Over Halloween weekend a group of Fulbrighters met up in Eskisehir, a popular liberal university city (maybe the Austin, Texas of Central Anatolia? Not quite as weird, but you get the point) to celebrate the holiday together. I laughed while experiencing a bit of in-country culture shock. Strike one: We traveled to ‘Eski,’ as we call it, via high speed train from Ankara. A four or 5 hour bus journey was a mere hour and a half on a luxurious train (my first experience of high speed rail). Strike two: upon arrival we rolled up to one of our hosts favorite bars to find Strike three: a Halloween party raging in full-force, with nary a yabanci (foreigner) in sight (Cupid, zombies, the Joker, vampires… we the Americans, ironically, were maybe the only ones not in costume)! [Some] Turks really dig Halloween, though the gory/dark/haunted tropes reign, and “humor costumes” as you’re more likely to come across in the States these days haven’t really made it here yet.
In any event, we had all day Friday and Saturday to explore Eskisehir before our Halloween festivities on Saturday night. Named the ‘Cultural Capital of the Turkic World’ for 2013, Eski has a lot to see and do, largely thanks to mayor Yilmaz Buyukersen, who has revolutionized the economy (cafes and bars galore), “freed up the local Porsuk River, adding walking bridges and a sand beach, while building pedestrian thoroughfares and an award-winning light-rail system.” Though more commonly done in warmer weather, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to take a brief but in-expensive (a lira a minute, we joked) gondola ride down the river near the city center.
The mayor, formerly the rector of the prestigious Anadolu University located in Eski, is also known for his support of the arts (Eskisehir hosts a symphony, professional theater, handicrafts museum, etc.), including founding a wax museum (think Madame Tussade’s) which is home to his own creations. Hilarious.
We spent much of the day Friday exploring Odunpazari, the old Ottoman quarter, which is home to pastel, beautifully restored traditional houses and cobblestone streets. We also visited the complex of the Kursunlu (Leaden dome) mosque, built between 1517 and 1525 by esteemed Ottoman architect Acem Ali. A caravanserai there is used at present for weddings, and we saw photos for one underway during our visit. Also visible is the former sema ceremonial chamber for the Mevelevi order that was formerly active in Eskisehir (note the Ataturk image and flag now prominently displayed in said room, below).
The former medrese (madrassa, school of religious learning) now houses a stunning handircrafts bazaar, featuring many popular traditional forms of Ottoman and Islamicate art, and the Meerschaum Museum, a soft white stone native to the region which is ornately carved into jewelry, and most famously, ornate tobacco pipes (The stone absorbs the stain of the tobacco with use, coloring the white stone varying shades of caramel and beige, affected by the patterns of carving.) Locals hope that meerschaum may come to serve as a popular replacement for ivory within the international jewelry and fine handicrafts industry in the future. We were also privy to a private and very impromptu demonstration of meerschaum carving when a local craftsman invited us through the back door of his store to his workshop, and he even let us give it a try! (Carving the stone by hand with a knife is similar to the experience of carving soap, in terms of consistency and ease.)
We also visited this beautiful mosque near the city center:
Our last day in Eskisehir we visited the new and extremely bizarre Sazova Park. Lonely Planet: “In it is the biggest Japanese garden outside of Japan…. Above a small lake stands a giant kids’ castle, while an enormous Calyon pirate ship is moored below.” I found it particularly cool that each spire of the castle is modeled after famous architectural sites across Turkey, and I made a personal challenge to myself to see each of the featured landmarks before my time in Turkey is up (I’m at 3 so far). It was a great place to go relax, let our inner child out, and laugh-til-you-cry with a great group of hilarious friends, who shared a collective sense that this park was one of the strangest places we’d ever been.
You may be wondering what my Halloween costume was. In the Fulbright spirit of “cultural exchange and mutual understanding,” and with an ironic nod to the ‘cultures not costumes’ critique of Halloween’s past, a site-mate and I narrowly lost the costume contest (but declared ourselves winners in the non-existent co-ed category) by attending as ‘hali’ and ‘kilim’ respectively, the two traditional carpet/rug forms of Turkey. Costumes were achieved by fastening two of my square scarves whose patterns roughly correspond to the motifs of the two carpet types to our wrists, complete with price tags.
Of course, when a friend came dressed as ‘embarrassing/typical American tourist’ and another as ‘Turkish businessman,’ the situation begged for a photographic mise-en-scène of a tourist over-paying for an inauthentic Turkish carpet, which we gradually guffawed and posed our way through:
Happy (much belated) Halloween!