graves like the ones pictured above— you can see a skeleton in a fetal position being excavated in the upper grave. When there was no more room beneath the floor, or when a house needed to be renewed, it was demolished, and a replica was built directly on top of the site of the old house. This created a layered effect, and made the mound that is visible today.

Though the heat had begun to soak through my shirt as well, there was some shade available from the shelter built above the excavations, and we couldn't resist taking the opportunity to sit on a ledge and sketch the scene below. The archaeologists were very welcoming, and I met two fellow Californians amongst the teams whose enthusiasm reminded me of my old home, which felt like it had existed in a dream. Soon, they trickled out of their work spaces for a lunch break, and though we encouraged Tunç to join them, he decided to sit patiently with us. After a delightful conversation about the cinematic disaster that is known as the "Turkish Star Wars", we were joined by another curious visitor:

On a tangent, some of the voluptuous female figurines I showed you in the Ankara museum came from Çatalhöyük, and though I had referred to them earlier as goddesses, Tunç was adamant that the teams believe the ladies were talismans for protection and fertility, and not necessarily goddesses. He then told us about a group of contemporary Mother Goddess worshippers who visited the site some years ago to carry out a series of rituals. Though they were granted permission to do so, no one expected the nudity and dirt-eating that followed— and the reaction from the nearby villagers was nothing short of outrage!

When you scan the land near Çatalhöyük, several more mounds are visible which almost certainly contain a significant piece of our collective history. In fact, Pedro and I have begun to notice that throughout the Anatolian portion of Upper Mesopotamia, there are so many suspicious mounds that happen to be located near a water source and village, that we've made a game of spotting them. Can you imagine what else might be hiding under the earth?

Friday, July 18, 2014


“Your hand opens and closes, opens and closes. If it were always a fist or always stretched open, you would be paralysed. Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding, the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated as birds' wings.”  Rumi

The poet we call Rumi is known to Turks as Mevlâna, meaning 'Our Master'— Rumi simply refers to the land of Rum, where he lived. Celaleddin Muhammed Rumi was a Persian poet, philosopher, theologian, and Sufi mystic who lived in the 13th Century Seljuk Sultanate of Rum. After his death, his followers founded the Mevlevi sect of the whirling dervishes in Konya, where he is entombed in what is now the Mevlana Museum. Formerly a dervish lodge, the building was reopened as a museum in 1927, after a law passed in the new Republic of Turkey that banned all dervish orders, with the aim to secularize the nation.

The streets of Konya were empty, save for a few shopkeepers tending to their displays, and it seemed upon entering the museum, that all the people missing outside had come to see the old lodge and Rumi's tomb. Where dervishes once slept and meditated, the cosy cells now house displays of musical instruments, religious paraphernalia and clothing, and beautifully hand-painted texts.

The curves of Arabic script are their own poetry, and whether a page is tattooed with whispers of love and exultation or simply a list of supplies to buy from the market, I love each letter. I have yet to read any of Rumi's poetry, but I have been told that his words teach tolerance and compassion.

It was forbidden to photograph the interior of Rumi's tomb, and I dared not sketch inside with so many people praying and paying their respects. I cannot remember the architectural terms to describe what I saw, but numerous sarcophagi of important dervishes led to the ornately draped, silvery tomb of their Mevlâna. The space was intimate, and glittered with colour.

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”  —Rumi

Sunday, July 13, 2014

architectural beauties and an odd experience

I'm back now, with the best internet connection available in days— which is not saying much. Nevertheless, I am grateful for it. We left Konya some time ago, but let me get back to where I left off. When I think back on Konya, the memory at the forefront of my mind is being trapped in a carpet shop by a rabid fanatic who has a real bone to pick with England. We didn't even want to buy a carpet, but we were too polite to decline his invitation to look at some fine kilims. His rant ran from chemicals in food to Communism, from yoga to the evils of Western Europe and America, from religion to the superiority complex of professors. We desperately hoped for a pause in his nonsensical meandering tirade, and thankfully, it came when he realised we were not going to purchase any of his wares. Sadly, this experience is what first surfaces and then, the mad drivers and roving bands of unpleasant young men.

Yet Konya has an interesting history which has left beautiful architecture and some of the world's most cherished poetry behind. It is the heart of the famous whirling dervishes, of Sufism, and Rumi. I will show you a bit more on that in another post, as Rumi and the Mevlana Museum deserve their own post.

What we have here are some stunning examples of architecture built and expertly embellished by the Seljuk Turks, who had made Konya their capital between the end of the ninth century until the 11th. The intricate details are exquisite, and the city boasts some true beauties that I would have loved to sketch, were it not for the oppressive heat and the aforementioned roving men, who made me quite uncomfortable.

There were of course, lovely people who made us feel welcome, and I thank them with deepest sincerity— this is the best part of travelling; meeting the kind souls out there in this odd, wonderful world.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

donkeys and dung

The landscapes in Turkey vary so much, that you swear you were in a different country an hour ago. We have moved from mountains to vast arid plains, to farmland— and back. With the change of landscape, the construction of houses in villages change drastically (with exception to the omnipresent cement blocks), as do the creatures that have been domesticated within those villages. Outside Bolu we came across stone and wooden houses; some with tin roofs, and here outside Kulu, homes are beautifully constructed out of wooden support beams and sun-dried dung. Donkeys and sheep are plentiful, instead of the water buffalo and cows in Kartalkaya.

Then there's this little fellow:

Meet the Anatolian Souslik, a cheeky ground squirrel that runs rampant in these parts. Isn't it lovely?

Sunday, July 6, 2014

the museum of anatolian civilizations

I thought I'd take a little time to tell you about how incredible this museum is. If you are ever in Ankara and enjoy history, art, or museums in general, this is a must-see. The collection (which spans the Paleolithic to the Roman era) is incredible, and its display was thoughtful, perfectly lit, and well-labeled. The actual space was an experience too, with stone walls and a wooden ceiling that spiraled in certain places— even the café was beautiful!

The middle photo above is a bit blurry, but it's an example of the level of care that's put into the displays. This is a possible reconstruction of a Neolithic house in Çatalhöyük, and I included the photo directly above because these three gentlemen are the best mannequins I have ever seen, anywhere. Whomever made them has a firm grasp of human anatomy and a fine attention to detail— their veins bulge blue, and their body hair is convincingly growing on their arms and legs.

They even glisten with sweat.