Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Travel Journal (17)--On the Ground in Georgia

St. George--Tavispubleba Square

What a difference a year makes. I vividly recall last year's first impression of Georgia: a midnight flight out of Istanbul; a hard, bumpy, 2:30 AM landing on a darkened Tbilisi airport runway; no gates, we exited the plane onto the tarmac and walked across to a drab block building; we crushed together trying to reach one of the 2 drowsy customs agents; once processed, we ran the gauntlet of taxi drivers clamoring for our business; a ride into the city in a sputtering Lada, circa 1975; past old men manning makeshift sidewalk cigarette stands beneath a single light bulb...

It was so atmospheric that I was actually looking forward to the experience again this year. I was to be disappointed. A sleek, modern, well-lit, state-of-the-art terminal, complete with 4 gates, has replaced the old block building. Going through customs was a snap, and I entered onto a spacious, airy lobby, complete with shops. A new Volkswagen Passat served as my taxi into the city.

The new Presidential Palace taking shape

Tbilisi itself, in the morning light, offered even more surprises. New construction was going up all over the place. As I would learn, the city was undergoing a genuine estate boom. The monument I observed under construction last year in the center of Tavispubleba Square is now complete: a golden statue of St. George is now in place in the very spot once occupied by the obligatory statue of Lenin. It is satisfying to note that Lenin is but a flash in the historical pan, while the Faith of St. George is alive and flourishing some 1700 years after his death.

On the other side of the river, a grand Presidential Palace is rising above the bluff. The jury is still out on this one--we'll just have to wait and see--but by and large, new architecture seems rooted in tradition, and offers a sharp repudiation the garishness and monumentality of the Soviet era. Historic Georgian-style buildings are being restored and reconditioned. Communist-era eyesores are coming down. Former churches that were closed by the Soviets and put to other uses are being painstaking restored to the former condition.

Bolnisi Sioni Church

But beyond that, I noticed improvements in the little things, as well. Tbilisi is noticeably cleaner than before. Regular garbage pick-up seems to be underway, the streets seem much less littered, and new green sidewalk trash receptacles dot the downtown area. Where my son and I had hiked along twisting and overgrown trails below the walls of the old fortress, there are now paved pathways, with observation platforms, lights and trash cans. Don't get me wrong, Tbilisi is in no danger of becoming another Prague--there's enough scruffiness to last for decades--but it does seem to be a city becoming really alive once more.

I was not to join my tour group until the next day, so I decided to put my free day to good use. I hired a car and driver and we set out for Bolnisi. I particularly wanted to visit the churches at Bolnisi Sioni and Dmanisi. I have found the Georgian style perhaps the most beautiful and awe-inspiring of the various Orthodox traditions. They are particularly noted for their soaring conical domes. But these churches--among Georgia's very oldest--are without domes. The early churches were simple basilicas. In later centuries, these domes would often be added to existing basilicas. I was eager to see these earliest churches, a subtle reminder that a dome does not necessarily an Orthodox church make.

St. Nino--Bolnisi Sioni Church

My driver was a young man named George. We set out for Bolsini in his late model Volvo station wagon. Our conversation was limited--his English was halting, my Georgian began and ended at "hello." Like most Georgians, he was a big fan of the U.S. and George Bush; Russia, not so much. George exclaimed "Russia...still Communist...crazy!", as he hit his head with the palm of his hand in exasperation. He was proud father, showing me a picture of his 2 year old son, whom he named Levon, after his own father.

Bolnisi Sioni Church

The town of Bolnisi was a pleasant surprise: wide streets lined with plane trees, attractive, colorful houses and shops, and no litter. The potato harvest was underway on the surrounding farmland. Horses pulling plows were turning up the potatoes, and then men and women were bent over piling the potatoes into long rows for loading. Some were resting and eating in the shade of the plane trees along the road. Old men or young boys drove horse-drawn carts filled with produce. In fact, these carts outnumbered automobiles along the road. All of this is picturesque and would have made an ideal tour-book type photograph to illustrate how "quaint" things are in lesser developed countries. I determined to take no such pictures. For these Georgians, in the timeless rhythm of their lives, often have more dignity than those of us in the advanced West. I would not demean them by using them as backdrops for a quaint photo-op.

Bolnisi Sioni Church dates back to the 5th Century, with the oldest religious inscriptions intact in Georgia. Sioni Church is on the outskirts of town, in a separate village, actually. From the outside it appears to be just a big barn of a building. The inside of the 3 nave basilica, however, was simply glorious. It was late morning, on a Thursday, and the church was active. Candles were flickering everywhere (to which I added my own), a priest was in and out and talking to members of his flock, young people were coming in to light candles and pray before the icons. I was reminded afresh of the stark difference between the Protestant and Orthodox mindset of "church." And to me, this is perhaps the greatest hurdle we face as Orthodoxy attempts to take root in American culture. For despite our intellectual agreement with the premise that church = people, our behavior often betrays our belief that "church" is something you do on Sunday, and the church building is seen in a utilitarian context almost--a place you go on Sunday. For Orthodox, churches are holy places, always open for business, so to speak. A closed church, waiting to be opened for Sunday services, is a foreign concept in Georgia. As someone--perhaps Fr. Stephen Freeman--said, Orthodox worship is like getting on a train that never stops. Churches are open, day in, day out, the cycles of prayer and worship continue on, as worshippers perform their devotions throughout the week, and at all hours.

Dmanisi Church

The church at Dmanisi was much more remote, not far from the Armenian border. Dmanisi was once the site of a substantial city, though now only the church remains. At least one priest was in residence, and there was a certain amount of activity here. The church's barn-like appearance was deceptive--I continued to be amazed at the height of the vaulted ceilings within.

Between Bolnisi and Dmanisi, George suggested that we visit the Tsugrugasheni Church. Occupying a rocky hilltop, Tsugrugasheni is a fine example of Georgian church-building during the height of the kingdom. The church has suffered mightily through the years, and is currently undergoing some much-needed restorative work. A service was going on when we arrived, and a number of people were crowded within the small nave. I had no idea as to what service it was exactly, or what was being chanted, until he got to the "alleuia, alleuia, alleuia." That, I know. I was moved by the incredibly beautiful silver icon of St. George. A woman came in and seemed near collapse from the walk up the hill. The priest sat next to her, offered her some water and ministered to her. She seemed better, so we eased out of the church and slowly made our way back to the modern world.

Tsugrugasheni Church

Monday, July 30, 2007

Travel Journal (16)--And Now for Something Completely Different...

Near Dmanisi

Georgia, that is. What a remarkable little place this is. Not much larger than West Virginia, with a population of only 5 1/2 million, Georgia is not exactly a major player on the world stage. A visit by George Bush in recent years, the NATO question, and disputes with Russia occasionally put the little nation in the headlines. But despite this, Georgia remains relatively unknown to the West.

I doubt that this worries the Georgians terribly. One remarkable aspect of their history is that they are not particularly warlike, having never been bent on conquest and expansion outside of Georgia. Throughout the centuries they have been content, seeking little more than to be left alone in their lush valleys, to raise their crops, drink the best wine in the world, worship according to their Orthodox faith, occasionally squabble among themselves, and sing and toast one another until the wee hours of the morning.

The 10th through the 13th centuries saw the glory days of the kingdom. Leaders like King David the Builder and "King" Tamar earned respect at home and abroad. The royal patronage of the Church and the arts made Georgia a beacon of civilisation. It was Georgia that salvaged the eastern part of the empire for the Byzantines after the Latin invasion of 1204. And their princesses provided brides for the Grand Comneni of Trebizond. But this golden era passed, as Georgia lay in a tough, tough neighborhood--the hinge where the expansive Persian, Turkic and Russian empires met (and clashed). From the 14th-century on, the Georgians have struggled to merely survive as a culture, in the light of successive waves of invasion from the Turks, from the Mongols, from the Persians, and from the Russians. And truth be told, the Georgians were not above fighting among themselves, and did not always present a united front in their struggle to survive.

Queen Tamar

And survive and persevere they have. The long years of Persian and Russian domination have left their mark (more so, probably than they would like to admit). But the Georgians have clung fiercely to their rich culture and traditions, their Faith, the unique Georgian language, and their alphabet (one of only 14 in the world, and one that puts you in mind of Tolkein's Elvish script). The Georgian Orthodox churches are packed--with young people, no less--and the liturgical life of the Church is rich and flourishing. The economy--while struggling--is improving. I was impressed with the sleek, new airport terminal. Tbilisi is enjoying a real estate and building boom. Things were simply cleaner than last year. There is hope for the future.

Despite their remote location, Georgians consider themselves proud Europeans, and are quite insistent on being considered as an integral part of Europe (hence the push for NATO membership). And they are European, but with an exotic twist. Their cuisine is much more akin to Turkey and Persia than Russia. Their Orthodoxy is rooted in Syria and Jerusalem, rather than Constantinople or Moscow. Their language and alphabet are totally unique. And their singing...well, Georgian polyphony is simply other-worldly, and unlike anything found in Europe. So, in short, Georgians are their own thing. They have no doubts about themselves. They know who they are, they know their God, and how they fit into the cosmic nature of things. European? Well...yes, but a European style tempered by long exposure to the Near East.

I like to step back and take a long, historical view of things. And I tend to fret about our culture. While we have certainly hogged the spotlight for the last 200 years or so, I wonder if our mongrel nation has what it takes, culturally, to survive for the long haul? Of course, as a Christian, our prayer must always be "Lord, come quickly." We hope not for a long haul, but for a rather short haul, actually. But, that being said, I still wonder about our staying power and the strength of a culture that is terribly broad, but often somewhat shallow. I don't worry about the Georgians. I'm sure they haven't seen their last invasion, but with what they've been through, I am convinced that there will always be a Georgia.

View from Sighnaghi

Friday, July 27, 2007

Travel Journal (15)--Winding down in Cappadocia

Balloon touching down near Uchisar

As the saying goes, all good things must come to an end, and so my time to leave Cappadocia approached. On my last full day there, we visited the underground city at Derinkuyu, 2 final cave churches at Cauvisin, and then looked around Uchisar, Goreme and Avanos one last time.

The site at Derinkuyu comprises 8 levels underneath the modern town. Experts estimate the elaborate maze uncovered thus far represents a mere tenth of its original extent. Cappadocians did not live here full time. But the underground cities could provide a place of refuge for many months during times of invasion. An elaborate network of tunnels connected the chambers. Somehow, no chamber was directly above another. The passageways could be closed off from the inside by giant rolling stones. All the chambers were well-ventilated, with cisterns and channels for water, as well. In addition to living quarters, they carved out storage chambers, stables, churches, schools, refectories and baptismal pools. Above ground, and just outside the entrance to the underground city, is the abandoned Greek Orthodox Church, bearing mute testimony to the fact that this was a Christian city until 1923.

Abandoned Greek Orthodox Church, Derinkuyu

At Cauvisin we visited 2 final cave churches: Pigeon House Church (the Church of Nikephoros Phokas) and the Church of St. John the Baptist. The Phokades were one of the great land owning families of Cappadocia. They rose steadily in both power and influence, culminating in General Nikephoros Phokas seizure of the throne in 963. In fact, he declared himself emperor in Cappadocia. To solidify his claim, he quickly married the Empress Theophano, widow of Romanos II. As she was no stranger to palace intrigue, the beautiful Theophano may have been more than the gruff military man had bargained for. One of the frescoes in the Pigeon House Church depicts Phokas and his empress, Theophano, on horseback. Supposedly, his half-Armenian nephew, John Tzimiskes, is depicted, as well.

The Emperor Nikephoros Phokas and Theophano

Although always popular with the people, Phokas was assassinated in 969 by his nephew--with the help, they say, of Theophano. It was thought that she planned to be the Empress of yet a third Emperor of Constantinople. But the wily Tzimiskes thought better of it, banishing Theophano and marrying the sister of Romanos II instead. He held the throne until his death in 976, at which time, Basil, the young son of Romanus II and Theophano--who had somehow managed to survive all this intrigue-- assumed the throne. He became one of the greatest Emperors of Byzantium and ruled until 1025. Somewhere along the way, the Phokades took time away from all their machinations to become patrons of this beautiful church.

Main chapel of Church of St. John the Baptist

The Church of St. John the Baptist has fewer remaining frescoes than its neighbor, but is much more extensive. In fact, the cave church consists of three separate chapels. What frescoes remain are very dim, but after much study, Turan and I were able to make out one depicting the head of St. John the Forerunner. I was also intrigued by a fresco depicting a youthful, and unidentified saint.

Head of St. John the Forerunner--Church of St. John the Baptist at Cauvisin

Before supper in Avanos, Turan and I walked around the city, and I listened to his plans for the future. He is engaged since last year, though in no hurry to wed. The career efforts he is putting forth now, he sees bearing fruit 4 to 5 years in the future. He believes in what he is doing, has faith in his country and its leaders, and is planning his life accordingly. Such thinking used to characterize us. Not so much, anymore: we must have everything now.

Fresco of unidentified saint--Church of St. John the Baptist, Cauvisin

We had a final feast that night at the Sofra Restaurant in Avanos. Metin (our driver), Turan and myself were joined by his boss, Adam, and Steven and Jill, a married couple who were British tour agents. He is a proud Scotsman (is there any other kind?) and she from the south of England. They were negotiating an arrangement with Adam and Turan's company that would bring British high school students to Turkey for mountain trekking. This engaging couple had been literally everywhere, though they were the farthest thing from "WIWIs"--travel bores who begin every sentence with "When I Was In...." As they had not seen Argentina and Georgia, they were keen to know my impressions of those countries, particularly the latter. Steven and Jill have a home in Scotland, and another in Devon, near Widecombe. Come to find out, I had once fallen into the River Tay not 3 miles from their house.

I was flattered that they were curious about my own travels, as they saw my journey being so peculiarly unAmerican. Among Europeans (and Australians, as well), we have a reputation for not being particularly adventurous in our travels, nor for traveling long at a time--a week here, a week there, and its back to work. I think that with so many of us, we submerge ourselves in a sea of debt early in life (sadly true in my own case), and then don't think of travel, if at all, until we are able to come up for air financially, so to speak, much later in life. Not so, the Europeans. Lengthy bouts of travel seem factored into their lifestyle from the start. We will travel, if we get around to it. Europeans will travel regardless. Its like the old line that we either live to work, or work to live.

Turan and I left to catch a whirling dervish show late that night. He attempted to explain the religious implications of it all. Frankly, I couldn't follow all the reasoning behind it. But apparently, the dervishes are devotees of a 13th-century Muslim mystic, Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi. A sect of Islam follows his teachings to this day. If all of Islam followed his teachings today, then we would be reading different headlines in the newspapers. This, from Rumi:

In generosity and helping others be like a river...
In compassion and grace be like a sun...
In concealing others faults be like a night...
In anger and fury be like a dead...
In modesty and humility be like a earth...
In tolerance be like a sea...
Either exist as you are, or be as you look...

Hard to argue with that... The ceremony was beautifully done--but like the opera--having seen it once, I feel no compulsion to do so again.

Turan and I said our goodbyes that night. We were both a little emotional. He told me he hated to see our time together end and that he had learned a lot from me. Same here, my friend. Same here.

L to R: Metin, Turan, myself, Steven, Jill, Adam

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Travel Journal (14)---In Search of St. Arsenios

In early 2006, I was blessed to read St. Arsenios the Cappadocian by Elder Paisios. At that time in my life, my spiritual father thought it would be of benefit to me. Of course, he was absolutely correct. I read it eagerly, but before returning his copy, I managed to spill food on it. So, I bought my priest a new copy and kept the old.

St. Arsenios is a saint of the modern era. He was born in 1840 and died in 1924. His home was in the village of Farasa (now Camlica), deep in the Taurus Mountains. Technically, this Christian village was on the very outer fringes of Cappadocia, but still under the oversight of the Bishop of Caeseria (now Kayseri). Educated in Smyrna, Fr. Arsenios returned to labor in his native Farasa. Outside of perhaps 5 trips to the Holy Land, he remained in Farasa and resisted all attempts by others to elevate him to any higher position.

In the Taurus Mountains

The Taurus Mountains

St. Arsenios was a great teacher and performed many miracles. My favorite story is of the Turkish Muslim woman who secretly converted and was baptized. He gave her the name, Eleftheria ("Freedom" in Greek). Publicizing her action would have meant certain death from her family and neighbors. For a while she communed as she could with the Christians in secret. But the lady soon fell ill and was near death. She sent word to Fr. Arsenios that she wished to receive Holy Communion before she died. He could not go to her as her priest without betraying her secret. So he carved a plug out of an apple, inserted some of the Holy Communion inside, plugged it back up and sent it by her god-mother. Eleftheria intuitively understood what was happening and joyously received the apple. Elder Paisios (himself baptized by Fr. Arsenios) also continues the story to tell just how this woman came to be buried in the Christian cemetery.

Fr. Arsenios guided his flock to Greece in 1924 during the transfer of populations between Greece and Turkey, but he prophesied that he would live only 40 days upon arrival in their new home. He died as he said, and was first buried on Corfu. Later, his relics were transferred to the Church of St. Arsenios the Cappadocian near Thessalonica.

The story of St. Arsenios has stayed with me, and I determined to try, if possible, to visit his old village. Farasa is remote, and not on the way to anywhere particularly. Turan was intrigued with my desire to go there, but as he was familiar with the village--and I've yet to find one he wasn't familiar with--he planned a leg of our trip to pass through the village and then on to the Kapugbasi Waterfall. He was interested to learn more of St. Arsenios, and very surprised that there was a book written about this son of Farasa. So I was able to tell him what little I knew, and I also promised I would give him my book on St. Arsenios. Turan and I have had a number of conversations about Orthodoxy. Last year, in southeastern Turkey, we visited the Syrian Orthodox monasteries. This apparently made quite an impression on him as he informed me that he had written a recent thesis on the Suriani Christians for one of his university classes.

Farasa lies 14 km. off the main road, but it seems much further. The gravel road hugs the ridges along a barren, rocky gorge. Frankly, I couldn't imagine anyone actually living back here. Yet the gorge gradually widened, and a wide, grassy, undulating hillside, spilling from the mountain peak down to the river, unfolded before us. The village of Farasa nestled on a bluff above the river.

A View of Farasa--Church of St. Varahisios and Ionas on left

Farasa was as yet untouched by Turkey's new economy. I didn't see a single vehicle in the village, and the streets--such as they were--were hardly wide enough to accommodate our little Mitsubishi SUV. Nevertheless, we were able to drive right up to the front door of the St. Arsenios' former Church of St. Varahisios and Ionas. The building is now hemmed-in by houses, stables and pens for livestock. A plaque on the outside wall indicated that it had been a mosque since 1927. The building was not impressive from the outside--just a large stone barn of a building with a new metal roof. Inside, however, was a different manner. Though thoroughly whitewashed, the interior lines reveal that it must have been quite beautiful once, particularly for such an out-of-the-way village as Farasa.

The former Church of St. Varahisios and Ionas at Farasa, from above

I had intended to scoop up some soil from in front of the church to bring back with me. In looking around the site, I completely forgot to do so, and of course, now never will. We walked around to the back of the mosque, and saw remains of some sort of structure once attached to the church. We observed where someone had once marked something on one on foundation blocks at the back of church. It looked as though the letters had been roughly carved into the stone and then colored by either paint or some sort of marker. The writing was in Greek, so it meant nothing to me at the time. I took a picture and then we loaded up to leave Farasa.

At the Church of St. Varahisios and Ionas, Farasa

We left Farasa behind and the valley closed up once more as we switch-backed up the mountains, going deeper and deeper into the Taurus Mountains. The dirt road gave way to a simple 2-track trail. After a long climb, we crossed over the peaks, and started to descend. We would occasionally drive through a camp of goat herders, living in tents, watching over their flocks with enormous mastiffs on guard, as their children played in the shade of the scattered pines. At one point, an avalanche had wiped out the road. Before I had time to think through the implications of exactly what we would do, our driver put the vehicle into 4-wheel drive and simply climbed over the pile of rubble. After many kilometers, we found ourselves following an ever-widening river valley, that contained more herders, and an occasional garden patch. Before nightfall, we reached the Kapugbasi Waterfalls. Other visitors had driven in from the opposite direction. A few kilometers on, we reached our pension, which consisted of a several tree-houses above the rushing Ulapindar River.

Kapugbasi Waterfalls

That night, we feasted on fresh trout by the riverside and talked of many things. Turan had a serious misunderstanding about the status of U. S. Muslims. I have noticed that the Turks, despite being advanced in so many ways, are still susceptible to the wildest conspiracy theories. I think this is endemic to the Muslim world, though perhaps less so here in the Near East than elsewhere in the region. It seems that many recognize the Middle East's difficulty in adapting to a modern, fast-changing world. As the basic underpinning of their society--Islam--cannot be questioned, there must be some other rationale; hence, the conspiracy theories. Anyway, Turks find it hard to believe that Muslims move easily in American society. Unfortunately, most of my examples were of local Iranian-American businesspeople--hardly a selling point to Sunni Turks.

Turan up a tree; Ulapindar River

Turan also asked me why America so unquestioningly supported the Israelis and not the Palestinians. Turkey has strong economic and security ties to Israel. The bulk of Turan's clientele are Israeli tourists. And as Turks, they view Arabs with almost as much suspicion and distrust as Arabs do the Jews. But as Muslims, they are baffled by our foreign policy. I tried to convey to Turan that this same puzzlement extended to a large number of Americans, as well.

I weighed my words carefully--or the best I could--and told him I thought there were 3 main reasons that America was seemingly joined at the hip with Israel. First, I thought it was rooted in the Holocaust--understandable sympathy on our part and guilt on Europe's part. Second, since World War I, Jewish-Americans had played an influential role in the public affairs in this country. Their involvement in government, business and the media, to name just a few spheres, far outweigh their actual numbers. This in turn supports a powerful Israeli lobby in the U.S. If you say such things these days, you are apt to be labelled an anti-Semite (as Measheimer and Walt in their now famous 2006 essay). Such accusations are no more than public relations postering and abject silliness. It is not anti-Semitic to make a simple, value-neutral, assessment of facts on the ground.

The third (and in my view, most important) reason was considerably more difficult to explain. Making sense of our fixation on premillenial dispensationalism is frustrating to me as an American. How can I possibly explain it to my Muslim friend? For there are as many variations of this heterodox viewpoint as there are television preachers. And even if this is held as a religious belief, why does it influence our relations in the Middle East? I found it embarrassing to try to explain the impact that a goofball like John Hagee can have on our foreign policy. I did make clear that such thinking was outside the mainstream of Christian thought. The Orthodox do not believe this. Catholics do not believe this. And until the mid 1800s, Protestants did not believe this. But Darbyism has definitely taken hold in this country, from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on down. Most Americans, even those I would label "casually religious" ascribe to it. While most don't think about it that deeply, they at least have a vague belief that the 1948 establishment of Israel is somehow part of God's plan for the "end times," and that supporting Israel in all things is pleasing to God. A belief that the Jews are still the chosen people of God has replaced the ancient Pauline doctrine of the Church as "spiritual Israel." Amazingly, this understanding cuts across socio-economic lines--or at least so in my region--from our moneyed elites to Pentecostals in store-front missions. As we dig our hole deeper and deeper in the Middle East, we would do well to stop and ponder the manifold consequences such a theory has wrought. It baffles my Muslim friend. It baffles me.

Last night, as I was writing these lines, I remembered the writing on the back of the old church in Farasa. I had never looked up the Greek letters to see what was written. So, I pulled up a copy of my picture (below), and then pulled up a Greek alphabet and translation online. I wrote out the letters, on by one: Alpha, Gamma, Iota, Omicron and Sigma. I then wrote out the translation: A - G - I - O - S. A shiver of wonder went up my spine, for someone had written the word "Holy."

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

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Travel Journal (12)--Ihlara

Hiking in the Ihlara Valley

One of my primary objectives in going to Cappadocia was to hike the Ihlara Valley. The steep cliffs of the gorge hide an almost lush river valley within. Ruins of many cave churches line either side of the valley. Ilhara has a reputation for being an area of special beauty, and being largely accessible only by hiking, it is generally given a pass by the tour bus crowd. The valley did not disappoint. Prior to entering the valley, however, we made a short detour to see the somewhat suggestively nick-named "Love Valley."

Love Valley

The town of Ihlara which sits above the southern end of the valley was to serve as our entry point. We stopped at the town square to purchase some water before descending to the river. While there, a small donkey, carrying a plumb grandmother and her 2-year old grandson in front, trotted briskly up to the store. The woman never dismounted, as the clerk began filling her order there on the sidewalk. Such a scene seems quaint and colorful to us, and might make for an amusing photo op or anecdote to tell back home.

But there is another side to Ihlara. A large number of new homes are going up on the outskirts of the town. They are all in the Turkish style, that is to say they are substantial homes, 2 to 3 stories, stuccoed, with tile roofs, painted in bright colors, with a stone wall around an expansive yard. The homes are set to the rear of the tracts, and in time orchards will fill the space between house and road. I noticed much the same thing going on in other parts of Cappadocia, as well. Similar homes, as well as many large apartment flats, are being constructed in Urgup, for example. By and large, these are second homes. This development speaks to the economic vitality of Turkey and its burgeoning middle class. These are not the homes of the country's old-money elite (for they would be on the coast), but rather of newly successful businesspeople, flexing their economic muscle in this pleasant corner of Turkey. In my view, that rather than the grandmother on the donkey, is the real story here.

The Betrayal of Jesus--Kokar Church

The valley made for a pleasant walk through the poplars and willows and small fields, and the trail was never far from the rushing river. We visited a number of cave churches along the way--Kokar Church, Purenli Sehir Church, Ayacalti Church, Simbulu Church, Yilanti Church and the Church of St. George. At Kokar, Turan and I began to interpret the frescoes surrounding us. I continued to be impressed with his skill in analyzing the scenes. He quickly identified one fresco as depicting the betrayal of Jesus in the Garden. It was not immediately apparent to me, but as I looked closer I saw a man (St. Peter) holding a knife to the ear of another man and next to them, a man (Judas) was kissing Jesus. This church also contained a beautiful cross on the ceiling, with a hand sign denoting the Holy Spirit in the center.

Kokar Church

The frescoes at Purenli Sehir Church were in poor condition, but we were still able to appreciate one depicting Christ's baptism. Christ was naked in this scene (as was the case in most Cappadocian depictions of this event), but the Archangels Michael and Gabriel were standing to the side, holding a towel.

The Baptism of Jesus--Purenli Sehir Church

Ayacalti Church's icons were in somewhat better condition. I was particularly impressed by the depictions of the life of Mary, Daniel in the Lion's Den, and the Gift of the Magi. I found it interesting that the Magi were depicted as real Persians, not as they were imagined in all those Christmas manger scenes we all grew up with.

Daniel in the Lion's Den--Ayalcalti Church

Gift of the Magi--Ayacalti Church

Simbulu Church was noted more for its facade than its frescoes, but did provide a nice overview of the Ihlara Valley.

At Simbulu Church

Yilanti was one of the most interesting, and--as it was within walking distance of the village of Belisirma--it was also probably the most visited of the churches. What intrigued me here was its depiction of the Judgment. The panel covers an entire wall within the church, and includes Satan, an Angel holding a scale, sinners in Hell, sinners being devoured by serpents, etc. The most intriguing aspect, however, is on the right side of the fresco, where 4 naked women are being bitten by snakes: one on the ears, one on the mouth, one on the breasts and one all over. These judgment scenes have always stuck out in my mind--from the first time I saw the fresco of the "dancing demons" on the outside of Rila Monastery in Bulgaria. I suppose it is because these depictions are so at variance with the warm and fuzzy, feel-good public deism that typifies American religiosity.

The Last Judgment--Yilanti Church

The Last Judgment--Yilanti Church

After feasting on a lunch of trout by the riverside in Belisirma, we decided to take the car to the village of Zelime, at the northern end of the valley. The cliffs overlooking the present-day town are honeycombed with abandoned cave homes, tunnels and churches. The main attraction here is the Cathedral Church. Few, if any frescoes survive. This cave church is noted more for its spectacular architecture, complete with a full second story gallery. The church also contains a crude synthronum and a large baptistery. The chapel puts one in mind of Halls of Moria from the Lord of the Rings.

The Cathedral Church--Zelime

Near Zelime

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Travel Journal (11)--Goreme

The Red Valley near Goreme

My first full day in Cappadocia started in Goreme. The Open-Air Park here is the epicenter of Cappadocian tourism. If visitors are going to see one site in the region, this is it. So, tour buses can be a problem. But Goreme is well worth the trouble--chock full of cave churches and the "fairy chimneys" which typify Cappadocian topography. At Goreme, I visited 8 cave churches: St. Basil's, Apple Church, St. Barbara's, Snake Church, Dark Church, St. Catherine's, Sandal Church and Buckle Church. The frescoes are incredible, ranging from the primitive to the sublime, my favorites being those at Dark Church and Buckle Church.

The 3 Holy Youths--Dark Church

From my first contact with Orthodoxy in Bulgaria in 2003, I have been in awe of the iconography of the churches, where the whole panoply of redemption, from the Garden to the Incarnation and Ascension to the Lives of the Saints to the Judgment, is spread out before the worshipper. [Such things would have been dismissed as "idolatry" in my iconoclastic background. But I came to realize the shallowness of such thought, particularly in light of the fact that we had made the Bible, or rather our particular interpretation of it, into our very own idol.] The cave churches of Cappadocia were no different, being completely covered in frescoes. While I understand that the placement of the frescoes was far from haphazard, it sometimes seemed that the entire story was striving, even jostling, to be told at one and the same time. Maybe this impression of mine hearkens to the concept of Orthodox worship being outside of time and space. I fail to see how one could stand there and soberly contemplate these scenes without, in some sense, being swept up into the saga. This is the whole point, I suppose--that whole "cloud of witnesses" thing, in which we, in imitation, "run with endurance the race that is set before us." (Poorly said and preachy on my part, but hopefully the point is made somewhere within all that!)

St. George and St. Theodore--Snake Church

We spent considerable time in each church, examining the frescoes. And in doing so, I realized something interesting about Turan. My Muslim friend is an expert in deciphering these Christian frescoes. He knows all the stories, being particularly adept in those frescoes depicting the life of Christ and Mary. There was one fresco that stumped him. I jumped at the chance to explain one that I knew and he didn't! This fresco depicted the 3 Holy Youths. I recognized the scene fairly quickly: 3 young men, flames surrounding them, being protected by an angel. I was telling Turan about the story from Daniel and suddenly my mind went blank. All good evangelicals know the story of Shadrach, Meshack and Abednego. We may not have known much about the Trinity, but we sure knew the names of those 3 dudes. Anyway, I could think of Meshack and Abednego, but my mind went blank with the first one. Only hours later, when we were hiking in the mountains, it came to me and I hollered out to Turan, "Shadrach!"

Hiking in the Red Valley

We left the crowds behind at Goreme valley, and drove to the top of a nearby bluff. From here we would walk the trail along the upper ridges of the Red Valley and the Rose Valley, and then descend to the village of Cauvisin, some 6 kilometers away. We stocked up on water, and we each had a bag of assorted nuts and dried fruits which we purchased from a vendor who just happened to have his cart at the beginning of the trail. The scenery was spectacular; reminiscent of a John Ford western. We covered the distance is good time, only stopping to watch an eaglet in a cliff side aerie. We didn't tarry in Cauvisin, where we met up with our driver, but hurried on to Avanos, where lunch awaited.

Buckle Church

Turkish food is quite tasty. I never really tired of the cuisine. Avanos is known for its pottery, and they incorporate this tradition into their dining. A speciality is a stew-like mixture that is baked within a sealed clay vase. The vase is brought to your table, and then with great ceremony, the top is sliced off with a large knife and the steaming mixture poured into bowls. It sure worked for me, as did the baklava for desert.

Sandle Church

After lunch, we strolled down to a pottery factory, a 200-year old family business. Zafer, one of Turan's school chums, was working there now. I have the greatest admiration for such artisans, and love to observe them at work. I watched as one man sat down at the pottery wheel, took a lump of clay, and within a minute or so had created a beautifully-shaped vase. They let me sit down at the pottery wheel for a while. I took a lump of clay, and with a minute or so had created, well, a mis-shapen lump of clay.

Sandle Church

After this, we set out to explore another valley, north of Goreme. Zelve Valley is more low-key, with fewer tourists, but just as interesting. I found it more challenging, as most of the churches are located high up the cliff side. The churches here date from before or during the Iconoclastic Controversy. They are less decorated, in terms of frescoes, but have much more in the way of medallions and crosses. One was known as the Baptistery Church, another the Fish Church and another the Grape Church. There was no doubting the baptistery in the so-named church. It consisted of a large stone trough on the right side of the chapel. A drain was cut into the rock where water could be diverted from a cistern into the baptistery when needed.

St. Onesephorus the Hermit, Dark Church

Our last stop of the day was Pasabag, which offered yet more of the "fairy chimneys" and the rock churches. By this time, I was beginning to "tucker out," as we say, and was more than ready to return to our cave hotel in the village of Ayvali.

Overlooking Pasabag

Buckle Church

Snake Church

Dark Church

Turan and I were both curious about this strange, primitive fresco in the Snake Church. At first glance, it appears to be an insect. But then we notice that it has 4 legs. We could not figure out what exactly it was, or what it represented in this particular setting. In my youth, there was a popular book entitled "Chariots of the Gods." I forget the author's name, but his premise was that aliens were (are) regular visitors to Earth and more or less kick-started civilization. He tried to connect everything that appeared strange in the world to his theory, from ancient Egypt to the Mayas, to the Andean Indians, to Easter Island, etc., etc., etc. He would have just loved this odd fresco and would have somehow tied it in to his alien tale, I suspect.

Snake Church