Friday, June 18, 2010

...and continuing on, here are many more entries in the Turkish Miscellany, for various letters of the alphabet:


Halvah (helva in Turkish) is delicious, and it's a great souvenir to bring home as it's easy to pack and doesn't spoil. According to World Food: Turkey, halvah is the collective name for a family of simple-sounding desserts: any cooked combination of a grain or nut (like flour or semolina) combined with something sweet like honey or pekmez (a thick syrup made from boiled grape juice) can be called helva. (Apparently a popular nineteenth-century dessert served in wealthy Istanbul homes was kar helvası, snow mixed with sugar, proving that just about anything could be called helva!). Today, however, most of the helva you'll see is made with sesame paste and honey, often with pistachios. According to Irfan Orga in Turkish Cooking, helva once had less than happy associations, "being used on the fortieth day after a member of the family's death when, according to Muslim belief, the chin of the deceased drops. This, it is believed, causes great pain, so in order to lessen the pain special family prayers are said on that day and helva eaten in the name of the dead person. In the houses of the wealthy great pots of helva are made and distributed amongst the poor. In this way it is hoped more prayers will be said and the dead will have nothing to complain about."


Turkish was once thought to be related to Finnish and Hungarian, but it has since been recognized as belonging to its own unique language group, and the fact is, according to Hugh Pope in Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkic World, "peoples speaking more than eighteen languages related to Turkish still inhabit not only Central Asia but also such eastern Siberian territories as Yakutia. The Mongols are ethnic cousins of the Turks. Even the Turkish, Korean and Japanese languages have strange similarities, sharing a grammatical syntax that makes it easy for Turks and Japanese to learn each other's tongues."

Though the Turks do not expect visitors to speak their language, you will receive big smiles all around if you try to master a few basic words and expressions. German is now spoken by a lot of Turks, as is English, and many Turks know French, the language (after English) I still consider to be the most useful worldwide (somebody, almost everywhere, speaks French). And beginning in the eighteenth century, French art and culture were among the most significant influences on the Ottoman Empire, due to an alliance between Süleyman the Magnificent and Francois I (it was interrupted only briefly when Napoléon invaded Egypt). Suleyman and Francois I were concerned about Charles V's ambitions for Spain in the Mediterranean. So in 1836 they formed an alliance against Charles, and this treaty included a trade agreement called the Capitulations, which gave French merchants freedom to trade without restriction within the Ottoman Empire. This in turn led to the formation of a millet (a protected religious minority community) that would be the prototype for other European communities in Istanbul, all located in Galata. In 1538, the Spanish fleet was defeated at the battle of Lepanto (see the Lepanto entry in my book) in 1571. According to Michael Levey in The World of Ottoman Art, several of the sultans were strongly Francophile, and "most fundamentally relevant, for art and artistic exchanges, is the fact that a style fostered in France early in the century—rococo, rocaille or style Louis quinze, as it might be—chimed so well with Ottoman ideals at the same period." Imitation went in the opposite direction as well: the turquerie became a popular category of picture in France, and à la Turca was a designation used to describe the style of everything from music and dance to clothing and decor. In Louis de Berniere's novel Birds Without Wings, an Italian character says to the ağa of a village, "Mais oui, je parle français," adding snobbishly, "tout le monde parle français" (But yes, I speak French, everyone speaks French).

Istanbul even has a Rue Française (Fransız Sokaği), a real street complete with street musicians, cafes, bars, art centers, and restaurants that opened in 2004, in Beyoğlu. The leader of the group that developed it, Mehmet Taşdiken, notes that the French have a very important legacy in Beyoğlu. "Most of the establishments of Beyoğlu, such as the first cafés and first movie theaters, were established by the French in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the buildings on the left of Cezayir Street bear the signature of French engineer-contractor Marius Michel, who lived in Istanbul between 1890 and 1910 and built the Karaköy and Eminönü docks." Fransız Sokaği is kitschy, but not really out of step with the neighborhood.


Kahve is the Turkish word for "coffee," which originated in Ethiopia, where it grew wild, and was later cultivated on the Arabian Peninsula, notably in Yemen. From Yemen, coffee spread to Mecca and Medina, then on to Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, and to Istanbul in the fifteenth century.

There is conflicting information about when the first coffee house opened in Istanbul—some sources say 1471, others say 1475 and later—but there is agreement on its name, Kiva Han. According to Philip Mansel, in Constantinople: City of the World's Desire, a historian named Ibrahim Peçevi noted that "The imams and muezzins and pious hypocrites said: 'People have become addicts of the coffee-house: nobody comes to the mosques!' The ulema said: 'It is a house of evil deeds: it is better to go to the wine tavern than there.'" Along with wine, tobacco, and opium, coffee was classified as one of the four ministers of the devil. Sultan Murad IV, who reigned from 1623 to 1640, reportedly executed a hundred thousand subjects who couldn't resist the four. Illegal coffeehouses were routinely attacked by officials, but by the seventeenth century, coffee's virtues were at last extolled, and by the early nineteenth century there were approximately 2,500 coffee houses in Istanbul.

The word "coffee" entered English in 1598 from the Italian caffé—the first coffee house to open in Europe was Florian's, in Venice—which was from the Turkish kahve, which in turn derived from the Arabic qahwa. According to Harry Nickles in Middle Eastern Cooking, years ago Turkish marriage vows included a clause by the bridegroom to keep his wife in coffee, and an old Turkish proverb is "A cup of coffee gives memories for forty years." Bade Jackson, in Turkish Cooking, says, "There is not a spot with a view, or a park in Turkey, without its tea or coffee house."

In Harem: the World Behind the Veil, Alev Lytle Croutier notes that "what distinguishes Turkish coffee is its texture of very finely ground grains, almost pulverized, and its idiosyncratic method of preparation. It seems like a very simple operation, but making it perfectly is one of the most difficult things in the world. It has to have just the right amount of froth, and this is a function of timing." I have made coffee in the brass cezve I bought in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul many times, and each time it turns out different, with more or less froth. It is essential to know exactly when to remove it from the flame, which is at a point when the liquid starts to boil up and almost over the top of the cezve. You have to have faith that it will not spill over, because if you don't allow it to boil at all you won't achieve any froth.

With such a history, one would think coffee is far and away the beverage of choice in Turkey, but that distinction belongs to tea. While Yemen was part of the Ottoman Empire, coffee was a relatively inexpensive commodity. But after the collapse of the empire, it became too costly for most people, and tea quickly replaced it. As in Greece, "Néscafé" is what you order when you want regular coffee; it refers to any brand of instant coffee. To ask for Turkish coffee is sometimes seen as old-fashioned, but I much prefer it. The most famous and oldest coffee merchant in Istanbul is Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi, founded in 1871 when Mehmet took over the family business of selling coffee beans. Until the late nineteenth century, beans were sold raw, to be roasted at home and ground with a hand-operated coffee mill. Mehmet began selling roasted and ready-ground coffee and thus earned the name Kurukahveci, vendor of roasted and ground coffee. Today it's a third-generation business, and the original location and headquarters, in an Art Deco building, is just outside the covered section of the Spice Market on the corner of Tahmis Caddesi and Hasırcılar Caddesi (there are other locations but this is the one to visit). Turkish coffee can only be made with a Turkish coffee pot, but Mehmet Efendi also sells filter coffee, espresso, and cocoa. The company's website,, is interesting and features good background information on the history of coffee (mail orders are filled only within Turkey).


Kısmet is a word referring to destiny, fate, or luck, or a predetermined course of events; English borrowed 'kısmet' from the Turkish and it is used commonly. My Aunt Shirley and Uncle Roy had a very tall, black poodle many years ago named Kısmet, and I never asked them if they were inspired to name him after the word itself or after the 1955 film directed by Vincent Minnelli (which was based on the 1953 musical). I love the word regardless of whatever reason the dog was named.


Also spelled mezze, meze refers to the custom of eating small plates of food to accompany drinks, and it "is a ritual and an institution inherited by all the Arab lands and represents an art of living," according to Claudia Roden in The New Book of Middle Eastern Food. Roden notes that the word is derived from the Arabic t'mazza, "to savor in little bites." She explains that meze are meant to whet the appetite, not to fill you up. There should be a variety, ideally four different items, some hot, some cold, served in small quantities. In Istanbul, the best place to partake of meze is at a meyhane, a casual, family-style place historically owned and operated by Greeks—a number of great ones are in Istanbul on Nevizade, a lively street just off the Passage of Flowers, off Istiklâl. A meyhane is similar in spirit to a Greek taverna, a French bistro, and an Italian trattoria, yet it is a truly Turkish institution.

Stephen Kinzer, in Crescent & Star, says that "an evening at a meyhane is centered around rakı, but rakı never stands alone. It is only one component, albeit the essential one, of a highly stylized ritual. With rakı always come meze, small plates of food that appear stealthily, a few at a time. Theoretically, meze are appetizers leading to a main course, but often the main course, like Turkey's supposedly great destiny, never materializes. No one complains about that because eating meze while sipping rakı is such a supreme pleasure in itself. The path is so blissful that the idea of a destination seems somehow sacrilegious." In an article he wrote for The New York Times Magazine ("Istanbul's Glitter Domes," May 11, 1997), John Ash notes that a meyhane is a place to hang out and talk for hours. "I once met friends for lunch in Imroz, then stayed on until nine o'clock. Somehow lunch just merged seamlessly with dinner. At times like this Turkey seems civilized in ways the so-called developed nations have hardly begun to comprehend."


Ottoman miniatures, those beautiful little paintings which reached their golden age during the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent, were considered a part of the Ottoman book arts together with illumination, calligraphy, marbling paper, and bookbinding. Roger Crowley, in his book 1453, describes miniatures as "a joyous world of primary color patterned flat and without perspective, like the decorative devices on tiles and carpets." The art form shares some qualities with the Arab-Persian tradition and has some Chinese artistic influences, but it is uniquely Turkish.

Miniatures were not signed, partly because of the tradition that rejected individualism and partly because the paintings were not created entirely by one artist. Typically the head painter designed the composition of the scene and his apprentices drew the contours with black or colored ink and then painted it without creating an illusion of third dimension. Perspective in a miniature was different from that in a European painting: it could include different time periods and spaces. And, as Orhan Pamuk explored in My Name is Red, miniature artists did not depict human beings (or other nonliving beings) realistically.

The collection of miniatures in Topkapı is outstanding, and includes not only Turkish examples but those from elsewhere in the Islamic world. It was at Topkapı in fact that the art began, in the sixteenth century, when the Nakkashane-i Irani, or Persian Academy of Painting, was founded. It was so named because some time after the noted Persian instructor Bihzad left Istanbul for Tabriz, Sultan Selim conquered Tabriz, so Bihzad moved back to Istanbul with his students. Within this academy there were two different schools: Nakkashane-i Rum specialized in documentary books that depicted the public and private lives of rulers, weddings, circumcisions, and historical events. The Nakkashane-i Irani specialized in fantastic subjects, fables, heroic deeds, folk stories, astrology, medicine, cosmography, etc. So in viewing miniatures one sees everything from banquets, battles, court processions, festivities, and beheadings to fountains, palaces, horses, armor, and army tents. Roger Crowley describes the art of miniatures as "a world in love with ceremony, noise, and light. There are ram fights, tumblers, kebab cooks, and firework displays, massed Janissary bands that thump and toot and crash their way soundlessly across the page in a blare of red, tightrope walkers crossing the Horn on ropes suspended from the masts of ships, cavalry squadrons in white turbans riding past elaborately patterned tents, maps of the city as bright as jewels, and all the visible exuberance of paint: vivid red, orange, royal blue, lilac, lemon, chestnut, gray, pink, emerald, and gold. The world of the miniatures seems to express both joy and pride in the Ottoman achievement, the breathtaking ascent from tribe to empire in two hundred years, an echo of the words once written by the Seljuk Turks over a doorway in the holy city of Konya: 'What I have created is unrivalled throughout the world.'"


The word oda means chamber, and so an odalisque is a "woman of the chamber," "chamber" referring most often to the Topkapı harem. It is a word made famous by the paintings of Ingres, Matisse, Delacroix, and Renoir most notably, and is a word that frequently appears in writings about Topkapı.

Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust

Oldways (, a nonprofit food issues think tank that developed the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid in 1993, was founded in 1990 and deserves wider recognition. It isn't a Turkish organization, but Turkey is within the Oldways fold. The group was the brainchild of K. Dun Gifford (whom Julia Child appointed chairman of the American Institute of Wine and Food in 1988), and it promotes specific alternatives to the unhealthful foods characteristically eaten in industrialized countries. It's a "think tank and brain trust" rooted in equal parts of science, tradition, and good, clean food. Oldways hosts fantastic annual trips called Culinarias, and in 2007 the destination was Istanbul. Among the featured guests were chef Ana Sortun, Engin Akin, Musa Dağdeviren, and Vedat Başaran, who is an old friend of Oldways, having participated in Oldways International Symposiums in Istanbul in 1993 and in New York in 1995. Culinaria trips are really something special, and not very well known. The combination of outstanding seminars; cooking demonstrations; guided historical tours to museums, monuments, and markets; memorable meals; and a nice amount of free time is unmatched by other companies.


"To Westerners, the East was a living museum filled with people, objects, and traditions, recalling a heroic and idealized past," writes Barbara Hodgson in Dreaming of East. "The few shreds of these noble bygone days left in Europe had been trampled upon by countless tourists. Greece held on to a vestige of classical luster, and Spain was considered to be almost North Africa, but by the 1830s they too were dismissed as spoiled. The East, so close geographically, seemed enthrallingly distant in time."

"Orientalism" refers to the imitation or depiction of aspects of Eastern cultures in the West by writers, designers, and artists, and an Orientalist is a scholar of Oriental studies. The word derives from the Latin oriens (rising) and is the opposite of "Occident." As Western explorers traveled farther into Asia, the definition of "the Orient" has shifted eastward—travel on the Orient Express, from Paris to Istanbul, is definitely eastward but does not stop in what we currently understand to be the Orient.

"Orientalism" also came to refer to the adoption of typical eastern motifs, styles, and subject matter in art, architecture, and design. Notably, a number of Western painters—mostly from France and Britain—in the nineteenth century, set out eagerly for what they called the Orient: the north coast of Africa, Arabia, the Levant, and the Ottoman Empire. Spain (because of its Arab history) and Venice (because of its historical connections to Constantinople) were also popular destinations, seen as gateways to the Orient. Eventually, Orientalism became an official category in the Paris Salon, and when it became all the rage, even artists who'd never set foot in the Near East began to bring touches of it to their work. Best known of these was Ingres, and the best known of his canvases in this style are Great Odalisque (in the Louvre), Odalisque and Slave (in the Fogg Museum of Art, Cambridge, Massachusetts), and The Turkish Bath (also in the Louvre).

The longevity of Orientalism is impressive; it can be loosely established as beginning with Napoléon's Egyptian campaign in 1798 and running through the 1870s (American Orientalism ended later). A Thousand and One Nights was enormously responsible for the development of Orientalism, and it inspired travel eastward. This legendary collection of folktales, by the way, can be traced to ancient Indian, Persian, Egyptian, and Arab storytelling traditions, and Jewish sources and possible Greek influences have also been noted. The story goes that when the king discovers his wife's past infidelity he executes her and declares all women to be unfaithful. He then marries a succession of virgins only to kill each one the following morning. Eventually, his vizier can't find any more virgins, so the vizier's daughter, Scheherazade, offers herself up. On their wedding night, Scheherazade tells the king a story but doesn't finish it, so in order to learn the story's conclusion, he keeps her alive. She continues to do this for a thousand and one nights. The tales were translated in the nineteenth century, and at this time the work acquired the English name The Arabian Nights. The best known stories are "Aladdin's Wonderful Lamp," "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves," and "The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor."

The following is a list of good books to read on the subject of Orientalism: Noble Dreams, Wicked Pleasures: Orientalism in America, 1870-1930, by Holly Edwards with essays by Brian T. Allen, Steven C. Caton, Zeynep Celik, and Oleg Grabar (Princeton University in association with the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 2000. This book is the catalog that accompanied the exhibit of the same name, which also traveled to Baltimore's Walters Art Gallery and Charlotte's Mint Museum. Edwards, who was the curator of the show, is an Islamic art historian by training. She explains that for this show she defined the Orient as it was most often conceived in the late nineteenth century: the accessible but still distant regions bordering the Mediterranean Sea, including the Levant (referring to the countries bordering the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, and to the sun rising in the east) and North Africa. She also decided to concentrate on the theme of the show rather than on one medium, so this is not a definitive study of Orientalist painting; rather, she explores several aspects of the "Oriental" phenomenon in American art and popular culture. The book is much more interesting because of this. One of the paintings included is among my most favorite, Fumée d'ambre gris by John Singer Sargent, to my mind one of the top ten paintings in the entire collection of Clark Institute.

Orientalism by Edward Said (Pantheon, 1978). Said's book was controversial when it first appeared—his thesis was that the word "Orientalism" had become derogatory, shaped by European colonialist attitudes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—but it has become a landmark scholarly work. He writes, "much of the personal investment in this study derives from my awareness of being an 'Oriental' as a child growing up in two British colonies. All of my education, in those colonies (Palestine and Egypt) and in the United States, has been Western, and yet that deep early awareness has persisted. In many ways my study of Orientalism has been an attempt to inventory the traces upon me, the Oriental subject, of the culture whose domination has been so powerful a factor in the life of all Orientals." I especially admire the chapter entitled "The Scope of Orientalism," and I think it should be required reading for anyone visiting any Muslim country in the world. I like the way Said qualifies the phrase, "The East is a career," by Benjamin Disraeli: "When Disraeli said in his novel Tancred that the East was a career, he meant that to be interested in the East was something bright young Westerners would find to be an all-consuming passion; he should not be interpreted as saying that the East was only a career for Westerners."

The Orientalists: Painter-Travellers by Lynne Thornton (ACR PocheCouleur, Paris 1994). According to Thornton, "There was no school of Orientalist painting; the pictures were linked thematically rather than stylistically." Some of the painter-travelers featured in this little book—appropriately part of the PocheCouleur series as it's small enough to fit in a pocket (poche)—include Leon Belly, Maurice Bompard, Frederick Arthur Bridgman (born in America but lived in France), Frank Dillon, Eugène Flandin, Mariano Fortuny y Marsal, Eugène Fromentin, Jeon-Léon Gérôme, Edward Lear, David Roberts, and Félix Ziem.

Picturing the Middle East: A Hundred Years of European Orientalism, with contributions by Gerald Ackerman, Julia Ballerini, Eric Zafran, Ilene Susan Fort, Mary Harper, and James Thompson (published on the occasion of the exhibit of the same name at the Dahesh Museum, New York, October 1995–January 1996). The scope of this work is larger than the Near East but the six essays are all enlightening, even if they're aren't always specific to Turkey. Two are devoted to two "undisputed masterpieces of the nineteenth century": Delacroix's "Women of Algiers in Their Apartment" and Ingres's "The Turkish Bath," both in the Louvre. Gerald Ackerman's essay, "Why Some Orientalists Traveled to the East: Some Sobering Statistics" includes this refreshing refrain: "Instead of endowing painters with a set of insidious colonialist or imperialist motives, one should acknowledge their sympathy and love for the lands and peoples they visited, and recognize that their limited understanding was gained through sincere effort despite great cultural differences. Many worked for the preservation of these cultures, their arts, and their monuments. Some even used the integrity of native crafts as a model for reviving the craft tradition of the West. These young men and women were, of course, saddled with both naivete and some insurmountable prejudices, but for the most part their hearts were in the right place. One should not mistake attitudes for motives."

Osman Hamdi Bey

Osman Hamdi (1842 – 1910) was one of the more interesting personalities in Ottoman Turkey. He was the son of a former grand vizier and studied law in Istanbul and Paris. But his interest in painting was far greater than in law, and he trained under the French Orientalist painters Jeon-Léon Gérôme and Gustave Bolanger. Hamdi stayed in Paris for nine years, marrying a French woman and returning to Istanbul in 1869, along with their two children. He exhibited three paintings at the 1867 Paris Exposition Universelle, though none apparently have survived. Upon his return to Turkey, Hamdi was posted to Baghdad as part of the administrative team of Midhat Pasha, later to become a reformer of the Tanzimat (see entry in the book). Back in Istanbul during the 1870s he was a member of the Ottoman bureaucracy, and it was when he was appointed director of the Imperial Museum in 1881 that the most productive period of his life began.

Hamdi not only developed the museum but rewrote the antiquities laws and created nationally sponsored archaeological expeditions. In 1884, he oversaw new regulations prohibiting historical artifacts from being smuggled out of the country and conducted the first scientific archaeological excavations by a Turkish team. One dig, in Sidon, revealed the Alexander Sarcophagus; to house this and other finds he founded the Istanbul Archaeology Museum and served as its director. Hamdi's most famous painting, The Tortoise Trainer, is one I love—it depicts tortoises walking with candles on their shells during the Tulip Era in the eighteenth century—and it broke a record in Turkey by being sold for $3.5 million in December 2004. The painting was acquired by the Suna and İnan Kıraç Foundation and is in the collection of the excellent Pera Museum. Hamdi's home, in the village of Eskihisar, is a short ride from Istanbul and was restored in 1982. Today it is open to visitors as the Osman Hamdi Bey Museum, (262) 655.63.48.


I hadn't associated Istanbul with pickles until I read about Asri Turşucusu, the oldest pickle producer in the city, in StyleCity: Istanbul. I'm a fan of real, old-fashioned pickles like those found at Guss' Pickles in New York . . . and at Asri Turşucusu in Istanbul. But even if you're not a pickle fan, it's hard not to be impressed by the vast assortment at Asri: there are approximately 25 different kinds, and most of them are piled up in the front window (the window alone is worth a journey to see). Asri's owner, Vahdettin Çelikli, who founded the company in 1938, is in his nineties, and according to the StyleCity guide, he recently passed on his secret formula to some younger family members. Food writer John Willoughby was taken to Asri by an Istanbul friend, and he wrote about it on (January 12, 2007). He explains that most of the pickle shops in Istanbul date back to the 1930s because the cooks who'd been in the service of wealthy Ottoman officials were losing their jobs, so some became itinerant picklers, "going from house to house of the new rich, staying a week or so at each one and making enough pickles, preserves, and tomato pastes for the rest of the year." Others, like Asri, opened a shop, much to pickle lovers' good fortune. Ağa Hamamı Caddesi 29/A, Cihangir / (212) 244.4724.

Rumeli Hisarı

In 1451, Mehmet the Conqueror made a significant discovery: it was impossible to be in a dominant position if he could not cross from one continent to the other safely. At the time, the Dardanelles were blocked with Italian ships; there was already an Ottoman fortress, Anadolu Hisarı (Anatolian Castle), built by his grandfather Beyezit in 1395, on the Asian shore. It was clear he needed to control the Bosphorus, and he needed to cut off the supply of grain being shipped from the Black Sea Greek colonies to Constantinople as well as the customs revenues. So he decided to construct a second fortress on the European side, on land that belonged to the Byzantines, to secure control of the straits so that the "path of the vessels of the infidels may be blocked," according to Roger Crowley in 1453. On August 31, 1452, the new fortress was complete, only four and a half months after the first stone was laid. (Crowley notes that "Mehmet's ability to coordinate and complete extraordinary projects at breakneck speed was continually to dumbfound his opponents in the months ahead.")

The Ottomans called the fortress Bogaz Kesen, the Cutter of the Straits or the Throat Cutter, as it commanded the narrowest stretch of the Bosphorus, where the current is at its strongest and most treacherous. It was the largest fortification the Ottomans ever built, and it would come to be known as Rumeli Hisari, the European Castle. It's also one of the most memorable sites to see along a Bosphorus cruise. (In 1453 there is a great drawing of a recreation of the castle, which was described as huge, "not like a fortress, more like a small town.")

Silk Road

The Silk Road was a collection of trade routes, on land and by sea, that existed from the second century BC through the late nineteenth century. The routes wound their way from Japan and China in East Asia, across Central Asia, south to India, west across Iran, to the Near East on the Mediterranean, which meant Istanbul and Venice. Many commodities were traded along this route, but it was silk that was considered the most sought-after item. The name "Silk Road" was coined by the nineteenth century German explorer Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen. Ann Mah, in Condé Nast Traveler (October 2007) stated that "the road was so long and so brutal that goods were handed off at various points from one trader to the next (in effect the world's longest and most ambitious relay race)."

Depending on a northerly or southerly route through Anatolia, there were twenty-nine cities in all that were official Silk Road stops, and approximately two hundred caravansaries. Aside from providing service to travelers as an inn, caravansaries were safe places where merchants could also expect to find food and shelter for their camels. Regardless of their religion, language, or race, all travelers were catered to for three days in a caravansary. Built at a distance of thirty to forty kilometers from one another (or about eight to ten hours on foot), caravansaries were also quite beautiful architecturally, and some fine examples still exist.

Some great reads about this legendary route are When Asia Was the World by Stewart Gordon (Da Capo Press, 2007); The Taste of Conquest: the Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice by Michael Krondl (Ballantine, 2007, focusing on Venice, Lisbon, and Amsterdam); and Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu by Laurence Bergreen (Knopf, 2007). This last is obviously not devoted to the Silk Road per se, but Bergreen relates the crucial incident in AD 550 when two Nestorian monks appeared at Justinian I's court with silkworm eggs concealed in their hollow bamboo walking sticks. "In short order, the eggs hatched worms, the worms spun their cocoons, and Bombyx mori had come to the Byzantine Empire, bringing silk with it. Emulating China, the Byzantine Empire attempted to monopolize the production of its silk, and to retain control over the secrets of sericulture. . . . During the Second Crusade (1144-1149), two thousand silk weavers had migrated from Constantinople to Europe, and they disseminated trade secrets the Chinese had guarded for millennia."

A unique related book to read is Along the Silk Road by Yo-Yo Ma and edited by Elizabeth ten Grotenhuis (University of Washington Press, 2002). Cellist Yo-Yo Ma initiated the Silk Road Project, a nonprofit foundation devoted to the living arts of the peoples of historical Silk Road lands. The project seeks to "increase awareness among both participants and audiences of the variety and richness of unfamiliar traditions and the importance of understanding viewpoints different from one's own." This book features chapters contributed by various writers who are specialists in particular fields, such as archaeology, photography, and film, but to me the most fascinating chapter is the first one, a conversation with Yo-Yo Ma and Theodore Levin, curatorial director of the project and associate professor of music at Dartmouth. Yo-Yo Ma has referred to the Silk Road as "the Internet of antiquity," and there is no better modern metaphor for the Silk Road. There are in fact three new "Roads" across Asia right now: B2B (business-to-business), B2C (business-to-consumer), and C2C (consumer-to-consumer) as described in this passage from the book: "Somewhere in the Turkish highlands this summer, a camper will bed for the night with a Chinese-made tent and sleeping bag, courtesy of a Turkish sporting goods wholesaler who bought hundreds over the Internet from a Chinese company earlier this year. It is the kind of transaction that many people hope is the beginning of a revolution for China's formidable economy." Milo Cleveland Beach, former director of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, gently reminds us that "with the great developments in communication promised for the twenty-first century, we must all of us ensure that no peoples on this planet are involuntarily isolated either from other peoples or from awareness of and pride in their own cultural identities." The accompanying photographs in this fascinating volume are beautiful and there is a good bibliography for further reading.


I love Turkish tombstones, with the turbans atop those for men and floral designs adorning on those for women. I think they are beautiful works of art in their own right. In Stamboul Sketches, John Freely notes that the tombstones typically bear inscriptions that tell us something about the deceased, such as the dates of birth and death and the circumstances of the person's life. But few of these are as gloomy as we might expect. Rather, many are cheerful—funny even. Freely relates that a scholar of Turkish letters, Cevat Şakir Kabaağac (the Fisherman of Halicarnassus) collected funerary inscriptions, and here are some he referred to as Laughing Tombstones: "Stopping his ears with his fingers, judge Mehmet hied off from this beautiful world, leaving his wife's cackling and his mother-in-law's gabbling"; "I could have died as well without a doctor than with the quack that friends set upon me"; and, on a wayside tomb, "Oh passerby, spare me your prayers, but please don't steal my tombstone!"

Whirling Dervishes

Stephen Kinzer, in Crescent & Star, says of the dervishes that "they are remarkable as the only sect that was not officially closed down by Atatürk's republicans in 1925. Atatürk approved of the mevlevi dervish approach to God as being 'an expression of Turkish genius' that reclaimed Islam from what he saw as hide-bound, backward Arab tradition. . . . Nevertheless, Atatürk confiscated their property along with that of all other sects. Even now, the ministry of culture only allows one elite chapter of the mevlevis to rent back their dervish monastery in Istanbul once a week to stage a ceremony as a 'touristic attraction.'"

The Mevlana Sufi order is a leading mystical brotherhood of Islam founded by Rumi, whose full name—Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi—stands for "love and ecstatic flight into the infinite." Rumi was born in 1207 in present day Afghanistan (then a part of Persia) to a family of theologians. The family fled the Mongol invasion and eventually settled in Konya, which was at that time part of the Seljuk Empire. By the time Rumi was twenty-four years old, he was already an accomplished religious scholar. He wrote a six-volume masterwork called the Masnavi, which is a mix of fables, scenes from daily life, Koranic verses, and metaphysics. Rumi believed in the use of music, poetry, and dancing as a path to God, and for him, music helped followers to focus their whole being on the divine; he believed in doing this so intensely that the soul was both destroyed and resurrected. From this passionate belief the practice of whirling dervishes developed into a ritual form. Mevlevi refers to the whirling dervishes and the sema is the dervishes' sacred "turning" dance. Following Rumi's death, his followers and his son Sultan Walad founded the Mawlawiyah Sufi Order, also known as the Order of the Whirling Dervishes. Today his shrine is a place of pilgrimage.

According to Shahram Shiva, a performance poet, actor, and author born into a Persian Jewish family in Iran and known for his Rumi concerts, one reason for Rumi's popularity is that "Rumi is able to verbalize the highly personal and often confusing world of personal/spiritual growth and mysticism in a very forward and direct fashion. He does not offend anyone, and he includes everyone. The world of Rumi is neither exclusively the world of a Sufi, nor the world of a Hindu, nor a Jew, nor a Christian; it is the highest state of a human being—a fully evolved human. A complete human is not bound by cultural limitations; he touches every one of us. Today Rumi's poems can be heard in churches, synagogues, Zen monasteries, as well as in the downtown New York art/performance/music scene."

A few books to read to learn more include The Essential Rumi (HarperOne, 1997), Rumi: Selected Poems (Penguin Classics, 2004), A Year with Rumi: Daily Readings (HarperOne, 2006), Journeys into the Music and Silence of the Heart (HarperOne, 2007) all translated by Coleman Barks, and The Love Poems of Rumi (Deepak Chopra, Harmony, 1998). The Mevlana Education and Culture Society—which takes Rumi's teaching "Seem as you are or be as you seem" as its guiding principle—is also a good resource: There are several different mevlevi groups that whirl on different days of the week in Istanbul. Tom Brosnahan's website,, details them and includes information on how to buy tickets.

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