thomas m wilson


October 15th, 2022

The image above is what you expect from Istanbul. Its the terminus for the old Orient Express and the bridge from Europe to Asia.

The tourist numbers – seen in the queue to get into Topkali Palace below – are also part of the scene in 2022 post-Covid lockdowns.

But as usual I will follow Walt Whitman in this blog: “Keep your face always toward the sun and the shadows will fall behind you.” In other words I won’t be writing much about the downsides of travel, such as walking down a street with restaurants, even outside the tourists areas of Istanbul (and I have certainly gone far beyond them) and getting solicited by an unsmiling tout with an almost robotic tone of voice… and then immediately the exact same thing happening with the next young man outside of his establishment. Or laying in bed at at 6am and hearing the call to prayer, amplified in a dirge-like wail, dropping in descending tones, and often conflicting with another call to prayer coming from another nearby mosque.

A carved capital from inside Hagia Sophia. I entered Hagia Sophia early one morning, and went to the far right to find a corner of the space and sit down away from the crowds by myself with stillness and quiet. I was able to sink into the thick carpet and lean against the 1500 year old green marble panelled wall, and contemplate the vast dome of Justinian and the beautiful carved capitals above the marble columns and pilasters.  It felt so good to just lean against the wall and be still and quiet out of the vast noisy crowds that churn along the streets of Istanbul.  As this really is a city of noise and crowding – so many million people spread out in low and high rises. I relished the space to just be here and sense the elements of the architecture and the emptiness high above me, felt and sensed by members of the Roman empire one thousand five hundred years ago. 

The next morning earlier this week I had a wonderful start to the day – went to the Archaeology Museum next to Topkali – many Greek and Roman sculptures, and by far the most beautiful relief carving from ancient Roman civilisation I have ever seen on sarcophagi.  Much of it was found underground in a dark chamber in rural Lebanon in the late nineteenth century.  The reliefs are absolutely peerless – one with mourning women in shawls is a picture of grief. 

This figure stood out to me particularly as a picture of grief.

This is from around 350BC in Sidon in Lebanon, and was brought here in the late nineteenth century when the area was part of the Ottoman empire. Can you imagine peering a torch down into a burial chamber and seeing such huge marble sarcophagi when these were discovered back in the nineteenth century? What a sense of wonder this moment must have occasioned.

Another section of another relief, not so much for its carving but for the happier subject matter – a vision of the good life. Peace and plenitude and wine and company – and a dog.

Not to mention cats… I had seen the 2016 film Kedi, about the cats of Istanbul, when back in Australia. They certainly do get around and there are lots of them. Here I saw one cheeky ginger taking up a seat at a very busy tram stop.

I was on the way to the Prince’s islands – about an hour’s ferry ride from the mainland.

We got off on the second island stop and walked up the steep hill through tightly packed houses with locals going about their business. After a very steep climb we burst out into the trees at last.  I found my way out into the woods, and sat looking down on a bay, with the mountains of Gallipoli far away in a dark line on the horizon over many kms of sea.  The trees were pines and had a bonsai like twist and bend in many of their trunks, and the undergrowth was sparse enough that you could see and walk with a sense of openness.  It made me think of John Fowles’ opening scenes in The Magus, based on his time teaching at a school on a Greek island in the fifties and contemplating philosophy and the creative impulse of Apollo on lonely hill sides amongst such trees, high above the Aegean.  I was high above the Sea of Marmara, and I savoured those moments by myself amongst the pine trees, with the still sea below as wine dark as Homer’s Aegean. 

Walking on a quiet street on Heybeliada I found a decayed Ottoman era mansion.

Nature was engulfing this old home, but the carpenter’s skill is still to be seen, high up above in the sky.

The perspective down the hill is to the sea and on the other side, modern Istanbul, city of 15 million.

I could write more about history, commenting on Topkali Palace for example with its warren-like hareem. However I will leave you with a cliche of Turkey, food that still makes my mouth water.

Now I’m sitting in this hotel room, waiting for the final few moments to pass before I take a short taxi ride to Istanbul’s new airport, and then, all going well, lift off for Dubai, and hence to Bangkok.

I spend 100 dollars just to have a hotel room in the country near the airport today as I had had enough of crowds and noise and cities and movement.  It has been perfect to be solitary and silent and think and write my blog, looking back on the last three weeks. Here I am waiting for my plane to Asia. I have experienced so many cultures and countries these past few weeks. Voyages extraordinaires, and they aren’t over yet.


October 15th, 2022

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.


October 15th, 2022

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. 

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