Sunday, February 7, 2016

Mongolia | Turkey | Istanbul |Sultanahmet

The Third of The Nine-Nines began on January 9. According to Mongolian folklore the Nine-Nines are nine periods of nine days each, each period characterized by a certain type of winter weather. The Nine-Nines begin on the Winter Solstice, which in Mongolia this year occurred on December 22. The third Nine-Nine is known as Gurvan Ükhrii Ever Khöldönö, “When the Horns of Three Year-Old Cows Freeze”. This period is supposed to be colder than the First and the Second of the Nine Nines The coldest period is traditionally the Fourth Nine-Nine, which this year begins on January 18. This is Dönön Ükhiin Ever Khöldöne— “The Time When Four Year-Old Cows’ Horns Freeze”. On the morning of January 12 the temperature at sunrise was –38º F., presumably cold enough to freeze the horns of three year-old cows. Now I am as big a fan of cold weather as the next guy—probably more so than most—but this was getting cold. It suddenly struck me that at the moment I had no real pressing business in Ulaanbaatar and that all things considered it might not be a bad idea to retreat to warmer climes. It was already too late to catch the January 12 flight to Istanbul, but a quick peek on the internet revealed that seats were available on the January 14 flight. 

Usually when I visit Istanbul I stay in a hotel out in the Topkapi district by the Theodosian Land Walls, about two miles from Sultanahmet, the historical center of the city. Although tourists do wander out to see the Land Walls few stay in the area, and the hotels are generally a lot cheaper than in the Sultanahmet tourist area. January is not the most popular month for tourists in Istanbul under the best of conditions, however, and recently a number of events have dealt body blows to Turkey’s tourism industry in general. The current feud between Turkey and Russia over the downing of a Russian fighter plane has drastically cut the number of Russian tourists and small time traders visiting Turkey, and a number of deadly terrorist attacks in Ankara, Istanbul, and elsewhere in Turkey has scared off even more potential visitors. As a result, I soon learned as I scanned the internet, the price of rooms in many Istanbul hotels had fallen by half or some cases even by two-thirds. Oddly enough the admittedly humble hotel where I usually stay in Topkapi had not lowered it prices at all. It doesn’t really cater to tourists—most guests are down-at-the-heels people in from the Turkish countryside, penny-ante Russian traders, and furtive gay couples shacking up for the night—and was therefore not affected by the downdraft in tourism. I checked one fairly up-scale tourist hotel just a stone’s throw from Sultanahmet Square, the heart of the Sultanahmet area, and discovered that rooms that usually went for $70 or $80 a night were now available for $28, actually a little less than the cost of the fleabag out in Topkapi. I booked a room for four nights. 

That evening I was editing photos on the desktop computer in my Scriptorium when a small New York Times news notification tab appeared on the right side of the screen: “Istanbul Hit By Suspected Suicide Bomber”. Clicking on the link, I discovered a one-paragraph breaking news blurb about a bombing in Sultanahmet Square. Details were sparse, but it appeared that there were numerous fatalities and most of them appeared to be foreign tourists. I switched to Daily Sabbah, an on-line English language Turkish newspaper. At first it too had only a one paragraph blurb. I followed the story as it broke during the rest of the evening, eventually learning that ten people had been killed and at least two dozen injured. Most the dead were apparently German tourists. The suicide bomber was reportedly connected to ISIS. The bombing at taken place right by the so-called Theodosian Column in the middle of Sultanahmet Square. I figured it was about 1000 feet from the hotel for which I had made reservations just that morning. I could not help but wondering, somewhat cynically, what this latest event would do to the prices of hotel rooms in the Sultanahmet area. Had I booked too soon?

At daybreak on the morning of January 14 it was a fairly balmy—for Ulaanbaatar—minus 18ºF. The Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul pulled away from the terminal at 10:18 and then sat at the end of the runway for a few minutes before taking off exactly on time at 10:30. Four hours later we landed for a scheduled stop in Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan.  After an hour and twenty minutes in Bishkek’s notoriously dreary transit lounge we departed for the five and half hour leg of the flight to Istanbul. The entire flight from Ulaanbaatar to Istanbul covers 5742 miles. 
 View just after taking off from Ulaanbaatar, with the Tuul River valley in the upper left (click on photos for enlargements).
 View over western Mongolia
 View of the Tian Shan east of Bishkek
 Approaching Istanbul, with the southern end of the Bosphorus Strait, left center. The Sea of the Marmara is at the stop with the tip of the Asian continent top left. The Golden Horn extends from bottom right to the Bosphorus Strait.
 Another view of the legendary Golden Horn 
The Theodosian Land Wall, built during the reign of Emperor Theodosius II (r. 408–450), running from bottom left to upper right, with the Sea of Marmara at top.
The plane landed twelve minutes early at 3:38 p.m. local time. I had only one carry-on bag and breezed through the Turkish Airlines Priority immigration line. It took me about ten minutes to get to the airport train and it left two minutes after I boarded. Although it was a peak time the train was only half-full. Usually it is standing room only. At the Zeytinburnu station I switched to the M1 metro line going to the Sultanahmet area. It was maybe one-third full. Again, it should have been packed to the gills at this hour of the day. I actually got a seat, I think for the first time ever on the two dozen or more times I have take the metro to downtown from the airport. Whether the paucity of passengers had anything to do with the terrorist attack is unclear. Dusk is falling when I got off at the Sultanahmet station, a couple hundred yards from the Theodosian Column where the bombing had taken place. The touts are out as usual in front of the restaurants along Divan Yolu, the main tourist street running through the area, but there are few customers. What people are on the street seem to be scurrying elsewhere. I hurried off to my hotel, just a couple hundred feet from Sultanahmet Square. 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Mongolia | Birthday of Chingis Khan

Here in Mongolia the New Moon occurred this morning at 1:47 a.m. That makes today the first day of the first month of winter according to the Lunar Calendar. Thus today is the day officially recognised as the Birthday of Chingis Khan (Genghis Khan, etc.) This is the 853rd anniversary of his birth. 

Monday, October 5, 2015

Turkey | Cappadocia | Güzelyurt

After viewing the Super Bloodmoon in Göreme I wandered off to the town of Güzelyurt, thirty-five miles to the southwest. Güzelyurt, as you probably know, was once the home of Gregory of Nazianzus, a.k.a. Gregory the Theologian (c. 329–390), who is credited, along with St. Basil of Kayseri, with laying the theological foundations of the Greek Orthodox Church. Gregory himself was largely responsible for formulating the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—that continues to befuddle the less enlightened right down to the present Day. 

Güzelyurt (roughly translated as “beautiful home”), population about 3,750, could hardly be more different than Göreme. While Göreme supposedly has a permanent population of only 2000, it has some 370 hotels, guesthouses, and hostels (many of the employees of the hotels, restaurants, shops, etc. live in nearby towns). It is an international tourism hub teeming with visitors of every stripe. Güzelyurt, on the other hand, is a laid back old-fashioned Turkish town that appears to have not a single restaurant or shop that caters specifically to tourists. There are a dozen or so hotels, most of them occupying old Greek mansions or cave dwellings, but they have their own restaurants where their clientele eat. I saw a couple of Russians, a couple of Germans, and a group of Chinese, but I would say ninety per cent of the tourists are from other parts of Turkey.
The main street of laid back Güzelyurt (click on photos for enlargements)
The town square. This photo was taken early in the morning. Later the tables are filled with local tea-coolers. 
My hotel
Another view of my hotel
Patio of my hotel
My hotel from the bottom of the canyon
The town is centered around Monastery Valley, a high-walled valley—or a low walled canyon—about 3.4 miles long. The extinct volcanic cone of 10,722-foot Mount Hasan, the second highest mountain of central Anatolia, looms fifteen miles off to the southwest. During the time of the Roman Empire the settlement was known as Karballa and in Seljuq times as Gelveri. The town was inhabited mostly by Greeks until 1924 when the Greek population was deported to Greece where they founded a town known as Nea Karvali. Turks deported from Greece moved into the town but not enough to fill all the homes. The abandoned ruins of many Greek-era buildings can still be seen. The town was not given the Turkish name of Güzelyurt until the 1960s. The current town is determined to retain its traditional character. By law local stone must be used in the construction of all new buildings, and new buildings must conform to traditional styles of architecture. 
Lower part of the Monastery Valley
Quiet streets of Güzelyurt
 Quiet streets of Güzelyurt
Quiet streets of Güzelyurt
Old Greek building
The canyon walls are riddled with cave dwellings 
Another view of the canyon wall
The original church associated with Gregory of Nazianzus was built around 385 a.d. In 1835 the church was remodeled and enlarged. After Turkish people moved into the town it was converted into a mosque. 
The Church of St. Gregory, now a mosque
The Church of St. Gregory
The Church of St. Gregory

St. Gregory
Inside of the Church of St. Gregory, which now functions as a mosque
There are said to be ruins of twenty-eight cave churches in Monastery Valley, plus two underground cities and hundreds of cave dwellings. 
The Sivisli Church, one of the twenty-eight cave churches in the Monastery Valley. It is not known when it was built. 
Interior of the Sivisli Cave Church. It was carved out of the living rock. 
Now-faded wall paintings in the Sivisli Church
Opening to cave dwellings and underground city
One of the entrances to an underground city
Another entrance to an underground city
First floor room in the underground city
Room in the underground city
Tunnel leading to lower rooms in the underground city. The passageway is at most four feet high. Given my height and the precarious state of my back I was unable to negotiate it. There were dozens if not hundreds of these underground cities in Cappadocia, some of which housed several thousand people. This is one of the smaller ones.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Turkey | Cappadocia | Ürgüp | Göreme | Super Bloodmoon

From Göreme I wandered over to Ürgüp, five miles to the east. A town of about 18,000, Ürgüp has a reputation of attracting a more up-scale clientele than Göreme. There are plenty of chi-chi boutique hotels but I finally found a fairly modest but extremely comfortable guesthouse ran by a friendly young couple. “Welcome to our home,” they said, and it actually sounded as if they meant it. My room was an actual cave lined with stone. 
 My hotel in Ürgüp (click on photos for enlargement)
 My hotel was on a quiet back street, but the downtown square was just a three minute walk away.
 Downtown square of Ürgüp, with Temenni Hill beyond. The mausoleum of Kilicharslan IV can be seen on the summit.
Mausoleum on the top of Temenni Hill. 
A signpost appears to indicate that this is the tomb of Seljuqs of Rum ruler Kilicharslan IV, who fled to Ürgüp after the Mongols captured much of Cappodocia in 1243. He hid in the caves here until Seljuqs who had sided with the Mongols tracked him down and killed him. Considered a hero by local people for his resistance to the Mongol invasion, he was entombed here on Temenni Hill. The signpost explaining this episode was very muddled however. I tried to get more information at the town museum, but no one there spoke English. The signpost also stated that temenni is a Sumerian word “sacred area, sacrificial area, or prayer area,” which if true is intriguing indeed. Were there actually Sumerians in this area? 
 Downtown Ürgüp from the top of Temenni Hill
Behind Teminni Hill is a massif known as Berekut Burgut, or Ürgüp castle. The massif is riddled with cave dwellings. 
 Many of the old cave houses in Ürgüp are still occupied.
 Lovely old Greek house, now abandoned. Many Greeks lived in Ürgüp until they were deported to Greece is the 1920s.
I eventually wandering back to Göreme, which I had decided was the most auspicious place to watch the September 28th Super Moon and Lunar Eclipse.
 Cave hotel where I stayed in Göreme
While waiting for the Super Bloodmoon I wandering around the outskirts of Göreme
 Fairy chimneys in the Pigeon Valley southwest of Göreme
 Yusuf Koch Cave Church in near the entrance to Pigeon Valley. It was carved out of a fairy chimney in the 11th century.
Thousand year-old wall painting in the interior of the Yusuf Koch Church. I think this is St. Stefanos, but I am not sure. 
I also wandered around the Zemi Valley just east of Göreme.
 Rock formations in the Zemi Valley
  Rock formations and cave dwellings in the Zemi Valley
  Rock formations in the Zemi Valley
 The Nadir Cave Church in the Zemi Valley, built in the 11th century
 Interior of the Nadir Church
The morning of September 28 I climbed to the top of the ridge behind my hotel to watch the Super Moon and Lunar Eclipse. About two dozen other people were already present when I got there. The eclipse began at 4:07 and by 4:10 there was an obvious crescent-shaped chunk out of the top of the moon. As we were watching the eclipse progress I suddenly noticed what looked like a small circle of blue lights hovering in the sky to the southwest. It bobbed back and forth in several directions for a minute or so, and plunged with amazing speed below the ridge line. “What the hell was that?!?” blurted out some guy in the dark. A woman with a flashlight ran over to the edge of the cliffs and looked down into the town of Göreme, where the object appeared to have dropped. “I don’t see a thing,” she shouted, “what happened to it?” Another woman muttered, “Jesus Christ! That was spooky!” I have no idea was the object was, nor will I speculate. Meanwhile the eclipse was progressing. The moon was totally eclipsed at 5:50, by which time it is was just a faint red smudge in the sky. By 6:10, twenty minutes before the actual sunrise, the eastern horizon lightened and the smudge disappeared completely. 

Thus ended the September 28 lunar eclipse, the fourth in a series of lunar eclipses known as a Lunar Tetrad. A Lunar Tetrad occurs when there are four total eclipses in a row with no partial lunar eclipses in between; also, between each of the eclipses there are six full moons. If both conditions are met, we have a Lunar Tetrad.

The four eclipses of the current Lunar Tetrad are as follows:
Total lunar eclipse: April 15
Total lunar eclipse: October 8
Total lunar eclipse: April 4
Total lunar eclipse: September 27-28

Lunar tetrads are relatively rare. There will be eight on them in the 21st century (2001–2100) but there none during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. From the year 1 a.d to 2100 a.d. there will be a total of sixty-two. 

What has Christian Eschatologists in an uproar is that the current tetrad, the one ending on September 27/28, coincides with two Jewish holidays, Passover and  the Feast of Tabernacles. The April 2014 and the April 2015 eclipses coincided with the Feast of Passover. The October 2014 and September 2015 total lunar eclipses align with the Feast of Tabernacles. This has happened eight times during the Christian Era:

1. 162-163 C.E. 
2. 795-796 C.E.
3. 842-843 C.E.
4. 860-861 C.E.
5. 1493-1494 C.E.
6. 1949-1950 C.E.
7. 1967-1968 C.E.
8. 2014-2015 C.E.

Bible Thumper John Hagee and other proponents of the Blood Moon Prophecy maintain that some earth-shattering event occurs when a Lunar Tetrad coincides with Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles. Usually these events involve  in some way the Jewish people and/or the Nation of Israel. Blurb from his book:
Over the last 500 years, blood-red moons have fallen on the first day of Passover three separate times. These occurrences were connected to some of the most significant days in Jewish history: 1492 (the final year of the Spanish Inquisition when Jews were expelled from Spain), 1948 (statehood for Israel and the War of Independence) and 1967 (the Six-Day War). Every heavenly body is controlled by the unseen hand of God, which signals coming events to humanity. There are no solar or lunar accidents. The next series of four blood moons occurs at Passover and Sukkot in 2014 and 2015 . . . Christians must understand these signs and what they bode both for Israel and the world. Joel 2 and Acts 2 both state: "And I will show wonders in the heavens and in the earth, blood and fire and pillars of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness [eclipse] and the moon into blood [eclipse] before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes."
I am not a proponent of Christian (or Jewish) Eschatology, but I must say the current situation in the Mid East, with the United States, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia all arming different factions in Syria, could escalate into something truly frightening (if it hasn’t already). Is the 25th King of Shambhala about to mount his Red Horse?