Thursday, January 22, 2015

Galata, Sema, and the Jewish Museum

It is hard to believe that we are now in our last few days in Turkey! This has been an incredible trip for everyone, filled with so many new experiences, cultural and otherwise. We are all getting better at saying, "no" to pushy shopkeepers and are working on our bartering skills!

Today we enjoyed a traditional Turkish ceremony--a whirling dervish. After another late start and amazing breakfast, we all piled into the bus to drive to Galata Melivi Tekkesi Museum that houses the history of the whirling dervish and its connections to Islam. Our guide Saba laughed when he told us that "whirling dervish" is no where near the translation for what the Turkish call their tradition. To them it is, "sema," meaning "sky." This practice started in Turkey and moved to other Muslim counties in the Middle East. The whirlers enter a meditative state of praying, which is how they are able to keep spinning for long periods of time. They are able to turn for 2-3 hours if they are focused enough, which is incredible considering most people would fall down after 30 seconds! In the museum we saw examples of traditional garb and headpieces warn by the practicers, as well as a brief history. In an attempt to secularize Turkey, Atatürk banned religious practices like the whirling dervish in 1925, so it was practiced in secret until it was legalized again in the 1950's.

After the museum we walked through the streets and landed in the old Jewish neighborhood of Istanbul. This area also happens to be home to the Galata Tower, built in 1348 by the Byzantines as a watch tower. It was the tallest building in the city when it was built, and it still continues to cast a shadow on a good portion of the New European side of Istanbul. Because of this, visitors get a beautiful 360 degree view of the city, including the Asian side and the Old European side it was neat to be able to point out the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque from across the Golden Horn, as that it where we stayed in the city our first week here. It's incredible to be able to say we can find our way around a big, foreign city! The views were absolutely stunning.

When in the neighborhood we discussed our reading from the night before, which was about minorities in Turkey. Jews, like the Greeks, Armenians, and others, were way more heavily taxed by the government on a wartime property tax. This caused many minorities to sell their property because and move because they could no longer afford to live in their homes where their families had been living for generations. 97% of the properties sold at this time were owned by non-Muslims. Turkey is officially Turkish and Muslim in ethnicity, and these minorities don't fit into those categories.

A quick walk from the Galata Tower put us in the 500 Years Museum of Jewish history. The building used to the a synagogue but was turned into a museum in 1992 because there were not enough people to keep it running. 1992 is the 500th anniversary of the Jews being expelled from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella during the Spanish Inquisition. The biggest fact I learned at this museum is that there has not always been strife between the Jews and Muslims--that is only recent in the Israel/Palestine fighting. The Ottomans actually sent their navy to Spain to pick up the Jews that refused to convert to Catholicism, and offered them refuge in their empire, which is a major reason why there used to be so many Jews in Istanbul.

Following the museum, we took a walk around the New European side of Istanbul so we could get a better feel for the area. After a week on the old side we were able to get around with relative ease, so we would like the same thing to happen with this side of the city too. We ended up at one of the best baklava places in the city, where our professors treated us to some baklava that dripped with honey; it was indescribably delicious. After crossing the bride over the Golden Horn that connects the two European sides, we were set free in the Spice Market for some shopping and dinner before the whirling dervish performance. Following this free time we walked to the performance space to watch 5 men perform this incredible tradition of spinning in circles to the beat of traditional music. There is naturally an entire ceremony that goes along with he whirling, as it is an 800 year old tradition. After praying and bowing, they spun in circles for minutes at a time: it is incredibly astounding, and a treat to see an old Turkish cultural custom. So now we head back to the hotel for sleep to get ready for our second-to-last full day in Turkey!

~Sarah Allen

Pics from Professor Carignan

Istanbul Modern Art Museum & Koc University Presention

In a trip filled with ancient and medieval history, today we got a look at Turkey in the modern world. In the morning, all of us students explored Taksim Square and Gezi Park, a small public park located on a hill right next to the Square. Throughout the history of the Turkish republic, these two spots have played important roles. Taksim Square has been the location of a great number of protests and demonstrations, and a number of defining moments in Turkish history, such as the "Bloody Sunday" attacks, have taken place here. In one of our pre-departure classes, we learned of a recent series of protests that took place in Gezi Park within the last two years concerning an Ottoman-style mall complex that the Turkish President Erdogan wanted to construct in the the park's current location. The thought of a return to the Ottoman past, combined with the anger at the potential loss at a major gathering (and protest/demonstration) space, caused the protests. It was fascinating to stand in a place filled with so much recent Turkish history, after visiting and studying sites with so much of Asia Minor's ancient and medieval history.

After the morning exploration, the group visited the Istanbul Modern art museum. Founded by a family who became wealthy through pharmaceuticals, the museum's goal is largely to put modern Turkish artwork in its rightful place among the world's best pieces. One of the exhibits on display was titled "Past and Future," and drew upon the museum's permanent collection to complete two objectives: first, to give a brief history of art in Turkey from the late stages of the Ottoman Empire to the present; and second, to usher in the future of Turkey's (and especially Istanbul's) modern art scene. It was very interesting to see the transitions in Turkish art over the past 150 years, and notice the parallels between the style changes in the works and the changes in the dynamic of the area over this time period.

In the late stages of the Ottoman Empire, the sultans would send artists to Europe in order to learn from the very best. However, from looking at the works produced during this time period, there is still a distinctly "Ottoman" feel to them. After the War of Independence and Ataturk's ascension to power in the first few decades of the 20th century, the style of art completely changes. At this point in history, Turkey is looking to become European themselves, and this largely continues for the remainder of the century. Turkish artists are still flocking to Europe to learn the trade, but they are now painting in a style that is no longer unique to the region. Instead, they are playing "copy-cat," trying to do exactly what the Europeans are doing, in order to be accepted as a European country. Therefore, one can clearly see a European artistic style to Turkish artwork during this period. Unfortunately, Turkey has been constantly rejected from joining the European Union, and since President Erdogan's current government came to power in 2005, there has been a significant shift in the Turkish view of the West. Instead of looking outward, Turkey has begun to look culturally inward, and this has clearly shown in its artwork. In recent pieces, there has emerged a much more unique "Turkish" style. The future of Turkish art, according to this museum, is to be uniquely Turkish, and will flourish regardless of whether it is similar to European artwork or not.

After the museum, we returned to the hotel for a presentation by Murat Ergin, Associate Professor of Sociology at nearby Koc University. His talk was titled "Turkey's Modernization, Culture, and Religion: Cultural Boundaries" and it focused on the changes in these areas of Turkey's background over the last twenty years. His findings were extremely interesting. In doing his research, Professor Ergin conducted a number of surveys throughout Turkey, asking questions about people's identities, their religions, their personal feelings concerning certain minorities or groups of people in Turkey, as well as their feelings on certain issues such as religious education in schools. He reached the conclusion that, while Turkey has grown significantly from an economic standpoint over the last twenty years, this growth has not coincided with significant changes in social development. Through his surveys, he learned that 66.2% of people surveyed would object to living next to a gay couple, and 49.0% would object to living next to an atheist family. Despite the secularization of the country nearly 100 years ago, 61% of those surveyed still chose that, if they were to choose one word to describe their identity, they would choose "Muslim" (the second place answer was "Turk," chosen by only 13% of people surveyed). Professor Ergin attributes these findings to two kinds of nationalism subscribed to by the current government administration. The first is neo-liberal nationalism, which equates national pride with becoming an advanced nation. The second is Islamic nationalism, which makes the argument that Turkey should be the leader of the Islamic world. These two forms result in a great push for economic growth, but does not push for social development.

At the conclusion of his research, Professor Ergin defined three types of people in modern Turkey. The first group, constituting, 25% of the population, he calls Engaged Cosmopolitans. These are the people who are extremely secular, Western-looking, and protest and against the current government. According to Ergin, they are "cultural omnivores," accepting and utilizing both domestic and foreign culture. The second group, called Engaged Provincialists, make up 30% of the population, and they actively reject Western consumption items. Other than this, however, they overlap considerably with the first group from a cultural standpoint. The final group is the disengaged, which makes up the rest of the population, and this group chooses not to participate in these practices. They differ culturally from the prior two groups, but tends to ally with the Engaged Provincialists on morality questions.

The findings of Professor Ergin, combined with what we learned from our visits to Taksim Square, Gezi Park, and The Istanbul Modern art museum, greatly helped to outline the dynamics of modern Turkey.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015


     Today we were able to sleep in just a little as our start time was slightly later than usual. At 9:00, after breakfast, we had a class meeting in our hotel in Izmir to discuss what we have seen and learned over the course of our journey,  but especially over the past few days in ancient cities. We discussed how Aphrodisias and Ephesus were given higher status due to the emperor's decision to allow them to build a temple in the emperor's name. We also discussed how stories are used to draw tourists to certain sites as well as how Turkey relates to its ancient societies. All of these subjects help us gain a better understanding of what it means to be Turkish in Turkey.

     After this captivating conversation as a class we walked a short distance to Smyrna: an ancient city that is currently being uncovered in Izmir. Work on the site began in the 1950s before which time it was used as a grave yard; the removed headstones can still be seen on the site.The section of Smyrna that is currently uncovered is the Agora or market place. It was built by the Romans in the second century. The unique aspect of this market place is that it consists of two levels. The bottom level was likely used for storage while the upper level served as the shopping center. We were able to explore both sections.

     In the bottom level we found some ancient graffiti (a painting of a boat) as well as inscriptions that seem to suggest that there may have been a temple dedicated to the emperor somewhere near this site though nothing has been uncovered to date. We were also able to see first hand how the Romans used arches in order to support the structure of this and many other buildings.

     The largest remains of the upper level of the Agora are the columns pictured below. They give us an idea about the grandiose size of the building in ancient times.

     There is also a Basilica in Smyrna that is currently being uncovered. It is believed that the Basilica was built in the sixth century, and it likely functioned as a church. 

    On this site we were told the story of Saint Polycarp who lived in Smyrna. He was an early Christian who refused to denounce God. For this, he was to be burned at stake, but the fire did not hurt him. He was then stabbed in the heart and became a martyr for Christianity. This story relates back to our class discussion about what draws tourists to these areas; the stories create interest in the site. 

     As we have seen three different ancient cities over the past three days, we have learned about the religious and cultural diversity of the time. We have seen societies who worship Aphrodite, the Roman emperor,  a mother goddess, a christian god, and many more. We have witnessed the spread of religion and culture through these ancient societies and are able to connect this with modern Turkey which shows both western and middle eastern influences. 

     Upon leaving Smyrna today we headed back to the hotel to grab our bags and hopped on the bus to the airport. On the way, we drove by what our tour guide called the Turkish version of Mt. Rushmore with the first president of Turkey, Atatürk, carved into the side of the mountain. On the bus ride, we also got to hear some enlightening stories about our tour guide's service in the Turkish military; he was one of the first turkish soldiers to go to NATO. After a short flight we are safely in Istanbul ready to enjoy our last few days in Turkey. 


Istanbul Take 2

We've arrived back in Istanbul for the final leg of our course. More updates to come.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Exploring Ephesus

Merhaba! Greetings from Izmir. We've made it safely from the beautiful coast of Kusadasi to the bustling city of Izmir. 

However, before making the trek to our location, we packed our day to the brim with three fascinating sites.

First up was Ephesus. Known to many as one of the earliest breeding grounds for Christianity, Ephesus provided us with exploration of its rich history, as well as the religious diversity occurring in the city during ancient times. Biblical mentions of Ephesus, especially in our reading of chapter 19 of Acts, gives it historical relevance and allows us to glimpse into the workings of religion in Ephesus during that time period. The stories reference synagogues that disciples prophesied in, demonstrating the prevalence of Judaism in the region. The text also reveals the cult of Artemis that existed, in which many Ephesians worshipped the goddess for whom the Temple of Artemis was built (one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World). 

Our text also revealed the influence of Egypt on the Romanized city. Due in large part Cleopatra and Mark Antony's use of the city as a military base in their fight for the Roman Empire, Egyptian cults remained prevalent. This, coupled with extensive commerce that occurred as a result of the city's coastal positioning, allowed the Egyptian cults to prosper and remain in the area. 

We began our tour of Ephesus from the city's upper gate, immediately entering the portion of the city dedicated to the elite. Upon entering the city, our guide Saba explained the early history of Ephesus. While leading us through courts, the Temple of Isis, and a theater, he spoke about how although Androculus founded the Greek city in 133 BC, Peragmon eventually bequeathed Ephesus to Rome, and the Romanization of the city began. During the time that followed, Ephesus became the capital of the Asian part of the Roman  Empire. Ephesians remained in the city until 1924; soon after, excavations began and continue to this day. Still, only 10% of the city as been uncovered.

One of our next stops leads us through Heracles gate: the division between classes that brings us into the public area of the city. This gate acts as a symbol of the divisive caste system in place during that time. To the side stands Hydreion fountain, one of the over 20,000 monumental fountains erected in the city. According to Saba, the fountain was used both to wash the city streets when guests visited and to wet the streets in order to keep heat from reflecting off of the marble path during summer months.

Next we travelled through a labyrinth of Roman baths, shops, and former houses to arrive at the library. One of the most recognizable ruins uncovered at Ephesus, the library offered us the perfect spot to pause for a group picture, as well as a lesson in architecture. We discussed how the architecture reflects the city's multinational background. Because the city was also a hub for commerce, its wealth allowed structures to be built that showed off a multitude of different styles.

After some further independent exploration of the remaining ruins, we headed to the Ephesus Museum to look through artifacts uncovered at the original site. This unique opportunity allowed us to make connections between our readings, discussions, observations at the site, and the museum's collection. 

Our final stop on the way to Izmir, Isabey mosque, was a mosque made entirely out of recycled material from the Ephesus site. This final site allowed us to incorporate one more example of the religious diversity surrounding Ephesus even today.