Monday, July 23, 2007

Travel Journal (13)--Around Guzelyurt

The Ihlara Valley hike made for a long day. So the bed at the Karballa Hotel in Guzelyurt was a welcome site. Guzelyurt is pleasant, low-key, untouristed town. Until 1923, it was the Greek town of Karballa. And like many of the small towns I visited in Cappadocia (Mustafapasa, Urgup, Ayvali, Derinkuyu), Guzelyurt was not at all Ottoman in appearance, with houses in the Greek style dominating the local architecture . A fine example was the Karballa Hotel itself, built in 1853 as an Orthodox convent. My room had formerly been a nun's cell. The dining room was the old refectory.

Karballa Hotel, Guzelyurt---fomer convent

Besides myself, the other guests included a half-dozen French travelers, and a group of Americans on a Rick Steves tour of Turkey. I have always been a little condescending of tour travel (although this prejudice underwent a drastic reassessment a few days later in the Republic of Georgia). These Americans were gregarious and friendly, in the way of we Americans, but nothing I observed altered my views about tour travel. The group seemed much like an insular, moving party that simply changed locations every night. They were having a blast, among themselves, but from my observation of their behavior at Guzelyurt, I wonder about any real interaction with the places they visited. I recognize that this shows arrogance on my part, so hopefully I am wrong (as if often the case) in my assumptions. But I did chuckle a bit about it later on when I read a summary of Guzelyurt on the Rick Steves website. He gushes of its "Ottoman facades" as if he has discovered this unknown gem (though the folks at Rough Guide, Blue Guide and Lonely Planet have been writing about it for many, many years now).

Guzelyurt is indeed a good representation of traditional life in small-town Turkey, if you are looking for that sort of thing--pleasant enough, a bit dusty, old women sitting in doorways, young boys kicking soccer balls in the streets, donkeys swishing their tails, etc. We joined the locals at the central plaza after supper. Almost every town, no matter how small, has at least one statue to Ataturk. Guzelyurt's tribute to the founder of modern Turkey lies in the center of their shady, park-like plaza. Tables were set all around, where men would sit, talk, smoke and drink endless glasses of "chai." The stores and cafes around the plaza were still lit-up, active and open at 10:00, with men watching a boxing match on television and playing a domino-like game known as "O.K." I don't know what the local women were doing, exactly, but suspect they were enjoying having all their men out of the house for a while! Even in today's Turkey, activity is still very much segregated by sex--men hang out with men, and women with women. While one will see young couples together, or families on an outing, mixed groupings of men and women are rarely seen.

Former Church of St. Gregory the Theologian--now mosque

We visited the former church of St. Gregory the Theologian early the next morning. In fact, he was born in this area and there had been a church on this spot since 385. The current building, a large structure in the Greek style--was completed in 1896. It remained a church until 1923, when the unfortunate exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey emptied Cappadocia of its 1900-year old Christian community. One can still see these large 19th-century churches scattered around the area. Some of them were never converted to mosques, but are simply standing empty.

What's left of the iconostasis of Nicholas I

The Church of St. Gregory the Theologian, unfortunately, was converted to a mosque. The iman met us there and unlocked the courtyard gate by the former bell-tower that had been bastardized into a minaret. He was a young man, clean-shaven, dressed normally, who could pass for any other man on the street. I encountered the same thing at a mosque we visited in Nigde. This hardly jibes with our American impression of what a iman should look like. But then, this is Turkey. The inside is now completely whitewashed. In the early 1800s, Tsar Nicholas I donated a beautiful wooden iconostasis to the church, as well as a bishop's throne. Both are still in the mosque, but the iconostasis was moved from before the altar to the South side of the building, facing Mecca. The icon panels were removed, and probably destroyed. Any other religious imagery was chiseled away. The woodwork is still beautiful, in spite of the desecration. I was glad to come here, but the immediacy of the transformation from church to mosque was certainly depressing. As we were leaving, the Rick Steves bus was just pulling up. Hopefully the tour guide, or the iman, or somebody, would tell them something about this site prior to its being a mosque, or something about St. Gregory. And then somebody needs to tell Rick Steves himself that this is NOT the birthplace of Gregorian chant, as he alludes to on his website. Sigh.

We visited several other churches near Guzelyurt: Yuksel Kilise (High Church) and Kizil Kilise (Red Church) close by, and then the Eski Gumulser Monastery near Nigde. High Church sits just out of town on a promontory. There's nothing left to see inside the church, but the setting provides a dramatic observatory for both Guzelyurt and the nearby Monastery Valley. Turan and I took advantage of a rock outcropping, a ledge, 2 steps and some advantageous toe-holds to scramble up on the roof of the structure.

Turan atop the Yuksel Kilise (notice UT Longhorns cap)

The Red Church is unique to the area. It is incredibly old--5th or 6th century. And it is not part of a cave church, but is free-standing in the middle of a wide valley. Red Church's architecture stands out, as well. In fact, it is similar in some ways to the Georgian churches. Apparently some efforts are underway to preserve what is left of the site.

Kizil Kilise (Red Church)

Kizil Kilise (Red Church)

Eski Gumulser Monastery is certainly worth the effort to visit. The 10th century church and monastery are within an extensive cave complex. And yet, these chambers were not discovered until 1963. Because of this, the frescoes had not been defaced, either by Muslims gouging-out the eyes, or by mindless graffiti. The chapel is guarded even today. But the frescoes are magnificent. The church is particularly noted for a fresco of a smiling Virgin Mary.

Eski Gumulser Monastery


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your continued sharing; it looks like an amazing place, but also, among the beauty, a hint of sadness that the churches are empty.

Regarding Group Travel, I do tend to agree with the insular comment, but, as someone who does occasionally group travel, I find it helpful when exploring a large country or area in limited time. And also when my language skills aren't up to scratch. Though it can be fun communicating in gestures.

John said...

Thanks, Ian. Yes, these sights are certainly tinged with sadness (stay with me a little longer--I will shortly be in Georgia where, in contrast, the ancient churches are alive and overflowing with people).

I realize now that I was prejudiced towards group travel primarily because I had never experienced it--thinking, of course, that the way I was traveling was obviously the best. A few days later I was to join a unique group tour, and this changed my perspective somewhat. I still prefer the spontaneity and flexibility of solo travel, but realize that the right group tour can be incredible, just as a poorly thought-out solo expedition can be a colossal waste of time.

D.I. Dalrymple said...

John, I'm just loving the detailed travelogue here. It's a real treasure. Keep 'em coming!

Anonymous said...

Again, simply amazing. Do go on.


Anonymous said...

Again, thanks for the chance to see the places where Christian History was unbroken for so many centuries and produced so many saints. I have met several Orthodox Christians (most now of blessed memory) who were forced to evacuate from these areas in the early years of the last century. It is truly sad to see them empty and used as tourist attractions. At least they still stand as silent witnesses. How much is done to preserve what is left of them, to record and to study? Of course, actual worship is out of the question.

John said...

Anon, I must say that Turkey is very much aware of the tourist value of these sites. In that sense, some efforts are being made towards their preservation. Everyone in Cappadocia depends to some degree on tourism, so the days of mindless vandalism are long past. Several of the cave churches in Goreme Open Air Park have undergone restorative work. The problem is that there are simply so many of these churches and monasteries, and they are often somewhat difficult to reach. I know that there is a foundation that is seeking to preserve the Red Church from further ruin. Clearly though, there is much more that could be done. Some of the churches are in relatively good shape and not being used as mosques, such as the High Church out of Guzelyurt. It would not take much to have it usable as a place of Christian worship again. If only....