Andy Carvin's Waste of Bandwidth

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.

August 30, 1999

Ephesian Hordes

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

crowds swarm at ephesus
Crowds of tourists swarm Curetes Way, Ephesus

Our one and only morning in Selçuk began with a hearty Turkish breakfast at the Hotel Kalehan. I got up a little earlier than Susanne, and when I reached the hotel restaurant the waiter was just setting up the morning buffet. It was a sumptuous feast of fresh breads, green and black olives, hard boiled eggs, white goat cheese, honey and a range of jams made of strawberries, grapes and figs. I relished every bite, having developed an efficient technique for smearing the honey, fig jam and goat cheese onto pieces of bread with getting my hands coated in a sugary goo. Susanne joined me about 15 minutes later, still with a case of the sniffles but certainly well enough to hit the ruins of Ephesus for the morning.
After breakfast we packed our bags, storing them in a room near the front desk. Even though checkout was at 11am, the manager said that we could come back from the ruins, take a shower and hang out by the pool until we were ready to catch a bus overnight to Cappadokia. Meanwhile, he would find out the time of the bus departure and get tickets for us, which we could pick up in the afternoon.
We caught a cab from the hotel and rode for 20 minutes to Ephesus. The taxi kicked up a trail of dust and gravel along the main road to the ruins, as we paralleled a tree-lined pedestrian path towards our right side. Even though the drive was short I was impatient to get to Ephesus. Ever since studying Latin in high school I had longed to visit this great city, built by the Carians and Ionians, made wealthy by the Lydians and Alexander the Great’s Macedonians, all before becoming the thriving commercial center of Rome’s Anatolian province, Asia Minor. Ephesus was one of the best preserved Roman cities in the world, certainly the best preserved in Turkey. It symbolized so much of what fascinated me about the ancient Mediterranean. I was anxious to finally investigate this city for myself.
The cab pulled up to the entry gate just after 8am. I figured we would have to wait for a while to get inside, since we had been told the ruins didn’t open until 8:30, but the ticket booth was open for business. We each bought a bottle of water and entered the ruins, walking along a dirt path. As far as we could tell we had much of Ephesus to ourselves, which was the whole point of us getting there so early. Susanne and I were very eager to get pictures of Ephesus’ famous Library of Celsus, but we knew that enormous numbers of cruise ship tour groups would be on their way soon.
We briefly strolled along an ancient avenue lined with columns, some broken, some standing. The avenue terminated at the Great Theatre of Ephesus, a stone amphitheater that could sit as many as 24,000 people. Along with the many gladiator fights that most certainly took place here, the Great Theatre also played host to the preachings of St. Paul, the prolific disciple of Jesus. Around 1,950 years ago, St. Paul came through Ephesus while on his third missionary journey across the Roman Empire. He lived in Ephesus for two and a half years, during which time he wrote his two letters to the Corinthians.

Andy looks at his map along a columned road near a giant ampitheatre
Andy gets his bearings along the road to the Great Theatre, Ephesus

We began to make our way uphill on what appeared to be the path to the center of the ruined city. As we walked up, a Turkish soldier with a rifle slung over his shoulder appeared from the other side of the hill.
“Merhaba, effendim,” I said to him as he approached.
“Merhaba,” he replied. “I am very sorry, but you cannot walk this way. This is the military post. Please walk around the hill.” Indeed, just to our right was a small sign with the word dikkat (caution) written in red letters. Below it I could read in English, “Military Zone — Do not enter!”
“Üzgünüm, effendim,” I said apologetically.
“No problem,” he replied, again in English. “Have a nice visit.”
Susanne and I walked around the hill as instructed, towards the Great Amphitheater. We could now see another avenue continuing perpendicularly from where we stood — a thoroughfare lined with giant slabs of well-trodden marble.
Susanne suddenly started to walk quickly down the avenue. “I think I see the library,” she said, increasing her pace.
“Run!” I yelled jokingly, trying to keep up with her. “We must take it before the tourists do!”
In just a few moments we reached our goal — the one reason for coming to Ephesus in the first place. Standing proudly near the back of a sunken marble plaza was the Library of Celsus, one of the most enduring images of the Roman world.

Ruins of Celsus library
Marbled ruins of the Library of Celsus, Ephesus

Susanne stands in front of the Library
Susanne posing in front of the Library of Celsus, Ephesus

As I’ve so often felt upon seeing famous monuments for the first time, my initial reaction was that the library was smaller than I expected. Nonetheless, the detail of its two-story façade was breathtaking. Each floor was adorned with four pairs of columns, with either doorways or windows placed between each pair. On the bottom floor, four sets of friezes adorned the pairs of columns, while on the top floor three friezes occupied the space between the column sets. Eight stone pedestals sat between the column pairs. At one time statues sat atop each pedestal, but today only the first floor pedestals were fortunate enough to play host to such works of art.
As I stood above the plaza, peering through my telephoto lens, I could clearly make out the names of the four statues representing the Virtues: Arete (goodness), Ennoia (thought), Episteme (knowledge) and Sophia (wisdom). The Greek letters looked as if they had been carved yesterday.

Marble Statue of Sophia (Wisdom), Ephesus
Statue of Sophia (Wisdom), Ephesus

Admittedly, such an assumption might not be far from the truth, since until recently the great library was a pile of rubble, having fallen victim to Anatolia’s legendary earthquakes. With the help of Austrian archeologists, the façade of the 1800-year-old library was completely restored. As marvelous as the library was, I wondered just what parts of the building were authentic and what parts were modern-day replacements extrapolated by archeologists. The statues, for example, were models of originals now kept safe in Vienna’s Ephesus Museum. Nonetheless, I didn’t dwell on these questions for long. The Library of Celsus was too extraordinary to be clouded by the mere fact that it was a recent reconstruction.
The two of us snapped photo after photo, knowing that any moment our solitude would come to a crashing halt. Indeed, within 20 minutes of our arrival at the Library I spotted what appeared to be a New Orleans funeral procession parading down the main avenue: a swarm of people holding enormous umbrellas above their heads, apparently oblivious the region’s bone-dry climate. But this odd crowd played no jazz, nor did they come to celebrate anyone in particular. With each approaching step I could spot the cameras, the baseball caps, the day-glo shorts, the running sneakers. The Cruise Ships had landed, and in the grand tradition of the Lydians, Carians, Ionians, Persians, Macedonians, Romans, and Ottomans, they were here to conquer Ephesus. God save us all.
The tour groups arrived in waves, usually two dozen people at a time following a cruise ship representative with an umbrella in one hand and an umbrella in the other. Some of the groups were shadowed by a professional photographer who would snap pictures, candid and otherwise, of the ship passengers standing around the ruins — pictures which would undoubtedly be available at a premium back onboard their vessel. The vast majority of visitors were Americans, though there were other tour groups composed entirely of French, German, British and Japanese tourists. Susanne and I retreated to the steps below the library as the tour groups crowded the marble above the plaza. The further back we fled, the closer the tour groups crowded around us. High above along the main avenue I continued to see the steady stream of umbrellas, prancing towards us like countless animated brooms. I am the sorcerer’s apprentice, and this is my Ephesian nightmare.

crowds swarm at ephesus crowds swarm at ephesus crowds swarm at ephesus

The many ruins of Ephesus

Our peace and quiet thoroughly shattered, we wandered inside the library, now an open courtyard lined with empty marble shelves. A Turkish artist sold small lithographs and gold leaf pictures, all framed and available for $100 each, cash or charge. I stood below a wide stone gate inscribed with the names Mazaeus and Mithradates as Susanne offered some of her water to a friendly dog who was grazing in the grass next to the library. We then returned to the top of the plaza and worked our way up the main avenue as the endless stream of tourists crowding the ancient road. Competing French and British tour leaders shouted over each other as they tried to explain the history of glorious history of Ephesus in 100 words or less. Few of the tourists appeared to be paying attention, among them a group of British boys who were ogling at French girls in bikini tops and pink spandex shorts.
Susanne and I wandered up Curetes Street into the ruins of the 2nd-century Temple of Hadrian, which in ancient times was connected by tunnel to the local brothel. Cruise ship tourists, it seemed, never broke away from the herd, so we had the temple to ourselves save an American couple carrying Silicon Graphics laptop bags who were heading out just as we entered. Unlike the library, the temple interior was an unrestored jumble of shattered marble boulders, resting in weed-infested piles of black gravel. There wasn’t that much to see there but at least it gave us a respite from the crowds.

Entrance to the Temple of Hadrian
Entrance to the Temple of Hadrian, Ephesus

We returned to Curetes Street and walked uphill, passing rows of marble columns and statues, many in excellent condition. At the top of the hill a small 1400-seat theatre known as the Odeon stood to our left, while several temples and caves could be found off to our right. Feeling a little adventurous we decided to explore some of the caves. A couple of them were several rooms deep, packed with a deep debris layer of gravel and dirt. We briefly spotted a beam of light penetrating one cave. Susanne wanted to take a picture but by the time she got her camera ready the beam had disappeared. I helped recreate the moment by kicking the dirt below my feet, sending up tremendous plumes of dust into the air. Like magic, the light beams appeared, dancing in the swirls of dust. I enthusiastically kicked and kicked, turning the interior of the cave into a surging cloud so thick that it almost qualified as a living presence in itself. The light beams continued to dance, but now the air was too polluted for us to take advantage of it. Susanne and I exited the cave, both breaking out into laughter as we discovered the film of ancient dust that now enveloped us. The chuckles ended as we realized our cameras had fallen prey to our dusty intrigue and now had to be wiped off as delicately as possible.
Susanne and I briefly exited the ruins from the back gate in order to relax over a couple of Cokes. Like the front entrance, the back gate was crowded with vendors offering an assortment of drinks, snacks, trinkets and overpriced film. Once back inside we explored the Odeon theatre, climbing along its 23 tiers of marble bleachers.
“Go back to the bottom,” Susanne said as we reached the top. “I want to get a picture of you from the stage.”
“Okay,” I replied, starting to make my way down the bleachers.
“And I want you to pretend you’re lecturing to the people sitting in the bleachers,” she continued.
“Come on,” she insisted. “It’ll make a great picture.”
Feeling like an idiot, I made my way to the stage and stood there, pretending to appreciate the scene around me. A group of American tourists was sitting in the bottom bleachers, listening to a tour guide at the edge of the stage. When I saw Susanne had her camera in position, I nonchalantly began to wave my hands exaggeratedly to the crowd, as if I were a professor making an important point. A couple of seconds of this was more than enough — I didn’t want these tourists to think I was a ranting lunatic.
As I walked back up the bleachers I could see Susanne laughing hysterically.
“Great job,” she snickered, “though I think you were too far away for the picture to come out.”

Andy standing on the stage of the Odeon Ampitheatre
Look carefully and you’ll see Andy standing on the stage of the Odeon Ampitheatre

We spent another half an hour or so exploring the ruins, slowly making our way down Curetes Street and towards the main entrance. If it hadn’t been for the crowds we might have wanted to spend several more hours climbing around the site, but the sheer number of noisy tourists clogging up the atmosphere was incentive for us to call it a morning. Susanne and I caught a taxi back to the hotel just after noon. The hotel manager informed us that our bus to Cappadokia would depart at 4:30pm, arriving in the village of Göreme at dawn. He assured us that the bus would take us all the way to Göreme — I had read numerous accounts of visitors being dumped in the city of Nevsehir, Cappadokia’s largest city, and being forced to pay for a second bus to go the final 15 miles. If that ended up being the case it wouldn’t be too terrible, but I certainly preferred to avoid the hassle. I asked him the name of the bus company, and it was a line I wasn’t familiar with: Can Elbistan. Aydin had strongly encouraged us to take one of the major companies since they provided greater comfort and safety.
“Can Elbistan is a good company,” the manager said, “and it is the only one that goes directly to Göreme from Selçuk.”
Hungry from our morning trek around the ruins, Susanne and I walked to downtown Selçuk for some lunch. As we had noted the night before, the streets around the center of town were dotted with multiple kebapcis, pidecis and western-style eateries. No particular restaurant stood out above the others, so we strolled through the central square and made a loop through town, stopping at a drug store for coughdrops before settling on a restaurant. Susanne’s cold seemed to be getting worse, so I was prepared to struggle with my limited Turkish to seek out the coughdrops. Fortunately, mini-packs of Halls Mentholyptus were stacked next to the pharmacy’s cash register, saving me the embarrassment of having to improvise “Kofdroplar var mi?” to the man behind the counter.

boy riding bike on sunny street
A boy rides his bike at lunchtime, Selçuk

Walking back from the town square and the Roman aqueduct, we sat down at a streetside pideci under a shady tree. Susanne and I both got vegetarian Turkish pizzas which were served pre-sliced and stacked like a pile of nachos. The pides were both fairly good, though they were certainly made better with a dash of kirmizi biber, Turkey’s ubiquitous dried red pepper flakes that no respectable pideci table could do without. A steady stream of leaves and pollen nodules drifted from the tree above us, landing occasionally on our pizza slices. A teenage boy rode up and down the street, which was closed to motorized traffic. Across the street, a music store decorated with Middle Eastern ouds played arabesk, the ubiquitous Turkish pop music that blends traditional Ottoman music with a danceable beat. Meanwhile, an agile cat climbed up and down the music shop, jumping between trees, awnings and the tiled roof as if it still had plenty of its nine lives to spare.
Back at the hotel, I paid the manager a total of 10 million lira for our two tickets to Cappadokia — about $12 a person. We spent the rest of the afternoon lounging around the pool. Aydin’s friend at the hotel gave us access to a small cabana by the pool in order for us to change clothes and store our things. The pool itself was still quite chilly and one of the hotel employees was in the process of cleaning leaves out of it, so we relaxed on the deck, laying out in seaside beach chairs that would have been quite at home at some turn-of-the-century English resort. Susanne and I were briefly entertained by a small turtle making its way across the pool side, along with a family of chickens clucking inside the rose garden. The claustrophobia and frustration generated from our experience with the crowds at Ephesus were quickly dissipated in that quiet time chilling out at the Hotel Kalehan.

crowds swarm at ephesus
Two Turkish men engrossed
in conversation, Selçuk

As Susanne changed into her street clothes I went to settle our bill at the front desk. I didn’t recognize the man behind the counter, and he asked me how much I had been quoted for our room. Perhaps it was the mindless lounging by the pool, but for whatever reason my brain neither remembered the price Aydin had quoted for us nor computed a good price in Turkish liras.
“Twenty million liras,” I said to him. He looked at me perplexedly; though the man didn’t know what to charge us, he had probably been told that we were friends of one of the managers. I pulled out Aydin’s business card and handed it to him.
“Tamam,” the man said. “No problem — 12 million liras, not 20 million.”
I suddenly recognized my error: I had quoted the official room rate of $50 while Aydin had secured us a room for just under $30.
“Var, on iki milyon lira!” I said, relieved that he had caught my mistake. “That’s more like it.”
Neither Susanne nor I had a sense of how far the otogar was from the hotel, so the hotel manager hailed a taxi for us. As it turned out the otogar was two blocks north of the train station, probably no more than a five minute walk. We arrived at the small bus station just before 4pm. An old man in a uniform approached us to find out which bus line we were taking. “Can Elbistan,” I said without thinking, pronouncing “can” like it was a container to hold soda or beer.
“Jahn,” he said gently, correcting my pronunciation. “Jahn Elbeestahn.”
“Üzgünüm,” I apologized. “Jahn Elbeestahn, lütfen.”

Turkish Pronunciation

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

Having worked hard on my Turkish over the last several days I certainly should have known better. For whatever reason, the Turkish letter C always gave me trouble. Unlike in English or the romance languages, C is pronounced in Turkish as the J in James, while the letter Ç was pronounced as the ch in cheese. If I wanted to use C as in candy, in Turkish it would have to be spelled as a K. Simple enough; it was just that damn Turkish C that kept slipping me up. Can Elbistan, Jahn Elbeestahn; Abdullah Ocalan, Abdullah Ojahlahn….
Around 4:30 we boarded the bus and were led to our seat by the yardimci, or bus steward. The yardimci was a gaunt man in his 30s with green eyes and terrible body odor. I had read that yardimcis were one of the pleasures of Turkish bus travel: they offered you free bottled water and splashes of lemon cologne, they stopped people from smoking on the bus, they woke you up when you reached your final destination. To our chagrin, customer service was not a particularly strong attribute for this yardimci. He never bothered to offer us water or the lemon cologne for refreshment. He constantly opened the window shades, despite my closing them because of the hot sun pouring in on our necks. He sat in the seat behind us, chain-smoking cigarettes. I’m usually not one to complain about bad bus rides, since travel comforts are rarely universal in the places we’ve visited. But we had been given such high praise for the quality of Turkish buses that our first overnight bus ride was exceedingly frustrating.
The trip wasn’t a complete disaster, though. A quiet man sitting next to us generously shared a basket of figs he had bought at a roadside stand. The figs had light green skins and a juicy purple flesh that melted in your mouth. After stopping at a large bus terminal in the city of Denizli, Susanne and I bought some water, vanilla wafers and a couple of simit, giant rings of bread coated in toasted sesame that were also the forerunner of the bagel. Back on the bus we shared our wafers with the fig man, who offered us more figs and a cup of orange soda.
Just beyond the outskirts of Denizli the bus stopped again at a restaurant, giving us an extended break to stretch our legs and sit down for some food. Since both of us had already eaten a lot on the bus we didn’t get anything there, but we talked with a young waiter who was eager to practice his English.
“Where are you going?” he asked us.
“To Cappadokia,” Susanne replied.
“You should stay in Göreme,” he continued. “That’s where I did my army service. It’s very beautiful there.”
“Actually, we’re staying in Göreme,” I said. “Are you from there as well?”
“No, I was born in Ankara,” he answered. “When you do your military service, they send you somewhere new. If you are from the city, they send you to the country. If you are from the country, you go to a big city. I was from the capital so they sent me to a village. But I liked Göreme a lot. I was able to learn my English there because of the tourists.”
“We’re really looking forward to it,” Susanne said. “We’re traveling across Turkey but I really wanted to come here to visit Cappadokia.”
“You should go horseback riding while you are there,” the waiter continued. “A friend of mine runs a horse farm and you can rent them for an hour, two hours, a half day, whatever.”
“We actually want to rent motorbikes,” Susanne said, “though we’re thinking about going on a balloon ride.”
“Balloon rides are very nice,” he replied, smiling. “But too expensive for a soldier.”
Back on the bus Susanne and I both did our best to get some sleep. As far as I could tell Susanne nodded off just past midnight, but I couldn’t sleep a wink. I’ve never been able to sleep while in a sitting position, no matter how far back I could recline. I had taken some Tylenol PM to help me sleep, but all the pills did was make me exceedingly groggy.
The last time I remembered looking at my watch was just after 3am. With earplugs in both ears and my light anorak wrapped around my head, I must have finally fallen asleep.

August 29, 1999

Riding the Steambath Express

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

Topkapi courtyard
Two men chatting in the Relics Room,
Topkapi Sarayi

We started our day, oddly enough, back over at the Orient Hostel. As miserable of an experience we’d had there during our first night in Istanbul, we still possessed the breakfast coupons from our unused second night. Susanne and I ate at the hostel’s rooftop cafe, surrounded by backpackers gnawing on baguettes and hard-boiled eggs. They didn’t serve jam with the baguettes, and when Susanne asked the woman behind the counter for a packet of jam, she snidely complained, “You’re not supposed to have it for free — we gave you honey for your bread.” Susanne managed to get a packet of jam out of the woman, but the experienced reinforced our opinion that the Orient Hostel was an inhospitable dump.
Reza, the young Iranian man who ran the Ottoman Guesthouse, offered to watch our belongings until our 3pm flight to Izmir. We stored our backpacks in the reception room and proceeded to walk towards Topkapi Palace, the legendary home of the Ottoman sultans. We took a similar path to the one we had used before our visit to the Archeological Museum, walking north past the Four Seasons and uphill to a high stone gate. Two teenaged Turkish soldiers were guarding the entrance to the palace but they were having too much fun joking around with each other to notice us passing through it.

Anatolian Trivia

Topkapi Sarayi, when translated into English, literally means “Cannongate Palace.” First built by Mehmet the Conqueror soon after capturing Constantinople in 1453, Topkapi Sarayi (or the Seraglio, as it was called in the West) remained the home of the Ottoman sultans until the reign of Mahmud II in the early 1800s. The last sultans lived in luxurious, European-like palaces elsewhere along the Bosphorus.

We walked through the outer palace gardens, lush with green trees and thick grass. Susanne and I both hoped that the palace itself would be a magnificent testimony to the grandeur of the Ottoman Empire, but after paying our six million lira entrance fee and entering the main palace complex, we were sorely disappointed. Topkapi was in the midst of a complex structural overhaul, with the majority of the palace ensconced within a shell of scaffolding, drop cloths and spattered paint. I hadn’t minded the repair work at Aya Sofya the day before; as massive as it was, Aya Sofya’s scaffolding only disturbed one particular section of the church. Here at Topkapi Sarayi it felt like the entire palace was a hard-hat zone. Having experienced the sublime beauty of palaces in
India, Thailand, Cambodia and elsewhere, Susanne and I had expected Topkapi to be just as magnificent. We were both rather disappointed.
To top it all off, the one thing we really wanted to see at Topkapi was closed: the royal kitchen. You might wonder why on earth we would care about such a place, but Topkapi’s kitchens were marvels in their own right. The kitchens employed giant cauldrons, enormous oven pits and other industrial-scale implements necessary to cook for an entire royal household — sultan, harem, slaves and sundry. All we could do was peer through its locked windows and imagine its collection of unique culinary paraphernalia.

topkapi courtyard
Entrance to the Prophet’s Relics Room, Topkapi Sarayi

On the other hand, Topkapi Sarayi did have its moments. The Prophet’s Relics Room — the palace’s sacred reliquary — contained an astonishing array of holy Islamic artifacts, including a piece of the Qa’aba from Mecca, Muhammad’s sword, and a letter the prophet wrote to Muqavgas, the leader of a Coptic Christian tribe:
There is safety and security for those believers who follow the correct path. Therefore, I invite you to accept Islam. If you accept it, you shall find security, save your throne, and gain twice as much reward for having introduced Islam to your followers. If you refuse this invitation, let the sin of calamity which awaits your followers be upon you. You too are People of the Book; Therefore, let us come to a Word Common between us, that we worship none but Allah and shall not equalize anything with Him. Let us not abandon Allah and take others for lords other than him. If you do not consent to this invitation, bear witness that we are Muslims….

topkapi courtyard
Muhammad’s battle sword and other relics, Topkapi Sarayi

The Topkapi Treasury was equally stunning, with its fine collection of jewel-encrusted thrones, royal medals, and the famous Topkapi dagger, made out of one of the largest carved emeralds in the world.
From Topkapi we returned to the square between Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque, relaxing at a garden cafe just below the giant church. I briefly ran around the corner to a kontürlü telefon kiosk, outdoor public pay phones where you could make a telephone call and then pay an attendant. Susanne and I needed to get ahold of Aydin in order to find out if he could get us a room at the Kalehan hotel in Selçuk. I called Aydin’s cellphone but was given a recording in Turkish and English that said his phone was out of calling range — he was probably on the road with a tour group. The attendant told me the call was free because I wasn’t able to connect. As I walked away from the kiosk I heard him say, “Sizin kitab, effendim” — “Your book, sir.” I turned around and noticed I had left our Lonely Planet book on the counter. I can only imagine what trouble I would have been in with Susanne if I had lost the book that contained all of our notes and plans.
Back at the cafe I rejoined Susanne to finish my Turkish coffee and talk about our plans for the next few days. The two of us were getting hungry so we decided to pay our bill and find a full-service restaurant for lunch. The waiter was sitting a few tables from us, concentrating on his newspaper. I walked over and asked for the bill and he quickly folded up the paper. As he did this I noticed it was full of pictures of naked women. He gave me the bill as well as a grimace of embarrassment.
Andy sits at a cafe
Andy hanging out at the Karadeniz Pideci

Uphill just behind Divan Yolu and the Sultanahmet tramway tracks we found the Karadeniz Aile Pide ve Kebap Salonu — The Black Sea Pizza and Kebap Salon. We sat outside under a red awning as Susanne ate a vegetarian Turkish pizza and I ate a spicy plate of köfte kebap. A neighborhood cat reconnoitered around our table, scouting for scraps. He didn’t seem to care for pizza crusts but was more partial to my köfte meat. Just around the corner from the Karadeniz was the Sinem Internet Cafe, where we were able to use their clean bathrooms for free and check email for 200,000 lira (50 cents), or the cost of two public bathroom visits in any part of the city.
We still had a little time before having to go to the airport, so Susanne and I strolled down to the Hippodrome. Now a relaxing public garden, in its heyday the Hippodrome was the city’s imperial racetrack. Along with its famous horse races, the Hippodrome was also the center of political intrigue and conspiracy. During the summer of 1826, the Hippodrome witnessed the end of the Ottoman Empire’s legendary squadron of soldier-slaves, the Janissaries. Founded in the mid-1300s by Sultan Murad I as his imperial cavalry guard, the Janissaries (Yeni Çeri, or “new troops”) were young Christian men, largely from the Balkans, who were captured and enslaved during Ottoman conquests. This enslavement, however, was also an opportunity for personal prestige and privilege. Janissaries were trained to serve as the empire’s elite fighting force, and each soldier-slave was able to rise to the highest levels of military service based on personal merit.

Anatolian Trivia

The Jannisaries were immensely proud of the fact that they were the best-fed troops in the Ottoman Empire. So much so, their ranks were organized on culinary terms. As a whole, the Janissaries referred to themselves as the ocak (the hearth or fireplace); their symbol was a sacred cooking cauldron. Among the terms they used to represents their individual ranks were çorbaci (the soupmaker), asçibasi (the chief cook), gözlemici (the pancake maker) and the çörekci (the cake maker). On the occasions when they began a rebellion against the sultan, they would signify their ire by turning over their giant cauldrons of rice pilaf. Even today, the Turkish expression “to overturn the cauldrons” means to rebel against someone.

During the 15th and 16th centuries, the Janissaries were the pride of the Ottomans and the scourge of Christian Europe. In medieval cities like Budapest and Belgrade, the “Turk bells” would ring to warn citizens of their approach. At the height of the Ottoman Empire, Suleyman the Magnificent’s Janissaries penetrated deep into central Europe, fighting their way to the gates of Vienna. But in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Janissaries began a long period of decline, succumbing to the temptations of corruption and political opportunism. On more than one occasion, Ottoman sultans were deposed and even assasinated during coup d’etats staged by the Janissaries. Numerous sultans were forced to placate the greety Janissaries with ill-conceived military campaigns, many of which furthered the decline of the empire.
By 1826, Sultan Mahmud II was fed up with the intransigence and avarice of the Janissaries. Two decades earlier they had staged a coup against his reform-minded brother, Sultan Selim III, partially because he tried to impose European-style military uniforms on its ranks. Selim was deposed and executed, and Mahmud would have met the same fate if it hadn’t been for a loyal slave who hid him inside the unlit furnace of the royal baths. Proclaimed sultan in a swift counter-coup later that same day, Mahmud longed to carry out his murdered brother’s dream of reforming the empire into a modern imperial state – as well as to exact revenge on the treacherous Janissaries.
Knowing the Janissaries would revolt if pushed hard enough, Mahmud announced a series of radical military reforms. The Janissaries, who were stationed in barracks inside the Hippodrome, initiated their revolt by defiantly turning over their giant cooking cauldrons and marching through the narrow streets of Sultanahmet towards Topkapi Palace. There they were met with a barrage of musket fire from soldiers loyal to the sultan. The Janissaries, surprised by the resistance, retreated to the confines of the Hippodrome, where they were unceremoniously slaughtered by Mahmud’s loyal cavalry and artillery squadrons. Over 4,000 Janissaries perished in the attack, ending the military order once and for all, and opening the opportunity for Mahmud to reform his empire into a modern, European-style nation.

Young boy in royal circumcision costume
Young boy in circumcisional regalia

Today, of course, there is no sign of the violence and intrigue that once plagued this historic place. Scores of families were strolling along the Hippodrome’s garden, enjoying the early afternoon sunshine. Streams of people washed their hands in Kaiser Wilhelm’s Fountain, a turn-of-the-century monument given to the sultan by the kaiser during a visit to Constantinople. A young boy dressed in the customary circumcision costume was herded into position by his parents, who proudly snapped pictures of him. Susanne approached family and asked if she could take a photo. The parents graciously said yes, to the chagrin of the boy. Further down the mall we visited the obelisk of Theodosius, an ancient Egyptian obelisk imported to Constantinople by the emperor Theodosius in 390 AD. Theodosius mounted the obelisk on a marble pedestal decorated with images of his royal court and scenes promoting his battle prowess.
At the eastern end of the Hippodrome, not far from the Blue Mosque, Susanne and I stopped at Cafe Mesale , a shady garden teahouse sumptuously decorated with hanging carpets, Ottoman pillows and blazing torches. Susanne ordered a tea while I ran around the corner once again to call Aydin at the telephone kiosk. This time I managed to get ahold of him; he told me we had reservations at the Kalehan Hotel in Selçuk, and that the hotel recommended that we catch a dolmus to town from just outside the Izmir airport. Aydin warned me it would be a bit of a walk from the airport to the dolmus stop, but he said it probably wouldn’t take too long.

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

As I returned to the cafe our waiter was talking to a pair of Turkish women who were sitting to our left. They ordered some kind of cake, so the waiter dashed around the corner and returned with a platter topped with a silver lid. He placed the platter on the table and raised the lid. To everyone’s surprise a small black bunny jumped out into one of the women’s laps. She let out a brief scream and then laughed hysterically, petting the frisky rodent. The waiter then came to our table and asked if I wanted anything.
“Bir Türk kahve ve bir sisede memba su, lütfen,” I said, trying to ask for some Turkish coffee and a bottle of water.
“You want coffee and what?” he said to me in English, confused.
“Uh, a bottle of water,” I stumbled. “Sisede memba su.”
“Oh! Mem-BAH su,” he laughed. “Not MEM-ba su — mem-BAH su.”
Sisede mem-BAH su, then,” I corrected myself, accentuating the proper syllable this time around.
“Very good,” he answered. “Now you can be a Turk.”
We sat at Cafe Mesale for an hour, slowly sipping our drinks and watching the black bunny hop around the table neighboring us. Every few minutes we’d see a large seed pod of some kind come crashing down from the tree above us, colliding with the cobblestone, the tables, even a Spanish tourist’s head. A little boy was going around from table to table, picking the pods off the ground and stuffing them in his mother’s purse. One of them pounded me on the shoulder and landed just off the table. I picked it up and found a large nut encased in a thick shell.
“They are very good,” our waiter commented as he saw me pick it up.
“What kind of nut is it?” I asked.
Kestane,” he replied. “I don’t know the name in English, but they are eaten roasted. You can buy them roasted all over Istanbul.”
“They must be chestnuts, then,” Susanne said. “Someone was selling them near the Egyptian Bazaar yesterday.”
I cracked the nut on the table and revealed the inner flesh of what was indeed a chestnut. I ripped off a piece and tasted it — unpleasantly sour.
“I told you,” the waiter admonished me, seeing the grimace on my face. “You should roast them first…”
Around 2:30pm we returned to the guesthouse to pick up our backpacks and catch a taxi to the airport. The six-million-lira taxi ride took less than 20 minutes, giving us plenty of time to check in for our flight and hang out at the airport restaurant, drinking lemonade and splitting a piece of pecan pie. Our flight was delayed by 20 minutes but we eventually were allowed to board a transport bus which would take us to the plane. The bus rode around the tarmac for what seemed to be an eternity. We drove from terminal to terminal, passing what appeared to be entire fleet of Türk Hava Yollari (Turkish Airlines). Each plane was christened with the name of a different Turkish city. In the 15 minutes we spent circling the tarmac we managed a grand tour of the country: Kusadasi, Ankara, Trabzon, Van, Edirne. Just as it seemed the only place left for us to go was back to the terminal gate, the bus pulled up next to Gaziantep — a THY Boeing 767. Finally we were on our way to Izmir.
The 45-minute flight passed by quickly as we scribbled in our journals and noshed on an airline snack of packaged fruit cake. A six- foot blonde woman who looked like Turkey’s answer to Pamela Lee sat to our right, reading some kind of engineering journal. On the whole it was pretty uneventful, though I was eager to get to Izmir in order to figure out how we would reach Selçuk. Izmir’s airport is south of the city center, along the road to Selçuk, but the Izmir bus station was north of the city. If we were to take the bus, we’d first have to go north through Izmir, Turkey’s third largest metropolis and currently the host of an enormous international trade fair. Assuming we could get through the city to the otogar, we’d have to catch a second bus to Selçuk, backtracking through Izmir, past the airport again, before arriving at our destination. It wasn’t a scenario I relished, especially since there was a possibility that we wouldn’t arrive at the Izmir otogar in time for the last evening bus to Selçuk. Hopefully we wouldn’t have a problem figuring out Aydin’s suggestion to catch a dolmus instead.
Once inside the Izmir arrival terminal we looked around for a travel information desk. Unfortunately the terminal hosted only a trade fair bureau desk and a currency exchange. Just outside the terminal I approached a policeman to find out if there was by any chance a direct bus to Selçuk.
“Pardon, Memur Bey — Selçuk otobus var mi?” I asked.
“Yok,” the policeman replied.
“Dolmus var mi?”
“Yok,” he said again, clicking his tongue.
It looked like we were stuck finding that dolmus station somewhere beyond the airport. Susanne and I walked away from the airport, down a deserted road towards a police checkpoint. Several paramilitary jendarma stood guard outside the checkpoint. They could tell we looked a little lost. One of them called out to us in Turkish, though I couldn’t understand what he said.
“Iyi aksamlar, Memur Bey,” I said to him as we approached. “Ingilizce konüsüyormüsünüz?”
“Ingilizce?,” he replied. “Yok…. No Ingleesh.” As he spoke I noticed he had the brightest blue eyes I had ever seen.
I struggled to find the right words in Turkish to explain that we were looking for a dolmus to Selçuk. “Uh…. Bizim… gidiz… Selçuk. Dolmus nerede?”
“Ah, dolmus,” he replied. That was all I could understand as he spoke to me rapidly in Turkish.
“Uh, yavas, lütfen,” I requested, asking him to slow down. The policeman nodded his head and spoke slower, but I could still not understand a word he said. He did, however, point down the road in the other direction. Hoping that he was telling us to go the other way, we thanked him and backtracked towards the airport.
“That soldier had the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen,” Susanne said.
“Yeah, even I noticed them,” I replied.
We walked around the perimeter of the airport along the edge of a highway. I didn’t feel great about our predicament. An old man with a walking stick approached us from the other direction.
“Pardon, effendim,” I said. “Selçuk dolmus nerede?”
“Orada,” he replied, pointing far down the highway.
“Kaç saat?” I continued, wanting to know how far of a walk we had ahead of us. “On dakika? Otuz dakika?”
“Anlamadim,” he responded. “Otuz dakika.” I don’t know — 30 minutes…
His answer didn’t boost my confidence, so I suggested we return to the airport and ask a few more people what options we had. I was a little surprised that no one here spoke a word of English, considering we were at a major international airport, but there wasn’t much we could do about it.
Entering the airport parking lot we reached a small sentry post. A parking attendant sat inside, eating his dinner from a styrofoam box. “Pardon, Memur Bey,” I said yet again, “Selçuk dolmus var mi?”
“Yok dolmus,” he replied. “Bir dakika, lütfen…” He then picked up the phone and placed a call, speaking to someone for about 30 seconds before hanging up. The sentry pointed to the terminal and said, “Selçuk — on besdakika.” It appeared that there was a bus or some other vehicle going to Selçuk at six o’clock, 15 minutes from then.
“Alti saat Selçuk, degil mi?” I asked, confirming the time.
“Var,” he replied, nodding his head once.
Susanne and I walked quickly towards the terminal, up a walkway from the parking lot. As we ascended the walkway I realized we had entered a small train station. A train! It never occurred to me there was a train station at the airport. I rushed to the counter and asked a woman in Turkish if there was indeed a train to Selçuk.
“Yes,” she replied in English. “Ten minutes on Platform One.”
I was quite pleased with myself as we stood on the platform. “I’m so glad I learned some Turkish,” I said happily. “Without it there’s no way we could have figured this out. Finally some language practice pays off.”
A few minutes later we saw a train approach the platform. For some reason it stopped just short of the platform. An attendant climbed off the train and waved his hand to have us walk down the platform to the train. Just before we reached the engine car I noticed two German backpackers getting off the train. They were drenched in sweat, with one of them cursing to himself loudly. It wasn’t a positive sign. We climbed down the end of the platform into the grass and were helped onto the train by some passengers. As we got on board we realized we were in for a rough ride: standing room only, dozens of people packed like sardines in 100-degree heat.
We immediately took off our backpacks and placed them by our feet, knowing there was no room on board for us to wear them. I managed to reach over two people in order to get my left hand wrapped around a metal pipe for support. Susanne, in turn, grasped my shoulder to stay balanced. We were the only people on the train who weren’t Turkish. Old men in caps and baggy trousers wiped sweat from their brow as their headscarved wives stood behind them. A group of teenage boys maintained a polite distance from Susanne, careful not to give offense in some way. Even though there were 40 or 50 people squeezed into the car it was unusually quiet, save the rolling clatter of the tracks passing below us.
Susanne had an enormous smile on her face. “What the hell,” she said, shrugging. “This is going to be an adventure.”
About five minutes into the ride I could feel a moist film of sweat forming on my forehead. I used the sleeve of my free arm to wipe my face. An old man with a scruffy five o’clock shadow smiled at me, wiping his forehead in turn.
“Çok sicak, çok sicak,” I said to him, commenting on how hot it was. Several people glanced up when they heard me speak Turkish.
“Allah Allah, çok sicak,” the man answered, a large smile forming on his face. “Nerede gidisiniz?” he then asked, wanting to know our destination.
“Selçuk,” I replied, eager to find out how far away the town was. “Selçuk Kaç saat?”
“Kirk kilometer,” he answered. “Altmis dakika.” We had 60 minutes to cover about 40 kilometers, apparently.
As we stood there, swaying with the crowd as we braved the intense heat, Susanne looked at me and pointed to her backpack.
“I have Wet Wipes, you know,” she said quietly to me.
“I was just thinking that,” I replied. “I don’t know if we can use them if we don’t have enough to share, though.”
“I know,” she agreed. “I think we have enough.” Susanne pulled out a packet of moist towelettes, opening it up and handing me one. As I unfolded it she offered another packet to the old man and his wife.
“Tesekkürler, yok,” he said, bowing his head and touching his chest with his hand, politely declining the offer.
“Lütfen, effendim,” I insisted, showing him my unfolded Wet Wipe.
“Tamam, tamam,” he replied, accepting my offer. “Tesekkür ederiz.” He removed two towelettes, using one and passing the other to his wife.
Susanne continued to pass the towelettes around the crowded car: to a young mother and her child, to the group of teenage boys in soccer shirts. One by one they dabbed the lemon-fresh towelette on their foreheads, enjoying the brief respite from the heat. For a few moments we were the happiest car on the train.
The old man’s wife leaned forward and offered me a small packet of hazelnuts, a Turkish favorite. “Sag olun,” I said, thanking her. I opened the packet and tossed a couple of nuts in my mouth, offering them to Susanne as well.
“Cok güzel!” I exclaimed, which caused the woman to laugh. I then offered the nuts to several people including the woman who handed them to me. They all politely declined, wanting me and Susanne to enjoy them ourselves. I unbuttoned my shirt’s front pocket and put the remaining nuts inside. A minute or two later the old man tapped my chest to get my attention. He motioned to his own shirt pocket and pretended to button it. I assumed he was trying to tell me to keep it closed for safety. I nodded my head and smiled, quickly buttoning the pocket.
Despite the rotisserie oven conditions I thoroughly enjoyed the train ride, though by the time we reached Selçuk I was more then ready to disembark. As the trained pulled into town I looked over at the old man to confirm our present location. “Selçuk! Selçuk burada!” he said, shooing us off the train in an endearing kind of way. We stepped onto the platform and were greeted by a blast of cool, fresh air that made me realize just how unpleasantly sweaty I had become.
As we walked out of the station a pretty Turkish woman approach us and asked in English, “Are you looking for a hotel?”
“No thanks,” we replied. “We are staying at Hotel Kalehan.”
“It is a little expensive,” she replied. “I can take you somewhere nice, but cheaper.”
“That’s okay, we’re meeting friends,” I lied, hoping to get out of the situation.

Ruins of a Roman aqueduct
Ruins of a Roman aqueduct, Selçuk

“Okay,” she replied, “Follow me and I’ll show you where to go.”
“No, that’s all right,” I said. “We can find it.”
“Please,” she insisted, heading out the exit. Since we had to go in that direction anyway we followed her, though I wondered how much of a tip she expected (on more than one occasion we’ve had scam artists try to lure us from bus and train stations to an overpriced hotel). Just outside the station we found ourselves standing under the remains of a giant Roman aqueduct, its bridge-like stonework soaring high above us. We walked through an open square with a war memorial towards a tree-lined pedestrian street.
“Walk straight ahead until you reach the main road,” she said. “Take a right and you will find the Kalehan just below the castle. Have a nice time in Selçuk….” Before I could even contemplate a tip she waved at us and walked away. Apparently I had underestimated her gesture. Unlike the people of so many other countries we had visited in the past, every Turk we met seemed eager to be friendly to us just for the sake of friendliness. It made me think to myself how much I was enjoying this country.
Susanne and I walked along the street, passing a long row of garden cafes where locals and tourists alike dined on kebaps and drank bottles of Efes beer.
“This is really adorable,” Susanne said.
“It’s so much nicer than I expected,” I replied. “I already wish we had an extra day to hang out here.”

Street scene, Selcuk
Street Cafes, Selçuk

Beyond the row of cafes we turned along a busy roadway, walking through several more restaurants. Because these restaurants were using the sidewalk for table space we had to navigate around diners in order to reach the hotel. In five minutes we found ourselves just below Selçuk castle, with the Hotel Kalehan in front of us. The hotel was hidden within a grove of trees and was decorated with a fascinating array of Ottoman antiques.
“Iyi aksamlar,” I said to the young man at the front desk.
“Good evening,” he replied in English. “Do you have a reservation?”
“Yes — under Carvin, please.”
“Ah, Aydin’s friends,” he said. “Welcome to Selçuk!”
Susanne and I smiled at each other. Being friends of Aydin had its privileges, it seemed.
The young man led us through the hotel restaurant towards our room. The restaurant had a very romantic setting — a dimly lit chamber with high wooden beams, slowly turning ceiling fans and soothing stone fountains. Part of me wanted to drop my bags right there and enjoy a leisurely dinner, but I desperately needed to change clothes.
Rose garden, Kalehan Hotel, Selcuk
Kalehan Hotel rose garden, Selçuk

Outside the back of the restaurant we passed through a courtyard garden densely packed with rose bushes, lawn furniture and giant stone urns. To our left I saw the swimming pool and a small bar. Our room was in a three-story estate that sat directly below the ruins of Selçuk Kalesi, the local castle. The scene was truly picturesque.
As Susanne and I settled into our room I pondered the possibility of spending an extra night here. “I think I could spend a whole day sitting out by the pool,” I said.
“If this were the end of the trip I could see that too,” Susanne said.
We really didn’t have time to spend an extra day in Selçuk, so we took advantage of our setting by getting into our bathing suits and hitting the pool for a pre-dinner dip. The water was a bit too nippy for the Floridian in me, but Chicagoan Susanne took to the pool immediately, climbing into the deep end while carefully avoiding to keep her hair dry. A British couple and their teenage son sat at the bar, having a drink and chatting with the bartender. The bar would have been right at home in the Caribbean: a small shack covered in dried palm fronds, the words “Green Bar” fancifully painted across a wooden plank. “If a Wet Wipe on a hot train is a slice of heaven, this is the whole loaf,” Susanne sighed.
After drying ourselves off we went to dinner at the hotel restaurant, sitting next to a small stone fountain. Susanne ordered spaghetti while I got the evening special, a four-course meal of white bean salad, borek, köfte meatballs and rice pudding. We also split a small bottle of red Cappadokian wine, which was quite delicious. Not long after drinking it, though, our sinuses became completely clogged. As we went to be I hoped we were simply having a reaction to the sulfides in the wine, but considering I had been nursing a cold for a few days, I now worried that it was Susanne’s turn to come down with a chill.

August 28, 1999

Looking for Sinan

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

golden fresco of madonna and child with Constantine and Theodora
Golden fresco of Madonna and Child with Constantine the Great
and the empress Theodora, Aya Sofya

Susanne and I barely got any sleep last night. The music at the disco downstairs kept us writhing in our beds until well past 3am. We were both extremely irritable and ready to find a new place to stay. Trying to save a few bucks by sleeping a hostel had turned out to be a terrible idea. I guess we were no longer the low-budget backpackers we once were. We would desperately need a good night’s rest tonight, and the Orient Hostel was definitely not the place to get it. Susanne and I agreed to go out and find another hotel after breakfast.
As we got dressed Susanne noticed a piece of paper that had been stuck under our door during the night:

Susanne and Andy: I was in Sultanahmet last night so I tried stopping by the Orient to see if you wanted
to go out. Give me a call when you can. -Aydin, 22:35

Apparently our one connection in Istanbul had unsuccessfully tried contacting us. Susanne and I both felt terrible. We hadn’t gotten around to tracking down Aydin first, and it never occurred to us that he would go out of his way to come to the hostel to find us first. As soon as we could settle down into another hotel we would give him a call and make plans to get together — assuming we hadn’t become personae non gratae.
We ate breakfast on the rooftop cafe, happy to see that the skies were no longer obscured by water-logged rainclouds. Breakfast at the Orient consisted of a fresh baguette, jam, yogurt and Nescafe. It wasn’t the grandest breakfast I’d ever had but it would tie us over for the morning. As Susanne lingered over her cup of coffee I decided to go downstairs to let the staff know we were checking out tonight. The man at the front desk sympathized with our plight but said we couldn’t get our money back for the second night because of their no-refunds policy. I argued with him for a while, insisting we had been promised a room that would be quiet and away from the disco, but he pleaded ignorance. There was no way I would have put up with a second night in this grimy dump so left the hostel in search of better accommodations.
I was aware of several medium-range hotels in the area that were probably worth visiting. The closest one was the Alp Guesthouse, just around the corner from the Orient. The Alp seemed like a comfortable place but I realized that it was parallel to the Orient’s disco. The management at the Alp promised me that you couldn’t hear the disco from their rooms, but I had heard that before when making our reservations at the Orient. My search would have to continue.
Two blocks north of the Orient I reached the Four Seasons Hotel, an Ottoman mansion restored to a luxury four-star with uniformed doormen standing guard over its bright yellow walls. While the Four Seasons itself was well out of our price range, I found several small guesthouses across the street. One of these, the Ottoman Guesthouse, appeared to suit our needs. The Ottoman’s Iranian manager, Reza, showed me a spacious triple with air conditioning and private bath.
“It’s $35 a night,” he quoted as I looked around the room, testing the air conditioner and the light switches. Before I had a chance to respond, Reza lowered the price to $30. It seemed like a bargain for a good night’s sleep in a hotel only one block from Aya Sofya, so I paid for the first night and returned to the Orient to tell Susanne of our impending move.
Before leaving the Orient we paid a visit to its in-house travel agency to buy our airline tickets for Izmir and Van. The agent was running late that morning, but an Australian backpacker suggested we go across the street to its partner travel agency. After taking our backpacks uphill to the Ottoman Guesthouse we went to the second travel office, chatting with the agent and a friend who ran a hotel on the Aegean coast. The friend, Hakim, was engaged to an American woman and spoke excellent English. He was a former tour guide and strongly encouraged us to travel as far as possible into eastern Anatolia.
“The further you go the less tourists you will see,” he said. “By the time you get to Mount Ararat you will have all of it to yourself.”
“Will we be able to visit Nemrut Dagi?” I asked, worried that the Turkish-Kurdish conflict had closed the mountaintop ruins as one recent travel book had suggested.
“No problem at all,” Hakim replied. “Nemrut Dagi is open to visitors. On a good day there will only be you and your guide on the summit. Other days there are maybe 20 or 30 people on top. Either way it is wonderful. Nemrut Dagi is probably my favorite place to visit in Turkey.”
Hakim’s encouragement sealed our plans. On Sunday we would fly to Izmir, staying the night in Selçuk before visiting the Greco-Roman ruins of Ephesus. From there we would work our way to the rock valleys of Cappadokia, four hours east of Ankara, and spend at least two days exploring the region’s Byzantine monastery caves. We would then have to find a way to get to Nemrut Dagi — it was at least a nine-hour drive from Cappadokia to the village closest to Nemrut. Once we had climbed Nemrut for sunrise, we’d continue south towards the Syrian border and the city of Urfa, the legendary birthplace of Abraham and the center of the medieval crusader kingdom of Edessa.
We would then travel into the heart of Kurdistan, to the city of Van. Van would serve as our base as we visited the sacred Armenian ruins of Akdamar Island and the 18th century Kurdish palace of Ishak Pasa, located near the town of Dogubeyazit in the shadow of Mount Ararat. We planned to give ourselves three full days around Van, since we would probably have to make private arrangements to visit each site. The war against the Kurdish PKK guerrillas had all but destroyed eastern Anatolia’s tourism industry so we would not be able to count on organized day-tours run by local agencies. After squeezing in as much as we could in Kurdistan we would then fly back to Istanbul for three final nights in Turkey.
Susanne and I were both satisfied with the itinerary. We had each had to make a couple of sacrifices — Susanne had pushed for a day in Antioch while I had hoped to go to northeastern Anatolia to visit the ancient Armenian capital of Ani. All things considered, we were planning to fit in a hell of a lot of history in a short period of just two weeks. I would be amazed if we managed to visit everything we had hoped.
The travel agent made our reservations and asked us to stop by after lunch to pick up our tickets, which would be couriered from the airline office. Now that Susanne and I had completed our major transport arrangements we were free to wander Old Istanbul. Our two primary goals for the day were Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque, which were both less than a two-minute walk from the hotel. Later in the day we hoped to visit the Egyptian Spice Bazaar and perhaps track down the Rüstem Pasa Camii, a small mosque known for its intricate blue tilework, for which we had search in vain the previous day. We both knew it was an ambitious itinerary for one day, but Susanne and I felt confident we could do them justice without killing ourselves in the process.

Aya Sofya church
Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia)

Outside Aya Sofya, Susanne and I agreed it would be worthwhile to hire a guide for our visit. The greatest church in the ancient world boasted over 1400 years of history, much of which probably would not have been conveyed if we chose to rely solely on our guide book. After paying the five million lira entrance fee we were approached by several guides, all of whom sported laminated badges displaying their certification by the state tourism agency and their language skills. We soon selected Mustafa, an elderly gentleman with a disarming smile who noted he had been giving Aya Sofya tours for over 30 years.
“After you, my dear lady,” he said to Susanne with a slight bow of the head, pointing the way to the main gate.
Susanne and Mustafa hit it off immediately, striking up a conversation as I gazed upwards towards the church’s imposing red brick façade. “Susanne is a Turkish name, you know,” he said to Susanne after she introduced herself.
Mustafa, it turned out, was actually a Bulgarian Turk born outside of Sofia. Though now considered Slavs, the Bulgars were originally a group of Turkic tribes, many of which adopted Christianity and assimilated with the Slavic tribes west of the Black Sea. The Ottomans controlled Bulgaria for several centuries, settling many Ottoman Turks in the region. Mustafa’s family fled Bulgaria in the 1920s as the Ottoman Empire gave out its last gasp. Their defeat in World War I led to a complete redrawing of the Balkan map, including fully independent kingdoms of Greece, Romania, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. Mustafa’s family concluded its fortunes lay in the newly formed Republic of Turkey rather than the Orthodox Christian nation of Bulgaria, so they settled in Istanbul when he was a child.
“It was a long time ago,” Mustafa explained, “but Istanbul is my true home.”
Just inside the main entrance we found ourselves standing under a golden Byzantine mural of Jesus the Pantocrator, shining as if it had been gilded yesterday.

Jesus the Pantocrator mural
Aya Sofya mural of Jesus the Pantocrator

“This is the imperial entrance of Aya Sofya,” Mustafa explained. “Only the Emperor Justinian could come through these doors. As he would enter, the Imperial guard would stand on each side of the door. They would make sure that this door was for the emperor’s use only. They stood guard at all times. During the winter it would get cold and they would stomp their feet to stay warm. You can see the indentations in the marble floor left by their stomping.”
Passing through the imperial gate we entered the main hall of Aya Sofya. For more than a thousand years, the hall was the largest enclosed space in the world. Susanne and I had both visited countless cathedrals in previous travels so we were well acquainted with the awe-inspiring elegance of holy spaces soaring heavenward. But Aya Sofya was different — its openness extended in all directions under a dome so vast you half expected to encounter the brilliant shimmer of stars above.
On the back wall of the church, tall stained glass windows shone beams of light onto the floors below. Mosaics and murals covered much of the marble, including what appeared to be explosions of feather plumes. These must the Islamic angels that were added after Mehmet II conquered Constantinople in 1453. Because Islam forbids the portrayal of human figures in art, Aya Sofya’s angels were more metaphorical expressions of angelic grace rather than the human-like figures we would expect in Western art.
The left side of the hall was filled with scaffolding whose skeleton extended hundreds of feet to the ceiling. For a brief moment I was disappointed by the sight of the scaffolding but it made me appreciate the genius of Aya Sofya’s construction. Today it takes a high-tech lattice of metalwork to allow workers to renovate and restore the highest points in the church; imagine the determination of the Byzantines as they first constructed the church over 1500 years ago! No wonder Justinian was able to proclaim after completing his Hagia Sophia in 537 AD, “Solomon! I have outdone you!” Arrogance may be the mandate of every autocrat, but in this particular case Justinian could not have been more justified.
We walked with Mustafa to a series of stone rings embedded in the marble floor. “This is the Omphalion, where the Byzantine emperors were coronated,” Mustafa explained. “The emperor would stand in the largest circle, his heir and family in the next largest, then the members of his court. The less important you were the smaller the circle you got. ”
Mustafa pointed to a series of enormous wooden discs on the walls, each adorned with Arabic script. “These discs were added in the 19th century, when Aya Sofya was still a mosque,” he said. “You can read the names of Allah and Muhammad on the largest discs, as well as the names of the four great caliphs who followed Muhammad: Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman and ‘Ali. Aya Sofya is no longer a mosque, though. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk made it a national museum in 1935. But the discs remain in tribute to this day.”
On the back wall Mustafa pointed to what appeared to be an off-centered shrine. “The reason this is not centered is because it points to Mecca,” he explained.
“It’s the mihrab, right?” Susanne asked.
“Yes, yes,” Mustafa replied approvingly. “The mihrab shows us which direction to pray, since we Muslims must pray towards Mecca five times every day.”

Anatolian Trivia

Like the Egyptians and the Romans before them, the Byzantine Greeks adored the rare, blood-red marble known as porphyry. Most of Constantinople’s porphyry columns originally resided in Roman temples along the Aegean and were swiped by the Byzantines, for it was too expensive to mine the marble in far-away Egypt. But many of these columns didn’t stay in the city for long. When the Venetians sacked Constantinople during the ironically-named Fourth Crusade in 1204, they brought home a fortune in Byzantine booty. Their most famous plunder, the bronze quadriga horses from Constantinople’s Hippodrome, sit atop St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. But if you stand in front of St. Mark’s today, you’ll also notice that some of its columns don’t match the rest. The reason is simple — they’re some of the porphyry columns plundered from Constantinople.

“You know Islam well,” he added, smiling. “Now I will listen and you can give the tour!”
“Bahsis, lütfen,” I said jokingly to him, putting out my hand for Susanne’s well-earned tip.
We stood awhile under the main dome, admiring the intricate carvings of the marble balcony where Justinian once sat. Not far from it also stood the minbar, the high stone pulpit added by the Ottomans to allow the imam to deliver his Friday sermons. Just around the corner Mustafa led us past tall columns made of a beautiful red marble.
“These columns are porphyry, a unique stone found only in Egypt,” Mustafa explained. “They are much older than Aya Sofya. They were used in Roman temples along the Aegean, at Ephesus, Didyma and Miletus. Because the stone was so rare it was easier for Justinian to bring the columns from the great Temple of Artemis in Ephesus rather than cut new ones in Egypt.”
Not far from the colonnade, Mustafa pointed out what appeared to be giant marble vases. “These are cisterns, added to Aya Sofya by Sultan Murad III in the 16th century,” he noted. “In Islam, it is important to cleanse yourself before praying. You must wash in order to be pure before Allah. The cisterns hold hundreds of gallons of water, and the coolness of the marble keeps the water refreshing year round.”
“Today it is very warm outside, but touch the marble,” Mustafa encouraged us. The marble indeed was cold, almost as if it was refrigerated.
Mustafa wrapped up the tour by leading us down a stone corridor, towards the main exit. “Most people leave through here thinking the tour is over,” he said. “But if you do not pay attention you may miss something beautiful. Look behind you.”
On the back wall, high above the archway, we found a glorious 10th century gilded mosaic of the Madonna and Child, framed with the visages of Constantine the Great on the left and Justinian on the right.

Golden mural of Madonna and child, with Constantine and Justinian

“So many people walked out of Aya Sofya without seeing this mural, they decided to place a large mirror at the far end of the hallway,” Mustafa said. “You might say they saved the best for last!” Turning around yet again, we noticed the large mirror above the exit. From where we were standing you couldn’t see anything in particular on it, but as we approached the exit, the golden mosaic appeared like an apparition.
“So now I end the tour here,” Mustafa concluded. “If you would like you can visit the gallery upstairs where you can find more murals. I can give you a separate tour of the mosaics for another five million lira or you can visit them on your own. It’s up to you.” While Susanne and I had both enjoyed Mustafa’s company and felt the tour was worth every penny, taking a second tour for an extra $13 just to visit two or three mosaics didn’t seem worth it. We thanked Mustafa for his tour and paid him before heading upstairs on our own.
We climbed a tight stone corridor up several flights before reaching the upper gallery. The gallery offered a tremendous view of the main hall, along with the mosaics Mustafa had promised. One particularly impressive 14th century mosaic depicted Jesus, the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. A short walk soon brought us to the dazzling 11th century mosaic portrait of the Empress Zoe. For centuries these mosaics were painted over with whitewash during the time when Aya Sofya served as a mosque. This whitewash, ironically, preserved the mosaics for the ages. Centuries of grime and soot were kept away from these gilded wonders by just a simple coat of paint.
We soon returned to the ground floor and exited Aya Sofya, heading towards Sultanahmet Gardens and the Blue Mosque. Susanne snapped a picture of an old man selling fez hats; he smiled and waved as we passed through the garden. I was very eager to visit the Blue Mosque, formally known as the Sultanahmet Camii but called the Blue Mosque because of its blue tile interior. Istanbul is a city of mosques, with plenty of them laying claim to being the largest, the tallest, or the oldest. But from my point of view, the Blue Mosque was Istanbul’s most exquisite. It had to be the most beautiful mosque, I suppose, since Sultan Ahmet I decided to build it so close to Aya Sofya, forever linking his mosque visually to one of the greatest architectural achievements in Christianity. The Blue Mosque was constructed as Sultan Ahmet’s response to Aya Sofya — a demonstration that the Ottomans could build a structure that could also claim to out-do Solomon.

The Blue Mosque on a sunny day
The Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii)

From the outside, the Blue Mosque is a graceful complement to Justinian’s church. It is a classical Ottoman mosque that blends the enormity of Aya Sofya’s Romanesque style with delicate Islamic architecture. An evolving series of half domes leads towards a splendid upper dome. Six minarets define its outer borders; one minaret on each corner, with two more minarets towering above the main courtyard gate. A wide swath of fishnet wiring dangled between two minarets. During they day the net looked as if it were laying it wait for a passing commuter plane, but its function became apparent at night when it turned into a giant illuminated sign marking the 700th anniversary of the founding of the Ottoman Empire.

golden fresco of madonna and child with Constantine and Theodora
Main courtyard, Blue Mosque

Susanne and I entered Sultanahmet’s courtyard from the side and walked towards the inner mosque. A vinyl curtain hung over the main entrance, with a sign indicating that only Muslims could enter through that gate. We would have to go around to the back of the mosque and enter through a secondary door. We walked across the marble courtyard and cut around the back, where an attendant gave us plastic bags in which to carry our shoes. A handful of tourists were being asked to wear linen wraps around their legs because they were trying to enter the mosque in shorts. Since Susanne and I were more appropriately attired we had no problem going inside.
We walked inside the mosque’s visitors gallery: a carpeted hall occupying the back quarter of the sanctuary, separated from the rest of the mosque by a retractable wooden gate. Muslims who entered through the main doorway were allowed to pass through the gate and pray wherever they wished. Blue Iznik tiles covered the walls in geometric patterns as an enormous Ottoman chandelier, over 100 feet in diameter, hung in the mosque’s center just out of reach, dangling from long ceiling cables. At the far end of the mosque a mirhab pointed the faithful towards Mecca, with a small piece of Mecca’s qa’aba stone embedded in its wooden frame.
I felt a little awkward as I admired the mosque’s beauty. On both sides of the wood gate several Muslims were praying, kneeling on the red carpet. Though they didn’t seem distracted by our presence, I wanted to make sure we didn’t interfere with their activities. I sat quietly near the center of the gate observing the hundreds of electric lamps glowing on the broad chandeliers, trying to envision the days when imams would kindle the wicks of each oil lamp, slowly making their way around the perimeter of the chandelier. The chandelier must have been several hundred feet in circumference. Igniting it must have been a holy exercise in its own right.

Interior of the Blue Mosque, with a large Ottoman chandelier
Ottoman chandelier inside the Blue Mosque

Several large groups of Turks eventually came inside to pray, so Susanne and I took this as our cue to wrap up our visit. We put on our shoes along the mosque’s outer steps as an attendant accepted donations for the mosque’s upkeep. I left two million lira inside his box as we left. We were both a little hungry at this point so we walked along Divan Yolu Caddesi to find some lunch. We settled in at a pideci that sold both Turkish and western pizzas. Susanne and I both ordered Turkish pizzas with vegetables and two bottles of Sprite. The waiter, a young man in his twenties, cracked jokes in broken English as we ordered. Later as we ate our pizzas he noticed me fiddling with my portable tape recorder, which I had used earlier to record a call to prayer.
“Is that a radio?” our waiter asked.
“It’s a tape recorder,” I replied. I hit the play button and played a few seconds of tape.
“Give it to me,” he asked abruptly, holding out his hand. Even though I had no idea what he was going to do, I handed it over. He immediately began to play with its buttons, rewinding and fast-forwarding the tape like a little boy getting his first Walkman for Christmas.
“I will be back,” he then said, walking away with the recorder. Susanne and I looked at each other and shrugged, wondering why he was bringing it inside. It’s not like Istanbulu Turks have never seen tape recorders before, I thought to myself. A moment or two later the waiter returned with a big smile on his face. He hit the play button and began blasting Turkish pop music. At first I thought he had put in one of his own tapes.

Turkish Pronunciation

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

“I have recorded music for you,” he said. “Now you can play good Turkish music for your friends.” Apparently someone in the kitchen was listening to a radio station, so the waiter had held up the tape player and recorded some of it.
“Tesekkürler,” I said, thanking him.
“Bir Sey degil,” he replied. “Türkçe konüsüyormüsünüz?”
“Biraz Türkçe,” I answered, somewhat proud that I had understood his question of whether I spoke Turkish. I opened up a can of worms by doing so, though, for he began to speak rapidly in Turkish.
“Üzgünüm,” I responded meekly. “Anlamadim.”
“I asked you where did you learn your Turkish,” he laughed.
“Oh, Türkçe kitablar,” I answered.
“Books!,” the waiter exclaimed. “A good start. Keep speaking to people and your Turkish will soon become better than my English.”
“I doubt that,” I replied with a grimace.
After lunch, Susanne and I decided to spend the afternoon conducting a walking tour of Eminönu, the Istanbul neighborhood stretching from north of Sultanahmet to the waters of the Golden Horn. We had several major goals for the rest of the day, including the Egyptian spice bazaar and two exquisite mosques designed by Ottoman master architect Mimar Koca Sinan: Suleymaniye Camii and Rüstem Pasa Camii. We winded our way through the alleyways behind Divan Yolu Caddesi in a neighborhood traditionally known for its small publishing companies. Shop windows advertised Qurans, children’s books, college texts, many of which were probably printed in the local press rooms. The road took a downhill turn past the Iranian consulate, giving us a brief glimpse of the Golden Horn far beyond the rooftops.

young Turkish man with giant Turkish flags
Flag salesman, Istanbul

A small map in hand, I suggested we take a left in order to head more directly to the Egyptian spice bazaar. The narrow cobblestone alleyway was a step back in time when compared the bustling commercial publishing district. Susanne and I could hear the bustle of shoppers not far ahead. The alley opened up into a larger intersection that was populated with hundreds of shoppers meandering along a variety of market stalls: textiles, fruit, used books, hardware tools. Compared with the Turks we had seen wandering touristy Sultanahmet, the shoppers here were much more conservatively dressed, with many women in headscarves and men in skullcaps. A number of women were covered from head to toe in black chadors. At first I thought most of these women were older but as I got closer and saw their faces I could see they were probably in their 30s and 40s. In the middle of the intersection a man stood draped in large red flags. Beyond him I could see another man, exchanging money with a family for one of his flags. I had never seen people selling flags on a street corner before, but considering how fiercely proud most Turks are over their republic it seemed like a profitable business.
Susanne and I made our way through the throng of shoppers, squeezed on and off the sidewalk by oncoming traffic. The streets were so congested it must have taken ten minutes just to get to the end of the next block, where we found the entrance to the Misir Kapali Çarsisi, the Egyptian spice bazaar. At first glance the market was not unlike its more famous sibling in Sultanahmet. But unlike the Kapali Çarsi, the Egyptian bazaar still catered to local needs. For centuries, Istanbulus have come here to shop for all of their spice and medicinal needs. Even today, spices still serve a duel purpose as flavorings and herbal medicines, offering remedies to ills ranging from stomach aches to impotence. While I spotted several tourists among the crowds, the majority of shoppers browsing the market appeared to be Turks. Most stores carried a similar assortment of spices arranged in large burlap sacks outside the window. Men would try to lure us into their shops by offering us trays of candy samples, usually chewy morsels of dried fruit, honey and pistachios.
Though neither of us had any intention of buying any spices, Susanne and I both accepted a taste of candy from one shop owner and walked inside his store. To the right I found wooden boxes of dark broken leaves, all with the word çay scribbled in ink pen on a slip of paper. All the great teas of Asia were represented: Black Sea teas, Darjeeling teas, Ceylon teas, chamomile and mint teas. The enticing smells conjured images of caravan traders along the Silk Road. Beyond the tea sacks we found an incredible selection of coffees and honey, as well as cinnamon sticks, saffron and cumin seeds. A string of sea sponges hung high on the walls, just above a shelf of Ottoman coffee mills — large brass hand grinders that are as beautiful as they are functional. I was very interested in buying a coffee mill in order to use it as a pepper mill back home, but I saw no reason to lug it around Turkey for over two weeks when I could just buy one upon my return to Istanbul. The shop owner did his best to sweet-talk us into a purchase with more samples of honey candies, but we politely declined and returned to the chaos of the market hall.

A woman in a black chador sits with her family
A woman in a black chador sits with her family

After having our fill of the Egyptian bazaars’ innumerable aromatics, we exited the back of the building, finding ourselves in front of a fish market by the Yeni Camii Mosque. There seemed to be just as many people around the square as there had been packed inside the market, though the outside scene was much more relaxed. Old men fed pigeons as parents bought their children freshly roasted corn and sesame bagel-like rings of simit from street vendors. A group of boys played soccer with a small ball, carefully avoiding a group of men sitting on the mosque steps who chatted away as they thumbed their prayer beads. Just beyond the square a busy avenue hosted an early afternoon traffic jam, with hundreds of cars lining up to cross the Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn. Susanne and I sat briefly among the crowds, changing film while enjoying the panorama of activity. We both took some photos with our zooms lenses, hoping to capture the action going on that day.
High on a hill to the west we could see Suleymaniye Camii, the Mosque of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. I couldn’t tell exactly how far away it was, but I suggested that we try to visit it after finding the Rüstem Pasa Mosque first. Unfortunately, finding Rüstem Pasa Camii wasn’t as simple as our map suggested. Despite its fame as one of Sinan’s architectural masterpieces, the 16th century mosque was hidden amongst a maze of markets, propped on the second floor of what is now a hardware and household goods bazaar. Susanne and I began our walk uphill, departing the openness of Yeni Camii Square into the claustrophobic labyrinth of hardware shops. There were no obvious signs leading to the Rüstem Pasa Mosque. Our guidebook suggested we wander the market until we found it, asking for directions if need be.

Anatolian Trivia

Mimar Sinan, the Ottoman Empire’s most famous architect, was born to an Anatolian Greek family around 1489. Drafted by the empire as a young man, he became a member of the Ottoman equivalent of the Army Corps of Engineers. Over the course of over 25 years, Sinan demonstrated tremendous skills in designing military fortifications. Only when he was 50 years old did he begin to design non-military buildings. Despite his age, his artistry caught the attention of the Ottoman court, who soon appointed him Chief Architect. For the next 40 years, Sinan constructed such masterpieces the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent in Istanbul (built 1550-1557), and the Mosque of Selim II in Edirne (built circa 1570-1574). Sinan stayed active as an architect until he died around 1679, when he was approximately 90 years old.

Never one to reject the challenge of finding a needle in a haystack, I suggested different paths through the market, hoping my confidence would translate into dumb luck. The streets were crowded with Turks hunting for pots, pans, plumbing equipment and linoleum tiles in the housewares market. There were no spices to be found here in this particular neighborhood — spice racks, perhaps, but no spices. Nevertheless, the persistent activities of the market were a refreshing change from Istanbul’s more touristed neighborhoods.
Within ten minutes of entering the market Susanne and I spotted an open doorway leading to a steep set of stairs. A sign near the doorway identified it as cami giris, which I immediately recognized as meaning “mosque entrance.” The two of us walked upstairs to find a broad marble plaza with intricate blue tiles covering the outer wall of the mosque, located just to our right. Two men quietly prayed on small rugs just in front of the tile wall, while a third man washed his hands meticulously in a decorated fountain. Towards the back of the plaza I saw another sign repeating the word “Giris,” with an arrow pointing to the right. We walked around the corner and found the entrance to the mosque itself. Susanne and I removed our shoes and put them in the wooden shelves lining the wall. A small placard explained in both English and Turkish that visitors may enter if “dressed accordingly.” Both Susanne and I were wearing long sleeve shirts and long pants that afternoon, but we realized that Susanne didn’t have a head scarf to cover her hair. We improvised by tying an extra red shirt around Susanne’s head. To our surprise the shirt didn’t look ridiculous, so we figured it was now all right to enter the mosque.
Just inside the mosque we found a blind attendant with a short beard.
“Iyi günler, effendim,” I said, greeting him.
“Merhaba,” the man replied. He then spoke in Turkish and pointed to his feet, making sure that we had removed our shoes.
“Evet, evet,” I assured him. “Dert degil.”
“Tamam,” he replied, inviting us inside.
The mosque itself was very small, especially when compared to the grandeur of the Blue Mosque. But despite its modest size the mosque was thoroughly impressive, lined with intricate patterns of gorgeous blue tiles around the entire hall. An Ottoman chandelier extended down from the high ceiling, hovering just out of reach around the center of the room. I didn’t think there was enough light to take pictures inside, but just in case I decided to ask the attendant if it would be okay to use our cameras.
“Fotograf çekebilirmiyiz, effendim?” I asked.
The attendant replied with a quick nod of his head. Turks have a unique way of gesturing yes and no: a quick nod downward means yes while a nod upward means no. (A side-to-side head movement that would normally mean “no” in America actually means “I don’t understand” in Turkey.)
Just to be sure I understood his gesture I repeated the word for yes: “Evet?”
“Evet,” he responded, again dipping his head down in a single motion.
“Sag olun,” I replied, thanking him.
Susanne was now towards the far end of the mosque, where I spotted an old man praying on his knees. He was dressed in very traditional Turkish clothing, including a skullcap, vest and baggy trousers. His long gray beard nearly reached the floor while he kneeled. The photographer in me wanted to capture him on film but my conscience prevailed, unwilling to intrude on his period of devotion.
In the far left corner of the mosque I noticed a stained glass window with beams of light shining through it. Two windows down sat a small wooden stand covered in prayer beads. The stand, unfortunately, was nowhere near the beautiful light.
“How bad of a faux pas would it be for us to move the prayer bead stand into the light?” I whispered to Susanne.
“I don’t know,” she replied, “but they would probably think we were nuts.”
“I guess we’ll just have to commit it to memory, then,” I sighed.
We spent a few more minutes in the mosque, admiring its tranquillity. As we exited and retrieved our shoes, I was approached by the blind attendant and a second man who must have entered the mosque as we were wandering around.
“Bahsis,” they said in unison, asking me for a tip.
I reached into my pocket and handed the blind attendant a 500,000 lira note, worth just over a dollar. The second man then looked at me and held out his hand. Despite the fact that this was the first time I’d even seen him, I didn’t want to argue inside a mosque. I gave him a half million lira note as well, to which he bowed his head in thanks. As we left the mosque, a young woman in a chador helped her young girls take off their shoes. The woman saw us looking at her children and gave us a broad smile.
Susanne and I walked uphill beyond the hardware market towards the Suleymaniye Mosque. We climbed the steep thoroughfare slowly, hoping not to overheat under the mid-afternoon sun. In 15 minutes we reached the high stone walls of the mosque, though neither of us knew where the main entrance was. We walked clockwise around the walls until we reached a darkened gate full of stone rubble. I paused for a moment, trying to determine if this was a proper entrance to the mosque or an abandoned gate. Concluding it wasn’t the best way to get inside, we began to continue our walk. A group of Turkish men strolling down the street saw us departing the gate. One of them asked us in English, “Where are you going?”
“Suleymaniye camii nerede?,” I replied, struggling in Turkish. “Bunu giris, degil mi?”
“Yes, this is the gate to the Suleymaniye Mosque,” the man said in English, smiling at my attempt. “You can enter right here.”
“Tesekkür ederim,”
“Bahsis,” I responded.
“My pleasure,” he replied. “Güle güle!”
Susanne and I weaved up the stone passageway and soon found ourselves atop the northeast corner of the mosque’s gardens. To our right, a long marble wall stood guard over Istanbul, offering us a tremendous view of the Golden Horn and modern Istanbul. Far to the right across the Bosphorus, we could make out Asian Istanbul, the gateway to the Anatolian plateau. Two women in headscarves picnicked along the edge of wall while a young boy played with his new toy truck, rolling it along the marble platform.

golden fresco of madonna and child with Constantine and Theodora
Suleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul

We walked straight into the gardens, with the massive Suleymaniye Mosque dominating the view to the left. The largest mosque built in the Ottoman Empire, Suleymaniye Camii was constructed by Sinan from 1550 to 1557 as a mausoleum for his patron, Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. We strolled counterclockwise around the mosque, looking for its main entrance. A large Turkish family armed with a video camera strolled through the gardens as a young boy in a curious white costume paraded in front of them. He was dressed in a white suit trimmed in gold cloth, a tall feathered hat on his head and a royal scepter in his hand. We immediately recognized the purpose of their visit — the boy was on his way to his circumcision, an auspicious celebration of entering manhood not unlike a Bar Mitzvah. The whole family had gathered for the event; once it was complete, the boy would rest in bed while the family entertained him with music, dancing and feasting. We were tempted to get a closeup photo of him but the family seemed to be leaving, so we figured we might try to ask for a photo from the next boy we found on his circumcisional march.
We eventually reached the mosque’s entrance and walked inside after removing our shoes. The mosque was massive, much bigger than the Blue Mosque. In some ways I felt somewhat intimidated by its size. Suleyman the Magnificent, the most celebrated of Ottoman Sultans, had his mosque built on scale never seen before in the Islamic world and rarely seen since. Susanne and I quietly wandered the interior, observing a small group of men praying under the center of the chandelier.
As we stepped outside and put on our shoes, I spoke softly to Susanne. “It’s a beautiful mosque,” I said, “but I wonder if we’ll soon reach the point of being ‘mosqued out,’ kind of like after seeing too many cathedrals in Europe or too many Buddhist wats in Thailand.”
“I know what you mean,” Susanne replied. “After a while you begin to lose perspective.”
“I suppose after today we won’t see too many mosques for a while, since we’re on our way to Roman and Byzantine sites. I would just hate to get burnt out on them so early on in the trip.”
It was now past 3pm, so Susanne and I returned to the hotel by way of a flea market behind the Kapali Çarsi. We still needed to pick up our airline tickets for Izmir and Van, so Susanne settled upstairs on the hotel’s rooftop terrace while I ran around the corner to the travel agency. As I exited the hotel I saw an Asian woman from Australia feasting on the largest peach I’ve ever seen. “An early dinner,” she said as she saw me gawking at her gargantuan fruit.
I made a quick stop at the travel agency and retrieved our tickets before returning to the hotel terrace, where I found Susanne settled down over her journal. I suggested we visit the rooftop itself, which appeared to be unlocked. Upstairs we found an incredible view of Aya Sofya, perched just beyond the hotel about two blocks away. We spent a few minutes taking pictures of the church just as the late afternoon call to prayer began. A muezzin sang from the direction of the Blue Mosque, several blocks to the west. A moment or two later a second muezzin could be heard from another mosque behind the hotel. Then a third, a four, a fifth. The air was filled with pious voices in all directions. Susanne and I looked at each other and smiled.
“This is why I came here,” I said.
“I know,” she replied. “Me too.”

Aya Sofya church
Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia)

We listened to the muezzins for several minutes. I glanced across the street to the Four Seasons Hotel, where a group of employees were setting up for a party on the rooftop. On the street below, two hotel doormen were messing around, demonstrating wrestling moves on each other. I was fascinated by the dichotomy of the scene before me: two men wrestling as the calls to prayer filled our ears. It was Istanbul in miniature, a collision of two worlds, old and new, religious and secular, somehow mingling together in relative harmony.
Back downstairs, Susanne and I made a phone call to Aydin, who had tried to reach us the night before back at the Orient Hostel. Aydin suggested we get together at nine o’clock at the Marmara Hotel Cafe, at the heart of modern Istanbul in Taksim Square. This gave us plenty of time to relax over dinner. Unfortunately, finding a dinner we could agree upon wasn’t as easy as it should have been that night. While I was interested in getting a hearty Turkish kebap, Susanne wanted to play it more cautious and get pizza or some other benign meal. We struggled for some time trying to find a restaurant that was acceptable to both of us. Perhaps our long day had caught up with us, for we were growing more impatient with each rejected menu.
Finally we agreed up the Sultan Pub, a popular restaurant and bar with western meals and Turkish dishes toned down for foreign tastes. I selected a spicy Iskender kebap and a pint of Efes Pilsner while Susanne settled on a vegetarian pizza and a Sprite, while we both snacked on an order of yesil zeytin ve fistek (green olives and pistachios). We talked for a while with an American couple from Tennessee who was in Istanbul for several days before embarking on a Mediterranean cruise. During our conversation, the couple noted they had yet to notice the muezzins singing their calls to prayer. We feasted on our meals through sunset, during which the other couple finally got their chance to hear their first call to prayer. After dinner I was a little surprised by the bill of eight million lira (about $18). While the total in itself wasn’t much by American standards, I found the eight dollars charged for the diminutive bowls of olives and pistachios to be rather extortionist.
Just after 8:30pm we hailed a cab from behind the Four Seasons and drove over the Golden Horn into Taksim Square. Taksim Square is the pulse of the new Istanbul, a bustling plaza of lavish hotels, trendy cafes and countless strolling couples holding hands. The Marmara Hotel Cafe was an upscale bakery and restaurant where Turks and tourists alike stuffed themselves with cream pies and banana splits. Susanne and I sat for 30 minutes before ordering anything, waiting under the assumption that Aydin could arrive at any minute. Eventually my thirst got the best of me so I ordered a lemonade. A few minutes later the waiter brought out a bottle of mineral water. I figured the water was at least lemon flavored but upon tasting it realized he had brought me the wrong drink. Meanwhile, Susanne and I joked over how we would spot Aydin when he arrived. We had no idea what he looked like, so every man over 18 and under 80 was given our full scrutiny.
Around 10pm a young man with longish brown hair walked in the cafe, a beautiful Turkish woman by his side. He was perhaps around 30 years old and was sporting a Chicago Field Museum “Sue the Dinosaur” t-shirt. He quickly noticed that Susanne and I were scoping him out, so he gave us a broad smile and asked, “Andy?”
“Aydin?” I replied.
“Good to meet you finally!” he said, grinning while giving me a firm handshake.
The four of us settled down at our table and ordered a round of drinks. We spent much of the first hour talking about Aydin’s life as a tour guide and his work with National Geographic groups. All of his recent tours with them had been far to the west of our primary destination, eastern Anatolia and Kurdistan. “There you’ll get to see the real Turkey, where the tourists never go,” he said. “You will love it, I promise.”
By 11pm we finally got down to the main purpose of our gathering — sorting out the logistics of the rest of our trip. “Tell me everywhere you want to go and how long you want to go there,” Aydin explained, “and I will tell you how to do it.”
Our first stop, Ephesus, would require us to fly down to Izmir and before continuing to the town of Selçuk, just over an hour south. “Don’t take the bus from the airport to the Izmir otogar,” Aydin explained. “Even though all the Selçuk buses run from the otogar, it’s is far to the north in the wrong direction. Instead you should be able to catch a dolmus from just beyond the airport.”
“You should also stay at the Hotel Kalehan in Selçuk,” he said. “I know the owner well — he comes from an old Ottoman family. He built the hotel all himself, and it is very nice. I will call him and make sure you get a room for a good price.” I had originally wanted to spend two nights in Selçuk but we all agreed that one night would be enough to see the ruins of Ephesus, thus saving an extra day for later on in the trip.
From Selçuk we would have to catch an overnight bus to Cappadokia, where we planned to spend two full days. “You should have no problem catching a bus to Cappadokia,” Aydin said. “Just be sure to take a good bus company like Varan, because you don’t want a poorly paid driver to fall asleep at the wheel. It happens, you know.” Aydin suggested that we take a tour in Cappadokia to get a feel for the area and cover sites further afield, while spending a second day exploring on our own.
“If you have the money,” he continued, “you should take a balloon ride over Cappadokia. It is absolutely amazing.” For just over $200 each we could take a 90-minute ride over the Cappadokian valleys, where the balloonsman would literally bring us down to pick apricots right of the orchard trees. It was a tempting idea, but we’d just have to see how our money was holding up at that point.
From Cappadokia we would then have to find our way to the grimy oil town of Kahta in order to make an early morning ascent to the mountaintop ruins of Nemrut Dagi. “It’s a long trip to get there but it’s well worth it,” Aydin said. In order to get there we would have to change buses at least three times over a very long day, or we could join a private tour for $100 and up. Susanne and I both preferred to avoid tours in general but we thought that it might be worth it just for the sake of time and convenience. We’d make our decision once we were in Cappadokia. From Nemrut Dagi, we hoped to visit the town of Urfa, three hours to the south. “Not a problem,” Aydin insisted. “There are plenty of buses going there.”
The rest of our trip would focus on the heart of Turkish Kurdistan, far out in southeastern Anatolia. The city of Van seemed like the best base of operations but it would take a 10-hour bus ride to get there from Urfa. “You’ll have to do it in the daytime,” Aydin warned. “There are no overnight buses to Van — it is too dangerous. You’ll just have to plan a day for bus travel.”
Aydin suggested we spend three days around Van — one day exploring the city and its ancient castle, another day visiting the Kurdish castle of Hosap and the Armenian church on Akdamar Island, and a third day making a long daytrip to Ishak Pasa’s Palace near Dogubeyazit, below the slopes of Mount Ararat. Considering there was absolutely no capacity for organized tourism in Kurdistan, we wondered how difficult it would be to cover all of those places in three days. We’d have to play it by ear.
After flying back from Van, we would have three nights in Istanbul to relax and re-visit our favorite sights. Aydin strongly suggested we enjoy a Turkish bath at the Çemberlitas Hamam, a 16th century bath house built by the great architect Sinan. “Don’t go to a hamam until the end of the trip,” Aydin insisted. “You will only enjoy it even more if you wait.” He also suggested we visit a nargileh garden just west of the hamam, where old men drank tea and smoked water pipes all day. It sounded like the perfect place to wrap up our Turkish journey.
Just after midnight Aydin kindly offered to drive us back to the Ottoman Guesthouse in a friend’s Alfa Romeo he was borrowing. The ride over the Galata Bridge offered a tremendous view of Istanbul at night, with the illuminated Aya Sofya and Suleyman’s Mosque standing guard over Sultanahmet. I wanted to drive around all night, marveling at the spectacle of Istanbul all aglow, but our long day had finally caught up with me. Tomorrow we would begin our Anatolian adventure, and now it was time to rest.

August 27, 1999

Raindrops & Minarets

Filed under: Turkey — Andy Carvin @ 9:07 pm

A kebap stand and its owner
A kebapci makes fresh kebaps on the streets of Istanbul

The imaginary voice of a muezzin echoed through my head as our taxi departed from the chaos of Atatürk Airport. As we drove to our hostel in the heart of Old Istanbul, I longed to hear that voice in person — that dulcet lyric that would soon beckon the faithful to noontime prayers.
Ever since experiencing the sounds, sights and smells of Cairo and Amman during our 1995 visit to the Middle East, Susanne and I had both longed to return to the region. Now four years later, the opportunity had finally arrived, though our timing was indeed ominous. Only a week prior to our arrival, a great earthquake had shattered the industrial suburbs of Asian Istanbul, killing over 18,000 people. We had been reassured by contacts in Turkey that the historic parts of Istanbul had been untouched by the quake — we would probably not experience any problems during our stay. Nonetheless, Susanne and I were both eager to get settled in the city and begin our 18-day adventure, hopefully without the fear of aftershocks overcoming our enthusiasm.
Our taxi pulled into the hilly neighborhood of Sultanahmet, home to Istanbul’s most famous landmarks, including the Byzantine church of Aya Sofya and the exquisite Blue Mosque. I was struck by Sultanahmet’s seemingly Old Europe character: winding passages, uneven cobblestone, thin-faced buildings that would have been at home in Amsterdam or Brussels. A steady light rain sprinkled across the neighborhood, leaving small puddles along the sidewalks. Was this really the gateway to Asia, the threshold to the Middle East and the Islamic world? From the sheltered confines of our taxi, it was hard to tell. Yet when Susanne opened the car door to dart through the raindrops into our hotel, the sweet sound of the muezzin‘s call to prayer reached my ears. This time, the voice of the muezzin did not emanate from the confines of my imagination. The noon call to prayer radiated from all directions, echoing along Sultanahmet’s cobblestone corridors. The song was the perfect greeting to Istanbul, a city where quite literally East meets West, where Europe meets Asia.

Anatolian Trivia
It’s often said that Istanbul has been a city of three names — the ancient Roman city of Byzantium; the Roman, Greek and Ottoman city of Constantinople, and the modern Turkish city of Istanbul. But these aren’t the only names that have graced this city. In literary Ottoman it was known as Der-i Saadet, or the House of Good Fortune. To the Russians, Bulgarians and Serbs, it was Tsarigrad, or the City of Emperors. For Armenians, it was Gostantnubolis, which, like Constantinople, means City of Constantine. But today, the name we use comes from the Greek phrase “into the city” — eis teen polin, or Istanbul.

After checking into the Orient Hostel, Susanne and I climbed up to the hostel’s rooftop terrace to have a Coke and plan our day. Rain continued to shower down over the mighty Bosphorus, flowing immediately to the east. If today turned out to be a washout, that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. Neither Susanne nor I had slept well during the 10-hour flight from JFK, so we planned to take it slowly, get our bearings in the neighborhood and perhaps visit a museum or two. There was no point in burning out on our first day of our trip — over the next two and a half weeks we hoped to cross the entire length of Anatolia by land, traveling from Ephesus along the Aegean coast to the Kurdish town of Dogubeyazit along the slopes of Mount Ararat and the Iranian border. We would probably have to talk with the Orient’s travel agency in order to sort out the details.
Around 1pm we left the hostel, following Akbiyik Caddesi uphill past the Isak Pasa Mosque onto the southern grounds of Topkapi Palace, home to generations of Ottoman sultans. We intended to save Topkapi itself for another day — right now we would concentrate on Istanbul’s archeology museums. The park surrounding Topkapi and the museum complex was awash with green: neatly aligned trees swayed in the damp, chilly wind as they stood guard over acres of Ottoman gardens. On this chilly, damp afternoon, Istanbul was more akin to London’s Hyde Park on a brisk November day. If Istanbul were truly the gateway to the arid Middle East, it would seem that the verdant tracts of Europe would not submit until they were submersed into the Bosphorus itself.
Susanne and I soon reached the outer gate of the archeology museum complex. To our chagrin, a sign near the gatehouse informed us that the Museum of the Ancient Orient — which included the famous Code of Hammurabi tablets — was closed for renovation. The Museum of Ancient Works, however, was open to visitors, so we decided to give it a go anyway and pay the one million lira ($2.50) entrance fee.
The museum was a wide, high ceiling structure with ample space for a multitude of large Roman statues and Greek sarcophagi. Apart from the sound of a guard pacing in front of the central staircase, the museum was eerily quiet, as if it too had been closed to the public. There was no one to greet us except scores of ancient statues collected from along Turkey’s Aegean coast. The first room contained pieces from an early Anatolian period of Persian domination, with friezes and bas-reliefs of Iranian soldiers that would have been at home in the ruins of Persepolis.

marble bust of Alexander the Great

In the second room we encountered a collection of marble lions, friezes of mythical gods at play, Medusa heads and statues of upstanding Greco-Roman citizens. Susanne called out to me from across the hall, asking me to come over to her side of the room. I was greeted by a bust of a familiar boyish face with a chipped nose.
“It’s Alexander,” Susanne said, marveling at the bust. Indeed, she had found that famous likeness of Alexander the Great that has graced the cover of so many classical history books.
“What’s he doing here?” I asked. “I would have guessed he’d been whisked away to the Louvre or the British Museum a long time ago.”
After having our fill of Greco-Roman antiquities we crossed to the far side of the museum to visit the “Mausoleums of Sidon” exhibit. Two immense, dark rooms hosted a series of monolithic sarcophagi, all of which served as the resting place of particular Phoenician potentates from approximately 2000 years ago. All of the sarcophagi had been vacated of their royal guests, though one stone casket sat adjacent to the withered mummy of its long-dead former client. The first room contained sarcophagi exhibiting an obvious Egyptian influence, including hieroglyphs and profiles of Egyptian gods. The second room, in contrast, bore intricate friezes of Greco-Roman influence.
The most exciting find on display was the so-called Alexander Sarcophagus, designed in honor of Alexander the Great — despite the fact that he was never its actual inhabitant. The four sides of the sarcophagus were carved with incredibly life-like action scenes of Alexander fighting the Persian army and hunting menacing lions. The battle scenes were etched as if someone had taken a 180-degree freeze frame from a battle sequence in Braveheart and sculpted it into an eight-foot bas relief. Persians swung battle axes as Greeks parried swords and severed limbs. You could feel motion in the stonework.
Susanne and I stepped out of the museum to discover that the early afternoon London drizzle had graduated to an old-fashion Florida thunderstorm. We retrieved our umbrellas while contemplating what to do next. Since there was a good chance that the rains would continue most of the day, we concluded we would go somewhere where neither rain nor shine would be an obstacle to our enjoyment. It was time to go underground.
Yerebatan Saray, or the Sunken Palace, is a subterranean cistern occupying almost 10 hectares below the heart of ancient Constantinople. Built by Roman emperor Justinian the Great in 532 AD, the cistern could hold over 80,000 cubic meters of drinking water for emergency use during sieges and other times of dire threat. The entrance to the cistern was near the northwest corner of Aya Sofya, about a 10-minute walk from the archeology museum.
Before departing for the cistern we strolled through a tree-enclosed garden next to the museum. This particular garden was littered with the remains of giant stone columns, keystones and assorted ancient temple parts. It was quiet literally a Roman architectural junkyard. We stepped through the puddles and muddy grass as the rain drops pooled atop these ancient marble snapshots of a by-gone era.
After briefly descending from along a steep hill, we turned left up a second bluff, following the Sultanahmet tram line along Alemdar Caddesi. At the point where the tram line made an 80-degree turn up Divan Yolu Caddesi, we found the gate to the Yerebatan Saray cistern. Having paid the 1.5 million lira entrance fee — about $3.25 — Susanne and I made our way down a slippery stone staircase. As I descended the steps and removed my sunglasses, I noticed the sound of classical music emanating from below.
“Is that music down there?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Susanne replied, “I read about it in Lonely Planet. I think I would have preferred to have been surprised by it, though.”
We completed the final turn into the cistern and were greeted by a strong wind of humid, temperate air. In front of us a vast dark hall slowly revealed itself, with dozens of enormous, evenly spaced columns rising out of a seemingly endless pool of water. Above us, regular streams of rain droplets seeped through the porous stone ceiling and plummeted into the cistern, creating multiple pulses of plip-plop, plip-plop. The droplets served as randomized percussion to the recordings of Mozart and Beethoven that echoed through the vast chamber.

rows of columns dominate an underground cistern

Susanne and I carefully walked down the wooden platform suspended just above the pool. The dripping water from above combined with the high humidity made the walkway very slippery. As we peered across the shimmering cistern, steadying our cameras on the railing to capture a picture out of the darkness, an older gentleman walked by with a wide rubber broom, sweeping away the excess water off the platform.
“Merhaba,” he said to me as he passed us.
“Merhaba, effendim,” I replied, nodding my head politely.
Susanne and I wandered the maze-like paths of the cistern, passing through the flickering shadows of Ionic columns as Beethoven’s Ode to Joy filled the chamber. Plip-plop, plip-plop. We noticed a sign pointing to the “Medussa” — this, we assumed, was the cistern’s famous Medusa Columns, in which the pedestal of two columns are carved like giant Medusa heads. Crossing to a far corner of the cistern, we descended a ramp towards a row of columns. A Turkish family of five was posing for a photo in front of one of the Medusa heads. I wiped my glasses with a handkerchief and cleared them of condensation while we waited for the opportunity to inspect the column. As the family passed us, one of their sons bent down to pick something off the walkway.
Turkish Pronunciation
Interested in learning how to pronounce the Turkish words mentioned in this journal? Check out my Turkish pronunication guide!

“Effendim!” he said to me, reaching towards my shoulder. As I turned towards him, he held out his hand, a five million lira note worth just over $10 in his palm. I reached into my left pocket and realized that I had dropped the money when I had pulled out my handkerchief.
“Tesekkür ederim,” I said gratefully, thanking him.
Sey degil,” he replied shyly.
As the Turkish family left, we reached the base of the Medusa columns. A large face with hair of serpents was carved sideways into the pedestal, illuminated by eerie green lights. Why the face was carved sideways I didn’t know, but it felt as if the medusa had dropped dead and had somehow petrified herself where she fell.
Susanne and I made our way towards the exit near the far side of the cistern, next to an underground cafe where you could sip Turkish coffee or çay while protected from the dripping water by a large tent. Susanne briefly crossed back to the middle to get one last picture, sneaking beyond a small chain that had been raised to prevent people from backtracking to the entrance. She circumvented the obstacle by deftly stepping over it when no one was looking, though I later caught a stern stare from a workman as we exited the cistern.

rows of columns dominate an underground cistern

Back on the streets of Istanbul we stopped for a snack at a patio restaurant called the Altin Kupa, just off the Sultanahmet tram line. The waiter who sat us spoke excellent English, not to mention Spanish to the table adjacent ours, and bore a striking resemblance to the actor Tom Sizemore. We ordered a hummus plate, a piece of baklava and Turkish coffee in honor of our arrival in Istanbul. Our waiter informed us that they only served desserts after 7pm, so we couldn’t order the baklava any time soon. The hummus turned out to be more than enough for us; it was a dark orange paste, much less moist than the hummus you get in the US. The only way to eat it was to spread it with a knife on slivers of bread – dipping the bread into the crumbly hummus was totally futile.
As we sorted out where we would go next, Susanne asked a second waiter if the restaurant had a bathroom. “Tuvalet var mi?” I showed her how to say in Turkish. The waiter, to our surprise, pointed to the park across the street. I tried repeating the question in both English and Turkish, but again he pointed to the park. Perhaps there was a public WC across the street — or could it be he was actually suggesting that Susanne duck behind a bush in the park? Just as she began to get up with a worried look on her face, the waiter waved his hand in the air and smiled.
“I am joking with you,” he said in English. “It’s in the back, to the left.”
Susanne and I shook our heads and laughed. Welcome to Istanbul – the joke’s on us.
The rain seemed to be relenting so we decided to walk up Divan Yolu Caddesi to Istanbul’s famous Kapali Çarsi, or covered market. The Kapali Çarsi was Istanbul’s largest bazaar, catering to every shopping whim imaginable. As we passed a long row of kebapcis and pidecis — kabob and pizza joints — we reached a small square with an ugly stone pillar at its front and a sizable mosque near the back. The mosque was easily marked on our map as the Nuruosmaniye Camii, built in the 1750s by Sultans Mahmut I and Osman III. We couldn’t visit it that particular day because it was a Friday, the Muslim sabbath, and it would have been inappropriate for non-believers to play tourist. The pillar at the front of the square, however, was a bit of a mystery. Tall, grungy, chipped, and enveloped by rusty metal braces, it looked like a Dickensian English smoke stack. Susanne speculated it might be Constantine’s Pillar, a 1,600-year-old column commemorating the spot where Roman emperor Constantine the Great proclaimed the location of his empire’s new capital. Our Lonely Planet guide provided no obvious clue to its purpose, so we continued our way to the Kapali Çarsi, weaving through several alleyways before reaching the southern gate of the market.
crowds swarm the covered market
Crowds of shoppers visit the Kapali Çarsi

As we entered the bazaar we found an enormous arcade running as far as the eye could see, with hundreds of shoppers packed in the hall in front of us. Calling the Kapali Çarsi “enormous” just doesn’t convey the wonder of this place, though. First opened in the mid-15th century during the reign of Mehmet the Conqueror, the market grew as fast as it could absorb the land around it. Now the Kapali Çarsi housed over 4000 shops, as well as banks, restaurants, mosques and workshops. At the height of the Ottoman Empire, there were overnight hostels, or caravanserais, located at each corner of the market to allow weary merchants to spend the night in Constantinople without ever leaving the bazaar.
Being the traveler’s mecca that Istanbul is, the Kapali Çarsi is now in many ways a tourist’s bazaar, where visitors can buy ornamental tea sets, nargileh water pipes, carpets, Turkish sweets, spices, woodwork, jewelry, shoes, jeans, leather goods, perfumes, t-shirts and postcards, all within a few steps of each other. The Ottomans, it seems, invented the discount shopping mall.
Neither Susanne nor I had any inclination to buy souvenirs today. From previous trips abroad we have learned the lesson that if you see something interesting on the first day of your trip, chances are you’ll see it have a dozen times elsewhere before you come home – and often at a better price. Besides, we were planning to spend our last two days of the trip back here in Istanbul, so if we saw anything we liked, we would hold off purchasing it until the end of the trip. Of course, this did little to prevent numerous carpet salesmen and shopkeeps from trying to lure us into their shops:

“Come friend! You look like you could use a nice carpet!”
“Have some tea and we shall talk about finding your favorite carpet.”
“Bonjour monsieur… Guten tag… Buenos tardes…. Shalom aleichem!”

Every shop owner seemed to be a polyglot fluent in no less than half a dozen languages — at least fluent enough to make the hard sell. There was a lot of cheap junk around the market, but an equal amount of high-end merchandise as well. Many of the carpets and kilims could set you back $2000 just for starters. The Kapali Çarsi was a true free market republic – everyone here, rich or poor, had an equal opportunity to find the perfect bargain or get summarily ripped off in the process.

interior of covered market

I had expected the Kapali Çarsi to be packed with tourists from around the world but we found a surprising number of Turks shopping as well. Clothes, leather goods and jewelry all appeared to be high priority for the Turkish shoppers, while carpets, spices and brassware were the sole dominions of the turistlar. The atmosphere was very festive and energetic, though it still wasn’t the place I had expected. Having browsed the bazaars of Cairo, Jerusalem, Delhi and Kathmandu on other travels, I had assumed that Istanbul’s great covered market would exude the same magical anarchy you could find in other great bazaars. But because the Kapali Çarsi was organized in perfect rows, perfect compartments, all in perfect harmony, it made the browsing experience, well, a little too perfect. Somewhere within the bowels of this massive market I knew there had to be that ancient bazaar of the Near East that I had yearned for. Perhaps it would just have to be found another day.
outdoor book market
Shopping for books in Istanbul’s Sahaflar Çarsisi

The far western gate of the Kapali Çarsi opened towards an outdoor market protected by rows of plastic tarps. We had reached the Sahaflar Çarsisi, the old book bazaar. The book bazaar pre-dates the Kapali Çarsi back into Byzantine times, though today most of the shop owners are Turkish members of the Halveti Dervish sect, a Sufi mystic order that practices a form of spiritual ecstasy that combines ritual dance and hyperventilation. Most of the books sold there were in Turkish, but the main reason for our visit was the local collection of antique maps and prints. I’ve long been a fan of Islamic art and I hoped to make some purchases here at the end of our trip. We wandered from stall to stall, thumbing through thick stacks of illuminated manuscripts, Ottoman calligraphy and ornamented pages from the Quran. Though all of the artwork was painted recently, the parchment used were all scraps of antique Ottoman surplus from the turn of the century. Some of the pages that impressed me most were intricate gold leaf parchments featuring Noah’s Ark, each of which started at around $40. No matter the true age of these paintings, they were incredible works of art. I could have spent hours exploring the antique stalls here, but the sounds and smells of the market beckoned us forward.

Crowds walk by Beyazit Mosque
Beyazit Mosque

The old book bazaar slowly transformed into a flea market as we walked north. We reached an open courtyard with a small mosque and shady garden. The garden was crowded with elderly men playing backgammon, smoking nargileh waterpipes, selling shoes, sketches, even kittens. The courtyard’s west gate guided us to a much larger public space — Beyazit Square, home of the Beyazit Mosque. Back in the 5th century, the Byzantines congregated here as well, when this square hosted the forum of Emperor Theodosius. Over 1100 years later in the 16th century, Sultan Beyazit II built his great mosque at the foot of the forum, continuing the Byzantine tradition of using the square as a central gathering point for the community. Most recently, the northern side of the square has served as the main gate to Istanbul University. Here you could observe modern Turkey’s two great virtues — the secular republic and Islam — co-existing peacefully as college students in jeans strolled hand-in-hand while the faithful streamed into the mosque for late afternoon prayers.
As Susanne and I reached the gate of Istanbul University and looked down at Beyazit Square below us, we realized that the skies had cleared and an overzealous sun was now making up for lost time, shining its warm beams onto the bright pavement. The concrete plaza became too hot for leisurely people-watching so we veered due east, along the north edge of the Kapali Çarsi through the heart of the open-air flea market. We were most certainly in a market for locals – here you came to buy tools, underwear, blank videotapes and watermelons, not souvenirs and trinkets. Susanne and I both dodged fruit carts, baby carriages and drivers who possessed no interest in pedestrian right-of-way as we worked our way through the crowded streets. Eventually the flea market tents collided with the northern gate to the Kapali Çarsi. Susanne mentioned that she thought there was a small mosque built by Ottoman master architect Mimar Sinan somewhere around the northern reaches of the market. We wandered for a few minutes to find a mosque that was marked on our map, but after reaching it we realized the mosque was much too small and undistinguished to be the place she had in mind. We’d have to conduct further research on its proper location.
After retracing our route out of the Kapali Çarsi we passed the Nuruosmaniye Mosque and that decrepit stone column we surmised to be Constantine’s Pillar. Susanne and I walked downhill along Divan Yolu Caddesi, following the tramline tracks towards Aya Sofya. With the sun shining brightly as we reached the bottom of the hill, we were treated to our first unobscured view of Justinian’s glorious masterpiece, the Church of Holy Wisdom. Massive yet sublime, Aya Sofya was a timeless attestation to the architectural brilliance of the ancient world. Tomorrow we would have our chance to appreciate its magnificence in person; for now, we needed to rest. This was only our first day in Turkey, and we didn’t want to rush.

Aya Sofya
Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia), The Church of the Holy Wisdom

As Susanne and I walked adjacent to the gardens between Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque, an old man in a white skullcap approached us. “Merhaba,” he said. “Deutsch? Ingilizce?”
“Americans,” Susanne replied.
“America!,” he exclaimed, clasping his hands together. He then turned towards me and began to speak quickly, repeating the sound “Nüyörg.” I thought he was trying to introduce himself.
“Ismim Andy,” I replied, trying to be polite.
“No, no,” he said. “My son…. In Nüyörg.” He pulled out his wallet and showed us a picture of a man in his 20s.
“I think that’s his son,” Susanne said. “He lives in New York?”
“Yes!” he replied. “Nüyörg!”
“We live in Washington DC,” I said, feeling dumb for assuming he had been trying to introduce himself.
“Very close to New York, yes?” the old man responded. “Would you like to have some tea in my carpet shop?”
Susanne and I looked at each other and grinned.
“No thank you,” I said. “We have just arrived and we are very tired. Perhaps another day.”
“Okay, okay,” he replied. He waved goodbye and turned around, walking towards another group of visitors.
“So his son’s in New York,” I said as we walked away, shaking my head.
“And as soon as he finds out those people are from England,” Susanne replied, “his son will probably be in London.”
We returned briefly to the Orient Hostel to visit its in-house travel agency. Susanne and I needed to purchase airline tickets to Izmir in order to reach our first stop in Anatolia — the Greco-Roman ruins of Ephesus. We would also have to arrange our return flight to Istanbul from somewhere in eastern Turkey – probably the city of Van, not far from the Iranian and Iraqi borders. We both wanted to spend some time in Turkish Kurdistan, but we thought it would be prudent to speak with a travel agent first in order to be sure that the region was safe.
For more than a decade, the Kurdish provinces of southeastern Anatolia have been wracked by violence from all sides — Turkish military forces cracking down on PKK guerrilla activity, rebels attacking military and civilian targets, rival rebel groups attacking each other’s villages. The recent capture and subsequent death sentence of PKK guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan raised some concerns that Kurdistan would erupt in greater violence, but so far the opposite had been true — Ocalan himself called for a unilateral cease fire from his death row jail cell. Hopefully the cessation of rebel activity would last long enough for us to visit the region safely.
The young man at the Orient travel agency explained to us that we shouldn’t have a problem visiting Kurdistan, and suggested we come by the agency tomorrow morning in order to book our flights. Susanne also wanted us to telephone her contact in Istanbul, a tour guide named Aydin who was friends with one of her colleagues at National Geographic. We had emailed Aydin before departing from Washington, and he had graciously agreed to help us sort out the logistics for our cross-country trip across Anatolia. I tried placing a call to Aydin from the hostel’s public phone but was unable to get it to dial his number properly. Instead of pursuing a quick solution, though, I suggested we go out for dinner and try to reach Aydin sometime tomorrow morning.
We departed the hotel a few minutes past 5pm, hoping to get a light dinner before returning for an early night’s sleep. Both of us were growing tired from our long, sleepless flight from New York, so we didn’t want to stay up too late. We made a brief detour to the Sultanahmet Mosque, hoping to catch a few photos before sunset. Our timing wasn’t great, though, for the sun was hanging in the sky in just the wrong place, presenting a tremendous glare through our lenses. The mosque would have to wait another day, I guess.
Susanne and I hiked up Divan Yolu Caddesi, passing no less than a dozen kebapcis and pidecis before selecting a colorful eatery called the Cennet Restaurant. The Cennet was an obvious tourist trap: richly carpeted walls, Ottoman seat cushions, fez-capped waiters. A group of women sat in the center of the restaurant, cooking crepes on a griddle and flatbreads in a tandir oven. Our lamb kebaps and spinach crepes were as bland as could be as expected at a cafe catering solely to western tastes, but neither Susanne and I wanted to challenge our stomachs on our first night in Turkey. There would be plenty of opportunities for us to feast on spicy adana kebaps and köfte platters.
In need of some flavor to wrap up our evening, we stopped for dessert at the legendary Pudding Shop. A notorious 1960s hangout, the Pudding Shop was a munchies mecca for hippies kicking off a journey along the Freak Trail from Europe to Kathmandu. Today the Pudding Shop is no more pretentious than a family-style buffet restaurant, but its subtle retro ambiance made it a great place for a late-night sugar fix. Sticking with the house specialties, Susanne and I each split a cinnamon-kissed rice pudding and a syrupy plate of baklava. Having noticed several other diners drinking ayran, Turkey’s ubiquitous yogurt drink, I decided to order a glass for myself. The ayran was cool and refreshing like an Indian lassi, but its exceptionally salty disposition made it a little difficult for me to polish off the entire glass.
After paying the 1.9 million liras for our dessert and drinks, Susanne and I strolled back to the hostel by way of the Blue Mosque. A drizzle began to fall as we arrived near its outer gates. The mosque was all aglow from blue and green spotlights, while a net of small lamps hung between its front minarets, spelling out a commemoration honoring the 700th anniversary of the Ottoman Empire’s birth. Several families sat on a row of wooden benches, gazing at the mosque under the protective shelter of their umbrellas.

blue mosque
Sultanahmet Camii (The Blue Mosque) at night

By 8pm, Susanne and I were both ready for bed. Neither of us had slept in over 24 hours, so we looked forward to a long night’s sleep. Our peace did not last, however. At 11pm our room began to shake to the pulsating beat of the hostel’s adjacent night club.
When I had made our reservation at the hostel, I had been promised a room out of earshot from their disco. As we lay in our beds, counting the hours go by and praying for silence, we learned a hard lesson: skimping on accommodations in Istanbul just ain’t worth it.

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