Impressive. Extraordinary. Kebabs.
I am going to attempt to depict my Duke in Istanbul week-long excursion as briefly as possible, but know that 1000 words cannot speak for the pictures I included in my Photo Gallery Section, which in themselves cannot even reflect the full beauty of what I saw.
However, our trip did not begin as seamlessly. The morning we left, Istanbul was hit with a massive snowstorm. Our 6 am flight was indefinitely delayed, and we did not end up leaving until 8 pm that night. In the process of being trapped in the Domestic Terminal of Ataturk Airport, the group used the extra time to catch up on much needed sleep and practice Turkish. Through eating in each of the terminal’s four cafes and falling asleep in nearly every corner of the airport, the group came together, in what I was determined was a grandiose ploy by the program to initiate bonding.
şanliurfa and Harran
We finally arrived in Sanliurfa, a small city 20 km from the Syrian Border (a region most people at home warned me about visiting considering the current Revolution raging on). We were met by our two tour guides, husband and wife Fuat and Sevim. Simply put, we could not have been more lucky to have them guiding us the entire way.
We slept at the first of our five-star hotels, The El Ruha, modeled after an old Urfa Palace. The next day, we made up for lost time and immediately traveled to Harran, a city first inhabited in the Early Bronze Age (~300 BC).
The city was the site of the Grand Mosque of Harran, or the University of Harran, which was once the largest mosque in the world and the center of academia in the Islamic World.
The city is also famous for the Palace of Harran and is currently famous for its beehive houses, both of which we made sure to visit.
We made our way back to Sanliurfa, where we stopped in the Sanliurfa Museum, which houses relics and artifacts that date back ~2000 years. We then visited the Sanliurfa Mosque Complex, which surrounds Abraham’s cave (where Abraham is believed to have been born) and the Pool of Sacred Fish. After walking around the Sanliurfa Bazaar, we made our way back to the bus for the 2 hour trip over the Euphrates River to Gaziantep.
Gaziantep is known as one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, dating back to the Hittites in the 18th century BC. Today, the population remains stable at 1.3 million, and is known as the Pistachio center of Turkey (making it subsequently famous for one of my favorite foods of all time, baklava). After going to a small, local bar that night, we slept in the swanky Hotel Tugcan. We woke up the next morning and visited the one place we traveled to Gaziantep to see, the Zeugma Mozaik Muzesi, which houses the largest Mosaic Collection in the world. The mosaics date back to the Greek city of Zeugma, founded under King Seleucus in 300 BC. As one of the three largest cities in the Greek Empire during its heyday in the third and fourth centuries, most Zeugma houses included elaborate pools and courtyards, most of which displayed mosaics as a centerpiece and sign of wealth. The city was eventually abandoned, and the mosaics were not discovered for centuries later.
The most impressive piece in the collection was named “Gypsy Girl,” and despite the large portion of the mosaic missing, it has caught the attention of art historians around the world.
We then drove for three hours to the city of Antakya (formerly known as Antioch). The city, founded in the 4th Century BC, was once the cradle of gentile Christianity, and the place where Christians assumed their name. Muslims, Jews, Catholics and Orthodox Christians have lived harmoniously in this city for over 2000 years, and continue to do so today.
The city prides itself on religious tolerance and cross-cultural understanding. Naturally, the trip primarily consisted of trips to some of the most important religious sites in the region, and in the world.
These included visiting the oldest Orthodox Church in the world,the last remaining synagogue in Antakya, one of the
oldest Catholic Churches in Turkey,and a prominent mosque in the region.
We additionally went to St. Peter’s Grotto, a cave overlooking the city, considered to be the first church after it was used as the site of Peter’s first sermons on Christianity.
The trip was organized by a local college-student, Jean-Pierre, who not only gave us great insight into daily life in one of the most tolerant cities on earth, but also invited us into his home, where his mother, sister and father cooked us one of the most delicious meals I have had in months. In the late afternoon, we traveled to the Daphne Mosaic Museum, with similar collections to that in the Zeugma but from a different city, and then to the Catholic Church to witness a traditional mass. I had never attended a Christian service before, and while the prayers were read in the Turkish, the compassion of the congregation was not hard to grasp.
The evening concluded with me and a few other DII students, a few bottles of wine back at the hotel, and Jean-Pierre’s company. From the religious site-seeing to shooting the breeze with Jean-Pierre to to watching woman in hijabs walk side-by-side with women in short skirts and designer heels, the mixing of cultures, values and identities was everywhere, and I think everyone’s perception of tolerance and harmony expanded significantly.
The excursion concluded with a two night, three day trip to the region of Cappadocia, located primarily within the Nevşihir Province east of Ankara. The region is known for its geological beauty, rock formations, and ancient underground civilizations. After driving six hours from Antakya, we visited the Eski Gümüşler Cave Monestary, no longer in use, but was once a hiding spot for Christians to worship during the Crusades. We then traveled to the Kaymakli Underground Civilization, where, for centuries, Turkish Christians constructed and lived in an entire city that spanned six different levels under the earth’s surface. During our time in Cappadocia, we stayed in the Hotel Alfina, situated in the side of a mountain, in which every room was an individual cave. Keep in mind, the hotel was still 4-stars, but the experience was off the charts.
The next morning, we woke up before the morning call to prayer (unheard of for a group of 19 college students) for the experience of a lifetime.
We had the privilege of hot air ballooning above the valleys and rock formations of Cappadocia.
The experience provided us with views that only pictures can describe. I can confidently say it was truly one of the most extraordinary experiences I have experienced, and I only hope that everyone has the chance to see this place from the sky themselves.
From there, we visited the world famous fairy chimneys,
rock formations protruding from the ground which people have inhabited for centuries. Today, Cappadocia’s fairy chimneys are a world heritage site, which again, only pictures can fully describe. We then hiked through the Meskinder Valley. Despite the mud, ice and snow on the ground (and the numerous falls and people stuck in caves) it was a rewarding experience with sights that necessitate getting down and dirty to see.
That night, we witnessed the famous Dervish ceremony, commonly known as the Whirling Dervishes. The small sect of Sufi Islam spins in circles to live guitar, drums and chanting for an hour for meditation and becoming one with the constantly revolving universe. The men in long white robes not only provide viewers with a spectacle, but also hope their performance helps their practice spread to audiences around the world. While the ceremony was extremely relaxing to watch, and the whirl of twirling white dresses nearly put everyone into a trance, it was an experience one could not gain anywhere else.
As it was Valentines Day, we ended our day trip with a tantalizing meal at our tour guide Sevim’s friends restaurant, Ziggys, which masterfully incorporated a large variety of spices and flavors into their fresh, local, and traditional Cappadocian cuisine. The array of vegetarian options that we enjoyed at Ziggys, as well as most of the other restaurants during the last few days, was a great change from the kebabs we ate for literally every meal during our first few days in Istanbul.
The last day consisted of visiting a Carpet weaving shop and a ceramics studio in the cities of Mustafapasa, Gureme, and Avanos, as well as eating at a small hole-in-the-wall restaurant run by six of the cutest, shortest 70 year old women one would ever meet. Their mante (or mini-centimeter-sized raviolis cooked in a yogurt and mint sauce), dolma (stuffed grape leaves and peppers), boreks (cheese and potato filled pastries), and corba (lentil soup) was unmatched at any of the fancy restaurants we dined at throughout our journey. The flight back to Istanbul was smooth, and we were all surprised at how excited we were to arrive back on Campus. With an increasing grasp of the language, as well as an increasing awareness of Turkish culture, lifestyle, and mentality, I am finally becoming more and more comfortable in my new home.