About Unzan Doshin, Mako Voelkel

I am a Soto Zen priest who has lived, worked and practiced at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center for the past ten years.This fall my partner and I have decided to return to the modern world, hopefully with gift-bestowing hands. Our intention is to do some traveling in India and SE Asia for the next year as a way to reenter society, be of service, extend our practice, and gain some perspective. After being cloistered for the entire last decade (both physically and electronically), my hope is that this blog will function as a means to reconnect and share with the wider world.


Mehvlana MosqueAfter spending a mere two days in Cappadocia I took a side trip out to Konya for the sole purpose of visiting the Mevlâna Museum, which is the original dervish lodge (tekke) of the Mevlevi order, otherwise known as the whirling dervishes. It also the mausoleum of the posthumous founder of the order: Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi(1207-1274), a Sufi mystic and prolific poet known affectionately in these parts as “Mevlâna.” I considered it aMevlana turquoise faience part of my pilgrimage to visit the resting place of one of the world’s greatest poets and teachers of religious and spiritual tolerance.

After a four hour bus ride from Urgup I took the train into the center of Konya and made my way to the site.  While walking I met a rug-dealer who spoke to me of his own meditation practice, even pulling out a card with a Buddhist prayer from his wallet to show to me! When we got to the museum he kindly paid for my entry and invited me back to his shop for a cup of tea afterwards.

Mevlana museum archBut who is Mevlâna? A short bit of history is in order: In the year 1207 Rumi was born into a religious family in what is now modern day Tajikistan. When the area became threatened by the Mongol invasions the family moved westwards to Damascus, and then on to the center of the Ottoman empire. As his father was a renowned theologian, scholar, and religious master and was eventually invited by the Seljuk Sultan ‘Ala’ al-Din Kayqubad, to come to Konya to teach. When Rumis father died the Sultan offered his rose gardens for his burial place. It was these rose gardens that one first enters when coming to the museum. Mehvlana RoseFollowing his father’s death in 1931 Rumi took over his position as a teacher of the madrassa (religious school). However, his Sufi training was not completed, and remained the disciple of one of his father’s students until he also died, in 1240. After that, Rumi’s public life and teaching took off, and in his travels he was to meet the wandering dervish Shams-e Tabrizi, who would forever change Rumi’s life. It is said that when Rumi first met Shams he was so struck with awe that he fell off of his donkey. Mevlana arch detailWhatever it was, his meeting and developing relationship to Shams was to lead Rumi to cast off his public role and take up the life of an ascetic. The two of them would become inseparable, and Rumi was so engaged in this new spiritual love that he completely neglected his own disciples. Jealousies arose and it is said that from time to time Shams would disappear for days or weeks to allow things to cool down. It was during those absences that Rumi began writing his poetry and also started the mystical practice of whirling. Mehvlana wax sema instructionLess than five years into their relationship Shams would be called away from a conversation the two were having by a knock at the door of their household, only to never be seen or heard from again. The absence of his beloved friend was enough to push Rumi across a spiritual boundary and it is said that this served as the catalyst for Rumi’s transcendence of his small self for the infinite: the drop of water had become the ocean.Mevlana fountain tapRumi lived for another twenty nine years after Shams’ disappearance, and composed over 3000 ghazals (love poems) to the beloved (even attributing many of them to Shams) as well as other, larger works. When Rumi himself also died in 1273 he was buried next to his father, and one of his successors decided to build a mausoleum over the grave of his master. The Mehvlevi order and lodge was then founded and its leadership continued to be transmitted, mostly from father to son, up to this day (although women were also part of the order). In 1Mevlana  faience924 and onwards by decree of the great Turkish leader, founder of modern Turkey, and first president, Mustafa Kemal Attaturk, Turkey was to undergo radical reformation: from the abolition of the caliphate to the enforced legal equality of men and women, to the separation of church and state, to the abolition of the Arabic script: all Dervish lodges and tekkes were closed down and turned into museums, and the institutional expression of Sufism was to become illegal, even though social and cultural Sufi groups were permitted to exist. Officially the museum opened on 2 March 1927, and in 1954 was renamed the “Mevlâna Museum.”Mehvlana schoolchildren pilgrimsOn display are the original buildings, including the cells of the dervishes as well as the kitchen and training hall (called Matbah). There are cemeteries within the rose gardens and in the middle of the lodge courtyard there is a bathing fountain.Mehvlana outdoor bathing fountain

Mehvlana mausoleum and grounds closeupPhoto-taking is permitted everywhere except for inside the mausoleum and the small mosque. Inside the mausoleum are the sarcophagi of the Mevlana family (wife and children) and associates as well as a few high ranking officials. Both Rumi and his father are set apart and rest directly beneath the turquoise dome, with Rumi’s Seljuk carved wood sarcophagus directly above his father’s grave. Mevlana museum exteriorCovered in a brocade embroidered with verses from the Koran it is separated from the main section of the hall by a silver lattice. When I was there the area was packed with pilgrims from what seemed like all over, many of them standing in place before the tomb with eyes closed, faces soft and upturned, hands lifted and open towards the heavens, and lips moving in prayer. The room was filled with the low sound of hushed voices and the shuffling feet of schoolchildren… at least until one of the guards would shout loudly: “”NO PHOTO!”

While it was very crowded, I was mostly able to take my time and have a good walk around. There are life-sized wax figures in the ritual hall as well as in some of the cells, while other cells have many ritual objects and personal effects on display: several instruments used in the Sema (ceremonial whirling), dervish clothing, including the hat and banner of Shams himself, mosque lamps and braziers,Rumi’s own writings and poems, prayer beads, and so forth.

The matbah (training hall and kitchen), also has these wax figures to illustrate life in the lodge. There are also helpful plaques which somewhat explain the process by which one becomes a dervish. Upon first entering the large hall there is a wax novice kneeling on an ancient rug to the side. Mehvlana wax noviceA new dervish would sit upon this rug for examination. The training of the novices who hoped to become dervishes, which lasted 1001 days, was also done in this building. Before undertaking instruction a potential student would sit upon the rug for three days to observe the training being offered. Only after that would they decide if such a life was appropriate for them. During the 1001 day training period the novice dervish would also take up such chores as chopping wood and carrying water, cleaning the toilets, and so forth. If a dervish were to die while practicing in the order, their body was taken to the matbah for cleaning, and then they would be buried in the cemetery, symbolizing that for the dervish, life begins and ends inside the matbah.

Once the new dervish has completed the 1001 days they are given a cell, out of which they are not allowed to leave except for basic needs for the first three days, nor the lodge for the following eighteen. After that Konya Attaruk monumentthey continue their training in poetry, music, calligraphy and gilding alongside their practice of spiritual discipline and moral development.

When the time came to leave I made my way back into the city center, visited my new rug dealing friend for the cup of tea he invited me to share with him, and walked to a grand statue of Attaturk where I was to catch a bus to the airport. After taking this rather large detour from Cappadocia through Konya on my way back to Istanbul I felt it was well worth the time and effort to visit, and it was a sublime way to conclude my short but intense trip into the heart of Turkey.

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I relaxed into my seat on the plane and gazed out on the beautiful land when a particular Mevlâna Rumi poem came to mind. I think it captures a taste of the impetus for this particular point in my pilgrimage:

Mevlana minaretThe Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your houseMevlana tomb
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Mehvlana mausoleum exteriorBe grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

— Jelaluddin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks


Uçhisar – Pigeon Valley

Uchisar Valley 5The final stop on my one-day Cappadocia tour was by the village of Uçhisar overlooking the 4km long Pigeon Valley, so-named for the centuries-old cave dwellings and pigeon houses used by farmers for the pigeon manure. A stunning viewpoint, and a beautiful end to my last long day in Cappadocia. I found it incredible how much there is to squeeze into just two days, but I would love to spend more time in this eerily beautiful and haunting region of Turkey. On the following morning I would catch the bus to Konya for a half-day excursion out to the Mevlâna Museum of the famous Sufi poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi before heading back to Istanbul for the weekend.

Then, in the following week I would be on my way through a variety of coastal European cities on my way back to Canada and finally the United States. I was starting to feel like the end of my trip was too fast approaching! Somewhat strangely, I was not yet tired of travel. In large part I wished I could just keep on going for another year or so. However, plans for next steps were in the making, and had in fact been congealing since I was last in India. But nothing was completely settled yet, which mirrored the physical fact of my continued cross-continental movement. With less than a week to spend in each of four separate European cities, I was finding it hard to believe that in only one month I would be back on familiar ground…

Ihlara Valley

Ihlara 1The next stop on my first ever official tour took me to the Ihlara valley, located in southern Cappadocia. This was the main reason I decided to go on the tour, as there was no other way I could have gotten there short of renting a car or taxi. Ihlara valley flower 2I had heard stories of the beauty of this valley from my friend Birsen and others I had met in Turkey, and they were well-justified. The valley consists of a 16 km long canyon between the village of Ihlara to the south and the village (and monastery) of Selime to the north, all with the Melendiz Stream cutting into the Cappadocian volcanic rock. The whole cliff and mountain area is dotted with rock-hewn underground homes (estimated at over4,000!) and churches (over 100) from the Byzantine era, when the early Christians were in hiding from persecution by the Romans. The natural beauty was stunning in its green lushness, scattered wildflowers, rocky outcroppings, soaring cliffs, gnarled trees and babbling stream.

On the tour we did not get much of a chance to really explore the valley, and ended up only hiking the first bit of it from Ihlara to Belisirma village, where we had a pleasant lunch as part of the tour. The trail was well maintained and not too hilly as it crisscrossed the river and took us through groves of pistachios and poplars as well as vineyards. Ihlara Agacalti chapel ceilingWe were able to visit only one of the many churches, the Agacalti Kilise (Church under the tree) located near the main entrance at Ihlara. Constructed between the 10th and 11th century CE, this church contained frescoes done in contrasted colors of red, green and yellow, depicting scenes like Daniel in the lion’s den, the Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity with Magi, Flight into Egypt, Baptism, and Dormition of the Virgin.

The latter is apparently quite rare in Turkey, and is composed of two frescoes: one showing Christ and St. John sitting by Mary’s bedside on her deathbed, and the other showing Christ holding his mother’s soul with an angel behind him. Unfortunately there was a lot of graffiti in that church, where centuries of visitors had either carved their initials or otherwise defaced and marred the paintings. I cannot say anything about the other churches, but hope that their further remoteness afforded them some protection.

When we finished our lunch at Belisirma we hopped back on the van and continued our tour at the Selime monastery north of the valley. The valley is certainly a place to return to, and if possible, to spend a few days hiking, camping, and exploring the ancient churches and cave dwellings.

Derinkuyu Underground City

Derinkuyu aboveAlthough I was initially hesitant, it turned out that going on an official tour was the only affordable way I could have been able to see many of the regions in Cappadocia that are well worth seeing. It was my first ever time being on such an organized tour, and my hosts at the Dede Paison hostel in Urgup were able to help me find a reasonable deal on an all-day tour to several far flung places in the area. On my second and only full day in Cappadocia I walked down from the hostel to a more reputable hotel by 7am to catch the tour van, where I and several others gathered. Our first stop was at Derinkuyu, located in Nevşehir Province, Cappadocia. Derinkuyu hallIt is the largest underground city in Turkey, estimated at being able to hold up to 20,000 people with all of their livestock and food stores. From the outside the only tell is a few cylinders poking a few feet up from the grassy field. That, and the long lines of tourists waiting to enter!

With a depth of around 60 meters and containing between 5 and 7 levels (depending on how the counting is done) it is a huge complex. Apparently there are tunnels connecting it to other underground cities as well, which scatter the plains of Cappadocia. The city has a number of defenses, mainly in the form of large millstones (around one to one and a half meters wide and between 30-50 cm thick)

which were set perpendicular to the passageways and operated from the interior. While walking down the steep steps you might pass several of them jutting slightly out from the wall. Further down there would be a narrow passageway providing access to the stone, which would be rolled out to block the passage in times of trouble. Apparently there are enough of these that each level could be blocked off from below. I have heard conflicting accounts about the use of space however; some sources say that there would be entire villages built above ground and that the villagers only went below in times of trouble. Other sourcesDerinkuyu tunnels claim that there was very little above ground and that for the most part the city dwellers stayed down below. Probably it was used in different ways at different times, for different purposes. Our tour guide gave us a lot of information on how things functioned underground: from the ventilation shafts for fresh air, the well on the 5th level for fresh water, and the use of clay pots to hold human waste (apparently they used a layer of cheese on top to block the odors). The earliest recorded mention of such underground cities is found in the Anabasis, an epic account of a military expedition through the Persian empire (through what is now modern day Turkey) and written by the philosopher/historian Xenophon who had accompanied the Greek “Ten Thousand” in their 4th century BCE campaign. This particular underground city (there are many others in the region) was said to be first excavated by the Phrygians between the 8th and 7th centuries BCE, and then further excavated during the Byzantine and Persian eras when it was used as a refugee camp. In early Christian times it was used by Christians in hiding from Roman persecutors, and many more levels were excavated for religious congregational purposes. After the Christians left the region (see earlier history post) it seems to have fallen out of use for the most part. It was not until 1963 that a Turkish farmer accidentally rediscovered the cavernous underground city while he was carving out extra storage space in his own subterranean abode! Six years later the Turkish tourism department reopened it as a tourist destination, and it is speculated that only about half of the tunnels and rooms are currently accessible. I was, as mentioned, there with a tour group of about 12 people. We spent a few hours exploring the many stairways, tunnels and chambers, including a baptismal room and even a cruciform church and school on the lowest level. The walls are dry and the stone soft, and while down there you really don’t want to think too much about the frequency of earthquakes in Turkey!Derinkuyu baptismal

One area I was sad to not get to visit on that trip was the crypt, where many graves were located. We simply did not have the time as there were several places to visit on this Derinkuyu exitpacked tour day. Even though the time was short, and we were definitely herded around by our friendly and knowledgeable guide (along with dozens of other tour groups exploring the passageways),  I was very happy to have had the opportunity to see it. After re-emerging into the bright daylight we jumped back into our van and headed to our next (and my most anticipated) destination: the Ihlara Valley.    Derinkuyu rug shop


Goreme open air museumShortly after arriving in the town of Ürgüp, I settled in to my room at the Dede Paison hostel and took the shuttle bus first to Avanos (known for its ceramics) and then to the nearby town of Göreme, where the UNESCO world heritage open-air museum was located. Due to the bus schedule, I had only 15 minutes to spend in Avanos (or else four hours) and discovered a literally cavernous little ceramics shop just by the bus stop.

The shopkeeper was more than happy to show me around, even though he could tell I was far more interested in the structure of his cellars than in the rather cheap and touristic ceramics he had for sale. I had just enough time to walk around the block after visiting his shop before I had to catch the bus for Göreme.

Goreme camelsFifteen minutes later I found myself at the Göreme open air museum, which, like much of the rest of Cappadocia, was developed by early (4th century) Christians who built their troglodytic dwellings and churches out of the volcanic rock (known as “tuff”) and “fairy chimneys” that are characteristic of the landscape. The Göreme National Park itself is not very large, but has an assortment of densely packed churches carved into the rocks, many of which have some spectacular frescoes.Goreme St Onuphorius scene Some of them were not open (or cost extra to go into), but I did manage to see the churches of St. Onuphorius, St. Catherine, and St. Basil as well as several others. Each of them was carved right into the rock and worn down by the passage of many centuries. Some of them had crude frescoes done in ochres, reds, and yellows, representing some of the earliest of Christian paintings. Many of the nicer ones were guarded by museum workers who refused to let photos be taken, but I did manage to snap a few photos of the less guarded ones.

There were graves in and around a few of the caves as well, and judging by the size of them it was remarkable to see how small the people who lived in that age must have been compared to modern times! Goreme two gravesIt was quite exhilarating to see those ancient structures and the scenes painted onto the walls. As it was also a hot day the coolness of the cave interiors was quite welcome.

On the opposite side of the road from the park there is another church (called Tokali) that is said to be one of the oldest in the region. It contains some particularly bright and well preserved frescoes of over a hundred Christian scenes.

Although photography is generally not permitted, while I was there the guard told me it was ok to go wild with my camera as there was no one else in there to object. He sort of followed me around while I was shooting, half telling me what various scenes were and half trying to get me to meet him later that evening at a nearby hot-spring. I politely thanked him for his graciousness and information and declined his invitation.

Hakan Kilim shop in GoremeIn the late afternoon I headed down the hill towards the town of Göreme where I came upon a lovely little rug shop. I got to talking with the owner and ended up spending over an hour receiving more than just the standard amazing history of rug weaving in the region. I love Turkish rugs (as well as Persian and Afghan ones), perhaps because I grew up with them in my own household (both in Iran and in Baltimore), so I was a more than willing audience. Hakan had many beautiful rugs, but he also had some camel straps and bags, Hakan with horse strapsome of which had the braids of the weaver woven into them. He told me that they marked certain life events of the particular woman who made the strap (like marriage, when the long hair was traditionally cut off). He even dragged out an old National Geographic magazine from 1958 to show me rustic scenes of village life and rug-making before the dawn of tourism in the area. All the spinning, dying, and weaving of wools was done by hand back then, and was unfortunately a long-gone art. He further informed me that many of the antique rugs he purchases come from Germany, of all places! Hakan in his shopApparently they were sold to him from the German children who had inherited the rugs from their older family members who had bought up or traded new for old rugs from mosques in the early 20th century. The kids were not as into them as their forebears, and were happy to be rid of them for the cash. I really appreciated his stories, and shared some of my own. Our talk drifted from rugs to religion and even meditation, which we discussed at some length! Amazingly, at no point did he actually try to sell me one of his beautiful rugs. Instead, he would drag out some ratty old threadbare prayer rug with holes worn through with all the prostrations. “This,” he claimed, “is the most beautiful kind of rug there is because it tells part of the story of the person who used it.” Hakan well worn prayer rugWhen I asked him how long he had been a collector (he certainly did not seem like a mere seller) he disavowed the use of such a term: “I am not a collector, because I do not feel that any of these rugs belong to me! I find them and have them here for some time until they find their way elsewhere, hopefully to someone who appreciates their beauty and history.” Oh how I wished one of his magnificent rugs would find its home with me! If anyone out there reading this post is in the market for a Turkish kilim rug, I highly recommend Hakan and his little shop in Göreme!Camel strap detailHakan's rugs

After I bade a fond farewell to Hakan and his assistant I wandered into a tiny jewelery shop called Shooting Star which had some fantastic necklaces and bracelets, some of which were made from meteorites.

The owner was not there however, so I merely looked around appreciatively at her artwork and went on to the ceramics shop across the street. A multi-generational family shop, I oohed and aahed over some beautiful artwork there as well.

Yes, I am a sucker for handicrafts! I spoke for some time with the owners before heading further into town to the spice market where I purchased some Turkish delights and nuts for a snack.

As it was getting late for the shuttle I hurried back up to the bus stop by the open air museum and waited by the side of the road, watching the darkening sky. It had been a full day and I was tired from being out in the sun. That night I would inquire with my hosts at the hostel about finding some way to get to the Ihlara Valley on my next and sadly last day in Cappadocia.

Settling down in Ürgüp

Urgup Dede Pansiyon view of downtownÜrgüp was the small town I landed in for my lightning-fast tour of the Cappadocia region. I found a small hostel online (the Dede Paison) and arrived on the night bus by 8 am, much earlier in the morning than the usual check-in time of noon. Urgup Dede Pansiyon entryThankfully the family that greeted me at the front gate was super-friendly and accommodating. The kind owner installed me into a simple little room with a crumbly balcony and a stunning view after sitting me down for a delicious cup of tea beforehand. Even though the room itself was a bit rundown and patched up (there were better, more costly options), it was Ürgüp’s least expensive accommodation. and it was clean, very close to town,  and had some of the most hospitable and charming hosts I had ever encountered.

I ended up spending several hours on both evenings I was there, hanging out in the common kitchen/living room with the mother and daughter and various friends of theirs that came in and out. The daughter was in the local university studying to enter the tourist trade. As a result, she knew much about the the history and geology of the region. She also went completely out of her way on numerous occasions to help me research and understand my options for getting around the area. Urgup Dede Pansiyon living roomThe town of Ürgüp was just a short walk down the cobblestone street from the hostel, and boasted a large number of restaurants, cafes, sweet-shops, spice markets, rug-dealers, and other tourist shops and spots.

I was only there for two days and nights however, and spent the first day exploring the nearby UNESCO world heritage Göreme open-air museum and village and the second on a tour to Derinkuyu, the Ihlara Valley, Selime monastery, and Pigeon Valley. These were somewhat exhausting all-day excursions in the hot sun, and it was really lovely to return to the kind family of the Dede Paison and the stunning views from my crumbly balcony: the little town below and the various troglodytic householders across the valley from me, going about their daily life.   Urgup Dede Pansiyon view from roomUrgup Man burning things Urgup Moon over caves

Kapadokya History

Countryside 9After almost a week with my friend Birsen in Istanbul, she sent me off for a few days to Kapadokya (or Cappadocia), which refers to a region in modern-day east-central Anatolia (Turkey) that is characterized by its incredibly beautiful and fantastical geology as well as its rich and quite ancient history.

The place was mesmerizing, and I was enthralled to wake up after a night on the bus to see some pretty spectacular geological formations seemingly flung all over the countryside. First, a bit of history:

The oldest historical name for the region is “Land of Hatti,” a term discovered on Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets constructed sometime between 2350–2150 BCE (during the reign of emperor Sargon of Akkad). These pre-Indo-European people (called Hattians) worshiped an anthropomorphized mother earth goddess as well as a whole pantheon of deities, including storm-gods, a sun-goddess, and a number of other elemental goddesses and gods. Goreme thistle viewTheir religion was naturalistic and animistic, with all things and processes on earth and in the cosmos (both seen and unseen) infused with life and divine forces. Such forces were considered both conscious and alive as well as immortal, but at the same time tied to worldliness: the deities had needs and appetites as well as emotional states. As with humans they were not all-good or all-evil. They could be angry and vindictive or generous and friendly, and as such, they could be pleased or appeased through ritual and ceremony.

Cappadocia mapThe Hattian societies were well-organized into small principalities of city-states but were eventually absorbed into the wave of incoming Indo-European Hittite civilization (possibly originating from present day Ukraine) which reigned in central Anatolia from the 18th century up until 1178 BCE. The Hittite civilization went through several ups and downs, and were in constant negotiation with neighboring empires: Egyptian, Assyrian, Hurrian, Babylonian, and Phrygian, to name just a few! Historically credited with being the world’s earliest pioneers of international policy and diplomacy, they employed the use of treaties and alliances with neighboring states. However, the Hittite empire (and their trade routes) became increasingly under attack by new waves of Indo-Europeans, as well as the enigmatic “Sea peoples,” when their capital was burned to the ground by an increasingly expanding Assyrian empire in 1178.

A three headed fairy chimneyFollowing the decline of the Hittites (and for the next thousand plus years), the area fell into a kind of dark age of feudalism in which a few aristocrats ruled over multitudes of peasant-serfs. Control of the area changed hands multiple times, from the Syro-Cappadocians followed by the Lydians, followed by the Persians (who gave it the name “Katpatukya” meaning “Land of Beautiful Horses”), followed by the Greeks, followed by the Persians again, then the Romans, which brings us up to the bloom of early Christianity and a rich new culture and tradition, as well as the innovation of cave dwellings and underground cities.Countryside 7But before going into any of those details, a few words should be said about the geography and geology of the region, as they go hand in hand with the developing civilization of the time. The region consists of a high plateau (3280 ft. above sea level) loosely bound by the Taurus mountains to the south, the Black Sea coast range to the north, the upper Euphrates to the east, and the regions of Lycaonia and Galatia to the west. Evil eye tree 2The high plateau is a land of vast plains, rolling hills, deep gorges opening into beautiful valleys, all punctuated by numerous now extinct volcanoes. The largest and most well known (as well as one of the youngest) is the 12,850 ft. Mount Erciyes, at one point depicted on Roman coins. However, the beautifully alien landscape of Cappadocia is created by much older volcanic activity from 10-4 million years ago, combined with weather, wind, water, and eventually, human hands. What spewed out of those early Miocene calderas and volcanoes was a blend of ignimbrite (literally, “fiery dust rock cloud”), ash, and block which went on to form multiple layers of “tuff” (some of which were hundreds of meters thick), many with amazing colors and textures. Countryside 10These tuff layers later eroded into magnificent plateaus and valleys as well as some remarkable rock formations known as “fairy chimneys or “hoodoos.” There are various types of these found in the region, depending on the rock type and erosion style. For example, some look like tall mushrooms with black caps and white stalks due to a gradually eroding top layer of basalt above a more quickly eroding pumice layer, whereas others can look more like columns. Rivers and rainwater also sculpted some intensely sweeping cliff curves along the sides of valleys. Add to this the fact that winters on the plateau are quite cold, causing water seepage to freeze and swell, further opening the rock to the elements, and you have a spectacularly alien landscape consisting of mountains of soft tuff rock formations ascending over compacted tuff layers thousands of feet deep. Now let us return to the Roman times, and in particular to the earliest Christians who found themselves running from oppression and death, and looking for shelter…

Derinkuyu exitThe first cave dwellings and underground cities in the region were much older than Christianity. In fact, Derinkuyu underground city (with 7-8 levels up to 200 feet underground) is thought to have been built by the Phrygians from about 900 BCE. However, the hidden valleys and cliff dwellings as well as underground tunnels provided a refuge for the early Christians, as well as a perfect location for the establishment of new monastic communities and churches. Because the region was also quite unsuitable for agriculture it was not particularly sought out for Roman settlement and habitation. Its relative isolation and seclusion allowed the early Christians to remove themselves from the world and devote themselves to their religious practices. Early Christian ideology included communal living, vows of poverty, engagement in manual labor, as well as principles of brotherhood. When the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and granted religious freedom to Christians in 313, Cappadocia had already become quite Christianized. One of the main monastics and leaders of the Christians of Cappadocia was St. Basil (300-79), who became known as the father of Eastern monasticism.Goreme St. BasilFrom then the number of Christians continued to steadily increase and eventually they turned away from some of the early ideology of communal living. However, monasteries, churches, cathedrals, guest lodges, and soup kitchens continued to be built into the rock. Divisions occurred and new sects were formed. Religious functionaries assumed special privileges and the Church gained in power. When the rise of the iconoclasts in the 7th century (and Emperor Leo III’s prohibition of image-worship) led to the destruction of many churches and frescoes, Cappadocia caves once again became a refuge for fleeing Christians until Empress Theodora lifted the prohibition in 842. Saints in archwayBut the carving and painting of frescoes continued relatively uninterrupted for about 900 years (from the 413th c.), through Arab invasions (79th c.), through the iconoclastic period (69th c.), and even well into the Turkish tribal assault and establishment of Seljuk hegemony. Selime cathedral interiorMany more monastery complexes and rock churches (including the Selime monastery) were constructed during this period, which was characterized by elements of mutual tolerance and respect. An inscription on one church (Kırkdamaltı in the Ihlara valley) from 1283 bears the names of both the Seljuk Sultan Mesut II as well as the Byzantine emperor Andronikos II. But that pretty much marks the end of the Christian era in Cappadocia, for the tolerant Anatolian Seljuks were eventually outnumbered by Beyliks who banded with the Muslim Persians and Turkistanis fleeing the Mongol invasions from the east. It was less than 200 years later that Constantinople fell to Sultan Mehmed’s army and the Byzantine Empire was officially over.

As for Cappadocia today, thousands of troglodytic cathedrals, churches and dwellings are scattered throughout the region. From the 1970s to 1990s the tourist industry gradually opened and then exploded. Many of the inhabitants first rented their own cave houses to visitors, and as the demand grew there has been a marked increase in the number of cave hotels. Urgup downtownAs for me, my bus pulled into the station in the town of Ürgüp around 8am and I made my way up a hill in search of the lovely little hostel that I would be staying in for two nights (although not in a cave dwelling unfortunately) that was remarkably reasonable in price. Located just one long block from the center of Ürgüp, it would serve as my home base from which to explore the region for the next few days… an entire medley of pottery, kilim rugs, spice markets, cave dwellings, churches, monasteries, verdant valleys, crystal clear streams, underground cities, pigeon holes, fairy chimneys, sweeping landscapes and friendly people!

Topkapi Palace and Harem

Topkapi buildingsAfter my rather cursory glimpse of the European side of Istanbul with Birsen just the day before, I decided to go back across for some exploration. It was my only day to go before heading to Cappadocia on the following Pillar ruinsevening, but unfortunately it also happened to be a Monday, when many places were closed (including Hagia Sophia and the Grand Bazaar). However, the Topkapi Palace (and its Harem) were happily open, and as it was at the very top of Birsen’s list of things to see and do in Istanbul, I was excited to go. I crossed the Bosphorus and walked along the narrow streets, passing the assortment of sweet shops and antique rug shops mixed with modern shops selling cell phone accessories and fancy footwear. Eventually I came to an upward sloping street with a great old wall on one side, with a green strewn with broken bits of Byzantine columns and statuary. I noticed the sign for the palace and continued on my way.

The Topkapi Palace was the primary residence for the Ottoman Sultans, as well as the seat of government for over 400 years. Construction for it started in 1459 by Sultan Mehmed II, shortly after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 (marking the end of the Roman Empire). Topkapi view of GaletaThe site chosen was breathtaking: built right on top of the ancient Byzantine acropolis, situated on the tip of land between the Golden Horn to the north, and the Sea of Marmara to the south, with the Bosphorus visibleTopkapi costumes to the east. Built not only as a city within a city, with internal gardens, courts, libraries, schools, mosques, a hospital, and mint, it was also intended to hold many spaces of silence. The tradition of imperial seclusion had carried over from the Byzantine court, and speaking within the inner courtyards was forbidden. Of the four great courtyards, only the first was open to the general public, and the fourth was only open to the Sultan and his guests. The palace is an enormous complex (up to 7.5 million square feet) and contains a long shoreline, hundreds of interconnected chambers and low buildings, pavilions, gardens, courtyards, and grand gates in between them.

One of the most well-protected and insular areas of the palace (and a must-see) is the Imperial Harem, which was the private area of the Sultan and his sons, where the women were kept. “Harem” means “forbidden,” and there were many ways in which the meaning of that word were imposed. For one thing, it was forbidden for any males to enter beyond the Sultan, his sons, and his staff of Black Eunuchs (who were completely castrated).

Included in the up-to-thousand residents of the Harem were all of the Sultan’s wives, concubines, consorts, the prince’s consorts, their children, the Black Eunuchs as well as the Queen Mother, who would have come into power when her son became the Sultan. With over 400 magnificently ornate and lavishly decorated rooms spread out over a host of interconnected suites, apartments, and courtyards, it requires purchasing an extra ticket to get into and requires a sizable portion of the day to fully take it all in. There are several courtyards: one for the Eunuchs, the Queen Mother, the “Favorites” (those concubines who became pregnant and were thus elevated to the status of “official consort”), and the Consorts and Concubines.

There are grand halls and marble fountains, privy chambers, baths, an aviary, a “Passage of Concubines,” and apartments of the Crown Prince as well as the 40-room apartment of the Queen Mother (of which only two of the rooms are open to the public).

Topkapi Harem basin with spoutA few words on the women of the Harem: as Islamic law forbids enslaving Muslim women, most of the consorts and concubines were either Jewish or Christian captured slaves or otherwise “gifted” to the Empire. Others might have been conscripted into the Harem from more local populations. Apparently many of them were taken from Circassia (modern day Georgia and Armenia), as they were favored for their spectacular beauty. Upon entry into the Harem, the girls were first converted to Islam before receiving schooling in palace etiquette as well as in how to please the Sultan. For the most part this included reading and writing, playing an instrument, singing, dancing, as well as other entertaining skills. Topkapi Harem tiles 8The top-ranking woman was the Queen Mother herself, who basically ran the Harem, with even the Black Eunuchs reporting directly to her. Not only was she the primary decision maker on all affairs of the Harem, she also had tremendous influence on the Sultan’s selection of wives or concubines. Below her in rank were up to four Kadin (“woman/wife”), then an unspecified number of Ikbla (“fortunate”), followed by the Gözde (“favorite”), and finally the remainder of the concubines and consorts, who lived in basements underneath the Harem. As for the Black Eunuchs, they were distinct from the “white” eunuchs in that they were mostly enslaved from the Sudan, completely castrated, and given the task of staffing the Harem, whereas the White Eunuchs were given secretarial tasks. Topkapi Harem inlaid doorThe Chief Black Eunuch was in a very powerful position indeed, with access to the Sultan’s ear as well as bedchamber and second in political power only to the Grand Vizier. The position also included the position of head of an imperial army corps.

As the throne was available to any of the Sultan’s sons (there was no custom of the eldest son inheriting the throne) and as a Sultan could have many heirs (as many as 103 children for Sultan Murat III) from many different mothers, all living in the same enclosed space, one could easily imagine the intrigue and political wrangling that took place in the confined, albeit beautiful prison. Rivalry and competition must have been fierce, and violence between the residents was fairly commonplace. If a girl were to cross the Chief Eunuch (otherwise known as “Master of the Girls”), she could find herself tied up in a sack and tossed into the Bosphorus. It was certainly a prison for the women perhaps less so for the eunuchs, but it even became one for the Sultan’s heirs as well. Topkapi Harem balconyDuring the late 17th century the Harem earned the name “golden cage,” as succession law reforms led to the princely heirs being moved into seclusion in a particular area in the Harem called kafes, or “cages.” There they remained until they either ascended the throne or else were executed so as not to be a threat to the crown prince. Prior to those reforms the heirs were often sent to work as governors to distant cities in order to learn how to rule a country. Of course such a change had its impact on the quality of future Sultans. It may have even led to what became called the “Sultanate of Women,” in which the mothers exerted a tremendous influence over their enfeebled teenage sons, effectively ruling the empire from the Harem for a 130-year period. For all its intricate beauty, I found it a gruesome place just by imagining the average woman’s daily life there. Needless to say, I would consider the Harem to be one of the main highlights of the Topkapi Palace, and I spent a good chunk of the day within its labyrinthine halls and chambers, admiring its ornate beauty, including its incredible tile work.

As for the rest of the Palace, most of the museum artifacts were displayed in a variety of different buildings spread throughout the grounds. Many of the artifacts on display (and there are apparently many more that are kept in storage) are simply breathtaking, mind-boggling, and beyond priceless! Unfortunately in none of the displays are photographs allowed, so I can only give some written description of some of the countless items: from hundreds of ornately scripted copies of the Qur’an to jeweled weaponry spanning 1,300 years of history, to one of the largest collections of calligraphies and miniatures, Topkapi tiles 2portraits of the Sultans, ornate thrones, armor, as well as entire Imperial Treasury filled with all manner of household items studded with precious gems and made of gold. One of my favorite displays was the Hall of the Prophets which included the Staff of Moses, a cooking vessel of Abraham, the sword of David, the turban of Joseph (son of Jacob), John the Baptist’s hand and forearm (!) as well as up to 600 of the holiest items from the prophet Mohammed: his sword, seal, sandal, footprint, beard hairs, mantle, standard, and even his tooth, broken at the battle of Uhud. Such relics were apparently discovered, collected, and preserved over the years and eventually made their way to Istanbul for safe-keeping with the line of Sultans in the Topkapi Palace. Topkapi pool detailThey were first put on display in 1962, almost forty years after the dissolution of the Sultanate and end of the Ottoman Empire in 1924. For a wonderful collection of the stories and detailed photographs of these items, along with their historical and religious importance, there is a beautiful book called The Sacred Trusts (relics of the prophets), written by Hilmi Aydin.

There was a non-native display on the premises as well, tucked away led upon it while I was looking for the rather hidden entrance into the Harem. It was a collection of Korean Buddhist items, of all things! They were nice to stumble upon, if just a little bit strange and out of context. Just as they appeared to me suddenly as a non sequitur in my tour of the Topkapi Palace, so the following photos will be in this blog post:

I spent pretty much the entire day in the palace and its grounds, taking in the museum displays as well as the palace architecture and its beautiful wood and ceramic tiling. Of course the Harem was somewhat emotionally intense for me as well, reflecting on the conquest and slavery and subjugation that provided the backbone for the so-called “glorious” days of the Empire. Afterwards I wandered the side streets of Sultanahmet and the nearby Hippodrome for a few hours, catching a light snack before heading back to Kadikoy in the setting sun on the ferry. I could not imagine trying to fit all that in along with Hagia Sophia as well! It was a lot to take in and my feeling a little overwhelmed was due in part to how amazed I was at all that I had seen. On the following day I would head inland on my own, to visit a much earlier time in the long history of the region…

To the European side


New MosqueMy first trip out to the European side of Istanbul was a quick half-day outing, taken mostly with Birsen’s intention of pointing out a few places that I wight wish to return to on a later day. Unfortunately, IStencil was to find that time was very limited, and would only make it back on my own once more. Other things were appearing on my itinerary, including the incredible opportunity to take the trip into central Anatolia that Birsen was insisting that I do. I was beginning to see why she had asked me to visit for two months, rather than the comparatively measly twelve days that I was to be there!

After having our breakfast at her Moda apartment we caught a taxi to the Kadiköy ferry terminal and boarded the double-decked passenger boat bound for Eminönü, the port on the southernmost shores of the crescent of water known as the Golden Horn. HaydarpasaThe trip across only takes about twenty minutes and we sat at the very back of the boat on the sea level, watching the churned up waters and zillions of seagulls trying to catch the bread being tossed out by passengers above us. As we were seated close to the Marmara Sea side we could take in the views of both Kadiköy receding as well as the distant minaret and mosque studded skyline of Sultanahmet, the “old city.”Mosques across Bosporus Birsen told me that while in school she would make the Bosphorus crossing twice a day in her commute, and would always sit as close as possible to the water, at the boat’s end. I cold tell by the way she said it that she never tired of making the trip, and I could completely see why. The waters of the Bosphorus seemed alive and moody yet startlingly inviting into the blueness. “You should totally take one of the Bosphorus cruise tours,” she told me. “Get out of Istanbul and see the old palaces and remaining summer houses on the shores. Maybe we can all go next week when you return from Cappadocia.”Galeta towerWe passed the Galata tower on our right as we headed into the Golden Horn and eventually ended up at the Eminönü port just south of the Galata Bridge, the oldest structure connecting the two sides of the horn. New mosque at EminonuEminonu portThere we disembarked right next to the gigantic “New Mosque,” built from 1597 to 1663. Birsen and I did a quick walk from the port along one side of the New Mosque and into a plaza teeming with pigeons and what appeared to be bird-seed sellers in little red kiosks set up alongside the wall of the mosque. The area was filled with people out enjoying the warm day like ourselves.

We ducked through a brick archway and found ourselves in a little open market side street crammed with shops selling birdseed, plants, flowers as well as birds. There were street vendors as well, but what caught my eye were a few large, water-filled jars on the side of the narrow street. They had long grey and black creatures in them, sucking at the sides. Upon closer inspection they turned out to be leeches! I looked up to ask Birsen about them but she had turned into one of the pet-shops where she was inquiring into purchasing a bird for her niece’s upcoming birthday.

After a few minutes of listening to waves of bird-racket crashing over Birsen’s chat with the shopkeeper we slipped out and turned the corner to enter the Egyptian Spice Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı). Built in 1664 as an extension of the New Mosque complex, while it once housed only spice dealers it has broadened to include all sorts of food-stuffs: pastries, lokum (Turkish delight), nuts, teas, dried fruits and vegetables, cheeses, honey, and even caviar. I could have spent a loooong time in there, but as Birsen was eager to meet up with her relations (and not so eager for shopping) we blew right past the friendly and boisterous shopkeepers. We did manage to pick up a few chunks of pistachio lokum to take home, however…

We exited through the far end of the covered bazaar and climbed uphill through a twisty little neighborhood crammed with an assortment of shops, Zafus- Turkish stylemany of which seemed to sell ornate costumes intended for celebrating a young boy’s circumcision day. Another had what looked like zafus, but were probably just round shaped cushions. At one point we passed a little shop that used to belong to Birsen’s late father. We turned another corner and walked through a stone archway (one of the 21 gates) into the maze of shops known as the Grand Bazaar, one of the largest covered markets in the world with 61 streets and over 3,000 shops. Easy to get in but sometimes difficult to find the way out! Sadly for me, I think we spent all of ten minutes inside, walking swiftly in through the one gate and out another. Famous for a wide assortment of goods, from antiques and rugs and fabrics to gold, silver, and copper-ware, to belly-dancing costumes and leather goods with something like 3-4 hundred thousand visitors each day… I did not know that this time would be my last as well as first visit to the Bazaar. I would just have to return on some later trip.

Once we reemerged into the sunlight after our quick and cursory detour through the Grand Bazaar, we came upon what looked like an old book bazaar – Sahaflar Çarşısı (which it was). Book streetAfter a dash through the musty smelling stalls of yellowed books and what seemed like overpriced engraving we found ourselves in a small square near the top of a hill where there was a coffee and tea shop on one side and a number of street vendors on another. They seemed a lot more low key than those found in and around the Spice or Grand Bazaars, and they were selling things like antique watches and jewelery as well as religious items, such as prayer beads. We stopped to have some tea while Birsen tried to phone her sister Nursen and I got to watch a couple of elderly gentlemen idly stringing prayer beads at a nearby table.Stringing prayer beads 2Stringing prayer beads 1After taking our refreshments we walked downhill and down a more modern shopping street to the Sultanahmet Square (otherwise known as the Hippodrome of Constantinople), probably the most heavily touristed area of Istanbul and all of Turkey. There we met up at an outdoor cafe with Nursen, Shardaman, and Ali (whom we had been trying to meet up with for the past hour as we blitzed through the European side of Istanbul). I did manage to see a few of the famous monuments: the Serpent Column from the 6th century BCE, the Obelisk of Thutmosis III from 1490 BCE, and the Walled Obelisk from the 10th century CE.

I find it hard to describe how incredibly overloaded it felt to have so many historically invaluable sights and items all crammed into such a small place: from the Topkapi palace of the Ottoman Sultans to Hagia Sophia, the ancient basilica turned Eastern Orthodox cathedral turned mosque turned museum, to the Blue Mosque and Archaeological museum… not to mention the underground Basilica Cistern with its 336 marble columns and two Medusa heads.  Blue mosqueI made a plan to return the following day to walk around at a more leisurely pace (little did I know that most places would be closed on a Monday). On the day after I would be catching a bus to the center of Turkey, Cappadocia, where I would stay for a few nights before swinging through Konya on my way back to Istanbul. As mentioned before, it was a lot to take in. After we walked the length of the Hippodrome the five of us caught a metro bus back to the Eminönü station and port.

There was one last thing before taking the trip back across the Bosphorus. Auntie Shardaman wanted to offer a prayer at the New Mosque (Yeni Cami), and she took me along with her. I have to admit having been a little uneasy and shy at entering on my own, but I badly wanted to go in. For all I knew, women were not allowed in (as I found in some places in India). However, in Shardaman’s warm hands I felt well protected from any awkwardness, and lucky I was to be able to see the fantastically ornate and beautiful innards!Mako at New Mosque

The day was coming to its end and I was rather tired and a bit overstimulated. Birsen and Nursen also seemed a little sleepy, and Shardaman and Ali had not even eaten that day (due to Ramazan). As we sat silently gazing back at the old city and the boat droned over the waters, I think we were all looking forward to having a meal together that evening after the last prayers. I know I was.

Kadiköy Excursion

MuralFor my first day in Istanbul Birsen and I walked down her street and into the heart of Kadiköy, on the Asian side of Istanbul. She pointed out some very basic landmarks (including the Kadiköy ferry port and bus terminal) so that I had some sense of where I was. We both figured that it might be good for me to get my bearings in Kadiköy before venturing across the Bosphorus to the European side. Besides, the ancient neighborhood had a lot to offer in its own right: a thriving port area of streets filled with murals, restaurants,galleries, music venues, cinemas, cafes, shops, and… cats!

They were everywhere: on the sidewalks, shop windowsills, doorsteps, and even lazing about all over the rooftops of parked cars. Judging by their luxuriant fur, big tummies, and the fact that every block seemed to have yet another pet supply store on it, I surmised that they were thankfully well-loved and cared for, a rarity in some of the countries I had recently come from. But I do not mean to detract from the neighborhood’s other, more salient attractions, including it’s traditional Turkish restaurants and patisseries, thriving music scene, wine bars, coffee shops, as well as its more working class tea and backgammon houses (of which I walked by, but sadly never stopped to play in). It is home to some of Istanbul’s oldest family-run shops, including Haci Bekir, the inventor of the succulent and mouth-watering Turkish Delight (of which I had many), as well as to Eta Bal, the ridiculously extravagant honey shop (I swear I want to eat thick yogurt with honey every day for the rest of my life after coming here)!Honey storehoneycombKadiköy has a remarkably long history, with relics found there from 5500 BCE and onwards. Phoenicians, Byzantines, Bithynians, Romans, Arabs, Greeks, Turks; all had claimed it at one point or another. It has a vibrant cultural scene today, and its many pedestrian streets, comparatively inexpensive rents and restaurants as well as some of the best Bosphorus and Marmara views make it quite popular with hipsters and expats. Birsen grew up there, and most of her family, including her mother and two sisters, still live within walking distance from her. Quite conveniently, it took less than 20 minutes to walk from Birsen’s apartment all the way to the ferry terminal, right through the heart of the neighborhood.

On that first day we did a few low key things: a little grocery shopping, a short visit with some relatives, had a snack and tea, bought some lokum, got a sim card, window shopped. Birsen had to practically drag me away from some of the beautiful little markets! On another day we went out for a meal with her uncle at a little restaurant filled with photographs of Atatürk.

Sadly, I was not staying in Kadiköy long enough to really explore the area, and it certainly had the feeling of a place that could use a whole lifetime or two to really get to know it. It was a wonderful place for me to land however, and even though I was mostly just passing through, I greatly appreciated my time there. The ferry from Kadiköy to the other side (Eminonu or Karakoy) was a splendid ride, and I fell in love with the roiling and wild blue Bosphorus on first sight. Of course there were beautiful buildings and docks to be seen from the boat, but even the nearby industrial area (with its brightly colored cranes and shipping containers) was quite pleasing to gaze upon.

I had just started reading Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memoir of a City, and I had to admit that it was difficult for me to understand the melancholic veil of “hüzün” that coursed through the brilliant author’s blood and draped over his eyes, at least at first. Kasikoy flag sellerAs a “westerner” he pretty much pegged me by identifying the sorts of things I would find magically appealing about the city, (even in the year 2013, long after much of what he described was long gone). I was fascinated by the forlornly beautiful descriptions of the city of his childhood, and its history – even just through the blip of the past century. Eventually, I would begin to reflect more closely on this fathomless emotion he would return to again and again, born of a beautiful thing dying, and haunted by the ghosts of glories long-gone. At some point I would begin to see it a little more clearly, but not yet. I was too new, too fresh, too western, and an outsider.