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.

One Response to “Time, Unanchored”

  1. RayS

    Well done, sir! A good day’s work.

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