East to the Syrian border

After three days at Elif’s father’s house in Antalya, swimming and eating as if on a beached cruise ship, Kadri announced that we’d be going east to Nemrut Dag, as if it were a surprise: what the hell else were we going to do there for 15 days? He’d already taught me some pantomime, took us to a village without running water so they could show Elif how to make Gozleme (kindof like a pizza), brought us to the mall, and ran out of ideas. He made up a list of rules for the car: it’s a democracy, and everyone gets one vote on what to see, and no whining (aimed at Eylul, who’s at the age – 12 – where everything seems funny and nothing seems interesting). I added one rule: that everybody should talk ten percent nicer to their spouses than they feel like doing, which was aimed at Kadri, who, in our presence, likes to point out to his wife that she’s basically a simpleton. Sitting threesome in the back of the car made me feel like we were all brothers and sisters, not a romantic holiday but a necessity when you’ve got such a practical SUV that seats and holds about as much as a small sedan.

We got to Alanya and arrived at the red castle; I asked to go up and was immediately outvoted, which was a fine thing, as I didn’t really want to go up it at all; I used the trick that every child eventually learns when manipulating their parents: ask for a red herring, let them deny it, and then get the thing you really want later. (Take me to the Syrian border, mommy!) So we headed inland from Silifke through the tombed runs of Demirci, where we bought fresh pistachios. While Turks love their fresh nuts, I find that fresh almonds, walnuts, etc. are more tasteless than dried – but what have we here? Pistachios turn out to be a happy, happy exception: they taste like full-out pistachios, mixed with a taste of fresh coconut – yum!

We stopped off at the ruins of Olba (now called Ura), where villagers were milking goats and let us milk them – at the foot of the acropolis, whose stones were being taken and used for their abodes. Uzuncaburc had a small Roman theatre off the side of the road, as well as a monumental gateway, going through which leads you into a surprisingly-intact colonnaded street with a few small ruined temples and a high tower. We drank kenger kahvesi (diken azmani), coffee made from acanthus, some roasted grain; it tasted like Nescafe and had a nutty aftertaste.

From there we headed to Narlikuyu to see the Caves of Heaven and Hell (Cennet ve Cehennem). Cennet Deresi, Heaven, is a 70m deep gorge that you enter, paradoxically, by descending 452 steps cut into the rock. At the entrance is the Chapel of the Virgin Mary, a very cute Byzantine church bui

The man-made peak of Mount Nemrut with statues...
Image via Wikipedia

lt over the former Temple of Zeus. The “steps” down were slippery muddy things, and everyone was falling on their asses; I only fell on my hands. We were well-dressed, having no idea what we were in for. At the bottom was the Cave of Typhon, with a running stream. We arrived back up and a few happy rednecks told everyone who would listen that they never would have fallen going down or up. Then we went to Hell, Cehennem Deresi, which, paradoxically, you have to walk uphill to get to, but once you get there, there’s a platform, and you step out onto it and look into a deep, scary hole. Last thing we saw there was Asthma Cave, which had 200 meters of subterranean halls with stalactites and stalagmites that rivaled Howe Caverns but barely rates a mention in Turkish guidebooks – this country never ceases to fascinate me. No guided tours, but it did have a spiral staircase down that smelled like sweat and a guy at the bottom hawking photos.

Heading east, we went to Antakya, which is the site of ancient Antioch. By the 2nd century BC it had a half-million, but like so much else in the region, it was sacked, suffered earthquakes, was abandoned, and passed into the French after WWI, who only had it for a few years but that’s a good thing, because they built some fine-looking buildings (the prettiest of which is now a porno theater). They had a spectacular archeological museum with a huge collection of Roman mosaics, many were from Greek mythology; our guide Elif explained them to us. Antakya also had Sen Piyer Kilisesi, the cave church of St. Peter, a small little nothing; Peter was in Antioch between AD 47 and 54 and set up one of the world’s first Christian communities, and may have even preached from this hole. We ate at the Sultan Sofrasi, a wonderful place where we had Tantuni (dried meat and salad in pita) and Bumbar (intestines filled with rice). They had a book with the region’s recipes, poems, folklore, and songs; a guy autographed his picture in it for me.

Kadri wanted to go to Gaziantep, which was ugly as hell, but I did get to eat Sobiyet and Bulbul, both (especially the former) the best baklava dishes I’d ever had. From there we drove to Urfa, my favorite of all. Urfa’s now called Sanliurfa, “Glorious Urfa,” for its resistance to the French invasion and occupation of 1918-20. We took a public bus to a hotel Kadri found. On the bus, a local was having far too much fun ogling our women; Kadri, first off the bus, made a nice point of bashing into his shoulder; Eylul kneed his leg; and I, not having seen any of this, was last off; the guy yelled at me as I passed, “You bunch of bears!” and I had not a clue why. The hotel was the Gulizar Konukevi, a real palace, and Kadri and I signed in and walked around, bonding, taking pictures of the glorious courtyard, of the hamam, standing on the beautifully-restored roof, marveling at our perfectly-decorated Ottoman rooms with the beds on the floor and rugs all over the walls. You can imagine how surprised I was to hear Elif emerge from the room and proclaim, “It’s a shithole.” “Why is it a shithole, Elif?” “Where’s the bathroom?” Let’s see…no, that’s a closet…no, another mini closet…oops, it’s a shared Turkish squat-toilet downstairs across the courtyard. “Where’s the shower?” Let’s see…inside the hamam… Sometimes guys forget that having a private bath is a make-or-break for people who cannot do their ablutions in a shared space. What it all meant was that Elif, Eylul, and Isik would not be able to poop that night.

We were to have no such problems later in the trip, however.

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