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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The historic treasures of Mardin in three days

Continuing our auto tour of Upper Mesopotamia, the next stops were Midyat, Mardin, and Dara, all in the Turkish province of Mardin. I’d been wanting to visit the city of Mardin for years.  It’s some travellers’ favourite place in Turkey.  Dara’s an old Roman city with an extensive necropolis and incredible cisterns, but the real jewel of the area is Midyat.

Ferda, Megan, my parents, and I learned about the Syriac Orthodox Church, met Syriac villagers and visiting members of the diaspora, and learned about Syriac traditions as they’re still practised in Turkey.  They’re still using the Syriac language, something similar to the more widely known Aramaic, the language of Palestine during Jesus’ time.  Syriacs are teaching the language within the community, but it’s not taught at Turkish public schools.  I heard the language spoken in at least one of the villages we visited (Altıntaş).  We also saw the Syriac prayer book and bible which use the Syriac language and script.  And of course we visited Syriac churches and monasteries that must be among the oldest Christian buildings in the world.

We drove into Midyat in late afternoon and happened upon this Syriac church while trying to find our hotel:

This might be the Martşmuni Kilisesi, anyone know? by bryandkeith on flickr

The priest there was quite talkative, gave Ferda a bible (in Turkish), and explained to her how Alevis aren’t really Muslims since they don’t follow Mohammed’s example literally (a very good thing in his opinion).  We also learned that it was the Syriacs’ annual 50-day fasting time.  They don’t eat any meat during that time, and they don’t eat at all after the evening meal until noon the following day.

Around the corner we found our hotel, everyone’s favourite of our week, complete with coffee, Syriac wine (of course), and a good breakfast.
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A couple old cities on the Tigris: Diyarbakır and Hasankeyf

Kind of similar to last year’s week-long driving trip west of Antalya with Ferda and my parents, I arranged another week-long auto tour starting and ending in Diyarbakır.  This year Megan joined us as well.  Welcome to Mesopotamia.

DSCN8536_copy3 by bryandkeith on flickr

Except maybe for Kurdish nationalists, Diyarbakır isn’t anyone’s favourite place in Turkey.  It’s the de facto capital of Kurdish Turkey, but even Ferda’s best friend who is Kurdish and from Diyarbakır suggested skipping the city altogether in favour of more time in Mardin, Şanlıurfa, and Gaziantep.  However, Diyarbakır is well-connected with flights and has plenty of rental car options so that’s where the five of us met.

I was excited to see the city walls that almost entirely surround Diyarbakır, the second longest wall in the world after the Great Wall of China.
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