What a remarkable day yesterday (Friday 27th) was. I am up very early this morning (5:30am) after a very late night last night (bed at 12:30am) in order to record all that happened.
We are staying in the Anemos Hotel in Izmir (Smyrna). Luckily there is an internet room here and I don’t have to go out searching for a connection. It is a very very nice hotel that belongs to a member of the Business Association network that is hosting us.
The boys from last night–Izzenet and Emre–turned up early this morning to shepherd us on our way, driving ahead of us in their car. They stuck with us all through the day to care for our every need. Since they were both dressed in dark suit and tie, and regularly talking into their mobile phones (they were taking a day off from their business for our sake) they looked rather like our bodyguard or minders.
There was a good road from Izmir to Ephesus (Selçuk)–a major three lane freeway. The coastal plain is quite flat but then rises sharply into mountainous areas (the average altitude of Turkey is 1100m). As we drove along we could see ancient Crusader castles high on the ridges of some of the mountains. There is much clear open agricultural land, but it is clear that the agriculture is done on a small scale and with labour-intensive techniques.
The day ahead of us (and yesterday for that matter) was going to be like the equivalent of a finishing year of my Bachelor of Arts degree at Adelaide University, where I studied Classics, Byzantine history, Latin and philosophy. I was not really prepared for many things that I saw and experienced along the way. When we arrived in Selçuk the first thing we noticed was an old mosque with storks nesting on the minaret. A scene out of a storybook–there are storks everywhere on all the high places. As I walked up a hill to get a better photograph, I stumbled across the remains of an ancient Roman aqueduct. It was going to be that kind of a day.
Ephesus (or Efes as it is locally known) is a few miles out of Selçuk. First, however, we went up into the mountains to the House of Mary, the place where the Blessed Virgin is said to have lived with St John and from where she is said to have been assumed into heaven. It is also the place where Pope Benedict celebrated mass last year in November–the very outdoor altar area itself is a permanent construction. This house is not an ancient place of pilgrimage. It was “discovered” through a vision of Catherine Anne Emmerich–which is as good a reason as any to be doubtful of its authenticity. In any case, the history doesn’t really matter here. Today it is a place of prayer and many people–Christians and Muslims–come here and make it a place of prayer. I was happy because it was the first place I had visited here where I could openly pray and sing without giving offence. It was expected by our hosts that this would be a special place for me. I lit three candles–one for my two daughters and one for Cathy–and sang Ave Maria, Regina Cael?? and the Pater Noster for all my family and friends.
Outside Emre and “The Boys” were looking at all the prayer notes attached to a wall nearby. Emre explained to the rest of the group that Muslims regard such practices as “superstition”. I said that that wasn’t quite fair. It might be superstition if it was a matter of belief that sticking a prayer on the wall worked like magic–but it is better to see it as an act of faith in the grace of God. Later on last night Emre made a comment about the Muslim custom of saying an incantation against “The Evil Eye”. “And that’s not superstition, Emre?” I asked. “No, because it’s our faith.” I suggested that our religious practices might be a good topic for further dialogue…
We left the “Virgin Mary Culture Park” (yes, that is what it was officially known as) and went back down the mountain to the ruins of the ancient city of Ephesus. Gavin had been here about seven years ago and commented that even in that time there has been a lot of reconstruction work done. I must say I found this overwhelming. When you first arrive, you see the Odeon and the government area–and you might be led into thinking WOW, but also “Is that iti” because the rest of the city is out of sight. Then you go around the corner and down the hill and there it is in front of you–ancient history all around in the stones of the past. I could have spent a whole week there. As it was, my camera batteries were running low and my photo card came up “full” after the first two pictures. The bus had gone around to the other side and so I had to use a smaller resolution, delete some photos, and use the internal memory. We were on a tight schedule with Emre hurrying us along at all points, and inevitably some major attractions of the area were missed. We suddenly found ourselves at the other side where Can was waiting with the bus–and I had hoped that we would be able to climb up the main theatre where St Paul was caught up in the riot reported in the book of Acts. At the time also, I was unaware that this was the site of the Church of St Mary–the ancient church where the Council of Ephesus was held. I thought that was a separate location. As it was, I had actually walked right past the spot–AND taken a photograph of it–without knowing what I was looking at. It appeared to be simply the continuation of the old Harbour Street. This led to a philosophical reflection later on in the bus: can you say you have actually been somewhere if when you were there you didn’t know you were there?
We lunched in the sun alongside the swimming pool at a new hotel that was being built nearby (also owned by a member of the Business Network). Quite a surprising place. It could have been in Queensland. This effect was made particularly strong by the fact that there were gum trees and wattle trees planted all around the joint. They were much older than the hotel–so they must have been planted by a previous owner. The Wattle trees did give us an opportunity to point out to our driver Can why the young Australians at ANZAC cove were wearing green and gold (he had asked about this). Over lunch we talked a little about Australian history with our hosts and with Emre–including the history of the Second World War and the feared Japanese invasion. They had not known that the history of Australia, which could be said to have begun with Gallipoli, could have ended in 1944. Thirty years later. That would not only have been “A Short History of Australia” but “THE Short History of Australia.” Emre posed a question asked by Gülen: Which is more important–the making of history or the writing of history?
On the way to lunch we visited a weaving school where we saw silk being unravelled and carpet weaving being done–wool on wool, wool on cotton, silk on silk–quite amazing, but also leading us into an understanding of what is involved in the construction of the carpets and why different carpets are valued differently.
Then we headed back into Selçuk where I thought we were going to see the old fort of St John that was built by the Crusaders at this point. In fact, I was in for a surprise: there is no access to the fort because this is still a military establishment–BUT just below it are the ruins of the Church of St John. This place is an eye-opener, make no mistake. Architecturally the building is a liturgical scholar’s dream. It shows perfectly the ancient cruciform basilica shape, the large separate baptistry with stairs going down and out of a deep pool, and a small side chapel with well-preserved mosaics. Most exciting was that in this little chapel were the four legs of what was once an altar–with the top (“the mensa”) missing. But although the chapel runs north south, this altar faces EAST. So there was no intention of the priest celebrating facing the people–who would have been on his right during his celebration–his intention was to face the rising sun as an orientation toward the resurrection. I then realised that the whole basilica was oriented East-West and that the main altar would have been facing East also.
But here is where the real surprise came. Under the four columns that would once have supported the covering canopy or “ciborium” over the altar (which is no longer there) was a marble plaque saying “The Tomb of St John”. You’re kidding, I thought. Why didn’t anyone tell me about THIS?? Why didn’t I know about it?? Why–for goodness sake–wasn’t the place still a living church with a constant throng of pilgrims?? All these questions are still in my mind, but since this was the first time I had ever been at the tomb of an Apostle, I immediately added it to my list of destinations on my pilgrimage and knelt to pray for my wife and daughters, my family and friends, and for my deceased grandmother. I wish I could have lit a candle or something.
Down the hill (yes, I was getting the hurry up again…) we went into the old 14th Century mosque that is below the basilica, Isa Bey Mosque (Lord Jesus Mosque). In the last days of the Basilica (before it was finally ruined by an earthquake) it was used for both a church and a mosque. Now blocks of stone from the Basilica were used to construct this rather special mosque. Emre went in to pray, and I went in to take a look. Hold on, I thought, there’s something wrong here. The mosque was facing–and thus determining the direction for prayer–not to the east but to the South and slightly west–a full 90 degrees away from the direction of Mecca. Emre did not believe me, so I left him to his prayers and wandered outside to get a better look of the mosque’s orientation in relation to the Church above it. There and then I could not solve the problem, but last night in bed I decided that what I should do is Google Earth the site which would prove it. In fact, if you look at the satellite picture on the page I have linked to above, you will see what I mean. The courtyard of the mosque is at the “back” of the mosque and the front wall is clearly facing southwest.
As I was wandering around outside, I was distracted by the souvenir stalls. I don’t really like haggling in a foreign language–but there was something that I wanted (I would describe it here but I want it to be a surprise when I get home). Eventually I bought two items–the second item thrown in made both items cheaper–for about half the original asking price. Nevertheless I didn’t have enough cash on me and Can eventually ended up solving the problem by loaning me a few lira. In fact Can was babbling on in Turkish to the stall owner all the way through the transaction–and I had no idea what the two of them were saying. Later I said to Emre that I wished that Can could speak English–Emre translated to Can and he replied that he is glad he doesn’t speak English or I would talk non-stop to him too! Smiley face.
We went back down the coast then. Our minders, Emre and Izzinet, took us to the coastal tourist town of Kusadasi. This is a town on the Aegean Sea with about 47500 people. I tried using my Mastercard to get a cash advance from an ATM here but with no luck. I will have to try my VISA today. I also had the opportunity of sticking my toe in the Aegean sea. Izzinet and Emre must have thought me crazy as I just pulled off one shoe and sock and put my foot in the water just to say I had done it! The Boys then took us up to a tea house on the hill above the town where sat and breathed in the sea air and relaxed for a while before heading home to Izmir.
I keep getting disorientated as we travel. Everything is back to front: the Sun is in the wrong place, the days are too long, the traffic is on the wrong side of the road and goes in the wrong direction. It is as if I have gone “through the looking glass”–or perhaps even better to say that I have fallen down a rabbit hole into Wonderland (we even have our own little white rabbit–aka Emre–going “I’m late, I’m late…”).
Many surprises today, but the greatest surprise was reserved for tonight. We have eaten very well on this trip–I might even have put on a few ounces. We have eaten in fine restaurants, at schools, TV stations and in the homes of great men–but tonight we were invited into the home of a young man and his wife in their suburban apartment highrise block and it was the best hospitality we have received yet: because they gave freely out of their few resources. Our host was Fehm?? (who manages a school canteen) and his wife Gülcan. They had three children: Gizem aged 12, Enes aged 9 and a little newborn just 45 days old, Halid. Halid was asleep when we arrived but he was brought out later to everyone’s ooohs and aaahs. (I have a great picture of Izzinet cradling the little one–which broke another stereotype for me of the Turkish male). Fehmi’s family were assisted by their neighbours Ismail (a physics teacher at a tutorial school), his wife Betül and their daughter Nesibe also aged 12. The two girls had dressed up in traditional Turkish dress from the South East of Turkey and looked very smart. They offered the more ornate dress to Chris to try on–which after a bit of coaxing she did. She looked absolutely regal in it. Again more beautiful pictures with her cuddling little Halid.
The apartment was very small. Ten of us crowded around a small table made for six while the children ate at a separate table (as we do at family gatherings)–and our hosts (as seems to be the custom) simply served us and did not eat themselves. Again we were completely reliant on Emre for translation but the conversation was diverse and intimate. We talked about the children’s schools, about food (we were served a special pilaf wrapped in pastry from SE Turkey), about hospitality, about family–just the same as we would with any of our friends. Unlike anywhere else on our trip, the children and wives joined in the conversation and were always present. The food was as good as any that we had received from any restaurant.
After dessert (and after I used a Turkish toilet for the first time) we went upstairs to Ismail’s place for tea. By this stage it was about 11pm and I was getting sleepy. We were served little sweets with our tea called “Rumi” lollies (after the Sufi poet)–they looked like mothballs and were pure sugar. As Emre said, a few of these and you will be whirling like a dervish! They asked if we wanted to smoke, but we explained that we don,t smoke inside in Australia (despite the fact that several of us are smokers). This led (for some reason) to a discussion of alcohol in Turkey.
Kevin offered pamphlets about his school in Turkish to the children and encouraged them to email him. Betül asked us a similar question to Emre Mk II’s question last night: “What were our impressions of Turkish people and how has this removed preconceptions?” This formed the basis of conversation for a while. Then it was time to say goodbye–and they presented us with beautiful gifts each: Selçuk ceramic handmade plates of traditional design. We left there very grateful and very tired–ready for bed.
It was truly a day of surprises and hospitality.