Monday, April 29, 2013

Back enjoying the delights of home turf

Back in the Port we have spent the last week preparing for our next guests, who arrive tomorrow. The weather has been like something Noah would appreciate but fortunately bright skies return tomorrow.

On the last sunny day we admired fisherman unloading a catch of octopus, still living, from a large cage that was piled high with them. Each octopus was placed in a bag, then when it was full over it went to the fish wholesalers. It was fascinating to watch all the different sizes of octopus. Some were huge and had great, long tentacles.

On the same day we decided to visit our friends in the Aiguamolls nature reserve, since we hadn't been there for a while. The drive through the countryside was especially beautiful with all the fields of bright yellow flowers and orange poppies. I was very lucky to spot a European hoopoe as soon as we arrived. This is a really striking bird about 28 centimetres tall with pinkish brown plumage and black and white bars on its wings and crest. Unfortunately, it is a very camera shy bird. Another time.

It was difficult for us to believe that the ponds were once again more full than usual. Some turtles were sunning themselves in what was left of their island. All the geese had migrated to their summer homes along with most of the ducks. There were still a few mallards and a new brood of ducklings along with some coots and moorhens. Watching the flamingoes was like watching a ballet with their heads under the water feeding and their legs covered by the water. Only the tutus, their bodies, floated along the water.

The storks were being very vigilant sitting on their nests and changing with their partners. We can tell that some baby storks have been hatched; we can't see them but we can see very active gullets regurgitating food to feed the babies.

All the vegetation along the pathways was quite dense. Primavera is truly here with all the wild yellow irises lining the route. We'll be watching the fig trees, where already the figs are quite a size. There were lots of songbirds but unfortunately we couldn't see them.

A flash of bright red alerted us to a beautiful male pheasant. It was much harder to spot his mate in her dowdy beige feathers. Some other ponds were filled with black and white stilts quietly wading and feeding. This same pond had some white Camargue ponies sloshing through the water to graze on the grass. They don't seem to mind getting wet.

On the way home we spotted a lovely, dark blue-grey Eurasian Hobby, a very elegant falcon. I hope that the birds are coping with the rain better than we are.

A fond farewell to Turkey - We'll be back!

Our last day in Istanbul and it was sunny at last. This just brought even more people to the streets to enjoy the day. We walked down to the Aqueduct of Valens, a Roman aqueduct which was the major water-providing system of the Eastern Roman capital of Constantinople. It was completed by Roman Emperor Valens in the late 4th century AD. It was restored by several Ottoman Sultans, and is one of the most important landmarks of the city at 29 metres high and over 900 metres long. It is quite interesting to watch the busy traffic whizz through the centre arches, while looked at it from an adjacent park.

We had hoped to go back to the Grand Bazaar but it was shut so we walked around the Istanbul university grounds. Then it was time for our last  lunch. Seamus had the most delicious lamb moussaka but not the way we were used to it. It came in a piping hot stoneware dish with eggplant, onions, pepper and almonds liberally mixed in with the meat and with a cinnamon stick in the middle of the dish. I tried to replicate it this week and I think with a couple of more tweaks it will be perfect.

One of the really interesting dishes served in restaurants came in a narrow clay pot, which the server hit a few times and then broke. Usually, some kind of stew was served from the pot. This is a must try on our next visit.

After a bit more walking it was time to go to the airport. For kilometre after kilometre, as we drove along the coast, all we could see were container ships. It was quite amazing.

Once again we flew on Turkish air. Who can beat an airline that serves a piece of Turkish delight before a huge meal, and where everything presented on the tray is actually edible - a formidable feat these days.

The food in Turkey was delicious with lots of Brazil nuts, pistachios, almonds, apricots, figs and dates being used. Yogurt and honey are staples of the diet and included in many dishes.

Turkish food uses lots of eggplant,and they love to stuff things, peppers, eggplant, vine leaves and more. Kepap, identical to the Greek kebab, is a national dish, found in every second food shop, either chicken or lamb or beef. Goats' cheese and olives can be found at every meal. The wonderful variety of salads was always fresh.

Turkish delight can be found everywhere coming in all kinds of flavours and colours with nuts or other ingredients. Baklava, layered pastry, honey and nuts  is a favourite. Ice cream sellers on the streets pick up the ice cream and hang it in front of you, while it stretches out a long way. It took us a while to figure out what it was.

Very strong black tea is served in tulip shaped glasses as is the popular and delicious apple tea. Freshly squeezed orange juice and pomegranate juice can be found everywhere. Turkish coffee is very strong and mud-like on the bottom. Even though we had tasted it several times before, after one cup we decided to stick to espresso.

Someday we hope to return to Turkey. We have only scratched the surface, there is so much more so see and do. It is a trip that we will look forward to.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The fabulous Spice Bazaar

Having regained our land legs, we set of for the Spice Bazaar that we knew was somewhere nearby. We walked along very crowded streets that became narrower and narrower eventually closing out the sunlight. Most of the endless stalls, at this point, were selling household goods and hardware. We soldiered on and finally we were in the Spice Bazaar, built with money paid as duty on Egyptian imports. From medieval times spices were a vital and expensive part of cooking and became the market's main produce. Since Istanbul was on the trade route between Europe and the Orient, the bazaar came to specialize in spices from the Orient.

The stalls were piled high with all kinds of spices, teas of all kinds, honey, nuts, dried fruit and lovely coloured sweet eats of every vibrant colour imaginable. We bought some Persian saffron and a loofah. It was lovely walking through the bazaar, which was teeming with tourists and locals.

Later we had another delicious dinner. I have become a real fan of Turkish food. I had grilled chicken in a yogurt sauce on a bed of shoestring potatoes served with grilled tomatoes. Seamus had lamb cooked with mushrooms, peppers, almonds and sultanas in a phyllo pastry. All this was served with a delicious Turkish red wine. Lovely.

We decided to forego the tram experience and walk back to the hotel passing through another small bazaar. This time we ended up, somewhat to our surprise, in a big hookah restaurant or coffee bar. Everyone was smoking a hookah. You would think that it would smell awful but it was actually quite pleasant since everything had a mild apple smell to it and the area wasn't too smoky. We continued on our way and after a few more turns found our way back to the hotel.

The visit to the archeological museum and a trip on the Bosphorus

We took a brief walk through the massive Grand Bazaar first thing this morning. The labyrinth of streets is lined with thousands of little shops. It is the ultimate shopping mall dating back to the 1400s.

Outside the archeological museum, marveling at the ancient columns and statues we were sitting among, we had our coffee gazing across at the purple porphyry sarcophagi. Some of these are thought to hold bodies of the early Byzantine emperors. The museum's  collection of antiquities was begun in the nineteenth century and today it has one of the richest collections of classical artifacts. It was deemed then that no artifacts could leave Turkey. This legacy means that today Turkey does not have to pry or buy its artifacts back from other countries.

Perhaps the highlight of the museum is the Alexander Sarcophagus, a fabulously carved marble tomb from the 4th century BC thought to have been built for a King of Sidon. It gets it's name because Alexander the Great is depicted on it, winning a victory over the Persians.

The tablet with the inscription of the world's earliest surviving peace treaty, the Treaty of Kadesh, between the Egyptians and the Hittites in 1269 BC is on display. One of the clauses provides for the return of political refugees. After a visit to the museum of the Orient and the beautiful displays in the museum of tiles and ceramics, we left the archeological complex to board a tram for the waterfront.

I can truly say that I have never been so glad to get off a mode of public transit as I was to get off that tram, with mainly standing room only. For me it is a bit of a stretch to a strap but the crush was so bad this time that I couldn't even find a strap. This along with the sour smell of under arm odor from people raising their arms and tourist's complete disregard of the fact that they were wearing backpacks to add to the crush made the journey a silent hell. The trams are always full to bursting so you can only imagine what it is like when the city is really busy.

The good news is that we were at the spot where the Bosphorus cruises begin. Now we could view the city's landmarks from the water sitting outside on the upper deck of the boat. Much of what we passed was almost mundane, because of its modernity, not quite what I was expecting. However, we did pass some magnificent buildings such as the 19th century Dolmabahce Palace, a symbol of Ottoman grandeur. There were several other impressive 19th century houses. At the narrowest point of the Bosphorus was the imposing Fortress of Europe. The Galata Tower at 60 metres high was easily recognizable from the water. In the past it was used to monitor shipping before becoming a prison and naval depot.

On the return trip we passed the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia museum. In fact the skyline was dotted with the many huge mosques in the city. By this time I was very thankful when one of the crew brought around some hot tea. It was very cold and windy and threatening rain. If you stood in the centre of the boat outside you could almost get out of the wind. Finally back in the Sea of Marmara, there were more boats than ever, not only the many tour boats but container ships coming to the port as well as many anchored ships. It was an incredibly busy spot.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and Basilica Cistern

We hadn't been able to visit the Blue Mosque on Friday morning because of religious prayers so we made it our first stop in the afternoon. It takes it's name from the the blue Iznik tile-work decorating the interior. The Blue Mosque is one of the most famous religious buildings in the world. The outside courtyard, where we had to wait in line, was an area the same size as the prayer hall. Around the courtyard were banners with various common sense and pacifistic sayings of Mohammed in English and Turkish. Once again there were taps outside the building for the ritual ablutions before prayer. Most impressive were the designs painted into the mosque's domes. It was vast inside the mosque and very busy with people at prayer and fellow tourists.

Our next visit of the afternoon was the Haghia Sophia, which is more than 1400 years old. The original church was built by Emperor Justinian in 537 AD. In the 15th century the Ottomans converted it into a mosque: the minarets, tombs and fountains date from this time. The fascinating thing to me was all the images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary in the mosque, since Moslems do not have any images of people in their mosques at all. However, Jesus is considered to be the last Muslim prophet and his likenesses remained in the mosque. There was a beautiful mosaic of Jesus flanked by Emperor Constantine. The original baptistery now serves as the tomb of two sultans. The nave is covered by a huge dome 56 metres high.

A ramp led us from the ground floor to the galleries above. It was very impressive looking down on the vast floor below. The apse was dominated by a large and striking mosaic showing the Virgin with an infant Jesus on her lap. There were mosaics of saints and seraphim. It all seemed incongruous with what we have seen in mosques so far.

The Basilica Cistern was our last stop of the day. This vast underground water system measuring 70 by 140 metres was laid out under Justinian in 532 AD, mainly to satisfy the demands of the Great Palace by pumping water from 19 kilometres away. For a century after the Ottoman conquest they didn't know of it's existence until people were found to be collecting water, and even fish, by lowering buckets through holes in their basements.

It is quite lovely treading the walkways listening to classical music and dripping water. The cistern's roof is held up by 336 columns, each over 8 metres high. It is quite spectacular looking down the rows of columns. In one corner two columns rest on Medusa head bases, which are thought to mark a shrine to the water nymph.

Dinner started out much like a Monty Python sketch. When we ordered pides, Turkish style pizza,from the menu, they didn't have them. I asked what they had and they responded everything else on the menu. But sure enough, the next thing we attempted to order wasn't available either. It was time to abort. A good decision as we ended up in a lovely little restaurant where I had a salad and shrimps, while Seamus had a lamb dish with apricots and raisins. The flat bread they served was all hot and puffed up and served with cucumber tzatziki. Delicious.

We had a lovely after dinner walk through the square outside the Blue Mosque at its most magical floodlit at night. Having walked enough for the day we decided to take the tram back to the hotel. This gives a whole new meaning to being squashed in like sardines. It took my ribs a few minutes to expand back to where they should be, when we got off the tram.

Istanbul's famous Topkapi palace

After a two-kilometre walk through the teeming streets of Istanbul, we finally arrived at Seraglio Point, home of the Topkapi Palace. Being a big fan of Jason Goodwin's books about the detective Yashim, the eunuch, I was very excited to be here where all the action in the books takes place. There are large grounds surrounding the palace with beautiful tulip gardens of every colour.

The palace was built in the fifteenth century as a series of pavilions that served as the seat of the government at one time. It was the Sultan's residence until 1853. We joined the crowds touring the Treasury, where there were many jewel encrusted daggers and swords. The third biggest diamond in the world, the Spoonmaker's diamond was on display. It was said to have been discovered in a rubbish heap in Istanbul in the seventeenth century and bought from a scrap merchant for three spoons. Alongside it was a necklace with a  giant emerald. In a cabinet near the throne in the fourth hall is a case containing bones said to be those of John the Baptist.

To recover from the crush in the Treasury we had a much needed coffee overlooking the busy Bosphorus. Next we visited the display of arms with many ornately embellished swords as well as the crude iron swords used by the European crusaders. The Ottoman chain mail must have been very heavy to wear.

We moved on to the huge collection of European clocks either given as gifts to the sultans or bought by them. Some of the clocks were quite simple while one contained a German organ that played tunes on the hour. The only male European eyewitness accounts of life in the Harem were written by mechanics who serviced the clocks.

The Circumcision Pavilion was where the 10-year-old boys were taken to be circumcised. Nearby were the Baghdad Pavilion and the Ifariye Pavilion, both built to commemorate battles but later turned into libraries. The Baghdad pavilion has exquisite blue and white tile work.

Now we visited the setting where much of Jason Goodwin's stories take place, the harem. The Imperial Harem occupied one of the sections of the private apartments of the sultan; it contained more than 400 rooms. The harem was home to the sultan's mother, the Valide Sultan, the concubines and wives of the sultan, and the rest of his family, including children, and their servants. The harem consists of a series of buildings and structures, connected through hallways and courtyards. Every group residing in the harem had its own living space clustered around a courtyard. The number of rooms is not determined, with probably over 100, of which only a few are open to the public. These apartments were occupied respectively by the harem eunuchs on the outside of the harem, the Chief Harem Eunuch, the concubines, the queen mother, the sultan's consorts, the princes and the favourites. The harem wing was only added at the end of the 16th century. The structures expanded over time towards the Golden Horn side and evolved into a huge complex. It was very interesting visiting the harem as well as the Sultan's private rooms and seeing the huge, what we would call a bed, where he received his visitors.

It was time for a well deserved salad for lunch, which we enjoyed sitting outside near the palace but in a tranquil park setting.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Bursa, and then finally into Istanbul

Our first stop of the day was the bustling city of Bursa, today a centre for automobile plants, food and textiles, as it was for the silk trade in the 15th and 16th centuries. There are estimated to be 3,000 thermal baths in the city. In 1326 Bursa became the first capital of the Ottoman Empire. No city in Turkey has more mosques or tombs.

We donned paper booties over our shoes to enter the Green Tomb of Mehmet I. Both the inside and outside of the building were covered in a beautiful shade of green tiles. The inside of the tomb was quite breathtaking with the vivid depth of the colours of the tiles in blues and greens. The sultan's sarcophagus was also covered in green tiles. The sarcophagi of his sons, daughters and nurse maid were nearby.

Now it was time to take off our shoes and for me to don my headscarf as we entered the Green Mosque built by Mehmet I. As the mosque opened into the centre court there was a huge fountain at its centre. The tiles in the mosque were in beautiful greens, blues and yellows with threads of gold. In places the tiles depicted flowers, leaves, arabesques and geometric patterns.

We had lunch in what was once the Green Poorhouse, where supposedly the Sultan went to feed the poor. Fortunately for us our lunch was quite sumptuous with a lovely white soup with rice and mushrooms followed by a fresh green salad. Next was donner kebab, which is lamb slowly roasted on a spit then sliced very thinly and served on grilled polenta along with tomatoes and yogurt. Flan or creme brûlée was served for dessert, but sadly I had eaten too much to do it justice. All this and a magnificent view out over the rooftops of Bursa.

We walked a few steps to the Great Mosque, which was quite plain by comparison to other mosques we had visited. Once again there was a huge fountain in the middle and above it a cupola to let in the fresh air. Although it wasn't one of the five prayer times in the day there were people praying in the mosque. There was a row of taps outside the mosque for people to do their ablutions before praying but several men were using the main fountain washing their face, hands and arms and feet for the ritual washing before praying. The mosque was completely covered in carpet and men were praying at different places around the mosque while the women were praying or looking at books in designated areas at the sides of the mosque. One elderly gentleman was sitting leaning against a wall checking his texts.

We were excited to be approaching Istanbul but the traffic was horrific. For miles we crawled our way through many kilometres of fairly new high rise, densely packed apartments. It was all worth it as we crossed the Golden Horn over the Galata Bridge that separates Europe and Asia. We had arrived.

After freshening up it was down to the seafront for dinner in an area of many restaurants sitting one after the other. There were beautiful vases of fresh flowers at every table. Entertainment was provided by a loud band with drums, clarinet and singers. Fortunately, they took a break while we ate our sole. They were very entertaining when they started up again as one of the diners got carried away with the rhythm of the drums and went into a salacious bump and grind with one of the band members. This wasn't the Istanbul I expected.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Ancient Epheseus

Back on the road we travelled across wide valleys with mountains on either side of us. Still all the land was farmed with the cereal crops, vines, olives and market gardening. Beautiful blood-red poppies lined the road. After what seemed liked endless driving we finally reached Epheseus, one of the greatest ruined cities in the western world. A Greek city was built here in about 1000 BC. The city that we saw was founded by Alexander the Great's successor, Lysimachus. Under the Romans Epheseus became the chief port of the Aegean until it silted up. It is an important site in Christianity as it is said that the Virgin Mary spent her last days nearby and that St. John the Evangelist came from Patmos to look after her. Both Christians and Muslims come to visit the shrine, her old stone house.

There are many spectacular sights at Epheseus, such as the huge Greco-Roman theatre carved into Mt. Pion. Hadrian's visit to the area in AD 123 was commemorated by a marble temple with a facade depicting mythical gods and goddesses. Restored murals in the houses opposite Hadrian's temple indicated how wealthy the owners were.

I really liked the Insciptorium, a storage area for thousands of inscribed stone blocks. While many were grave memorials, others were legal pronouncements, such as one declaring that "sacrilegiousness is punishable by death." There were many of these stones on display. It certainly gives new meaning to "take a letter." 

There were many well preserved statues to be admired but the highlight of the trip to Epheseus was,the magnificent Library of Celsus built by Consul Gaius Aquila for his father. The two-story library is truly magnificent. The two-kilometre walk through Epheseus is certainly fascinating and worth another visit.

Back on the road again we stopped at a leather factory to drink the obligatory tea and watch a very high-end leather fashion show with wonderful colourful, very stylish jackets. At the end we were invited in to the showroom to try on the jackets. The leather was very soft but with the cheapest jacket selling for about 600€ it was too rich for us. We were very glad to escape outside without undergoing a hard sell. There were a few people who made the mistake of actually trying on the jackets. They had very relieved looks on their faces when they managed to escape outside. Undaunted some of the sales people followed them with new jackets to try on.

Our long day ended in Kusadasi, a port city with Genoese origins. After dinner we decided to go for a walk down a long, winding, steep hill to the port. It was lovely to look out on the water after days of being inland. Late at night many of the shops were still open on the pedestrian streets. We finally decided that we had done enough walking for the day and, unwilling to tackle the hill, we took a cab back to the hotel.

Lunch stop includes train museum surprise

It was time for lunch and after a buffet of every imaginable kind of lovely fresh salad, we had a stroll around the grounds. What a surprise. In the back of this restaurant was a huge outdoor railway museum of vintage steam engines and rolling stock dating back to the late 1800s. Most of the German-made engines were in good condition. Funnily enough, the mechanical  accessories for the trains were built in England.

The really interesting find was Ataturk's private rail carriage that he used in traveling around Turkey. Now for those of you who have forgotten your history lessons Ataturk was the father of modern day Turkey. There is a statue of him in every town. He was a great admirer of all things European, and was largely responsible for Turkey becoming the modern, secular state it is today. Complicated Ottoman scripts were replaced by by the Latin alphabet. Dress codes changed and surnames were adopted. More importantly, schools and courts based on religious laws were abolished. After a few bumps along the way, European leaders have agreed to open EU membership talks with Turkey. it will likely be a long road to Turkey's full membership in the EU but it is slowly moving in that direction.

Back in the private rail carriage it was interesting to see Ataturk's conference table, sleeping quarters and kitchen with marble counter tops and even a fridge. But now it was time to move on.

Hieropolis and Pamukkale

We had a very early start today visiting Hierapolis, a city was ceded to Rome in 133 BC along with the rest of the Pergamene kingdom.  Our day began with a long climb to overlook the very steep Greco-Roman theatre that could seat 20,000. Much of the theatre has been renovated.

Further up the hill we visited the remains of the martyrium of St. Philip, built in 5 AD. Here the apostle was crucified and stoned in AD 80. From here we had a lovely view over the whole site.

Back down the hill, revived with an espresso and bun, we stopped to admire the mineral rich thermal pool complete with fragments of ancient marble columns. We were envious of the people swimming in the hot pool that meandered around like a river. Another time we will bring our bathing suits.

Our next discovery was the spectacular white travertine terraces formed when water from the hot springs loses carbon dioxide as it flows down the slopes, leaving deposits of limestone. The layers of white calcium carbonate, build up in steps on the plateau have earned the name Pamukkale or cotton castle. Many people were sitting on the edge of a fast running stream that flowed down the side of the terraces, soaking their feet.  I was braver and took off my shoes and waded into one of the pools. It was pretty tricky work since the travertine is really slippery. I felt like I was going to slip and so did everyone else; however it was good fun and my feet and legs felt really good afterwards. It was magnificent looking down at the layers of sparkling white travertine pools.

There were several well fed and groomed, tagged dogs around the pool. One brindled lab-sized dog was very helpful giving me kisses and trying to steal my socks when I came out of the pool. In fact there were several dogs like this that seemed to have the complete run of the area. Fortunately, they were all very friendly.

The travertine terraces seemed to go on for several kilometres as we walked parallel to them to visit the ancient ruins. The arch of Domitian was at one end of the main street called Frontius Street. So much of this was calcified that they had to take jack hammers to remove the calcification and return the street to its original form.  We passed the baths at the edge of town where visitors had to wash before entering the town in order to prevent diseases. This seems very sensible. In front of us was the necropolis, the largest ancient graveyard in Anatolia with more than 1,200 tombs. Some of the tombs were huge and shaped like houses, while others were smaller sarcophagi. They were scattered all over the hillside.

Sadly, it was time for us to leave this wonderful spot but not before having another glass of refreshing freshly squeezed pomegranate juice, now one of my favourite drinks.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A long day's travel to Pamukkale

Continuing with our whirling dervish theme, the next morning we drove towards the city of Konya to the Mevlana dervish museum. The countryside was very flat with every piece of land, as far as the eye could see, cultivated with wheat or other cereal crops. Anatolian shepherd dogs were a common sight in the towns, and even out in the country with nothing else around we would often spot a lone dog.

Finally we reached the museum. Rumi, or Melvana as he was known, was the founder of the whirling dervishes and is regarded as one of the Islamic world's great mystics. The museum is an enlargement of the original dervish lodge. The mosque contains the gilded tomb of Rumi  and a mother- of- pearl case said to contain the beard of the prophet Mohammed. Inside the mosque was an array of beautiful tiles with different shades of blue and lovely glass chandeliers.

The dervish museum had mannequins posed to illustrate the various stages and facets of the dervish life, along with many artefacts, and their kitchens and sleeping quarters. The training to become a dervish took 1001 days and for much of that time the initiates did a lot of fetching and carrying. After that time they had to remain in their cells for three days to make their final decision that they wanted to become a dervish.

Back on the road again, we were pleased to see mountains. However, we were driving in the vast valley between, where once again evidence of cereal crops, olives, vines or market gardening filled the landscape as far as the eye could see. Turkey certainly could be the breadbasket of Europe. Every field was well looked after, whether by tractor or groups of people working in the fields. As we passed through some old villages we wondered if much had changed. Backyards filled with chickens or goats, dirt roads, groups of women hunched over rows of crops, a woman raking the vegetation growing on the roof of a small barn. On the other hand, every dwelling seemed to have at least one satellite dish, so some things have definitely changed.

After a very long day we were relieved to arrive at Pamukkale. Even though it was dark we decided to go for a walk after dinner. The town totally caters to tourists with lots of hotels and restaurants lining the streets. We reached the little shopping area where we looked around the shops trying to dodge invitations to come and look inside. Everyone was very friendly but at one store we made the fatal error of becoming involved in a conversation. These conversations usually begin with, "Where do you come from?" We went into the shop and Seamus appeared interested in a jacket. In reality this takes just a glance at something. We were offered and accepted apple tea. It is bad manners to refuse the welcoming tea but then you have to wait for the tea to cool, while still not wishing to buy anything. Luckily for us, we did escape without making a purchase.

The amazing Whirling Dervish ceremony

I was quite excited to be going to a whirling dervish ceremony. All I knew about whirling dervishes was that when someone was racing around you said that they were "like whirling dervishes."

We were seated in the small theatre in the round and waited for the ceremony, known as a Sema. The Sema dates back to the thirteenth century when it was founded by the Sufi mystic, Rumi. He believed that music and dance represented a means to induce an ecstatic state of universal love and offered a way to liberate the individual from anxiety and the pain of daily life.

As we watched the ceremony I found several similarities to yoga and meditation including the revolving, the hand movements and a movement similar to namaste. There were three musicians playing a ney or reed flute, a stringed instrument, and cymbals. The dervishes arrived wearing black cloaks and a conical headdress. The cloak was removed to reveal a white skirted outfit symbolizing the ego's shroud.

The Sema ritual has five parts, three of which consist of prayers or greetings. In the fourth part the dervishes repeat three times a circular walk, and then in the fifth part they start whirling. This continues for some time with one hand facing up and the other down. It was very impressive  to watch this rapid twirling going on for such a time. Just try it. There was no wobbling or falling down when they were finished. At the end they have reached a state of Nirvana in Buddhism or Fenafillah in Islam. The ceremony ends with a prayer and then the dervishes go to meditate.

The ceremony was quite beautiful and watching it was meditative. At the end of the ceremony we were offered some apple tea in the lobby. Then it was back to the hotel, along the way passing Goreme's fairy chimneys, which were lit up and looking more magical than ever.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Day one in Turkey - the wonderland of Capodoccia

It was an early morning start to tour the Capadoccia area in Central Anatolia. We were amazed to see our first fairy chimneys or conical rocky outcrops dotting the landscape, that were created by erosion of the original volcanoes. Some of these chimneys reach a height of forty metres. The photographs capture just how beautiful they are.

Our first stop was the Goreme Open Air museum, a concentration of rock-cut chapels and monasteries. We climbed very narrow stairways to get a glimpse of the second century chapels cut into the rock by early Christians. It was here that religious education started when ascetic monks were encouraged to form groups. There were some frescoes in these early churches but they didn't compare to the beautiful blues of the Byzantine frescoes dating from the ninth century in some of the other churches.

The southern end of the valley is honeycombed with tiny cells once occupied by monks. The site is vast and is like looking over a fairy wonderland. There are over thirty churches carved into the rock.

Our next stop was the underground city of Oz Konak  that goes 40 meters below the ground. It too is carved out of the soft volcanic tuff  that was easy to excavate in order to create dwellings. At first we could stand up in the small communal room then we crouched to go through a tunnel into other rooms. The one I liked best was the room where they made the wine. Grapes came through a chute in the ceiling into a spot where they were crushed. The juice was then collected and placed in giant amphorae that still stand in the room today.

There were a series of tunnels that became lower and lower and  were very narrow. These were not for the faint of heart. Each tunnel connected to another room such as living quarters, wells and storage rooms. In one area there were giant millstones that were pulled across the entrances to block invaders. These cities could be kept quite secret. To visit them and walk around certainly makes you appreciate the engineering feat in these ancient times.

We had a roadside stop before reaching our next destination, Avanos. These stops were excellent as far as snacking was concerned. We bought almonds or hazelnuts, apricots, raisins, dates and figs. It was really good to have a stash of healthy food. My favourite thing to have was the freshly squeezed beautiful, ruby coloured pomegranate juice. So delicious, although the juice could be quite tart depending on the pomegranates.

Just south of Avanos we stopped at Sanhan, a caravanserai built in Seljuk or Ottoman times to protect merchants traveling the caravan routes that crossed Anatolia on the Roman-Byzantine road system. A central gate provided the only entrance to the well fortified structure. Inside the central courtyard surrounded by arcades provided shelter from the hot sun and contained apartments and a hamman, Turkish bath, to revive weary travelers. There was also a covered hall where trade goods could be safely stored. It was very interesting visiting this site imagining that perhaps even Marco Polo or his contemporaries visited here.

Finally, we returned to our hotel for a quick dinner before heading off to see the whirling dervishes.