Bleary eyed and hungry after the flight from Toronto, we approach Sultanahmet, an area of Istanbul that is densely packed with the heavyweights of historical sights. The familiar smells and sights of vendors selling chestnuts, kahwa, and pomegranate juice instantly put me at ease. Roaming the street at night for a bite to eat I see all the visual cues to indicate I am in familiar territory. Old men play Shesh Besh, meat is roasting on charcoal grills, coffee is brewing in copper pots, and a dervish performs, his cassock gracefully floating around him as he tilts his head slightly. But the setting is slightly skewed, the language unfamiliar, it feels like an incoherent dream - is this the Middle East?
In my travels, I am often drawn to the familiar and find similarities in cultures that bring people together. In this case, the olive press, the fresh simit bread, the sound of dice rolling on the backgammon board, all spoke to me in a familiar language. The history of the Ottoman Empire is deeply connected to my own. There is a picture of my great grandparents posing formally for the photographer. My great-grandfather wears a fez - this was Ottoman Palestine.
The next morning we wake up to the call to prayer, the Muezzins competing for our piety. Their calls are asynchronous, staggered amongst the numerous domed mosques that dot the city. A few people rush to the masjid but more typically the flow of business goes uninterrupted. It is difficult to wake up but it is even more difficult to sleep.
We get caught up in the tourist herd - and with a ‘must see’ list, we start at the Blue Mosque. The inside is vast, the domes above are brilliant with color and light. I take refuge in the woman’s section and there is a sense that it is very much alive and vibrant. The Hagia Sophia is equally impressive. Enough has been written about this onetime church turned mosque, now museum. The inside of the domed building is layered with light, a mixture of Byzantine mosaics and Arabic calligraphy, all of which have withstood the conquests of time. We were in Turkey at the end of 2010, but since then, the tug of war between secular and religious continues to pull at the foundation of a shifting Turkish society and today there is a push to turn this museum back to a mosque.
We continue our tour at the Topkapi Palace, overwhelmed, we retreat to the impressive underground labyrinth of the Basilica Cistern where two Medusa heads, relics from another reign, are repurposed to support one of the hundreds of columns - perhaps pragmatically positioned upside down and sideways for their structural integrity. We wander the streets, eat tooth numbing baklava and watch the guardians of the city roam the streets with vigilance and disdain. I’m speaking about the cats, of course. Their irreverence betrays their superior position. We watch a small child teeter toward one of the cats only to be rebuked with a warning hiss. Alarmed, the child topples sideways onto the grass. We rarely saw any vermin in Istanbul.
Wandering the streets, we cross the Bosphorus along a tunnel crammed with vendors selling sweaters, cell phones and toys. The ferry traffic moves in hyper speed, their wake churning up fish for the hundreds of waiting fishermen lining the edge of the bridge. We watch the busy bus station where commuters stream toward their destinations, some lingering at the pier to buy roasted corn or chestnuts. A group of teenage girls talk excitedly, two wear fashionable headscarves, the other two don’t. They light their cigarettes, shrug off a street hawker, and flitter to the next best thing.
Fish Markets and Ancient Ruins - The Aegean
We leave Istanbul and the labyrinth of sprawling underground markets for Ephesus. Walking a fine line between history and myth, we trample on the smooth marble steps of this ancient Greek city, once a booming port of 200,000 now 6 miles from the nearest water, the port having completely silted up. Pillars reflecting the various periods frame the perimeter of the walkways. The amount of history is overwhelming, the details easily lost with a mind boggling sweep of dates, dust and decay.
While travel by bus never comes up as an option at home, it is exclusively the mode of choice for us when getting around outside of North America. Turkey was no exception. From Ephesus we traveled further down the Mediterranean coast to Fathiye on a surprisingly comfortable bus that had a wireless connection, a maitre de wearing a bowtie serving refreshments, and a personal tv screen where we watched the Simpsons in Turkish - no translation needed.
From ancient history to today, Turkey is a living reminder of civilizations won and lost and I can’t even begin to unearth the complexities of it’s history and its relevance linking the east to the west - the Arab world to Europe. Each stone we turn up as we trod through this country is a part of that antiquity. While in Fathiye, we visit an abandoned city of Kayaköy - a town once inhabited by both Muslims and Christians - but was ‘emptied’ out during the Greco-Turkish War - with Turkey expelling the Greek Christians and Greece expelling Muslims in an exchange, the chasm much greater than the Aegean Sea dividing the countries by race and religion.
The rhythms of the coastal towns are intoxicating - the people live for and by the shore, fishing, eating, relaxing, and courting. We stay in the town of Kas, a small fishing village where oversized buses incredibly squeeze down the narrow, winding streets. We rent kayaks and paddle over the sunken remains of Lycian tombs dating back from the 15th and 14th centuries BC - even underwater there is a risk of trodding over the ancients. Kas is also popular boating destination and at one point we are passed by a Dutch-flagged boat where a full-bellied captain happily waves to us from his helm. Barry points out that he’s completely nude.
Lycian Tombs and Stone Castles
We left Kas and the fabulous fish market but not before gorging on a kilo of shrimp bought at the open fish market and cooked by the many restaurants lining the square. Arriving in Antalya by the afternoon, we went into the old part of town with crumbling Roman style houses and a lively fishing harbor. We chose not to hire a traditional two-masted Turkish gulet for a sunset cruise. We could hear the techno music fading into the night air. Instead, we sat at the pier and watched the fishing boats tie up after a long day, the fishermen mending their nets. The piers were lined with boys casting their rods or enticing fish with stale bread tied to the end of a line. We watched young Turkish couples stroll by the promenade, speed eating sunflower seeds. A group of young boys were drying off on the boulders after a dip in the water. A lone gentlemen, slowly putting his suit jacket on, pants and shoes, his stately mustache yellowed with nicotine, gazes out to the sea onto the fading mountains beyond.
Perhaps more impressive than Ephesus were the ruins of Termessos tucked into the Gulluk Mountains that have withstood the raids of Alexander the great in 333BC and maintained it’s independence from the Roman Empire. It’s easy to see why since the mountains create a natural barrier to protect the city, thwarting off any possibility of ambush. We climb to the top of the hill where a fire tower stands and look at the necropolis below strewn into the mountain side, the tombs cracked open by vandals, earthquakes or both. Walking up to the amphitheater, we have unobstructed views of the valley below and surprisingly, we don’t see another living soul around us. We make our way down the mountain where more tombs are sculpted into the cliffs, clearly the dead command the best views.
We leave the sea behind and head toward central Anatolia to Göreme and arrive just in time to watch the sun rise over stone spires dotted with the spectacle of colorful hot air balloons floating over the valley in Cappadocia. Waisting no time for sleep, we spend the rest of the day wandering this surreal landscape of stone castles, some the shape of swirled ice-cream cones, others indisputably phallic. Many of these formations have houses, stores, and churches carved into them.
In Derinkuyu, a near by underground city, we explore the complex refuge that spans eight stories deep and has all the necessities including stables, wine cellars, churches and tunnels connecting the underground dwellers. Descending a set of stairs carved out of the cave we see a huge round stone resting into the wall. This stone could be rolled into position to close off access to invaders, though the weight of it would require a bit of grunt work. Closer to the surface, there is a garden where some potatoes grow in the corner of the cave - this city would have housed about 2000 people and their livestock and had a shaft that provided both ventilation and water.
Heading back into the sun, squinting rom the daylight, we return to Göreme to explore the Rose Valley where the semi-arid ground is ideal for grape vines and apricot trees. Ducking out from under the rainfall gives us more opportunities to explore the solitude of the caves, some of which have faded Byzantine art painted on their ceilings. Walking at the edge of the valley, completely alone, we take in the full magnitude of this otherworldly landscape and watch the rose-colored valley glow in the fading light. This was our last stop before the long bus ride back to Istanbul.
We spend our last day sitting outside the New Mosque that dates back to the 17th Century and is strategically located on the Golden Horn, a peninsula that connects the Bosphorus to the Sea of Marmara and separates old Istanbul from the rest of the city. There are vendors stationed outside the mosque selling prayer beads and seed for the pigeons. At the bridge, the ferry traffic is constant and weaves past the tangle of fishing lines spanning the length of the straight. Bridging Europe and the Middle East, Turkey straddles both these cultures with its own identity, but for me, the sounds, sights and smells bring an immediate connection to my past, skewed as it may be.