Log of the Eclipse (9)

by wjw on July 12, 2006

Trip Diary: April 1, 2006

Over and Under Cappadocia With the Whirling Dervishes

When we checked into our hotel, we noticed that our room was on the same floor as the Presidential Suite. Heh, we thought, like some president is going to stay here!

Next day there were two well-suited bodyguards sitting in armchairs outside the Presidential Suite. Someone saw a limousine with Albanian flags on the fenders pick up a dignitary. Apparently the President of Albania had come to Cappadocia for a couple nights.

Maybe he wanted to buy some carpets.

I was impressed that people in our group knew an Albanian flag when they saw one.

Trudging past the bodyguards, who eyed my camera case with modest suspicion, I got up early for the second day in a row, again in hopes of getting my balloon ride. The weather had been so miserable the previous day that I had given up hope— but greatly to my surprise, the weather turned out to be brilliant.

I was slotted for the second round of balloon rides— the balloons were so much in demand that they were flying in shifts. When we took off at 7:00 the sun was still bright, and low enough to cast long dark contrasting shadows— perfect for aerial photography.

We were taken to the balloon fields in vans manned by support crew, who talked constantly to each other and to walkie-talkies. At some point I realized that they were talking in Arabic, not Turkish, and concocted sleepy morning fantasies about al-Qaeda kidnaping and violent revenge. Instead, what we got was some lovely scenery, far more spectacular in the bright sun than it had been in the previous day’s drizzle.

We got out near a farmer’s home from which I heard the sound of turkeys, the only turkeys I’d encounter in Turkey. Half a dozen balloons were in the brilliant blue sky. (I am going to use the word “brilliant” a lot in this installment. Be warned.)

The balloons began to ease themselves toward the ground. We piled into our vehicle and bounced down primitive roads toward our particular balloon. It was very large, with a wicker gondola that could hold sixteen people jammed elbow-to-elbow. Fortunately we had only a dozen or so, which gave us just enough room to move around.

The gondola had a few foot-holds to step in when clambering in and out, but still it required a degree of athleticism. An American woman who claimed she lacked the strength to use even the foot-holds had to be dragged out head-first, flopping along like a seal out of water. She didn’t look that out of shape to me. I think she enjoyed the attention.

I clambered in without doing myself or the balloon any damage. Our captain had started as a glider pilot, served in the Air Force, and then taken up ballooning. He said he preferred balloons, because they’re more social.

A sustained blast from the burners and we were airborne. I hadn’t had a balloon ride in nearly twenty years, but I recognized at once the chill sensation on my neck of the cold rain of unspent propane. (The captain apologized for this phenomenon, and said a dealer had stuck him with inferior propane.)

Several thousand feet below was the lunar landscape of Cappadocia, spires, contorted hills, deep valleys, winding tracks, small fields, natural amphitheaters, and cave homes. The strong sunlight and deep shadow made picture-taking criminally easy. I shot over 100 photos, and none of them sucked. Every single one was right on the money.

There was no sense of motion at all, and the only sound was the roaring of the propane burners as we gained altitude. The captain expertly shifted altitude to find winds to push us in the direction we needed to go. We were moving in step with half a dozen other balloons, drops of rainbow color in the sky

Slowly we descended. We passed the rim of a valley, then continued to drop. Hoodoo spires rose all around us. Fields and lovely blooming apricot trees grew closer. We brushed the top of an apricot tree, and then we were moving up Pigeon Valley, the very same valley whose rim I had walked the day before.

This was better. The spires marched past like the pickets of a fence. We could gaze directly into the windows of some of the cave homes. I could look left and right and see other balloons flying up other canyons. I looked up and saw a farm wife on the rim, arms akimbo as she glared down at us. (Damned tourists stealing my apricots again . . . )

We began to run out of valley, and the burners opened fire. We climbed rapidly, though the gondola lightly touched a cliff-face in doing so. The gondola didn’t rock, it just bounced away.

Again, for a while, we had a view from several thousand feet. The twin horns of the Uçhisar castle were far below us. Other balloons began their final descent. Our captain aimed us at one particular ridge, but missed, which resulted in much yelling into his walkie-talkie as he directed the ground crew to the new landing spot.

At length we thudded to earth on the edge of an arroyo. Somehow we managed to avoid tipping in. When the ground crew showed up, they walked the gondola to a level place and helped us out.

I was filled with transcendent bliss the whole time we were aloft. Difficult to describe, but there you are.

Back at the hotel I paid the captain his $180 US, had a few minutes to change and wash propane off my neck, and then ran for the bus to visit the Kaymakli Underground City.

Since the tufa that underlies much of Cappadocia is soft, you don’t have to dig into a hill or a hoodoo to make a shelter. You can dig straight down.

Kaymakli Underground City lies beneath the town of Kaymakli. It, and other underground cities in the area, were built over many centuries as a refuge during times of trouble or invasion, though the passages were used for storage in times of peace. No one knows how old these excavation are, though Hittite inscriptions and tools have been found, which means that some at least are over 3000 years old. The Kaymakli Underground City was lost for hundreds of years, and only rediscovered in 1964. It’s possible that Cappadocia is riddled with undiscovered underground cities.

Kaymakli is alleged to descend over 1000 meters, but the lower levels are dangerous and largely unexplored, and tourists are allowed only in the first five levels. There are also alleged to be long galleries connecting different underground cities, but they’ve never been found and I don’t believe they exist. Not only do I have trouble crediting the notion that these ancient people had the engineering chops to drive 20-km-long tunnels with perfect accuracy, I doubt they had any need to do so.

During a time of invasion by the Mongols (or whoever), the inhabitants would descend into their underground town and seal the tunnels off. The invaders would encounter what appeared to be a deserted town, and move on.

The uppermost level consists of stabling for domestic animals. The next level or two were for people. Below that was storage.

Kaymakli was a complete city. There were wells for water and shafts for air. There were hollows where wine grapes could be stamped. There were kitchens. There was a winery, a graveyard, a church, wine storage, a “saloon,” and “stone for beating of the spice.” At intervals one would encounter a huge round millstone-shaped door, sometimes more than six feet across and 500kg in weight, with a little hole in the center, that could be rolled to block a passage at strategic intervals. These millstone doors looked as if they had been carved in place out of the tufa, but the guidebook says they were made out of a harder material and somehow transported into place. Invaders would find it impossible to get enough leverage to move these doors from the outside, and would also be vulnerable to a spear thrust through the central hole.

After visiting Kaymakli, I give Moria more credence than formerly I did.

Just because Kaymakli had all these features didn’t mean it was comfortable. I imagine refugees from above would make the place more homelike with rugs, hangings, and familiar items from home, but living underground would still be an oppressive existence. None of the rooms were very large, or very private. Connecting tunnels could be narrow and low. There was one 50-foot passage where I had to duckwalk along, getting jammed in place every so often by my camera case, which kept wedging itself between my body and the wall— it seemed a lot longer than 50 feet, and I emerged breathless and sweating. In another place I just gave up and crawled.

Shorter, more slightly-built people, coming along behind me, kept asking me if I was all right. Do you know how annoying it is to have to answer, “I’m fine, I’m just stuck in a tunnel”?

I’m not normally affected by claustrophobia (except at science fiction conventions, when I’m packed into an elevator with a few hundred fans, all bellowing at the top of their lungs), but at Kaymakli there were uncomfortable moments.

The most annoying thing about this visit, however, was that none of my photos came out. My flash is now completely out of synch with my hitherto-reliable Pentax. Not a single photo I took with flash came out.

After Kaymakli, we went to the Göreme Outdoor Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Göreme is a town just down the valley from the castle of Uçhisar, and consists of the parts of that town that just spilled over onto the valley floor. In a series of valleys near Göreme is the oldest Christian monastic community in the world.

It was Saint Basil the Great (who incidentally is the Orthodox Father Christmas) and his brother Gregory (who invented the concept of the Trinity) who established the monastic communities of Cappadocia in the 4th Century. Prior to that, there had been hermits living in caves or atop pillars, but Basil thought it would be more useful to gather contemplative types into useful communities, where they could live, eat, worship, and study in common (as Buddhist monks had been doing for a thousand years).

Cut from the tufa are dozens of structures, dorm rooms, kitchens, dining halls, and many, many chapels. The chapels all feature brightly-painted frescoes, many of which are in surprisingly good shape. The oldest date from the Iconoclastic Controversy, and are geometric compositions. The few representations of living things are very abstract, so that no one could possibly mistake them for idols. After the iconoclasts fell from power, it was all right for people to depict human figures again, and many of the chapels are covered everywhere with brightly-painted scenes from the Bible and from Christian history.

To name just a few: there is the Dark Church (the darkness preserving the incredibly bright frescos of the life of Christ), the Buckle Church (actually four churches carved next to and on top of each other, and where the frescoes are less well preserved), the Hidden Church (lost until 1956), the Church of Mother Mary, the El Nazar Church (partially collapsed, and its artwork now destroyed or open to the elements), the Apple Church, the Sandals Church, the Church of St. Barbara, and the Snake Church, which features a rather startling picture of St. Onouphrios, depicted as a naked hermaphrodite (albeit fig-leafed) with a long white beard. There’s a story there, but I don’t know it.

The names of these churches are modern, and usually based on motifs found in the frescoes. We have no idea what the monks called them. Which is a shame, because a thriving monastic community existed here until 1923, when Turkey expelled most of its Christians, shipping 2.5 million of them to Greece (whether they were Greek or not), in exchange for half a million Turks being shipped the other way.

After 1923 the site was abandoned and largely forgotten. It was “rediscovered” in the 1950s, when the Turks figured out they could attract tourist money to the area. But much damage had been done in the meantime, with the frescoes deteriorating and the long Cappadocian winters cracking the domes of the chapels, and sometimes destroying them altogether. The Turks are trying to make amends, and are re-capping the domes of endangered chapels, piling up some form of earth-colored, natural-seeming concrete on top of them in hopes of keeping the ice from cracking them. May they succeed.

Walking through a sunshower to the parking lot after visiting the Buckle Church(es), I encountered the only rude Turk I met in the entire journey, a young man who called me a “dickhead” for not buying his ice cream.

Fuck ‘im.

From Göreme we went to the famous pottery factory at Avanos. By now I was not terribly surprised to discover that most of it was underground— when you want to expand in Cappadocia, you just build downward, it saves having to buy more property.

The factory makes all sorts of pottery, from silly kitsch (a porcelain cuckoo clock, anyone?) to glorious, intricate works of art made by masters. Though I collect pottery, and though I lusted after some of the larger, more spectacular serving platters, I wasn’t terribly tempted by the pieces we could actually afford, and we didn’t buy anything. I think some of the salesmen were dreadfully offended.

That night we went to see the dervishes whirl.

The local dervishes had their headquarters at the Sanuhan Cultural Center, which is an enormous old Seljuk caravanserai, a massive walled structure with towers, ornamented with carvings I didn’t have a chance to inspect. It was a rainy night, and we walked across ancient flagstones as we crossed the courtyard to the main building. In the vast building, beneath gigantic arches, we discovered a smallish dance floor surrounded by bleachers for visitors. We waited while more groups filed in, until the area was packed.

There had been dervishes before Mevlana, and there had been Sufis, but the Sufi dervishes hadn’t whirled. The whirling dance was Mevlana’s innovation, as well as the music that accompanies the dance— music had not previously been a part of Muslim religious tradition. The dance originated from a line in the Koran which states that all matter whirls, down to the smallest atom. (I have to say that the Prophet got that part right.) Though I know I’ve read the quote somewhere, I’ve since been unable to find the exact wording.

The whirling dance, called the Semà, goes through several stages, and is meant to invoke divine love and symbolize a mystic cycle leading to perfection. I was reasonably confident that we were watching the real ritual, not some tarted-up tourist dance, for the simple reason that a lot of the ritual is actually quite dull, and if this was a cabaret show they’d make it more exciting.

The orchestra entered before the dancers

1. The ceremony starts with a eulogy to the Prophet, who represents love and all Prophets before him. This went on for a while, sung I believe in Arabic.

2. There followed a bang of the drum symbolizing the Creation.

3. There followed an improvised flute solo performed on the ney, representing the first life-giving breath of the Creator. This went on for five or six minutes, and left me fidgeting.

4. At this point the dervishes entered, wearing their traditional costume, which consists of a white blouse and jacket, a long white skirt, a black sash, a very tall beige-colored fez, and a black robe resembling those of Oxford dons. All of this presumably has symbolic meaning— I believe the skirt represents the covering of the ego. They march about the dance floor counterclockwise, form in various lines, and greet each other by bowing, which symbolizes the salutation of soul to soul concealed by shapes and bodies. It reminded me of the various salutations employed by strict, traditional Okinawan martial arts.

5. Finally we got to the whirling. The five dancers removed their black robes, though the head dervish did not. (This symbolizes opening the heart to the divine essence.) The whirling dance is performed to music and consists of four parts, called “selams” (salutes). In each the dancers whirl counterclockwise while moving in a counterclockwise circle around the dance floor, and each ends with the dancers forming up in lines and bowing to one another.

The dancers begin the whirling with their arms crossed. As they begin the whirling, their hands move down to the waist, and then the backs of their hands move up their bodies to the top of their headdress, and then out. The head is tilted to the right to help avoid dizziness. The right hand is palm-up, open to the divine love, while the left hand is palm-down, to send excess energy into the earth. Once the final arms-out posture is attained, only the legs move.

5a. The first selam is man’s birth to truth by feeling and mind. 5b. The second selam expresses the rapture at the splendor of creation, 5c. The third selam is the dissolution of the ego into love, the annihilation of the self, and the unity of all things. 5d. The fourth selam brings the dervish home from his spiritual journey and returns him to his state of subservience to God. He ends the dance once again with his arms crossed, representing the unity of God.

The dervish tries to escape all dualities and unite in oneness with the Creator. The head dervish participated in the bowing but not the whirling, though sometimes he’d march in a counterclockwise circle around one of the dancers. Sometimes he would hold his robe open over his heart, to show that he was open to the Divine Influence.

I watched the dervishes closely during the dance. The youngest dervish was clearly in another realm— he was “in state,” totally at one with the dance, his face at once intent and completely relaxed. Students of Zen meditate for years trying to find this place in their minds. One of the older dervishes looked quite psychotic— his eyes were rolled up in his head, and he performed the dance blind. The others seemed comfortable, but if they achieved ecstacy they didn’t show it on their faces.

6. After the dance, the dervishes bow to each other, then pick up their robes and march out. The dance ends with the singing of a piece of scripture or one of Mevlana’s verses.

After the conclusion, the dervishes either return to their cells for meditation (tefekkür), or they flop around and party, all depending on which version of this ritual you care to believe.

After the Semà, our group was invited to stay and ask questions of the head dervish and his youngest disciple. (In the end, the youngest dervish never spoke.) I’m not sure quite how we rated this favor, but I appreciated it. We had to wait for the other groups to leave, and then asked questions through one of our guides. I don’t remember the other questions, unfortunately, but this was mine:

Q: “During the whirling dance, do you try to maintain in your mind a thought or meditation, or do you try to empty your mind entirely?”

A: “We try to empty our minds so that it can be filled by the Divine Love.”

I was trying to relate the whirling dance to martial arts, where kata or forms can be considered a type of moving meditation. In Kenpo we typically try to hold an idea in our mind while performing kata, which can be literal (“I’m punching this guy!”), theoretical (“I am at the center of my dynamic sphere”), visual (“My enemies are tiny and I am a giant”), elemental (“I am performing this block exactly as I was meant to”), symbolic (“I am a crane”), or cosmic (“I am dancing with the Void.”)

But emptying the mind works, too.

After the Q&A we left the caravanserai and went into the greater cosmos, where it was still raining. The day had begun and ended with transcendence, and in the middle featured a journey to the Underworld. I felt like a hero out of Joseph Campbell.

Where and how could it possibly get any better?

Next: We Meet the Goddess

Mark Matlock January 8, 2016 at 2:29 am

St. Onouphrios hermaphrodite? Not even close. Look again at the icon, what makes you believe he was depicted as a hermaphrodite?

wjw January 8, 2016 at 11:18 am

As far as St. Onouphrios goes, I’m only repeating what the guide told me. If he gave me an explanation, I’ve forgotten it.

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