Budapest Journal, June 5, 2009: Mitteleuropa

Budapest ViewsFrom the travel journal:

Some Euros seem to have this conceit stuck in their head that Hungary is the gateway to the East, although admittedly not as bad as the ‘Wogs begin at Calais’ sort. I imagine if I was heading south from Denmark, through Germany, the Czech Republic and Slovakia into Hungary I might agree. But I’m not. I’m heading north, towards the North European plain and this city is nothing like an Asian or Eastern city. Budapest has much more in common with Trieste, Vienna and Prague than it does with Bucharest, Sophia, Moscow or Athens for that matter. This Mitteleuropa is terra incognita for me.

Met Joao, a young man from Portugal studying in Bucharest with the Erasmus program, on the Bucharest-Budapest train. He talked about the girls in Romania, the nightlife and economics. Needless to say, we had lots in common, economics, that is. He was a nice kid, handsome in the bug-eyed, Latin kind of way.

Budapest photos can be found here.

Don’t have much to write the last few days. Haven’t been in the best of moods. I miss the East. I miss Istanbul most of all. My muse.

Budapest is an architect’s city. Walk one block and you are assaulted by five different schools of art: the Parisian belle epoque, High Austrian fin de siecle, Art Deco, some Gothic, a little neo-Renaissance, Baroque and Hungary’s very own Sezessionistil–facades full of allegorical friezes, arcades of caryatids and Zsolnay tiles, which is a kind of Magyar faience. It is quite lovely.

Claudio Magris, in his book Danube, writes of “the kitsch of Budapest.” (An odd, dense travel book, in that it is really more a long mediation and survey of Central European lit-crit than anything else.) From where I sit he is correct, in an architectural sense. One building has the sleek lines of the Floretine Renaissance another is a glassy, modern shopping arcade. Across the street is a rounded Art Deco building graced with a series of twelve caryatids, half are Atlases, holding so many globes above their heads. There is a belle epoque apartment house not 50 meters away that wouldn’t be out of place in Paris or Vienna. A statue sits in the middle of the square dedicated to I know not whom: I can’t tease out any meaning from the inscription. Magris says Budapest is the “imitation of an imitation” meaning it imitates Vienna, which imitates Paris. He’s right. It may be a place of architectural kitsch, but it works. Normally, as I wrote about a mosque in Turkey, a blend of styles doesn’t work, but somehow Budapest charms. I wish I had more time here.

Castle Hill is a Prague-esque tumbledown of architectural styles too. It’s gorgeous, rising up over the bend of the Danube, on the Buda side of Buda-Pest. (My hotel is on the Pest side, as is my train station.) The views north and south down the river are impressive. More so than in Prague, but I imagine that is a function of the size of the Danube here. It’s wider than the Vltava River in Prague. But what Budapest lacks that Prague has is a compact city-center full of cafes, life, culture. Budapest has all that. It is an artists city, as well as an opera and theatre fan’s town. But it’s spread out, if not quite sprawling.

The Hungarians are much more European than the Romanians. There is also a lot more obesity here, in men and women, than I’ve seen since Thailand. Must be that sausage and beer diet. It’s the only thing on the menus. I miss the salads of the Levant. Atilla the Hun is huge here. The Hungarians claim descent from the Huns. Of course, there is a 400 year gap in the historical record, from the time the Huns arrived in the area to that of the Magyars arrival on the Great Plain. No matter. We all create our own histories in this post-modern age, don’t we?

“Are you hungry,” asked the waitress.

“Yes, I am hungry in Hungary, no less,” I replied.

She rolled her eyes. As if she hasn’t heard that one a thousand times? I couldn’t resist. Puerile, I know. But still, how many times does one get to say something so patently stupid, but enjoyable?I’d heard about the beauty of Hungarian women. But I’m not constantly rubber-necking like I was in Bucharest. Probably a good thing. I pay more attention to the art and architecture that way. Budapest isn’t nearly as ‘poor’ as Bucharest, but it wears its poverty differently. The gap between those who have and those who do not is wide. If you are well dressed then you are reasonably fit. If you aren’t then you are heavy, pot-bellied. And probably drinking a beer. There are a lot more street people here than I’ve seen since India. Turkey just didn’t have them. Of course, there were gypsies in Bucharest, but not so many.

The energy here is very European, industrious, even if the Magyars are Catholic by tradition. The sexes mix. Nice change from the East, if you ask me. The cafes aren’t full of underemployed men sipping tea. Laughter, feminine and masculine fill them. Ladies join their boyfriends for a beer. As it should be.

It’s the first place I arrived with a huge backpack strapped on where I wasn’t immediately stared at. No one paid me any notice. I found this anonymity disconcerting. I could hide here and never be noticed. Is that element of serendipity gone? I hope not.

Malatya Reprise

Attached are snippets of my time from an email I sent to a friend:

The day before yesterday, as you know, I was in Malatya. I hired a cab after breakfast. He was a well dressed, handsome Turkish man in his late 20s, early thirties. He had the most amazing blue eyes. I often wonder if they shock me as they do because they are so unexpected and at the same time, blue and green eyes, shockingly so, seem to be very common. He spoke little English, but we got on well. Some taxi drivers talk to excess, even when you don’t share a common language. Mehmet didn’t. He asked simple questions in a combination of English and Turkish and I replied likewise. We drove out to Battalgazi–the site of old Mitelene under fierce spring light. It was the first time I used sunglasses since Oman.

The drive was downhill, probably about 600 feet as altitude goes. There were many small canals, gravity pulling the water home, plane trees with gravy white bark and luxurious seven pointed leaves provided shade.

Our first stop was the old Seljuk, Ulu Cami. We walked around, found the groundskeeper’s son, named Sabri, who lives in a rabbit burrow like home on the side below the mosque. He grabbed the keys, unlocked the door, literally rolled out a welcome mat and said, “Hos Geldiniz,” which is Turkish for ‘Welcome!”

The mosque had eight parallel aisles, most of the piers–supporting pillars–are a newish basalt–the mosque has been restored considerably, but done very well. There are no naves in mosques, as there are no priestly processions to need one. So, you get eight parallel rows for prayer in the old style-Damascene mosques. You’ve already seen the photos, but here’s the link to where those of the Ulu Cami start, just in case. This is the first Seljuk mosque I’ve seen in Anatolia that shows movement away from the old Damascene, rectangular floor plan. It’s still a rectangle, but this was the first I’d seen that had a pishtaq, or iwan–an entry portal. But what was so odd about this one is that it wasn’t in the front of the mosque, as they usually are. The iwan was in a central courtyard, which is even stranger. Iwans are very common in Persian Seljuk and Ilkhanid (Muslim Mongols in the late 13th early 14th century Iran) mosques. But Iwans are triumphal entry portals and facades, not mean to be hidden in a recessed courtyard. An oddity I must research more.

I wondered, while admiring its rich faince tiles–I so love that color and the tiles and I haven’t seen nearly enough!–if this was one of the first attempts to utilize this most magnificent of expressions in mosque architecture. There was a woman’s prayer hall at the back of the mosque, very much in the mold of a Jewish Synagogue. This was the first ‘bayan mesjiti’–woman’s prayer hall–I’d seen in a Seljuk mosque as well. A handful of old muqarna cornices survived in the ‘bayan mesjiti,’ but they were in poor condition. The dome was nicely done, supported by four squinches and eight small windows in the zone of transtition let in the light. The dome had a wonderful checkboard pattern of brick and turquoise tiles, a pattern which wrapped around in a gorgeous swirl of color, finally morphing into a Star of David, one interlocking triangle blue and the other black, with thuluth inscriptions weaving the triangles togehter.

Right now I am in a cafe, sipping tea and listening to live musicians play Turkish music. It’s really magnetic, soulful and melancholy music. A splendid end to an almost perfect day–of which I will write more tomorrow or this weekend.

I broke off the narrative and discussed some personal matters and picked it back up here:

I dropped a few lira into the donation box at the mosque and walked outside. Mehmet asked a young boy where a certian turbe was. The boy hollered something back at him in Turkish and sped off on his bike, yelling, I assume, “come on! Follow me!”

We saw two minarets, not terribly inspiring, but still nice, three mausolea and an old ‘konak’ in a terrible state of disrepair, supposedly being renvoated for tourists. As I was the only one on this gorgeous day, I thought, “well, they’re renovating for no reason. No one else is here.” I didn’t even see any tourists in the city center later that afternoon while having tea in the meydan–the city square. Of course, I loved the fact that I WAS the only one there. It was all mine, disrepair or not!

We were done about 2pm and I then dealt with some administrative stuff, bank account, uploaded photos, stuff like that. I took a short nap–I had two relatively sleepless nights before that–and then walked into the city center. I sat on the roof of a tea house for a few hours, scribbling away, and had lunch. I had ‘tavuk sote’ and ‘coban salat:’ shepherd’s salad and a delicious chicken dish that came out in a shallow iron bowl–broiling over with a tomato sauce, onions, green chilis and arik–kind of like fajitas back home. Damn good stuff.

After that I walked around, took some photos, chatted with two old men who spoke English who ran a jewlery store and asked all kinds of questions about America.

The last bit of the email was kind of unconscious jotterings from my travel journal:

Old man casting a line out into a river. Strange seeing a Muslim man with a skullcap fishing. Why is that? Tractors stir up dust on roads adjacent newly planted fields. Beans, potatoes, wheat, barley (Turks do like their beer). An aquaduct looms ahead of us, growing larger and larger until we pass beneath it.

Grapevine trellises surround saltillo-tiled roof farm houses. Apricot orchards are everywhere. Green leaves with a taste of orange on the ends droop in the harsh alpine sunlight. The Mitelene Valley is one of the finest pastoral landscapes I’ve ever seen. So fecund, so much potential, so green and alive.

Flowers like purple bluenbonnets amidst a sea of green grass. It’s semi-arid now, between Malatya and Sivas. Wow, dry. Dusty. Caliche looking rocks, pristine snowcaps in the foreground.

Hills are mostly sedimentary now, the igneous is buried deep now, or has eroded. Which erodes faster, igneous, sedimentary or metamorphic rock? There is a lot of thurst and uplift evident, however, like these hills have been tossed about by some petulant child-god in a fit of pique. Conglomerate litters the river bottoms now. The water grows dirtier and dirtier. We just crossed the Kizilirmak–the Red River. Every country must have one of those, eh? The rocks look like they have a patina on them. I wonder if there is copper in the soil? Woudn’t they mine it if it were here? What other ores oxidize into a greenish hue? Need more verbs for mountains. Climbing, soaring, towering, etc. . . overused, but so goddamned true! Wow, those rocks look like giant orange dominoes.

The pass was 1,750 meters. What is that in feet? I don’t even remember. Grown so accumstomed to metric. What is a mile anymore? My life is measured in kilometers now. If it can be measured at all.

Evolution in ‘Green’ Bursa

Light: BursaI arrived in Istanbul a few hours ago, via a ferry across the Marble Sea. The weather is wonderful. About 80*-85* with patches of clouds. It was a much shorter journey from Yeşil Bursa, or “Green Bursa,” as they call it, to Istanbul–and compared to Anatolia, it is, indeed, lush and green. It took three hours, where I had expected six. Clearly the ferry was quicker than the land route–but I’ll get to that in another post.

And now, the penultimate installment of my journey across Anatolia. We return to the moment in Bursa when I awoke from a deep food coma, took a shower, opened the drapes and saw Ulu Dag.

After that I ambled downstairs to the hotel lobby, smiled at the dour woman behind the desk and visited the Ulu Cami of Bursa.

Here comes more architecture stuff, but bear with me, as this is the last of it.

The Ulu Cami (1394-99) is clearly Seljuk inspired, although technically it belongs to a period known as the Beylik Era, that interregnum between the fall of the Seljuks and the rise of the Osmanlı, better known as the Ottomans. The mosque is clearly a pre-Ottoman attempt to both provide a larger space for worship on the old Damascene rectangular plan. It succeeds, to a certain degree. The interior is spacious and the calligrpahy along the walls, while heavily restored is lovely. It holds to the old tradition of several parallel aisles along the qibla walls, which faces Mecca. The mihrab, the Muslim equivalent of a Christian altar, or an Orthodox iconostasis, was a gilded work of art, although it too, had been heavily restored. There is also a small lantern-dome spreading light through the mosque like butter on toast. But sadly, this mosque represents an evolutionary dead end, much like homo habilis were to homo sapiens. The mosque was cluttered and claustrophic like all the others I’d seen, except less so. Clearly the Seljuks were reaching for something new, but they failed. (This is not to ‘dis the Seljuk achievement, however.) Their successors would do what the Seljuks could not.

It is to the Osmanlı and their architects whom we now turn to.  But first a short digression. As I wandered across the landscape of Anatolia these last few weeks I grew to understand the constraints Seljuk architects were dealing with. From the oldest mosque in Turkey, the Ulu Cami of Harran–a classic example of pre-Turkish Islamic architecture–to the last in Bursa no clear break was made with the past, from that first mosque, the Prophet’s home in Medina, a simple rectangle of open air. An although it was the Turks who introduced faience tiling to the world, after all the very word turquoise means ‘the color of the Turks,’ the art died in Anatolia for reasons I don’t quite understand, and that will take more research than I am capable of doing at the present–nor does it really have much to do with the intellectual riddle I’ve been trying to understand. Turkish mosques have much less ornament, as well, than their cousins in the rest of the Muslim world. And although the iwan, as you recall, those large, sumptuously tiled entry portals found on the mosques of Iran, Uzbekistan and India, were used here in Turkey, they would not see their ultimate flowering until the Persian-led or-inspired dynasties of India and Iran concretized their potential. Nor should it have flourished here in Turkey. This was what I learned while traveling through the development of Turkish architecture. The iwan was, in many senses, grafted onto the old Damascene rectangular plan for a reason: it provided an airy, open, triumphant-feeling space for worship. And it is the perfect architectural device for doing so, in the right place, geographically speaking. But there was still a problem the Turks faced, which I could not put my finger on. There was a riddle, of sorts, more like a word on the tip of my tongue unable to blurt out, swimming in my mind, hiding, furtive.

One afternoon while pondering why there were no iwans in Turkey–or so very few–or the few that did exist, were muted, an insight arrived. I was admiring the weather in Sivas, grateful I wasn’t in the cold highlands of Van. I recalled just how brutal the weather in Turkey can be–it was snowing in Erzerum at the time. And I had just read from my History of Islamic Architecture book about the evolutionary leap Turkish architecture in Bursa attained when I put the two together.

The Turks wanted airy, open, massive spaces for worship, but with Turkey’s long, cold, inclement winters, traditional open-spaced mosques architecture, like that of Iran, India and Arabia simply would not work. The Seljuks had done all the could with the old devices. And an attempt to enlarge their scope was untenable. Something else was needed. But what?

It would arrive a scant thirty years after the Ulu Cami of Bursa was built. The Ottoman genius was simple: they cast their eyes across the Sea of Marmara, from their first capital, Bursa, and found their muse, so to speak. Her name is Hagia Sophia.

Between 1419-21 a Turkish architect named Hacı İvaz Pasha squared the circle, both literally and figuratively, with his conception and construction of the Green Mosque of Bursa. The Green Mosque isn’t the most beautiful in the world, but as Jairhazbhoy notes, the tile work is Timurid in character, not surprising as Timur had only just crashed like an insensate wildeebeast across Anatolia twenty years prior. There are hints of the kind of enigmatic brilliance that would blossom in Meshed and Herat, especially in the Gohar Shad and find its culimination in the Sheikh Lutfollah of Isfahan. But it isn’t the tile-work we’re concerned with here, especially as the Turks, unlike the Iranians, were not obsessed with it, although they invented it.

The moment I walked into the Green Mosque it was obvious a huge conceptual leap had been made. Instead of several parallel aisles and a claustrophobic space cluttering up the qibla wall there was light. There was openeness. And there was a sense of space so missing from the Seljuk architecture I’d witnessed the last few weeks. Four rectangular walls reveted upwards into a zone of transition filled with some of the most ingenious pendentives I’ve ever laid eyes on. The pendentives were capped by a drum filled with windows and topped by a dome.

Here, I thought to myself, is the first Turkish attempt to succeed in providing ample space for worship and to keep the inclement weather out. It felt like the prayer hall was outside, in the open air, like an Iranian or Indian mosque. It felt triumphal. But it also felt like I was in a Christian church. A closer inspection of underscored exactly why: this mosque is built on the old cruciform, semi-basilicar floor plan, one that dominated Byzantine architecture for a millenium or more. With important differences, however. There was no nave and there was no altar. (As you recall, mosques don’t need naves, as there are no prietly processions in Islam.) An almost perfect fusion of Islamic needs with Byzantine inspiration. Of course, the personal knowledge that I could see this and appreciate it was also gratifying. It was only a few short years ago that I picked up my first book on Islamic architecture and struggled with terms like squiches, faience–forget the bigger concepts, and what really was a pishtaq or an iwan? And now, here I was not only appreciating the austere beauty of an art movement that has spanned a millenia or more, but also appreciating it intellectually. It felt good.

The Ottomans would no doubt refine their architecture in the years to come, especially with the inclusion of the massive forecourts of the Imperial Mosques here in Istanbul. But it was in Bursa where Ottoman architecture was born. And it was in Bursa that my long journey through the twists and turns of Seljuk architecture would finally come to an end.

Of course there is a postscript to this story–a fitting end to my Anatolian days–but for that you will have to wait until tomorrow.

Time, Unanchored

The drive from Malatya to Sivas was rather boring. Most of the landscape between Malatya and Sivas is high, averaging around 800-1,000 meters and semi-arid. It’s mostly an up-and-down, up-and-down journey climbing one pass after another. The aridity is broken up only by rocky alpine streams lined with toothpick straight cypress trees. They look much like aspens in Colorado and make a similar pop-corn crack in the wind. I lost count of the snow-blanketed ranges in the background. It was and felt like a very far off Central Asian landscape. I understand why the Turks feel so at home here. It’s in their nomadic blood.

Sivas is much dryer and higher than Malatya as well. The weather has been fantastic, 75-80* with few clouds, just enough to break up the piercing high altitude glare. Looking out on the way the light falls on the buildings and people here is wonderful. The light enhances the pastels so common to Anatolia. But when I’m out in it, it’s harsh and dry.

I stepped off the bus the day before yesterday, dropped off my bags at a hotel, wolfed down lunch and walked into town. My first stop was the Ulu Cami of Sivas. The mosque itself was a typical Damascene rectangle. It’s been heavily restored and nothing of the original remains, except for a tall, leaning minaret on the northern corner. It’s constructed of dirt red bricks with two narrow bands of turquoise tiles.

I then walked to the Gok Medresse. The name, “gok,” means sky blue. John Freely writes that the Gok Medresse has the most splendid facade in Seljuk architecture. Naturally, I was excited to see it. I’d been reading about it for a few days and my expectations were high. But upon arrival I discovered it to be under restoration–and hideously disfigured, grossly overwrought restoration work it is. I can deal with scaffolding. But what they are doing here is a crime. The portions that have not survived the ravages of time are being replaced with new carvings designed to fit perfectly with the old. Needless to say much of the skill set required for such exacting work has been lost. Thus, the replacements look like a man wearing a brand new suit top and old, threadbare pants. They were even replacing the tile work in the minarets with new iznik tiles. Just awful.

I swallowed my disappointment and walked uphill to Sivas’ three remaining Seljuk works. Along the way I stopped to figure out how to rent a car. Super easy, although I really hated to have to use the guy’s google translator to make myself understood. It will be much easier to communicate in Istanbul. Although, it does surprise me that so few Turks actually speak English. It’s one of the few countries in the world with a significant language barrier. Not anything close to Russia or China, but still. Miming, hand signals and about 20 words of basic Turkish vocabulary are pretty much a necessity. And I really cannot speak Turkish. I love the sounds of the language, but I cannot, in any way, get my tongue to make them. It’s just not going to happen. Russian? I can do that. Chinese? Sure, my Mandarin is passable. Hell, I was even getting good with Bahasa Indonesia at Lake Toba. But this? No can do.

Sivas is a relatively prosperous town of about 280,000 souls. It sits on a set of hills overlooking the Kizilirmak–Red River–and was the site of the Turkish Republic’s founding by Mustafa Kemal in the early twenties. Narrow cobbled streets are flanked by six and seven story apartment buildings. Schoolyards filled with the laughter of children and alleyways musty with dust and the soft thud of women beating carpets are found at every turn. The downtown area has a nice pedestrian shopping area of about six or seven blocks. For a small city it has an almost urban feel to it.

In the meydan–the city square–sit three Seljuk medresses–actually the reamins of one, one fully extant and a third which is a darussifa, or hospital that was in use as such until 1917. It is now being restored, as well. I wasn’t allowed in, but after flashing my ‘Press Card’ the workers admitted me and I had the place to myself. The workers even showed me the tomb of Keykavus I, himself, for whom the complex was constructed. The tile work was very striking, blues and red. I hadn’t seen red done in this manner in tiling, ever, so seeing this compensated for the let down of the Gok Medrresse. Sure, I’d seen orangish bricks inlaid amongst blue tiles, but this was novel.

The Cifte Minarets were, like the Gok Medresse, undergoing restoration, but I was allowed to wander freely around the foundations and got lots of good photos. I was surprised to see fluted half towers like these. I didn’t know they existed outside of India and they have a very curvaceous, Indian-houri, Qutb Minaret feel to them. I then sat down in the medresse that was open to the public, there is a wonderful tea house inside it and proceeded to write for a few hours. (An interior photo here.) Then it grew dark, I returned to the hotel and prepared for sleep.

I was excited to be taking a drive and thus awoke early, like a child on Christmas morning. The drive was stupendous and easily took an hour longer than need be due to constant stops to snap shots. (Here and here and here and here for example. The last one is my favorite. It’s just so evocative of the whole day!) As I climbed the last pass–1,950 meters–I thought to myself, “who settles in a place like this? And where the hell am I going? If Divrigi is all the way up here, wow!”

But then I plunged downward and Eastwards, back and forth, back and forth, switchback after switchback, hairpin curves for at least ten kilometers. Then I saw the Tiphrik Valley. Verdant, warm–it was actually hot, close to 90*, much like Malatya: a narrow, exuberant concave valley, about the third the size. The Çaltı Çayı is a rushing green freshet pouring into the Euphrates 80 kilometers from here–it rips and roars through the valley below, audible even at the Divrigi Mosque. The town of Divrigi (population 12,000) climbs and clambers up the hillsides. Of course, I drove 200 kilometers to see the mosque, not the view.

There are only three buildings I’ve ever walked into and literally said, “wow!’ This wasn’t one, but it was close. The vaulting was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. It’s complexity was beguiling. A display of impetuous virtuosity if I’ve ever seen one. The intended effect here, unlike say, the Hagia Sophia, isn’t to provide light. It’s the builder saying, “look at what I can do!”

Here follows a long digression on Islamic art. Skip it if too boring.

Jairazbhoy writes of the Divrigi Mosque that the carving style appeared “suddenly” in Anatolia, implying in a sense it came from no where. After seeing it myself and looking at the photos multiple times I not only concur with his judgment but feel compelled to elaborate on it. Before I do I need to add that the vaulting, as I said before, is the most amazing vaulting I’ve ever seen. The vault of the second bay is a four pointed star the likes of which I was very surprised to see here, much less even attempted. Sure, I’ve seen vaulting do similar things, in the Isfahani Friday Mosque for example. But nothing approaching this scale. The thickness of the ribs, as you can see in the photo, immediately brought to mind vaulting seen in Gothic Cathedrals, not a mosque in the middle of Anatolia. (There is a reason for this, which I will get to shortly–a kind of architectural whodunit.) But it was the four pointed star vault in the hospital wing of the mosque that really stupfies. What is so amazing about this work of art–and that is exactly what it is–is how it is actually two melded vaults, one a four pointed star and the other a semi-hemishperical. It’s like a groined vault that gives off the sensation of the sun rising and falling from left to right. At every angle of viewing there is some new complication, enhancing the sense of movement until you want to whirl off in circles like a dervish.

Now, about the portal facades: the main north portal, the West and the Hospital facade each differ in style and treament. This is what makes the whole complex and its provenance so interesting, not only intellectually, but aesthetically. Most complexes of this sort have a unanimity of design spirit. Rarely are they a hodge podge merger of vastly different influences. As a matter of fact, most buildings of any sort that throw stylistic elements from different artistic eras or traditions fail. They’re ugly and don’t cohere into a unified whole. I’m reminded of the Gostinitsa Moskva in Moscow. The architect who designed it presented Stalin with two different sets of plans. One was in the soi disant Russian Gothic–which is actually well represented in the Seven Sisters of Moscow, the other in High Communist Realism. Stalin, to the terror of the architect, approved both designs. And hence was born a hideous square block of a hotel adjancet Red Square, overlooking the Statue of Zhukov, the Nazi-Slayer. (Really, that’s what they call him.) Two facades are in High Communist relief, the other two are Russian Gothic. Last time I was in Moscow (2003) both facades had been razed and were being replaced with something more unifying. Laugh out loud at that–the Russians under Putin couldn’t pour piss out of their boots if the instructions were on the soles. Which is a terrible shame, as Russian art has much to offer. But that’s another discussion for another day. Suffice it to say that Russian art is far to underappreciated in the West.

But the Divrigi facades, disparate as they are–semi-Hindu, classical Seljuk, and a Muslim-Christian-cum-Gothic fusion, actually cohere. The West portal does look Hindu. Very reminiscent stylistically of the Qutb Minar (which I linked to above). There is no record of who carved this portal. The Seljuk portal is amazing in the refinement of its ornament. It’s as if the artist jumped ahead two hundred years. The floral reliefs almost make it look like they were glued or mortared on, as opposed to being carved. And the ornament is huge, almost super-life like. The Hospital Entrance portal if it were stripped of its Muslim ornament and replaced with gargoyles and kings would look exactly like the facade of a medieval cathedral. The twin piers supporting the double recessed pointed arch? Dead ringer for Gothic. But who designed it? Who built it? Jairozabhoy cites several sources that claim prisoner’s of war from the Knights of Saint John, a Crusading Order based on the island of Rhodes were pressed into its consctruction to earn back their freedom. There are also two crusader looking cross vaults–the vauls literally have crosses built into them–that support this conclusion.

Taken in its particulars the complex is a wild romp through the architectural trends of the day, stretching from the Indus River Valley in the East to the North Sea in the West. The Seljuks did have a whole world of art to draw on, as Turkish tribes of one sort or the other ruled at the time from the shores of the Adriatic to the Jamuna River Valley near Delhi. Taken as a whole, the Divrigi Mosque works aesthetically, too–it’s more than just an intellectual curiosity.

Before I trudged downhill for lunch I was given a real acoustic treat. I sat on the porch, next to these two old guys, when the muezzin belted out the azan, or Muslim call to prayer. He wasn’t finished with the first chorus of “Allahu Akbar” before the melancholy song ricocheted of the mountain walls twenty kilometers distant, racing back in a mezmerizing echo. Now, I’ve heard azans from Xi’an in China to Muscat in Oman, from the southernmost Indian Cape of Comorin all the way north to Skopje in Macedonia and they are always wonderful. But this one? I sat there, still as I could be and closed my eyes for the full effect. Time unanchored. A moment of complete dissolution. I’m not religious–religion in my opinion is a false construct created by humanity to try and bridge the gap between the transcendental yearnings we all have and the common place duties we all face. Religions fail. But sometimes, and this moment was one, a hint of transcendence echoed through me, right as it was bouncing of the valley walls. The azan ended, I smiled and walked down the hill to eat lunch.

On the return journey to Sivas I turned off an old dirt road to nohwere. I drove for twenty or thirty kilometers just breathing in the scenery. Who ever said scenery was breathtaking was no Buddhist. Breathing is pure essence of life.

And so, I stopped the car, got out, sat on the hood breathing deep draughts of Anatolian air. The only sounds were birds chirping and a high keening wind.

The dome of the sky settled over me like light linen in a summer breeze. Green pastures rolled off in the distance. Mountains rose like smoke signals on a windless day. White clouds and snow-dusted peaks merged imperceptibly into each other.

At last, the jabbing and counter-thrusts of thought crawled to a stop.

I breathed again and life slowed almost to a halt. I let out the deep breath, as my Buddhist master taught me to, and became the clouds, the grass, the dust-devils whilrling down the road.

As I inhaled the world dissolved.

Blue Skies and Seljuk Tiles

The Road To Phnom Penh: On Border Crossings and Bus Travel

Me and the Mekong FerryOne of the best aspects of traveling by bus is border crossings. No, not the bureaucratic bullshit you have to endure, but the chance to see almost instantaneous changes in culture, architecture and politics. Take the Cambo-Vietnamese border for example: one moment everything is orderly, almost militaristic, clean, surrounded by high-Asian Communist architecture of bland, blocky lines. And the next moment everything is immensely poorer–and Vietnam is not a rich country–and dirtier–and Vietnam is not a clean country. The architecture on the Cambodian side is a crazy blend of Hindu and Buddhist, much more baroque than Thai or even Laotian temples. Everything is now a disorderly free for all and as you pass further into Cambodia the houses change from the well mannered small farms with pens for all the different animals and sheds for farming machines to houses on stilts, thatch roof huts, pigs, chickens, goats and humans all sharing the same space. Whereas agriculture in Vietnam is more mechanized than that in Cambodia this means that water-buffaloes proliferate. So do cows, the Indian kind.

House on WaterA lot of the Cambodian countryside lay fallow too. It’s obviously been farmed before but it has the tell-tale signs of two or possible three decades of neglect. Brambles, thatches and weeds cover an older layer of well plotted paddies that now look like swampy wastes. Seldom is my window view broken by a free holder reclaiming the land. It’s obvious, just by the distress in the countryside that Cambodia is still a broken land, whether it’s ‘killing fields’, UXOs, or the memory of Pol Pot’s atrocities. And the widening disparity between wealth and poverty has grown into a perverted chasm of gluttony and suffering.

As one approaches the city the gap widens again, becoming ever more obvious. Large, huge homes, newly built, sit behind great barricades and fences. Next to the fences shanties and lean-tos betray the needs of unemployed men and youths who gather by as Mercedes’ rush by with armed motorcycle guards. As always, urban poverty is much uglier than its rural cousin. Children with one arm, or both mangled from UXOs are an all too common sight on the streets on Phnom Penh. There aren’t many smiles, as the dark wind of history has only recently blown through Cambodia, it lurks just under the surface. I’ve seen haunted places before, but never an entire society.

Phnom Penh is a dangerous city too. Petty crime is on the rise and tourists are advised to leave all their valuables inside hotel safes. Offers to buy ‘little girls’ are almost as common as those to buy ‘skunk weed’ and ‘heroin.’ The runny noses of addicts, jonesing for their next fix are visible on almost every turn. And even though Cambodia isn’t as intense as India it runs a close second here in the capital. It’s filthy and the smells are less than salubrious, a combination of human, animal and vegetable waste wafts over the city.

As for the provenance of all this grief? Some would point their fingers in righteous anger towards Nixon and Kissinger. But like all historical morality tales it’s just not that simple. One must also look to the Vietnamese who started the chain reaction of Cambodia’s implosion by using the country as a sanctuary on the road to liberating the South, in a sense forcing Nixon’s hand to bomb the country, thus further destabilizing it to the point where a monster like Pol Pot could flourish. Sure, America played its part, but it is far more complicated than the one-off ‘black and white’ narratives which dominate the discussion still.

Meanwhile, back in the capital, a barge fights the strong current of the Tonle Sap, creeping slowly upstream with a cargo of bricks. Colorful flags ripple in the breeze along the waterfront and I’ve ordered too much food. I feel ashamed. I leave two spring rolls on the plate, while not 25 meters away a woman holding a naked child begs.

Cacaphonous shouts ring out. “You want tuk-tuk Mr,” yells one young man. Another says, “Motorbike?” And another asks if I want the ubiquitous ‘skunk weed’ on offer. Lots of construction machinery is everywhere. Making a hell of a racket on the riverfront. But the Tonle Sap ignores it all, flowing relentlessly downstream towards its union with the Mekong and then the South China Sea.

It’s a completely dollarized economy–ATMs dispense dollars and everyone takes them. Naked infants, toddlers and young children run amok. The Cambodians, I think to myself, resemble the Mayans. They are short, stocky, stout and dark. Even the architecture reminds me of some of the big lipped, big eared Olmec statuary of Mexico.

The language shares clear affinities with Thai and Isaan and sounds very, very little like Vietnamese. Words have many more consonant clusters and syllables than Vietnamese, which has a morphology based on mono-syllables.

The Hindu influence, as I have already mentioned is extremely prevalent. Much more so than in Thailand, Laos or Vietnam. It’s like parts of the country have been preserved in amber since the fall of the last great Hindu kingdom in the 14th Century.

Every country has its travel rhythms. Those in Thailand are laid back. You go to the bus station to move from place to place. No hard sell. It’s similar in Laos–except mopeds are difficult to rent in many places. The buses and roads in Laos are atrocious as well. About as bad as Georgia and Ethiopia.

Vietnam was pushy, aggressive–they want to get you from one place to the next, especially as there is always a commission involved. They pick you up at your hotel and take you to the bus. And the buses are nice–comparable to a Greyhound back home. The buses in Thailand run the gamut from awful, as in Laos, to plush, like the VIP cruisers in Mexico. Three rows, a TV and they recline almost like a bed.

In Cambodia, however, travelers are guarded. The fear, while not palpable, isn’t too far from the surface. The buses that make the main travel run, Ho Chi Minh City-Phnom Penh-Siem Reap-Bangkok are nice. They come equipped with a toilet, unlike those in Vietnam and Laos where you are at the mercy of the driver’s bladder not your own. They also collect you at your hotel. All in all, buses are a nice way to travel here in South East Asia, especially with the closure of Bangkok’s airport.

Finally, getting around Phnom Penh is rather easy. The tuk-tuk drivers are always in your face, but as supply way outstrips demand haggling is a breeze. If you walk away they melt, immediately. You can then climb in and drive away to whatever site awaits your attention.

The Cham Imperial Ruins of ‘My Son’

Me! I visited the ruins of an imperial Cham city called ‘My Son’ today, about 35 kilometers outside of Hoi An today. The complex was built in the 4th century AD. It’s was in reasonably good repair, although it is said that American B-52s carpet bombed the place in August of 1969.

I took about a hundred photos and posted the best of them, or at least some of the best of them at Flickr. You can see them here. The complex is very Hindu. I was a bit surprised by this, although I really shouldn’t have been. I expected it to be more Buddhist in design. None the less, it was a pleasant surprise. I’ll blog at greater length about my time in Da Nang, Hoi An and the trip out to ‘My Son’ later. I am keeping a pretty comprehensive journal, so no worries there. I’m just still in ‘sponge’ mode, kind of soaking up everything around me.

Vietnam isn’t nearly what I expected, having heard some unpleasant stories from other travelers. I’m glad I didn’t buy into what they said. I find the Vietnamese to be very approachable, helpful, dare I say sweet and not nearly as aggressive as I was led to expect. One note, however; most Vietnamese always ask where I am from. The younger ones always want to know more about America when they ask, but the older ones, well, the conversation doesn’t exactly die, but there is a very real reticence to talk after that. It’s palpable. So many of the people around me that are my age and older have all too vivid memories of America and they aren’t memories, or ideas and dreams of American soft-power, but those of our hard power. I’m not surprised by their reaction. And yet, they remain kind and thoughtful in the face of it all. That requires a special quality in a people and the Vietnamese do have it, although I can’t quite put my finger on what it is. . . yet.