The Persia-born Rumi — who was living in Konya, 700 years ago, the capital of the Turkish Seljuk Empire — told his followers, “There are many roads which lead to God. I have chosen the one of dance and music.” Last Saturday night I watched members of this Suffi sect move into transcendence.
As a teenager in Australia I had watched Ron Fricke’s documentary Baraka. Baraka is a sufi term meaning blessing, essence or breath. His images of the world, from Jerusalem to Kenya, to Bali to France, and to Turkey, had inspired me and stoked my sense of wanderlust. One image I always remember is the upwards turned hand of a whirling dervish, rotating with a sense of calm and praise among the spinning chaos of life. Being at a dervish ceremony myself in the home of Rumi himself reminded me of this impression from many years ago.
But I had another reason to go to the conservative city of Konya in central Turkey: Çatalhöyük.
Çatalhöyük, the first city in the world. It is on a mound about 40 minutes drive out of Konya, on a mound amongst agricultural fields. There is a small museum attached, a little ramshackle. 9000 years ago 8000 or so people lived in the mud brick houses I could see partly exposed at the site. They buried their dead under the house floors to keep them close. They painted animals that they hunted on their walls in two dimensional red ochre paintings. The rooms were simple and entered through holes in the ceiling and sat cheek by jowl to the house next door. Walking around the ruins of this city, exposed by archeologists in recent decades (there is a large covering structure which keeps the rain off the site), I tried to imagine meeting one of these long dead people in the marshy, biodiverse surrounding landscape, and being invited through sign language or perhaps grunting communication back to the city. Walking there and seeing so many people going about their lives. But then the imagination fails. What did they think? What did their language sound like? What was their view of the universe like? Who did they worship? How did they court the opposite sex? What kind of hairstyles did they have?
Today people write science fiction novels and set films in imagined future times, but why do they bother when we have such incredible gaps in human understanding of another lifeworld here on earth in our own archeological record? As I stood their looking at the ruined mudbrick walls and trying to fathom what these people thought and felt a few metres from where I stood, 9000 years ago, I met a blank wall. We can’t know.
Below is a reproduction of what one of the houses looked like inside.
On the other hand, we can guess. One feels as if these were hunter gatherers, who happened to live in built structures. Here I get an inkling that this society and this culture was close to our hunter gatherer heritage, but that they had simultaneously added the first tentative steps towards urban life and agriculture to their repertoire. One important thing about this city was that everyone seems to have been equal – not like seventeenth century Rome with its Palazzo Collona while there were peasants crouching in the ruins, or the high ceilinged domus of Pompeii, while most ancient Romans lived in crowded insula (apartment blocks). Here you didn’t show off by having a mansion while the rest crowded in meagre shanties – rather everyone was on equal footings architecturally.
It was humbling to have stood at the start of the journey from living in the wild natural world, to living in a city, and so recently walked through the apotheosis of the City, the Caput Mundi, Rome. From tentative beginnings to lavish fulfillments.
From Italy to Turkey, and to the centre. After our walk up Pigeon Valley in late afternoon light I felt wonderful and was very happy to be in Eastern Anatolia. The first few moments in a special place can never quite be repeated. My first few moments walking up Pigeon Valley in Cappadocia that recent afternoon in early October light and coolness, looking around at the stone towers catching the mellow sun, with their chiselled rooms and doors and windows, and dovecotes, and the winding sandy path among them, I felt like I was walking in a barely plausible and otherworldly land, I felt like I was a character in a strange film, I felt lifted up and exhilarated by the landscape around me like I have rarely felt in my life. Such a wonderful place, such a blessing to be there. Our guest house had a welcoming dog and cat, and errant and wild garden, travertine pavers and bathrooms and arched stone verandah.
The previous day sleep deprivation and too many crowds had made me want to go home. Travel can be horrendous, and then the next day travel can lift you up and make you deeply satisfied that you booked your aeroplane tickets.
The next morning morning I did one of the best walks of my life. It was down a tributary of the Rose Valley to the east of Goreme. We walked up a road for some time, stopping for tea at a little tent outside a thousand year old rock cut church where we let the silence fall sweetly on our ears. Later we walked on and turned left onto a dirt track, then onto a goat path, then we began a long and slippery decent into the gulley. The white crumbly, dusty path was clearly a path for water to fall down during wetter times of year, not an official path. It was so steep it required you to stem one leg to the left and right bank of the furrow of a path to stop yourself from falling face first down the slope.
When we got to the bottom we wound our way down the canyon, with green trees in leaf, standing straight and tall, against the white and skin toned erosion furrows of the gulley higher up. Here and there we could see caves cut into the stone, high up on sheer rock faces. Sometimes birds calling. Otherwise total silence. The path wound on, revealing surprise river tunnels, five metres tall at times, through which we walked enchanted. We both agreed this was one of the most satisfying walks we had ever done in our lives. Still twenty degree air, clear sunlight, no other humans to be seen, ancient human traces left on the stone, geological cathedrals of space and shadow coming into view around every bend of the canyon… Pure pleasure.
The next morning we took a taxi out to Zelve, an ancient Christian community’s series of cave dwellings in a precipitous valley south of Goreme. We walked without anyone else around for over an hour. The bird songs echoed off the tall stone walls. I climbed up, hand hold over hand hold, into caves and up stairs, and turned and looked over the valley. The hand holds everywhere are intentionally carved to shape a human hand and as you use them you get a kind of somatic knowledge of history that is impossible if you were to sit at home and read a book or look at a photo. You are moving yourself through space in the same pattern as a man or woman 1200 years ago into the same carved stone room or church or chamber. Inside an ancient Christian church, complete with apse, alter, nave and side aisles, even with separate baptistry, I stood and contemplated a carved cross on the stone wall as the light raked across it from a nearby window.
Hand hold over ancient hand hold.
People lived in these caves until the early 1950s. That morning in the valley of Zelve, before many tourists has arrived, under a blue sky, with such a still and baited atmosphere in the air, was magical. Standing inside a stone chamber and looking out through the door way, carved into the cliff face, at the stone dwellings on the vertical face of the valley wall opposite, with some green shrubs and trees below, I felt like I had come to one of the most beautiful places I had ever visited. High, precipitous, uncanny, and full of faint echoes of human lives. The place is almost like being in Mesa Verde in south-west America without all the tourists and park rangers and tarmac and signage. Often in developed countries you feel distant from archeology with someone popping up if you even stood on an old stone and telling you to get down. Here there are few barriers to experiencing the past directly and few things to stop you from venturing forth, taking your safety into your own hands rather than being shut out of places by fences.
The town of Goreme where I stayed is like a wild west town with its free ranging dogs, its dirt roads, its make shift atmosphere, its on the take entrepreneurs, much more so than any town feels today in the United States where the term ‘wild west’ originates. Zelve is just far enough out of this town that the tourist numbers are low – and it was easy to go in the morning when there were only about three other people in the entire valley (and not particularly early by any means). The walk down the winding canyon towards Rose valley, and the walk through Zelve the next day morning, were two of my greatest travel experiences, up there with my first moments in Ta Prohm in Ankor, Cambodia, and an evening without tourists up in a valley of Petra in Jordan. Transcendent, subtle, inspiring awe and grace in its colours and shapes and sounds in the heart and the eye.
Upon arriving in Venice and boarding a ferry down the Grand Canal I felt simultaneously excited and entranced by the place, and like there was a sheet of plate glass between me and it. This second sense was to do with its unreality – this was a place that has been seen too many times in images so that when you get there you scratch your head and think, can this be real?
The above image is one of the carved capitals along the Doge’s Palace. Its the kind of detail that art critic John Ruskin would have sat on a stool in front of drawn in pencil when he came here in the nineteenth century. A good practice of seeing.
Henry James was complaining about all the American voices he could here in the street below his hotel window in the late nineteenth century, and a long list of people have complained about crowds of tourists in this city since. I will join that long list. Although I won’t include photos of the masses of humans that amble and walk in Venice in this post-Covid lockdown travel boom, I can tell you that they are overwhelming. They are enough to make you want to not come to Venice.
In order to make the best of this situation I stayed over near Arsenale, the old ship building area of the city. In some of the backstreets and canals here it is entirely local people. Looking up I admired this local’s balcony railing.
And yet you will at some point want to go to the heart of Venice. If you do so early in the morning you can walk into St Mark’s square and the Piazzetta and experience what Napoleon once called ‘the drawing room of Europe’ in peace.
What I didn’t fully know until I was in Venice is that Venice isn’t an old town on a lagoon, it is a once mighty capital city on a vast marshland and lagoon. Most other urban spaces that are intimate with the sea are towns – where I grew up in Fremantle for example. However this was and still is a City. I don’t always like cities, and usually prefer smaller places that are more connected with the natural world, but again, if you’re interested in history you will be interested in Venice.
The long history of consumerism in Western civilisation can be given many starting dates. One you could argue for would be all of the luxury items traded by Venetian ships, and brought through this city. This detail comes from inside the Doge’s Palace. It is here that you get a real sense of the majesty of La Serenissima. The Republic of Venice used to be known as La Serenissima, being a sovereign republic that lasted for 1100 years. From 697 AD until Napoleon forced the last Doge to take off his robe in 1797 Venice was important, and for much of that time was a major force in global geopolitics.
Looking out of a window in the Doge’s Palace I saw the quayside below… All of this wealth and all of this architecture came from trade, from early capitalism. Today it comes from tourism, but the numbers of locals are dropping as they can’t afford to live on the island.
The powerhouse that was Venice was ruled by not so much the Doge himself, as the Maggior Consiglio, composed of 480 members taken from patrician families. In a painting I saw upstairs in the palace you see them process through the along the downstairs loggia in their long scarlet robes of state. See below.
Walking in the Ducal Palace that morning I reflected on how the art and sculpture of this 500 year old building teaches the lesson to all those who would look that the glorification of the individual must never take place, but rather the glorification of St Marks Lion, the Venetian Republic, must shine forth beyond all individuals, even the Doge himself. Venice had a 1000 years of being the Serenissima, and then Napoleon burnt the Golden Books in which the Doge’s lineages were recorded and everything changed. But although Venice has lessons in paint and stone to teach us about not letting strongmen dictators take power and rule unilaterally and make a cult of their personalities, Venice does not have lessons on how to run the world beyond this. To be a member of the ruling patricians you had to have the right family, so it was nothing to do with ability, skill or talent. In other words this great Republic was not a meritocracy.
The Venetian republic had the council of ten, its own private version of the CIA. Transgress and you could be tortured or locked up. There is a covered walkway to the prison next door. Byron visited and called this walkway the ‘Bridge of Sighs’ as you would sigh when seeing your last glimpse of freedom through the stone work – and so I like many people took a photo of what this last glimpse may have been.
When waiting to enter the Doge’s Palace I walked over to the corner of St Mark’s Basilica to look at the porphyry sculpture made around 300AD of the four Roman emperors, the Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs. This was taken as spoilia, as spoils, from Constantinople long after it was carved and placed here, as part of a Venetian religious building. But for me personally I take it as a symbol of power in union, reminding me that to be strong as humans we need to come together with others, in bonds of affection.
One of the most beautifully carved doors I have seen was upstairs in the Doge’s Palace…
I won’t include a photograph of it here, but to really understand Venice you must visit the largest room in the Ducal Palace. Walk into the room of the major council, one of the largest rooms I have ever walked into (and I have been to places like Versailles and Blenheim Palace) in my life, and gasp at the grandeur of the space and then really comprehend how major a force in global geopolitics Venice was five hundred years ago.
It isn’t often that you wake up and look out of the window to see a fully rigged, three-masted, 80 metre sailing ship bobbing outside. Amerigo Vespucci was there one morning – she is a training ship for the Italian navy, almost a century old.
Lapped by water, colourful and atmospherically dilapidated facades, and no sound of cars, no need to be vigilant about cars whizzing by, coloured marbles, Gothic tracery in stone… Drinking a beer by the quayside as the sun sets behind Il Lido you can still enjoy Venice.
Beautiful doors continue to fascinate me, and ones that have been entered after stepping out of gondolas are even better.
The colours of the facades are one of the pleasures of Italy.
One of the wealthiest palazzos in the background, on the Grand Canal.
The lion of St Mark guards the entrance to Arsenale, the ship yards.
One of the most over-photographed perspectives in Venice – but here it is again…
A more typical back street of a local neighbourhood.
Even the nineteenth century street lamps are charming.
Below aqua alta, high water, in a palazzo.
And strolling in the back streets and along the canals.
The former British colonies are often not architectural gems – think of Penang in Malaysia for example, compared to what the French did in Hanoi’s French Quarter or the Spanish in Havana. Although Britain has had some great architects and works of architecture, many of its former colonies could have been designed with more in the way of great public squares, churches and quayside walks. In Fremantle we can’t even stroll much along our quaysides as for many decades the entire port has been hermetically sealed from its inhabitants by large fences which stop stowaways and criminals from making contact with the cargo carriers it serves. Here in Venice the Cruise ships were banned from the lagoon in 2021, thank god. And you can stroll along the lagoon and look at the beautiful facades ringing it up to the entrance to the Grand Canal with the dome of Santa Maria Salute in the centre, and feel like you are on the liminal edge of commerce for centuries past (even if all it is selling now is its past and its charm). What a difference all of this makes.