Log of the Eclipse (8)

by wjw on July 9, 2006

After time off for workshops and Westercon, the Turkish trip diary resumes with our first full day in Cappadocia.

Trip Diary: March 31, 2006

Cappadocia— both Cs are hard, by the way— is a high plateau right smack in the middle of Turkey, with harsh winters and brief summers. A modern Turk would call the area by its modern Turkish name, not by the ancient name that once belonged to a Hellenized kingdom and a Roman province.

The topography of Cappadocia was formed by fire and water. Much of the province was once filled by a lake 300 meters deep, but a series of enormous volcanic explosions filled the lake with great flaming chunks of basalt mixed with volcanic ash, which hardened into tufa.

Tufa is a very soft stone. Basalt is very hard. Remember that.

Just because the lake was full of debris didn’t mean that the water went away. The water was still there, and began its work of eroding the stone. Erosion was aided by the area’s severe winters and frost heaves. The soft tufa eroded easily, but the hard basalt did not. When a chunk of basalt sat on top of tufa, it protected the tufa immediately underneath from erosion. The result was formations of eerie spires, of the type known as “hoodoos” in the US and as “fairy chimneys” in Cappadocia.

The scenery reminded me of places on the Colorado Plateau, particularly Bryce Canyon, where similar geological processes are at work. But Cappadocia is more than just geology, it’s a cradle of civilization. People have been living among— and in— the hoodoos for thousands of years. Because the tufa is soft, people armed with little more than a hammer made of a harder rock can hack away at the tufa to create rooms, homes, and sometimes entire cities. Geology and humanity have combined to create Cappadocia’s unique topography. We saw single-family homes that were carved out of a single hoodoo, as well as towns and castles carved out of mountains.

For a remote plateau with forbidding weather, a lot has happened in Cappadocia over the centuries. Civilization proper began in Çatal Höyük, the first known urban settlement dated to 7000 BCE. Hattusas, the capital of the Hittite Empire, is in Cappadocia. So is Konya, the capital of the Seljuk Turks. The name “Cappadocia” was given to the area by the Persians, and it may mean “Land of Beautiful Horses,” or possibly something else. After the Persians were thrown out by Alexander, an independent but weak Cappadocian kingdom arose, to be a pawn in the conflict between Rome and Perseus of Macedon, then Rome and Antiochus, then Rome and Mithridates VI of Pontus, and then between various Roman generals like Antony and Octavian, until the kingdom was made a Roman province. Under Byzantine emperors, the first Christian monasteries anywhere were built in Cappadocia. Under the Seljuks, the whirling dance of the dervishes was introduced.

I had signed up for a dawn balloon ride over Cappadocia, but bad weather forced a cancellation. Of course I had to get up at predawn hours anyway. Breakfast was eaten off the usual vast buffet, but with one interesting addition: an elderly lady in a head scarf, who knelt with her apparatus in one corner, would hand-roll a large, hearty pancake, which she would then cook on a griddle and stuff with vegetables and meats. I never ordered one myself— they were too vast even for my appetite— but I did nibble off the plates of others, and found the pancakes tasty and filling.

After breakfast we drove through rain and mist to visit the fairy chimneys. We stopped by one site where an entire village had been carved into the rock, including a small church with an altar, a font, and some faded red ochre frescoes. Our guides took us to a place called Pigeon Valley, where a community had been carved high in the rock. Some of the dwellings had more than one storey. As with Anasazi cliff dwellings in the States, we had to wonder how the inhabitants ever reached them.

Many of the cliff homes were not intended for people, but for pigeons. I assume that people raised them for food.

Many of these troglodyte homes were been abandoned in the 20th century as the locals were either expelled (for being non-Turks), or as they grew prosperous enough to own more conventional homes. This was the case until relatively recently, when the Turks realized they could make money off tourism. Now there are troglodyte hotels, and troglodyte shops, and single-family homes where you can rent a room.

Rain continued to drizzle down as we walked along the edge of the valley, washing out the colors into a uniform grey. Many booths for tourists had been built along the rim of the canyon, but many of the tables had been covered and for once the vendors weren’t pursuing us. Along the rim of the canyon, we saw two unique local trees. The first was a pottery tree— an ordinary tree with its limbs capped by clay pots. Presumably it’s a way of displaying pots that have holes in them, or that you otherwise don’t need anymore. The second was a wishing tree— when the locals make a wish, they tie a bit of white cloth (or piece of plastic) around the tree. The trees end up completely covered with these wishes, which produces a colorful sight but of course kills the tree dead.

At the end of Pigeon Valley is the castle of Uçhisar, an entire two-horned mountain hollowed out over the centuries and turned into an elaborate fortress, with a cave-town all around it. It’s a spectacular and intricate sight. We didn’t have much time to spend there, so I sped over as much as I could in the time allotted.

Uçhisar is quite the tourist mecca, filled with shops and cave hotels. We’d seen such fantastic sights that I was taking a lot more pictures than I’d planned, and somewhat to my surprise I found a couple booths selling slide film, which is hard to get anywhere. I bought their entire stock, and promptly took some snaps of a very uncomfortable-looking Japanese tourist, along with his doubtful-looking wife, as they enjoyed their first camel ride.

The only camels I saw in Turkey, by the way, were those ridden by tourists.

After the visit to Uçhisar we had lunch at another caravanserai, except that this one was a modern imitation, built to feed large groups of tourists. The ever-popular lentil soup led the menu, followed by another lamb stir-fry.

Following lunch, we were taken to Yuksel Carpets, so that we could all spend money on gorgeous things.

I believe we all performed as expected.

We had the tour first, from a smiling sales manager who probably delivered the same patter ten times a day. We began in a room where women were weaving carpets, just so that we could see how it was done, the wool pile hand-knotted knotted onto the warp (or weft, I’ve never known which was which), 250,000 double knots per square meter. The dyes are all organic— woad, madder, camomile, pomegranate— so that the colors grow more mellow as they age. The patterns are usually chosen by the factory managers from the thousands of traditional styles available, and the work is done almost all by women in their homes. (The only men to make carpets in Turkey are the inmates of prisons, in contrast with Iran or Afghanistan where all the weavers are men. Persian carpets also use the single knot for their pile, highly inferior from the Turkish point of view.) A typical rug takes about 300 days to weave.

The weavers are all anonymous— none sign their work. This entire vast industry is based on thousands of unknown women working part-time for what I suspect is not a lot of money.

The dowry for a traditional young woman is often the weaving that she’s done while growing up, starting with small items woven at the age of 10 or 12, and finished with a full-sized rug to demonstrate her level of domestic accomplishment.

In recent years Afghanistan and Iran have lost most of their weavers to the expanding economy— they earn a lot more in fields such as construction. Despite somewhat more limited job opportunities for women, the weavers in Turkey are starting to follow them. Whole carpet-weaving traditions may be lost in the next generation.

At one point Kathy suggested to the sales manager that each rug come with a Polaroid photo of the weaver, as many Navajo rugs do here in New Mexico. I don’t think the manager quite understood the point of buyers getting to know the weavers.

After the lecture on rug making, we were taken to meet the silk master, a middle-aged man standing over a large pot of warm water in which bobbed dozens of silkworm cocoons. Fifty of the cocoons were unraveling onto five large wheels— it takes ten strands of silk to make one thread, and when a strand breaks or the cocoon is completely unraveled, it’s up to the silk master to pick up another strand and weave it into nine others. He does this by picking up the strand with the tip of one wet finger and flicking the strand onto a kind of straining apparatus that gathers the strands together. He does it in the blink of an eye, too fast for the eye to follow. I have to wonder how many years it took to acquire that skill.

Turkish rugs are made of silk, wool, and/or cotton. You can’t put a silk pile on a wool or cotton backing, because silk is the second-strongest natural material in the world (after spider silk), and the silk would cut the lesser fabric and destroy the carpet.

The pure silk carpets are the smallest— usually tea-towel size— and the most expensive, but the glowing colors and the patterns are brilliant, sometimes breathtaking. Touching a silk carpet is a wonderfully sensuous experience. The silk threads are smaller than wool and the dexterity required to knot the carpet is incredible, 625 double knots per square inch.

Silk is also used to make bright ornamental embroidery on kilims, the simplest flat-woven carpets. They don’t knot the silk into a pile, as wool is knotted, so the silk won’t cut the threads.

Having got the tour, we were shown into a vast showroom, and we were offered apple tea, coffee, soft drinks, or raki. The sales manager called in several assistants to roll out carpets for us. They started with kilims, flat-woven carpets without pile. Then cicims, zili, and sumaks, which are kilims with various forms of embroidery, each more spectacular than the last. The salesman explained what we were going to see, then all the carpets were unrolled simultaneously, so that sunbursts and flower gardens seemed to bloom all at once before our eyes.

Then the carpets proper, those with knotted pile. Wool-on-wool, then wool-on-cotton, then silk-on-silk. Each layer of carpets was covered with another more gorgeous and more expensive. (Cunning, that sales technique.)

As it happens, there was a part of our living room floor that would be enhanced by a carpet. Kathy and I had talked about the possibility of acquiring a carpet for just that spot. I had spotted a few that might be just the ticket. But after the long lecture and carpet show I needed to use the men’s room, and hastened thence as soon as I could.

When I came back, I was intercepted by a couple salesmen and taken to a small showroom, where I found Kathy with the rug she had loved above all others, a roughly 6×8 rug, madder-red, with black and gold geometric patterns.

But that wasn’t all. Once they knew our, or rather Kathy’s taste, they went into their warehouse and got maybe half a dozen other rugs that were roughly similar to the first. We paced about the rugs, because with a high-quality rug, the colors shift as you move about. Eventually we decided we liked another rug somewhat better.

The salesman quoted a price, in US dollars. We didn’t have to fake our look of horror.. They gave us a somewhat lower price. At this point it was Kathy’s turn for the rest room, and she dashed off.

The salesman called in the manager who offered us an extra-special wonderful price— nearly 25% off. (There’s nothing like walking out on a negotiation to bring you to the base price very quickly.) I concluded the deal before they came to their senses.

Kathy returned from the ladies’, firm in the belief that we hadn’t bought a rug at all, and was surprised to learn that we had.

We went to the main desk to present our credit card and make the purchase. Our friend Karin, whose enthusiasm for carpets was perhaps enhanced by the raki she’d consumed during the show, was on the phone arguing long-distance with her credit card company. (The argument continued well past our time to leave— in the end, Karin, having bought a number of rugs, was returned to the hotel by a Yuksel car.)

We also went to a local winery for a wine tasting. The white was perfectly acceptable. The red caused me to raise my eyebrows and look at the fellow next to me. “Almaden Mountain Red,” he said. I have not had the pleasure of ever drinking Almaden Mountain Red, but I will bow to his expertise.

Several of our group purchased wine, I trust the white.

Dinner was the usual vast buffet. Afterwards we were taken to a Folk Dance and Music Show, held in one of Cappadocia’s numerous underground vaults, where we all sat at trestle tables in alcoves off the dance floor, and were provided with complimentary snacks, salads, and drinks, in my case raki. There was a live band providing music heavy on the percussion, and a cast of young local men and women in native costume, all demonstrating athletic skill and considerable aerobic fitness.

The cast had learned the lesson that the best way to engage the audience is to drag various audience members on stage to be humiliated in one way or another, and this duly occurred. One poor fellow was dragged up to participate in a courting dance— the maiden had already shot down one of the locals— and our comrade was forced to dance energetically, make muscles, and otherwise demonstrate his masculine fitness. The maiden shot him down anyway.

In the end we were all dragged from our tables, formed into a long snakey line, and danced up the ramps to the outside, where we danced about a huge bonfire, yelling and cheering. The moon floated above us in the smoky sky. I had a lot to celebrate and had a glorious time. The raki helped, I imagine.

There was also a belly dancer who descended onto the floor in a glass elevator. I’m not sure whether this is a criticism of Turkey or a compliment to New Mexico, but I’ve seen many better belly dancers in Albuquerque.

And so back to the hotel and bed, breathless and dreaming of New Mexico’s belly dancers.

dubjay July 10, 2006 at 7:24 pm

I have deleted no less than eight identical spam from this space in the last few minutes.

Why eight? Why me? And after all this time, why is blogger.com vulnerable to this kind of thing?

And who do these morons think will actually clink on their link, anyway? Why are they wasting their own time, let alone mine?

Jonathan November 20, 2009 at 7:52 pm

Hi. We just got done the same tour at the same carpet place. Did you end up having any issues with the carpet? We are considering a 10k purchase on a 7 x 12 silk on silk and we are concerned it may not be real silk…

dubjay November 20, 2009 at 9:16 pm

Yuksel is as reputable as an Anatolian rug seller will ever be. It'll be real silk.

Enjoy the carpet.

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