Troglodyte monastery complex, Zelve, Turkey
A long break, and a big apology to our web audience. Georgia's phone system has been unreliable, and we've had little time to tinker with the internet connection. This post covers the Turkish phase of the trip, up to our entry into Georgia; the following post (from Baku) will cover Georgia and Armenia.
Istanbul was our first real glimpse of Asia. Cliches about the Bosporus are largely true -- over the course of the day its sweeping shores and slow, relentless traffic evoke a certain drama (mostly mental, of course, since Istanbul itself straddles the traditional Europe-Asia divide).
Awakened just before our first dawn in the city by a call to prayer blaring from the neighborhood mosque -- echoed plaintively from minarets citywide -- we began to adjust to a less familiar lifestyle. Hearty lamb 'n' potatobörek from a street vendor fortified us for exploring the old neighborhoods west of the Bosporus and south of the Golden Horn (a harbor inlet); we wandered through the cavernous covered bazaar (where, among myriad trinkets, Spencer found sumaks from stylistically distinct regions of Eastern Anatolia), the wet market and side streets in between (where Nat found a duduk and Ottoman manuscript pages). Immersed in the city's chaotic daily bustle, we were intrigued that locals actually live and work in such ancient structures: apartments are hacked into the city's crumbling 5th century walls, commuters circle the track of the ancient hippodrome, fishmongers hawk swordfish on cobbled streets worn smooth over centuries, and, marking the intricate complication of the city's layout over time, twisting passageways lead to hidden courtyards. Throughout trot tea-delivery boys, swinging trays with small glasses of Turkey's workday lifeblood, chai and elma ('apple') chai..
In this part of the city Byzantine and Ottoman architects, at their rulers' command, left scores of grand-scaled monumental buildings to compete for viewers' attention, of which the best known are Aya Sofia (Saint Sofia, or Holy Wisdom church/mosque), Sultanahmet Camii (Blue Mosque) and, as part of a large municipal park, Topkapi palace. All three are on the the well-worn tourist trail, and we won't reiterate their full descriptions. One interesting feature of Aya Sofia was the realignment of the Islamic mihrab over the underlying Christian altar to point towards Mecca, reflecting the larger, unusually syncretic competition of Christian and Islamic motifs within the interior.
After two full days in Istanbul, we were on the road east toward Ankara. The modern, nearly empty highway let us cruise quickly over lush coastal ranges into a drier and more windswept landscape, with vast views. A short stop at the little-known ethnic enclave of Kebabistan (see below), and we were back en route to Cappadocia, approximately 150 km southeast of Ankara.
The soft rock topography of Cappadocia has been used over the past two millenia to create an unusual honeycomb of churches and dwellings integrated with the dusty earth. Used by local Christians from the first few centuries AD, tuff (compressed volcanic ash) was easily carved into simple cells and decorated with frescoes. We found it reminiscent of North American Anasazi sites such as Mesa Verde, though more extensive. Local folks still inhabit the rock caves -- 20th century troglodytes. Many pensions (uniformly $14/night for double w/bath) have cave rooms which to varying degrees convey the spirit of local life within the rocks.
After spending a day exploring the rock dwelling complexes at Göreme, Zelve and Uchhisar, we headed to Hattushas, ancient captital of the Hittites. Established in the 13th century BC, Hattushas is situated on a series of rolling hills on a crest of the Anatolian plateau about 100 km east of Ankara. Seen from its ridgeline fortifications, where a sturdily-designed 70m ancient tunnel allowed peacetime access, the site is impressive even in its current ruined state. Reconstruction has been minimal, but from the building foundations -- outlined in stone -- and the short sections of the city walls and gates that have been pieced together, it is easy to imagine the settlement's large scale. At nearby Yazilikaya, a Hittite temple complex preserves in carved stone some of the culture's iconography. Traditionally regarded as one of the world's first empires, the Hittites conquered much of the Levant in the 2nd millennium BC. They spoke an Indo-European language (their word for H2O was, conveniently enough for some of us, watar), and were part of the melting pot of Hatti, Mittani, Phrygian, Assyrian, Urartian and other peoples that made up pre-Seljuq Turkey.
After Hattushas we headed to the Black Sea coast. Historically an important conduit for trade, Pontic Turkey even today feels slightly more European than does interior Anatolia. Slavic influence was evident in Samsun, the largest port, and continued east to the Georgian border. Russian goods -- especially the inevitable bottles of vodka -- made their first appearance in Samsun. Long controlled by the Greeks in the past, the town was on the route of Jason and his Argonauts as they searched the rocky coast for the Golden Fleece. The Black Sea's largest island (one tiny, rocky acre), just east of Samsun, was reportedly sacred to the Amazons; today it hosts an annual fertility festival that retains many pre-Christian and pre-Islamic traditions.
As we moved further east, the shore became wilder and lusher. This is Turkey's tea-growing region, and low, bright bushes increasingly covered steep hillsides as we neared Trabzon. Trabzon itself, once the stronghold of Genoese trade in the region, and a terminus of the Silk Road, is now industrially modern and less evocative than its fabled name.
Much of the coast is a repetitive tableau of towns occupying wide bays, overlooked on their eastern promontories by ruins of old castles. These bays center on small, rushing rivers meeting the sea; upstream from the towns, one quickly enters a wet mountain landscape, dense with mixed deciduous and evergreen trees, tea, hazelnuts and strawberries. Summer cabins dot the hillsides; many, especially those across the river from the access road, are quickly reachable only by ingenious teleferiks, ferrying people and supplies by anchor and winch cables and a rickety plank bench. Sumela monastery, in cloud forest about 40 km south of the Trabzon, is another fine example of clifftop Byzantine monastic architecture (apparently acrophobia and monastic devotion were incompatible in the Orthodox church) with stunning frescoes in various states of defacement (literally, as Islamic proscriptions against representative art were retroactive).
Near the top of the coast range valleys east of Trabzon live a diverse population of Turks, Lazi (who speak a language closely related to Georgian) and Hemshinli, who speak a language related to Armenian. In spectacular Ayder, a largely Hemshinli village, we met Emin, a former Turkish paratroop commander and baking magnate. He and his friends hosted us for raki, cheese, olives and a discussion of local life; we had to tear ourselves away to get back to Trabzon in time to meet Mark and Darius at the airport -- four of the five team members reunited at last. Returning to Ayder, we all camped and drove quickly the next day to the Georgian border. Reopened just two years ago with a post-Soviet thaw in relations, the border road, dusty and littered with boulders, had clearly not been a major conduit for many years. At the border, an armed Turkish sentry watched from a minaret, symbolic of the militantly secularized national image established by Mustafa Kemal 'Atatürk' ('Father-Turk'), whose Boris Karloff-like portrait still overlooks many a Turkish shop. Atatürk's vision competes with many other viewpoints in modern Turkey; as we were leaving this country, its complexity had left a lasting impression.
Darius and Spencer
The border crossing was surprisingly uncomplicated, with fewer checks and regulations than on entering Turkey. Peripatetic women (some undoubtedly the infamous 'Natashas,' FSU prostitutes inevitably spoken of by Turks with a wink and a nudge), trucks loaded with Turkish produce and a few private vehicles jockeyed for position at the entry gate. A sign of past troubles was the joint Russian-Georgian jurisdiction over the border post -- a source of many political battles in the Georgian parliament...and elsewhere.
Nat at the Georgian border
Next post: Georgia and Armenia