Destinations Magazine

St. John’s Tomb: Travel Tales from Turkey

By Davedtc @davedtc

capadocciaGreetings from Cappadocia!

We are rapidly adapting to the troglodyte lifestyle of the modern cave dweller! Cappadocia was a perfect hideaway for the early persecuted Christians because they fled here to hide away in caves and they built their churches in caves as well. It almost appears that every family had its own church, sort of like a second living room to their cave dwelling. These early churches comfortably fit only about 10 people in very damp and dark conditions.

Many of these Churches also developed during the Byzantine empire when the East and West first split over the development of Christian dogma. Centuries of bickering over Jesus’ divinity (Rome initially argued that Jesus was more human than divine, and Constantinople took the opposite stance), the use of leavened or unleavened bread, and who processed from whom settled the split between Catholic and Orthodox believers. Rome argued that Holy spirit proceeded ‘from the son’ as well as from the Father while the Orthodox clung to the original formulation that it proceeded only from the Father.

Muhammad, founder of Islam, comes along about 600 years later and sees all the bickering among Christians and so he makes very clear that there is one God and no one processed from him. Now in all the mosques they repeat the following mantra “He, Allah, is the one and only. Allah is he on whom all depend. He begotteth not, nor is he begotton, and none is like him.” Muslim means “one who submits” and when Muhammad was on his warpath, the conquered people either submitted or were killed.

Religion and politics have always been closely intertwined! The other day I came across the following quote from 705 BC. “Sennacherih, the Great King, Mighty King, King of the Universe, King of Assyria, King of the 4 regions, king of the favorite Gods. The God and Goddess have given me an invincible weapon and have opened my hand for the distinction of the enemies of Assyria. Trusting in their great might I lead my armies.” Heck, this quote could easily have been the ones Christians used for their empire-building missions. Under the guise of the Christian crusades, they looted, plundered, raped, and murdered as they went. Much of Istanbul’s riches were lost during the 4th crusade when Venetians invaded.

And to more mundane matters: rug shopping. I had always been warned about aggressive rug vendors around the world, but I still wasn’t prepared for the onslaught. We enter a rug store and about 5 Turkish men descend like spiders out of nowhere lowering themselves from the ceiling. One is the leader and the rest are there to throw rug after rug on the ground. They lead us upstairs, the higher we go the better the rug quality. We finally arrive at the top with all the silk rugs and the leader sits us down in a couch and brings us tea. The leader establishes his connection with the tourists by asking where they’re from and then exclaiming he has an uncle in New York and he is on his way there shortly to study economics. I ask the leader where he learned his English. In the bazaar he tells me.

The leader is master of psychological manipulation. First he puts us at ease, letting us know that we aren’t expected to buy, but that he simply wants to give us a training in quality rugs. He begins to plant doubts in our minds about all the previous stores we visited because all stores but theirs sells imitations from China which only the trained eye can distinguish.

The leaders store has a reputation to maintain and so they don’t bargain. Prices are set to be fair. After 30 minutes of planting doubts and wearing down the customers so that they place their full trust in the leader, he is ready to quote a price. But we are savvy, refusing to be manipulated, and ready to argue. We successfully lower the price by 3,000 dollars and then leave the store in disgust.

Greetings from Cappadocia! Merhaba friends!

We are taking relief in the internet cafe from the sweltering heat! I just spent the morning leisurely wandering the village. I’m always amazed to see in these villages a lifestyle several centuries old coexisting with modernity. As I write a donkey cart just went by with 2 villagers in native dress. Yesterday we sat at the balcony of one of the top 5 elegant restaurants in Turkey while watching women wrapped in shawls on donkeys trotting by, sort of like lots of Marys on their flight into Egypt.

We find that if we just stop traveling, stop running from one cave church to the next, our eyes become attuned to life as it existed before tourists. This morning as I wandered the alleyways, an old lady wrapped in a head shawl and traditional dress grabbed my arm and pulled me into her house. First she showed me a 1500-year old dilapidated church she was using to store her grain. Then she showed me her clay pots of freshly made cheese which she was burying in the ground to store until winter when the cheese would be ready to eat. Next we visited the cows living on the cave porch and then we ducked into her cave home and she showed me a tub of grape leaves soaking in water, which she was going to use to make dolmas. She gave me a dolmas to sample, then sat me down on her chair and showed me how to correctly wrap a head scarf over my head.

Here women wear head scarves for common sense practicality to shield themselves from the blazing sun. A few strands of hair peaking out of their shawls mean nothing in their daily effort to till the vineyards, milk the cows and make the cheese, care for the children and cook their meals. But in Istanbul, the 50% of women who wear head scarves wear them for religious purposes. A women’s beauty is to be hidden and that means every single strand of hair. However, human nature prevails and these women have turned their scarves into a fashion and status statement. Some scarves are made out of beautiful material with incredible colors. Heck, if it wouldn’t be so strange at home I would naturally gravitate to wearing a head scarf to gracefully finish off my outfit!

No matter what developing country I visit the same phenomena is occurring. Now is a pivotal turning point in history where modernity and life as it used to exist for thousands of years coexist side by side. While the world around the villagers lurches into the 21st century, the last threshold for traditional life is farming. 33% of Turkey’s economy is dependent on farming = an extraordinarily large number in comparison to other European countries. As they vie to enter the EU they are faced with immense challenges in modernizing their farming. Except for the three-wheeler cart that carries an entire family to the vineyard, all farming is done by hand with wheel barrows, shovels, and trowels. Construction is also an incredible display of manual effort. Buildings are torn down with sledge hammers and pick axes. Then each stone is placed by hand with cement made at the site.

I can’t help but think that it might be a more beneficial step to teach villagers around the world about more efficient farming practices and to give them the tools to do so, than spend our time genetically engineering foods with biotechnology when most of the world is nowhere near that level of “progress!”

Entry to the EU also comes with loss of some traditional customs. When Turkey first made its bid to enter the EU, the president begged his people to stop sacrificing an animal each time a big project commenced. The villagers will also have to stop eating tasty animal intestines if they are going to meet European health standards.

Another donkey just passed by the cafe and one man greeted another by kissing his hand before kissing both sides of his cheek. My mom is sipping tea graciously provided her by the internet owner who tells her he hates internet. It’s a waste of time he says.

On that note, I bid adieu!

Greetings from Ephesus! Merhaba friends,

Greetings from the Aegean Sea! Yesterday I went swimming in the sea with women clad in everything from full-bodied robes and head-scarves to bikinis – a great visual for the religious makeup and diversity of this country. Just ahead of me in the water lay Greece. The Ottoman Turks never made it across the Aegean Sea so Greeks are Christian Orthodox and Turkish people are Muslim.

We are getting an excellent overview of Christian and Islamic history in this country. So far I’ve seen Moses’ rod, Mohammed’s footprint, something or other from Abraham, St. John’s tomb, and now today we saw where St. Paul preached to the masses in Ephesus.

I conclude that the development of religion says more about human nature than anything particularly sacred. The 16th century philosopher, Montaigne, once said “Man cannot make a worm, yet he will make Gods by the dozen.”

I paused today in the arena where St. Paul preached to a mob of angry Romans that God could not be represented in anything made by man. He urged them to abandon their idolatrous practices and stop building temples to Artemis – the Greek goddess of fertility. Wealthy Ephesians and townspeople gathered in the Arena and one towns person, Demitrius, argued that his entire livelihood would be hurt if he had to stop selling his miniature Artemis statues. So now all that remains of the nearby Temple to Artemis, one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world, is a pillar. And nearby a Church was erected.

I also sat on St. Johns tomb amidst the ruins of one of the grandest basilicas made at the time. All that remains of the basilica are old pillars lying aimlessly on the ground. The picture looked like the scattered remains of the behind the scenes set in the high school drama room. The turtles wandering over the ruins seemed to be the only live creatures around. I suppose nothing is permanent, and over time, not even any particular religion.

We arrived at Ephesus today late in the afternoon to bypass the tourist hordes and the most precious moments in this ancient city were my minutes of silence sitting in the Roman arena and in the shade of the massive library facade, after the last tour bus had departed. I put my audio guide in my pocket, tired of random facts about Ionian columns, when a particular stone was restored, or when a structure was built, and tired of chirping tourists walking with their heads plastered in their guide books. At some point information becomes a distraction. On any of my travels I most remember the pauses, when I’m stilled into presence, when my senses open their pores to the surrounding details, when my imagination wanders into the past, when something draws me into precious silence. When I reach that point the experience remains in my bones for a lifetime.

The mosque again is piping its call to prayer and dinner is calling!

Greetings from Bergama! Merhaba friends!

We have parted from Christian history and are now keeping quite busy in this land of Greek and Roman ruins. There are more ruins per square kilometer, so they say, than any other place in the world. I sat in a Greek amphitheater with just the sound of the wind in the pine trees and the spirit of Homer, who probably lived in the region, for company.

Yesterday I dipped my foot in the thermal baths, the same baths which Cicero may have bathed in. And today I visited the Asklepion, the medical center where Galen in 100 AD set the foundation for medicine through the 16th century.

The Greeks invented a God for every facet of human experience, much like the Christians later did with their saints. Here in Galen’s medical center, we saw the Temple of Telesphorus, one of the Gods for medicine. His two daughters were named Hygeia and Panacea, both of which have passed into modern medical terminology.

I have begun to read Homer to get a glimpse into the Greeks honest depiction and awareness of human nature – “that learning comes through pain, reason is checked by fate, men are social creatures, the truth only emerges through dissent and open criticism, human life is tragically short and therefore comes with obligations, characters is a matter of matching words with deeds, the most dangerous animal is the natural beast within us…”

Unknown to most, we can thank the Byzantine empire for preserving the Greek classics. When the Roman empire fell the Byzantine empire, which includes modern day Turkey, took its place. The scriptorium – where monks painstakingly copied biblical writings and the classics – began here and was later brought to Europe. The humanists from here went to Italy at the very beginning of the Renaissance (and as the Byzantine empire was declining) to teach Greek and the classics. They played a very important part in the dawn of the European Renaissance.

The other day we wandered into Turkish hinterland, having ditched tourists and paved roads for an authentic country experience. Just as my mom began whimpering over the thought of our car breaking down, we arrived at our destination – a beautiful village, perched above a lake and beneath Mt. Latmos where more Greek mythology developed.

According to legend, Selene, the moon Goddess looked down from above at sleeping Endymion who had been granted eternal youth and beauty in exchange for eternal sleep. The moon fell in love with Endymion but she could only gaze down in loving affection, casting a light glow on mortals below.

We stayed into the evening in this village to catch sight of the locals. As the day relaxes and the sun wanes, women come out to sit on their doorsteps to crochet. The cows are herded back through the village streets. The men gather at the local teahouse to banter and watch life go by. And the children gather to play with their imaginations and each other.

Men and women have clearly defined roles in this country. Men are seen in public during the day, dominating all aspects of business, and in the tea houses where they gather all day long under the shade of the grapevines. Women are spotted as the day turns to dusk when they come out of their homes and their farms to sit on their stone doorsteps. In the mosques, men reign with full entry to the main floor while women are relegated to what often appears like cages in the back.

I have never been in a country where I uniformly do not trust most of the businessmen – the carpet vendors, the taxi drivers, the tour guides… False courtesies ooze out of the men, barely concealing their resentment, their disgust for the tourist. They rely on the tourists for their livelihood, and so they will play the game, whatever it takes to get our money. They lie, they sweet-talk, and then they get mad if we ignore them and blame us for poor manners. My mom and I have conjured a million and one possible retorts, but we hold back. We wish to tell them ‘but your words aren’t genuine.’

My mom has learned to refrain from her cheery ways, from innocently smiling at men. One man, 20 years younger, came up to her and asked her if she wanted a boyfriend.

Yesterday we arrived in Bergama with a gentle reminder that we are indeed in a foreign country. We arrived in the bustling market town without a map, and somehow landed our car in the middle of chicken/rooster/duck/rabbit market. No one spoke English. Miraculously
we found our way!

Tomorrow we are off to our final destination, a small village on the Aegean coast.

Farewell to Turkey! Merhaba friends!

I’m writing from Behramkale, a little seaside harbor tucked below a knuckle clenching, hairpin road fit for only one car. The road winds its way hundreds of feet above the Aegean along a sheer cliff. I’m getting quite adept at driving this road into town. I spent this afternoon reading, perched on a mountain top overlooking the Aegean under the shade of an olive tree at the foot of Greek ruins. This is the town where Aristotle lived for a few years.

We get a number of Turkish people enthusiastically asking where we are from. They frequently guess Germany followed by Norway. Sometimes we have a little fun and pull out our Italian passports. When we tell them we are from the United States, they respond with “oh, America,” with an almost imperceptible disappointment in the downturn of their voice. Their reaction doesn’t surprise me.

In 1991 the Turks supported our invasion of Iraq, thinking they would get some share of the spoils in the northern oil wells. Instead they lost billions of dollars in potential trade with Iraq due to the international sanctions. In 2003 the Turkish parliament showed an amazing display of democracy when they voted against the Turkish government pleas to accept billions of dollars of US aid in exchange for rights to send American troops stationed in Turkey across the border into Iraq. And after Bush Jr won the 2nd election the BBC polled twenty countries for their reactions to Bush and America. The Turks were the most vociferous in their complaints against the US. The most popular Turkish book at that time was a fictional book in which Turkey was nuking DC. Despite all of that, we have been warmly welcomed into their country and accommodated for all our western ways and attire.

The end of travel always brings out the philosophical in me. Travel highlights for me the contrasts between cultures, allowing me to critically evaluate my culture and intentionally choose how I wish to live my life. I see in Turkish villages a self reliance that I do not experience in Silicon Valley – a self reliance that draws on the senses. Children learn how to entertain themselves, with each other and with their imaginations. In the evenings they play with each other on the cobble stone streets. I contrast this image with the visual of SUVs zooming down the freeway in the evenings at home with their TV monitors playing for the children in the backseat. I suspect such constant external entertainment and lack of self reliance breeds boredom and restlessness.

I see here people, who despite hard work, also understand what leisure means, men who banter the afternoon away underneath the grapevines at the local tea house and women who engage their senses by literally grounding themselves on the stone doorstep of their homes and knitting and chatting with their neighbors.

A way of life that includes the senses speaks to me of self-reliance. One villager told me he would never trade his farming life because always after a long day he comes home feeling the pleasant tiredness of a long days physical labor. At home we rely on machines for brief spurts of frenetic exercise to robotically release the energy built up from a frenzied day of work.

Without a culture that cultivates a self-reliance grounded in the senses we really do not know what leisure means. There seems to be a love-hate relationship with “busyness.” Our self worth is validated when we can say we are busy. We feel important and yet we also long for more time for ourselves.

For most of us at home we do not always have the choice to live a slower lifestyle built on cultivating our own food. I would never want to live a farming lifestyle. And yet I keenly feel how our culture has departed from an integration of our senses for an imbalanced value on the mind and information. We rely on technology to organize our lives and the vast amounts of information constantly bombarding us. Information that both enlivens our minds and sparks the senses can allow us to live more deeply and richly. But I fear most of the information coming our way is useless distraction. For example, our 30 year old Turkish host, a product of globalization, spends her days building her own personal “brand awareness” as though she is a product needing marketing by driving content about herself into cyberspace.

My travels also highlight what I most appreciate about our culture. I am keenly aware that we have a legacy built on freedoms and human rights. Where a number of countries’ rights are dependent on each new government, we have a foundation that at least in theory supports our freedoms. We have the freedom to choose what information we wish to seek out. In the recent Iranian elections, for example, access to YouTube was shut down to keep the world from knowing what was going on. But thanks to Twitter the information leaked out.

I am aware that as a US citizen I have access to visit most countries in the world and I don’t have to be a millionaire to do so.

I am also aware how easy it is to take our rights too lightly, to miss them slipping away without even realizing it.

I am aware that our empire is on very fragile footing right now as China and Russia and additional countries meet (excluding the US request to be included) to take the first formal step to remove the US dollar from the world’s reserve currency.

I am grateful for the perspective that travel provides me, and for the freedom I have to evaluate and choose how I wish to live my life.

I’m off for one last swim in the Aegean!


Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog