Troglodytes, orgies and the odd Arab

Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
Trip End Jun 01, 2010

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Hotel Dogu

Flag of Turkey  , Sanliurfa,
Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Sometimes seeing is believing.

It would be the missing chapter from Alice in Wonderland, if reality did not get in the way.

Fairy chimneys do exist outside of fairy tales and Disneyland.

Rearing up from a harsh, dusty, mountainous landscape, elongated mushroomy, pointy rocks jerk eyeballs out of their comfort zone.

The towers and rambling rocks more than insinuate themselves, rather proclaiming loud and proud, we are real, and we are weird.

Just knock on the front door of one, or peer into a third floor window, if you're sceptical of the word 'weird'.

Enter Cappadocia, central Turkey, and be transfixed by sights from the Far Side.

A land populated since 6,000 BC, residents have long used these rock pillars as their homes, boring into the sides and bases, and then upwards, three or four floors hacked up sinuous, spiralled flights of stairs. Windows and balconies stare out from the middle of the long, thin steeples.

For millions of years, flood and wind erosion has scoured the valleys of soft volcanic ash, leaving the hardy cones as refuge.

The residents were true troglodytes of the 'modern' era.

The pointed edifices call up images of termite mounds, 50m termite mounds, with doors, windows and air vents positioned to protect from searing 45 deg C summer heat and freezing winters.

The village of Goreme is centre to this surreal piece of geology, and also Cappadocia's tourist hub.

Arrive on an overnight bus at dawn. Weave down into the valley through fairy chimneys and homes hacked and hewed into fantasy mountainsides, and be distracted by different coloured blobs scattered across the sky.

A squadron of hot air balloons floats gently overhead, the serenity of the soft, slow morning sun only interrupted by the rude roaring bursts of hydrogen thrusting through the burners as the pilots attempt to maintain steady altitude, or gain said.

In a word, it's whacky. Out of fruitcake land.

Yet the village of around 15,000 people has maintained a rare aloofness to the invasion of rubber-necking camera junkies.

It is an old farming community, as is most of Turkey, the so-called breadbasket of Europe and one of few countries that fulfill its own food requirements, and exports.

While guest houses abound since an explosion of visitors since the 1980's, and surely 'evil' capitalism has raised values and prices, in front of most homes is an old trap, with rubber-bound, steel-rimmed wheels.

Donkeys and horses pull them around town, weather-beaten farmers navigating them through a phalanx of scooters, mopeds and desperately out-of-place quad bikes, so beloved of the Turkish tourists who flood in on weekends.

The carts are loaded with pumpkins, watermelons, deliciously juicy apples, mountains of grapes, heading to market or delivering door to door.

In the cooling evening, old women sit in front of mountains of pumpkins, outside their front doors, gouging out the pips, themselves then dried and eaten as a local delicacy.

Notwithstanding the buzz of the motorised beasts that normally head off into the yonder, along with tour buses, in the morning to return late afternoon, Goreme is slow of pace, unhurried, unperturbed by the steady stream that pops in for two days, drops a wad of dollars, and ticks off their 'done' list.

Fires on pavements burn beneath 1m-wide pans. Heavily clad woman slowly stir dozens of apples, or thick tomato pastes for spreading on Turkish style pizzas - foot long, narrow and shallow.

The men, or at least the unemployed or retired, sit at sidewalk tea cafes, male bastions. From first warmth around 10am, little glasses of tea flow, fuelling games of draughts, cards and backgammon.

I play a game, spot the woman. In five days, I did not see one woman in one of these cafes, where I too spent much of my unemployed, semi-retired time.

Where were the female bastion coffee cafes? That was a secret I could not unlock.

The men all look hard, of scuffed leather shoe, tailored trousers, casual jackets, 5-day stubble, large rheumatic hands, steady stern eyes. Perhaps they had paid their dues.

To the casual observer, it seems as if the women take up more than their share of the slack. The cook, child rearer, trap-driver, house cleaner, cotton picker. Even milking cows is strictly in the female realm. No rough male hands on those teats.

The Zapatas burst into town. Men from over the hill. Tight leather leggings laced up above the knees, jeans, lumberjack shirts, Mexican-style waist coats, trim moustaches, Ray-Bans, driving their horses with the aplomb of old Argentinian gauchos.

Horse breeders, I hear the whisper. Foals canter behind, up and down the main street. Perhaps an acclimatisation exercise.

They ride their mounts in the same way as Turks drive their cars. Give somebody more than a  30m stretch, and hear the stirrups clang, or the accelerator pedal hit raw metal. And then hard on the rein or brake.

Getting around: I hire a 100cc automatic Peugeot scooter with my ill-gotten Indonesian motor bike license.

It's timing is so out it sounds like a tin rugby ball bouncing down a flight of stairs, and issues a steady thin stream of white smoke.

"It's a 2-stroke, it's meant to smoke," says shopkeeper Halil.

"Yeah, please give me your phone number," I mutter.

100km on, in yet another 'ancient' village, Mustaphapasa, the smoking stops. Bad news. I can't get it to smoke again, and fear running the battery down.

A friendly copper offers to raise Halil. I explain my problem, and he asks "which one is that, the yellow or black one"? As if he knew they would both break, and knew which problem each would face.

"Ok, I come. Half hour."

I presume he would be taking a short cut.

"Let's see. Maybe change spark plug."


It looks as if the plug is nearly new, with only three or four months light burnt oil on it.

In goes the new one, and Peugeot purrs.

"Chinese plugs. No good. They break inside. No more fire. Same as plug key. Five plugs and head break off."

Halil is not impressed with the high-volume low-grade machinery being slave-shopped out of the world's burgeoning eco-powerhouse.

On the way to Goreme, one has to take the obligatory stop at Aphrodisias, a Roman town named after the Greek Goddess of Love, Aphrodite.

The bewitching goddess had two sides to her, a personality of love and lust, while also capricious and flirtatious - a heady, familiar mixture that has played out many for the fool.

Blocks of granite and marble, a near perfect stadium, your old Hadrian Baths, and you've got the picture of the Roman ruin that used to be home to mass orgies in homage to Her Gloriness before Rome decided to bestow party-pooping Christianity upon itself, whence it abandoned the hedonism of old and instituted a regime many of us are all too familiar with.

I found a graveyard of pillars and columns, that have fallen over 2,000 years of earthquakes, and beautiful carvings of emperors and family in this cliffside of high-quality marble - but it seemed that any remaining sex games were by invite only, in some secret valley.

I seek more Turkish grit, away from the trodden touro-path before the road heads south to Syria, and venture east to the heart of Kurdish country.

Sanliurfa, the 'city of the prophets', 80km east of the Euphrates, inside old Mesopotamia.

Known to locals as Urfa, scriptures have Urf as the birthplace of Abraham (in Islamic Turkey, read Ibrahim, number one prophet). Job is also reputed to have been born here.

A cave at the edge of the city is revered as Ibrahim's birthplace, and is a pilgrimage site.

The only problem is that there is another town in West Iraq also known as Urf!

Local legend has it that at one point of Ibrahim's life, he spent a day laying waste to some pagan idols during the time of Assyrian king Nimrod, who took offence, and stacked Ibrahim on a funeral pyre.

But god interceded, turned the fire into water, and the burning embers into fish. Today there is an old mosque on 'the site' and a series of pools home to thousands of carp. Catch one and lose your sight, say the locals. The carp are fat and happy.

Newtown is a large area of tenament blocks.

Old town is as old as Mesopotamia. It hums and buzzes, without any of the organized out-of-control feeling of Istanbul. And without any of the cultural capital's exhorbitant prices either.

The bazaar is real, where real people buy clothes and shoes and food and kitchenware.

Street fashion patches western Turkish chic into Iraqi, Syrian and Arab garb. Headgear from bedouin to Arafat. From jeans to salvars, mens trousers with crotches below the knees.

Women are mostly fully clad, in unique, local-style silvery or tan ankle length silk/cotton coats buttoned from the neck down, or in full shador, full black cloaks that just reveal the face, or eyes.

There is an strange feeling of individual independence, among a population that has been at the wrong end of the government's stick for 50 years. A kind of live and let live.

Eyebrows might be raised at strangers, but no more contrary interaction.

It is camera fantasy land: piles of spices, all the costume, kebap dealers of all manner, a low slow sun casting exquisite shadow. But point the camera anywhere near a woman, and feel the chill.

You can click, but what's the use of a picture of an unhappy camper shying away from the lens.

I spot two women, across the road, selling huge crocheted wall hangings in a tourist zone.

I surrepticiously fire off one or two. Unconsciously they pick me out.

"Noh ffoto, noh ffoto!" I had crossed a very wide line.

Yet take a walk, and be overcome by personal kindness and hospitality.

A black pinstripe suited man beckons me in a park. With a mental warning, I wander over. Within minutes he has a bottle of water and a cup of tea in my hand. He takes me for an hour's walk through the back streets. We can barely communicate.

He rings a doorbell. Now I am with a stranger in another stranger's house.

In the courtyard sit six men on small wooden chairs.

I am offered a chair, and given tea. One speaks a smattering of English. "Why are you here?"

"To see."

"Are you hungry?"

No, I only want to eat at 7pm. I actually have an arrangement with some fellow travellers.

An almost inappropriate pendulumn clock registers 4pm

He barks out a few words. Ten minutes later a plastic bag is placed next to me.

"For you to eat when it is 7pm."

I thank him and we bid goodbye. Quite 'normal'. I am humbled by others' kindness.

I peek later: 3 flat loaves, tomatoes, zucchinis and green peppers. As biblical as the old mules carrying large, baggy blanket bags and driven through the lanes by hunched old men.

Nearby is Nemrut Dagi (Mt Nemrut), home to a majestic folly of delusional grandeur.

In 80BC, the local king of Anatolia, Mithridates, decided the only way he was going to get himself on the pantheon of the gods was to join them.

He found the kingdom's highest point, sliced away a ledge on each side of the peak, and erected a series of statues, which he referred to as the 'thrones of the gods', including Apollo, Zeus and himself.

Between each ledge he had a 100m high funery mound of stones built. Nobody yet knows if his body, or his family lies below this mound or not.

The statues aligning the side of the cliff, in sitting form, rise around 5m high, though the heads have long since tumbled, and are now arrayed at the base of the 'temples'.

Leave Sanliurfa at midnight, drive five hours, trudge up the mountain in the dark, and watch the sun rise.

Don't choose Saturday morning. It's a Turkish visitation day.

Two busloads of students from a local university arrive, tambourines and all. No silent dawn meditation.

The sun rises.

Let's play pose in front of the statues.

In that perfect golden, orange light, when the sun has not fully reached out, yet has teased up early, soft shadows, a camera's natural bedmate, young students stand in front of the statues, and cast their own shadows over them.

Twenty minutes later they are gone, and so too nearly is the magic moment.

Back on the road home, we stop for a cigarette break under a tree, next to the controversial Ataturk Dam, on the Euphrates.

The river runs into Iraq and Syria, and they fear their water being strangled.

 A police car drives past, and flashes to a halt.


Just the driver's and mine. Not the other passengers.

"Am I an Arab? What am I doing looking at the dam?" (Read: are you checking it out for some kind of attack?)

It seems the beard is almost working better than it should.

A Sanliurfa resident says Turkey has the headwaters, the control, and Iraq has the oil. Why don't they trade resources? Good question.

What happens if the dam does choke the water supply? "That's their problem," says the friendly neighbour.

Both the Bible and Koran carry warnings that when the Euphrates stops flowing, an apocalypse will follow. You would reckon that serious men of the Books might take note of all the passages, not just those that suite.

Sanliurfa is an old town, repeatedly re-occupied for over 8,000 years, fought over and bartered since before recorded time.

A good metal detector would find a treasure of coin, Greek, Roman,. Macedonian (of Alexander), Arab, Persian.

The trail lies deep below the shifting sands. One wonders just how much blood has soaked into these shifting sands of time?

Yet there is a stillness, an overall peace. Not one jot of unkindliness, hostility, violence, hazard or hassle.

Conquered, reconquered, overrun, slaughtered, oppressed for millenia, not centuries.

The question bedevils me.

How do I take this resultant calmness home?

I cannot work out whether this is a quest, or an idealist's burden to bear.

Albatross be damned! Without hope there is nothing!
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