Istanbul: A Place of Its Own

I’m curious to learn how Turkey remains Turkey in today’s increasingly globalized world. What has been taken, what has been preserved, what will stay and what will come? Many texts refer to Turkey, and particularly Istanbul, as the site where East meets West, yet I’m wondering how accurate that portrayal is. Rather than a kind of cultural liminal space, perhaps Turkey is actually a uniquely defined space of its own. In Istanbul, and especially at Bogazici University, I’ve appreciated how welcoming and curious people are. Each day, someone new is excited to learn where I am from, why I have come to Istanbul and how they can help me become integrated into the city life. Perhaps this open, friendly manner of Istanbul citizens is reflective of their city’s history and central location in the world.

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Turkey: The country that has it all

I don’t know if it was just me that was oblivious towards Turkey’s geography, but in the past week I feel as though I have been to entirely different continents. Who knew that the land mass of Turkey, which is about equivalent to the size of Texas could have almost every type of geographical landscape possible. During our week long excursion that started in Cappodoccia and ended in Izmir I felt like we saw it all. We started off in Cappadoccia, which contains geological rock formations that are called fairy chimneys. This sort of landscape is what you expect from Turkey: pretty dry, relatively flat, and not very hospitable to animals or plants. After a few days there we drove onwards towards Konya and eventually Pamukkale. On the drive we passed green lush fields and vineyards that felt like Italy- to massive snow covered mountains- to dry barren landscapes. In Pamukkale we found another massive surprise. The beautiful natural hot springs and waterfalls that were whitewashed by the calcium deposits were truly unbelievable. We witnessed them during sunset and behind the springs were snow capped mountains.  It was magnificent. Our next stop on the excursion was Kusadasi where Ephesus is. Though we arrived at night, tired and confused, we woke up to find ourselves on a beach looking out over the turquoise ocean at greek islands (this is what Alican says.. although I still don’t believe him). Who knew Turkey was such an incredible diverse and beautiful landscape. We also received some snow upon arriving back in Istanbul..which was not something any of us were expecting or pleased to see.


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Our week with Mustafa

We spent last week traveling in Anatolia. I enjoyed the area and I loved the hotels. Our first stop was in Urgup. We stayed in a hotel that had been carved out of a cave. The bathtub was surrounded by candles. It was a nice touch.

Our next hotel was in Konya. I liked it as well, but I will reserve my praise for the last hotel. Our final stop was in Kusadasi in an oceanside hotel. Because it is February the resort had a slight, but not unpleasant The Shining-vibe. Unfortunately the outdoor pool was too cold to swim in. Nonetheless the view was great and the water looked clear and blue. I will have to return someday when it is warmer. We also spent an afternoon walking in a steep village selling wine and other things to tourists. The village reminded Sam of Italy. I agree that it had a nice feel.

Before I end my blog post I would like to express a special thanks to Mustafa for putting up with my complaining over course registration. Mustafa is a trooper and he was great company and a great help throughout the excursion.



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Ceramics in Cappadocia

On the first day of the first Duke in Istanbul excursion in Cappadocia, Anatolia, we went straight to business on a brief straight-to-businesslike tour of an underground ceramics museum/workshop/showroom/store. Occupying the main section of the subterranean structure is the museum. Pottery and tiles through glazes and the ages line earthen walls, examples of contemporary blue and white designs adorn all ceramics alike, Hittite wine jugs from dynastic days as well as prehistoric, neolithic animalistic and anthropomorphic figurines, culminate in an artistic and aesthetic feast of profiles, patterns and pigments. But soon we were whisked into the workshop, where we received a speedy rundown of the production line of craftsmen and artisans displaying their craft and incredible skill through intricate illustrations and paintings of concentric floral designs, landscapes and calligraphy as well as the rapid mass manufacturing of pottery with moulds and rudimentary but highly efficient and productive semi-automated trimming techniques that facilitate the running of this could-be museum/arts and crafts haven as a mass producing, tourist attracting racket.

The penultimate stop of the tour was at the showroom where we were treated to a choice of cay or apple tea gratis as we watched an experienced artisan/performer clairvoyantly throw a sugar container atop a narrow pillar-like foot-powered wheel. Then Rachel had a go, but sadly couldn’t keep her centrifuged creation. Last but by no means least was the cavernous hoard of earthenware for sale where generic commercial ceramics were segregated from those blessed by the rich colours and sophisticated designs of passed down family patterns and noble insignia. The latter lacked price tags, priceless perhaps, perhaps not, their value in artistic creativity converted to currency and meticulous labour translated to Turkish lira or USD in private back rooms. Time is money, ceramics is business but there is much that can be learnt.

Thanks, nels.

Blue and white tiles

Hittite wine jug

Pretty plates

Mass production

Four stages of decoration

Painting landscape

Painting patern

Wheel throwing


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Scavenger Hunt

   My favorite thing we have done recently on the Duke in Istanbul program is the Istanbul scavenger hunt. I liked it so much, in fact, that I would even claim that it has been my favorite activity we have done on the Duke in Istanbul program, omitting the first excursion to Eastern Anatolia. Here is what happened.
   At 10:00 am on Monday, October 6th, the 20 Duke in Istanbulites met at a kiosk on the corner of south campus where Alican put 20 lira on each of our transportation cards. The competition was fierce. Since the prize was a city tour of Istanbul in a sea plane, space was limited to four people. Only the first two teams to finish would be able to come along. In order to win, we had to visit all 10 locations and take a selfie at each to prove we were there. Since we were only allowed to use public transportation, we were also required to document every bus, train, and ferry we took in order to prove we followed the rules. We divided into 10 teams of 2 and at 10:30, we were off.
   TJ and I were determined to win. We also made a great team. We set off immediately to South Campus to grab some internet and lookup some clues. We figured out about seven of them by the time we completed the 10 minute walk to the internet, but we spend about 20 mins verifying locations. Instead of meticulously planning our route, we rearranged our clues in a logical order that we would tackle together procedurally. We left our home base a little too early; we didn’t really figure out where the final mosque on the Asia side was, but we decided to just go for it and hope to find internet on the way to look it up.
   Our strategy was simple: set a target and then get on a bus that was going in the right direction. We were fearless in asking questions. In broken Turkish, we would ask our bus driver if the busses would go far enough to reach or final destination. We would ask tourists on the street who looked like they might speak english. We flagged busses down (successfully) in between bus stops. We jogged and ran about half the time. At one point, were were unable to find a bus stop and decided it would be quickest to run across the long water bridge to the old city. We were shameless and indefatigable.
   I have attached a map with a general outline of the path we took through the city. We went first the Ottoman fortress by south campus and than took a bus along the water through Bebek until we got to the Ortakoy mosque. From the mosque we went to a statue on the water, and from the state we went to the Tunel, which is an old subway in a touristy part of the city that is well known. This part of the journey went extremely smoothly and TJ and I were moving quite quickly. I was keeping track of all of our public transportation as we went along so that we would have an email ready to send to Alican the moment we visited our final attraction.
   The second part of our journey was slightly more difficult. We had to take both the subway and a special type of subway designed to go up and down steep hills called a Funicular (which was fun) in order to get to the bank. The bank was difficult to spot and looked mundane. I was certain we were in the wrong place, but we took a selfie and moved on. From there, we ran across a bridge to get to the Greek Patriarchate. After crossing the bridge, we tried our old get-on-a-bus-going-in-the-right-direction technique, but despite our bus drivers assurance, we were very much going the wrong way. Very stressed, TJ and I jumped out of the bus at the next stop, to our surprise, finding ourselves in front of the Valens aqueduct. This was convenient because we were planning on tackling this later. We then sprinted back to the water and got on a bus that took us in the direction of the Greek Patriarchate.
   The Greek Patriarchate was very hard to find, but we asked about 20 people and found it within five minutes of getting off of the bus. One couple we asked for help was more lost than us, and robbed us of our time asking for assistance. We of course helped and then sped off to take a selfie in the Greek Patriarchate. We felt terrible going into a small beautiful church just to take a selfie, but we tried to be as discrete as possible and vowed to come back for mass in the future.
   Our next task was to get to Hagia Sophia. We accomplished this by taking a bus so full that I was forced to ride pressed against the windshield for longer than I would have ever chosen voluntarily. We ran into some of the competition on the tram to the old church/mosque/church and didn’t break eye contact. We doubled our pace and headed to the bath houses. After the bath house, which was right across the street from Hagia Sophia, we just had one more location to visit: the Sun and Moon mosque on the Asia side. To get there, we decided to take the Marmaray, a subway that connects the European and Asian sides of the city underneath the Bosphorus. This was a clever move since most of our classmates chose to take the slower, more crowded ferry which only leaves on the half-hour or something.
   TJ and I actually had some trouble finding the Marmaray and asked for help right away. A really helpful man actually walked us to the entrance of the Marmaray. I am stilled stunned by the helpfulness of the Turkish people. Everyone is just so nice. Once we were on the Asia side, we had literally no idea where to find the Mosque. However, I pulled up my offline maps and realized that it was right next to us. TJ and  I couldn’t believe our luck. We found an internet at a nearby café and after negotiating for the wifi password in exchange for buying tea, the email was all send. Alican scared us for a moment, calling us back telling us that we had messed up one of the clues. We went to Hagia Sophia instead of the corner of Hagia Sophia where there was a stone monument. However, he called us back a few minutes later and told us not to worry about it. We had no idea if we finished first or if we were even still in the running.
   However, Alican finally emailed us later that night and told us that we had come in first place. The scavenger hunt was supposed to take us six hours and we had completed it in three and a half hours, beating the second place team by an hour. We were very proud. TJ was an amazing navigator and together we were a great team. All in all, it was a great way to end an adventure. I am very excited to spend the next two months adventuring even more.
-Grant Kelly
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“Wait, where are we going?”: Excursion #1

Turkish flag

Bleary eyed, I hit my snooze button on my “dumb” phone one last time, realizing that I only have eleven more minutes until I’ll be left behind at the dorm. With my room still not set-up nor organized, I caught myself as I stumbled over my half-emptied suitcase sitting in front of my door, yet I thanked myself for packing the night before instead of waiting until literally last minute.

Taking a pit-stop for this view

Why did I wake up at 3am, you might ask? Well, Duke in Istanbul was having their first excursion, of course! At 6:00am, we flew into Trabzon, a city on the northeastern coast of Turkey. It’s easy to say that we felt more at home on our bus than we did in the dorms in Istanbul. In summary, we saw a LOT. More than we realized and more than we were even able to take in at the moment. Here are some of my observations and thoughts that I had along the way.

1) Probably like any country, Turkey has its different faces, some unknown to the average tourist. 

Only having seen Istanbul for the first few days, we all assumed Turkey was more of a city-place with maybe some farms and suburbs in between. At least for me, I had no idea how gorgeous the rural areas of Eastern Anatolia (our main region) are. We hiked some killer mountains – mountains that pictures can’t even come close to doing justice for. Don’t get me wrong; I love a good hike, but some of the climbs were unlike anything I’ve ever seen both in physicality and in breath-taking views.

Eastern Anatolia yaylas; stayed in wooden bungalows that night

Eastern Anatolia yaylas; stayed in wooden bungalows that night

2) Do one thing you fear everyday. 

This ended up being my daily mantra. Whether I wanted to or not, I ended up doing something that brought me to the brink of my comfort zone. Granted, those moments led up to some of my favorite parts of the trip with the most breath-taking views. For example, in one of the first hikes of the trip, we climbed to the top of a mountain where locals have summer homes that have been passed down from generation to generation. To get there, however, you must climb a very narrow dirt path – about one foot wide – without any guard rails or path maintenance to guide you. I never felt unsafe or in danger, but it was definitely pushing my comfort zone a bit further than I would have done on my own.

On our way to a hike up the yaylas in Eastern Anatolia!

On our way to a hike up the yaylas in Eastern Anatolia!

3) History on history on history on history. 

This place is old! These lands date back literally thousands of years, and yet there are still remnants of villages and civilizations still visible today. Our tour guide was one of the most knowledgeable people I know. She had an answer to every question that was asked and never seemed to run out of information to share. Sometimes, I wished that all this information and history was presented a bit more generally or gradually; she threw so many details on us, it was hard to put all the pieces together sometimes! I truly wished that I could comprehend it all, but hopefully as I learn more about Turkish history, the pieces will fall into place.

Armenian architecture lesson

Armenian architecture lesson

This excursion made me realize that when I’m not in my comfort zone, amazing things will happen. The excursion was a surreal experience that I wouldn’t have been able to do on my own; I didn’t even know these places existed in Turkey! We’re coming up on the one-month mark of being abroad in Istanbul, Turkey, and it surpasses my understanding of how how many memories, stories, confused looks, and laughs we’ve all already shared. If this month is any indication of the semester, I think I’ll be satisfied; here’s to another three more amazing months! 

Lake Van -- Duke in Istanbul!

Lake Van — Duke in Istanbul!

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Enjoying the Chaos


They say Americans worry too much. That’s probably true. Actually, its definitely true. Especially compared to the beautifully laisse-faire state of Turkish life. If you want to see that I’ll give you two examples: Bogazici’s registration system and traffic conditions in Istanbul.

You know how you register for classes in Istanbul? You apply, you get rejected and you beg the teacher to let you. It’s enough to have some people breathing into paper bags. But you know, it all works out. You just have to go through the non-standard channels that have become tried and true.

And where do you cross the road in Istanbul? Where ever there aren’t cars. Or when there are and everyone’s stuck in a classic Istanbul traffic jam. Pedestrians filter through cars at any given red light or grid lock. No big deal.

But here’s the thing, its not just Istanbul. Even out in the rural parts of Eastern Anatolia, people just kind of do what comes natural. Whether its the continuing shepherding traditions or the warm welcome to the Americans that pop-up in your mountain home’s backyard (“cok guzel”‘s and grandma kisses a plenty), there is a warmth and peace with what ever comes that I try to live up to.

Oh yeah, also Turkey is beautiful.

PS: The Black Sea is worth it just to try Muhlama.


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Eastern Turkey Adventures


Overlooking a valley near Camlihemsin, Turkey.

Overlooking a valley near Camlihemsin, Turkey.

The first excursion of the semester to eastern Turkey began at 3 am on my birthday.  Granted, waking up at 3 am is not ideal and waking up at 3 am on my birthday would normally forebode a pretty miserable birthday.  But in this case it was incredible.  How many people can say that on their 20th birthday, they hiked up to a monastery that was built in the 4th century on the side of a mountain in a cliff 1200 meters high? Or admired the New Testament frescos of the Hagia Sophia of Trabzon?

We woke up that morning to catch a flight to Trabzon, where we boarded a bus that would become our home base for the next 9 days.  It became more familiar than the hotels we stayed at because we moved from hotel to hotel every night, but boarded that same bus as we covered over 1000 miles of eastern Turkey.  From Trabzon, we drove past the Black Sea and the borders of nearby countries, and through Van and past other cities, lakes, castles, mosques, and ruins.  We were introduced to Turkish cuisine, which includes a lot of soup, tomatoes and cucumber salad, and fish, chicken, or beef as a main dish.

My favorite moment of the trip was the third night we were there.  We stayed in a small hotel in Camlihemsin that had been renovated from an old school house and for dinner that night, we sat outside under the canopy of the mountains and full moon and ate a homemade meal prepared by the lady who lived next door.  The dinner was finished by a mouthwatering homemade baklava.  Afterwards, a neighbor came over to play an instrument that resembled a bagpipe.  The music was harsh and discordant to my unadjusted ears, which were accustomed to music from Young the Giant or Mumford, but it was foreignly beautiful.  As he played, one of the other guests, a grandma from the area, stood up and began to shuffle and dance.  She was soon joined by the lady who owned the hotel and in no time after that, all 20 of us Duke program students were up and holding hands in a circle, trying to imitate the dancing steps to the discordant bagpipe music.  It was the first real glimpse I felt I had into Turkish culture.

All in all, it was an amazing excursion with a unique view into Turkish culture away from Istanbul.  It was an experience I would never have been able to have without the Duke program because the isolated places we visited were sites I would never have been able to travel to on my own, let alone places that I would think to travel to.  Back in the states, my friends at Duke have been in school for a month now, but for me, that excursion finally marks the last of my summer and it was a great ending.  Now I am looking forward to the start of classes tomorrow and the beginning of explorations in Istanbul.

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Eastern Anatolia Suggestions


Our week long excursion began in Trabzon by the Black Sea, and ended on Lake Van in the Southeast. Throughout the week, I was struck by how geographically diverse Turkey is— we visited the coast, the mountains, the desert, and a lake the size of Connecticut. We visited Sumela Monastery in Macka, which is literally built into the side of a cliff. In Camlihemsin, we hiked through the Yaylas (summer villages) to a lake on top of a mountain. Outside of Kars we visited Ani, the medieval “City of 1,001 Churches” on the Armenian border. We ended our trip by watching sunset from Van Castle, and ancient Urartian fortress with cuneiform inscriptions along the rock walls. The excursion is diverse in every sense of the word, and future Duke students should be prepared for that. Here are my suggestions:

Pack for both religious sites and physical activity. Bring a rain jacket, bathing suit, and a headscarf. Keep in mind that the areas you will be visiting are conservative. Bring workout clothes that will cover your shoulders and legs: tank tops and shorts won’t cut it the whole way.

Bring good walking shoes. This is so important that I had to separate it from my other packing suggestions. You will spend days hiking up cliffs and through mountains, so sneakers are a must.

Bring Medicine. You’re all going to get the so-called “Turkish tummies” (you can probably guess what that means). Be prepared!

Ask questions. I generally don’t enjoy traveling with a guide, but ours was the best I’ve ever met. Sevim is extremely knowledgeable and also just a really interesting person. Ask her any question you can think of, if just to hear some of her stories.

Have no expectations, make no assumptions. The excursion was completely indescribable, and each activity was different from anything else I’ve experienced. This can get overwhelming, but just go with the flow and trust the staff. In the end, it’s all worth it.


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The one picture to rule them all


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