Friday, October 18, 2013



We headed out on the Kennedy to Istanbul's Ataturk Airport for our hour flight to Turkey's Second City--well, Third City--Izmir, located on the coast of the Aegean Sea, part of the Mediterranean.  Not well known to Americans, Izmir is a city the size of Chicago.  In ancient times, it was called Smyrna.  Smyrna was Homer's home town; he hung out there while writing the Iliad.  I expected to find a statue of him there, but no!  All the statues are of Ataturk.  The only statue of Homer of which I'm aware is at the University of Virginia.

Not far from Izmir is the ancient city of Troy, which is now uninhabited.  However, to attract tourists, they built a large Trojan horse out in front.  Our tour didn't visit although we visited the ruins of several other ancient cities.  As a practical matter, there are hundreds of these ruins scattered all over Turkey.

This part of Turkey is called Anatolia, or Asia Minor.  It has a very rich history going back thousands of years.  Many of the stories from Greek mythology took place in Asia Minor.  It is pretty clear that Homer was Greek.  Ironically, few, if any, Greeks still live here today.  The Turks and Greeks don't much like each other and have fought wars in recent years (e.g. Cyprus).  The animosity is expressed in subtle ways.  For example, if you order Greek yoghurt, they'll correct you--it's Turkish yoghurt.

In 1923, the Turkish republic was established after the painful five year Turkish War of Independence against the Allies who occupied the country.  (The Ottoman Turks had picked the wrong side in World War I.)  To settle matters, the  governments of Greece and Turkey met in Lausenne, Switzerland and worked out a treaty, the Convention Concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations.  Under the terms of the treaty 1.5 million Anatolian Greeks and 500,000 Muslims in Greece were forcibly relocated and denaturalized from their homelands.   Essentially, the criteria was their religions.  Many of the Greeks had already fled by that time.  Don't even ask about the Armenians!

The Turks are not native to Turkey, and their history in the country spans less than 1000 years.  They originally came from Turkmenistan in Central Asia.  They converted to Islam.  Then they entered the country (illegally?) when the Seljuk Turks routed the Byzantines in the 11th Century, and later the Ottomans came along in the 13th Century.  The Europeans tried to kick them out, fighting at least four Crusades between 1097 and 1204 with little success.  In the Fourth Crusade, the Europeans sacked Constantinople which was a "friendly" Christian state at the time.

In Izmir, we stayed at the Swisshotel a block from the waterfront.  The Swisshotel is a luxury 5-star hotel in the European tradition, which means that although it has a beautiful physical plant, the rooms are functionally obsolete.  For example, our room was 290 square feet, half the size of our room at the Intercontinental in Istanbul.  In Las Vegas, they have closets bigger than our room.  If you want to unpack and store your shirts or underwear, there are no drawers--the room has shelves above the closet.  Unless you're over 6 feet tall, you can't reach the shelves.  They have a floor length mirror next to the bathroom where you'd expect the closet to be.  The shower door opens into the toilet commode.  The vanity is tiny, so you can't store things on it.  Cabinets have false drawers.  There is little space to store luggage.  All this for over $200 per night--prices are relatively cheap in Turkey.

On the other hand, the restaurant in the hotel was outstanding.  It is located on the top floor overlooking the city.  I had a lobster with avocado salad, clam soup with wine in it and New York steak.  The food was delicious. 

The location was one of the best in the city.  We took a 5 minute walk to the waterfront promenade which is lined with cafes and travel agencies.  You can walk on the breakwater with waves lapping just below your feet.  On the broad square, young men were rollerblading or playing soccer in front of a giant statue of Ataturk sitting on a horse. 

We ate dinner in an outdoor cafĂ© at the waterfront.  It gets cool at night, and the restaurant provides the diners with blankets to drape over their shoulders.


An hour's drive South from Izmir is the ancient city of Ephesus.  To get there, we drove through fertile fields of ripe pomegranates, peaches, apples and even grape vineyards.   The flat fields resemble those of the Central Valley of California.  The fields are irrigated with modern equipment.  Buried under these fields are more ancient ruins.  In choosing where to dig, the authorities have to balance their priorities, considering the economic impact to the area. 

Bible scholars remember St. Pauls' emails to the Ephesians.  Well, here they are!  The Ephesians, not the letters.  There are no personal greetings in the letter, so many scholars think it is the ancient version of a form letter sent to a number of churches in Asia Minor.  In Paul's letter to Ephesians, he explains the big picture to the small Christian congregations.  That was his plan to spread the Gospel to the world at large.

The site of Ephesus draws millions of tourists each year, especially from the many cruise ships that dock in nearby Kusadasi.  Many of the tourists come for religious reasons--to walk in the footsteps of the Apostles.  Indeed, St. Paul lived in Ephesus for over two years.  To his friends and neighbors, he was just Paul--or was it Saul.  They didn't have saints in those days--the first saint was canonized by the Pope in 993. 

In ancient times, Ephesus was a city of 250,000 people.  Its heyday ended when the harbor filled in with silt from the river.  Today about 30% of the city has been excavated.  Much more is buried in the surrounding countryside where you occasionally see large stones sticking out of the ground.

Since our last trip to Ephesus, about 8 years ago, the archaeologists have uncovered more treasures such as terrace homes (early condominiums) which we were able to visit (for an additional admission fee).  It was worth the visit because the crowds avoided it.  They didn't want to pay the extra fee.

The most famous building  in Ephesus is the library, a two story structure.  Actually it was toppled by an earthquake in ancient times, and the second story was restored in recent years.  You don't want to return an overdue book--the fines can be astronomical!  If you're thirsty however, they serve Efes beer wherever drinks are sold. 


We took the optional trip a few miles up the road to Mary's house, located on a hilltop.  Here's the story:  According to the New Testament, before Jesus was crucified, he had asked his friend John (we know him as St. John) to look after his mama.    John took her to live in his house near Ephesus.  She lived there the last 11 years of her life.  The Bible is vague on the issue, but apparently Joseph wasn't around anymore.   The Bible makes no mention of him after Jesus was 12 years old.  Joseph was
much older than Mary, and he had probably died by that time. 

As you can imagine, Mary's house attracts pilgrims by the boatload.  Fortunately they don't all come at once--the house is not easy to get to.  The tour bus had to negotiate a winding narrow road with switchbacks. 

Inside the tiny, dimly lit house is a small chapel, and they won't let you take photos.  The house is made of stone, so it has lasted without much wear and tear for 2 millennia.

The property has a well which spouts "holy" water.  Unlike in most of Turkey, this water is safe to drink.  The well has 3 spigots dispensing the water to pilgrims filling up their cups.  The first spigot is for health, the second for wealth, and the third for love.

The other interesting thing here is the view from the men's room.  Above the urinals is a picture window with a beautiful vista of the valley, the town of Seljuk and the harbor.   I didn't see the ladies' room, so I don't know what view they have.

Outside the house is a "wishing wall" where pilgrims write their wishes on a paper or fabric and attach it to the wall.  They also do this at the "Wailing Wall" in Jerusalem.  Hundreds of these notes are affixed to the wall.  I don't know how often they remove them, or whether any of the wishes are granted.  

There is some controversy over whether this is really Mary's house.    The house was described in a series of visions by Anne Emmerick, a German nun in the early 1800's.  She had never visited the site.  Be that as it may, Pope Leo XIII visited and blessed the place in 1889.   Several other popes including Pius XII, John XXIII, and Benedict XVI have also visited and blessed it.  The house is venerated by the Muslims also.


Also close to Izmir, we visited the ruins of Sardis, or Sart,   the capital of ancient Lydia, and one of the most important cities of the Persian Empire.  On the street sign it is spelled "Lidya".  Ancient Anatolia saw the rise and fall of several kingdoms--the Lydians, the Hittites, the Phyrgians, and, of course, the Byzantines (who referred to themselves as Romans).  Even the Ottomans.

The Lydians were an innovative people.  They were the first country to mint gold and silver coinage, and the first to establish retail shops in permanent locations, selling woolens and carpets.  To keep records, they invented pergamon which we know as parchment.  The Egyptians had banned the export of papyrus, and the Lydians developed the idea of processing sheepskin to make the parchment. 

The Lydians had an ample supply of gold which they panned from the river where, according to legend, King Midas (the golden touch guy) had washed his hands of it.  Obviously, with their gold, the Lydians were wealthy by any standard--you may recall King Croesus who was the Scrooge McDuck of his era--he enjoyed counting his money.  During his reign, the metallurgists discovered the secret of separating gold from silver, thereby producing metals of extraordinary purity and making them widely accepted in commerce.  Croesus turned out  to be the last king of Lydia.  In 547 B.C. he defeated a Persian town in Cappodocia, enslaving the people.  That pissed off the Persian king, Cyrus II, and he came after Croesus.  Despite his wealth, he couldn't buy off Cyrus and was defeated in battle in 546 B.C.

The ruins of Sardis, a/k/a Sart featured the Temple to Artemis, the bath-gymnasium complex, and a synagogue founded by wealthy Hellenic Jews in the 1st Century, C.E.  The synagogue, with its mosaic floors would be impressive even by today's standards.  The ruins of a Byzantine strip shopping center were just outside the synagogue where the parking lot would be.  The whole complex was used for about 500 years until destroyed by the Persians in 616 C.E.  The Lydians built a sewage system that worked remarkably well and is generally intact today. 

The weather was sunny, hot and humid when we visited.  Little shade was afforded to us because the buildings had no roofs.  However, we were pleasantly surprised to be greeted by two young ladies wearing short dresses adorned with gold leaf.  With a little imagination, one can picture the bustling prosperous trading center of ancient times within these buildings. 


Perge is another ancient city we explored.  The city dates back 6000 years, but the Romans built the main part of it.  In its day, it was home to 140,000 people.  Like many of the other ancient cities, it was destroyed by earthquakes over the millennia.  We walked around the ruins on uneven paving stones for 2 hours in the heat.   The city covers a large area, and I'm always amazed that archaeologists uncovered all of this, using spoons. 

The historical significance is that Perge was one of the first planned cities.  Unlike most ancient (and modern) cities, it is built on a grid--the streets run parallel, North and South, with intersecting cross streets.  A canal runs along the main street to bring water from the nearby hills.

The most interesting part was the Roman baths.  They were built in three sections--the Calderium, the Tepidarium and the Frigidarium.  From the names, one can probably guess the function of each.  The Calderium was the hottest part of the bath.  Then people would cool off a little at the Tepidarium 
at room temperature.   The Frigidarium contained the cold water.  Today, the famous Turkish baths incorporate these except they don't have the cold part. 


Located on the Turkish Riviera, on the Mediterranean coast, Antalya is a city of over 1 million with modern hotels and resorts.   As a resort town, I'd compare it to Miami Beach.  Many Europeans, especially Russians, come to Antalya for vacation.  As we know, Turkey is a Muslim country, but the Muslims in the large coastal cities are very liberal, adopting Western ways.  In Antalya and in Izmir, the women don't cover their heads.  This drives the Erdogan Administration nuts, but the country has been secular for 80 years, and the Turks are not about to change overnight. 

We walked the narrow winding streets of Old Town Antalya, visiting the small shops and haggling with the merchants.  This is where the locals do their shopping for clothes, rugs and everything else.  The Old Town is surrounded by the ancient city walls and  overlooks the bay.   You enter the area through the imposing Hadrian's Gate, built in 130 C.E. next to the famous clock tower.    As the Romans used to say, "Yo, Hadrian!".

Antalya is home to a world class archaeological museum, second to none.  The exhibits in the museum are as much as 10,000 years old, dating back to the Stone Age, and follow through the Bronze Age, the Hittites, Greeks, Romans, etc.   We learned about the history of pottery, metal working and coinage.  Life size statues of Greek and Roman gods fill rooms in the museum.  Another section reviews the history of weaving carpets for which Turkey is so famous.  We learned that prayer rugs have different designs than regular rugs. 

We stayed two glorious nights at the luxurious Kempinski Hotel.  The garish lobby, with shiny Turkish marble floors, adorned with Turkish rugs, has two large stained glass domes.  The shops in the hotel are very expensive, as the cater to rich Russians and Germans on holiday.  The swimming pool is huge, with walking bridges over the pool so the guests can walk across to the sandy beach. 

Europeans are different from Americans.  For example, one couple was observed changing their bathing suits alongside the pool.  Hello!  They have changing rooms available.  They could have used Turkish towels.  Meanwhile, a Russian couple lounged by the side of the pool on both days we were swimming there.  The man, wearing a Speedo bathing suit,  weighed at least 450 pounds.  His wife, wearing a two piece, weighed somewhat less, but still well over 200.   Hey, if you can pay, you can do anything you want!  I don't mean to disparage caloric challenged people, but these folks were in your face with it. 


Some archaeologists believe the oldest known human organized settlement is Catalhoyuk, a Neolithic proto-city estimated to be more than 9000 years old.  UNESCO is designating it as a World Heritage Site.  In the Turkish language, Catal means "fork" and Hoyuk means "mound".  People lived there for almost 2000 years, and archaeologists have discovered as many as 18 separate levels with different artifacts on each.  Essentially, each generation would fill in the lower level and build upon the previous foundation.  They would bury their dead under the floor.  The population of Catalhoyuk was believed to be around 5000.   After it was abandoned, experts don't know where the people went.

This site is an ongoing archaeological dig which has not reached the advanced level of Ephesus or Perge.  . Our group still dug it, however.  The Catalhoyukians lived in mud-brick houses which they entered through the roof and climbed down steep ladders.  The houses were built close together so that the people could walk across the roofs connected with planks or ladders.  The reason the door was on the roof was presumably to keep out wild animals.  They made no provision for the disabled to get in or out.   Apparently, the roofs of the dwellings substituted for streets.  The people appear to have congregated on the roofs, using them as a public square.  The archaeologists have discovered no public buildings to indicate these folks had any type of central government. 

The inhabitants painted colorful images on the walls depicting hunting scenes and murals.  They mounted animal heads, especially cattle, on the walls.  They carved figurines of men and women.  These are displayed in the nearby museum.  It is not clear if any of this had religious significance. 

In the upper levels it was evident that the inhabitants were gaining agricultural skills including the domestication of animals like sheep and cattle.

Much has not been uncovered, still buried in the surrounding mounds over 60 feet high.   This will keep archaeologists working for many centuries.


Konya is a large city of 1.2 million in the interior of Turkey--its version of the Bible Belt-- where the people are more conservative than those in the coastal cities.  The women in our group were warned to not wear shorts or short dresses, and to cover their arms.  We stayed in the Dedeman Hotel which, although it is the finest hotel in the city, does not measure up to Western standards.  It claims to be a 5-star hotel, but don't believe it!  Our mattress felt like sleeping on a box-spring or a concrete slab, and the pillows had little or no down.  With no down, you might as well stay up!    The bathtub rim was more than 2 feet above the marble floor--climbing out is slippery and difficult, especially for us old folks.  Worse than all of those, the air conditioning unit was not powerful enough to cool off the room.  In September, it gets hot in the interior of Turkey.  The other people in our tour group had the same complaints about the hotel, so it wasn't just us.  We were very happy to leave.

The good thing about the hotel, however, was the rooftop restaurant, called appropriately enough, The Roof.  We had a wonderful meal of pepper steak, salmon, calamari, soup, oven baked rice pudding and ice cream.  After stuffing ourselves, we walked across the street, dodging traffic, to the shopping mall which included a supermarket.  Turkish malls and supermarkets are not all that much different than in the U.S.  However, we were looking for cold medicine, and they don't carry it--you have to go to a pharmacy. 

Konya is famous because it contains the museum and mausoleum of Rumi who founded the Sufi sect, which we know as the Whirling Dervishes.  Rumi was a Persian mystic and poet who lived in the 13th Century.  His poems are still popular today, even in Western Europe and the U.S.  His mausoleum is today a museum, and it attracts thousands of religious pilgrims from the Muslim world.  It is the third most visited site in Turkey (after Hagia Sophia and Topkapi).  Many of these pilgrims are eager to kiss the glass case which holds Mohammed's beard.  The beard is contained in a pearl closed box and you can't see it.  You'll have to accept their word on that. 

Rumi's real name was Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi.  The Turks call him Mevlana.  In  Muslim countries, they don't call him Rumi because, in the Arabic language, that is translated as "Roman", referring to the fact that he was from the Byzantine Empire.  The Whirling Dervishes perform the twirling ritual as a religious form of meditation.  We were treated to a performance.  No photos are allowed during the religious aspect. 

Rumi's message which runs through his writings advocates unlimited tolerance, positive reasoning, goodness, charity and awareness through love.  To him, all religions are, more or less, truth.  His peaceful teachings appeal to all races and religions.  He is said to be revered in Iran today, even though it doesn't appear that the Iranians have grasped the meaning of his message.

In 2007, they celebrated the 800th anniversary of Rumi's birth, and it was a big deal, especially in Turkey and Iran.  Turkey brought out 300 whirling dervishes on the main square, and the event was televised live in 8 countries.  The U.S. was not one of them.   It's not know whether Guinness was on hand to record the world record. 


Caravansaries were the Middle Ages version of a roadside rest area.  Several of these are scattered around the Middle East.  They originally served camel caravans plying the Silk road from China.  The Caravansary we visited was near Aksaray on the road to Konya.  It was built in the 1200's.  It is a large fortified structure with rooms for the travelers and places for their animals.  The rooms were fairly large as hotel rooms go, but probably several people would share a room along with their merchandise.  The front gate is over 40 feet high and enters into a huge open air courtyard.  There, the travelers would receive food, water and absolution at the enclosed mosque.


The "fairy chimneys" of Cappadocia are one of the most unusual natural wonders of the world.  In the U.S., these are called hoodoos and are seen at the Badlands of South Dakota and Bryce Canyon in Utah.  The rocks, which were both sedimentary and volcanic, eroded over millions of years, leaving hundreds of spectacular pillars and minaret shapes.  In Cappadocia, the early Christians carved their homes, churches and monasteries out of this soft, porous tuva (volcanic rock).  Our hotel, the Anatolia Houses in the town of Goreme was also carved out of this rock.  Today, approximately 300 families still reside in these cave dwellings.  The Turkish government purchased them and leases them back to the families. 

We visited the Goreme Open Air Museum complex which contains more than 30 carved out churches and chapels with beautiful frescoes decorating the walls.  These churches, carved out of a mountain are more than 1000 years old.  We clambered up to visit the so-called Dark Church with perhaps the best example of the colorful icons.

A downside to living in caves is the high incidence of mesothelioma which afflicts the inhabitants.  In a study of 3 small villages in 1975, the experts found this disease, caused by mineral fiber carcinomas, was responsible for half of all the deaths.   Fortunately for the Turkish government, lawyers with their late night TV commercials have not yet reached this area of Turkey.

We were invited to visit Ahmed and his family, who have lived in a cave dwelling house for 300 years.  The floor and walls are covered with Turkish rugs.  The women in Turkey are trained in the art of carpet weaving handed down from generation to generation.  Ahmed showed us the one made by his wife and also the ones made by grandma and even great-grandma. 


The highlight of our trip to Cappadocia was the hot air balloon ride.  At the start of our tour of Turkey, Tauck Tours insisted that we all sign hold harmless agreements and releases.  Also, if we were to sue Tauck, we'd have to do it in Connecticut.  What they forgot to tell us was that back in May, one of the balloons had crashed, killing 3 Brazilian tourists and injuring 22.  In March, a gas explosion in a balloon in Egypt killed 19 people.  In the recent Turkish incident, the balloons collided so that the basket on one landed on top of the balloon part of the other, ripping the fabric, causing it to deflate.  On our trip, we did collide with other balloons.   It's not like a plane crash--the balloons bump and then drift apart.

Balloons are a major industry in Cappadocia.  When we went for our balloon ride, there were approximately 100 balloons in the air, most of them sponsored by local businesses.  The Turkish FAA allows only 100 at a time.  The gondola (basket) on our balloon holds 28 people including the pilot.  There are probably about 100 balloon operators in town--on almost every street corner.  They charge about 200 bucks per person for the one hour ride.  The training the pilots receive is questionable.  I learned you can go from a beginner to a licensed pilot in about a week.  They train in Russia.  

They woke us up at 4:39 A.M. for the balloon ride.  They have to do it early in the morning because the winds are light and also the thermal updrafts don't occur until the hotter part of the day.  Climbing into the gondola can be difficult for many people, especially senior citizens.  Junior citizens are more limber.  The walls of the basket are about 4 feet high, really so people can't easily climb out--not good when you're 1500 feet in the air.  There are no toilets in the balloon.

The pilot asked us how many were taking their first balloon ride.  Almost everyone raised their hands.  "Me too," he said.  Then he asked everyone to sit down for the disaster drill.  It can't be done--there's not enough room for 28 people to sit down.  No problem; the ride was very smooth.  We had no fear of a collision with other balloons, but we did have some concern about hitting the side of a mountain or power lines which has been known to happen.  Our pilot was skillful however, and he was able to guide the balloon up and down to avoid obstacles.  He was able to land the thing on a flat bed truck, like docking a boat.  The truck chases the balloon, and as it is landing, three or four strong men grab the ropes and haul the thing in. 


There are about 40 caves in the Cappadocia region carved out by the inhabitants, some of them traced back to Hittite times, over 3000 years ago.  They dug deep--as deep as 300 feet underground with thousand pound circular stone doors that could be opened only from the inside.  One would think the ancients' technology would preclude such feats, and there are a lot of theories out there, including alien technology.  The purpose of the caves was to allow the people to hide out from marauding tribes who came through the area from time to time.

We visited the Kaymakli Underground City which, we were told, was carved out of the rock by early Christians who sought refuge there before Constantine came along in the 4th Century and embraced the religion.  This cave, like the others, is a major engineering feat, built long before the days of OSHA.  It descends 8 levels into the ground, although only 4 levels are open to the public.  We saw deep holes (ventilation shafts) all over the cave--they were covered with grating.  The corridors, which can be 100 yards long, have low ceilings.  Either the early inhabitants were very short, or they had to chicken walk like we did.   We had to climb in and out on steep stairs.

Each room is organized around the ventilation shafts.  The first floor contains the stable, the second floor has a church with a nave and two apses.  The third level contains storage area, wine and oil presses and kitchens.  The fourth level also has storage rooms and areas for earthenware jars.  These caves were designed to keep a few thousand people alive for the long haul.

The people who built these were very clever.  They set up networks of traps to defend the cave.  They rolled out the large circular stone door and also dug holes in the ceilings to allow the defenders to drop spears on the Romans.  The narrow tunnel system made it impossible for the Romans to attack in groups as they normally would.

It is not known how the ancients dealt with issues like claustrophobia and lack of sunlight.  Climbing the steep stairs can be very difficult also.


To summarize our Turkish experience, those 8 people who didn't show up for the tour missed out on a wonderful trip.  We found the Turkish people to be friendly and hospitable, and we learned much about their culture.  The country is more developed and modern than we would have expected, especially in the large cities.   They have shopping malls, gas stations, fast food, etc., just like in the U.S.  But like anywhere else, many Turks, especially those living in the interior, are conservative, clinging to their old customs where women are second class citizens.  Politically these folks support the Erdogan Administration, and over the years there have been constant struggles between the conservatives and the more cosmopolitan young Turks who want to embrace Western customs.   In that respect, the Turks are not much different than the Americans.


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