Terrell's Turkey Travel Journal
This is the record of a trip I took in the summer of 2005 with Meli Seval of Melitour. We spent two weeks in Southeastern and Eastern Turkey traveling mostly by bus with a small tour group. Of the three trips I've done with Meli, I have to say this was my favorite. We had a great time. After the tour, I flew to Italy and spent a few days in Tuscany with my niece and her husband.
June 15, Wednesday, Pre-tour Day
It's really a long flight from Seattle to Istanbul. I got to the airport two and a half hours before the flight was due to depart only to be told that most of the people on the very full British Air flight had already checked in (although they weren't at the airport yet) and that I didn't have a seat, please proceed to the gate and hope they call my name. I'll never ignore on-line check in again! It turned out not to be a problem. They called my name almost immediately and they even managed to get me the aisle seat I so ardently desired. After a long flight made even longer by a seat companion with halitosis and no sense of personal boundaries, we arrived at Heathrow where I had a six hour layover. I had thought very seriously about taking the express train into the city for a few hours but, knowing myself well, I realized it would just add too much to my stress levels to deal with security and passport control and waits for trains. Better just to hit the W. H. Smith bookstore and people watch. I found a paperback copy of Snow, resisted the paperback of the new Hornby novel (in hindsight, I wish I could switch that decision) and then settled down to read with a Coke and a huge Cadbury chocolate bar. After waiting for hours and being entertained by an Orthodox Jewish family with a zillion kids, they finally announced our departure gate. I assume it's a security measure that makes Heathrow wait until ten minutes before boarding to announce your gate, making everyone run as fast as they can through long, empty corridors to get to their flight. Sometimes I imagine airport personnel sitting in front of security monitors, laughing the heads off.
I finally touched down in Istanbul around 11:30 PM, a full 20 plus hours elapsed time from leaving my house in Seattle. Since I knew the ropes from last year, I had a speedy passage through visa, passport control, and security and easily found the Melitour driver waiting for me outside baggage claim. The weather in Istanbul was certainly warmer than when I was here in 2004 although not unbearable. I could only hope it wouldn't be too big an issue once we got to the southeast. The driver delivered me safely to the Ayasofia, Meli's go-to hotel in Sultanahmet, where I found I had a big room to myself for the night since my roommate wasn't due to arrive until the following evening. The bathroom was also larger than last year's with a nice shower which I enjoyed mightily before falling into bed.
June 16, Thursday, Tour Day 1
At breakfast, I met some of the people who had just finished the last tour with Meli as well as some of the people who would be on the tour with me. They had all just completed the "Dobag extension" and were very excited about the things they had seen and the purchases they had made. I met Bob and Ruth, both retired teachers from California and Gayle, a retired children's librarian from Seattle who lives quite close to the store where I work. Gayle and a woman from the previous tour (Emily, who turned up on our 2006 tour) and I then went up to the Hippodrome to change some money and do a little early shopping. We didn't stay long but headed back to the hotel to see if Meli was around. She was in the lobby on her ever-present cell phone trying to straighten things out for some tour members who had lost baggage and mangled flights. In between calls, I got some advice from her on my post tour arrangements which led to my returning to the Hippodrome to consult one of the travel agencies lined up along the street by the tram. A very nice guy found a good rate for me on a flight to Rome and then called around researching hotel rates. On his advice, I decided to return to the Ayasofya after the trip instead of trying to get a hotel at the top of the hill. The discounted rate I get there because of Meli more than makes up for having to walk up and down the hill. I did wander around and look at some other places, but the only place that was cheap enough, the hostel, seemed noisy and overcrowded. I'd rather walk.
It was warm enough that afternoon that I decided to head up to the pleasantly breezy rooftop terrace at the hotel for a nap. I put aside that idea, however, when Gayle arrived with a cold beer in hand. Ruth soon followed, and joined me for a smoke (I only smoke in Turkey...and Italy...OK, abroad). Clearly this was going to much a much looser living crowd than 2004's group of vegetarians and teetotalers.
At 5 PM we went down to the lobby to meet most of the rest of the tour members. Meli made everyone introduce themselves and say what they did. We met Sharon and Lisa from Ohio and Kentucky, both retired school teachers, Jan from Seattle, a retired "educator," Gayle from Seattle, retired librarian, Bob and Ruth from California, more retired school teachers and me, a bookseller from Seattle. At this point, I was the only one in the group with a job. Gayle's brother and sister-in-law were also supposed to be there but, in the first disaster of the trip, they had gotten stuck in the states because their travel agency had screwed up their plane tickets. The airlines wouldn't even let them fly to New York because they said there wasn't an open seat on a flight to Turkey for two weeks. After arguing with the airline for a day or two, they gave up and decided to bag the whole trip, hoping to recover their money from the agency who admitted they were at fault. The last members of the group, a husband and wife from Texas and their goddaughter, were having dinner with friends in the city and planned to arrive at the hotel later in the evening.
After the introductions, we all piled into taxis and drove to the Suleymaniye, the mosque built by Suleiman the Magnificent and designed by Sinan, the greatest of the Ottoman architects. It's really a beautiful mosque, very large, but with exquisite lines. We had dinner in a restaurant in a courtyard across from the mosque: mezeler, a yogurt soup that Meli dismissed as too sour to eat and grilled chicken with mashed potatoes and rice pilaf. To Gayle's disappointment there was no beer since we were dining in the shadow of the great mosque (Islam's no alcohol policy tends to be rather loosely interpreted in most places in Turkey) but we got delicious strawberry and rosehip juices to drink which suited me better anyway. After dinner we walked over to see the mosque where Meli gave an abbreviated version of her 'Five Pillars of Islam' talk. I noticed that most of the women who came in to pray were dressed in fundamentalist garb (long drab coat, veil tied so as to cover forehead, ears and throat over hair in a bun) but I forgot to ask Meli if that had something to do with the University next door. A wild taxi ride returned us to the hotel and I fell asleep waiting for my new roommate to show up. English-speaking voices drifted up from the street through the open window and woke me around midnight and I got up to let Leah in. She's a student at Wellesley who had just finished her junior year abroad in Aix, France and was traveling with her godparents Clarence and Jane from Houston. She stole the youngest person on the tour title from me, drat her. I didn't get much more sleep after that since a noisy night outside woke me up several times and then...
June 17, Friday, Tour Day 2
...we had to get up at 4 AM to be on the bus by 5 AM to get to the airport to catch our 6:30 flight to Adana. The hotel guys were a little slow getting the luggage loaded, so we were a little late leaving and then the airport was really crowded, taking us a long time to get through security. It seemed like we were definitely going to miss the plane but we all made it to the gate just in time. The seats on the Onur Air flight were tiny and I had the middle seat between a stranger and Clarence who is a portly man. Certainly not a comfortable flight but at least it only lasted about an hour.
Getting off the plane we immediately noted the climate change. It was not only warmer in Adana but also more humid. My buddy, Hüseyin, who was also our driver on the 2004 trip, met us at baggage claim and escorted us to our bus, a medium-sized, air-conditioned affair with enough room for each of us to have two seats to ourselves. We headed south toward Antakya without stopping in Adana. Since we were all hungry, Meli said she would look for a place for us to have breakfast. We pulled into a big gas station/truck stop affair where they cleared a big table for us to eat at. Some of the people who hadn't traveled in Turkey before were looking a little taken aback at eating at a gas station but those of us who were repeat visitors were not surprised when the waiter (yes, they have waiters at gas stations) brought out good bread and plates of cheese and olives and pezmek and butter and finally even a sort of plain omelet. It was all delicious and we ate a lot.
From breakfast we drove south past Iskenderun where we saw the signs for the big U.S. Air Force base. By lunchtime we had arrived at our hotel in Antakya. The Antik Beyazit Hotel is an old house that has been converted into a lovely small hotel. Jan and I got assigned to share a room with a loft (one bed below, one up above) so it was almost like having separate rooms. After dropping our things, we all reconvened in the lobby so we could walk down the street to have a light lunch (none of us were particularly hungry after our late breakfast. After lunch we went wandering around through the old town. I hung out with Jane and Clarence and Leah. Gayle stayed with Meli and when we regrouped later she told me that they had been invited into a garden courtyard where the ladies were preparing for a wedding by dyeing their hands with henna. They were older women who didn't speak much Turkish since the people of this region are ethnically Arab but they had a great time trying to communicate. I vowed not to let myself be separated from Meli again. She always finds something interesting no matter where she is.
In the afternoon we drove out to Peter's grotto where Sts. Peter, Paul and Barnabas preached. Meli explained about the early Christian church and talked about how much of early church history actually took place in Anatolia. Next stop was the mosaics museum back in town that had a very impressive collection of Roman era mosaics gathered from ruins of the villas that were once common in this region. There was one geometric border design that I thought would make a great needlepoint work. (Unfortunately, my sketch that I tried to make just looked like a collection of random scribbles by the time I got home.) They also had an interesting display about the Roman silk weaving industry that used to flourish in the area which was a nice prologue for our next stop of the day. Back on the bus we drove out of town to a tiny village where we disembarked at the gates of a farm. The stylish young couple who met us are trying to reestablish the silk industry here. They are growing mulberry trees on their property and raising silkworms. They spin the silk thread, dye it and then weave it. They even have a shop in the village where they sell the products although I assume the bulk of their production goes to Istanbul. We watched a man weaving on a foot-powered wooden loom pretty much the way it's been done from time immemorial and then watched a couple of guys threading a powered machine one tiny strand at a time. One machine was wrapping beautiful red silk thread on big spools but most of what we saw were natural, undyed, loosely woven fabrics. The light was gorgeous coming in the open windows and doors and I tried hard to capture it on film but, as usual, the results were less than stellar. After the farm we drove back into town to the shop where we had a little shopping frenzy and I bought a beautiful scarf. Meli bought some of their hair oils made from olive oil and bay (I think) that you use like a conditioner.
Our last stop of the day was at a restaurant perched on the edge of steep-sided bay grove with several small waterfalls. This, according to local legend, is the spot where the god Apollo chased the nymph Daphne until her father, the river god, changed her into a bay tree, which in Turkish is called a Daphne tree. Apollo made a wreath from the leaves of the tree. The restaurant had a roof terrace on the third floor where we had our supper of mushroom and lamb kabobs.
Back at the hotel, cool showers, cooler air-conditioning, and a little journaling ended the long day.
June 18, Saturday, Tour Day 3
There was no muezzin call loud enough to wake me in the morning but I was up by six o'clock anyway. I took my journal out to the lobby to write for a while. I found a couch next to an open door that gave me both a nice breeze and a view of the massive pink bougainvillea growing on the terrace outside. The guy manning the desk came over and asked if I'd like a coffee so I had a lovely hour writing in comfort. The rest of the group came and joined me for breakfast on the mezzanine overlooking the lobby. The fresh-squeezed orange juice was delicious. Gayle and I asked for yogurt which the servers brought us with some funny looks. That's when we realized that most of Turkey thinks of yogurt as something you eat with salad, not as breakfast food. To them, it was a little like we were asking for a bowl of mayonnaise for breakfast.
After breakfast we loaded up the bus and hit the highway to Gaziantep. On the drive, I asked Meli why this little spit of land was part of Turkey and not part of Syria. She explained that when Ataturk and the founders of the republic were organizing the new country they had called for representatives from parts of the former Ottoman Empire to decided if they wanted to be part of the new country or not. The people of Hatay (the area around Antakya as well as an alternate name for the city itself) had voted to be part of Turkey as had the people of Mosul. The British interfered with the Mosul decision because there were oil issues involved which is how the predominantly Kurdish area got to be part of Iraq and we all know how that turned out for them. Meli went on to explain about the rather complicated concept of Millet, loosely translated as nation or national, that Turkey inherited from the Ottoman Empire. Although everyone who lives in Turkey is considered to be "Turkish," people can also belong to a religious or ethnic group or millet such as the Christian millet or Arab millet. According to Meli, it is the process of these groups working together (millet ulus) that has made the modern secular nation function.
Our drive took us through farmland. We could see tomatoes and melons as well as cotton growing. We went higher as we went east and the crops changed to wheat fields. Meli pointed out the turnoff to Aleppo in Syria. We had plenty of photo ops as we wound our way up into the mountains: donkeys, small town market days, purple mountains above fruited plains. As we approached the outskirts of Gaziantep, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant called Kartaltepe (Eagle Hill) in a pine tree park that reminded me a little of northern Arizona. We were almost the only people in the restaurant. Apparently this is more of a weekend place. We had a massive and very slow lunch with a delicious eggplant börek. The main dish was an eggplant and lamb kabap that we ate rolled up in a thick flat bread. Good, but very filling and a little tricky to eat gracefully. For desert we got kunefe. Yum. Meli was trying to describe how they make the little strings of pastry that go into this sweet cheese desert, but I'm not sure that people got it. A quick glass of tea and a cigarette after lunch and then we were back on the bus.
Our first post-prandial stop was silk again but it was very different than yesterday's. We went to what Meli told us was the last factory in Turkey that is still making traditional Turkish silk ikat. They showed us the looms that are warped and weft with pre-dyed silk threads. Most ikat that I have seen comes out in a fairly free form pattern but the stuff that they were weaving came out in very precise stripes and patterns in very bright colors. It was hard to believe it was pre-dyed but I saw them do it so I know it was. After watching the looms for a while, we went downstairs where they had materials for sale by the yard and most of us bought some. Most of the silks had been polished to give a high sheen but I found a piece in dark blues and maroons that was unpolished. It's really beautiful fabric and I really regret I didn't buy more. That seems to be a typical buying pattern for me. I rarely regret buying the things I buy and I usually wish I had bought more. It was the beginning of the trip, though, and I didn't want to spend all my money too soon.
After silk, we went to an area of town that specializes in another fading craft form, damascene. I had always thought of this as a term for engraving on metal, but it's what they call the metal and mother of pearl inlayed wood that was so popular in Empire days. We wandered around and chatted with some craftsmen although I don't think anybody bought much. Clarence, the irrepressible, made friends with the bunch of guys sitting at a little table on the street corner and had tea with a shalwar-trousered, skull-capped guy named Mustafa. The last stop of the afternoon was at the copper market, a mini-version of Istanbul's covered market, but devoted mostly to handmade copper pots and other items. Gayle and I stuck with Meli at first until she settled down to have a long conversation with a guy making a large inlaid copper tray/table top. We took off on our own and wandered through the market examining wares and trying to translate the names of the herbs in the spice shops. I bought a couple of little copper ayran cups for next to nothing that I thought would make nice gifts. Making our way back to Meli we found her still engaged in conversation so we went out to the street where we found Hüseyin. I daringly bought a glass of fresh orange juice from a street vendor and then Gayle and I made Hüseyin give us Turkish lessons until the rest of the group was ready to go.
Meli told us that our hotel was close to the old train station, the only renovated one in a district of cheap hotels that mainly housed Irani tourists. After driving in circles a bit, we finally got to the hotel, a nice marble and wood sort of place. Gayle was my roomie this evening and graciously let me turn on the air-conditioner even though she hates canned air. Dinner was in an oddly red room at the back of the hotel. Meli had to keep telling them to turn down the music even though we were the only ones there. After our big lunch, most of us weren't very hungry but the baklava we had for dessert was delicious. After dinner, I went down to the lobby to write for a while and Hüseyin came and sat with me and looked at the papers. I didn't realize it at the time, but I think he was protecting me. Apparently, a single female sitting in a hotel lobby is sending a message that I was not intending. Anyway, as soon as I indicated I was going upstairs, he jumped up to go run errands.
June 19, Sunday, Tour Day 4
I was up before breakfast again and when I encountered Bob, the other early riser on the tour, in the lobby, we decided to take a little walk and look for an ATM. Out on the street the tour buses from Iran that we had seen the night before had multiplied. There were chador clad figures everywhere. I was interested to see that the ladies did not stick to strictly black. There were also navy blue and even some flower print chadors. My favorites, though, were the ones with a black chador over a white wimple covering the forehead, ears and throat. They looked just like the nuns who taught at my Catholic school back in the sixties. Even at this hour--it was still sometime before seven--all the shops were open and the sidewalks were lined with vendors selling every imaginable kind of junk from small appliances to ladies undergarments and every one of them was doing a land office business with women buying as fast as they could get their hands on the merchandise. Clearly a lack of consumer goods back home. As Bob and I walked around we also spotted the very important personage of the pilgrimage, the imam, having his breakfast seated on a beautiful Persian carpet that had been spread on the sidewalk for him. Meli had told us the night before that one way they financed these trips was to smuggle gasoline in using hidden gas tanks on the buses. We actually saw them siphoning gas into plastic containers. I tried to surreptitiously snap a photo but it came out a little dark without a flash. Bob and I never did find that ATM but we had a great time with the floor show.
After breakfast, we checked out of the hotel and headed by a roundabout route to the new mosaic museum. On the way we passed a school yard filled with parents anxiously waiting for something. Meli told us that this was the day that all graduating high school students took the college entrance examination and that the parents were waiting for the kids to finish. When we heard that the results of the test wouldn't be available for several weeks, we Americans had a hard time understanding why the parents were standing around. I don't think my parents even knew when I took the SATs, much less waited around to see how I did. This is a test of huge significance in a Turkish kid's life, though, and determines much about his or her future and doting Turkish parents are out there supporting their children. Hüseyin's younger daughter was also taking the test that day and he called home several times during the day to check in and hear how it went.
We arrived at the Gaziantep Archeological Museum to find that it wasn't actually scheduled to open until next week. Meli, in her usual fashion, had no problem convincing the powers that be that we should be allowed to wander around anyway. It seemed to us that they had a long way to go to be open in a week but we did get to see some of the beautiful mosaics that had been rescued from the Roman archeological site at Zeugma. The site was directly in the path of the massive dam projects being built along the Euphrates and is now underwater. The museum seemed to be doing an excellent job with the mosaics, displaying them the way they would have appeared in their original location including one underwater pool decoration. I was excited to see that the original "gypsy" face that my co-worker Ron had used to illustrate one of my articles on Turkey was hanging above a central archway. Meli explained that this area was on one of the earliest trade routes in the world and was part of the development of writing since long-distance trade required some kind of written contract.
Back on the bus, Meli started bargaining with a street vendor selling watches. Hüseyin jumped into the conversation (Hüseyin thinks Meli is a bad bargainer so he tries to help her) with angry tones and all of us tourists were trying to figure out what was going on. It turned out that it was father's day and, as a joke, Meli bought three of the cheap watches to present to Bob, Clarence and Hüseyin.
left: my very bad picture of the 6 AM shopping frenzy in Gaziantep
right: the most famous mosaic from the Gaziantep Museum
We left Gaziantep heading for Kahta which would be our base for our excursion to Mt. Nemrut. Since Meli normally does this tour starting in the north and moving south our backwards itinerary was causing a small problem. We were going to wind up in Kahta with nothing to do on Sunday afternoon. Meli called the guys at the hotel and asked if they could arrange a boat trip on the new lake for us. (This is the same lake, formed by damning the waters of the Euphrates, that covers the excavations at Zeugma.) They said, sure, no problem. Great. We arrived at the hotel, dropped our bags and spent a few minutes freshening up and then got back on the bus to drive to a lakeside restaurant for lunch. We found a long table set up for us on the hillside in the shade of an awning. It was quite hot and when Meli spotted the old-fashioned water pump nearby she asked the restaurant owner to pump it while she stuck her head in the cool water. Being the shy, retiring type that I am, I followed her example. The rest of the tour members remained respectable. When Hüseyin joined us after parking the bus, he pointed at my wet hair and asked "Take shower?" I pointed at Meli and he just nodded in complete understanding. We had an excellent lunch that began with the usual cucumber tomato salad enlivened by a really delicious dressing of pomegranate juice. They brought out huge pide bread, almost two feet long, and then we got individual ceramic dishes of baked fish. Juicy, sweet watermelon for desert was a perfect finale.
We walked down the dirt road from the restaurant to the lake wondering where the promised boat might be since we couldn't see any boats at all on the rather large, long lake. Finally at the bottom of the hill we turned a corner and found our royal barge. It was a huge, old, rusty, dirty, disreputable-looking ferry boat that had apparently been hauling farm equipment and animals since about the time of Alexander the Great. Meli was about in hysterics over what the hotel guys considered an appropriate tourist vessel. Everybody decided that it would be more fun to go on the lake in this thing than just stand around so we clambered aboard, squeezed into the few small spaces that provided a little protection from the sun and proceeded down the lake at a very slow chug. We were making jokes about how easy it would be to outswim the boat as we watched the almost featureless shore inch past. Suddenly the engines stopped. Meli went to ask the captain, who with his bald head, two-day growth of beard, three golden teeth and filthy shalwar pants could easily have filled in as a Barbary pirate, what was wrong. "Nothing. The engines are just having a rest." We all speculated on how long it would take us to swim ashore. It actually turned out to be a pleasant excursion. We enjoyed the breeze if not the view and the company was entertaining. Leah struck up a conversation with one of the deckhands who looked even more dangerous than the captain and learned the Turkish words for goat and sheep which is what this boat normally transports. As we got close to shore we noticed that the captain was not abating the ferry's admittedly modest speed. Was he not planning to stop? Docking was accomplished by simply crashing into the dirt and cutting the engines, rather the way I used to stop when ice skating by just crashing into the boards. When all the tour members laughed, the captain asked Meli what was so funny. We shook hands with our pirate captain, asking as we disembarked, if the car that had been waiting on the opposite shore for an hour was waiting for him. He agreed that it was but said that is was not important. I'm glad we got a chance to see this when the lake was brand new. It's probably got a bridge and pleasure boats by now. Not nearly as much fun as pirates.
Meli bought us all an ice cream at the little kiosk by the dock and then we headed back to the hotel for showers and an early dinner. A few of us went next door to a little shop where several people bought baggy shalwar pants. I found a tiny antique wedding outfit that had long skirt panels of the same bright silk ikat that we had seen being woven in Gaziantep. Sadly, it was at least six sizes too small for me. We returned to the hotel and turned in early because our next day was to begin at...
June 20, Monday, Tour Day 5
...2 A.M. Actually, the alarm went off at 1:45 so we could assemble in the lobby for coffee at two. We squeezed into the mini bus provided by the hotel and hit the completely dark road by 2:15 on our way to a sunrise viewing of the famous stone statues of Mt. Nemrut. The mountain is believed to be the burial site of King Antiochos who ruled one of the kingdoms that abounded after the death of Alexander the Great. He built the mound on top of the mountain and raised statues representing himself, his ancestors and the gods. We drove some time through the countryside and we knew we were climbing because the air was getting noticeably cooler as we went but all we could see was a huge, nearly orange full moon in the sky above us. Meli had warned us to dress warmly but, I admit, I had a hard time believing it would be really cold despite the fact the Meli herself had brought a full length down coat. We stopped to pay an entrance fee for the national park and then continued on up the winding very bumpy cobblestone road. Finally, still in pitch black, we arrived at a small group of buildings where we disembarked. The path to our final destination climbed the hill behind the buildings so we all set out up the stone steps. It was not a short walk and rather steep but all of us, including Jan with her bad knees and Sharon who had less than a full set of lungs, made it to the top with Meli urging us to hurry as the sun was about to rise. Meli was right and it was cold at the top with a fierce wind blowing. We were almost the first to arrive although there was one dramatic looking figure standing on the stone plinth to the east of the statues. Wrapped in a blanket that the wind whipped around him he gazed fixedly at the first glimmerings of dawn. My tour companions all wandered around or huddled together waiting for the chance to take pictures as other tourists joined us on the mountain top. I found myself, like the lone figure, drawn to the east and the new sun. The wind seemed even stronger as the first tiny semi-circle of orange appeared above the horizon, the clouds turned to gold and the long strand of the Euphrates began to glint silver. Really, a very powerful moment with the immense sense of history that this landscape has witnessed combined with the perfect freshness of the new day. As the sun rose higher the sense of magic faded and gave way to practicalities such as trying to get a picture of the stone heads of Mt. Nemrut without having the shadows of your fellow pilgrims messing up the shot. We took group pictures and individual shots as well as trying to get just the right golden light on the crowned heads. Finally everybody had enough pictures and we walked around to the western terrace to view the other set of heads and then made our way down the mountain. Jan had trouble descending so Meli helped her down the path and I stayed to offer my assistance as necessary. When we finally reached the bottom we joined our companions in the little cafe where they were almost finished with their breakfast. Meli and I lingered over warming tea and cigarettes as she completed a bargain for a rug she had seen at the cafe on her previous trip.
After everyone was sufficiently refreshed, we climbed back on the minibus and headed back down the bumpy road. After a long time driving, I realized that we should have reached the gate to the park by now and concluded that we must be going a different way which turned out to be true. We drove through some fabulous, steep, hairpin turns with magnificent rock outcroppings looming above us (I now knew why we were on the minibus since our regular bus would not have made it down these narrow roads). I think most of my fellow travelers were asleep but I found the scenery spectacular. We drove through a tiny rock village clinging to the sides of the valley and passed a beautiful very old couple with a burro walking down the road. Finally we arrived at a small official-looking building and unfolded ourselves from the bus. Meli led us out along another uphill path despite a few moans and groans from the peanut gallery. The walk overlooked a beautiful and obviously very fertile valley. A few clouds had drifted in and dropped just enough rain on us to keep us reasonably cool, which made me very happy. As we climbed the hillside we first arrived at a grotto that marked the remains of the summer palace of King Antiochos where Meli stopped to explain how Antiochos had come to think of himself as the equal of the gods. She then led us further up the path to the stele that shows Antiochos shaking hands with Herkules where he has himself depicted as the same size as the great hero. Meli, naturally, had me take her picture as she stood between the two images. Not shy, our Meli. We returned to the bus to drive down into the valley, stopping to take pictures first of local girls escorting herds of goats past pink flowering oleanders and then of Septimus Severus' bridge over a branch of the Euphrates. The bridge was built by Roman soldiers in the 3rd century and still works well enough for us to drive our bus over it. As the photographers marched through the dust to capture views of the soaring rocks behind the bridge, Leah and I sat in the shade while the bus driver picked white mulberries for us--ok, mostly for Leah. I got him to tell me what music he was playing on the bus' tapedeck (Of...Of... by Gül Şen) which Meli bought for me a couple of days later and which has seriously turned into one of my all time favorite albums. When the the photographers were done, we walked across the bridge and I reinjured my hand climbing around on the huge Roman stones. Did I mention that I broke a finger two days before the trip? The bus had driven across without our weight on board. Just in case, I guess.
From the bridge we continued on down the valley to the tumulus of Antiochus' wife which had a lovely view of the surrounding countryside. We could even just make out the point of Mt Nemrut on the other end of the valley. One more short ride took us back to the hotel where we had lunch before boarding our regular bus to continue on to our next destination, Şanliurfa. Hüseyin had spent the morning sleeping late and giving the bus a thorough cleaning so he thought it was kind of funny that we were already so tired. Everybody pretty much slept on the bus until we reached the outskirts of Urfa (the original name of the city. "Şanli" is an honorific added more recently) where Meli had Hüseyin pull over on the main drag while she ran in to a little bakery, coming back a few minutes later with a couple of big boxes containing little plastic dishes of pudding. Everyone was still full from lunch so most people were saying "not for me" until those of us who never refuse a sweet (yes, that means me) took a bite. Our moans of ecstasy convinced the rest of the group to try some, too. It was the most fabulously chocolaty rich pudding I have ever had. Mine had pistachios on top but some of the others had little balls of pasta choux in theirs. I wrote down the address so I could recommend it to other travelers. Here it is:
Although we would be spending the night in Urfa we still had sight-seeing to do this afternoon so we turned south and drove the short distance to Harran, stopping on the way for a quick look at the massive Atatürk Dam that is providing the energy and water to irrigate so much of the southeast allowing local people to grow cotton as an export crop and bringing needing money into the region. The dam has been a center of PPK violence and there was a memorial to all the men who had died in building it at the entrance. Normally such a monument would be for people who died in accidents but these deaths were the result of terrorism. Meli says that the whole country went into massive debt and suffered through horrendous years of hyper inflation so that the Kurdish areas of the country could begin to match the economic prosperity of the west, which from the evidence of my eyes seems to be true. I know there's more to the story, but it's hard to see where killing the dam construction workers is a good strategy.
As we arrived in Harran, there were small crowds of nicely dressed young men by the side of the road signaling to tour buses their willingness to serve as guides. We stopped and picked up a particularly good looking guy who clearly knew both Meli and Hüseyin well. Meli introduced him as Ibrahim, a common name in this town that claims to be one of the places that Abraham lived. It is, undeniably, a very ancient place, once a center of Mesopotamian trade. It still has remaining examples of the very distinctive style of beehive roof architecture which is a very effective cooling system in this very hot place. Each beehive has an opening at the top which allows the rising hot air to escape and keeps the cooler air inside. Ibrahim, who turned out to be the mayor and a leading citizen of the town, took us first to the ruins of an ancient fort and then to visit his family at his home. Although his barn still uses the beehives, his house is more modern concrete block construction with several rooms, all very hot. We were shown into a living room where they had turned on a room air-conditioner for us. Ibrahim's daughters served us tea and Meli told us how she had met him when they were both teenagers. She and some classmates had decided that they didn't know enough about their own country so that had come with a teacher on a tour of the Southeast. In Harran she had seen a handsome youth on a white horse with a beautiful blue scarf on his head (all the people in this region, men and women, wear this scarf). She asked to try it on and then he took her to his house. It turned out that by putting on his scarf she had unwittingly accepted an offer of marriage. She and her companions managed to get away and return to Urfa. Years later, she returned with a tour to Harran and ran into Ibrahim again and this time they became friends.
We had a nice visit with the family. His wife told Meli that she was determined not to have any more kids, which we all applauded. Hüseyin told Ibrahim that she was right and that he needed to make sure that all his girls continued on in school; that a boy could always farm or sell lemons in the market but girls needed an education to be able to get ahead. Hüseyin rose considerably in our estimation after Meli translated this for us. When you consider that he is a farmer and former truck driver from a small town, it's a pretty enlightened attitude. After our home visit we got back on the bus and drove back to Urfa and checked into our hotel. One of the bellhops tried to instruct Hüseyin on how to park the bus which earned him a hot rejoinder. The hotel was nice with good bathrooms (bathroom design in this part of Turkey can be really interesting). Dinner was served outside by the beautiful large swimming pool and featured a very nice baked lamb and vegetable dish. After dinner, I let Hüseyin beat me viciously at backgammon for an hour and then, at 9:30, I decided that I had really been up long enough. As we walked toward the elevators, I realized that there was a very loud Turkish band playing out by the pool and a guy dressed up in a burnoose trying to get people to dance. Hüseyin saw that I was interested and tried to get me to join the dancing but I was just too tired. I was a little worried that the drums would keep me awake but I was tired enough to sleep right through the noise.
June 21, Tuesday, Tour Day 6
I had planned to start the morning with a swim in that big, beautiful pool but the presence of numerous pigeons in and around the water convinced me to spend an hour with my journal instead. Afterwards I went for a short walk down the street looking for more disposable cameras since I was going through film at a much faster rate than I had planned. In 2004 I only took two rolls (and then lost one) but this year I had almost gone through four in the first week. No luck with the cameras but I did get do some window shopping. The gold jewelry, particularly the earrings, were beautiful. Walking back, I was scooting across a street and concentrating on avoiding the speeding traffic when Hüseyin, approaching unseen from the other direction yelled "boo!" at me. Yes, it did scare me.
Meli had told us to dress conservatively this morning (no shorts or bare arms, scarves at the ready for the ladies) as our first destination of the morning was Abraham's Grotto, where local belief maintains that he was born. We arrived at a beautiful complex with a mosque and a church next to a large rectangular pool full of carp. Meli pointed out the two pillars on a nearby hilltop and told us that the king had tried to have Abraham executed by being tied to those pillars and thrown off the cliff. Instead of dying when he hit the ground, Abraham had miraculously changed the ground into this pool in the middle of the desert and the fish were the sticks that had been lying on the dirt. Meli says people believe that the fish are living proof of the miracle so they come to feed them as part of the pilgrimage to the site. There was a guy with a whistle whose job was to make sure that nobody went in the pool or ran along the side and there were people selling fish food. Meli bought some for us to throw and it was fun to see the carps' feeding frenzy. The best sight, though, were the many women dressed up in their traditional finest clothes including quite a few in a loose garment that I would describe as a burnoose. Many outfits were made of lace or velvet and lots of them sparkled in the morning light. It's easy to see why Meli gets so upset at the fundamentalist women who wear those drab coats. It's such a denial of Turkish culture to lose all this color and ornamentation. Meli spent a lot of time trying to get shots of some of the older women who still had facial tattoos, a custom that has mostly died out. Near the grotto we found three ladies with lower lip tattoos who agreed to pose for pictures.
left: burnoose ladies by Abraham's pool
right: feeding frenzy
The grotto is a small cave divided into two sections, male and female. You have to bow under a low lintel to get inside putting you into a position of supplication. The women's side was crowded with women, some praying and others apparently just hanging out and visiting. Meli was taking pictures and the whole thing seemed a little odd for a supposedly sacred site. The guys told us that the men's side was less crowded but I did see Hüseyin go in to visit which surprised Meli when I told her.
After the grotto, we walked to a nearby market, a warren of small, twisting lanes crowded with merchandise. Meli turned us loose after explaining how to get back to the hotel on foot (not far) and setting a firm time to meet so we could depart for Diyarbakır. Gayle and I hung with Meli as we passed displays of clothing and hardware. Metalworkers made copper pans and plates. We passed a bakery and admired the stacks of flat bread. One of the bakers saw us and immediately tore off a couple of huge pieces for us to sample. Delicious. I was drawn away by a shop where a guy was making traditional drums using skins for heads and what I believe were snake skins for decoration but Meli called us to join her for tea at a fabric "shop." We crowded in with the shopkeeper and another guy and his wife and discussed life and fabric. The shopkeeper told us that most of his material now came from China via Korea. Meli bought a piece to use for a tablecloth. They called a tailor over from a nearby shop who discussed measurements and then went off to make the tablecloth immediately. We talked some more, finding out that the shopkeeper had two sons both studying to be imams.
Realizing that we were getting close to our time limit, we went off to see how the tablecloth was progressing. The tailor's shop was staffed by two young boys who were learning the trade. The kid who made the tablecloth was ten. Back out on the street we found a stand with cabs but no cab drivers in sight. Meli flagged down a random guy driving a big white car and asked for a ride to the hotel, to which he agreed as if it were a matter of course. Imagine doing that in the States! Back at the hotel, everyone was waiting for us so we made a quick pit stop, checked our bags and jumped on the bus heading for Diyarbakır about four hours away. About two hours into the drive, Jan, who was leaving the tour at Diyarbakır to fly back to Istanbul, suddenly realized that she had never retrieved her passport from the front desk of the hotel in Şanliurfa, which led to the embarrassing revelation that Gayle and I (yes, me, shame, shame) had done the same. There wasn't time to drive all the way back so Meli got on the phone to the hotel and made arrangements for them to send the passports to Diyarbakır by bus which would get them there just in time for Jan to make her flight. It's really not a good thing to lose an American passport in an area well-known for terrorist activity. Gayle told me that she had read that stolen American passports sold for about $25,000 on the black market. We'll count this as trip disaster #2.
We arrived in Diyarbakır about five. Since Jan was leaving this evening, that meant the three remaining single women would take turns getting a room to herself. Tonight was my turn. Yeah! The hotel pool was open for another hour so I immediately changed and went down to swim. It was heavenly. Perfect weather, perfect water. We really had been lucky with the weather so far, only Antakya had been uncomfortably warm. While I was swimming, some of the rest of the group went out for a walk near the really impressive black stone walls of the town that date back to Byzantine times. We had dinner that evening by the pool which was very pleasant. The cherries we had for desert were delicious even by Washington state standards. The passports arrived as planned (whew!) and we bid Jan goodbye as she left for the airport. After a short walk to buy water and cigarettes and then a few minutes watching Bob, Gayle, Ruth, Jane and Leah play quibble by the pool, I retired to my lovely single room to indulge in the guilty pleasure of watching bad American TV in English with Turkish subtitles.
left: the tattooed lip and chin identify village and tribe as well as beautify
right: the friendly bakers
June 22, Wednesday, Tour Day 7
As usual, I was up early so I spent an hour journaling by the pool before breakfast. At dinner the night before Meli had offered the group a choice of free time or a museum visit today. We all voted for the museums so this morning's touring started with a trip to Diyarbakır's small archeological and cultural museum. It was closed when we got there but Meli, in her usual fashion, found someone to open up for us. There were a few interesting exhibits but one of or favorite things was the sign listing the 27 civilizations that had ruled here since the 8th century B.C. Next we went to a museum that was formerly the home of a famous republican era Turkish poet, Cahit Sıtkı Tarancı. The guide from the museum named Ramazan (I think) explained that this house with it's black and white stone construction was a "typical" Diyarbakır house--I think he meant a typical Diyarbakır rich person's house--built with four interconnecting wings around a central courtyard. The family would move from wing to wing depending on the time of year. The north wing is warmer in the winter with its windows facing south. The south wing was for summer with higher ceilings and windows, an open breezeway and a small pool in the basement that worked a little like a swamp cooler. Meli took measurements of the pool because she wants to build one like it in her new country house kitchen.
After the museums, we drove outside the city to get a good look at the walls and to visit a traditional brick making enterprise. We watched as the men dug dirt from a hill, mixed it with water using their feet, shaped the mud into bricks with wooden forms and set them to dry in the sun. When the bricks are dry enough they are stacked into shapes that look like the bottom two-thirds of a pyramid with burning charcoal in the center and then covered with a layer of mud which bakes them to a hard finish. Meli said the locals believe that these traditionally made bricks are more earthquake resistant than modern building materials and they're probably right. Leah jumped into the action, removing her shoes and rolling up her pants legs to help with treading the clay much to the workers' delight. From there, we returned to the hotel to pack our bags. We planned to check out of the hotel, have lunch at a restaurant down the street before driving on to our next destination. The group was waiting on the sidewalk for Meli to settle the bill when disaster number three struck. Someone came along on the street side of the bus, smashed the driver's window and stole Meli's cell phone off the dashboard where she had left it to charge. We ended up spending a very quiet afternoon in the club room of the hotel while Meli dealt with the police and got a new cell phone (she really can't run her business without one) and Hüseyin took the bus to have the window fixed. Most of us passed the time napping, reading or playing games. Fortunately, the drive scheduled for that afternoon was a short one. By about 4 PM we were back on the road on our way to Mardin.
Mardin is a truly ancient city on the edge of the plains of Mesopotamia. The houses are tightly packed up a conical hill with a fort at the top ridgeline (no visiting the fort because it is used as a listening post for signals from the south). Meli was so enthralled by the afternoon light as we drove into town that she had Hüseyin drive straight to the cemetery on the south side of the hill so we could take pictures looking across the fertile fields spread out below us. It's seemed like we could see all the way to Iraq. The gravesites with their carved monuments were very interesting but I liked watching all the kids out flying their kites. Clearly a big sport around here which makes sense since there was a steady wind blowing the entire time we were in town. After picture taking we went to our hotel. There's not a lot to choose from in Mardin for accommodations but Meli had put us in the best hotel available. That still gave us the funniest rooms of the trip. Leah and I shared a long L-shaped room which seemed to be under water due to the weak green florescent lighting. We did have a balcony and a window that opened so we had a nice breeze but there was a plastic bag caught on the construction site next door that fluttered noisily throughout our stay. The shower was just a curtained off section of the tiny bathroom and since the curtain ended about eight inches above the floor, things got a little wet. The toilet would only stop running if you opened the top and adjusted the ball-cock after flushing. Still, it was all very clean and the beds were comfortable so I was OK.
We had dinner on the terrace at the front of the hotel which was a little too close to the busy road to be totally pleasant. We had spaghetti with a spicy lamb puttanesca sauce. Odd but tasty. After dinner, Hüseyin, who had become increasingly bothered by kidney stones since Urfa, told me he couldn't sleep because of the pain so he found us a backgammon board and he and Leah and I played for an hour or so. Perhaps the pain was making him less charitable than usual because he seriously trounced us every game. The guys in the lobby thought it was very funny to watch women play backgammon.
left: the brick-making operation in Diyarbakir
right: from the cemetery in Mardin with a tiny spot of a kite
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