Travel notes – Mardin

January 21, 2012

You can make out Mardin from far away on the long western approach road, perched as it is on top of a mountain overlooking the Mesopotamian plains. As you get closer the box-like homes become clearer, nestled alongside the pencil-like minarets, towers, and domes, all built of the same pale honey-coloured limestone. It’s a striking, eerily timeless-looking place, but look out to your left and the present comes crashing back into view. Carved ominously into the soil of a smaller hill just outside the town are large white capitals, clearly spelt out for all comers to see, “Ne Mutlu Türküm Diyene” (How Happy to Call Yourself a Turk): a warm welcome from the Turkish military. The dolmuş I was travelling in passed countless army barracks and check points, and we were stopped twice by gendarmes asking for identity papers. A castle, originally Roman, sits on top of the mountain above the town, but whilst most Turkish towns make a landmark of their castle – charging a couple of lira for what is invariably the most spectacular view of a place – Mardin’s castle is absolutely closed. The Turkish army are its current occupants, the latest in a long line trying to establish hegemony in this ancient spot.

Close to the Syrian and Iraqi borders, the area has been a complex mixture of Arabs and Kurds for millennia, and during the 1980s and 1990s it was one of the hottest in the conflict between the Turkish government and the Kurdish rebel group, the PKK. It is also known as the Tur Abdin (“Servants’ Plateau”) plain, the historic motherland of the Syriac people of south-east Anatolia. Syriac Christians have lived in Tur Abdin for 1600 years, originally retreating there to escape Byzantine persecution. They were thus able to maintain their ancient liturgies, still performed in Aramaic (the language Christ would have spoken), and the nearby 5th century monastery of Deyr ul-Zafaran (“Monastery of Saffron”) remained the spiritual centre and seat of the patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church until 1932. The 20th century, however, proved to be the most cataclysmic in their history, when the Syriacs became one of the less remembered casualties of the upheavals that erupted in eastern Anatolia at the end of the Ottoman Empire. From 200,000 Anatolian Syriacs in the 19th century, their numbers fell to around 70,000 by 1920. A significant portion of those remaining left the area during the unrest of the 1980s and 1990s, caught in the crossfire between the Turkish government and the PKK. Today the community numbers no more than a few thousand. The landscape is thus scattered with decaying monasteries and deserted villages, and – like most towns in these parts – Mardin is also still home to the obligatory, rotting, untrumpeted Armenian church.

The municipality’s official tourist leaflet carries the headline: “Mardin: where the call to prayer echoes within the sound of church bells.” It’s a nice line, but the only church bell still ringing in the town is that of the 15th century Kırklar Kilisesi, or “The Church of the 40 Martyrs”, and a rusty old bell it was too. A caretaker called Musa rings it to announce prayers at regular intervals throughout the day, and potters around to keep an eye on things and answer questions whilst it’s open to visitors. Of the eleven churches still standing in Mardin, the Kırklar Kilisesi is the only one still open for services, and Musa told me that church numbers have been steadily dwindling, “definitely down from 10 years ago.” The flock now totals “about 80 families, around 400 people.” During my visit a family of three wandered in to the church. The father told me they lived in northern Syria, and that they were in Mardin as tourists, searching for the old family home that had been deserted a hundred years ago “because there was big problem.” Musa himself was of an extremely morose disposition, hardly able to look such comers and goers in the eye, but occasionally bursting out in fits of uncontrollable hysterics. There is in fact an uneasy coyness about most of the Syriacs I met. Put it down to an over-active imagination, but I couldn’t help wondering if it was the weight of such a tormented history weighing down upon them. Amongst all the dry facts and figures recounting seismic demographic change, it’s perhaps easier to ignore the mental effects wrought on those left behind than the physical.

Even one so well travelled as British historian Arnold Toynbee described Mardin in the 1920s as “the most beautiful town in the world,” Indeed, it has been experiencing something like a touristic renaissance more recently, with the (relatively) improved stability of the area helping to stimulate a renewed interest from visitors, mostly Turkish. A florescence of newly renovated boutique hotels can be found tucked away down the rabbit-warren backstreets that tumble down from the main central street. During my visit I stayed in the splendid “Kasrı Abbas”, converted from a large old mansion on the hillside: rooms with ornate carvings and multi-domed roofs opening onto wide open courtyards, offering panoramic views across Mesopotamia to the Syrian border. The backstreets themselves have similarly benefited from the rejuvenation, impossibly evocative and seemingly untouched for hundreds of years (despite their deliberate tidying up). It all feels slightly uncomfortable though, as if many things remain unsaid, much still remains unconfronted. The number of tourists will doubtless continue to rise, but they will probably be condemned to look at dead relics, unresurrectable remnants. Daily Radikal carried a front page story earlier this month about an apparent “return of the Syriacs”, reporting that a number of the families who migrated from Tur Abdin since the 1980s have returned. But the evidence looks pretty slender to me. It seems more than doubtful that anything like a return to the same number as previously lived in the area could ever be possible. The ties have been irreversibly cut.

Mardin perhaps bears comparison with another ancient and contested site, Jerusalem. But whilst I expect Jerusalem would confound because of the sheer intractability of its present day conflicts, Mardin does so because of precisely the opposite. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else in Turkey, (and that’s saying something), one gets the crushing, debilitating impression of lost, dead history. But although dead, it’s history that casts a long shadow. Unlike the myriad remnants of ancient civilisations across Anatolia, Mardin’s sense of lost history is of critical importance to the present: it paints the present day into a corner. You feel that the past has been forcibly forgotten, ignored, at most whispered about uncomfortably. It’s as if a door has slammed shut, but is still creaking uneasily. It all leaves quite an impression, but not a particularly pleasant one.


[Published in Today’s Zaman (19th Jan 2012): http://www.todayszaman.com/news-269046-tarlabasis-getaway-hurriyet-hamami.html ]

It might come as a surprise to know, but after two years of living in Turkey I had yet to visit a Turkish bath until very recently. The fact is that hamams don’t really figure in the everyday lived experience of most Turks these days, so perhaps it isn’t strange that they also haven’t figured much in mine. During the Ottoman period hamams were considered important social centres, where the men got themselves washed and the women spent hours meeting friends and gossiping about the latest social news. Since this heyday they’ve been steadily closing down. Now only a fraction remain open, and those – particularly around the tawdry touristic theme park district of Sultanahmet – cater largely for foreign tourists. Number one in all the guidebooks is the Çemberlitaş Hamamı, an impeccably-restored historical hamam, built by Mimar Sinan in 1584, featuring in D.K. Publishing’s 1000 Places To See Before You Die. The price is the highest in the city, and I wouldn’t be surprised if its employees wore quaint period dress as they went about their work – you want the “authentic experience”, don’t you?

I certainly did, but was in the market for something a little earthier, something – to my own prejudiced mind – a little more “authentic”. I’ve always been intrigued by an imposing-but-exhausted-looking red building near my apartment on Kapanca Sokak, in the central district of Tarlabaşı, on the European side of Istanbul. This is the “Hürriyet Hamamı”, (or “Freedom Bath”), and if you try to find it in your guidebook you’ll be disappointed. Where better to have one’s first hamam experience? For that authentic historical deal there can’t be many more suitable places – the entrance is sandwiched between two bay windows protruding out into the street, underneath which outside are original signboards written in the Greek, Armenian and Ottoman Turkish that were once common currency around Tarlabaşı. If, however, it’s the authentic experience that I got, it’s certainly not one experienced by many locals these days, as the place was almost entirely deserted during my visit. With the planned “renewal” of Tarlabaşı continuing apace, it’s difficult to see how the place could survive. I’d put a regretful 10 lira on it not being there in a year’s time.

I walked in from a chilly December afternoon, and was greeted by the sight of a corpulent, grey-haired old man facing the entrance, snoozing on a bench. He lay horizontally on his side, his head propped up on a pile of white rags, a stained polo shirt barely stretching over a rotund paunch. He gave off a stale pong as he stood to welcome me in – not the greatest advertisement for a public bath you might think. Hasan was his name and, from the moment I handed over the 25TL for a bath and massage (“everything”, he said), he was fishing for a tip. I resisted, telling him: let’s see how it goes first.

Not being particularly well-versed in hamam etiquette, I was pretty tentative throughout my visit. I’m glad I took the time to sit in the “sauna” just before entering the bath though, as this was something unique. Despite the tray of hot stones sitting atop a dog-eared metal box in one corner (just for appearances), the only heat was produced by three industrial radiators, hidden underneath each bench and turned up to their fullest. Surprisingly enough the room didn’t smell too bad, although ominous patches of mossy dampness hung from the roof and down the walls.

The main bathing area however, (known as the sıcaklık), was splendid. A wide dome stretches above your head, studded with tiny windows like the diamond-encrusted lid of a jewellery-box. Of course – like Istanbul itself – they’re rough diamonds, but – also like Istanbul – that’s mostly where the charm comes from. The room is bathed in a half-light cast from these windows, and the tinkling of water drips steadily from the sink basins that surround the heated göbek taşı, or “‘belly’ stone”, in the centre. I stepped inside – still wearing my red shroud and sandals – and saw just one, solitary bather. That timeless image of the lithe, naked male, sitting bent-legged, bent-backed and dripping in soap, remained indistinct as it emerged through the steam from across the room. Whether out of arrogance, or absorption in his own toilette – this stranger didn’t so much as look at me throughout my entire stay. Brazen male nudity always comes as a shock, even when it is in a bathing context. I get exactly the same feeling of surprise in the changing rooms of a public swimming pool back in the UK. Nevertheless, off came my shroud, and my sandals: when in (new) Rome and all.

After washing myself once over with the sink, soap and bowl, Hasan emerged through the entrance and waddled over to my section to begin the service. He started by soaping me up and rinsing me down, before bringing out the dead skin remover. I may have been a neophyte in hamam procedure, but I’d heard rumours about this implement, and here I can only corroborate what I’d been told before: it was brutal. He scrubbed the infernal thing all over my skin, my whole body, over and over the same parts, hammering each before moving on to the next tender area. I closed my eyes in silent agony. It felt less like he was removing dead skin, more like he was ripping off layers and layers of quite healthy, quite live skin.

I dare say this torment lasted for rather less time than it felt, and once it was over Hasan rinsed the flakes of newly-dead skin from my red-raw body, before struggling across to the göbek taşı, and beckoning me over for my massage. I followed, gingerly lay myself face down on the edge, and tried to find the most comfortable position on the hard stone for my head. Things started fairly pleasantly: some gentle prodding here, some cautious probing there. Predictably enough though, things soon got rather more robust and rather less comfortable. All over my back, my legs, every pressure point was hammered relentlessly. Make no mistake: no concession was made to the inexperienced foreigner. I tried as best I could to stop myself wriggling around in discomfort, and found myself sliding uncontrollably around the göbek taşı, almost slipping off the edge because of the soap that was being slapped all over my body. Hasan manoeuvred me around like a helpless children’s toy: onto my back, seated, standing, arms up, arms down, legs crossed, arms crossed. At one point my face was squeezed against his own beefy göbek as he pushed his fingers mercilessly and methodically into the small between my shoulders, cracking my neck in both directions.

After drying off and cooling down, I sat down to talk with Hasan and one of his friends over tea in the lobby. I tried to draw them out on the history of the place, but I couldn’t get far. Apparently it was built in 1908, and from the look of it I can’t imagine the building having ever been anything other than a hamam. Hasan couldn’t tell me, as despite appearances he’s only been working there for 11 years: a relative greenhorn. He certainly felt like a confident, authoritative old hand though, and had well-earned the tip that he’d previously been fishing for. As with all massages, it wasn’t until an hour or two later that I really began to feel the benefit. I also felt a lot cleaner than I did before I went in, which itself couldn’t be taken for granted as I considered the “Hürriyet Hamamı” from outside.

Travel notes – Ayvalık

November 3, 2011

[Published by Today’s Zaman (28th Nov 2011): http://www.todayszaman.com/news-264185-a-town-attesting-to-history-along-the-aegean-ayvalik.html]

Not many trips can be traced back to the reading of one book, but that is the case with my recent hop down the Aegean coast of Turkey. I’ve always taken a passive interest in the near-history of this part of the world, and upon reading Bruce Clark’s Twice a Stranger – a fine account of the human effects of the Greek-Turkish population exchanges of the 1920s – I couldn’t resist visiting some of the areas described. Whilst one book inspired me to embark on the trip, one was also nearly responsible for making me pack up my bags to return home. I was accompanied most of the way by Robert Byron’s thrilling The Road to Oxiana, in which he describes marauding around the Persia and Afghanistan of the 1930s: wild horse chases across the central Asian steppe, the discovery of little-known ancient architectural treasures, dodging the Persian secret police, dysentry – it all rather put me to shame. Whilst I had nothing to rival these adventures, described below are my own peregrinations around a different, no less fascinating part of the world.

I arrived in Ayvalık exhausted after a day-long bus journey from Istanbul, which included an unexpected ferry crossing of a choppy Marmara Sea. The town is situated on the craggy north-western Aegean coast of Turkey, and for hundreds of years it was overwhelmingly home to Greeks, at the time subjects of the Ottoman Empire. After the First World War, the Greek armed forces used this western coast – with Izmir as unofficial capital – as a base to push as far into Asia Minor as possible. The reconquest by Turkish national resistance forces became one of the central, triumphant narratives of the Turkish War of Independence, and after the declaration of the Turkish Republic in 1923 the Greeks of Turkey and the Turks of Greece were swapped wholesale and sent to their ‘natural’ homelands. In Ayvalık, the entire Greek population was resettled on the nearby Greek island of Lesvos, and the many Turks of Lesvos went in the opposite direction. I have fond memories of childhood holidays in the small towns of Petra and Mytilene on Lesvos, which were favourite summer spots of my family. Of course, I knew little of this turbulent history at the time; all I really remember is the faint outline of the Anatolian coast high above the horizon on clear days, and the Sunday afternoon military parades on the waterfront, which I now realize carried far more significance than I could have understood then.

Two large mosques command Ayvalık, and – despite the minarets that have been put up alongside them – it’s impossible not to recognise them as Orthodox churches, as indeed they were originally intended. When the Greeks disappeared and the Turkish population swelled it was decided to simply convert these two churches (and many elsewhere) into mosques, like miniature Hagia Sophias. From the inside it’s difficult to imagine the now whitewashed walls covered in iconography, but from the outside (aside from the minaret) they obviously follow all the typical architectural conventions of a large Greek Orthodox church. They’re a magnificent sight, silently commanding the town, unavoidable once you rise to any kind of elevation. Evidence of Greek heritage is hard to miss elsewhere too, and most immediately obvious in the enigmatic backstreets behind the harbour. Roads evidently not designed for the modern vehicle wind past old wooden houses in various stages of disrepair. At night
they become even more deserted than in the day, and seem to suggest even more
secrets. Occasionally you come across a house with carved Greek lettering dating back to the 19th century, as often as not practically caving in on itself. Life goes on furtively above your head: muffled sounds behind open windows and closed curtains, from protruding bay windows that lean out and seem to touch each other across the street.

The island of Cunda is a siren call audible from the Ayvalık waterfront, and I yielded to it, postponing my onward journey by a day. Cunda has a refined air about it: the harbour is smarter than Ayvalık’s, people give the impression of being even more horizontally relaxed. On arrival I followed the instinct that I always try to satisfy upon landing on a new island: walk back and upwards as high as possible to get an idea of the place from above. Following the winding old streets, I came across the derelict old Greek cathedral on the hillside, forgotten in a kind of scrubland, unused for almost a century. Disappointingly, (but unsurprisingly), I couldn’t get in as I’d hoped, but I did manage to peer inside through the now-empty windows. It’s been so badly damaged over time – by earthquakes and neglect – that it now looks as though the whole thing is only held up by the wood scaffolding that now fills the interior: to what end one can only guess. Nearby, another old church has almost entirely collapsed into rubble, only a crumbling apse remaining – battered and open to the elements, apparently waiting to be put out of its misery. I left it forgotten and forlorn, and climbed the rest of the short way up to the top, from which, looking west, I could make out the faint outline of Lesvos.

One of the paradoxes in this corner of the world is the contrast between its surface picturesqueness and its bloody, conflicted history. The residue of the latter is evident in the thundering nationalism of the politics, a taste of which I got as I was waiting to catch the boat to take me back from Cunda to Ayvalık. It was late afternoon and I was sitting in a café by the harbour, when a loud and apparently stirring recording of the Istiklal Marşı (the Turkish national anthem) struck up entirely unannounced from somewhere nearby. Exactly who was playing it, and why, I’ve no idea, but those around me weren’t splitting any hairs. All conversation immediately stopped; I looked around and within seconds only one person (apart from me) wasn’t standing silently, hand clutching breast, eyes staring grimly into the middle distance. I thought this lone sitter must have been a Greek, but he spotted me from across the restaurant and gestured for me to stand and do the same as everyone else: puzzling as he himself remained sitting. When it had finished everybody sat back down and returned to their tea or games of tavla; I looked back and realised that the only reason the man hadn’t stood was because he was disabled.

Cunda is about as secular as you get in Turkey (the two churches here weren’t even converted symbolically – just left to go to seed), the call to prayer from the single, isolated, mosque on the peninsula doesn’t even make it to the harbour. If you measure by the nauseatingly quaint image of old men playing tavla outside backstreet tea houses, or the loquacious women holding court on the steps in front of their houses, the Greeks and Turks on either side of the Aegean are irrefutably similar. The Turks of the Aegean wave the flag as enthusiastically as anywhere, and whilst elsewhere in Turkey these days you can easily forget that the Greeks were once bitter enemies, (there are others to point the finger at now), here the older enmity is still tangible – the narcissism of small differences.

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