Sunday, May 24, 2009

Santorini: A little time with Andrew

We took a week to do nothing. Santorini in the Cyclades Islands north of Crete sounded like a good place to do it. Plus Craig had been talking about it for 30 years. High on a ridge overlooking a harbor where cruise ships looked like ships and not land masses, we opened our door every morning to whitewashed villages strung along the spine of the C - Shaped island. On the inner side of the ridge, villages with cobble stairs instead of streets spilled down the hillside clinging stubbornly to the rocky cliff underneath. They bubbled with barrel vaulted white washed houses and hotels built one on top of the other. On the other side of the ridge the sloping mountainside fell away into terraced farmland. The land gave way to small black sand beaches before it slipped into the salt water.

Legend has it that Santorini (or Thira as it is called) was the lost world of Atlantis. After erupting thousands of years ago, the center of the volcano is now 500 meters underwater on the floor of the sea. Lava has bubbled up slowly over millenia forming islands in the harbor. Occassional puffs of steam came out of the ground and rolled down the hillside until they disappeared. One person told me there was a tremor on the island at least once a week.

Thira was a thriving part of the Mycenean world whose
center was on Crete. The Myceneans were the fathers and mothers of the the Greeks to whom Western cultures especially owe so much. This was the world of Homer's Odysseus. It was sort of like putting words to music to read The Odyssey on this island. After having traveled around the Aegean, I recognized the names of Kings and kingdoms as I read them. What was once a world away and unfamiliar became real - so real that the three of us vied for the one copy we purchased. Andrew got first dibs, of course, and he couldn't put it down. I don't know why I was surprised. High drama, a son coming of age, adventure, action, loyalty, treachery and love, it was all there all the time, I just didn't see it.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Cave of the Apocalypse

May 12, Patmos

We leave for Kos tomorrow on the afternoon ferry. We've been on Patmos for 3 days now, and it has made us realize how tired we were. We found a place to retreat overlooking one of the bays of the island and it is enough to simply sit and be. At least for a little while.

We visited a tiny convent. After winding our way along cobbled alleyways through canyons of whitewashed walls and blue and green doors, we arrived at a small courtyard and a gate. The sign on the side of the gate instructed us to ring the bell. We wondered if they meant that big brass church bell hanging over the gate. After pausing to gather our courage, we tentatively pulled the rope, rocking the bell until the it made a sound. Our loud summons was answered by the arrival of a black habited sister with the keys to the church. She let us in, sweeping aside curtains and giving explanations in Greek when she saw us puzzling over the identity of a saint.

One morning we drove toward a high hill topped by high crenelated walls. We found a monastery and church full of the wonderful frescoes in a town called Chora. Far below on the hillside was the "Cave of the Apocalypse" where St. John the Theologian was exiled and was said to have written the Book of Revelation.

"Cave of the Apocalypse" sounds so ..well..apocalyptic. There is no human scale to this phrase. I am just self centered enough to want something I can identify with in any story or image. That is how I connect and understand. The cave had a shrine-like quality, untouchable - from the small silver framed recesses of the cave where John is said to have laid his head to the church built into and around the cave. A guard stood watching our every move. No pictures were allowed. We walked around the silent church, the low undulating roof line of the cave on the right side gave way to the left, a stone addition made to enclose the cave. Windows were built into the wall looking over the island, into the fields and and beyond them, the sea. I sat in the window seat and just looked out over the valley. It occurred to me that if John sat in his cave he would have seen this very same thing. I thought that was good because now when I read the book of Revelation, I will have that image in my mind and I will know that when his mind was on human things, that is what John saw.

Craig left and went back in wanting quiet and a place for himself. At the doorway there was a basin of sand and a wooden rack of tall thin honey colored candles. We lit one saying a prayer for St. Peter's and our friends back home.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Disappearing clouds

May 10th

We left the tourist town of Kusadasi, Turkey this morning on a boat for Samos, an island in the Greek Dodecanese. We're plying toward Patmos, the island in the Aegean Sea where John is said to have written the book of Revelation. I'm sitting on the top deck of an aged orange and white Greek ferry boat named the Nisos Kalymnos. Followed by dolphins, the boat is throwing white froth in its wake on a clear blue day in a topaz sea. We're sharing the ferry with a cement truck which is making the boat list heavily to port, but no one cares

After circumnavigating the Aegean Sea from West to East we have finally ventured into it. It seems like it has taken a long time to get here. The blues of the water and the blue of the sky tranquilize me like a drug. As we sit looking at the water, I notice two wispy white clouds. Dwarfed against the great open sky they float in the blueness. As I watch they disappear. The two clouds are the vanguard of a bank of weather that hovers just out of view over the Turkish mainland. As one solid white sentinel after another is blown over the sea, each one melts into the blue sky like cotton candy dissolving in your mouth - there and then not there. Like magic.

The magic of the disappearing clouds seems like the magic of the sun and sea on our fatigue. After weeks of rain and mud, neither the clouds nor our fatigue can stand against the perfect beauty of the turquoise sea or the sun. If Patmos is like this, I'm not sure I will be able to do anything except sit and look at it.

Paul in Ephesus and Philippi

Ancient ruins and stone columns on their sides don't usually excite me, but as we walked the great wide marble streets of Ephesus together with hundreds of tourists, I got a sense of what it must have been like being home to hundreds of thousands of people. Ephesus is set between two hills. A broad marble street leads downhill past elaborate fountains and mosaic floored hill houses to a great lighted marble street (one of only 3 or 4 in the ancient world) leading grandly down to the port. As we walked we got a sense that the stuff of daily life here wasn't so different from our own and that Paul, the man who walked these streets preaching a new faith to a tough crowd (who owed their allegiance to Artemis) must have been more convincing than even the most skilled present day salesman. He did get in a bit of hot water by dissing Artemis and threatening the livelihoods of those involved in her worship, causing a riot to begin. Only the calming voice of a city official cooled the flames and foiled the lynching that surely would have proceeded had he not intervened.

In contrast to the narrow focused setting of Ephesus, Philippi's great open square lay in a valley where the distant hillsides surrounded it on all sides. The city seemed to ramble on and spread out forever. About 20 Km from the sea, Philippi seemed like home to normal people. Not so lucky in Philippi, Paul ended up in jail. There are various theories as to where, exactly Paul was held prisoner. Some contend he would have been in the area of the main square. I on the other hand thought he would have been held out of sight and out of mind over nearer the theater.

The remains of a large Byzantine church towered over the agora. Roofless, its shadows fell long across the stones in the encroaching evening. The characteristic terracotta and stone courses reminded me that one civilization builds on another. Craig's recollections of the site were formed long ago when far less had been excavated. I could see him reconciling his remembrance with the present and both marveling at their progress and mourning the gates and ropes, guards and admission booths that had not been there before.

Just the distances involved were impressive to me. Philippi, on the north shore of the Aegean in northern Greece was about 2 hours east of Thessaloniki or 6 or 8 hours west of Istanbul by car. Ephesus was about 6 or 8 hours south of Istanbul on the east coast of the Aegean in Turkey. Imagining the life Paul must have led traveling so far and wide selflessly proclaiming the Gospel made me read his letters in a new light. His trade - a worker with canvas and wood - seeming not so important when reading his letters without a context - seems crucial now as we imagined how he must have survived, living in and among the townspeople as a teacher and a craftsman. The real stones and structures begged the image of a real life.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Catching the Wave

It was such a little thing, but it made me gasp. We were driving back from the Ihlara Valley south of Cappadocia across a broad and treeless green valley covered with the short green grass of early summer. Through the raking late afternoon sunlight we barreled down the two lane road that was meant to get city drivers from point A to point B without having to fiddle with the local dirt roads. At an intersection an oncoming dump truck, its front seat crammed with 2 or 3 men and 2 women, turned in front of us. We slowed to let them lumber across our path and as the passenger window came into view, I saw the weathered face of a woman, her headscarf tied in a traditional manner. Next to her sat another woman, similarly dressed. She waved. Then her friend at the window did the same. As the truck turned and accelerated on its way, I saw a blue tarp covering the back. Half standing, half sitting on top of the tarp were 5 or 6 women dressed in what for them were work clothes, but to my eyes the skirts, blouses, and scarves seemed beautiful and exotic. I must have been waving because they all - one by one - caught the wave and in the end all of us were waving with both arms. I felt that if I stopped waving the slender thread of that moment would break and then it would be over. Both they and I waved as if we were long lost friends soon to be separated forever.

I have missed the company of women on this trip. Particularly in places and cultures where we are unlikely to meet "normal people" and especially in cultures where women are still sheltered and sometimes patronized, I haven't had a chance to talk to many women. I have a shadowy awareness that the way I look at life is uniquely my own and that it is different from a Turkish woman (read Ghanaian, Greek or British)(or Turkish, Ghanaian, Greek or British man) But being an American woman makes it improbable that I will never fully understand the generation and perpetuation of a life that is not mine.

When I lack a way to communicate with other women in words or in real time I have looked for alternatives to words and conversations. As I looked at the textiles made in Turkey I realized I was most likely looking at the work of the hands and sometimes the heart of a a Turkish woman. I am sometimes dazzled by their beauty and their skill. I never fail to appreciate the time and energy taken to create what amounts to a national product, but sometimes - especially in the older pieces woven in hopes of a home and family, in the spontaneous and sometimes quirky design of a horse blanket or a cradle, the voices of the women I will never meet speak to me. They speak of family pride, the dangers of jealousy, the hope for happiness and children, the strength of love - the weaving itself a language written with the hand passing over and through the wool or cotton or silk threads for many hours every day.

I think that's what made me gasp. The recognition that I had finally seen the woman that made the weaving. Women who are living a kind of life that is handmade; a kind of life that is passing away. These were the women who work for their families with the same hopes and concerns, loyalties and pride as the weavers I would never meet. And they waved at me with smiles on their faces and excitement. For once I was not a tourist but maybe someone like them.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Leaving Urgup

Cappadocia has been amazing. The landscape, the caves and cities, the wall decorations and frescoes came from so many times and so many people. There was an infinite variety of style, but recurring stories and themes that, interpreted by different artists, gained new meaning every time we saw them. I got lots of ideas for things like needlepoint and graphics and (if Irena will allow :) icons. It did't hurt to look anyway!

We're sitting at a dark wood table in what used to be the refectory of a monastery and is now the dining room of our hotel where we have a breakfast of tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, bread, yoghurt and cheese every morning. Oh and I can't forget the Nutella. The incredibly strong tea which one is supposed to dilute with water but which Craig thinks is just fine the way it is and my instant coffee wake us up every morning and power us through until about 11 AM. We don't fear because there is nowhere in this world so much tea as in Turkey. Any store will provide it for the price of a discussion about a purchase.

Just for fun, we walked through the grocery store on our way to dinner last night. Along with the things everyone eats, one entire aisle provided a selection of tea in large bags, fresh smelling and colorful. Of course if you didn't like black tea, there is always Emla Chai - Apple tea. My new favorite.

The van to the airport will pick us up in about 15 minutes. We will fly to Izmir, then drive to Kusadasi. Tomorrow we will see Efes, or Ephesus where Paul visited and preached. I can't wait.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


About half way through our week in Istanbul we took courage and made a plan to go east to Cappadocia. At one time, Cappadocia was a hotbed of Christianity. Living and worshipping in relative safety here, Christians retreated from the danger of persecution into the caves, tunnels and underground cities that lined the canyons and riddled the tall tufa "chimneys" in this volcanic landscape. When danger threatened, the inhabitants rolled large rocks resembling millstones across the entrances to the cities. The inhabitants could live for a month or so without leaving the safety of their citadel as even the water wells were inside the chimneys.

So far 26 cities, innumerable cave houses some still inhabited, and hundreds of cave churches have been discovered. It is believed there are many more. The unique soft volcanic tufa landscape is constantly changing with rain, wind and exposure, new chimneys forming under foot as the tufa crumbles and is washed away, some huge vaulted chambers, sheltered for centuries suddenly exposed as a cliff side falls away for lack of strength. Once a unique and useful defensive location along the Silk Road, the principal trade route across Asia, some of the caves and cities have existed from the time of the Hittites while later Christians adapted the cities, carving into the soft rock multi-storied networks of tunnels and ventilation shafts sometimes reaching 8 or more stories underground.

A striking feature of both the cities and the smaller cave houses is the number of churches found among them. Ranging from small chapel-like structures with simple red line decorations to large barrel vaulted multi-story basilicas complete with frescoes, the number of churches is estimated to be around 600 in this area. Sometimes high up in the canyon wall, and sometimes far below ground, each one is different having served a unique community. The largest and grandest churches among them however are no bigger than the Nave of St. Peter's.

There is one church that puzzles me still. As we approached the chimney from the outside, there was no hint of what lay inside the cave. We walked up 2 stairs cut into the rock entering a five domed basilica, its geometry perfect, the 5 hemispheric roofs were cut and smoothed supported on classical columns. The architecture of the space echoed the grand architecture of imperial courts and urban design. What confused me was the contrast between the architecture and the painted decoration. Primitive red line drawings and stepped graphics abstractly represented Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A rooster, crosses and a figure that looked like a turtle standing on its hind legs decorated the domes. Whoever decorated the church drew freehand lines representing stone blocks on the arched entrance vault overhead. As I looked at the drawings, I felt a need to know who drew these red line drawings. The work of the their hands lay so near the work of their heart I could almost see the painter. He or she is many centuries gone now, but part of the painter survived to speak to me. It is these works of the hand that pull at my heart strings - the ones that show not the skill of the artist, but the human hand and the human heart that made them.

Sunday, May 3, 2009


May 3, 2009, Urgup, Turkey

We left Istanbul this morning on a Turkish Airlines plane with turquoise leather seats. We arrived in Nevsehir an hour after we left Istanbul, traveling by van to Urgup where we will be staying for the better part of the next week. I loved the turquoise seats. This is not a color one would pick as a neutral. I think that is one thing among many that I will remember about Turkey. Color is everywhere. From the shades of a Kilim to the deep reds and blues of the carpets, from the thousands of textures and colors in every textile imaginable to the yellows and browns of the Ottoman houses and the brilliant glazes on the ceramics. Color joyfully inhabits everything.

Americans are taught that stripes don't go with other printed fabrics. Oranges don't "go" with pinks. You shouldn't wear 2 prints together. Who made these rules? I for one want to know. Whoever it was has not been to Turkey.