Monday, May 1, 2017

May Day: a holiday, cuisine, elections, proverbs, and homage to the late John Freely

           Today is Monday, May 1st, a national holiday in Turkey.  It’s pleasantly warm here in Ankara, but cloudy and rather muggy, and indeed the predicted thunderstorm has just burst forth.  For my university, this is the first break since classes began last February 6.  I felt a huge relief.  A three-day weekend, at last!  My fellow staff members, not to mention the students, surely feel the same.  

            I profited from the extra time by making a nice dinner yesterday evening.  Included was “siyez bulguru,” which I was preparing for the first time.  “Siyez bulguru” is “einkorn,” a very old form of domesticated wheat, dating even back to the Neolithic period thousands of years ago.  I bought some in Kastamonu, a city four hours by car north of Ankara, during a trip last November.  I was looking for wild mushrooms, a local delicacy, but a shopkeeper told me that because the autumn had been dry, mushrooms were scarce.  Would I not like to try this other local specialty?  I followed the recipe on the sack.  As for regular bulgur, you sauté an onion in butter and vegetable oil, add some tomato paste, water / bouillon, salt, red pepper, and the dark red-brown siyez grains, cook the mixture for 15-20 minutes until the water is absorbed, and then let the grains sit for 15 minutes.  Delicious: a chewy texture, but with a very nice flavor.  For an archaeologist, the chance to eat this grain which you usually only read about in textbooks was very exciting. 

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It has been quite a year for elections.  Brexit, Trump vs. Clinton, the Dutch elections in March, the referendum here in Turkey on April 16, and now the French elections (Round One over; Round Two this coming weekend).  It’s emotionally draining, even if you don’t have the right to vote in a particular country and are watching from over the fence.  If your side loses, it can be a shock.  Here in Turkey, the result of the referendum on proposed changes to the constitution was close: 51.4% for, 48.6% against.  The “no” position did very well, considering the restrictions its proponents encountered when they tried to explain their views.  Yes” took the conservative, pious, provincial heartland of the country, whereas “No” won in the biggest cities (Istanbul, Ankara, and, by a big margin, Izmir), the Mediterranean and Aegean coastal areas, Thrace, and in the southeast.  The Çankaya district in which I live, Ankara province’s largest with over 600,000 voters, went 78% “no.” 

The country is divided – but then so are the UK (with Brexit) and the US (with Trump) and, so it seems, France.  Reaching out to all, to losers as well as winners for national unity, seems not to be in the air these days.  It’s a winner-takes-all mentality.  Here, we are still living under Emergency Rule (recently renewed for another three months).  Yesterday, a new round of purges was announced: nearly 4,000 civil servants, including 400+ academics, were fired. That makes some 140,000 dismissed from state and private jobs since the attempted coup last July.  In addition, Wikipedia was blocked, because of (I am reading now in a report in today's “Hürriyet Daily News”) “two English language pages which claimed that Turkey channeled support to jihadists in Syria.”  The Turkish government has requested Wikipedia to remove these pages; until this is done, Wikipedia will remain blocked, even the Turkish-language version.  Wikipedia has been a godsend for teachers and students in particular.  How will we live without it?

One benefit from the referendum was a reacquaintance with the vast and colorful world of Turkish proverbs and sayings.  After complaints of irregularities in the referendum and cries for a recount, the president, refusing all protests, used the expression, “Atı alan Üsküdar’a geçti.” Literally “The one who took/stole the horse has already passed Üsküdar,” this means: “It is far too late now (to rectify it).”  This expression was new to me, but two Turkish friends with whom I was playing bridge the other day confirmed this was widely known. 

What other Turkish expressions use “at” (“horse”), I wondered?  I checked my Redhouse Turkish-English dictionary.  Lots, it turns out.  At random, I plucked out two, to test on my friends:

Atın bahtsızı arabaya düşer.”  Ah, yes, they liked that.  Lit: It is an unlucky horse that has to pull a wagon.  Meaning: Some people do not get work suitable to their talents.

And one more: “Ata nal çakıldığını görmüş, kurbağa ayaklarını uzatmış.”  Lit: A frog saw them shoeing a horse and he stuck out his feet.   Meaning: He/She wants things he/she has no right to expect.  My friends didn’t know this one, but they burst out laughing, enjoying it.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I was sad to read of the recent death of John Freely, on April 20.  Freely (1926-2017) was a professor of Physics at Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University (aka Bosphorus University, formerly Robert College) and a prolific author of books on travel and history.  [Sadly, his biography on Wikipedia is blocked today in Turkey: “Hmm, we can’t reach this page.”]  I must have met him, at least in passing, although I don’t have a precise memory of having done so.  Nonetheless, he was a legend among Americans living in Turkey, for his long experience here and his love for the country, so I feel I knew him well.  When Marie-Henriette and I first spent a year in Istanbul, in 1974-75, Strolling through Istanbul, the guidebook he wrote together with Hilary Sumner-Boyd (orig. 1972, revised 2010), was our essential companion as we explored the old parts of the city.  I have just taken it off the shelf, and am leafing through it now.  What pleasure it gives!  The warm, friendly language; the level of detail; the privilege and joy of penetrating the secrets of this great city . . .  it’s still a truly marvelous book. 

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Extended break -- coming to an end?

I see with a shock that my last posting dates to August ... 2016.  An extended break, a hibernation longer than a bear would undertake in winter.  The result of priority given to other activities, many of them obligations (such as teaching)?  More likely, I just ran out of steam.

I now feel some stirrings.  Time to wake up, open the eyes, look around, watch, see; time to stretch and move.  Time to write again. 

It's spring, this first Sunday in April.  Spring has arrived early in Ankara this year, a surprise, considering how cold and snowy December and early January were.  Today the weather is glorious: sunny, not a cloud in the sky, a crystal clear view over the city to the mountains beyond, no haze whatsoever from dust or air pollution.  Temperature: a delightful 18 C / 65 F. 

Also encouraging: things accomplished recently, several at long last. I paid overdue car taxes at the tax office in Ulus.  No line, and a warm smile from the man behind the counter.  At the Kızılay metro station (now named the 15 Temmuz Kızılay Milli İrade İstasyonu / the "July 15th Kızılay National Will Station" -- honoring successful resistance to the attempted coup d'état of last July), I bought (for 5 TL / approx. US $1.50) my free pass for public transportation (buses and subways), a privilege Ankara offers its senior citizens.  My card, with photo, says in big letters: 65 YAŞ ("age 65").  A brutally frank reminder of passing years, but for free transportation, who's to complain?  And our ice box, which stopped cooling, is now repaired.  We have retrieved our frozen foods from a refrigerator in a guest apartment two floors down, and brought in everything else that we had temporarily stored on our balcony (nature's own refrigerator, at least in this season).

I have received my voter's card for the upcoming referendum on April 16, in which Turkish citizens will be asked to vote "Evet" ("Yes") or "Hayır" ("No") for changes to the constitution that strengthen substantially the powers of the president.  The push for Yes (the position of the president and of the ruling party) is seen in countless billboards across the city.  On my way to the Ulus tax office, I stopped counting at 30.  As for No, I saw nothing on my way to Ulus, but later, crossing the city, I noted one small bus parked boldly in the center of Kızılay, with a big Hayır ("No") on its side, and one banner hung between trees in Kuğulu Park, with the picture of a young girl and the slogan -- if I remember correctly -- "Geleceği için" ("For her future").  The publicity is definitely lopsided.  Does this mean a giant win for Yes on April 16?  Who knows?  We'll see.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Larnaca to Limassol: Trip to Cyprus, part 2

        To see as many archaeological sites as possible, our aim for the five days before our return to Nicosia, we had to rent a car.  Driving in Cyprus is on the left, British-style.  Cheaper rates are given for renting a car with manual transmission rather than automatic.  Could I manage a stick shift?  My last foray into this was twenty years ago, during a trip to North Cyprus.  I survived then, so why not now?   Changing gears, if learned when young, is a skill that stays with you forever, like riding a bike.  Whether the gears are on the right or left of the driver’s seat matters little, and fortunately, whichever side, first gear is always upper left, second gear lower left, etc.  

The Lion of Venice lands in Larnaca

        We were soon on our way to Larnaca on an excellent highway, driving through an arid landscape studded with conical hilltops.  Larnaca is a good-sized city on the seacoast. 

The beach, extensive and well-tended, is lined by a strip of beach-style touristic hotels.   
 KFC and TGI Fridays along the beach at Larnaca
As soon as you penetrate the streets behind the waterfront, though, you leave the generic and enter a regular Cypriot town.  

At Metro, a large supermarket, I was happy, I must admit, to find two British staples, both favorites of mine: Marmite (a brown, yeast-flavored spread) and bitter orange marmalade (this last in both Cypriot and British brands), virtually impossible to buy in Ankara. Whether they result from the years of British control of the island (1878-1960) or a large number of British tourists and residents, I can’t say. 

Church of St. Lazarus (right)

        Across from our hotel was a handsome Orthodox church dedicated to Saint Lazarus – the very same Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead (Gospel of John).  According to Orthodox tradition, Lazarus left Palestine for Larnaca (= ancient Citium), became its first bishop, and ended his days here.  Signage is not only in Greek and English but also in Russian, reflecting the increased number of Russians now visiting Cyprus or even living there.   

In the outer precinct is a small English cemetery with ornate tombs for members of the English business community in the early nineteenth century.   

Nearby, on the seashore, is a fortress originally built medieval times. The British used it as a prison.  It’s now a museum.  

        Our main interest, though, was to see remains of the ancient city. Citium, or Kition, goes back to the Bronze Age. With French archaeologist Annie Caubet, we visited two main excavation sectors, Kathari (with temples to Astarte, from the Phoenician period) 

 Kathari: large ashlar blocks that surround the temple precinct
and Bamboula (with dry docks for ships, a very unusual find, dating from the Persian period). 

We also visited the local archaeological museum, at least the wing that was open, devoted mostly to ceramics of the Bronze and Iron Ages, and the Pierides Foundation, a private museum in a restored house of the early nineteenth century, with a fine collection of antiquities and early modern maps of the island. 
 Early 19th century house 
(the Pierides Foundation occupies a similar building) 
        After we left Larnaca, we headed for Hala Sultan Tekke, a mosque-mausoleum complex in a garden setting with palm trees on the edge of a large salt lake.   

Hala Sultan (as she is called in Turkish) was the foster mother of the Prophet Muhammad and, according to tradition, she is buried here. This mausoleum is the most important Muslim shrine on the island. A busload of tourists, or perhaps pilgrims, was cheerfully preparing a lunch in one of the common rooms available for visitors.
Near the tekke is a Late Bronze Age town, excavated since the 1970s by Swedish teams. A notice of the spectacular discovery this summer of a rich tomb has recently appeared in “Haaretz”:
        We didn’t find the site of current archaeological work, but did see some ancient wall fragments protected below an outlying building of the mausoleum complex.
        After a short stop at Kiti to see an early Byzantine apse mosaic, we drove to Khirokitia, a Neolithic settlement, seventh millennium BC, well-known for its round houses, made of stone, built on a steep slope.  

 But first, we needed lunch.  We missed the restaurant recommended by Annie Caubet, having arrived by a minor road from Kiti, not the main highway, and so ended in a bakery eating oversized rolls, one stuffed with pumpkin and raisins, the other with a bit of halloumi (hellim, in Turkish), a salty, rubbery white cheese beloved by both Greek and Turkish Cypriots.         To drink, I picked airani, because it’s the same word as Turkish ayran, a diluted yogurt drink, slightly salty, of which I am very fond. This airani turned out to be sour sheep’s milk with lots of mint, not at all like the Turkish ayran.  I burped unpleasantly for several hours after.
        Our last visit of the day was Amathus, just east of Limassol. Phoenicians were there in the Iron Age, which is the main reason I wanted to see it. Moreover, Richard the Lionheart, king of England, passed through in 1191. He defeated the Byzantines to take possession of the island (soon passed on to Guy de Lusignan, a French crusader whose family would rule Cyprus for the next 300 years), and either in Amathus or nearby Limassol he married Berengaria of Navarre, whose family’s kingdom, Navarre, was adjacent to his own territory of Aquitaine.
We identified the location of this ancient city and obtained some idea of its topography, but the ruins of Amathus were a disappointment.  Stone foundations of Hellenistic and especially Roman imperial houses and other buildings spread monotonously across the lower hillside with few concessions for visitors: no paths indicated through the ruins and few signs to explain what we were looking at. 

The harbor was not at all evident, but coastlines do change over the centuries.  Above, a prominent hill was surely the location of the Temple of Aphrodite, the city’s most important cult, but no information about this hilltop or how to get there was posted
        We returned to the highway and drove on to Limassol (aka Lemesos, the Greek name used today) to our very attractive hotel, Nikis House, in an outlying district on the slopes above the city proper, with the sea visible in the distance. The owner had lived here as a young girl. The family kept the house after they moved downtown, and now it has been refurbished as a quiet, attractive guest house. 

The room was equipped with a stove and refrigerator, so, although the guest house did not offer breakfast, with a short walk to a local bakery and market, we were ready with instant coffee, milk, and a tahin böreği (Turkish for a large sweet roll with tahini and sugar) for the next morning.

(to be continued)

Friday, July 8, 2016

Brexit, Trentry, and Cyprus (Part 1: Nicosia)

        So many things have happened recently, it’s hard to keep your compass steady. The Brexit vote. Relations between Turkey and Israel re-established, relations with Russia reset. The Istanbul airport blasts, followed by murderous attacks in Dhaka, Baghdad, and Saudi Arabia. And now it’s the Ramazan Bayramı, the holiday at the end of Ramadan.  Crowds have headed for the seashore, leaving Ankara calm and quiet.
        The day after the British voted, I was in a taxi heading into the city for a medical check-up.  The radio was on top volume, with news about the vote.
        “The English are going to leave the EU, can you believe it?” shouted the heavy-set driver. I had trouble understanding him – he wasn’t articulating clearly like a language teacher, but I got the gist. I wondered what he was thinking. Turkey has been trying to enter the EU for decades, continually blocked, and here was a major country in the EU voting to get out.

        “We should never join the EU,” he continued. “I’ve been to Switzerland and I’ve been to Dortmund.  Six times!  At 7 pm the place shuts down. People there, their life is work. Turks coming from Germany are astonished to see Kızılay alive in the evening! Besides, the climate is rainy and cloudy. Here we have sun!”
        I agreed.  Turkey doesn’t need to enter the EU.  On the other hand, EU-type reforms would be welcome, especially for human rights.  Now the conversation risked getting complicated as well as delicate, depending on the political leanings of the driver, and I didn’t think my vocabulary and syntax would rise to the occasion (and I didn’t want to bellow out my answers), so I let it pass.  In any case, I was soon at my stop.

        I had been thinking about the futility of “Trentry” (= Turkish entry into the EU) a few weeks before, during a trip to Cyprus. The Republic of Cyprus has been a major opponent of Trentry, even blocking the opening of “chapters” that would lead to EU-style reforms. In 1974, Turkey invaded Cyprus in order to protect Turkish Cypriots following a pro-Enosis (union with Greece) coup d’etat engineered by the dictatorship then ruling Greece.  Ever since, attempts to reunify the island have failed, and the island remains divided between the Turkish north (the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of North Cyprus) and the Greek south (the Republic of Cyprus).  Greek Cypriots, resenting the Turkish presence (military and other), claim the north of their country is illegally occupied. The resentment is mutual: Turkey does not recognize the Republic of Cyprus as the legitimate government of all Cypriots.  Despite this impasse, the EU allowed the Republic of Cyprus to join in 2004.  A foolish decision: incentives for compromise were reduced, and the north remains internationally marginalized (even though Turkish Cypriots voted 65% in favor of the 2004 Annan Plan for reunification). 
Despite the “de iure” differences, in daily life relations between the two sectors have softened somewhat.  Marie-Henriette and I were traveling to south Cyprus to visit archaeological sites and museums.  I had been once before, in 1981, M-H never.  For Ankariots, getting to Cyprus is easy: a 50-minute plane ride to the Ercan Airport on the Turkish side of the island.  For almost 30 years, that was it.  Crossing to the Greek side, the south, was impossible.  Indeed, arriving in the north was considered illegal entry onto the island.  You would have to travel from Ankara to Istanbul to Athens to Larnaca, to arrive legally in the south. Today, crossing in Nicosia is accepted, and easy – at least if you are Cypriot (Turkish or Greek) or have a passport other than Turkish (Turkish passport holders must obtain a visa at the Cypriot Embassy in Athens, a cumbersome process).
        The central Cypriot plain in late May looked bone-dry, a contrast with Ankara, green after spring rainfall. It was sunny, dry,  and hot, but nothing in comparison with temperatures in August, I would be told.  Because the airport bus would not be leaving for Lefkoşe (Nicosia) for another hour, information extracted with the greatest difficulty from an utterly bored young woman working for the bus company, we took a taxi to the center of the city: 30 minutes, 60 TL. Then a short distance by foot on a pedestrian-only street, first to the Turkish Cypriot crossing point, then on to the Greek Cypriot check point, and there we were, in the European Union, on Ledra Street in south Nicosia. 
 Ledra Street

We walked to our hotel, not far away.  I took a nap. After a coffee, we set out to locate the Cyprus Museum, our top destination. Although the museum had closed for the day, we intended to visit first thing in the morning.  It was close by, but not easy to find. The old city of Nicosia, south and north, is still enclosed in fortifications built by the Venetians in 1567. They form a star-shaped circle, studded with 11 bastions.   

I remember flying over the city in the summer of 1969, en route from Beirut to Istanbul, amazed at the sight of these fortifications.  However imposing they may appear, they proved ineffective when put to the test.  The Ottomans invaded the island in 1570, and captured Nicosia after a 40-day siege. 
 Dogs and dog lovers by the city walls
We walked outside the walls, and after a wrong turn or two we eventually found the museum. On our return to the hotel, we walked by a Roman Catholic church (of 1902; not an architectural masterpiece) and the Maronite Cathedral, next to a Lebanese coffee house with older men playing cards.
        We then embarked on a touristic walk across the old city, a route found in a guidebook. Nicosia within the Venetian walls is a curious mix of attractively restored older buildings, generic modern, and derelict. 

House of the Dragoman Hadjigeorgakis Kornesios
(early 19th century)

The Leventis Municipal Museum, to take one example, occupies a restored late 19th-century mansion. This museum presents the history of Nicosia from earliest times to the present, with outstanding displays. There is no museum like this in either Ankara or Istanbul – a big gap that needs filling.  Anastasios Leventis (1902-1978), who established the foundation that supports this museum, was a Cypriot businessman who made a fortune in Ghana and Nigeria.  He might be surprised at the ethnic diversity of today’s Nicosia. 

In addition to Filipinos seen in the Catholic church, we passed by Sri Lankan markets and Arab (Syrian, Egyptian) shops, including a barbershop. 

        Further along, we reached the large Omeriye Mosque, originally a Catholic church, converted during Ottoman times. Beyond lies the Archbishop’s Palace, a grandiose building in Neo-Byzantine style constructed in 1956-60. 
 Side entrance, Archbishop's Palace
The first president of the Republic of Cyprus was, in fact, an archbishop, Makarios III, and a large statue of him stands in the front garden.
        Across the street is the Pancyprian Gymnasium, the oldest high school on the island, with Makarios III, Glafkos Clerides, and Tassos Papadopoulous, all former presidents of Cyprus, among its alumni. Lawrence Durrell taught English there in the mid-1950s.   

Founded in 1812, the school was rebuilt in 1920, following a fire, in the Neo-Classical style. The Neo-Classical style was a favorite in 19th and 20th century Greece, and in the Greek neighborhoods of pre-World War I Istanbul, but here on Cyprus, it’s not as frequently seen.
        We ended the walk with dinner at Zanettos, a taverna near the Omeriye Mosque. Inside, simple tables, lots of them, and the walls covered with photos of the owner with, I assume, Cypriot celebrities. The restaurant offers for 21 € a set meal of “meze.” This sounded fine. Meze are a Turkish staple; a tray is typically brought to the table and you pick the dishes  you want. In Greek Cyprus, at least in this taverna, it doesn’t work this way. The meze meal is a stream of dishes, no choice at all, from olives and salads and vegetables to meats of various sorts, most quite familiar from Turkey (well, not the snails or the pork).  Although each dish was small, we were given far more food than we could possibly eat.
“Delicious” I cried, “but enough!”
The waitresses simply smiled and continued to bring more dishes, ending with robust portions of fruit and pastry.  What a shame not to be able to finish it all!  But this was not unexpected, I think.  The walk back to the hotel was definitely needed.

        The next morning, after an abundant breakfast buffet, we headed off to the Cyprus Museum. The Neo-Classical facade is modest, and gives no clue about the size of the museum. This is the island’s principal archaeological museum, founded in 1882, early in the British period. Until the opening of regional museums in recent years, this museum housed everything. The collections are comprehensive, from Neolithic to medieval, with famous pieces. 
 The "ingot god" from Enkomi
Some galleries have been redone recently, with attractive, instructive panels, while other displays are in serious need of updating. 
 The face of the "ingot god" from Enkomi
        After the museum, we returned to the hotel and took a taxi to the Hertz office in the outlying district of Strovolos, to pick up our rental car.  Then off to Larnaca. 
        (to be continued)


Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Summer begins = car inspection

        Summer is here! A time for renewal. At Bilkent University, our spring semester ended in May, and graduation took place on June 11.
My barber, Ramazan, who goes under the professional name of Ramses, and who for unknown reasons has taken to calling me “Devlet Ağabey” (lit. “Older  brother State”; see note below), has already shed several kilos and has begun an exercise program.
I, too, have started my own summer exercise program, a brisk walk early in the morning,  while the air is still cool and the campus very quiet.
Our car has just passed its bi-annual inspection, always a traumatic moment because of its age – 34 – even if it is a sturdy Mercedes – and because the inspection carried out for several years now by TüvTürk, a private company, is serious, in contrast with the almost comic sign-offs of yesteryear. 
First step: car taxes had to be paid up. I went to the tax office in Ulus where, to my enormous surprise, not a soul was waiting. I walked right up to the window and paid.
        Big smile: “Are you related to Bill Gates?”  
        I have been asked this question countless times, although never before in a Turkish government office. Because I do have a brother named Bill Gates who happens to be in computer software, my answer always has to be qualified. 
        For a speedy return to my office, I hailed a taxi at a nearby stand. The driver had a beard and a skullcap, signs of a pious Muslim. Before I pulled the door shut, I noticed an empty Efes Pilsen beer bottle in the door’s compartment.
“Oh!” I exclaimed.
 “Where did that come from?” my pious driver asked.
A fellow taxi driver quickly whisked it away and off we went. 

Step two: inspecting the car. We left it with our garage while we were in Cyprus for a week. The garage promised to make necessary repairs, obtain the certificate for exhaust emissions (another cause of anxiety), and take the car to the TüvTürk inspection site. All would be finished by our return.

Except it wasn’t. The inspection was refused, not because of serious defects with the car itself, but because the registration card said the car uses “benzin” (gasoline) when it should have said “dizel” (diesel). This mistake must have been made four years ago, when the card had to be retyped to correct the color of the car, from “white” to “blue & white.” Two years ago, the problem was the presence of a tow-hook, not noted on the registration card. The garage removed the hook and the car passed, but the mistake about the fuel was not noticed.
Correcting a registration card involves a trip to the Emniyet Sarayı, the imposing central police station, where a large section is devoted to car matters – registration, driving licenses, etc., the only place in this city of nearly 5 million to take care of such business.  Typically dozens of men and a handful of women mill around nervously as they wait their turn. Fortunately, machines now give numbers for the line. This has revolutionized the process of waiting. Standing in an orderly line was not a Turkish cultural trait. In the old days, people would swarm the counter, pushing and elbowing and shouting to attract the attention of the civil servant.  What was a proper, well-bred WASP to do?  I always got there in the end, but it was always an experience to dread.
Marie-Henriette, the official owner of the car, by now an experienced veteran of TüvTürk inspections, managed to get the registration card duly changed without much hassle. Request submitted one day; card ready for pick-up the next. The following day, the third day after our return from Cyprus, she drove the car to the TüvTürk station, showed the new registration card and the inspection report, and the final, crucial approval was granted. 
The car is now good for two years!

Language notes: 
(1) “Ağabey,” pronounced “abi,” is the typical way of addressing an older brother; also used, says my dictionary, “in addressing a respected man a little older than the speaker.” Devlet, meaning “state,” as a first name is rare, but familiar in today’s Turkey because of Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). 
(2) WASP = “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.” Oxford English Dictionary: “A member of the American white Protestant middle or upper class descended from early northern European settlers.”  Funk & Wagnalls Dictionary: “Sometimes used contemptuously to refer to members of the dominant socio-economic class in the U.S.”

Friday, January 29, 2016

Amasra on the Black Sea

            I have seen the Black Sea at several places – in Russia (Taman peninsula), Georgia (Batumi), and the Turkish coast from Kilyos (near Istanbul) east to Trabzon, Rize, and Hopa – and it has always seemed uninviting, even menacing. True, I have never enjoyed a sandy beach in mid-summer, when the Black Sea must be a friendly, refreshing resource.
         In mid-October I went on a day trip to Amasra (ancient Amastris) with a group. I had been once before, with relatives, but that was 20 years ago and my memories were vague, although very positive: two little harbors separated by a peninsula with the ruins of medieval Genoese fortifications, a simple but clean hotel, a top-rate fish dinner, and a stop at a sandy beach not far away.  I looked forward to visiting the town again.  Although the sky was overcast, which gives the sea a dark, threatening air, I was in no way disappointed. The trip took longer than anticipated – it’s 300 km from Ankara, and after you turn off the Ankara-Istanbul highway, the drive slows down as you wend your way through the Pontic mountains. Vegetation increased, since the mountains catch the rain, with traces of autumn in the leaves, even if evergreens predominated, and the accumulations of cut logs indicating the importance of the timber business. Eventually Bartin is reached, today’s principal city in the region; from there, Amasra and the Black Sea are not far.

         Our first stop was Roman: Bird’s Rock (Kuşkaya), a large eagle carved on the cliff just above a narrow path the Romans had hewn out of the rock in order to descend down to the seacoast. An inscription gives the date and the circumstances: built by the regional governor, an on this fairly mild, not rainy Saturday in mid-October, so we had to wait a bit for the best photo opportunities. 

         After the sharp descent to Amasra, our bus parked in a lot by the western harbor and we walked by various cafés where people were drinking tea to our lunch stop, the Amasra Balık Evi, in the town center. The place settings in the restaurant were color photos of Amasra at sunset. The lunch was delicious: fish of various sorts (hamsi, mezgit, etc.) lightly fried in a corn meal batter (corn meal is a Black Sea staple), an “Amasra salad” (a copious mound of lettuce, other greens, tomatoes, pickles, etc., decorated with slices of large radishes with a small carrot roundel in the center – to look like daisies), and for dessert, yogurt from water buffalo milk with honey, and a paste of semolina and walnuts (cevizli helva), all served with great attentiveness, in the best Turkish manner. Tea, of course, before we got up to see the sights.

         That day was the anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of the city in 1460, so by the old city gates at the bridge lead to the island just across from the city center, young men dressed up in red or green Janissary costumes stood as sentries. 

We also saw a wedding party, with bride and groom, 

and a group of women enveloped in black, all part of the crowds enjoying this Saturday afternoon. A huge banner of Atatürk was hung from the walls, along with Turkish flags. 
 Atatürk says "Korkma!" ("Do not be afraid!")
Fahri, our guide, an expert on Ottoman archaeology, took us to see the remains of the Genoese fort.  The Genoese, prosperous late medieval merchants, had established business centers in Constantinople (the Galata Tower is theirs), here, and in the Crimea (13th-15th centuries). One can still see imposing bits of walls with Genoese crests in and around modern houses. 

This historic district looks pretty modest.  Turkish people today prefer modern construction – the idea of fixing up an 18th century house, for example, is very odd – which is a great pity for those of us who value historic preservation – so I imagine well-to-do Amasrans have long ago left the old city for the recently constructed suburbs. Who is left in the old sections? Old people have lived there their entire lives and and people of low income who can’t afford other options.   And some eccentrics. 
                      House decorations in the old city

For tourists, this neighborhood is fascinating.  In addition to the fortress, we admired two mosques, originally Byzantine churches, at least one of which was Catholic during the Genoese period. One we could enter – the Fatih Mosque.  In this mosque each Friday the imam still brandishes a sword while he gives his sermon, a tradition going back to the Ottoman conquest. Surely this couldn’t be possible!  But indeed, the caretaker unsheathed the sword, a real scimitar, and held it aloft for us to admire. Near the second church/mosque, a film crew was at work: lights being set up, setting outside a house being prepared, lots of people purposefully milling about. Down below, we could see the eastern harbor, with a long breakwater. Outside, the waves were huge, crashing onto the breakwater, and even breaking over it. An announcement on a loud speaker warned people from walking there, for a man had been swept away to his death earlier that very day. 

On the return to the bus, we had time for shopping. I bought some locally made jams at a big, open market and a loaf of local bread, a dark bread I haven’t seen in Ankara. I also bought a nutcracker, because our cleaning lady, herself from the Black Sea region (near Ordu), had given us a generous sack of unshelled hazelnuts (a Black Sea specialty). The shop where I bought it was devoted mostly to wood items – spoons, bowls, etc. – and an older man was in the back with his woodworking equipment, working away, sawdust, well, wood dust, flying everywhere.  His daughter had studied abroad, he told us, I forget now what, but he was clearly proud of her. I was mostly impressed by the contrast between their lives, and no matter how proud he felt, I’m sure he regretted the speed of change in our world that encouraged her to leave this beautiful little town in order to fulfill her potential.
Back in the bus, we went to inspect the remains of a Roman theater. The theater is filled with earth eroded from the hillsides and now contains the local cemetery. At the rear, embedded in the hillside, partly hidden behind heavy vegetation (“overgrown” is the operative word in Turkey’s Black Sea region), we saw massive arches and vaults, built of huge blocks beautifully cut and artfully laid, an indication of this city’s prosperity during the Roman Empire. In the modern cemetery, the largest grave monument belongs to Barış Akarsu, a pop singer from Amasra who died in a traffic accident in 2007, age 28. He is honored in the city center with a statue. I had never heard of him, but have now watched, with pleasure and with a certain sadness, YouTube clips of him singing “Islak, ıslak” (“Wet, wet”) and “Ruzgar” (“Wind”).

Our last stop was on the edge of town at a huge building, clearly Roman, a “covered market” that looks like a multi-storeyed warehouse. Its overall plan and appearance are hard to figure out, but the masonry, including sections of opus reticulatum, a favorite Roman wall facing of square stones set on their point, in a diamond pattern, is impressive.  

At this point it began to rain – another Black Sea staple – an appropriate time to get into our bus and head back to Ankara.
                        Amasra (the island) at sunset

After our dinner stop, the bus began to have problems.  Going up a hill, even a slight grade, was agony. The bus managed 20 km per hour, maximum.  Eventually we reached Ankara, but just after passing through the Şaşmaz auto repair district on our way to the Eskişehir road, the bus died.  Anticipating this, the driver had already called for help, so we didn’t have to wait long for a fresh bus.  We were lucky.  If a breakdown had to happen, it happened at the best possible place and time.