Looking Up in Rome

I’m writing from my hotel in Rome where my great aunt and I are spending the Easter holiday taking in the sites, cuisine, and each others stories of travel and culture.

Rome is of course hectic at this time, with tourists flooding the city for Holy Week. There are so many aspects of the architecture and art here that one could describe, but this post is reserved for ceilings…. Most especially the ceilings in various parts of the Vatican Museums, which we toured through today. Looking above oneself on Maundy Thursday seems quite apt, though maybe a series of feet from sculptures would’ve been more comical. Not sure I took any photos of the feet of statues, in any event.












Artwork, Adıyaman, Antiochus, and Apricots

Over the first weekend in October, my K-Town crew and I boarded a plane from Ankara and flew to Malatya, a city in Central Southeastern Turkey where 3 of our Fulbright cohorts are placed. The trip also served as something of a one month reunion, as we joined over 20 other Fulbrighters there. With the help of their university representative, the Malatya crew organized a once-in-a-lifetime chance for us to visit a number of ancient sites via bus tour, including the UNESCO World Heritage site of Mt. Nemrut. But more on that later…


During the day on Saturday we visited Battalgazi (Old Malatya), an area rich with historic sites. Our explorations started at Silahatar Mustafa Paşa Hanı, an old caravanserai dating from 1637 which now serves as a museum and fine arts school.  (A caravanserai, in Turkish, Karvan Sarayi were roadside inns across the Middle East and Central Asia, particularly along the Silk Road, which served as hubs of commerical, informational and cultural interaction.) The caravanserai is named for Mustafa Pasha the sword-bearer (silahatar) of Sultan Murat IV.


Outside the structure itself, we saw a statue symbolizing “The Erudite Human who is Carrying the Weight of Both Worlds on His Shoulders.” Standing at 4.5 meters, the statue was carved from a single intact tree, felled during the restoration of the caravanserai, which occurred from 2007-2009.

IMG_1325While we were there, we were the recipients of an impromptu demonstration and lesson about ebru, a distinctly Turkish Islamicate art form. You can walk through the tutorial we were privy to and learn more about ebru here In addition to the gentleman who taught us about ebru, we were able to visit the workshops of a number of artists who now work and give lessons at the caravanserai.IMG_1336 IMG_1334

Old Malatya is home to a number of historic and religious sites, some of which I was able to visit:

  • Ulu Camii (The Grand/ Exalted Mosque) was built in 1224, during the reign of the Seljuk Anatolian Sultan Alaettin Keykubad I. According the placard outside the building, “This structure is unique in the sense that it is the sole Anatolian example of the mosque tradition of the Great Seljuk Empire of Iran, called ‘four-iwan’ plan. Though this architectural style was known by the Anatolian Seljuks it was not adopted here as it was not suitable for the climate conditions prevailing in this region. Therefore, the Grand Mosque is the first and sole example of this design.” Among other things, the placard also notes the stunning turquoise and purple mosaics that decorate the walls and inner dome of the mosque, and which were restored in 2007. I think it’s rather exciting to note that this was the first mosque I entered in Turkey. IMG_1373 IMG_1374 IMG_1367
  • Directly to the south of Ulu Camii is the site of Sahabiyye-i-Kübra ve Suğra Medreseleri (The [Islamic] Theological School of Sahabiyye-i Kubra), constructed during the reign of the Memluk Sultan El Melik-ul Esref Saban (1363-1376), under the direction of Emir Sahabettin Hizir. Though no physical ruins remain of the structure, it is known that religious education was conducted on the site through the 18th century.

Other significant nearby sites include the Ak Minare Camii and the Halfetih Minare (Minaret), which both date to the 13th century.

After visiting these sites, we took a break to eat döner from a shop in the town square, at which time our group was approached by a group of small children who, after we’d scarfed the schwarma, led us to a section of the city where the houses had been beautifully restored. On the exterior of the houses throughout this district, ceramic and other mixed media artwork were installed on the exterior walls of the houses, apparently the products of art students from a nearby university. The whole affair was something of a fairy tale, but I’ll let the artwork speak for itself:

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Our adventures that Saturday began at the crack of dawn, as the whole Fulbright crew loaded onto two privately rented minibuses which were to become our home for the next 15 hours of so. We watched the sun rise from the buses as we set off for the neighboring province of Adıyaman, where we would visit a number of ancient sites, including the magnificent Nemrut Dağı.

The group enjoyed an outstanding traditional Turkish breakfast at a beautiful wooden restaurant, complete with waterfalls and fish ponds.

a view of the sunrise from the bus

a view of the sunrise from the bus

breakfast spot

breakfast spot

After a few hours on the bus, we arrived at the first site, the view from which was admittedly more astounding than the ruins themselves. Karakuş Tümülüs (which translates to Monument Grave) was built in 36 BCE, a memorial grave of the Commagene royal family. From my Lonely Planet guidebook: “A handful of columns ring the mound- there were more, but the limestone blocks were used by the Romans to build the Cendere Bridge.”(See below) The site has a handful of columns, one topped with an eagle, another with a lion and a bull. A third column has an inscribed slab depicting King Mithridates II shaking hands with his sister Laodike, allegedly explaining that the burial mound holds his female relatives.

The view from the monument site

The view from the monument site


couldn't resist the titanic opportunity we had

couldn’t resist the titanic opportunity we had

The next site we visited was the Cendere Bridge, built in the 2nd century CE by the Romans in honor of Emperor Septimus Severus. (The bridge was almost immediately rechristened the “Snape Bridge” by we the band of nerds.) We took the opportunity to soak up some gorgeous sunshine, and some folks even dipped their toes in the Cendere River over which the bridge stands. Some of the original Roman columns and stelae remain. IMG_0549 IMG_0553 IMG_0547

Our journey continued with a stop in a small tourist town closer to Nemrut where we stopped in a grocery store and bought a variety of picnic foods which we would eat for lunch at a tea garden at our next stop, which was Eski Kahta (Kocahisar)/ Yeni Kale (Old Kahta/ New Fortress or Castle). To paraphrase the broken English on the placard outside the site, archaeological research has determined that the palace of the Commagene kingdom was at this location. What is now visible are the remains of a 13th century Mamluk castle (hence the name “new castle,” as opposed to an “Eski Kale, old castle” a few kilometers away, which was the site of the ancient Commagene capital of Arsamenia, which we didn’t visit.) The stones used to build this Mamluk fortress were 300-350 meters high, with only one entrance. Inside the castle are the remains of water tanks, a bazaar and marketplace, a mosque, and a prison. Unfortunately, due to a massive renovation project which is currently underway, we were unable to enter the site, but I was able to snag some pictures of the exterior. IMG_0570 IMG_0563 IMG_0564


After a winding and nerve-wracking journey up the mountain via a narrow roadway, our series of site visits concluded with a visit at sunset to the magnificent Nemrut Dağı (Mount Nemrut). From Lonely Planet:

“The spellbinding peak of Nemrut Dağı rises to a height of 2150m in the Anti-Taurus Range…. Nobody knew anything about Nemrut Dağı until 1881, when a German engineer, employed by the Ottomans to assess transport routes, was astounded to come across the statues covering this remote mountaintop. Archaeological work didn’t begin until 1953, when the American School of Oriental Research undertook the project. The summit was created when a megalomaniac pre-Roman local king cut two ledges in the rock, filled them with colossal statues of himself and the gods (his relatives- or so he thought), then ordered an artificial mountain peak of crushed rock 50m high to be piled between them. The king’s tomb and those of three female relatives are reputed to lie beneath those tonnes of rock. Earthquakes have toppled the heads from most of the statues, and now many of the colossal bodies sit silently in rows, with the 2m high heads watching from the ground.”  IMG_0578

here I am!

here I am!

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This incredible site, most famous for these massive heads, is stunning, surprising, and well-deserving of its place on the UNESCO World Heritage sites list. When you arrive at the mountain you hike up a long ceremonial path to the peak, where men walked up and down crying “taxi,” referring to the highly decorated donkeys they were leading, in case you were too lazy. Once you reach the summit, there are two sides of the mountain which host the statues. On the eastern terrace, there are 5? Bodies arrayed in place, with their respective heads below: the god Apollo-Mithras-Helios-Hermes; the goddess Tyche of Commagene; the god Zeus-Oromasdes; Antiochos himself; the god Heracles-Artagnes-Ares. On the western terrace there is an even larger collection of massive head carvings, detached from their bodies. In addition, there are a number of large stone reliefs. From UNESCO: “Three superb reliefs show Antiochos exchanging a handshake with Apollo-Mithras-Helios-Hermes, with Zeus-Oromasdes and Heracles-Artagnes-Ares. They are framed by an allegorical group of Antiochos and the Commagenes on the left and an astrological relief called ‘the king’s horoscope’ on the right. The inscription, which has been deciphered, gives the date 10 July 62-61 BC: the date that Antiochos I was invested as king by the Romans.”

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Obviously, Mt. Nemrut is an impressive ancient site; its grandeur speaks for itself. What shouldn’t be missed, however, is the fascinating cultural discourse that exists in the objects themselves, and what they can maybe teach us about culture and identity not just in Turkey, but globally. UNESCO puts it this way:

The Hierotheseion of Antiochos I is one of the most ambitious constructions of the Hellenistic period. Its complex design and colossal scale combined to create a project unequalled in the ancient world. A highly developed technology was used to build the colossal statues and orthostats (stelae), the equal of which has not been found anywhere else for this period. The syncretism of its pantheon and the lineage of its kings, which can be traced back through two sets of legends, Greek and Persian, is evidence of the dual origin of this kingdom’s culture.The tomb of Antiochos I of Commagene is a unique artistic achievement. The landscaping of the natural site of Nemrut Dağ is one of the most colossal undertakings of the Hellenistic period (some of the stone blocks used weigh up to nine tons)….Nemrut Dağ bears unique testimony to the civilization of the kingdom of Commagene. Antiochos I is represented in this monument as a descendant of Darius by his father Mithridates, and a descendant of Alexander by his mother Laodice. This semi-legendary ancestry translates in genealogical terms the ambition of a dynasty that sought to remain independent of the powers of both the East and the West…. the tumulus at Nemrut Dağ illustrates, through the liberal syncretism of a very original pantheon, a significant, historical period. The assimilation of Zeus with Oromasdes (the Iranian god Ahuramazda), and Heracles with Artagnes (the Iranian god Verathragna) finds its artistic equivalent in an intimate mixture of Greek, Persian and Anatolian aesthetics in the statuary and the bas-reliefs.

More plainly speaking, from my perspective at least, Mt. Nemrut is just one example of how the East-West binary so many cling to simply cannot be applied in a paradigm attuned to history. If schoolchildren in the US, for example, grow up learning about Zeus and ancient Greece as the foundation of what becomes “Western civilization,” and here we see that symbology co-existing with ancient Persian mythological figures, in modern day Turkey, what can we say? In an essay regarding how these dilemmas should vs do play out in the art history/antiquities world, (regarding Lydian artefacts) author Saba Askary notes, “The artefacts that remain… are effectively ambiguous, as well as being absolutely remarkable in this ambiguity and interconnectivity,(sic) this fact needs to be embraced and celebrated rather than overlooked.” Imagine the good it would do for conceptions of identity, history, the eradication of Orientalizing mindsets, and the contemporary nation state squabbles and “culture wars” currently underway. Inshallah.

sunset from Nemrut


Before leaving Malatya the next day, we had an important purchase to make. Many cities across Turkey are known for particular foods (Aydin figs, Amasya apples, Kayseri mantı, to name just a few examples). Malatya, as it happens, is the apricot capital of Turkey. Apricot, in Turkish, is kayısi, though I was happy to learn that it is locally known there by the Arabic miş-miş as well. According to Lonely Planet, “after the late-June harvest, thousands of tonnes of the luscious fruits are shipped internationally…” and the K-Town Krew schlepped back no less than 3 kilos of the fruit, dried, back to Kırıkkale to share with our colleagues. At the time of writing, I estimate that we still have at least a kilo and a half to go. Malatya is very proud of its apricot production: the fruit graces the city logo, which adorns buses, flagpoles, streetlights, etc., and in the city center there are two massive statues of the fruit, which incidentally serve as handy landmarks/meeting points.IMG_0525

P.S. The dried apricots we brought back are not the orangey-color one might be accustomed to seeing in the grocery store; they’re more of a mottled brown, caramel, and deep apricot/orange color. Apparently, dried apricots which retain the color of their fresh counterparts are treated with sulfates in order to do so—if they’re sulfate-free, they’re brownish when dried.

Interview With Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad

I had the honor and pleasure of tag-teaming an interview of Jad Abumrad with Matt Haugen for AAI. The published interview appears below, and was originally posted on July 26, 2013 on AAI’s newsblog. 

Jad Abumrad is a musician, producer, and host and creator of WNYC’s wildly popular radio show and podcast, Radiolab.The show won the George Foster Peabody Award for broadcast excellence in 2010 and Jad was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship—often called the “Genius Grant”—in 2011. After listening to some of Radiolab’s programs on race and identity, and reading a superb interview with him by Discord Music Magazine, we reached out to chat with him about Radiolab, how he understands his identity, the interplay of music and storytelling, and Arabic food.

We began with a simple question: Do you identify as Arab American?

Jad: Yeah, I feel very strongly Lebanese and it’s sort of impossible for me not to. It informs every decision I make and yet informs none of the decisions I make, in some way. It’s just kind of the background of my life. It’s sort of like a fish in the ocean, you know? You don’t even notice the water if you’re a fish, I imagine, it just sort of is your world. My parents are both first generation immigrants…or would that be me? Well they both immigrated to the US shortly before I was born and they’re both from Lebanon, sorta kinda neighboring villages, both Christian Arab. There has always been a sense within my family that religious identity and sectarian identity are dangerous and my parents fully assimilated as scientists. And so for me, more than anything, growing up Lebanese, it was never explicitly a part of my upbringing. I remember more than anything, 1980, watching them watch the TV. And never being fully commented on, but seeing some kind of sadness and drama in the way that they were watching it, and when I got to be in college, I became very interested in Middle Eastern politics. I think like a lot of children of immigrants, I tried to reclaim my identity and I got really interest in Palestinian rights and doing that whole thing in the way that a lot of college kids do. Following that interest out of school I did a lot of radio at WBAI which was centered squarely on Middle Eastern politics, but the thing is that if you’re smart and not interested in simple answers, then you discover quite quickly with Lebanon and with the Middle East in general is that it’s so complicated and there are no longer any easy answers. I think Lebanon is the shining example of that. If I could sort of pick the high-altitude view of it now, I think that my Arab American background—particularly my Lebanese American background—gave me a heightened sensitivity for nuance and for the ways in which seemingly simple truths are never simple and the way in which binary realities are never binary. So that’s something that I hold very deeply and that I carry into every story that we do. To that degree, I think my upbringing is the vehicle for every one of the decisions that I make, you know, programmatically.

AAI: Has your perspective ever influenced a piece you’ve worked on? I know you’ve talked a little bit about it in the Race episode, but does your Lebanese heritage especially connect you to any of these stories?

Jad: I thought a lot about it during those episodes. I mean, you know in the Race episode—the first one that we did—it began almost as a stunt. Like: “Oh, let’s just test my DNA and see what happens.” But, once I had swabbed my cheek and put it in the envelope and sent it off, there’s like a two week period where you wait for the results—or maybe it was a month, I forget—during that time, I remember thinking: “Jeez, this is kinda weird. What does it mean to be from where I’m from?” There’s that sort of definitional weirdness that you get into, which is: what’s a race and what’s a sect and what’s a simple arbitrary cultural divide versus something that’s more etched into your physical being because you and your ancestors lived in that land. It got very confusing, you know? I remember as I was waiting for the results, because so often Arab culture is misidentified as Muslim culture, in a way, and so I thought a lot about that, that this is a moment where I might get an interesting answer to those larger questions of race, at least as it applies to me. I’m not sure I walked away with anything concluded, but it was certainly something that made me reflect on my upbringing and my quote “race”, whatever that means. It came up again, the latest short we did, I don’t know if my Arab-ness had anything to do with that story, but it certainly resonates with my own experience. You know, the history of Lebanon: it’s this country that’s been destroyed over, and over, and over, and over, and over again and hundreds of thousands of people killed during the civil war. So, I carry with me a sensitivity for that trauma: a sensitivity to the people we speak to who carry similar traumas with them. There have been some pieces we’ve recorded where we’ve talked to people who’ve suffered and I think about that through the lens of my own upbringing.

AAI: Do you think that radio and music and how you use those change how you interface with your identity?

Jad: To the degree that I sort of see my identity as not static. The sonic landscape of the show is about flux. It’s about things fading in and out, and comingling, and one thing transforming into another. On the level of craft, I freaking hate a music bed. A bed that just sits there. I can’t stand that. It has to change. It has to move from background to foreground. It has to evolve from something thick to something thin; from something rough to something smooth. That’s just sort of the landscape of the show. It’s all about movement and flux and never being able to put your finger on what you’re listening to, and I feel that way about my identity, you know? It’s hard for me to give you a one sentence description of my family history, because it’s very complicated, and it comes from a land that’s full of complicated people. And so I think I am playing in some neighboring dimension with these ideas when I’m working the sound. I wouldn’t say they’re directly related, but they’re certainly moving in parallel.

AAI: Was there any element of storytelling in your childhood—whether related to Arabic storytelling traditions or not—which drives your inspiration for Radiolab?

Jad: Hm, that’s an interesting question. I don’t know, let me think about that for a second. I didn’t have what you’re describing in my upbringing. I didn’t actually have a lot of storytellers around. I’d love to say I did, but I didn’t. Where does it come from? I don’t know. It was sort of reverse-engineered for me. I came in as a musician and I remember some things on the radio where the story leads you step by step by step by step to this feeling of suspension and of wonder and that was the feeling I loved. I remember hearing this one particular piece—I wanna say it was about Tennessee Williams from the Lost and Found Sound series, this was maybe 20 years ago at this point—and I had been driving to Oberlin and we might have been driving through this part of Ohio which is utterly flat and it was pitch-black dark and I remember hearing this thing on the radio and it’s like the mixture of voices and the kinetic energy of all different cuts going into each other and the story was kind of receding so carefully. Suddenly, it got to this moment where you heard something or somebody said something and you could hear the emotion in their voices and there was this sort of space and silence and music where you could just kind of sit with it. I remember being amazed at the feeling and having an early sense that the story is the architecture that leads you to that moment and it’s all about the moment. And that moment is a musical moment as much as it is anything. It’s like the feeling where the heart sings and the way that the heart sings when it hears a beautiful piece of music. Initially, I was more interested in that moment, in that feeling, and I had a sense that you couldn’t achieve that unless you seduce people and the way that you seduce people is through a story. It’s the path that you create, the bridge that you build, that allows people to come to that moment of wonder. So initially, I started to tell story simply for that reason: as a necessity. Then as you begin to understand how stories work, you become amazed at the story structures themselves and how you can monkey with them and how you can make the beginning the end and the end the beginning. So I got interested in it just as an aspect of this craft that I had fallen into. It never came out of the culture of storytelling that’s very strong in the Arab community, but somehow it was not strong in my family. My family is a bunch of introspective brooders. They communicate a lot with looks and with gestures, but not a lot with words. So that’s where it came out of for me.

AAI: We were curious if you have a favorite Arabic food?

Jad: Oh man, I have so many. My favorite Arabic food—which is only my favorite because it’s so hard to find done well, although I did find this Palestinian place in Bay Ridge called Tanoreen that is the only place outside of Lebanon where I’ve actually tasted it done well—mloukhieh. That’s my favorite because my grandmother in Jounieh, Lebanon, she used to grow the mloukhieh plant—I think it’s a specific plant—she used to have it right outside. The whole process, it’s such a freaking hard dish to make. I mean like you have to pick the plants and then you gotta mash them into this little goopy sauce and then you gotta cut the onions and bake the bread and then do the rice and there’s five other layers that I’m forgetting and you put them all in a specific order. It’s just such a heavy, heavy meal, but it’s delicious and I remember that somehow if I think about Lebanon and as the memories of being in Lebanon have faded for me—because I haven’t been back in a long time—somehow so much of it gets distilled into that dish. If I think about an afternoon where we ate mloukhieh, I can suddenly conjure everything else about Lebanon because somehow that dish draws it all in. So that would be my favorite. Well, that’s my narrative favorite. My actual favorite, just in terms of what taste the best, would probably be mana’eesh. You know, like my dad lives in Nashville now and he found this guy who does these fantastic mana’eesh and every time we go there we just eat far too many. There’s something about that taste I can’t get enough of. And kibbeh, I have a neighbor now who lives right down the street—one of whom is this Lebanese kid—and he makes incredible kibbeh. And now my wife makes it, she makes a ton of Lebanese food like way better than me. So she’s like more the Arab, at least culinarily, than me at this point.

Want to learn more about Jad and Radiolab? Visit their website here. Radiolab is also doing a live tour in cities across the US called Apocalypitcal focusing on the topic of endings. Find more info atwww.radiolab.org/live.