‘Hallow-Eski’

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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.)

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We also visited this beautiful mosque near the city center:

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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.

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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.

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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:

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Happy (much belated) Halloween!

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Kurban Bayrami Part 4: Ephesus

But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. Ephesians 5:13 (NIV)

God is the Light of the heavens and the earth; the likeness of His Light is as a niche wherein is a lamp (the lamp in a glass, the glass as it were a glittering star) kindled from a Blessed Tree, an olive that is neither of the East nor of the West whose oil wellnigh would shine, even if no fire touched it; Light upon Light; (God guides to His Light whom He will.) (And God strikes similitudes for men, and God has knowledge of everything.)

Surat al-Nur 24:35 (Arberry)

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On our final day in Izmir, at the end of our whirlwind Bayram vacationing, my friend and I woke up early and hopped onto one, two three cheap buses that took us to Efes, the biblical Ephesus, by way of the tourist town Selçuk, where we stopped for lunch after bus #2. I’m sincerely hoping for an opportunity to return to this city, which is chock full of historical and religious sites we didn’t have time to explore, including the burial site of St. John the Evangelist on Ayasoluk hill (Ayasoluk meaning Divine Theologian, aka St. John), the Artemision (the sanctuary/temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World), and Meryemana, or house of Mary, an alleged site of residence for the Virgin Mary (some theologians argue that she accompanied John when he went to Ephesus). The house is now a chapel which is frequented by Christian and Muslim pilgrims alike, as “Mother Mary,” as she is known, is a revered figure in the Islamic tradition as well; indeed she is mentioned more frequently in the Qur’an than the New Testament. Trips to some of these sites are accessible, and frequently included within package tours of the area offered by tourism agencies; however, since my friend and I opted for the low-budget version of the trip, the extra taxi rides etc. to these sites were forgone.

What we did see, however, was potentially the largest and best preserved ancient city in the Mediterranean region: Ephesus. Perhaps the most mind-boggling part of the whole experience was the knowledge floating in my head throughout my visit that, according to the Ephesus Foundation, ONLY 10-15% of the site has been excavated!! The implications of this were clear as restoration and further excavation efforts were clearly visible throughout, but… wow.

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“As the capital of Roman Asia Minor, Ephesus was a vibrant ancient city with a population of over 250,000 inhabitants. Counting traders, sailors, and pilgrims to the Temple of Artemis, these numbers were even higher, meaning that in Ephesus one could encounter the full diversity of the Mediterranean world and its peoples.”

The Ephesus site has two entrances, and you go through the site as though walking through the city. Technically we went “backwards,” but that’s where the dolmus dropped us and honestly, it didn’t matter (and more on the rewards of doing so later.) Our tour began near the Great Theatre, Stadium, Gymnasium of Venus, and ‘Harbor Street,’ pictured above.

Unlike Termessos, the city I visited near Antalya, much is known about the ancient history of Ephesus, and is widely online. Though it was then a port city, years of silting contributed to the city’s decline, despite efforts of those including Attalus II of Pergamum, Nero, and Emperor Hadrian, “…swamps developed and the port was lost…” (Hence the area known as Harbor Street which now leads to an agricultural plateau rather than the Aegean Sea. Today one must stand at a high elevation (from the Great Theatre, for example) to view the sea from a distance. However, “in the future, Turkish authorities are planning for war against the silt accumulation that defeated all previous Ephesian civilizations…” Good luck with that.

IMG_0981 IMG_0985Shortly up the way from the Stadium is one of Ephesus’ main attractions, the famed Library of Celsus. Celsus was the third largest library of the ancient world, capable of holding 12,000 scrolls. Unfortunately, the statues you see in these images are replicas- the originals are in Vienna at the Ephesus Museum there; the Austrian Archaeological Institute was responsible for the restoration of the Library…. incidentally, they’re also continuing work to the present on the Great Theatre.

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Also in the vicinity of the Library are the Lower Agora, (pictured below) the brothel (love the title and description on the placard, below,)  and the Terraced Houses, which we opted out of due to time.

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Now this is what I call the lap of luxury (latrine):
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You may find the Temple of Hadrian (above and below) a little more glorious than the pre-modernity potties (to each his own). Architecture fiends, check out the central keystone (Look Ma! No mortar!).

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Here are some more beautiful sites (mostly around Curates Way I think,) including this stoae, directly below, the colors of which blew my mind and a cat, because you didn’t really visit Ephesus if you didn’t take pictures of the Cats of Ephesus (incidentally, the name of an article in the TCDD state train transportation complimentary magazine, and also the title of this lovely coffee table book… seriously).

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“Wow, this is a big archaeological site,” you’re thinking. “She must’ve had a difficult time picking photos that captured it’s essence so she didn’t make too long of a blog post.” Yeah. But there’s more (now occasionally featuring humans!):

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So after walking up the long path pictured above, we eventually reached the Upper Agora and the Odeon, one of the original homes of forensic mastery, and a debate nerd’s dream.

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I’ve skipped over lots of details (particularly for the history and architecture buffs (the differences between Ionian Greek and Roman columns, for example, both noticeable throughout the site) and maybe mislabeled some things… going back to write this post was like a going in a time warp back to the site, except it isn’t raining in my office and the view is a little different. Visiting Ephesus is more than overwhelming, with lots of information being thrown at you, and the magnitude of the site and the history it contains was a lot to absorb. I’d like to end the post here, to give you the reader and myself some relief, but the story isn’t quite over….

Once we reached the Odeon, my travel hombre and I turned around and headed back through the site, the way we came to catch our return minibus to Selcuk (downhill this time, instead of uphill). Everything was the same until we were near the Lower Agora and we spotted a sign leading off the trail we were on that said “Church of Mary.” A curious streak and the knowledge that we wouldn’t have time to visit the House of Mary later on spurred us to investigate.

Long story short, though I haven’t found a guidebook yet that mentions this, there is a 5th century church known as “Mary’s Church,” or Mereyem Kilsisi in Turkish, that is located within the Ephesus site! It is also known as the Church of the Councils because it is believed to have been built for the 3rd Ecumenical Council (of Ephesus) in 431. This church was also the seat of the Bishop of Ephesus through late antiquity. Needless to say, Miss RLST nerd was geeking out, and very glad to have been rewarded for getting off the (tourist-trod) beaten path.

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Following our exploration of the church we hopped on a dolmus back to the city of Selcuk, from where we caught another inexpensive minibus to the tiny resort-ish mountain town of Sirince. From Lonely Planet, “Once a Greek-populated mountain village, Sirince’s clustered stone-and-stucco homes, bucolic wooded setting and long winemaking tradition have made it popular…. Legend says that freed Greek slaves in the 15th century resettled here, calling it Cirince (Ugliness) to keep others away. However, by at least the 19th century it had become Kirinje. Under the new republic in the1920’s the name Sirince (Pleasantness) came with the exodus of the Greeks, who largely moved to a village they called Nea Ephesos (New Ephesus) in Northern Greece…. The local alcohol trade [remained], and today you can sample their unique wines (made from raspberry, peach, black mulberry, and pomegranate) in local restaurants and cafes.”

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These unique wines were the reason for our visit, and my travel hombre and I enjoyed glasses of cherry and pomegranate wine, respectively, over a delicious dinner overlooking a mountain vista at Sirincem Restaurant and Café. In fact, we joked then and to this day that it was the most the romantic setting for a platonic dinner date to ever be conceived. The wines we drank were made in house by the owner, a fruit farmer, and they brought us a complimentary fruit plate after dinner which quite possibly lived up to the waiter’s assurances that it included “the most beautiful apple you will ever eat.”

After stuffing ourselves we hopped on the last bus back down the mountain to Selcuk, followed by the last bus back to Izmir where a well-earned night of sleep met us before the long bus ride back to K-Town the next day. A fittingly surreal, once-in-a-lifetime day to end a surreal, once-in-a-lifetime vacation!