A craft workshop in which to gather these pieces together, Bazaar Bayar Samatya
Time for our winter hibernation to come to an end. There is just too much craft inspiration swirling around us, despite grey days and endless revelations worthy of the most outrageous soap opera in local and national political news.
Ready to leave the crazy news aside and be inspired as well? This recent Time Out Istanbul article compiles a host of wonderful places to be active in Istanbul in 2014, including our Bazaar Bayar. We “self-proclaimed color and fiber junkies” would like to invite you to let us know what workshops you’re interested in attending, and when! We’ll have more solid times posted soon, but meanwhile your input helps us come up with the best schedule for most.
Also, if you’re an artisan/crafter/artist/creativity fanatic living in the greater Istanbul area, join us in our newly created Facebook page, Handmade Istanbul. A place to share your work and get it seen in a closed group of like-minded local folk. We do limit membership to keep out the mass-produced riff raff. But pics of your work can be shared by members outside the group, hopefully to bring you local interest and sales, if that’s your desire. Join us!
It’s my birthday today. I’ll be spending it taking pics of a color-drenched collection of vintage and antique carpets we’ve just received from a friend here in Sultanahmet who has decided to retire, closing his shop. We are so inspired to be living with these handwoven treasures for a time, and will be slowly sharing each of them here and in our Etsy shop.
Check back soon! Better yet, come visit us if you happen to be in Istanbul…
“I tell my customers – I am addicted to playing with colors, thank you for supporting my habit.”
I met fellow color and fiber junkie Inese Liepina through a mutual designer friend in San Francisco, who introduced us via email on my birthday in 2010. Inese, raised in Chicago by parents who escaped Latvia in WWII, returned to her family’s roots in Riga, relaunching her knitwear business Wrapture by Inese during tough economic times. Unhappy about paying high prices for Turkish kid mohair sold to Italian mills and marked up significantly for sale in the EU, she decided to come directly to the source, here in Istanbul.
I’m grateful that she did.
It took just one visit to our local yarn han to see that we were kindred spirits. Anyone not as enraptured with fiber and color might be puzzled at the sight of us digging through dusty bins of yarn on spools, gathering the best hues and softest feels into a huge pile, wheeling and dealing with the merchants for tens of kilos at a time. Not just one red, one yellow, one blue, one green…but every incremental shade, compiling a tactile rainbow in full blown color.
While many knitwear designers might be able to put together similar color palettes, what Inese does with these mohair, cotton, silk and linen yarns makes her absolutely unique. She blends the yarns together as she knits, 6 to maybe 20 at a time, starting in one part of the color spectrum, morphing and shifting the colors as the spirit moves her.
Her passionate play with combinations and moods, usually based on a vision from nature – sunsets, rivers, forests, suggested by her frequent jaunts into the landscapes surrounding Riga – are ‘sketched’ into warm wraps, blankets and sweaters, no two alike. In fact, though she’s tried, even she can’t copy her own work. It’s that one of a kind.
Last month Inese came to visit, bringing me a gift of a large cafe wrap she’s been knitting for a slow food chef in Riga, who wanted to pamper his guests with a wrap of luxurious warmth to ward off the chill in his restaurant’s garden while they enjoyed his meals. At about 500 grams of softness, these are heaven to snuggle into as winter approaches.
She also brought me two windings, enough to knit another wrap, and asked me to write a pattern for handknitting. As she explains at her Etsy shop: “Everyone who knits declares that they will copy my wraps and knit their own. Then they ask me the instructions and I say, but you can’t copy my yarns or colors. Even I can’t copy my colors, that’s why there are no two wraps exactly alike. Oh – - – true, ummm…”
Write the pattern I did, launching a DIY category of knit kits, perfect for gifting knitters who will love the enticing way Inese’s yarns lead from one color to the next, addictive in their meandering flow. Not only did I hate to put my needles down, I wanted to play with texture and pattern. These pictures chronicle my experiments with stitches, as I knit my way along Inese’s rainbow.
With wonderful materials to work with, there are no ‘wrong’ patterns, though some show color transition better than others. While Inese knits her wraps on a hand loom in stockinette or garter stitches, I added shadows and diamonds, ridges and eyelets to suit my decorative eye. Gilding the lily? Why not! The pic above reminds me of the tiles in the Topkapi Palace.
Visible softness sketched here as colors progress from a sandy beach to lapping waves, a fringe of trees against a cloudless sky at sunset.
Tried and unraveled: my favorite lace pattern of the moment, a chevron rib bordered by a eyelet stripes, morphed from a wide band…
…to a narrow edge finish, with a Gothic arch zigzag and a few more purled ridges stitched in.
The end result – though this project of embellishing Inese’s imaginative windings has just begun – was a sampler of pattern, from which we’ll create a collection of kits.
In addition to selling in our Etsy shops, we have exciting news to come about another place we’ll share our collaboration in kits and workshops. More soon!
As the friend who introduced us wrote: “I just have a strong feeling you ladies will hit it off, and as super driven and talented American ex-pats could be a design powerhouse together.”
That power is in full color, the right hues mingling cultures and influences. A universal power to adorn, connect and best of all, play.
Inese photographs and models most of her work, this summer doing a charming photo shoot with a friend, her mother and her daughters. Great design spans generations. All of us need beauty, warmth, comfort and family.
Read the stories she knits up about each piece in her shop…
And if you’re a knitter, join us in playing with color…just click on each pic!
The old town in Midyat, with church towers dotting the horizon
Our next wander on the Tulip Trip was among the stone houses once and maybe still belonging to families of Syriac/Suryani Christians – not to be confused with residents of Syria. Many of those who survived the horrors of World War I moved to Europe as part of the Guestworker era of the 1960’s and ‘70’s. Midyat in Mardin Province traces its roots back to the 9th C BCE, part of at least 12 empires that ruled this region of Tur Abdin.
Large stone houses under restoration
Unlike the ‘ghosts’ of Derik, Midyat, like much larger Mardin, boasted an expanding new quarter of town, making the route to the old city almost unrecognizable from a previous visit not so many years ago. But we drove quickly through, wanting to see the changes in the old city.
Some of the old houses seemed abandoned, while others were occupied. Several of the grander homes were being restored into hotels. We trespassed through one unlocked large house that seemed an addition to an adjacent hotel; perhaps it will be a private home instead.
Signs of former wealth with large rooms, high vaulted ceilings and stone carvings. Modern plumbing was being installed, with walls and floors awaiting restoration.
Back outside, a family walking by told Abit they were Syriacs who had been living in Jordan but were thinking about moving to Midyat, where their families had originated. I had to smile at the small worldness of his shirt, with my birthplace of Santa Barbara in far off California printed on the back.
More evidence of restoration and enrichment was nearby in one of Tur Abdin’s dozens of ancient monasteries. Mor Abraham and Mor Hobel (Abel), dedicated to two 5th C monks, was now protected by a massive stone wall after vandalism had kept it closed for decades. It was again open to visitors, that day attracting groups of local Suriani youth.
Though I didn’t take a pic, a large refugee camp with hundreds of white tents was under construction behind the church compound. A recent BBC article explained it was not the work of the Turkish government, with Turkish border lands currently inundated with refugees from the Syrian civil war:
“What about that smart refugee camp outside Midyat?” I ask him. “It looked brand-new but half empty.”
“It is for Syriac Christians,” Father Joaqim explains. “The land was donated by a Syriac businessman. Like us, he hopes many Syriac Christians from Syria will come with their families and settle here. Thank God for them.”
Who could have imagined that in a remote corner of eastern Turkey, the war in Syria would be reuniting an ancient community? Only Father Joaqim, perhaps.”
Cross stitch embroidery inside the church
Mor Gabriel, a larger monastery just outside Midyat, had been embattled for years in court by government-backed village families claiming the 1700-year-old buildings were “occupying” their land. There are many age-old ethnic and religious struggles still to be resolved in this region. Though as I write this in October 2013, Mor Gabriel has just been returned to the Syriac community as part of “democratization package” currently being unveiled by Turkey’s ruling party, thanks in no small part to a decision by the European Court of Human Rights.
Giving Father Joaqim further reason for optimism, I hope.
Go fly a kite: an assortment of bright paper creatures were flying above the Mardin Museum
The Turkish Tulip Trip continues, this time to the city of Mardin
Traveling in Southeastern Turkey may not be easy. Overcoming culture shock, covering long distances, walking in hot weather with little shade on uneven pavements, adjusting to different microbes in the food, just to name a few challenges. Even talking about going to that part of Turkey before our trip brought out all the usual warnings and concerns, about PKK terrorism and the ongoing civil war in Syria, though we were headed well east of the embattled border areas.
Driving east from Ambarli Koyu through flat terrain along the Turkish/Syrian border, it’s a short jaunt north and up 1000 meters to the city of Mardin. Gold limestone buildings on a rocky crag topped by a large NATO-commanded citadel, Mardin, which means “fortresses” in Syriac, looked like a vision out of a child’s book of fables. At first glance, camels laden with opulent goods for the bazaar, or men with long robes and turbans would not seem out of place.
Seeking the Sahmeran: a mythical half woman, half snake, seen in multiple craft incarnations around town.
However, we quickly discovered the long main street was lined with Syriac wine shops and chic boutique hotels in those stone buildings, some renovated, others still falling to ruin, but the busy mood foretold that would not be for long. Organizations like the Sabanci Museum are open here, with website translations – to come I suppose, since they don’t yet work – in English, Arabic, French and German. Those surprising wine shops reminded me how the residents of Aegean Sirince helped their village prosper quickly by attracting foreign tourists. Mardin’s current population consists of Kurdish, Turkish, Arabic, Laz and Suriani Christian residents. This upper Mesopotamian city has been settled by numerous civilizations since about 3500 BCE, but Mardin of today seems nearly cosmopolitan, unlike the conservative vibe of Urfa.
More evidence of a returning/growing Suriani community at the newly enlarged and restored Mor Zafaran, a monastery on the eastern outskirts of the city. A modern version of the language of Jesus Christ, Aramean is still spoken in this region of Tur Abdin, which means “servants of God”. I wonder if Abit’s parents named him for it, since relatives call him Abidin.
Hammered nailheads in a door become an abstract work of art
The monastery dates from the 5th century, built on the site of a temple to the sun. Zoroastrians before the Romans perhaps? The fact that the monastery not only has its own website – Turkish only for now – AND a #1 rating on Trip Advisor indicates growing tourism to the area, but the many visitors that day were either Suriani or Turkish.
Returning to our cozy restored Armenian guesthouse, after no Internet access the prior 48 village hours, getting caught up on news from our Istanbul home was a shock. Facebook and Twitter were buzzing with the Gezi Park protests, turned violent enough that friends were admonishing me to stop posting pics from our trip.
Taksim Square has commonly been the site of demonstrations, typically labor union or student gatherings. Something bigger was erupting this time, but it was far too soon – then, and even today – to tell if the outcome will be an ominous regression or a permanent awakening. Wanting to satisfy my political curiosity, I had to postpone learning more until we returned home. But such an odd feeling being in the ‘dangerous’ Southeast, for all appearances peaceful and prospering as of that week in early June 2013, while tear gas and water cannons had taken over Istanbul streets.
Stills from a video, but a colorful night full of dance, music and food
Perceptions were further skewed when we were invited to an engagement party in an old carvansaray, now a restaurant managed by one of Abit’s cousins. Hundreds of happy well-dressed people, families and couples, out for a celebration. Hours of dancing, drinking and eating traditional roasted goat, pilaf and cig kofte, food prepared as a festive show of skill by theatrical chefs. Joining us was the Chief of Police, a Euro-styled man in his 30’s, educated in Belgium, fluent in 10 languages and a modern outlook for the future of Mardin. He drove us back to the guesthouse in his late model Mercedes along the quiet after-midnight streets.
Derik, Mardin Province, Southeastern Turkey
After Job and Viransehir, our Turkish Tulip Trip meandered even more decidedly off the beaten path for one more day. We arrived in Derik, a short jaunt north off the international highway leading along the Syrian border from Urfa to Mardin. Derik is the home of Abit’s mother’s side of the family. His father hails from the nearby village of Ambarli; more about it later. A town of about 20,000 surrounded on three sides by stark gold ridges, it’s not exactly ready for tourism. While I can see the economic progress the town has made since my first visit in 1999, this day opened my eyes to the history of the place.
First stop: our cousins’ butcher shop in the center of town, expanded into the space next door this time, with the usual crew of relatives drinking tea at the back tables. We chatted for some time with one man, a lover of literature, whose English was perfected by years spent in the US and Europe.
For reasons I can’t quite figure, other than pride or politics, Derik seems to be the calendar-producing capitol of eastern Turkey. We were gifted with several different versions, all for this year, depicting local infrastructure improvements and industry, cement factories being most obvious on the printed page as well as along the highway as we came into town. While the butchers prepared a special lunch, we headed up for a stroll in the hilly streets behind.
Pigments to paint the doors
Half-paved lanes under restoration, half-bright stone houses, old and new, hopeful and sad, more trash than I remembered seeing before. Someone had painted murals of local life on central blank walls, more heartwarming than artistic. The small covered farmer’s market was bustling despite the heat of high noon. Election handbills papered the walls here and there, always with images of the same woman in Kurdish traditional costume or more modern business attire. “Oh, that’s our mayor.” our cousin replied when I asked. “She was elected in 2009 but is in jail, along with 31 other mayors and members of the Kurdish Party, the BDP. The man who spoke English in our shop? That’s her brother.”
Surp Kevork Ermeni Kilisesi 1650, restored 2004
Into the lane where Abit’s grandfather had his large stone house, though we’d learned that the cousins had just sold it for a more modern place. At least the family that held the keys to the last Armenian Church in Derik was home, a few doors down. Behind the garden gate, a red paint courtyard bloomed with roses and hollyhocks, framing the red door of Surp Kevork (St George) built in 1650.
Under the church
The Kurdish Muslim caretaker told us that only one Armenian couple remained in town, then surprised us to say that the church maintenance was paid for by members of the only other Surp Kevork in Turkey, which happens to be a few blocks from our Samatya home in Istanbul; they visit each winter in December. Abit had discovered several relatives from Derik in Samatya when we moved last year, again proving that not just Istanbul but even Turkey itself can feel like the world’s largest village.
Doors of Derik
Prior to 1915, Syriac and Armenian Christians inhabited Derik, along with Kurds, Arabs and a few Turks; about the same total number as live in Derik today. A town now almost completely inhabited by former nomads, the Kurds like Abit’s family, though they have no collective memory of ever living anywhere else, other than this town, the surrounding villages, or summers in the surrounding mountains marking the last of the high Turkish plateau north of the vast flat Syrian Plain.
As we took pictures in the deserted lanes of Derik, ghosts of residents past lurked in the brightly painted doorways, hiding courtyards to large stone houses, some abandoned, others housing multiple families, all crumbling. Spirits dwell still in those carved stone houses, haunting and magical.
The same feeling I’d had 15 years ago, first seeing the deserted houses near our home in Aegean Selcuk, in the village of Sirince, “abandoned” by the Greeks and repopulated by Balkan Turks during the ‘population exchanges’ of the early 1920’s.
Back in the town center, we ladies needed to freshen up before lunch. Since not many women used the facilities away from their homes, our cousin took us around the corner, to a relative’s house. The sole occupant for the afternoon let us in – a young woman in her 20’s, left to tend house while others in the family were off at work.
Through a ground floor of bare whitewashed arches and rough hewn beamed ceilings, we followed her to the top floor to use the porcelain “a la turka” toilet.
I asked to see the view from the roof. While snapping the town below, I asked how long her family had lived here. “For many years. The house was built by foreigners. But they left.”
“Foreigners? You mean like me, from Europe or America?” I gently teased, though it was no joking matter. “You know, they weren’t foreigners. They were from here too.”
Momentary confusion showed in her eyes. She knew what I meant, though I was a guest who’d just overstepped the bounds of polite hospitality by mentioning something taboo.
“I know,” she admitted. “I’ve heard the stories. It was a long time ago. What can I do about it?”
Perhaps I should not have put her on the spot, but the ghosts were whispering too loudly in my ear.
Escaping the heat and dust of town, Abit and his cousin insisted on eating our simple lunch of grilled lamb, veggies and bread picnic style in the mountains. A struggle to find a four wheel drive up to get us there reminded me that Job’s spirit of patience was something to be cherished here. We made it to the lush setting after ungracefully crossing a small creek running directly from the mountain spring above us. Paradise, yes, but a melancholy one.
One last stop before we continued on to Mardin for the night: Baba’s village. Actually one of three, founded by brothers several generations ago, though this side of the family too says they have ‘always’ lived here.
We followed a few school age girls tending to the cows, herding them out beyond Abit’s father’s wheat fields, ready to be cut. As we drove toward the village, another girl appeared to help us navigate around the newly installed water tower and older pond. No pavement here either, though we later learned the entire village had pooled their resources to install a sewer system to service their a la turka garden toilets. Quick visits to uncles who live in basic village houses, rumored to have more than just new sewer pipes buried in those gardens. But that’s a tale for another time.
I’ve been writing a book about my time in Turkey, my origins and Abit’s, a tale of disparate cultures woven together by shared visions and the love of textiles. Though this was a simple day of visiting family, it revealed threads of understanding I’d not had before. I will be back to listen more to those ghosts. Their tales must be told.
A family visit…
More from our spring 2013 Turkish Tulip Trip: Viransehir
Probably the most challenging part of our trip this past spring was not climbing the peak of Nemrut Dagi, or walking around Diyarbakir as a group of very obviously foreign women, or negotiating the often horrendous traffic in Istanbul.
It was spending the night with family. The market town of Viransehir is not exactly a village. The name translates to “ruined city” – it’s been home to and pillaged by numerous civilizations – but it’s certainly village style living in an urbanized setting.
Our plan had been to visit one of Abit’s 6 sisters and her extended family of about 20 people for lunch, but the gods of travel nixed that idea when we got a late start out of Urfa. Our intrepid driver for the day cousin Seyhmus was part of this family and would have been crushed if we’d said no, that we had to push on to Derik that night.
So we arrived late afternoon, to welcoming tea in the family’s current 4 room home on the outskirts of town. Then a tour of the much larger house they were building on the property, which will give the 4 brothers, their father, their wives and children a better environment for living. It was good to see them doing well, though it was obvious they all worked to exhaustion each day, and we were adding to their work. But voicing any objection to spending the night while keeping the peace would have been impossible. Believe me, I’ve tried.
This is a country that counts hospitality as a primary function of every citizen. Guests are a gift from God, especially when brought by an eldest brother who is not often in his southeastern home region. The challenge is the not-so-simple matter of culture shock, hot dusty weather, a higher body count per square meter than most visitors are accustomed to, and – not the smallest consideration – a thriving community of mosquitoes, thanks to the surrounding green garden.
Family life like this completely overwhelmed me when I first moved to Turkey. it can still overload my senses now, throwing me back to my early days of acclimation. To be honest, I’ve never truly assimilated. I like my personal space, enjoy being alone, and the family learned it had nothing to do with them. We can laugh about it now.
Sitting on the floor, lined with sturdy brightly colored cushions, strewn with rugs and a plastic mat laden with food and tea glasses, or bedding, depending on the time of day. Always people coming in and out, a huge pile of shoes at the front door, a TV on somewhere, a few females chopping veggies and cooking in the kitchen. Conversations involving the entire group, just a few side by side, on a cell phone being passed around – simultaneously. Women knitting, men rolling cigarettes, children being children. The warm loving chaos of our quite typical Kurdish family is a cultural touchstone I like to share with our visitors, but in small doses.
Knitting family style
Further to our already disrupted plans was the news that the best knitter in Abit’s father’s village of Ambarli, where we were due the next day, had left for Western Turkey to be with her daughter, expecting the birth of a child any minute. But those gods of travel intervened once more: my favorite knitter and former Selcuk shop inspiration for knitted goods, Azize Hala (which means Auntie on your mother’s side) happened to be visiting Viransehir too.
That night, Azize’s slippers became the random mascot of our trip. She is the master among Abit’s mom and her sisters, prolific in the number of styles and patterns she can turn out. She and the other women in our family used to sit with me in our textile shop. More often than not, tourists would walk in to see what we were doing. Our knitting ladies made us the envy of all shops in Selcuk, enticing customers with just-off-the-needle socks instead of repelling them with tired come-on carpet selling lines.
Turkish style knitting involves show and tell. No patterns are written, or when they are, assume the knitter will figure most details like sizing out for herself, so are generally rather vague. What most amazes me is the engineering of slippers like these. Done on double pointed needles in whatever quantity best works for each section, they start on top of the foot, shape snuggly around the toes, continue sides and sole at the same time, then neatly fit it all together around the heel and up the back. Seamlessly, few ends to work in. Patterns and color combinations are limited only by yarn supply and imagination.
Our group watched, worked and adapted Azize’s best design, those lovely purple and cream ones, into our own versions as we traveled. I became obsessed with knitting them in every color of Ikonium Studio’s hand spun natural dyed wools. Coming from countries whose knitters expect detailed charts and instructions noting every last stitch, we found learning to think the details through – in those following days when we’d forgotten what Azize had shown us – a good lesson in working solutions out for ourselves.
When I did finally write the western style pattern for Azize Hala’s slippers, it was a 5-page pdf. A pattern engineered over years of many hands perfecting, a slow world method of creating lasting work. Back to the skills that first connected me with the women of my husband’s family. Translating between cultures through stitches and personal expressions of color, with the inevitable tensions here and there, but ultimately universally understood. Everyone wears slippers.
Ikonium Studios wool; my versions with stripes and dots
Wisdom in the southeast comes in many forms, even delivered in my native language. As seen parked in front of our vehicle as we left Urfa.
“But we have to take your guests there. These are very important saints. You all need a blessing for your trip. It’s the most famous place in Viransehir. Everyone visits; even from other countries. It’s just down this road a little way, not far….” Abit’s cousin Seyhmus implored in his charmingly raspy voice of a much older man, though he’s barely 30. We exchanged glances as he made our decision and turned the car off the main highway that runs along Turkey’s southern border with Syria.
Perhaps he was right. We’d had some unexpected challenges that morning. Back on the road again, we could use some good travel karma. A short detour to see something a local resident thought was so important couldn’t hurt. Some of my best experiences have been spontaneous diversions down an unknown route. Sacred places of all denominations intrigue me; I’ve gone out of my way to light a few candles. Our guests seemed to agree, though maybe they were just being polite and humoring our animated driver, as I translated what he was saying.
An oasis of ornament in an unexpected place
A double triumphal arch marked the road’s entrance. Otherwise, there was not much else around, just occasional road workers raising one lane of the road and repaving it. We were jostling along on the untransformed side, watching the flat waving fields of wheat and lentils spread out around us.
Small talk dwindled as we kept going…10 minutes, 15. Murmured asides about being kidnapped in eastern Turkey, as we saw only a few other vehicles on the road, and no obvious landmarks appeared before us. 20 minutes turned to 30, or so I conjectured in my head. I’d stopped wearing a watch years ago. With an attachment to my laptop and the call to prayer 5 times a day, I didn’t need one. I could see how that made some visitors think I’ve fallen victim to Turkish time.
Patience in the back seat wearing thinner, we passed a large school building, like a child’s drawing of brightly colored paint. A small military police station was opposite, with two soldiers visible, guarding the empty terrain. A few kids playing nearby, but otherwise no evidence of any villages around to supply such a school with enough pupils. Beyond, more open fields, mostly green still this early June, but starting to tinge with gold along the side of the road to match the hills on the horizon.
Another 10 minutes, or maybe time just seemed to lengthen in the heat and dust, conversation stalled and a Kurdish folk singer lamenting his losses on the radio. A flash of black and white as our car’s wheels crunched gravel, scaring a bird out of its nest, its whirring wings like a dervish of light and dark against the stalks of gold wheat.
Finally we turn slightly to the left, as a large grove of old olive trees came into view, along with Eyyüp Nebi, a small village of simple concrete homes. “Okay, we’re here!” Seyhmus said, jerking the car into park.
We filed out, happy to stretch our limbs. A short stroll away down a dusty dirt square – more of a crossroads really, with smaller lanes leading out into the village – we follow Seyhmus into a small paved courtyard covered in trees, a mix of olive, mulberry and hibiscus. I asked Abit, “So, you’ve been here before right?” He just smiled. “You’ll like it. It’s old, they are saints.”
The first tomb was under renovation, workers placing blocks of carved tulips into a low wall, scaffolding still covering part of the small domed structure of cream limestone. A few pilgrims, a family of several generations, the women wearing somber headscarves and bundled twill trench coats, were removing shoes before entering the tomb. It seemed too crowded to try to enter, and the men sitting inside looked none too welcoming, even if we foreign women knew which entrance to use. I felt intrusive, not even taking a photo.
So we wandered around the back to admire the green trees and large garden that spread out well beyond. Seyhmus and Abit beckoned for us to return to the tomb, but we could see inside through the arched windows, to the draped coffin with a green and gold embroidered cloth.
What could be so important about this broken old boulder?
Beyond was another small structure of horizontal black basalt and cream limestone, this one half perforated by black ironwork. Inside an oval patch of mossy red earth held a large cracked boulder. Zen garden, Mesopotamian style?
By then, a group of curious local girls had come down from a shady hillside nearby to giggle and ask questions in basic English. Sisters, gold hair and green eyes, with their younger cousins, black eyed and olive skinned, were delighted two of us foreigners could speak Turkish. The oldest girl was practiced, telling us this saint had lost everything, had he lived through his ordeal – pointing at the sign – right here, on this boulder, for years, abandoned by his family. My Catholic upbringing was stirring up memories of Old Testament stories. I knew that Islam shared the same saints and prophets. Who was this saint again?
Ordeal. The word of the day
Sabır. I’d learned the word meant patience. A crucial word to know early on living in this culture, where very little was in my control; sometimes going along for the ride was often the best way to be. I’d been told too many times sabır ol – be patient. Calm down, let things happen.
A final monument, this time enclosing a small fountain of “healing water” according to the sign. Though it all looked ancient, the top was only placed in 1999, the year I moved to Turkey. Below there was a verse in modern Turkish I could partly decipher, among the Ottoman, Arabic and Kufic scripts:
Su gibi aziz olsun kederlerden kurtulsun oymak der safa bulsun bu ceşmeden içenler
May the saints save drinkers from this fountain from grief …and something else about “carving that tells of the purity found”.*
A mangled translation, but sometimes it’s enough just to understand the essence, not every literal word. Turkish and English are too different, so opposite in their structure and expression. “Patience is the key to paradise” in this country full of sayings, set phrases and proverbs.
* A far more accurate translation, from a woman brave and talented enough to translate Turkish literature into English:
Good wishes for water,
Oymak bids that all who drink here
Be freed from worries
And find pleasure
To be “protected from grief” was not quite a good enough reason to drink the water…
We went through the motions of washing our hands and faces, though only Abit and Seyhmus were brave enough to drink the water.
Follow the signposts, or leave them?
Slowly strolling back to the car, still hot and mystified by the visit, one of our group noticed a sign with the saints’ names, overlooked in our haste to get out of the car.
“OH. Eyyup. That’s Job!!!”
Suddenly the meaning of the fountain and the boulder became clear. Patience to come through an ordeal. Now I understood Sehymus’ desire for our visit, his bafflement why we had not immediately agree after our delayed morning. We were all “people of the Book”; this was our story too, something we had in common. Laughing as we piled back into the car, I hoped to keep the lesson of this day with me the rest of the trip.
We continue our Turkish Tulip Trip…to Gobekli Tepe, Harran and Urfa.
The depth of history in the Turkish Southeast is truly mind-boggling. Nowhere is that more clear than at Gobekli Tepe, believed to be the world’s oldest temple, at an estimated 11,600 years of age. That’s 7,000 years older than Stonehenge. According to National Geographic, Gobekli Tepe may well be where “the urge to worship sparked civilization”.
The site is quite isolated, only about a tenth of it excavated so far. Three Stonehenge-like rounds of 6 meter/18 foot high pillars are arranged in a circle around two more substantial pillars protecting portals in the floor, possibly gateways to the afterlife. Work began on the highest hillside, with another hill nearby which looks like a natural amphitheater. Basic diagrams explain in Turkish, English and Arabic that there are believed to be another 23 or so such rounds waiting to be unearthed. Evidence of those are scattered around the hilltop, shallow pockmarks about 8″/20cm in diameter, seemingly ‘drilled’ into the stone by an unseen giant hand.
Gobekli Tepe Carved Animals
Asymmetrically placed carved animals grace the sides of several pillars. A flock of ducks, a fox, a lizard-like creature, plus at least two human male forms, perhaps depicting dancing priests with belted loincloths and long arms wrapping around the pillars, are clearly visible. Our visit was at midday, making good photography difficult. The much publicized pics from National Geographic were far more theatrical, with dramatic lighting and skewed points of view, which I think will have some visitors walking away disappointed.
The circular wooden ramps constructed for visitors make it impossible to get too close, but it’s an interesting perspective to be looking down on such massive structures. No tour buses there during our visit, just small vans bringing Turkish academics from Ankara, plus a few curious Europeans. Gobekli Tepe, which means ‘potbelly hill’ in Turkish, is for now a site for diehard archaeology and mystery lovers, and will be fascinating to revisit as more is learned.
Moving forward on humanity’s timeline, we visited another site of major importance in Al-Jazira, this region of upper Mesopotamia. Harran, a merchant outpost begun in the Early Bronze Age, was crisscrossed by so many ancient cultures I won’t even try to make sense of them here. From the early worship of the Mesopotamian moon god Sin, to being the seat of an Islamic caliphate that ruled from Spain to Central Asia, to hosting the world’s first university, where scholars preserved and translated the scientific and philosophical works of the Classical Greek world into Syriac and Arabic, Harran today is dusty, forlorn place.
This ancient city is best known for its ‘modern’ era beehive houses made of unreinforced adobe, only a few remaining for show in this 3,000 year old architectural style. In the blazing sun of early June, they were cool inside, and surprisingly spacious and well lit by natural light coming in from an aperture on top and rows of small square windows. Adobe bricks formed circular domes over our heads, supported by square rooms open to each other by wide arches. I would have lingered longer here, since many of the walls were draped in hand stitched embroideries and weavings, but we were given the hardsell by a family of mostly women and children, who when we refused to buy souvenirs, insisted we eat a suspect lunch of watery stew outside under sparse shade in the heat.
We spent the night in Şanlıurfa, ancient capital of many names including Byzantine era Edessa, populated today by citizens of Kurdish, Arabic and Turkish origins. By now on our trip, that word ‘ancient’ was meaningless, better used for describing my weary body. Thankfully, the center of the city was surprisingly cool because of greenery and water, the pool of sacred fish. King Nimrod – not to be confused with Mount Nemrut – but the great-grandson of Biblical Noah and possibly the builder of the Tower of Babel, is the villain in this legend. A ruler jealous of Abraham’s increasing influence – THAT Abraham, father of the three faiths, believed to have been born nearby where the large domed mosque now stands – Nimrod had Abraham burned on a pyre. But God turned fire into water and coals into fish. We bought small dishes of pellets to feed those descendants. Years earlier when we had visited, a restaurant had served grilled fish in the garden here, but it has been replaced by a teahouse.
We were charmed by crowds of strolling families wearing Biblically traditional, sparkling bright clothing, until we realized the outfits were mostly costumes rented at a waterside kiosk by tourists from Turkey, Saudi and Northern Iraq. Urfa is a city with huge covered bazaar and coffee houses far more numerous than in Western Turkish cities. We recovered our strength buying spicy Urfa peppers, then drinking the regional wild pistachio coffee, “Menengiç kahvesi”. We read our futures in the grounds, while an ancient faced kid sang melancholy songs for money. Abit bought his first set of double-breasted Kurdish vest and Şalwar, the baggy wool traditional trousers, and we retired to a stone mansion turned chic modern hotel for the night.
Our first journey in the Southeast, after flying from Istanbul to Urfa and spending a quiet village evening. The Turkish Tulip Trip travels to Mount Nemrut.
We set out early morning by van to traverse the Euphrates, taking a small ferry a short distance across the longest river in Western Asia, one of the two major rivers of Mesopotamia. The river’s name is a mixture of Greek borrowing from the old Persian, like many places and cultures in this region of historic hybrids.
Fording the legendary Euphrates River
Our excursion continued in search of remnants of past cultures, found where we cooled our feet under a massive 1,800-year-old Roman Cendere Bridge, constructed for Emperor Septimius Severus according to the Latin inscriptions. The winding road beyond climbed in altitude, circling north of an enormous dam, Turkey’s largest. The Southeastern Anatolia Project (Güneydoğu Anadolu Projesi, known by its acronym GAP) began in the 1970s. Dam projects in this region continue to dot the mountainous landscape, flooding villages and diverting water from anyone living south for more populous places in the west.
Crossing Roman bridges: 2nd Century Cendere Bridge built for Septimius Severus, plus the nearby Karakus Tumulus and Arsameia Stele.
Revealed next were odd appetizers of even more ancient history from the kingdom of Commagene, a cultural combination of Greek, Persian and Hittite elements founded north of Syria and the Euphrates after Alexander the Great’s empire crumbled. First, a stroll around the Karakuş Tumulus, a hilltop burial site for the royal women of the kingdom.
We then descended into a steep narrow ravine and climbed a short way by foot up a rainy trail to the Arsameia Stele. 1st Century BCE Arsameia had been the capital of the kingdom. Beyond a hillside cistern, Greek inscription and a memorial stele or slab depicting King Mithridates I in royal costume shaking hands with a naked Hercules, nothing remained of the royal city.
Winding along steep roads toward Nemrut Dağı
The long day’s journey continued, landscapes changing from rolling green meadows to sharp mountain peaks. The only reason the Commagene are known to more than historians today finally loomed on the horizon: Nemrut Mountain, our final destination. Though one side of the mountain had a brick paved road suitable for the small tourist vehicles that bring hearty trekkers between May and October when the mountain is not covered in snow, we approached from the back side up an increasingly steep and winding road covered in gravel left from the winter.
At the end of the road, we prepared for a fairly strenuous climb, donning jackets and scarves against a strong breeze and cool temperatures at high altitude. Workers were slowly laying travertine pavers on the trail that led to the top, while other parts of the path remained well packed earth bordered by wildflowers and loose stone. Meanwhile, belligerent and probably tired donkeys lumbered by, carrying those not wanting to make the 45-minute effort up under their own steam. Slowly, pausing to take in the vertigo-inducing views, we arrived at the Eastern Terrace.
From the notes for the documentary Throne of the Gods: “At 7,700 feet above sea level and containing a 150-foot high tumulus flanked by colossal statues, the Mount Nemrud sanctuary has become synonymous with absolute grandeur.”
The heads of Greek, Persian, Armenian and Hittite gods, along with the likeness of the ambitious Antiochus I (69–34 B.C.) himself, were carved from solid blocks of rock, some as heavy as 9 tons and reputedly brought up the mountain from a distant quarry, were lined up below the altar of bodies from which they’d tumbled. More orderly now than in our previous visits, when the statues could be climbed upon, we heard plans that they’ll be taken to a museum being built below, and replicas erected in their place. After surviving more than 2000 years on the isolated mountaintop, perhaps tourism is doing more damage in a shorter time.
Nevertheless, the interest of foreign visitors was the reason this huge Hellenistic era construction was unearthed, and daily visitors now are a recent phenomenon. In fact, our first visit in 1999 had us stopping to ask several times along the way, since no one knew what we meant when we asked about seeing the giant stone heads. Without the curiosity of German explorers a century ago, or even more, the courageous efforts of a woman from Brooklyn in the late 1940’s, Theresa Goell, who insisted on solving the mystery of the mountain, the monumental mausoleum of Commagene kings may well have remained elusive beyond 2 millennia, silent and windswept.
The Western Terrace revealed more gods – Apollo, Zeus, and Fortuna among them – scattered and illuminated by the setting sun. Most remarkable was what lies between the two Terraces: a 1500 foot high pile of small stones creating an artificial mountaintop, presumably covering the vault where the remains of Antiochus I and perhaps other royalty were laid to rest. Though the entrance has been discovered, the small stones cannot be disturbed without causing a precarious landslide. An ingenious way to make sure a tomb’s riches are never removed and tantalizing to consider what may be inside.
View from the top
Like the pyramids in Egypt or the Great Wall of China, built at the obvious expense of thousands of laborers’ lives to command respect and show power, Nemrut is well worth a visit. Not just to see evidence of massive human endeavor but to experience the hubris required, stone by stone, for such attempts at self-deification. Few will remember anything about the particular men who built these monuments, but rather marvel at the effort of the common people who made them.