İstanbul bana aşık, ben İstanbula aşığım!

İstanbul bana aşık, ben İstanbula aşığım!I knew tearing myself away from this city was going to be difficult, but I had no idea I would spend my last full afternoon in a terrible state of what the Turks might call, “hüzün.” If I did not have to be in Denmark in mid-June I would not leave. Soon I’ll head down to the train station and have a last uskumru sandwich and watch ferries dance across the Bosporus.

I arrived on April 1, 2009 and in the blink of an eye this magical city has wooed me, wowed me, saddened me beyond measure and lifted me to the highest of heights. I will look back on this time just as I do Lake Toba, but for altogether different reasons. Toba was about disconnecting from the world in a way I’d not done in years. It was an escape, an idyll, an exotic dreamscape of guitars, new friends, peace and the warm waters of the lake I bathed in each morning. Toba was a place for me to bury the past, the obligations of home and family and in their place plant seeds that would, I hoped, spring up into a new life.

Istanbul has been about that second spring. It is an altogether appropriate metaphor, right and good. When I arrived it was cold, overcast and only the first, most tenuous buds of green sprouted from the trees. The flowers only just pushing up from their winter sleep. I was wiped out from the chaos of India but it was much more than India on my mind. What Istanbul took away in 2007, it gave it all back and more in 2009.

Three things happened in Istanbul that leave me grateful beyond measure. The grieving process of my failed marriage ended. And in that I realized the second thing: as much as I am a solitary creature I learned that although I thought I wanted to spend the rest of my life alone it was only an impulse, a defense. I crawled into a cave, like a bear after a grievous fight, there to heal my wounds. The wounds healed and the bear walked out of the cave to catch salmon in a spring brook, to revel in the world, the glory of the light, the green trees and the cold rushing mountain waters. In a sense I would say that my faith was restored, for faith is not to be underestimated.

Finally, as this most perfect of Istanbul days draws to a close and my thoughts race forward to the train station, crowds, a new language, new places and sights, I am grateful for the simple joy of falling in love with such an amazing city. I believe it was Jan Morris who said, “I have loved places like people, and they have become me.”

The good, the bad and the indifferent. All of it. I’ll trade it, any day, for diamonds, gold, lovers, money, career, fame, position or power. Will I return? I certainly hope so. Will I ever live here? I plan on it. But for now I have a journey to complete. There are a few loose ends that need a twisting up and a sewing shut.

It is a fitting consolation, no matter what transpires, that I can say, where ever I go, “Ben İstanbulluyum!”

“I am an İstanbullu.”

My talisman, my secret chant, my incantation.

“Ben İstanbulluyum!”

Scribbles from the Aegean

Ephesus: InscriptionFrom my travel journal:

May 26, 2009: We left Istanbul at noon. Navigating Istanbul traffic from Sultanhamet to the Yenikapi ferry port wasn’t too hard. Getting the ferry ticket and embarking was a cinch. The ferry to Yalova took about an hour. Amanda and I listened to the music on her iPod as the wine-dark waters of the Marmara skimmed beneath us. We disembarked, gassed up and sped off into the Bithynian hills. We stopped for lunch along Ulubat Golu, a pretty lake just west of Bursa. Watched a young family play futbol along the shores and shared an Iskender kebab. Lots of tea, as always! We stopped at a pastanesi–sweet shop–about 3/5ths of the way to Izmir. Honey and pistachios. How can one go wrong?

We drove up into a set of low, lumbering gray rocks and olive mountains. We made the pass and there before us shimmering silvery and blue lay the crescent harbor of Izmir. The windows were down, the breeze strong, smelling of olives and the sun was warm. A retelling of Romeo and Juliet by the Decembrists trilled on the radio. I navigated the streets of Izmir and got us on the road to Selçuk. I don’t know how. But I did. “Follow the signs,” I kept saying aloud. Outside Izmir the hills grew stepper and more arid. It was all very Greek. A sharper contrast to the smooth pastels of Bithynia and Lydia. Orange groves and apricot orchards proliferated. Olive trees were all encompassing. Farmers doddered home in horse-drawn carts piled high with peasant women and produce.

We drove through Selçuk, a lazy village in a narrow valley. I sniffed a hint of salt spray in the air mingling with the oranges. We arrived on the beach at Pamucak just before sunset, falling below a low bank of hills across the Aegean, but not before burning out in a pyrotechnic display seldom equalled, all oranges, fiery crimson, raging pink and then the soft amber hues of early night.

May 27, 2009: Did nothing but sit under a warm Aegean sun today. Listened to Jame McMurtry: “I looked out the window and saw too much.” I can relate. But I see what I see and live to see it. Nothing else really matters anymore. Three Kangal shepherd dogs amble along the beach, barking up a ruckus, white splotches against a sapphire sea. Another sunset: coral blue waters, old sun dripping into the sea. Two in a row.

May 28, 2009: Woke up at 800am. Showered. Journaled til 930am. Had breakfast then drove to Ephesus. What a site! It was big. Quite possibly the largest classical site I’ve ever seen. It was really huge, sprawling. The only one bigger that I can think of is Persepolis, but that’s not Greek or Roman–it’s Achaemenid Persian. Athens? Nope, not even close. And I haven’t been to Pompeii so I can’t say. Although I have seen Roman ruins now from Hardian’s Wall in England to Ephesus. Good thing I can still read and decipher Latin inscriptions. Who knew that would come in handy?

After Ephesus we drove to Şirince, a former Greek village de- and then repopulated after the settlement of the Greco-Turkish War in 1923-3.

The Turks have taken good care of the agricultural land they got in exchange for Thessalonica. All rocky hills, olive groves. Apricot trees. Plums. Vegetable gardens snug against white washed houses two-stepping up the mountains. I hate to use this word, the bane of all writers, but the village was ‘quaint.’

Amanda twirled the blackberry wine in the afternoon sun, furrowing her brow, head under a baseball cap. Olive trees ran up the steep hills. Someone snapped seabeans softly behind her. She narrowed her almond eyes pondering some archeological concept and blurted, “abandonment!” Pointing at a dilapidated house behind and below me. I twisted around and nodded. But she’d already moved on.

“Reuse,” she said. Her dimpled cheeks smiling. I looked at the tiles and nodded.

“So, what did you see at Ephesus?” I asked, rising to the bait.

“It was abandoned quickly,” she said. “But I know so little of the Old World, you know? I’m a New World archeologist. What do the books tell you?”

“There was a serious crisis here in the 7th and 8th centuries,” I said.

“First, came the last Persian War. The Persians devastated Asia minor. Disrupting imperial trade networks. Looted and destroyed cities. Clive Foss, a late-classical historian wrote about it in an interesting ‘scholarly paper,’” I said, fingering scare quotes in the air.

Foss wrote: “When information again become available (after the Persian invasion) all had changed. The cities had for the most part disappeared. And the country was dotted with castles and small towns.”

I continued talking: “Anatolian cities went from open to walled within a 50 year period. Mostly during the reign of Heraclius the Great. But that was only the first crisis. Heraclius did defeat the Persians. And had his defensive planning not been so great the Byzantine Empire, like the Persians, might have fallen during the second crisis.”

“Which was,” Amanda asked?

“The Arabs. Heraclius was a broken man by the time they stormed out of the desert wastes of Arabia. The Byzantines lost Syria, Palestine and worst of all, as far as the Constaninopolitans were concerned, the bread basked of the empire: Egypt. It was only Heraclius’ defenses in depth which saved the empire. And of course, the Theodosian Walls. Oh, and several earthquakes happened in the same time frame. Ephesus was devastated in one. Antioch and Beirut in another.”

Caught the sunset again. Brilliant. Three in a row. Can I have ten, please?

May 29, 2008: Yesterday we sat on the beach for a few hours (I think I have the best tan of my life right now) and then shot off to Priene.

“Two reasons,” I said, “why I like Priene better than Ephesus.”

“The mountain?” she asked.

“Make it three,” I said. “The mountain, one. The fact that it hasn’t been restored, two. And three, that it is empty. No tourists. I have the place to myself. I can let my imagination reconstruct the city, or just appreciate the transience of human endeavor.” (Gawd, do I really talk like that? LOL)

“It has been restored,” she said. “Or at least, a little and it has been surveyed. The lines are clear, at least to my archeological eyes. See the red numbers painted on the debris?”

“Oh, yeah,” I said. “You can read rocks like I read a text, can’t you?”

She smirked.

“But for me,” she continued, “the view, the site is excellent. Very beautiful. A much prettier location than Ephesus.”

We walked along in silence. A keening wind blew through the pine trees, birds chirruped and the Meander River below us, meandered on to the wine-dark sea.

Ephesus and Priene

Smug BastardAs promised, here are the photos from Ephesus and Priene. A big shout-out to MJSteckel, for the suggestion to visit Priene.

Ephesus was a great site. And very big. But Priene, well, the view was fantastic. And the site, because it’s less curated, let my imagination run wild. It was wonderful.

Enjoy.

“Turkiye Cumhurriyet!” He Said. “Turkey Is A Secular Republic!”

Having a Beer on The Marmara Shore: IstanbulAs is plainly obvious by now I am back in Istanbul for a brief stop-over before I head for points south west, maybe Konya, maybe Seljuk, Priene and Ephesus. We’ll see what happens. The lease in my flat was up on the first of May, so I have been holing up down here in Sultanhamet, instead of the Taksim area. So, unless I fall in with a group of twenty-something futbol fans in town for the UEFA Cup (Donetsk-Shakhtar beat Weder Bremen, by the way) my social opportunities are a bit limited right now. I did have a wonderful conversation about art and architecture the other night with two lovely Norwegian septuagenerians, on their once a year European ‘art vacation’ as the ladies called it. They were really charming. But that’s about it.

And then, serendipity always seems to intervene.

Yesterday I was strolling along the sea-walls on the Marmara shore taking some photos of an area of Istanbul I’ve neglected when I stumbled upon these two gentlemen. The saw me taking photos of them and called me over in English.

“Did you get good photos of us,” the young one asked.

“Sure did,” I said, showing him the shot in the view finder.

“Seet down,” said the older one, “seet down, please.”

Never one to turn down Turkish hospitality, I obliged. We made our introductions (the young one was Emre and the older one Ishan). Ishan was vocal and expressive. His hands flailed around. As our conversation soon turned to politics–as it inevitably does in Turkey–Ishan made obscene gestures every time Erdogan’s name was mentioned. He was on the coarse side, but he was also generous and warm, offering beer at every chance and practically gave me his entire pack of smokes. It was Emre, soft-spoken, with warm almond colored eyes, who translated, as Ishan’s English was about as strong as my Turkish.

Ishan loaths Erdogan, his party and the religious fundamentalism that has changed Turkey, “for the worst,” as he said, in the last ten years. “If it is the last thing I do, Erdogan will leave office before I die,” he said.

“Turkiye Cumhurriyet!” he kept repeating, like an imprecation, an incantation, a ward against the evils of fundamentalism I’d just witnessed in hither Anatolia. “Turkey is a secular republic.”

“There were times,” I told Emre and Ishan, “that I felt like I was in Iran. All the women were covered. Not just most, but all!”

They nodded there heads while Ishan rattled off a barrage of Turkish. Emre had to slow him down twice.

“We are not crazy desert people like the Arabs,” he said. “We are Turks. We love life. What have they ever done for the world? It was Turkish culture that made Islam great! Before we arrived they were riding camels and eating dates. We gave them wine, raki and music,” he continued. “And what did they give us? Nothing,” he exclaimed, mashing his fist into an outstretched palm. He spit in the wind at Erdogan’s name once more for good effect.

“Please, excuse him,” Emre said. “We’ve had too many beers.” But his smiling eyes betrayed the lie.

Behind us a young couple was macking down, tongues intertwined in an urgent dance. The girl was wearing hejab, but she was also dolled-up in a way that certainly violates the spirit of hejab, if not the letter.

“You see that,” Ishan said, pointing an accusatory finger at the couple. “This is what Erdogan has done. Yes, we accept that our economy has done well under him–at least until this year. But what about life? We are Turks,” he went on, “we want what Ataturk gave us–to be free and modern. Why do we look backwards, like Erdogan, that mule! I want to see beautiful women! I want to see legs, and arms and hair! I don’t want to see yumurta-heads.”

I laughed at that. Yumurta is Turkish for egg, and the women who are covered in the politically correct hejab fashion of the day do look like they have eggheads.

The couple behind us was getting hot and heavy now. Hell, we could feel the heat thirty meters away even though there was a nice breeze. They were semi-blocked by the retaining wall and yet, everyone knew what was happening.

“Ustu Fatih, alti Şişhane,” I said, trying out a bit of Turkish slang a friend had taught me.

Ishan and Emre roared with laughter. The couple stopped their caresses long enough to look up and then dove back in, ignoring the three men on the rocks.

“You know what this means,” asked Emre?

“Yes, it means the top half of the girl is from Fatih, a very conservative neighborhood, but the bottom half is from Şişhane, which is not!”

We all laughed again, but Ishan blurted out, “fanatik,” at the couple. “Take off your headscarf,” he yelled at the girl. “Be a woman, not a Muslim! Be young! Live your life. To hell with what your father says!”

Emre’s laughter collapsed into an embarrassed silence. Ishan dropped his beer bottle down in the rocks, cursing his bad luck.

Ships passed through the Bosporus and the sun fell behind a bank of clouds.

Ishan popped open a new bottle and spoke.

“You see, all Turks want the same thing, but these religious fanatiks make like difficult for humans to be natural. What is more natural than sitting on the sea shore, holding hands and kissing,” he asked?

“Nothing at all,” I told him.

“And what about your daughters,” I asked Ishan. It is to a man’s daughters, the world over, where his true attitudes about woman are.

“My daughters are wonderful. They both go to university. They are beautiful. They have kind boyfriends and they do not wear those damned headscarves. My family is modern!” He slammed his fist down into his palm once again.

“We are grateful that Ataturk gave us this life. Why should we not live it?”

Istanbul Journal, May 21st 2009: “A City of Near Misses”

Fishing At Dusk: IstanbulMy friend Kipouros lives here in Istanbul and wrote one of the best descriptions of why this place is so wonderful, why it has such an amazing and captivating spirit:

But why does it draw people in so? It’s not necessarily physical beauty, though Istanbul has plenty despite the flood of cement that has obliterated much of its old character. When I look off the Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridge up the undulating turquoise Bosphorus, lined with brilliant white mansions below forested hills splashed with the pink of Judas trees, I often think, “when this view ceases to move me, it will be time to leave.”

These are things that draw people to the city, but what keeps them here is the inescapable warmth of the people (even if there are some we feel like strangling) and an ever-transforming, inexhaustible energy. It’s not always pleasant; a friend described Istanbul as a “city of near misses,” and it’s a good description. Everyday life can be a bit like watching the local neighborhood showoff throwing rocks at a hornet’s nest. Things could play out in lots of different ways, but you know something’s going to happen, and it will probably be interesting.

I’d encourage you to read the entire post, as he echoes many of my thoughts and feelings about this place.

Home, I realized somewhere between Singapore and Sivas, is where I choose to make it. Of course, the trite phrase, “where ever you go, there you are,” is all to true, but there is something about this city.

Right now the ferries are skating across a sheet of blue marble. Sunlight dances about the whitecaps ploughed up in the wake of a bulk freighter lumbering downstream to the Dardanelles. The trees wear the ‘dress-greens’ of Spring, leaves rippling in the breeze. Dry cleaners press shirts in silence. Laughter spills out of barber shops. Tea houses rumble with the din of a hundred conversations, jokes and laments. Istanbul has thrown off the cloak of its ‘huzun.’ The whole place has fountained into a rollicking cascade of life and light. Lovers cuddle on benches. An old man walks deliberately down the seashore, hands clasped behind his back holding prayer-beads. The Turkish flag snaps and claps in the breeze. And the sun taps on my temples, neck and forearms, not harsh, nor fierce, just warm. The horizon out across the Marmara is a thin ribbon of opposing blues. It is, in short, one of those days of incomparable Spring joy.

When I look out on this view I don’t ever want to leave. My heart starts scheming the moment I cast my gaze elsewhere, like a jealous lover. “Get a job here,” it screams. “You can teach. You could write here. If ever there was a muse, aren’t I she? You could work for a bank, asset management, anything! Something! How can you possibly consider leaving this place?”

I do, so love this city. Every crooked cobble, every misstep, every ‘near miss.’ Every gray-bearded imam and slick-suited young yuppie. Every gang of smiling, unemployed young men. Every scarved-matron waddling to the bread store to feed her pious, conservative husband. Every rude American tourist, and each genteel waiter who serves her. Every crooked taxi driver and the other twenty honest ones. All the shoe-shine boys. And all the gypsies. The insane drivers. The incomplete and incoherent infrastructure. The rain. The sun. The snow. The clouds. An uskumru sandwich on the Eminonu Docks. The burning singe of Raki and a mellow sip of tea from a delicate tulip-shaped glass. The martyred-Greeks, the persecuted Armenians and the invisible Kurds. The clean streets and the dirty alleyways. The green gardens and the concrete playgrounds. The crush and throng of the Grand Bazaar and the Holy silences of the Imperial Mosques. The austere antiquity of the Hagia Sophia and the outrageous Baroque decadence of Ortakoy and Dolmabahce. The permanent solidity of the Theodosian Walls and the slippery transience of the Bosporus current. And forever and ever the inexhaustible ‘azan’ blasting out from a thousand minarets five times each day.

I can work myself up into mountains of sacred rapture only to fall the very next day into profane depths of depression.

And though I might complain a little, it never lasts long.

True love is like that.

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.

Bursa Blues

Bursa Kitty“So, where you from?” the bartender asked me.

“Texas, Austin, actually,” I replied.

“Welcome to Bursa,” he said, “call me Nick, it’s easier to pronounce than my Turkish name.”

“Pleasure meeting you, Nick,” I said.

“What’s your drink?” he asked.

“Scotch on the rocks,” I said.

He set down the warm, cloudy potency swirling in a glass; syrupy and smokey like water from a peat bog.

“What are you doing in Bursa,” he asked, “business or tourist?”

“A tourist,” I said, “although I like to think I am a writer.”

“From Austin, then, yes? So, do you like the blues,” he asked.

I sipped my drink, looked into a bar filled with smoke and Turkish men and smiled.

“Of course,” I said.

“Chicago Blues or Texas Blues?” he asked.

“I like them both, but Texas blues are in my blood. I grew up watching Stevie Ray Vaughn, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Chris Duarte, Eric Johnson and Ian Moore,” I said.

“What about Johnny Winters? ZZ Top? Bonnie Raitt?”

“Damn,” I exclaimed, “you do know your blues, don’t you?”

“I lived in Houston for a few years in my early twenties and fell in love with ‘em,” he replied.

“Curious, why the blues?” I asked, “What about Turkish music?”

“I love Turkish music,” he said enthusiastically. “I’m a Turk!”

“Another drink,” he asked.

“Not yet,” I said, “been in Eastern Anatolia too long.” The scotch seared my throat and cleared my sinuses. I lit up a smoke.

“So, what is it you like about the blues?” I asked.

“It’s kind of like Turkish music, it shares a similar feeling, emotion, as you would say in English. The blacks in your country had good reason to create this music and its feeling still lives in its sounds. It’s a feeling we have in Turkish music too, we call it, ‘hüzün,” he said. “Do you know this word?”

“Melancholy,” I said. “A kind of worldly sadness.”

“Exactly,” he said. “Of course, Turkish music is very different from the blues but the essence is the same.”

I thought back to the long bus-rides across the epic landscapes of Anatolia. To buses filled with old matrons in headscarves, wiry gaunt-faced farmers, lemon cologne-scented air and the winsome sounds of Turkish ballads.

“Indeed, Nick, Turkish music is ‘hüzün’,“I said.

Any favorite songs, you want to hear?” He asked. “I have quite a catalog here at the bar.”

“Little Wing, by Stevie Ray Vaughn? Or maybe, better yet, Voodoo Child (Slight Return)?”

“Absolutement,” he said, smiled and walked over to the computer plugged into a monstrous sound system. The sugary opening licks of Voodoo Child dripped off the walls of the bar. I took another drink, feeling the fog clouding my better judgment, and sang along with the Nick.

I didn’t mean to take up all your sweet time,” we yelled, “I’ll give it right back to you one of these days.” The other bar patrons gave us no notice, too busy watching Beşiktaş clobber Ankara in a futbol match, our singing drowned out by howls of “gooooooooaall!”

If I don’t see you no more in this world I’ll meet you up on the next,” we continued, “don’t be late! Don’t be late.”

We both laughed.

“Another drink,” Nick asked?

“Sure,” I said.

I sat for a while thinking about the last three weeks in Anatolia. An element of hüzün colored my reminisces. It had been an amazing journey. Just as moving and healing as Lake Toba, months before, but entirely different in temperament. Emotionally I felt more centered than at any time in the last three or four years. Actually, more so since 2002. A new sense of purpose is growing within me, too. I’m not the man I was three, four or five years ago. And I realized this sometime between Şanlıurfa and Sivas. This man is free of the past. And looks forward to the future, a future of his own making, free of old fetters and chains.

Equally important is the knowledge that sometime between Delhi and Diyarbakir the grieving process of my divorce ended. I don’t know when this occurred, but the anger and the sadness just drifted away. Maybe it was the muck of Delhi did it. Maybe it was the peace of Toba. Or maybe it was just time. I didn’t realize it had even happened, so subtle was the change, until a few days ago.

“Any other requests,” asked Nick, pulling me out of my reverie.

“How about you play something you like,” I told him.

“Tamam–(Turkish for okay),” he said. “I think you’ll like this one. It’s one of the best American songs about hüzün I can think of.”

Out of the speakers I could hear Bonnie Raitt’s voice say, “I’d like to bring out a friend of mine who wrote this next song, John Prine.”

A bigger smile has never crossed my face. The first time I heard Angel from Montgomery–the live duet with John Prine and Bonnie Raitt–was back in the summer of 1989 and its impact on me was immediate. I knew the old woman in the song, all dreams of thunder and a lightning of desire in her youth. But in the song she’s an middle-aged woman, looking back on her life with a rueful wisdom, wishing she were an angel who could fly away, but no matter how hard she tried “the years just rolled by like a broken down damn.”

Nick and I sang the chorus:

Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery. Make me a poster of an old rodeo. Just give me one thing that I can hold on to, because believing in this living is such a hard way to go.

Nick smiled, but there was a sadness in his clear, green eyes. “We all want to escape, don’t we?”

“Yes,” I said, nodding my head slowly.

“Maybe someday I will again,” he said.

“I hope you do, Nick, I hope you do.”

I tried to pay the tab but Nick refused.

“One more drink for my honored guest,” he demanded?

“Sure,”

He poured two shots, lifted his glass and said, “to “hüzün!”

There was a tipping back and a setting down. We both gasped and grimaced and then said our goodbyes.

Outside Ulu Dag shouldered its way into view, lit by spectacular tendrils of lightning and then shuddered under dreams of thunder.

Drunk, I stumbled uphill into the rain.

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.

Into The Levantine Light

Old Town: BursaThe last several days have been busy, but not a job-minded busy, just an interesting, peripatetic busy. My days seem to be growing more and more interesting and I already know I will miss Turkey when I leave on the June 1. But, by then it will be time to move on. I imagine I’ll be taking an overnight train to Sophia, Bulgaria or Belgrade, Serbia. I haven’t planned that far ahead yet. Probably a short stop in Budapest and then the long ride up to Denmark. No Crimea this time around. I’ll save that for another trip. I’m sitting on a cafe terrace right now, looking down into the Bursa Valley. It’s a nice sight. Not as epic as Eastern Anatolia, nor as wild. But it has a strong Mediterranean flavor, very Levatine. The sun is shining but huge semi-random globules of rain drop. It’s nice to be in a liberal city again. I loved it out East, all the raw wildness of the place. But it was conservative. And I don’t really like it when eight of ten women are covered. Bursa has a very open, lively feel.

I woke early, Saturday in Sivas, paid the hotel bill and caught the 1100am bus to Ankara. It was about 75* in Sivas, but the harsh glare of the sun made it feel 90*. I crawled onto the bus, plugged in my iPod and settled down for a long, boring drive. From Sivas to Ankara is not terribly inspiring and although there are plenty of craggy hillocks to break up the swathes of farm and pasture land, the landscape resembled the steady rise and fall of swells in the North Atlantic. Wheat, barley, shepherds and small plots of vegetables cover the countryside. Broken up only by large creeks lined with Cypress trees, surrounded by Oxbow lakes and small congregations of tents: itinerant farmers–the last vestiges of Turkish pastoral nomadism in Anatolia.

The scenery we drove through brought to mind an image of Byzantine Anatolia, as I considered that this is much how Anatolia must have looked before the Cataclysm of Manzikert in 1071 ushered in 300 years of nomadic chaos and agricultural disruption, as the vanguard Seljuks and their successors the Danishmendid, Akkoyunlu, Mengucid and Karakoyyunlu poured into Anatolia from the wastes of Central Asia. It wasn’t until the Osmanlis–the Ottomans, as we call them–settle down to build a state in the early 15th century that these Turks began to put down roots.

I arrived in Ankara about 615pm, grabbed a tavuk doner–chicken sandwich–wandered around the pantagruel-like bus station, bought an onward ticket to Bursa, climbed aboard at 700pm and accepted the fact of another long ride. About 30 kilometers West of Ankara we crossed a broad, flat plain where in 1402 the great army of Sultan Beyazit Yildirim–the Lightingbolt–met the last great Mongol warlord to irrupt into Anatolia from Central Asia: Timur the Lame, or as we know him, Tamerlane. Timur was a Mongols’ Mongol, leaving behind him the smoking hulks of wasted cities with piles of skulls at the city gates to warn all not to return. Or the Emir Timur would!

Sultan Bayezit was confident. He had recently defeated the combined armies of Western and Eastern Europe at Nicoplis on the Danube in the last Crusade worthy of its name. And while not as bloodthirsty as Timur, he was a wily one. He drew up his ‘janisarries’ and looked out on the Mongol host from a low rising hill where a cell tower now transmits bits and bytes and gave the order to attack.

His army was shattered. He was captured alive by Timur, thrust into a gilded cage on wheels and taken back to Samarkand (in Uzbekistan). Along the way Bayezit did the only honorable thing left to him and dashed his brains out on the bars of his cage. It was left to one of his sons to pick up the pieces and consolidate the new Ottoman state.

The sun turned my thoughts from history as it set behind a wall of hills, the last rays of light weaving gold and orange behind a fan of high cirrus clouds. The bus sped on through the empty darkness. Two hours later the bus ran down a long hill and the golden lights of Eskeshehir rained out on the plain below, as if the skies and stars had changed places.

I slept fitfully for an hour or so, looked at the time and wondered dreamily what a friend of mine was doing at an archeological dig out in the Californian desert. The bus arrived at 200am. I dragged myself uphill through the hot and humid–quite a change from the aridity of Anatolia–Bithynian night, to a hotel where I was greeted by a far too cheerful Turkish lass. I snatched the key from her hands, plodded upstairs, opened the door and let my backpack crash to the floor. I collapsed fully clothed onto the bed and slept.

I awoke at 800am feeling like the bus had run over me, made the cardinal mistake of eating before a shower, returned to my room and fell into a food coma. I woke at 1pm feeling worse. Took a shower and finally opened the thick hotel drapes. Showers are wonderful for rejuvenation but the view was better.

Warm Levatine light dripped in like honey and before me, like the Jolly Green Giant, was the forested eminence of Ulu Dag.

“Not bad,” I thought to myself, “not bad at all.”

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.