Monday, April 12, 2021

Üç bayan on the loose on the Karia Yolu

Pretty but scratchy
"Three ladies, aren’t you scared??" the farmer asked incredulously as he pointed us in the direction of the gate that led out of his field and onto the dirt road climbing out of Bağlarözü bay.

Used to getting such responses to our hiking adventures in Turkey, we scoffed amongst ourselves at the question. But had we known what we'd be getting into before we finally reached his farm, we might indeed have been a little trepidatious.

Our first hike on the Carian Trail as it winds its way around the Datça Peninsula in southwestern Turkey started off easily in the beachside village of Palamutbükü, following rural roads past newly tilled fields with chamomile flowers growing wild on their edges. The signpost for Knidos pointed us up a trail into the scrabbly hills, and then down again onto a rocky path overlooking the watery gradient of blues where the Aegean Sea blends into the Mediterranean.

It all seemed so easy
at the start... 
Somewhere around the halfway point of what was supposed to be a 7.5-hour hike on "a mix of path and dirt road undulating around the coast," I was brought up short. We must have taken a wrong turn somewhere. But how? A rocky slope rose up steeply to one side of the narrow path; to the other side, there was only the sea. Pausing to contemplate the situation, I leaned on one hand against the rock and realized there were red and white paint stripes blazed onto the stone right next to my palm. So we were still on the trail after all. But there was nowhere for me to step next.

Right beyond my feet, the path ended in a steep drop-off to the sea, where the incoming tide crashed against a large, jagged rock, thwarting any thought of jumping into the surf. I sat down and scooted myself as far over the edge as I could go while still holding on, but my feet still dangled above the slippery rock. Even if I could make it down without twisting an ankle, or worse, we would be in the sea, with who-knows-how-many similar maneuvers ahead.

The path was supposed
to go above the shore,
not in the sea...
I recalled seeing a dirt road branching off up over the hills some ways back – maybe we could scramble our way up to reach it? Neither option seemed great, but we had to choose one, so up we went, trying to pick our way along loose scree and around unforgiving scrub. The undergrowth released aromas of rosemary, marjoram, and lavender while sharp, hard branches of other plants scratched into our legs.

Judging by the gap in photos on my camera roll, it was a good two hours before we emerged onto the surprised farmer's land and were gratefully reunited with the fickle trail markers and (at least for a while) a wide road. As the daylight began to wane, shapes started to emerge from the rocky landscape we now shared with a few herds of goats – remnants of the city walls of ancient Knidos, our destination at last.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Istanbul's 'First of the Month Church'

The ones for marriage are four lira; the rest are two lira," the older woman explained patiently as I surveyed the plastic takeout containers arrayed across the tables she and a few others were setting up on the sidewalk before the sun had even fully risen. Each small tub was filled with tiny colorful trinkets loosely connected in some way to the label on its lid: "araba için" (for car), "okul için" (for school), "bebek için" (for baby), and more than a dozen others.

Despite the early hour, a small trickle of people, mostly women, were already finding their way to this drab street corner around the back side of the sprawling İMÇ complex in Unkapanı, where high walls hid all but the cross atop the Ayın Biri Kilisesi.

I can say without a doubt that I've never run to church before, but not knowing whether this tradition that I'd heard about over the years would be continuing during pandemic times, I figured this way I would have gotten my morning exercise in regardless. So I pulled on long tights instead of my usual shorts, tossed a long-sleeved shirt, a T-shirt dress, and a scarf (just in case – having grown up Protestant and being nonreligious for decades, I'm never quite sure what the etiquette in an Orthodox church should be) in my running backpack, and headed out the door, catching glimpses of a rich violet and magenta sunrise between buildings in Beyoğlu and crossing the Atatürk Bridge over the Golden Horn with morning traffic on one side and fishermen lined up on the other.

The Ayın Biri Kilisesi, a Rum (Greek) Orthodox church, is best known – as its extremely literal nickname, "First of the Month Church," suggests – as a place to go on the first day of each month, to seek good fortune in some aspect(s) of your life. (Its "real" name is variously listed as Vefa Kilisesi, after the neighborhood, or Meryem Ana Kilisesi, based on one story of its origin, in which the Virgin Mary appeared in a dream to an Albanian Orthodox girl and told her that there was a holy spring underneath her family's garden and that a church should be built there.) As with many such folk traditions, actual religiosity seems to be no barrier to participation, with members of the majority Muslim population joining the city's few remaining Christians. After the year we've all had, I too figured any potential source of luck was worth giving a try.

After slipping my more-modest change of clothes on over my running kit, I selected five gold-hued trinkets from the tables outside the church, each attached to a short, brightly colored ribbon with a small safety pin: a hamsa/Hand of Fatima, başarı için (for success); a dragonfly, kariyer için (for career); a lock and key, huzur mutluluk için (for serenity and happiness); a heart, sağlık için (for health); and a slightly different heart, aşk için (for love).

Though I'm told the first-of-the-month ritual can draw hours-long lines when it fall on a (non-lockdown!) Sunday, on this Monday morning, the courtyard enclosed by the church's walls was serene. A handful of visitors sat on benches, chatting and drinking tea alongside some scattered gravestones and column capitals, while others lit candles inside a cabin-like building, or waited to get into the main church. One man walked around handing out candy, which I later learned is a show of gratitude displayed by someone whose wish made previously at Ayın Biri had been granted. 

Icons adorned the walls inside the small but prettily decorated and lovingly tended church, where a slightly bewildering array of rituals awaited. (Fortunately, I ran into a friend who'd visited previously and could provide some guidance.) From one booth, a man offered small keys for four lira each. Next were candles lined up on a stand with a slot for donations. In the corner, a priest asked me my name, then placed a heavy embroidered cloth over my head and intoned some almost inaudible words. Here and in a small chamber downstairs that also houses a holy spring said to date to the early 1700s, people paused before icons hanging on the walls. Holding up their little keys, they mimed the motion of unlocking each side of the cabinets around the images, or tracing their outlines. My nominally Catholic friend suggested I cross myself with each trinket as I moved along the line, which I did, crossing the one representing the wish I most want fulfilled in front of a few different icons for good measure.

If any of my wishes come true, I'll do as tradition holds I should and return the "blessed" key to the church, along with sweets to share with those who haven't been so lucky yet.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Epiphany on the Golden Horn

The bell began ringing out at 12:30 pm sharp, its sound carrying to the water's edge from an unseen church somewhere behind a cacophony of buildings in various states of (dis)repair. No gentle tinkle but an effortful pealing, it continued for a full five minutes as the assembled crowd shuffled a bit impatiently. As its clanking ebbed away, voices murmuring in both Turkish and Greek came to the fore and police swept the spectators to the sidelines. The Patriarch was arriving.

Every year on 6 January, Istanbul's small remaining Greek Orthodox community celebrates Epiphany, the baptism of Jesus – a day they call Theophany – at the Church of St. George in the Fener neighborhood along the Golden Horn. Following what I'm told is always a lengthy mass, the congregation processed to the nearby waterfront, where they joined the awaiting press cadre, at least one Turkish tour group, and assorted other bystanders as a drone circled overhead and small idling boats churned up the waters.

On a pier across a short stretch of water, two men in swimming briefs paced, stretched, and swung their arms. All the while they each kept a keen eye on His All-Holiness Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, as the elderly archbishop slowly ascended a platform set up for the occasion, topped with a scroll on a stand.

My position in the crowd meant I couldn't see the movement of the Patriarch's hand, so before I knew it, the two men were in the water, racing to be the first to retrieve the wooden cross that His Holiness had tossed in as per tradition. Pointing my camera in their general direction, I clicked as fast as I could until after one had reached the cross, kissed it, and held it triumphantly aloft. It was all over so quickly; as a woman next to me laughed to her friend afterwards, "I don't even know what I took pictures of!" 

Similar ceremonies were prevented in Greece this year due to the coronavirus pandemic – in Thessaloniki, police and coast guard patrolled the waterfront to prevent them, according to the Associated Press – and both the crowds and the number of participants in Istanbul were much diminished. (Last year's event drew some 30 swimmers on a frigid day, many of whom had traveled from Greece or other Orthodox countries.) But I was pleased to have finally (after all these years!) witnessed this distinctive event, getting my renewed vows to Try More New ThingsTM (2021-Style, i.e. locally) and resurrect this long-moribund blog off to a good start, at least for now...