The Call of Turkey

Istanbul Street Scene

photo by Sharani

We sat down on a bench in the middle of a pedestrian street of shops. Rather exhausted from our whirlwind day of sightseeing in Istanbul, we fought the sleepy lure of the fast approaching dusk. We hadn’t even found the Grand Bazaar yet and knew that the journey back to our hotel on the Asian side was still a ferry ride away

Once the ferry boat deposited us across the Bosphorus, a function in our hotel meeting room punctuated by plays and other performances awaited. We were several hundred together on a chartered group tour that would eventually touch foot in several countries – a journey mostly spiritual in nature comprising Indian spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy and his students gathered from many corners of the globe.

As we sat catching a second wind, the call to Salaah (Muslim prayer) began to echo through the street amplified by the loudspeaker on the street pole directly nearby. Since my travelling companion was the one with a microphone feature on the video portion of her digital camera, I urged her to hit the video record button to capture a memory of the muezzin’s melodic call.

We first thought of this manner of capturing audio outside a Buddhist temple in Kamakura, Japan. We had just visited the Ofuna temple to the Goddess Kannon and ventured up the steps of an adjoining building to find the source of the chanting and drums that we could hear from outside. After the chanting monks motioned for us to sit in the back during their service, I felt as if my soul was soaring on the wings of the chants the monks sang accompanied by the drone of the drum. Before we departed, we sat outside the temple on a bench, like we were doing now here in Istanbul. As the sound of the chanting continued to the outdoors through the open window above us, she hit the record button on the camera – but for sound not pictures.

Just as the muezzin calls the faithful to bow in prayer, Turkey itself calls the world to receive its rich heritage and culture. In my first visit to this country, I experienced:

  • The call of the coast
  • The call of cuisine
  • The call of civilization
  • The call of church/temple/mosque
  • The call of the crossroads/carpet

In Turkey for 19 days, I spent 2 ½ days in Istanbul and the remainder on the coast of the Mediterranean in Belek and Antalya.

First Port of Call: The Call of the Coast

Upon arrival by airplane to the European section of Istanbul, we embarked instantly on the predominant mode of Istanbul transportation. Divided by the Bosphorus Strait, Istanbul straddles both Europe and Asia. We had heard that it would take a taxi an hour long ride to reach our hotel on the Asian side by driving through the reputedly congested streets of the city and over the bridge. Thus, we went straight to a ferry stop near the airport and travelled by boat with our luggage and disembarked about a mile from our hotel. In the course of a few short days, we rode ferries several times.

View from the Ferry

photo by Sharani

Invariably, every boat we saw load up and unload was teeming with passengers. Boats were everywhere in the waters as well. I live on the ocean and have visited numerous other destinations with sea ports. Never in my life did I see as many boats and ships as along the coast of Istanbul. In his book Crescent & Star : Turkey Between Two Worlds former New York Times journalist Stephen Kinzer states,

"Ferries cross it and shuttle among its villages a thousand times a day. They and the hundreds of skiffs from which fishermen ply their trade are reminders that a great city depends on this artery for its daily life. It is also the world’s busiest commercial waterway. About one hundred fifty vessels … pass through it each day."
 

This volume of water traffic adds up to 45,000 ships a year. Photos I took from the ferry as it approached the European side of Istanbul with the imposing skyline of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia include numerous boats of all shapes and sizes.

Feed the Pigeons

photo by Sharani

 

A ferry ride in Istanbul included its share of pigeons along the dock being fed bread by a man waiting to travel. Seagulls followed the boat and one time I even saw a dolphin fin crest the wave while looking out the window. Every trip featured the opportunity to buy tea in a small glass cup and some kind of bread that I didn’t recognize as being familiar.

Second Port of Call: The Call of the Cuisine

While I cannot accurately describe the bread for sale on the ferry for you, I did sample a cornucopia of culinary delights while in Turkey. I must admit I was startled to eat some of the best food I have ever tasted while I was in Turkey. The fare seemed to be a blending of the Mediterranean diet with a dash of Middle Eastern and Greek cooking. The buffet at our hotel in Belek was extraordinary. Every morning for breakfast one could break off a chunk of fresh honey from the large honeycomb. Or you could spread some rose petal jam on an infinite variety of breads and pastries – both sweet and savory.

For lunch and dinner you could choose from wonderful soft white cheeses, feta, olives, yogurt and marinated vegetable salads (lots of eggplant, tomato and red and yellow peppers). I usually ate figs and apricots every day. The citrus fruit was picked from trees right on the hotel property and one day the hotel staff motioned to my roommate that she could take one of the lemons just picked and in a carton under the tree. She found that it was the most fragrant lemon she had ever smelled. My version of Turkish cuisine is vegetarian (no meat or fish) and I can only imagine that a country situated on four seas – the Mediterranean, the Sea of Marmara, the Black Sea and the Aegean must also have extraordinarily fresh seafood as well.

 

Spices

Spices Photo by Sharani

It was only after coming home and pondering that this food matched my experience of French cuisine or bested it that I tried to find out more about the call of Turkish cuisine. It is in fact considered one of the world’s great cuisines – standing head to head with Chinese and French. It appears that two factors influenced its development into a world class status. On the one hand is geography itself. The Anatolia region of Turkey has been referred to as one of the world’s breadbaskets. The climates represented in different sections of the country are ideal for growing wheat, citrus, olives and other crops. Turkey is one of the few countries in the world that grows enough food to feed its own people with extra left for export to other nations. Situated for world trade with the East, the West and Africa, Turkey was also a key part of the Silk Road trade route, including the Spice Road, controlled by the Sultan during the Ottoman Empire.

Topkapi Palace

Topkapi Palace Photo by Sharani

The other factor in the greatness of Turkish cuisine is this culture of the Islamic Ottoman Empire. The importance of culinary excellence can be witnessed in the history of cuisine in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul – residence of the Sultan, the royal family, the harem and thousands upon thousands of residents. Clifford A. Wright, award-winning cookbook author and culinary historian, describes

"It was prescribed in Islam that one of a ruler’s charitable duties was to feed his people. Because of this responsibility elaborate organizations were set up to fulfill the requirements of feeding people. Large kitchens were built in the palaces and public feasts became important. A public feast was a privilege and a duty of the ruler. In Ottoman society the kitchen had a central importance because it was a social institution. The kitchen, on one hand, was central to the ruling classes who had to feed their huge retinues, numbering thousands of people. On the other hand, the kitchen symbolized the bonds of people with the ruler."
 

By the 1500’s, the Topkapi Palace had ten kitchens and over a thousand cooks. The cuisine that developed was exquisite in its scope and guests at a public feast at the palace would be regaled with a 300 course meal. An afternoon I spent touring the Topkapi Palace resounded in splendor on all levels. We included it in our sightseeing because the guidebooks recommend it but we ended up staying far longer than we imagined because of its magnificence.

Echoes of this grand legacy continue today and the breaking of bread and the supremacy of the kitchen still reigns supreme. Participants in the Turkish portion of the World Harmony Run (a 70+ nation hand-to-hand relay of a flaming torch for harmony originated by Sri Chinmoy) shared that the generosity of Turkish hospitality – especially the food – was unmatched by any other country they visited in Europe.

Third Port of Call: The Call of Civilization

My perspective is that of an American hailing from a nation yet in veritable infancy compared to the grand sweep of history found wherever you cast your glance in Turkey. Eventful markers on Turkey’s historical timeline are measured in thousands of years rather than the American yardstick of hundreds. Touring ancient Roman and Greek ruins such as Perge, Side and Aspendos found me pinching myself for reassurance that I hadn’t gone backwards through a time machine.

Perge Ruins Roman Bath Tile

Perge Photo by Sharani

In Perge, located on the Mediterranean coast, relatively intact ruins showed the Roman baths with sections for cold, warm and hot water. In several places, patterned mosaic tile adorned the rocks in a design that could have been mistaken for a current-day tiled home interior. The remains of the road through the center of town had ruts in the rock showing the path of the chariots along the street. One carved rock “sign” in the agora had the symbols which would have denoted a butcher. Other rocks had Greek letters or carved reliefs.

Hadrian's Gate

Hadrian's Gate Photo by Sharani

In the center of town in Antalya surrounded by modern buildings and palm trees, you can visit Hadrian’s Gate. This three arched gate was added to the walls that encircled the city when Emperor Hadrian came to visit in 130 A.D. Old and new commingle with a McDonalds restaurant built adjacent to one part of the city wall just a short walk past Hadrian’s Gate.

Fully prepared for the heady gust of history when I visited destinations such as Paris, China and Japan; the magnitude of cultural and historical heritage to be found in Turkey swept me off my feet with surprise. My schoolbook memories of the world’s great ancient civilizations have admittedly faded but I remember that they certainly didn’t focus on Turkey in our world history lessons. Once returned home, I learned that Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empire currents of world history converge impressively in this country on the cusp of two continents.

It was home to two of the seven ancient wonders of the world – the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus and the King Mausolous' Tomb in Halicarnassus (present-day Bodrum). Turkey vies with Egypt and the Fertile Crescent with evidence pointing to it as a cradle of ancient civilization.

Neolithic Painting

Neolithic Painting

In Central Turkey, a Neolithic settlement was discovered in the 1960’s. It dates from 6,200 B.C. and is said to be the oldest example in the world of a landscape painting on the walls of a Catalhoyuk house. The site is also the largest and most complex of its kind ever found by archaeologists.

Excavation on the western coast of Turkey identifies Canakkale as the ancient city of Troy where the Trojan War took place. Marc Antony and Cleopatra lived in in Tarsus, Turkey in the 1st century BC. Julius Caesar uttered his famous words, “Veni, Vidi, Vici” in 47 B.C. while in Anatolia. Alexander the Great and Greek rule was followed by the Byzantine Roman Empire and Constantinople (present-day Instanbul) was the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire which lasted for a thousand years. Nomadic peoples from Central Asia began to gain control of parts of Anatolia and the first Christian Crusade was an attempt to stop them from capturing Constantinople. Then a wave of successive invasions and battles eventually led to the Ottoman Empire by 1413 under the Sultan Mehmed. Constantinople, renamed Istanbul, became the capital of the Ottoman empire in 1453. This vast Islamic Empire lasted for 600 years. When about to be completely dismantled after World War I, it became the nation of its present size under the leadership of Ataturk.

Since I have always been fascinated by history, if I didn’t restrain myself I could go on and on. Such is the nature of Turkey’s historical legacy. And I haven’t even begun to extol the extraordinary achievements of the Islamic Ottoman Empire. In case others are not equally captivated by the history of various civilizations centered in Turkey, I will try to restrain my urge to turn this impression of Turkey into one big history lecture. Suffice it to say that Turkey offered endless possibilities to taste first-hand the remnants of these ancient worlds known mostly to the rest of the world only by reading of it in books.

Fourth Port of Call: The Call of Church/Temple/Mosque

Along with an impressive history of ancient civilizations, Turkey is also home to a diverse spiritual and religious history. I’m once again awe-struck when considering some of the ancient temples among the ruins scattered throughout Turkey. Sacred Destination Travel Guide describes ruins in Aphrodisias that progressed through various spiritual identites.

“The site of Aphrodisias has been sacred since as early as 5,800 BC, when Neolithic farmers came here to worship the Mother Goddess of fertility and crops. In Greek times, the site was dedicated to Aphrodite, the goddess of love and fertility. The site was named Aphrodisias during the 2nd century BC and the great Temple of Aphrodite was built in the 1st century AD. The cult of Aphrodite at Aphrodisias was distinctive, reflecting the goddess' ancient origins and commonalities with other Anatolian deities (such as Artemis of Ephesus) while also bringing in familiar Greco-Roman motifs that made her universal.”
 

 

Or you can imagine what the Oracle might have decreed through a high priestess at the Temple of Apollo in Didyma? This temple gained importance during the reign of Alexander the Great. Udertaking to build the largest temple in the Greek world, Didyma’s Apollo Temple would probably have become one of the seven wonders instead of the Temple of Artemis if it had been completed. Today only three of the original 122 Ionic columns remain standing. Brace yourself when I add that each column is 6 feet in diameter and 60 feet (6 stories) high. Second only to the Oracle at Delphi, the Temple of Apollo involved ceremonies in which special rites by the priestess preceded the telling of the future by the Oracle.

Turkey also played a pivotal role in the early beginnings of Christianity. Some believe that Mount Ararat in Anatolia is where Noah’s Ark landed. St. Paul was born in Tarsus, Turkey and most of his missionary work and writings were done in Anatolia. St. Peter came to Antioch (present-day Antakya) after Christ’s death and began preaching secretly in a cave. This church inside a cave is called St. Peter’s Grotto and is a modern-day place of pilgrimage for Christians. On a mountain near Ephesus, one finds the House of the Virgin, recognized as a shrine by the Vatican.

St. John brought her here to escape Roman persecution and it is believed this is where her last years were spent. St. John also died in Ephesus at a later date and his grave is also a religious shrine. St. Nicholas (the precursor to the Christian traditions centered around Santa Claus) was also born in Turkey.

With the exceptional modern distinction of being a Muslim country (98% of Turkish citizens are Muslim) that is secular and not governed by fundamentalist Islam, Turkey is also a country of rich Islamic heritage. Especially noteworthy is the shrine and tomb for Rumi, the Sufi mystic and poet who founded the Whirling Dervishes. Located in Konya, it is a site of pilgrimage and a holy city of Islam.

Blue Mosque at Sunset

Photo by Sharani Blue Mosque

One finds the most famous mosque in Turkey in the heart of Istanbul – the Blue Mosque. Built in the early 1600’s to rival the nearby Hagia Sophia (originally a Christian church), the mosque receives its name from the tens of thousands of blue tiles with floral and abstract Iznik patterns. The Blue Mosque has six minarets and Mecca had to add one more to its mosque after this occurrence because previously no other mosque but Mecca had as many.

Also very sacred to Islam, the Topkapi Palace contains numerous sacred relics and objects associated with the prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam.

Fifth Port of Call: The Call of the Carpet/Crossroads

The word crossroads is often used in relation to Turkey. As I read books and studied about the country once I returned home, it alternately mystified and eluded me. My perception is that the country is enigmatic and houses contradictions as easily as its history has encompassed diverse legacies that position it as neither Eastern or Western, but an amalgam of both. Even when in Istanbul, each side seemed to remind me respectively of Europe or Asian countries that I had previously visited. How could one city mirror both so distinctly – and on the respective corresponding side no less?

Turkey was a central part of the Silk Road trade route that linked China to Rome. The sweep of its various empires incorporated diverse cultural influences and Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs calls its relation to the Mediterranean “the oldest hub of global commerce and exchange.”

It is the only predominantly Muslim nation in the region (sharing borders on the northeast with countries such as Syria, Iraq and Iran) that switched from an Arabic script alphabet to a Latin one, among numerous other more European secular practices instituted by Kemal Ataturk when the modern nation of Turkey was in its infancy in the 1920’s.

It seems that it has adopted the daunting challenge to explore the potential for at least imagining a world that finds the bridge between continents, cultures, religions and heritages. While it has grappled with obstacles and weaknesses (what country hasn’t?), it calls to the world to envision a meeting place where the best that all have to offer can weave an heirloom carpet that demonstrates the sum is greater than the individual threads.

Five times a day devout Muslims heed the call to prayer. In five ways – the call of the coast, the call of cuisine, the call of civilization, the call of church/temple/mosque and the call of the crossroads – Turkey calls to the world’s heart. My first trip to Turkey called to my heart and its cultural and historical riches shimmer with magic. You do not have to retreat into fantasy to find a magic carpet ride of wonder. It resides for real in Turkey. Heed its call and follow the wonder.

References

Books: Eboch, Chris. Turkey. Farmington Hills, MI : Lucent/Gale Publications, 2003.

Kinzer, Stephen. Crescent & Star : Turkey Between Two Worlds. New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.

Pamuk, Orhan. Istanbul : Memories and the City. New York : Knopf, 2005.

Roden, Claudia. Arabesque : A Taste of Morocco, Turkey, and Lebanon. New York : Knopf, 2006.

Articles:

Willoughby, John. Rhapsody in Blue. Gourmet magazine Feb. 2007.

Websites Consulted:

For Cuisine:

Cookbook Author and Culinary Historian Clifford A. Wright's Site

For History, Religious Heritage, Cuisine:

All About Turkey with Tour Guide Burak Sansal

For Cuisine:

About Turkey

For Religious Heritage:

Sacred Destinations Travel Guide "an ecumenical online catalogue of more than 1,200 sacred sites, holy places, pilgrimage destinations, historical religious sites, places of worship, sacred art and religious architecture in 53 countries (and counting) around the world."

More Photos from my trip to Turkey in my Turkish Delight album.