Bayram I: Chios – the Mastic Island

Using Izmir as a ‘home base,’ I used the Bayram holiday to travel to two new places, Chios, and Bergama (coming soon!).

Chios is a (not that) small island 7 kilometers off the coast from Turkey, in the Aegean Sea. It is most famous for its production of mastic, a tree resin. The name of the island in Turkish reflects this: Sakız Adası, or Mastic Island. Mastic is synonymous with ‘gum’ in many languages, has health properties, and is used as a base or flavor for chewing gums and a wide range of desserts and fruit preservatives (including being the special ingredient in ‘Maras Dondurmasi,’ the chewy ice cream now ubiquitous across Turkey).

The mastic tree can only grow under very specific conditions; southern Chios produces something like 82% of all mastic globally. Dating back to Genoese presence on the island, production and price of mastic here are tightly controlled by a union which sets standardized prices to avoid exploitation.

IMG_5382Chios is also the alleged birthplace of Homer. He follows me!

We went to Chios via high speed ferry from the port at Cesme. Time and finances didn’t permit a longer stay on the island, so we tried to capitalize on our limited time (about 8 hours on the island) by taking a tour offered by the ferry company.

This was a mistake.

I’ll be honest. I’d never taken a ‘on-the-bus, off-the-bus, snap-and-go’ tour before. My fears about how frustrating an experience that might be were totally confirmed: Confusion and delay in starting the tour (wasting something like an hour standing by the port of Chios), strategic (and extended) stops at tourist trap souvenir vendors at every site, including an extremely expensive lunch (ouch, the Euro!) (albeit in a beautiful location, the Port of Mesta), and being herded through stunning, winding streets, filled with a mixture of awe and panic about losing the group if I stopped to admire anything, even for a moment. The tour guide did share useful and interesting information on the drives in between the sites, so thankfully I had a friend who happens to be a translator along, as everything was conducted in Turkish.

Perhaps my frustration with the experience is a testament to how spoiled I’ve been, gallivanting leisurely around Turkey, using my guidebook, recommendations and intuitions of friends, and my ever-increasing language skills to really explore places. Perhaps recent turmoil has heightened my sense of “what if I can’t go back?,” as I’ve wondered about many of my favorite trips from last year, which I’ll hopefully be documenting and posting here soon (as selfish as that is). This may have been exacerbated by the fact that the tour didn’t go to Nea Moni, an 11th century monastery and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Inshallah, there will be a next time. Also, inshallah, because over Easter the residents of Chios fire off insane amounts of fireworks. Also, stunning beaches. If I could do it again (if I could drive!!) I think renting a car or motorbike, and staying at least one night, would be the best way to experience the island.

The tour took us to three locations: Armolia, Pyrgi, and Mesta.

Armolia is in the heart of the mastic tree groves that characterize southern Chios, though much of the area was devastated by a massive forest fire in 2012. We visited a small grove that was conveniently located right next to a number of pottery shops. Mastic trees are both beautoful and interesting; they have a tendency to grow sideways, apparently to allow the mastic to drip off the tree to the ground, where it is harvested. They are in the same family as pistachio trees, who knew? The harvest season had just ended, and we were able to see some small remnants of hardened mastic amidst the bark. There were also some olive trees in the area. I love olive trees. But that’s a different story….

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The next stop was Pyrgi, one of a handful of very famous villages. Pyrgi is famed for the grey and white geometrical designs that grace the façade of almost every building. There was a beautiful church in the center of the city that we unfortunately couldn’t enter.

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I may or may not have dressed to match.

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We had lunch at a seafood restaurant by the docks of the port of Mesta, another picturesque medieval village in the region. I was frankly more taken with the prospect of dairy than fish, and devoured a Greek salad with a massive slab of feta on top, along with some ouzo.

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Both Pyrgi and Mesta were walled cities, thanks to a long history of invasion and foreign influence. We were able to enter a beautiful old church, where I lit a candle for all of my loved ones. The church allegedly has relics from Hagia Sophia’s Byzantine days, but thanks to the upsetting antics of bumbling tourists just the day before, we weren’t allowed to access the main sanctuary of the church.

IMG_5437 IMG_5444 IMG_5447 IMG_5455Recognize that yogurt, anyone?

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A beautiful, if rushed, trip.

Final note that doesn’t fit the narrative:

I’d long been aware of the “food war” that mingles itself in the tangled nationalisms, cuisines, lands and and histories of Greek and Turkish peoples. I suppose I’d taken the labeling of various coffees, gummy dried ‘delights’ (lokum), grilled meats, liquors, cultural symbols like the evil eye etc. as ‘Turkish’ for granted in my time here. Seeing all of these products and more labeled explicitly as Greek was eye opening, though not surprising. Food for thought, if you’ll forgive the pun. I love food but I’m certainly not a historian of things like active milk cultures (yogurt) or nomadic usage of flaky layers of dough (baklava, borek, etc.)  so I’ll sigh and eat it all regardless. It’s all Greek to me anyway. 2-2 on the pun-o-meter, time to go.

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Bayramınız mübarek olsun

Tomorrow marks the first day of the Festival of Sacrifice, the most important celebration in the Islamic calendar. Corresponding with hajj, pilgrimage to Mecca, the holiday is known as Eid al Adha in Arabic, and Kurban Bayramı here in Turkey. It is also known in Arabic speaking parts of the Muslim world as Eid al Kabir, (roughly, the great celebration, indicating its importance in the tradition).

Structurally, one could say that Kurban Bayramı is the Christmas of Turkey. Ziyaret etmek, visitation, is a key aspect of the holiday, with families traveling across the country to be together, visiting their families and paying respects to their elders, marked by “hand kissing” (a soft kiss to their hand, and then touching your forehead to their hand). Children often receive money, candy, and new clothes at these visits (following the compulsory hand kiss!).

Kurban Bayramı, is also, of course, notable for the ritual slaughter of an animal, the significance of which is denoted in the name of the holiday. Animals considered halal for slaughter include goats, sheep, cows or rams, and camels, and there are stringent guidelines on the books regarding the treatment, age, safety and well-being of the animal prior to slaughter. These days, many families in urban areas send money to an organization to have an animal slaughtered for their family (a practice that occurs in the US as well). However, in Kırıkkale is is apparent that DIY is still very much the norm… More on that in a bit.

The sacrifice ritual itself involves prayers said over the animal and a swift cut to the carotid artery, causing almost instantaneous death. There are many prescriptions for everything from how the limbs should be held, in which direction the animal should face, to the sharpness of the knife. The method is very similar to Kashrut (kosher) slaughter, and is regarded by Muslims to be the most humane way to kill an animal.

The ritual stems from the Islamic version of the story of Abraham (Prophet Ibrahim) going to the mountain with his sons at the behest of God, being asked to sacrifice his son (in the Islamic version it’s Ishmael/Ismail) and then being told to slaughter an animal instead. The slaughter performed by Muslims around the world starting tomorrow is symbolic of their gratitude for their lives, livelihoods, families and blessings, which come from God. Some people in Turkey also slaughter an animal on an occasion which summons immense gratitude, the birth of a healthy child, for instance. Often, at Kurban Bayramı, or one of these voluntary (adak, in Turkish) slaughters, a drop of blood from the animal is smudged on the forehead of children, with the belief that it will bless and protect the child.

Directly related to the slaughter is the importance of charity to the holiday. The meat from the animal is divided after the slaughter; some is kept by the family, and some is sent or delivered to families who couldn’t afford an animal to sacrifice, who normally cannot afford to purchase meat. As at the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting, special alms are often collected.

Side note: there are few things i find more entertaining than asking my classes to explain the holiday to me. Kids say the darndest things.

As a student of Islam and a fiend for the culture, it’s wonderful to be in Turkey during the Bayram. I was here for it last year as well, but this year I’ve had a much better opportunity to observe preparations for the holiday in my town (language helps!!). What has struck me the most is how the holiday is commodified, in so many ways. (I did compare it to Christmas after all…)

What follows are photos from around Kırıkkale from the last couple weeks, with explanations and translations in the captions. These photos may seem rather mundane, but I think they reflect the observations I’ve had recently. It’s also been quite an adventure to try to discreetly document these signs and storefronts, often in the crowded city center, without drawing too much attention to myself.

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A large banner loosely translated as “buy your sacrificial animal from us!” offering discounts of 75 TL and different prices for “küçükbaş” (little heads, animals like goats and sheep) and büyükbaş (cows or rams)

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“Our sacrifices are for brotherhood”

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An advert for an organization that funds sacrificed meat being sent to places in Africa and Central and South Asia.

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Similar

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This one offers the services of a veterinarian to ensure the sacrifice is carried out correctly. Many people across Turkey carry out the sacrifice themselves, often in the cement courtyards of apartment buildings.

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In the lead up to Bayram just about every bakery storefront in town bears a sign that reads just like this: “We can do your special orders for Bayram desserts”

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A colorful bakery window

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Knives for sale at a big street festival in ktown on Thursday. Because people perform the sacrifice themselves and there are high standards for sharpness there’s a pop up industry for a week.

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This vendor offered mini do-it-yourself knife sharpeners

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Or one of these men could do it for you

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That kid can’t even believe how much candy he’s going to eat this weekend.

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Candies (“şeker”) for sale in downtown ktown on Thursday night.

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I love this one… Look at the little plastic sheep! The sign in the window says “kıyma çekilir” basically meaning, we can turn your meat into ground beef.

Other items included in the pop up industries of pre-Bayram week included ziploc freezer bags (for all the meat), large wok-like pans (sac) for making kavurma (meat), and napkins.

To all those celebrating, iyi Bayramlar, Eid Mubarak!