Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Kapadokya, Hittites and Current Events

Again, mayaculpa for the delay in blog posts. Since the last post I've gotten the chance to visit the Hittite capital in Boğazkale and revisit Kapadokya, both fascinating trips. Also I'd like to write a bit about some current events, including the tragic bombings in İstanbul Sunday night.

Revisitng Kapadokya was certainly more interesting than I expected. The last time I was there I saw most of it, but admittedly our tour guide was not so great. This time around the tour guide (an almost unavoidable attaché in Kapadokya) was much more knowledgeable and made for a more enjoyable trip. I visited many of the same sites as last time, the fairy chimneys, rock churches in Göreme, Uçhisar etc., but I also got to check out some old rock villages cut into hillsides around the area that were actually occupied up until the early 60's. Both Christians and Muslims lived there until the Republic was established and the population exchanges took place. Many Muslims remained there until landslides and earthquakes posed such a threat that living there was impossible. In all, a very interesting trip, and certainly a place I wouldn't mind seeing a third time.

About two to three hours northeast of Ankara by car is the ruins of the heart of the Hittite Empire. This ancient Anatolian superpower existed 4000 years ago, were contemporary rivals of the Ancient Egyptians and Mycenaens, and are one of the main focuses of Anatolian archaeology today, second only to Classical period Greek sites. It was truly amazing to check out these foundational structures and their artwork that is contemporary with the Pyramids. Aside from Stonehenge, these ruins are the oldest things I've every seen. We were thankfully accompanied by the head of the Archaeology department of Bilkent Üniversity Thomas Zimmerman, and he certainly made the trip far more interesting than it would have been otherwise. As a fervent student of all things Anatolian, the Hittites were probably the civilization I knew the least about, and now I have a fair grasp on the basics and am thankful for that. In all, these sites, while quite large, are mostly in poor condition with only the foundations of the once mud brick buildings remaining. Some rock-cut carvings remain, especially in the old religious sanctuary of Yızılıkaya. It really is sad that this civilization is so understudied, and that we tend to only teach our kids about the Egyptians if we cover anything in grade school (which is mostly because of the glamorous nature of the pyramids and their strong presence in the Torah). I think that one place to start pushing our children's education outside of the Western-European mold is to teach them something about this civilization which among other things was instrumental in the first recorded peace treaty (a copy of which stands in the UN) and other sorts of ancient geopolitical events.

Sunday night tragedy struck the residential community of Güngören in İstanbul. 17 were killed, including a toddler who would have celebrated her 3rd birthday today, and dozens more were injured in back to back bombings. The youth wing of the Kurdish Worker's Party (PKK), in fact the same organization responsible for bombings the last time I was here, has claimed responsibility for the attack. It is truly a sad event and the whole country is in mourning over it. In fact I saw something rather unbelievable in the newspaper today. Despite the fact that many Turks are wary of the intentions of their current government, PM Erdoğan visited the site yesterday and while attending the funeral assisted in carrying one of the caskets into the mosque. Truly this is a sight you would never see from an American President or the head of state of any other Western superpower. It truly is heartening that with all the skepticism and suspicion surrounding Turkish politics today, their leaders at least are not want for true compassion.

Aside from the bombings, the Constitutional Court began hearings yesterday on the AKP closure trial and a decision may come as soon as Friday. For the sake of Turkish democracy I hope they are not closed, while I do share some of the skepticism of the secular left here, closing a party that has the support of 47% of the population is a recipe for political chaos.

Also I'd like to comment a bit on the American Presidential race. International news is not a very dominant topic in the Turkish Press these days. My host family watches the news constantly and had no idea the Olympics were starting in 10 days, and have little news coverage of events in Europe unless they have something directly related to Turkey. That said, the Turkish press has had more or less constant coverage of Barack Obama's campaign since his visit to the Middle East and Europe. Slowly they are becoming more and more familiar with him, while they know absolutely nothing about his opponent John McCain. It seems to me to be mostly unprecedented for a Presidential canidate to amass as much clout in the international arena in as little time as Mr. Obama has. You would think that Mr. McCain with his long tenure in the Senate and heavy concentration on foreign policy would have more solid and healthy relationships with these leaders and the people of the world. I understand that many in the states may look at this trip as one giant photo-op that would not change his views (remember though, he was chided into the trip by Mr. McCain himself, who has also now all but endorsed a 16 month withdrawal plan as of last nights Larry King), but the respect and clout among leaders and the people here he has garnered on this trip would be a great asset for a President Elect next January. Certainly it would have helped our current President if he had done the same eight years ago.

Well, that is all for now. İstanbul is on tap this weekend and expect a post next week about that trip and whatever happens in the Constitutional Court this weekend.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Alanya, AKP visit, etc.

Before we head off to Cappadocia for the weekend here is a digest of our trip to Alanya this past weekend and a commentary on the AK Party after a visit to their HQ and a meeting with one of their MP's.

Alanya by and large is the happy medium of Turkish Mediterranean Resort towns. It is smaller than Antalya, boasts a fair amount of historical importance and is still very accessible. That is not to say it has gone undiscovered by the hordes of Europeans looking for a cheap alternative to the Riviera. We spent our first day their on a boat and I tried Scuba for the first time. I found it a lot of fun, and Turkey is a great place to do it because it is a whole lot cheaper (if you are ever here for an extended amount of time you can get an international certification here for less than 200 USD). I did two dives, one twenty minute dive at eight meters and then a twenty-five minute dive at 10 meteres. Aside form diving, we spent a good deal of time swimming, sitting on the beach and trying hard to stay out of the sun (I think it got up to 45 C this weekend which is something like 110 F certainly the hottest weather I've experienced). We also climbed up to the castle, which sits atop a peninsula and overlooks the whole city and promptly retired from there to a microbrew near the old Selcuk shipyards. This was perhaps the most surprising bit of the whole trip. I was under the impression that the only beer to drink here was made and distributed by the huge conglomerate Anadolou Efes, but I am mistaken. The Red Tower Brewery in Alanya is now serving a quite hearty martzen and a refreshing pilsner, and I can happily claim that it is the best beer I have ever had in this country (and not outrageously priced at 6 YTL (~4.50 USD) for 50cl).

From Alanya we visited Pamukkale, which I've been to and commented on in my previous blog. All I can say about it this time is that going there in the fall is a good idea, going there when it is already hot out is bad. After our visit there we had a few hours to kill in Denizli, a city of 320K just outside Pamukkale. At first glance, this city seems sort of pointless (its name which means "with the sea" is a wild misnomer as it is at least 200km from any such thing), but after meandering around it and finding a friendly nargile bar we all concluded that the place was basically like Ankara, only cheaper and a bit friendlier.

This week we also had a fantastic opportunity (the kind you only get with State Dept. $) when we visited the AK Party headquarters and met with Ms. Nursuna Memecan, an MP from İstanbul's Üsküdar district. Everyone there was exceedingly courteous and professional and answered all of our questions to the best of their ability. It is especially an interesting time for this party, which is the first to hold a majority in parliament without coalition since the 50's. This situation has certainly rattled the Turkish establishment, and it probably doesn't help that many things about this party are antithetical to the usual Turkish political machine. For instance, nowhere in the HQ did I see a likeness of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, a huge no-no for someone working for the Turkish sate. Also, this party does not hide it's feelings towards İslam as a faith and a way of life. They support allowing women to wear their headscarfs in universities, a very controversial subject here. In fact, while their explanation to us actually came strictly on "first amendment" grounds of free speach, many Turks and myself included see this as a red herring issue. Yes, women should be allowed to wear whatever they want wherever they are, but what isn't understood by most in America is that the headscarf in particular says something very different in Turkey. In recent years, and especially among the younger generations of Muslims (the ones who have grown up through the İsraeli issue, the Iranian revolution, western interventions, etc) the headscarf, which has often been seen as a traditional dress of the Turkish countryside, has warped into a political expression of an Islam that is somehow repressed by society. I must be clear, wearing the headscarf here is NOT an indicator of any sort of Islamic extremism, but it is viewed as a political statement as much as it is a religious one nonetheless. Many Turks fear a slippery slope, at the bottom of which is Iran, and while I think the slippery slope is a logical fallacy, I see where they come from. The Iranian revolution came about only because of tenuous cooperation between Islamic extremists and the hard political left. The AK Party likewise maintains a tenuous partnership between a very religious section and certain members of the center-left groups. What most Turks fail to see is that these groups are far less extreme than the ones who brought about revolution 30 years ago, and their mere presence is doing worlds to strengthen the process of deomcratization here.

Well, that is plenty politics for now, though the big news right now is that Bush's undersecretary of state Stephen Hadley is in town for talks right now, and the first appeals court has, wisely, decided not to close the AKP pending a broader decision next month. I'll be writing again next week, and until then, görüşürüz!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Black Sea etc.

As I gear up for a trip to Alanya this weekend, I thought I'd post on the trip we took last weekend to the Black Sea, as well as some other things I find interesting or you may be curious about.

Our trip encompassed mostly the areas just to the south of Trabzon and Rize, and for the large part were nature-oriented. Our visit began after an excrutiatingly long overnight bus ride in a vehicle unsuitably small for the number of people we had. The Sumelia Monastery near Maçka was our first stop. The simple location of this monastery is the most astonishing thing about it. The Monastery seems to have pasted itself to the side of a cliff halfway up one of the larger mountains in the Kaçkar foothills. It makes for a fascinating visual and an interesting tour, as it is over 1600 years old, though it had been rebuilt several times and was occupied as late as the 1920's.

From there we went to the village of Çamlıhemşin where we spent two nights. Hemşin villages nowadays are only occupied in the summer, as winter there is particularly brutal. The people grow their own food and have some of their own livestock in their mountain side hamlets. I found their house architecture very interesting, as they seem to be on stilts, with a foundation that has a smaller base than the rest of the building.

On our way to Trabzon we stopped at the Çaykur tea factory and got a peek at the refining process that produces and sustains my 6-10 cup a day çay habit. From there we stopped briefly in Trabzon to visit the Aya Sofya Museum. This old Greek church from the Commenus Empire has many beautiful frescoes, though only a few of them are in even decent condition.

As for more daily life, this time around I am getting a good deal more adventurous with the food. I have developed a mild liking for a dish called kokoreç which consists of lamb intestine that has been char grilled, chopped fine and covered in a fistful of different spices and served in a sandwich. Also, though I did try it a few times on my last tripi I have grown particularly fond of ciğ köfte. This dish is quite delicious, but not for the weak stomached. It is raw beef kneaded for hours with bulgur and hot spices (it is said to be ready when you can toss it on the ceiling and it sticks)and then eaten doused in lemon juice with lettuce scoops or lavaş bread. Also on my Black Sea trip I got to sample some freshwater fish here for the first time, as trout is in season up there. One thing Turks are not very adventurous about is their fish, they simply gut it, grill it and serve it with lemon and a glass of Rakı. Really, that is the way it should be, it is delicious.

Lastly, many of you have probably heard something about the attack on the US Consulate in İstanbul yesterday. Truly it is a tragedy and is unfortunate that those four young men should take out their political frustrations on their countrymen. Otherwise, things are relatively safe here and I certainly have every faith in the Turkish police force (if anything they are too good at their jobs) and the US Mission to keep the streets safe, particularly in Ankara. While the political situation here is tense, the ruling party may be closed within the month, this is not a totally unusual situation for Turkey and things ought not get out of hand.

That is all for now, more next week after I get back from the Mediterranean.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Week One

My apologies for not updating the blog since the weekend. It´s been incredibly busy here and most days I´ve been too exhausted to post. I think from here out I´ll have about two posts a week and just have a more digestive approach to everything.

The lessons have been going well, they definitely live up to the term 'intensive'. Not to give the impression they are overbearing, we may have 6 hours of class, but there is a ten minute çay break every hour and an hour and a half lunch break. Simply spending most of my day in the Turkish language, however, is tiring. Eventually I will get used to it, but it is a constant excercize for my brain.

Class aside it has been a very eventful week. We met with consular officials for a briefing at the US Embassy here and got to discuss the political situation as well as other peculiarities of Turkish society. Generally the people there seem to have a warm political opinion of the country in that they are more approving and less suspicious of the ruling AK Party than you might imagine and they also certainly approve of the way we have co-operated with the Turks regarding the PKK. They also, somewhat predictably, side with Turkey (and consequently the Republican Party) on the Armenian Genocide issue in that they believe it is something to be settled by historians, not politicians. Another odd observation for all of you who might think that maybe President Bush is not the real 'decided' in DC, upon entering the embassy there is a wall with the photographs of President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. Only Cheney´s picture, not Bush´s is at the center of this trifecta! If it were Ms. Rice I might understand, being her branch and all, but Cheney? Why?

Wednesday was an exciting day in Turkey. As I mentioned in the previous post, Turkey reached its first ever semi-final in the Euro Cup football tournament. After thrilling upsets of the Czechs and heavily favored Croatia, a Turkish team weakend heavily by injury and suspensions went up against a stout German team. Surprisingly, Turkey came out strong, taking an early 1-0 lead and peppering the opposing goal incessantly. Even going into the half 1-1 things were looking great. Germany came back stronger in the second half taking a 2-1 lead about two-thirds of the way through. Then, as he has several times already this tournament, Semih Şenturk slipped one carefully into the net to tie it up with less than 5 minutes to play. Sadly a gaffe on the part of near-elderly Turkish back up goalie Ruştu led to a 3-2 defeat with less than two minutes left. The Turks had nothing left. Truly sad, as everyone here was excited to spend tomorrow night in the street to see the final.

Also there was the second part of the three part process that is the Turkish engagement. At first meeting the families met each other for the first time and permission to marry was asked on behalf of the son. At this meeting, a few more family members came and the offer was accepted and rings were exchanged. Typically in more religious families an imam is present here and oversees the proceedings, much the way a priest would insist on meeting the couple prior to a wedding ceremony. However, this family and the bride to be in particular, decided against having the imam come and in his stead the groom to be brought what must have been the oldest living member of his family. This woman, who I would put at no less than 85 years old, was surprisingly lively and gracefully imparted the blessing of the family on the couple while they donned rings that were tied together with ribbon. Truly an interesting process all of this, and I feel honored that I get to witness it. Things now quiet down a bit, the big party, or nişan, will be held in early August.

Tomorrow we are going on a trekking tour about the springs and Roman baths that are outside of the city a ways. On Wednesday we leave for our Black Sea adventure to Trabzon, Rize and Artvin. I´m very excited for this trip, because it is a truly different area of the country, much more diverse demographically as well as being rich in Ottoman and Greek history. On top of all that is looks stunningly beautiful.

That is all for now. Feel free to comment or send a suggestion if there is something you would like me to explain.


Sunday, June 22, 2008

Türkiye kazandı!

Wow, it has been a busy weekend indeed. I spent my first night in Ankara willing myself to stay awake to see Turkey beat Croatia in the Euro Cup quarterfinals. Truly an amazing match, a 0-0 tie until the 119th minute when Croatia scored, only to be followed by a goal from Simih two minutes later. This is the first time Turkey has reached the semifinal in Euro Cup. The semi against Germany will be Thursday, I encourage you all to watch it, if you are in the states it will be on ESPN sometime in the late afternoon.

Aside from that my host family and I are getting along swimmingly. It is a single parent household in Çankaya, which is close to downtown. The mother´s name is Firgen Ereş and she has a son, Kansu who is a 22 year old law student who is doing an internship at a nearby practice. Also, Firgen has her brother and his family, wife and 3 year old son, in town from Antalya for the weekend. Last nıght we all had dinner at Firgens Aunts restaurant with two of her cousins, one of whom is about to be engaged. The Turkish engagement is a two part process. Onoe small get together where the father of the husband-to-be asks permission on behalf of his son to marry. This will happen this evening. A month or so from now, there will be a proper engagement party, called nişan, with many more people. While I will be going to tonights festivities, Im afraid I will be on a trip to İstanbul for the nişan.

Class starts tomorrow, so I may not post again until midweek, probably after the match Thursday.