HallowIzmir and a Day-trip to Çeşme

Over Halloween 2014 weekend I traveled to the Aegean coast to celebrate the holiday and do some sightseeing.

I stayed with a friend in a unique area of Izmir called Bornova, which I had yet to visit. I had a great time spending a day wandering and site-seeking Bornova’s famous Levantine architecture. I’m always intrigued by that, but the Bornova one-two punch is that many of these structures are religious (churches, to be precise). Well riddle me nerdy.

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The focal point of the city square in Bornova is the still-active Catholic Church. Ironically, we couldn’t find the entrance, not sure if we could’ve gotten in.

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The side streets are full of hidden gems.

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We were happy to come across the haunting St. Mary’s Magdalene Anglican Church and accompanying cemetery. Some sources online say that this church is still active, but there’s no way… I believe their services are held across town in Alsancak, but this building, based on the state of disrepair we witnessed, isn’t being used.

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Some of the historic structures have been renovated into hotels or civic buildings, while others sit awaiting restoration.

My wanderings also led me to Çeşme, a tourist hub about an hour south of Izmir, along the Aegean coast. I had previously only been to the bus terminal /international port, for my trip to Chios, the Greek island, a few weeks prior. We rode the Izmir metro system to its last stop, and then boarded a bus bound for Çeşme.

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Late October is admittedly not the best time to visit the city, which is known for its beaches. Nonetheless, we wandered the boardwalk/port area, sat in a handful of cafes, ate kumru, a sandwich famous from the area which is mostly comprised of highly processed bright pink “sosis” (sausage).

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I was thrilled to stumble across the Orthodox Church of Ayios Haralambos, a 19th century church that Lonenly Planet calls “imposing but redundant.” I’m not sure what that means, but it certainly no longer operates as a church. The entire space was blanketed in the flags of the Kemalist CHP party, and there was a craft bazaar being held in the center of the space. Note the specific damage done to the iconography of the church… I still have a lot of lingering questions about this space.

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We then visited the city’s castle and accompanying museum, the major tourist attraction of the city.

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The museum had both battle and historical artifacts and displays as well as archaeological and ethnographic (coins, pottery, glass, etc). A security guard even specifically led us to a room full of antique glass to make sure we didn’t skip it. Our day finished at a famous ice cream place called Rumeli Pastanesi, where I dove into a coffee and chocolate cone. In addition to its ice cream (dondurma) this place also sells famed jams and preserves, both if which often contain mastic, the famous sticky stuff in these parts.

In all, Çeşme made for a good day trip with a bit of history sprinkled alongside relaxing with friends.

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For curious minds regarding the Halloween festivities, I was a blank attendance sheet one night, a poor attempt at Fulbright Turkey ETA humor, and Frida Kahlo the next, an easy costume for someone with a wardrobe and eyebrows like mine.

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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.

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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.

Black, White, and Pistachios All Over: A Weekend in Gaziantep

Over the Thanksgiving weekend I visited some friends in Gaziantep, a city in southeastern Turkey whose population currently includes approximately 1 million Syrian refugees. Though the cities formal name is Gaziantep, the “Gazi” prefix was added to honor veterans of the War of Independence (establishing the Turkish Republic) in 1928. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.

Trip highlights included :

  • Eating an authentic (Syrian) meal of hummus and falafel
  • Walking through the largest park in Asia Minor, 100 Yil Atatürk Kültür Parkı

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  • Seeing the Kale (castle) which remains standing in the city center; “Thought to have been constructed by the Romans, the citadel was restored by Emperor Justinian in the 6th century AD, and rebuilt extensively by the Seljuks in the 12th and 13th centuries. ” –Lonely Planet

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I spent a long time wandering through the labyrinth of bazaars near the castle. The largest, Bakircilar Çarşişi, includes the Zincirli Bedestem, or Coppersmiths’ Bazaar, and extends into the Elmacı Pazarı, or spice bazaar.

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I also saw a number of mosques from a range of time periods and with a variety of architectural styles. Almost all were done with a distinctive black and white striped brick pattern, often complimented by rose-colored stone, along the facades. Some mosques in the city are also converted cathedrals or churches.

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Two places of worship that I saw had or appeared to have history as sites of tassawuf (Sufism, or mystical Islam. The identity of one was made clear through a descriptive panel at the exterior of the hamam adjacent to the mosque; the other was named for a “pir,” or spiritual guide, and many women appeared to be seeking beraka, or blessing, at the tomb there with their children.

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I visited a former caravanserai which is now a handcrafts museum, with displays and demonstrations of traditional Turkish handicrafts, including ebru, calligraphy, jewelry, costuming (including bridal gowns) etc. Many craft traditions that are specific to Antep were displayed, including Antep-style embroidery, copper metalwork, kuntu and inlaid wooden boxes.

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A Fulbright friend hosted a holiday gathering at his apartment, complete with Thanksgiving decorations, Christmas music playlists, homemade mulled wine and pumpkin bread, and latkes. What fun!

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Antep’s pistachios are world renown, as are its pistachio baklava… Which of course I purchased in mass quantities for my friends and colleagues back in k town.

My trip barely scratched the surface of all Antep has to offer. Allegedly the city is working to brand itself as a place known for its museums, and it’s regrettable that time/my priorities didn’t allow for visits to some of the many museums in the city, including a local culinary museum, a museum dedicated to the Mevlevi order, the Gaziantep and Gaziantep City Museum, an ethnography museum, and the new and famous Gaziantep Zeugma Mosaic Museum, home to the famous “gypsy girl,” (which my friend has, I think, aptly described as the Mona Lisa of Turkey),  part of its massive collection of Roman-era mosaics from the area.The rapid creation of the museum is due largely in part to what is known as the GAP project, a government program which led to the damming and flooding of the region from which the mosaics came.

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A replica of the famous gypsy girl, along with other famous Zeugma mosaic replicas one of the symbols of Antep.

Ruins and Residences

This post is intended to highlight one of the great tensions and debates in contemporary Lebanon, and Beirut in particular. The question of historic preservation and architectural value haunts the city, and is a source of lively and constant debate which unfolds most prominently in Downtown and Central Beirut, where a company by the name of Solidere is tasked with re-developing Beirut post-war. Their controversial authority and ritzy ‘Disneyland’ style leave a sour taste in the mouths of some Lebanese. Their efforts are met with resistance by organizations like Save Beirut Heritage which deplore the rapidly dwindling number of historic buildings in the city.

Some beautifully restored homes in a historically preserved area of Mar Mikael, Beirut.

The entrance to the Baccus temple in the city of Baalbeck, where I attended a concert by Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila on the last night of the Baalbeck International Music Festival.

Morning in a residential section near Hamra, Beirut. Photo taken around 6 am at a farewell gathering before a friend’s early morning flight back to the States.

I was lucky enough to catch this shot on my way through the mountains en route to (near) Farayeh to have dinner at the home of Melek al Nimer. These roadside Roman ruins are totally abandoned and unmarked, but in amazing condition!

A lovely old residential building in the Mar Mikhail/ Mar Nicolas sector of Beirut.

The sun sets over the ruins of Baalbeck as I arrive for a concert.