Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The marvels of ancient civilizations - snapshots from Turkey (part 1 of 2)

Going through my pictures from last year's Turkey trip reminds me I have only partially covered that memorable trip in previous blogposts. In a span of ten days, my friend Neeta and I covered a wide range of places from the cross-contintental Turkish capital of Istanbul, to Cappadocia region and Pamukkale in central Turkey, and from there on to Selcuk, Sirince and Ephesus in south-western Turkey.

A key reason behind the planning of this trip was to see and experience what this land holds in terms of the 
many spectacular locations of ancient civilization dating back to our earliest existence as humans. This trip definitely brought alive the thirst to understand more about how some of our ancient civilizations arose, lived, flourished and faded (some of this interest also led to my Ignite talk on ancient civilizations from this trip). 

To appreciate the historical riches the land of Turkey holds, one needs to appreciate the history of ancient civilizations. Records of the earliest human civilizations date back to 3300 BC. And Turkey has formed an integral part of ancient civilization right since then due its location in the "Fertile Crescent" region. As our early human ancestors moved from Africa upward and westward, the earliest humans set civilization and flourished in this region  with adequate water supplies and fertile lands, that came to be known as the "cradle of civilization", and later as Asia Minor.

I have previously written about the other-worldly natural formations of the Cappadocian region and exploring its hills and valleys. We continue our stay at our quaint cave-roomed hotel in Goreme, and soon head to the Goreme Open Air Museum. Plan for a minimum of two hours to walk around this museum, which is actually a large monastic-like complex that has some of the best examples of rock cut churches from the 10th and 11th centuries. Its numerous frescoes, painted in natural dyes, represent scenes from the Bible. Some of them have tombs inbuilt, and if you peek into a few, do not be too surprised to find a skeleton of two grinning at you (I am not joking, there are some very old and well-preserved glass-cased remains here). The  Dark Church (Karanlik Kilise) has the best preserved frescoes, given that it has stayed in the dark for centuries (even now, the entrance is opened only as required and for an additional fee of 10 Lira). Fortunately photography within all churches is prohibited enabling some more generations to view these ancient works of art and architecture. By the time we leave the museum, the setting sun has cast a magical golden glow on the rocky churches and mountains around us.

The day long "Green Tour" of Cappadocia has us meandering through a comfortable 3 hour trail through the deep gorge of Ilhara valley along the Melendiz river, stopping by to see for some more stone cut churches (though these are not to beat the ones we had seen in Goreme), a leisurely Turkish lunch at a log restaurant in the middle of the river, and quick detour aided by our guide, Gulchin, to see an opal blue tinted volcanic lake. 

But the high point of this tour is very low..180 m low in fact! At Derinkuyu in Nevsehir province of Cappadocia, there is an entire ancient underground city. Carved into the rock here around 4000 years ago by the Phyrgians (an ancient Indo-European people), 
in later centuries to be consecutively occupied by the Romans, Greeks, Byzantine and early Christians as a hiding place from the various invaders of their times. Dug into the soft volcanic rock by the most primitive tools of those times, the city expanded to 8 floors (levels), 4 of which are now open to visitors. The underground city was large enough to shelter around 20,000 people, together with their livestock and food supplies, and provided refuge during war times for months together. As I descend into the network of underground pathways, tunnels and steep inclined corridors, I am well and truly stumped by the level of planning and thought that has gone into building this entire subterranean city dwelling. 

To sustain a "normal underground life" during invasion, there are places cordoned off for family rooms, large dining areas (with their stone dining tables), wineries (stone pits to extract and collect wine that flows down), prayer rooms, burial grounds (at the bottom levels), stables for the livestock and cattle (in the higher uppermost level so as to allow their odours out faster). The planning of air (and water) ducts made sure these utilities could circulate right down to the lowermost reaches underground, and at the same time, can be hidden to avoid contamination and poisoning from above by the invaders. Large round stone doors, that can only be operated from within, could be quickly slid into place during an attack. 

The next day, we make a quick 20 minute ride by local bus from Goreme to Avanos to check what has been a beautiful hub of Turkish pottery since the period of the Hittites in 2000 B.C. situated on the banks of the Kizilirmak, the Red River. Next is a long 14 hour bus ride with a day long stop-over at Pamukkale. Pamukkale (meaning Cotton Castle) is famous for its travertines (terraced mountain layers) made of limestone deposits formed over 15,000 years giving it its striking snow-white colour and cotton-puffy look. The hot water springs flowing from the mountains gave it its unique terrace formations. The water temperature ranges from 52 deg C at its source (where it is also rich with sulphur fumes) to ice cold at the bottom of the terraces, that contain its own unique shades of opal blue waters to wade in. These very thermal springs and hot spas are what drew some ancient people to settle here and there are some awe-inspiring testimonies of ancient cities right here in Pamukkale too. But more on these and fascinating places in the next posts. As you walk through the travertines barefoot (this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that prohibits footwear to preserve the fragile ecosystem), you also appreciate that Pamukkale is also just the right place to get roasted if you ever want to in one quick day. So make sure you carry your hat, water and sunscreen along. 

In these ten days, we have had glimpses of human civilization spread over thousands of years. Time takes a completely different dimension here. When I visited places that have been built and inhabited by humans from several centuries B.C., it's truly strange how those built as long back as 1375 A.D. (Isabey Mosque in Selcuk) or or 1609 A.D. (Sultan Ahmet Mosque, aka Blue Mosque) seem very recent by comparison! 

- Pictures and Content Copyright - Dipali Ekbote

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