July 13, 2011

Images of Turkey in 10 Glorious Minutes

This is my last post on my Turkey trip. I don't plan to write much text, other than to say that my trip to Turkey was one of the best travel experiences I have ever had. I have taken photos that I like from the 1500 or so that my wife and I snapped and have put them together in a slide show with music. I don't provide any narration, so if you are curious about any of the images feel free to comment or send me a message.

In conclusion, I would encourage you, if you ever have a chance to travel there, to take that opportunity. It is a fascinating country right on the edge of many different worlds and many different epochs of human history. In such a place, you can't help have your outlook expand and grow.

Labels: , , , , , ,

June 27, 2011

Culture in Turkey: Eight Moments

This will be my second to last post on Turkey. The last post will consist of a slideshow I am putting together. However, I want in this post to focus on some scattered and random moments that I want to remember, and will throughout the rest of my life. They are in no particular order but are presented just as they come into my head.

The bunnies know all

Moment One - The Bunny Tells It Like It Is

This is a moment that I like to complain about, but it was actually really sweet. Megan and I were walking along a street after leaving the Istanbul Modern Art Museum. It was late in the day and we had decided to head down to the Galata Bridge, where we would cross over and have a fish sandwich, or maybe go to one of the restaurants underneath the bridge and have a fish dinner. As we walked along a little park not far from the museum, we passed an older man behind a sort of podium-like thing. I immediately noticed that two tiny bunnies were perched on top. The man saw me looking, and motioned for me to come pet them. By now Megan had noticed, and so we went over to see. He picked up the bunnies, plopped them into our hands (they were small enough to fit in one palm) and then asked me if I spoke English, French or German. I said English, and he grabbed the bunny back and set it on the podium. The top of the podium had a slit where there were little strips of paper sticking out. He tapped the podium and the bunny took a slip of paper from its mouth and put it in his hand. He gave the paper to me. I read it - it was my fortune! In the meantime, he was doing the same for Megan. She also got her fortune.

He charged us 5 lira (about $3.50) for the fortunes, but as Megan said, it was really worth it. Unfortunately, the bunnies were nicer to her than me. My fortune said I was "quarrelsome," while hers said very nice things about her. It's true, I was being quarrelsome that day, but I'm not going to take that from a bunny without defending myself!

Relaxed at the bath house after my "manhandling."

Moment 2 - Manhandled

There was a brief moment, when I was in the Cağaloğlu Hamami (a Turkish bath house), that I thought that my attendant was going to pull my face right off my skull. His name was Chan, or perhaps Çan in Turkish, and he had been working there for 30 years as a bath attendant. I wasn't sure that I would have wanted to make soaping up and rubbing men my life's work, but he obviously was good at it. He weighed somewhere well north of 250 pounds, and he manhandled me around on the wet marble as if I was a rubber ball and he was an elephant idly playing with it.

I have no pictures of me getting the treatment because it's hard to take a photo when you're getting lathered up and rinsed off, but here's a video of Michael Palin getting a Turkish bath. If I'm not mistaken, his attendant is a younger Çan.

In another moment, when Çan washed my hair, he was so extremely gentle that I temporarily forgot that the lather was being worked into my scalp by a man who could have easily broken me like a twig. With my eyes closed, I enjoyed the feeling of someone else's fingers roaming over my head. I've had members of the opposite gender stroke my hair and massage my scalp - and occasionally a male masseuse - but when you looked at the girth of Çan and heard every so often the gruff voice bark "Is no good?" you really had to suspend your disbelief that such a person could at one moment roughly pull your arms to the point that you were afraid they might come out of the sockets, and at the next lightly massage your temples.

Would I go back? Of course I would, in a minute.

Hittite bull from the Pergamom Gate

Moment 3 - Living History

Actually, this is a collection of small moments. Most of the time, we were running from historic site to historic site because we were on a schedule. It was those times, however, when I got to stay in a place for a moment and try to take into my mind the vast enormity of history and place that I truly experienced Turkey. I felt shivers in my spine as I looked down the main avenue of Ephesus to the remnants of the facade of the Library of Celsus and thought about how many people had trod these steps when the city was, 2000 years ago, the second city of the Roman Empire. I got the same shivers as I imagined the painters of the frescoes on the 12th century churches carved into the stone at Goreme. I thought of the novels I had read (the Dorothy Dunnett novels and Eco's Baudolino) in which Constantinople plays a key role as I wandered through the historic sites of the city, especially Hagia Sophia and the underground Cistern. Having read books about the long history of this place, I felt a strange kinship to it. Even though I was physically seeing Turkey and its sites for the first time, it felt like I knew them and so it was like greeting an old friend.

In Turkey there are shops galore selling all kinds of tchochskies

Moment 4 - Keeping it Local

I was full of amazement, constantly, at the level of entrepreneurism in Turkey. I did not see many chains of American and European variety there, but a LOT of home grown industries. I know from reading that the current ruling party really focused on building entrepreneurism in Turkey. As a result, Turkey has eight - that's right eight!!!! - domestic airlines. I'm sure that's more than the United States has at the moment. I don't know much about Turkey's domestic economy, but it seems to be free of the rampant monopolism and oligopolism that has become the American economy. The upshot was that we ate local food, drank local alcohol, and shopped at local stores. Certainly, one could find European and American products, but they were often right next to Turkish competitors. Perhaps this is a product of protectionism, and the Turkish economy will, now that it's more open than ever, become more crowded by Western companies. I hope not. I hope that Turkish companies will continue to engage in the kind of competition you rarely see in capitalist countries nowadays.

Apeth Keasoy, actually Areti or Virtue, looks silently over the plaza.

Moment 5 - Who was Apeth Keasoy?

As I looked at the statue in the nook in the facade of the Library of Celsus in Ephesus, I wondered: who was Apeth Keasoy? She was part of a group of four women, most of whom had what appeared to be the same last name, Keasoy. The most undamaged statue of one woman had the name Apeth Keasoy inscribed in Greek at the base. The another statue, more damaged, was titled Sophia Keasoy. I don't remember what the two others were.

The library is one of the finest examples of Roman architecture still standing. Ephesus itself was a Greek city in Turkey that for a while was the second most important city in the Roman Empire. The library was built to house up to 12,000 scrolls, and was laid out very carefully so as to take advantage of the morning light for early risers.

She appeared to have her right hip cocked upward. Her hands were missing, but one would probably rest upon her breast, while the other might hold a fold of her dress. Her hair appeared to be curled, and covered with a type of hood. Her gaze was directed outward, and little to the right and upward.

She fascinated me. Here was a woman whose image, captured in stone, conveys a thinking person. I thought that she must have had some kind of interest in arts and letters to be immortalized so at a library. I assumed that she also must have been wealthy. Perhaps she and Sophia were sisters who provided some needed funding to the construction of the library. Perhaps she was a regular patron, reading scrolls from authors from Ephesus and beyond and learning what scholars of her time knew about the wider world.

I could imagine her, clutching her the fold of her dress to keep it out of the way while she climbed the stairs to the library in the early summer sun, hurrying to read some newly acquired works in the cool interior of the library. Off across the plaza, her sister, not clearly visible in the dawn, calls to her and she turns on the steps, her hood falling back and revealing her long, dark, curly hair. She waves and then turns again, pulling her hood back over her hair and vanishes into the main entrance of the library for another day of learning, imagining, and dreaming.

Digging for information, of course, totally shattered my image. The statues are merely representations. The other three represent Sophia (wisdom), Episteme (knowledge), Ennoia (intelligence). What I interpreted as Apeth is actually Areti, representing virtue. No matter. I still prefer to place her in the little story I concocted. She seems more real to me that way.

I mortgaged my kid's college fund for this....Wait, I don't have a kid.

Moment 6 - Buying a Rug

My friend Laura Bruzzese writes about this experience more eloquently than I can, (see her posts on her Turkish rug buying experience here and here) but buying a rug is a singular experience in Turkey. Ostensibly, our group was going to see a demonstration on rug making at a rug shop. Okay, I thought. I can deal with that. Maybe I can look at rugs in the bazaar or something later.

What I learned is that the explanation of rug-making is only the beginning of the hard sell. A loom is dragged out, usually with an unfinished rug being woven. Explanations are given about the weave and the materials. The worth of the rug is measured by the type and blend of materials (wool, silk, or cotton), the intricacy of the design (the number of knots is a clue), and the age of the rug (these rugs can last 300 years or more). Stories are told about the meaning of the rugs and the motivations of the young women who weave them. They are often marriage rugs, but they also serve a purpose of keeping the room warmer.

However, this part of the sell doesn't last as long as the next part. Tea is served, and examples of various rugs are brought out. Suddenly, the realization hits that you've moved beyond the educational component to the sell. Perhaps you notice it because suddenly you have a person, a salesman (and they are ALL men), standing next to you, asking you what you are looking for in terms of size, texture and the like and then snapping orders to an assistant to bring out this and that rug. As the assistant throws the rug at your feet, you realize at that moment that you have a quick choice, either extricate yourself or go for it. You go for it because you have secretly known to yourself that you want to buy a rug. To use an analogy, it is like the choice you have with a beautiful woman who is trying to seduce you. Either you make the choice to walk away, or you plunge in knowing that's what you wanted all along.

In the end, if you continue walking down the path, after an hour or so of looking at carpets of different weaves, materials, sizes and colors, you have been skillfully maneuvered by your salesperson to the rug you wish to settle on. Now comes the negotiation. A price is thrown out that makes you blanch. You counter offer, and the salesperson looks pained. He can't go that low...he has a boss to please, a family to support. But, since you are an honored guest, he could probably let it go for this amount, though it pains him. At this point, you have a choice. You can still walk away before consummating your relationship. But then, you know you might feel empty having come that far only to leave the object of your desire behind. You MUST, at this point, be willing to do just that, or you will have no chance of a great deal. So you look pained in turn, say it is all very tempting, and offer another price. The salesman tells you he can't go any lower, but that he needs to talk to his boss and maybe, just maybe, there is a chance. You wait for a few minutes, the rug lying on the floor tantalizingly before you, and finally the salesman comes back. Yes, the boss has allowed it just this one time for you, such an honored guest. The deal is made, money is exchanged, shipping is arranged, and you have your rug.

In our case, it was a $1400 price for a rug that is probably worth $5,000 - $6,000 on the American market. That's more than I've ever spent at one time except for trips and cars. It is a mercerized cotton carpet that feels like silk, and a design that represents the seven hills of Istanbul. It will last 300 years, easily, and since I have no children we will have to decide who we will leave it to after I'm gone. And I must say, the negotiation was easy because our tour already set up deep discounts. The shop was so open about this that they told Laura that if she decided that she no longer wanted her rug, they would buy it back from her for %25 more than she paid for it because they knew they would sell it again. So what I describe is a mixture of what I think might happen in a really hard sell, based on my experience. It certainly wasn't to be missed.

Istanbul soccer fan anticipation his team's championship

Moment 7 - Soccer

We were in Istanbul for the final games of the Turkish League. The hometown team, Fenerbaçe, was in close race for the title with the team from Trabzon. Unlike in the U.S., there are no playoffs. The winner of the league is determined by record and, if there is a tie, goals scored throughout the season. Fenerbaçe needed to win to take the title. When the team won, it was as if Istanbul came to life in spontaneous joy. Car horns blared, cheers erupted from almost every building, and impromptu street demonstrations and parades broke out all over the city.

I have never lived in a European soccer mad city. This was my momentary experience of it.

Breathing away the afternoon in a haze of fruity smoke

Moment 8 - Hookah

Getting my wife to slow down is sometimes very difficult. She is a driven person and wants to see everything she can in this lifetime because she doesn't want to miss a minute of it. I am less ambitious. I was surprised when, after visiting the Istanbul Modern Art Museum, we stopped at a row of lounges nearby. There we ordered a hookah with some berry flavored sweet tobacco. I am not a smoker, but I partook of the hookah. The tobacco was nice and smooth. Life passed by for an hour and a half. A cat climbed on our laps and lay there, content, just as we were content to let it. A couple of guys sat at a neighboring table with a hookah playing dominoes. A couple sat over in a corner talking in low whispers.

It was a great afternoon.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

June 18, 2011

Culture in Turkey: Food, Glorious Food (and Drink)!

Lovely meal presentation. Get used to it! There's more!

I am probably the last person who should write about food. In our journalists' group to Turkey, on which I had the privilege of tagging along due to my wife's (Megan Kamerick) membership in the fourth estate, we had a former chef (Gwyneth Doland) who occasionally would comment on the presentation of the food, then the subtle flavors of what she tasted in this dish or that delicacy or the other dessert.

Me? I have less sublime delineations. Bad, Not that bad, Good, Really Good, and F***ing Amazing.

How can you possibly resist something like that, every single day?

It should tell you something about the overall quality of Turkish food when I relate this little trip tidbit. About the third day of the trip, I woke up with the distinct feeling that I really didn't need to eat again for a few days. We had, after all, had three large meals a day up to that point, including a dinner with a family that included I believe eight courses with a dessert and tea. I was literally stuffed. Much of it was rich, full fat food that because of my lack of a troublesome gall bladder that became too much of a whining complaining organ some seven years ago and had to be relieved of its duties, I really shouldn't have been eating because of possibly horrific side effects. But eat I did. And so, with that full feeling that yet is sort of unsatisfying, I marched down to tackle a new day and vowed to not eat much.

But I continued to eat, and eat, and eat whatever was put in front of me. Like a good boy, and like my mama taught me, because everything was just so damn good I couldn't help myself. Most everything was incredible.

The fish was usually fresh caught from the Bosporus, and very tasty!

There are two meals that stand out in my mind as sub par. Just two meals in a three week period! One of those meals occurred when we visited a high school founded by members of the social movement that was sponsoring our trip. We were ushered into a cafeteria and served our lunch by the cafeteria staff. We were given lentil soup, a salad and chicken, with baklava for dessert. The lentil soup was uninspiring compared to the other soups we had before, the chicken was a bit dry, the salad just average, and the baklava was too soft and mushy. And yet, as I even ate all of this meal, I realized that if I were on a tasting tour of school cafeterias and this was a lunch I was served, this meal would probably rank in the top five. If you have to eat lunch in a school cafeteria, well, you would want to eat that meal.

The other sub par meal we had was after the group had split up and Megan and I were on our third or so day alone in Istanbul. Because our guide said we just HAD to have fish sandwich down by the Bosporus, we went to get one. There are these crazy little boats that bob nauseatingly near the Galata Bridge. They are like tiny barges with awnings over them that makes them look like one of those carts, carried on the shoulders of servants, that pashas ride in. In them, somehow cooking despite the motion on the water, men slap fish on the grill. You go up, order a fish sandwich, and in a minute it comes wrapped to you for 5 or so Turkish lira (about $3.50). Grab a Coke and you're set. Unfortunately, the fish is full of bones so you spend a lot of time picking them out of your teeth, and just being slapped on a piece of bread, it doesn't have much taste.

At the hotel breakfast buffet in Ankara, they actually had fresh honeycomb!

But that's it. Only two sub par meals. And notice that I write sub par. Not bad. Because my food experience of Istanbul and much of the rest of Turkey is like my experience of New Orleans. You really have to work hard to find a bad meal.

And so, a litany of what we ate both in restaurants and elsewhere. You've already, I'm sure, been perusing some of the pictures of the food I've been sprinkling throughout this post. The typical meal would begin with a lentil soup. There would usually be a salad, called a shepherd's salad with cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, maybe peppers and maybe some olives. Cheese was often involved in the meal. Sometimes there were sarmas, similar to the Greek dolmas, which are grape leaves wrapped around a mix of meat, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers or other things. We also had kofte's, which were Turkish meatballs. We had what our chef member Gwyneth called "darling little footballs" which were called kibbeh and were fried concoctions of bulgur and meat (usually lamb or beef). Fresh fruit was always a staple of the table. If you got through all that, then the main dish might come. It usually involved rice and could include stuffed eggplant, or a doner kebap or iskender kebap, or this tiny little pasta-like dish called monte, that was delicious. As you slipped into a food coma at that point, dessert would arrive and was usually sweet beyond your wildest dreams. It might be baklava or a cake-like offering. Sometimes, goat's milk ice cream would accompany the dessert (which really pleased my tongue but sent my gall-bladderless digestive system into hyperdrive). Of course, all of this was washed down by copious amounts of Turkish tea, a dark tea colored soft amber in small Turkish tea glasses that resembled the shape of a curvy, voluptuous woman.

Brightly colored candy rolled onto sticks and served fresh on the street.

On one night, when we were hosted by a family, I even surprised myself. The wife of one of our guides, Habibe Aksoy, had told us prior to the trip that when visiting a Turkish home, we should expect a lot of food. It is polite, she said, to eat something of everything. In fact, it is expected. One of the very few vegetables I don't like is eggplant. And when I mean very few vegetables, I'm the kind of guy who likes brussels sprouts and spinach and liked them when I was a kid. So amidst all of this amazing food being sent toward me down the table, I was least excited about the eggplant dish that was coming, but like a good guest I took a good portion of it and prepared myself to eat it. I took a bite, and then another, and then another. I had seconds of that eggplant. In the hands of our hostess and her sister, even a dish that I traditionally stayed away from was a delight.

Two memorable evenings were spent eating seafood in restaurants beneath the Galata Bridge, next to the lapping waters of the Golden Horn, while the fishing poles of the fishermen above us rhythmically moved up and down as they tried to bait fish into biting their lures. Unlike the fish sandwich, the restaurant prepared fish - we ordered a type of sea bass but they had all kinds - was done to perfection. Light, flaky and freshly cooked. Both times, they brought the uncooked fish fully laid out to the table so that we could see exactly what we would be getting.

Sarah Gustavus of KUNM is happy to show off her "pizza boat" as we called them.

Another memorable meal, simply because of the ambience of the place, occurred just after our group left and we checked into our hotel. Megan asked the clerk for a good place to eat. He asked what kind of food we wanted, and she said "something local." He got very excited and told us about his favorite place about five stops up the metro line. "Not touristical," he said and said the food was good. So we followed his advice. He must have called them because we got off the train trying to find the place, and saw a man in the window of a restaurant waving to us. We went in, and the waiter was very nice and clearly wanted to talk to us about how he read the Financial Times and what we thought of it. We were the only non-Turks in the place. The food was good and filling. We left, and decided to walk a bit, and suddenly another man in an apron came running after us to tell us about his restaurant. We told him we had just eaten but he handed us a menu and told us to come back to his place at any time and that he would be happy to help us.

We also had a meal in a small corner restaurant near the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, a meat-like stew with curry I think served over rice with a side of french bread, that was sublime in its simplicity and flavored even more by the non-stop patter of the old man who owned the restaurant and who had traveled to Europe, Canada and the US and wanted, almost needed it seemed, to relate his experiences and impressions of those places.

These little pastas were called monte, and they were delicious!

Breakfasts in our hotels were always full affairs. Everything was available and included in the price of the room. Eggs, meats, cheeses, vegetables, olives, yogurt, muesli and other cereals, breads, coffee, tea. I got used to having some meat, vegetables and olives with my eggs and cereal.

For drink at meals, tea was always available. A local drink that I could not get into, but which some members of our group liked was ayran, a salty yogurt drink. Megan really like a sour cherry drink called vishne. Of course soft drinks were available, including Coke Zero and Fanta. I tried a local cola called Cola Turka, which I thought was pretty good. For alcohol, beer was mostly limited to a Turkish lager called Efes. Wine was available, often of Turkish origin, and we drank some Cappadocian red wines which were tasty. Often bars had western mixed drinks like martinis and margaritas available, but if you ordered them you had to be prepared for anything as it seemed to depend on what the bartender decided to make them out of. The occasional mystery of the alcoholic mixed drinks, coupled with the steadiness of the other drinks that we knew were always available, only added rather than detracted from the pleasure of the trip and of being in someplace new.

We actually visited the set of a Turkish cooking show. Our chef and theirs converse (Gwyneth Doland of KNME at left).

But the drink I loved, and dearly wish I had brought some home with me, was raki. Raki is the national drink of Turkey, a heady anise seed brandy (probably much like ouzo but don't tell the Turks that - to them it's different and better than the Greek version) that is served straight and when mixed with water, becomes cloudy. Stephen Kinzer, in Crescent and Star, says it is the perfect drink for Turkey: everything seems clear and optimistic at first, but after a while becomes murky and cloudy and full of inner pessimism. The next time I am in Turkey, I will visit a meyhane, where raki and mezze and music are served non-stop and where people gather to talk about things important to Turks. But for now, I'll just remember the licorice-like flavor of the raki on my tongue.

So, I'll end this post on Turkish food with the only thing I can really say about it that conveys the full range of what I felt about the food on our trip.

F***ing amazing.

Go ahead, have one more dessert. Pistachio encrusted baklava with goat milk ice cream. You know you wanna!

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

June 08, 2011

Religion in Turkey: Crossroads of Faiths

I was walking through the Arasta Bazaar, near the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. We were on our way to a place for lunch after seeing the Topkapi Palace. The bazaar was quiet. There were a few people looking in store windows, and a few shopkeepers standing at their doorways. I was at a leisurely pace, looking at the wares on either side of me, when suddenly the air erupted with a sound that I knew, but never heard. The Islamic call to prayer.

The Blue Mosque through a window of Hagia Sophia

The most immediate sound came from the Blue Mosque, which was right nearby. However, the call seemed to echo...at least that's what I thought until I realized that the other calls that I thought were echoes sounded slightly different. As I listened, there seemed to be a call and response going on, as one call to prayer engendered a response by another, multiplied many times. It was a simple call, an invocation of God's greatness, but the power of it stopped me in my tracks, and I stood in the middle of the bazaar with people going around me, a smile on my face, and I thought "this is the reason I wanted to come to Turkey."

I tried to capture that moment again, later in the trip, by going through the Arasta Bazaar around the time a call to prayer happened, but I couldn't. By then I'd already heard it a lot of times and it's initial power to awe had gone. I came close one morning, sitting on the rooftop terrace of my hotel, the Hagia Sophia rising on one side and the Blue Mosque on another, watching the ships ply the Bosporus and enter the Sea of Marmara, but you only get your first time once.

The goddess Kubaba on a Hittite frieze

Turkey can be a religious experience in itself, and it has the power of many religious traditions to give it special importance. Gods were conceived in Turkey that crossed religious boundaries. Take the goddess Cybele, for instance. She was the Phrygian Earth Mother. She was analogous to the Hittite Kubaba, often seen on friezes carrying a pomegranate. The worship of the goddess spread to Greece, and eventually to Roman Republic during the second Punic War, when an oracle said that foreign foes invading Italy would not prevail if Cybele was present. Livy reported that her statue was moved from Anatolia to Rome with great ceremony, met at the Roman port in Ostia by a high Roman official and carried in triumph to the Temple of Victory on Palatine Hill.

The current National Geographic has an article which indicates that Turkey may have been the cradle of religion. A temple, built 11,600 years ago, was found in Southern Turkey at a site called Göbekli Tepe that predates all other known temples. It's presence indicates that religion itself may have found its first expression on the Anatolian plains.

The library of Celsus at Ephesus. Did St. Paul stand in this plaza?

Turkey also figures very prominently in Christianity. The Bible lists many places now found in modern day Turkey, and many biblical figures may have been residents. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was reputed to have spent her last days near Ephesus. Mount Ararat, where Noah's Ark came to rest, is located in Turkey, and St. Paul preached to cities and towns in Turkey, most notably the Ephesians.

Church carved into the stone at Göreme. Inside are amazing frescoes.

In the region of Turkey known as Cappadocia, orthodox Christians carved churches into the living stone of the region. This stone, called tuff, was soft to carve but hardened in contact with air. The churches of Göreme were cut out of rock outcroppings and resemble mini-cathedrals with domed roofs and columns supporting arches. Every surface was painted with bright frescoes depicting Christ and his life according to the Bible. These churches first appeared in the 12th century, and were used as late as the 1920s. Unfortunately, some of the frescoes were defaced, but even today their splendor lives on. It's too bad they wouldn't let us take pictures, but their image lies in my mind.

Madonna and Child in mosaic at Hagia Sophia

Turkey was one battleground where Christianity and Islam clashed. Islam eventually supplanted Christianity as the predominant religion there, symbolized most notably by the conversion of one of the largest and most magnificent cathedrals in Christendom, St. Sophia of Istanbul, into a mosque. Yet an interesting story explains why the Madonna with child was the only one of St. Sophia's beautiful mosaics that was not plastered over by the Ottomans as the cathedral was converted. Turkey had a long history, predating the Ottomans, of worshiping mother goddess figures, starting with Cybele and eventually Mary during Christian times. While the Ottomans were very willing to cover up other aspects of Christianity, they acknowledged the tradition of the Turkish populace and left Mary and child alone. Other churches that weren't such prominent symbols of Byzantine rule as St. Sophia were spared, even when they were turned into mosques. A great example is the Chora Church, originally built outside the walls of Constantinople, which now has beautiful and reasonably well-preserved Byzantine mosaics.

Woman touches Jesus' hem in 14th century mosaic in the Chora Church

Rumi's tomb in Konya

Sufism as a sect of Islam originated in Turkey, and was developed in the teachings and writings of the Mevlana Rumi. We visited Rumi's tomb in Konya on a national holiday, which meant it was crowded because it is considered a pilgrimage site. Inside were the coffins of Rumi, his family and followers, and amazing displays of Islamic artifacts such as incredibly gilded Korans, the artistry of which rivals the illuminated texts of Christianity. There was, encased in alarmed glass, a few supposed strands of Mohammed's beard which, if one put one's nose to a small hole at the base of the glass, one could detect a rose-like odor. I was reminded of similar stories about the incorruptibility of saints, whose bodies, when exhumed, often were intact and gave off the smell of roses. Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, the seat of the Ottoman Empire, also had such relics. Whether you believe their authenticity or not, particular care was shown in showing off the staff of Moses, the skull of John the Baptist, the cast footprint of Mohammed, the turban of Joseph, and the saucepan of Abraham. If that last one gives you a little doubletake, it made me blink too. The saucepan of Abraham!

The Muslim Ottoman Empire was remarkably tolerant in its relations with other religious communities, allowing Jews and Christians to live, work and worship in peace at most times throughout its history. When Jews were expelled from Spain in the 15th century, Ottoman ships evacuated many from Spanish ports and gave them new lives in Turkey. The Sultan Beyazid II wrote, and I paraphrase, that he was amazed that Ferdinand II of Spain was considered a wise king, since by expelling the Jews he impoverished his country and enriched Beyazid's.

Modern Turkey, however, originated as a secular state but is waging a public and so far democratic debate on the practice of Islam. While Kemalist governments never completely banned religious practice, and even were known to use Islam as a political tool, Atatürk abolished the Muslim Caliphate in Istanbul. According to Stephen Kinzer in Crescent and Star, the Muslim Caliphate was the highest religious officialdom in Islam at the time, so its abolishing was akin to abolishing the Vatican. Atatürk also banned the fez, the traditional trapezoidal headwear of the Ottomans, due to its religious connotations. He also insisted that the call to prayer be chanted in Turkish rather than Arabic (though he ultimately stepped back from this demand) and banned women from wearing headscarves.

Head of Medusa guarding a Roman sarcophagus

However, today Turkish women wearing headscarves and raincoats to preserve modesty walk side by side and arm in arm with female friends who wear T-shirts and blue jeans and let their hair flow free. The party currently in power, the Justice and Development Party, is a moderate Islamist party that is committed to governance through democracy and not imposing its religious preferences on the populace. The populace maintains some of the quasi-religious/superstitious elements influenced by the many civilizations that lived there. For example, on Greek and Roman buildings and sarcophagi, the head of Medusa was often carved to ward off evil. As you'll remember, Medusa's head had snakes growing out of it, and her gaze could turn whatever she looked at into stone. The Romans and Greeks thought her gaze could protect if turned outward. Today, walking past shops and through the bazaars, one can find countless iterations and sizes of blue glass disks with an eye pattern on bracelets, necklaces, rings, earrings, and fashioned into wall decorations, among other uses. Stepping over the lintel into a shop, or looking up at a restaurant wall, or placed in a corner in someone's house, one might see these disks set unobtrusively into the concrete or the plaster. This is the modern day Turkish eye of Medusa, equivalent to the ojo malo - the evil eye - protecting that business or home from harm.

If you are here at this blog with evil intent, the eye of Medusa will reflect it back at you

On one of our last days in Istanbul, my wife and I visited a small mosque, incredibly tiled mosque in the Spice Bazaar, then revisited Hagia Sophia, still showing remnants of her glorious past as a Christian cathedral, and finally, that night, took in a Sufi religious ceremony. It was an amazing cross section of religion in Turkey all in one day. Hagia Sophia is an amazing building, an architectural wonder that has stood for 1500 years, and for 1000 of those years was the largest church in Christianity, and for almost 500 years was a mosque, a symbol of Islam's triumph.

One example of the gorgeous tilework in mosques around Turkey

The small mosque at the Spice Bazaar, the Rüstem Paşa Mosque, is described by Rick Steves as Istanbul's Sainte-Chapelle. It is not a huge place on the Istanbul skyline that draws one to it...instead you have to find the entrance in the maze of shops outside the spice market...but when you go in you find amazing tilework decorating the inside of the mosque. We stayed a while in this mosque, going in well after the call to prayer in order to not disturb worshippers.

Finally, the Sufi ceremony is one that I will long remember. We drove a long way into an unfamiliar part of the city after paying $120 Turkish lira to join a group. The ceremony took place in a Sufi community center. After prayers, the Sufi master and the rest of the dervishes came out onto the main floor, and after silent permission from the Sufi master, the dervishes whirled away. Through whirling, the dervish emulates all creation, which spins naturally, and by doing so comes closer to God. I listened to the music and watched the Sufis spin oblivious to everything but their own movement and their own relationship to God, and for a while I too was taken away.

I have come away from Turkey, with that original call to prayer lodged firmly in my memory, thinking that if I were to take five times out of my day, like a Muslim, to meditate or pray, even if it's for 30 seconds, I might be more centered in my life. At my age, I'm starting to realize that one needs centeredness in his or her life. I think I found inspiration to find my own centeredness in my trip to Turkey. One cannot visit Turkey without confronting the long, dynamic and sometimes painful history of major religions and their interactions. Frankly, one wouldn't want to. All of the religions in Turkey and their collective wisdom can teach us valuable things about ourselves. If I were allowed to keep only one memory of my trip to Turkey, it would have been that moment in the bazaar where the call to prayer called to me, and allowed me to touch for a moment that universal and mystical yearning beyond my understanding, but so illuminating.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

June 01, 2011

Politics in Turkey: Vibrant and Active

I'm a political scientist, so I went into Turkey with enough academic background to make some sense of the politics there. However, I did not go to Turkey with enough historical background. I learned quickly that to understand Turkish politics, one must know modern Turkish history and the contributions of one particular man who shaped the Turkish state.

A little background is thus in order. Modern Turkey arose from the dying embers of the Ottoman Empire, which existed for nearly 500 years. Ruled by a number of sultans, the Ottoman Empire at one point possessed enough lands and territories and maintained control over enough vassal states to resemble the Roman Empire at its height. In fact, it conquered the remnants of the Roman Empire, capturing Constantinople in the 1400s and making it the capital. The Empire and its leaders were known in the West as fierce, ferocious and ruthless. However, the Ottoman sultans also were acknowledged for their tolerance and willingness to allow diverse groups such as Jews and Christians to live relatively freely and unmolested within the Empire and to practice their religions in peace.

Large portrait of Atatürk, Istanbul

By the start of World War I, the Ottoman Empire was dying. It entered the war as an ally of Germany with the hopes of acquiring its lost lands, but did not acquit itself well for the most part. The only exception to this was a stand by Turkish troops against the British at Gallipoli. The commander of the Turkish troops at Gallipoli, Mustafa Kemal (known as Atatürk), became a hero in Turkey. He used this popularity to seize power and establish the modern Turkish state on the foundations of secularism. In his view, the Turkish state had to be strong and drag the Turkish people to prosperity. While his state was not democratic, he put through a number of government actions that stressed education, literacy, a West-oriented international policy, and market reforms. Above all, he argued that the Turkish state should resist association with Islam and promote and maintain secularism. Before he died, he was THE political leader in Turkey. In Stephen Kinzer's wonderful book, The Crescent and Star, Kinzer quotes Atatürk's motto as government "for the people, in spite of the people." He literally dragged his reluctant nation into the 20th century and in many ways set it up to be a vibrant democracy. Since his death, his cult of personality lives on in Turkey. His tomb in Ankara is a huge draw from all over the country. There's also a mini Mt. Rushmore, where Atatürk's head is carved into a large rock, in Ankara

Turkey's Mt. Rushmore: Atatürk in stone

However, democracy has come in fits and starts. After Atatürk, successive leaders saw their role as preserving his legacy, but not necessarily realizing his vision. The Turkish military, which considers itself the guardian of Atatürk's legacy, staged coups whenever they sensed too much democracy or too much religion creeping into the Turkish state. Kinzer argues that only with the election of the current prime minister, and his vision of a Turkey where Islam and democracy are compatible, has Turkey truly entered a democratic era, much to the consternation of some mired in the past.

When we arrived in Turkey, the populace was preparing for elections to be held in June. Everywhere, signs promoting the promises of various Turkish politicians were out and evident. Campaign rallies were being staged at least every other day. Party campaign vans blaring music and sporting large images of a candidate drove slowly down streets. The current party, the Justice and Development Party (the JDP, also known in Turkish as the AKP), has been in power for eight years and is poised to be elected to another eight years. A moderate Islamist party, it challenges our assumptions about Islamic parties by not only being credited with helping Turkish democracy flower, but also being Western-oriented and committed to the ideal that democracy and Islam can coexist and even flourish together. I cannot emphasize how this conception of democracy can shatter stereotypes in the U.S. who view Muslim countries as anti-democratic at best and active supporters of terrorism at worst. On the contrary the opposition forces in Turkey, the parties aligned with secularism, nationalism and in many ways, Ataturk's Kemalist values, are often linked with anti-democratic forces.

My wife, Megan Kamerick, stands next to an armed Turkish military guard at Topkapi Palace

For example, coinciding with our arrival were a number of revelations about the Turkish military's plans to stage a coup to topple the JDP government in 2005, and sex-tape scandals that were undoing the fortunes of another nationalist party, the MHP. A huge leap for Turkish democracy was that these issues were being discussed openly in the press and among the populace, and cases against military personnel were being prepared for trial. At least one major journalist in Turkey admitted in an interview with a newspaper during our stay that in the past, the media didn't question the military and sometimes actively colluded with it in anti-democratic behavior. That these types of activities are being brought into the light gives promise to Turkey's democracy. This doesn't mean that Turkish democracy is firmly rooted, but it's a major step in that direction.

One way in which Turkey hopes to cement its democracy, according to some journalists that we met with, is through its application to the European Union. While the EU waffles about whether it will accept Turkey in 2015, when Turkey formally comes up for membership, and finds many reasons (many justified) to question Turkey's commitment to democracy, Turkey forges ahead with its application. The EU may ultimately be uncomfortable with a Muslim country in its ranks, but the journalists told us that in meeting the application criteria, Turkey will strengthen its democracy and its commitment to individual and human rights. In that sense, Turkey wins regardless of whether it is accepted or not.

There is a question of whether Turkey even really needs the EU. If considered part of Europe, it currently has the strongest economy thanks to pragmatic government policies that mix free trade and openness to foreign investment with healthy government social policies. It is also the third fastest growing economy in the world. Politically, it has worked hard to forge good ties with all of its neighbors, save Armenia, and it has taken more of a leadership role in Middle East politics by steering a pragmatic course. It has chastised Arab states to recognize Israel's right to exist, has criticized Syrian leaders for their heavy-handed actions against popular protest, and as a member of NATO has exerted its influence on NATO policy in Libya.

Turkish Cypriot woman dances in Istanbul in event promoting tourism to North Cyprus

However, Turkey has some foreign policy issues that continue to fester. Relations with Armenia, which wants Turkey to admit and atone for what they see as a genocide against Armenians in the early 20th century, have not been good though the president recently visited Armenia to watch a soccer game. It was the first time that a Turkish government official has officially visited Armenia. Turkey also has had significant difficulties with their largest minority population, the Kurds. A Kurdish separatist party, the PKK, has committed acts of terrorism against the Turkish state and continues to be a major thorn in the side of the Turkish government. Finally, the Cyprus issue continues to be an ongoing problem with Greece. Turkey occupies the northern third of Cyprus, the only supporter of the Turkish Cypriot nation.

March in support of the "Spanish Revolution" in Istanbul

A really positive thing for Turkish democratic development is the activity of civil society. Turks are always ready and willing to talk about Turkish politics in general and specifically. Gatherings and protests are common. One afternoon toward the end of our trip, as my wife and I walked down Istiklal Avenue, a main thoroughfare that is a busy slice of the modern Turkey, we happened upon two demonstrations. One march supported workers that had lost their jobs. Another group rallied in support of the Spanish voters who rejected their government. On that same street, political parties set up booths and handed out flyers and pamphlets for everything ranging from nationalist to socialist and even communist causes. Politicians we met with told us that turnout in Turkish elections is 80-90 percent of the voting population. This level of political activity can only mean good things for Turkish democracy.

Workers' rally in Istanbul

For us, Turkish politics seemed very complicated and hard to grasp, but we left with a better understanding of the political forces driving Turkey. In my opinion, Turkey still needs to make improvements, but its political system is a long way from where it was even 10 years ago. And what country doesn't need to make improvements? Democracy is not static, but an ever-changing and evolving creation. I'm convinced that Turkey is doing many good things in the political arena.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

May 25, 2011

My trip into Turkey

Panorama view of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque from the rooftop terrace of Hotel Nomade

As I wrote the initial draft of this post, I was sitting on the rooftop terrace of the Hotel Nomade in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, Turkey. How I got there is little short of amazing, considering that after two weeks the Hotel Nomade was the first hotel I paid for on the trip, and I had just eaten the first meal I've bought myself. I am now home and reflecting on the trip and its meaning for me.

In February, Megan asked if I wanted to go to Turkey. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, a New Mexico state senator and a friend from our circles at the Newman Center Catholic community at UNM, was putting together a group of journalists to go to Turkey and learn more about the country and the activities of the Gülen movement. The Gülen Movement is an effort established by moderate Islamic religious leader and educator, Fethullah Gülen, to promote a moderate, Western-oriented Islam in Turkey, to increase understanding and dialogue between the West and Turkey, and to situate Turkey as the leading moderate Islamic country in the world. He emphasizes dialogue and education. The movement, depending on whom one speaks with, is respected and admired by many and has much political influence, though there are those that distrust its motives. The Turkish military is one institution that distrusts the movement, though I've read that the Turkish police are in favor of the movement. Like all governments, the Turkish government can lean one way or another in its regard of the Gülen movement depending on which way the political winds blow.

We met with Resul Aksoy three times over the next couple of months. He directs the activities of the Turquoise Council in Albuquerque and was to lead our trip. The council is in the process of establishing a Turkish-American community center in Albuquerque and is hoping that informative trips with politicians and journalists will help establish the center. Resul explained that the Turquoise Council, whose main office is in Houston, would pay all lodging and meals for the trip. I could tag along with Megan, as a representative of academia. We would pay for our plane flights. Megan was concerned about journalistic ethics and quid-pro-quo, but Resul insisted that nothing would be expected of her in terms of what she wrote. He laid out an ambitious itinerary, so Megan and I decided that we would tack on a few extra days in Istanbul to wind down and see things we missed. Our group coalesced and became the following: Donna Bruzzese, psychotherapist; Laura Bruzzese, clay artist; Arcie Chapa, filmmaker and host of the KUNM Call-in Show; Gwyneth Doland of KNME's New Mexico In Focus; Gene Grant of KNME's New Mexico In Focus; Sarah Gustavus, journalist with KUNM; Michael Hess, political scientist; Megan Kamerick, senior reporter with the New Mexico Business Weekly; and Jerry Ortiz y Pino, New Mexico state senator.

Hagia Sophia - cathedral and mosque

That was how, on May 12th, I ended up on a flight to Istanbul. Posts following this one will detail the particulars about the trip from my perspective. The remainder of this post will give you an idea of what I expected going to Turkey. The reality was definitely not something that I envisioned. I had a sense of the history of Turkey. For centuries, the land has served as the fertile field where home-grown kingdoms and empires, such as Troy, Lydia, the Hittite Kingdom and Empire, and the Ottoman Empire, have risen and fell. It has been a key in the rise of other empires, such as the Persian Empire and Alexander the Great's short-lived empire, which have coveted its land and territory and used them as stepping stones to greatness. It cradled both Western and Eastern civilization, and it served as a battleground between cultures as well as nurturing all of them. It served as a key component in the rise of both Christianity and Islam.

I also knew some of the recent history - in 1923 Mustafa Kemal Atatürk established the Turkish Republic on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, and since then Turkey has militantly defended its position as a secular Muslim state oriented toward the West. Turkey now sits at the edge of Europe, considering itself a part of the European tradition but also treated as an outsider (albeit an important one) by the other European countries. It is a member of NATO, and is considered an OECD country.

I thought that Turkey would be like Mexico, another OECD state that has elements of both a developing country and a modernized one. I saw Turkey as a country most likely ruled by elites in wealthy cities masking incredible poverty at the margins. This may actually be the case - I did not get the opportunity to go to Eastern Turkey where I understand that development has not been as strong.

Modern socially-conservative fashion in Turkey

What I didn't expect was a vibrant, extremely forward-looking country with arguably the strongest economy in Europe and the third fastest growing economy in the world. I didn't expect Istanbul to be such a cosmopolitan, exciting and modern place, despite my knowledge of its history. I didn't expect to find such a warm and gracious people, given the United State's often troublesome relations with Muslim countries. I hate to admit it, but I retained a lot of stereotypes of Muslim countries even though I knew that Turkey was different than, say, Saudi Arabia. I had visited Bangladesh in 1998, and pictured a much more developed version of Bangladesh (which is also a secular Muslim country). In other words, I thought I'd find a somewhat culturally and religiously conservative place where I would need to watch what I said and did a little, kind of like how a social progressive who doesn't want to offend would avoid religious and political conversation in Texas. While there are elements of an Islamic social conservatism in Turkey, it coexists with its modern, vibrant culture. In other words, the fascinating thing about Turkey is that it embodies pretty much everything, old and new, and it is not uncommon to see women in headscarves and modest raincoats walking arm in arm with women with long free-flowing hair and blue jeans.

Most unexpectedly, I didn't expect to have feeling of "gee, I could see myself living here," with "here" especially meaning a place like Istanbul.

What I did expect was a deep and layered culture based on a rich history, and I got that and more. In the next few posts I'll give more examples in words and pictures. Please be aware that the opinions expressed here are my own and not those of my companions nor of any particular group. I will also provide links to other opinions and information throughout my posts on Turkey so that the reader can have access to alternative information.

Labels: , , , , , ,

April 17, 2010

Check out Littourati!

I've relaunched and re-started Littourati, the blog about life, literature and maps. Check it out here:


Labels: , , ,