Tuesday, February 26, 2008


"No matter how rich and prosperous, a nation without independence, cannot be subject to any behaviour before the humanity, at a higher level than serving."
- Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

This past August, I was in Turkey, and I'm long overdue for a report on what went on and my thoughts on the whole shindig. It was an exciting and revelatory experience for me in many ways. Incidentally, sorry for this taking so long-pure laziness has made it so long overdue, the original writing date was last September. Sigh.

I was in Istanbul for the European Universities Debating Championship (EUDC) 2007 (Aug 5-11), hosted by Koç University. But since I'd never been to Turkey, and had heard nothing but positive comments about it, I extended my trip by about a week before and after, to allow for some travel. I was there from July 31-Aug 17.

I arrived in Istanbul with Dan and Hannah; we met Shannon at the airport, and Julia joined us a half-hour later, also at the airport. We cabbed it into our hostel in Sultanahmet, the most tourist-heavy section of Istanbul, and also the section with some of the most beautiful sites-The Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Grand Bazaar, to name but a few.

We spent the first day hitting the major tourist attractions, i.e. those noted above. I cannot emphasise enough how stunningly gorgeous the Blue Mosque (pictured below at night, from the rooftop bar in our youth hostel) and Hagia Sophia are. The Blue Mosque, especially, revels in its intricacy and beauty. I've long been a fan of the ornate, ancient cathedrals of Europe, and I am no hard-pressed to decide between the two genres of religious buildings. In either case, the tapestries, decorations, altars and mosaics and phenomenal. The Hagia Sophia has a slightly more austere look, possibly due to its age, possibly due to its conversion into a mosque from its original design as a cathedral, followed by its conversion into a museum. However, the dones and courtyards, and the expansive inner atrium all speak to a devotion to the almighty that I find equally understandable and inconceivable.

The Grand Bazaar, on the other hand, impressed me less. Though it certainly bore the thriving, vibrant air of bargaining and hustling I'd been lead to expect, I was disappointed at the repetitiveness and cheapness of the merchandise. This clearly is not where Turks come to shop, but rather where they relieve clueless tourists of their money. Chess sets, carpets and fake clothes/watches/handbags abound, oft-repeated from one stall to the next. Haggling is a must, and as it is a skill I lack, I most certainly was taken for a ride on the few items I did choose to purchase. I think I'll stick to eBay from now on. Inexplicably, I'd end up back at the bazaar at least three more times over the course of my trip. Go figure.

After this, we met up with Rosie and planned the next phase of our trip: Gallipoli. Dan had found out about a tour to Gallipoli, the area of Turkey in which allied forces (Dan's grandfather included) landed during the first world war. The tour we elected to go on was a two-day, all-inclusive affair; they included a bus trip to Channakale, a guided bus tour of the war sites and grave sites, a night in a local youth hostel and (the highlight of the trip), SCUBA diving down to WW1 wrecks.

As with all such war-memorial tours I've taken, this one was quite humbling. The territory was breathtakingly beautiful, from the azure ocean to the vibrant hillsides. To look out over such expanses and think of young men clawing their way up amidst machine-gun fire, to think of people spilling blood to either seize or defend such beautiful territory and the dominion of those who resided on it, is a shocking indictment of humanity.

The SCUBA diving was great, even though I got badly sunburned (due in part to my policy of staying out far too long because of my long-standing and never-successful policy of "if I'm not pink now, I never will be, right?" and due partly to Julia's sabotage of my lower back suntan lotion application.) We were cut somewhat short for time due to a few technical glitches early on, but I still got to go down and see a sunken desalinisation vessel. Apparently, the Turks had retrofitted a whaling boat to desalinate the sea water and provide fresh water for the troops. The thinking was that the allied ships wouldn't sink a civilian boat. This worked for awhile, until one of the allied warships finally asked the question "wait a minute! There aren't whales for thousands of miles, why do you need a whaling boat?", after which it was promptly sunk. This was my first time SCUBA-diving and I therefore had to stick close to the dive master, but it was a great experience. Once you get used to breathing through the regulator, the feeling of weightlessness really is amazing, and it was a great way to experience a small piece of history.

The next week was filled with debating, and I won't bore everyone with the details (all two of you who read this blog, anyway). Suffice it to say, it was filled with fun, merriment, pretension, drinking, socialising, catching up with old friends, meeting new friends, debating, debating and more debating, some more drinking, some wonderful buffets and some great parties. Koç put on an absolutely flawless tournament; from the food to the socials to the debating, everything was done to the highest standards and executed brilliantly. They are bidding for the world championships in 2010, and I hope they get it. Dan and I did alright at the tournament, but were disappointed by our early performance, which relegated us to some less-than-spectacular rooms later on. Highlights of the tournament for me were the night-time boat cruise of the Bosphorus river, the final round being held in a 5th century Byzantine cathedral, and the post-final clubbing in all our over-dressed, sweaty geekiness. You haven't lived until you've seen 200 debaters in a small, hot club in suits and ties, pretending they know how to dance.

After that, my plan had been to go to Safranbolu (a city in the north of Turkey that's generally out of the way and supposedly quite nice, old and quaint) for a day or so, then spend a few days in the Cappadocia region in the south, specifically hoping to solo-hike the length of the Ilhara Valley. However, after a solid week of debating, I was pretty worn out, and decided to spend a day at the beach, and doing some lounging around with various debaters at the university (which had a lovely pool). Both of these were nice and relaxing, and got my batteries well recharged; however, the lost time impinged on my other plans, and I had to scrap Safranbolu completely. In the end, though I greatly enjoyed the pool and beach time I had, I wish I'd been better organised about my travel plans; alas, it just gives me that much more to see on the next visit. And I did still get to see Cappadocia, which had been one of must-sees, and was a sublime experience.

Cappadocia, a region in the south of Turkey, is the centre of Turkey Christianity; for this reason, it is veritably littered with scores of ancient churches, frescoes and temples. What's fascinating about the region, however, is not that it is the epicentre of Christianity for the Turks; rather it is the unique landscapes and geological formations, and the resultant ways of life that took root there, creating environs that exist nowhere else and sit as monuments to austere beauty and workmanship. The central and preeminent feature of Cappadocia is the so-called "fairy chimneys" (pictured above). I won't go into detail about how these were formed, if you are curious, check out this brief Wikipedia article. Basically, ancient Turks can across these fairy chimneys and decided that they'd made great adobes. Therefore, the carved intricate, often multi-storey houses into the chimneys, and into many of the surrounding caves. They had windows, different rooms for different purposes, churches and more. The basically developed an entire society centred around the local geological formations. Interestingly, a few of these fairy chimneys are still inhabited, with some even being for sale.

This gives Cappadocia the feel of two very strong bits of fictional imagery: Bedrock City (from the Flintstones) and Tatooine (from Star Wars). Seeing dozens of caves (and pigeon coops) nestled into the windswept hills evokes both cultural images. I spent my time in Cappadocia both exploring on my own and on an organised tour. The open-air museum in Goreme features some of the most intricate fairy chimney abodes and many churches, and I spent a late morning/early afternoon perusing the museum. I then went off on my own, hiking through the nearby valley of swords, which contained a collection of smaller lumps, many of which were carved out, but the mority of them long since abandoned, and often eroded somewhat. It was tranquil and lovely, and when I crested the hill edging the valley, I could see down below a series of fields and what appeared to be some inhabited fairy chimneys. It was a scene of utter peace and exuded a sense of harmony. To enjoy the settings, I picked a cave carved into one of the lump-shaped abandoned mini-fairy chimneys and just read for several hours (Anil's Ghost for those that are curious, an amazingly descriptive work I'd highly recommend).
I also wrote some postcards, and may have napped for a short while. It was a lovely respite; while I enjoy an always-moving, see-everything-yo-can trip as well, there's something nice about just finding a shady, but still hot area, and relaxing completely.

The guided tour I did was of an underground city and a hike along the Ihhara Valley. The underground city, built millennia ago, and originally designed to house as many as 50,000 inhabitants. It was designed as a security feature, and was generally uninhabited. The idea was, the community would live in the city above, but if they were ever attacked, they could retreat to the underground city for refuge. The main access was through a narrow stairwell opening into a large chamber, thus allowing for an easy defence against any interlopers who might try to take over the city from above.

The Ihlara valley hike was quite possibly one of the most breathtaking walks I've ever taken. Cut through sandstone hills (with caves and churches carved into them at frequent intervals), the Ihlara Valley is a swath of lust foliage and a beautiful river amid the arid environs typical to that part of Anatolia. Pristine and dripping with a sense of history and grandeur, the valley is as yet not completely overrun by tourists, though they are plentiful. The hike takes about four hours, and you can hear the babbling of the river besides you at all times, while gazing up at the cliff face, in which thousands of people once lived, prayed and thrived. It's a truly unique locale, and although I was initially wary of taking a guided tour rather than going on my own, I'm glad that I did-it gave me a chance to see more than I would have otherwise, and the experience was wonderful. That night, I went out with some Canadians from the youth hostel in which I was staying (which, incidentally was built into a cave, very cool indeed) for an organised night of traditional Turkish dancing, food and wine. Very fun.

After that, I took the long bus ride back to Istanbul, where I stayed for a night before flying back to Manchester. The experience, I think it's fair to say, left me in some awe. Turkey is a fascinating country, and one about which I wish I knew more, and one to which I definitely aspire to return some day. Turkey is a country that is overwhelmingly Muslim, yet officially secular. It's a country that is the gateway between Europe and the Middle East, and that encompasses both a diverse and proud history, and a modern bent. All of this is reflect in many aspects of Turkey, but doubly so in Istanbul itself.

In Istanbul, it is a common sight to see a 1500-year-old mosque cloistered next to a modern glass office building. Markets and bazaars coexist with electronics shops and cellular phone providers. The country's religiosity is evident in the existence of the (technically banned) headscarves worn by many women, yet the secularism that is bound in law is obvious, in the bohemian, party atmosphere of the night life and the modernity of dress. There are, of course, factions that think this movement has happened too quickly-the recent election of the AK party, though tempered by the military, has shown that there are many who object to the banning of religious icons in public. Turkey clashes with its ethnic Kurdish people demonstrate the tensions that exist within this frequently conquered state, once subjugated by the Ottoman empire, among others.

Turkey seems to stand at a crossroads, disparate views stretching forth in front of it. The minarets of mosques that are visible throughout show its adherence to its Islamic roots, yet Turkey's on-again-off-again desire to join the European Union has brought about changes to its human rights and social welfare policies that are more in line with liberal democracies. The appeals of each seems to be divergent, yet the Turkish people seem to handle this internal conflict with comparative aplomb, the glittering skylines and traditional architecture a monument to the republic that Ataturk crated, forged in the crucible of the first world war. Whether they embrace the traditional roots, mired in the past, adherent to religious teachings and traditional values, or embrace the modernity offered by the western world, with its potential pitfalls in economics and the often-implied loss of individuality and morality, is still to be decided. Whichever road Turkey takes, a culture so strong, so proud and so deserving on unity and preservation seems unlikely to disappear into the miasma of sameness so prevalent in other parts of the world. As part of the EU, or as an independent nation, Turkey will always be Turkey: hot, beautiful, austere and traditional; giving, exciting, modern and
dynamic. As the office towers continue to sprout, the dily calls to prayer from the Blue Mosque will no doubt echo into the evening's gloom, a haunting testament to the well-deserved pride of Turkish people, and their strength.

Following the military triumph we accomplished by bayonets, weapons and blood, we shall strive to win victories in such fields as culture, scholarship, science and economics.
- Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

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