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The Works of Jed Appelrouth
Jed Appelrouth

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Travelogue: Turkey

Late last year I was invited on a tour of Turkey by the Theater Director of Pace Academy, my friend, Scott Sargent. He told me that on this trip I would have no responsibilities whatsoever, but would accompany current Pace students and several of my favorite high school teachers on a quick historic tour of Istanbul and Ephesus. It sounded like a wonderful trip.

We departed from Atlanta on the 13th of March, headed to Frankfurt and then on to Istanbul. We were transported to our accommodations, Hotel Alaturka, a beautiful little hotel in the heart of the city center. The cooks served up the first of many outstanding breakfasts, consisting of fruits and veggies, yogurt, cheeses, breads, pastries and Turkish tea and coffee, and then we were off to see the city. We took a quick tour of the Mosaic museum and the Hippodrome before feasting our eyes on the Blue Mosque, Sultanahmet, Sultan Ahmed's epic creation. I have never been so impressed by the symmetry, elegance, balance of a building. I assume the Taj Mahal would eclipse this mosque in beauty, but I have yet to make that journey. Each evening during our stay in Istanbul, I would walk by the blue mosque and marvel at this illuminated structure.

The competing structure in the heart of Istanbul was the creation of Emperor Justinian, the famed Hagia Sophia. It was one of the dominant churches of the Byzantine period, was converted into a mosque in 1453 and a state museum in 1923. The outside, though gargantuan, was not nearly as impressive as the neighboring Blue Mosque. If the Blue Mosque was a Porsche, the Hagia Sophia was a Hummer. My friend Lolly said it was like comparing a wedding cake to a loaf of bread. But on the inside the Hagia Sophia was massive and impressive and its dome was rivaled only by that of St. Peters Basilica in Rome.

The other primary point of interest in the city center was the Sultan's former residence, Topkapi Palace. Until I saw it in writing, I thought we were looking for the "Top Copy", and I didn't know if this was some subsidiary of Kinko's until I saw the guide book. The gardens outside the palace were beautifully maintained, and on the inside of the palace, we got a taste of the incredible ornamentation and embellishment of the Sultan's home. Pattern upon pattern upon pattern. We took a tour of the treasury and walked by the prized gems and Sultanish raiment in the collection. We did not have time to tour the Reliquary, and it was only later that we learned of its prized possessions: the tooth of Mohammed, Abu Bakr's beard and the skillet of Abraham. We had such a heyday with Abraham's skillet. With the Pace students, I spent a great deal of time brainstorming other questionable culinary relics that the Sultan may have possessed: The Wok of Isaac, the Easy Bake Oven of Mary, Saint George's George Forman Grill. The list of sacred culinary implements went on and on.

It was wonderful having the students on the trip, for, to my delight, to my Turkish delight, I learned that all of my myriad Turkey-based jokes went over brilliantly with them on our Turkey tour. Turkey jokes have always held a cherished spot in my repertoire of sophomoric humor, and it was with great pleasure that I brandished my turkey jokes with reckless abandon, basting in the glory of Turkey, during all the days of our brief Anatolian tour.

Beyond the Blue Mosque, Topkapi, and the Hagia Sophia, we saw several other churches, towers and fortresses around the city. During one of our meals in the city, we experienced, for a moment, a hint of the religious tensions that are lying beneath the calm surface of life in Istanbul. While grabbing a snack in an observant Muslim area, where the vast majority of women were donning head coverings, full length skirts, and many wore the traditional burqas, a little boy who could not have been more than 10 years old, walked over to a member of our group, one of the teachers, who was dressed in normal western attire, and he spat on her before he walked away. This was a shock to our group, but we were more shocked to learn that earlier in the week, a women who was walking in an observant neighborhood, while wearing a skirt that was below her knees, but not down to her ankles, was accosted by a group of religious men; they insulted her and threw acid on her legs, badly burning and disfiguring her.

The event triggered many heated discussions in our group regarding the religious and political situation in Turkey. Though Turkey is 98% Muslim, less than 30% of its inhabitants are observant muslims. Ataturk's 1923 Revolution established a secular State. But the religious movement is growing stronger and the observant muslims are clamoring for greater freedoms and political power. Those Turks who espouse Western Values understand what is at stake and look to Iran to see what the future could potentially bring if the religious fundamentalists come into full power. The irony of the situation is that if the government allows women to wear their head coverings in a university setting and potentially a government setting, could the granting of this singular freedom lead to the dissolution of other freedoms that women currently enjoy? Is it a slippery slope to the imposition of Shariah, which could lead to an effective end to the progressive women's movement in Turkey? This debate and the question of membership in the EU are two of the hottest topics in the political discourse of the country.

For our last evening in Istanbul, before heading off to Ephesus, we spent an hour watching a ceremony involving spinning Sufis, whirling dervishes, in a giant room in a train station, which happened to be the terminus of the Orient Express. The next morning we spent several hours in the Grand Bazaar, in which 4000 merchants, tightly packed into covered commercial quarters, all clamored for your attention and your Lira, Euros, or Dollars. "Where are you from?" I was asked again and again as the merchants tried to engage me in conversation and slow me down enough to get me into their shops.

I deflected the majority of these entrees into a consumption oriented conversation, but eventually I did find my way into several shops, procuring 3 table cloths and enjoying the Turkish method of commerce. One negotiation was particularly laughable. I found a table runner that I liked and began the dance. I tend to use the "broken record" method of negotiation, stating my price and not moving from it, walking out if necessary, expecting the merchants to follow me out if they really want to conduct a transaction at my stated price. But the table runner negotiation was different. The merchant was a young man in his mid twenties. He showed me several table runners, and I found the one I wanted. He opened with 80 Lira. I countered with 40. He dropped to 70. I countered with 40. He dropped to 60. I offered 40. He extended his hand and asked me to shake his hand. We shook hands; he said, "55" and I said, "40." We are looking directly into each other's eyes. Nobody is blinking. He shakes again with authority and says 55, I say 40. Shake. 55. 40. Shake. 55. 40. I don't recall how many rounds this went on, until he finally conceded: 40. And we smiled and went happily to the ATM to get some more Lira. Thinking of this still makes me laugh.

One cause of confusion in the bazaar was the switch between Lira, Euros and dollars. In one negotiation, I accidentally walked away from a better deal in dollars for a worse deal in Lira. I just made a faulty conversion. Outside of the bazaar, most things were priced in YTLs (New -Yeni- Turkish Lira) and YKRs (New Kurus). Many of our group members began to refer to these prices as Yertls (YTL) and Yackers (YKR)- that was quite fun. 24 Yertls! Forget it! 3 Yertls- 50 Yackersи no chance!

With all of our commerce wrapped up, after four historic days in Istanbul, we headed to the airport and took a short flight to Izmir, where we caught a bus to the city of Sel█uk, a stone's throw from Ephesus. Our first day in Sel█uk started with a visit to Mary's purported tomb. I was more than a bit skeptical of the authenticity of this site, grouping it in the same category as Abraham's skillet. I followed the guide and the group through the compound, but when we reached the simple chapel, the purported burial site of Mary, we found an unadorned, unassuming, modest space with a dome ceiling, several candles and a man praying in the back. As I stood in silence in the room, I realized there was something special about this place. Whether or not anybody was buried beneath this edifice, it had a particular energy to it. The repository of thousands and thousands of prayers over centuries, this place had been transformed. The energy felt strangely cleaner, more open. I offered some prayers of my own and stayed in the building for a while as the monkish fellow prayed in the back of the room. I left to tour the rest of the compound, but returned once more to partake of the energy of that little space.

We took a side trip to the vestiges of Artemis' temple, a former Wonder of the ancient world, now reduced to a vacant field, some scattered rocks, a lonely column and a small chachka shop, whose proprietor, a diminutive Turkish woman, was busy weaving, halfheartedly trying to sell postcards, evil eye amulets and fertility sculptures of little Priapic men with giant phalluses. Strangely, the stone genitalia were appropriate for the former temple of Artemis, goddess of fertility. In the Ephesus museum, we saw statues of Artemis, and she was a sight to behold: a goddess covered with signs of life. Bees, flowers, bulls, deer, the 12 signs of the horoscope, dozens of breastlike-testicular-orbs covered the body of the statue. This copiously fecund, polyzoological goddess, arms outstretched, beckoning, enthroned in a marble temple 100 feet high and 350 feet across- the size of a football field- she must have been a sight to behold, surrounded by priests, offerings and burning torches and candles. I can only imagine how this must have impressed the imaginations of the Hellenists, and how it would have been hard for the early Christians to convince the Ephesians to reject their goddess for a new religion. But in time, the Temple fell, the stones of the great edifice found their way into dozens of other buildings in and around Sel█uk, and Artemis was all but forgotten.

Our tour took us to Ephesus where we walked through this ancient coastal town, one of the better preserved cities of the ancient Roman Empire. Ephesus boasted the beautiful facade of the reconstructed library and a beautiful coliseum, but most of the city lay in ruins, and roughly 90% of the city, which formerly housed 350,000 inhabitants, had yet to be unearthed. The majority of really interesting artifacts had been carted off to the Ephesus museum in Sel█uk. It was not until I visited the museum and saw plans and diagrams of the buildings, the sculptures, the friezes, the fountains that once adorned the city, that I began to develop a true appreciation of what it must have looked like in its splendor.

From Ephesus we took a brief side journey to the town of Singere where we bathed in the visual texture of this small, not too touristy town. That evening we returned to the city center of Sel█uk to partake in a glass of apple tea and a game of checkers. The nightlife consisted of men sitting at tables playing backgammon, chess and checkers, sipping tea and coffee. Strangely, there were no women on the scene.

The next morning, the call of the Muezzin was particularly jarring, as the speaker was particularly loud and close to our hotel. The Muezzin, the electronic rooster of Turkey, broadcast from the myriad minarets that punctuate the Turkish Landscape. 5:15 every morning the call to prayer would crackle and mournfully rouse the sleepless and the still sleeping. I took some comfort in the canine response to the call to prayer. It was amusing to find the muezzin's strophe answered religiously by the canine antistrophe. Howls of hound dogs answered the reverberations from the minarets and you could hear an occasional rooster rejoinder as well. Not once did I see or hear a human response to the muezzin's morning call, but the hounds and roosters acknowledged his early efforts.

For our final day in Ephesus we toured the tomb of St. John and visited the first mosque built in the region, the Bey Mosque, with its beautiful display of prayer rugs and carpets covering the spacious room.

We returned to Istanbul, ate a makeshift dinner of cheese, bread, wine, olives, apricots, and baklava, and I said my goodbyes to the Pace group. In the morning, I would be traveling south, on my own, to spend 4 days in Cappodocia (Kapodokya) to take in some natural beauty to complement all of the culture we had seen.

Exploring Cappodocia was fantastic. I was basking in the familiar colors of the New Mexico-Colorado-Arizona-Utah region. The rock formations were whimsical and playful like giant drip-sand castles. And people lived in the sand castles! We explored dozens of churches and homes carved into the rock formations. I so appreciated being here in the off-season. This place, which would have been literally crawling with tourists from May to October, was all but devoid of human life. My hotel had 2 occupants and 16 empty rooms. Our tour consisted of 5 people the first day and 3 the second, opposed to the expected groups of 30-40 in the high season. The lack of scrambling tourists made it much easier to run around and take hundreds of photographs of this moonlike region.

The rock structures, fairy chimneys and hoodoos were littered around the towns of Cavusin, Goreme, Uchisar, and Urgup.. We explored the sites of Pigeon Valley, the Red Valley, the Moonlike world of Pasabagtari, the underground cities of the Hittites and later the Christians at Kaymakli and Derinkuyu. We walked through the fresco-rich cave churches at Goreme and made the trip to the beautiful monastery at Selime, my favorite place in Cappodocia, after a morning hike in the Ilhara valley.

After the conclusion of the second day of touring Cappodocia, I headed to downtown Urgup to partake of the Hamam, the Turkish bath. For 15 Lira (about $12) I was exfoliated, massaged with hot soap suds on a marble table, and inundated with hot water. I walked out of there feeling chipper and mildly Turkish. I finally mastered the tricky Turkish phrase for thank you- "Teshekur Ederem"- and I was breaking it out at every opportunity. But "thank you" was the extent of my Turkish lexicon, and when people heard me break out a quick "Teshekur Ederem" and assumed I could take the conversation any further, they were quickly disillusioned. When encountered with a proposed Turkish conversation, I waved my hands wildly and threw out fragments of English or French or Broken Italian-Spanish to try to get the conversation back on track.

On the way back from the Hamam, after a quick visit to the grocery store and local internet cafe, I found myself responding to the battle cry of the carpet salesman, "Where are you from?" This master of carpets had spied me glancing at his hanging wares, like a trout responds to the shiny, alluring lure; and, like the expert fisherman that he was, Ibrahim the carpet man reeled me effortlessly in to a conversation and then into his house of carpets. I was caught off guard by his excellent English and learned that Abraham, Ibrahim, grew up in Germany and became fluent in German, English and Turkish. We started chatting, and before I knew what was happening, he started hauling out carpets. Ibrahim and his compatriot were unpacking and unfolding dozens of carpets and Kilims for my viewing pleasure, and before I blinked, I was drinking a complimentary glass of apple tea, and before I blinked a second time, I was the proud owner of a turkish carpet. But I had been dancing around the idea of getting a small carpet for one of the rooms of my house, and now I had my souvenir to accompany all of my pictures and memories.

After 3 days with tour guides, I had only a half day left in the region. The only other occupant in my hotel was an extreme endurance athlete who was living in Singapore. I listened to his stories of training for 200 mile races, and his casual 30 mile runs he finishes before I get out bed in the morning. We decided to catch a bus and explore the beginning of the Red Valley on our own. We spent several hours walking through the valley, exploring various churches and homes tucked away inside the soft rocks of the valley. We walked into Goreme and hitched our way back to Urgup with an elementary school basketball team. The coach was generous enough to stop for us, and all the kids thought our English responses to their questions and general ignorance of their language were hilarious. In general, I thought the vast majority of people we met along the trip were very friendly people. People in and outside of the tourist trade treated us very well.

We headed back to Urgup and found a restaurant to partake in what would be my final Turkish meal. We opted for this dish called Testi Kabab- where the cook takes this clay vessel, throws in beef, sauce and veggies, and puts it in the oven. The server comes to your table and breaks the vessel and out comes this delicious savory dish of vegetables, spices and beef. You slather it up with the fresh pita bread, and it's outstanding. The beef was a nice break from the lamb I had been consuming in massive quantities. If I didn't go for the Testi Kabab, I would have certainly had another plate of my favorite Turkish dish, Manti, which consists of these excellent potato flour dumplings covered in yogurt and sprinkled with crushed mint, red pepper, and some purple paprika like spice. So good!!! I definitely enjoyed the food throughout the trip.

From Urgup, I took the bus back to Kayseri, flew back to Istanbul, then Frankfurt, and back to Atlanta. And that was my trip. It was so much fun, and I'm grateful to have a chance to continue to explore the world, take pictures, and learn a little more about the cultures and landscapes all around us. If you've made it this far- thanks for reading and following my trip to Turkey.

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