Sunday, November 30, 2008

Visit to a Turkish Prison

The two of us with Kirk (left) and Duncan on the "Stairs to Nowhere" on top of our building.

A couple of weeks ago we had a lovely outing with a small group of people: Amanda and Ivana from the Center, two of Ivana's friends (one who is a professor of Byzantine art at a university here in Istanbul, the other one a visiting professor of Early Christian art from Athens), Kirk (a fellow Fulbrighter we have mentioned from time to time), and Kirk's college friend Duncan who was visiting for a week. Duncan has an awesome job -- he is originally from horse country in Kentucky, and he lives in London where he works for Sheikh Muhammad, the ruler of Dubai, selecting racehorses for him and helping run his racehorse stables. Pretty cool, right?

Since we had the expertise of three professors at our disposal that day, we asked them to take us on a tour of a lesser-known area of Byzantine Constantinople, outside of the usual (and important) tourist area of Sultanahmet. So naturally they took to us to a Turkish prison.

Have you ever wondered where the saying about horrible Turkish prisons came from? (Yes, it dates back much further than the movie "Midnight Express"). Last week we visited the source of all of the dark stories -- the Ottoman prison called YediKule (Seven Towers). This was the spot where prisoners, both important and expendable ones, were thrown and forgotten during the years of Ottoman rule. Our Serbian friend Ivana reports that even now in eastern Europe, parents frighten their kids into behaving by relating tales of naughty children sent to Yedikule and never heard from again. One of the Seven Towers has a series of small cells built into the curved walls around a central shaft at the bottom of which is the well into which the heads of executed prisoners were tossed unceremoniously after they met their grisly end (known as the "Bloody Well", naturally):

looking up at the cell doors from the "Bloody Well." We stepped out onto that metal platform for a second, but we didn't trust it!

This site was not always such a dark place. In the Byzantine period this area was outside the walls of Constantinople, but there was a massive triumphal arch, the Golden Gate, constructed here along the road to the city, so no one could miss the fact that they were about to enter the capital of a mighty empire. The entire gate, which is largely still standing, was plated with gold (hence the name), and was decorated all over with sculpture. Imagine it shining in the sun! It must have been beyond impressive:

The Golden Gate from atop one of the flanking towers. You can see the triple Byzantine archway that was progressively blocked in over the centuries to make the fortifications more secure, until only a tiny door in the central arch remained.

Eventually, in the reign of the emperor Theodosius (379-95), the city was extended out to this point, walls were built completely enclosing it, and the Golden Gate was incorporated into them as part of the fortifications. Then, under the Ottomans, the stronghold that still stands was constructed in the shape of an octagon, with two of the seven towers being those of the Byzantine Golden Gate. The building served as a military base, which had its own mosque within the walls (you can still see the remains of the minaret in the center of the picture below), as well as a prison.

Legend has it that once you went into Yedikule, you never emerged. Guilty or innocent, prisoners were forgotten, abandoned, and eventually died in the isolated towers. Probably the most famous prisoner here was the Sultan Osman II. He was one of the "mad sultans" who was kept for years in the Cage in the harem of Topkapı Palace while his older brother (Sultan Ahmed, for whom the area Sultanahmet is named) ruled. As long as Osman was locked in the harem, he could not challenge his brother for the role of Sultan. This practice of locking the younger siblings away was considered a humane bit of progress over earlier tradition which dictated that all the younger brothers be executed as soon as the eldest came to the throne.

Locked away from the real world for his entire life in a small series of rooms with only concubines and his mother for company, by the time of his brother's death when he was brought out and made Sultan, he was more or less completely insane and incapable of functioning in any normal way. Rumor has it that he liked to practice with his bow and arrow, using his own men and palace attendants as targets. After only a few short years it was clear that he was nothing but a menace to the empire, and he was deposed by his own guards, the Janissaries, dragged to Yedikule, and executed in a gruesome fashion. Tradition dictated that sultans be strangled with a bowstring, but in this case they added to his punishment by crushing his most sensitive private parts at the same time. That is only one example of a long line of greater and lesser prisoners executed here, or left to rot in the towers.

Gruesome as its past history may be, the site is very beautiful, and we spent several hours wandering around the battlements and the insides of the towers. Care must be taken, however, as some of the modern stairways and balconies are rickety. In fact, Kirk stepped too far out onto the wooden covering over the well (where the heads were thrown), and his foot broke through. Given the fact that the site is not well-maintained overall, and that there are few people around, either tourists (who seem to as a whole miss this amazing spot) or attendants, there is ample opportunity for accidents, which we happily were able to avoid. Here are some pictures of us wandering the grounds:

At the top of the tower with the "Bloody Well" inside.

Inspecting the Ottoman battlements.

Ottoman cannonballs lined up inside the fortress.

Yedikule is probably the best place in Istanbul to go and learn about Byzantine fortifications. Standing on the Golden Gate and looking down, you can appreciate the practically impregnable defenses of Byzantine Constantinople -- of course, the Turks did eventually breach the defenses, but for hundreds of years the Byzantine emperors and their armies were successful in repulsing many invasions. In fact, when the great Attila the Hun swept up to the city with his fearsome hordes, he turned away immediately, unwilling to face a long siege in front of the walls, exposed to the missiles of the Byzantine army. Even when Constantinople fell to the Crusaders of Latin Christendom in 1203, they came in through the sea walls, finding it easier to defeat the legendary Byzantine navy than to attack the well-designed land walls. Although it was too difficult to photograph, from atop the Golden Gate you can study their ingenious four-stage defense structure: a moat, then a small outer wall (short enough to fire projectiles over from the inside walls), then a broad passageway between the outer and inner walls that was used for moving troops around when under siege, then the massive inner walls of which the Golden Gate was a part. The walls extended all the way around the city, including both land walls and sea walls. Here is a picture of some of the better-preserved remains of the Byzantine walls just inland from Yedikule:

Here you can see the inner, main wall (with towers), then the shorter outer wall. The green area in front was the moat.

The area between the inner and outer wall, and the moat area, are now mostly filled with peoples' vegetable gardens, and even a few small impermanent dwellings. Little by little we would like to walk the entire circuit of the walls. We have already walked quite a bit of the sea wall, and a little of the land walls. It's a big project!

Yedikule is really an incredible site in terms of its aesthetic appeal and historical importance. From now on, anyone that comes to visit us will be forced to tour it, probably as their first introduction to the city. So be prepared!

Sunset from the top of the Golden Gate.

The sunset and the walls reflected in the site plan of the fortress. Well done, Peter!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Little bit of Texas in Turkey

Candace found this while perusing a newstand here in Istanbul. Apparently, there is a very popular comic book character here known as "Teksas." So now we know what Turks really think of her home state. Here are the front and back covers of one issue:

Monday, November 24, 2008

A Small Disaster in Istanbul

I'm sure none of you follow the news/weather here in Istanbul unless it's something really momentous, but I thought several might be interested in what happened here in the past few days.

This weekend we have a really raging windstorm -- pieces of roofs of buildings were being blown into the street, and the power was out in our neighborhood. Luckily, our Center has a generator, so we were only down for a minute or so, periodically, until our own power kicked on. It was cold and rainy, and just generally yucky.

But the biggest consequence of the storm was that one of the main boat docks located just where the Horn and the Bosphorus meet (the one at Karaköy if you want to check a map) is now gone. Not only is it used by locals crossing between Asia and Europe and as a stop for the ferries that carry local passengers up the Bosphorus from the Horn, it is the main dock for international passenger ferries to arrive, if my information is correct.

It sank -- slowly. In fact, one of our Fellows, Canan, was apparently on it as it was sinking, but she has not been around to ask about it (yes, she is ok). It was a very slow process, and the local news documented it. We went by the spot yesterday and they seemed to have a crane by the edge of the water, and a lot of onlookers. We don't know if they are trying to raise the dock in one piece, or just get the flotsam out of the waterway.

Just a bit of interesting news from Istanbul.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Market Day

Sunday is Market Day in our neighborhood. Actually, it's one neighborhood over, since our neighborhood is too high-class to have a street market, but it's only a 10-15 minute walk away, so we make that market our own. The neighborhood that holds it is a largely immigrant neighborhood -- you see more Africans here than anywhere else in the city. One of our Turkish friends told us that many of the people living here are asylum-seekers, trapped in limbo while waiting to find out if Germany, France, or somewhere else will accept them. But most of them end up staying for years, marrying Turks, having children, becoming a semi-invisible part of the landscape of Istanbul. It is an interesting and friendly neighborhood, and we really enjoy visiting the market!

Since it is such a regular part of our weekly life here, we wanted to share the experience with our friends and family as much as we can through the blog. Usually, a group of three or four of us walk over in the mid-morning and spend and hour and a half or so browsing and buying. It's a wonderful sensory experience. There is so much to look at, to smell, to sample. Plus the salesmen (all men) are constantly hawking their wares with loud cries of "Bir milyon, bir milyon, bir milyon" (1 million lira), or trying to out-sing each other, calling attention to their superior cabbages or tomatoes. Here's a short video that gives just a hint of what it's like:

You can purchase literally anything here -- from fruit to fish, perfume to pants, toys to textiles -- if anyone sees something interesting in the pictures that they want as a souvenir, speak up! And the prices are amazing. The childrens' clothes seem to be an especially good bargain, although of course we have not bought any. But if those of you with kids want us to pick something up (probably not great quality, but good enough for running around and playing in) let us know and we will send them back to the States with the next "courier" that comes to visit (shipping them would probably make the savings disappear).

The fruits and vegetables are fresh and cheap. Since we don't have a kitchen we are a bit limited in what we can buy, which is a shame, but the dairy and spices are also good. Here are some pictures of the yummy produce:

Cabbages as big as TWO heads!

Foy: Do you know what kind of beans these are?

You can also buy fresh fish, right from the Bosphorus:

And cheap housewares:


(check out the fake Converse -- they didn't even try to make the insignia look real!):

Textiles and lace:

even underwear:

Just to give you an idea of the range of things that are available (and the wonderful prices), I thought I might share what we bought today:
1 pound of tomatoes
1 pound of cucumbers
1 pound of oranges
1 pound of lemons
2 pounds of grapes (the last of the season since it has started freezing here?)
a quarter pound of fresh cheese
a container of hazelnut-chocolate creme (for breakfast, yum)
a vegetable peeler
a long-sleeved undershirt (for Candace, so Nonnie can stop worrying)
a pair of wool socks (also for Candace -- they have the Evil Eye on them!)
a utility towl (for Peter's art projects)
a packet of raw indigo dye (also for Peter, not sure what it will be used for yet)
10 packs of purse-size kleenex (it's that time of year)

All of these cost us a meager 17 lira, which converts to just over $10! Wow! (at least I think so!)

Heading Home from the Market

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Visit to Yeni Kapı

This past weekend, there was a conference at the Research Center that was focused on the conservation of archaeological sites. There were speakers invited from all over the world, and the keynote was given by Jerry Podany, the head conservator at the Getty Villa, someone that we know from LA. As a part of the conference, the speakers and the Research Center Fellows (and Peter) were taken on two fieldtrips to see some things in Istanbul that we would otherwise never have had access to.

The first was the archaeological conservation lab here in Istanbul, one of only three in the country. In a country with such a rich archaeological heritage, there should be more, and the conservators at this one are quite overworked. It was very interesting to visit and hear the types of work that are going on there, and the types of legal and governmental red tape they have to routinely work through! The lab is housed on the grounds of Topkapı palace, in the old Ottoman mint. Of course it was interesting to see the building, which is big and old and quite creepy looking on the inside, especially filled with all kinds of vials, bottles, tubes, and other scientific equipment. The most interesting pieces we saw in the lab were a Hittite helmet and a shield that was recovered from the tomb of one of Alexander the Great's generals. It was originally leather on a metal frame, with metal decorations. Of course the leather is long gone, but the conservators were working on the metal components. There was one detail that none of us (or any of the conservators at the conference) had ever seen before: on the inside of the shield were three small, incredibly detailed metal animals that looked for all the world like armadillos -- Candace was not the only one who thought so. They are probably actually a type of rat. I wish we had an image of this shield, but we were not allowed to take photographs of anything they were working on.

The second fieldtrip was even more interesting. We were taken to the ongoing excavations at a site called Yeni Kapı, or "New Door." This is the site of one of the most important excavations ever to take place in Istanbul. Several years ago, the city of Istanbul decided to begin building a tube that will run beneath the Bosphorus and connect the continents of Europe and Asia. The train will carry approximately 75,000 people an hour from one side to the other. However, when they began sinking holes in an area where the new station on the European side will be constructed, they hit massive archaeological remains. They had discovered the site of the Byzantine Harbor of Theodosius, which archaeologists and historians previously knew only from texts. This harbor, which was at one time of course linked to the Bosphorus but is now well inland, was incredibly important as the landing-spot for merchant and military ships.

Following Turkish law, the contractors who had been hired by the city to build the tunnel now became financially responsible for funding rescue archaeological operations on the site (I'm sure they were less than pleased about that). Since the tunnel project still needs to move forward quickly, the archaeological dig has been unprecedented in size, scope, and speed: up to 500 workmen have been laboring there, often 24 hours a day, aided by massive floodlamps. The results have been spectacular: not only have they discovered the remains of several docks (you can see the wooden piers sticking up out of the ground), they uncovered multiple buildings, including a church, and, below the Byzantine layer everyone was already excited about, archaeologists found a group of Neolithic burials. This completely changed the story of the city that is now Istanbul. Prior to this discovery, no one thought that the area had been occupied at such an early period. But there were the obvious remains of a stone-age settlement. In the conservation lab on-site we were stunned to see almost perfectly-preserved wooden oars used by the neolithic residents to paddle up the river Lykos, which flowed into the Bosphorus at the point of the Byzantine harbor. It is really, really rare for wood to survive that long, but the situation was just right at Yeni Kapı, where the ground has remained very damp even long after the harbor silted up.

Because of these conditions which are ideal for the preservation of organic materials, the archaeologists were also able to recover an astonishing record of the Byzantines' trade and military power: thirty-three wooden ships, ranging in size from a small boat used to patrol the harbor to large merchant vessels. All but two of these have now been carefully taken up out of the site, and the other two are in the process of removal, so we were very lucky to see them when we did. They have erected temporary shelters over them, and rigged up a system of water nozzles that continually but slowly drip water onto the wood to prevent it from drying out and disintegrating. Peter asked the archaeologist how long they have after uncovering wood to moisten it to prevent it from turning to dust and he said only 15 minutes! There are huge tanks on-site where pieces of the ships are kept constantly submerged in water that is always constantly circulating to guard against freezing. The ships will all be preserved and, eventually, displayed. The process of de-waterlogging the wood, done both through chemical means and by freeze-dyring, is painstaking though, taking up to 16 years per ship!

We were not allowed to take pictures except at the site of one of the ships, a merchant vessel. We are very, very grateful to the nautical archaeologist (from the Texas A&M nautical archaeology center's Turkey branch. That's him in the maroon sweater in the background of the photo -- Gig 'Em!) for allowing us to take this photo:

Be sure to click on the picture for a more detailed view.

The ship in the picture was a merchant ship. What remains is only the very bottom section of the vessel -- according to the archaeologist, it would have had about 30 more slats up each side. In the picture above, the rust-colored spots that you can see on the wood are just that -- the rust is all that is left of the metal nails that held the timbers together. As you can see, not only were the ships preserved, but their contents as well, in many cases, were still intact. Along with hundreds of amphora (storage jars which you can see in this picture, especially at the far end of the ship) whose contents can now be studied, the merchant ships yielded other items that tell us much about Byzantine society. We saw some of them in the lab, such as combs which, like our modern combs, have larger teeth with more space between them on one side and smaller teeth with less space on the other, so the person could use the part more appropriate for the thickness of their hair. Another interesting type of object that made a frequent appearance at the site were leather shoes. The archaeologists recovered 400 pairs of them! In the lab we saw the soles of two pairs, with the tiny nails still visible in them -- one was for an adult, and one was for a toddler. And yes, baby shoes are just as cute when they are 1300 years old!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Southeast Turkey: Part IV -- Antioch

A house in the old part of Antakya

On the last day of our Southeastern Turkey trip (now a few weeks behind us), we went to Antakya. This is ancient Antioch, specifically Antioch-on-the-Orontes. There were several Antiochs in the ancient world, but this one was very important. This is the Antioch that is mentioned multiple times in the New Testament of the Bible as one of the cradles of early Christianity. This region of Turkey is now called the Hatay, and some residents of Antakya refer to the city itself as Hatay.

The first thing we did on the morning of our Antakya day was take a trip together with the entire group up to the Monastery of St. Symeon the Younger. St. Symeon was a very interesting character in the history of early Christianity. He was one of a type of holy man called stylites (so his name is also recorded as Symeon, or Simon Stylites -- pronounced style-uh-tees when part of the name, but style-ite when used by itself). This was a monastic occupation known only in the East, particularly in Syria, which was the birthplace of the practice -- Symeon the Elder, after whom our Symeon styled himself, had been located just across the Syrian border from the Monastery we visited.

A stylite was a monk who removed himself from the world by climbing a tall column and sitting on top of it for the rest of his life. This accomplished two things: it removed all distractions besides prayer and meditation, and it drew a crowd. Stylite monks are some of the most difficult characters to understand in early Christianity because their goal was to be separate from the world, but they were obviously the type of people who craved a lot of attention. They had helpers who dedicated their lives to staying at the base of the column and passing them up food and drink in baskets tied to ropes. Symeon is a special case because his mother decided at an early age that he would be a stylite, and prepared him for it from childhood (and some of you thought it was pressure when your Mom wanted you to become a lawyer). A monastery was constructed at the base of the column during Symeon's lifetime, and people from all over the east flocked to check out the crazy guy sitting on the column. He performed miracles from time to time, but his main claim to fame was just being up there, in the heat and the cold, communing with God. If the life stories that were later composed about him are any guide, he eventually died of an infected sore on his leg which became gangrenous and stank horribly. Interestingly, the people who came to gawk at him, and the monks who attended him, considered this disgusting smell a sign of his sanctity, since he had been given grace by God to put up with such torment. The stories never talk about it, but surely other people just thought he was straight up weird.

But one thing can be said for the guy -- he definitely knew how to pick a scenic view! Candace had read about his life many times prior to this visit, and had always pictured the landscape as dry, dusty and desolate. Being so near Syria, and not far from the places we visited before that WERE dry and dusty (Harran, Urfa, etc.), we were completely shocked when we began driving into the countryside around Antakya and found it downright lush. High rugged hills surround the river valley of the Orontes, and everything is green, tree-covered, and verdant. It was a soggy day, but that somehow only made the place more beautiful.

One of our fellow Fellows, Ayse, is writing her dissertation on the monastery and has been working for several years to understand, measure, and make architectural drawings of the remains. She was of course the perfect tour guide. Here are some images of the monastery and church, with the column that Symeon sat on top of continuously for about 30 years. all that is left is the base. In the first picture, it is the big grey square block to the left of center:

Felipe Stylites sits on the column while Peter looks on.

Here's a view of the breathtaking landscape around the monastery:

Here's how they're using the land around the site in modern times:

After returning from the Monastery, the group went to a local shop that specializes in a traditional Antakya dessert, called kunefe. Kunefe is basically a nest of toasted shredded wheat soaked in syrup, eaten either plain or with kaymak (clotted cream) or dondurma (ice cream) on top. It is good, but quite sweet. From there, several people went on to another shop to try the OTHER traditional Antakya dessert whose name we can't remember, but which was described to us as a square of cornstarch covered in ice cream and rosewater. It really sounds quite unappealing, but several of the Turkish Fellows swear by it. We may never know.

Rather than gorging ourselves on sweets, we went for the other local speciality, a savory dish called lahmacun (some of you who have been to Turkey -- your mouths are watering, aren't they?). Lahmacun, pronounced "la-ma-june" is basically a very thin pizza, but without tomato sauce. It is super-crispy and topped with minced meat. It is served spicier, hotter, and cheaper in Antakya than anywhere else in Turkey. You take the roughly oval-shaped lahmacun, cover it in fresh-cut parsley (they give you a big bowl), squirt it with a lemon wedge, then fold it and eat it like a New York-style slice of pizza. Yum! And each lahmacun costs only about $1, so it's highly economical too. We can get it here in Istanbul, but it is just not the same.

After appreciating the gastronomic offerings, Amanda, Ivana, Alyson and the two of us hired a couple of taxis to take us up to one of the city's most important monuments, the Church of St. Peter (here called San Pierre). As those of you who are familiar with your Bible know, Antioch was one of the earliest areas outside of the Holy Land to which Christianity traveled. Paul and
Barnabas were here as missionaries. In fact, in Acts chapter 11, the Bible says "The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch." That's a pretty big deal! (Note: Before the term "Christian" was invented, the followers of Christ were known as Nazarenes).

The apostle Peter was here as well -- in Galatians 2, Paul writes about a conflict he had with Peter there. But Peter was an important figure in the history of the church at Antioch, as is evidenced by the church with his name. This is not just any church -- according to legend, it is the very first church, the first official meeting-place for Christians in the world. While we have our doubts about the validity of that statement, it was definitely associated with Christanity, and with Peter, from very early times.

It is basically a church carved out of the rock of a cliff face. The facade was added in the 10th or 11th century by Crusaders. Here are some views of the exterior and interior:

There is a natural fountain inside where water used to be collected for baptism and because it was thought to cure diseases, but because of earthquakes there is now very little water trickling out.

A visit to this church, if you are Catholic, earns a Plenary Indulgence from the Church, meaning that you are immediately relieved of the earthly punishment for all of the sins you have committed in your life up until that point, without the need to carry out any penance, or to spend time in Purgatory after you die. This is the highest level of Indulgence available from the Church, so clearly this is an important place to visit!

Higher up on the cliff face we could see small caverns:

Our taxi driver said they were "prisons" but we think monks' cells are more likely. Thanks to the high-powered zoom on Candace's camera, you can see that some of them even have carved decoration.

After the church, we returned to town and went to the Archaeological museum. This museum houses the third-largest mosaic collection in the world (after the Bardo Museum in Tunis, Tunisia and the museum in Gaziantep that we already wrote about), all recovered from wealthy Roman houses in ancient Antioch. Some of them are important particularly for their unusual iconography, found nowhere else. Others are impressive for their sheer size:

We were a bit disappointed by the appearance of the mosaics overall. Unlike the mosaics in Gaziantep, these appeared dull and cloudy, most likely the result of old restoration and conservation techniques, perhaps treatment with a chemical which has since darkened the surfaces. It's really too bad.

After the museum we spent the afternoon wandering in Antakya. It is a pretty town, with the Orontes flowing through the middle. There are still some neighborhoods which radiate the charm of the Ottoman period. It is also an interesting town because the Christian heritage has remained strong -- we visited both a Roman Catholic and a Greek Orthodox church, in addition to several mosques, one of which is the oldest in Anatolia, Here are some pictures of buildings in the old part of town:

A really cool door

A closeup of the door's knocker

We also spent a little time in the marketplace, which is a bit like the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, only smaller and not geared towards tourists. It wasn't as much fun as our regular Sunday market though, which we will try to write about and post pictures of soon.

Then, after meeting up with the group for a hearty dinner,

Mmmm...Liverburger. Where we did NOT eat!

we drove to the brand-new Antakya airport and boarded a plane back to Istanbul, and back to our "normal" life here. It has been several weeks since the trip, but it seems that every time we look back on it it appears more and more special in our memory.

We thought some of you might like to see a picture of some of our friends here at the Center. Here they are in the courtyard of the Catholic church in Antakya. From left to right are Fulya (Turkey), Amanda (University of Wisconsin), Ivana (Serbia), Alyson (UK), and Nino (Georgia -- the nation, not the state). All day long, when it was threatening to rain on us and ruin our day in Antakya, Ivana kept saying "Don't worry -- my grandmother always said that when angels travel, it never rains." And it didn't!

The trip was a wonderful opportunity to not only visit some amazing sites, but to experience a culture (several really) completely different from our own. Although Istanbul is amazing, now we feel that we have really been to the Middle East.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Göbekli Tepe in Smithsonian

We have received several emails from various family members informing us that this month's Smithsonian magazine has an article on Göbekli Tepe, one of the sites we reported on from our trip to Southeastern Turkey (note: we will be posting the final installment of that journey soon!). We thought some of you might want to check it out. If you don't subscribe and don't want to buy it, you can see the photos and some of the text at:

One bonus of going to the website is that one of the top stories on the website this month is an excerpt from the book "Loot" by Sharon Waxman, which is the book that some of you know Candace was working on as the author's research assistant for the last 6 months or so before leaving LA. When you go to the website, one of four possible pictures will pop up, linked to an article. One of them is Sharon' s story. If it doesn't pop up, click on the numbers "2" below the picture until you see the image of a golden brooch, then click on the picture itself to read the excerpt -- which is about Turkey, appropriately enough.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Southeast Turkey Part III: In the footsteps of Abraham

Candace thinks this shot of the shepherd is the best picture she's ever taken, especially since she took it from a moving bus, driving up a very bumpy road to the site of Göbekli Tepe. It is easy to imagine him as a modern-day Abraham. Be sure to click on it, the man's face is amazing.

Candace was just talking to her grandparents on the phone (well, on the computer actually), and was inspired to continue with the blog report of the Southeastern Turkey trip. It's been so long now since we were actually there that we are in danger of having things slip our mind, so it's probably best to get it all out there now!

The third day of the four-day trip was very special. Within the space of a few hours, we covered thousands and thousands of years of history. Some of it was well-known to us, and other parts were completely new.

We had stayed another night in Urfa, and in the morning we drove about an hour outside of town to a site called Göbekli Tepe. "Tepe" means "mound" or "hill" in Turkish, and is a word that is used to describe any artificial mound that marks an archaeological site (sometimes the Turkish word "Höyük" is also used). Göbekli Tepe, which most of us had never heard of before, is a very important site. One of the Fellows in our group who is a zooarchaeologist (she studies the animal remains at archaeological sites for what they can tell us about the environment and life at the sites) knew about it and convinced the Director to take us there. It is one of the oldest sites in Turkey. It was not a settlement site, because the people that used it were hunter-gatherers, but it was clearly of some ceremonial significance. Archaeologists have dated the remains to approximately 10,000 BC. Just to give you a frame of reference, that is 7,000 years before Stonehenge was built!

A comparison with Stonehenge is not inappropriate. Although Göbekli Tepe was not built on the same scale as Stonehenge, its monuments were also laid out on a circle, and as at Stonehenge, researchers don't know exactly what was going on here. They loosely call it a temple, but really no evidence so far has been found to show that there were sacrifices here, although it seems likely. Here are some pictures of the standing stones that were erected here. If you look closely at some of them you can see carvings of animals -- lizards,
antelopes, even ducks (here they are in a net)!

Some archaeologists think the stones themselves represent standing human figures, but that is just a theory based on the fact that some of them have carvings on the side that may or may not be intended to show arms. Whatever they were for though, it is incredible that they have survived here, and that the carvings are so clear. The archaeologists say that the site was abandoned when the people ceased to be nomadic and settled in villages that were not located high on these rocky/windy hills, but down in the river valley where farming was possible. They do think that burials may still have been carried out here though, and they hope to find some of them in the near future. It is a really, really incredible site, and like nothing either one of us had ever seen before.

After Göbekli Tepe, we moved on to see something that had always SEEMED like ancient history, but in light of what we had just visited, seemed downright modern! It is the village of Harran, which is mentioned in the Bible and in the Koran as the place where Abraham and his family were from. It sits a mere 4 miles from the Syrian border, the closest most of us will ever get to that country. It is dusty, dry, and desolate. There are very few people still living there, and most of them are Arabs and Kurds (Turkish won't do you much good here!), and some of them are semi-nomadic. But some do still live in the traditional "beehive" houses that have been built here for centuries. They are constructed entirely from mud with no wooden supports at all. They are quite practical since they are easy to heat in the winter and remain relatively cool in the summer. We only went into one house, which is a "culture house" that has been retained in its traditional form by the family that owns it, so tourists can come and see what life has been like in Harran for generations.

While we were there, many of us "went native" and purchased head scarves which the owner of the house tied on us in the traditional fashion. We didn't know it when we bought it (ok, Candace picked it out), but as our Israeli friend later point out to us, Peter's black-and-white checkered scarf indicates that he is Palestinian, so we have to be careful where he wears it. The lilac color that Candace is wearing is the popular, fashionable color in Southeastern Turkey right now. Probably 80% of the people, men and women, were wearing it in Urfa. We thought it might indicate a religious or tribal affiliation, but our bus driver told us it has just been the "in" color for about 3 years now.

Some strange stuffed creature at the Culture House

The interior of one of the beehive domes

When we arrived in Harran, school-age children immediately approached us to sell us postcards (some of you will be getting them sometime soon) and a particular kind of trinket that they sell there that is supposed to keep your house safe. It is made from dried chickpeas and all kinds of bits and pieces of feathers, felt, sequins, whatever is on hand probably. We now have one hanging in our kitchen. Harran is a tourist destination, especially because of its ties to Abraham, but because it is remote and close to Syria only fairly intrepid travelers make it there; also, we were there in the off-season so we were really attracting a lot of attention. You can see that the children were interested in us:

Besides being the hometown of Abraham, Harran was an important center of learning in the Islamic period. One of the most important sites in the village is the "University," which is actually the remains of a mosque, constructed in the 8th century, which also housed a medrese, or religious school, from which it now takes its name. It rises up very majestically, and somewhat hauntingly, out of the dusty ground, with the Syrian border in the background.

The other landmark in town is the kale (castle). It was built by Crusaders in the 11th century, on the site of an ancient temple for the worship of the moon. Harran was the base for a cult of the Moon that survived from antiquity all the way into the Middle Ages. Not a lot is known about it, but the people who worshiped the moon there were alternately persecuted by the Christians and, later, the Muslims, but they managed to persist with their cult for centuries. We spent quite a bit of time climbing around there.

Peter conquers the castle at Harran

After Harran, we went back to Urfa and had a wonderful lunch, then headed out for the afternoon to explore the town. We had been staying there for two nights, but had always returned so late that there was no time for sightseeing. In retrospect, we all very much regret that we did not spend more time there.

The full name of Urfa is Şanliurfa, which means "Glorious Urfa." And it really is glorious. The old part of the city is gorgeous and important. Again, it is connected to Abraham. Some Jewish sources also say that Job lived here for awhile. And legend places the Garden of Eden near here, which makes sense since it is between the Tigris and the Euphrates. But we sure didn't see it!

According to the priests of the Syrian Orthodox Church, one of the rulers of this area, King Abgar I of Edessa (one ancient name for Urfa), who ruled during the time of Christ, was impressed with the ministry of Christ and asked him to move to this area to continue it. Obviously that did not happen, but according to the legend Christ did press his face into a cloth, leaving a mark, and sent the cloth to Abgar as a memento. This object, called the mandalyon, was the most prized relic of the Syrian Orthodox Church until they lost it to the Arabs. The Arabs, in turn, used it to ransom Edessa back from the Byzantines, who then promptly lost it in the sack of the city by western Christian Crusader soldiers in 1204, never to be recovered again. Edessa (Urfa) played an important historical role again when the Arab capture of the city in 1144 was used as the pretext for Europe to launch the Second Crusade against the Arabs. So there is a lot of history surrounding this city, but none of it looms larger than the city's association with Abraham.

Both Jewish and Muslim sources say that Abraham was living in Urfa when God called him to move with his family to Canaan and become the father of His chosen people. And here, according to Muslim teachings, is the cave where Abraham was born and lived until he was 10 years old. It is called İbrahim Halilullah Dergahı (say it with me now, "Hallelujah!"). It is one of the holiest Muslim pilgrimage sites, and few tourists visit -- we were surrounded by pilgrims and were certainly the odd Westerners.

The mosque at the birthplace of Abraham

Pilgrims (and Candace) preparing to enter the cave where Abraham was born.

Although there is not really much to see inside, Candace did surreptitiously snap a picture of the women's side. The women were all going through their ritual prayers which included a lot of prostrations, which is why they are all a bit blurry.

It is so holy that there are completely separate men's and women's entrances and spaces inside the cave. You can see from the photo that the window into the inner part of the cave, the site of the birth, is blocked on the women's side by a water tank that supplies the water for the small ablution fountains inside each of the outer caves, so people can wash themselves before praying. Of course they would mount it on the women's side!

An arch outside the mosque at the cave of Abraham, leading to the sacred pool.

Outside the cave the local Muslim legend of Abraham continues. Here, Abraham smashed the idols of the king Nemrut that were in the local temple. As punishment, King Nemrut had Abraham cast down from the battlements of his citadel into a fire. Now there is a 12th century Frankish Crusader castle built where his citadel stood, and two lonely columns remain from a 3rd-century Christian chapel, but the locals persist in calling them the "Throne of Nemrut."

The citadel.

According to the legend, God saved Abraham by changing the fire into water and the firewood into carp. The pool (known as Gölbaşı, literally "at the lakeside") is therefore very sacred, and the carp are fat from being fed by the pilgrims, and are never in danger of being eaten. In fact, it is said that anyone who is sacreligious enough to catch and eat one will go blind!

Feeding the sacred carp.

The entire complex is absolutely gorgeous. We were there as the sun was setting, and the stones of the arcade around the sacred pool were turning a beautiful amber color.

One final note from Urfa. We met our bus that evening in front of a 5-star hotel next to the sacred pool. Some of us stopped in to use the ladies' room because we had a 6-hour ride in front of us. This place was top-quality. And, judging from the toilet design, they must really expect people to stay awhile: