Monday, July 18, 2016

Turkey | Istanbul | Failed Uprising | #2

Five Army Trucks And Four Tanks Pass Us in the right lane. We are stuck in the left lane. Hamid gets out of his car and runs up ahead to see if he can get more information. He comes back shaking his head. “There are roadblocks up ahead somewhere. We cannot go forward.” There is an off-ramp to another expressway about 150 feet ahead. We have to get to the off-ramp. Everyone ahead off us has the same idea at the same time. Hundreds are leaning on their horns and men are screaming out of windows, while others run up and down the lines of cars futilely attempting to direct traffic onto the off-ramp. It is a free-for-all. Actually Hamid is in his element. He bullies his way forward with the BMW, not conceding an inch to anyone. Several times he stands up through the sunroof and bellows at cars to get out of the way. Slowly we inch forward amid a cacophony of car horns and frenzied shouting. Military jets streak overhead, one no more than a couple hundred feet off the ground. The din is incredible. After about twenty minutes we reach the ramp. It is too narrow for jockeying and traffic had arranged itself in two more or less orderly lines. Still we creep forward by inches. After another fifteen minutes or so we emerge onto another freeway. I suddenly realize where we are. Off to the left looms the Theodosian Land Walls. We are on the expressway that parallels the Land Walls, heading toward the Marmara Sea. No one is attempting to stay in the lanes; there was just an enormous scrum with everyone forcing their way forward inch by inch.

After a half hour to so we have moved forward to the expressway that runs along the coast of the Marmara Sea from Sultanahmet, where my hotel is, out to the airport. At the intersection is on enormous snarl of hundreds, maybe thousand of cars, buses, and semis. We stop and Hamid again runs on ahead to try to find out what is happening. Once again he comes back shaking his head. “There are roadblocks up ahead somewhere and traffic is backed up as far as I can see.” Up until then Hamid has insisted that he could get me back to my hotel. Obviously this is now impossible, at least by car. I have walked from the Land Walls to Sultanahmet several times. It is only a three mile trek, nothing under normal circumstances. I suggest to Hamid that I would try to walk back to my hotel. “No fucking way!” he yells. “People up ahead say that there was gunfire on the Bosphorus bridges and that troops are fighting with police at the Aksaray Police Station and other places, maybe somewhere on up ahead. It would be crazy to walk into that. We will go back to my apartment. We will be safe there.”

The problem is, there is an impassable traffic jam up ahead and thousands of cars are backed up behind us. Semis and big SUVs are bouncing up over the foot-high berm separating the north-south lanes and heading in the other direction. The lanes running north to the Golden Horn are almost empty. Several cars try to cross the medial strip but get hung up the foot-high curb. “My BMW won’t clear the curb,” shouts Hamid, pounding his fists on the steering wheel. “Fuck this shit. As soon as this is over I’m getting me a HUMMER!” Suddenly Hamid backs up a few feet and then after turning to the right as hard as he can he tramps on the gas. The car slews around onto the sidewalk to the right. We then careen down the sidewalk in the opposite direction. Looking behind us, I see that at least a dozen cars have immediately followed our example. Up ahead of us many others have gotten the same idea and soon the sidewalk is jammed. We come to a narrow road leading off to the left. “Turn off here,” I shout. “We have to get off this freeway.” I have walked through this area many times and I know these side roads lead to the Zeytinburnu district. “We should try to work our way back to Haseki on the back roads. All the expressways are going to be blocked by the military or jammed with traffic,” I say. Hamid, however, has spent most of his life in the Fast Lane. He is lost once he gets off the expressways. He stops a cab driver and asks if he knows any back roads to Haseki. The cab driver says he is going in that direction. Just follow him. 

We drive down several dark, deserted streets and finally come out on a two lane road. Rounding a corner, we see up ahead a bus parked catty-cornered across the street, blocking it. To the left is a two-story building. Two dozen or so men are standing outside. Several of them have assault rifles. “Oh shit,” shouts Hamid, “It is police station and they have blocked the road.” “Whose side are they on?” I wonder. “Who the fuck knows?” says Hamid. The men with the assault rifles were arguing with another group of men. One man puts his assault rifle in front of him and shoves another man. He stumbles backwards and falls. The rest of the armed men—police apparently, although they are not wearing conventional uniforms—train their guns on the other group of men. The cab driver we have been following has seen enough. He makes a quick 180º turn and with a howl of rubber peels off back in the other direction. Hamid slams the BMW in reserve, gets turned around and lays down his own patch of rubber. At the next stop light the cab driver stops and shouts to Hamid that he has to go in another direction. He points ahead. ˚Keep going that way. Eventually you will get to Haseki.”

We proceed through some narrow streets lined with shops, now closed for the night. We have been listening to the radio but have not been able to find out much. “The shit head announcer does not know what the fuck is going on,” grouses Hamid, puffing furiously on a Marlboro. He has been chain-smoking for the last hour or so. “Wait a second!” he shouts. “Erdogan is speaking! He is telling everyone to come out into the streets!” I think I have misunderstood Hamid’s translation. “You mean he is telling everyone to stay indoors, right?” I ask. That is usually what the authorities do in these situations. “No, no, no! He is telling everyone to come out into the streets and show their support for the government!” This is the first official pronouncement we have heard about the coup. I look at my watch. It is 12:30 am. At the time I assumed Erdogan was at his palace in Ankara or was at some secure media outlet. Only later did I learn that he was on vacation on the Mediterranean coast and had issued his instructions to the people via iPhone. One can only wonder what Steven Jobs would have thought of this.

We were still in a neighborhood of small shops backed by apartment complexes. Within five minutes after Erdogan’s announcement small groups of men and woman start appearing on the sidewalks, many of them waving Turkish flags. Within fifteen minutes hundreds have overflowed the sidewalk and are taking over the street. Before we could not get through through the traffic jams. Now we have to inch our way through mobs of shouting people. Soon we came to a ramp leading to a freeway. “I know where we are now!” bellows Hamid. “This expressway goes straight to Haseki.” I think we should stick to the back roads but I do not say anything. Apparently we are on Hamid’s home turf now. Traffic on the four-lane expressway is actually moving forward, although at maybe only ten or fifteen miles an hour. We are in the left lane. Suddenly a car appears heading directly towards us in our lane, going the wrong way on the four-lane highway. Hamid veers into the right lane just as the car flies by doing sixty or seventy miles an hour. “Goddamn motherfucker!” Hamid yells. “What the fuck was that all about?” Suddenly more cars appeared in the left lane going the wrong way. One flies by doing maybe a hundred miles an hour. Soon there  is a constant stream. “Everyone is turning around and coming back for some reason,” Hamid says. We round a bend and see a huge clot of traffic ahead of us. In front of the traffic is a mob of several thousand people. In the middle of the mob is a big hump covered with people. There is an huge gun barrel sticking out of the hump. The hump is a tank. Dozens of people are standing on the tank waving Turkish flags. Thousands surround the tank, shouting their support for the government and cursing the army. Thousands more are streaming toward the tank from nearby neighborhoods. We were in danger of being engulfed by the mob. “Oh fuck, fuck, fuck! We cannot get stuck in the middle of this! We got to get the fuck out of here!” Hamid shouts.

About fifty feet ahead is an off-ramp leading to yet another expressway. We bully forward but are unable to force our way into the line of cars taking the ramp. Just as we are in danger of getting swept past the ramp altogether, Hamid veers right and bounces over the V-shaped berm separating the ramp from the right lane of the freeway. The undercarriage of the BMW scrapes ominously on the concrete berm but we finally land on the ramp and manage to squeeze our way into the line of cars. Several drivers shout abuse at us, but Hamid gives them all the finger. The four-lane street we emerge on crosses a bridge directly overlooking the mob scene with the tank. Thousands more are streaming across the bridge on foot trying to reach the people around the tank. Hundreds line the bridge taking photos and video of the scene below with their smart phones and iPads. There is a huge knot of traffic on the bridge but as soon as we force our way through this the street is suddenly empty. After a mile or so we turn off on a deserted two lane road that leads directly to Hamid’s apartment complex. “We made it!” shouts Hamid. He gives me a high-five as we drove through the complex’s formidable security gate. Inside the complex’s high walls there is not the slightest indication that anything untoward is taking place on the streets of Istanbul.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Turkey | Istanbul | Failed Uprising | #1

On Tuesday, July 12th, I wandered off to Turkey on the ten and a half hour Ulaanbaatar-Istanbul Flight. The flight took a slightly different route than usual (I have made this commute fifteen or twenty times) and I was privileged to spot Heavenly Lake, a small turquoise gem embedded in the side of the Tian Shan Mountains seventy miles east-southeast of the city of Urumqi, the largest city in Xinjiang Province, China.
 Heavenly Lake (click on photos for enlargements)
 Heavenly Lake
 Goat and Gal at Heavenly Lake
I have visited Urumqi many times—it is my favorite city in China, actually—and in 1998 I visited Heavenly Lake with someone I had met in Urumqi.
 Downtown Urumqi
 Restaurant in Urumqi
 Pomegranates in Urumqi
We also flew directly over Almaty, Kazakstan, which I had never seen from the air before. After a scheduled stop in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, we continued on west. I was hoping to see the Aral Sea, but we soon encountered cloud cover. Soon we were over the northern end of the Caspian Sea and then the southern shore of the Black Sea. Then we landed in Istanbul, where I was disconcerted to find the Immigration Hall jammed with several thousand people. It was certainly the largest crowd I had ever seen waiting to get through immigration at Istanbul Airport. I had a business ticket so I was allowed to used the Turkish Air Express Line through Immigration. On some previous flights there had been no one else in line and I just breezed through. I have never encountered more than six or eight people in line. Now there appeared to be over three hundred people in the Express Line. It took an hour and twenty minutes to finally get through Immigration. The Istanbul Airport was of course the scene of a terrorist attack just ten days or so ago and was under heightened security, but that should have only affected outgoing passengers, not incoming. I have no idea why there was such huge lines. The man in line in front of me, a nattily suited businessman from Manchester, England, said he often flew in to Istanbul and he was equally flummoxed.

From the airport I took the Metro downtown to the Sultanahmet area and checked into my usual hotel. Two years ago rooms in this hotel cost $75 a night. After all the terrorist attacks in Istanbul, including one in Sultanahmet Square, just a few hundred yards away from my hotel, prices have dropped to $25 a night. I spent the next morning in several shops near the Egyptian Bazaar comparing the prices of Iranian saffron, high quality extra virgin olive oil, comb honey, and several other items I hope to stock up on before returning to Ulaanbaatar. The area around the Egyptian Bazaar and to the west, bordering the Golden Horn, was once the Venetian Quarter, granted to Venetian merchants by the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I in the Chrysobull of 1182. I spent the rest of Wednesday and most of Thursday searching for traces of the old Venetian trade quarter. More on that later.

Friday afternoon I went to a carpet store near the Grand Bazaar to hook up with my friend Hamid. Hearing I was in town he had emailed and invited me to his home for dinner. Not only did he have a new apartment since the last time I dined with him, he had a new daughter, now seven months old. We retrieved his car—a brand-new white BMW— from a parking garage down the hill from the Grand Bazaar and headed for his apartment in the Hasaki District out near the Ataturk airport. We immediately hit traffic and had to proceed stop-and-go. Usually, Hamid said, it takes him half an hour to forty minutes to get home. Tonight it ended up taking two hours. While sitting in the jams Hamid regaled me with stories of his latest carpet selling trip to the U.S.A. He is a high-end dealer, selling only the highest quality antique carpets. Once or twice a year he sends a shipment of carpets to the U.S.A. He and his partners fly over, rent a U-Haul van to transport the carpets, and then travel from city to city selling them. He has crisscrossed the entire United States coast to coast several times. Over the years he has accumulated a list of clients who think little of paying $100,000 or more for a four-by-six foot carpet. Most are buying with an eye to investment. Hamid assures me that the value of the highest quality collector’s item carpets can only appreciate over the years, usually at a rate much higher than stocks, bonds, or real estate. He is the quintessential carpet dealer and of course he would say this. His father was also a carpet dealer. He knows carpets. Most buyers don’t, not really. Herein lies the edge. In addition to taking carpets to the U.S.A he buys carpets in the States at auctions and estate sales. Again, his insider knowledge of carpets comes to the fore. He claims he bought one carpet at an auction in Alexandria, Virginia for $75,000 and later sold it in Lubbock, Texas, for $140,000. The seller in Virginia, he says, had no idea what the carpet was really worth or how much it could be resold for to the right buyer. Hamid knew the right buyer, a woman in Lubbock who collected this particular kind of carpet.

We finally arrive at his walled, gated apartment complex, a huge affair with six or eight high-rise apartments buildings surrounding a twenty acre inner courtyard complete with a pond, swimming pools, playgrounds, and restaurants. Within the walled complex is a shopping center with grocery stores, pharmacy, more restaurants (I noticed Domino’s Pizza), laundry, dry cleaners, and whatnot. Hamid says his wife never really has to leave the complex for any daily necessities. Security is high. Hamid says a delivery man cannot deliver a take-out meal from off-premises without being subjected to a body search. Security cameras track the man to the door where he makes the delivery and then confirm that he leaves the complex after the delivery is made. Plain-clothed security men patrol the grounds 24/7.

Hamid lives on the third floor. His wife, from eastern Turkey, greets us. She does not speak a word of English. Actually she is an Azeri, an ethnic group found in eastern Turkey and northwest Iran. I had earlier encountered Azeris at the Covered Bazaar In Tabriz, Iran. On her hip is Hamid’s little seven-month old daughter. She looks at me and breaks into a huge smile. Giggling, she actually waves at me. I am surprised. Most babies start crying the moment they see me. She is a very good-natured baby, Hamid assures me, always smiling and laughing. Hamid’s apartment is ultra-modern and immaculate, the furniture is all gray, black, and white, sharp angles with lots of glass and chrome. He assures me he picked out everything himself. Curiously, there is a cheap, machine-made carpet of garish modern design on the living room floor. His wife is of course a wonderful cook—I would not expect Hamid to marry anything less—and we dine on tandoori-cooked lamb, rice, an eggplant, tomato, and zucchini dish, and a salad of tomatoes and cucumbers. Tea and baklava for desert.

Back in the living room Hamid shows me an assortment of his latest acquisitions. He keeps his most valuable pieces in a closet in his apartment, not in his store near the Grand Bazaar. The security here is of course much higher. His current prize is a mid-nineteenth century Hereke Carpet he picked up in eastern Turkey. It is small, only maybe two-by-three feet, but has an incredible 2100 knot per inch. The knots are so fine I cannot see them without my reading glasses. He launches into a long discourse about the technical details of the carpet, most of which I do not understand, and adds an equally long tale about the carpet’s provenance. It was apparently bought in the 1850s by a wealthy family from eastern Turkey and then passed down from generation to generation. There are a lot of details about the family, but when Hamid gets excited—and expensive carpets excite him a lot—his English begins to falter, and I have a hard time following the ins-and-outs of this particular tale. It ends, however, the way most stories like this do: the last inheritor of the carpet found himself in dire financial straits and had to sell it. It is a good time for carpet dealers like himself, Hamid assures me. Economic and political turmoil in Turkey have caused many to sell family heirlooms, and then there is the whole Syria situation—refugees who managed to escape with a few portable valuables, in some cases heirloom carpets, which they now need to unload in order to keep their heads above water in Turkey. Hamid’s role in all this is to transfer carpets from the losers in the new economic order to the winners. It is a lucrative business—witness the new BMW and the apartment in a very upscale gated community. And Hamid assures me he only pays cash. No mortgages, car loans, none  of that kind of stuff. Paying interest on loans is for losers. Hamid is not a loser. So how much is the Hereke carpet worth, I ask him. In the States sixty to eighty, he says. He never says thousands. Thousands is understood.

Finally around eleven o’clock I ask Hamid if he can take me back to my hotel. If it took two hours to get here it might take two hours to get back. Don’t worry, he said, at this time of night there is very little traffic. I’ll have you back at your hotel in thirty or forty minutes, he assured me. There was hardly any traffic on the roads near Hamid’s apartment complex. Then he turned off on a four-lane highway leading downtown. Soon we were in stop-and-go traffic. “What the hell is going on?” shouted Hamid, puffing furiously on a Marlboro. “There should not be any traffic on this road.” We are stuck in the left lane. Soon sirens are blaring behind and in front of us. Cars in the right lane pull over to the berm to allow what looks like some sort of official car with blaring sirens through. Behind this car are five army trucks loaded with soldiers. They appear to be in full combat gear and are holding rifles. “What the hell?” shouts Hamid, “I have never seen troops on this road before.” Traffic in our lane has stopped completely. Soon we hear more sirens. What looks like an ambulance with sirens blaring is forcing its way through the right lane. Behind the ambulance are four tanks. They rumble right by us. “What the fuck!” shouts Hamid, getting even more excited. “What are tanks doing in this road?” He rolls down the window and shouts to the driver of the car in front of us, asking if he knows what is going on. The driver shouts something in reply and Hamid slumps back in his seat. “A military takeover has started. There is fighting in Ankara. The Bosphorus bridges have been blocked, and there are roadblocks up ahead. They are trying to overthrow Erdogan. My God, this is unbelievable.” The sunroof on the BMW is open and overhead I can see military jets streaking by at low altitude. I suddenly realize that I will not be getting back to my hotel tonight.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Iran | Tabriz | Covered Bazaar

The morning after my trip to the Church of St. Stephanos the breakfast hall of my hotel in Tabriz is occupied by two tour groups from Germany, each with maybe fifteen people. These are not adventure tourism types. All appear to be in their seventies or older, retirees checking Iran off their  list while they are still able to ambulate without walkers or motorized carts. They dutifully line up for cold cereal and bowls of prunes. All the women are wearing head scarves. I tuck into comb honey, clotted cream, dates, and flat bread while reviewing the day’s itinerary. Today will be devoted to Tabriz itself. As mentioned, Tabriz was the Il-Khanate capital from 1265 to around 1305, when Ölziit Khan moved the government to Sultaniyya. Even after the capital was transferred to Sulṭaniyya Tabriz remained probably the most prominent city in the Il-Khanate. Unfortunately, there are few if any physical remains of the Il-Khanate period left in Tabriz. Devastating earthquakes that periodically leveled the city, destruction wrought by invasions, wars, and revolutions, and urban renewal and expansion have all taken their toll.The cataclysmic earthquake of 1780, in particular, leveled most of Tabriz. and as  a result, according to one historian, “the city now contains very few structures of historical interest.” On the way back from the Armenian church yesterday I asked Hamid if he knew of any Il-Khanate-era monuments and anxious as he was to please he finally had to admit that he also did not know of any. I am not saying, I should make clear, that there are no Il-Khanate monuments in the city; I am simply stating that if there are any I was unable to locate them. However, the current-day Tabriz Covered Bazaar, dating from after the disastrous 1780 quake, is apparently a continuation of an earlier covered bazaar founded by the Il-Khan Ghazan in the 1290s and thus deserves our attention.

The current version is said to be the largest covered bazaar in the world. It covers 66.7 acres, with 3.41 miles of passageways and 5500 shops. The Grand Bazaar of Istanbul, while ranking as the biggest single tourist attraction in the world, with over 91,000,000 visitors a year, has between three and four thousand shops. The largest mall is the United States, the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota covers more space than the Tabriz Bazaar—96.4 acres total with 56.8 acres devoted to 530-some shops—but many would argue that it is not really a covered bazaar in the classic sense of the term but rather a New World mutation.

I am on my fourth cup of Nescafe (no filter coffee or lattes here, and the only tea is in bags;  a Tea Cognoscente myself, I would of course not be caught dead using tea bags) when Hamid and Masud appear. Earlier in my room I had binged the covered bazaar and discovered that it always closes for the first ten days of the month of Muharram. I mentioned this to Hamid and he replied, “Don’t worry, yesterday was Ashura, the tenth day of the Muharram. The bazaar will be open today.” The bazaar is close to the center of the city, about a fifteen minute driver from our hotel. “I like Tabriz”, enthused Hamid, a native of Tehran, as we drove toward downtown. “The streets and sidewalk are very clean and you don’t see any of the beggars and street people you see in some districts of Tehran. And the pollution here is nothing like Tehran.”

Tabriz is situated on the western edge of the Iranian Plateau at an altitude of 4430 feet. About twenty-five south of the city looms 12,163-foot Sahand Mountain, the cone of a now-extinct volcano. The earliest history of the city is extremely hazy. Legends that the city was the original Garden of Eden and/or the birthplace of Zoroaster, founder of the Zoroastrian religion, while persistent (tour guides dredge them up to this day), are no doubt apocryphal. A Tarui or Tauris mentioned in an epigraph of the Assyrian King Sargon (r. 722–705)   dated to 714 b.c. may refer to an early version of the city; if so, this may be the first mention of the settlement or town in the historical record. Clearly some sort of town existed here during the time of the  Sassanian Empire (224 a.d. to 651 a.d.). Arabic Muslims invaded the region in 642, after the fall of the Sassanian Empire, and an Arabic tribe from Yemen settled in the town of Tabriz. Zubaida, the wife of Abbasid Calif Harun al-Rashid, he of One Thousand Night and One Arabian Nights fame, is often credited with founding the city, but of course it already existed by her time. Zubaida (d. 831) was famous for providing wells, water reservoirs, and other amenities for Muslim pilgrims traveling from Baghdad to Medina and Mecca. Although she did not found Tabriz, she apparently rebuilt the city after it was destroyed by a devastating earthquake.   

Due to its location close to the unstable suture between the Arabian and Eurasian tectonic plates earthquakes have been a recurring theme in the history of Tabriz.  “Earthquakes have occurred with greater frequency in Tabriz than in any other major city in Iran,” states one historian who had studied the subject in detail. Although ephemeral sources cite numerous earthquakes affecting Tabriz—the years 634, 694, 746, 838, 949, and 1020 are mentioned—the first quake for which there is firm historical evidence occurred in 858. The 858 quake leveled the city restored by Zubaida. In turn it was rebuilt by Abbasid Caliph Mutawakkil (822–861). Despite the attentions of the illustrious Zubaida, Tabriz was “scarcely little more than a village until at least the mid-ninth century.” It was not until after the city was rebuilt by Mutawakkil that it became a flourishing trade center, but even then it was just one bead on a necklace of cities stretching between the Orient and Occident. It was not until the Mongols made it their capital that Tabriz became what one historian calls a “striking example of a world historical city in both its cosmopolitan intellectual culture and its central role in the thirteenth-century global economy.”

The streets leading to the Covered Bazaar were certainly clean, but they were also suspiciously quiet. We parked a block away from the bazaar and proceeded on foot to one of its many entryways. The portal was open but when we entered we found the long corridor empty.  All the doors leading off to passageways on the the left and right was closed and locked. Proceeding down the dark corridor we finally encountered a janitor with a broom. He announced that the bazaar is closed for the Ashura ceremonies until further notice. “That’s crazy!” said Hamid. “Ashura was yesterday. Why is the bazaar closed today? The man said he wasn’t even sure if it would be open tomorrow.”
 Deserted corridors of the Covered Bazaar
Not only was I eager to tour the bazaar because of its historical significance, I was also interested in its famous carpet shops. Tabriz has been an important carpet manufacturing center for centuries and Tabrizi carpets have assumed a certain cachet among collectors. I had no intention of buying any—some rooms of my Hovel In Zaisan Tolgoi are already three deep in carpets from Bukhara, Samarkand, Khotan, and other historic carpets centers—but I do have a passing interest in the history of carpets and was anticipating a few hours of palaver with carpet dealers while examining their merchandise. They can be an excellent source of information, assuming one can separate the chaff of high-pressure salesmanship from whatever grains of actual information they may have to offer.

Actually I may have seen Tabrizi carpets before. Back in Istanbul I had mentioned to a carpet dealer near the Grand Bazaar that I was going to Tabriz and he quickly produced a dozen or more carpets he said were from Tabriz. His father, he claimed, had recently been in Tabriz and had surreptitiously bought up a stock of better quality antique Tabrizi carpets, most of them dating to the late nineteenth or early twentieth century.  These he shipped to near the border with Turkey, which is a little over a hundred miles west of Tabriz, and then had them smuggled via horseback into Turkey to avoid customs restrictions and taxes. Kurdish people on both sides other border facilitated the transfer. 

I had intended on spending most of the day here at the bazaar. As Hamid and I were discussing a new course of action a white turbaned mullah walked by and then knocked on a door leading off the right. The door opened momentarily and he slipped in. Hamid went over and knocked on the door and had a brief discussion with the man who opened it. “I told him that you were from America and that you wanted to see the inside of some galleries. He said we can come in.” As luck would have it, the long gallery we entered was one that specialized in carpets. As luck would also have it, the shops that lined the gallery were all closed. The man who had opened the door invited us into his spacious tea shop just to the left of the entrance to the gallery. Five men who had shops in the galleria were already having tea on what for them was a day off. We were served strong black tea in tall glasses and a plate of fat, luscious dates. The other men just stared at me, their faces like stone masks, not revealing any opinion about the American who had somehow materialized in the middle of their morning tea. Tell them I am an historian (I find this designation excuses a multitude of sins) and ask them which parts of the bazaar are the oldest, I said to Hamid. Also ask them if they know of any parts of the bazaar which may date back to the Il-Khanate period. They seemed to take this request quite seriously and they had a discussion among themselves lasting over ten minutes.
This gallery specializing in carpets was closed the day I was there.
“They are speaking Azeri, and I can only understand a few words. When they are done talking I’ll ask for a summary in Persian,” said Hamid. Azeri belongs to the Turkish language family. An early variant of the language was spoken by the Oghuz Turks who lived around the Aral Sea in what is now Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Many of these Oghuz Turks migrated westward and by the eleventh century had settled in the Azerbaijan region. Their descendants, Azerbaijanis, are the second largest ethnic group in Iran, after Persians themselves. Azeri remains the dominant language of the East Azerbaijan province of Iran and especially Tabriz to this day. Hamid claims that Azeri is the first language of the majority of people in Tabriz, although almost all speak at least some Persian. It is also spoken by a sizeable Azerbaijani minority in Tehran. Azerbaijanis, claim Hamid, are legendarily astute traders and businessmen and control Tehran”s largest bazaar.

After the confabulation the spokesman for the group talks to Hamid in Persian. Some parts of the bazaar are clearly older than others, but it’s hard to put a date on any particular part. Yes, the Mongols established a bazaar here in Tabriz but none of the men can point to any identifiable Mongol-era structures. This was about what I was expecting to hear but at least it had been worth a try asking. The idea was to get the guys talking. The spokesman says he is sorry he cannot be of more help, but he could open his carpet shop for us if we were were interested. We were interested. Hamid attempts to pay the tea shop man for our tea and dates but he shrugs this off. “It’s free for our American guest.”

The carpet shop is long and narrow, without any space to display carpets on the floor. The walls are lined with coarse wool carpets with generic designs, the cheapest kind of carpets meant for everyday use in the humblest of abodes. The owner leads us to a dusty, ill-lit storeroom in the back with six-foot high piles of carpets but they are all the same cheap variety. It’s clear we have stumbled into a rather lowbrow establishment. I have taken better carpets than these on Extended Camel Trips in the desert. I won’t learn anything new about carpets here. We thank the man and leave.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Greece | Rhodes Island | Rhodes Old Town | Landmarks and Sights

Like most of the Greek islands Rhodes has numerous layers of history dating back several thousand years. The oldest visible layer dates to the pre-Christian Hellenistic period.
Ruins of Temple of Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, dating to probably third century B.C. (click on images for enlargements)
Starting around the fifth century the island became part of the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire. Islamic Arabs and Turks seized the island at various times, but the Byzantines were able to regain control and remained the dominant force on the island until the beginning of the fourteenth century, when the Knights Hospitaller took over. 
 Byzantine ruins 
Ruins of the Byzantine Church of the Archangel Michael
Byzantine Church of Ag. Paraskevi
Byzantine Church of Ag. Spyridon
Detail of Byzantine Church of Ag. Spyridon
 The Knights Hospitaller Period of Rhodes history began in 1308 and lasted to 1522.  
 Knights Hospitaller Era Church of the Holy Trinity. As you probably know, the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—was in large part formulated by Gregory of Nazianzus, a.k.a. Gregory the Theologian (c. 329–390), who once lived in the Cappadocian village of Güzelyurt, which I wandered through not long ago. Gregory of Nazianzus and St. Basil of Kayseri  are also credited with laying the theological foundations of the Greek Orthodox Church.
 Church of the Holy Trinity
 Church of the Holy Trinity
 Knights Hospitaller Era Church of St. Artemios
 Ruins of the Church of Panagia tou Bourgou—Knights Hospitaller Era
Ruins of the Church of Panagia tou Bourgou— Knights Hospitaller Era
In 1522, after a long and protracted siege of the Walled City, the Ottoman Turks conquered Rhodes.  It remained part of the Ottoman Empire until 1912 when it was seized by Italy during the  Italo-Turkish War. Nazi Germany briefly controlled the town during World War II, but after the war, in 1947, the island became part of Greece.
Ottoman Era Suleiman Mosque
Ottoman Era Aga Mosque
 
Fort at the entrance to the harbor of Rhodes
Entrance to the harbor of Rhodes at dawn
Street Scene. No private cars are allowed in the Old Town. Most streets are not wide enough for them anyhow.
Street Scene
Street Scene
Street Scene
Many of the streets are paved with sea pebbles.
You might think the uneven surface of sea-pebble paved streets and walkways would provide firm footing. Actually, centuries of use have worn the pebbles as smooth as glass and in the morning when they are wet with dew or after a rain they are quite treacherous to walk on.
Street Scene
Street Scene
In the summer  Rhodes is one of party capitals of the Eastern Mediterranean, as hinted at by this graffiti on a park bench. 
There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of bars, nightclubs, and discos in Rhodes Old Town, but most of them are closed in wintertime. This place remains open all night for local worshipers of Dionysus, the current God of choice in Rhodes. When I went out for coffee at six in the morning there were still gangs of local women hanging around out front. Most sported multiple body piercings and some were festooned with chains. At the Open/24/7 bakery where I breakfasted on coffee and chocolate croissants the baker on duty often offered me a complimentary shot of Ouzo from his personal bottle he kept behind the counter. He said it was the Greek way to start the day.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Greece | Island of Rhodes | Rhodes Old Town | Old Town Walls

The wall build around the Old Town of Rhodes by the Knights Hospitaller is about 1.8 miles in circumference. There are eleven gates in the wall. 
Old Town Wall (click on image for enlargements)
One of the Gates in the Wall
One of the Gates in the Wall
One of the Gates in the Wall
One of the Gates in the Wall
Detail of the Gate
One of the Gates in the Wall
Detail of the Gate
One of the Gates in the Wall
One of the Gates in the Wall
Detail of the Gate
Wall on the seaward side
Fortification built into the wall
Fortification built into the wall
Fortification built into the wall
The outer wall to right, in from of the higher outer wall
A section of the outer wall
Inner wall on right
The outer wall to right, in front of the higher outer wall
One of the bastions in the wall
Stone cannonballs left from over various sieges of Rhodes by the Ottoman Turks. The city was finally seized by the Ottomans in 1522. 
Turkish cannonballs