Monday, December 28, 2009

Christmas in Cappadocia

By Claire and Chuck

We woke to a gorgeous day of blue sky—how lucky can you get? It’s Christmas after all! We drowsed in bed for awhile, wishing each other a Merry Christmas in our wonderfully romantic room, still not quite believing we were here. Breakfast was upstairs in the Terrace room. We found Sergio bustling about putting together a beautiful breakfast and tea—apple for me, ҫay for Chuck.

Sergio sat with us and we talked for quite awhile; his English is so good we were able to ask lots of questions about Turkey, Islam, culture, food, politics and more. He asked what our plans were for the day and we told him we were going to an underground city and on a hike through the Ilhara Valley. He gave us a tip about getting a ride from one end of the hike to the other by having lunch at a place on the river at the end of the hike and asking the restaurant owner for a ride to the beginning. He suggested we bargain for the price of the ride.

One of our intentions in visiting the Cappadocia area was to visit an underground city. There are a number of these to choose from. Some of them date back 4000 years to Hittite days and they were used to make and store wine before they became alternate living spaces. Byzantine Christians used them to escape marauding Persian and Arabic armies in the 6th and 7th centuries AD, armed with an early warning system of beacons that could send messages from Jerusalem to Constantinople in a few hours. Warned, the Christians would escape into hidden tunnels leading to vast underground cities. 37 cities have been opened and there are at least 100 more. 10,000 people lived in Derinkuyu; fewer lived in other cities scattered throughout the region.

There are seven levels at Derinkuyu (claustrophobics beware!); you can walk all the way to the bottom and look up to see the sky through the air ventilation shaft.

The air shafts of the cities were disguised as wells; when someone tried to poison the well, they only poisoned the floor at the bottom; the shafts also served as an excavation route for debris as the city was dug to deeper levels. There are rolling stones intended as a last ditch defense to block the passages if Muslim soldiers should find their way into the cities.

We did run across a sign advertising another underground city, Gaziemir, claiming it was the largest underground city. We had already seen our city, so we did not stop. We have read that it had churches, a winery, food depots, hamams (bath houses), and tandoor fireplaces; there is also evidence that it served as a subterranean caravanserai—with space for camels!

Didar, I hope you notice your contribution to making the cold weather in Cappadocia in general, and the caves in particular, more bearable. I refer to the scarf you gave me upon a return from Scotland; it is both beautiful and warm and has been gratefully worn during this season. Further, it was Claire's head covering while in the Mevlâna Museum in Konya.

The underground city was much larger than I expected. I was sure I would have to flee to the top due to claustrophobia; but it never happened. The rooms were quite large (for an underground city!) and I could imagine people living down there—but not 10,000! The tunnels leading down and connecting rooms were rather tight. I’d hate to think of everyone trying to get out at once.

We drove through this beautiful, interesting area to the Ihlara Valley. Our mistake was seeing the underground city during the peak of the day’s sunshine. By the time we started our hike in this deep gorge, the sun was almost gone.

We started at the river restaurant since by now it was past lunchtime for us. We asked about a ride and agreed on a price of 20 TL. We would be driven to the start of the hike. We both decided to order the trout since this area is famous for it and we had a view of the river rushing by us.

The food was good but I’d forgotten how much work it is avoiding the bones for little reward. I think I’m done with trout. We gathered our things, locked up the car, and hopped into Ekrem’s car. The drive was 9 Km away and we were dropped right at the start—360 steep stairs leading down into the gorge. What a way to spend Christmas day! So many things to see, including the ubiquitous cave houses.

We had to squeeze through some tight places

I try to imagine this huge rock falling from above. It’s the size of a two storey building.

Tea house along the way

We arrived back at our car just before it became too cold; but the shadows were deepening. It was only 3 pm!

We drove back to Göreme with the idea of resting up for our Christmas dinner and a Whirling Dervish Semâ. But first, we had to get some tea! Back to the “boys club”, now a comfortable place and only .50 TL. We love this town so much and enjoy just walking around. There are very few cars and it almost feels traffic free. Arriving back at Pashahan, Sergio greeted us and invited us upstairs for tea. How could we refuse? We chatted for awhile and he assured us that we could come up for tea anytime and to treat it like our own home. We tried to rest for awhile then left for dinner at The Orient, a recommendation from Sergio. What a perfect place! The ambience was just right, cozy and warm, yet elegant. Our glasses steamed up just as we walked in. The service was formal but comfortable.

Chuck ordered a fixed plate, 4 course menu. I ordered a meze plate (assorted appetizers) and a mixed grill. What can I say? Fabulous! We were also brought a plate of marinated tomatoes and olives and toasted bread. I think I died and went to heaven.

Unfortunately, it was now 8:20 and our ride to the Semâ was coming at 8:30. We hurried through dessert, rushed back and off we went on another adventure!

We finally were able to see the Whirling Dervishes, but at the relatively high price of €25 each. This was arranged by Sergio, our innkeeper and (now) friend. This included transportation both ways and an opportunity to see the 1249 caravanserai at night. I like to think that Marco Polo rested here with his camels along the Silk Road.

The Semâ (unification with God) ceremony that night was done in a fairly intimate setting with about 50 people in attendance inside the caravanserai. There were 5 whirling dervishes, a “performance master,” and four musicians (flute, kanun (zither), large tambourine [without jangles] and drums); the performance lasted about 45 minutes. There are 7 stages of Semâ, which represents a mystical journey of the spirit to union with God and return to the world. You may skip the numbered stages of the Semâ, which I include for the curious:
1. A eulogy to the Prophet, who represents love, and all prophets before him; to praise them is to praise God, who created them.
2. A drum sound symbolizing the Devine order of the Creator.
3. Improvised instrumental music representing the first breath, which gives life to everything.
4. The dervishes greet each other in a thrice repeated circular walk, with musical accompaniment; this represents the salutation of soul to soul, concealed by shapes and bodies.
5. The whirling in 4 salutes, each initiated and ended by representing God's unity. a. Man's birth to truth by feeling and mind—representing God as Creator and his own state of creature. b. Man's rapture witnessing the splendor of creation, before God's greatness and omnipotence. c. The dissolution of rapture into love and the complete submission of self to and into the loved One, a state of unity. d. Following the end of his spiritual journey and his “ascent” he returns to his task and his state of subservience—to God, the prophets and all creation; this is demonstrated by placing arms crosswise, representing the unity of God.
6. This part is a reading from the Quaran (The Koran): Unto God belong the East and the West, and wherever you turn, there is God's countenance. He is All-Embracing, All-knowing.
7. The ceremony ends with a prayer for the peace of the souls of all Prophets and all believers. At the end of the Semâ ritual the dervishes silently return to their cells for meditation.

The dervish's headdress represents the ego's tombstone, his white skirt the ego's shroud. By removing his black cloak he begins his spiritual journey. The whirling causes the mind to participate in the universal revolution of God's creations—the sun and planets. Crossed arms represent the unity of God. While whirling, when the hands are open, the right hand is raised to the heavens to receive God's beneficence and the left hand is lowered to convey God's spiritual gifts to the people; he thus embraces all of humankind and all of creation in love.

This is the part of Islam that the American media, unfortunately, never finds occasion to report. For a warmly readable, but wholly secular, tale about another part of the Islamic world, I highly recommend Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea; this true story describes how an American helped bring education to Islamic girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

I was thrilled to be able to visit an actual caravanserai (caravan palace). How romantic to imagine people following the route of the 13th century silk road. These staging posts were built roughly a day’s travel (about 15 km to 30 km) apart to provide food and lodging and offer trade.

Fortunately, we had bundled up. All the attendees gathered in the open-air courtyard, most of us snapping pictures as best we could in the dark. The lighting was wonderful. Soon, we were taken below to an indoor room and seated right in front of the floor where the performance would take place. The dervishes quietly walked in and the Semâ began. I was fascinated and found it very soothing. I recommend seeing one of these performances if you visit Turkey, keeping in mind, that not all performances are alike. After the performance, we went back to the courtyard and enjoyed a spice tea in the cold night air. What an experience!

Being chauffeured to and from was very nice. Sergio was waiting for us when we returned and wanted to know how it went. We pretty much headed straight for bed. It had been a long and wonderful day. This will be the most memorable Christmas day of my life. How did I get so lucky?

Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. ~ Seneca, Roman Philosopher


Karin said...

Your experience of the Dervishes has brought tears to my eyes. Really, what a wonderful, wonderful experience this part of Turkey has been for you. Cappadocia, the hike, all of it. A wonderful Christmas like no other! While we are having our christmas experience here in Prague, it pales to yours. Michael and I now want to go back to Turkey, but to see some of what you have seen and not Constantinople. (Since I live in Greece, I must call it that rather than Istanbul! Ha, ha).

Thanks for are blessed. And just for the record, I brought home a drawing of a whirling dervish with the name "Mevlana" which then led me to read some of Rumi's writings. He is so insightful!

Happy New Year!
Karin from Paros now in Prague and wanting to be in Turkey!

Chuck and Claire said...

We are happy that our post prompted you to bring home a drawing of a whirling dervish and to look up more about Rumi. If only the world could be so tolerant.