Tag Archives: Turkey

Lines Composed Tens of Thousands of Miles above the Black Sea*

Statue of Liberty, New York, USA

I returned from two weeks in Turkey with my head spinning from an abundance of experience and lack of time for reflection. The sights and sounds, smells and tastes of this amazing country, were too much to digest while the trip was unfolding, leaving me sort of overwhelmed on the plane.  My first–and hopefully not my only–travels in this place that so in/famously bridges/separates the East and the West, it was an overwhelmingly positive experience (although not without its challenges), and seemed especially poignant as my return to the States happened during the slice of time between the start of Ramadan and Independence Day, which only added an extra layer of cultural heft to the transition.

Turkey was great, and I’m glad I engaged as much as I did: I tried speaking a few words of their tricky language, ate everything that was put in front of me, worked out the public transportation, wrapped my western hair up at more than a dozen times in accordance with Islamic custom, negotiated my way through crushingly crowded market streets, drank tea more than coffee, acclimated myself to a new rhythm of sleep punctuated by the call to prayer.  By embracing these happy-traveler truths: (1) what feels like inconvenience is cultural education in disguise, and (2) it’s only weather if you notice it, I absorbed a fortnight’s worth of wonderful Turkish experiences without being hung up by missing the little conveniences of my regular routine.  It was only after leaving Turkish air space that I finally gave in to dreaming of the comforts of home: in particular my thirst, my literal thirst, for bone-chillingly cold soda, that I anticipated being quenched at a stop at one of the many large retail establishments that line the highways on my way home from the airport in Chicago.  Although ayran was an interesting experiment, and the streams of lukewarm Fanta were more than adequate to wash down lentil soup, lahmacun and manti, man oh man, once in a while a girl needs a ginormous Coke Zero with all the ice.

*apologies to William Wordsworth

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Lengthening the Short Story

PC June 14 BursaIf I have learned one thing through prep for the trip to Turkey, the actual travel there, and my beginning reflections on the experience, is how inadequate my understanding of the region’s history is.  Most of what I know about Turkey–and I suspect this is true of many people educated in the US–is those parts of the story that conveniently rub up against the grand Western narrative.  Even so, the great mosques of the Ottoman Empire present a particular problem for architectural historians, since they don’t fit super-neatly into that narrative and require a detour of sorts–although that detour is eased by the association of the Sinan tradition with Justinian’s great cathedral, Hagia Sophia.  But even that link is wobbly, since there is little sense of what was going on, architecturally, with the spread of Islam before that time–at least through a majority of texts (aside from those that, more or less elegantly, squeeze those early hypostyle plans into the story).  So it was important, and helpful, to first study the Ottoman mosques before the Conquest of 1453, and better yet, to be able to walk in and around these great buildings that non-specialist architectural history has forgotten (or just ignored).  On our way back to the hotel from dinner one night we stopped in at the Bursa Grand Mosque (Ulu Cami), finished just before the year 1400.  It’s a massive hulking thing, with huge piers supporting twenty domes of equal dimension.  Its connection to the even earlier Seljuk tradition became apparent later in our travels.  But also it was not hard, in this dim and heavy place, to really understand what it must have been like for the conquerors of Constantinople to come upon Hagia Sophia and see a whole new opportunity for architectural grandeur that is clearly affecting to a broad portion of humanity, regardless of creed, nationality, or chronology, for that matter.

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Looking for the Ladies Who Lunch in Istanbul

PC lunchEven if it is one of the more West-leaning (& -situated) countries of the Middle East, Turkey remains a predominantly Muslim country and with that there comes a certain amount of traditional behaviors that may strike a traveller hailing from the West, especially a female traveller. I expected different gender vibes than those that are common in the States, but I’ve been surprised by the shape they’ve taken. Men have been uniformly deferential, even kind, and I haven’t felt any kind of judgement about my clothes or hair, as I expected might ne the case. The only place I have felt ill at ease is when looking for a place to eat when I’ve been off the tourist trail. All the cafes seem populated by men, which suggests a kind of social code that would be bad manners to break. I think the first rule of travel, especially foreign travel, is to not be a jerk when you’re in a different place. (The second rule of travel is: when you see a bathroom, use the bathroom.) And that means figuring out what your host country thinks is jerk behavior. So, just as I avoid bringing up politics when I visit certain family members, it seems reasonable to steer clear of these male domains in my host country, even if the fact of apparent segregation bugs me. So far, it hasn’t been a huge burden to keep walking, and finally come upon a place that for one reason or another ( and I’d really like to know what that is), is acceptable, and suddenly you’ll find the ladies: old and young, covered and not, all responding to some code that makes this place appropriate in the midst of an abundantly male-oriented city.

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