Tuesday, 21 May 2013

The Heads of Nemrut

On my second evening in Malatya I got a call from a tour organiser asking if I wanted to go to the summit of Mt Nemrut the following day. I declined and then checked my guidebook and the net. It sounded interesting so I called him back and agreed to go.

The summit of Nemrut Dagi (2150m) is crowned with a 50m high artificial peak of crushed rock, beneath which may lie the tombs of a megolomaniac king and three of his female relatives. The mound has never been excavated so nobody knows for sure.
Around the base of the mound are statues of the king and some gods he considered to be his relatives, including Zeus, Apollo and Heracles.

The figures are all seated but have been decapitated either by earthquakes or vandalism so that now their heads lie at their feet gazing forlornly out across the Anti-Taurus mountain range.

This king, Antiochus I Epiphanes (reign 64-38 BC), had an astronomical opinion of himself. I read the following about him:

"Each month Antiochus had two festivities: his birthday which was celebrated on the 16th of each month and his coronation which was celebrated on the 10th of each month. He allocated funds for these events from properties legally bound to the site (Mt. Nemrut). He also appointed families of priests and hierodules, whose descendants were intended to continue the ritual service in perpetuity."

Eventually, he foolishly opposed the Romans in a political dispute, was promptly deposed and his kingdom was absorbed into Roman Asia.

The site was forgotten until 1881 when a German engineer, employed by the Ottomans to assess transport routes, rediscovered it.

The tour included one night in a hotel just beneath the summit. This would allow me to see both sunset and sunrise over the mountains. Sounded great.

The only other people on the tour were a French couple, who both worked for the French government dealing with asylum seekers. Hugo had previously lived for five years in Damascus and Sana'a whilst studying Arabic so the government had put him in charge of asylum seekers from The Republic of Congo. Stephanie spoke fluent Russian so had been put in charge of Sri Lankan refugees. It pleased me to know that it's not only the British government which makes mesmerisingly cretinous decisions.

We arrived at the hotel mid-afternoon and hiked up the final 600m to the summit.

The path to the summit

The artificial summit
The heads in front of their seated bodies
An eagle and Apollo, the sun god
Left to Right : King Antiochus himself and Heracles
Heracles, an eagle and a lion

 On the other side of the mound were more heads in a chaotic assembley.


The heads were great and the mound enigmatic, but the sky, having started clear, grew increasingly overcast. We eventually gave up any hope of a sunset and descended to the hotel for dinner.

During the meal Hugo told me of their travels through Georgia, an unsung giant of alcohol consumption. It seems that the whole country spends every night getting thoroughly booted on "chacha", a grape-vodka made from the leftovers of wine-making, until they are rendered incapable of anything but reeling around, pulling faces and laughing like the Damned.
I was much intrigued by his description, look out for my next blog "Simon Got Slaughtered in Georgia"

I went to sleep early, after setting my alarm for 4.15am, hoping for a glorious sunrise.

The alarm went off, I woke up, heard thunder, glimpsed flashes of lightning, groaned, rolled over and slept on till nine.

Saturday, 18 May 2013


From Cappadocia I travelled 5 hours east to the city of Malatya - the apricot producing capital of Turkey.

Straight away I fell in love with Malatya even though it's a fairly busy, commercial centre without any standout tourist attractions.

There's a small museum housed in an attractive Ottoman style house.


 Actually, the exhibits weren't nearly as interesting as the building itself.

It has some good, cheap restaurants and a whole street filled with coffee shops that sell not only great cappuccino but also world class danish pastries and ice-creams.
The best thing about the coffee shops were the waitresses, who were happy to engage me in conversation and then giggle with other waitresses about me whilst glancing over my way.

This is the only place I have experienced this kind of behaviour in Turkey and for some reason I really warmed to it...


There was a huge, vibrant street bazaar selling all types of fruit and veg - apricots were everywhere (even coated in chocolate) plus sackfuls of tomaotes, chillies, figs, walnuts, pistachios and strawberries. Great colours and smells.


The only bad thing was the weather. In the afternoon of my 2nd day the heavens opened and the rain came down in buckets.


I took this to be a freak occurence, but I was wrong. Every afternoon since then has been marred by black clouds and often torrential rain. Locals tell me to expect this to continue for at least another two weeks. Oh well...it does make for dramatic skies at sunset.

Even the cops (usually macho types best avoided in my opinion) were kind of nice!

Cute cops!      

Body Language

A quick word about Turkish body language...

I first became aware of some differences between Turkish and English gestures when I offered some "yeyla mooze" to the guy sitting next to me on a bus.

I call it "yeyla mooze" because that's how it sounded as shouted by the guy selling bunches of it in a small marketplace our bus stopped at for a tea-break on route to Malatya. It's a green stalk with whitish blobs on it. You break off a piece and strip away its outer layers then eat the succulent centre. The closest thing I know to it is rhubarb. It has a sour, tangy taste and is very popular in eastern Turkey.

So, I offered it to the guy next to me and he lifted his head slightly and tutted - it was the kind of thing I would do after reading a newspaper article about an English politician caught cheating on his taxes.

I was a little taken aback by this because until then he'd seemed nice enough.

Later, in my room I looked into Turkish body language and discovered that this gesture is not rude at all in Turkey but simply means "no". To shake your head here (English gesture for "no") means that you are confused.

Interested, I read on...

The most alarming difference I read about concerns the "OK" signal. Now, I have always been a "thumbs up" kind of guy (dating back to when The Fonz made it cool on TV's "Happy Days") which is fortunate because making a circle by touching index finger to thumb in Turkey signifies homosexuality.

However, since reading about this I have found myself unconsciously doing it instead of the thumbs up. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing...

Another dismaying cultural difference concerns chin stroking - a gesture I'm personally a big fan of. I stroke my chin almost every chance I get. I do it when considering a menu written in Turkish, I do it when I need a shave and I do it even more just after a shave.

Now I discover that chin stroking whilst looking at a woman is a signal of sexual intent.

God help me if I ever OK something on a Turkish menu after a long period of pontification....

This gesture has the same meaning...

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Ihlara Valley

Left Konya and headed to Cappadocia - again. Another full day on the buses.

This time I was aiming for a small village called Ihlara - a tricky place to reach on public transport.

I arrived just before sunset.

Sunset in Ihlara
Next morning I walked 2km down to the entrance of the valley.

Ihlara Valley is a 7km canyon cut into the dry Cappadocian wilderness by the Melendiz River. The floor of the gorge is lush and verdant. There are lots of rockcut Byzantine churches hidden in the vertical valley walls. It was a favourite place for early Christians to hide from Roman persecution.

To get to the valley floor I walked down the 360 steps of this staircase.

Entrance Staircase
The valley floor was ablaze with flowers and trees, the river was freezing, fast and bright. It was a wonderland. I expected to be met by Munchkins and see Winged Monkeys swoop by.

The valley was free of tour parties. I did a little lurking outside the churches, but I didn't really have to...

Non-essential lurking location

Some nice frescoes...

But the main pleasure here was the natural beauty of the valley rather than the religious art.

All in all I lurked outside 7-8 fine churches - this one had our old friend St George battling a three-headed serpent.

There were some farms in the valley too.

Finally, the canyon opened out and I passed some more of Cappadocia's famous fairy chimneys

It took 7 hours to get to Selime at the other end of the valley. A great day's walking though my neck was quite stiff by the end as I had been carrying my full pack all day.

Probably the best day's walk so far, and the most beautiful valley I've ever visited. Strongly recommended to anyone who visits Cappadocia.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

A Good Turn

"Come, come again, whoever you are, come!
Heathen, fire worshipper or idolatrous, come!
Come even if you broke your penitence a hundred times,
Ours is the portal of hope, come as you are."
'Mesnevi' - Mevlana

Mevlana Celaleddin-i Rumi

So, on Saturday I returned to Konya to see a 'sema' - a 'whirling dervish' ceremony.

A dervish is a Sufi Muslim who uses acute poverty and abstinence together with meditation as a path to knowing God. In this he is similar to the Hindu sadhus of India and to certain types of Christian monks (Franciscans or Dominicans, for example).

Mevlana Celaleddin-i Rumi was a celebrated 13th Century Islamic scholar who was born in Afghanistan but fled the marauding Mongols and finished his life in Konya.

Whilst there he was much influenced by a dervish known as Tebrizi. Incredibly, it seems that Tebrizi was murdered by students of Mevlana who were jealous of his special place in Mevlana's heart.

After Tebrizi's death a deeply shocked and saddened Mevlana withdrew from the world to meditate and write his poetic masterpiece on love and tolerance, "Mesnevi".

Later, legend has it that Mevlana was walking in the marketplace when he heard the rhythmic beating and chanting of gold workers. He was so transported by this he held out his arms and started to twirl around in ecstasy.

Thus, the whirling dervish was born.

The setting for the performance was a brand new cultural centre specially built to purpose. It reminded me a little of the sumo wrestling arena (Ryoguko Kokugikan) in Tokyo, with its seating area surrounding a sacred circle. There was no admission (a first in Turkey for me!) and the place was soon packed out.

I had to laugh when this guy sat directly in front of me.

Get in! Even Sufi mystics support The Reds!

The performance lasted 90 minutes and started with a 15 minute wailing session that immediately tested the crowd's patience.

Excerpt of Intro Wail

There then followed a sermon in Turkish that seemed to go on forever, although my watch told me it only lasted 20 minutes. The crowd was definitely getting restless by this point.

After that 25 dervishes entered the arena and sat around the edge of the circle on goatskins. The crowd perked up and thousands of photos were taken.

The dervish clothing is interesting. Their idiosyncratic hats symbolise gravestones, their black cloaks represent the darkness of a tomb and their white whirling undergarments represent shrouds. The death represented is an "ego death" rather than a physical one.

Their appearance occasioned some slow, hypnotic music, some drumming and more wailing. The crowd sagged and lost interest again.

Next, 9 of the 25 dervishes got up and slowly walked in a circle for a while, greeting each other as they passed a certain important place in the arena. The other 16 stayed on their goatskins looking on. This led me to fruitless speculation on the importance of perfect squares to dervishes...

Dervishes circle and greet each other

This culminated in all of them casting off their black cloaks & being symbolically reborn in union with God.

Finally, they queued up and as they passed that important point in the arena they commenced to whirl.

The whirling surprised me. I had imagined it to be a form of synchronised dance, but it was nothing like that.

The only rules seem to be that the whirling must be anti-clockwise, must be centred around the heart and the right hand should be palm up towards heaven and the left should be palm down towards earth.

The rest is up to the dervish and how he feels at the time. Some whirled quickly, some slowly, Some moved across the floor a lot, others remained almost stationary.

And they're off...

After 15 minutes of whirling (during which time nobody fell over or careened wildly into a neighbour) they took a 5 minute break, and then they were off again.

All in all there were three whirling sessions under different coloured lights. It was all strangely mesmeric as the whirlers looked like flower petals fluttering down from trees blown on their individual breezes...

Human blossoms blown on the wind

The crowd went wild for about 2 minutes then got bored and started to leave in droves. I couldn't believe it - by the end of the first whirling session about 80% of the audience had gone home! It was disrespect on a truly massive scale and unlike anything I've ever witnessed before. I was really embarassed and I wasn't even one of the ones leaving.

I'll leave you with a last bit of whirling as the audience heads for the exits as if the hall has suddenly caught fire...

Can anybody smell smoke?

It may not surprise you to know that the United fan (not me, the other one) was the first out the door....

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Trog City

Last day in Cappadocia before I return to Konya.

I've read about underground cities populated by troglodyte Christians hiding from marauding Arabs. In Cappadocia there are about 40 of these hidden cities.

I choose to visit Derinkuyu, which had a population of 10,000 people, and was excavated on seven levels and even included stables. The chimneys and air-shafts were cunningly disguised as wells and apparently the porous rock would absorb any telltales signs of smoke.

It took me 2 hours and three buses to get there but it was worth it. Unfortunately I didn't want to use a flash when taking pictures and so not many of my shots are worth publishing. Anyway, here's some that will give you some idea of how claustrophobic things can get when you're in a tiny tunnel seven floors underground in earthquake country.

Two trogs approaching

The Stables
Finally daylight again

'Church Lurking' in Goreme

Next day I went to Goreme to visit its Open Air Museum. This is another of the "must see" attractions like Ephesus and Pamukkale. And like those places it too suffers from too many coach parties and tour groups.

The minibus dropped me in the centre of the village, so I had a 2km walk to the park entrance. I passed many, many shops.

"Carpet, sir, beautiful carpet."
"Ah, not for me"
"Excuse me, sir. Very beautiful."
"Yes, it is. But big. Too big for me to carry."
"No problem, sir. I can mail it to you!"
"Ah, but, you see, I don't have an address...". Touche!
Big smile, hands in the air. "Ah that's very good, sir. Very, very good!"

Cappadocia - "Land of the Beautiful Horses"
Once inside the museum the trick was to hit places of interest when there was a lull in visitors.

So, I lurk outside a church until I think the tour group inside has seen enough and is about to emerge then burst in camera blazing before the next group arrives ("Incoming!!!") to spoil the shots.

I'm currently working on something I'm tentatively calling "The Quantum Theory of Sightseeing", but it's still in its early stages.

(And by the way, lurking outside churches wherever they may be is thrilling, spiritually uplifting and hopelessly addictive - I recommend it, wholeheartedly)

Fine lurking location

"Vandalised Frescoes" are now number two in my "Top Three Unlikely Things I Like About Turkey" list ahead of "Surprisingly Still Standing Columns" and just behind "Surreally Damaged Statues".

Here are some of the results that can be achieved be the effective employment of 'church lurking'...