Andy Carvin's Waste of Bandwidth

August 1, 2006

Catching Up on Some Old Photo Albums

Filed under: Albania,Estonia,India,Travel,Turkey — Andy Carvin @ 6:00 pm

Since yesterday was the last day of the month, I decided to max out the remaining bandwidth in my two-gigs-a-month allotment from Flickr by uploading some photos from my previous travels. Before switching to a digital camera, I used to have my 35mm photos burned to a CD when I got them developed, leaving me with a batch of CDs just asking to be uploaded. So I’ve uploaded three new sets to Flickr:

alt="Indian kids, Jaipur"> href="">Rajasthan 2001: Our second trip to India, including Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, the Pushkar Camel Fair, Udaipur and Chittorgarh.
Gjirokastra houses Albania, Greece and Istanbul: Includes photos from Athens, Meteora, Metsovo, Thessaloniki, Gjirokastra and Istanbul.
alt="Onion Domes, St Basil's Cathedral"> href="">Russia & Estonia: My February 2002 trip to Moscow, St. Petersburg and Tallinn.

This brings my Flickr collection to 10,364 photos. Wonder how long it’ll take me to reach 20,000. -andy

September 8, 1999

Confrontation at the Foot of Mount Ararat

Filed under: Turkey — Andy Carvin @ 2:53 pm

18th century Kurdish mosque,
Dogubeyazit, Turkish Kurdistan

Breakfast in Kars — not exactly what one might expect as a culinary highlight of a Turkish adventure. Though many travelers have argued that Kars has little going for it except proximity to Ani, few would deny that the city is home to perhaps the most delicious honey in Turkey, not to mention the best place to find the aged yellow cheese known as kasar peynir, or “kosher cheese.” Having feasted in several hotel restaurants on packaged jams and boxed cheeses, I hoped that breakfast in Kars might be a fresh experience.
The restaurant at the Hotel Güngören was a dark, hazy hall populated by chainsmoking business travelers. Guests ate buffet-style Turkish breakfasts, with each table piled with heaps of fresh bread. I approached the buffet and loaded my plate with black olives, kosher cheese and some hard boiled eggs. To my disappointment I found an empty honey platter — a large serving dish with only a tawny glaze. I reached for two packets of processed jam and began to head to a table when a man appeared with a new serving plate. Returning to the buffet I found a glorious Kars honey, darker than amber and thicker than jelly, freshly scraped from its honeycomb. I could barely lift the spoon off the platter to slather my plate with the honey; once I managed to raise it, I required a second spoon just to transfer the honey to my plate.
I could have spent all morning sitting in that dingy cafeteria, slopping up fresh bread in golden honey while drinking tea and listening to cell phones erupt every other minute. But my mellifluous slice of heaven came to an end once Susanne and Berzan finished their breakfasts, ready to hit the road.
“All things must come to an end,” I sighed. “I guess I’d gain 100 pounds if I had this for breakfast every day anyway.”
By 9 o’clock we were on the road from Kars, driving through a series of farms and lava floes. Shepherds tended to their flocks as wheat farmers loaded pickup trucks with bales so large the wheat extended 10 feet off both sides of the cab.
About 45 minutes into the drive we noticed what appeared to be an overturned truck on the right side of the road. Overturned vehicles are a common sight on Anatolian highways — we had passed at least three or four on the way up to Kars. But as we got close to the truck we realized we had stumbled upon a fresh accident scene. Five cows lay dead on the side of the road while at least a dozen others wandered aimlessly. An old man with a thick beard sat in the grass crying, holding a bloodied cloth to his right ear.
Berzan pulled over immediately to see if we could offer assistance. I opened the back door just in case we needed to carry someone away from the accident. A younger man left the side of the older man and yelled something in Kurdish to Berzan. I noticed the man had smears of blood across his forehead but didn’t appear to have any wounds of his own. Berzan jumped back in the car and speeded away.
“They want us to go get the military police,” he said. “The old man is scared people will come and steal his things.”
We arrived at a jendarma checkpoint about two minutes after leaving the accident scene. Berzan rolled down his window and began speaking rather authoritatively to a young soldier while Susanne and I each tried to piece together what had happened. My first impression was that the old man was carrying cattle in his truck and it had overturned, but now that I had time to think about it I wasn’t really sure. Meanwhile, the soldier waved us through without asking questions as he got on his walkie talkie to radio for assistance. A great smuggling strategy, I thought to myself cynically. Tell the soldiers there’s been an accident and speed through the checkpoint while they’re preoccupied.
“So what exactly happened back there?” I asked.
“The old man must have been driving and hit the cows,” Susanne replied.
“But I thought he was carrying the cows,” I responded.
“I don’t think so,” Susanne answered. “There were two boys on the left side of the road watching over some of the cows.” I hadn’t even thought to look left, actually, so I missed seeing the boys.
“Yes, that’s probably what happened,” Berzan concluded. “The boys were herding the cows across the road when the old man came around in his truck and hit them. He probably doesn’t have a license. Many villagers cannot read so they cannot pass a driver’s test, but they go ahead and drive anyway. That’s why there are so many of these accidents here in Turkey.”

Anatolian Trivia

The name “Dogubeyazit” is Turkish for “West Beyazit.” The original town of Beyazit had been a human settlement since Urartu times over 2700 years ago, but was ravaged during World War I and the subsequent war for the Turkish republic. The newer city was settled in the 1930s.

A little more than an hour after the accident we arrived in Dogubeyazit. Just as it had appeared while passing through the previous day, Dogubeyazit was overrun with dust: dusty streets, dusty shops, dusty trucks, dusty dogs. We stopped at a cafe along Belediye Caddesi, where we drank tea and ate scones as classic Hanna Barbera cartoons played on a TV in the corner. Not far above our heads we noticed an ink-drawn caricature of Gary Coleman.
“How long of a drive is Ishak Pasa from here?” I asked.
“Is-hak Pasa,” Berzan corrected me. “Don’t pronounce the S and the H in Ishak like shhh. They are separate sounds.”
“I know, I knew that,” I replied smirking. “How far is Is-hak Pasa then?”
“Much better,” Berzan said. “Only 20 minutes. Very close.”
It’s a five kilometer drive from Dogubeyazit to Ishak Pasa’s Palace but in order to get out of the town we first had to steer around a sizable construction project in which an entire block of street had been dug up, forming a rectangular hole 20 feet deep. Berzan waited patiently as mule carts laden with watermelons pulled out of the way so we could have our turn driving over the sidewalk.
Just outside of town we reached a military checkpoint, not far from the local army barracks. As Berzan dealt with a soldier explaining our intentions in Dogubeyazit, I noticed a row of a dozen tanks parked in a lot behind an electrified fence — another reminder of our proximity to the Iranian border.
“Iran is that way,” Berzan said, pointing east. “No more than 30 minutes away. If you want we can go to by a carpet.” Until we got new passports that weren’t politically voided by Israeli border stamps, however, Persian carpets would just have to wait for another visit.
“Can you see it from here?” Berzan asked us, pointing towards the mountainside. There far above us, halfway up the mountain, I could see the majestic palace of Ishak Pasa. Though few visitors ever make it this far east to see the palace, it is still one of the most indelible images of Turkey. Numerous tour books display Ishak Pasa on their cover: a grand 18th century palatial fortress standing guard over a desolate Anatolian plain, a solitary mountain looming in the distance.

Ishak Pasa's palace
Ishak Pasa Sarayi, near Dogubeyazit, Turkish Kurdistan

Ishak Pasa Sarayi, the Palace of General Ishak, was the life-long quest of Çolak Abdi Pasa, a Kurdish emir of the late 17th century. Building on the architectural strengths of Ottoman, Kurdish, Seljuk, Armenian and even Georgian styles, Çolak erected a palace that would be unique in Anatolia. Construction was so detailed and laborious (366 rooms take a lot of work), the palace was not completed until 99 years later, late in the reign of his son Ishak Pasa. In 1784, Ishak Pasa moved into the palace of his father’s dreams, naming it in honor of himself. Though abandoned in relative ruin long ago, the Turkish government is meticulous renovating and conserving the site, returning the palace to its former glory.
Berzan parked the car just in front of the palace gate. The gate’s original gold-plated doors, masterpieces of Kurdish workmanship, were whisked away by Russian troops at the turn of the century and can still be seen on display at St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum. Even without the doors, the structure is breathtaking, especially from above. Susanne and I immediately climb the hill in front of the palace in order to get a better view.
Atop the hill we found a restaurant whose owner seemed eager to have us come up, take some pictures and perhaps have some lunch. Instead we stood at the edge of the hill, admiring the view for half an hour and taking pictures each time the sun came from behind the clouds.
“Absolutely incredible,” I said to myself, my right eye pressed against my camera.
A stiff wind made posing for pictures and changing lenses a little tricky, but that just meant we would have to spend a little longer on the hill enjoying the view. I could see Berzan chatting with someone near the palace gate.
“He must be so bored,” Susanne said.
“I hope he’s not,” I replied, “but at least he’s getting paid to be bored. Besides, how could this place ever be boring?”

young girl in sweater poses in front of a castle wall
Ottoman gravestone, Ishak Pasa Sarayi

As Susanne used the restaurant’s bathroom I walked back down the hill, stopping at a small graveyard just above the palace. Ottoman-style graves dotted the land, most of which were broken or receding like Pisa towers in miniature. Susanne caught up with me a few minutes later.
“I’m glad we went to the top of the hill first,” she commented. “The view up there is definitely the best.”
Berzan met us just outside the gate and led us inside. The first courtyard had yet to be repaired in any way so it was littered with broken pavement and fallen bricks. Climbing over a pile of stones through a door on the left side, we arrived at the main courtyard, currently a grand obstacle course of square pits, 10 feet across and 50 feet deep. The spaces between each pit were only about two feet wide, so I did my best to walk carefully and follow Berzan’s footsteps. Susanne, meanwhile, trotted through without blinking, fully enjoying the exercise. Once across the pits we reached they freshly restored white marble courtyard, behind which stood the main palace buildings, including the mosque and dining room. At the back of the courtyard stood a stone gazebo, fabulously decorated with marble carved into grape vines.
We began our exploration by visiting the harem, made up of multiple living rooms each with tall windows and stone fireplaces built into the back walls. The harem rooms had received varying amounts of renovation, including several rooms with obtrusive metal braces reinforcing the vaulted ceilings. Others had no roofs at all, allowing the light to pour onto their polished stone floors. Beyond the harem we reached an open-air dining room that had been restored to nearly flawless conditions: rose quartz columns connected by delicate arches, empty window panes trimmed by meticulous flourishes of vines and geometric shapes carved into the rock. The upper edges of the walls and arches were decorated with triangular Seljuk mouldings, jutting out like stone diamonds that had been cut in half. Because there was no roof above us, we had a beautiful view of the mosque’s dome and minaret as clouds sailed across the crisp blue sky. What a pleasure it must have been for old Ishak Pasa to dine here, whether under a rising morning sun or a cool starry night. Berzan tried to show us several more harem rooms but Susanne and I kept coming back to the dining hall. If you had seen one harem room you had seen them all, but there was no other place like this beautiful dining space.

Dining Courtyard, Ishak Pasa's palace
Main dining hall, Ishak Pasa Sarayi

After having our fill of dining room atmosphere we crossed through the main courtyard to visit the mosque. The mosque was small and simple, yet graceful. I was about to comment on its remarkable state of preservation but then I remembered reading that it had been used as a functioning mosque until the 1980s, so much of its decorations including its low Ottoman chandeliers were probably fairly recent.
“Let’s go upstairs,” Berzan suggested. Susanne and I followed him up a narrow stone staircase whose steps were too high and too thin for an easy climb.
“Didn’t some Mughal emperor die following down stairs like these?” Susanne remarked.
“Sultan Humayun,” I replied. “Fell down his library staircase and broke his neck. Watch your step….”
The second floor led to a row of balconies which offered views of the mosque interior. Beyond them we found a second flight of stairs leading to the roof. We stepped outside and leaned against a row of stone blocks, admiring the view of the dome and minaret. A sudden breeze sent a chill up my neck. As Susanne peered over the edges of the roof, Berzan and I sat there for some time contemplating the palace, the scenery, perhaps even our experiences over the last two days. Susanne broke the silence by grinning and pointing to a round air vent leading to the dining hall below. “The royal toilet?” she joked.
“Can we climb the minaret?” I asked Berzan.
“Not anymore,” he replied. “They closed it because it was dangerous. I did it once but I didn’t like it. I felt it swaying in the wind. Never again….”

Dining Courtyard, Ishak Pasa's palace Dining Courtyard, Ishak Pasa's palace

Two views of Ishak Pasa Sarayi’s mosque and minaret

On the way down the stairs we bumped into three backpackers, the first we had seen since arriving in Kurdistan. Two Israelis and a Brit had met in Van and were now traveling together.
“We started walking here after lunch in Dogubeyazit,” the Brit explained. “I thought we would have never have gotten here if it hadn’t been for the lift an old man gave us in his lorry.”
After taking advantage of the workmen’s bathrooms we returned to the car and drove downhill to Dogubeyazit. As we passed the checkpoint and the row of tanks I had seen earlier, Berzan pointed to them and said, “When I first went into the army I drove a tank. I didn’t like it because we had to spend so much time keeping the tank clean, oiling it, so I changed jobs and became a cook.”
Susanne and I were both surprised by Berzan’s experience as a tank driver. When he had first mentioned that he had been a cook in the army, I had assumed this was Turkey’s way of keeping the Kurds in army jobs that wouldn’t train them in the use of force. But Berzan’s comments blew my theory out of the water. Apparently the Kurds were trained to fight, even though those fighting skills could eventually be turned against the Turks. It didn’t make any sense.
“I can’t imagine having to be in this army,” Susanne said.
“I didn’t wanted to join the army,” Berzan replied. “I wanted to leave Turkey, go to Switzerland. But I stayed because of my father. He said if I go I could never come back home. But I hate the army. They’re killing us.”
I didn’t know how to react to Berzan’s words. They’re killing us. He had said the same thing the day before, but today the syllables struck me as both tragic and ironic. The Turkish army was the enemy of his people, yet they still wanted young Kurdish men to serve in their army. It was like the Serbs forcing young Kosovars to join the army and fight against Kosovo’s independence. The only purpose such a policy could serve was the enforcement of absolute submission, pure and simple. If we can make you join our army and fight for us, we can make you do anything. Berzan turned up the volume on his stereo and began to sing quietly to himself.

Turkish Pronunciation

Interested in learning how to pronounce the Turkish words mentioned in this journal? Check out my Turkish pronunication guide!

We parked the car across from Tad Lokantasi, a two-story kebap restaurant. Inside Berzan visited a waiter he knew and said hello while the maitre d’ approached us, apparently thinking we were there alone.
“Hos geldiniz,” the maitre d’ said, smiling.
“Sag olun,” I replied, assuming he knew we were with Berzan. As the maitre d’ walked towards an open table he turned around, puzzled why we weren’t following him. He shook his head back and forth, the Turkish way of saying I don’t understand.
Before I could figure out an appropriate answer, Berzan returned and asked if we were ready to go upstairs. The maitre d’ laughed and nodded his head as soon as he realized why we were standing there. Upstairs we sat by a window with a beautiful view of Mt. Ararat. Susanne ordered a beans and rice dish while Berzan and I both ate Iskender kebap, a popular dish of döner meat over bread with tomato sauce. A little boy from an Iranian family walked back and forth the room, watching GI Joe on a television against the wall.

Mt. Ararat
View of Mt. Ararat outside the Tad Lokantasi restaurant, Dogubeyazit

As we returned to the car Berzan pointed across the street to a short man with gray hair and a five o’clock shadow. “That’s my friend Hasan,” Berzan said. “He just got back from China.”
Berzan called over to Hasan and got his attention. The plump man gave Berzan a broad grin and joined us for a walk through the town’s Iranian bazaar. This small market specialized in commercial goods brought in from Iran, including radios, computer parts, light bulbs and coffee makers, as well as other household products. Berzan and Hasan chatted away in Kurdish as Susanne and I peered through the shops, examining their assortment of goods. As Berzan talked with a shop owner Hasan came over to me and talked about his recent trip. Over the course of 163 days he led a caravan from China to Turkey via Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran. It sounded like a wonderful, difficult journey.
Having completed a loop around the market, the three of us said goodbye to Hasan and returned to the car. As we stopped for gas, Susanne asked Berzan to tell us the tale by Turkish storyteller Nasreddin Hodja that he had eluded to yesterday after a military checkpoint.
“One day Hodja decided to sell his mule at the market,” Berzan began. “There were many people interested in buying the mule that day, so they each got a chance to look at it. Each time a person went up to the mule, they checked its teeth to see how old it was, to see if it was healthy. One after another, people visit the mule, examine its teeth and leave. In the end no one buys it, and Hodja is stuck with a mule that smiles every time it sees someone. Sometimes I feel like Hodja’s mule.”
Sometimes I feel like Hodja’s mule. With each checkpoint, Berzan did what was expected of him as the Turks examined his identification, his car, even his face. And with each checkpoint, we too had learned to react as had Hodja’s mule — retrieve our passports, smile, and hope nothing went amiss.

twister in a field
A small twister meanders across a field

Leaving the city limits of Dogubeyazit I noticed a swirl of dust in a farmer’s field. The swirl grew higher and higher until it formed a small twister.
“Do you see the twister?” Berzan said, pointing out the window. “They are very common around here. It isn’t strong enough to be a problem, though.”
As we passed the twister Berzan increased the volume of his stereo. Soon afterwards the man singing on the tape began to speak in English as orchestrated Kurdish music dramatically coursed around him. He then switched his lyrics to Turkish, Arabic and Kurdish.
“Who is this?” I asked Berzan.
“It is Sivan Perwer,” he replied. “He is Kurdish, but he lives in Germany. He is originally from Turkey though his family fled to Syria. Sivan Perwer is the greatest Kurdish singer. He can never come home because of what he sings. The Turks would arrest him.”
We turned off the road and headed along the main highway to Van. After driving for a minute or two I noticed Berzan began to pull over the car to the side of the road. My first reaction was that he wanted us to get out and take a picture of Mount Ararat one last time, which would soon disappear in the distance. As the car slowed down along the shoulder of the road, I could hear the sound of sirens behind me. It appeared we were being pulled over by police — were we driving too fast?
I reached into my pocket to pull out our passports, sure that we would need them. A small two-door police car pulled over to our left. A policeman was leaning out the passenger window with a large automatic rifle pointed up into the air.
“Get out of the car,” I heard Berzan say quickly.
While turning to open the rear left door I felt someone’s hand grab my arm and yank me out of the car. It was so fast I could barely process it, but I realized it was the police officer with his large automatic rifle in his other hand. The next thing I knew I was being thrown against the back of the car spread-eagle, the soldier screaming in my ear while another soldier was frisking Berzan near the front of the car as Berzan shouted at him. Susanne appeared to be standing alone, away from the car, but I couldn’t really tell. Were there other cops? What did they want? What the hell had we done?
I then felt a sharp pain in the back of my right thigh, punctuated by yelling in my ear. Had I been kicked? Smacked with the rifle butt? Before I could process what was happening the soldier kicked the inside of my left foot, causing my legs to swing out into a an even more vulnerable spread-eagle position.
My mind went blank. I wasn’t scared, nor did I feel angry. I wasn’t sure why we had been pulled over or why they were doing this to us. All I knew was that our lives could be in a lot of trouble, and the only thing that might get us out of that trouble was in my left hand. I held onto our passports for dear life.
“Amerikaliyiz! Biz Amerikaliyiz! Bizim pasaportlar!” I yelled, holding up our passports while trying not to raise my hands off the back of the car. The second soldier came over to me from where Berzan was being frisked and took the passports out of my hand. He thumbed through them quickly and said something loudly to me in Turkish.
“Get back into the car,” Berzan said, still spread-eagle on the front of the car. “Get in now.”
Not sure if this was Berzan’s translation or suggestion, I looked over at the second cop. He nodded his head and motioned to the back seat of the car as he allowed Berzan to stand up straight. Berzan and the first cop began to yell at each other as Susanne and I returned to the car. It appeared that our passports would grant us safe conduct, though Berzan’s future was far from certain.
Once inside, I took a deep breath as soon as I closed the door. “Are you okay?” I asked Susanne.
“Yes — they didn’t touch me,” she replied. “Are you okay?”
“I’m a little bruised, I think. I think I was kicked. I got hit by something in my left thigh before getting my foot kicked from under me. I don’t know; maybe he hit me with the rifle.”
“What are they going to do with him?” Susanne asked, looking over at Berzan.
A moment or two later Berzan was allowed to open the front door of the car in order to retrieve his keys. Apparently they wanted to search the trunk. Berzan leaned inside to pull out the keys and simultaneously handed Susanne the Sivan Perwer tape from the stereo.
“Put them in, in….” he said quickly, pointing to the glove box. Berzan closed the door and began arguing with the cops again as Susanne stashed his tape.
Ages seemed to pass as the argument continued, though in truth it may have been no more than 30 seconds. Berzan and the second policeman then called over to us, asking me and Susanne to get out of the car yet again. Unlike my first exit, this time I was allowed to step out on my own accord and walk towards them. As the first cop stared at me coldly, the second cop reached into the front seat of the police car and pulled out a two-liter bottle, holding it up towards me.
“No thanks,” I said first in English. “Hayir, Memur Bey, tesekkürler.”
The first cop began to speak to me in Turkish angrily, then pointed to Berzan, hollering out English, “Who is he?”
The second cop, now holding a liter of water, added, “How do you know this man?”
Turkish words raced through my head as I tried to organize a thought. How could I explain that Berzan was the manager of our hotel and had been recommended to us? Should I say we knew him well or not? What would get us out of this?
Berzan took the bottle out of the second cop’s hand, giving it to me. “Drink this,” he said, possibly stalling for time to give me a moment to think. “They want to know how you know me. They say I am taking you somewhere against your will. Tell them you know me.”
“Friend!” Susanne said anxiously. “How do you say friend in Turkish?!?”
“Arkadas!” I blurted out, finally understanding what to say. “Berzan — bizim arkadas! Bizim sofor bey! Oteli Ipek Yolu. Arkadas!” Susanne was joining in at this point, saying friend and Arkadas repeatedly.
“This man is a problem!” the angry first cop replied in broken English, his cold blue eyes staring right at me. “He is a problem, a Kurdish problem….” The policeman seemed intent on having us say something — anything — that would give them the excuse to drag Berzan away.
“Yok!” I said back to him indignantly. “No problem…. Dert degil! Bizim arkadas!”
“Why are you here today?” the second policeman asked.
“Dogubeyazit,” I replied. “Ishak Pasa Sarayi. Berzan — Berzan sofor bey. Oteli Ipek Yolu’dun! Arkadas!”
At this point the second policeman began to nod his head. “Okay, okay,” he said.
Berzan then spoke up again. “They want you to get back in the car,” he said. “Take the water with you.”
Once again Susanne and I returned to the car, wondering what would happen next. From what we could tell the situation was beginning to simmer down. The cops knew they weren’t going to get anything useful out of us. One of them got back into their car to turn it around while the other one continued to argue with Berzan. Once the car was facing the other direction, the second one returned to the car, leaving Berzan to lean into their window and continue the argument, almost as if he was the cop who had just pulled them over. They had let him go, though Berzan was doing his best to give them a piece of his mind before they departed. A moment or two later the police drove off, leaving Berzan near the side of the road.
Berzan returned to the car and slammed the door shut. A pause.
“Bastards!” he yelled, clearly shaken from the experience.
“Are you okay?” Susanne asked.
“They say I take you where you don’t want to go,” he replied, his English beginning to suffer from his anger. “They wanted to know if you know me. ‘Of course they know me. We are together for three days — friends!’ They said we ran the road block. What road block? They said they saw two tourists with Kurdish man and it looked suspicious. They said they fired three shots above us and we didn’t stop.”
“I thought I heard a tire pop,” Susanne responded, reviewing the events prior to being pulled over. “That must have been it. That popping sound.”
“I also thought we had a flat,” Berzan continued. “That’s why I slowed down. Then I saw the police and the man hanging out the window with the gun.”
“I honestly didn’t know what the hell was going on,” I said. “Driving with the windows open there’s a lot of noise back here, so I couldn’t hear anything. I had no idea there were police behind us until we almost made a complete stop.”
“They wanted to take me away and leave you here,” Berzan continued, now getting angrier. “Or maybe they would have taken you. They would say nice things to get you to go…. They take you away and ‘play football’ with you, you understand? They worry that journalists will come here and show what they really do to us…”
“I cannot tell you what they do, what they do to us,” he trailed off. “The things they do, the electric… I cannot tell you.” Susanne and I could only stare in silence.
“Every day it happens,” Berzan continued. “Any day 10 or 15 Kurds are taken off the mountains and they are killed. Nobody knows, nobody knows. This is how we live….”
“I am so sorry,” Susanne said, filling in the words that would not come to me.
“You are not used to this,” Berzan replied, shaking his head. “They do this to me. They can take me and hit me but I would not let them leave you on the road. Maybe they would have let you drive to Van and maybe I would have to meet you later.”
“We wouldn’t have left you,” Susanne promised him. “If they put you in their car we would have gone with you too.”
“The police,” Berzan continued, “when they let us go they said they would come by my hotel and would make me treat them well. Free drinks, free rooms, a good time. I said okay. But if they come I will pretend I don’t know them. They can only come as civilians, so I will treat them as civilians.”
“I’m so sorry,” Susanne said. “I wish you could get on a plane with us.”
“So this has never happened to you before,” Berzan joked as he began to calm down.
“Nope,” I replied. “I can’t say that it has.”
“Now you have,” Berzan said, a smirk forming on his face. “It’s good for you…”

We sat quietly until nearing the next military checkpoint. As we pulled into the checkpoint, Berzan cranked up his Sivan Perwer tape for one last moment, then turned it off. Berzan continued to sing the Kurdish anthem until rolling down the window to speak with the soldier. The soldier examined our passports courteously and soon waved us through.
“So how are you?” Berzan asked, checking in on us.
“Fine,” Susanne replied. “And you?”
“No problem… No problem….”

Muradiye Falls
Muradiye Falls, Turkish Kurdistan

Around 3pm we arrived a Muradiye Falls, a picturesque waterfall just northeast of Lake Van. Just across from the falls was a small cafe which could only be reached by crossing a hanging wood bridge suspended over the Muradiye River. I walked over the bridge slowly, knowing that every step I took made the entire bridge oscillate. Susanne and Berzan, just behind me, took the opposite approach, stepping as powerfully as possible in order to get the length of the bridge bouncing up and down.
“Now we walk like drunks,” Berzan smiled, hobbling across the bridge.
The cafe sat on a steep hill just across from the falls. A large group of soldiers were finishing their drinks at one of the tables. As soon as I saw them I felt a shock in the back of my head, as if I had just been startled. It was almost as if I thought one of these young soldiers having a drink was going to come up to me and continue the harassment we had encountered near Mount Ararat. Of course nothing happened; I don’t think any of them even noticed me. But I still felt their secret gaze over me. It didn’t matter that we had been harassed by civilian police, for in my mind they were all the same — they were the men with guns. I could only recall two images from that whole encounter: the blue eyes of the policeman who pulled me out of the car, and his gun. Those policemen were probably 80 kilometers north of us now, having a cigarette by the side of the road, but I felt their presence here in the form of these off-duty privates. I might never look at a soldier the same way again.
Berzan sat down at a table with the cafe owner while Susanne and I descended the hillside in order to get the best view of the falls. Because we were visiting in the dry season we weren’t treated to the full waterfall experience. Nonetheless the sight of the water gracefully drifting over the cliffs was quite beautiful. It felt strange being surrounded suddenly by such serenity after having gone through such a scary experience with the police less than an hour before.
“Are you okay?” Susanne asked me, staring towards the falls.
“I’m okay,” I replied, “Just a little pissed off. I’m just wondering when the shock of all of this will hit me….”
I climbed back up towards the cafe, where Berzan continued to sit at a table having a cigarette with the cafe owner. We did our best to relax over a couple of Cokes while Berzan and his friend chatted and swapped stories in Kurdish. As I finished my soda the soldiers paid their bill and left the cafe, walking over the foot bridge. The irrational side of me felt a palpable relief as they departed — another encounter averted. The rational side of me smiled as I watched one soldier make his way across the swaying bridge, holding on for dear life as if his next step would be his last.
Berzan put out his cigarette and said goodbye to his friend. We returned to the car and finished our drive to Van in about 45 minutes. Berzan rolled down his window, playing a Ciwan Haco tape as we entered town.
“We would love to bring home some Kurdish music with us,” Susanne said. “Are we allowed to buy it legally?”
“Yes, it’s legal now,” Berzan replied. “Before you leave for Istanbul we will stop at a store and find you some good Kurdish tapes.”
Back at the hotel we relaxed on a couch over tea, comparing Berzan’s license with our passports. Berzan looked like such a boy in the photograph — he actually looked his age. In real life, Berzan seemed so much older. No wonder, considering what we had just experienced today — imagine having to live under the yoke of another people, always under suspicion, always assumed guilty? Kurdistan makes for shorter childhoods, I suppose.
After resting in our rooms for a couple hours we decided to take Berzan to dinner at Merkezi Et Lokantasi. We met him in his office downstairs, which was decorated with photographs of Kurdish children. Behind his desk I noticed a long stringed instrument — a saz.
“I will play it for you after dinner, if you would like,” Berzan offered.
Never in a rush to proceed anywhere without first drinking tea, we sat for a while in his office, watching the evening news in Turkish.
“Is there Kurdish language television here?” I asked.
“Not legally,” he replied. “We watch Kurdish TV on satellite. It is called Medya TV. It is illegal in Turkey but everyone watches it on their satellite dishes. I think it is based in Britain, maybe Germany. It has to change names and locations sometimes to keep the Turks from shutting it down.”
Berzan shut off the TV as we got ready to depart for dinner. I commented on how difficult it must be to have only the Turkish perspective on television and in the news. “In America we hear very little about what’s going on in Kurdistan. We read about it when Turkey goes after PKK fighters in Iraq, but that’s about it. We don’t hear much otherwise, except when the Turkish government is doing something.”
“No one knows what we go through here,” Berzan replied. “You only hear about the Kurds as terrorists, the Kurds as killers…. But we have no human rights — there is no human rights in Kurdistan. You, you can go where you want. I cannot leave Turkey. I cannot leave Van without permission.”
“They say Ocalan is only a terrorist,” he said, putting out his cigarette. “They don’t understand. To the people, his is more real than God.”
We arrived at Merkezi Et Lokantasi just after 8:30pm. It wasn’t as crowded as it had been two nights earlier, which made for a quieter dinner. Susanne and I both ordered chicken sis kebap and lamb çop sis kebap. Berzan ordered a large plate of lamb kebap as well as several plates of shepherd’s salad, cacik and spicy tomato puree. We also received a plate of çig köfte, the raw meatballs that had shocked us during our first meal here. Always willing to make the same mistake twice, I scooped up a meatball and ate it. Susanne was more upfront about it: “You know,” she said, “I don’t think our stomachs will be able to handle this twice.”
“We will have to hide them,” Berzan joked. “We would not want them to think we don’t like them.”
The three of us stuffed ourselves as we spent the evening talking about crime and punishment. Berzan had read about the recent school shootings in America and was interested in how common they were. This led to the interesting topic of blood vendettas.
“In Kurdistan if you kill someone, the dead man’s family will want justice,” he explained. “They will then kill someone in your family, which will mean your family will want to kill someone again. It is all very bad. Does this happen in America?”
“Not often anymore,” I replied. “There are legends of some families going to war with other families long ago, like the Hatfields and McCoys, but now the government punishes people for killing people.”
“Does your government always execute killers?” Berzan asked.
“No, not always,” I explained. “For example, if I killed someone in Washington DC, I would go to jail for life but not be executed. But if I killed someone in Virginia, just across from DC, I could be sentenced to death. It depends on which state you are in. Whatever you do, though, don’t kill anyone in Texas.”
After finishing our meals and paying the bill — $12 for everything — we returned to the hotel to listen to Berzan play his saz. He brought us to what he called a “traditional Kurdish room,” which was decorated with carpets and oversize cushions. As we sipped another round of tea, Berzan asked us questions about American music and what styles were popular regionally. Berzan played several songs on his saz, which he had been studying for about a year. The saz was very unusual to the ears, tuned in such a way that made everything sound extremely dissonant and out-of-tune. Berzan passed the saz over to me, allowing me to play with it.
“Are you sure this thing is tuned right?” I asked jokingly.
“It is tuned right,” he replied. “It sounds very good, doesn’t it?”
Putting my guitar-playing skills to use I managed to figure out the basics of the instrument but had a difficult time in making anything good come out of it. Unlike the guitar, which is tuned to a 12-tone scale, Berzan’s saz was tuned to a seven-tone scale, with some of the frets aligned to be purposely sharp or flat. Using my empty tea glass as a slide, I laid the saz in my lap and played a couple of Led Zeppelin tunes before making a feeble attempt at the Doors song “The End.” Berzan showed me how to play a Kurdish song by tapping his fingers over the frets, allowing me to follow each tap.
After returning the saz to Berzan, our conversation shifted back towards politics. “It’s very bad what’s going on here,” he lamented. “Everyone thinks we’re terrorists. Everyone is afraid to talk….”
I was surprised by Berzan’s openness — only two days earlier I couldn’t even get him to talk about using Kurdish in public. Perhaps our altercation with the police earlier today had been the test that graduated us to a new level of honesty. We had experienced the absurdity of modern Kurdistan for ourselves, so now we could talk about it.
“It’s very bad how they treat us,” Berzan continued. “We have no rights. They treat us like animals.”
“I wish you could come to America with us,” Susanne replied.
“It would be a dream,” Berzan said quietly, stirring his tea.
The room went silent for a few moments. A grin then appeared on Berzan’s face. “Bashka!” he proclaimed.
“What does that mean?” Susanne asked.
“It is Turkish…. You say it when there is a pause in conversation and you don’t know what to say. In Kurdish we can also say eysha.”
“I don’t think we have a word for that in English,” I replied.
“You could say ‘Well!’,” Susanne suggested. “Or ‘So!’”
“Bashka!” I said, practicing aloud.
I glanced at my watch and noticed it was well past one in the morning. Berzan’s bashka couldn’t have come at a better time, for I was becoming extremely tired. But I was quite glad his invitation to hear him play his saz had turned into a long evening over tea.
“Despite what happened today,” Susanne said as we were going to bed, “I’m so glad we spent the last three days with Berzan. There’s no way we would have been able to hang out with someone like that if we had joined a tour.”
“There’s a lot we wouldn’t have experienced in Kurdistan if we had gone on a tour,” I replied.
“I can’t believe we’re going back to Istanbul tomorrow,” Susanne said, shutting out the light.
Bashka, I thought to myself.

The next morning, Berzan brought us to the Van airport for our flight back to Istanbul. We spent three final days in the city, revisiting our favorite sites, lounging in cafes and even experiencing a traditional Turkish bath. But emotionally, our trip to Turkey had concluded in Van. We had crossed the length of this beautiful, enticing country by land in two weeks. Our Anatolian fortnight had come to an end.

September 7, 1999

Armenian Ghosts

Filed under: Turkey — Andy Carvin @ 2:53 pm

Armenian church of St. Gregory
Church of St. Gregory, Ani

After waking up at 7am, Susanne and I went downstairs to the hotel dining room for breakfast. A Turkish breakfast buffet had been set up near the bar, including fresh bread, green and black olives, goat cheese, hard boiled eggs and honey. Susanne and I both took our plates outside to the terrace, where a waiter brought out hot cups of Nescafe with milk.
As we finished breakfast, Berzan’s Van cat appeared from inside. Susanne and I both made a feeble attempt to pick it up, but the frisky kitten was too quick for us. The waiter returned to retrieve our plates when he saw our dilemma. He obligingly reached down and lifted the cat, holding it on the table for us to take a picture. Unfortunately the cat didn’t look too happy to be tethered by the waiter’s grasp, but it humored us for a moment and allowed us to get that photograph.
We met Berzan with our bags just after 7:30. Once again I bought a large bottle of water for the ride up to Kars, which would take “four or five hours depending on the number of police checkpoints,” as Berzan put it. His words really struck me — it was one thing for weather or traffic to be the variable affecting your travel plans. Potential police harassment was a new issue for consideration. New for us, perhaps, but a daily way of life for our Kurdish guide.
Reaching Van’s northern city limits around 8 o’clock we stopped for our first checkpoint. As had been the case going south, we were scrutinized by a plain-clothes official in a dark vest. After examining our IDs the official asked Berzan to unlock the trunk for inspection. Once on our way again we followed the highway north. Over 1000 years ago this very road was a major Silk Road artery connecting the cities of Persia with the Armenian capital of Ani to the north and the Roman town of Caesaria (modern Kayseri) far to the west in Cappadokia. Today the highway is still called Ipek Yolu, or Silk Road.
Soon after leaving Lake Van behind us we were stopped at a military checkpoint. A sour-faced jendarma approached Berzan’s window and took our identification. Berzan was then asked to step out of the car to open the trunk. A moment or two later the jendarma knocked on the window to my left. I rolled down the window to find out what was going on just as the jendarma began to speak swiftly in Turkish.
An exasperated Berzan approached the window. “He wants both of you to get out and open up your luggage,” he said.
Susanne and I both stepped out of the car and walked back to the trunk. I opened my bag first, displaying a motley collection of dirty old shirts and unspeakably crusty socks. Satisfied that I wasn’t carrying a bomb or copies of the US Constitution in Kurdish, he moved on to Susanne’s bag, which had been closed with a small padlock. Again, the jendarma found nothing that could alter the balance in the Turkish-Kurdish conflict.
“You can get back in the car now,” Berzan said as the jendarma closed Susanne’s bag.
We sat in the car for a moment until Berzan returned, starting up the car and cranking up his Kurdish music as soon as we were no longer in earshot.
“I hate them for that,” he said quite clearly in English.
“I can’t imagine having to live like this,” Susanne sighed.
“They’re killing us,” Berzan said, shaking his head.

We drove northward for an hour through typical farm country, an occasional mountain looming in the distance. As the number of hills began to increase I noticed the ground was now littered with cracked black boulders, sometimes so prevalent it was as the earth had disemboweled itself. We were in an ancient lava field, which meant that Anatolia’s most famous dormant volcano was not far away — we were approaching Mount Ararat, the legendary resting place of Noah’s Ark.
A few miles further into the lava field we stopped briefly at another jendarma checkpoint. As we left the checkpoint I could see military barracks surrounded by barbed wire extending far to the east. Along the barbed wire was an ominous red sign with a black outline of a rifle-toting soldier. “Dikkat!” it read. “Attention! Forbidden Zone!” Mount Ararat was perilously close to Turkey’s borders with Armenia and Iran, making it a prime spot for heroin smuggling, illegal Kurdish immigrants, even arms trafficking. Mounting an expedition up the slopes of Ararat was near impossible without friends in high places (no pun intended), and permits to climb the mountain are routinely rejected. Mount Ararat, the place where Noah’s journey came to a safe end, is now one of the least safe places in the Middle East as far as the Turkish army is concerned.
As we weaved through the lava field my eyes continued to follow the barbed wire fences and the many red and black Forbidden Zone signs that decorated them. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, Mount Ararat appeared in the east, dominating our entire field of view. Often obscured by clouds, Ararat was today clear and crisp, its dark gray slopes capped with an icy white layer of eternal snow.

Mt Ararat
Mount Ararat, Turkish Kurdistan

“Can we pull over for a photo?” Susanne and I exclaimed almost simultaneously.
“Not yet,” Berzan replied. “The army can see us here.”
Several minutes later, after our car had curved around a hillside, Berzan pulled over to the left of the highway, parking in the midst of the lava field. Ever the science geek at heart I immediately reached for a piece of foamy black lava as I stepped out of the car. “Look how light this lava is,” I said to Susanne. “It’s like black pumice or something….”
“Please,” Berzan stressed, “we cannot stay here long. Please take your picture. I had trouble last year….”
Not wanting to get anyone in trouble, Susanne and I quickly crossed the road to take our pictures of Mount Ararat. As we snapped our photos a young girl appeared from the village to see what we were doing. Berzan soon relaxed with her presence, even asking us to take a picture of them together.
“Isminizne?” I asked her.
“Dim,” she replied.
Before I could introduce myself, Berzan ushered us back into the car. “We really must go now,” he said, starting the ignition as I closed my door.
I had trouble last year…. I thought of Berzan’s words as we drove northward. I did not want to venture whether that was an understatement.
With Ararat still dominating our view to the east, we soon arrived in Dogubeyazit, a dusty frontier town known for its border crossing with Iran and its famed Kurdish palace of Ishak Pasa. We planned to visit the palace tomorrow, so for now Dogubeyazit was nothing more than another windswept spot along the highway.
“Would you like to stop for some tea?” Berzan asked.
“Sure,” Susanne and I replied. I expected us to pull over in Dogubeyazit but Berzan drove on to the next major town, Igdir.
“What is this town called again?” Susanne asked as we reached Igdir’s city limits.
“Uch-dursh,” Berzan said with a deep gutteral voice, sounding almost like he was mumbling in German.

Turkish Pronunciation

Interested in learning how to pronounce the Turkish words mentioned in this journal? Check out my Turkish pronunication guide!

I knew that the Turkish G was usually silent and the letter I without a dot over it was pronounced in between the sounds “ih” and “uh.” I also knew that some Turks put a “sh” sound when the letter R is at the end of a word (like pronouncing the city Izmir as Izmirsh). But apart from Berzan I hadn’t encountered the hard ch sound in Turkish.
“I would have guessed this town would be pronounced Uhh-duhrsh,” I commented, “but you pronounce it like Uch-duhrsh. Is the ch sound a Kurdish trait?”
“Yes, we use a lot of hard ch’s,” Berzan replied. “Uch Duhrsh, Dochubeyazit. It sounds much better that way.”
Igdir is a medium-size university town with not much to note except that it makes a convenient place to stop for tea after being on the Van-Kars highway for a few hours. We parked along a busy street next to an otogar and a produce market. Just across the street we found a hole-in-the-wall tea shack with two small tables and several squat stools out in front. As the three of us were settling in around a table, Susanne said she needed to find a bathroom. Since the tea joint had no room for a kitchen let alone a bathroom, Berzan offered to walk Susanne over to the otogar while I waited at the table.
Susanne and Berzan disappeared in the crowd across the street. Meanwhile I quickly discovered that the empty seat and table I was guarding was a precious commodity here in Igdir. Two old men approached the cafe and grabbed on to Susanne’s and Berzan’s chairs. Wanting to make clear to them that these chairs were spoken for by my friends, I did my best to convey my apologies in Turkish.
“Üzgünüm, effendim — benim arkadaslar,” I said to them. Excuse me, sirs — my friends. I couldn’t get more specific than that because my Turkish skills were so limited, but I hoped I at least got my point across.
“Arkadaslar?” one of the men responded rather skeptically, as if I had just introduced them to a pair of imaginary friends.
“Nerede?” the other one challenged me. Where?
“Tuvalet,” I replied, realizing that they didn’t find my chair-hogging excuse very convincing.
“Tuvalet!” he exclaimed, throwing his hand up in the air before leaving me to the company of my troubled imagination.
Berzan and Susanne soon reappeared from across the street.
“Where’s my tea?” Berzan asked sarcastically.
“Don’t blame me,” I said. “Blame your two empty chairs, which almost didn’t stay empty for long.”
We eventually received a round of tea, while snacking on some chocolate biscuits. “We are almost there,” Berzan assured us. “Two hours at most.”
After paying the waiter we returned to the main road to Kars. Much of the drive for the next hour was perilously close to Armenian territory — often no further than a kilometer or two. That made all land to the east of the road strictly off limits — razor wire and numerous “Forbidden Zone” signs would greet every glance I made out the right-side window.
Our drive was slowed significantly by what seemed to be an infinite stream of lumbering military transports. We found ourselves behind two army border patrol convoys, each made up of 20 or so vehicles. At first I assumed we’d be stuck behind them for the rest of the ride, but Berzan wasted no time in speeding down the left lane, veering into the convoy to avoid oncoming traffic. We weaved in and out, in and out, usually encountering blank stares from the heavily armed 20-year-olds stacked in the back of each truck. The vast majority of them looked terminally bored, counting down the days, hours and minutes left in their 18-month conscription. Occasionally I spotted a handful of soldiers joking around or perhaps bobbing their heads up and down to the sound of their Walkmans. One transport’s complement was completely asleep, flopped on each other’s shoulders like a litter of newborn kittens.
After snaking through multiple lava fields we neared an area of rolling farmland that marked our approach to the city of Kars. Acres of land were pockmarked by evenly-spaced piles of rocks, as if the farmers had just harvested their annual gravel crop. For a brief, grim moment I thought the stones were actually thousands of markers for the graves of soldiers killed fighting the Kurds, so I decided to ask Berzan what they were for.
“The land here has good soil but there are too many rocks in the fields,” he explained. “Since the farmers have no place to put the rocks they put them into small piles so can farm the land around them.”
Not far after the rocky fields we reached the outer limits of Kars. Small apartment blocks and auto repair shops lined the sides of the road. Lonely Planet had warned us that Kars had nothing to offer except an excursion point for the ruins of Ani, but as we entered town I was pleasantly surprised by its setting. Tree-lined streets, turn-of-the-century Russian houses that smelled of wet paint, public fountains, and freshly paved roads: Kars was obviously in the middle of a face lift.
The Russians built Kars in the late 1800s on a strict grid plan giving it a very European feel, but the city’s location on the westernmost edge of the Caucasus makes you feel as if you’ve just arrived in Yerevan or Tiblisi. Many of the storefronts carried signs that appear to display the name Kafka’s but I quickly realized that the word in fact was Kafkas, based on the Russian word for the Caucasus mountains, Kavkaz.
“Kars still likes to look to the East,” Berzan said. “Many of the residents are Azeri Turks who settled here while the Russians were in Kars.”
Russia’s foray into Kars lasted less than 40 years; the Turks regained the city near the end of World War I, during the spring of 1918. But recapturing the city had come at an enormous cost, including what was one of the most self-destructive campaigns of the entire war. In December 1915, Ottoman military generalissimo Enver Pasha sent the Turkish Third Army towards the Russian-occupied Caucasus, in the hopes of liberating the region as a first step towards establishing a pan-Turkic empire across Central Asia.
Though northeastern Anatolia is known for its difficult winters (Kars literally means “snow” in Turkish), the winter of 1915 was particularly brutal. The commander of the Third Army, a former military college instructor of Enver’s, begged the pasha to not force him to attack the Russians before the winter subsided. Enver, who had never commanded a regiment, relieved his former teacher of his duties and took over the Third Army, renaming it the Army of Islam. Enver pressed over 90,000 troops from Erzerum towards Kars, reportedly forcing his men to leave behind rations and precious layers of clothing in order to speed up the march.

Anatolian Trivia

Not far from Sarikamis, another decisive battle took place along the northern shores of Lake Van in 1071. At the Battle of Manzikert, Byzantine emperor Romanus Diogenes was humiliated by the forces of the Seljuk Turks, led by Sultan Alp Arslan. Captured by the Seljuks and forced to pay annual tribute, Romanus had lost the battle in part because of treacherous Byzantine rivals who may have encouraged their troops to retreat prematurely. Manzikert served as a stark demonstration of the ascension of the Turks in Anatolia – and prophesied the eventual fall of the Byzantines, who lost Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453.

By Christmas 1915, the Army of Islam arrived at the outskirts of Sarikamis, a small Russian garrison town just west of Kars. Enver planned to capture Sarikamis as the first step in liberating the Caucasus, but the frigid weather had devastated his Army of Islam — thousands of men froze to death on their way to Sarikamis. Enver ordered his desperately weakened soldiers to attack Sarikamis on December 29, but it was a lost cause. By the time Enver retreated and returned to Constantinople, 75,000 soldiers of the Army of Islam had died, leaving barely 15,000 survivors.
Enver did his best to cover up his ineptitude, but the crushing defeat severely limited the Ottoman threat to the Russians in the Caucasus mountains. To the Russians, though, Enver’s attack was a dangerous diversion from their primary front against the Germans in Eastern Europe, which was not going well to begin with. Because of Enver’s attack, the Russians lobbied the British to start another front against the Turks. After extended debate led by then-Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, the British agreed to accept the challenge, laying the seeds for what would eventually be their disastrous invasion along the Gallipoli peninsula. Ironically, the Turkish victory at Gallipoli propelled a young soldier named Mustafa Kemal to fame, who had rallied the Ottoman troops at a decisive moment. In less than ten years, Kemal would become the founder of the modern Turkish republic and be forever remembered as Father Turk — Atatürk.
Near the center of town, Berzan pulled over to the state tourism office in order to begin the process of receiving permission to enter the ruins of Ani. Because Ani is so close to the Armenian border, the Turks have piled up the red tape in order to scrutinize everyone who wants to visit it — and perhaps to discourage others from even bothering. After stepping inside the office armed with our passports, Berzan returned and started up the car.
“We must go to another office first then come back here,” he said. “They have changed the rules since I was here last.”
A few blocks away we arrived at what appeared to be the center of town — a T-shaped intersection with a large public fountain and numerous park benches. There was nowhere to park so Berzan manouvered the car right up to the fountain and turned on his blinkers.
“I will only be a minute,” he said, taking our passports once again. “If the police come to take away the car tell them I will be back soon.”
Susanne and I looked at each other as Berzan walked into the building.
“The police aren’t going to like this,” Susanne said.
“That’s okay,” I replied. “I can point to the empty driver’s seat and say in Turkish, ‘Arkadas! Arkadas!’ like I did in Igdir.”
We didn’t spot any police during our wait but we soon lost count of the number of teenagers we saw walking down the street. Boys and girls in blue jeans, t-shirts and baseball caps strolled around the fountain plaza, probably on the way to lunch from the nearby high school and university campus. While some older women wore head scarves, none of the younger women did. I also noticed that a surprising number of the men were redheads — not brunettes with a hint of crimson, but fiery Irish redheads. I cracked the window to get some fresh air and was greeted by a cool breeze — Kars was indeed mild compared with Van and southeastern Turkey.
Berzan soon returned with our passports and a brown sheet of paper. “Okay, now we can go back to the other office.” He turned the car around and brought us back to the first building we had visited just 15 minutes earlier. Once again, Berzan ran inside, though this time he exited with just what we needed: security approval stamps on our entry form.
“There is still one more stop,” Berzan said. “We will need to buy entry tickets since they are not available at Ani. But first we can go to the hotel and get some lunch.”
We drove around the corner and parked in front of the Hotel Güngören, a dilapidated two-star which at one time in the past may have been charming. As we checked in, the man behind the desk and Berzan had an extended conversation in Turkish. From what I could make out they were arguing over whether to give Susanne and me a double bed or a single bed (a “French bed,” they called it.) Eventually they grew tired of their debate and settled on giving us an extra-large triple.
Once inside the room we discovered stiff beds, a stiff sofa, stiff chairs, stiff lighting and a fluttering color TV.
“How Soviet,” Susanne said.
“It’s like the Russians never left Kars,” I replied.
On the desk I found a Kars Turism folder that contained a postcard of the city taken at night. “What does it tell you when the only postcard they can give you is a picture of the city in the dark?” Susanne quipped.
We met Berzan at the front desk and drove a few blocks away to a döner kebapci. We sat on a long picnic bench right across from a produce market which offered large watermelons and even larger cabbages. A teenaged waiter brought us bottles of Coke and slices of fresh pide as a chef who looked like Monty Python’s Graham Chapman shaved slices of meat off a flamethrowing rotisserie. As a döner kebapci, the restaurant didn’t have much to offer but döner kebaps and drinks — our choices were limited.
We soon received our kebaps piled over a mound of greasy rice. I had expected the döner to taste more like Greek gyros since the concepts are almost identical, but the döner meat was marbled and chewy, more like a slice of unprocessed lamb. The meat was rather oily as well, which made the kebap a little undesirable but left the rice with a delicious gravy. Susanne proceeded to hide her uneaten meat under her rice. I almost inadvertently revealed her deception when I greedily scooped a spoonful of rice from her plate, but Berzan seemed neither to care nor to notice.
After lunch we made our final bureaucracy stop at the Kars Archeology Museum, where Berzan was able to procure our Ani entry tickets after proving we had permission to visit the site. We then began the 30-minute drive to Ani, across the train tracks and through several poor farming villages. Somewhere in front of us was Ani, and just beyond that was Armenia. I looked at the hills and mountains ahead, trying to guess where Turkey ended and Armenia commenced. Surely the mountains were in Armenia, so I theorized that Ani would lie amongst the many hills that were visible below the mountains.
Arriving at a military checkpoint we were approached by a soldier who demanded our passports and entry permits. Carefully obeying protocol he determined that the names on the permits were indeed spelled like the names in our passports. After giving me a glance that seemed to suggest “maybe I’ll not let you in just for the fun of it,” he returned our passports and waved us through.
“There is a story by Nasreddin Hodja I think of sometimes,” Berzan said cryptically as we left the checkpoint. “I must tell you the story later….”
Descending over the far side of a hill we could now see the outer wall of Ani. From our distant perspective it appeared that Ani was now a massive pasture with walls on one side and hills on the other side. In the middle, just out of view, must be the Ahuryan River, which serves as the natural border between Turkey and Armenia. This meant the hills that lay just beyond the walls were in Armenian territory.
After parking along a recently restored wall, we walked around the corner to a sentry post where two armed soldiers stood guard. One soldier took our passports as collateral during our visit while the other laid down the law concering Ani’s tourist policy.
“This is the natural international border between Turkey and Armenia,” he said in rehearsed English. “Our governments have made strict rules of conduct for your visit. You may take pictures of the ruins but you may not take pictures of the ruins facing into Armenia. You must direct your photos west towards Turkey, not east towards Armenia, or your film and camera will be confiscated. Please follow the main path around the ruins and do not step off of the path. Do not go any further south than the mosque ruins, near the citadel. Do not go to the citadel. It is not safe. If you understand these rules you may proceed.”
“We understand,” the three of us replied. The soldier nodded his head and slung his rifle over his shoulder in order to open the gate for us.
Once we were no longer in earshot, Berzan added, “You may only take pictures of me. Facing south. Do you understand?”
“We understand,” I droned back, knowing full well we’d do what we could to get the best photographs. “I will not start an international incident with my camera.”
Susanne and I were both rather incredulous about these Soviet-era rules, finding it a little absurd that we would be restricted in taking pictures of a city that died over 600 years ago. But because the Turks were still irate over Armenia’s military successes against the Azerbaijanis in Nagorno-Karabakh, the border was sealed completely shut. If politics and hatred hadn’t closed the border, we could have had lunch in Yerevan.

Long before the arrival of the Armenians, Turks or Kurds, eastern Anatolia was populated by the Urartu civilization. Among their many gods the Urartu worshipped Anahid, an early Persian version of Greek Aphrodite. Anahid’s spell must have been truly seductive, for though her worshippers are long gone, her presence is still preserved in the name of the ancient city of Ani.
Since ancient times, eastern Turkey has been an important strategic crossroads. The legendary Silk Road passed through the region, linking the cities of Byzantine Anatolia with Persia, Arabia and Central Asia. By the late ninth century AD these crossroads were controlled by an Armenian dynasty known as the Bagratids. Recognized by both the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople and the Arab caliph in Baghdad, the Bagratids presided over prosperous principality centered around their capital city, Kars. Yet the nearby town of Ani became a tempting alternative to Kars, for it could be defended more easily given its location along a deep river gorge. In 961 AD Armenian king Ashod III the Merciful left Kars and moved his Bagratid capital to Ani, laying the foundation of what would become a glorious, yet short-lived, medieval metropolis.
By the end of the first millennium, Ani was a thriving commercial and religious center, its 100,000+ population rivaling that of Constantinople. Contemporary chroniclers boasted of the Armenian capital as “The City of a Thousand Churches.” Following Ashod III, his royal successors Smbat II and Gagik I maintained Armenia’s dominance in the region. But after the death of Gagik, the throne was weakened by internal rivalries, eventually allowing Byzantine emperor Constantine IX Monomachus to inherit the city in 1045 AD from Bagratid King Yovhannes-Smbat. Constantine’s grasp was fleeting, however. The Seljuk Turks fighting under warrior chief Alp Arslan swept into eastern Anatolia, taking Ani and Kars in 1064 as they headed west to find fame and glory in central Turkey. They too didn’t stay for long, and successive waves of Kurds and Georgians made their presence felt in Ani.
By 1239, no power in either Europe or Asia could compete with Cingiz Khan and the Mongols, who ravaged Anatolia and captured the city. This marked the beginning of the end of Ani. Earthquakes, plagues and changing patterns in trade ravaged the local economy. The great Turkic warrior Timur Leng (Tamerlane) took Ani in the late 14th century, but soon abandoned it to Ani’s dwindling Armenian population. The Armenian Catholic Church, which had been based in Ani since 992, transferred its central administration to the city of Yerevan in 1441. By the end of the 15th century, Ani was a ghost town in-progress.
And so it has been ever since. A victim of perpetual enmity between Turks and Armenians, Ani exists in a no-mans-land forgotten by history.

As we passed through the soaring stone gates we found ourselves at the edge of a rolling wheat field. All was silent except for the wind and the rubble crunching under our feet. Several hundred meters in front of us, crumbling stone churches and mosques could be seen scattered across the plain, separated by acres of wheat and shards of broken marble, never piled more than a foot or two high. It was more like a movie lot than an ancient capital: a building here, a building there, separated by ample distance to avoid film crews getting in each other’s shot.

A cow stands in a field with ruins in the distance
The deserted Armenian ruins of Ani, along the Turkish-Armenian border

The ruins were almost completely deserted. Several Turkish archeologists could be seen sifting through a mass of rubble, while two rifle-toting soldiers stood guard over the gorge. As we walked towards the ruins a small convoy of jeeps passed us. I could see well-dressed civilians and high ranking officers in one jeep, with nervous soldiers in another jeep. It seemed that some VIPs wanted a private tour of the ruins. This might complicate our plan to sneak pictures of the ruins facing into Armenia, I realized as I saw several of the soldiers in the jeep get out to stand guard while the VIPs explored each site. We’d have to be cautious.

Church of the Redeemer, Ani
Lightning-shattered Church of the Redeemer, Ani

We followed the path clockwise around the ruins, walking half a kilometer towards the Church of the Redeemer. Approaching the church from the north it appeared the structure was still in fine condition, a typical medieval Armenian church not unlike Akdamar Island’s Church of the Holy Cross. But as we walked around the church we saw an entirely different picture — the eastern half of the structure had been sheared off completely. Built in the 1030′s, the church had survived intact for over 900 years until a lightning strike devastated the building in 1957.
Susanne and I climbed over mounds of rubble in front of the church in order to get high enough for a photograph. With each step I could hear the same gravel crunch that I had heard as we first entered the ruins. I kneeled to the ground and ran my fingers through the rubble. With each handful of dirt I found sizable shards of pottery, many pieces several inches wide. Everywhere you looked were mounds of medieval trash, left in situ for some future archeologist to piece together. Tempted as I was to explore the mounds, they were unstable and plagued with thorns, so I eventually took my pictures and returned to flat earth.
Walking around to the other side of the church I got a good look at the lightning damage. An entire half of the building had collapsed straight down, leaving the other half unscathed. Susanne was climbing inside the church on a large pile of marble. I scrambled over the outer ruins, shifting my gaze between the fading frescoes along the remaining vaults and the shattered walls beneath my feet. Berzan stood further back on another pile of stone, his dark sunglasses reflecting flashes of light along the shadowy interior of the church.
The three of us continued our walk down the path, which now sloped downhill towards the gorge. It was at this moment we had our first clear view of the gorge and the Ahuryan River. Cliffs on both sides of the border plunged towards the bottom of the ravine, 500 feet downward. The Ahuryan was a tumult of white water, crashing against the many boulders that had fallen down the gorge over the ages. On the Armenian side you could see military barracks and observation stations — ample places for the Armenians to watch the Turks as the Turks watched the Armenians.
At the edge of the path we searched for the Church of St. Gregory. This church was actually one of several churches in Ani dedicated to St. Gregory the Illuminator (c. 257-332 AD), whose missionary work led to Armenia becoming the first nation to adopt Christianity. Our books had described St. Gregory’s as the best preserved church in Ani but all I could see was a foundation and half of a wall from some long forgotten structure.
“This can’t be it,” I said aloud to myself.
“It isn’t,” Berzan replied. “We must go down towards the river.”
As we made our way around the foundation I saw the church, 100 feet below, perched on a cliff’s edge. The sight was nothing short of extraordinary — an ancient stone church standing guard over a gaping tear in the earth. The scene was straight from a fairy tale, begging to be photographed, though to my frustration the entire backdrop was filled with forbidden Armenia. My first reaction was to throw caution to the wind and snap a few photos, but those VIPs we spotted earlier were now inside the church as two soldiers stood on watch on the hilltop above it. Though one soldier appeared to have his attention elsewhere, the second soldier spotted me and kept his eyes on us as we walked down. As I descended the hill I lifted my camera as it hung around my neck and removed the lens cap to inspect the outer lens for dust. I blew at the lens, pretended to look frustrated, then tilted it horizontally to allow the dust to fall. I repeated the process three times, though as my camera went horizontal the third time I pressed the trigger, having no idea whether or not I’d capture the church. The soldiers did not react.
“I know exactly what you’re doing,” Susanne said over my shoulder.
Nearing the bottom of the path the VIPs began to climb up, passing us along the steps. I nodded my head and said “Iyi günler” to one of the generals. Another general approached, though he was wearing a different uniform and didn’t look particularly Turkish. Not wanting to offend by speaking Turkish I simply nodded my head. Soon enough all the VIPs and their escorts cleared out of the area giving us some breathing room to inspect the church.
Built in the early 13th century by a wealthy Armenian, the Church of St. Gregory is called Resimli Kilise (the Church with Pictures) by the Turks because of its collection of frescoes along its inner vaults. Though terribly vandalized and not as striking as the Akdamar frescoes, the paintings nonetheless captured a lost era of Armenian prosperity in Anatolia.

Church of St. Gregory
Resimli Kilise (Church of St. Gregory), Ani. The land behind the church is Armenian territory.

Church of St. Gregory's frescoed vaults
Close-up view of Resimli Kilise’s frescoes.

“Remember how you take your pictures,” Berzan said dryly. “Take it facing Turkey — good. Take it facing Armenia — not good.”
I stood in front of the church, facing towards Armenia. “If I take a photo this close, no one will be able to see Armenia, right?” I commented as I snapped the photo. I looked up and saw a soldier looking down at me. He didn’t seem to care either way.

ruins of Ani Cathedral
Ruins of Ani Cathedral

We climbed back up the hill to the main path and headed to our next stop, Ani Cathedral (known to the Turks as Fethiye Mosque). The cathedral was built at the turn of the first millennium by Trdat Mendet, the master Armenian architect who also constructed Akdamar’s Church of the Holy Cross. Depending on who was in charge of the city at the time, the cathedral was used as either a church or a mosque. Today it is Ani’s largest freestanding structure, not counting the city walls. From a distance the cathedral looks like a drab brown box, but as we approached I could understand how it was used to strike awe in the heart of its parishioners. The cathedral soared high above the plain, forcing you to look up towards heaven as you admired it. If its enormous dome hadn’t collapsed ages ago, it would have soared even higher, perhaps into legend as one of the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages.
A baby-faced soldier stood guard just outside the cathedral. He smiled shyly to me as we approached.
“Iyi günler,” I said to him.
“Merhaba,” he replied, politely nodding his head.
Susanne, Berzan and I admired the cathedral from outside as the soldier looked on. “I wonder if it would be appropriate to ask him to take a picture of the three of us,” I asked. Berzan took my camera and brought it up to the soldier, speaking to him in Turkish. I saw the soldier nod and take the camera from Berzan’s hand. He then backed up onto a mound of rubble to snap the shot.
After the photo we went inside to inspect the rest of the cathedral. It was very dark inside despite the enormous hole in the roof caused by the collapsed dome. I hadn’t realized how vast the structure was until going inside — the vaults soared as high as any gothic cathedral in Europe. Incredibly, I could see graffiti carved into the vaults, well over 100 feet above my head. The lengths people would go to in order to desecrate a holy work of art — it was beyond my comprehension.

seljuk mosque
Ruins of Menüçer Camii,
an 11th century Seljuk mosque

Exiting the cathedral through its western door we came near the Menüçer Camii, Ani’s oldest mosque. Built in 1072, Menüçer Camii is believed by some historians to be the first significant mosque built by the Seljuk Turks during their push into Anatolia from Persia. It didn’t appear to be a mosque when compared to more common style of Ottoman mosques, with their graceful minarets and Aya Sofya-inspired domes. The Menüçer Camii was a rectangular structure with a smokestack-like octagonal minaret, more akin to an Armenian church. It was fairly likely that the Seljuks employed the local Armenians when building it, achieving a unique fusion of Seljuk-Armenian styles not commonly found elsewhere.
Susanne and Berzan went inside the mosque while I scoped its outer walls. Realizing that there were no soldiers within view, I discreetly changed lenses and snapped a photo of the gorge and river below. As I walked inside the mosque I heard several people laughing. Susanne and Berzan were chatting in English with a Turkish soldier who had a huge grin on his face.
“How’s it going, man?” the soldier said to me in what could only be native American English.
“This is Halil, the soldier from America I told you about,” Berzan said as I shook the soldier’s hand.
“You can call me Hal,” Halil replied. “Halil’s just my Turkish name – and my army name, I guess.”
“To me you will always be Halil,” Berzan joked. “If I remember, you were born in San Fran…”
“St. Louis, actually,” Hal said, “But I grew up in Omaha.”
“Ah yes, St. Louis,” Berzan corrected himself. “Is that near where you live?”
“No, not at the moment,” Susanne replied, “but we used to live in Chicago, which isn’t too far from St. Louis.”
“So if you don’t mind me asking,” I jumped in, “what on earth are you doing in the Turkish army, stationed along the Armenian border?”
“I decided to enlist,” he said matter-of-factly. “My parents were from Trabzon but they settled in the US. We became a pretty typical American family, including getting a typical divorce, so they split up when I was a kid. I’ve been on my own and working since high school, and one day I thought that I just didn’t know much about my heritage, my family, my culture. So I decided to drop everything and move to Turkey.”
“Did you speak Turkish before coming?” Susanne asked.
“Nope,” Hal replied. “It was pretty awful for a while. My sergeant would threaten me with latrine duty if I didn’t learn fast, so I’ve learned a lot over the last 14 months.”
“It must have been a huge shock to settle into this way of life,” I commented.
“Tell me about it,” he laughed, pulling out his old driver’s license from his wallet. On it was a picture of a long-haired 20-year-old.
“I was such a freak to them when I joined,” Hal continued. “I showed up to the recruitment office with sunglasses, hair down to my chest, earrings in both ears, a pierced tongue and nipple rings. They didn’t know what to make of me. It was pretty cool… But overall the army’s been great for me.”
“Do you know anything about those VIPs who came through here earlier?” I asked.
“Yeah, they were Turkish and Armenian generals,” Hal explained. “The governments have a monthly inspection protocol in which one side visits the other side’s border facilities. It supposedly helps keep the peace.”
“Apart from them we haven’t seen any other visitors here,” I added.
“We only get a few tourists a day,” Hal continued. “Most tourists would rather party hard along the Aegean rather come here to the middle of nowhere. Fine with me — I just hang out in the mosque and enjoy the view….”
We spent about 20 minutes chatting with Hal, hearing about his life in the military and his plans for afterwards. (“I’m going to move to Bodrum… It’s like Fort Lauderdale but so much cooler…”) At one point I joked about the policy against photographing Armenia, to which he responded by encouraging me to lean out the window and take a few shots. From the window I could see the remains of an ancient bridge stretching across the gorge.
“When is it from?” I asked Hal, pointing to the bridge.
“It’s from the Silk Road, actually,” Hal explained. “That bridge would lead to Persia or to Anatolia, depending on which way you went. Whoever controlled that bridge controlled this part of the Silk Road.”
After a while we noticed it was approaching 4pm, which meant we had to wrap up our visit within the hour in order to get out of the ruins before the soldiers closed it after 5pm. Susanne and I both offered to take pictures of Hal in uniform to send to his family. He then traded hats with Berzan, handing him his G-3 automatic rifle for an impromptu Turk-versus-Kurd photo.
“Mind if I try?” I asked somewhat hesitatingly after they finished posing.
“Be my guest,” Hal replied, taking the rifle from Berzan and giving it to me.
“You’ll need this as well,” Berzan added, sticking an unlit cigarette in my mouth. Images of Lee Harvey Oswald posing with his Menlicher-Carcano rifle passed through my mind as Susanne took the photograph. It was a strange feeling, holding a rifle just shy of the Armenian border. In the two days we had been in the heart of Kurdistan, we had encountered many well-armed soldiers. Numerous times in my mind I had paraphrased a quote from a John Sayles movie: “There are only two types of men here, my friend: Men with guns and men without.” It had been true in Sayles’ fictional account of a Central American peasant uprising, and it was true here in Kurdistan. Either you had a gun or you didn’t; either you were the powerful or the powerless. For the brief moment I gripped the Turkish rifle, I felt what it was like to be on the other side.

Andy poses with Turkish rifle

Having said our goodbyes with Hal we walked north from the mosque along the western edge of the Ani plateau. A vast, verdant valley stretched far westward, a small river meandering through it. The silence of our walk was broken by an irate donkey somewhere in the valley, hee-hawing as if his life depended on it.
“So Hal has been in the army for 14 months,” Susanne commented. “That means he has only four months to go?”
“That’s the way it is now — 18 months,” Berzan said. “When I joined the army many years ago was only 14 months. They changed the rules when my younger brother Feyzel was in the army. Just when he was approaching his final month the Turks changed the rules, making it 18 months. He was stuck for an extra four months. It was really terrible for him and my family.”
“Watch where you step — land mines,” Berzan added, pointing at the cow patties that littered the pathway.”
Nearing the city walls again we reached our last stop at Ani: the Gagikashen, or King Gagik I’s Church of St. Gregory. Built 1000 years ago by master architect Trdat in honor of the end of the first millennium, the church was one of the most ambitious construction projects at Ani. Trdat designed his millennium church as a reconstruction of Zvart’nots Cathedral, a magnificent 7th century Armenian church that was destroyed during an earthquake. Gagikashen may have been too ambitious, though, for its great dome collapsed soon after it was completed. Today the church is but a circular foundation littered with shattered marble walls and columns. Ruined wall fragments the size of boulders made visiting the church a little tricky at times. Our exploration was monitored by a cow dining on the grass outside of the church. I tried to get a closeup of the cow but he refused to cooperate, walking away every time I approached.
It was almost 5pm by the time we returned to the gatehouse on the opposite side of the city walls. The soldiers returned our passports, allowing us to make the 30 minute drive back to Ani. Even though we had spent just over three hours in the ruins, Susanne and I were both pretty tired.
“I think it was well worth it,” I said, leaning back in my car seat.
“Absolutely,” Susanne replied from the front seat.

Soldier marchers in front of church ruins
A soldier on patrol, Ani. Note the Church of the Redeemer, sheared in half by a lightning strike.

Berzan gave us a couple of free hours back at the hotel to shower and rest before heading out for dinner. At 7pm we walked from the hotel to Kazim Pasa Caddesi, which had several restaurants along the road. We had dinner at the recently relocated Yesilyurt Lokantasi, eating Turkish pizzas in a high-ceiling dining room decorated with the pelts of bears, foxes and what appeared to be ferrets. Berzan ordered another plate of çig köfte, the raw meatballs that had surprised us the previous night. Just as Susanne and I were both trying to find a way to decline politely, Berzan tasted one of the meatballs and said, “Do not eat them tonight. They are not as good as in Van. Your stomachs would not like them.”
Left with a full plate of uneaten meatballs, Susanne commented, “When I was a kid I was an expert in hiding uneaten food.”
“Good idea,” Berzan smiled, hiding an uncooked morsel under a piece of flatbread.
Following dinner we strolled around the streets of central Kars, watching shops closing up for the evening and kids playing soccer along a street that had been repaved earlier in the day. It was surprisingly chilly outside, perhaps in the mid 50s. Once again I was reminded that Kars, Turkey’s foothold in the Caucasus, is also the Turkish word for snow. As we strolled by the Otel Kervansaray we overheard folk music coming from a suite high above the street.
“It almost sounds like Irish music,” Susanne said.
“It’s traditional wedding music,” Berzan replied. “Not Turkish or Kurdish, though. I think it may be Kirghiz music.”
Berzan then noticed I was looking up at marquee for the Otel Kervansaray. “Not a good place,” he said. “You must be careful where you stay in Kars sometimes. Have you heard of the Natashas?”
“Yeah,” I replied, “we had read about Natashas the day before in Lonely Planet.” Natashas are Russian prostitutes that began streaming across the Turkish-Georgian border after the fall of the Soviet Union. Though rarely spoken of publicly here, prostitution is tolerated in some parts of Turkey as long as it is discreet, and many residents now complain that the high-heeled, bleach-blonde Natashas are bringing it too far out of the closet.
Not far from the restaurant we found a small pastane that was still open for business (eateries close early in Kars, we discovered). The three of us sat in the back of the cafe, near a large fish tank populated with five or six tropical fish. The head colds that Susanne and I were fighting were acting up again, so we asked a waiter if they had apple tea.
“Elma çay var mi?” I asked, with Berzan beside me, smirking at my Turkish.
“Yok,” the waiter replied, adding something I didn’t understand.
“No apple tea until winter,” Berzan explained. “Here in the east it is a seasonal drink. He said they have cherry tea, though.”
We each ordered cherry teas and sat quietly, admiring the fish tank. Berzan kept reaching his right arm around his neck, pawing at his left shoulder blade.
“What is it?” Susanne asked.
“It is my shoulder,” he said, squirming in obvious discomfort. “My muscle is — how do you say it — moving very fast and tight.”
“It sounds like a cramp,” I said.
“Yes, that’s the word for it — cramp. I have never had one like this before. I must be coming down with a cold.”
“If you’d like I have some pain medicine at the hotel,” I offered. “I sometimes have back pain so I bring it whenever I travel with a backpack.”
“Okay, let’s see how it is when we go to the hotel,” Berzan replied.
Our cherry tea soon arrived and Berzan tapped the waiter on the arm to stay for a minute. Berzan tasted the tea and spoke to him in Turkish, causing the waiter to scurry away to the kitchen. He returned with a container of instant cherry tea mix and a spoon. Berzan took the bottle and scooped a spoonful into his tea glass, offering some to us as well.
“Cherry tea should not be weak,” he said, stirring the dissolving powder with his spoon.
The three of us finished our teas quickly, all eager to get back to the hotel for some sleep. Berzan followed us to our room for the Naproxen pills I had promised.
“Tomorrow we can sleep in,” Berzan said, wrapping the Naproxen tablets in a tissue. “We can meet for breakfast at 9am and leave after that. We will be at Dogubeyazit for lunch.”
I thought about Dogubeyazit as I went to bed. It might have been easier for us to have planned our visit to Kurdistan for the beginning of the trip instead of the end, but Susanne and I agreed that wrapping up our trip at Dogubeyazit’s Ishak Pasa Palace near the foot of Mount Ararat would be a climactic finish. We had come so far to the remotest corner of Anatolia — and tomorrow we would go to Mount Ararat to visit the most magnificent Kurdish palace in the Middle East. For the first time I realized the trip was nearing an end.

September 6, 1999

Deep in the Heart of Kurdistan

Filed under: Turkey — Andy Carvin @ 2:53 pm

Armenian church, Akdamar Island
10th century Armenian Church, on Lake Van’s Akdamar Island

I may or may not have slept for a couple of hours — I was too groggy to know the difference. The rising sun was still hidden behind a range of jagged, graphite-gray mountains to the east, though the sky had brightened to a crisp morning blue. Most of the other passengers of the bus, including Susanne, were still asleep save a thin Kurdish man in his thirties who was vomiting in a thick plastic bag dutifully provided by the yardimci. In retrospect I believe his retching had actually jarred me back into consciousness — not a auspicious way to inaugurate our arrival in distant Kurdistan.
The bus entered a sizable town steeped in the bottom of a jagged gorge. Men on motorscooters steered around us as we pulled over to a Best Van office. High above on the left side, the ruins of a Seljuk castle stood guard over the city. As far as I could tell we probably were not yet in the city of Van since it had a large otogar terminal, not to mention a 100km-wide lake that should have appeared to my immediate left. In fact, I hadn’t seen any sign of Lake Van that morning. After groggily staring at my map of southeast Anatolia I surmised we were passing through the town of Bitlis. This meant that we must have been at least two hours away from Van, which would put us at our destination no sooner than 8:30am, a full five hours past our scheduled arrival time.
As our bus drove northeast beyond the gorge, the terrain transformed into a wide valley, revealing gravel-colored hills on all sides, with more mountains further afield. Descending the far side of a pass I saw an expanse of blue trailing far off towards the north, a mountain perched along its western shore. We had finally reached Van Gölu — Lake Van. The first thought that entered my mind was an image of the approach to Copacabana, a Bolivian town along the edge of Lake Titicaca which Susanne and had visited precisely one year before.
As my sleep-deprived mind continued to clear, I remembered we were far, far away from that Andean lake. Yet as we approached the shore I could see that Lake Van shared Titicaca’s mysterious, deep blue hue, with only the reflections of passing clouds blurring its near-perfect complexion. Along with its gorgeous color, Lake Van is perhaps best known for a rare quality it shares with another great body of water, the Dead Sea: extreme salinity. Millions of years ago, an enormous eruption from the volcano known as Nemrut Dagi (not to be confused with the other Nemrut Dagi we visited two days earlier) blocked the outflow of Lake Van’s only river, causing the lake to bloat up with mineral-rich water from the mountains. With no river to release its waters, Van maintains its size through evaporation, leaving the lake saturated with unusual amounts of minerals and natural sodas. The lake is so rich with minerals that its waters are extremely buoyant, causing swimmers to float uncontrollably — not unlike the waters of the Dead Sea. This mineral saturation also allows the local Kurds to wash their clothes without the need of soap. The lake’s chemical content works just as well as any detergent.
We soon passed through the town of Tatvan, 100 kilometers from our destination. Until recently, Tatvan was a booming port whose ferries carried cargo and train cars across the lake to Van before continuing onward into Iran and Iraq. But Turkey’s undeclared war on Kurdish separatists dried up the local transport business, leaving many of Tatvan’s residents wondering what to do next. The bus dropped off a couple of passengers before continuing towards Van along a two-lane road hugging the shoreline. Susanne began to stir a few minutes later.
“Where are we?” she asked, removing her sleeping blinds from her eyes.
“Along Lake Van,” I replied. “Probably another hour or so to go.”
The road briefly steered away from the shore, cutting through another mountain pass. As the bus returned to the coast 15 minutes later I noticed a small island several kilometers off the shoreline, shaped like an immense shark fin.
“Arrrrrgh, Shark Fin Island,” I joked. “We must be nearing pirate waters, matey….”
As we returned to the water’s edge I noticed what appeared to be a rectangular structure with a low, conical roof sitting near the right side of the island. The closer we got the more I recognized it as Lake Van’s most famous landmark.
“It’s Akdamar Island!,” I said to Susanne, tapping her with one hand while grabbing my Lonely Planet with the other. “That has to be Akdamar’s Armenian church.”
One thousand years ago, centuries before the Ottoman Turks ruled the land, Lake Van was Armenian territory, and Akdamar Island was its spiritual center. At various times over the past 1600 years, Akdamar Island served as the home of the Armenian Orthodox patriarch, the Katholicos. Though most of the island’s buildings are gone, its church remains brilliantly intact, perhaps the best preserved medieval Armenian religious structure outside of modern-day Armenia. It was the experience of seeing photos of Akdamar Island that first attracted me to Lake Van; despite my exhaustion I was thrilled to see it with my own eyes, even at a teasing distance. At some point in the coming days we would certainly make our way back to this spot and hopefully charter a boat to the island.
Leaving Akdamar Island behind us, the bus passed through the town of Gevas, best known for a well-preserved Seljuk cemetery. The road once again veered away from the shore, heading several kilometers inland towards Van’s outer city limits. Surrounded by an increasing number of apartment blocks and small factories, we soon pulled over at what appeared to be a police checkpoint. A plain-clothes official boarded the bus from the front as several armed soldiers stood guard outside. Row by row, the official checked the identification cards of everyone on board, occasionally referring to a collection of papers kept in his khaki safari vest.
“Pasaportunuz, lütfen,” he said to us as he reached our seats.
“Iyi günler, Memur Bey,” I said as I pulled out our passports from my front pocket.
He leafed through our passports one page at a time, occasionally looking up at us. After scrutinizing them to his satisfaction he returned the passports to me, nodding his head as he handed them over. Within a few minutes the official departed the bus, allowing us to enter the city and proceed to the otogar.
The bus made its way through the morning traffic, passing a large white statue of a Van cat, a prized local feline famous for its eyes: one is colored yellow while the other is green. I wasn’t sure if we would get a chance to see a Van cat during our stay — the animals have become so valuable that residents are forced to keep them secured inside their homes to avoid potential catnapping, so to speak.
On the north side of town, the bus arrived at the otogar, pulling into the far side of the terminal’s parking lot. Susanne and I exited the bus and quickly walked to the luggage compartment on the other side, eager to confirm that our backpacks hadn’t vanished during the many stops throughout the night. To our relief both our backpacks were safe and sound, allowing us to hail a taxi on the other end of the parking lot in order to ride to the city center.
Susanne and I didn’t have hotel reservations in Van, but various sources on the Internet had recommended the Ipek Yolu Hotel, near the center of town. Once at the hotel, we were encouraged to ask for Mr. Berzan Dersimi if we needed any help in arranging tours of the area. With Turkey’s military crackdown on Kurdish terrorists, Van’s tourism industry had collapsed almost completely, wiping out any chance of us latching on to a regularly scheduled minibus tour like the ones so prevalent in Cappadokia. Since we both wanted to visit a number of Kurdistan’s off-the-beaten-track historical sites, Susanne and I probably would have no choice but to hire a private guide. Assuming the remaining travel agencies couldn’t arrange one for us, hopefully Mr. Dersimi could.
The taxi made its way into downtown Van, weaving through a traffic sprawl of cars, motorscooters and horsecarts laden with fresh produce from the countryside. The Ipek Yolu Hotel was right around the corner from the main road, across the street from the Kebapistan restaurant and several banks. Our Lonely Planet guide also mentioned that the tourist information center was a few blocks to the south, assuming it was still in business — I didn’t notice it as we exited the taxi. To our cabbie’s chagrin, we didn’t have exact change for the fare. The ride had cost just over three million lira (around seven dollars), but the taxi driver was unable to break the five million lira note I had. He said something to himself in Kurdish before motioning for us to follow him into the hotel where he could get some change.
The Ipek Yolu Hotel was a comfortable two-star hotel with 44 rooms, three elevators and a restaurant/bar — several steps up from some of our previous accommodations.
“Good morning,” a tall man at the front desk greeted us in English.
“Merhaba,” I replied. “Do you have a double room available?”
“Of course,” he answered, signaling to another man to take our backpacks upstairs. “Follow him upstairs to the third floor. Hos geldiniz.”

Turkish Pronunciation

Interested in learning how to pronounce the Turkish words mentioned in this journal? Check out my Turkish pronunication guide!

Susanne and I entered the small elevator, fitting rather snugly along with the man carrying our bags. “Merhaba,” Susanne said to him, to which he smiled shyly and nodded his head. As always I was eager to carry on the pleasantries — a polite exchange of “Merhaba, nasilsiniz?” and so on always seemed to be appreciated by Turks when initiated by us. But now we were in Kurdistan, where well over 90% of the population were ethnic Kurds and native speakers of Kurmanji Kurdish, not Turkish. Turkish, by law, is the public language of exchange in this country, so Kurds can only speak their native tongue discreetly among themselves.
While I suspected that any attempt of mine to say hello in Turkish would have been accepted kindly even by Kurds, I felt awkward using it here in Van. I didn’t know a word of Kurdish, nor did I know what the local etiquette was. Since the public use of the Kurdish language can be construed as a political statement in itself, would I break any taboos if I learned any Kurdish? For the time being, I would smile and hopefully learn through observation, yet it made me wonder just what it would be like to live in a place where even your choice of language could have profound personal consequences.
After settling into the room and cleaning up from our grueling overnight bus trip, Susanne and I hit the streets of Van to find some breakfast and exchange some travelers cheques. Just off Cumhurriyet Caddesi we found a pleasant pastane shop, the Ayça Patisserie, which appeared to still be serving breakfast.
“Kahvalti dahil?,” I asked, inquiring about the availability of breakfast to the man behind the counter.
“Evet, kahvalti var,” he replied, placing a sheet of fresh baklava behind the glass counter. We were desperately short on cash, though, so we decided to continue up Cumhurriyet Caddesi to find a bank and perhaps some other options for breakfast.
As Van’s main thoroughfare, Cumhurriyet Caddesi was an energetic artery of Kurdish city life. We veered around oncoming pedestrian traffic of all makes and models: businessmen talking on cellphones, teenage boys hawking snackfood and lottery tickets, old men in skull caps strolling to a local çayhane for some tea. Compared to other cities we had visited in Turkey, we sensed a difference in style here we hadn’t seen since Selçuk. Most younger women were casually dressed in jeans or fashionable dresses, while older women wore colorful Kurdish costumes, hiding their faces with intricate lace head scarves. A surprising number of young men wore the knit skull caps that we had only seen on elderly men in other cities. In fact, my initial reaction to one particular man in his twenties was that he was wearing a large Jewish yarmulke rather than an Islamic skull cap. I also noticed a significant number of disabled people in Van, including several beggars whose tattered traditional dress suggested they had come to the big city in the hopes of a better chance. Life has been hard and often violent in rural Kurdistan for a long time; the vibrancy of Van has attracted more than its share of villagers hoping to escape the ravages of poverty and insurrection.
Though Cumhurriyet Caddesi had at least half a dozen major banks along it, none of them seemed willing to exchange money. Several blocks up the road we discovered two exchange offices but neither of them accepted travelers cheques, so we had no choice but to dip into our cash reserves. Susanne exchanged $100 in one office at a rate of 442,000 lira per dollar. We then returned to the Ayça Patisserie, where Susanne ordered a puff pastry and some cookies while I enjoyed my usual Turkish breakfast, along with some coffee and peach juice for both of us. Initially the pastane played Turkish music, but as a young man behind the counter brought over our drinks someone switched the radio station to low-grade American pop. As has been true in so many places we’ve traveled — Egypt, India, Thailand, Bolivia — people seemed eager to supply us with Western music rather than the local variety, whether we liked it or not. At least there were no more swarms of bees trying to steal sips of our peach juice.
After breakfast we passed several tour agencies, each of which advertised bus travel to Iran but not much else. We walked several blocks south of the hotel in search of the Van Tourist Information Center, which was supposedly four or five blocks from where we were staying. I couldn’t find any obvious entrance so I assumed it was out of business — not a surprise considering the indefinite state of emergency here.
Just as we were heading back to our hotel a man stopped us and asked in English, “Where are you going?”
“We’re going back to our hotel,”, I replied, assuming he worked for the carpet shop on the corner.
“If you need to find the tourist office it’s right here,” he answered, pointing to a door directly across the street. Somehow I had completely missed it despite the fact it was right in front of our faces. A little embarrassed because of my mistake, I thanked the man before we crossed the street and entered the tourism office.
The Tourist Information Center was a hollow shell of an office, totally barren except for a few posters and a dusty desk counter. Two men were sitting behind the counter, both looking as if no one had visited them in weeks.
I approached the counter, hoping one of them spoke English. “Ingilizce konusuyormusunuz?,” I inquired.
“Yok,” they both replied, raising their eyebrows and clicking their tongues.
Struggling to find out if there were organized minibuses to the local sights I asked in Turkish, “Turist dolmusler var mi?” One of the men pointed to a large map taped to the counter. For reasons beyond my comprehension the map was oriented with east at the top rather than north, so the men and I had a terrible time of referencing points on their map with points on my guidebook’s map. After several minutes of frustration I did my best to pretend I had gained some knowledge from our discussion, then thanked them before heading back to the Ipek Yolu Hotel.
Susanne and I approached the front desk to get our room key. “Uç yüz dokuz, lütfen,” I said, requesting our key by our room number.
“Good morning,” replied the man behind the desk. “Are you interested in tours in Kurdistan?”
“Actually, yes,” I answered. “Can you help us arrange a guide?”
“Of course,” he said, reaching for a thick folder of tour information. “We can talk in the lounge.” Susanne and I followed him towards a couch near the restaurant bar. The man was tall and thin, probably in his late 30s or early 40s, and he had unusually green eyes. His sideburns and bushy mustache showed signs of premature graying.
“Would you like some çay, perhaps?” he asked. “Apple tea? Coffee?”
“Coffee please,” Susanne answered. We could have certainly used the caffeine infusion after the previous night’s sleepless bus ride.
“By the way,” I added, “my name is Andy, and this is Susanne. What’s you’re name?”
“My name is Berzan,” he replied. It appeared that we had found Berzan Dersimi, the travel agent-turned-hotelier who had been recommended to us.
As our Nescafe arrived a small white cat darted between our sofas. Berzan reached down and picked it up. “This is my new cat,” he said. “Have you heard of the Van cat? Its eyes are both green and yellow.” Indeed, as the kitten peered up at us it became readily apparent that each eye had a distinct color, as if an eccentric cat lover had purchased contrasting contact lenses for it.
“This is my third Van cat,” Berzan continued. “A tourist took my first cat last summer. I was out of Van guiding a tour and someone staying at the hotel took it. The second cat disappeared this spring. They are very valuable outside of Turkey, you know.” Susanne and I both tried petting the kitten but its interests must have been elsewhere, for it quickly vanished under the window curtains.
“There is much to see here in eastern Turkey,” Berzan explained as he opened a large map on the table. “How much time do you have here?”
“We fly back to Istanbul on Thursday morning,” I replied. “That gives us the rest of today, as well as Tuesday and Wednesday.”
“You can fit a lot into three days if you get started soon,” Berzan said. “Around Van, you could visit Akdamar Island, Hosap Castle, the ruins of Çavustepe and the Rock of Van before the end of the day.”
“We have a few priorities,” Susanne noted. “We really want to visit the Kurdish palace at Dogubeyazit above everything else, with Akdamar Island second and Hosap castle third. Can we do Dogubeyazit as a day trip or will we have to stay there overnight?”
“Yes, Dogubeyazit can be done in less than a day,” he answered. “Two hours each way, it’s no problem. And the road from Van to Dogubeyazit doesn’t close at night so you can drive back late in the afternoon. You could even visit Ani one day and then visit Dogubeyazit the next day on the way back.”
Berzan’s last comment caught both of our attentions. The 10th century Armenian capital of Ani was initially high on my list of places to visit in Turkey, but its remoteness along the Turkish-Armenian border far to the northeast made it seem a relatively unlikely place for us to visit before our time was up.
“Is it really possible for us to visit Ani as well?” I asked, both surprised and a little skeptical.
“Yes, it’s not difficult,” Berzan explained. “If we start now — within the hour — we can visit all the ruins around Van today and spend the night here before driving north tomorrow morning. If we leave by 8am we can get to Kars by noon, complete the paperwork for Ani, and visit the ruins in the afternoon. We then spend the night in Kars before driving back to Van the next day, visiting Dogubeyazit and Mount Ararat along the way. With a private car you could do it.”
The temptation to include Ani during our three days in Kurdistan was all too enticing. Without a private car, it would take six to eight hours to get to Kars, the city closest to Ani, then another hour to go through the Soviet-style bureaucracy to receive permission to visit the ruins. Ani stands in a no-man’s-land between Turkey and Armenia, so potential visitors must jump through all the proper hoops in order to visit it. On top of all this, there is no regularly scheduled transport between Kars and Ani, adding more time and stress to the visit. If we were going to visit Ani at all, we would have to do it with a driver who could take care of all the hassles for us.
“How much would it cost to hire a driver and guide for three days?” I asked, bracing for Berzan’s answer.
“Three hundred and sixty dollars,” he replied. “That includes driver and all other costs, including hotels and food.”
His offer weighed heavily on our minds. If we accepted his offer we’d be blowing a lot more money than we had planned, but Susanne and I both knew this would be the only way we could visit all the major sites of Kurdistan.
“Can we talk it over for a few minutes?” I asked.
“Of course,” he replied, lighting a fresh cigarette. “I will be at the reception desk. I could also lower the price some, say to $300, but that is my best offer.”
Susanne and I waited a moment until he stepped out of earshot. “We’ve got to do this,” Susanne said, partially to my surprise. “I know it’s a lot of money but let’s be honest — do we actually think we’ll ever be in this area again?”
“I don’t know,” I replied, “but I think you’re right. At best we might be able to do Akdamar Island and Dogubeyazit on our own. Hosap Castle would be difficult since there’s no direct transportation from Van, and Ani would be totally out of the question.”
“And I know how much you wanted to go to Ani,” Susanne continued. “I think we should do it, as long as we can pay with a credit card and if Berzan will be the one going with us. I really like him.”
“Me too,” I said. “Let me talk to him and find out.” I walked around the corner to the reception desk, where I found Berzan flipping through an appointment calendar.
“If we accepted your offer, could we pay with credit cards?”
“Of course.”
“And would you be our driver and guide?”
“Of course.”
“Okay…. Let’s do it.”
“Very good,” he said, stamping out his cigarette butt. “We must get started soon. Meet me here in 15 minutes.” Susanne and I quickly went upstairs and gathered our cameras and film. It was just before 11am and we had a lot of ground to cover that day.

Susanne and I returned to the front desk several minutes early, where we found Berzan waiting with his car parked outside the hotel. I bought a 1.5 liter bottle of water at the hotel restaurant and met Susanne and Berzan at the car. He drove a Turkish model four-door with a dark green exterior. Out of habit I offered Susanne the front seat, though as she got inside I wondered if we were breaking any taboos by doing this — normally an unmarried woman would not be allowed to sit next to a man who wasn’t closely related to her. But Berzan didn’t flinch at our choice of seating arrangements, so I climbed into the rear and manouvered back and forth to figure out which side would have less Anatolian sun pouring in on it. I noticed the seat covers below me were decorated with colorful pictures of Hawaiian beaches, as if Berzan were a chauffeur for surfers and Japanese tourists in his spare time.
Driving south for 10 minutes we soon reached the checkpoint our bus had passed several hours earlier. I noticed that the same plainclothes officer as before was still on duty.
“I will need your passports,” Berzan said as he rolled down his window. The official reached inside for our identification and began to speak to Berzan in Turkish. “Paperz Pleez,” I imagined a Colonel Klink-like character from Hogan’s Heroes demanding of us. Apparently the official recognized our passports for he returned them to Berzan quickly and nodded his head at me. Berzan muttered something to himself in Kurdish as he rolled up his window and turned on the radio. At best these checkpoints must be a daily annoyance to the Kurds. At worst — well, at worst I could only dare guess.
As we drove beyond the city limits to the rocky countryside east of Lake Van, Berzan reached below his radio and pulled out an unlabeled cassette tape, plugging it into his stereo. An exotic blend of violins and traditional string instruments reached my ears as a muezzin-like tenor began to sing.
“This is Kurdish music,” Berzan said. “I hope you like it.”
“Very much,” Susanne replied. A pause.
“So are you Kurdish?,” I asked, realizing it was a dumb question as soon as it came out of my mouth.
“Yes, I am Kurdish. Most of Van is Kurdish — 90, 95 percent. The Turkish government says we are but 10 percent of the total population but the truth is much higher — around 20 percent. There are also many Kurds still in Iraq, in Iran, Syria, even in Armenia…”
“Have you been to Iran?” Susanne asked.
“Yes, to Iranian Kurdistan,” Berzan replied. “It is very easy for us to go. We could have lunch there if you want.”
“I wish it were that easy for us,” I sighed. “It’s very difficult for Americans to get visas for Iran. We’re allowed to go there, but it’s still very difficult. There is still a lot of anger between their government and ours. I really wish we could settle our differences.”
As our car drove uphill along the edge of a small dam, Berzan slowed down for a second checkpoint. This time the police were dressed in camouflage and were armed with automatic rifles — they were jendarma, or paramilitary commandos. Though this was at least our fourth checkpoint since we entered Kurdistan last night, the sight of the jendarma sent an icy chill up my spine. Again I imagined the words “Papers please,” but this time the soldier in question wasn’t so affable as Colonel Klink. Without thinking I automatically handed Berzan our passports. I then pictured Pavlov ringing his little bell and grimaced to myself. We would be repeating this conditioning experiment a lot over the coming days.
A soldier inspected our passports and Berzan’s identification while questioning him on our itinerary. Though he was speaking too quickly for me to understand the entire conversation, I could hear Berzan mention Hosap Kalesi and Çavustepe, our first destinations along the road ahead of us. If we chose to continue past Hosap we would soon find ourselves near Hakkari, the last major town before the Iraqi border. Hakkari has been off-limits for outsiders for many years, and these soldiers clearly intended to send a message that we should proceed no further than Hosap.
Just beyond the checkpoint we began to descend into a valley. Far ahead of us I could see a rocky outcrop jutting from the valley floor, with the ruins of red-brick castle worthy of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights sitting gracefully atop it. We had arrived at the great Kurdish castle, Hosap Kalesi.

Hosap Castle
Hosap Castle, Turkish Kurdistan

“Can we stop and take a picture from here?” I asked eagerly.
“Not now,” Berzan replied. “There are soldiers everywhere. Wait until we leave the castle and I will take you to a safe spot.”
We descended into the valley and around the right side of the castle, passing numerous deserted souvenir stands and tea shops. The car ascended the hill counterclockwise until we reached an enormous wooden door towering above us. The door was locked with a thick metal chain.
“I will get the castle attendant,” Berzan said as we got out of the car. “Wait here.”
He turned the car around and headed downhill, leaving us at the castle gate all alone except for the echoing wind and five mountain goats feasting on the grassy hillside. Susanne and I both looked at each other and smiled.
“We’re in Kurdistan!” I laughed. “What are we doing here?”
“I have no idea,” Susanne replied, “but I am so glad we did this.”

young girl in sweater poses in front of a castle wall
Our young friend Ayse, outside Hosap Castle

We stood awhile at the castle gate, peering down on the valley below. Along a row of hills a kilometer ahead of us I could see the remains of the castle’s outer walls snaking over the rocks like the broken spine of a slain dragon. I then noticed a young girl with long hair scurrying up the hillside. Whether she wanted to sell us trinkets or was just curious to meet us, it was too early to tell.
The girl soon arrived atop the hill, standing around 15 feet from us. She had bright green eyes and a certain worn beauty well beyond her limited years.
“Merhaba,” Susanne said to her.
“Merhaba,” she replied, wiping her hair from her squinting eyes.
“Iyi günler,” I continued. “Nasilsiniz?”
“Iyiyim,” she replied. “Tesekkürler.” There was still no sign of Berzan anywhere.
“Ismim Andy,” I continued the conversation, “ve benim Arkadas Susanne. Isminizne?”
“Ayse,” she replied.
“Ask how old she is,” Susanne suggested.
“Kaç yasindasiniz, Ayse?” I asked.
“On,” she answered. “On dokuz.”
“On dokuz literally means 19,” I said to Susanne, “but she probably means she’s nine, going on ten.” I could now see Berzan’s car returning up the hillside.
“Nerelesiniz?” I asked her, running out of questions.
“Orada,” she said, pointing to the village of Hosap below. She then asked me something in Turkish which I couldn’t understand.
“Üzgünüm, anlamadim,” I replied apologetically. “Yavas konusubulursunuz?”
“Berzanin Arkadaslarsiniz?” she said again, slowly and a little louder.
“Oh! Are we friends of Berzan!” I said aloud. “Evet, evet. Berzan taniyiz…”
Berzan now pulled up and parked his car, stepping out to open the passenger door for the castle attendant. Out stepped another child, a boy no more than 12 or 13 years old.
“Okay, now we can go in,” Berzan said, clasping his hands together.
Berzan, Ayse, Susanne and I walked to the door as the young boy unlocked the door and swung it open. The door let out a loud medieval creak as it revealed a pitch black hallway. As I began to remove my sunglasses Berzan said, “Don’t worry, it will be bright in a moment.”
We cut through the darkness up a rounded corridor that looked as if it had been freshly cut by a regiment of Gurkha mine sappers. As we reached the top of the corridor we found ourselves standing on the second floor of the castle. Susanne and I were both severely short of breath.
“I just remembered that this part of Kurdistan is about as high as Denver,” I said, panting a little. “We’re over a mile up right now.”
“Welcome to Hosap Kalesi,” Berzan said. “The castle was built around 350 years ago by the leader of a Kurdish clan. It remained a Kurdish castle for many years until the Ottomans captured it. Right now we are standing over the grainery, and not far away is the water cistern. Be careful where you step for it is a long drop to the first floor. We have some time to look around to see the ruins of the mosque, the medresse and the dungeon.”

Hosap Castle, citadel ruins
Citadel ruins, Hosap Castle

Berzan and the boy walked ahead of us, leading us past the living quarters to the old dungeon, now a deep hole filled with rubble. Ayse wandered not far from us, sometimes enjoying our company, other times preferring to explore on her own.
“I wonder if they are brother and sister,” Susanne asked.
After getting Ayse’s attention I pointed to the boy. “Sizin erkek kardes, degil mi?”
“Yok,” she replied, dismissing the idea entirely.
Perhaps they were just friends. “Arkadaslarmisiniz?” I asked.
“Yok,” both Ayse and the boy said in unison. Apparently they were reaching that age where boys and girls could no longer be friends. Berzan smiled and put his arm around the boy as they walked ahead. Susanne and I both noticed the natural rapport he had with children. He probably had younger siblings.

stone ramparts
Stone ramparts, Hosap Castle

The five of us leisurely explored the upper levels of the castle. Though most of the individual quarters were in poor repair, the castle walls were firmly in place, undoubtedly kept intact by the Ottomans for strategic reasons.
Susanne pointed out a series of arrow slits along the walls. “Just like in medieval castles,” she said. Indeed, each arrow slit was long and thin, with a short horizontal slit extending to the left and another slit extending to the right, several inches higher than the other slit. The theory behind this split-level slit design was that if you had a single horizontal slit cutting straight across the vertical slit (like the letter t), an archer from the ground below would have any easier target — X marks the spot. But by splitting the horizontal slit into two slits at different heights, it makes a more difficult target for there is no single converging point on which an opposing archer could concentrate.
As we stood above the ruins of the castle mosque, Berzan pointed to the southeast. “My village is that way, in Hakkari province,” he said.
“Do you have any brothers and sisters?” Susanne asked.
“Nine,” he replied. “I am in the middle.” I suppose that partially explained his comfort level with young children.
“Are you married?” he then asked us.
“No,” I replied. “Are you?”
“Oh yes,” he responded. “For 15 years. I also have two children: Adnan and Yasmina. They are twins — 13 years old now.”
“That’s much smaller than your parents’ family,” Susanne commented.
“Yes, thank God,” Berzan replied with a chuckle. “In my village, my parents needed many children to help with their herds. Because I am a travel agent, Fatima and I do not need so many children. Besides, it is different now, especially for people living in Van.”
“Does Fatima mind that you will be gone for the next several days?” I asked.
“Usually she would mind,” he responded, “but she is at home in Hakkari for her cousin’s circumcision. Besides, not many tourists come to Van any more — I only have to leave her once a month, maybe twice.”

Two men pose for a photo

After carefully making our way out of the castle, we said our goodbyes to the children and began the drive onward to the ruins of Çavustepe. A police checkpoint waved us through, allowing us to drive higher uphill to a quiet spot where we could take a picture of Hosap Castle from a distance. Soon after taking my photo I heard two men at a roadside cafe calling over to me. When I looked over they both waved and yelled, “Fotograf! Fotograf!”
I pointed to my camera and asked, “Fotograf çekebilirmiyim?,” to which they nodded enthusiastically. Posing for the picture, one man placed his hands on the other man’s shoulders, while the second man held up his tea glass to his lips, a pistol grip protruding from the bottom of his buttoned shirt.
Once back in the car, we drove for 20 minutes through seemingly endless fields of wheat until reaching an undistinguished hill towards the left of the highway. We drove up the hillside and parked in a small gravel lot near an extended mound of rubble. Exiting the car, Berzan offered us both some grapes and pears. Ever more cautious than I, Susanne declined the fruit while I accepted a pear and a handful of grapes. The green grapes were crisp and juicy, as was the pear, though I was left with a minor dilemma in disposing the pear since there was no trash receptacle to be found.
“There is a trash can at the other end of the ruins,” Berzan said, somewhat amused by the fact that I didn’t just throw the pear off the side of the hill.
The three of us hiked up the crumbling ruins until reaching a flat area of pebbles large enough for all of us to stand comfortably. “Here are the ancient ruins of Çavustepe,” Berzan said.
Three thousand years ago this area was controlled by the Urartu, the arch rival of the great Mesopotamian kingdom of Assyria. During the eighth century BCE, Çavustepe served as the foundation of Sarduri-Hinili, the palace of King Sarduri II. From their capital of Tushpa (present-day Van), the Urartu dominated southeastern Anatolia for several centuries, commanding a modest empire that stretched into Armenia, Iran, Iraq and Syria. But constant warfare with the Assyrians wore down the Urartu until they were overrun and assimilated by Armenians in the seventh century BCE.

cavustepe's stone ruins
2700-year-old Urartu ruins of Çavustepe, Turkish Kurdistan

We climbed onward to a series of stone mounds. “These mounds were the graineries,” Berzan pointed out. “Under the mounds of dirt are large holes which were filled with wheat. Usually there is an archeologist working on these holes but he is not here today.”
Berzan reached under a wood plank and pulled out a handful of charred grains. “This is wheat, you see, but it is not so old. When the Russians controlled this hill during the First World War, they stored grains here. When the Turks forced them out, the Russians burned down the fort, destroying their wheat.” Lake Van, like much of Eastern Anatolia, was controlled by the Russians from the end of the 19th century until the end of World War I. Many cities further north of here, including Kars, still maintain their turn-of-the-century Russian character.
At the top of the ruins we reached a large platform tiled with slabs of hard black basalt. Near the far end of the platform were the remains of a temple wall. “This was the center of the king’s palace,” Berzan continued. “If you look at the wall you can still see some cuneiform Urartian writing.” Indeed, hidden in the shadows we found ancient cuneiform carved deeply into the rock. The oldest known form of writing, this cuneiform looked as if it had been carved yesterday thanks to the timeless strength of basalt.
“This is where the king and his family lived,” Berzan said. “And you see this marble hole in the ground? This was the royal toilet. It leads to a drain off the side of the hill. Behind that, you can see large holes in the ground. These were the cisterns. Be very careful — a tourist fell in several years ago and died.”
As Susanne and I looked around and took some pictures, Berzan paused for another smoke, offering us one as well.
“No thanks,” I said. “Sigara içmiyoruz.”
“You Americans,” he said, “you never smoke.”
“Some Americans smoke,” Susanne replied, “but many more people in Turkey smoke.”
“Everyone in Turkey smokes,” Berzan laughed. “As Muslims we are not supposed to drink, so when we became Muslims and stopped drinking, we started to smoke. Of course, there are many people here who both drink and smoke.”
Throughout our visit to Çavustepe I continued to carry the pear core in my left hand. “It seems there is no trash can at Çavustepe,” Berzan concluded. “Throw it off the hill — it will be nothing in a few days.” I tossed the pear off the edge of the ruins, watching it fall to the wheat field below.
We had a 30-minute drive to the southeastern shore of Lake Van, where we would catch a boat to Akdamar Island. “We will park in Gevas, across from the boat dock,” Berzan said. “There we will have lunch before visiting Akdamar Island.”
Not far from the lake we reached yet another checkpoint. A jendarma examined our identification while saying something in Turkish to Berzan. He suddenly shut off the engine and removed the keys.
“They want to search the trunk,” Berzan said. He stepped out for a minute and opened the trunk. After the jendarma was satisfied, Berzan was allowed to return to the car. Again Berzan muttered to himself in Kurdish as he drove away.
At first neither Susanne nor I said anything. Eventually Susanne piped in, “It must be annoying to stop all the time.”
Berzan shook his head and raised his right hand in a gesture of frustration.
“This is how we live,” he sighed.

Around 1pm we reached the Akdamar boat docks in the small town of Gevas. I was rather eager to get on a launch and ferry over to the island but Berzan suggested we eat lunch first at the Akdamar Lokantasi. The restaurant was a typical hillside garden cafe, with equal amounts of shade and flies.
“What would you like to eat?” Berzan asked.
“What do they have?” I inquired.
“Only fish,” he replied rather dryly.
The fish, we soon discovered, was some kind of local kipper served deep-fried. Having had little experience with oily, bony fish, Susanne and I both stumbled as we yanked off small bits of meat, often finding ourselves with a mouthful of wiry bones. To make matters worse, the smell of the fish attracted a swarm of aggressive bees, even more bellicose than the ones we had encountered in Cappadokia. Susanne and Berzan shrugged off the presence of these belligerent bees, but I became extremely frustrated. Eventually I gave up on my fish, covering them in a shroud of napkins before focusing my attentions on a bowl of shepherd’s salad and fresh bread.
Susanne and I both made a pit stop at the local restrooms before proceeding across the highway to the Akdamar docks. A Kurdish family was picnicking behind the restaurant near a small playground. Two children went down a yellow and red slide as their father and chador-enveloped mother looked on. I paused for a moment and watched the children playing. I then noticed the mother was smiling at me.
“Merhaba,” I said to her.
“Merhaba,” she and her husband replied, waving.

A boat is docked on shore across from Akdamar Island
Preparing to sail for Akdamar Island,
Lake Van

Over at the dock, four large boats were anchored to a wooden pier as the boat owners and their families finished lunch near the pier gate. When Berzan arrived one of the men stood up and shook his hand, kissing each side of Berzan’s cheeks. Two of his sons, both in their early teens, jumped up and scrambled across one boat to reach another boat and start up its engine. The captain then mounted the closest boat, holding it to the dock so we could climb aboard before scaling over the other side to his boat. The craft could have accommodated well over a dozen people but today we were the only passengers. Susanne and I sat on the right side while Berzan settled on the left. As the boat pulled away from the dock Berzan sat crosslegged, smoking another cigarette as he stared out over the water through his dark sunglasses. Decked out in his bright oxford shirt and Armani jeans, he looked as if here were posing for a Mediterranean fashion shoot. Eventually Berzan decided to spread out, laying on his back as the boat made the 20-minute ride to the island.
I sat on the far side of the boat, watching Akdamar Island get bigger and bigger. Suds of salty water splashed to our right; the smell of salt was everywhere. Despite the fact that Lake Van appears deep blue from a distance, up close the water was emerald green and extraordinarily clear. I wanted to reach over the side of the boat and skim my hand across the water but it was just out of reach.
As our boat docked onto the island I looked up to see an arid, largely barren hillside dotted by small shrubs and a few olive trees. Atop the right side of the hill, though, stood a wondrous sight: Akdamar Kilesesi, the Church of the Holy Cross. Built by Armenian King Gagik Artzruni in 921 AD, the church was once part of a larger complex that included a palace, monastery and graveyard. Today only the church and the graveyard remain intact, but its remarkable state of preservation was stunning. From a distance the church appeared to be a simple structure, a rectangular building with a high conical roof, not unlike a medieval castle keep. But as we approached the church it became apparent what a marvelous gem it truly was. Standing below the church I began to make out a fantastic array of stone-carved murals covering its outer walls: scenes from Noah’s Ark, Adam and Eve, legendary Armenian kings and saints.

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<td><font size=-1>Akdamar Island’s 1000-year-old Church of the Holy Cross, Lake Van</td>
Before getting an up-close look at the murals we decided to venture inside the church. Dark and cavernous, the limited sunlight radiating through the main door revealed the church’s inner beauty: colorful frescoes covering every wall, every vault, wherever space was available. Sadly, most of the frescoes had been defaced over the centuries, but even such desecration did not diminish the naive, sacred beauty of these millennium-old paintings.<br />
“This church was completed over 1000 years ago by the great Armenian architect Trdat Mendet,” Berzan explained. “Tomorrow when we visit Ani you will also see a cathedral he also built. And when you return to Istanbul and see Aya Sofya, remember that it was Trdat Mendet who repaired the great church’s dome when it collapsed after an earthquake. He was so famous as an architect even the Byzantine emperor wanted him.”
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<a href=stone carvings, Akdamar Church
Stone carvings, Church of the Holy Cross, Akdamar Island

Back outside the church Susanne and I marveled at the church’s famous relief carvings. Much of the wall was also decorated with Orthodox Christian crosses and ornate Armenian script. “The writing you see here is from Armenian pilgrims,” Berzan continued. “Even when the Armenians no longer controlled Lake Van they considered Akdamar one of their holiest places, and they would carve prayers and crosses into the stone when they visited. Last year I took an Armenian priest from America here. When we arrived he told me that to him, coming here was just as important to an Armenian as a Muslim coming to Mecca.”
Susanne and I stepped back from the church, climbing over piles of scrub to get some photographs from a distance. Berzan soon encouraged us to follow him around to the far side of the church to view more carvings. Susanne stayed behind for a few minutes while Berzan and I walked counter-clockwise around the church, climbing over rubbled marble along the edge of the graveyard. On the shady side of the church Berzan pointed out life-size images that were all too easy to identify.
“Here you see St. George slaying the dragon,” he explained. “And here you see Abraham and Ishak — you call him Isaac — on the Temple Mount before God.” St. George held an enormous spear pointed downward, while Abraham’s blade was raised piously high, ready to strike the sacrificial blow to Isaac until God halted Abraham, praising him for his unwavering faith.
As Berzan and I marveled at the carvings, I saw Susanne come in from around the corner, apparently talking with someone on the far side of the graveyard. From the look on her face she seemed to be a little unsure of what to do.
“There’s a family having a picnic and they’ve invited us for some tea,” she said.
“Would you like to get some tea?” Berzan asked.
“Sure, why not,” I replied.
We walked through the graveyard to find a large family spread out over several blankets. To the left sat the women near a cooler and a picnic table, while to the right sat an older man, his son and baby grandson, along with a tall Japanese backpacker who looked completely out of place.

father, son and grandfather sit on a blanket drinking tea

“Merhaba, merhaba,” said the old man, getting up to welcome each of us. Berzan shook his hand and kissed his cheeks as the old man’s son encouraged all three of us to sit down for some tea. (Because Susanne was a guest from the West she would not be expected to sit with the other women.) After exchanging pleasantries with Berzan, the old man poured each of us a half glass of strong black tea, which he thinned out with a steaming kettle of water.
“Tesekküler,” I said to him automatically as he handed me my hot tulip-shaped glass.
Sey degil,” he replied, nodding his head.
At this point I turned to Berzan and said, “I feel bad for having to speak Turkish to him since I don’t know any Kurdish.”
“It’s okay,” he replied, “because he would never expect you to know any Kurdish.” Berzan then translated our exchange for the old man, who laughed heartily.
“How do you say hello in Kurdish?” I asked.
“We say Merhaba, just like in Turkish,” Berzan replied.
“And how do you say thank you?”
“Spas,” I said to the old man in his son, who both smiled and bowed their heads politely. The infant grandson, who was sitting in his father’s lap, began to clap his hand and make gurgling sounds.
“Hello! How are you?” the Japanese man jumped in, apparently happy to see us. “Where are you from?”
“America,” Susanne replied. “What is your name?”
“Akira,” he answered.
Time soon began to fly as we each worked our way through three glasses of tea. Berzan and the Kurdish men were engaged in deep conversation while Susanne and I talked with Akira, learning about his year-long trip around the world and his impending departure for Iran. After finishing our third glass (which I know in some parts of the Middle East is considered a polite time either to move on to business or to depart company) Berzan noted that it was nearing 5pm, and we needed to hurry if we wanted to see the sun set from atop Van Kalesi, Van’s impenetrable natural fortress.
Berzan again shook hands with the old man and kissed his cheeks, after which I followed with a handshake and a polite bow of the head. Susanne offered her hand to the grandfather but he flinched, pulling away his hand. He then appeared to apologize by raising his right hand to his chest, then said something to Berzan in Kurdish.
“He is a very religious man and he prays to Mecca five times every day,” Berzan explained. “Because he must be clean before he prays, he must not touch any woman who is not his wife or close relative. Otherwise he will have to wash himself again, and there will be little time to do that. He hopes you are not offended.”
“I understand,” Susanne said, smiling and nodding her head to him. Again the old man bowed apologetically.
Having completed our goodbyes we returned to the boat and rode back to shore. The captain’s two teenage sons horsed around by hanging large pieces of wood over the deck into the water, causing huge amounts of foam to spray into the air. Back in the car we returned to Van, once again passing through the city limits checkpoint and the same plain-clothes policeman we had seen twice previously. Susanne and I noticed that Berzan had turned down his stereo before reaching the checkpoint and cranked up the volume after we left it.
“The Turkish authorities don’t like my Kurdish music,” he said, thumbing through the stacks of unlabeled cassettes sitting in a compartment below his radio. “One time I had over 40 tapes in my car. I was driving along listening to my music, and then I was pulled over for a surprise inspection. The jendarma came to the window before I could shut off my music. The soldier said, ‘You are a Kurdish terrorist because you listen to terrorist music.’ It was crazy. They said they would only let me go after I had thrown my Kurdish tapes into a river. They would not throw away the tapes themselves — that would be illegal. But they would not let me go until I threw them away. Now I am much better about hiding my tapes in my glove box.”
Just past the outdoor statue of the Van cats we turned west towards the lake, driving a few kilometers to the entrance of Van Kalesi, the Rock of Van. As we drove in I noticed what appeared to be an abandoned golf course, with its dried up lakes and bunkers overrun by grass and grazing cows. I didn’t think much of it as we parked and began the 15-minute walk uphill.
Our climb up Van Kalesi reminded me much of Salsbury Crags, the jagged cliffs below Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, where I once spent many a long evening with friends over bags of Indian take-away and numerous bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale. Van Kalesi has been occupied much longer than the cliffs of Edinburgh, though, having been a major base of the Urartu kings in the eighth and seventh centuries BCE. It was during that time that Van served as the Urartu capital of Tushpa. Between the fall of the Urartu and the foundation of modern Turkey 2500 years later, the Rock of Van was occupied by a stream of successive invaders, including Armenians, Romans, Medes, Achaemenid and Sassanid Persians, Arabs, Seljuks, Ottomans and Russians.

ruins of Van fortress
The Urartu fortress of Van Kalesi (Rock of Van), Turkish Kurdistan

“There are cuneiform writings on the other side of the fortress,” Berzan said, “but they are open only for large tour groups now. The rest of the time they are sealed off from vandals. So instead we will just enjoy the sunset.”

ruins of Old Van
The decimated ruins of Old Van

Along the summit of Van Kalesi we had a fine view of our surroundings, with modern Van laid out in grids to the west and the lake stretching far out to the east. To the south I saw several square miles of abandoned fields — again with mounds and ditches like an abandoned golf course — with a handful of ruined mosques dotting the landscape. Here on my strategic perch, I quickly realized what I was looking at below me. This was the site of Old Van, a prosperous Armenian city that, during the increasingly violent final days of World War I, was razed to the ground as Turks and Kurds fought relentlessly against Armenians and Russians. At the end of the war, both the Kurds and Armenians each hoped that Van would become the center of their own independent nation. But as the ruins below demonstrated, those dreams were dashed when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s Turkish republican army reconquered the whole of Anatolia in the early 1920s, in response to the humiliating armistice offered by the allies and the subsequent invasion by Greek forces in the west. From atop the rocky summit, a giant neon image of Atatürk blazed toward the city below, a proud but blunt reminder to both the victorious and the vanquished as to who came out on top.
The three of us sat quietly, contemplating the ruins as a fiery orange sun descended against a blood red sky. We walked down the edge of the fortress talking about war and politics, which led to conversations about the assassination of JFK, the war in Kosovo, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
We drove back to the hotel and went inside. “If you would like we could go to dinner,” Berzan said. “We can meet here in an hour.”
Since dinner was included in our tour we gladly accepted, but we were both eager to spend some more time with Berzan in the hopes of getting to know him better. In the one day we had spent with him it was readily apparent that he was a quiet, complex individual with probably more stories of intrigue than anyone his age should ever have. Besides, who better than our guide to suggest a good local restaurant?
We met in the lobby around 8pm and drove north to a place called Merkezi Et Lokantasi, or The City Center Meat Restaurant. A parking attendant with a red armband opened the car doors and led us inside. Berzan embraced the maitre d’, speaking with him in Kurdish as we walked upstairs.
“This restaurant is very popular with the local people,” Berzan said as we sat down. “It is not a tourist restaurant, but t he food is very good and very safe. There are places in Van I could never take you because your stomachs would not handle it well. Here I promise you will like it.”
“What should we get here?” I asked.
“Meat kebaps are best, very nice,” he replied. “Köfte kebap, döner kebap, sis kebap, adana kebap…”

September 5, 1999

The Edessa File

Filed under: Turkey — Andy Carvin @ 2:53 pm

Susanne takes a picture near Abraham's Pool
Susanne takes a photo in Urfa

Susanne and I slept until 9am, and probably would have slept much later if Özcan hadn’t telephoned us. Özcan was just getting ready to depart with Ali, Maggie and Michael, but he wanted to let us know that our overnight bus tickets were waiting for us downstairs at the front desk. As expected, the tickets had cost six million lira apiece — about $14.
“You should be at the bus station by 8pm,” Özcan suggested before saying goodbye. “You would not want to miss your bus.”
We had breakfast that morning at one of the local pastane restaurants that lined an alley just across the street from the hotel. Susanne ordered several small pastries a la carte while I had the fixed-price Turkish breakfast. The goat cheese was a little dry but the bread was fresh and the generous serving of honey was poured from a giant jar of honeycomb along the window sill. We planned our day while we ate, agreeing that we would spend as much time as possible relaxing by Abraham’s Pool, perhaps getting some journal writing done as well. Apart from that, we kept our day completely open. But first we needed to get Susanne a headscarf.
Though Turkey is generally quite moderate as far as Islamic societies go, Urfa is very conservative, as could be seen in the number of women wearing chadors around town. Susanne said she had felt a little out of place when touring the pilgrimage sites yesterday — even though she was fully covered in trousers and a long-sleeved shirt, her conspicuous blonde hair made her a target for occasionally long stares. I hadn’t noticed the staring myself, but Susanne certainly had, so I agreed we should start our day by getting her a proper head scarf.
We walked south to the covered market, hoping to find the vast array of shopping opportunities as we had observed the day before. To our surprise, though, much of the market was deserted. Friday may be the sabbath for Muslims, but Sunday was the official holiday for shop owners, apparently. Several shops were conducting inventory but were closed to customers. Eventually we found a wholesale textile shop where a young man was stocking the shelves with thick piles of scarves.
“Good morning, how are you?” he said to us in English.
“Good morning,” I replied. “Nasilsiniz?”
“Fine, thank you very much,” the teenager answered.
Susanne and I thumbed through a collection of large silk scarves, most of which were very colorful. She soon found a beautiful, dark green scarf with a black geometric pattern.
“What do you think?” she asked, trying it on around her head.
“I think it’s great,” I replied. “It goes really well with your hair and the color of your skirt.”
“Let’s put it aside and keep looking, just in case,” she suggested.
We continued to look through the piles of scarves, but none seemed as nice as the green one. “Green is very nice,” the young man said.
“Yesil, degil mi?” I asked him in reference to the color, pointing to the scarf.
“Yes, yesil is green,” he replied. He then pointed to a red scarf. “Do you know this color in Turkish?”
“Kizil?” I said, venturing a guess.
“Not exactly — kizil is reddish, a rusty color,” he replied. “Kirmizi.”
“That’s right, kirmizi,” I responded. “Someone told me that a few days ago.”
I continued my color lesson as Susanne tried on several scarves. Black? Kara. White? Beyaz. Blue? Mavi. Yellow? Sari. Eventually Susanne settled on the dark green scarf, which I purchased for 500,000 lira — just over one dollar. As we walked away from the shop, the young man again pointed to a red scarf. “Do you remember the answer?” he said, smiling.
“Kirmizi!” I called out to him.

old man
Man sitting outside Abraham’s Pool

Susanne and I continued our walk to Abraham’s pool and spent about an hour strolling around, taking pictures of people and the scenery. It was a great day to photograph kids, as many families were visiting the pool. While Susanne wandered around on her own I found a perch along the far end of the pool and watched a group of children receive plates of fishfood pellets from their parents, then throw the pellets into the water. The kids would laugh and clap every time the carp jostled the water as they ate the food. To my chagrin, though, an annoying carpet seller kept approaching me, asking if I would help him practice his English while walking to his shop.
“My English will get better if we spend the day together,” he insisted.
“I am sure it would,” I replied, “but please understand that I am busy.”
“Do you not like carpets?” he continued, unable to take no for an answer.
“Please go away,” I said, exasperated by his badgering.
The young man eventually left, but I soon observed him swooping down on a pair of German tourists. Susanne, too, was now being pestered by the same suave carpet seller that had given Özcan such a hard time yesterday.
“We must meet friends at the çayhane,” I said as I arrived at the scene.
“I will go then,” the carpet seller said, taking the hint.

Susanne in a headscarf at a teagarden
Susanne relaxes at an Urfa teagarden

Though we no longer had friends with whom we could meet for tea, Susanne and I nonetheless walked through the gardens to one the outdoor teahouses. We sat at a table near a stream, drinking bottles of Fanta and people-watching in the shade. A large Iranian family sat at the table next to us, drinking copious amounts of tea while their children played hide-and-seek along a row of trees by the stream. We enjoyed the relaxing atmosphere until lunchtime, at which point we briefly retreated to the four-star Edessa Hotel for a light lunch of cacik and fresh bread.
By 1pm we were ready to revisit the market, just in case activity there had begun to pick up. While the covered market was still rather quiet, a thriving produce market was in full swing just outside the bazaar. The square was crowded by vendors selling fruits and vegetables from large horsecarts. Other vendors had their produce stacked on plastic tarps along a shady wall. The setting was just begging to be photographed, but Susanne and I both worried that people here might not appreciate us getting in their faces with our cameras.
“We’ll just have to be inconspicuous,” I joked, knowing well that we stuck out like sore thumbs.

Urfa market scene
The hustle and bustle of Urfa’s outdoor vegetable market

We walked around the market, cameras in hand, squeezing through the crowds in hopes of finding a few worthy shots. Susanne soon pointed to a pair of men selling enormous watermelons from a flat-bed truck. The watermelons were stacked so high and wide that they could have probably killed someone in an avalanche of fresh fruit. The two men were deep in conversation as I approached them to plan my shot. Before I could even lift my camera they spotted me — the game was up. To my surprise, they both put up their hands and smiled.
“Fotograf! Fotograf, lütfen!” they yelled towards us.
Susanne and I got a little closer to them as a crowd formed nearby. One of the men proudly lifted up a watermelon and posed with it as we took a picture of them.
“Tesekkür ederiz,” I said, thanking them.

two men and their watermelons

“Now you!” one of them shouted in English. Another man approached from the crowd and offered to take a picture for us. The watermelon men then handed Susanne and me our own watermelons and situated us in front of their stand. As I smiled for the picture I imagined that watermelon avalanche enveloping us from behind.
“You send fotograf, okay?” one of the two men asked us.
“Of course!” Susanne replied.
I pulled out my notebook and handed him a pen. As the man wrote out his address for us, several groups of young vegetable sellers huddled together and waved at us. “Fotograf?” they asked in unison.
Susanne and I looked at each other and shrugged. A moment ago we had been nervous about getting pictures here in the market, but now we were the center of attention, pretty much able to photograph anyone we wanted. Susanne and I each walked around the market, coordinating groups of smiling young men in front of their produce stands and taking their pictures. Almost every time I got ready to snap the picture another teenager would jump into frame and pose with his friends.

two Urfa boys boy, Urfa market

Urfa boys

Urfa boy boy, Urfa market

Once all the young men had been photographed, I explained to them I would send them copies via the watermelon man’s address. One of the young men thanked us by giving me a plastic comb. Another one offered us fresh sprigs of mint.
After parting from our new friends, we returned to Abraham’s Pool, pausing along the way to purchase two Kahramanmaras ice cream cones from a street vendor. Once again we settled ourselves at an outdoor çayhane just west of Abraham’s Cave. The tea garden was crowded with Turkish visitors drinking tea, including many young women sporting bluejeans and t-shirts. These women were in stark contrast to the women strolling along the pool, many of whom were covered in head scarves or full-length chadors. As we sat over our journals, sipping our tea and Fanta, Susanne noticed several young women pointing at her, undoubtedly because she was a westerner in a head scarf.
“I can’t seem to win here,” Susanne sighed. “People first stare at me because I’m not wearing a scarf, and now they stare at me because I am.”
“It’s a different crowd,” I replied. “These people are probably tourists from Istanbul, not locals. Don’t worry about it.”
Writing in our journals served as an excellent distraction from the occasional gawker. Despite Susanne’s occasional discomfort, I felt quiet relaxed, sitting amongst the shady trees and drinking endless cups of tea.

girls feed fish at Abraham's Pool
Young girls feed the carp at Abraham’s Pool

The afternoon passed by very quickly, for soon it was 4pm. After paying our bill we visited Abraham’s Pool one last time. Yet again the persistent young carpet seller was there, this time pestering an American college student — the first American we had seen in Urfa, actually. The American soon caught sight of us and introduced himself, hoping to get away from the carpet seller. He explained he had been teaching English in Istanbul for a year and was spending a couple of weeks traveling around Turkey.
“Are you having fun in Istanbul?” Susanne asked him.
“Absolutely,” he replied. “I’m planning to re-enlist in the program for another year, actually. There’s something really special about this place.”
Just before 4:30pm we departed Abraham’s pool, returning to the neighborhood by the Hotel Güven in order to find a cafe to kill our remaining hours in Urfa. Two blocks from the hotel we found the Kilim Pastanesi, a delightful pastry shop decorated with Turkish and Kurdish kilims along the walls. We almost had the place to ourselves, apart from a pair of old men drinking tea with the cafe owner. We ordered apple tea and a selection of Turkish pastries, including two pieces of baklava and a similar dessert made of shredded wheat, shaped like a bird’s nest. The baklava was a syrupy delight, a perfect blend of flaky philo dough, pistachios, honey and a hint of rosewater. I lingered over each bite as if it would be the last sweet thing I would ever taste. The kind owner of the pastane must have noticed how much we enjoyed his pastries, for he offered us two free glasses of black tea to go with our last slice of baklava. The heavenly desserts, we hoped, would tie us over through the next morning, since neither of us wanted to take our chances with the local kebaps. As we finished off our last forkful, I wondered if all of the red meat that Michael and Maggie had eaten here in Urfa would give them problems later. We’d probably never know.
At 7:30pm we picked up our bags at the hotel and began walking west along Fuar Caddesi towards the otogar. I had guessed that the walk would take us no more than 20 minutes. About five minutes into our walk there were no more street lights, so I became concerned that we might get lost. A thin man in his thirties offered to help us find our way, but he had a severe speech impediment and I had a difficult time understanding his directions. Susanne and I must have looked completely lost at this point, for a dolmus driver pulled over and asked if we needed any help.
Otogar nerede?” I asked the driver.
“I will give you a ride,” he replied in English. “Please come.”
Given the fact that dolmuses are shared taxis, I was fully prepared to pay him for the ride. After driving for five minutes, he pulled over to the side of the road and pointed around the corner.
Otogar,” he said.
“Tesekkür ederim,” I replied as we climbed out of the minibus. I pulled out several million lira and was prepared to offer him the fare, but the driver closed the door, waved goodbye, and drove away without accepting any money. The man was probably on his way home for the night and just wanted to give us a lift.
Despite being dropped off near the otogar, we still couldn’t see it from our present position. Once again, I wasn’t sure exactly where to go next. Before I could admit this to Susanne, two young men appeared from around the corner and asked us if we were going to the otogar.
“Come with us,” one of them said in English. “We will go there.”
For the third time in 10 minutes, someone was going out of their way to help us. They didn’t speak English very well, but during our brief walk I was able to discover that they were named Adnan and Abdullah. When we reached the otogar, they pointed us to the proper bus line and then turned around, heading back to the road where they had met us.
“They weren’t even going to the bus station,” Susanne said, surprised as I was.
“I guess not,” I replied. “Just another example of Turkish hospitality.”
Once inside the Best Van bus line office, we waited for our bus until 8:30pm, watching the local news on the office television. We were then escorted by a Best Van representative to the bus, which had just pulled into the otogar, far on the other side of the parking lot. The bus was already crowded with people from a previous stop, so there was no room for us to stow our backpacks above our seats. Storing our bags in the bus’ interior compartment, we settled into our seats for the nine-hour ride to Van.
Susanne and I both took a couple of Tylenol PMs to help us sleep on the bus, but they were of no use for me. The Best Van bus was about as comfortable as any Greyhound bus I’ve ever been on, but I just couldn’t get any sleep. Susanne managed to catch some Z’s while I used my anorak as a pillow, hoping that I wouldn’t be up the entire night.
Just after midnight we reached Diyarbakir, the great walled city along the Tigris. If it weren’t for the Kurdish insurrection we probably would have included Diyarbakir on our itinerary, but the pro’s just didn’t outweigh the con’s. It was risky enough for us to be visiting Van; anything but a bus refueling stop in Diyarbakir just wasn’t worth it.
When we arrived in Diyarbakir our bus was searched by two jendarma commandos, both of whom were dressed in camouflage and were armed with automatic rifles. One of the jendarma scrutinized every page of our passports, staring at me coldly as he returned them to me.
“Where you from?” he asked us matter-of-factly.
“USA,” I replied. “Biz Amerikaliyiz, Memur Bey.”
The jendarmalar eventually left the bus and let us continue on our journey. Within an hour of leaving Diyarbakir, though, the bus made an unscheduled stop. I was a little groggy at the time — perhaps I had fallen asleep briefly. Our bus was now parked in a large lot, and I could see soldiers, jeeps and military transports outside the window. I assumed we were making another checkpoint stop, but the minutes soon turned into hours. Our bus, it seemed, would be spending the night somewhere east of Diyarbakir. I can’t say I was totally surprised, though. Way back in Istanbul, Aydin had warned us that buses weren’t allowed to travel at night in the area between Diyarbakir and Van — terrorist attacks and banditry were a real possibility there. But Özcan had assured us in Urfa that the security situation was improving, and overnight buses had resumed their routes. Perhaps it was standard operating procedure for buses to be stopped for hours at a time. Perhaps something unusual was going on during this particular night. Either way, the Turkish jendarmalar were not going to let us out of this parking lot until they were good and ready.

It was only several weeks later when I had returned to the USA that I learned what had happened east of Diyarbakir that night. According to several newswire reports I read on the Internet, a Turkish platoon had attacked retreating PKK guerrilla forces that very evening in the mountains between Diyarbakir and Van — just about the time we were passing through the area. Around three dozen Turkish soldiers and Kurdish rebel fighters were killed in the raid. I can only surmise that the Turkish military spotted our bus and pulled us over for our own safety until the operation was complete.
I knew none of this at the time, of course. It was 4:30am, and I was on a Turkish bus in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by armed commandos. All I wanted to do was catch some sleep. We were now in the heart of Kurdistan, and I would need all the rest I could get.

September 4, 1999

Megalomaniacs & Prophets, Part 2

Filed under: Turkey — Andy Carvin @ 9:53 pm

Abraham's Pool
Abraham’s Pool, Urfa

My early morning attitude problem quickly passed as we sat down to a hearty Turkish breakfast at the hotel. Susanne and Maggie went back upstairs to shower while Michael and I lingered over a second cup of tea. Michael made a concerted effort to order some milk for his tea but the wait staff couldn’t comprehend why he would want to ruin his morning beverage with it. After finishing our tea and gathering our belongings, we met Özcan and Ali by the bus and departed south for Urfa. Within five minutes, though, we were forced to turn around when Ali realized he had left his bag back at the hotel.
“No excuse!” Özcan chided him playfully. “You were the only one of us who got to sleep in late, and yet you still forgot your bag!”
By 10:30am we were back on the road to Urfa, leaving behind Kahta’s mountains and valleys in exchange for the scorching hot plain of Upper Mesopotamia. The drive would normally take around two hours, but we stopped briefly at Atatürk Dam. One of the largest dams in the world, Atatürk Dam is the showpiece of Turkey’s Southeast Anatolia Project, also known by its Turkish acronym, GAP. A symbol of Turkey’s technological prowess, GAP is a bold attempt to irrigate the parched lands of southeastern Anatolia, from Gaziantep to Diyarbakir. The Atatürk Dam, finished in the early 1990s, is one of 22 dams that will be in place by 2005. Once complete, GAP will divert waters from both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to quench three million hectares of land. The project will transform the region from arid desert to fertile cropland, creating as many as 1.8 million new jobs in the process and dramatically increasing the incomes of Turkey’s poorest citizens. Two 26-kilometer irrigation tunnels (the longest in the world) are bringing precious water south to Urfa, terminating just before the Syrian border and irrigating nearly half a million hectares in the process.
Big projects often lead to big political dilemmas, though, and GAP is not without it detractors. The project has caused dissent within the region’s Kurdish population — some Kurds see the irrigation project as a cynical attempt to bribe their people into accepting Turkish sovereignty, while others see it as a catalyst for improving the lives of poorer, less educated Kurds. On the international front, both Syria and Iraq have serious gripes with the project, since the Tigris and Euphrates serve as their primary fresh water sources. Turkish-Syrian relations have never been great, but GAP has increased Syria’s mistrust of its more powerful northern neighbor.
Apart from flying over Hoover Dam a couple of times, I had never visited a dam in person. I was surprised by the girth of the structure: Atatürk Dam was 170 meters high but 1600 meters wide — nearly one mile in length. Along with directing water through two massive Urfa irrigation tunnels, the dam produces a total power of 2,400 megawatts. We stood on a concrete plaza, enjoying a stupendous view of both the dam and the Euphrates. The concrete reflected the staggering heat, which we now felt for the first time since leaving Kahta.
“I would guess it is around 40, 45 degrees,” Özcan remarked as the rest of us began to sweat.
“How hot is that in Fahrenheit?” Susanne asked.
“About 105, 110 degrees,” I said, dabbing the sweat from my forehead.
“This is nothing,” Özcan warned us. “Urfa will be at least 45 degrees this afternoon, and Harran will be even hotter — perhaps 50 degrees. We won’t visit Harran until late afternoon, though, so it should feel much like this.”
“One time I was in Urfa,” Özcan continued, “and I saw a group of people staring up at something. I turned to see what they were looking at, and it was a clock in front of a bank. The clock also showed the temperature: 63 degrees! That’s 145 degrees Fahrenheit! It was very funny, because when you look at cars and trucks from Urfa, all license plates begin with the number 63. It’s as if the license number for each city was chosen for its highest temperature!”
Before returning to the bus we paused at a small memorial for the dozens of workers who had been killed constructing the dam. The memorial was decorated with tags identified those who were lost: name, age and hometown. It was a somber reminder of the grit and dedication required to built such a monumental edifice. Meanwhile, Ali was leaning against the front of the van, smoking another cigarette under the Mesopotamian sun. As we approached the van I could see the beads of sweat above his brow.
“Çok, çok sicak, degil mi?” I said to him in Turkish — very hot, isn’t it?
Ali laughed and slapped me hard on the back. “Var!” he exclaimed. “Hot, very hot….”
As we completed the last leg of our journey, we could see the fruits of Turkey’s labor. The flat Syrian plain had been transformed into farmland that boasted lush tobacco and cotton crops. The thick green tobacco leaves were occasionally peppered with sunflowers. Sometimes the sunflowers were planted in large rectangular frames, each one a tawny fortification protecting a small keep of garden vegetables.
By 1pm we reached Urfa, a bustling city of 300,000 people. Straddling the frontiers of Turkish, Kurdish and Arab culture, Urfa is an ancient metropolis whose origins date back to Assyrian times. Located on a strategic pass connecting Anatolia with the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, Urfa (then known as Urhai) was an important outpost for Hurrians, Hittites and Assyrians. According the Islamic belief, ancient Urfa was none other than the biblical city of Ur of the Chaldees, the traditional birthplace of the prophet Abraham.
When Alexander the Great entered Syria on his way to Egypt, he and his generals garrisoned the town and renamed it Edessa, in honor of the ancient Macedonian capital of the same name. From the fourth century BCE until the third century AD, Edessa changed hands on numerous occasions, dominated variously by Seleucids, Romans, Parthians and Armenians. By 200 AD, Edessa was one of the first predominantly Christian cities, and over the centuries it served as a hotbed for Nestorian and Jacobite Christians, who were regarded as heretics by the majority of the faith. In 638, Edessa fell to the Arabs, who ruled the city for much of the next five centuries.
During the final years of the 11th century, Frankish knights on the First Crusade reached the Syrian plain on their way to Jerusalem. A brash crusader named Baldwin split off from the main force in 1097 AD, leading an eastward expedition of several hundred knights and 2,000 footsoldiers in search of glory. They soon reached Edessa, which at the time was under Armenian control. The aging Armenian king Thoros greeted Baldwin warmly, hoping the Frank would protect him from marauding Seljuk Turks. Baldwin seized the opportunity and convinced the king to adopt him as his son and heir, to which he acquiesced in a curious ceremony in which Baldwin climbed shirtless into the king’s frock and pressed their chests together. To the amusement of the Frankish army, Baldwin repeated the ceremony with the queen. Several days later, Baldwin incited a local mob to lynch the king and queen, then conveniently promoted himself to the throne. Baldwin I, Count of Edessa, thus established the first crusader state in the Middle East.
The crusaders ruled Edessa for 50 years until they were replaced by Zangi, the Turkish ruler of Aleppo who had consolidated much of northern Syria under his control. Zangi successfully sieged Edessa in the fall of 1144, imprisoning or executing many of the Franks while sparing the city’s long-resident Armenian and Syrian Christian populations. The fall of Edessa was a stunning blow to the West, and it sparked what came to be known as the Second Crusade. Zangi became the scourge of crusading Latin Christians and a hero among Muslims. Zangi, to no surprise, enjoyed his new fame, and proudly gave himself a royal title worthy of his status:

The emir, the general, the great, the just, the aid of God, the triumphant, the unique, the pillar of religion, the cornerstone of Islam, ornament of Islam, protector of God’s creatures, associate of the dynasty, auxiliary of doctrine, grandeur of the nation, honor of kings, supporter of sultans, victor over the infidels, rebels and atheists, commander of the Muslim armies, the victorious king, the king of princes, the sun of the deserving, emir of the two Iraqs and Syria, conqueror of Iran, Bahlawan, Jihan Alp Inassaj Kotlogh Toghrulbeg atabeg Abu Sa’id Zangi ibn Aq Sunqur, protector of the prince of the faithful.

All of Zangi’s titles couldn’t protect him from the wrath of his own servants, though. Soon after the fall of Edessa, Zangi scolded one of his eunuchs in a drunken rage, angry that the servant had dared to drink from Zangi’s own goblet. Fearing dire punishment, the servant waited for Zangi to pass out; he then stabbed the great emir to death with a dagger. The death of Zangi did little to stop the jihad that had now started against the crusaders, though. Over the coming years, Zangi’s successors Nur al-Din and Salah al-Din (Saladin) swept across the entire Middle East, triumphantly destroying the remaining crusader states.
In 1637 Edessa was annexed by the Ottomans, who renamed the city Urfa (using the Turkish pronunciation of Urhai). Today, the city is officially known as Sanliurfa, or Glorious Urfa. Urfa’s rival city of Antep changed its name to Gaziantep (Heroic Antep) in 1973. Not wanting to be outdone, Urfa’s citizens successfully lobbied to have Urfa’s name changed to Sanliurfa in the 1980s, though a great number of people still prefer to call it Urfa.

Ali weaved through Urfa’s dense midday traffic and parked outside of our new base of operations, the Hotel Güven. The hotel was run by a group of cold-faced young men, but our room’s excellent air conditioning and sparkling new bathroom made up for the staff’s lack of personality. As Susanne, Maggie and Michael relaxed at the hotel, Özcan and I went for a quick walk to inquire about transportation to Van. Susanne and I had expected to spend a full day on a bus from Urfa to Van, for the unlit roads of Kurdistan were considered too dangerous to drive on at night. At the bus agency I was surprised to find out that the Best Van company ran an overnight bus, departing at 8:30pm and arriving before 6am. I was short of cash at the time, so Özcan offered to buy our tickets for us later in the day.
As we left the office I noticed a shop displaying a large sign that read Kaplan Eczane. I was curious to find out what it meant, since Kaplan was my mother’s maiden name.
“I know eczane means pharmacy, but what does kaplan mean?”
“Tiger,” Özcan replied. “Tigers are very popular animals in Turkey, so you see them in the names of many businesses.”
“We have something in common,” he added. “We both are named for great cats. My family name is Arslan, which means lion.”
Back at the hotel we regrouped with Susanne, Maggie, Michael and Ali and headed out for lunch at the Tandir Restaurant. Because all the local banks were closed for the weekend I stopped at several uncooperative ATMs before finally being able to withdraw enough cash to get us through the next couple of days.
The Tandir was a large cafe popular with local families. Though their kebaps looked delicious, Susanne and I were both terrified of catching a parasite, which was a notorious problem among westerners eating Urfa kebaps during the summer. The two of us successfully confused the waiters by ordering vegetarian Turkish pizza and yogurt instead of the house specialties, but Michael and Maggie bravely took their chances with two orders of adana kebap. Once again our meal was preceded with a large platter of shepherd’s salad, which was served drenched in some kind of blood-red liquid.
“Don’t worry,” Özcan insisted. “It’s just pomegranate juice with a little lemon. Pomegranates are very popular here.”

Classic Recipe:

Preparing cacik is easy. Take four cups of plain yogurt and whip it with a quarter cup of water and the juice of half a lemon. Blend in one finely diced, deseeded cucumber and a cup of chopped parsley. Add a clove of chopped garlic and a few dashes of salt and pepper. Instant cacik! Goes well with practically any spicy dish.

Indeed, the shepherd’s salad was delicious, much better than I expected. Our pizzas arrived with large slices or roasted peppers and eggplant inside. Unexpectedly, our yogurt came in a plastic container, while Ali received a bowl of whipped yogurt with cucumber and mint — much more like what I’d had in mind.
“What is it?” I asked Ali.
“Cacik,” he replied as he scooped a spoonful in his mouth.
The waiter soon brought us our own bowl of cacik, which tasted much like Greek tzatziki sauce. (No surprise, since cacik, pronounced jajik – is probably the root word for tzatziki.) Susanne and I smeared some cacik on our pizza slices, much to Ali’s amusement.
“We eat our cacik with a spoon,” Özcan remarked. “You eat some kebap, then you eat some cacik. It cools you down from the spicy kebap meat. But I see it can be good on pizza too.”
After lunch we walked back to the hotel while Ali fetched the minibus from a parking lot. As we stood patiently along Köprübasi Caddesi, Urfa’s main thoroughfare, Susanne began to snap her fingers with each hand and then slap her hands together, producing a galloping beat. When Özcan noticed what she was doing, his eyes nearly bulged out of his head as he put out his hand to stop her.
“You shouldn’t do that here,” he warned Susanne. “People might take it the wrong way.”
“Really?” Susanne replied, surprised. “What does it mean?”
“I cannot say,” Özcan said. “It is too embarrassing.”
No one else seemed to notice Susanne’s faux pas, so there was no need to worry about being lynched by the locals. Meanwhile, Ali arrived with the bus and swept us away to the safety of historic Urfa.
Urfa is protected from the windswept Syrian plain by giant limestone formations which barricade the city on three sides. Standing high above the southern edge of the city is one of these formations, Damlacik Kalesi, which has been used as a natural fortress since Hurrian times. Directly below the limestone bluff is the heart of old Urfa, including its historic bazaar and a maze of important pilgrimage sites honoring the prophet Abraham.
We braved the local traffic and parked in a muddy lot several hundred yards north of the western end of the limestone bluff. Because Urfa is one of the most conservative cities in Turkey, Susanne and I were dressed in long pants and long-sleeved shirts. Michael, to my surprise, wore shorts, which I worried might cause problems at some of the local mosques. Özcan assured us that Michael could borrow a waist coat at the mosques if and when he wanted to visit them.
The six of us crossed the street not far from the four-star Edessa Hotel and reached the upper plaza of Gölbasi, the Sacred Pool of Abraham. According to legend, Abraham was to be executed by the Assyrian king Nimrod, who found Abraham’s monotheistic beliefs distasteful. Nimrod catapulted Abraham off the limestone bluff towards a funeral pyre in the valley below. Just as the prophet was about to crash in a fiery death, God turned the flames into a pool of water and the burning embers in a school of carp. Over the centuries the sacred pool has been adorned with mosques and medresses, and today remains an important Islamic pilgrimage site.

abraham's pool
Urfa’s famouse Abraham’s Pool (Gölbasi)

We climbed down the plaza towards the entrance of the sacred pool. Passing through an arched stone gate, we reached the heart of Gölbasi. The sacred pool was long and thin, not unlike the Washington Monument’s reflecting pool. We walked along its southern edge, cooling off in the shadow of the Abdurrahman Camii, a 17th century mosque with a beautiful 13th century Syrian minaret. The shimmering pool reflected the ornate beige stones of the Rizvaniye Vakfi Mosque and its medieval medresse, which still serves as an Islamic school for young scholars. Crowds of pilgrims congregated along the pool’s edge, tossing in handfuls of fish food to satisfy the thousands of carps swimming below them. In contrast to the bustling streets of modern Urfa, Gölbasi was a timeless place of quiet contemplation, where families could peacefully amble along the waterfront and escape the cacophony of the world around them.

Susanne feeds fish
Susanne feeds the sacred carp at Abraham’s Pool

As Susanne and I gazed across the pool, Ali approached us with two small tins of fish food. We took the tins and began to throw pinches of food into the water. The glassy surface of the pool was shattered as thrashing carp targeted each morsel. Wherever I threw the food, the water would dance as more carp whipped themselves into a feeding frenzy. When my tin was empty I visited the food vendor and purchased another round of fish snacks. Özcan, meanwhile, was fending off an aggressive carpet vendor. The broad-shouldered vendor spoke excellent English and was inordinately cocky; he had a very hard time accepting anything short of yes from slim, slight Özcan.
Özcan eventually got the man to leave us alone. “He wants me to take you to his shop in the bazaar, of course,” Özcan said, somewhat exasperated. “If we go through there, just ignore him.”
The six of us continued along the edge of the pool, occasionally fending off young men who wanted to practice their English and guide us to more carpet shops. Just beyond the far end of the pool we reached Dergah, a complex of gardens and mosques at the center of which lies the Cave of Abraham. According to Islamic tradition, the cave is believed to be the prophet’s birthplace. We waited near the center of a large marble courtyard as Özcan went to see if we would be able to visit the interior of the cave. Mid-afternoon prayers were about to begin, and it would be inappropriate for us to enter the mosque once the faithful had arrived.

Dergah, one of Islam’s holiest pilgrimage sites. The Cave of Abraham is located at the base of the mosque.

Özcan soon reappeared with two head scarves and a trench coat. “The scarves are for Maggie and Susanne,” he said. “You will not be allowed inside unless you cover your head. Michael, you will have to wear the coat if you want to see the cave.”
The rest of us did our best not to snicker as Michael climbed into the enormous coat. His bare ankles showing through the bottom end of the coat, he looked like a flasher on the prowl for a bit of naughty fun. Özcan then pointed the four of us to the mosque’s two entrances, each one designated by gender. Michael and I entered the cave on the right side, placing our shoes inside wooden cubby holes along the cool stone wall. Directly ahead of us was the small room in which Abraham is believed to have been born. The room was already overcrowded with five or six people, so we crouched through a side door and entered the main room of the adjacent mosque. The mosque was dimly lit, about 25 feet square, and was decorated with thick, red carpets. Woodstained shelves were densely packed with Qu’rans on the far wall. A bearded imam sat in a glass-enclosed compartment, chanting from the Qu’ran while sitting crosslegged among several Ottoman pillows. A pre-teen boy kneeled on a small prayer rug in the center of the room, quietly listening to the imam’s hypnotic chanting.

interior of Abraham's Cave
Three men sip the sacred
spring waters of Abraham’s Cave

Michael and I did not linger in the mosque, for neither of us wanted to distract the imam and the boy any more than we already had. While Michael exited the mosque I crouched my way to Abraham’s birth cave, which was now occupied by only three men. The cave was no larger than a walk-in closest, and only half as tall. Unable to stand up straight I knelt down by the men, who were sharing glasses of water collected from a trickling spring. The spring waters of Abraham’s cave are said by some to have healing powers, while others claim that drinking from the spring that once sustained the prophet will bring wisdom and luck. When it was my turn to approach the spring, I ran my hands under the water, cooling my skin. I pressed my damp hands to my forehead and cheeks, wanting to experience the ritual without risking an assault of Urfa’s notorious water-borne illnesses. Whether or not this place was truly the birthplace of Abraham, the experience was indeed moving. I could only savor the moment for so long, as several men queued up behind me, patiently waiting their turn at the spring.
The mid-afternoon call to prayer began just as the four of us reassembled by the ablution fountains in front of the mosque. Özcan and Ali led us down the street to Urfa’s Kapali Çarsi, or Covered Market. The centuries-old bazaar was crowded with a variety of wholesale shops, peddling goods ranging from carpets and kilims to brasswares and tools. Much of the bazaar was under a series of vaulted ceilings, not unlike the ceilings of the covered market in Istanbul.
“These ceilings have just been restored,” Özcan explained. “They now look as new as they once did 700 years ago.”

old man
A shop owner inside Urfa’s Kapali Çarsi

As we turned the corner and reached the carpet sellers’ market, Özcan noticed the shop that employed the aggressive man we had met earlier near Abraham’s Pool. “I know none of you want to buy carpets,” Özcan said embarrassedly, “but if I do not at least pretend to bring you there I will have some problems. Just walk through, look around and leave. That will be enough.”
Özcan wasn’t the sort of guide who enjoyed dragging tourists to unapproved carpet pitches, but clearly his company had a previous relationship with these particular shops. I appreciated Özcan’s candor about the situation, for it made it all the easier for us to run the gauntlet of shops. The visit was actually quite painless, for several of the carpet sellers were too busy having lunch with friends. Not one of them pestered us.
Around 3pm we returned to the bus, parked just north of Abraham’s pool. While Susanne, Maggie and Michael chatted with Özcan, I joked around with Ali, pointing to different vehicles and teaching each other the words for them in Turkish and English:
“Truck?” I asked.
Kamyon,” Ali replied. “Otobus?”
“Bus. Motorcycle?”
The interior of the bus had heated up to well over 120 degrees, so we were careful not to touch any metal or hard plastic as we waited for the air conditioning to kick in. Urfa’s crowded streets were soon replaced by the endless tobacco fields of the Syrian plain as we drove south to our final destination, the ancient town of Harran.

Harran is one of the oldest continuously-inhabited communities on earth. According to the Bible, it was here in which Abraham lived when God told him to go forth to the land of Canaan: “And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and my thy name great; and though shalt be a blessing…” (Genesis 12:2) Harran was also an important center for the worship of the Assyrian moon god Sin for over 1600 years. During Roman times, Harran became the infamous site of the Battle of Carrae, during which the Roman triumvir Crassus was defeated and killed by the Parthian Persians in 53 BCE. Crassus had sought success on the battlefield as a way of raising his standing among his two competing triumvirs, Pompey and Julius Caesar, but his insufficient and unacclimated forces were unable to withstand the Parthian onslaught. About 350 years later, Roman emperor Galerius was also defeated here by the Persians.
A center of learning and a strategic crossroads along the Syrian branch of the Silk Road, Harran’s fortunes ebbed and flowed over the centuries. Today Harran is a small village best known for its beehive houses — traditional mudbrick structures found nowhere else in Turkey. No public transportation runs directly from Urfa to Harran, so our minibus provided us with a unique opportunity to explore this ancient and unique town.
We drove south towards the Syrian border, following the surging, river-like irrigation channels that pumped over 300 cubic meters of water per second to the local tobacco fields. Turning off the main road just before the border we soon arrived in Harran. At first glance it appeared much like so many other villages in Turkey: unpaved roads, small square houses with clothes lines in the front yards and satellite dishes on the roofs. Near the center of the village we found row after row of Harran’s curious beehive houses. The houses were long adobe dwellings with multiple conical roofs made of mud bricks. Some of the homes dated back 200 years, though the majority of them were built in the last century.

beehive houses
Harran’s famous beehive houses, along the Turkish-Syrian border

Ali parked the bus just outside the Harran Cultural Center, a beehive house converted into a small visitors’ center. Though the sun was going to set within the hour, the heat of midday had not subsided. “Same as in Urfa,” Özcan said as he closed the bus’ front-seat door. “At least 45 degrees centigrade.”
Özcan led us into the house and brought us to the living room, situated directly below a beehive roof. The room was typically Turkish, with a red carpet in the center and Ottoman cushions along the perimeter. The mud bricks above us were vaulted into an inverted cone shape, with an open skylight at the very top to allow for ventilation. The room was hot, easily in the 90s, but still significantly cooler than the outside air.
A man entered the living room from the kitchen and greeted us in English. Özcan kissed him on both cheeks and spoke to him in Arabic. The man nodded and smiled before returning to the kitchen to prepare some tea for us.
“So you speak Arabic as well?” I asked.
“Yes, I learned it in the army,” Özcan replied. “The people here are Turkish, but they lived in Syria for so many generations they learned to speak Arabic. After the First World War they settled here from Syria, but they continue to speak Arabic, though the children now speak Turkish in school.”
The man returned with our glasses of tea, which we all stirred quietly as he and Özcan continued to talk in Arabic. As I sipped my tea it occurred to me that I was sitting inside an unairconditioned building in 115-degree heat drinking piping hot tea, yet hadn’t even broken into a sweat. We westerners have a hard time accepting the Arab tradition that drinking hot tea cools the body — no longer could I question the logic of this practice.
“So you want to try on a costume?” Özcan suddenly interjected. He pointed to a row of several Ottoman sultan and bellydancer costumes that hung along the wall. At first I thought they were there just for display, but I soon realized he was serious. I looked around at everyone else — Susanne, Maggie and Michael laughed nervously and shook their heads. I began to decline the offer as well until I saw a gold-trimmed sheikh’s costume, not unlike the one given to Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia.
“I’ll do it,” I said, pointing to the Bedouin outfit.
“Good!” Özcan replied as his friend removed the costume from the wall. The two of them helped me climb into the outfit as the rest of the group — especially Ali — burst out into laughter. Ali took the honor of affixing my new khaffiyeh headdress. I looked into a mirror, hoping to see Peter O’Toole gracefully bowing in his splendid Hashemite regalia. I was sorely disappointed.
“I look like such a dork,” I said, shaking my head.
“No you don’t,” Susanne insisted, trying to contain her laughter.
Özcan, meanwhile, had my camera in hand and tried to get a picture of me. For some reason the flash wouldn’t go off, so I fiddled with it for a moment and handed it back to him. Again the camera wouldn’t work.
“It must be a sign,” I said, feeling a little dumb. “Let’s never speak of this again.”
Özcan gave us a brief tour of the kitchen and its large tandoor oven before we exited the beehive house and walked across the road to the ruins of the local kale. The fortress has probably been in use for several thousand years, but the remaining ruins dated back to the 11th century. As we entered the gate we were rushed by a group of smiling children, all holding out their hands and repeating the phrase, “Bon bon? Bon bon?” Clearly these children were accustomed to tourists coming through and handing out free candy and money, which was unfortunate. We hadn’t encountered this kind of begging anywhere else in Turkey, so I was a little troubled by their aggressive behavior. Özcan gave them a few words in Arabic, which most of the kids shrugged off but nonetheless caused them to back off a bit.
“This is Harran Kalesi, the ancient fortress of Harran,” Özcan said as we mounted the first floor of the structure. “Harran is only a village today, but once it was a great city of scholars. The first Islamic university was built here, though it is long gone. Please take your time and climb to the roof — from there we will watch the sunset before returning to Urfa.”
Susanne and I leisurely explored the ruins as the sun’s orange rays bathed its crumbling mud brick walls. Several of the children continued to follow us, curious to see where we’d go next. A beautiful young girl selling handmade necklaces soon appeared from across the village.
“You buy, yes?” she asked.
“No, thank you,” Susanne replied kindly.
“Okay,” the girl responded, smiling.

smiling girl

frowning boy
Young boy, Harran

We climbed to the roof, the children trailing behind us, just as the sun prepared to sail below the horizon. Two of the boys leaned against a mud brick parapet, looking a little bored. I tried striking up a conversation with them in Turkish but they would only respond with more requests for candy and money. The girl, however, was much more eager to chat, and I soon learned that she was nine years old. The boys must have realized that they weren’t being very polite, because they soon began to talk as well.
“Kaç yasindasiniz?” I asked them, wanting to know how old they were.
“On iki,” one of them replied — 12 years old.
Özcan, Maggie and Michael soon caught up with us, just as the sun was about to set. “You know,” I wondered aloud, “I don’t remember the last time I went out of my way to see both sunrise and sunset in the same day.”
“Anyone want to do it again tomorrow?” Özcan joked.
“Sure,” I replied. “I’ll drive.”
After making the half-hour ride back to Urfa, we returned to the hotel and had dinner nearby at the Tandir Restaurant. Maggie and Michael again ordered kebaps while Susanne and I fell back on our Turkish pizzas, accompanied by shepherd’s salad and a sizable bowl of cacik. As Özcan and Ali chatted with the waiters, the four of us discreetly talked about the best way to tip the two of them. None of us were totally sure what was appropriate, so we settled on $20 per couple.
When we returned to the hotel, we offered the tip to Özcan, who immediately handed the money to Ali.
“Let Ali have it,” he said. “I am paid well as a guide. Ali deserves it more than I do.”
Just before going to bed, I sat down one last time with Özcan to make arrangements for our trip to Van the next day. While Michael and Maggie would drive onward with Ali and Özcan, Susanne and I would remain in Urfa for another day before catching an overnight bus to Van.
“Before we leave Urfa tomorrow I will pick up your bus tickets and leave them with the hotel,” Özcan promised. “I will telephone you that morning and let you know what happened. You can then pick up your tickets at the front desk.”
I said my final goodbye to Özcan as we rode the elevator back to our rooms. “Have a safe drive back to Cappadokia,” I told him.
“Have a good time in Kurdistan,” Özcan replied. “It is very beautiful. You should be safe there.”
You should be safe there. The words would echo in my head for days to come.

September 3, 1999

The Road to Nemrut Dagi

Filed under: Turkey — Andy Carvin @ 2:53 pm

giant stone gate
12th century Seljuk gate of the
Karatay Han Caravanserai, near Kayseri

After checking out of the Ufuk Hotel and eating a quick breakfast at the Sultan Restaurant, Susanne and I walked over to Ötüken Tours to meet our minibus. The agent we met at there yesterday introduced us to Özcan (pronounced Erzjen), who would serve as our guide for the next two days. Özcan was a small man in his late twenties with thick, black hair and a thin face. We were then joined by Michael and Maggie, a British couple in their thirties who had just been on holiday along the Turkish Aegean. The five of us introduced ourselves to each other in a big circle. When Özcan heard Susanne’s name, he gave her a big smile and said, “Susanne is a Turkish name, you know. My sister is named Susanne, too.”
Climbing into the minibus, Özcan introduced us to Ali, a broad-shouldered young man with a round face who would serve as our driver. Ali didn’t speak much English but he had a confident smile on his face. Inside his van there were numerous air fresheners dangling from his rearview mirror, including a cartoon of Tweety Bird and a No Smoking sign with the words “except for driver” scribbled in pen across it. After getting settled in the van, the six of us soon drove out of Göreme, leaving behind the picturesque villages and mesmerizing fairy chimneys of Cappadokia we had gotten to know so well.
As we drove along the highway towards Kayseri, the largest and easternmost city in Cappadokia, Özcan explained our itinerary for the next two days. “We have a lot of driving today,” he said in a soft voice, “but we will stop several times at interesting places along the way. In less than an hour we will visit the Karatay Han Caravanserai, one of the main stops along the Anatolian Silk Road. Soon after that we will have a tea break. In the afternoon we will have lunch, and around four o’clock, you will get to taste our famous Turkish ice cream. Do you know about Turkish ice cream?”
“I hear it’s very thick,” I said. “Very gummy.”
“Yes, it is thick, but I would not call it gummy,” Özcan replied. “It is so thick you will need a fork and knife to eat it. The first time I tried it as a boy I remember sitting down at a table, and someone gave us a fork and knife. I said to the waiter, ‘But I am having ice cream — I will need a spoon.’ The waiter replied, ‘No, you will need a fork and knife.’ When the ice cream came I could not believe it. The only way I could eat it was to cut it with the knife! But it is also very smooth — the ice cream will melt in your mouth. I promise you will enjoy it.”
“What makes it so thick?” I asked.
“It’s a secret recipe from the town of Karahmanmaras,” Özcan replied. “I do not know how they make it. But you will get to taste it in Karahmanmaras, in the restaurant that is most famous for serving it.”
“What time will we arrive at Nemrut tonight?” Michael asked.
“Around sunset,” Özcan answered. “We will stay in Kahta, the town that is closest to Nemrut Mountain. We will then get dinner along Atatürk Dam and go to bed early, since we will have to wake up before 3am in order to reach Nemrut for sunrise.”

Anatolian Trivia

Kayseri, which in Roman times was known as Caeseria, was once the home of St. Gregory the Illuminator. Raised and educated in Caeseria during the second half of the 3rd century AD, St. Gregory brought Christianity to Armenia, becoming its first bishop and making it the first nation to adopt the faith as the state religion.

Not long after exiting Kayseri we arrived at the Karatay Han Caravanserai. (“Karatay Han” means “The Black Foal Inn” in Turkish.) Like the caravanserai we had visited two days earlier, Karatay Han was a 13th-century citadel that looked more like a fortress than an inn. Despite the fact that Karatay Han is one of the best preserved Seljuk caravanserais in Turkey, it isn’t a major tourist attraction. After Ali parked our minibus, Özcan jumped out an went in search for the gatekeeper. The caravanserai was locked most of the day so we would need to find someone to let us inside.
Among a group of teenaged men hanging out in front we found the gatekeeper, who produced a long metal key that unlocked Karatay Han’s massive wooden doors. The teenagers followed us inside as Ali smoked a cigarette by the minibus.
“Karatay Han was a very important stop along the Silk Road,” Özcan explained as we entered the main courtyard. “When caravans stopped here, they could feed their horses, buy and sell goods, even visit a doctor. We know today that there was a doctor here because if you look on the wall you can see two serpents with wings, the symbol of physicians since Roman times. I do not remember what it is called in English, though.”
“It’s a caduceus,” I said.
“Yes, the caduceus,” Özcan replied. “You can also see the 12 signs of the zodiac on the wall. It was important to have a zodiac for travelers here, since many traders were superstitious.”
Özcan led us into a small room in a dark corner of the courtyard. “Here is the hamam, the Turkish bath. Today it is dusty and dirty, but 600 years ago you would have seen a hamam that looks much like the hamams of today. A fire and boiling water was kept under the marble floor, which would heat up the room and make the bather sweat. They could then wash and cool off with colder water from a basin.”
Back in the sunny courtyard we walked over to a hole in the ground covered with a metal grate. “This is the cistern,” Özcan explained. “Enough water could be kept inside it to feed all the people and horses staying at the inn. The water was collected from the roof, and then would go down pipes into the cistern. They covered the top of the cistern several years ago after a tourist fell in and was hurt very badly. If you drop a rock inside you will hear that it is a very big drop.”

stone courtyard
Inner courtyard of the Karatay Han caravanserai

To the left of the courtyard we found the caravanserai’s stables. Much like the last caravanserai we visited, Karatay Han’s stable was a soaring vaulted space of tremendous echoes, with dozens of pigeons in the rafters. We then heard what sounded like a hissing sound from the back of the room. Özcan made a similar sound to see if he could figure out what was causing it. “I think it’s a snake,” he said. “Let’s not bother it.”
Just outside the stable I spotted a young boy sitting on a thin stone staircase leading to the roof. “Merhaba,” I said to him, waving.
The boy didn’t respond at first but his grandmother, who was sitting at the bottom of the steps, prodded him a bit to wave back.
“Merhaba,” he replied.
Neither Susanne nor I felt we had photographed enough children on this trip, so I asked the grandmother if it was okay to take a picture of him. “Fotograf çekebilirmiyim?” I asked.
“Yok,” the grandmother said firmly, raising her head up. Another Kodak moment lost to the djinns of the Silk Road.
As Özcan returned outside to share a smoke with Ali, the rest of us climbed up the stone staircase to the roof. From up top we had a good view of the small concrete homes in the surrounding neighborhood, with fields of evenly spaced poplar trees shading the land in the distance. A woman who was hanging close out to drying from another rooftop smiled and waved at us.
We walked along the roof, which was designed as a series of stout arches interlaced with rows of flat marble. From a distance it looked as if giant speed bumps had been placed precariously close together. I wasn’t particularly sure of the reason for this architectural design, but Michael chimed in with a plausible theory.
“It looks like there are drains placed along the wall in certain places,” he observed. “When it rains the water would collect atop the flat spots, pooling between the raised arches.”
“I think you’re right,” I replied. “And depending on how high the drainage system was from the floor, they could regulate how much water went down in the cistern and how much water was stored up here. Amazing….”

roof with a view of a tower
Roof of the Karatay Han caravanserai

After descending the marble steps, Susanne and I both went outside to get a photo of the caravanserai. There was plenty of room for us to back up and get a shot of the whole structure but Ali had parked the minibus smack in front of the gate. We asked Özcan if there was a way we could move the bus. Özcan tapped Ali on the shoulder and explained our request in Turkish. Ali smiled and stomped out his cigarette before driving the bus across the parking lot.

After spending another hour on the highway, Özcan asked if we’d like to stop and get some tea. It was just before noon — a little early for lunch in Turkey, but a perfect time for some çay and a bathroom break. Özcan brought us to a whitewashed restaurant with outside tables atop a raised arcade connected to an interior dining room. Michael, Maggie, Susanne and I all had apple teas and snacked on some breadsticks as we talked about our vacations and some of the places we’d visited in the last week.

Turkish Pronunciation

Interested in learning how to pronounce the Turkish words mentioned in this journal? Check out my Turkish pronunication guide!

At one point Susanne needed to use the restroom so she asked a waiter in Turkish: “Tuvalet var mi?” The waiter stared at her, completely puzzled. I tried repeating the question and got the same blank response.
Özcan overheard us and came over to our table. “What are you trying to ask?”
“Is there a toilet here?” I replied.
“Tuwalet!,” Özcan laughed, pronouncing the V in tuvalet like a W. “No one in this part of Turkey says tuvalet with a V. And you need to have your voice go up when you ask the question. Try it again.”
“Tuwalet var mi?” I said, making the “var mi” go up like I was asking a question in American English. The waiter and Özcan gave us a big grin and pointed downstairs. Susanne quickly got up and followed their directions.
“Orada, degil mi?” I asked, which essentially meant “Over there, is it?”
“Var,” Özcan replied with a smile. “So you know more Turkish than ‘Tuwalet var mi?’”
“At least you now know how to say what is most important,” he joked.
After Susanne returned from the bathroom, Michael and I made a quick run to the men’s room. Just outside the bathrooms was a large marble water fountain with half a dozen carp swimming in it. “In lieu of Abraham’s Pool,” I said to Michael, referring to the pilgrimage site we’d visit in Urfa that’s known for its thousands of carp.
Back in the minibus we drove for another two hours. We killed time by getting to know Özcan, who we discovered through his taste in radio stations was a big fan of Whitney Houston ballads. (While I didn’t want to be rude and complain, Ali made no bones about it and constantly tried changing the radio station to more traditional Turkish folk music, which I enjoyed immensely.)
“My family is from Trabzon, on the Black Sea,” Özcan said. “I am Laz, you know. Do you know of the Laz people?”
“Not really,” I said, to my embarrassment. I vaguely remembered reading about the Laz as an ethnic minority in northeast Anatolia but didn’t know much beyond that.
“We live on the Black Sea and in the valleys near Georgia,” Özcan explained. “We consider ourselves Turks, but some people like to make jokes about Laz. Even though I am Laz it doesn’t bother me. Sometimes the jokes are very funny.”
“Like what?” Susanne asked.
Özcan took out a piece a paper and drew a straight line. “What do you call this?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Susanne said as I tried to anticipate the punch line.
“A Laz maze,” Özcan replied dryly.
“That’s terrible,” I said, snickering at the same time.
“The jokes are all like that,” Özcan said. “They all have to do with the Laz being stupid people. But they can still be funny. It doesn’t bother me because I know it’s not true.”
As Özcan told more jokes, I looked in my Lonely Planet to see if that was where I had read about the Laz. I quickly found a page that summarized the ethnic minorities of the eastern Black Sea region.
“I found it,” I said, skimming the paragraphs to summarize what the book said. “The Laz are closely related to ethnic Georgians and they converted from Christianity to Islam when they started to assimilate with Ottoman Turks in the 16th century. The Laz are recognized in Turkey as top-notch fighters, and were well known as the hand-picked body guards of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.”
“Were you in the army?” Maggie asked Özcan.
“Oh yes,” he said proudly, without elaborating.
“How about you, Ali?” I asked. Özcan translated the question to him.
“Yes,” Ali replied in his thick accent, smiling at me through the rear view mirror. “A good soldier.”
Around 1:30pm, while driving along a beautiful green hillside, Ali pulled over the bus below a small building. “We are now in the village of Tekir,” Özcan said. “We will stop here for lunch.”
Stepping outside we climbed up a stone staircase to a picturesque lunchtime setting: wooden benches shaded under enormous trees, with a small herd of sheep just beyond the benches and a trickling stream running down hill.

grazing sheep

“How pastoral, isn’t it?” Michael joked.
“Simply bucolic,” I replied.
We settled down on a long bench as a waiter came by to give us silverware and napkins. “Would like something to drink?” Özcan asked. “Coke? Beer?
“Cokes would be great,” we replied.
“You can get either meat or fish,” Özcan continued.
“What kinds?” Susanne asked.
Özcan pointed to the sheep on the hill, then to a cement water tank. “Meat, fish — this is what they have,” he said. Given the choice of mutton or fish that were caught immediately downstream from a herd of sheep, we selected the mutton.

Classic Recipe:
Çoban Salatasi

In order to prepare shepard’s salad, you’ll need a large cucumber, a bunch of parsley, a firm tomato, a small onion, a couple of lemons and some olive oil. Deseed the cucumber and tomato and chop them finely. Chop up the onion and the parsley. Combine them together in a bowl with a tablespoon of olive oil and the juice of one of the lemons. If you want it to be really tangy, add more juice from the second lemon — or a few tablespoons of pomegranate juice if you can get it. Season with salt and pepper and toss well. If it seems too dry, you can add a dash of water or lemonade to moisten it. Best is served soon after preparation, but it’ll stay good for a few days if refrigerated.

The waiter reappeared with our drinks and two large plates of salad which appeared to be made of finely diced tomatoes, onions, cucumbers and parsley. Because of our traditional avoidance of salads when traveling outside the US, Susanne and I initially didn’t try the salad. Michael and Maggie, however, wasted no time in scooping some onto their plates.
“This is delicious,” Maggie said.
“It’s called çoban salatasi — shepherd’s salad,” Özcan replied. “It is a very traditional salad. You can find it all over Turkey.”
I began to worry I would give offense if I didn’t taste it. Susanne and I both looked at each other for a moment then shrugged. I pulled out a bottle of Pepto Bismol and gave her a couple of tablets.
“When in Turkey, I guess,” I said as I spooned some salad for myself. To my surprise it was very tasty, despite the fact that I’m not a fan of tabouleh, which was very similar to the salad. Susanne seemed to enjoy it as well.
Two large plates of mutton soon arrived, each hosting a stack of freshly barbecued meat garnished with grilled chili peppers and onions. Though it was sometimes hard to avoid eating gristle, the meat itself had a nice smoky flavor. As the six of us ate, Susanne, Michael and Maggie compared parachuting stories. Though I had never tried it, the three of them had gone on jumps.
“Is parachuting for sport popular in Turkey?” Maggie asked Özcan.
“Not really,” he smiled, “But I have jumped over 600 times.”
The four of us smiled back at him, but were a bit confused by his answer.
“Really?” Susanne asked.
“He’s joking,” I jumped in before Özcan could reply, assuming he was messing around with us.
Özcan smiled again and took off a gold ring on his right hand. “I was a helicopter pilot in the army for seven years,” he explained, showing us the military academy seal on his ring. “We had to practice as paratroopers. I have made jumps all over Turkey.”
I felt really bad that I had assumed Özcan had been joking, but now took serious interest in his experience. “Seven years?” I asked. “Were you an officer?”
“Yes,” he replied. “I was in a military program when I was in school, then I entered the army academy. I wanted to be a helicopter pilot, but you couldn’t learn to fly if you waited for your conscription. I made the army my career.”
“Why did you leave the army?” Susanne asked.
“It was fun, but I wanted to try a new job,” Özcan said. “A friend of mine was a tour guide and he helped me become certified. A certified guide can work anywhere in Turkey and make good money. It is also much less scary than jumping out of helicopters.”
We finished our lunches with a round of tea. As the four of us sipped from our tulip-shaped glasses, Özcan walked over from inside the restaurant with a small slip of paper. “Mike and Maggie owe me one million lira for your drinks,” he said. “Susanne and Andy — you owe me 800,000 lira.” After taking our money, Özcan walked down hill for another cigarette.
“Weren’t all drinks covered in the cost of the tour?” I asked quietly.
“I believe so,” Michael responded.
I pulled out the tour pamphlet from my daypack. “Yep, it’s right here,” I said, mildly annoyed. “Cost includes all meals.”
“Maybe meals includes tea and coffee but not sodas,” Susanne said.
“It’s no big deal if we have to pay,” I continued. “But it would be nice to know ahead of time exactly what is included and what isn’t. We’ve been screwed on tours before and I really don’t want to get screwed again.”
“He seems like a nice enough guy,” Susanne responded. “Let’s just see how it goes.”
Returning to the minibus we drove for three hours towards Kahramanmaras. Along the way Özcan allowed us to stop briefly on a mountain pass in the Anti Taurus range.
“There are two major mountain ranges in Anatolia,” Özcan explained as we stared over a green valley. “In the west you have the Taurus mountains, and here in the east you have the Anti Taurus. As we go east the landscape will change from mountains to flat plains. Tomorrow when we go south of Urfa to Harran, you will see no hills or mountains. We will be in the land of ancient Mesopotamia.”

wide valley with mountains
Maggie snaps a picture of me as Michael and Susanne hang out on a roadside.
The Anti Taurus mountain range can be seen in the distance.

By 4pm we arrived at the outskirts of Kahramanmaras (pronounced Kah-rah-MAHN-mah-RAHSH), a city whose name rolls off the tongue like the briefest of Ottoman sonnets. A prosperous, modern city that traces its roots back to Hittite times, Kahramanmaras is notable for two curiosities: the colorful sidecar motorcycles that crowd its streets, and an ice cream so unique and unusual it must be tasted to be believed. As Özcan explained to us earlier, Kahramanmaras dövme dondurma (authentic Kahramanmaras ice cream) is so rich and creamy that it must be eaten with a fork and knife.
As we slowly navigated the congested streets of this mountainside city, I conjectured aloud how the ice cream was made. “I’ve heard it described as being almost gummy,” I said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if contains a natural tree gum or resin in it.”
“No, no, that’s not it at all,” Özcan said from the front seat, shaking his head. “It is thick, but not like gum. I do not know how to explain it. You will see for yourself.”
“But you don’t know how they make it?” Susanne asked.
“No, I don’t,” he replied. “In the 1800s, when ice cream became popular in Europe, they tried to make it here but it always melted. Up in the caves along the side of the mountain people would make their ice cream; they hoped the caves would keep the ice cream cool for awhile. But it still melted. Only when they found their secret Kahramanmaras recipe did they make it in a way that it would last in the heat.”
“I’ve read that the ice cream is so thick they hang it on meat hooks,” I said.
“Yes, it is true,” Özcan smiled, “but you would not be able to eat that much of it.”
Ali pulled over the minibus along a busy thoroughfare, dropping us outside our destination. The Yasar Pastanesi is Turkey’s answer to Ben & Jerry’s when it comes to Kahramanmaras ice cream — in fact, it was the founder of the restaurant who perfected the recipe over a century ago. Even now the restaurant is a relic from a more innocent age. Entering the shop we were quickly surrounded by a throng of waiters going to and fro, each decked out in crisp white uniforms that would have been at home in any 1950′s diner. The dark wooden interior of the restaurant was decorated with eclectic fin de siecle Ottoman memorabilia — a Turkish Bennigan’s where the antiques were actually real.
We sat down at a wooden booth with a fine view of old German rifles and Ottoman swords along the wall, and a row of framed photographs of old men standing in front of those famous hunks of ice cream hanging on meat hooks.
“They are all famous Turkish politicians,” Özcan said, pointing to the photographs. “Presidents, prime ministers — they all come to Kahramanmaras for ice cream. It is a tradition.”
None of us had to wait for long to sample this mythical mouthwatering treat. A young waiter appeared with a tray of dishes, each holding a square dollop of vanilla ice cream decorated with green pistachios shavings.
“Afiyet olsun!” Özcan said. “Bon appetit!”

Susanne smiling with a plate of icecream
A sunburnt Susanne relishes her
vanilla Kahramanmaras ice cream

I picked up my fork and tested the ice cream by trying to cut into it. The fork struggled to slice through the thick dessert. It wasn’t as if the ice cream was frozen solid — it was more akin to a mysterious physical counterforce preventing me from separating a small sample from the vanilla cube. Finishing the job with my knife, as I had been instructed, I popped a sliver of ice cream into my mouth. I now understood why Özcan had struggled to explain this mysterious substance. Neither solid nor liquid, the legendary Kahramanmaras dövme dondurma was a unique physical state in its own right. The creamy vanilla melted in my mouth like white chocolate, yet I actually had to chew the ice cream to finish it off. As Özcan had insisted, the ice cream wasn’t chewy; it was just indescribably thick. Unnaturally thick. Perplexingly thick. Yet thoroughly addictive. None of us knew how to explain the sensation of eating the Kahramanmaras ice cream except to say that we had never experienced anything like it.
“I can’t believe this hasn’t caught on in the US,” Susanne said as she licked off some pistachio shavings from a forkful of ice cream.
“They have just opened a restaurant in London,” Özcan replied, knowing that he had us hooked on the stuff. “If it is in London maybe it will soon be in New York as well.”
I could only hope he was right. Granted, I imagined the ingredients that went into making this rich ice cream would make even Paul Prudhomme squirm with caloric embarrassment. Nonetheless, as I finished off my last sliver of Kahramanmaras heaven I wondered how long it would be before I could experience the same epicurean sensation at home in America.
After finishing our ice creams we waited a few minutes for Ali to get the minibus, which he had apparently parked illegally in a no-parking zone and was on the verge of getting a ticket. Ali reappeared the minibus, smiling as always, with a large bag of pistachios to share with us.
“Would you like some nuts?” Özcan offered as we left the city limits.
The four of us each took a small handful and began peeling the shells. Unlike the pistachios I had sampled during our Ilhara Gorge walk, these were perfectly ripe and ready for snacking, despite being unroasted. The green shells were a bit difficult to crack, but if you bit them at the right angle you could reveal the meaty pink pistachio flesh.
“In Turkish they are called fistik?” I asked.
“Yes, fistik,” Özcan replied. “Turkey is famous around the world for pistachios, but the pistachios from the region between Kahramanmaras and Gaziantep are famous right here in Turkey. They are the very best.”
We had less than a couple hours’ drive to Kahta, the dreary oil town that would serve as our base for reaching Nemrut Dagi tomorrow morning. There was little worth noting as we crossed the rolling countryside except the endless groves of olive and fig trees. We did, however, pass an old man dressed like a crossing guard, imploring us to drive slowly as we made a sharp curve around a hillside.
“His entire family was killed here many years ago,” Özcan explained. “He was driving too fast, and they all died in a crash. He was the only one who lived. He has since dedicated his life to standing in front of the curve, reminding drivers to slow down.”
Just after sunset, our minibus arrived in Kahta. There was desperately little to see in this dusty town — its one major street was lined with auto repair shops and the occasional motel. Anatolian paradise this wasn’t, but Kahta was the most convenient spot from which to begin a trip up Mount Nimrod, better known as Nemrut Dagi. Nemrut was world famous for its mysterious giant stone heads, propped atop the mountain by a megalomaniac Greek king 2000 years ago. By the time we would see the sun again tomorrow, we would be standing atop this mountain, gazing at these legendary statues.
For now, though, we had to settle down for the night. Özcan brought us to the Otel Mezopotamya, which had been described in the Lonely Planet as a new hotel. While the building’s incarnation as a hotel might be new, the structure itself was long past its prime. Creaking floor boards, peeling paint, hissing incandescent light bulbs — these were the amenities of the “new” Otel Mezopotamya. Despite is shortcomings, the hotel seemed like a perfectly acceptable place to spend a short night.
Özcan gave us an hour to shower and rest before going out for dinner. Around 7pm Susanne and I returned to the Mezopotamya’s modest lobby, where we found Michael and Maggie flipping through some local travel literature. Özcan and Ali were speaking Turkish with a man whose sandy hair, round face and thick mustache would have made him at home in Warsaw or Moscow.
“Hello again,” Özcan said to Susanne and me as he saw us make our way down the stairs. “This is Arkin; he will drive for us tomorrow morning. Today was a long day for Ali so we will let him sleep in tomorrow.”
“Long day, yes,” Ali said, catching Özcan’s words in English.
Arkin, the man with the Slavic features, stood up and shook my hand with a firm, vise-like grip that reminded me of my grandfather’s.
“Merhaba, merhaba,” he said, his intimidating, deep voice betrayed by his enormous smile.
“Merhaba,” I replied. “Nasilsiniz?”
“Good, good,” Arkin answered in English.
The seven of us piled back into the minibus and drove down Kahta’s main road. Özcan pointed to a bright light, high in the distant sky. “Do you see the light on that telephone tower?” he asked. “That is on Mount Nemrut. Tomorrow you will be up there.”
Ali drove us to the opposite end of town to the Akropolian, a popular restaurant known for its daytime views of the lake formed by Atatürk Dam. At night all we could see was a faint shimmer of light reflecting from beyond the restaurant. If the reflection hadn’t been shimmering the whole area could have simply been an empty field for all I could tell.
We sat on a second floor patio and enjoyed a long dinner. Maggie and Mike both ordered adana kebap, which I too would have enjoyed if I hadn’t worried so much about catching some terrifying Mesopotamian microbe. Having seen the stacks of raw meat sitting behind a glass counter as we entered the restaurant, my stomach had made up my mind for me. Susanne and I both ordered Turkish pizza. The meal also included a hefty portion of shepherd’s salads, yogurt, and enormous pieces of tandoor flat bread that must have been about three feet long.
“This is traditional Turkish bread,” Özcan said. “Today you rarely find it served like this in restaurants, but we still make large breads at home.”
Before returning to the hotel, Özcan allowed us to stop at a small grocery store to pick up supplies for the next morning. We would be getting up at 3am yet wouldn’t have breakfast until 9am; if we wanted any snacks for our ascent of Nemrut Dagi we needed to buy them beforehand. Along with several boxes of juice, Susanne and I purchased a banana, some wafers and a small piece of fruitcake.
Susanne also pointed out a green fly swatter shaped like a maple leaf. “I wish we’d had that in Cappadokia,” I said.
“So let’s buy it,” she replied.
“Are you serious?” I asked.
“Why not?” she said. “We keep saying we wish we had a fly swatter, so let’s buy one.” After spending 700,000 lira, the two of us were well armed with rations and weapons for our early morning ascent.
Back at the hotel, Özcan walked upstairs with us and explained our schedule for the next morning. “I will wake you up at 2:45am, and we will leave soon after 3am. That will give us time to climb to Mount Nemrut for sunrise. We will visit some Greek and Roman ruins on the way back to the hotel, get breakfast, and then drive south for Urfa. It will be a long day, so sleep well.”
“Should we bring blankets for the climb?” I asked.
“We will bring blankets, but I will supply them,” he replied. “Leave your blankets in your room.”
“Sleep well,” Özcan said as we reached our hotel room door. “See you in four hours.”

September 2, 1999

Easy Riders

Filed under: Turkey — Andy Carvin @ 2:53 pm

rock of Uchisar
Uçhisar Kalesi, Cappadokia

Susanne and I slept in until after 9am — unusually late for us in Turkey. The last several days had been exhausting for both of us, so we planned to take it easy for the morning. We spent a long breakfast at the Vegemite Cafe, where Susanne took pictures of Abdullah, the son of the cafe owner. Abdullah posed happily for each shot, picking up one of his puppies for that added dose of cuteness.
“Ask him how old he is,” Susanne requested.
“Kaç yasindasiniz, Abdullah?” I asked.
“On,” he replied. “On dokuz.”
“That’s a little strange,” I said to Susanne. “He said he was 10, but then he said 19. I think what he meant was 10-9, as in he was almost ten years old.”
In the back of the cafe I noticed Abdullah’s teenaged brother tuning a long-necked stringed instrument. The neck was about three feet long and it had a small, gourd-like body at one end. Since Susanne was busy taking pictures, I decided to investigate.
“Bu ne?” I asked the teenager.
“It is a saz,” he replied in English. “It is a popular Turkish instrument.”
“Do you play saz?” I asked.
“Biraz,” he said. “Only a little. I have played for two months.” The young man began to strum away at the saz, playing a traditional Turkish folk tune. It sounded like a Middle Eastern banjo, though about two octaves lower.
“Çok güzel,” I said to him as he played.
“It’s okay,” he replied, a little embarrassed. “I must practice more.”

Turkish Pronunciation

Interested in learning how to pronounce the Turkish words mentioned in this journal? Check out my Turkish pronunication guide!

After breakfast Susanne and I walked towards the otogar to stop by several tour agencies in hope of some of advice regarding how we should get to our next destination, Nemrut Dagi. The great mountain temple of Nemrut Dagi is one of most unusual sites in all of Turkey, but as fate would have it, the mountain’s remoteness made it a frustratingly long journey. If we were to get their by bus, we would have to catch a bus from here to Kayseri, then change buses for Adiyaman. Upon arriving in Adiyaman six hours later, we’d have to wait around for another bus to Kahta, a grimy oil town that serves as the closest base to Nemrut. From there, we’d have to make arrangements for a taxi or tour group to take us to the top of the mountain at 3am in order to make it to the summit for sunrise.
On the whole, this course of action sounded downright miserable to us, so we decided to invest in a package tour from Göreme. The standard tour would take you to Kahta on the first day, stopping at several notable sites along the way. The next morning we would then visit Nemrut Dagi before continuing on to the city of Urfa. After touring Urfa for the rest of the day, the group would then return to Cappadokia. Since Susanne and I intended to visit Urfa and then head further east towards Lake Van, we hoped it would be possible to join a tour for two days and then split off in Urfa before the group returned to Göreme.
Susanne and I visited Hiro Tours, which had arranged our Ilhara Valley trip the previous day. Ahmed the pseudo-Australian Turk
greeted us again and brought us into his office. Unfortunately his company didn’t have a scheduled tour to Nemrut that week but he offered to arrange one through another company. Since I knew this would only jack up the price for us, I suggested to Susanne we look elsewhere.
“Did you see his desk?” Susanne asked me as we left.
“No,” I replied. “What did I miss?”
“That guy had 15 pictures of himself under a piece of glass. How arrogant!”
“How do you know there were 15 of them?” I wondered.
“I counted while you and he talked,” she explained. “He must really love himself.”
Across the street we stopped at the Ötüken Voyage travel agency, which advertised “Nemrut Tour Every Friday” on a sign out front. We talked for a while with a Turkish man who spoke English with a French accent. He said there would be a tour leaving tomorrow, and at that particular moment there were only two people signed up for it. I told him we would think about and get back to him late in the afternoon.
Susanne and I could now get down to our main objective for the day: renting a pair of motorscooters. For years Susanne had talked about the wonderful time she and her sister had once spent riding motorbikes around Hawaii. I had never been on a motorbike before, and she convinced me that Cappadokia would be the perfect place to try it for the first time.
Just uphill from the otogar we waited at a small shop that specialized in bikes as two Australian women in string bikini tops finished their riding instructions. Susanne and I were both surprised that women would actually go around local villages in bikinis — Cappadokia was a far cry from the Aegean party scene, and dressing this way had to be an insult to many Turks. Eventually the Aussies took off on their bikes and gave us a chance to check out two bikes for ourselves. Each scooter cost just under five million lira for four hours and required our passports as deposit. A woman at the shop explained how to start and stop the bike, as well as how to park it. Susanne took off down the street as soon as she mounted her motorbike. I, on the other hand, surged directly towards a median and almost crashed before I got a handle on how to hit the brakes. Feeling a bit more confident now that I had managed to save the bike, I gingerly turned the front wheel towards the street and hit the gas. I was soon on my way, riding down the sunny streets of Göreme with Susanne leading the way.
Susanne and I surged uphill as a warm wind blew through our hair. Though we had yet to arrive anywhere interesting I still felt a sense of exhilaration at the prospect of cruising around Cappadokia for the afternoon, free to ride wherever we wanted.
I soon caught up with Susanne and saw the huge grin on her face. She was truly in her element.
“Mind if I take the lead?” I yelled to her over the din of the whirling engines.
“Be my guest,” she yelled back.
I rotated the handlegrip and rushed past Susanne’s motorbike. I had no idea where we would end up, though I knew it was going to be a great afternoon.
As we rode towards the town of Uçhisar we noticed a sign for the Panorama Cafe, a corrugated tin roof restaurant with a stunning view of the Göreme Valley. We steered our bikes into a gravel parking lot in order to take some pictures but had great difficulty manouvering over the stones. Neither of us were able to park the bikes since the gravel wouldn’t give us the grounding to flip the bike onto its kickstand. An old man noticed our predicament and came over to help, tugging each bike until we finally managed to get the kickstands in place. As kind as it was for him to help us, it almost wasn’t worth his time since we only spent about five minutes soaking up the view. We were both anxious to go exploring and find someplace new, so we soon returned to our bikes and hit the road after a brief struggle with those infernal kickstands.

landscape of Goreme
View of the Göreme Valley, Cappadokia

We circled counter-clockwise around Uçhisar Kalesi, the town’s natural stone fortress, hoping to follow the road that our minibus tour had taken us yesterday before veering off towards some hidden valley or obscure village. We rode for 45 minutes past great fields of wheat and vineyards of grapes, though no matter where we went neither of us could spot a path to take us off the beaten track. I looked on a map and saw that the village of Ortahisar was somewhere down the road near the city of Ürgüp. Hoping we’d find something to do in that general direction, I took the lead again and drove onward.

shy girl in a doorway
A shy girl peers through a door, Ibrahimpasa

Susanne and I soon reached a minor intersection about two miles before Ortahisar. A small sign displayed the name of the town Ibrahimpasa and an arrow pointing to the right.
“Is Ibrahimpasa on the map?” Susanne asked as we pulled over to the side of the road.
“I don’t see it,” I replied.
“Is it in Lonely Planet?” she asked.
“I still don’t see it,” I said as I thumbed through the book.
“Perfect,” she replied. “Let’s go.”
Susanne took the lead again and headed downhill towards Ibrahimpasa. There was little to see at first but we eventually reached an outdoor market along the side of the road. Women enveloped in black chadors walked alongside the market, pulling small carts stacked with watermelons. An old cobbler lined his blanket with rows of shoes, new and used. We were tempted to stop and look around but we figured we could always stop here on the way back to the main road. The market was too small to be the village of Ibrahimpasa so we picked up speed and continued our journey.
Another kilometer downhill the road unexpected turned to cobblestone, forcing us to ride our bikes as slowly as possible. The street was lined with concrete and mud brick houses whose simple architectural design defied time. The road became extremely steep at this point; I was almost tempted to get off and walk the bike downward. As suddenly as the road had become steep, though, it flattened and opened up into what must have been the central town square. We paused for a moment, looking around the square at groups of old men drinking tea in a shady garden. I wasn’t sure if we should park there or not, so we started up our bikes and began to head further downhill. Two men from the tea garden waved over at us and yelled out something in Turkish.
“Üzgünüm, anlamadim,” I replied, not understanding what they had said.
“You must park your bikes,” a teenaged boy shouted out to us from under a palm tree. “It is not safe to ride further.”
“You are welcome to walk around,” a man from the tea garden added. As isolated as Ibrahimpasa was from the rest of the Cappadokian tourist circuit, it appeared they were used to having visitors wander through town. Susanne and I parked our motorbikes near a wall and continued the rest of our visit on foot.

view of the village
The village of Ibrahimpasa

The narrow winding streets of Ibrahimpasa were a living time capsule, a perfectly preserved Ottoman-era village without another tourist in sight. The local mosque and the surrounding houses were all built out of whitewashed stone, reminding me of a Greek seaside village. Susanne and I had the streets mostly to ourselves, apart from a young boy walking a donkey and an elderly woman herding two enormous cows uphill.
As we passed the village mosque we could see the road ahead of us spiraling downward into a green valley. To our left, several hundred feet below at the bottom of the valley, more white stone houses decorated the hillside, many with rooftops lined with blankets of fruit and chilis drying in the midafternoon sun.
“Though I’m sure it’s not the case,” I remarked, “it feels like we’re the first visitors to have ever wandered into this village.”
“It’s so peaceful,” Susanne replied. “We seem to have it to ourselves today.”
Susanne and I walked up and down Ibrahimpasa’s ancient streets, saying “merhaba” to the chador-covered women who passed us. We spotted a young boy and his grandmother sitting on a mud brick ledge. The two of them smiled and waved at us. As usual I pointed to my camera to see if they would be comfortable having me take a picture.
“Yok,” the grandmother said apologetically.
As we made a circle and returned to the street by the village mosque, Susanne spotted a young girl standing in an open doorway. Susanne approached the girl and pointed to her camera. Despite her shyness, the little girl bit down on her lower lip and nodded. Susanne and I both took a picture and thanked her, but the girl just gazed back at us, wondering who we were and why we were there.
About a block north of the mosque we spotted a group of four girls walking downhill. Their ages ranging from perhaps eight to 12 years old, the girls appeared to be sisters returning home from school.
“Merhaba,” the oldest girl said to us.
“Merhaba,” I replied. “Nasilsiniz?”
“Iyiyiz,” she replied.
Susanne again pointed to her camera and said, “Photograph?”
“Okay,” the oldest replied as the other girls giggled.

four girls smile for the camera

The four girls huddled together and put their arms around each other, smiling for the camera. After we took our pictures the oldest came up to me and said in English, “Address?” Apparently she wanted a copy of the picture. Susanne and I were more than happy to send her one. I pulled out my journal and handed her a pen. The girl carefully wrote out her address, though she neglected to write her name.
“Isminizne?” I asked her.
“Emine,” she said, as she leaned over the journal to write out her name.
“Sag olun, Emine,” I replied.
Parting ways with the four girls we returned to our motorscooters and rode uphill to the main road, again passing the outdoor market. We had planned to spend some time exploring the town of Ortahisar but discovered that the village had started to succumb to suburban sprawl, its picturesque houses outnumbered by rows of poured concrete apartment blocks. Susanne and I made a brief loop through Ortahisar, passing little of interest save a group of woman in headscarves sitting on a large wicker mat, cleaning several bushels of cotton by hand.
Susanne and I spotted a sign pointing the way to Zelve, not far from the Valley of the Fairy Chimneys. We followed a deserted road through acres of grape vines, entering the outskirts of the rose-hued Kizil Cukur Valley. A couple of kilometers into the valley we reached a small guardpost that was collecting fees for the Valley of the Fairy Chimneys. Since we had just been to the valley for sunset on the previous day, Susanne and I decided we would spend our last hour exploring Uçhisar, which was about three-quarters of the way back to Göreme. Before departing the valley, Susanne suggested we take pictures of each other on our motorscooters. Susanne parked her bike on the side of the road while I manouvered mine into the middle of the pavement. After she snapped my picture I gave into temptation and once again grabbed a couple of grapes off the local vines. The red grapes were so swollen with juice they popped in my mouth.

Andy poses on his motor scooter

Fifteen minutes later we arrived in Uçhisar, its megalithic castle rising high above the town’s modest homes and shops. We followed the signs to the city center until we reached a steep fork in the road, with two cobblestone streets leading upwards. We pulled over for a moment to sort out which road to take, as well as to determine whether it was wise to ride our scooters up so severe an angle. A middle-aged man with a thick mustache and gray cap approached us along the right side of the road.
“Merhaba,” Susanne said to the man.
“Tesekkür ederim,” Susanne replied.

old man sits on a ledge
An old man sits on a ledge outside Uçhisar Kalesi

“Merhaba,” he replied, reaching out to shake her hand warmly.
“Uçhisar Kalesi nerede?” I asked, wondering where the castle was.
“Up, up,” he replied in English. “Your bike will be okay. Have a good afternoon here.”
We road our bikes slowly uphill, carefully avoiding several pot holes in the road. About 100 meters up we reached a small plaza where we parked our bikes in front of a small carpet shop. We followed a small path around the shop and soon reached the based of Uçhisar Kalesi. As impressive as the natural rock castle had been front a distance, up close the kale was truly breathtaking, as if it were the singular worldly inspiration for Pieter Bruegel’s Tower of Babel. A ledge along the left side of the path dropped off several hundred feet towards the valley below, giving us a beautiful view of the countryside and the castle’s rocky slope. Susanne paused to take a picture of an old man sitting along the ledge while I marveled at the giant tufa formation, spotting numerous man-made caves carved throughout the castle face. I could have imagined spending hours roaming the castle’s ancient nooks and crannies, but time was running against us. In just a few minutes it would be 4pm, giving us just half an hour to return our scooters. Susanne and I spent a few more minutes strolling along the base of the castle before returning to our scooters.

old man sits on a ledge
Close-up view of the ancient troglodyte caves of Uçhisar Kalesi

After getting directions back to Göreme from a Turkish woman who tried to speak German to us, we took a brief detour in search of a picturesque spot from which we could take a picture of Susanne on her scooter. Not wanting to have taken the exact same picture of both of us, we neglected to get a second photo inside the Kizil Cukur Valley. Susanne and I drove down a dirt path that seemed to lead into the countryside but then trailed off into unmemorable acres of gravel. We rode back and forth trying to see if there was a good angle from which we could take a distant photo of the castle, but we decided to keep riding towards Göreme in order to avoid giving a couple of local boys the impression that we were teasing them by showing off our scooters. We eventually found a grassy spot behind a house just below the castle to take a picture, and then returned to the fresh black asphalt of the Göreme-Uçhisar highway.

Susanne poses on her scooter

Susanne and I reached the scooter rental shop in Göreme around 4:20pm, ten minutes shy of our four-hour limit. Since we hadn’t passed a gas station we never got the chance to fill out our bikes, but the energy-efficient scooters had only swallowed up about 500,000 liras of fuel each. A few blocks away over at the Ötüken Voyage agency, we checked back in to see if the next day’s tour to Nemrut Dagi had swelled past its initially-intimate roster of two participants. To our surprise, no one else had made arrangements for the tour, which meant that there was a real chance that we would have a grand total of four of us traveling together to Nemrut and Urfa.
Gambling that the group would remain small, Susanne and I signed up for the trip. For $150 we would have a driver and guide with an air-conditioned minibus, plus hotel, food costs and entry fees to all the sites. The total cost was probably a bit more than if we had chosen to make the trip ourselves and hired local guides and transport, but for the sheer piece of mind it offered, the money was well worth it. We also informed the tour agent that we planned to stay in Urfa and not return with the rest of the group. He assured us that this wouldn’t be a problem.
Now that our travel arrangements were secure, we enjoyed a leisurely dinner of vegetarian Turkish pizzas at the Sedef Restaurant. A spitting image of the Sultan Restaurant next door, the Sedef had a long row of outside seating under a wooden awning. The pizzas were tasty but smaller than elsewhere, so we later stopped at the SOS Restaurant to drink some apple teas and split an order of Turkish rice pudding. A German man read Tolstoy on the table next to us as a pair of middle-aged Turks drank copious amounts of tea while whacking their fly swatters against the table.
Susanne and I spent the rest of the evening atop the roof garden of our hotel, drinking more apple çay while writing in our journals. The final call to prayer of the day rang out across the Göreme valley, echoing against the canyon’s tufa cones and mud brick houses. We returned to our room sometime after 10pm, at which point I turned on the light and discovered a five-inch scorpion scurrying across the floor. Not sure of any plausible alternative, I walked over to it and squished the poisonous arachnid under my thick hiking boot.
“That was by far the largest animal I’ve ever had to step on,” I said to Susanne, somewhat disturbed by the summary execution. Not wanting to go anywhere near the dead scorpion I covered it with several paper towels and avoided the crime scene for the rest of the night.
Before going to bed the two of us ransacked our room, looking inside and under any possible item that might serve as refuge for the scorpion’s vengeful kinsmen. We unpacked and repacked our backpacks, lifted our mattresses, searched behind lamp stands, flung off our sheets and pillows. The scorpion, it appeared, was a lone wolf out on the prowl before I snuffed it. After securing our loose clothes and shoes well above the floor (and thus above the scorpion’s nocturnal domain), we shut off the light and went to bed. A moment after the room went dark, Susanne and I both let out an audible creepy-crawly, hair-raising shutter, then broke out into laughter.
“Every time I feel the sheets touch me I think it’s another scorpion,” I lamented.
“Me too,” Susanne said. “I don’t know how we’re going to fall sleep.”
“The scorpion gets his revenge after all, I guess.”

September 1, 1999

Ilhara Valley Gorge Tour

Filed under: Turkey — Andy Carvin @ 2:53 pm

Susanne walks in the valley
Susanne walks along the Ilhara Valley, Cappadokia

Service was slow at the Vegemite Cafe this morning. The owner appeared to have gotten a late start, so when we arrived for breakfast just after 8am he was just sweeping off the sidewalk and warming the ovens. Susanne and I occupied ourselves by playing with the cafe’s two resident puppies, who were both more than happy to keep us company. My Turkish breakfast arrived piece by piece — a slice of bread here, a hard boiled egg there, some honey in between — while Susanne’s pancake appeared even later. Nevertheless the food was good, and the puppies made for fine in-house entertainment.
After finishing breakfast we walked to the otogar, where we found the Hiro Tours minibus waiting for us just outside their offices. Though we arrived 15 minutes before the scheduled 9:30am departure time, Susanne and I were the last in a group of 12 people to board the bus. We were a fairly young group, ranging from college age to early 30s. Our driver, Kadir (pronounced Kadeersh), was a friendly man with a rotund pot belly, fine black hair and a chipped front tooth that gave him a bit of a lisp. He wore a tight Cappadoc@fe cybercafe t-shirt that accentuated his belly, and had a habit of pulling up his baggy blue jeans.
The minibus brought us out of the Göreme Valley towards the neighboring town of Uçhisar, less than ten minutes away. Uçhisar is dominated by a massive tufa formation known as the Uçhisar Kalesi, or Uçhisar Castle. We drove counter-clockwise around the kale, parking by a deep gorge on the outskirts of town.

city of Uchisar
The city of Uçhisar

“Behind you is Uçhisar Castle,” Kadir explained to us as we stood along the edge of the gorge among rows of grape vines. “The castle, as you may know, is made of tufa, a soft rock made of hardened volcanic ash. Ten to fifteen million years ago, three volcanoes around Cappadokia erupted, leaving thick layers of ash across the valleys. The ash hardened into a rock we call tufa, which is very soft. Over time much of the ash has been worn away, but in certain places the ash has been protected by boulders and debris. The surviving tufa can be seen all over Cappadokia in the form of natural castles like here at Uçhisar, and in the fairy chimneys as well.”
“The gorge below is the Pigeon Valley,” Kadir continued. “Along the valley you can see what look like little windows carved into the tufa cliffs. These have been carved by villagers for generations. Pigeons are attracted to the holes in the cliffs. They seek protection inside and often lay their eggs there. The people then collect the pigeon droppings, which are very valuable as fuel and fertilizer.”
Kadir gave us about 20 minutes to explore the cliffside, taking pictures of Uçhisar Kalesi and the Pigeon Valley below. One of our fellow tour members, a tall German man with sandy hair and glasses, asked Kadir a lot of questions regarding the thickness of the local ash layers and the patterns of past volcanic eruptions. He then picked up small pieces of tufa and told the group that had congregated around him about the natural processes that harden ash into stone.
“Are you a geologist?” Kadir asked.
“No, I am geographer,” the German replied, “but I love volcanoes.” He continued to point out ash layers in the cliffside, postulating their age and geological circumstance. I made eye contact with a young backpacker with bleached blonde hair and a goatee. He shrugged his head at the geographer and smiled broadly.

grape vines
Grape vines, Uçhisar

Susanne, meanwhile, had wandered off to the far end of the cliff, apparently taking pictures of the castle. I took a few minutes to investigate the grapes that seemed to be growing in all directions.
“You can eat them, of course,” Kadir said to me. “They should be ripe now.”
I pulled a small bunch of bright green grapes off the vine. Though the smaller grapes were a little sour, the larger ones were sweet and juicy.
“Grapes grow very well in Cappadokia,” I said to Kadir. “I know there are wineries in Ürgüp. Does Uçhisar have a winery as well?”
“No, not here,” Kadir replied. “In Uçhisar and Göreme they grow grapes for other things. White grapes are used in jams, and red grapes are dried into raisins. The people of Cappadokia are still very traditional Muslims, so wine drinking isn’t very common. In Ürgüp there are two families who run private wineries. Cappadokia’s wines come from their vineyards.”
Back on the bus Kadir told us we would next visit one of Cappadokia’s famous underground cities. “Usually we take our tour to either Kaymakli or Derinkuyu. Kaymakli is more popular with visitors because you can visit more rooms and go deeper underground. Derinkuyu has less tourists but it is also much smaller: only two underground floors are open. Which would you rather visit?”
Susanne and I had both leaned towards Derinkuyu, since our guidebook had suggested that you were less likely to get caught in a claustrophobic traffic jam of visitors. The rest of the group, though, preferred to visit the site with the more tiers to explore. Neither Susanne nor I felt very strongly about it, so we agreed to visit Kaymakli next.

old Greek house
old Greek houses, Kaymakli

After driving past several miles of fertile wheat fields we reached the modern town of Kaymakli. The bus dropped us in front of two old houses that had large Greek letters carved just below the roof. “Until the turn of the century, Kaymakli was a Greek town,” Kadir explained. “After the First World War, Greece invaded Turkey at Izmir and tried to capture Anatolia. But Atatürk fought back and saved the country. While all of this was happening, many Greeks lived in Turkey and many Turks lived in parts of Greece. The local Greeks fled Cappadokia and the rest of Turkey while Turks in Greece came to Anatolia. Today there are no Greek families in Cappadokia, but some of their houses remain.”
We walked past the houses and a row of carpet shops in order to make our way into the underground city of Kaymakli. Kadir led us down a flight of metal steps and brought us into a man-made cave with a tufa doorway leading even further downward.
“This underground city is very old — over 3500 years old,” Kadir explained. The caves were first constructed by the Hatti, an ancient Indo-European people. They built the caves so they could hide when other people invaded their land. Later the Hittites came and expanded the underground cities so they could hold thousands of people. Like today, Cappadokia was a fertile land, and many invaders wanted it for themselves. The Persians came because they also wanted to capture the local horses. Do you know what Cappadokia means? It is Persian for “beautiful horses.” Katpatuka, they called this place. The room we are now in is the horse stable. It was difficult to bring horses deep into the caves, and they wanted to keep them near the cave exit if they needed to leave quickly.”
Kadir brought us down a passageway into a network of rooms, all lit by rows of lightbulbs. We all had to crouch tightly as we walked down the passages, for there was not enough room to stand up straight. If invaders ever successfully entered the complex, they would have had a difficult time rushing into the heart of the underground city. We paused briefly in a room just off the passageway. Long rectangular holes had been cut into the cave floor.
“This was the local morgue,” Kadir said. “As we go deeper into the cave, you will see it gets warmer and warmer. Because of this you had to keep the dead near the top of the underground city, or the bodies would decay very quickly.”

Kaymakli cave
Interior of Kaymakli cave room, Cappadokia

We followed Kadir deeper and deeper into the underground city, visiting kitchens, bedrooms and wine cellars. Between many of the rooms we spotted large wheel-like stones propped near the doorways. “The stone was used as a door,” Kadir explained. “From the inside you could roll the stone into place and close the door. From the outside you could not roll the stone back, so it was a good way to block invaders.” Perhaps the Flintstones weren’t as fictional as we thought.
Six floors down, we reached as deep as we could go into Kaymakli. Kadir pointed out a water well which was used by the city’s residents when they wanted to reconnoiter above ground. Spies could sneak in and out of Kaymakli through the wells, which were carefully disguised from above so that invaders would not suspect them as entrances to the hidden city.
In one of the kitchens I noticed large soot stains on the ceiling. “What did they do about the smoke?” I asked Kadir. “It seems dangerous to make fires when you are sealed 100 feet below ground.”
“It was okay because of the tufa,” Kadir replied. “When you light a fire here, the tufa absorbs the smoke like a filter. It is spread within the rocks, so you can still breath underground. The tufa even prevented the smoke from appearing above ground, so the fires would not give away your location. And with fire you could cook, so you could survive underground for many months. People would not live here all the time, but when they had to, they could be safe here.”
The last room we visited before climbing upwards was the town nursery. It was a large, round room, with deep stone pens carved around its edges. “This is where they would take care of the children,” Kadir said. “Kids would play here and go to school. When kids were bad they could be put in the stone play pens to keep them away from the others.”
I tried leaning into the pen but was not able to reach my hand to the floor. It must have been at least four feet deep — certainly too deep for any toddler to climb out of. “Tough love, I guess,” I joked.
Kadir gave us some time to explore the caves on our own before meeting up top by the bus. I returned to the surface fairly quickly, eager for some fresh air, while Susanne took advantage of the opportunity and wandered underground before meeting me near the entrance. We both wandered around the neighborhood, looking for photo ops while waiting for the rest of the group to reassemble. We each took a picture of an old man separating a bale of hay, just behind the Greek houses we had seen earlier. I tried to take a picture of a group of kids playing, but they weren’t very eager to pose for me.
We spent 45 minutes on the bus driving towards our main stop for the day — the Ilhara Gorge. I really didn’t know much about the gorge apart from the fact that it had several Byzantine-era caves and was a beautiful place to go hiking. The bus brought us through the heart of rural Cappadokia, where old women picking cotton with their bare hands would work just a few acres away from high-tech harvesting equipment. Like so much of Turkey, Cappadokia was caught between two worlds — one traditional and timeless, another at the cutting edge of change.

tufa cone
Ilhara Gorge, Cappadokia

The minibus pulled off the road not far from Göllü Dagi, one of the three volcanoes that had formed the tufa-dominated topography of Cappadokia. Just to our right the flat earth was ripped open into an 800-foot gorge that gouged the countryside for miles into the distance. Kadir gave us several minutes to take pictures and enjoy the view before starting our descent into the gorge. We drove downward towards the town of Ilhara, winding along a snake-like road. We parked near a restaurant about halfway into the gorge, where we were offered our last bathroom break and a chance to stock up on snacks. Someone bought a large bag of trail mix and generously passed it around, letting each of us take a handful or two.
“We will now walk to the bottom of the gorge,” Kadir explained. “It will take about 15 minutes to descend the rest of the way. Before beginning our hike we will visit a small church cave. We will then walk for about an hour, depending on how fast you wish to walk. At the end of the hike we will eat lunch and then drive out of the gorge. Do not worry — you will not have to climb out.”
A sloping path had been cut into the side of the gorge, allowing us an easy descent. I could almost feel the humidity double with every hundred feet downward. Below us I saw a thick forest of trees along the banks of a stream. The stream got louder and louder as we approached. It no longer felt like we were in Cappadokia. Despite being extraordinarily fertile, Cappadokia seemed dry and barren, a distant cousin to the Dakota Badlands. But now were in a lush paradise of greenery and temperate breezes.
Kadir brought us inside a Byzantine-era church at the base of the gorge cliff. Compared to the tufa monasteries of the Göreme Open Air Museum, this particular church wasn’t very impressive. The humidity had taken its toll on the church’s frescoes, as had generations of bats and other small animals that had called the cave home over the centuries. I was anxious to begin our hike; after breathing the dusty environs of Ephesus and Göreme, a stroll by a stream would certainly be a refreshing experience.
We followed a sandy path from the cave to the stream. Even though we were at the bottom of an 800-foot gorge, a surprising amount of light reached the stream and refracted into fluid patterns of sunbeams along the rocks. A grove of trees extended along both sides of the stream, including what appeared to be several types of fruit trees. As we passed one particular tree, Kadir tore off a small branch covered in pink seedpods.
“Do you know what these are?” Kadir asked. “It’s a pistachio tree — fistik in Turkish.”
“Are they ripe enough to eat?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “Try one and find out.”
I took a seedpod and bit into it, hoping to expose the pistachio flesh. A bitter syrup squirted into my mouth and on my hands, causing me to spit out the seed. “Definitely not ready,” I said. The syrup stuck like glue onto my hands. I tried using water from the stream and a wet wipe to clean my fingers, but they remained as sticky as masking tape.
“We can take as much time as you want here,” Kadir said. “You can walk at your own pace and we can meet in about 30 minutes when we reach the spot where there is a large circle of grass and several paths going from it. From there we will have another 20 minutes of walking.”
The dozen of us soon separated into several groups, each going at different paces and exploring different spots along the stream. Susanne and I walked along with a young Australian, several Germans and an Indian man with a limp. There wasn’t a straight path going along the stream — we had to climb over and under boulders, jump over minor tributaries and walk on stepping stones in the hopes of not getting our feet drenched. Someone in the group noticed a patch of blackberries just off the stream. I grabbed a small handful and tasted them, hoping that even unripe blackberries would be better than the bitter pistachios that haunted my tastebuds. The larger blackberries, like the grapes in Uçhisar, were absolutely delicious. Several more patches of blackberries dotted the stream bank as we walked, allowing us to pick fresh snacks along the way.

Turkish Pronunciation

Interested in learning how to pronounce the Turkish words mentioned in this journal? Check out my Turkish pronunication guide!

About a kilometer upstream we met a local family that had been collecting fresh water from the stream. The grandmother led a pair of donkeys while the father and daughter carried water jugs; a mother carried a young boy on one shoulder.
“Merhaba, merhaba,” several of us said to them.
“Iyi günler,” the mother and grandmother replied as they smiled back at us.
“Merhaba, nasilsiniz?” I said to the young girl.
“Iyiyim,” she replied quietly. “Siz nasilsiniz?”
“Çok iyiyim,” I answered. “Ismim Andy. Isminizne?”
Aysel was a little shy, but she continued to walk by my side for a couple of minutes. Once again I was able to use my meagre repertoire of Turkish to introduce myself and learn more about her.
“Nerelesiniz, Aysel?” I asked.
“Belisirma’dan,” she replied.
“Amerikaliyim,” I continued. “Washington’dun. Yirmisikiz yasindayim. Kaç yasindasiniz?”
“On bes yasindayim.”
Aysel’s father gave me a big smile, apparently not displeased at our group’s intrusion into his family’s walk. We soon reached the spot where Kadir had asked us to wait up for the rest of the group, so we bade farewell to Aysel and her family as they headed off to the village.
“Hosça kalin,” I said to them.
“Güle güle,” the mother and grandmother replied, waving. Aysel waved at us as well but didn’t say anything else.

family inside Ilhara gorge

“That’s pretty cool you could carry on a conversation with them,” said Franz, the brown-haired Australian.
“Yeah, I’ve learned just enough to introduce myself, but after about three minutes I run out of things to say,” I said.
“So what did you talk about?” Franz asked.
“Well, I said my name was Andy, that I was 28 years old and from the US. She said her name was Aysel, and she was from Belisirma, just upstream from here. She also said she was 15 years old, which seemed older than I expected.”
“And you just picked this up while you’ve been in Turkey?” he continued.
“I got some books on Turkish grammar, then memorized a couple hundred words and some key phrases. But talking with people has really helped me a lot. It’s one thing to read about a language, but it’s a whole other thing to actually speak it, even if you’re terrible at it.”
Kadir reappeared along with the rest of our group, so we continued our walk for the last two kilometers. We followed the left bank of the stream as the forest thinned out to a grassy hillside covered in a cascade of boulders that had tumbled from the cliffs above. High up the cliffs you could see dozens of large caves. My mind wandered as I imagined an adventure exploring each cave. Who knows what was hidden high up the cliff side.
Susanne and I walked along the stream, pacing Kadir much of the way. As Susanne and Kadir chatted I noticed an old woman standing inside a large cavern on the other side of the stream. She appeared to be separating wheat from chaff as she beat a carpet of wheat with a broom. Despite our distance from each other we managed to make eye contact.
“Merhaba!” I yelled over to her. “Nasilsiniz?”
“Merhaba,” she replied. “Iyiyim.”
“Fotograf çekebilirmiyim?” I asked, pointing to my camera.
“Yok!” she yelled, making a slicing gesture with her right hand. Apparently she had no interest in having her picture taken.
As we walked further upstream Kadir pointed to a small rock on the ground. Just behind it we could see a black snake taking a nap.
“Look out where you step,” he said.
“Do you know if it’s poisonous?” Susanne asked.
“I don’t think so,” Kadir replied. “Let’s not wake it up and find out.”
We eventually reached our lunchtime stop, an outdoor restaurant adjacent to a small bridge spanning the stream. The group sat down at a long table and ate a selection of chicken and meat dishes. Susanne had some chicken and rice while I ate a plate of köfte kebap. We chatted with the rest of the group, learning about their travels across Turkey and other parts of the world. Franz was spending several months backpacking Europe, while a group of Americans and a Canadian were visiting Turkey after a week in Greece. I talked with Shiv, the Indian man, who was interested in the trip Susanne and I took to India in 1996. As we boarded the bus Susanne spotted another puppy, who welcomed a brief visit from her.
The bus next made a brief stop at Yaprakhisar, a small village known for its fabulous tufa formations in the surrounding hillside. The visit was largely noteworthy because the scenery was used as establishing shots on the planet Tatooine in the first Star Wars movie. As we stood outside and admired the view, a young girl with a severe burn scar across her arm came uphill to visit the group. The Turkish girlfriend of the German geographer struck up a conversation with her. I didn’t pay attention to the conversation but the Turkish woman laughed and translated into English, “She said she played the Princess in Star Wars.”
We returned to the bus for a brief ride to a far corner of the valley, near the town of Selime. “There are some wonderful tufa caves on the hills above us,” Kadir said. “You can explore here for the next hour or so, then meet us back on the bus.”
As the rest of the group headed for the hillside I noticed a small Ottoman graveyard on the opposite side of the road. With its beautiful gazebo and unique Turkish gravestones, the cemetery was well worth a quick photograph. I then charged up the stone hillside to find Susanne and the rest of the group, who were now scattered in a network of artificial nooks and crannies reaching hundreds of feet into the air.

Selime graveyard
Ottoman graveyard near Selime, Cappadokia

Climbing around wasn’t as difficult as it had looked from the ground below. Steps had been carved into the stone paths so it was easier to get a foothold. Long stone tunnels with no obvious destination made exploring even more of an adventure — you just never knew where you would end up next. Many of the caverns and rooms had at least one side completely exposed to the elements, offering a vertigo-inducing view of the precipitous drop to the valley below. At the next level above me I spotted Chris, the goateed Canadian backpacker, as well as a young Japanese man. By the time I climbed up to the same level, Chris had somehow managed to go up even higher. As fast as any of the rest of us went, he managed to be king of the hill for the afternoon.
Though the man-made caverns of Selime lacked the Byzantine decorations of Göreme, its dazzling geological setting made it a particular highlight for me. Selime was a ancient maze on three axis points, with innumerable places to explore, get lost and find your way out again. I had a difficult time keeping track of Susanne, who appeared to be having a grand time exploring the upper extremes of the complex. Considering that I didn’t even know that this place had been on our itinerary for the day, Selime came as a noteworthy surprise.

rocky scenery around Selime
The graceful rock scenery of Selime, Cappadokia

By 3pm or so we drove to our next stop, the 13th century Agzi Karahan caravansarai. Though not many others seemed excited about the visit, I was absolutely thrilled. For years I had wanted to travel the great Silk Road caravan route from Turkey to China, and over the last year Susanne and I had even put together a plan for a Silk Road virtual fieldtrip. Though we hadn’t been able to get the project funded, we still longed to travel the Silk Road. Until we could work it out, though, we could at least take advantage of being in Turkey to have some preliminary exposure to the great caravan routes of old. The Agzi Karahan caravansarai was our first real taste of the Silk Road, a 700-year-old inn once used by spice traders and gem merchants.
We entered the main gate of the caravansarai, which appeared from the outside to be a stout Central Asian fortress. Through the gate we reached a great courtyard, the ruins of a small mosque in its center.
“By the 13th century, the Silk Road was coming to an end,” Kadir explained. “But there were still caravans making the trip from Persia and Central Asia to Europe. The Seljuk Turks, who ruled Cappadokia at the time, wanted to guarantee the merchants’ safety since they were getting rich taxing the caravans. Every 50 miles, the caravan would reach a caravansarai, a place where they could rest, buy food and even find doctors. Travelers could stay three days at these inns for free as long as they were bringing along trade goods. Keeping the traders happy was good business for the Seljuks.”
We wandered around the courtyard, visiting the many rooms scattered around the perimeter. Though the sleeping quarters seemed a little claustrophobic, the animal stables were spectacular — an imposing vaulted hallway that was more akin to the interior of a cathedral than a livery. On the Silk Road, people were expendable; camels and horses weren’t.
As the rest of the group finished exploring the caravanserai, Susanne and I sat across the street at a worn-down cafe — its chairs rusting away, its table umbrellas fraying at the edges. We drank tea while chatting with Franz about the history of the Silk Road. Undoubtedly he had no idea what he was getting into when he brought up the subject with us, since both Susanne and I had read extensively on the subject.
“So when did the Silk Road start?” Franz asked.
“It goes all the way back to before Roman times. Alexander the Great brought his army along much of this route all the way from Macedonia to Tajikistan and northwestern India. It gave the Mediterranean a real taste for the exotic goods that were found along the way. Later on, there was this Chinese explorer named — Susanne, what was his name?”
“Chang Ch’ien.”
“Right… Chang Ch’ien was sent into the heart of Central Asia by the Chinese emperor Wu-Ti in 138 BCE, but he was captured by Turkic tribes and held captive for over a decade. Eventually he was released and allowed to return to China. Upon his return he told emperor Wu-Ti about the great war horses the Turks used for battle — the Fergana horses. The emperor was so determined to get some of these horses for himself he sent a series of expeditionary forces into Central Asia. After sieging the city of Fergana, the emperor got his precious horses, but the expedition also introduced the Chinese to the trading opportunities that could be established through Central Asia. So as Greeks and Romans went east to find new trade goods, the Chinese went west, and Central Asia became the conduit for a commercial network that reached from Venice to the Great Wall.”
“But the Silk Road wasn’t just about selling goods,” I continued. “As the caravans plied the trade routes, travelers also passed along ideas — religion, politics, culture. The Silk Road allowed information to travel thousands of miles between empires that previously weren’t in regular contact with each other. In a real sense, the Silk Road was the world’s first information superhighway.”
“So what caused it to shut down?” Franz asked.
“Times changed,” Susanne said. “For hundreds of years, the only way you could get from Europe to China was to follow the caravan routes, which left you at the mercy of bandits, mountains and deserts. It was a dangerous trip. As shipbuilding and navigation improved, it became a lot safer to travel the ocean routes instead of the land routes. The Silk Road eventually dried up, isolating many of the cultures that once thrived because of the caravans.”

Avanos potter
Avanos pottery maker

We continued our conversation on the minibus as we drove to Avanos, a small Cappadokian town known for its superb pottery and porcelain. Even though we were about to have a private tour of a pottery making shop, Susanne and I knew that our stop in Avanos was really about sales: a chance for the tour operator to drop a bunch of travelers into a shopping gallery and hope for some cut of the profits. It didn’t really bother me as long as the shop wasn’t playing the hard sell. Sometimes these mandatory shop visits are nothing more than a chance to browse the local handicrafts. Other times it’s a sweaty merchant breathing down your neck, driving you crazy with his constant demands for your business. Hopefully this visit would not be the latter experience.
I had expected the tour to be of a traditional pottery business — locals have been working the ruddy clay from the local Red River since Hittite times, so I pictured some elderly gent in baggy Turkish trousers spinning a stone pottery wheel by hand. The shop we visited was actually a modern pottery factory, a well-oiled machine in a warehouse tooled for producing tens of thousands of pieces. As we discovered, though, the molding was still done by hand. Kadir introduced us to a young man as he crafted a vase on an electric pottery wheel. A lump of damp red clay spun around at varying speeds as the man used his hands and metal carving tools to shape the damp earth into a piece of art. We also watched another man create a large bowl composed of white clay — he pressed a handful of clay onto a spinning semi-circle and squeezed it between another semi-circle, not unlike a press or a waffle iron. After opening the contraption and allowing the wheel to spin down to a standstill, he popped out a perfectly formed plate, ready to sit dry before being cooked for three days in an industrial-sized kiln.
Our last stop along the pottery-making parade route was the design room, where skilled artisans painted intricate, yet delicate patterns onto freshly kilned plates and bowls. I watched one woman paint a complex flower design on a plate that was probably two feet in diameter. For centuries the Turks have been masters of decoration techniques. Islam’s prohibition of depicting human forms in art led to a renaissance in abstract Ottoman art, which specialized in symmetrical patterns on pottery ranging from the red and white clay plates of Avanos to the legendary blue Iznik tiles from Western Anatolia.

pottery artist
An artists paints fine details on a plate of Avanos pottery

Not wanting to interrupt her, I asked one of the tour guides how long it would take to paint the entire pattern.
“It depends on the design and the size of the plate, of course,” he said. “As for this plate, she will probably spend three months on it.”
Our guide brought us to a table displaying a series of plates at different stages of development. “After the plate has come out of the kiln for the first time, an artist will trace a pattern on it. She will then spend many weeks painting it, following the stencil marks. The plate is allowed to dry completely, then it is coated with a white powder which turns into a clear glaze when cooked in the kiln.”
“When it is all done,” he concluded, “you end up with a beautiful plate that can sell for many hundreds of dollars.” He picked up a fragile white plate that was decorated with a fine design of flowers and grape vines. Handing it to an American woman who was part of the group, the plate suddenly slipped out of his hand and started to plunge to the floor. The woman let out an audible gasp, fearing that she had just caused the destruction of a pricy showpiece. Instead the plate recoiled and then swung in the air on a clear plastic cord secretly wrapped around the tourguide’s hand.
“I got you!” the guide exclaimed with glee.
At the conclusion of the tour the guide brought us to a large room lined with traditionally Ottoman seat pillows along the perimeter. We were invited to rest and drink apple tea while a master craftsman demonstrated a traditional pottery wheel, spun with one foot as his hands molded a lump of clay.
“This type of pottery making is very ancient,” the tour guide explained. “Pottery wheels like this have been found in Mesopotamia, from thousands of years ago.”
The pottery maker spun the clay for five minutes until he produced a small container with a removable lid. “Do any of you know what this is?” the guide asked, pointing to the container. “If you can guess you will get a prize.” Our group began to call out a range of items, none of which seemed to hit the mark. I eventually offered my own guess: a sugar bowl.
“Correct!” the guide said. “Please come up and collect your prize.”
I walked up to the front of the room and was handed what appeared to be a red clay ashtray with holes in it. “A Cappadokian soap dish,” the guide said as he handed it to me.
Our tea still hadn’t arrived yet, and the shop guide was running out of ways to keep us occupied. As I started to go and sit down, the guide said, “Why don’t we all sing a song? Do you know any good songs?”
The entire group looked at him and me, perplexed. “I don’t think that will work,” I said, trying to find a way out for all of us. “We’re from so many different places we probably don’t all know the same song.”
(Let’s face it — none of us really wanted to be stuck in this room waiting for tea. Kadir had probably gone off for a smoke break and had left us in the shop guide’s care.)
“Okay, so how about if we have a volunteer to make some pottery?” he responded, not sure what to do next. The Turkish-German woman offered to give the pottery wheel a whirl, but ended up making what appeared to be a melted plastic mug that had been nuked for too long in a microwave. Our teas finally arrived, and most of us drank them quickly just so we could get out of this awkward situation. The guide told us that we had about 20 minutes to wander the galleries and look at their pottery — and if we bought now, we’d receive a ten percent discount.
The group wandered the showrooms aimlessly, killing time until Kadir could get us out of there. There were beautiful museum-quality pieces that were available for purchase, but the salespeople didn’t seem to grasp that they were dealing mostly with a cash-strapped backpacker crowd. Eventually, Kadir appeared from his cigarette break and said we could return to the bus. Most of us headed outside quickly, eager to move on to our last stop. While we waited for a few stragglers to join us, Susanne and I played with a litter of four hyperactive puppies that resided next to a small guard post.
“I just don’t get it,” Susanne said as the small dogs climbed all over us. “There are more puppies per square mile in Turkey than any other country we’ve visited.”
The sun was going to set in just over an hour so we drove onward to our final stop, the Valley of the Fairy Chimneys near the village of Zelve. The minibus deposited us inside an asphalt parking lot lined with a row of souvenir stalls. Kadir said we would have 45 minutes to explore the valley before regrouping atop a hill in order to watch the sunset. Our group scattered in several directions, wandering off to marvel at Zelve’s famous fairy chimneys, one of the most photographed collections of classical tufa formations in Cappadokia. While other fairy chimneys often varied in shape and size, Zelve’s chimneys were all equally enormous, equally beautiful, and — well, let’s be honest — equally phallic. Embarrassingly phallic, in fact. It was hard not to giggle when looking upwards at these rosy-hued pillars, but after a few minutes the bawdy novelty wore off and the fairy chimneys returned to being just impressive natural rock formations.

fairy chimneys
The fairy chimneys of the Rose Valley, Cappadokia

Susanne headed off down a path towards a boy who was offering camel rides while I took a detour through several acres of grape vines. Hundreds of bushels of grapes had been picked that week and were now drying into raisins on dozens of plastic tarps. The grapes were shriveling yet still juicy, giving off a distinct fermentation smell that reminded me of past visits to Sonoma Valley vineyards. One or two acres of grapes had yet to be picked. I discreetly reached down and pulled of a few for myself, plopping the plump red fruit into my mouth one at a time.

A camel lounges around the Rose Valley, Cappadokia

I met Susanne over by the camel and followed her up a stony embankment that led to several ancient tufa churches tucked neatly in the back of the valley. The churches were only reachable by a pair of rickety wooden ladders. We both climbed up carefully and visited the interior of the main church. There was little to see up there except the view, since the interior of the cave had faded away long ago.
I was eager to climb down the ladder to get both feet back on the ground, but halfway down my descent Susanne observed, “The light is really good at the top. Go back so I can take a picture.” Holding on for dear life I climbed back up, then allowed the Turkish-German couple to head back down the ladder. Susanne snapped the picture and then encouraged a Japanese man to go up so she could take a picture of him with his camera.
Again passing the boy with the camel, Susanne and I crossed the valley and climbed the hill for sunset. The hill was a hemispherical mound of tufa about 100 feet high. Though it wasn’t very steep, the fact that the hill was constantly crumbling fine bits of tufa made every step slippery and potentially dangerous. I settled myself atop the hill while Susanne continued onward, walking up and down a thin pass that connected several other hills. While I fiddled with my zoom lens and some of Susanne’s optical filters I shared a bottle of Cappadokian wine with an American couple who had brought along a small picnic for sunset.
Susanne returned to my spot on the hill just after sunset, giving us enough time to pack up our cameras before returning to the minibus. Kadir appeared and told us it was time to go, leaving me and the two other Americans with a full glass of wine to bring back to the bus. We offered a glass to Kadir. “No thank you,” he said. “I am not very religious but I still do not drink.”
The bus dropped us off back in Göreme in front of the otogar. Several members of our group were going to eat at the Orient for dinner. Having dined there just the night before, Susanne and I declined and opted for the Sultan Restaurant across the street. We both ordered Turkish pizzas while I had a cool glass of Efes Pilsner. A trio of chainsmoking Japanese women sat next to us, along with a suave young Turkish man. I had assumed they all knew each other but just as their food arrived I heard one of the women ask him, “So what is your name?” Neither Susanne nor I could figure out why they were dining with him. Later we struck up a conversation with them and discovered that one of the women had learned her English in New York, giving her a humorously thick Long Island accent.
Back at the Ufuk hotel I had hoped to get some journal writing done. Susanne and I were both pretty beat from the long day, and we both fell asleep soon after settling in for the night.

August 31, 1999

Land of the Fairy Chimneys

Filed under: Turkey — Andy Carvin @ 10:14 pm

tufa cone
Tufa cones near Göreme, Cappadokia

Someone was shaking me, yet I could neither see nor hear who it was. I pulled the anorak off my head and removed my earplugs, only to find the yardimci leaning down by my face.
“Kapadokya,” he said to me curtly.
Susanne and I grabbed our backpacks from the upper storage compartment and walked down the steps of the bus, only to find ourselves standing along the side of a pitch black highway.
“Where are we?” I asked the yardimci.
“Nevsehir,” he said. “You will take a taxi to Göreme.”
“No we won’t,” I replied, showing him our ticket. “This bus is supposed to take us to Göreme.”
“We are not going to Göreme,” he responded, not appearing to care at all about our predicament.
“Could you at least take us to the local bus station?” Susanne asked, equally annoyed.
“The bus station is not open until seven o’clock — two more hours,” the yardimci said. “You must take a taxi.”
Conveniently, of course, a lone taxi was waiting by the side of the highway, just behind our bus. We were in the middle of nowhere at five in the morning, so the only way the taxi would have known to be there would have been if he made prior arrangements with someone connected to our bus. We were being squeezed and there wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it.
The taxi driver approached us as we argued with the yardimci. “Göreme — kaç lira?” I asked him.
“Besmilyon lira,” the cabbie replied. “Five million.”
We were a captive audience, worn out and without options. Susanne and I either could sit by the side of the road or we could pay this guy the 13 bucks he wanted to take us to Göreme. We were in no position to argue.
The taxi took us down the highway, steadily making its way to Göreme. I fumbled through my Lonely Planet to find a hotel to which he could take us. I had previously circled the Peri Hotel, which had received a good write-up. As the minutes ticked by I watched the taxi meter reach five million lira, yet we appeared no closer to our destination. The meter soon passed six million lira, seven million, eight million.
“You promised us five million lira,” I said angrily to the driver.
“It will be a bit more,” he answered nonchalantly.
“No it won’t, because we don’t have any more than five million lira,” I responded. “Either take five million or take nothing at all.” I wasn’t exactly bluffing, either. Since I had honestly expected to be able to get all the way to Göreme on our bus ticket I had neglected to change any more money before leaving Selçuk.
“Okay, no problem,” the taxi driver said, apparently not wanting to debate the issue further. “Five million lira. The meter is no problem.”
Around 5:30am we reached the town of Göreme, situated at the bottom of a jagged valley. We weaved along the main road, passing blunt shadowy peaks to our left and right. The cab pulled over in front of the Peri Hotel, a small collection of bungalows surrounding a rock garden. The lights from the hotel sign reflected towards several umbered hillocks across the road. As my eyes adjusted to the light I got my first clear sight of what we had come so far to see: the tufa cones of Cappadokia.
Millions of years ago, a series of fantastic volcanic eruptions showered the region with over 100 feet of hot ash. The ash eventually hardened into a soft pumice stone, locally known as tufa. Over the eons, wind and water had eroded much of the tufa in the valley, but certain sections of tufa were protected by enormous boulders that had been blown out of the volcanoes and onto the ash layer. The rocky debris prevented the rain from wearing down the tufa below it, creating tall columns of pumice with boulders perched atop. These tufa cones became known by the villagers as peribaca, or fairy chimneys. With thousands of giant fairy chimneys dotting its landscape, Cappadokia has become one of the most celebrated geological wonders in Turkey.

Turkish Pronunciation

Interested in learning how to pronounce the Turkish words mentioned in this journal? Check out my Turkish pronunication guide!

Inside the hotel courtyard we found a sign in English asking us to ring a bell in order to wake up the manager. A minute or so later a tired young man in a t-shirt and sweat pants appeared.
“Merhaba,” he said, wiping the sleep from his eyes.
“Merhaba, I replied. “Ingilizce konüsüyormüsünüz?”
“Yes,” he answered. “Do you need a room?”
“Please…. In a tufa cone, if it’s available.”
The man brought us across the courtyard to a tall tufa cone that had been carved into a small bungalow. Because tufa is incredibly soft, it’s possible for anyone with a hammer or a rock to carve out rooms quickly. We entered the cone and looked around; it seemed like a fine place to spend a few nights.
“How much is the room?” I asked.
“Seven million lira,” the manager replied.
“We would probably stay for two nights,” I said. “We’ll spend today and tomorrow in Göreme and then catch an overnight bus out of town.”
“So you will spend three nights here, not two,” he replied.
“Are you counting this past night?” I asked. “It’s after 6am. The sun is coming up. It’s morning.”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “If you come here now I will charge you for this past night, for I will have to make your bed in a few hours.”
“That’s crazy,” Susanne said.
“Do you want to stay here or not?” he replied, clearly as frustrated as we were.
“What do you think?” I asked Susanne.
“Forget it,” she said. “Not if he’s going to try to charge us for an extra night.”
Susanne and I picked up our bags and walked out the door, ticked off and not sure where to go next. We sat outside for a moment in order for me to put on my sweater and get my bearings. The sky had brightened since we had left the cab. We could hear the sunrise call to prayer emanating from the mosques near the center of town.
“So what do you want to do?” I asked.
“Are there other hotels around here?” Susanne responded.
“Every other building here is a hotel,” I said. “There are several around the corner that are supposed to be good.”
We walked 20 yards downhill and reached a steep driveway. At the top of it I saw a sign for the Horizon II Hotel — or as it is awkwardly known in Turkish, the Ufuk II. We climbed the driveway and rung another bell, guarded ineffectively by a white terrier napping on a counter. A young man soon appeared and offered to show us a room. He brought us to a tufa room with double beds and a private shower.
“How much is it?” I asked.
“Five million lira,” he said, two million less than the Peri Hotel. At this point Susanne and I both desperately needed a few hours of sleep, so we didn’t care whether or not we would be charged an extra night for our nap.
“We’ll take it,” I said. The man gave us the keys and left us as we took off our shoes, collapsed on our beds and quickly fell asleep.
I awoke two hours later, just after 8am. I gave Susanne a tap on the shoulder to see if she was ready to get out of bed. When she opened her eyes it was clear that her cold had become significantly worse.
“I’m too sick to get up right now,” she said.
“I know,” I replied. “But we were going to take a tour today, then explore Cappadokia on our own tomorrow. Are you well enough for a tour?”
“I don’t think so,” Susanne answered, coughing.
“How about if you get some more sleep for a while and I’ll walk into town,” I suggested. “I need to change money anyway so it will give me something to do. I can also stop at a few tour agencies to get their tour schedule for today and tomorrow. We’ll figure something out when you’re well enough.”
As Susanne went back to sleep I left the hotel, walking downhill to the center of Göreme. Göreme is a small town, with most places being no further than a five or ten minute walk away from each other. The roads were very quiet, apart from a street sweeper working its way towards our hotel. Young women in headscarves suspended enormous Turkish carpets in front of their family’s shops while men used brooms on sidewalks to brush away the overnight dust. The downtown area was divided by a dry riverbed, now populated with green trees and rows of flowers. Göreme was very much a tourist town, a quaint destination for those of us seeking a little adventure in the surrounding hillsides. The town made sure to put its best foot forward.
Next to the small otogar I found Hiro Tours, a local agency recommended in our Lonely Planet guide. A large man with bad teeth sat outside the agency, splitting a bottle of coke with a young man in an Australian outback hat.
“G’day mate,” said the man in the hat, his unusual accent lost somewhere between Ankara and Adelaide. “My name’s Ahmed. Lookin’ to join the tour this mornin’?”
“Actually, I just wanted to find out what tours you offer around Cappadokia.”
“Come inside my office and I’ll show you, mate,” he replied.
Inside the agency I sat down by his desk, an Australian flag hanging behind it. “Have you live Australia?” I asked.
“No, not yet,” he replied. “I learned my English from all the Aussies and Kiwis who come through Göreme. We get a lot of ‘em here, y’know.”
“My girlfriend and I are looking for a day tour of Cappadokia,” I continued. “We only have a couple of days here, so we want to get on a tour that can take us around to some of the far-off sites, like one of the underground cities. We’d then do the area around Göreme on our own.”
“I’ve got some tours for you, mate,” Ahmed replied. “Today we’re doing our Classic Cappadokia tour, which’ll take you to one of the underground cities, a winery in Ürgüp, and a few other places. Tomorrow we’ve got our Ilhara Valley tour, which includes a hike through the Ilhara Valley, an underground city, a Silk Road caravanserai and the pottery town of Avanos. Both tours include a minibus with an English-speaking guide, entry fees and lunch. ”
“What time does today’s tour start?” I asked.
“At 9:30, so you could still make it. The bus comes back after sunset.”
“I’m not sure if today will work out since my girlfriend is not feeling well,” I continued. “But tomorrow might be better. Let me talk with her and get back to you.”
“No problem, mate,” Ahmed said, tipping his hat goodbye.
Around the corner from Hiro Tours I entered a covered mall populated by carpet shops and more travel agencies. Most shops had a sign out front noting their daily exchange rate. I found a carpet seller who was offering 440,000 lira per dollar, with no charge for cashing traveler’s cheques. I exchanged $100 with him and returned to the hotel to see how Susanne was doing.
To my surprise, Susanne was up and around when I got back to the room, though she certainly did not look well.
“How are you feeling?” I asked.
“Miserable,” she said. “I don’t see how I can do a tour today.”
“Well, I’ve got an idea,” I replied. “There are some interesting tours that leave every day at 9:30am. Since today seems out of the question, let’s plan for taking a tour tomorrow. Today, we can relax, get some brunch, and take our time seeing the Göreme Open Air Museum and the other local sites. It’s only a 20-minute walk from the hotel. When you’ve had enough of that, we can return to town and chill out. Then we can get a good night’s sleep for tomorrow’s tour.”
“I really wanted to rent motor scooters here, though,” Susanne continued. “And a balloon ride is still really tempting.”
“How about if we just plan to stay here for a third day?” I suggested. “Cappadokia was one of the main reasons why you wanted to come to Turkey, so let’s take advantage of it while we’re here. We’ve already worked in a couple of spare days in our itinerary just in case we wanted to stay somewhere longer or if we got stuck. Why not spend one of those days here in Göreme? That way we could rent scooters or take the balloon ride on that third day, then make our way to Nemrut Dagi either that last night or the next morning.”
“Okay,” Susanne said, satisfied with the idea. “Why don’t you get tickets for a tour tomorrow while I get ready?”
I briefly returned to Hiro Tours to make our arrangements with the Aussified Turk, Ahmed. I was back at the hotel just after 9:30am, which had given Susanne just enough time to get organized. We walked down into town, checking out some of the local breakfast cafes. Immediately below our hotel we passed the Flintstones Bar, a backpacker hangout that advertised its satellite TV schedule and export beer selection. (Flintstones references seemed to be all over Göreme, thanks to Cappadokia’s uncanny resemblance to that classic animated landscape.) Just beyond the bar was the Vegemite Cafe, a small outdoor restaurant that catered aggressively to Australians.
On the main road, just across from the dry riverbed, we walked by a no-name cafe with a medium-sized dog out front. The dog eagerly approached us and nudged my hip, literally steering me towards the cafe. It was a clever ploy, one we really enjoyed, so we acquiesced to the pooch and sat down under a small awning. Susanne ordered a hefty plate of French toast and some apricot juice while I got the Turkish breakfast, hot tea and peach juice, a meal that was fast becoming my morning ritual. The Turkish breakfast came with the usual olives, goat cheese, hard boiled egg and honey, and was accompanied by a generous sliced loaf of fluffy, oven fresh bread.
“I could eat like this every day,” I sighed contentedly.
“You do eat like this every day,” Susanne laughed.
Since I had promised we would take our time today, we lingered over every bite and ordered seconds of tea, allowing us to sit back and observe Göreme’s persistent inactivity. Every few minutes a horse cart would come by — an older man chauffeuring his wife and daughters, invariably concealed by headscarves and often under a full-length chador. Even though Göreme is now a tourist town, so to speak, its roots are still very traditional. Occasionally women traveling alone here have been hassled here because they were showing too much skin, but it seemed to me that Göreme had reached a compromise with most of its visitors: if you’re polite and not being immodest, we’ll welcome you here.
Nonetheless, Susanne and I spotted a number of backpackers wandering around in shorts, which struck us as being extremely indiscreet. We’ve always felt that it’s important to respect local customs as much as possible, especially when it came to dress codes in Islamic countries. Though you can get away with wearing shorts in the touristed parts of Turkey, we still found it to be a bit of an insult. As warm as it could get here in Cappadokia, we would be sure to wear our khakis.
After our long breakfast Susanne and I started our walk to the Göreme Open Air Museum. The hills west of town were famous for their extraordinary collection of grottoes filled with ancient Byzantine churches. The soft tufa rock made it easy for the faithful to carve monasteries into the hills and fairy chimneys, and many of them still contained colorful frescoes from the 10th and 11th centuries. Hundreds of such monasteries are scattered around Cappadokia, but their greatest concentration could be found just outside of Göreme, in a national park now designated as the Göreme Open Air Museum.

tufa cone houses
A tufa cone house in Göreme sports a Turkish flag

Along the road, just uphill from the hotel, we found a row of tufa cones perched on an embankment like bloated stalagmites. Each tufa was about 30 feet high and was wide enough to host a small home. We briefly climbed around the hillside, trying to get our first pictures of Cappadokian tufas, despite the fact that they were often obscured by telephone wires and TV antennas. It didn’t really matter to us that these particular tufas were perhaps the least picturesque cones in all of Cappadokia. We were just happy to have the chance to explore them, even the most mundane tufas.
About five minutes past the hotel the road sloped downward into a broad valley. Further ahead I could see the road rise again by the entrance to the museum, perhaps a kilometer away. To our left, beyond a sign marked “Overnight Camping,” we found acres of farm land populated by congregations of tufa formations.
“Let’s go that way,” Susanne said, pointing left towards the distant tufas.
“But the Open Air Museum is straight ahead,” I remarked.
“I know,” she replied. “Let’s go explore.”

tufa cones in a melon patc
Ancient tufa dominate a Göreme melon patch

We turned left down a dirt road and then cut a little towards the left into a thriving patch of melons and pumpkins. Susanne and I walked carefully, avoiding to step anywhere near the bulbous orange and green fruit. Just beyond the patch we reached an outcrop of tufa on a hillside, which from a distance looked a bit like a petrified sandcastle. I followed Susanne as she scurried up the hillside, still avoiding those errant melons that had grown high above the field. We could see that some of the tufa formations had been carved out, so Susanne and I each chose our own cave to explore. My tufa had been hollowed out vertically into what must have been a church. Large black Maltese crosses were painted on the walls, and the shattered roof revealed the remains of what was once a vaulted ceiling.
“You’ve got to see this!” I yelled out to Susanne, who was somewhere above me on another hill.
“You’ve got to come up here!” She yelled back. “These caves are incredible.”
I pulled myself up the crumbling hillside and found Susanne, crouching low to reach the interior of another cave. As I kneeled in front of it I could see more black crosses and symmetric lines of red paint.
“It’s amazing that these caves are nearly a thousand years old,” I observed. “You’d think that someone hollowed them out just recently.”
“And the whole hillside is like this,” Susanne replied. “It really is incredible.”
Once again we split off in separate directions, hoisting ourselves higher and higher along the hillside. Some of the formations were easier to climb then others, with rows of steps carved into the tufa. Other areas weren’t as accessible, with sand and pebbles tumbling down every time you took a step up. I quickly discovered that if I leaned forward and crouched as I climbed along these steep embankments, my center of gravity would be lower, allowing me greater balance.
We each spent some time exploring the caves, some of which were carved into multi-story dwellings. I followed Susanne to the second floor of one cave, which had large open windows facing west and south. A hole in the floor at one corner of the room dropped down to the first floor. I imagined a wooden ladder rising from the bottom, jutting through the hole towards where I was standing. I also noticed some charring on the floor and on the walls. In one corner of the room there was a pile of ash with black soot scarring the wall behind it. In the middle of the wall on opposite sides of the room, just above a round hole, I found more charring, this time streaking straight up.
“It looks like they had a fire in the corner, over there,” I surmised. “And they probably had torches or some kind of lamp stuck in the walls.” The ash in the corner included small pieces of bone. I wondered how old the remains were — had people camped out here recently or were these the remains of some Greek family long ago?
Susanne continued her way to the top of the hill while I played detective in the ancient living quarters. “Come on up here,” I heard her yell down to me. “You’ve got to check out this view.”
I carefully followed her voice up a steep gravel path, eventually making my way to a rounded summit. Susanne was staring out towards the west. Far beyond the valley floor an enormous tufa formation stretched north and south, several kilometers wide and hundreds of feet high. Over the eons water had streamed down the formation, slowly chiseling a delicate pattern of channels from top to bottom. It was eerily beautiful, the tufa etched and polished like the soft peaks of Italian meringue or fresh whipped cream. A geological dreamscape — fluid like sand, yet frozen in time.

tufa landscape
The meringue-like formations of the Valley of the Swords, Cappadokia

“I’ve seen pictures of this place on postcards,” I said. “I didn’t realize is was nearby.”
“Do they write about it in the Lonely Planet?” Susanne asked.
“I don’t think so.” I skimmed through the book to see if anything like this place was described. I couldn’t find any mention of it.
“It looks like we’ve stumbled upon our first major discovery of our trip,” I said.
“I told you we should go this way,” Susanne smiled.
After taking far too many pictures of the distant hillside we carefully climbed down the tufa formation, examining ruined cave dwellings as we went. The tufa sloped gently downward towards the Open Air Museum, so we followed the edge of the rock instead of going straight down. The far end of the formation was enveloped by pumpkin vines, so once again we had to tread cautiously. On another tufa knoll, 100 yards to the east, I noticed a series of geometric shapes carved in a sheer cliff face, as if Henri Matisse had made a pilgrimage to Cappadokia just to leave behind some mysterious graffiti.
As we crossed another melon patch and returned to the main road, I saw a sign pointing in the direction from which we had just come: “Valley of the Swords.” Just to be sure, I checked the Lonely Planet again but found no mention of it. We walked another ten minutes uphill towards the museum entrance. We paused for a few minutes at a small cafe, drinking peach juice as several bees swarmed around the table. We had actually been plagued by bees just a week or so before in Washington, sitting outside a Starbucks looking at some Turkey travel books. I’ve always really hated bees, and found it difficult to enjoy my juice while they hovered around my face.
“Well, my nemesis, you have chosen to follow me to Cappadokia,” I hissed at them. “It is a decision you will soon regret!”
I climbed the hill above the cafe in order to return to the main road. Susanne took her time coming up, pausing to take pictures of a local boy with a camel. Eventually we reached the entrance of the Open Air Museum and paid the $5 visitor fee. The museum was a series of barren tufa formations, each with several Byzantine caves carved into them. We followed a clockwise path from cave to cave, giving us a chance to climb around and explore them.

tufa caves
Byzantine tufa churches at the Göreme Open Air Museum

The first cave, the Rahibeler Manastiri (Nun’s Convent), was a small grotto at the same level as the path. From the outside it appeared like a naturally formed cavern, its interior too dark to visualize from the outside. Once we entered the cave and our eyes adjusted, we could see a complex pattern of Byzantine icons covering the walls and the vaulted ceiling. Though the frescoes had deteriorated over the centuries, the precision of the drawings and their vivid pastel colors made them seem quite modern.

Byzantine frescoes
Byzantine frescoes inside a tufa church

Walking uphill we soon reached the Yilanli Kilise (Snake Church). Tall, thin figures of St. George and St. Theodore covered the vaults, as representations of Constantine the Great and his mother Helena occupied the lower walls. Not far from here, Susanne and I found the Elmali Kilise (Apple Church), an immense hall of no less than half a dozen vaulted ceilings. Once again, St. George played a major role in the church’s frescoes, bravely slaying the dragon on horseback. To prevent further erosion (not to mention desecration), much of the fresco work was protected by a sheet of clear plastic.
As Susanne and I walked over to the next group of caves, we noticed two men inside a broad cavern, sitting in wooden chairs by a small table. “Merhaba!” the older man shouted at us, smiling.
“Merhaba,” Susanne waved back.
“Çay?” he asked, pointing to the kettle of water on the table. Susanne and I looked at each other, not sure what to do. Once again the older man smiled at us, waving his hand and shouting “Çay?” We both knew it would be extremely rude to say no to his offer of tea, though neither of us really had any idea of what we would do once we went over there.
“Tesekkürler,” I said to him as we reached the table. “Tesekkür ederiz.”
“Türkçe konüsüyormüsünüz?” he asked, surprised that I knew any Turkish.
“Biraz Türkçe,” I replied, habitually pinching my thumb and index finger close together to convey that I knew a little bit. It only occurred to me as I did it that I could have been making a rude gesture, but the big smiles I got from the two men suggested otherwise.
“Isminizne?” I asked them, wondering what their names were.
“Ismim Osman,” the older man said, proudly pointing his thumb at his chest. “Benim arkadas,” he then continued, gesticulating to the younger man.
“His name is Osman,” I said to Susanne. “I don’t know the other man’s name, but they’re apparently friends.”
“Ismim Andy,” I continued, before pointing at Susanne. “Susanne.”
“Andy and Susanne,” Osman said slowly in English. “Welcome to Göreme — hos geldiniz!” He poured each of us a small tulip-shaped glass of hot water and stirred in bright pink crystals. The water quickly transformed into rosehip tea.
“Sag olun,” I replied, taking my first sip. “Çok güzel!”
“Çok güzel,” Susanne agreed, smiling as she tasted it.
“Nerelesiniz?” I asked Osman, trying to find a way to make conversation out of my limited Turkish.
“I am from Nevsehir,” he replied, his accent as thick as his powerful hands. “Work — Göreme. Live — Nevsehir.”
“Does he have children?” Susanne wondered.
“Çacukler var mi?” I asked.
“Bes çacukler!,” he replied, laughing and holding up five fingers. “You?” he continued, pointing at us.
“Yok,” I answered. “No kids.”
“Kids are good, very good,” Osman smiled, clearly proud of his own.
“And you,” he continued. “Nerelesiniz?”
“Amerikaliyiz,” I said. “Washington’dun.”
The younger man finally piped in at this point. “My brother lives in Denver,” he said, his English somewhat better than Osman’s. “Is Denver near Washington?”
“No, they are far away,” Susanne said, “but my family lives in Denver. It is very beautiful there. Çok güzel.”
“Para var mi?” Osman then asked. I wasn’t exactly sure what he was driving at, since it sounded like he said, “Do you have any money?”
“Osman likes to collect coins,” his friend explained. “He wants to know if you have American coins you can show him.”
“Para yok, üzgünüm,” I replied, sorry that we had left all of our small change in the US.
Osman poured us a second round of rosehip tea. My Turkish vocabulary was quickly reaching its limits, but we passed the time by teaching each other words.

Andy, Osman and friend
Andy poses with Osman and his friend at the Göreme Open Air Museum

“Türkçese ne?” Osman asked, pointing to the tea kettle.
“Tea pot,” I said. “Or tea kettle.”
“Tea kettle,” Osman repeated. “Tea is çay, yes?”
“Yes,” Susanne answered, “Tea is çay.”
We sat for awhile longer, sipping our teas and exchanging words. Before we left to see the rest of the museum, we asked if we could take pictures of them. “No problem,” Osman said in English. Susanne and I each took a picture, then offered to send them copies in the mail. I gave Osman a pen so he could write it down.
“Hosça kalin,” I said to Osman and his friend as we got ready to leave.
“Güle güle,” Osman said, shaking my hand goodbye.
“That was very cool,” I said to Susanne as we left. “Everyone here is so genuinely nice.”
“We’ll have to send him some coins when we mail the pictures to them,” Susanne replied.
Susanne and I visited several more caves that afternoon, increasingly impressed with each grotto, each fresco. On a hill beyond the caves we found a beautiful view of a steep valley, a sheer cliff covered in caves just across it. Two women and a man sat in yoga positions on the hill, soaking up the sun and smiling like buddhas. As we worked our way to the exit we found a winding path to another cave. The path was long and thin, with smooth walls of tufa to each side. We had to duck in order to get into the cave. Bright sunlight reflected off the tufa corridor, reminding both Susanne and me of the desert planet of Tatooine in Star Wars.

tufa caves
Tufa caves, Göreme Open Air Museum

The last cave we explored was actually just outside the museum gate, though it required a ticket stub in order to visit it. Rather unintentionally, we had saved the best for last — the Tokali Kilise (Buckle Church) was a grand chapel with bright frescos on two floors. The main floor was protected by a high tufa vault, decorated with pristine images of Jesus conducting a series of miracles. The bottom floor, accessible by a precarious set of metal stairs, was much less ornate, almost spartan when compared to the colorful vaulted ceiling.
Susanne and I walked back to Göreme, slightly dehydrated and ready for a snack. Just beyond our hotel we stopped at the Vegemite Cafe, ordering cokes and some fruit cake. A young boy, perhaps eight or nine years old, played with two delightful brown puppies, neither of which could have been a month or two old. The puppies seemed intrigued by our presence, climbing under a table for a little attention before darting back to the boy or some other customers.
Across the street we noticed two women in headscarves weaving colorful kilims on upright wooden looms. The rich afternoon sunshine was coming down just at the right angle to make the kilims glow in warm red hues. Susanne suggested we go over to the shop to see if the women would allow us to take pictures.
“Merhaba,” Susanne and I said to them.
“Merhaba,” the women replied, smiling shyly at us.
“Fotograf çekebelirmiyiz, lütfen?” I asked them.
“Okay,” one them replied in English.

Ali the carpet seller
Ali the carpet seller, Göreme

As Susanne kneeled down to take a picture, a young Turkish man approached us from inside the shop.
“Good afternoon,” he said. He was in his twenties, thin featured, with long black hair hanging down his smiling face.
“Iyi günler,” I responded. “Nasilsiniz?”
“Iyiyim,” he replied. “Siz nasilsiniz?”
“Çok iyiyim, tesekkürler.”
“Where did you learn your Turkish?” he asked. “In America?”
“I got a Turkish language book in the US,” I replied, “but I’ve been only speaking it here for about a week.”
“Your Turkish sounds good,” he smiled. “My name is Ali. This is my family’s shop.”
Susanne and I both introduced ourselves to Ali. “Your English is very good,” Susanne commented.
“It’s okay, I think,” he replied. “I get to speak a lot of English in Göreme, but it’s confusing with so many different accents: American, British, Australian. But I see you are interested in the kilims. Would you like to try?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Would you like to try making a kilim?” he said, pointing to the looms. “They wouldn’t mind if you tried.” The two women looked up from where they were sitting and smiled at us.
“Okay,” Susanne said, kneeling to the ground. “What do I do?”
One of the women scooted over her small stool and invited Susanne to sit on a pillow. She handed Susanne a loop of wool and demonstrated how to weave it.

Susanne learns how to weave
Susanne tries her hand at the intricate art of kilim weaving

“Would you like to try it as well?” Ali asked me.
“Sure, I’ll give it a shot.”
The second woman offered me a pillow and had me sit down next to her.
“Sag olun,” I said.
Sey degil,” she replied.
“Ismim Andy,” I continued. “Isminizne?”

Andy learns to weave
Andy tries to weave a kilim without destroying it

Aya pulled out a couple feet of red yarn and pinched one end of it in the fingers of her left hand. Using her right hand, she then rapidly tugged a series of vertical ropes suspended on the loom in order to allow the other hand to slip the red yarn behind them. She laced the red yarn horizontally and let go of the vertical ropes, catching the yarn into the weave. Aya unraveled another foot of yarn and handed it to me.
“You, please,” she said.
Despite her demonstration I really didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I couldn’t tell if she had tugged every other vertical rope in order to create the weave, or if she had pulled them in a more complex pattern. Sensing my hesitation, Aya pinched one of the vertical ropes and made me grab a hold of it. She then skipped over the next rope and pinched another one, again handing it to me. I collected the handful of ropes as she pinched every other line until there were so many ropes tugging off the loom it felt like I was going to lose hold of them.
“Okay,” she said, pointing to the red yarn. Following her lead I threaded the yarn behind the ropes in my hand. She then grabbed my hand and made me let go of the ropes, which threaded the yarn across the loom. Finally getting the feel for it I unraveled some more yarn and tugged at every other vertical rope. Pull, thread, pull, thread, the red yarn soon stretched halfway across the horizontal length of the loom. As I went for my third try, I yanked at the yarn a little too enthusiastically: the red string snapped in my hand. I held my breath for a second as I wondered what kind of weaving disaster I had just caused. I imagined the worst: a $3000 Turkish kilim ruined by some overzealous American.
“No problem,” Aya said, easing my fears. She wrapped the yarn a few inches before the break and created a delicate knot, allowing me to continue my mediocre work.
After a couple of minutes I had successfully woven a horizontal layer of red yarn across the kilim, though the yarn wasn’t exactly flush with the rest of the carpet. Aya took out a heavy rectangle of wood with thick, comb-like teeth on one side. She pressed the wood against the loom, causing the teeth to be inserted between the kilim’s horizontal ropes. Aya then motioned at me to press the wood block downward in order to flatten the red yarn as tightly as possible to the rest of the weave. I delicately pressed the wood, fearing that this time I would snap some of the ropes. Aya rolled her eyes and laughed; she took her fist and pounded it against the top of the wood, crushing the yarn flat against the kilim.
“Now you,” she said.
Putting my faith in her demonstration I slugged the wood with my fist, flattening another 10 inches of yarn. “Çok güzel!” I exclaimed.
“Çok güzel!” Aya laughed.
Ali returned with a glass of hot tea for each of us. I sipped at the tea as I completed another row of weaving. Trying to strike up a conversation with Aya, I pointed to the red yarn and observed, “Kizil, degil mi?”
“Kirmiz,” she replied, correcting me.
“Kizil means reddish or rusty,” Ali chimed in. “Kirmiz means red.”
“Like kirmiz sarap,” I said. “Red wine.”
“Yes, like kirmiz sarap,” Ali replied.
After allowing us to weave for a several more minutes, Ali asked us if we’d like to check out the inside of his shop.
“Thanks,” Susanne replied, “but we really have no money.”
“That’s okay,” Ali responded. “You can finish your tea while I tell you about different carpets and kilims.”
Susanne and I didn’t have anything to lose by checking out the carpets, so we agreed to go inside. As Susanne reached down to pick up her tea, she accidentally spilled it across a kilim on the floor. Susanne looked horrified.
“It’s okay,” Ali said as he picked up the small kilim. “Kilims are strong — the tea won’t stain.” Ali grabbed a hose and sprayed water on the tea spot, hanging it to dry on a fence.
“I am so, so sorry,” Susanne said, clearly embarrassed.
“It really is okay,” Ali insisted. “The tea won’t stain. Coffee will, but tea won’t. Don’t worry about it.”
We followed Ali into the shop and walked downstairs. “Now I am going to show you my harem,” Ali smiled. The store’s showroom was decorated with dozens of carpets and kilims: on the walls, the floors, the ceiling. Along the back of the room was an enormous bed covered in carpets and Ottoman pillows, fit for the Sultan himself.
“You see what I mean?” Ali said proudly. “My harem.”
Ali went to a corner of the showroom and pulled out a thick stack of carpets. “Traditional Ottoman carpets are based on seven royal patterns,” he explained. “During the time of the sultans, only he and his family could own these patterns. All other families would then have their own patterns that they would hand down from daughter to daughter. And these patterns are very old — they have found pieces of carpet across Turkey and Central Asia that are thousands of years old, yet they still look like the carpets we weave today.”
“Do all women learn how to weave carpets?” Susanne asked.
“Traditionally, yes,” Ali replied. “Not as many girls in Turkey today weave carpets, but if you go to villages and away from the big cities you’ll see that most girls still do. Let me show you something.”
Ali rolled out a giant blood-red carpet. “Sit down on this Turkoman carpet,” he said. “It is very soft, very wonderful.”
Susanne and I sat down and sank into its plushness. It felt like I was floating on a cloud.
“This is a very special carpet,” Ali continued. “It was weaved by a Turkoman girl as her dowry. When Turkoman girls get married, they are supposed to make three carpets for her husband and his family. They are never based on a pattern — the carpets are meant to show her personality. Turkoman dowry carpets are very rare. We have had only two of them in our shop. I just sold this one to an American. Guess how much it cost him?”
Neither Susanne nor I had any idea how much the carpet was worth, especially here in Turkey. Normally I would have guessed most of these carpets to be in the $500 and up category, but clearly this carpet was a special one. Nonetheless I didn’t want to venture a guess.
Susanne, on the other hand, was bolder than I was. “Ten thousand dollars,” she said, shooting in the upper range.
“I wish it was $10,000,” Ali said, laughing. “For you, I will sell it for $10,000. Actually, I sold it for $1700, which was a very good deal for him. In the US this carpet would indeed be worth $10,000.”
Ali showed us several more patterns, including a fine white Persian carpet. “It is pure silk, made in single knots instead of double knots like Turkish carpets,” Ali said. “Single knots mean you can weave very fine details, very complex patterns.”
Another young man, perhaps a few years older than Ali, appeared through a back door. “My name is Mehmet,” he said. “I am Ali’s brother. I hope you are enjoying his harem.”
“The carpets are really beautiful,” Susanne replied.
“I wish more people said that,” Mehmet continued. “Times are very tough.”
“No one is buying carpets this year,” Ali said, suddenly putting on a bit of a guilt trip on us for the sake of his older brother. “Business has been very slow.”
“I wish we could buy them from you,” Susanne said, “but we’re just not shopping for one. We don’t have that much money since we had to spend so much to come to Turkey in the first place.”
“But you don’t have to spend too much,” Mehmet said. “We would have something for whatever is your price range.”
“I wish we could, but not on this trip,” I said. “We just can’t spend the money.”
“Well, maybe you can come back another day and think about it,” Ali replied, offering us an exit strategy.
“Maybe we will,” I said, leaving it at that.
Susanne and I managed to work our way upstairs and out of the shop. I had really enjoyed Ali’s tour and was glad he hadn’t tried to force carpets down our throats. But Mehmet’s appearance changed the scene dramatically and started to make us uncomfortable. As much as I would have loved to have purchased a carpet, neither of us had budgeted for one and didn’t want to make an impulse buy.
“The next time we come to Turkey I think I’ll seriously consider buying a carpet,” Susanne said as we left the shop. “But just not on this trip.”
“I agree, a carpet can wait,” I replied. “It’s not like they’re going to run out of them here any time soon.”
Susanne and I walked back to the Valley of the Swords for sunset. Weaving through the melon patches we reached the tufa formation and climbed upward, boulder to boulder, outcrop to outcrop. We were about 150 feet off the ground by the time we reached the top. The fiery orange sun descended in the western sky, glowing so brightly it felt as if the fluid-like hills of the valley were snapshots of cooling lava floes. Susanne and I took more pictures than the scene probably deserved, but it was a wonderful moment. We had the Valley of the Swords to ourselves, and the sun was putting on its final show of the day for our own personal pleasure.

Andy poses near tufa landscape
Andy poses in front of the Valley of the Swords, Cappadokia

We returned to Göreme through the melon patch as a farmer burned scrub in the distance, leaving a ruddy haze just above our heads. Back at the hotel I took a well-deserved shower while Susanne sat outside talking with the woman who ran the hotel and her daughter. For dinner we walked through town and uphill to the Orient, a large restaurant known for its delicious multi-course meals. Susanne wasn’t too hungry so she ordered some soup and pasta, but I was eager to try the fixed-price dinner: a feast of goulash, garlic bread, bean salad, fried cheese borek and a glass of red wine. Business was slow that night — apart from two British women who were sitting outside with us, the only other diner at the restaurant was a pesky brown cat who meowed and meowed for food scraps but was too timid to get close enough to actually eat anything.
The temperature had dropped significantly since when we first sat down for dinner. Despite being warmed by several apple teas, Susanne and I were eager to leave the restaurant and get back to the hotel.
As we prepared for bed I discovered that an intolerable amount of noise was coming through our wall from the hotel restaurant. I tried to close a small window as tightly as possible but it did little to dampen the voices emanating from next door. I walked outside to scope the hotel just to see if there was a possibility of changing rooms.
“May I help you, sir?” I heard a deep voice from above. A heavy-set man with a dark black mustache was sitting on a second floor balcony drinking tea and playing backgammon with a friend. I hadn’t seen him before, but he appeared to be the owner.
“I was wondering if we could change rooms,” I said to him. “We are right next to the restaurant and the noise is making it hard to sleep.”
“No, do not change rooms,” he replied. “I will shut down the restaurant so you may sleep.”
“You don’t have to do that,” I responded, a little bewildered by his plan. “We would be happy to move. There’s no need to close the restaurant for the night.”
“No, I will close it,” the man insisted. “Thank you for informing me of your trouble. Good night, sir.”
“Tesekkürler,” I replied. “Iyi geceler.”
I went back to the room and explained the situation to Susanne. True to the man’s word, within a few minutes all was quiet.

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