Turkey (not) in the Straw

The first place Douglas and I visited in Turkey after Istanbul was the ancient city of Ephesus. Ephesus had a population of some 225,000 people in its heyday. The largest temple ever built to the Greek goddess Artemis – currently one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient world – is located just outside the city walls, and not surprisingly most of the cities inhabitants numbered themselves among her followers. The city was originally situated in Greece and served as a major port for various countries and empires from its founding in about 600 BC until it was destroyed by the Goths in 262 AD. The Roman emperor Constantine put money into the restoration of Ephesus a century later, paying for a new public bath and rebuilding the Church of St. Mary. This effectively claimed the city as an early Christian stronghold. The Emperor Justinian added to Ephesus’s importance to the Orthodox church in the 6th century by building the magnificent Basilica of St. John over the supposed site of the apostle’s tomb. The city’s port silted over during the course of the next several hundred years and Ephesus was just a small, unimportant town by the early middle ages. It languished in obscurity until 1863 when J.T. Wood, an archeologist from the British Museum, began excavations there. Wood unearthed many fantastic, immaculately preserved ruins over the next 10 years including several temples, the odeum (a small performance space), and an enormous 25,000 seat amphitheatre.

The first thing you see when you enter Ephesus is the two-story façade of the Library of Celsus. It looks rather like the entrance to Petra in Jordan – the site used as the entrance to the location of the Holy Grail in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”. The only difference is that whereas Petra’s columns and arches are carved into stone, those of the Library of Celsus are freestanding. Ephesus is home to temples honouring both Greek and Roman gods, broad stone avenues lined with huge columns, and pristine terraced houses. The amphitheatre is utterly enormous and, like many other ruins in the city, is mostly intact. What I really loved about our day in Ephesus was that we were allowed absolute free range. The ruins I’d visited in Greece and Italy, Pompeii in particular, had large areas cordoned off. Ephesus, on the other hand, was wide open. It was wonderful to be able to wander down any street and into any building, giving one a feeling for the size and history of the place as well as instilling a tangible sense of how grand and ornate it must have been in its day.

From Ephesus we headed to Pamukkale – pronounced PAM-mu-KAL-ay and meaning “cotton castle” in Turkish. One look at this amazing World Heritage Site and you know exactly why it was so named. Pamukkale is traversed by numerous calcium rich mineral springs, and their waters leave a pure white residue all over the landscape. The entire area is so white that at first glance it looks like Antarctica or as though it had been smeared with a thick layer of vanilla icing, like a gingerbread house decorated by an overly enthusiastic child. The brilliant white terraced hills of Pamukkale are dotted with deep turquoise pools, each filled with perfectly heated, velvety water. Douglas and I went there early in the morning so we pretty much had the place to ourselves. There was a stray dog hanging about, and as we lowered ourselves into one of the hillside pools the dog came and sat beside us. We relaxed in the hot, welcoming water, petting our new friend and silently sharing the extraordinary vista before us. I fear my words cannot do justice to how breathtaking and almost surreal Pamukkale is, but if you look up some images online then you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about.

Right next to Pamukkale is Hierapolis, a Hellenistic city built sometime around 300 BC that eventually became a spa town for Roman elites in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. Here we found a necropolis (ancient cemetery) with almost 2 km of sarcophagi lined up end-to-end, and a very well preserved amphitheatre. There was no charge to enter the city and we were allowed to ramble about at our leisure, just like at Ephesus. The coolest feature of Hierapolis, and the one fellow travellers told us we absolutely couldn’t miss, is the Antique Pool. The Greeks originally built Hierapolis, digging numerous pools to take advantage of its therapeutic waters and gracing it with a large Temple of Apollo. There was a major earthquake in the city in 17 BC which toppled several of the temple’s columns, along with their tops and bottoms (capitals and plinths), into the Antique Pool. They remain there to this day. Imagine luxuriating in perfectly heated, crystal-blue water while floating around and resting on ancient ruins, and you’ll get a sense of what swimming in the Antique Pool is like. I looked up Hierapolis for this article and there is now a charge to enter the city and yet another one to swim in the Antique Pool. Also, there were masses of people in the water in every picture I found. The only other person Douglas and I saw when we visited was a lackadaisical guard who gave us a wave and a smile as he slowly shuffled past on his rounds. I’m so grateful we got to have that experience without having to deal with hordes of other tourists.

We took a ferry across the Bosphorus into the Asian part of Turkey shortly after our visit to Hierapolis. Our first stop there was the city of Bursa. The food in Turkey is consistently good but rather limited. I like a skewered lamb kebab as much as the next guy, but it can get a bit monotonous. Bursa is known for a different kind of kebab – thinly cut grilled lamb piled on warm pita topped with hot tomato sauce and then slathered with melted sheep butter and yogurt. Very rich and very satisfying. We booked into a hotel famed for its excellent Bursa kebabs, and then went off to the local bath to clean up before our meal. This bath was unusual because it offered rooms for couples, and we were both excited to share this novel experience.

The Turkish bath, or hammam, came to prominence during the Ottoman’s reign and has been world famous since the late 19th century when it became a craze in Victorian England and subsequently spread to the whole of the British Empire. A bath starts in an extremely hot room which opens up all of your pores – kind of like a sauna but with dry heat. Next you have the option of either hitting an even hotter room or going directly to the bathing room where you soap up and rinse away all of the dirt and toxins leeched out in your sweat. Men then have a massage, although that option is not available to women. Douglas later told me the massage consisted of his muscles being pummelled by the masseur’s fists, followed by his limbs being stretched and pulled into positions they didn’t normally take. I was no longer annoyed at being denied the experience after hearing this description. Douglas and I shared a small, cool dressing room at the beginning and end of the process, but otherwise were segregated for the actual bathing. We didn’t know we could hang out in our room to fully cool off before putting on our clothes, and consequently left the building with our core temperatures through the roof.

I felt nauseous and dizzy with body heat when we returned to the hotel, and was still quite ill an hour later when we sat down to eat our famous kebabs. There was a lovely breeze on the restaurant patio that evening, and the waiter brought us a large container of iced lemon water right after we were seated. I slugged down two full glasses as soon as the pitcher hit the table, and almost immediately my stomach began to settle and my head to clear. The combination of hydrating and sitting in the gentle wind soon began to revive my spirits as well, and by the time our meals came I was feeling better than I had in some time – purified, revitalized, and supremely grateful for the delicious food before me.

From Bursa we headed east to Konya, best known as the resting place of the Persian poet Rumi and as the home of the Whirling Dervishes. Rumi lived in Konya for the last dozen or so years of his life, and his mystical Islamic poetry is still revered by Muslims worldwide as well as being available in several different English translations. The Whirling Dervishes are members of a small sub-sect of Sunni Islam called the Mevlevi Order. They live cloistered lives dedicated to the pursuit of beauty and love as expressed through the arts, ultimately in celebration of Allah. The ceremony in which the Mevlevi whirl is called the Ritual of Sema, and is described thusly in a site called “All About Turkey”,

“The fundamental condition of our existence is to revolve. There is no object, no being which does not revolve. The shared similarity between all created things is the revolution of the electrons, protons and neutrons within the atoms that constitute their basic structure. From the smallest cell to the planets and the farthest stars, everything takes part in this revolving. Thus, the Semazens, the ones who whirl, participate consciously in the shared revolution of all existence.”

The discovery of atoms was several hundred years away when the Dervishes first appeared in the 13th century. This is a rather slick, albeit very cool modern take on a rite which at its heart is a joyous celebration of the creator and his creation. The whirling was originally accompanied only by the spoken word, but Rumi added music to the proceedings. His artistic influence turned Mevlevi meeting places into academies of art, music and dance during the Ottoman Empire.

Douglas and I saw a Ritual of Sema while we were in Konya. The Dervishes wear white flowing skirts and short vests open in the front, with broad swathes of black fabric wound about their waists and red fezes on their heads. The band is comprised of several pipers and drummers and, if memory serves, two male chanters. The words and music are slow and hypnotic in the beginning, and the Dervishes start out turning at the same leisurely pace. As the ceremony continues, however, the velocity of the dancers picks up in tandem with the tempo and volume of the music. By the end, the Dervishes are simply white blurs. They rotate so fast that centrifugal force causes their flowing skirts to levitate up and out until they are floating parallel to the ground. The whole experience is extremely dramatic and incredibly moving. It’s absolutely amazing how long these men can whirl. I had guessed before they began that they probably stay upright by using a technique called spotting – a method dancers and skaters use to keep from losing their balance when they twirl. Spotting consists of concentrating on a particular spot in the distance before beginning a turn, and then bringing your eyes back to that very spot every time you rotate all the way around. This tricks the mind into thinking that you are not spinning at all. It became clear as soon as they began that such a strategy was not in play with the Dervishes because they all had their eyes closed. Perhaps the rhythmic chanting, music and motion sends them into a trance-like state wherein corporeal concerns like dizziness and nausea no longer apply. As for me, I can’t even stand on one foot with my eyes closed without almost immediately toppling over!

We left Turkey about a week later from the capital city of Ankara. We had a whole afternoon to kill before taking an overnight train to Novi Sad, a city in what was then Yugoslavia, so we decided to take one last bath. Douglas and I could not go together as the male and female sections of the bathhouse were totally separate, so we decided to meet up at a cafe across from the train station when we were finished. This was the third time I’d been to a Turkish bath, so I felt I was something of an expert. I took off my clothes, put on a towel from the waist down, and proceeded to the hot room to start the process. I had been steeping in the first room for some time when a woman came in. Like me she had a towel wrapped around her lower half, but unlike me she had the most enormous, pendulous breasts I had ever seen. So large, in fact, that it was really hard not to stare. She motioned for me to follow her and so, eyes averted, I did.

The woman led me into a cavernous, extremely hot room with a huge marble platform in the middle, spigots all around the walls, and water on every surface. I sat down on the marble slab at her urging, and she proceeded to fill up a bucket and grab a face cloth. She them began scrubbing my back with the cloth, periodically holding it up to my face to show me how soiled it was becoming while opening her eyes wide and making incredulous clucking noises like, “Wow – just look at how filthy you were!” It was a little embarrassing, but mostly I remember thinking, “How the hell did my back get so dirty!?” The woman indicated that I should lie down after she’d finished scouring an alarming amount of black guck from my back, and I mutely complied. Once down she yanked my arms up over my head, straddled my body, and commenced giving the same cleansing treatment to my hands, arms and underarms. Now her massive mammaries were dangling directly in my face, smashing into my nose and cheeks as she scrubbed my armpits and threatening to smother me as she reached forward to clean my outstretched arms. I knew I was extremely clean after that bath, but somehow I still felt dirty.

I got to the cafe before Douglas and ordered a coffee to sip while I waited. Before long a man came and asked in broken English if he could sit with me, and I of course said yes. It’s always nice to speak to local people when you are travelling. The young man ordered a coffee of his own and it was clear from the halting way he spoke to the waiter that he wasn’t a Turk. We established that I was from Canada and planning on leaving Turkey that very night after almost a full month in the country. He then told me that he was in fact Iranian and that he had done a tour of duty in the Iran-Iraq war which was raging at the time. The war had been going on for so long that veterans like himself were being called to repeat their service, and he had escaped the country under cover of night to avoid going back to the front. He explained that he had a wife and two young children and, finally getting to the point of the story, asked if there was any way I could sponsor him to come to Canada. He hoped to get established there and then send for his family.

I was unsure how to answer when I noticed Douglas across the street. I told the man that my husband was coming, and he was so alarmed by the news that he jumped up from his chair and sent it flying. He cried out, “He will be killing me for this! He will kill me for talking at you!”, and I assured him that no such thing would happen. Clearly that was a definite possibility if an unknown man spoke to a married woman in Iran, but that wasn’t how things worked with us Canadians. Sure enough when Douglas reached our table I simply introduced the two men, they shook hands, and then we all had some coffee together. The notion of being sponsored seemed to evaporate as soon as it became clear that I was married.

We left Turkey on that sad note, but the plight of one man couldn’t sully what had otherwise been a fantastic trip to what is indeed a beautiful, diverse, and historically significant country. Turkey was wide open and welcoming when I travelled there in the 80’s, and I will always be grateful for the many wonderful memories I hold of the unique experiences and glorious sights I encountered there.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: