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Crossing from Israel into Jordan in a crowded “vintage” van was the stuff of cinema. Picture miles of barren mountains, beautiful stone outcrops, baked ochre and umber, eroded canyons with neither a town or a structure on the long curving single lane road. Add driving rain, arrive at the border filled with concrete block buildings and men with guns everywhere, barbed wire, perhaps a city block long no man’s land where we waited an hour, our passports having been taken by the van driver–dismal, boring.
Once into Jordan the landscape stayed the same but the road devolved into potholes, cracks and floods of muddy water. At long last we came to Amman where the traffic crawled and where there was a fortress to visit and some very unique sculptures to be found
A white marble slab maybe 12″ x 18″” had an exquisite abstract relief of a delicate feminine face. Another sculpture featured a larger than life sized abstracted torso with two featureless heads. I’d never seen anything like these sculptures, wondered what they meant, where they were from–some, I discovered, were Nabataean–a culture I’m embarrassed to admit I’d never heard of.
My short stay in Jordan included a Roman fortress in Amman and the stunning Roman city of JERASH with a huge well-preserved temple, a three story Nymphaeum (fountain) and a unique oval forum –huge and surrounded by a splendid colonnade–
that welcomed the caravansari that passed through this city and made it rich.
Nothing prepared me, however, for the utter magnificence of PETRA, a city lost for many centuries and hidden from exploration by the locals. Simply described, it is a canyon as deep and brilliantly colored as Zion National Park in the US, and it begins mildly enough with a dry river bed. I rode a horse down to where the excitement begins, where, for instance, the dam and water reservoir and water tunnels of the amazing water system really begin and where the canyon gets steep rapidly.
Here in the narrow sand pathway between steep sandstone cliffs one walks past caves, huge dressed cubes of rock, a facade with four Egyptian pyramids above a Corinthian columned Greco-Roman entrance and many niches carved into the cliff walls that have cubes to venerate. No one really knows the meaning of the worship of these rectilinear forms but they are evocative of ancient enigmas.
Some archeologists have claimed that the cubes represent the Nabataean gods
Dushara (God of the mountain ) and al-Uzza
( goddess of the evening star, a pre-Ishtar/ Aphrodite goddess) and perhaps the white sculpture I saw in Amman was al-Uzza.
These early structures were but prelude to the awesome vision presented by the Tomb Facades that fill the main site of Petra. Innumerable, multi-storied, some as tall as 120 feet and carved into the rock face from above, the tomb facades look like Greek and Roman buildings with multiple arched entrances like those at the Library of Ephesus. In the Treasury at Petra dancing Amazons flank sculptures of Isis/Tyche (Egyptian fertility/good fortune goddesses) while in the lower archways the Roman twins Castor and Pollux grace the aediculas (the name of the “small houses” that are on the facades of Greek and Roman temples). Seemingly innumerable facades are everywhere you look as the canyon widens into the site of an ancient city complete with homes, temples and even a Byzantine church ruin with excellent mosaic floors.
Beyond the main city and high up the far end of the canyon you can hike or ride a donkey up to another large facade, called the Monastery, and here I climbed to the very top of the mountain that overlooked Israel and where I met a lean and stern Bedouin reputed to be my young guide’s uncle.
The day in this stunning place ended by galloping up and out of the canyon with perhaps 30 Bedouins all on donkeys and laughing and asking if i’d like to marry a Bedouin today.
A trip I couldn’t replace for anything in the world…
Friends I’ve met in Turkey: Filiz; Kamel and Lotfi from Algeria; Tamer from Ephesus; the wine merchant from Sirince
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The Blue Mosque; Sacred Relic (the Prophet’s Beard); Illumination depicting Medina and Mecca (the first Mosques); the Sultan’s signature
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Cappadocia Rock-cut cave cathedral, cave church with flagellation column, and fairy castles in the lava flow canyons
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Rented a Peugeot in Izmir so that I could see many sites not accessible easily by public transport. And what an experience!! Unlike Italy where the signage is infuriatingly useless, the signs in Turkey are easy to follow and available in plenty of time before a turn. Plus the roads are good. So what’s the problem? Well, picture a four lane highway between villages with a 90 km speed limit. Sweet. But then you share the road with
2. Motorbikes puttering along about 20 kph
3. An occasional horse-drawn cart–no lie
4. Drivers who absolutely LOVE to tailgate
5. Pedestrians who skitter across the road in bold hopes of survival
6. Impatient drivers who pass on the right if their tailgating hasn’t worked.
7. Cars doing a steady 40 km per hour in the middle or fast lane blithely unaware of anyone else on the road
And my favorite–
8. Cars that fly by doing at least 140km an hour, horns honking and lights flashing in ecstatic abandon.
Amazingly though I never came even close to danger or to an accident the whole four days I was on the road. The only thing that challenged me was the very narrow nearly vertical cobbled street out of Sirince that devolved into a jumble of broken boulders and two foot deep holes left by their displacement. I realized I wasn’t on my way to the local church, was able to manage a 180 and carefully bumped my way back into town, where shops and people abounded just as they do in Beyoglu in Istanbul where I usually stay. It’s amazing how the literally hundreds of people walk all over the streets and somehow cars and motorbikes run right through the masses with no mishaps. A few scares maybe.
WALKING actually is the modus operandi of most folks in Turkey so day and night all the streets seem jammed with pedestrians–slow doodlebugs wandering in and out of shops, gangs of young men all dark haired with beards and mustaches, all handsome, all looking very much alike, swaggering down the center of the one lane two way cobbled streets, families with strollers, peddlers with churro and pretzel carts, women in Muslim scarves and long skirts.
People crowd every kind of street from 19th century very steep staired sidewalk streets to the broad new Istabal–a 4 kilometer pedestrian street of posh shops and thousands of shoppers–teenagers, women in chadors, romantic couples, families, guys with cool London haircuts (shaved sides, bouffant tops), the odd illegal motor bike–streaming people all day and past midnightevery day of the week.
As you walk the streets you begin to see tradition everywhere. The tea shops, the candy and spice stores, the pomegranate juice bars all look the same as do the pretzel and chestnut carts with their red and white awnings, and the shoeshine stands with big surrounds of stepped brass decorated with a mountain of spheres on each side of the platform for one’s foot. You are a sultan for sure perched on a Turkish rug covered high chair before such elaborate stands. And most restaurants have a rainbow array of shredded fresh vegetables, assorted hot dishes and fresh paper thin bread cooked on a 30″ diameter hot grill by a woman in a chador kneading stretching and rolling fresh dough into pizza-like circles and cooking them with feta or spinach or mushrooms– your pleasure.
Start on the street where for about a dollar you can find fresh squeezed pomegranate juice–mmmm–tasty zesty healthy. Add a kind of New York pretzel flavored with poppy seeds; roasted corn and the favorite flavor of the week, roasted chestnuts served fresh, hot and artfully arranged in pyramids or rosette patterns or pretty lines like petit fours on circus style carts.
In “Turkish Delight” shops, a rainbow of jellies called “lokum” in Turkish, come in flavors from kiwi to date, watermelon to pistachio and baklava of every shape beckon even more enticingly. Here too are binfulls of spices, dried apricots, candied pineapple, scrumptious color everywhere even on the carpeted walls and glass lamps suspended in myriads from the ceiling.
Tea shops with low tables and stools are always filled with older men and newer trendy cafes in the old Beyoglu neighborhood serve tea and coffee in traditional ways: tea comes in an hour-glass shaped glass served on a saucer. Turkish coffee, thick as molasses, is served in a small cup on a wooden platter with lokum in a fluted pastry cup and a glass of water.
If you are lucky a Turkish friend may read the coffee slurry that sticks to your cup if you do an elaborate ritual of sloshing it around and turning it upside down in your saucer. When my coffee grounds were read there was an unmistakeable image of a tree left in my cup telling me I was to have wealth coming my way soon. But a couple of lumps in the grounds warned me about evil eyes ready to prey upon me. Whew
Breakfast here, as in Israel and Jordan, always includes tomatoes, cucumbers and cheese plus bread, jam, maybe eggs, usually yoghurt and any other assortment of healthy fare–the better the hostel or hotel the more the breakfast which could include anything from fava beans to halvah, pancakes to frittatas. I love it all and find myself craving tomatoes and cucumbers at every meal thanks to months over here.
CATS are everywhere and every breed. They patrol the streets like Lotharios, curl up three to a chair in the posh museum shop, slink around your legs as you eat, hang asleep on the heater vent at our hostel and leap up to swipe a half loaf of bread right off my plate with a single claw and an attitude of privilege. They are usually friendly enough, accepting human fondling with a measure of grace and endurance if not pleasure. But no matter where you are –from the holiest of sites like Hagia Sophia to the cobbled gutter –there will be cats–tabbies, Tuxedos, or scrambled mixes–and I’m delighted by their glorious and stealthy presence.
Oh and of course I came here to see the sites…
Visiting the Asian side to see the
three story high murals in the
surreal robots; military vehicles
cramming the land and being either
purged out of or sucked into a
space ship; disjointed women paddling
a boat filled with teddy bears and
heaps of broken toys and animal skeletons
“Resistencia” stenciled across a poignant
image of a Muslim woman. All the
murals were professional in quality,
and covertly political.
Discovering the TOMBS of the SULTANS
right next to Hagia Sophia but not
mentioned in my guide book
Such lovely tile work outside and in!
as if carpets were facing the entry
and elegant domes were poised over
somber groups of coffins
each in the form of a simple house,
each with a white knotted form on top
and each covered in green–because
the Quran says that people who
abide in paradise wear green.
Marveling at the opulence of the HAREM in
TOPKAPI palace. The flowery tile
patterns, the lovely copper fireplaces,
the elaborate fountains, the pavilions–
domed, stained glass windowed, golden,
the over the top Baroque magnificence
is indescribable and intoxicating. And I
was thrilled to see sacred relics of the
Prophet as well as emeralds and
diamonds displayed in abundance in the
Visiting MOSQUES, humble to huge, each
carpeted, filled with tile decoration,
silent, a sense of the presence of God.
I was drawn to them by the call to
prayer that fills Istanbul with
compelling chants five times a day.
And in the HINTERLANDS:
PRIENE–a Roman city on a hill overgrown with grasses and pines, absolutely isolate and abandoned–here was a lovely small theater, a square bouleterion (council chamber), and a few marble columns from a temple to Athena that stood eloquently against a stormy sky and steep granitic cliffs. Ah what a delight to be there alone with the ancient stones.
PERGAMUM –offered me another day alone with a Greco-Roman city because the day I went was cold and stormy and filled with bursts of rain and threatening thunder. This city was far grander than Priene; its Acropolis rivals Athens yet it is not often visited. It has a huge theater clinging precipitously to the edge of a steep slope, many cult temples and a 1500 square meter house with glorious floors with portraits and lions and leopards in mosaic tesserae. A huge temple to Emperor Trajan stands on the top of the mountain site with many columns intact and supported by a three story complexly engineered terrace. I wandered among the ruins for hours finding treasures like a bit of dressed marble and a piece of a red painted wall and the views were stunning. I’m ready to sign up to excavate next summer!!
Another treasure in BERGAMA (the village name today) is the remains of the Temple to the Egyptian Gods– a tall domed tower and high walls in the process of restoration. The roofs were originally supported by 28 foot high caryatid columns that were made up of a God and a Goddess back to back and sculpted in sections with different colored marbles. The one restored figure was of Sekmet, my favorite Egyptian Goddess–a lion headed power goddess.
CAPPADOCIA is one of my Seven Wonders for sure–and although I’d heard about it, the place still amazed and thrilled me–it’s a moonscape developed by wind and floods eroding the ancient lava flows of three now dormant volcanoes and I went on my first hot air balloon ride to see it at dawn –“Fairy castles” these formations are called–tall white skinny spindly peaks of sandstone many capped by dark basalt and many many of them have both natural and man made caves within them that people have lived in for generations. Being here is like magically climbing into a children’s book of dreams, complete with homes for trolls and Minions.
What surprised me the most was the exquisite Early Christian cave churches clustered all over the hills and canyons of Cappadocia. Some of churches were densely packed together, but each was really the church for a small monastery, each built into a mini mountain and each included not only a perfectly carved domed or barrel vaulted church but also stone rectory tables, kitchens, wineries, storerooms and monastic bedrooms.
So 1500 years ago we have these monks carving perfect classical columns, perfect arches and vaults and sweet little niches into the rock and then painting them with absolutely gorgeous Biblical scenes with designs and figures on every square inch of the interior spaces. And these churches are not only clustered in the main town of the region–Goreme–but they are scattered all over the hills and up the perpendicular walls of the gloriously beautiful Ihlara Canyon filled with Autumnal yellowing trees, intense green grass and a fast running clear water river.
Here in Cappadocia too are underground cities dating far back to Hittite times (1600 BC) and we climbed down to the 7th or 8th city below the surface to find a rudimentary Christian church with arches and columns and a cemetery.
Now that I’ve started to see the wonders of Turkey I can’t wait to return. There are so many places waiting for a visit–like Gobekli Tepe, the oldest ritual site in the world–and Catalhoyuk, the world’s first city and Hattusha, the Hittite capital.the ruins at Aphrodesias..and …..and….