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Archive for the ‘Turkish Chronicles’ Category

As a vegetarian, I’d initially been apprehensive about what I would eat in Turkey. I figured that if nothing else, I could always eat bread. I wasn’t looking forward it, but at least it would help me stay alive and that is rather important to me.

In the event, I ended up eating chickpeas gravy, the eggplant based Imam Bayidli, rice pilaf,  chocolate baklava, kumpir, olives and any number of cheeses for breakfast. I washed it all down with ayran, the ubiquitious yogurt based drink.

Breakfast, complimentary in many hotels, is a heavy affair consisting of several varieties of bread, honey, very fresh cheese, green and black olives and watermelons. A good start to my day, considering that I usually spent about 8 – 10 hours on my feet the rest of the day wandering around Istanbul.

It is not surprising that restaurants and mezes in the tourist dominated Sultanahmet usually have at least a few vegetarian options. The menus in the posher restaurants in the tourist district will usually indicate which items are vegetarian, and these will usually have some eggplant in them. It’s a good thing I like eggplant. The mezes near the Basilica Cistern have entrees involving different types of vegetables, chickpeas, eggplant (but of course) and lentils. The lentil soup is usually a good option with which to start a meal.

The Imam Bayidli is one of the most standout entrees, memorable for its name which means “The Imam Fainted”, as much as its taste, Apparently, the Imam was so overcome with joy on tasting this dish that he fainted. And what could be greater testimony to the awesomeness of a dish than that? On a flight from Istanbul to Kayseri, I was very amused to see an article in the in-flight magazine which claimed that eggplant came to Turkey via the silk route, but the Turks being “people of refinement” made improvements to the eggplant resulting in the Imam Bayidli.

I was not prepared to find many veggie options while walking around in a working class neighborhood on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. There were rows of meat shops with invitingly displayed carcasses and I estimated a low probability of finding veggie food.  But still, I entered a small restaurant to try my luck and what do you know? The waiter, who was very helpful, pointed out all the vegetarian options –veggie pide (like pizza), ayran, rice pilaf and lentil soup. Quite a windfall, especially considering I had been expecting to have to skip lunch.

Kumpir

There are veggie fast food options as well. In Ortakoy, we tried some Kumpir at a fast food joint. It consists of a large potato baked and hollowed out, stuffed with cut vegetables, corn, mushrooms and topped with black olive paste. Obviously the standard version has meat in it, but the vendors will make you a veggie version.

As for dessert, vegetarians are spoiled for choice. Ice cream carts are ubiquitous and Turks of all ages enjoy their ice cream. Families queue up at the carts outside the Blue Mosque. After several hours of hard work (!) walking around the Aya Sofia and Topkapi Palace, I preferred the chocolate almond Magnum ice cream stick.

For someone like me cursed with a sweet tooth, a walk around the Spice Bazaar is so not just what the doctor ordered. There are rows of shops offering Baklava and Locum of different varieties and flavor. While the rose (gul) Locum is the most common variety, the tastiest is the pistachio Locum. The vendors in the spice bazaar (and many other places for that matter) let visitors try out samples. So I spent a few blissful hours walking around the spice bazaar trying out samples of sweets, and ended up buying Baklava and much Locum (of the pistachio and gul varieties).

Like in the Spice Bazaar, many Turkish places will let you try food samples for free. This does make good business sense, as people end up buying a lot of stuff after trying samples. In a shop in the Aegean seaside town of Kusadasi, I tried out samples of hazelnuts and cashewnuts as well as Pistachios, and like most visitors, bought a pound of each. In another shop, we sampled some of the baklava and other sinful sweets, the names of which I’ve forgotten (but not the taste). The shopkeepers will chat with you like long lost friends, enquiring about your family, children if any, and in turn will talk about their own families. This natural friendliness not only puts visitors at ease, but also ensures that the visitors end up buying at least a few things.

Turkish apple tea is an excellent rejuvenator when you want to take a break after much exertion. Depending on the season, they also have different types of juices at the roadside stalls, like pomegranate, apple or orange juices. And what of Turkish coffee, you might ask. I must confess to not being terribly impressed by Turkish coffee since the coffee powder stays in the cup, and before you’re halfway through your coffee, you start getting the powder in your mouth. Not a good coffee experience, at least for me.  Still, this was a minor disappointment. Who am I to complain, considering all the goodies available for vegetarians to enjoy?

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My husband and I visited Istanbul during Ramadan in September 2009 and cannot wait to go back. This is a post on the reasons why.


On a damp Saturday afternoon from our vantage point atop a hill at Bogazici university we looked down on Istanbul’s skyline with its mosques in the distance, Asia on the opposite shore and the Bosphorus in between. Istanbul has this habit of effortlessly conjuring breathtaking views out of its hat with which to stun unsuspecting visitors, but it outdid itself this time. An earnest undergrad student we’d met on the bus up was helping us find Rumeli fort and directed us to go down via the Bogazici campus. He then pointed to some very expensive waterfront villas that apparently were all the rage these days.

I looked at the villas he pointed to with interest. We’d seen villas like these earlier along the Asian side of the Bosphorus as well. Perhaps these were the Yalis that Orhan Pamuk had described in his” Istanbul: Memories and the City”. But in that book, these villas are crumbling relics of a glorious age. Like Istanbul itself, the Yalis were a testimony to a declining power that seemed to have lost its confidence and had turned its back on itself. Istanbul was enveloped in an all-pervading sadness, “huzun” and “spoke of defeat, destruction, deprivation, melancholy and poverty”. And the Yalis were a symbol of that sadness and awareness of a former glory that would never return, “mere shadows of this destroyed culture”.

A few decades later, instead of an all pervading sadness I got a sense of an all pervading sense of hustle and purpose. If Pamuk’s Istanbul was a shell of its former Ottoman glory, today’s Istanbul is a city on the move, comfortable with its Ottoman past but also open to and indeed trying too hard to incorporate European influences.

The energy is palpable everywhere in the city. Taksim and Beyoglu are crowded and full of stores selling European fashion. I rolled my eyes at a women’s store called “Ms. Poem” – for sheer cheesiness, this name is hard to beat. Elsewhere there are ads for Muslim chic modeled by stylish but modestly attired ladies. The city’s skyline is dominated not only by mosque minarets but also Garanti Bank hoardings exhorting the faithful to use Garanti’s credit cards this Ramadan. Cell phone ads featuring football players are ubiquitous.

The population is young and ambitious, and the recent boom years have made villas on the Bosphorus a symbol of newly acquired wealth and not of a past to be regretted. Some of the waterfront villas were older and looked more ‘antique’ – the ones we saw in Ortakoy had huge gates that we tried to peer into; perhaps these were the precisely sort of places Pamuk referred to. But by no stretch of imagination would I have associated ‘sadness’ with these imposing structures. They spoke of wealthy owners somewhat conscious of their own importance.

Having ogled the villas and envied the lucky folk that lived in them, we made our way down to the shore of the Bosphorus and to Rumeli Fort. 550 years ago, Rumeli was a key player in the city’s history. While laying siege to the city Constantinople, Mehmet the Conqueror had this imposing structure built in just 4 months. As the terrified populace awaited the inevitable, the Conqueror used the Fort to choke supplies to the besieged city and to prevent help arriving.

Today, the same location on the Bosporus is peaceful but abuzz with activity. Oil tankers from Georgia and Russia and massive cargo vessels from China jostle for space on its waters.  Families of headscarved ladies and boisterous children are enjoying themselves on the promenade. Rumeli Fort itself is hardly the terrifying structure it was intended to be, but an attractive accessory to the city’s skyline.

Later, on Istanbul’s Asian side we walk through a working class neighborhood bursting with energy and industry. There are small businesses everywhere. The bustling market sells tons of meat and a mind-boggling array of foods, and is full of busy folk getting work done.  Matrons are doing their Ramadan shopping for the evening meal, and the meat and food stalls are doing brisk business. Oh and did I mention, these busy folk are unfailingly courteous, taking the time to point out directions to clueless tourists.

Back in Sultanahment after sundown, food stalls open up to serve the faithful their fast-ending meals. Queues of people line up at these stalls after their visit to the Blue mosque. After their dinner, many people watch a 2-man street puppet show that appears to be immensely funny and has the audience doubled up with laughter. Unfortunately, we do not understand the language to be able to appreciate the jokes. Like many things in Istanbul, this show had its origins several centuries back. According to legend, two laborers working on Sultan Orhan’s mosque kept cracking jokes non-stop and distracting their colleagues from doing their work. Annoyed at the slow pace of completion of his mosque, Orhan very sensibly put them to death. But their legend has lived on in this popular puppet show.

That last night before I leave, I look down for one last time upon the city that refuses to rest. Looking at the energy and the all-pervasive sense of hustle and purpose, it seems impossible to imagine that just a few decades ago, the Istanbul of Pamuk’s youth was an unhappy city not entirely at ease with itself. The city seems to traveled a long way since then. Or perhaps a dreamy writer’s take on his ancestral city is not entirely to be taken at face value. Or as is more likely, I am drawing too many conclusions based on one visit.

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As I take in my first view of Cappadocia, I cannot help but think that there must be a Law of Inverse Turbulence at work here. The landscape is peaceful and still. Row after row of crazy conical rock formations jut out of the valleys, some are covered with what seem like graduation caps, but are really flat darker plates of rock balanced precariously on the sharp conical formations. Surely, a landscape as peaceful as this could not have seen the sort of turbulence that Cappadocia did in its long and checkered existence. But look a little more carefully, and it is possible to see evidence that this place has after all, been home to some of the most interesting and diverse characters in history including (but not limited to) Seljuk Turks, Austere Church Fathers, Hittite Warriors, Silk Route Capitalists and a couple of Hulking Big Volcanoes.

Cappadocia’s landscape may be utterly serene, but its natural formations and volcanic soil made it easy for industrious (and very desperate) people to build hiding places. I visited the Kaymakli “Underground City”, a hideout that was all the rage in Hittite circles circa 1200 BCE.  It is not so much a city as it is a series of artfully designed winding underground caverns.  When unfriendly folks – such as the Phrygians – came a calling, Hittite villagers, sensibly counting discretion the better part of valor, promptly scuttled down inside. They would close the entrance to the caves with a massive stone which could only be moved from the inside, leaving the invaders to stew outside in frustration. And even if any overzealous enemies were able to follow the Hittites inside, the twisting, mendacious caves and passages would confuse them and get them lost. Some passageways are so low and narrow that one has to stoop almost 90 degrees in order to pass through.  So it is reasonable to infer that only a few Phrygians could have ventured in at a time and while doing so were probably in no position to do any fighting, thereby nullifying any numerical superiority. Devious people, these Hittites. Though I wondered why the Phrygians simply did not lay siege and wait it out. How long could food and supplies have lasted? And why not set fire to the caves or shoot fire-tipped arrows inside before the stone closed the entrance? Shaking my head, I emerge out of the caverns trying to put these nasty thoughts out of my head. Deviousness seems to be contagious in this place, even after 3000 years.

But Cappadocian turbulence did not start with Hittite or even human habitation. It really began a few million years earlier when the volcano Mt. Erciyes underwent a massive eruption spewing out volcanic ash and lava, which slowly solidified. This was followed by many many years of constant erosions. All this relentless activity resulted in the cone shaped, somewhat phallic looking rock formations called ‘fairy chimneys’ that are said to be absolutely unique to this land. In some places, these rock formations are pink hued, leading to the somewhat unimaginative name “Rose Valley”.

Most people who live here farm the land, growing cereals and delicious grapes. It surprises me that this rocky landscape actually sustains many crops, but then, what do I know of agriculture? I learn that the soil is suitable for crops because of the volcanic ash and the Red River that flows across the region. Besides agriculture, Cappadocia is also known for its ceramic, carpet weaving and handicraft industries, occupations traditionally carried out by artisans from their homes. We visit a handicraft center in the town of Avanos, renowned for its gemstones, pottery and ceramics. There are all sorts of gemstones designed to bring good luck to wearers belonging to every possible zodiac sign. But turquoise has the pride of place, and the shopkeeper tells us that it is native to Turkey, though I find out later that it actually is not. While the turquoise and other gemstones are pretty enough, I am captivated by the silver jewelry. The craftsmanship and designs on the silver jewelry strike me as being very different and superior to any other I have seen, but then my knowledge of silver jewelry is about par with my knowledge of agriculture.

Our guide M, a chain smoker in his 20s who comes from a farming family, tells us that traditionally men were evaluated for suitability for marriage based on their skill in ceramics. Likewise, the women were evaluated on their carpet weaving abilities. He himself went to college and joined the new booming industry, tourism. M jokes that deficient as he is in the traditional trades he is going to have a hard time finding a wife, but I think he need not worry. Tradition is nothing if not versatile and has a habit of updating itself quickly. In a few years no doubt, tourism will become one of the most sought after occupations for prospective husbands and M is sure to have his pick of brides.

And a major reason for this tourist boom is the abundance of Christian cave monasteries and churches, built by monks fleeing Roman persecution when the religion was still young. The cave monasteries were home to early Church luminaries such as Saint Gregory Nazanius, Saint Basil, and Gregory of Nyssa. Some of the monasteries have interesting names, such as the Church of the Snakes, causing me to look around nervously to see if there really are snakes around here. There aren’t any, of course. In fact, there are hardly any animals to be seen in Cappadocia. I wonder why.

The monks eked out a living by growing grapes and converting them to wine for which they used pigeon droppings as manure.  Until recently in fact, the high rock formations continued to be used for crop storage and as pigeon lofts. As I climb up the steep inclines on which many churches are located, I am a little concerned at the thought of elderly long robed monks, perhaps a little tipsy with wine, climbing up and down the rocks and inclines of the churches everyday. But 1500 years later, my concern is perhaps a tad too late.

The walls and ceilings of the monasteries are covered with lovely frescoes depicting figures from Christian tradition. Not surprisingly, Christ dominates much of the fresco real estate, closely followed by the Virgin Mary. On some walls there paintings of the apostles and important biblical figures such as Solomon. After visiting half a dozen cave monasteries, they all start looking the same to me and the frescoes all kind of blur into each other.

I am awakened from my fresco induced haze when our new guide, the erudite and intelligent A (who in my opinion, is wasting himself as a tourist guide in this provincial place), tells us about the iconoclastic period in the 7th and 8th Centuries. Christians of influence during this period deemed paintings heretic, and therefore decreed that the frescoes created painstakingly over many centuries had to be destroyed. Thus in cave after cave, frescoes have been ruthlessly scratched out. To add to this ancient fresco violence, a veritable United Nations of Graffiti has accumulated in recent years – in Greek, Turkish, English and other languages.

Having had our fill of churches, we then visit a valley which is said to have been the site of Mother Goddess worship. Very early in its history, the Mother Goddess was terribly popular in Cappadocia, and there is a rock formation that with the aid of a little imagination, can be said to look very much like a pregnant woman keeling over. Historians surmise that this rock must have been worshipped as a mother goddess by the ancients, but I am skeptical. Historians, in my opinion, have this lazy habit of explaining away any female looking icon or rock as a mother goddess figure, which I suppose is much more interesting than saying that they don’t know what said icon represents, if anything. From the valley in which we stand admiring the Mother Goddess rock, we can see the Silk Road making its way to Syria. But in case I’d forgotten, which I hadn’t, this road reminds me yet again that Cappadocia was indeed a happening place in ancient and medieval times.

But today, Cappadocia is at peace and seems to be a place where nothing momentous happens any longer. The only invaders who deign to put in an appearance are well intentioned, if noisy tourists. And far from fleeing or hiding, the locals welcome these modern invaders with open arms, for the tourist influx is drumming up business. In the last few years, cave hotels have sprung up all over the place, so that visitors can experience something of the lifestyle of the ancient monks and Hittites, but in far greater comfort.

I am having breakfast in my cave hotel and chatting with my landlady, while half a dozen cats look hungrily at my sumptuous Turkish breakfast. Her daughter is a dentist in nearby Kayseri (Caesaria). Her assistant, an 18 year old lad, hails from a peasant family nearby and is going to university next year. Other new businesses and industries are emerging. Cappadocia is starting to make a name for itself for its wines. Many local families have started modern breweries to make wines and export them across Europe. This, I say to myself, is really an excellent thing. Turbulence, war and high drama are all very fascinating when they are firmly in the past, but one always prefers prosaic, dull things in the present, like peace and jobs and education. It looks like the law of Inverse Turbulence has run its course, and what lies ahead is a boring but a very welcome peace.

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Across the street from the Celsius library in the Roman ruins of Ephesus is a brothel. There is also an underground tunnel connecting the library and the brothel.

Celsius Library

I am not familiar with the financing model for the Celsius library which was one of the largest libraries in the ancient world and had as many as 12000 scrolls. It must have certainly required a huge sum to maintain such a large a collection of scrolls and so magnificent a structure. However, I’m guessing that the underground tunnel itself must have helped them charge a hefty premium on membership fees.

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