Friday, August 5, 2011


On Friday, August 5th we travelled to Antakya, Turkey.  Antakya, also known as the ancient city of Antioch, is well known for its history of religious, cultural, and ethnic diversity.  Both of our classes for the Duke in Turkey program have focused on these three topics and we felt that Antakya was an apt location to study these issues further.

We began our first day at the Hatay Archeological Museum (Hatay is the province in which Antakya is located).  The Hatay Archeological Museum has artifacts from the Chalcolithic, Old Bronze Era, the Middle and Late Bronze Era, the Hittites, and the Roman Era.  Across the whole museum there are beautiful mosaics not only Antakya but from surrounding towns such as Daphne (modern day Harbiye) and Samandag.  I was very surprised by the size of some of the mosaics; they were gigantic and the walls were full of pictures of animals, portraits of people, and geometric designs.   Most of the mosaics were from the Roman period and there were some Roman statues as well.

We spent the rest of the day exploring the town and trying to get a feel for Antakya.  Luckily our hostel was right in the middle of the city and to get anywhere to eat or explore was literally a hop and a skip away.  Antakya is almost right on the Syrian border and I expected that the city would be more provincial and conservative than Istanbul.  However, I was surprised by how modern and cosmopolitan the city was.  I felt completely comfortable walking around in shorts and more women than I expected (especially women around my age) wore shorts or less conservative clothes.  I also expected all the women to wear headscarves but again I was surprised to find that there was almost equal percentage of women who wore headscarves as those who did not.  On the streets of Antakya you could find many of the same stores you would find in malls in Istanbul and we met people every day who spoke at least some English.

The second day we woke up early in the morning to beat the heat and walked about 20 minutes up a mountain to the Grotto of Saint Peter, which is said to be the first Church established by Peter, a disciple of Jesus.  We were the only ones there that morning and the Church was beautifully situated in the side of the mountain.  The Church used to be an open religious space but in the last couple of years has been turned into a museum by the government.  Isa (an Eastern Orthodox Christian who I will talk more about later), told us the next day that he used to go up to the Church all the time to pray but that after it was turned into a museum by the government the guards  told him he had to pay in order to enter.  Isa refused to pay to enter a place that was sacred to him and he told us that they eventually let him in without paying.

Antakya is rich not only in Christian history but also Jewish and Islamic history and we were lucky enough to meet an Isa on our third day in Antakya.  Isa spoke English and walked us around all the religious sites in Antakya including the Eastern Orthodox Church, a Protestant Church (the minister was South Korean and many of the signs in the Church were both in Korean, Turkish, and English), the Roman Catholic Church, a Jewish Synagogue, and the Habibi Neccar Mosque (which used to be a church).  We were so fortunate to meet Isa randomly, that the only way I can describe it is as serendipitous.  Isa was a wonderful contact and friend; he even helped us set up a beautiful full day boat trip in the Mediterranean the next day.

Antakya was full of unexpected but wonderful people, culture, and traditions.  There is nothing better than the discovery that a place and the people who live there are more than you could have ever expected or hoped for.  Antakya served many roles for me but it will remain a place in my heart of serendipitous meetings, friendly locals, gorgeous scenery, rich history, and an inspiring example for everyone of religious, ethnic, and cultural tolerance.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

"Of course, it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it's not real?"

July 13, 2011

Today was a long day with lots of walking.  We went to four districts of Istanbul - Galata, Beyoglu, Taxim, Nisantisi.  We started out our day near Galata Tower which was built in the 6th century by the Byzantines.  The story goes that this tower and surrounding area in Galata was not destroyed when the Ottomans conquered Istanbul in 1453 because they did not resist against the Muslim invaders.  Hence today you can still see the Galata Tower on the Golden Horn skyline.

We were given an assignment to walk through Galata, Beyoglu, Nisantisi and see if we could feel the huzun (melancholy) that Orhan Pamuk writes he could feel in his memoir, Istanbul.  While you could see broken fountains and a couple of disintegrating wooden houses, there was still a vibrancy to the area.  My classmates and I had already decided that Pamuk suffers from depression, as we have a hard time finding the dying melancholy city he writes so often about.

We ended our class trip discussing Pamuk's memoir and travels that day at Limonata, a very nice (and expensive) restaurant at the top of a mall in Nisantisi that specializes in exotic flavors of lemonade.  After a long hot walk through the city it was nice to get to relax and drink some really good lemonade.

The highlight of my day, however, was getting the chance to see the last Harry Potter movie in Beyoglu.  Because we were in Europe and the time change, I actually got to see the movie almost two days ahead of everyone in the US.  Going to the movies in Turkey was definitely a different experience.  We walked in a small but tall doorway and it opened up to a large marble room with gigantic ceilings.  I think the movie theater used to be an old opera house because there were opera boxes on the side of the room and in the back.  Surprizingly there wasn't very many people there besides us and we had most of this gigantic theater to ourselves.   A man looked at our tickets and helped us find our seats with a flashlight (like in the old movies you see).  Then halfway through the movie the screen went black and the lights came on.  We didn't know what was happening, our first assumption was that something was wrong with the movie or the screen and we weren't going to be able to finish watching the movie.  To our surprise the man who helped us find our seats came back out from behind the curtain in the door and had boxes of popcorn, candy, and drinks (like at a baseball game) and we were relived to discover that in Turkey you have intermission and the film was not damaged so we would be able to continue watching the last Harry Potter movie.

It was a wonderful day exploring the city and beginning to feel like a true Istanbullus.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Dondurma on the Bosphorus


Tonight a couple of us went down to Bebek, which is a beautiful area of Istanbul right on the Bosphorus.  It is one of the richest neighborhoods in Istanbul and you could tell by the restaurants, cars, and by the people.  To get to Bebek from Boazagici University, where we are staying you have to go down a really long big hill that takes you straight down to the Bosphorus.  I had been told that the hill was almost vertical but I thought that people were exaggerating, no hill could be as bad as they were making it out to be.  Boy was I wrong, that hill made my knees hurt going down (because it was so steep I had to keep myself from going to fast and falling down) and made my calves hurt going up (going up I literally felt like I was crouching down just to get up that hill).  We were all scared of falling walking down but truthfully if you fell backwards you wouldn't have hurt yourself at all because the ground was so sloped that the ground behind you was not that far at all from you.  If you fell you literally would have fallen only a couple of feet before you hit the ground.

Once we got to Bebek, however, we realized that our treacherous trek down the hill was well worth the sights we saw.  Bebek is a bustling area with lots of places to go hang out and eat.  Out of all the sights and smells, however, the one worth mentioning was the ice cream (or as they call it dondurma) and waffle places.  For 1.5 TL you could get a scoop of the most delicious ice cream.  They had some of the most interesting flavors - hazelnut (which they seem obsessed with), pistachio, sour cream ( which is basically what they call yogurt), and all sorts of interesting fruits.  I settled for banana dondurma and strawberry sorbet which was so amazing that I would it eat it everyday if you didn't have to walk down and up that awful hill.  They also sold these very interesting waffle things where you could pile up fruits and all these whipped toppings, they smelled like heaven and for 9 TL you could eat heaven too.  I didn't get a waffle thing-am-bob tonight but definitely soon I am going to make the trek back down that hill and eat one.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Amazing Grace

- Blue Mosque
- Hagia Sophia
- Pudding Shop
-Topkapi Palace
- Bazaar
- Boat Ride up the Bosphorus

Today was an extremely long day where we met at 8:45 in the morning and did not return to our rooms until midnight.  We toured Sultanahmet for most of today which is where the old Roman hippodrome was as well as the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and Topkapi Palace are located.  Next we went to the Bazaar which has over 44 streets of shops that are all enclosed in one building that looks very oriental with cobblestone walkways and storefronts that are cloth over hangings coming out of the stone walls.  Sultanahmet and the area around the Bazaar were very touristy and were much more expensive than the places around where we are staying are, although you could haggle at the Bazaar and reminded me of Chinatown in NYC.

The last (and quite possibly the longest) event we had today was the boat ride up the Bosphorus.  We arrived on the Bosphorus after figuring out how to use the Turkish light rail system (which was pretty neat because the tracks are right on the main road and cars sometimes use the same lanes that the light rails use) around 6:30.  Our boat was supposed to leave at 7 so we had plenty of time to make sure we got there ok and didn’t get lost.  The boat was late, however, and we had to until a little after 8 before we could get on.  We were supposed to have dinner onboard as well so we were very hungry and tired and hated having to wait so long for the boat.  We also repeatedly walked about a half mile up and down the port as the boat was having difficulty docking due to the tides and the position of other boats and kept changing which side of the port is was going to land on.  

So by the time we actually got on the boat we were tired, had walked until our bodies ached, and were extremely hungry.   Once we were on we realized that there were no tables to eat at, only a couple of rows of long benches that you could sit on and watch the Bosphorus as you traveled up the strait.  We sat down and after going to the Asian port of Istanbul we picked up about 200 passengers who sat down with us.

The boat was crowded and we were hungry and tired.  Our professors had picked this boat ride because Cemalnor, a famous Sufi teacher, was coming on this boat.  We had met her the  day before and she came and sat next to us on the boat.  Before she was able to come sit down everyone on the bus (except for us) stood up to greet her as she passed by them.   She walked around the whole boat and greeted every person taking their hands kissing them and then placing them on their heads.  The people on the boat treated her like royalty offering scarves and blankets to help keep her warm (which she always kindly turned down and then gave to a couple of the girls in our group who were shivering).  One lady even came and knelt on the ground (which was disgusting with seawater and dirt) and placed her palms up on Cemalnor’s knee to act as cup holder for her glass of tea.  People kept constantly coming up and offering food and drink to her.  People came to ask questions, she would sign their books, and she prayed with others who asked.

She told us to ask questions, and we did.  She had two analogies about Sufism she related to us.  In one, she compared Sufism to the periodic table and the other was the classic coal and diamond analogy.  What I thought was most interesting is when I asked her how important Rumi’s poetry was to Sufism, she said she considered Rumi’s poetry to be as of equal importance as the Quran is.  I could see how this could make many devout Muslims angry.

After traveling two hours up the Bosphorus we finally started to turn around to head back to port.  It was nearly 10pm and we knew it would take at least another two hours to get back to port and back to our dorm.  Our evening that was supposed to end at 9pm actually ended at midnight.  For many of us we thought the night couldn’t get worse than being tired, cold, and hungry but then one of Cemalnor’s disciples came down and asked our group to sing for the 250 Sufi Muslims that were on the top deck.  None of us wanted to sing and we couldn’t think of a song we all knew.  Eventually we decided on Don’t Stop Believing and hesitantly sung it the people.  Once we had handed the microphones back in they asked for another song.  One of the girls, who was from a Catholic all girls college suggested we sing Amazing Grace since we all knew it.  When she said it at first I thought she was joking, who would sing Amazing Grace to over 200 Sufi Muslims?  No one objected to her idea so we sung Amazing Grace to a boatful of Sufi’s while we were tired, cold, and hungry as we finally began the two hour trip back down the Bosphorus to end our day that started at 8:45 that morning.

Friday, July 8, 2011

First Day!

Today was the first day we toured Istanbul and got to see some of the sights. Istanbul is beautiful and the campus that I am attending is situated right on the Bosporus (the body of water behind me).

This morning we had a wonderful brunch at a very nice restraurant and the rest of the day we spent meeting a Sufi master, Cemalnur, who is considered by some of her followers to be an idol. We met her mother later and one boy came up to her and kissed her hands three times: one for himself, one for someone who died in his immediate family, and one for a family friend who had died. Even her mother is considered to be “saintly” and to be blessed by her is like being blessed by the pope or a catholic bishop.

We then went to Kariye Muzesi which is a 4th century Byztantine Church that was rebuilt in the 11 century and the beautiful gold mosaics and mural paintings date to 1340. The church was beautiful but the area was touristy and the lunch we had outside was much more expensive than other places we had been.

Last we went back to the mosque we had stopped by earlier and we listened to a post-maghrib event of Kenan Rifai mawlid in Fatih neighborhood. We sat up on the balconies while the men sat on the floor below. A man sung in Arabic almost the entire time but during the ceremony a man came up and puts drops of scented rose water on our hands to clean our hands and our faces (and to wake us up!). They also gave us candy for some odd reason.

We went back to our rooms and headed out to eat dinner. I had a wonderful dinner near the cell phone shop we had got our phones at earlier in the morning. The food is so cheap here! I had two chicken wraps (which were very good), fries, peach juice, and tea for less than 5 YTL which is about $3.
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