A Travellerspoint blog


Mornings in Mesopotamia

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Another sunrise, another existential crisis. I stare out my window at the Cradle of Civilization and thınk, Why am I here? I'm bored. What's the point of this? These aren't my people. My people are in Ibiza. Why the hell did I choose to come somewhere that no one went?

It's possible that this is all just caffeine withdrawl. A nice cup of tea cannot compare to the adrenaline jolt of the three (minimum) cups of java that I usually start my day with. I'm fully aware that these morning crises might be bio-chemical and not existential at all.

This is Savur: inhabited since H. sapiens wandered out of Africa. The Romans built a fortress on one of the summits to control trade coming down the valley. The Byzantines called the nearby mountains Tur Abdin, the Mountains of the Servants of God, and buit their monasteries here. The Turkish sultanates moved in, and the Özturk family buit a mansion on the summit across from the Roman fortress. The current generation has opened up the house to visitors, and that's where I'm staying, at the Hacı Abdullah Bey Konağı. Other families built stone houses below, and now the two hills are like a prettier, more rural Mardin.

It's pretty. It's an important place that should be preserved. But there is not much for a tourist to do, and as a consequence there aren't any tourists here. My first day was: unpack bags. Nap. Explore the town with Serkan, though the only word I understood was tarihsel - historic. That took half an hour. It's a small town. I took another nap. I found an internet cafe and went online. I had a haircut. I drank tea with the old men outside the shops, and had the same conversation with each.

I saw another tourist, a backpacker from Spain, and that just made my day. I napped again. I waited for dinner. And ate alone (the backpacker was out taking photos, and got lost).

That's been the weirdest part of this trip. I'm staying in these fantastic places, living like minor royalty, but I'm usually the only one in the castle or mansion. It's like a sunnier version of a Hitchcock movie. Usually I meet plenty of characters on the road. There haven't been any out here, so I really am traveling solo.

The family matriarch cooked a meal using ingredients right from the farm, and that was enough to make me ask to stay a second night.

But morning two was a repeat of morning one: what am I doing here and what am I going to do with myself all day? I decided to walk to Kıllıt, a village about 7 km down the road. All I knew was that it was a Suriani village, had two restored churches, and was famous for it's wine.

And so I walked two and a half hours, only to discover that the village had been half destroyed during the war, that all the remaining men were out in the fields, and that no one had the keys to the church. And so I turned and walked back.

It felt good to out, though! My first thoughts when I hit the countryside were, this is why I travel! I'm American, heir to Whıtman and Kerouac, and the open road is it's own reason. And the road was beautiful. There were small new leaves on the trees, and the apple and cherry and dogwood were in bloom. It was a timeless scene - women wrapped in colorful shawls in down in the valley working the fields, and younger men tilling new fields with donkeys and wooden ploughs.

Occasionally farmers would pass me on their donkeys, or I'd cross paths with shepherds moving their flocks up to the hills. After a selaam and a wa aleıkum selaam they'd wish me a pleasant day and we'd move on. I was excited (and tired) when I first saw the village - it looked like a scene out of Arabian Nights, all stone houses on a hill and no modern development at all.

But when I got closer I realized that the buildings were crumbling and mostly uninhabited. Four school boys came out and warned me about dogs wandering the village. We went looking for a key to the Church but the director (Priest? I didn't recognize the word the woman used) was in town.

So. I doubted I could tour more, not with all the men out, so I turned around. I got lucky on the way back. After about a half hour walking a farmer hauling a load of wood back to town offered me a ride. All the farmboys were already piled on the tractor, so I rode on the trailer hitch bar. Basically, I just tractor-surfed Mesopotamia.

Later today I'll climb to the Roman fortress with Serkan. Tomorrow I'm off to Hasankeyf. It's famous - I certainly can't be the only one there!

Posted by kanewai 04:54 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)



sunny 18 °C
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I'm face to face with the officer, wondering how it got to this. He's standing close, almost nervously at attention. At least his hand is not on his gun. He asks me something, but I don't understand a word, and all I can think is: oh my god look at his eyes. Blue rimmed with black. Beautiful. I've never seen eyes like this. I'm lost. I can't remember a word of Turkish. I'm not sure I remember much English.

Açık mı? I finally manage. Is it open? gesturing at the door to the nearby medressa. Açık! He says, then smiles, motions for me to enter, breathes a sigh of relief, and the tension is gone.

And that has been the story of my first day in Mardin, this strange little medieval town on the Syrian border. In the bazaar people watch me out of the corner of their eyes. I seem to be making people nervous. If I enter a shop the proprietor will try to pretend he doesn't see me, even though the shop is all of 9 meters square. At a cafe the waiter will dash out without even a selam, and return with a friend who might know better English.

It's as if they don't know what to do with me. I don't know who they think I am, or what I'm projecting. Do they think I'm a spy? Or some kind of undercover agent? But it's not a dangerous tension; it all seems more the nerves of a schoolboy who might be called upon the teacher to speak in front of the class.

I had heard that Mardin was over touristed. I don't know how that is; I'm pretty sure I'm the only gringo in town. And there is no sign of the İstanbul jet-setters who are supposed to hang here.

And so on Day One I wandered the streets like a ghost, peeking into the 14th Century Artukid stone houses and mosques and schools and tombs, but not ınteracting with anyone. Only one street has cars, the rest are a maze that twists and turns up and down the mountain, the alleys going over and under and around the houses. I play games - I'll take a sighting on a minaret or a church bell tower, and then try to track my way to it. When I get bored with that I give myself little challenges: I'll buy pistachios in the bazaar, or eat at a local restaurant, or drink tea at the mosque instead of the hotel.

Yeah, I was bored.

My hotel adds to the surreal. It was a Silk Road Inn from 1297. I get wi-fi in my room and there's modern plumbing. There's also a giant at the front door to carry luggage and scullery maids scurrying down dimly lit stone cooridors. Prince Charles stayed here. I wonder if this is what his life is like. Today there only seem to be a small handful of people here. The few others are dress in dark suits and don't interact.

One day in Mardin would have been enough, but I had an issue (since resolved) with my bank and was stuck in the 14th Century a day longer than expected. I woke up the next day and rapid-cycled through all the stages of culture shock. Agoraphobia. Maybe I can just stay in bed all day and mess around on Facebook. Then Hypochondria. I think my stomach hurts. I shouldn't have had the eggplant. I better not wander to far from the toilet. And fınally, Compromise. I'll get up and accomplish at least one thing. Then run back to bed.

That finished, I showered and got on with my day. And Mardin Day Two was a different beast. People warmed up. Or maybe I did. Now kids were running up to me on the street to practice English. Shopkeepers invited me in to look around. I took a taxi to Deyrulzafaran, a beautiful 5th Century Assyrian monastery in the hills, and had tea with the taxi driver after. I had lunch at Cercis Murat, the most famous (and effin expensive) restaurant in Southeast Anatolia, and the waiter chatted the whole way through.

I don't know what changed. Maybe I just had to go through a mandatory touch of culture shock to make the transition. This is certainly like no place I've been. I was just a tourist in Sultanahmet. I wanted to be immersed. Now I am.

I'm also changing my plans a bit. I heard rumors of violence in Diyarbakır (I assume that's what Diyarbakır bang bang means), and really enjoyed the nature around the monastery. So I'm heading into the hills, to the tiny town of Savur. I ask how Savur is, and people kiss their fingers and say, Savur çok güzel. Savur is very beautiful. That works for me. It beats Diyarbakır bang bang.

Posted by kanewai 05:54 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

3.5 Days in İstanbul

I finally see the city through a tourist's eyes

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I've done İstanbul backwards. My fırst visit I was so far off the beaten path that I rarely saw a tourist in five days. I got caught up in the nightlife, and before I realized it I was out of time. No Topkapı Palace, no Hagia Sophia, no Grand Bazaar, not a single mosque or hamam - party over oops out of time. I knew I'd be back, since my whole original point of going had been to see the Hagia Sophia and the buildings of Sinan.

Trip two was with Billy, and we had just spent two fantastic weeks in Jordan & weren't in full-blown tourist mode. We at least made it to the Hagia Sophia, and the outer courtyards of Topkapı Palace.

So this trip I made a change, and traded in my favorite hip (and now expensive) bed and breakfast in trendy Beyoğlu for a family-run guest-house in Sultanahmet, the old Byzantine and Ottoman quarter - and tourist central.

But why? my friend asks over coffee my first night. Sultanahmet is so boring. And oh do I agree. I love waking up and seeing the great historical palaces and mosques and churches a block from my door. I love seeing how they change character throughout the day as the light changes. And I'm definitely seeing the sites like a good tourist - I've seen four Important Places just today, which might be a record.

But it's Friday night, and the streets of Taksim are filling up wıth people. We walk through Taksim to his neighborhood ın Harbiye, and it feels like the city is alive. And I don't want to go back to sleepy Sultanahmet with it's carpet sellers and tourist groups and crappy food and pre-packaged sets of commodified experience. I want to be here, where the action is.

I tell myself I'll go out and make a night of it Saturday. I already know where all the hot clubs are this season. But after another day of being a good tourist, I'm exhausted - and after a crappy massage at a historic but touristed haman I'm in bed before the first club even opens it's doors.

Sunday morning. My plan is to hit the Bıg Three: Hagia Sophia, Sutan Ahmed Camii, and Topkapı Palace. It's the first really warm weekend of Spring, and I love the walk up the hill from my guesthouse and watching the minarets and domes come into view through the trees. I start with Hagia Sophia, which must be one of the more fantastic buidings on the planet. I'll post photos soon, though none can do the space justice.

Outside it has turned into a perfect Spring day. I stop for coffee in the courtyard, and read a bit more in my guidebook. It talks about the pigeons of İstanbul, and how Muslims concider a direct hit from one to be a blessing. I think that Rick Steves made that part up.

And then Allah blessed me. Real good, too.

It's still a beautiful day, and I wash and head to the Mosque of Sultan Ahmed. It's prayer time, so I relax in the courtyard and people watch. I move into lazy Spring-day mode, and after a slow lunch and a long linger in the park I head to Topkapı - only to dıscover that I'm late, and no more tickets are being sold.

So back to the park. I sıt down on a stone wall, buy some grilled corn on the cob, and marvel at the thousands of people in the park with me. Turks, Europeans, Arabs, Persians, Asians, all enjoying one perfect day together. I wish that we could somehow capture this, that everyone could just bring this home with them.

This is what happens when Allah sends a bird to shit on your head. Ya get sentimental.

The tour busses leave, but the park is still full of families and groups of friends stalling the end of day. And we've all spent the day touring these grand buildings from another era, buildings that were designed to elevate the soul. And I wonder, did they? And do they still?


I missed the nighlife. In return I got this one peaceful Sunday; and here, by the fountain, between the mosques and the churches, will be one of my lasting images of İstanbul.

Posted by kanewai 11:33 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)


This is the plan: take a leap into the unknown & see what comes of it

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I've never gone on a trip where I have planned so much, and yet still know so little about my destination. There just haven't been many Western tourists heading to Mesopotamia in the past couple decades, and half the guide books to Turkey simply omit it, as if the Southeast simply didn't exist. There's not much information out there, and a lot of it is conflicting. Lonely Planet has failed me, and I'm learning far more from the Turkish Ministry of Culture's Portrait of Southeastern Anatolia, a small handful of Thorn Tree forum members, and the French Guide-Martine.

And yet this is where it all started. Wheat was domesticated here. It was the first Garden. Gilgamesh ruled here. Abraham was born in these hills. Alexander and his army swept through bringing Hellenic culture to Asia. St. Paul walked the other way, bringing Semitic religion to Europe. Anthony and Cleopatra married here. And then there were two thousand more years of generals and emperors and sultans.

It's not like I'll be the first or anything.

Going off the top of my head, Southeast Anatolia has been ruled by Akkad, Sumer, Babylon, and the Hittite Empire. The successors of Alexander set up their Greek kingdoms here, and then it was the volatile frontier where the Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines fought with the Persian Medes and Achaemenids, often with the Armenians in the middle. When Byzantium lapsed into civil war the Arab armies of the caliphate moved in. When the Caliphate faded they were replaced by White and Black Sheep Turcomen, Artukids, Seljuk Turks, Saladin, and finally the Ottoman Empire. At some point in there the Mongols invaded, the Armenians set up a southern kingdom, and the Crusaders established their doomed states.

And then came the bloody 20th Century and the Armenian genocide. The Cold War shut down some borders, and the Iraqi War some others. The Turkish army fought a civil war against the Kurds, Kurdish militias harassed and killed the Assyrians, and even now peace seems fragile.

So like I said ... it's a bit of a leap into the unknown here. Curiosity, meet the cat.

This much is definite: I fly into Mardin after four days in Istanbul, and then fly out of Antakya (Antioch) 11 days later. In between there are towns carved of golden stone overlooking the Syrian plains, crumbling castles on the Euphrates, Silk Road inns, a 10,000 year old settlement on the Tigris, two of the world's greatest collections of Roman mosaics, a temple 6000 years older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids, a megalomaniac's altar on a remote mountain, Syraic monasteries, the birthplace of Abraham (and fourth most sacred city in Islam), an un-excavated Roman-Persian battle site, and a medieval walled city.

They also invented baklava.

Posted by kanewai 18:55 Archived in Turkey Tagged preparation Comments (0)

Petra (Flashback)

Continuing the story of Billy and MC's First Foray into the Middle East

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We arrived in Petra yesterday. The owner of the hotel we are at is amazed that the whole world has not heard of Petra, and that half the tourists who come here only heard of it once they were in Eilat in Israel or Sharm in Egypt.


And I can understand his amazement. Petra is phenomenal - an city carved out of swirling rose-colored mountains by some antediluvian Gaudi. I've never seen photos that can do justice to the experience of walking through the cleft in the rock and watching the city appear before you. It really is beyond majestic.


There were times we forgot to look at the monuments, we were so captivated by the way the colors of the rocks constantly shifted as the day went on.


We've spent two days hiking and exploring, and have only seen part of it. The entry starts along a 1.5 km road that winds down a gentle valley. The white-rocked valley ends at a set of towering cliffs with a narrow crack in it's face. A 2000-year old cobblestone street leads into this, the siq. For the next kilometer you follow the track deeper into the cliff. The rocks are all swirling shades of salmon, red, and pink. You pass occasional niches built for the ancient gods, and small tombs built for forgotten soldiers.


And then you come to the City's first monument, an 80 meter high temple carved out of the red cliff face. And though you've seen pictures you can't really grasp the scale of it, or the way the colors shift with each ray of light. And the city continues from there - you can walk for hours and not reach the end. The first day we veered off the main track to the High Place of Sacrifice - high enough that it was difficult to breather. We drank coffee with Bedouin women while watching the sun set over distant mountains, and trekked down "the other way" - a path that they showed us leading a ways off the tourist track.


The next day we took an alternate route into the city, down a narrow wadi that wrapped around the mountains before entering the main colonnaded street. Then we climbed a mountain, up to 1800 meters, to another series of temples (for the record, my energy is back!). We passed some Bedouin cowboys we had flirted with the previous day, and they asked to join the later a a local restaurant.


I don't know how they outed us, though when they offered us a horseback ride I did tell them that I needed a stallion, not their dinky tourist horse. That might have been it. Regardless, one was quick to let us know that he offered "special services." I tried to play dumb (after I swooned - he was movie star handsome), but none of them bought it. I see it in your eyes, he told me. You don't have to admit it.


But, sadly, there will be no special services tonight. We're off tomorrow early morning for Wadi Rum, and two days of camel trekking. I could've stayed here longer.


Posted by kanewai 22:15 Archived in Jordan Comments (1)

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