To celebrate Thanksgiving 2014 I visited the central-eastern Turkish city of Tokat, joining a group of Fulbrighters for a potluck dinner. While in Tokat I was able to spend some time sightseeing in the city center while spending plenty of time in fellowship (pun intended) with my fellow grantees and our Turkish guests.


Before I elaborate on some of the sights I was able to visit while in Tokat, I must address a very Fulbrihgt-esque pun, which is the title of this post and was the name of our celebration. As previous posts have suggested, we Turkey Fulbright ETA’s particularly enjoy combining the names of holidays and the cities in which we celebrate them. Tokatsgiving was no exception, but is in fact an exceptional instance of this type of word-play. Why?

Part of our dual role as English as a Foreign Language instructors and ‘cultural ambassadors’ includes sharing English-speaking countries holidays and cultural traditions with our students, Thanksgiving being a particularly easy and fun opportunity. Many of us have included the instant-classic ‘Slapsgiving’ episode of How I Met Your Mother (a series which for some reason is wildly popular among young Turks) in our lesson plans. Incidentally, in addition to being the name of a city, ‘tokat’ in Turkish is the word for slapping someone. A better holiday-locale combo has never been accomplished…..

In any event, I was blown away by the rich history still visible as we “gezmeked” (my Turklish version of ‘wandered’) the streets and sights of Tokat.

Our trip began as any good weekend rendezvous does, with a long and big Turkish breakfast (kahvalti) in a beautifully restored Ottoman era home.


Doyduk… clean plates after a massive and delicious breakfast.

IMG_6253We toured an old Ottoman-era home turned museum (free of charge) which explained life for upper class central Anatolian families. The house itself was allegedly designed by a famous Armenian architect.

IMG_6277From the gardens of the restored Tokat Mevlevihane, you can see the city’s stone clock tower. As is generally the case, exploring the Mevlevihane turned museum was a major highlight of my trip.


The complex has been stunningly restored and, much like the museums in Konya and the Galata district of Istanbul, contained a vast display of manuscripts, daily life objects, musical instruments, physical manifestations of ritual practice like tesbih or prayer beads, clothing, artwork, and especially here, a large collection of antique carpets.


The former semahan, or room in which the ritual practice of sema (whirling) has beautiful woodwork which has been well maintained, but that isn’t what catches your eye when you enter the space. No, it’s the lit-up mannequin ‘whirling dervises which mechanically spin across the floor.

Tokat has numerous old stone mosques, many dating back to the Selcuk era.


There are also a number of tombs either standing alone or on mosque complexes. I was more than a little surprised when visiting the tomb of Ali Tursi, which has beautiful turquoise Selcuk-era tilework, to see this posting by the Ministry of Religious Works ‘reminding’ visitors of ‘how to appropriately visit’ a tomb. I’ve never seen a posting like this at any other tomb in Turkey….

IMG_6401In addition we were able to pend time checking out the rich collection at the Tokat City Museum, which had no entrance fee. The museum is an a lovely old stone building, and has everything from archaeological finds from Tokat and the surrounding area to a wide assortment of religious artifacts (both Muslim Christian, iconographic paintings that echoed to a different time), folk costumes, handicrafts, and more. The collection includes pieces of the castle in the nearby town of Zile conquered by Julius Ceasar, who upon victory infamous declared “Vendi, Vidi, Vici!”

IMG_6418 IMG_6432In addition, we stopped into an old caravanseray that is now owned by the state university in Tokat, who uses it to house much of their music daprtment, and one of the historic bazaar areas, where I picked up some of the famed cloth wth painted designs in the forms of a dress and a dual function scarf/vest. The woman I bought them from had painted them herself!

Of course, I’d be remiss without mentioning the meal itself, which was an absolute feast. We enjoyed a fantastic array of ‘tradition Americana’ dishes like mashed potatoes with gravy, green bean casserole (my contribution), REAL pumpkin pie from scratch (which was quite an effort), stuffing, etc. as well as some Turkish classics like mercimek koftesi (red lentil meatlessballs?) and stuffed grape leaves. There were many cries of affiyet olsun, and we all went around the table and shared the things for which we are thankful.


Tokat was a fabulous city that I’m so glad I visited- truly a hidden gem in the hillsides of central Anatolia.




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.


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.


The side streets are full of hidden gems.


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.


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.


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).


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.





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.


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.

Bayram II- Bergama (Pergamum)

Kurban Bayrami 2014 Part 2. You can read part one, about my trip to Chios, here. For more on Izmir, click here.


Most people who spend a decent amount of time touring Turkey make a point of visiting Ephesus (Efes), the ancient Biblical city, as I have. Though they are almost equidistant, far fewer people make it to the city of Bergama, known in ancient times as Pergamum (or Pergamon… according to Wikipedia, both are correct).

This is unfortunate.


Bergama is located 100 km north of Izmir, today a city of about 60,000 people. Its current name in Turkish reflects its ancient stature. We went for an afternoon from Izmir and just barely had time to see three of the main attractions there: the Acropolis, the Asclepion, and the Red Basilica.

Having been a big fan of the Disney rendering of the story of the Greek god Hercules, I was fired up to visit the Acropolis; to climb up the mountain to have a chat with old man Zeus myself. Things in life never go exactly the way they do in the squeaky-clean animations though, and the climbing was mostly done in an old cab with a disgruntled but courteous driver blasting Turkish dance-pop music. In addition, my chat with Zeus in his altar is pending, as I’ll need to arrange a trip to Berlin to see the remains, thanks to the persuasiveness of some opportunistic German archeologists in the late 1800’s. I’ll also have to wait about 5 years, as the exhibit in Berlin undergoes renovations. Always, the renovations.


A consolation, though. The magnificent tree pictured above stands at the site of the foundations of the Altar of Zeus.


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Nevertheless, the site is stunning, and the vast majority of its structures remain, including an insane 10,000 seat theatre carved onto the side of a steep cliff. Significant portions of the Temple of Trajan also remain, pictured above. The view from the top of the site is breathtaking, a picturesque modern day Bergama with hillsides and red-tiled rooftops.




A more orientalizing blogger may suggest it’s as if one goes back in time, gazing over the landscape. Besides being silly, that would also be patently untrue as the cable car which can take visitors up and down the steepest part of the ascent to the site (dropping off right at the ticket booth) obstructs the pastoral in many directions.


You can make out a bit of history though, especially if it’s a clear day: a view of the pillars lining a walkway at the Asclepion, about 5 kilometers away as the crow flies.


For those of you who didn’t know (I didn’t), the Asclepion at Pergamum was a renowned ancient center of medicine. According to my Lonely Planet Guide, “Treatments included mud baths, the use of herbs and ointments, enemas, and sunbathing. Diagnosis was often by dream analysis.” That can’t have been all they were up to, because this was also the site where the great Galen was born and worked; his studies had a major impact on ‘western’ medicine for a good century and a half. Nice.


It was sunny and lovely, and my travel companions and I really enjoyed traipsing around the almost empty site. (Fellow visitors included two Turkish families, and two small tour groups, one geriatric group of Brits, and one with all members wearing matching “UPENN ALUMNI hats. That’s it!)


We wandered through the aforementioned bazaar street lined with Roman columns, looked at but didn’t drink from a sacred well (which was the same color as the now infamous algae blooms of Lake Erie this past summer, yum), and scaled and (I) sang in the very well restored theatre, which continues to host theatrical and musical performances in the summer.


I was also intrigued by signposts which advertised an app that allows users to visualize the way the site is presumed to have originally used, using 3D imaging technology. Sorry for the poor photo quality:


I enjoyed one of my favorite Turkish indulgences, freshly squeezed pomegranate juice, while perusing a gift shop chock full of replica parchment, echoing Pergamum’s fame as the site of the development of the stuff. My pride in the innovations of ancient Egypt instilled by my grandparents got the best of me, and a Google-search later permitted a not-fully-deserved “I told you so;” parchment for use in the famed library of Pergamum was developed beginning with a shortage of papyrus shipped from Alexandria.


Our cab ride back into town took us through a neighborhood teeming with traditional old houses, some of which have been carefully restored as boutique hotels.


It also led us to the Red Basilica; another reason for Pergamum’s fame.  It was originally a massive temple to some Egyptian Gods, and Christians who later acquired the building actually just built their basilica inside the structure. The Book of Revelations lists this site as one of the Seven Churches of Asia Minor, specifically as the throne of the devil. To be honest though, all I saw was a whole lot of renovation and not a lot of Basilica.

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Though the archaeological museum was closed, we were able to walk through the historic covered bazaar, and we also spotted an old hamam, which is still operational.


Our day ended with some piyaz (white bean salad) and “Bergama koftesi,” the defining trait of which seemed to be copious amounts of cumin.

As my travel companions from last year would say, “On to the next adventure!”

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.

Urfa Part One: Göbekli Tepe

In early March 2014 I went with a group of fellow ETA’s on a whirlwind weekend tour of two of the most important and historic cities in southeastern Turkey: Şanliurfa (more commonly known by its former name, Urfa) and Diyarbakir, a journey I will be covering in a series of posts. This post is the first in the series, detailing the first half of my almost 24 hours in Urfa.

I flew from Ankara to Sanliurfa’s airport on a Friday evening, where we met up with our friends and had dinner at a kebap house. The cuisine in Urfa and the surrounding area is distinctly spicier than other regions in Turkey, and we sweat our way through an array of delicious meze (often called semsek) before feasting on lahmacun and the famous Urfa kebap. The whole meal was washing down with a copper mug-and-ladle over-frothing with yayik ayran a foamy, salty yogurt drink.

me savoring the ayran

me savoring the ayran


urfa lahmacun

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to make the time/arrange to have the ultimate Urfa dining experience: sira gecesi, an evening of food (especially ciğkofte and kebap) and live music, held in a şark odasi, or Ottoman-style sitting room (seating on the floor with cushions) in a konuk evi (converted mansion). Inşallah, next time.

We woke early the next morning and arranged two taxis to drive us 11 km northeast of central Urfa, to a site that was as unassuming as it was mind-blowing:

Gӧbekli Tepe, one of the oldest archaeological sites in the world.


As unassuming as it may appear, Gӧbekli Tepe (Potbelly Hill, also known in Kurdish as Girê Navokê) is, for lack of a better term, a really, really, really big deal. I mean, Stonehenge is amazing, right? Such ancient history, such compelling questions about the origins of belief… Göbekli Tepe is estimated to be about 6,500 years older than that, dating back to somewhere around 9,500 BCE. Something like 11,000 years old. That brain buster is just step one, though. Claims about what this site indicates do no less than challenge just about every textbook claim made about the shift from nomadic, hunter-gatherer societies to agriculturalist societies. With this discovery, some argue that everything anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians have argued about the timeline of the Neolithic revolution, the domestication and production of crops and animals, and its causes are up for scrutiny. But there’s more, and for Tess the religious studies major, this one is the real kicker: the leading archaeologist of the site, and the man generally accredited for ‘discovering’ the site in 1994-5, Klaus Schmidt, argues that Gӧbekli Tepe also evinces what is probably the first known worship site of any kind.

The signage at the sight echoes Schmidt's theory about the implications of the site

The signage at the sight echoes Schmidt’s theory about the implications of the site


The site first received widespread international attention after the publication of two pieces: “The Birth of Religion” by Charles C. Mann in National Geographic, and “The Sanctuary: The World’s Oldest Temple and the Dawn of Civilization” by Elif Batuman in the New Yorker. Both articles reflect on the lead researchers’ supposition that, to quote the lead in of the National Geographic piece, “We used to think agriculture gave rise to cities and later to writing, art, and religion. Now the world’s oldest temple suggests the urge to worship sparked civilization.”


This momentous claim is not without its skeptics, of course. In addition to the articles above, I’d encourage you to check out Cris Campbell’s six-part series examining Göbekli Tepe and critiquing this theory on his blog, Genealogy of Religion. (His blog also has much better pictures of the site, and the megaliths in particular, than I could manage to capture.)

views of the megaliths from the boardwalk overhead

views of the megaliths from the boardwalk overhead

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A relatively newly discovered and little known archaeological gem, mass tourism has not yet reached Göbekli Tepe. Reports from a few years describe a couple hundred daily visitors; more recent ones suggest that as many as a thousand come at the weekend during high-tourist season. This seems a little difficult for me to fathom… We saw a total of about 30 people, including at least one bus of schoolchildren and a large family in the two-ish hours we spent at the sight mid-morning, on a Saturday. It seems difficult to imagine that mass waves of tourism are likely to come soon, given Urfa’s location and the surrounding areas current geopolitical realities. However, I’ve recently read that tickets are now being sold and required for entrance to the site, but I do not remember this being the case as of early March.

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In addition, the idea of the site was far more astounding than the site itself, in my opinion. The site is prohibitively ancient- the engraved megaliths cannot stand alone, and their excavation puts them at risk to the elements. They are propped up by a network of wooden stilts, and a rickety boardwalk of sorts guides visitors over the site. The lack of visual splendor is a perfect testament to the tension between preservation and touristic exploitation faced by those who seek to learn and/or profit from locations like this. Signage in four languages (English, German, Arabic and Turkish, seen above) vaguely indicate the meaning of the arrangement of the stones and their engravings, mostly animals and humans. The hillsides around the site were blossoming with yellow flowers and flush with the green of the coming spring (perhaps a testament to the controversial and apparently successful Guney Anadolu Projesi, a water irrigation project, previously alluded to on the site here and here, with more to come).


It is difficult to articulate what it feels like to visit something so truly ancient, to stand on earth that (regardless of the anthropological evidence conclusive from these stones in particular) is known to be among the first to be used for agriculture. How can one say what it “feels like” to stand on the ground where, millennium before, people may have gathered, conscious of some deity or higher power for the first time in human history? “Overwhelming,” “humbling,” “inspiring”… they don’t quite cut it. After months of traveling across an ancient land, after visiting countless sites whose dates of construction were jaw-dropping, how could I even begin to wrap my head around these hills, what they might signify?

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My mind was blown, but it was time to press onward for more, as I headed off, stuffed in a taxi with my friends, back through the pastoral hills back to Urfa, to the cave where it is said that Abraham (the one with many sons) was born. Coming soon!

Come As You Are: Mevlana Seb-I Arus 2013

The week leading up to December 17 is known in Konya, Turkey as the Mevlana Festival, in celebration of the ‘urs of Celaladdin Rumi.

Street Art in Downtown Konya

Street Art in Downtown Konya

‘Urs is an Arabic word which can be translated as “wedding day;” in this context it refers to the death anniversary of a Sufi saint, or revered Islamic mystical figure. The symbolism of “’urs” stems from Sufi symbolism in which marriage is akin to union with God following a long and deep relationship in life. In any event, the death anniversary of the mystic and poet known widely in the ‘West’ as Rumi, and in Turkey simply by the honorific Mevlana (sometimes accompanied by the grander honorific Hazreti, a religious title indicating deep respect, commonly used for prophets) is on December 17, and so a group of Fulbrighters traversed to Konya, located in South Central Anatolia, the site of Rumi’s tomb. (* note: generally, saint’s death anniversary’s are celebrated according to the Islamic (lunar) calendar; however, because it’s Turkey, it is always celebrated here on the evening of the 17th.)

A promotional billboard for the Mevlana Festival, displayed by the govt. of Konya

A promotional billboard for the Mevlana Festival, displayed by the govt. of Konya

Telecommunications megalith Turkcell's billboard, wishing a blessed celebration to the residents of Konya

Telecommunications megalith Turkcell’s billboard, wishing a blessed celebration to the residents of Konya

The journey was rather easy for the K-Town crew- there is a high speed train from Ankara to Konya that only takes a couple hours. We were fortunate enough to stay with a friend of our Fulbrighter cohorts there. While in Konya, I had a series of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, the most random of which being that I met and shared a meal with a Turkish woman (and former Fulbrighter to the states!) named Tess! To say Tess is a rare name in Turkey would be an understatement; hers is actually a nickname for ‘Teslime,’ (pronounced tes-lee-may), a beautiful Turkish name which means something like ‘striving for God.’

Konya had been at the top of my list of destinations in Turkey from the get-go. I read some of Rumi’s poetry and studied his philosophy and tariqat (Sufi brotherhood, the Mevlevi’s) extensively in my Sufism seminar in college.

Quick side note for those reading with an interest in Rumi and Islam: if you can, read the translations done by Jawid Mojaddedi of Rutgers University. Unlike the more widely known Coleman Barks, J.M.’s translations are richly informed by the tradition from which Rumi is writing, and symbolism and allusions are thoroughly researched and annotated (rather than eliminated). What’s more, Prof. Mojaddedi translates from the original Persian into iambic pentameter, which, besides being an incredible linguistic feat, is the closest in English (culture and literature) to the rhyming couplet ‘mesnevi’ (in Arabic, mathnawi) poetic form.


one of my pictures from the Sema at the Mevlana Cultural Center in Konya

The activities of our trip were centered on the celebrations of the festival (‘urs) and included two major components: visiting what is now the Mevlana Museum and attending a sema, more popularly known outside Turkey as a Whirling Dervish ceremony.

banners hanging in the lobby of the Mevlana Cultural Centre in Konya

banners hanging in the lobby of the Mevlana Cultural Centre in Konya

The Mevlevi Order (tariqa) was established in Konya following Rumi’s death by his son, Sultan Walad. Shortly after the establishment of the Turkish Republic, Ataturk decreed the disbandment of all Sufi (mystical Islamic) orders in Turkey (in 1925). At this point, all Mevlevi tekkes (‘lodges’) were shut down. Many have since been converted into mosques (as I witnessed in Eskisehir), or into museums which are operated by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture (as in Galata in Istanbul, or in Gaziantep). The most notable of these museums, of course, is the Mevlevihane and site of Rumi’s tomb (the center of the Mevlevi order) in Konya, now known officially as the Mevlana Museum.
The Ministry of Tourism and Culture oversees not only the operations of museums dedicated to the ‘formerly’ active Mevlevi order in Turkey, but they also control what are now performances of the Mevlevi Sema (Whirling Dervish ceremony) (performances, as opposed to ritual practice). Starting in 1953, the government began permitting replications of the ceremony for the purposes of tourism, initially only in Konya during the week of celebrations surrounding Rumi’s urs. This has since exploded into a major sector of tourism in Turkey—every guidebook, pamphlet, and website will tell you that seeing one of these ceremonies is a “must-do,” and many people across the globe are able to watch touring troops who perform the ritual. From the website of the order (which continues operations across the globe):

In sum, the sacred whirling prayer ritual of the Mevlevis has been largely taken over by the Turkish Government for the purpose of promoting tourism. The Government has little interest in lifting restrictions on the Mevlevi tradition: all it has wanted from the Mevlevis during past decades is to provide good musicians and whirlers (semazens) for Sema. At the present time, excellent musicians have been trained at schools and universities in Konya to play classical Mevlevi music, and there have been new generations of trained whirlers as well. As a result, there is a smaller percentage of musicians and whirlers who view themselves as Mevlevi (or who have had any additional Mevlevi training) than in the past. This matters little to the Turkish Government, which regards Sema as a form of “traditional Turkish folk dancing.”

Simply put, what tourists witness when they travel to Konya, Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey is not regarded as an authentic ‘sema’ by practicing Mevlevis.

One of my images from the ceremony we attended in Konya

One of my images from the ceremony we attended in Konya

The Mevlana Museum is the site of the former the headquarters of the Mevlevi order, and the tomb of Rumi (along with numerous other influential figures, including his father and son, and many others). The museum is a direct conversion and appropriation of the former lodge, as a museum space. The dervishes quarters are repurposed as viewing rooms for artifacts, organized by type or theme (musical instruments of the Mevlevi Order, paper documents, personal effects of Sultan Veled, ceremonial clothing, etc.) as well as a few rooms (as well as the kitchen) which are arranged “as they were” when the Order was legal. These are posed re-enactments, complete with dervish mannequins posed in ‘typical’ behavior misc-en-scenes— frozen in time.

the museum complex

the museum complex


Some of the affects of Shams - i- Tabriz

Some of the effects of Shams – i- Tabriz


Some of the many manuscripts displayed at the Museum

Some of the many manuscripts displayed at the Museum


one of many mannequin displays in the former lodgings of Mevlevi dervishes

one of many mannequin displays in the former lodgings of Mevlevi dervishes

What I’ve described above greatly colored my experience in Konya. Yes, the ceremony was beautiful. The information the museum imparted was thorough and well organized. But (for example) did the ceremony need a state of the art sound system and LED light display?
What did floating floral images of ebru (the Turkish art form of paper marbling) have to do with the union with God the ceremony represents? I wondered what Sultan Walad would’ve made of the booths full of artwork, jewelry and chotchkies crammed into the Cultural Centre lobby, or the jugs of (alleged) ‘zem-zem’  water available for purchase on the streets of Konya.



For that matter, I especially wondered what my hundreds of fellow audience members thought of it, particularly those who were moved to tears during the ceremony, those weeping and praying at the site of his tomb, those who’d memorized and cherished the verses of a man who has inspired such a rich (and very much living) tradition….

the entrance to Rumi's tomb. The large inscription above the door is an invocation: "ya Hazreti Mevlana"

the entrance to Rumi’s tomb. The large inscription above the door is an invocation: “ya Hazreti Mevlana”

Did any of that have anything to do with the tomb and ceremony I had traveled and paid money to witness? And I was paying money…

My photograph of a postcard (purchased at the gift shop of the museum) of Rumi's tomb. Out of respect for the museum's regulations, and more importantly, for those praying around me, I obliged the no photography rule.

My photograph of a postcard (purchased at the gift shop of the museum) of Rumi’s tomb. Out of respect for the museum’s regulations, and more importantly, for those praying around me, I obliged the no photography rule.

Postulations about the tension between tradition and modernity are thrown around a lot by scholars in the humanities and social sciences…. My questions following the weekend weren’t quite so black and white. What of spectacle? What of contemplation? What of commercialism, for Christ’s sake?

Many questions from this magnificent weekend persist for me, and I hope to potentially conduct further research to understand the contemporary relationship between the Mevlevi tradition and the Turkish tourism industry. I’ll conclude this post with a short video of a man playing the ney (reed flute, a very special instrument within the tradition) from my visit to the Mevlana Museum, and one of the most famous verses from Rumi’s Mesnevi (taken from The Masnavi: Book One by Jawid Mojaddedi (pg. 4).

Note: The man in the video is a visitor of the museum, not employed or endorsed in any way. In retrospect, this impromptu performance was the most meaningful experience of the entire trip for me. This was not a professional whirler, or a staid and (forgive me) tacky mannequin, but an act of devotion. Disturbingly refreshing, and hauntingly beautiful.

Exordium: the song of the reed (1-4)

Now listen to this reed-flute’s deep lament

About the heartache being apart has meant

‘Since from the reed-bed they uprooted me

My song’s expressed each human’s agony

A breast which separation’s split in two

Is what I seek, to share this pain with you:

When kept from their true origin, all yearn

For union on the day they can return.



Istanbul (Marathon)’da Sonbahar

The weekend of the Vodafone Istanbul Marathon, a large group of Fulbrighters gathered in Istanbul to participate in the 10k and fun run. The Istanbul Marathon is the only day of the year when the famous Bosphorus Bridge is open to foot traffic, and we couldn’t miss the opportunity to boast that we’d crossed continents (from Asia to Europe) by foot! It was an overwhelming weekend- my first time in Istanbul!!—complete with much reunion-ing with Fulbright friends from across Turkey, and coinciding with a visit from a college friend.

Here’s one of the thousands of songs that have been written about Istanbul (my roommate and I spent a  good portion of a night listening to a bunch to inspire me before my trip) that is also the inspiration for the title of this post (“Istanbul in Autumn”).

Because the weekend was so hectic, and I swore I’d be returning to Istanbul many times (always, always inshallah… and I have) sightseeing wasn’t my highest priority. However, I did manage to squeeze in some of the famous sights of Istanbul.

We spent one morning visiting the Istanbul Modern, where I was particularly blown away by the works of Erol Akyavas.

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Sultan Ahmet Camii (aka the Blue Mosque) was built by grand architect Sedefhar Mehmet Aga between 1603-1617. It features a (potentially controversial) 6 minarets and tens of thousands of (primarily blue) Iznik tiles, hence the mosque’s unofficial namesake. While it is a stunning site (that I unfortunately did a terrible job photographing), its atmosphere is something less than reverential, especially for tourists who are herded through a side entrance en masse and trail their foot odors along with them.

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The Basilica Cistern is enjoying new fame thanks to it’s usage as a sight of intrigue in a recent Dan Brown novel. Known also by its Turkish name Yerebatan Sarnic(h)i, the Sunken Palace), it is essentially an ancient cistern formerly connected to numerous aqueducts; it was built originally to provide water for the Great Palace. It fell into formal disuse i the early Ottoman period, and was “rediscovered” in 1545 by a French academic who noticed the locals acquisition of fresh fish and water from what was then a formally unknown source: the cistern. The site was restored in 1987 and now features dramatic lighting which illuminates the diverse 336 columns, many of which (especially the two featuring the head of Medusa) were clearly sourced from other temples and buildings.

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As I was walking back from Sultan Ahmet to catch the tram back to the Taksim district to meet up with Fulbrighters, I happened to notice the Sublime Porte, (in Ottoman Turkish and for my Arabic readers, باب عالی ) which was the formal entrance to the offices of state affairs in Ottoman times, and thus served as its metonym. The area now houses the governor of Istanbul, so Wikipedia tells me.


Güzel, değilmi?

Unfortunately my phone (read: camera) was dead so I don’t have many pictures of the marathon itself, however, I’m stealing some from my homegirl, the talented Sophia Yapalater to give you a small glimpse into what we experienced.


I participated in what was advertised as the 8k Fun Run… I showed up in tennis shoes, my blue Fulbright Turkey teeshirt gifted by the Commission for the occasion, and athletic gear, prepped for a very long slog, having not done much to prep for the run. Upon arrival though, it became clear that actually running the fun run was very much optional. To be honest, it felt more like participating in a bizarre parade with no clear agenda.

It was as though someone had taken a cross section of civil society in Istanbul, of Turkey, and put (most of) them in tennis shoes, and said, “there will be thousands of people from around Turkey and the world, what do you want them to know or care about? Who wants a weird and un-matchable experience?” We saw lots of groups of schoolchildren walking with their teachers singing nursery rhymes, women’s groups (religiously affiliated and not) in matching scarves or teachers, supporters of environmentalism, swarms of people supporting charities that work with children with disabilities and more…. We also saw expressions like the one pictured below, complete with printed yellow and black R4BIA logos pinned to the backs of mostly younger men. That hand gesture is now in fact illegal in Egypt itself, but I’ve seen the logo stickered all over Turkey- in windows of restaurants or clothing stores, graffiti-ed onto walls, plastered at the entrance to apartment buildings, etc, in places as wide ranging as Istanbul, Konya, Ankara, and Urfa. Even though I’m not sure I can fully articulate why yet, I get a kind of sick and torn feeling in my stomach every time I see it.

1450130_10201324258253365_1009387931_n(Photo cred Sophia Yapalater; an excellent shot of a protester throwing up R4BIA).


Walkers waving Turkish flags at the start line. Photo credit: Sophia Yapalater

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A group shot of all the Fulbrighters participating in marathon events (1/2 marathon, 10k, and fun run) with a representative of the Commission in Taksim Meydani before heading off to the race!

A great first experience of Istanbul, with great memories and the foundation for more to come.