Monday, July 22, 2013

Happy Ramadan

As I’m writing this (because who knows when it will actually post), Sunday night Ramadan festivities are going on.  I have the huge window to my room open, and moonlight from the almost-full moon is streaming in.  I can hear the sounds of the nightly concert in the nearby park.  It’s amazing.

Growing up in Central Mississippi, I never really knew much about Ramadan.  Even as an adult, my only real experience with it was when I taught in IU’s Intensive English Program, and our guys from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and so on would be slumped over the desk at the end of the day.  We’d end classes for them a little early so they could get to the mosque for iftar.  I knew it was a big celebration for them, but I never really appreciated the magnitude of it.

To get an idea of what I’m talking about, pick your favorite family holiday.  Now mix that with a rock concert.  Now add the Fourth of July.  Now do for 28 solid days.

That’s Ramadan.

At night when we go out, we see the crowd like a tide.  If it’s before the big cannon that sounds iftar goes off, we see them standing outside restaurants, seated at tables upon which is no food, sitting on blankets under the trees in the park with containers of food nearby, waiting.  When iftar begins, everybody is suddenly in motion.  There are sellers of all kinds of street foods.  Restaurant servers seem like they’re being run off their feet.  Every place has an “iftar menu,” a multi-course meal for a set price, even Burger King.

I have to say that I love it.  I love the vitality of the streets at night.  It is lovely to see families with children, to see the vendors selling their glow-in-the-dark helicopter toys or their bubble horns.  The joy of the different styles of music I hear each night is contagious.

It’s not just the activity, though.  I don’t know what it’s like when Ramadan isn’t going on, but people seem to find it a reason to be more kind, sort of the way Christmas is perceived in the West.  In stores, when I’m haggling over the price and I know I’ve sort of low-balled it, I’ve seen several vendors hesitate and then say, “You know what?  It’s Ramadan.  Okay.  Happy Ramadan.”  While I know they’re still getting a generous profit, I find it lovely that they will say that, especially to someone like me who so clearly is from elsewhere and other.

I am going to be a bit sad, it must be admitted, when I can no longer look out my window and see the families passing by, heading to the festivities or away, when I am no longer walking through mosques and seeing men sleeping in the heat and hunger of the day, when Sultanahmet no longer holds aloft its beautiful lights welcoming and blessing all who pass below.

I wish we had something more of this in our culture, some more defined sense of community and, quite frankly, of joyous interaction.  We could learn a lot from Ramadan.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Cats of Istanbul

Oh, to be a cat in Istanbul….

I’ve never been anywhere where the street animals were so healthy-looking and tolerated.  Once you get to the main square here in Sultanahmet, you will see one of three dogs who seem to have claimed the space for their own.  They are a bit skinny, but they doze on the sidewalks and stairs in cool shadows while people automatically adjust their courses so as not to disturb them.

It’s the cats, however, that have their bluff in.  I can look out my hotel window at any given moment and see at least one cat.  There are brown tabbys and orange ones.  There are mostly white cats and calicos.  I even saw a big black fluffy one trailing a majestic plume of a tail the other day.

It is an act of Muslim charity to take care of these homeless animals.  I have often seen people putting cat food out for them.  Yesterday, a guy from a restaurant stepped out and fed a whole pan of sausage to a large group of cats.  They pawed at and fought over the largesse.

In addition to the food, cats also get to go pretty much wherever they want.  I just passed one on my way into the hotel who had curled up in a soft sunny chair in the outside dining area.  A young orange tabby that reminded me a tremendous amount of my Mom and Dad’s cat Cheeze was roaming around the tombstones in the Suliyemanye area this morning.  They are ubiquitous.

The best example of the affection for cats here in Istanbul can be seen in the Obama cat.  When the President visited here, a cat somehow came in with him as he visited the Ayasofya.  Since he is so high profile and since he won his re-election not long after that, the idea arose that this was a lucky cat.  He now has a home and food and all the petting and paparazzi he can take.

Of course, these sleek kittehs only increase my longing to my own babies back home.  I’m glad to give these street cats the love I cannot give to my own pets at the present.  I think everybody wins.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Divine Wisdom


This trip has been filled with beauty.  My eager little soul has soaked up every curve, every arch, every fluted pillar of it.  I knew, though, that I was really waiting for one thing, the ancient jewel every emperor wanted for his imperial crown, the ancient, the enduring.

Everyone has heard of Hagia Sofia.  It is one of those rare places that has managed to endure no matter what has come against it, be it earthquake or regime change.  For Mehmet II, the one who became known as the Conqueror in 1453, this massive house of worship with its golden mosaics and soaring dome symbolized empire, centralized authority, glory and grandness that could be passed down.

To be in Ayasofya is another experience altogether.  There are no pictures that do it justice.  If one comes to it as I did, after a long journey through the mosques of Sinan and the ornate splendor of Topkapi Palace, I suppose that some might find it a let down.  To be sure, she (because great buildings have a sense of gender to them, and Ayasofya can be nothing but a queen) isn't as ornate as her near neighbors.  A quick trip across the fountain-filled courtyard can take you to the Sultanahmet mosque if your taste runs to knock-you-down glory in decoration.

The Ayasofya has been around long enough to understand that there is an art and a beauty in something a bit more understated.  The long logia have colors, it's true, but they are muted by time.  Even the restored sections are soft, part of a building made to glow by the light of candles instead of compete with the sun.

We toured it from the top down, so the mosaics were some of the first things I saw.  For years, I have seen pictures of the mosaic of Christ the Pantocreator in textbooks, online, and everywhere the Byzatine empire or Constantinope was mentioned.  It is almost a go-to image for those topics.  Today, I saw the real thing, and I realized just how feeble all our efforts at capturing some things on film really are.  (This, of course, did NOT stop me from taking photo after photo.)

Barb, one of the leaders of the trip, grabbed my hand and pulled me over to an unassuming arch overlooking the apse and told me to look up.  When I did, it literally made me catch my breath.  Hanging there like some sort of mystical vision was the massive mosaic of Mary and baby Jesus that once served as a focal point over the now-vanished altar.  I twisted and turned, working to catch the golden glow that seemed to radiate from inside the image.

As we paused to consider some of the archetectural details around us, Dana, one of the professors on the trip, began to talk about the importance of Ayasofya for the various people who possessed it and what their purposes might have been in the changes they made.  As a part of that, she read "Sailing to Byzantium" by Yeats.  I had completely forgotten that poem in relationship to this trip even though it is a part of my curriculum almost every year in the form of a line taken from it that we analyze for practice.  Since we were wearing the "whisper" headsets that are so deservedly popular on group tours now, I had the freedom to wander while she talked.  When she named the poem she was going to read, I found a quiet corner, stared up into the gloaming gold above me, and let literature and history and art collide.

The poem is as follows:

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
---Those dying generations---at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me 
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come. 

Finally, we picked our way through the tides of tourists to the main floor.  I stopped to stick my thumb in the famous wishing hole, and I had that strange juxtaposition that sometimes happens between my Japanese past and my present elsewhere when two young women stood in line behind me and we had one of those quick tourist conversations about what they were supposed to do.  When it was my turn, I managed to twist my arm so that my hand made a complete revolution without my thumb leaving the indention.  This means, according to legend, that I get a wish.  We shall see if it comes true...

I hurried to catch up with my group, and as I did, the high-ceilinged heart of Ayasofya enfolded me.  I came to a sudden stop, unable to do more than stare upward in that open-mouthed way of tourists everywhere in the world.  Even with one side covered in restoration scaffolding, it was a powerful sight.  I wondered around with my camera raised seeking the perfect angle, the perfect setting to try to hold the gentle majesty around me, but I was constantly dissatisfied feeling that I was failing in my efforts, feeling that once again my skill with the Nikon was insufficient to capture what my eye was seeing.  Above me, the placid eyes of the newly-restored angel with six wings were largely unconcerned by such trivialities.

When it came time for us to go, I did so with great reluctance.  Part of me wanted only to sit at the base of one of the columns and let the hushed tide of the past wash over me.  As I stood in the obligatory cafe outside waiting for the last members of the group to appear, I took out one of the little notebooks I keep with me at all times and started scribbling a few thoughts about the experience while they were fresh in my mind.  I think I'll close with one of them.

"And now when I dream, I will always dream of Hagia Sophia....All the rest of the world dims beside it."

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Knives, Scarves, and Gelato

As a part of the Ramadan festivities here in Istanbul, a market of traditional crafts has been erected in the Hippodrome.  It's like a little village of wonderful handmade things.

Of course this drew me like a big old magnet.

I have found myself enjoying wandering there in the evenings, moving from stall to stall and looking at the beautiful things there.  I love handmade things, especially when they can be bought from the people who crafted them.  I think (perhaps foolishly) that things bought from the hand that made them somehow have more meaning.  There is something wonderful about seeing the faces that created an object that you use and love.

Inevitably, I bought things as I walked and looked.  One of them was a pocket knife.  That sounds strange, I'm sure, but I did have reasons.  They were three.  (Ha.)  First, I wanted something practical I could use immediately to slice the fruit, bread, and cheese we've got stashed in our room.  Second, I can think of a million times lately a knife would have been useful to open something, to remove tags, etc.  Finally, the handle was made of curling ram's horn.  The light gleamed on the shades of bronze and gold inside the horn.  How could that be resisted?

Part of the market is traditional foods.  There was a pickle maker and a booth selling the heavy eggnog-like alcoholic beverage boza.  There were booths of special herbs used for medicine as well.  As any person ever having been to a fair of this type will know, there were also places to buy traditional sweets and gelato.  Maybe it's some kind of rule that a fair has to have ice cream.

The first night I went, I decided to get some of the gelato.  I stepped up to the booth and was looking at the flavors when another couple pushed in front of me.  I'm getting better about being able to deal with that.  I've noticed a difference in crowd dynamic here.  What would be powerfully rude in American culture is just a normal part of the way people move.  It seems like if you don't get in and get busy transacting commerce, you forfeit your space.  They might have been rude people in general, though, and I'm not quite sure they were from here at all.  They spoke in somewhat broken English to the man behind the counter, and they were fussy and angry when they paid, something I haven't seen in the commerce here.  They fussed about how he prepared their cones.  They fussed about the cost.  They fussed about whether or not he knew what the flavors of his own product were.  They were frighteningly unpleasant.  The teacher in me wanted to take over and end it, but I know that I can't be that person outside my classroom.

When the Nasty Couple was gone, I was finally able to ask for my choice.  I got pistachio, which seems to be ubiquitous here in everything.  I walked around savoring it.  It was sweet and creamy and cool and in every way good.  It more than made up for Mr. and Mrs. Hateful.

I have an admitted weakness for scarves.  It borders on addiction, but I'm not quite ready for the 12 steps on it.  As far as addictions go, I think it's not too bad even if it is running me out of house and home.... Turkey is not a good place to try to control this issue since culturally scarves are important for going into mosques and maintaining proper modesty for devout Muslim women.  I have seen the most gorgeous scarves on women around me as they ride the bus, walk with their children, meet their girlfriends for a night out breaking the iftar fast at a fancy restaurant, attend the mosques, buy groceries.

The quality is very high here and always has been since Bursa, one of the great silk centers of the world, is located here.  We visited Bursa and made a trip to its khan or market, the place where the silkworm growers would bring their cocoons for sale and processing.  Today, that space is still full of silk merchants keeping the public covered in comfort.  Color and luxurious texture spills out of the doors of their tiny closet-like shops and invites you to lift a corner, feel the seductive smoothness or heavy weave.  Turkey is scarf paradise, and I've been going a bit crazy with it.  The 12 step might be right around the corner.

Of course, then, this little Ramadan market is full of beautiful scarves.  There is hand-marbled silk, block printed cotton, loom-woven mixtures of linen and silk that shimmer in the evening light.  There are brights and darks; loose, open, airy weaves you can see through and heavy solids to keep you warm in the winter; there are modern patterns, traditional weaves, and Ottoman iconography.  The variety is mindboggling.

I am trying not to buy excessively.  I got a cheery, cherry-red, loose-weave scarf the first day because I could not walk away from it.  For everything else, I've tried to wait.  Last night, though, I went back to get one that had been sort of haunting me.  I'd walked past it three times, and I still wanted it.  Surely I managed to satisfy something mythic and symbolic by saying no three times, right?

It was not long after iftar.  Our group had just returned from dinner, and I'd walked around the area in front of the Blue Mosque to take a few pictures of the festivities there and of the incredibly lovely mosque with its evening glory about it.  The booth I was interested in was located in the middle of the space.  It had three men working; one of them was waiting on the customers, unfolding fabric and displaying it across the countertop.  The other two were busily breaking their fast with meals from styrofoam trays.  As I browsed, one of them saw me and nodded.  I smiled and nodded back, but I didn't want to disturb him; if I'd been fasting all day, I would probably be ready to cut somebody who showed up fifteen minutes after I was able to eat again.  I looked at different things, and when he saw I was serious about buying, he closed the lid on his tray and stood up to help me.  His companion continued to wolf down his dinner.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the young man spoke English.  In many places here, I have found English speakers, but I think it would be rude to expect it.  It hasn't really slowed down my commerce, to be honest, as I long ago learned that hand gestures, a smile, and a calculator can help you buy anything anywhere no matter what language you speak.  This guy was quite fluent, and he began to show me different samples of their wares. He explained that they were from another part of the country and only come to Istanbul for Ramadan to sell their wares at this fair. Their fabrics were heavy, woven on a loom like the one they had somehow managed to maneuver into the cramped confines of their booth.  Their patterns were traditional, and the pieces themselves were huge.  To be honest, I would have liked to have raked everything I saw into my arms and run away.

I settled on two, a red and white striped light cotton and a heavier one with a tiny blue and white geometric pattern that was so large I actually used it as a blanket last night.  We gently negotiated on the price, I paid, and he deftly packaged them for me.  As we were finishing up, he said, "I'll see you again soon" with laughter in his voice.  I had to smile in return at that last bit of salesmanship, and I replied with a little wave, "Oh, almost certainly" as I headed out into the night with my purchases tucked to my side.  With this combination of personality and quality of goods, I have very little doubt my scarf habit will drive me back there again.

Musical Healing

After a late breakfast, we packed up our bags one last time and headed out for our last day "on the road."  We started out at the Sultan II. Beyazid Kulliyesi ve Saglik Muzesi.  This complex, built by the Sultan Beyazid II, was designed to be a teaching hospital.  I didn't know quite what to expect out of a hospital museum.  It turned out to be fascinating for a number of reasons.

The first thing I noticed was the beauty of the surroundings.  All the buildings were of a pale cream stone that glowed in the morning light.  Gardens of roses and lavender scented the cool air.  The only sounds were birdsong, falling water from two fountains, and soft simple music.

The former hospital now has lifesize dummies posed in diorama that depict what day-to-day life was like there during the Ottoman Empire.  I am usually not a fan of mannequins, but these were well-done.  They detailed the types of treatments one could receive at the complex as well as what the various people - patients, physicians, student doctors - had and did.

So many of the things they were doing then are things we've only just now started to experiment with in the West.  Cataract surgery was already being performed in the Middle Ages as were C-section births and other things we didn't adopt until much later.  In a time when most of the people with mental health issues were being locked away and treated like wayward animals, the Ottomans sought a cure and dignity for each.  Why did it take the West so long to catch up to these ideas?

The thing I found most interesting was the concept of musical healing. One of their major forms of treatment for physical and psychological disorders both was exposure to different kinds of music.  At all times, the fountain kept beautiful sound echoing off the in-patient housing wing.  Patients would attend performances of all the different types of music depending on what they needed to help with their specific issues.  See the picture below for a description of what each type did and for whom.

There is a logic to this.  Think about how many times we use music casually to lift ourselves out of a bad mood.  Think about the research done on the possibility for damage or even death caused by excessive exposure to loud, low bass.  We even had the cliche about music soothing the savage soul.  Everything around us seems to be telling us that this is a good idea.  It's just taken us about 400 years to get back to it in our part of the world.

I bought two CDs, one of Rast and one of Rehavi.  The Rast, supposedly good for scholars, is something to try in my classroom.  I personally am going to try the Rehavi next time I get a migraine.  Who knows whether it will work or not?  I have tried everything else under the sun, including some medicines that have made me very, very ill in their own right.  Maybe it's time I took a leaf from the Ottoman Physician Desk Reference and let something I already enjoy become something that can heal me.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Where We Are, Where We've Been, Where We'll Be Tomorrow

Following this blog but have no idea where all this stuff is?  Here's a helpful map.  I should have done this a long time ago.  Sorry.

Sunday, July 14, 2013


Today was the kind of sunny day you always see in films.  The sky was bright blue and utterly cloudless.  Our trusty white bus slid with surprising and almost naval grace along curving roads.  Along the way, fields of golden sunflowers stretched into the distance.

We were headed for the battlefields of Gallipoli, site of the attempted invasion by England and France, site of Ataturk’s great battle success.  We’d been on the bus for hours getting here, and to be honest, I didn’t know what to expect.  I’ve been to battlefields before, Vicksburg and whathaveyou, but I had no idea of what was awaiting us.

Gallipoli is not just a battlefield.  It is also a graveyard to the thousands upon thousands of young men who never left there.

We saw the pillbox machine gun nests first.  These smallish grey concrete boxes clinging to the hillside and the beach seemed terribly incongruous with the deep aquamarine of the ocean below.  Several of them had tumbled from their supports and were slowly being eroded by the waves.

Next came the first cemetery at Anzac Cove.  Just before we entered the graveyard, we stopped to read Ataturk’s words on a huge sculpture nearby.  Of Gallipoli, he said:

"Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives…
You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours…
You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace, after having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well."

By the time I got through reading it, I had tears in my eyes.  How many world leaders have had the grace and the basic humanity to say something like this about an enemy that had tried to kill them personally?  The magnitude of understanding and compassion in this inscription is something we could use today, the ability to recognize that the things that divide us don’t have to demonize the other side.

Our bus continued on its winding path to the Lone Pine cemetery, mostly made up of Australia’s dead.  An entire hillside is covered with small neat stones. On each is a name, a date, and an age.  When you walk through the rows of markers, I think it is the ages that rise up and demand acknowledgment.  Here is one who was only 22.  Another was 18.  Beside him lies a soldier who was only 15.  They were children.  Just children.

In addition to the absolute heart-break of the ages is the fact that almost every one has an additional
inscription.  Many are the repetitive stock phrases we employ as epitaph.  Some are wrenchingly personal – a message telling the departed that his sisters will miss him, a phrase somehow managing to express pride and endless grief at the same time.  Some people have traveled great distances to lay crudely fashioned crosses against the base of the markers.  Others have stuck silk “buddy poppies” in the crevasses of the massive stone walls of names beside the one their family lost in the battle.

I could feel the weight of the place like a physical hand on my back.  We stopped once more to see the trenches in which this bloody bit of history had happened.  Now, they look so innocuous.  It’s hard to imagine anything more complex than a child’s game of hide and seek happening in the shallow timber-reinforced structures.  The moment that it sinks in that this is the ground that ran red and that this is the place where Ataturk told his men, “I’m not commanding you to fight.  I am commanding you to die,” it can never be seen as a playful place again.

Surreally, as we wound our way down the recently repaved roads, we began to pass picnicking families, men who had strung up hammocks between the trees near the beach.  Little children were splashing and dunking one another within sight of one of the crumbling pillboxes.  A brightly-colored kiosk selling cotton candy and ice cream beckoned.  I could not resolve these things in my mind, the stark rows of stones marching across the hill and the red and white flowered beach umbrella.

Perhaps, in the end, the children and the ice cream were actually always a part of it.  Both sides surely thought they were doing what was necessary, right, and good to allow safety for all things, even children at play.  History tells us that without the Turkish victory at Gallipoli, the modern nation I am in right now would not exist in this form.  Maybe after all, all of those who laid down their lives on those shores, so many of them really just kids themselves, would be proud to see that the grim grey pillboxes are not all of the story.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Subjective History

Yesterday we went to Iznik.  It's famous for a variety of reasons.  First, it is a center for the production of the fabulous and famous tiles named after the city itself.

Even more than this, Iznik was once Nicea.  Nicea was the site of several councils that defined modern Christianity.  The first was held in a church in the city about 325 AD.  Three hundred and eighteen bishops from all across the Roman world were called to Nicea by Constantine because he happened to have a summer house there.  Together, they decided what was and was not going to be acceptable practice and belief.

The most famous result of these conferences in Nicea was the Nicene Creed.  If you are not familiar with it, here it is:

We believe in one God, 
the Father, the Almighty, 
maker of heaven and earth, 
of all that is, seen and unseen. 
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, 
the only Son of God, 
eternally begotten of the Father, 
God from God, Light from Light, 
true God from true God, 
begotten, not made, 
of one Being with the Father. 
Through him all things were made. 
For us and for our salvation 
he came down from heaven: 
by the power of the Holy Spirit 
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, 
and was made man. 
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; 
he suffered death and was buried. 
On the third day he rose again 
in accordance with the Scriptures; 
he ascended into heaven 
and is seated at the right hand of the Father. 
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, 
and his kingdom will have no end. 

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, 
who proceeds from the Father and the Son. 
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. 
He has spoken through the Prophets. 
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. 
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. 
We look for the resurrection of the dead, 
and the life of the world to come. Amen. 

As you can see, it more or less lines out the basic tenets of Christianity.  I stood in the place where this happened.

The building might not have been the same structure as the one from 325 AD, but it was ancient, even compared to other countries and structures I've been in.  For a long time, it stood mostly derelict.  It was a site of pilgrimage and tourist curiosity for its major and important role in shaping a major world religion.  Signs in Turkish and English pointed out features of interest to those who came to see it.

 Recently, though, the government put a new tile roof on it and consecrated it as a mosque.  One of our group leaders had been there about the time it was closed for that renovation.  She'd been able to go inside, though, and see the scarred and neglected interior and read information placards that let Turkish and English speaking visitors get a sense of what they were looking at.

None of that was there when we went through.  There was no indication that an ancient fresco was tucked under a floor-level arch or that remnants of paintings of the saints clung tenaciously to the high arching ceilings of the apse.  They have survived time, nature, and deliberate defacement during the period when icons were banned, but now, they might lose their fight because of the changing nature of the building and a total lack of preservation.

This one small place leads to a much larger issue.  I was reading Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk today, and he talked at length about the idea that the Turkish nationalist have gone out of their way to co-opt the things they think reinforce their narrative of Turkey and her origins.  He says:

"When they wished to emphasize the Turkish of Muslim side...conservative writers created an Ottoman heaven where no one questioned the power or legitimacy of the pasha, where families and friends confirmed their ties to one another through rituals and traditional values....  Aspects of Ottoman culture that might offend westernized middle-class sensibilities - concubines, the harem, polygamy, the pasha's right to beat people - were tamed and softened...."

I would like to add to this list that in their efforts to refashion the past to suit them that they've also chosen to ignore, rewrite, or knock down vast portions of their history, which also happens to be critical history of the rest of the world.  In excluding things from their own narrative, they are removing the ability to keep these things for others whose narrative run along with and alongside that of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey.

We've talked a lot in this institute about how those who conquer get to take the stuff they want, slap their namebrand on it to legitimize their authority, and then use it as a base to surpass the accomplishments of that previous culture.  The great example of this is the Aya Sofia, of course, and the Suleymaniye sitting right down the street, glittering, lovely, and just that tiny bit more grandiose than the church-turned-mosque had been....

While every people should get to say what happens to the stuff in their own country, I think that if the present revision and re-envisioning of Turkey's past continues, a great loss will occur.  I don't just mean that those for whom these places and items have present significance will lose.  I mean that someday, the people of Turkey will look up and realize that they should have protected these things, should have found a way to hold them even if they weren't "en vogue" for a long time.  They will want them.  They will miss them.  In the way of such things, they will mourn for their loss.  Perhaps they will even build simacrula of them, put museums on the ruins of what is left.  It's happened elsewhere.

Wouldn't it be lovely if instead they simply found a way to keep the real instead of having to remake history?

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Steamed, Scrubbed, Beaten....and It's All Good

Last night after a long and fabulous bus ride, we rolled into the town of Safronbolu.  This city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and after walking around it today, it's not hard to see why.  Safronbolu was a major stop on the caravan trade routes up to the beginning of the 20th century.  The architecture built here influenced the rest of the empire.  Its name comes from the spice saffron which is grown, harvested, and processed here.

We walked around the rough cobblestone streets of Safronbolu today, and we would up at an imposing structure for lunch.  Inside its thick walls, everything was cool and dark.  Narrow windows like arrow slits let in just enough light from the outside to give that dim glow usually more associated with candles. This building was the Cinci Inn, a fortress where the camel trains could come and have safety and rest.

When we finished lunch, we picked our way once again over the cobbles to an Ottoman house about 200 years old that has been restored and made into a museum.  For the first time, I understood what the harem space is supposed to look like and how the household functioned.  In many ways, the harem space is just a formalization of what was happening in homes in the west.  The kitchen and maybe a sitting room were considered to be "women's spaces."  The harem, so much eroticised by the West, is actually only supposed to be a stronger version of this.  In the home of the average family, usually a very large and extended group together under one roof, it's not a place of soap opera intrigue.  Instead, the "world of women" and the "world of men" were kept separate, something that many other cultures of the time were doing anyway either de jure or de facto.

After I had this little revelation, it was time to head to the hotel to grab our stuff for a visit to the hamam.  There are hamams all over Turkey and the Middle East in general.  This one, the Cinci Hamam, has apparently been getting travelers clean since 1645.  Today, I became a part of this long tradition.

From the outside, the building itself is inviting.  Curved domes are covered in terracotta red tiles.  Set into the domes are small glass bubbles which channel light into the hammam without sacrificing the heat inside or compromising the privacy of those within.  As with so many things in life, our group split into men and women, and we went into separate sides of the baths.  I stripped down, wrapped the famous hamam towels around myself, and headed into the main chamber of the bath with everyone else.  We sat on marble benches and ran hot and cold water from brass taps into small marble cisterns from which we dipped up water and cleaned ourselves.  The we sat, enjoyed the wet steam that enveloped us, and waited for our turn at what came next.

There were four women working on everyone who came into the hamam.  They were stripped down to minimal clothing because of the heat and their activity.  Some worked on the huge stone dodecagon in the center of the main dome.  Others had a one person marble table in one of the three side domes.  When my time came, I went in and was laid face down on the table.  Then the woman who was taking care of me proceeded to get me cleaner than I have probably ever been in my whole life.

I was scrubbed.  I was soaped.  A thing that must be the king of the loofahs was used.  After that, I was rinsed and the massage portion of events began.  Unlike the massages I'd gotten in Japan that had hurt, this one was active but not deep-tissue.  It felt lovely to a body that has been running around too much and siting folded up on planes, trains, and busses for too long.  When I was done, I was rinsed off again, this time with a couple of buckets of cold water and told to wash my hair.  I did, and I simply sat for a few minutes to absorb the last of the heat from the marble.

After that, I wrapped the towel back around me and went back to the little locker in which I'd locked up my clothing.  Reluctantly, I pulled my clothing back on and went into the now-cool afternoon.  I looked at my skin.  I'd been scrubbed so clean that I literally had lost freckles the ever-present sun has brought out lately.  I felt supremely tranquil.  My friends and I headed off into the twisting streets of the Old City area to see if anything in the ancient shops caught our attention.  We finished the day off with Turkish chai, now one of my favorite things in the whole world, and conversation.

Safronbolu was once again a place of tremendous care and hospitality to tired wanderers.  It's sort of amazing that despite the change of times, that function has remained the same.  If you'd like to know more about Safronbolu, you can go here to explore the UNESCO World Heritage website for it.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Hand of Fatima

Hand of Fatima - Bought in Istanbul 7/9/13
Yesterday, I bought a necklace with the Hand of Fatima on it.  I have seen the emblem numerous times, but I've never been exactly sure of its meaning.  Today, I asked one of the instructors on the trip to take a look at my necklace and help me out.   

The Hand of Fatima is ancient symbol that seems to reach as far back as ancient Mesopotamia.  Three of the world's largest religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all have a version of it.  For the Jews, it is the Hand of Miriam.  For the Christians, the Hand of Mary.  Islam reveres it as the Hand of Fatima, daughter of the prophet Mohammed.  It is most widely used in Islam, and I have seen a million of these since I got here.  They're on everything...soap tins, necklaces, key chains, stickers, wallets.  It is hard to look around you very long without finding a Hamsa staring back.

Its purpose is very straight-forward.  It is an apotropaic charm, or magic to keep away the dreaded "evil eye."  (And for at least one of you who might be reading this, a song just started up in your head.  You know who you are. Go ahead.  Sing it.  You know you want to....)  There are various configurations of the charm.  If the fingers are open, then its purpose is to ward off evil.  If the fingers are closed, it is to hold in the good luck.  There is almost always an eye in the middle, although this, too, can vary.  For more on the symbolism and meaning of the Hamsa, please refer to this article from Wikipedia.  

Added to the hamsa aspect are other good luck and protective elements.  The eye in the center is made of turquoise, which, after a quick search online, has turned out to be a stone associated from ancient times with protection and connection to the spiritual.  The copper chain is designed to enhance this, too.  The other element added to this piece is a small amulet that has the most famous verse in the entire Quran, the throne verse, on it.  

The throne verse looks like this:

للَّهُ لاَ إِلَهَ إِلاَّ هُوَ الْحَيُّ الْقَيُّومُ لاَ تَأْخُذُهُ سِنَةٌ وَلاَ نَوْمٌ لَهُ مَا فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَمَا فِي الأَرْضِ مَنْ ذَا الَّذِي يَشْفَعُ عِنْدَهُ إِلاَّ بِإِذْنِهِ يَعْلَمُ مَا بَيْنَ أَيْدِيهِمْ وَمَا خَلْفَهُمْ وَلاَ يُحِيطُونَ بِشَيْءٍ مِنْ عِلْمِهِ إِلاَّ بِمَا شَاءَ وَسِعَ كُرْسِيُّهُ السَّمَاو ;َاتِ وَالأَرْضَ وَلاَ يَئُودُهُ حِفْظُهُمَا وَهُوَ الْعَلِيُّ الْعَظِيمُ

and looks like this in Roman script:

Allahu la ilaha illa Huwa, Al-Haiyul-Qaiyum La ta'khudhuhu sinatun wa la nawm, lahu ma fis-samawati wa ma fil-'ard Man dhal-ladhi yashfa'u 'indahu illa bi-idhnihi Ya'lamu ma baina aidihim wa ma khalfahum, wa la yuhituna bi shai'im-min 'ilmihi illa bima sha'a Wasi'a kursiyuhus-samawati wal ard, wa la ya'uduhu hifdhuhuma Wa Huwal 'Aliyul-Adheem

and means this:

"Allah! There is no god but He - the Living, The Self-subsisting, Eternal. No slumber can seize Him Nor Sleep. His are all things In the heavens and on earth. Who is there can intercede In His presence except As he permitteth? He knoweth What (appeareth to His creatures As) Before or After or Behind them. Nor shall they compass Aught of his knowledge Except as He willeth. His throne doth extend Over the heavens And on earth, and He feeleth No fatigue in guarding And preserving them, For He is the Most High. The Supreme (in glory)."
[Surah al-Baqarah 2: 255]

This verse, then, shows the power of God to protect, to preserve, to conquer all evil.  The words make the third part of the connection.  

I am fascinated by good luck charms from all over the world, but there is just something special about the ones here, the big blue eye disk and the hand of Fatima.  I think one of the things that draws me to them is that they are found all over the world.  In fact, something very like the hand appears in the pottery and artifacts of the Mississippian culture of Native American groups living all over the Southeast.  Some of the most famous examples of this have been dug up at Moundville, the archaeological site administered by the University of Alabama. It was not so much a protective symbol for them as it was a gate to the Underworld, their interpretation of the constellation we call Orion.  For more on the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex that Moundville is a part of, click here.

This motif, then, is ancient and pervasive.  Although the window dressing changes, the meaning has been around and around and around for millennia.  That's hard to wrap my mind around, but there is also something tremendously important here.  Cultures so far apart and that we think of as such separate and isolated little bundles share this symbol.  My friend Takashi would probably laugh at how much this amazes me and tell me that it is simply because we are all human.  It's a piece of the common bedrock we all somehow share no matter how often we forget that connection.  Every time I put on my very Muslim hamsa, I am going to feel that bond.  It makes an already special piece of jewelry even more meaningful, a reminder of the tie that stretches across time and culture.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Cuneiform and Oil Lamps

Today, we visited the Sadberk Hanim Museum. It is housed in the former residence of one of Turkey's richest families. I have no pictures because we were forbidden to take them inside, but the house itself was lovely.

Inside, the home was divided into two parts. One held three full floors of items the family had collected over the years. There were rooms of Chinese celadon and Ottoman tiles. There were cases of jeweled tiaras and cases full of Islamic calligraphy. A whole floor was dedicated to textile arts, and the richness of detail and beauty of even the hand towels on display was incredible.

My favorite part was to be found across the lobby, though. The other side of the house held artifacts dating all the way back to the 5th century BC. There were items from ancient cultures I've heard about all my life - the Assyrians, the Hittites. Each floor circled around through a timeline. There were tiny statues made from lead or silver, large marble fragments, curving clay pots.

One floor had a wall-sized display of Hellenic oil lamps. They were arranged in swirls and spirals underneath their protective glass. While all had basically the same shape, many had completely unique stamped or carved decoration. There were gods and goddesses, animals and abstract patterns. Some were simple, others ornate, some few obscene. What touched me was that each of them had been used regularly, been necessary, to someone. As I stared at their subtle color and pattern variations, I couldn't help but wonder how many hands had grasped them, how many fingers slipped through the tiny loop on the back to carry them so they could dispel the darkness. They were by no means the most valuable or flashy thing on display, but that humble elegant utility rendered them charming.

One floor down and several centuries back in time was a case of tiny clay tablets. I stepped up, certain of what I was seeing but unable to process it properly. Inside the softly lit enclosure were some fifteen or twenty pieces of cuneiform records. It's absurd, but I teared up looking at them. What story did they have to tell? Who had taken the time to press that stylus into the wet clay over and over again to create it? From all those thousands of years ago, the words on those fragments of hardened earth were still reaching out, still trying to connect to their readers, totally unaware that those readers are dust now, themselves.

Spenser wrote a sonnet to his love telling her that he would make her immortal by writing of her and their love in a poem. Today, I saw the ultimate expression of that in action. Whatever those people loved or cared about enough to record was alive there. That is the power of writing. We channel our ephemeral lives into blocks of stone or clay, into sheets of paper or the skins of animals, into the electronic mysteries of our computer's hard drive or cyberspace, and some part of us lives on. Some part of us connects to all those other writers crying out from every age. And even when our format has become as inaccessible as those clay tablets now are to most of us, then that slice of immortality will still remain. Our loves and our dreams will still exist. What an encouraging thought.

Monday, July 8, 2013

NEH Primary Source Ottoman Empire Summer Institute

This summer, I am one of 30 teachers selected from over 200 applicants nationwide to participate in the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute on the Ottoman Empire. I've been reading and preparing, buying new travel gear and a million other little things for months now, but day before yesterday, I finally got on the plane and the reality of it started to sink in.

I've never been to Turkey before. I've never been in this part of the world at all. I don't even know much about it. As I started to look at the specifications for the course, I began to think how ridiculous it was that this major power that shaped the rest of the world if for no other reason than that it was reacting to the Ottomans had just sort of faded away. It was a gap in my knowledge that I needed to correct.

The flight getting here was brutal. My route took me through Atlanta (because I cannot fly unless ATL is involved), but from there it got sticky. I had to run through ATL because my flight out of Jackson ran a little late, and then came the long jump to Paris. That flight was okay because that miracle of air travel, the empty seat next to me, occurred. I could throw my junk in the seat, stretch out a little, and it was good.

When I got to Paris, all the good started evaporating. It was a tiny plane. I was jammed in behind some tiny child whose father told her to lean her seat all the way back so she could rest even though I actually cried out when she did so. The food was some sort of scary chicken lump. The flight went on and on to the point that I thought I was going to scream.

When I finally arrived, I was tired and jet lagged beyond comprehension. I staggered through the evening, met some of the other trip members, ate pancakes of spinach and mushroom in a restaurant in which we set on the floor on rugs. It was great, but I was so weary that all I could think of was a shower and a bed.

That's when I heard it for the first time. I had just dragged myself out of the shower when a noise I thought at first was some kind of concert outside caught my attention. I walked to the windows, looked, and listened. The sound filled the streets, echoing down the narrow spaces between the buildings. It was lovely.

Then it hit me. What I was hearing was the muezzins calling the faithful to prayer. I've never before been anywhere to hear it. It starts at the mosque with the highest prestige, the Sultanahmet. Then the next highest ranking muezzin picks up and their words for a song that swoops and soars over the entire city. Even though it was totally beyond my background and my understanding, the beauty of it raised gooseflesh as I listened. 

I've heard it a couple of times since then, and each time, it lifts something in my heart. All most all the jet lag is gone now, and tomorrow, I'll be ready for an active day. There will be more to tell, but for now, it's time to rest a little more and ready myself for the next new unexpected wonder.