This being human is a guest-house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
If you are interested in Christianity, Islam or Mythology; Roman, Byzantine or the Ottoman empires; history, culture or architecture; food or jewelry…then Turkey is the place for you.
Its strategic location where Asia meets Europe has made its capital powerful from the time Istanbul was called Constantinople. Traces of its presence in ancient walls and magnificent mosques and palaces shape Istanbul’s landscape and color its exotic texture for more than 3000 years. There are more mosques in Turkey than in any other Islamic country. Turkey is secular so all religions are practiced openly and securely. Turkey is the crossroads of cultures, a rendezvous of East and West, past and present. It’s a magical place that sits comfortably right in the Fertile Crescent. And fertile it is. Rich in Figs, Dates, Hazelnuts, pistachios and pomegranates. The juice of the pomegranate is pressed on the side of the road, at temples and for breakfast. Delicious and nutritious.
Having been to Turkey many times, I’d come to expect the unexpected. But on this trip I saw apart of the country that made it even more special.
Turkey is so full of buried history that many treasures are still found on one’s property. Burial gifts and skeletons with gold coins still in the mouth to pay the way into the River Styx…a river that separates the world of the living from the world of the dead. Styx it is said winds around Hades (hell or the underworld) nine times. You must be able to pay to cross into Heaven.
There are state of the art trams that take you up the mountains to the Acropolis and hot air balloons that offer you views of the incredible landscape that crosses the continent. From Canakkale that hugs the shores of the Dardanelles and connects with the Sea of Marmara to the Aegean Sea you’ll find Troy, the legendary city that sent Paris to rescue Helen. The real Trojan horse is long gone but in its place is a gift from the film crew starring Brad Pitt…the horse from the movie sitting alongside the sea for all to see.
In Ephesus, along the coast is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World- The Temple of Diana and later the home of Saint John. During the years of the Roman Empire, the port of Ephesus became the greatest city in Asia Minor. Here you will find one of the most magnificent excavated sites in the world. The Library of Celsus is reputed to be the largest library in existence even today and the Odeon a huge outdoor auditorium seating 50,000 people and still drawing crowds to see Elton John, Andreas Botticelli, Sting and many others. Around the buildings if you notice are small hearts carved into the rock…they lead visiting sailors to the brothels.
Further on is the House of The Virgin Mary. St John promised Jesus after his crucifixion, to take his mother with him to Turkey for safekeeping. The two were together for the rest of her life and her home, now a shrine, is where she died. There is a small constantly running spring of fresh water that is said to have started flowing upon her death. It’s perfectly clear and people bottle and drink from the water running from the rocks.
But for me the most incredible places in Turkey are in the southeastern area, Cappadocia, the land of the beautiful horses, named by the Hittites dating back to 2000 BC. Interestingly enough, there were horses running free. Here Turkey offers up the entire range of experiences. Its history predates Christ by some thousands of years. It was here that several ancient highways crossed and different cultures came into contact with one another. Christians, Jews, Arabs, Sultans and Kings.
There are thousand-year-old hot water springs that have over time developed a landscape as luridly white as new snow. Miles wide and hundred stories high, these mountains still flow constantly. As you approach, it is the calcium deposits from these hot springs running from deep inside the earth that looks like snow-capped mountains. As you climb up the lush paths, the air is warmed by the hot waters that have formed pools shallow enough to wade in. From the top you can see the spas that have grown from the healing powers of this amazing water source. I don’t think you should drink these, but wallow? Oh yes.
But the real draw now to this city is the volcanic formations of malleable soil that has created carvings of nature, caves, towers, caverns and underground cities. The widest is Kymakli Underground city, three stories of which were carved by the Hittites and dug deeper centuries later. By the fourth century B.C. Alexander the Great occupied the area and later the Romans. Early Christians suffered greatly from the Roman, Pagan and Arab invaders. They used these caves and underground cities to hide from persecution. The underground city now is more than eight stories deep and once was occupied by as many as 10,000 people hundreds of feet below the surface. Hidden caves were the entry portals.
Climbing deep into these tunnels was physically daunting and emotionally taxing. Tight tunnels opened into larger areas where you could stand erect and divided into eating and sleeping rooms. Upper levels for food and horses. These tunnels ran into more tunnels and the labyrinth they created is not one I wanted to think about from underground. There are carved markings that you wouldn’t notice but that point the way or identified the ‘neighborhood’ you were in. Interestingly, there was a constant flow of fresh air some 150 feet down, from a straight shaft dug from earths’ surface down to the water table. Leaning into the dark shaft, I couldn’t see the sky nor the bottom. Imagining a people forced to live like this for months at a time to avoid the Crusaders is a frightening reality.
Outside along the cliffs are caves that still show evidence of the chapels made to house and hide the places of worship. They are up very steep ridges and are almost imperceptible from the ground. But inside the small areas are painted saints and symbols of a religion that endured. Some are large enough to have held kitchens for the worshippers when all was safe. Taking a hot air balloon ride above these towers made it all the more amazing, magnificent and awe-inspiring. The strength of the human will to survive and under what conditions is in itself dramatic. The experience really gives pause, a need to ask for grace and give a prayer.
Then back to Istanbul for a day or two to catch the flight home. The Grand Bazaar and the Egyptian Spice Markets are calling. You have not shopped until you enter the hustle and bustle of these places. Full of everything you want and need or forced into your hand. So soon after the epiphany of the south and the prayers given are you thrust into the marketplace of centuries old customs. The Grand Bazaar is the oldest, largest market in the world. There are more than 400 vendors selling everything from bling for the king to carpets that might fly. And NOTHING made in China. There is no need, there is so much talent and wares that Turkey will take your breath and make you turn your back on any tacky thing and instead embrace the lush baby soft leather bags, coats and shoes. The cashmere and silk rugs, scarves, coats and gloves slide against your palm. Real belly dancing belts and cymbals jingle a lovely melody. Prayer books of hand made paper feel light in your hand. Mountains of gorgeous colored spices, dried fruit, nuts soaps, lotions and potions fill your hungry nostrils. Silver rings and things tinkle around your wrists and neck. The incredible ethnic woolen and woven to keep you cozy and warm in winter. The statues of graceful gods and goddesses, gold and gems to make your eyes tear.
This is the magic of Turkey. It’s got it all and more. And for a delightful hosting you can’t ask more of Turkish Air. Flights were on time, they are offering new planes with movies and music mounted on the seat back in front of you, the food in flight is great, the wine their own (Oh did I forget to mention Raki?). Menu’s instead of a box of stuff for dinner. You’ll love them and Turkey.