I have a small book measuring approximately 15 cm by 15 cm. On the cover is a colour photograph of the fairy chimneys or peri bacası that stand on the side of the Ortahisar to Ürgüp road in Turkey. I used to see them every time I took the dolmuş to the Ürgüp Bazaar. The cover photograph has bright lively colours and across the landscape the title announces in gold:
The Spectacular Miracles
of the Past in Asia Minor
Running along the bottom against a bright pink banner the cover boasts, ‘with 113 illustrations in colour’.
My husband gave this book to me when we lived together in an old stone and cave house in Ortahisar, a town in Central Anatolia or Cappadocia. The cover has come loose and although the publisher’s address is provided along with the name of the photographer, translator and layout editor there is no date of publication. One thing we do know is that at the time of publication it cost 125 TL. That was before the lira had dropped a zero. I can only guess that it was published in the 1960s. The guidebook tells us that at that time the deepest and largest underground city of the world was at Derinkuyu. Nobody really knows who built these magnificent subterranean civilisations, there are many throughout the region, only that they served as protective fortresses against whatever enemy was at hand; the Assyrians perhaps, invading tribes from the south, the Romans, the Muslims. What the guidebook doesn’t tell us is that the most recent find in Anatolian archaeology is the largest subterranean city to date, located under present-day Nevşehir, or that its thousands of blackened corridors, kitchens, wineries and chapels could even predate the Hittites, those ancient masters of religious syncretism.
One of the other attractions the guidebook tells us about are the cave churches, directions to which can be found at the back of the book in a fold-out map with small black and white inset photographs and red arrows pointing to their corresponding towns and locations.
I went walking recently in Cappadocia with an Australian friend who’d lived in Turkey for 25 years and a Canadian friend who was passing through. We walked through the valleys from Ortahisar to Mustafapaşa. We three talked about almost everything the whole way; the meandering narratives of perfect thirds outlawed because they had no beginning, middle or end, the power of impressionism and the doing away with formulaic conventional narrative and the consciousness of the Hittites as understood by our Australian friend’s reading of Julian James’ The Origins of Consciousness. Reviving metaphor, we described the rocks and trees and the trail we followed as a sort of congealing of meaning, much like words. We talked of the recurrence of certain features in the landscape, of Stein and of a rock or a tree representing a word, or vice-versa, of our Australian friend’s work as a walking-trail maker across Turkey and of a walking trail being a preserver of myth.
Invariably we got lost. But as Henry David Thoreau said, ‘Not until we are lost do we begin to find ourselves.’ And I remember as we crossed and recrossed a small stream, ascended the rise of little hills and descended into valleys farmed for centuries, perhaps longer, with grapes and apples we spoke of the making of maps. Our Australian friend told us that in describing the five senses Aristotle had forgotten direction and balance, surely something essential to anyone in this landscape what with the pliant volcanic rock, tufa and the bizarre repetitions of the terrain.
Pausing for breath we surmised that perhaps we’d gone too far in one direction. Our Australian friend consulted Google Maps on his smart phone (if only I’d brought my guidebook), when crossing the stream again, we found ourselves at an apple tree resembling one from Michelangelo’s Eden (apparently a Sumerian word denoting a fertile grassland, steppe or garden). It was loaded with scores of perfectly formed red apples. We picked a few and crunched down on them—çıtr çıtr—Turkish onomatopoeia for the sound, in this case, of a crunchy apple, and sweet to taste. And it was there, parting the branches, that we found the dusky entrance to a cave church unmarked by any guidebook past or present.
The ceilings and walls were painted over with almost perfectly preserved frescoes, the greens, blues and whites still vibrant and clear. The faces, hands and sometimes clothes of the saints had been chipped away. I had heard that this wasn’t necessarily all the doing of literalist Muslims but also attributable to the early Christians who held the saints sacred and believed in the healing power of their depictions. For example, one who had an eye problem might scrape some paint from a saint’s eye and use it in medicine or as a talisman.
Even though the mouth of the cave was concealed by the branches of the apple tree the sun still found its way, and the place was illuminated. We stood a while, our heads tilted back as we gazed at the figures above. Jesus, his apostles and, as always in the caves of Cappadocia, the popular character of George slaying the dragon. I am not sure how long we were inside. Surely not 700 years as the sleepers of the Qur’anic story were. At any rate our liras were still current when we made it to Mustafapaşa later and each bought a bowl of soup.
The guidebook tells us that Mustafapaşa’s former name was Sinasos and that it was inhabited by the Greeks until the beginning of the twentieth century. It doesn’t tell us that with the so-called population exchange of 1924 the local inhabitants were replaced by Bulgarian Muslims and Turks from Kastoria, a town in northern Greece.
You don’t have to look far from Turkey on a map to find a town called Nea Sinasos (Greek: Νέα Σινασός) or New Sinasos. It is in the northern part of the island of Euboea in Greece and was founded in the mid 1920s by refugees originating from Sinasos, one of the Spectacular Miracles of the Past in Asia Minor.
The pretext for our walk to Mustafapaşa was a certain doll museum we’d heard about. On previous walks through other valleys we had discovered that our Canadian friend and I had something peculiar in common: the craft of doll making. It was something we had both arrived at intuitively. We found the process meditative and one that induced an almost trance-like state. If I remember correctly we both made our first dolls as a response to the loss of a child. Since then I have made scores of dolls, all of them female and all of them gifts for female friends and relatives, with only two having been given to men. At that time during my stay in Ortahisar I had made two more, one for a friend’s newborn baby girl and one for myself. Both were sewn out of stretchy rich velvet, one golden yellow and one black crush. Both remained gloriously unclothed and were surprisingly erotic for a thing stitched of fabric and stuffing.
They had small garnet-like stones that I’d brought back from India for their nipples and navels, long maroon mohair plaits that reached down their backs to large bulbous bottoms and matching maroon mohair tufts beneath their armpits and between their legs. I made joints for them at the elbows, knees and hips and made sure to give them full swollen bellies and large curvaceous hips. Around their waists I tied talismans of coins, beads and a blue nazar boncuk. All the dolls I made were faceless. In this lack of depiction I found they possessed a certain fluidity and freedom. I had tried before to stich a mouth, a nose, two eyes but this only seemed to freeze them in time and expression, to limit them. Our Canadian friend made dolls with faces. She had since had two children and lost others. I had had none. Finding the museum was fairly easy after the valley. We walked up the steep, narrow streets of the old Greek town past wooden latticed windows, abundant grapevines and old stone houses.
The doll museum isn’t mentioned in our guidebook. I doubt it existed when the book was published. The museum building certainly would have though, a traditional stone mansion, presumably previously inhabited by Greeks. The doll-maker herself greeted us at the front desk. She had a broad pale face, much like that of my Bulgarian grandmother, and clear lightly tinted blue eyes. We spoke in Turkish as she pointed the way through the maze of rooms.
There were hundreds of dolls. All of them had intricate painted wooden faces and cloth, plaster or wooden limbs. Each depicted a character from Ottoman history as they described narratives of traditional scenes. They wore intricately detailed handmade costumes, including hand-stitched leather sandals and boots, hand-beaded veils, embroidered blouses and vests. The men wore pocket watches and sported beards and moustaches. They danced the traditional dances, attended marriage ceremonies, leant on their balconies, wrote letters, prayed and spun wool. The general atmosphere among them was one of national pride as they hoisted flags, donned the red fez or prepared one of the many national dishes. There were dervishes in green robes, simit sellers, yogurt makers, and even sultans and the dolls of their harems as Turkey’s Ottoman past was relived in fastidious stitching and assiduous miniature props of interiors and street scenes.
Despite all this impressive pomp and the scale of colourful ceremony, we three friends somehow agreed that the dolls weren’t quite our cup of çay. We couldn’t fault the doll-maker’s skills or enthusiasm, but felt something was lacking. To understand narrative is to see how someone moves through a given terrain, what devices they use, what tools. World making, more intimate than representation, is where the emotions embedded in a particular landscape reveal the dynamic between things.
We never made it to the cave churches photographed in the guidebook and rather than taking a short cut (the longest distance travelled between two points) home through the valley, we took the dolmuş. Once on the road we gazed comfortably out the windows at the valleys we’d walked earlier, their slopes and escarpments pockmarked with pigeonholes, the outlines of which were often decorated in dark-red geometric designs, much like those found in the designs of local carpets.
Until recently pigeons were prized birds in Cappadocia. Their droppings were used to fertilise the agricultural plots and the whole valley system was used to house them. One day I took the dolmuş to the Ürgüp Bazaar and bought some frankincense. When I burnt it later in a small brazier at home, the eyes of our visitor, an old man called Ali Abi, lit up. He hadn’t smelt it since his time working in the valley caves when they’d burn it as they collected pigeon droppings. In his day, he told us, all the valleys used to be perfumed with frankincense. That was back when every town person had a garden plot in the valley plus a cave of pigeonholes. Nowadays fewer garden plots are tended in the valleys, as the children have moved to bigger towns and cities in search of jobs and a university education. The pigeonholes are no longer inhabited as chemical fertilisers have replaced natural ones and the pigeons that do fly over the Spectacular Miracles of the Past in Asia Minor have been brought across the border by Syrian refugees who use them not for farming but for sport and leisure. You can see the men in the early evening standing on the flat roofs of their rented houses whistling, cooing and shouting up into the sky of whirring, beating wings.
There is a colour photograph in our guidebook from a church in Mustafapaşa that I never visited. The text says that it shows Jesus being baptised by John the Baptist. ‘You see an angel on the right and the white pigeon carrying the holy water for baptising.’ Jesus looks fairly plump or perhaps it’s just the curve of the cave wall. John the Baptist wears lovely hand-stitched leather sandals and two angels stand at the ready with towels. Above the scene, what is presumably ancient Greek writing, through the middle of which the white pigeon spews forth its holy water. I am not sure what the text says but after our walk through the valley I can only speculate that it is an epigraph gleaned from another terrain. Perhaps it is something like: In order to make the path or indeed find it you must first leave it. Or perhaps sometimes even if we feel we are lost or criss-crossing the same stream again and again we may be more on course than we thought; crunching through red apples, delighting in the aroma of ancient valleys or the fine stitching of a grapevine across a fertile grassland, steppe or garden once separate yet now, after some new direction, internalised.
What the guidebook doesn’t tell us is that it’s what happens off the page in the margins and the forgotten fields that resonates in the text and beyond. It’s the recurring cyclical movements that create form and that meaning is a by-product of an even deeper process, perhaps one of walking, losing and finding one’s balance, getting lost and travelling. When my mother came to visit us in Ortahisar she recognised the guidebook and told us she had used the same one to navigate the Spectacular Miracles of the Past in Asia Minor more than forty years ago and that after all this time she has it still in her bookcase.