Civilisation in Anatolia has deeper roots than most people imagine. The recently discovered ruins of Göbekli Tepe are among the oldest human-made structures yet discovered. The site is almost 12,000 years old, predating any other known civilisation by several thousand years. Eat your heart out Abraham (c1800 BC) Rameses the Great (c1300 BC), Nebuchadnezzar (c600 BC) and all those daft fundamentalist Christians who think that the world was created 6000 years ago.
After an excessive Guy Fawkes Night with a wheelbarrow bonfire, fireworks to blow your hands off and the drunken Gümbet Gals Chorus (ladies, you know who you are), I’m suffering from mental paralysis. I have neither the inclination nor the energy to write anything remotely interesting, amusing or informative. It’s just as well that it’s Kurban Bayram across the entire Moslem world, a time where men are men and sheep are nervous. To celebrate the occasion, I am releasing a tiny snippet from Perking the Pansies the Book which tells of our first bloody encounter with the Feast of Sacrifice.
Liam answered a knock at the door. It was Tariq’s daughter. Selma was a pretty little thing, a fourteen year old girl with fathomless dark eyes and long brown hair, perfectly parted at the middle. Our contact had been minimal but we had exchanged half smiles and several hundred empty wine bottles: she occasionally helped Tariq with the rubbish disposal. Selma handed Liam a bag of bloodied bones.
‘For you,’ she said. ‘Iyi bayramlar.’
‘Why… thank you. Teşekkürler.’
Selma smiled nervously and wandered off into the night. Sheep’s blood dripped through the bag and splashed onto Liam’s feet.
‘What the fuck?’
‘Who was at the door?’
‘Selma and a bag of blood.’
‘Fantastic. Anyone for spare ribs?’
‘You’re excited by a bag of bones?’
It was Kurban Bayram, The Feast of Sacrifice commemorating an Old Testament myth. God rather unreasonably commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son. Thankfully, Abraham proved his devotion and God provided a sacrificial ram instead. I had never read the book but had seen the Hollywood movie several times.
Liam was unmoved. ‘So hapless sheep across the entire Moslem World are being butchered as we speak? Revolting.’
‘And the flesh is distributed among family, friends and the deserving poor.’
‘So we only get the bones. What does that make us?’
Today’s guest is gorgeous Kym who is the author of Turkeywithstuffin’s Blog and the pretty brain behind On the Ege, the monthly online magazine about Turkey’s Aegean coast. Kym is married to dusky Murat, her hunky Turk. When veteran expat Kym wears a headscarf, she wants to look like Sophia Loren but thinks she looks more like Hilda Ogden. Personally, I think she resembles a darker version of Gynneth Paltrow in the Talented Mr Ripley.
It’s a Thursday in November 2008 and I am on my first road trip to Sanliurfa, my husband’s birth town. When we first arrived in Urfa late at night, the electricity was off and the city was in darkness. Perhaps because I was tired from the long journey, I felt uneasy and had commented more than once that I’d been kidnapped and taken to Beirut. I did for a moment consider taken a plane home the following day. As we stood in the dark alley I was moaning, but once the large iron gate opened things could not have looked more different. We walked into a beautiful stone courtyard with mosaic tiles, Ottoman seating, potted plants and a small fountain.
The Manager at the Beyzade Konak Hotel is Murat’s cousin’s husband, Omer. He shows us to our room and once I have the internet and some coffee (they have a generator), I’m quite happy to chuck Murat out for an hour or so to allow him to play with his cousin Mehmet. I have a boiling hot shower, get my pajamas on and send a few quick “I’ve landed” emails. Then it’s lights out and a sleep so deep I could be in the cemetery.
Day breaks and I realise the hotel is between two mosques. I open my eyes to the dual call to prayer, one a heartbeat behind the other. I doze for a bit then remember I’m actually on holiday and there are shops out there.
After breakfast, I nip back to our room and cover my locks with a headscarf. It’s a simple gesture of respect while I’m here and among the more traditional rellies. Well, that and I don’t really want to get stoned in the street! Mu of course thinks this is great and off we trot, out through the iron gate and onto the streets of Sanliurfa.
Once we leave the cobbled alley and get onto the main drag, its bustling; busses hog the road, cars fight for space beside them, scooters weave in and out of the traffic and pedestrians narrowly avoid being run over. The air is filled with BBQ spices, pungent & smoky and the smell is everywhere. Small eateries and kebab houses jostle for space alongside clothes shops and jewelers who have 24 karat rays shining from their windows.
There are a few glances my way naturally. It could be the pale skin and the green eyes, or it could be the flip flops and bright red toenails that don’t quite go with the rest of my ensemble. Still, that’s a great excuse to buy shoes isn’t it?
First things first, I need a new camera. We wander across to the maze of connecting alleyways that make up one of the eight covered bazars, to the collection of electronic shops. The salesman shows us his wares and converses with Murat: “Senin Esin mı?”(your wife), “Yabanci” (a foreigner), “Alman?” (German). Mu confirms the first two and I answer the last. “English” I say, not realising at the time that we will have this conversation many times during our stay. I guess it’s due to my height and build and of course, my great Grandparents, Mr & Mrs Shram!
I end up with an Olympus, a compact professional the man says. We will see.
Leaving the shop we are met by Cousin Mehmet and Hassan Amca. Their first words to me are “Kym, Beirut Nasil?” Very funny! The four of us then continue around the bazaar which contains a veritable Aladdin’s Cave full of treasure. There is even a street full of workshops where workmen batter copper and solder iron.
Heading into the Balikigol area toward the cay bache, we pass through the ‘Sipahi Bazar’ and the ‘Kazzaz Bazaar’, the oldest covered Bazaars of Urfa. These were built by the Ottoman Emperor, Suleiman the Magnificent in 1562. It really is like stepping back in time and I watch ancient shalvar wearing salesmen sitting cross legged in their little tented alcoves, bathed in rich colour and drinking tea while customers peruse their antique carpets, kilims and hand woven head dresses.
During our small shopping excursion, I’d picked up some elastic hair bands that I needed and watched as three pairs of hands reach into theirpockets to pay for them. Oooooo I like shopping here. I wonder if it works in shoe shops? A few minutes’ walk and we reach the cave of Abraham. Legend has it that the Babylonian King, Nemrud, had Abraham captured and thrown into fire. His crime? Calling upon the people to worship the real god and not the icons of celestial objects, as was the religion of the time. Of course, God was watching and on seeing this, he turned the fire into water, saving Abraham from certain death. Not content with that, he then turned the surrounding woods into the sacred fish, the ancestors of which we see today at the site of the “Halil ur Rahmen” Mosque in the centre of Urfa.
I buy a dish of fish pellets and watch the fat feisty fish fight each other for each tiny morsel, after which we take a rest in the cay bachesi. I sit sipping hot sweet tea and take a look at my photos so far. The photos are amazing; sneaky zoom shots of men at prayer and performing the abtest, plus the usual tourist shots of minarets and domes. It’s getting late now and as dusk settles over the city, we head back to the hotel.
So far so good, my first day in Urfa was wonderful and I am hungry for more. We have decided to use Urfa as a base for a few road trips. On my list are: Harran, Nemrut, and Hasenkeyf, then, a stop at Cappadocia on the way home. I had no idea at the time but this journey would also encompass, Mardin, Midyat, Batman & Siirt. My Anatolian adventure continues.
Our second day in Istanbul was spent meandering through the piazzas and pavilions of the splendid Topkapı Palace, epicentre of the imperial Ottoman court for 400 years. The unheralded highlight was chancing upon relics of the Prophet (yes, The Prophet). We gazed incredulously upon bits of His beard, tooth, sword, bow, a heap of soil used for ritual ablution and a clay impression of His foot – all allegedly genuine. Slightly less credible are the rod of Moses (of the plagues of Egypt fame), King David’s skull, Abraham’s cookware, and Joseph’s turban (though sadly not his coat of many colours). We were most disappointed not to see the Ark of the Covenant and a charred twig from the Burning Bush. Naturally we remained suitably deferential to avoid stoning by the Faithful. I suppose it’s no less fantastic than the implausible holy artefacts revered by the old ladies of Christendom.
In the extensive grounds we encountered the phenomenon known as ‘Islamic Chic’. Gaggles of giggling girls wandering about their Ottoman heritage adorned in exquisitely tailored dark hued, figure-hugging maxi coats garnished with sumptuous silk scarves of vivid primary colours. The head coverings, moulded at the forehead into a shallow peek as if hiding a baseball cap beneath, framed their painted faces. Modest and modern, I suspect the look is more a sign of wealth and status than of piety. We finished the day with a flourish by ambling around the excellent archeological museum.
Ol’ Constantinople is simply sublime and just gets better each time I visit. We travelled home that evening wanting more and vowing to return.
It is Kurban Bayram (festival of sacrifice) resulting in the mass slaughter of hapless sheep right across the entire Moslem World. The blood-letting commemorates the Old Testament parable when Abraham heard the voice of God commanding him to murder his son Isaac, a rather extreme test of devotion. Just as Abraham was about to slash the poor boy’s throat, a ram ambled by. Abraham took this to be divine intervention and sacrificed the ram instead. It occurs to me that, in this more secular age, anyone trying that now would be sectioned and hauled off to a secure unit for the delusional.
Nowadays, sheep are dressed up in drag before being dispatched by the head of the family with a sharp blade to the throat. I’m told that the slaughter of any animal by the unlicensed is illegal so it’s done on the sly in back yards and dark alleys. Given the significance of the ritual, the authorities turn a blind eye. Once butchered, the proceeds are distributed among family, friends and the deserving poor. Tariq the Toothless Caretaker came to the door and proudly presented us with a bag of bloody bones. It was a touching gesture but confirms that we are well down the pecking order just below vagrants and unmarried mothers.