[Continued from previous column]

We warmed up quickly to the charming brother. He mentioned the sama [meditation ceremony] of the whirling dervishes that happened on Fridays. If interested, we could go with him.

Speaking of strangers who became friends, I must not forget the hotel manager at Urgup. From the moment she rushed out to welcome us, to the end-of-visit goodbyes, she was a force to be reckoned with.

She wanted to saddle us with every possible package tour that Cappadocia offered. The Red tour, Green tour, Balloon tour, Quad tour, Turkish Night — you name it, she had it for you. When we ventured out on our own, we got lost.

The Quad tour was rather adventurous as I’d never driven, or even straddled, an all-terrain vehicle before. I drove with my heart beating wildly as the ATV lurched and stalled every five minutes.

This is the land where volcanoes had dumped molten lava millions of years ago. As the earth cooled, the detritus of rocks was pressed into strange shapes. Perhaps the antiquated word ‘hillock’ might be suitable to describe their character.

They were made stranger by humans who burrowed into them, escaping religious retribution by literally going underground. Early Christians, persecuted by Romans, sheltered in the labyrinthine warrens to avoid capture. Later, during the Crusades, they hid from the Turks.

Our Muslim-Greek guide led us expertly through the valleys with “fairy chimneys”, to the underground churches that date back some 800 years and are preserved as world heritage sites. The remnants of boldly coloured frescoes held us spellbound.

Clay is heavy. The eponymous pottery made of red clay from Iznik is adorned with patterns from centuries of tradition going back all the way to the Hittite period. It was hard to decide whether the cicims were more intricate or the Iznik. The latter definitely had more variety. I collect teapots, so an Iznik teapot had to be added to my collection.

Back in Istanbul, our bags weighing us down, we were happy to connect with familiar hangouts. The restaurant Yalla Falafel had the best falafel and the hottest, most gobsmacking harissa to go with it.

My Turkish vocabulary — acquired from diligent pursuit via Google translate and eager attempts to memorise new words — was dashed because I couldn’t get the right pronunciation at the appropriate time. It is confusing when the same word is pronounced differently across sister languages.

Take alvida, which means goodbye in Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Turkish. There’s even a popular Bollywood film song that goes ‘Kabhi alvida na kehna’ [Never Say Goodbye]. Yet when I summoned the courage to say it, I received a blank stare. You mean elvide, I was gently corrected. Alvida is only used formally, as it implies a final leave-taking.

Then there is the eatery we really liked: Bolu Et Lokantasi, which Google translates to ‘Bolu’s Steakhouse’, though I didn’t see any steaks there. Hard to tell who Bolu was, or whether he was there or not, for no one in the place could understand a word of English. I picked up a plate of rice meant for someone else. After some wild gestures from the server behind the counter, and my counter-gestures, I put the plate back and the matter was resolved.

The Museum of Innocence is a brick-coloured building tucked in an alley filled with antique shops. I loitered around — because the museum was closed — and took some pictures. Istanbul is replete with museums. Historical artefacts are kept in showcases in the many palaces that dot the city. They are at once palaces and museums.

Every Ottoman sultan built his own palace. By the way, in Turkish, palace is not mahal, but sarai. I was struck by the respect accorded to the architect who designed these 16th century palaces and the stately mosque commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent. Mimar Sinan [Architect Sinan] is buried close by the mosque, outside its perimeter. He is acknowledged in the many cafes and sundry businesses named after him. I am told that the Mughal emperor Akbar invited him to design in Delhi, but he declined.

One can’t help comparing Mughal architecture with the Ottoman. Theirs is a mishmash of European and Persian, with overbearing use of tiles. Indigo tilework and greyish-blue stone embellished with gold edging create awe in the beholder. Yes, they are remarkable works of art, but when all four walls of a room are decorated with tiles, however artistic, it does feel confining. There is no stone sculpting in the buildings, no red sandstone and very little marble.

I was surprised to learn that we had to pay extra to tour the harem complex — tickets for the palace were expensive enough. Why charge separately for the harem? In a sceptical mood, I swiped my pass and went through the turnstile.

We entered through a gateway into a hallway that flanked a large building described as a dormitory for the harem’s attendant-guards. Moving on, we realised the vastness of the complex.

A distinct hierarchical order determined the size and decoration of the residences. Valide Sultan, the reigning sultan’s mother, had the handsomest quarters. Every group residing in the harem had a personal mosque exquisitely done in indigo and white tiles with intricate patterns. I had not imagined there would be so many mosques — all consisting of one large prayer room constructed on an elevated platform — in the harem.

The sultan’s private chambers glittered with chandeliers and mirrors. The décor had a European ambience. A feature of the chambers one couldn’t miss were the hammams [bathrooms]. Even after roaming the harem for two hours, we weren’t done. My admiration for the architect Mimar Sinan kept growing.

From Mimar Sinan’s elegant buildings to Cappadocia’s cave dwellings, Turkey presented a bouquet of pleasant memories. Perhaps the serenity and fragrance of Konya clashed with the frenzy of Bodrum. Orhan Pamuk’s novels hadn’t prepared me for the fairy chimneys, the lights of Bodrum and the graceful ambience of Istanbul.

The columnist is professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 11th, 2022

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