Climbing friends in Bursa

We had an early flight from Esfahan and Istanbul, and there I had to say goodbye to my parents and Megan.  Megan and I had spent almost every day together for six weeks so it was a big change to have her leave.  We had an emotional goodbye before their 13-hour flight to Los Angeles.

I made my way to the bus station for the four-hour trip to Bursa.  Bursa’s really not that far from Istanbul (about 80 km as the crow flies), but getting out of the city takes over an hour.  Then the bus waits for a ferry across the Marmara Sea, and the ferry itself is rather slow compared to typical highway driving.

Gülşah gave me a warm welcome at the Bursa bus station.  Indeed, welcome to Turkey.  Ferda and I had met Gülşah, her fiancé Mehmet, and Mehmet’s brother, Selman, climbing in Olimpos last year.  We enjoyed spending time with them in Olimpos and then a few days later they came to Antalya for a day of climbing in Geyikbayırı before going back to Bursa.

My main reason to go to Bursa immediately after Iran was to catch one of the last days of Yüksel’s beautiful artwork exhibition that was on display at the Merinos Textile Museum.  Conveniently that’s exactly where Mehmet works, and Mehmet and Gülşah had invited me numerous times to Bursa.  Selman, who’s divorced, and Mehmet live with their parents.  That’s where I stayed, and their mother was super-welcoming to me (the father was recovering from an operation at the time).  Gülşah, who’s divorced and has a child, also lives with her parents.  From the US perspective it seems strange that people in this stage of life live with their parents, but it’s not uncommon in Turkey for people to move back in with their parents after they get divorced.

DSCN0381 by bryandkeith on flickr
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Our last stop in Iran: Esfahan

Over 20 years ago I visited India for the first time.  Agra was on our itinerary because, well, it was nearby and our guidebook probably recommended a good place to stay.  Of course we visited the Taj Mahal.  We also visited the Red Fort, took a rickshaw ride, and ate lots of naan.  It’s not like I went to India to see the Taj Mahal.

But one could.  The Taj Mahal was the simply most beautiful building I had ever seen.  And it still is.  After that visit, I researched and read, learned that the Taj Mahal is a fine example of Persian architecture and that if you want to see anything similar or comparable, you must go to Samarkand or Esfahan.  Both cities have been on my list of places to visit ever since.

The Taj Mahal can well be appreciated from the Persian garden at the front of the building.  In Iran, however, it seems that most of the treasures and beauty are hidden — behind walls and veils.  For years visitors came to Esfahan to admire the public mosque, Shah Mosque.  The real treasure it turns out was just a couple hundred meters away at the Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque, a private place of worship, reserved for the Persian royalty.  According to our guide Ali, Dr. Arthur Pope, whose tomb we visited in Esfahan, spent years cataloguing Persian architecture in an epic multi-volume tome and declared the dome of the Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque in Esfahan to be the pinnacle of Persian Islamic architecture.  Or something like that.

DSCN0053 by bryandkeith on flickr

The dome is stunning.  The tile work designs are all made with individual small pieces of tile.  It’s simply mind-boggling.
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Nowruz with thousands of Iranian tourists

For our Iran tour my parents chose to go with Stanford Travel who they had traveled with before.  Stanford leads heaps of tours, usually accompanied by a Stanford professor, who gives lectures during the tour.  In our case Ed taught us a bit about Persian history and about how Persian culture has influenced European culture.  During one lecture Ed argued that the European courtly love tradition came from Persia via Muslim Andalucia.  He cited an 11th century Sufi poet, one Ibn al-Arabi, who was born in Sevilla.  Influenced by the Persian mystic Al-Hallaj, Al-Arabi wrote erotic love poems under the guise of an intense yearning for god.  Troubadours, in turn, took these poems to Provence, and so it goes.

Stanford scheduled this year’s Iran tour during the Iranian New Year, Nowruz, Iran’s biggest holiday.  As is obvious every year in Turkey, Iranians love to travel during that time.  There are more Iranians in Antalya during Nowruz, and the hotels in Erzurum were full of Iranians when I was there during Nowruz last year.  I was curious what special events Stanford had scheduled for us during Nowruz.  Oddly, nothing.  It even seemed as if they didn’t realize that we were coming to Iran during the country’s most crowded time for traveling.  Certain sites on our itinerary were closed because of the holiday and others, especially Shiraz and the nearby ancient sites of Persepolis, Pasargad, and Naqsh-e Rustam, were absurdly crowded.

We made the best of the crowds and enjoyed the interactions with curious and knowledgeable Iranians who were generally excited to hear that we were from the US.  I met Iranians from all corners of the country — Tehran, Tabriz, Bandar Abbas, the Caspian Sea, west near the border with Iraq, north near the border with Turkmenistan, and other places that I had never heard of.  One young man gushed to me about the nature around Kermanshah, making me want to go there during my next visit.  I’d also love to visit NW Iran where you can see Armenian relics in the mountains and Azeri is widely spoken.  It is, of course, a large country, but like in Turkey, by picking a small area, it seems there could be good opportunities for bicycle touring.

DSCN9927 by bryandkeith on flickr

Nowruz is a secular holiday, pagan we might even say.  It’s the spring equinox that marks the beginning of the year in the Islamic Republic.  After the crowds, the most noticeable tradition is the Nowruz Haft Sin tables, which at a minimum are supposed to offer seven things that start with the letter s (in Persian/Farsi).  Some of these may be garlic, apples, coins, grass, fish, a mirror, dates, flowers.  In 11 days I took photos of 24 different Haft Sin tables.
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Flying around Iran — Tehran and Kerman

Diyarkbakır and Hasankeyf.  Mardin and Midyat.  Şanlıurfa and İstanbul.  I did a lot of touring in March.  Two more cities, this time in Iran.  Tehran and Kerman.  Not only was being in Iran different but being on a tour was different for me.  I’m used to going wherever I want, doing whatever seems interesting at the moment.  Sometimes with a tour you have far too little time in a place that seems particularly fun and interesting (like the Grand Bazaar in Kerman) and sometimes you wonder why you even bothered stopping (like the Cinema Museum in Tehran).  Overall, I adjusted to being with a group and on a tour more easily than I expected.

DSCN9607 by bryandkeith on flickr
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Şanlıurfa, İstanbul, and the homogenization of Turkey

The catalyst for this SE Turkey driving tour was that my parents were coming to Turkey to join an Iran tour in Istanbul.  So after three days in Şanlıurfa, we were off for a few days in Istanbul.  My Dad also invited Megan and me on the Iran tour, something the three of us had been looking forward to for over a year.  My Mom, however, viewed Iran with a little more trepidation than we did, probably thinking something like, “why does Dennis take me to Pakistan and Jordan when other people go to Grand Cayman or Paris?”  But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.  I am anxious to write about our incredible experiences in Iran, but first Şanlıurfa (aka Urfa) and İstanbul.

In Urfa a not very old Syriac Church (constructed in 1861) was turned into a cultural center (Vali Kemalettin Gazezoğlu Kültür Merkezi). The Grand Mosque of Urfa (Ulu Camii) uses a Christian church’s bell tower as its minaret.  Urfa’s Armenian Church of the 12 Apostles was turned into Fırfırlı Mosque in 1956, and the nearby Saint John Armenian Cathedral is now the Selahaddin Eyyubi Mosque.  In Istanbul the Fethiye Müzesi preserves the mosaics of an old church, later used as a mosque, and of course the story is the same for the more famous Aya Soyfa.  Now, of course, everything is Turkish, and it’s strange to think that both these cities — Şanlıurfa and İstanbul — were more cosmopolitan 150 years ago than they are now.  Globalization and relatively cheap travel made many of the world’s large cities cosmopolitan during the 20th century, but in Turkey, historically a major crossroads, the opposite happened in the last century.

DSCN9100 by bryandkeith on flickr
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