Saturday, July 28, 2012

Three Things The Ancient Olympics Can Teach The Modern Olympics

The Olympics started in the seventh century before Christ, when young women completed a footrace to see who would become a priestess of Hera.  From these humble beginnings, the Olympics became the foremost of the four pan-Hellenic games, a ceremony so important to the Greek-speaking world that truces were called in order for athletes to arrive at the games safely.

These Olympics were not the familiar biennial show-case of brute physical competition that we know and love.  The race with the Olympic torch--now so engrained in our image of the Olympics that is has become a synecdoche for the festival--was an innovation brought in by Hitler in the 1936 games.  The gold, silver and bronze medallions replaced the traditional reward of an amphora of olive oil and a sprig of olive.  In the translation between ancient celebration and modern spectacle, some important aspects of the competition were lost.

Today we'll look at three aspects of the Ancient Olympics I think should be returned to the modern Olympics.

The first is Athletic Nudity.  The Greeks competed buck naked, slathered in olive oil.  The origins of this practice are murky.  Thucydides said that the Spartans "were the first to bare their bodies and, after stripping openly, to anoint themselves with oil when they engaged in athletic exercise."  Other sources point to the Athenians, whose government, after a guy tripped over his shorts while running, decreed that all sports should be conducted naked.

The explanation for the nakedness, according to John Mouratidis, was to either to "inspire fear or horrify their enemies."  He quotes L Bonafante suggesting that Hellenistic nakedness resulted from the "apotropaic use of the phallos, gestures against the evil eye, etc."  That et cetra is enticing--what other apotropaic uses can the phallos be put to?  But we must move on.

My reason for advocating a naked Olympics is transparent.  No one worries about the evil eye anymore, and there have been no notable short-tripping incidents in any Olympics I can remember.  But I think that athletic nudity would make the games more entertaining, more beautiful, and more exciting.  Especially the pommel horse.

A Pankration competition depicted on a vase.
The second ancient innovation is Pankration, which is Greek for "savage unrelenting beat-down."  Actually it is Greek for "all powers."  Pankration was a mix of boxing and wrestling, whose rules were easy to learn but hard to master.  Two men squared off against each other, trying to inflict so much pain against his opponent that he would submit by holding up his index finger.  The fighters could do anything to inflict this pain--barring biting and the gouging of the eyes, nose and mouth--and while they did not have weapons, in later years, the pankratiasts wrapped their fists with leather and metal.  You heard right, they could do anything.  They could kick the stomach or the testicles, they could inflict chokeholds and armlocks and brutal throws.  Many competitors died.

Pankration produced its heroes.  One man won a match even though he was dead.  Arrachion of Phigalia was in the Pankration finals for the third time running, and after an evenly-fought bout his opponent held him in a neck hold from which he could not escape.  Arrachion's trainer called out "What a fine funeral if you do not submit at Olympia!"  With that, Arrachion twisted his body around, kicking his opponent's foot, breaking it.  His opponent, in unbearable pain, gave up the match.  But Arrachion had broken his own neck and lay there, dead.  His limp head was donned with the laurel leaves of victory, and he became a legend across Greece.

Modern-day Mixed Martial Arts (or MMA) is similar to Pankration.  The sheer undaunted brutality of these competitions should be enough to inspire the "pity and fear" that Aristotle said good tragedy should inspire in us.  So why not let it become an Olympic sport?

The third innovation that the ancient Greeks can give the modern Olympics is not as cool as nakedness and bloodthirsty lawless death-matches.  It's poetry.

The ancient Olympic Games were closed by a competition among poets to see who could best praise the winning athletes.  These poems, called epinicians, were dreadfully popular, and have survived thousands of years.

In the modern Olympics, art competitions were held from 1912 to 1948, for sport-inspired architecture, painting, sculpture, music, and literature.  The competitions were called off because, in the opinion of the Olympic committee, the artists were all professionals.  The 1952 Olympics in Helsinki boasted a non-competitive art show, but without the agony of struggle, victory and defeat, the artistic side of the Olympics sputtered out.

Modern art is moribund, sealed air-tight in an ivory sarcophagus of academic rigor and bloodless cerebral muttering.  Our generation might be one of the first in human history for which poetry has no popular charm--and the fault is the poets, who insist on being daringly arty, when they should work to be beautiful.  A poetry competition celebrating the accessible agony of athletic competition, done in all the languages of the world, would help a little in giving feeling back to poets.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Short Of Giants

In the 17th Century there was a shortage of giants in Europe, and only one man was to blame.  The giant-greedy Fredrick the First of Prussia.

Fredrick was into war.  And he had assembled a regiment of extraordinarily large soldiers called the ‘Grand Grenadiers of Potsdam.”  The king’s agents fanned out across Europe, on the look out for tall men who would be offered huge amounts of money to join the regiment.  If they refused the king’s generosity, they would simply be kidnapped.  Diplomats trying to get on his good side learned to send Freddy larger-than-normal men to add to his regiment.  Every year the Russian Tsar Peter the Great—who stood at six foot seven inches tall himself—would send the Prussians fifty giants.  Once, when Peter took back an especially large specimen and replaced him with a shorter one, Fredrick refused to speak to any Russian diplomat for months.  “The wound,” he explained, “is still too raw.”  Fredrick even tried to ensure a race of giants by forcing all the tall men in Prussia to marry and breed with tall women.  In this way, he collected over 2,400 giants.
A Grand Grenadier in all his mitred glory.
King Fredrick didn’t let his giant army just gather dust in a cupboard.  He trained with the regiment every day, and showed them off to foreign dignitaries.  Whenever he was feeling gloomy, laying in bed ill or morose, he would have the regiment march through his rooms—led by the regiment’s mascot, an actual live bear.  But protective of his huge charges, Fredrick would never let them fight in anything close to a real battle.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary

Two weeks.  One country.  Five people.  Three thousand kilometers.  Three pairs of sunglasses lost.  Sunscreen.  Goats.  An excessive number of kebabs.  And as many historical monuments as a land settled for over twelve centuries could throw at us.

If you're into that sort of thing, you can read the diary on your e-reader of choice.

Day One: Trabzon and Sümela Monastery
In which our heros assemble and visit a monastery clinging to the side of a mountain.  Also, impromptu mountain dancing.

Day Two: A Lesson In Turkish Automotive Adventure. Afterwards, Erzurum.
Our heros brave the Turkish roads, heading to the city Erzurum where they find a madrassa, and three kumbats.  They also figure out what a kumbat is.

Day Three: Scavenger Hunts For Car-Bound Tourists.
Driven crazy by boredom, the adventurers play a scavenger hunt in the car.  Spoiler alert:  the winner of this game is this blogger's girlfriend, who always wins everything.

Day Four: Mardin, Too Marvelous.
The heroic travelers venture to the hilltop town of Mardin, overlooking the Mesopotamian plain.  This is pretty marvelous.

Day Five: Urfa, A City Of Pilgrims, A City Of People.
The birthplace of Abraham.  Cannibal fish.  Columns.  A spice market.  What more do you want from your travel writing?  Bears?  Well there are no bears.  Tough luck.

Day Six: Gobekli Tepe To Gaziantep, The Old To The New.
The heros find the oldest temple in the world, and then see a lot of mosaics.  Because they're cool like that.

Days Seven And Eight: Roads. The Decapitated Gods Of Mount Nemrut. More Roads. 
Sunrise over the tomb of a once-great king is sandwiched between a ton of driving.  In an excised scene, the heros are ripped off by a hotelier who looks like a mob boss gone to seed.  But you have to use your imaginations for that, because this scene has been edited away, in favor of the more picturesque bits of travel more appreciable by the masses.  Also, a whimsical ranking of Eastern Turkey.

Day Nine: The Mysteries of Cappadocia, Unanswered and Beautiful.
The province of Cappadocia is incredibly beautiful, and the heroes join other tourists in appreciating this beauty.

 Day Ten: Beneath Cappadocia.
A venture into an underground city leads to a discovery--underground cities are dark and a little scary.  But mostly dark.

Day Eleven: Konya. Rumi. Peace. Tourism.
The city of Konya is a site of pilgrimage and veneration and high school field trips and grumpy old ladies.

Day Twelve: Sunburned Myth: Pamukkale and Aphrodisias.
The heroes venture to two sites of world-heritage-worthy beauty and wonder, and get hideously sunburned in the process.

Day Thirteen: All Inclusive, Wi-Fi Extra.
Taking a break from cultural-minded explorations, the travelers check into an all-inclusive beach resort, where they feel alienated, drink too much, and end up winning a bottle of wine in a contest of stupid tricks, then leave, half-thinking that none of it even happened.

Day Fourteen: The Day Of Ruins. Ephesus And After Ephesus.
Pro-tip:  Ruins described in this section are a metaphor for how the travelers felt after two solid weeks of beauteous sight-seeing.  Also there are real ruins.  The approach of civilization is symbolized by a Starbucks at a road-side strip-mall.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Day Fourteen: The Day Of Ruins. Ephesus And After Ephesus. The Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary

This is day fourteen of the Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary.

We woke up that morning with headaches, thirsty, feeling like we had just passed through a strange dream where we were honorary citizens of a fairyland where the days were not days and if you ate the food you would loose all ambition and memory….

We checked out of the resort hotel, ripped off the orange wristbands, and then drove fifteen kilometers to the ruins of Ephesus.

Once a city of 250,000 people, one of twelve cities in Ionian League, one of the seven churches mentioned in the Book of Revelation, its Temple Of Artemis one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, Ephesus was a great city of antiquity.  Now the great theater is in shambles.  The houses of the citzens are buried in the undistinguished earth.  Only a single pillar of the fantastic temple remains.

Between the parking lot and the ticket office a dusty road was lined with shops selling over-priced trinkets and food.  A man called in the diaphragm-forced monotonous call of street-hawkers “Cold water ice cream fresh orange juice” over and over without ever stopping for breath.  Lines of tourists were pouring out of the site, feeling the late morning heat.  It was hot.  We tried to find shade where we could.

The entrance of Ephesus will be familiar to anyone who has visited a Roman ruin.  There were milestones, grave stele, sarcophagi with chunks taken out of them like they’d been gnawing, and the unmatched ancient detritus of an old city—mantles, columns, capitals, bricks and the like, made into semi-organized piles for the archaeologists to sift through at some point in the future.

As my friends looked at the informational plaques in front of a small collection of Roman milestones, I studied the other tourists.  Most were down the path, out of the ruins.  They looked drained and tired, done with the ancient ruins behind them, done with grave stele and informational plaques, done with the sun, waving brochures in front of their faces to cool themselves, marching on, their only hope the tour bus waiting in the parking lot and maybe a ridiculously-priced fresh orange juice from the man in the tourist bazaar to give them a little refreshment.  Is this what we travel for, I wondered?  To limp back to our hotel rooms with empty faces and cameras full of photos?  I saw nobody who could be mistaken for happiness.  I saw no sense of epiphany.—No openness in people’s eyes.  No excitement or curiosity or wonder.  I just saw faces sweaty, red and bloated from the heat.

I remembered seeing a tour group motto: ‘Create Your Best Memories.’  And maybe that’s what we were doing at Ephesus.—We were making memories.  It didn’t matter that now we were hot, tired, and uninspired.  I didn’t matter that at the moment we felt like a piece of wrinkled laundry hanging on a clothesline in the hot sun.  It mattered that we had seen the lost grandeur of a once-bustling city, and held that image in our minds, and that later in the comfort of a dinner party we could tell our friends about it.

Ahead of us on the path was the huge amphitheater, the rows of seats stretching high up the hill.  This was one of the biggest ampitheaters in the ancient world, able to seat 44,000 people.  Now a smattering of sight-seers climbed the rows.  A blue crane framed it, part of the structure covered in scaffolding and mesh.

We went into the theater and my friends fanned out with their cameras drawn, looking for a memorable image,  But the only thing I felt was the profound and rising heat.  I hid in a small shadowy corridor, fanning myself with my hat, watching the other people crawling around in the sun.

The acoustics of the theater are still great, and as we prepared to leave for the next monument, a Korean tour group gathered in the center of what had once been a stage and like that all at once they started to sing.  Their voices were humble and beautiful, carrying clearly up to the others on the higher seats.  “Saranghe,” the song repeated.  “I love you.”

And then it was out of the shade to be returned again to the sweaty sun.  The path was lined with mantles with lines of dentals and egg-and-darts.  Clay plumbing eased its way out of the dry dirt.  Around us was history.  I looked for shade.

The biggest symbol of Ephesus today is the great Library of Celsus, whose magnificent facade faced the east so that early-rising students repairing there to study could make use of the light of the morning sun.  As the rest of the sun-worn tourists meandered up the stairs, I found a pocket of shadow in a depression next to an old wall.  There I crouched and appreciated the library.  Eight columns decorated with almost every effect available to the Roman mason made up the first floor.  Four statues of toga-clad women stood between each pair of columns, representing the virtues, looking out with Roman stoicism at the melting mass of sight-seers below them.  It was wonderful.  I didn’t have to use my imagination to wonder at how the library had once looked.  It had looked like this, with people craning their heads to look at the top—only it was in a bit better repair.

Once we had inscribed enough memories to feel satisfied, we walked to the Terraced Houses, which required the purchase of an extra ticket.

It was worth it, and not just because the complex was covered with a roof that kept the sun off us for long enough that we could feel human again.  The Terraced Houses are a well-excavated stretch pf the rich part of town.  The first house we look at a reconstructed pericourt—an interior courtyard—with a basin, a broken aedicula, the walls hung with plaster stained ochre and yellow, bits of cracked marble tile arranged on boards put on stacked blue milk crates.  Archeologists here are sifting through 120,000 jig-sawed shards of marble floor, trying to piece the court back together again.  A cat prowled its way across the floor—off-limits to humans—looked up at us, and meowed.

The marble wall of the next pericourt had been completed, and it is stunning.  We walked up the terraces, beneath the clear plexiglass walkway mosaics clear in white and black.  On the walls of the houses were stunning frescos in white, maroon and orange, with a drooping vine providing a splash of green.  Heads with lank hair and gaping mouths, ribbons in curls and whorls.  Birds surrounded by flowers, a cupid, a posed Apollo, a room of the nine muses where each panel had a different muse, the paint still fresh after two thousand years.  Two thousand years of burial.  Two thousand years since the artist’s brush touched the wall.  Two thousand years since those rooms were background for human life.

This was a different view of Roman life than the one you could usually see from the monuments and graves.  This was a personal Rome, a Rome of pleasures and daily life and dinner parties.  Staring up at a fine mosaic of a lion and a calf’s head, I could imagine people walking over it, talking about some important Roman thing, nodding, coming to agreement.  In my imagination I filled the rooms with people bathing, playing sleeping, welcoming visitors, arguing, laughing, dreaming.  Some of the walls had been scratched with graffiti from Roman times.  Names, poems, declarations of love.  I wondered what ruins our civilization might lead, and whether future generations would faithfully preserve the scrawls we left on bathroom walls.

When we left the Terraced Houses, the heat was even fuller, and we made our wilted way up the steep climb of the Curestes Street, ignoring the temples and columns that lined our way.  At the top I waited in the shade of a fig tree while my friends looked around the upper half of the city by themselves.  I was too hot, too tired, my head full of too many dreams to look at any more ruins.


Then the rest of the day was full of driving.  Ephesus was the last big tourist site of our trip, and we felt too tired, too broken to glut ourselves on Pergamon or Troy, both of which lie further north.  We talked, but we really wanted to sleep.  We drove, but we really wanted to go home.  The next day we would board a car ferry and go back to Istanbul, to the city in whose wonders we had worked and slept.  But we weren’t sad.  We had seen beauty, we had seen Turkey, and it was time to be ourselves again, to lay on our couches, open up our books, and forget about the wonders of the past.

The next day, on the way to the car ferry, we saw the first signs that we were nearing the great metropolis where we made our home.  A Starbucks in an off-road strip mall.  The first Starbucks of the whole trip.  We pulled in and got lattes.  We were back home.

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Friday, July 13, 2012

Day Thirteen: All Inclusive, Wi-Fi Extra. The Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary

This is day thirteen of the Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary.

We checked into the hotel, and after collecting our money and passports and handing out keycards, the receptionist wrapped orange plastic bands around our wrists with small ceremony.  That was our initiation, even if we failed to realize it.  By virtue of those orange pieces of plastic, we has the right to all the pleasures and indulgences on offer.

The hundreds of people packed into the towering seven-story hotel buildings and the 354 hotel rooms, all were initiates like us, and all were devoted to the simple pleasures of open bars, buffet meals and swimming.  There were five restaurants, snacks in the afternoons from two cafe, a bar where drinks were free until midnight, and a nightclub which we never dared enter.

Our room looked out at the Aegean sea, which lapped hungrily at the 300 meter long strand of private beach bounded by the hotel.  The beds were large and comfy, and beside it next to the button for the beside reading light was a button which cycled through mood lighting:  red, blue, white, green.

Our first night there we spoke with a middle-aged British man at the bar.  It was obvious that he had spent the entire five days of his holiday trying to get the bartender’s attention, loading up on one free drink after another while his wife nervously laughed beside him.  We asked him if he had visited Ephesus, the ancient Greek city not more than ten minutes drive away.  He frowned and said no.  It turned out that he hadn’t left the hotel at all since he got there.  “I travel a lot for my job,” he explained.  “I’m just here to relax.”  I’ll admit it.  I scoffed at him.  Getting trapped here seemed like a moral failing, one that we would be immune to.

People asked us how many weeks we were staying and when we explained that we were only here for a day we got odd looks, like a day wasn’t even a unit of time—like we were mere fever dreams, to pass by harmlessly in the well-slept night.

The first thing we did was get massages.  At this point, it was already noon.  My masseuse covered me with a towel, folding it over piece by piece to lay bare whatever region of my body he was working on.  And it was work that the man was doing.  His forehead glistened with sweat.  He grunted softly with effort as his fingers pressed into the knotted meat of my back, and sighed as he rubbed oil into my sun-dried skin.

The most I moved was to flip over so he could get at my front.  I felt like a commodity, a lifeless, intentionless lump of relaxed material.  I had no will and no responsibilities.  It felt good.

After he finished, I was told to relax.  No problem.  I lay face down on the massage table, my breath slightly choked by the towel plugging up the face hole, but not choked enough to make me worry about it.  My thoughts stilled.  I stayed like that for an indefinite amount of time.

We ate at the buffet, loading our plates too high with salad greens, fried whiting, sardines, olives, curried turkey, pide, cheese, fruit, and cake.  We ate not because we were hungry, but because it was time to eat.  And eating wasn’t exactly a pleasure, it was an oblivion.  We shoveled food into our mouths, not talking, looking at nothing, pausing only to order another beer or refill our water glasses.

Then it was to the swimming pool.  We played in the water, diving down to the bottom of the pool where there were windows looking out on the cafe below and waving at the people.  Time passed in the water.  Then we laid in the shade, reading.  Time passed in the hot shade.

I drank.  It was free, so I drank.  I drank a lot.  I drank more than I had all year.  I drank so much that I couldn’t hope to count how much I drank.  I started at eleven with a beer, and by two I had reached a nervous tipsiness with helps of generous glasses of raki, gin and tonics, and something I ordered by just slurring ‘green drink’ at the bartender.  I managed to maintain this tipsiness until a little bit after dinner, ducking away from my friends to order whiskey and cokes and sucking them down to the ice by the poolside.

Everything was catered to us.  When you left the bar, two staff members stood politely at the door to pour the drink from your glass into a plastic cup so that if in your drunken stupor you dropped your drink, your glass wouldn’t break.  Nothing was denied you.  Extra food, more alcohol in your cocktails, a game of darts, a pillow for the sun-chair.  A tribe of orange-shirted staff called animators prowled the pools and the bar-area throughout the day, rounding people up for games of volleyball and bocce ball, always smiling, always leading people in chants, their eyes glinting with unnatural enthusiasm.

Two things were refused:  time, and the rest of the world.  And these were refused with an evangelical insistence.  There were no clocks anywhere, and the sun hung high and bright in the sky, giving the resort the look of an eternal afternoon.  We had no idea what time it was, how long we had been at the poolside for, how long it was until dinner and then sleep.  And since everything was provided for you at the hotel, why would you need to go anywhere else?  Why would you need to visit the supermarket?  There was a convenience store in the shopping arcade strung between the reception and the main dining room.  Why would you need to see the ruins of the great city of Ephesus down the road?  They were just stones, and here there was life and young women in bikinis.  Why would you need to talk to your friends?  Fun was here, joy was here, contentment was here.

The only thing that you needed to pay for was wifi, and that was only available on the first floor lobby with a pitifully weak signal.  A few men opened black IBM laptops at the circular tables, struggling for a connection.  We told ourselves we would get the internet, check our e-mails, ponder the next leg of our journey.

But we never got around to it.  Wifi would connect us to the outside world, where we could read e-mails from work and talk to our families.  As we settled into our sleepy acceptance of food and drinks and sunlight, the desire we had to talk to anyone else dwindled, flickered, and died.

Like that, we were overcome with the time-blind hedonism of the resort.  It felt like we had been there a week and that we would be there forever—or at least until the end of summer—but we had only been there for eighteen hours, and we would leave the next morning.


At night, my friend was chosen for a competition.  Boys against girls.  Five a side.  They sat on the stage of the theater, young men and women from all different countries.  The men were drink-worn, wearing sporty clothes and competitive faces.  The girls were in high heels and dresses.  They played a series of games.  A drinking race.  A paper airplane competition.  A game where they raced to blow up balloons and then sit on the balloons to pop them.  A game where they tried to get as many people as possible to stand in a small space.  The games were impossible and absurd, but as soon as the competition started, I was fired up.  I wanted my friend to win.  I cheered.  I sipped from my drink.  The Fabio-haired Animator clapped his hands and chanted “Tempo!  Tempo!” as if it was a magic word, and it felt like a magic word.

The staff would ask me how I was doing and all I could do was shrug.  Of course I was doing good.  I wasn’t working.  I had all my needs catered for me.  How could I suffer from anything?

And when I said this, they would nod like they understood.

But they were at work.  And their work was to cater to the grotesqueries of my pleasure.

There were swarms of waiters in white and black button-up shirts and bow-ties manning the buffets, refilling drinks, cleaning the filthy tablecloths, trying to keep proud expressions on their faces.  There were bartenders forever rushing from one drunk man to another, getting them slowly and profoundly drunk.  There were the Animators, organizing their seven hundredth game of bocce ball, calling out to everyone to have a good time.  This was their work, and I felt like it was awful.  But then my sleepy hunger would lap ay my mind, and I would just lift myself up, hulk myself over to the bar, and order another free drink.  Like that I achieved freedom from worry.

The Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary continues...

You can also get the whole series as an e-book.

Day Twelve: Sunburned Myth: Pamukkale and Aphrodisias. The Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary

This is day tweleve of the Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary.

The olive-planted hills rolled on, behind them the far-away jagged mountains.  The landscape looked mythical—the kind that Heracles and Odysseus might have romped around in before there were cars, and roads, and helpful signs to guide the wayward tourist to photo-worthy sites.  Against a hill in the distance we could see our destination:  a huge slope of white, as white as snow, seemingly cut into the rock.  This was Pamukkale—Cotton Castle in Turkish.  Behind the white, crowning the top of the hill were the ruins of a Roman city.

We parked the car and walked towards the entrance.  We could hear people, but the cicadas and the crickets susurrating in the summer heat were louder.  Ducks led ducklings padding across a pond in a park at the bottom of the hill.  And above us was that startling band of pure white.

We slipped off our shoes before walking up Pamukkale—you have to go barefoot.  The sun was hotter than it should have been, reflecting off the white cliffs.  The limestone was wet with cool water, which eased the heat a little.

I took off my sunglasses just to see how things looked.  The white was too white.  A thousand times whiter than the whiteness of a blank sheet of paper.  A whiteness so pure it made me squint and pull away.

Man-made pools staggered up the hill in ascending plateaus, the water the majestic blue usually only seen in advertisements for beach hotels.  In the folds of the rock, the white was sometimes tinted a subtle pink.  On the higher ridges, stalactites and stalagmites of limestone met to make hungrily grinning mouths.

“Seeing natural phenomena like this, it’s not surprising why people need to invent gods,” my friend said.

And seeing it, so strange, so different, so unexpected, you need to think of an explanation for it.  Eternal curses against the landscape itself, the anger of Zeus, ancient aliens.  The accepted explanation is that the springwater is supersaturated with carbon dioxide and limestone, and as the water bubbles over the mountains, it forms dribbles of stone called travertines.  It’s true enough.  But it doesn’t explain the wonder.


A head-scarfed mother led a half-naked toddler by the hand while he splashed in the pool, her other hand holding her skirt up, the hem brushing the surface of the water.  Next to her, a pair of Russians, bejeweled and bikinied, poured water over their big breasts, and then indolently laid face down in healing clay.  A large-bellied Italian stood in front of his wife’s camcorder and lustily narrated the scene behind him.  A line of Chinese made their way up the hill like ants, in street clothes, holding their shoes at their sides, a tour guide barking liked a provincial official.  We played around in one of the lower pools, slapping the jelly-like white sediment over our bodies and observing the other tourists.

But I was impatient where I should have relaxed.  While my friends enjoying the feeling of the warm water and the majesty of the scenery, laying on their backs, staring at the sky, I was hunched forward with my hands around my knees, wondering whether the higher pools were any better.  Were we just wasting our time?  Was the really amazing stuff just a little ahead?

I  left my friends and climbed alone to the higher pool.  It was the same as the lower pool where my friends were.  I looked over at them below me.  And then I looked above me as the parade of tourists continued, a tutti-frutti splatter of swimsuits and skin.

The heat was incredible. The light was magnified by the limestone and the sun glinting off the waters.  I could feel my skin burn and crack.

At the top, a waterfall pushed over the edge of the hill, and person after person lined up next to it to snap photos.  No one stood under it, though.  I cut in line and made funny faces while reveling in the warm water.

After climbing Pamukkale, we made it to the ruins if the Ancient Roman city of Hierapolis.  A tourist trap has been planted here.  A broad pavilion, called Antique Pools, welcomes the sunburned tourists to buy overpriced ice creams and coffees.  There was a booth where for 30 lira you could get a video of you and a friend flying on a magic carpet through the tourists sites of Turkey.  In the pool itself—which you have to pay to enter—people lounge on the Roman columns, fallen, broken, and submerged in the water.


On the way from Pamukkale to Kusadasi, we took a small detour to visit Aphrodisias, one of the best preserved Roman cities on earth.  The place was completely silent.  Besides the attendant who sold us our tickets, we could see nobody.  For a moment, it was easy to believe that there was no noise at all, and that the place had been untouched for thousands of years.  But after a moment, I realized that I simply couldn’t hear the noise of people.  The cicadas were wild.  The birds sang.  The grass sashayed in the hot wind.

The entrance was lined with the detritus of archeology:  emptied sarcophagi decorated with funereal scenes, mantles from the tops of walls, grave stele.  Iconoclasts and demon-wary Christians have defaced most of them, snapping off the noses of the carved figures, rubbing away the faces, scrawling protective crosses in the rock.

A stack of marble mantles stood in the shade of the building with as much ceremony of out-of-use deck chairs.  They are decorated with faces, still expressive, their eyes still happy and lecherous, their cheeks still full or hollowed, their expressions knowing and arch, gluttonous, pedantic.  Between them run garlands of stone fruits.  These mantles are stacked three high and four deep.  A lazy brown cat wandered in between them, looked up at us, and gave a lazy meow.

We descended some steps to the Sebasteion, the temple to the cult of the Divine Emperors.  High friezes, triple porticos, a courtyard, all stood reconstructed in the empty summer heat.  Only a tenth of the building stands.  Looking at it, I tried to imagine what it was like when it once was real.

We moved on to the Temple of Aphrodite, the city’s patron god.  A gate remained, towering as high as a small hotel, proud and marble and white in the sun.  In another stretch of the Temple, tumbled marble columns scarred by fire lay in the vine-choked ground.  In 500 AD the temple was converted into a church, and people prayed here until the Seljuk Turks came around 1200 AD and emptied the city.

The city is vast.  It is amazing.  It is stunning to think of the labor which once raised these stones, and the lives which once pulsed through these streets.

The tops of my feet had been so sunburned that they looked like plums.  My arms felt like they’d been turned into Brendan Jerky.  My girlfriend forgot to put on sunscreen at all and so she teeters on uncertain legs, her whole bare back red, sweaty, asking for water.  We are dusty and travel worn.

But the city is also boring and hot.  The ruins are just ruins, and it takes a bit of mental effort for me to see the wonder in the bricks and the marble porticos, effort that I don’t have after twelve days of travel, and after the sun reflected off the limestone, and after the driving, and after the beauty I have already seen.

We hurried through the ruins, past the theater and the agora, past the Hadrianic Baths where archeologists labored in the heat.  Then we circled around to the entrance and retired to the museum which—pleasure of all pleasures!—was air conditioned.  It was only there, once we were comfortable, that we could appreciate how sun-baked, dehydrated, over-traveled, and tired we had become.

The museum was filled with the artifacts of Aphrodisias that were too fine to leave out in the open air and the unshaded sun.  There were statues, friezes, monuments, and coins, the broken pieces fit together, the scenes explained with helpful informational plaques.  Where the items have been badly damaged, they provide small helpful drawings that show how the site would have looked like when it was whole.

Most of these fine antiquities blur together, passing by, undistinguished even by their age.  We have seen so much already.  But some touch me.  I wonder why.  It is not by virtue of their superior craftsmanship.  I can hardly tell what separates a good statue from a great statue.  Some works of art just touch me, and make me curious again when for whole museums I have been bored.

Here it is two statues of boxers that excite my attention.  Their strong arms and chests rippled with tough-toned muscles.  They hold themselves with the proud and beaten posture of someone who has fought with their whole heart against defeat.  But time has defeated them, when no opponent could.  One is missing its forearm, his shin is broken, his face has been cracked in three pieces, and is only half-recovered.  His bald head and empty eyes make him look like a man losing his power, surprised at how quickly he became so old.  The other boxer suffered from a shattered leg, a lost neck, and a head cleaved in two.  They stare across each other, silent.

In a hot side-room of the museum, the friezes of the Sebasteion have been restored and put up on pedestals.  There are dozens of them, showing emperors and gods.  One frieze depicts Day, Hemena, a cloak rising behind her head, lifted by a gust of wind symbolizing the epiphany of the gods.  Her face has been gouged away and her hand snapped off her body.  Beside her stands the god of the Waters, Oceanus, also throwing a cloak to the wind behind his head.  His features have been dulled by rain.  But these two friezes are lonely.  When they stood up on the porticos of the Sebasteion, Day would have been paired with Night, together representing the eternity of the Roman Order.  Oceanus would have been paired with the earth, and show how the Roman Empire commanded the lands and the seas.  But now these two great symbols stand lonely and broken, symbolizing only the eventual victory of time.


We felt broken.  We felt tired.  We limped out of Aphrodisias to our car.  Then we drove up winding mountain roads, feeling more broken and more tired as the sun sets over the mountains, as we pass through more kilometers of mythological landscape.  We passed over the top of a mountain road to find the Agean Sea spread out before us.
There we improbably checked into an all-inclusive beachside resort to wash the salt off our bodies and sleep the sun out of our minds with an all-you-can drink bar and an army of holiday makers.  Tomorrow it’s going to get weird.

Day Eleven: Konya. Rumi. Peace. Tourism. The Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary

This is day eleven of the Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary.

As we drove into Konya, the old capital of the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum, a broad avenue led us into the center of the city.  The conical top of a turquoise tower pierced the modern skyline.  This was the mausoleum of the sufi mystic Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, called Mevlana in Turkish, and Rumi in English—or ‘the guy from Rum.’  Because of him, for the past eight hundred years the city of Konya has been a sacred place where people have come to find the true nature of reality and the love of god.

Konya was first settled by the Hitties, and like the rest of Asia Minor it has been sacked and settled by waves of war.  The name Konya itself is a Turkification of the Greek’s Ikonion.  The Greeks thought that Perseus defeated the native population with an icon of the Gorgon’s head, making it safe for them to settle.

The main attraction of Konya is the Mausoleum of Mevlana, or Rumi.  Rumi was a thirteenth century Persian poet.  Fleeing the mongol tide that was pressing up against his home in Persia, Rumi’s family swung down to the Gulf on the pilgrimage of Haj, before going north east to settle in the safety of Rum.  Here Rumi studied, thought, prayed and wrote thousands of pages of fine poems about love and god.  His poetry touched people in a way that words rarely do.  In 2007 Rumi was declared the most popular poet in America—this Persian-speaking Muslim who lived in a Turkish-ruled city named after the Byzantine Empire which had named itself after Rome.

After Rumi’s death, his followers turned his poems and philosophy into a religious order known as Mevlana.  Mevlana’s most conspicuous right was the Sema Ceremony, where adherents would fast and then whirl themselves into a confusion, the fabric of their broad skirts fanning out, one hand held up towards god, the other held down to earth.  But the Mevlana were more than just a picturesque dance.  Neophytes would put themselves through a grueling thousand-and-one days of service at Konya before they became dervishes in their own right, cleaning, cooking, fasting, praying and studying.  The Mevlana became a force in the Ottoman Empire for seven hundred years after Rumi’s death.  Dervish societies popped up everywhere the Ottoman Empire was, and the hypnotic whir of the Sema ceremony continued.

Except when Ataturk created the Turkish Republic, he put an end to the Mevlana, closing the doors of the dervish halls, confiscating the treasuries of the ancient foundations, banning the ancient ceremonies and devotions.  Rumi’s tomb was secularized and turned into the museum it is today.

And despite the sublimity of the architecture, and the holiness of the relics held there, Mevlana’s tomb is a museum, not a place of living religion.  The line for tickets was confused—more like a child’s crayon scrawl than a line—while the single ticket seller on duty contended with a mess of tourists pressing against his window, holding out bills, shouting in Turkish.

When we finally were able to exchange our lira for tickets, we walked through the turnstiles to a garden.  There, a 14th Century tomb of one of Rumi’s followers stood with crumbling walls and the flash of striking turquoise tiles.  We followed paths cutting through gardens planted with rose bushes, and then passed into the large marble courtyard surrounding Rumi’s tomb itself.  In the center of the courtyard was a marble fountain bubbling with water, at which people bent down to wash their hands, feet and faces.  A sign hanging on it said that it was built in 1512 and then restored three times since then.

We slipped blue plastic shoe condoms over our feet and went into the tomb itself.  The first room was small, but it was decorated with framed Arabic calligraphy extolling the virtues of study and divine devotion.  Some pieces done in gold leaf on actual gilded tree-leafs, the veins and stems turned to metal.

And then the main room, a broad hallway that turned around itself like a boxy U.  It was busy.  Busy with students, pilgrims, and tourists.  Busy with prayer, and curiosity, and boredom.  Alongside the walls were stone sarcophagi of religious teachers topped with green turbans, and people clustered around these, their hands open to the sky in prayer.

At the far end of the hallway was a crowd, surprisingly quiet for so many people.  They were at the tomb of Rumi himself.

The sarcophagus was tall as a man, huge, covered in an age-darkened brocade embroidered with golden Koranic verses.  On top of the sarcophagus were two large turquoise turbans.  Behind it was an amazing tile wall, in blue, red, green and gold, whirling with calligraphic snippets of the Korea, Persian-looking fruit trees, and hypnotic shapes.  Next to this was a rank of display cases, holding Rumi’s shoulder strap, his finely pressed high-collared cloak, and three of his plain brown felt hats, all supposedly eight hundred years old.

In the next room was a collection of objects meant to inspire the veneration of the pilgrim.  There was an illuminated genealogy of Ali, gilded Korans with footnotes and glosses snaking in the margins at angles to the text.  A series of silk rugs hung along the far wall.  One was from the 16th Century, and the calligraphy on it bragged that it was made near the tomb of Ali, whose power was so great that 100 Alexanders should bow to him.  There were reliquaries containing beard hairs of the prophet, and grains of rice on which the name of god had been written.  A compass pointed to the direction of the Kaaba.  A Koran the size of my thumb nail was displayed next to a Koran the size of a child’s bike.

Some of the people crowding the hall were in the throes of religion.  They swayed back and forth on the balls of their feet.  Their cheeks were wet with weeping.  They pressed their hands to their faces, stunned at the intensity of their own feeling, and then lifted their hands again to heaven, to pray once more.

But other people were just there, passing through the rooms because they were tourists and that’s what they did.  A blonde in heels with a headscarf just thrown over her head laughed on her cel phone, half-heartedly glancing at the illuminated manuscripts.

Outside the Mausoleum, the cels where dervishes once accomplished their devotions have been filled with representative objects and informational plaques.  A pair of tongs hung on the wall.  These were carried in the dervish’s belt, used to let shopkeepers know the dervish deserved a fair price without bargaining.  There were ornately decorated horns, which the traveling dervish would blow to announce his arrival in a new city.  There were hats and robes, axes and books and musical instruments.  In the rooms closer to the kitchen, mannequins had been positioned to stand in for the dervishes who had once lived there.  Here was an old bearded man studying.  Here a young man cooked.  Here another man prayed.

Everywhere we went we had to fight against the crowds.  People gibbered, they yelled, joked, took pictures posing in front of the holy books, the tour guides held up flags and waved them to get people’s attention.  It was strange to think that Rumi’s contemplative poetic philosophy, which hoped to peel back the illusions of the bustling world, should fall like this to the beautiful venalities of tourism.


When Rumi was alive he wrote poems.  He wrote about his worries and his joys, his friends and his thoughts.  But there was something special in the way that Rumi saw the world and in the felicity with which he expressed himself.  All he did was scribe words on paper.  But these words have lived on far longer than his body, being translated and retranslated and published and read and studied.  They have survived not only because they are beautiful, but because they have something true in them.  And this truth has helped people see through the fog of their petty daily worries, to the broader beauties of god and love.

But so why is it here at Rumi’s tomb where generations of pilgrims have bent their heads in supplications, all I can see are the tired herds of tourism?  Why is it that there are no quiet places to sit and wonder?  Why is it that there is no truth, no matter how many informational plaques are posted next to the priceless relics?

But it is a museum only.  It celebrates things that once were.  It can no longer be new.

And truth must always be new.  Only something new can us out of our daily blindness to appreciate the unusual reality of the world around us.  Only something new can stir beauty in our eyes.  And to be new, it must be different, striking, dangerous, and a little sick.  Rumi’s tomb is old.  The relics are covered in dust.  The books are hidden under glass.


On the way back to our car we passed by a craft shop.  In the window felt dervishes hung from agate wind chimes, turning in the breeze, ringing softly.  The walls were busy with necklaces, scarves and painted glass.  My girlfriend insisted on stopping.  The owner was devotedly sewing a small patch of fabric, and gently looked up from his work to offer us tea.  I said we had to get going.  He insisted, and we sat, appreciating the colorful rush of his shop.  “When I was a boy,” he explained, “I always loved colors.  And my mother would complain.  What are you doing always looking at colors?  Why are you obsessed with colors?  But now, you see, I have filled my shop with colors.” On the walls were depictions of dervishes spinning, the Kaaba black and imposing, a peacock, and they were beautiful.  We drank our tea, talked, and were happy.

Again we drove.  We drove to Pammukale where we stayed at a thermal spa and rested in the warm limestone waters, trying to forget everything, surrounded by Russian, Asian and Turkish tourists, who also settled themselves into the pools, wincing at first at the heat, and then closing their eyes.  The fountains spilled warm water over us, the sides dripping with stone.

The Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary continues...

You can also get the whole series as an e-book.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Day Ten: Beneath Cappadocia. The Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary

This is day ten of the Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary.

In the shallow part of the late morning we pulled out of our hotel, setting out for the deeper parts of Cappadocia.  The cities fell away, and the English road signs, the tour groups, the restaurants, the ATV rentals were all replaced by irrigated farmland.

Time passed like it does on long drives.

“Slow down,” the guy in the passenger seat said all of a sudden.

“What is it?” the driver asked.  There were no other cars on the road.

“Slow down!” again, with more insistence, pointing ahead of us.

And then we saw it.  A huge flock of sheep taking up both lanes of the otherwise empty road.  We pulled over.  Bringing up the front of the flock was a sheep dog, its tongue happily lolling out of its mouth.  The sheep followed, their bells ringing with every trot, the full udders of the momma sheep swaying back and forth.  Th shepherd brought up the rear, with his crook hitting the asphalt step by step.  Following him was a second sheep dog, more dutifully drooping its muzzle to the ground, ready to urge on stragglers.


We descended into the underground city of Kaymakli, a complex cut eight floors deep into the soft volcanic rock.  Once it could have been home to over three thousand people.  Now the upper levels of this subterranean metropolis are used by locals for storage—a honeycombed ancient attic.  A portion of the city has been made safe for tourists.  The walls have been strung with lights, the sloping steps have been reinforced with concrete and steel, and almost every turn has been marked with helpful signs.

As soon as we went inside the heat of the day lifted, and we could smell damp stone.  The hand-carved walls were uneven, branching off to various rooms like the arms of a tree.  The corridors narrowed as they went deeper, until in some places you had to bend over to pass through them, or fall onto your hands and knees.  Hollowed out into the soft rock were storage rooms, wine presses, a church, living rooms, graves, and a metallurgist.

Deeper into the city, we marveled at a huge ventilation shaft.  It was about the size of a comfortable chair, and the left side of it was dotted with hand-and-footholds climbing all the way down.  We turned the flashlight into to the darkness, but the light got lost in the depths.  We had no idea how deep the shaft went, or how high.

And it stunned us to think that all of these sloping passageways and huge stone caverns were carved by people.  That someone had not only climbed this vertiginous ventilation shaft but excavated it from the living stone.  Ancient Christians had done the majority of the work here, retreating to the caves as a defense against persecution.  But the Christians had only expanded and improved on cave structures which had existed long before them, going as far back as the Hittites.  The caves were safe.  They were a good place to hide from the shifting tides of empire.


Our next stop was the gorge of Ihlara, a broad tree-filled gash in the rock whose sides were speckled with windows and rooms that once were the seclusion of early Christians.  Around eighty thousand people once lived here in lonesome safety, in four thousand houses carved into the sides of the rock, praying at over a hundred churches.

As we walked to the ticket office a large crowd of high-school girls burst through of the turnstiles.  The first group was dressed modestly in headscarfs, clucking softly to themselves.  One girl stopped at the gift shop and put on a cowboy hat over her hijab, laughing to her friends.  The next wave of young women were dressed in western fashion—in camisoles, skinny jeans and shorts.  I think they were from the same school, but they looked like they came from two different worlds.

We paid for our tickets and made our way down the three hundred steps to the bottom of the gorge.  The whole sky was cloudy.  The wind tasted of cloud, the far-off mountains behind us were capped by clouds, and the clear sunny heat we were used to was dulled by clouds.

We visited the Agacalti Church, which was caved into the cliff wall in the eleventh century, propped up with four arches, and decorated with a small dome.  The walls were frescoed in white and orange paint, with the robes of the prophets drawn out in turquoise.  Jesus loomed above us in the main dome, holding a blessing with one hand and a book in the other, surrounded by winged spirits who were perpetually dragging the resurrected messiah up to heaven.  None of the figures had pupils in their eyes, and so they stare, empty, forlorn down onto us.  The church showed its age.  The paint was chipped in places, a passageway had fallen, the lower parts of the wall had been scratched with crude graffiti.

We followed the steps further down to the bottom, a long line of tourists ahead of us and behind.  But when we reached the gorge the other tourists turned left to a nearby church, and we continued forwards, crossing the fast-flowing river.  After a few minutes we could no longer hear the noise of the tour groups.  Around us was the solitude of rocks and trees, of dust and bugs, the burble of water and the empty noise of wilderness.

We climbed up to another church carved into the farther cliff-face.  This one was less well-preserved, more isolated, less protected.  Three entrances with finely carved archways led into a darkened interior, the ceiling drooping with cobwebs.  Passing the weak flashlight against the walls we could make out the remains of the white and orange paint that had once brightened the walls.  A greek cross on a pillar.  Geometric patterns crawling along a ceiling.  As we went deeper into the ruin, the daylight was swallowed by the shadows, and we found the side-rooms and the small passageways completely dark.  The flashlight tried in vain to illuminate these big empty rooms, and we stopped on the threshold, peering inside, wondering what had once been there, trying to imagine what the church might have looked like back when it was filled with the noise of living.


On our way out of Cappadocia we passed by another fairy chimney site.  We stopped the car at an overlook and took pictures of the rock which fell like folds of fabric in an art-student’s texture study, honeycombed with floors, walls, windows, and doors.

It was amazing, but we had been looking at amazing things now for ten straight days, and in the late afternoon with four hours of driving ahead of us, we only enjoyed the scene briefly.  We quickly folded ourselves back into the car, passed by a parking lot full of tourist buses, empty besides their drivers, who lay idle in their driver’s seats, either napping the afternoon away or texting, ignoring the ponderous photo-worthy spires rising into the air above them.  They, too, were tired of beauty.  We drove onwards to Konya, where we would spend the night.

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Monday, July 9, 2012

Day Nine: The Mysteries of Cappadocia, Unanswered and Beautiful. The Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary

This is day nine of the Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary.

In the early morning, the sky of Goreme is filled with the busy twitters of waking birds and the far-off hoots of sleepy owls.  Across the road from our hotel, an old woman eased her way out onto the terrace of her house, where she plucked cucumbers from the green burst of her garden.  A hot air balloon slowly lowered itself through the blue sky.  In an hour, the other tourists would come out of their rooms and sit down for breakfast, but for the moment I was alone, savoring the silence and the view of this strange city, too beautiful for words, too beautiful to even be a real city.

In the East, we felt like we were the last tourists on earth.  Children gawked at us, waiters asked us curiously where we were from and then frowned when we said ‘America’, the English was halting and uneasy.  But Goreme, in the ancient province of Cappadocia, was a tourist Disneyland.  We were helpfully provided with English signs, English-speaking shopkeepers, internet cafes, car rentals, knick-knack shops, and bars presenting authentic all-you-can-drink ‘Turkish Nights’ complete with belly dancing.  

Normal turkish life was absent, or at least hidden.  There were no dolmuses, not small bufes with rotisseries of doner turning in the heat, no cram schools for the kids.  I would like to say that I was disappointed to have everything around me be so safe and so accommodating, but after a week of adventure, it was a small relief to have a place where I felt like I belonged.


Goreme is famous for its fairy chimneys, large protuberances of rock erupting from the earth ten or fifteen stories into the air.  They look like hundreds of giant fingers, reaching up from the gorge of Goreme.  The rock is made of soft volcanic tuff, and over thousands of years people have carved houses and churches and cities into the stone.  Because of this, these bizarre towers of rock are often crowned with windows and pigeon holes, doors and stairs, that make them look alien and wonderful.

We drove towards the city of Urgup, passing by farmland rich with apricot trees, pumpkin and melon patches, grape vines, and wildflowers.  We parked on the side of the road next to Devrent Valley, a forest of fairy chimneys.  The powdery white paths that climbed the side of the valley were dotted with tourists.  They looked like ants scrambling up a pile of sugar.

We followed the tourists.  The fairy chimneys rose around us, strange, curious, like nothing we had ever seen before, like nothing we could explain.  Some were thin, some were thick.  Some looked like mushrooms with fat steps and tiny hats.  Some were stubby cones.  Some looked like perky breasts with tiny nipples, others looked like snaking phalluses.

After lunch we headed on another hike, this time in Pasabagi, a burst of roof-shaped fairy chimneys surrounded by a broad plateau.  A group of older Korean tourists were herded past an old church cut into the rock.  A band of Japanese tourists in fedoras, sports coats, man purses, bluetooth headsets and space shoes looked like they have been dropped in the canyon straight from a better future, gazing about themselves in every possible direction pointing camcorders and cameras.

We ducked into the church, behind the mass of Koreans.  The walls were scored with carvings, blackened with the soot of fires and candles, inlaid with alcoves, fountains, settings, and foot-and-hand holds that lead up to a second floor.  It looked like a Flintstones house.

Then we wandered up the snaking trail, going higher, getting farther away from the tourists, gaining a better view on the amazing landscape, and I tried to describe the things that I was seeing.  But I had no names for them, no way to put into words the odd collection of the pillars of earth except that they were different, picturesque, otherworldly, novel.  How did these things even happen?  I didn’t know.  They were as likely the work of a bored artist, sketching out an alien landscape as they were a product of the geologic forces that accounted for such everyday things as lakes and mountains.

And then all at once I didn’t care to solve the mystery of what created the fairy chimneys.  They were beautiful, and I was silenced by their beauty.

It just felt good to be walking in the kind sun, away from the city, out of the car, going out of earshot of the babble of languages.  After the boredom of yesterday’s ten-hour drive, our hike returned us to the realer world of walking and sweat.

We were silent.  But this was not the grumpy silence that had overcome us before.  We were silent because our lips were dumb to the pleasure of our legs and feet and skin as they walked surely over the uncertain ground.  And so what use did words have?  I didn’t want to understand how the fairy chimneys were formed, or who had carved out those rooms of rocks, or the history of invasion and conquest that scoured the landscape.  I just wanted to walk and look.

We made it to the topmost point and looked out for a moment.  Then we walked gingerly down the loose slope.


We ate dinner at the Top Deck Cafe, a year-old restaurant of stupendous hospitality and warmth—the best dining experience I’ve had in a whole year and a half of living in Turkey.  As we stood outside the restaurant, looking over the simple menu, the owner and chef Mustafa Ciftci swept us into the kitchen, where he showed us all the food that was on offer that day.  There were succulent lamb chops, chicken soup, mezze—Turkish appetizers—and vegetables.  Mustafa’s wife Zaida worked in the kitchen, while the couple’s two daughters provided us with menus and brought us to our seats on the floor along the wall.

The restaurant was a traditional Goreme house, a cave carved into the solid rock.  The eldest daughter, took our orders, and soon our small low-lying table was spread with a beautiful mezze plate of rice-stuffed vine leaves, home-made humous, chicken salad, eggplant, and a half-dozen other dips, spreads and nibbles, which we tucked into hurriedly, hungry from travel and the hike.

Soon our main dishes came.  I got the lamb chops.  The meat was so soft that when I picked up a bone the flesh simply fell off onto the plate.  The couple sitting next to us from New Zealand said it was the best lamb they’d ever had.  And they were from New Zealand, where there are more sheep than people.

As we ate, a conversation bubbled amongst the tables around us.  In the far corner an American man and a Turkish-American woman who were spending three weeks exploring all of turkey.  Next to our cushions were the Kiwis, who were sleepily full.  They were taking a year off everything to go see what they could of the world.  At the table to my left sat an older Dutch couple who were about to brave the wonders of the east.  We swapped stories of traveling Turkey, and jokes, and advice, and the restaurant was noisy with good-natured laughter.  The restaurant had the sort of conviviality you always want when you’re traveling.  Everyone was kind and happy, willing to talk and to chuckle.  And it had all happened so naturally.

When the meal was done the younger daughter brought us tea and the guestbook to sign.  The book was thick with compliments in dozens of languages, sentences upon sentences, pages upon pages.  It was amazing that the place had been open for only a year, and received this much good-will.  I picked up the pen, but for the second time that day my words failed me.  I couldn’t say anything.  The meal had been fantastic, the conversation friendly, the atmosphere open.  But I couldn’t write.  I couldn’t spoil the magic of that dinner by putting it into words.  So I wrote only a sentence, and passed the book on.  We drank our after-dinner teas and prepared to head to bed.

As we left, passing by the kitchen which stood next to the front door, we stopped to pay our compliments to Mustafa and Zaida.  We ended up standing there, chatting to the whole Ciftci family—mother and father and two daughters—until past ten at night.

“This cave is actually where I was born,” Mustafa told us, pointing to the far right corner of the dining room.  “There.”

The Ciftcis treated us like old family friends.  We showed them how to get English books on their iPads but soon ended up playing the Baby Monkey (Going Backwards On A Pig) App.  Our conversation fluttered with little tangents and jokes and digressions.  And for a moment it didn’t feel like we were in a restaurant where we had paid for the pleasure of eating, but at our friend’s house, chatting in the sleepy time after dinner.  We left reluctantly, pulled to our beds by tiredness and the promise of another full day.

The Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary continues...

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Sunday, July 8, 2012

Days Seven And Eight: Roads. The Decapitated Gods Of Mount Nemrut. More Roads. The Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary

These are days seven and eight of the Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary.

The narrow road cut through the crests and troughs of the rising shadow-filled mountains, and our car bravely made its way forward.  A half-moon hung in the sky, softening the sky's broad darkness.  We were tired, and quiet mostly.  It was three in the morning, and we had been traveling together for exactly a week.

We didn’t know whether we were going the right way or not.  We hadn’t seen a sign for a dozen kilometers or so, and the road looked too obscure, too uncertain.  A white panel van passed us, speeding up the winding road.  “That’s a tour bus,” I said, straightening up in my seat with rising hope.  “We’re going the right way.”

“It’s not a tour,” our navigator snapped.  “Tours couldn’t have vans that small.  It wouldn’t be efficient.”

Maybe we were getting a little grumpy.  We had woken up too early.  We had been in the compact car for too long.  The silence came over us, and kilometers sped beneath us.

And then in the East the darkness changed.  A thin band of orange broke against the horizon, dropping off into blue, which smeared into the nighttime black.  It was the first touches of morning light.  We were racing against it.

By four thirty in the morning we parked on a steep parking lot filled with tourist vans.  The night was cold and windy.  My only pair of trousers had ripped back in Mardin, so I was wearing nothing more than salmon-colored shorts and a thin T-shirt.  I had failed to have the foresight to wear shoes instead of sandals.

In front of us was a mountain peak, a darker imposition against the moony night.  This was Mount Nemrut, one of the most famous sights in Turkey.

Hints of sunrise.  Photo by Jenna Staff.
We walked up.  It felt good to walk.  Walking kept us warm.  The path was steep and pebbly, and we could see almost nothing in the morning darkness besides the growing band of light to the East, and the dim outlines of the rolling hills beneath us, and the dark shape of the peak to the left of us.  It was beautiful, but we were tired, and maybe too tired and too cold to appreciate the beauty.  We said little to each other.  We passed by other tourists who were puffing their way up the mountain, pausing for breath against a pile of stones.  One group, bundled warm in blankets and coats, looked at my T-shirt and short and could do nothing but laug.

By five we made it to the Eastern Platform of Mount Nemrut, and the first light of the day was spilling out against the stone peak.  The heads of decapitated gods stood before us, each as tall as a man.  The heads of five men—gods and kings—were flanked by an eagle and a lion.  They all looked out towards the morning empty eyes.  On the rise of the hill behind them stood the five bodies of these heads, indistinct blurs in the morning darkness.

Heads, before the dawn.  Photo by Jenna Staff.

Mount Nemrut is the mausoleum of Antiochus the first of Commagene who lived in the first century BC.  Antiochus’ small kingdom was a mixture of Persian, Greek and Armenian cultures that had torn its independence after the Roman Empire defeated the Seleucids.  Antiochus, whose full name was Antiochos, a just, eminent god, friend of Romans and friend of Greeks, declared himself a god, and planned that after his death his body should be moved away from the people and closer to the gods.  He chose Mount Nemrut.  Here he established a group of priests who would celebrate his birthday and his coronation once a month, for all eternity.

The heads depict Greek-looking kings with Persian hats.  There is Apollo-Mithras-Helios-Hermes; Zeus-Oromasdes; the king Antiochus himself, god-like a pround; Heracles-Artagnes-Ares, a queen, and Tyche-Fortuna herself.  Sometime after Commagene’s inevitable fall, once the birthdays and coronations were forgotten, these heads were broken off and tumbled down to the terrace below.  They were only rediscovered in the 1880s, when a German Engineer found them while looking for transport routes for the Ottoman Empire.

The heads slowly became illuminated by the rising morning light.  The shadows deepened their features.  The stones became more alive.  You could now see the curls of their beard, the arrogance in their eyebrows, the peak of the eagle’s beak, the fierceness of the lion’s eyes.

On the terrace a motley of people jabbered at each other.  Everyone snapped pictures, and posed for pictures, and clucked at each other about how funny the pictures looked, and crowded around the good vantages for photos.

We moved onto the Eastern pedestal to look out across the mountains, still dark with nioght.  There we had a moment of repose, and pulled the blanket up around us against the cold.  The light on the horizon became thicker, and now you could just make out the swell of red that would become the sun.

As the light grew, slate-colored lakes started to shimmer in the valleys below us.  Then all at once it was bright enough that I could actually see the pages of my notebook.  Seven vans pulled up to a special access parking lot below us, and they disgorged a pilgrimage of tourists who climb up the steep path, just in time for the sunrise.

Then the salmon-colored light swelled over the mountain.  Sunrise was coming.  The crowd silenced.

Like that—in a moment—it was day.  The sun peeked over the ridge of the mountain before it resolutely lifted itself up out of its mountain bed.  More photos were snapped.  A man posed for a novelty shot where it looked like he was holding the sun between two pinched fingers.  But despite all that, it was beautiful, and for a moment I felt a sympathy with the other tourists.  We were all feeling this beauty.

Sunrise.  Photo by Jenna Staff.

And then the tourists evaporated, like morning dew.  We walked around the peak of the mountain, suddenly alone again, admiring the stone heads in the cool morning light.  Then we walked around the peak to look at the Western Platform where another set of decapitated heads faced the setting sun.


This, for eight hours.  Photo by Jenna Staff.

Then it was days of driving.  We drove from Gaziantep to Adiyaman, and then to Mount Nemrut.  Then we wound our way back, retracing our steps, heading West to the dream-like province of Cappadocia.

Again, it was a day of Turkish road travel.  We passed a car with its passenger seat packed full of sheep.  A minaret sprouted from a boxy factory.  Road workers hid from the heat in the small shade of tree planted on the median strip of the road.

As we moved west, the earth rose to become a rolling Medeterranian farmland of olives and grapes, before peaking to become a series of craggy, pine-lush peaks.  The setting sun hit a splatter of clouds, marking the edges of the clouds white.

Then all at once the hills fall away into a stone-littered scraggly mud-splattered expanse rising with rocks and dust.  Ahead of us lay mountains, dark and broad.  We were leaving the East, with its rough brilliance, into the more popular tourist-areas of central Turkey.


In the style of Maximum Fun’s Jordan Ranks America, we ranked Eastern Turkey.

Standing tall at number five is “Hello, money!” the two words known to every single barefoot child you may happen to run across.

Making a strong debut at number four, it’s goats.  They’re cute, their shaggy, they seem to be content where they go, they make great cheese.  The consensus is:  goats are great.  Why don’t we have more goats?  Can we get some pet goats or what?

An old favorite retains spot number three.  You guessed it, it’s the shalwar, the Turkish farmer’s M.C. Hammer pants.  Baggy, with a crotch that dips past the ankle, nothing says “fashion” like these centuries-old trousers.

A surprise at number two!  It’s horrible drivers!  Passing you at a hundred and thirty kilometers an hour as you make a blind turn down a mountain road!  Demonstrating fantastic feats of steering-wheel acrobatics on roundabouts!  Honking while you’re stopped at a red light!  The drivers of Eastern Turkey will give you the ride of your life!

Taking the top spot at number one it’s Kebabs.  Lunch and dinner, why would you want to eat anything else?  These flame roasted skewers of meat can be angelically good or give you food poisoning.  But one things’ for sure:  it’s the only thing on the menu!

The Amazing Awesome Anatolian Road Trip Diary continues...

You can also get the whole series as an e-book.