Aqueducts and Charcoal

Last Sunday I touched a remnant of the longest aqueduct system in ancient history, and it’s in—Ta-Da! Turkey! Over 250 kilometers long, this aqueduct once supplied the city of Constantinople with water from the Istranja Mountains near the Black Sea, 65 kilometers away. So why was it 250 kilometers long, you wonder? (I did.) It’s because it snaked through the mountains, tunneling through and winding around them. It was reputedly the most outstanding surveying achievement of the pre-industrial world. Impressive.

A portion of the Anastasian Long Wall–impressive, huh?

We left sunny Istanbul in high spirits, but clouds gathered as we rode the bus a few hours. We’d been promised views of the Anastasian Wall (Long Wall of Thrace), a defense that extended 64 kilometers between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. We saw small sections of this massive wall through woodsy brambles and undertgrowth, a bit of a disappointment. The wall was once over 9 feet thick and 16 feet high, but we never saw more than about a six-foot span. Our stalwart group of 30 (including our Ottoman historian guide) braved glucky mud and a light drizzle to see more, but our best sightings were actually from the bus.

Ah, the spectacular Black Sea

We drove all the way to the Black Sea and climbed to a high pinnacle where the wall once stood. No trace today. There were remains of a sweet ancient chapel, though, and Libby did her best to glean as many pricklers as she could from the underbrush.

Wandering around the chapel remains

A close-up of one of the chapel’s arched windows

After scraping pounds of muck off our shoes, we boarded the bus again (the driver had spread newspapers on his carpeted floors) and headed for lunch.

The mud caked our boots, heavier with each step.

Ah, lunch! Long tables were set with artfully arranged salads, mezes, and breads. Once we’d filled up on these vegetable, cheese, and yogurt dishes, we were each brought a well-stewed piece of lamb atop a mountain of buttery pilaf. I’m generally not crazy about either, but these were divine. Libby sat under my chair eager to glean whatever she could of the meat scraps provided by a few of us.

This was the loveliest shepherd’s salad I’ve ever been served.

The meal had lifted our spirits, and as we drove up to view a part of the aqueduct system, my seat-mate exclaimed, “Look! This is how they make charcoal!” as he clambored for his camera. “I have to get a picture of this. It’s what they did hundreds of years ago in Pennsylvania!” A visiting  architect and design professor, he was thrilled to see the massive mounds of wood. After passing a few of these strange structures, the bus pulled over.


We were all fascinated to learn that the charcoal-making process is quite an art. Logs and sticks are cut into about 2-foot lengths and piled in a circle around a 30-foot clearing.

You can see how the logs are piled around the circumference of the mound.

This man will arrange the loose logs that have been tossed up to him.

 These are stacked vertically around a small cavity to make a mound, leaving a vertical space like a chimney up the center as the mound grows. Wood is carefully stacked to leave minimal space between logs and sticks, finally resulting in an artful firewood mound about 12-15 feet high.

This charcoal mound is nearly complete.

It’s then covered with a layer of straw and a second layer of mud. Lit charcoal is dropped down the chimney to start a smoldering fire inside the structure, and the pile smolders until all the moisture has been smoked out of the wood, about two weeks.

A smoldering charcoal mound

According to the worker explaining the process, seven tons of wood produce about one ton of charcoal for barbecuing, a necessity in Turkish cuisine.

There were about six mounds ready for covering, and probably five more smoldering in this complex, located deep in the forest.

A few more mounds await straw and mud coverings.

We thanked the men for interrupting their work, then piled back into the bus, which bounced along three more minutes before getting dismally mired in the mucky roadway. We tried pushing, but the bus just slid sideways into the mucky ditch. It meant a longer hike to our aqueduct, so we headed off, leaving the bus driver to find a tow. Thank goodness for cell phones.

As these stalwart warriors pushed, the bus just slid sidways into the ditch.


The long hike to the aqueduct was well worth the work. We hopped stones across a river, then discovered a bevy of wild purple autumn crocuses peering through the woods.


Wild autumn crocuses


Though they were lovely, nothing was as impressive as the stunning stone towers that met us we turned the right at the bottom of a hill. The ancient bridge’s towers were spectacular, dominating the mountainous countryside with their venerable splendor. Apparently this was one of sixty arched stone bridges in the 250 kilometers of the aqueduct system, and 18 more are still intact.

The amazing aqueduct bridge towers as late sunlight slants down across the mountain

We sat at the foot of these mammoth structures, marveling that the architectural genius that kept these structures standing for 1600 years. I couldn’t help but think of the laborers who’d given their lives to constructing these towers, part of someone’s dream to carry mountain water to Constantinople.

Along the Bosphorus

After a week of blustery, cold weather, the sun god has returned to the Bosphorus. We’ve had some large double slightly opaque white jellyfish hanging out near the yachts, though they are fast being replaced by the more common saucer-like moon jellyfish. I always enjoy watching them squirt and stream through the water, though sadly they choose to congregate with the refuse that collects in the lee of the ships. UGH!

Fisherman along the Bosphorus:

The fishermen lining the shore along the walkway have abated, partly because of the recent cold weather, but more likely because the hamsi (anchovy) season is waning. Some of the fishermen are pulling in larger fish, which pleases Libby to no end. The quais also teems with tea, simit (a round sesame-covered bread like a large bagel), and sandwich sellers as well as mobile tackle shops ranging from crude boxes to large vans replete with hooks, lures, bait, and even fishing poles and reels. It’s fun to see these vendors bask in the sun as they await business. I don’t think it really matters whether it’s profitable—location, location, location.

An Arnavutköy simitci (simit seller)

One of the more humble tackle shops:

Something more of a production–artistic, to boot!

And the proud peddler poses with his wares:

This tackle-seller has succumbed to the warmth of the afternoon sun:


Last Saturday Kaptan Mustafa invited me for kahvaltı (breakfast) on his yat (figure it out) moored near Arnavutköy. He’d invited his English-speaking friend Haydar to join us, which was actually quite helpful, as Mustafa’s English is even worse than my Turkish. I’m getting better at conversing, but there’s a lot of repeating and backing up. It works, though.

Kaptan Mustafa makes friends with Miss Libby:

Haydar is a pilot who steers large ships through the dangerous curves and currents on the Bosphorus. When they enter the Bosphorus, a small boat sidles up with a pilot to take over the wheel on the way up this waterway, the busiest in the world. The currents are particularly difficult because a heavier current of salt water flows upstream from the Sea of Marmara, while the less saline water from the Black Sea flows downstream above it. Actually, how do you know which is upstream and which is down when the water flows both ways. Imagine, though, what happens to these opposing currents at each sharp turn of the Bosphorus (and there are at least a dozen in its 17 miles). Haydar said that it takes anywhere from 2 1/2 to 4 1/2 hours to go up the Bosphorus, while it takes just 1 1/2 hours to come back down.

At 5 lira a kilo, these hamsi cost about $1.50 a pound.

I learned this week that Turkey’s Prime Minister has proposed digging a canal from the Black Sea to the Marmara to accommodate some of these larger vessels, purportedly to ease the heavy Bosphorus traffic. It seems an impossible task, but the Turks can do just about anything when they put their minds to it.
It’s been a crazy-busy week for me with events after school every day and something going on each evening as well. It seems I overbook myself no matter where I live. Tonight I came straight home from school to meet friends of my apartment owner for a pleasant visit over wine and snacks. After bidding them goodbye I threw in a load of laundry and took Libby for her evening walk. When I’m done with this blog I have to press a few pairs of slacks so I don’t look like a vagabond all week. Onward and upward!

Black Sea at Şile and Music at Aya Irini (Haghia Eirene)

Talk about a busy week! My friend Sally  just left after a fun, eventful week. Some people are just darned easy to have around, and Sally is one of them. She revels in every detail of life here, making friends at every turn.

Sally with Çoşkın, one of her many Istanbul friends.

Our friend David and I planned a short trip for Thursday’s Liberation of Istanbul Holiday. David and I worked all day Wednesday at our respective schools while Sally visited Camile (another common friend) in town, then we three met up at the Sabiha Gökçen Airport that evening. I caught a bus at 5:05 here on the European side and arrived at the airport (Asian side) at about 8:15. Over three hours to travel about 20 miles—Istanbul traffic. David was there waiting, and we hunted around for Sally, who’d been there the longest, wandering around wondering where we might be. Poor dear.

We stopped for dinner, then drove just over an hour north to Şile (SHE-lay) on the Black Sea. I’d scoped out a nice seaside resort, but when we finally found it, the entire complex was dark. What??? It was only 10:00! I’d talked to a receptionist the night before, so I tentatively pushed through the revolving door. A clerk materialized from the dark lobby, flipping lights on at the reception desk. Whew!  “Are there any other people here?” I asked in Turkish. He laughed and assured me there were. I didn’t exactly believe him. He certainly had space for us, giving us a corner seaside suite that he said cost twice what we paid. Did we mind?


Imagine waking to this view!

We woke to a stunning seascape, and imagine our surprise when scores of Turks were already enjoying the sumptuous breakfast buffet. Apparently the Şile Resort Hotel teems with people all summer, but in October things get a little lean. After breakfast Sally and I donned our suits for a walk up the beach. David, uninterested in swimming, brought his Kindle.


We picked shells and marveled at the pristine water as we strolled along the deserted beach.


Gorgeous shells–but small

Sally and David strolling on ahead…

after we all snapped  photos of the unique beach litter.

We chuckled at a discarded computer that had washed up on shore–what was THAT about? Though the Black Sea water was cool, it was warmer than most of our northern Minnesota lakes. Finally Sally and I found the perfect place for a swim, which we did. Well, first we waded out for what felt like about a mile Finally Sally dove in, and I joined her in water so shallow we couldn’t frog-kick without scraping our knees.

The water was still shallow quite a distance out from David–camera and Kindle in hand.

Finally the bottom dropped off and we headed out to a small rocky island, feeling a bit like sea nymphs cavorting in the sun. The water was so clear we could see ripples in the sand 20 feet below us.

We spent the afternoon wandering Şile, relaxing over a fish lunch in a seaside cafe, and strolling along the breakwater. At 5:00 scores of boats left their crowded moorings to head out for the evening’s catch—probably the most action the Şile harbor sees.

Sally, David, and I in front of the Şile Harbor fortress.

Şile’s fishing boats moored three deep.

A fisherman mending his nets.

A fishing boat off for the evening catch.

 Friday Sally and David trekked over to Üsküdar to see the stunning Şakırın Camii, the only mosque in Turkey designed by a woman (see my blog for May 25, 2009). As they were leaving, the mosque was stormed by armed bodyguards making way for a visit by Prime Minister Erdoğan. His mother had just died, and he was looking for an appropriate grave site. Apparently that kind of security is common here.

On Saturday evening we joined friends for a concert at the Aya Irini, a Byzantine church inside the walls of Topkapi Palace. The church is renowned for its incredible acoustics, and there are unfortunately only a few concerts there each year. We entered the church through an arched stone entrance and down a long, wide stone ramp. The 1500-year-old structure supposedly stands on the site of Constantinople’s first Christian church. The main sanctuary was flanked by collonnades with a high gold semi-dome at the front, painted with a huge cross.

The Aya Irini in all its splendor before the performance

Already awed at the splendor of the sanctuary, my spine tingled as the orchestra’s first notes reverberated across the centuries. I felt that same excitement when a costumed chorus filled the ancient cathedral with the booming strains of “Carmina Burana” (Carl Orff). Oh, my goodness!

To hear the magic of “Carmina Burana”, click this link:

Monday afternoon a group of students in my English class presented a reenactment of the myth of Pandora. Their chosen accompaniment? ”Carmina Burana.”
Small world.

Sunday trials in Arnavutköy

The weather is cooling off for us here in Istanbul, and I’ve just welcomed my first guest into my spacious Arnavutköy home—Sally Nankivell from Grand Marais. She’d visited the last time I was at Robert College and couldn’t resist the temptation of another trip (lucky me).

Sally arrived on Sunday morning, and I was committed to a parent’s open house at school.

Students chatting outside the building before school.


My friend David (who knew Sally from her last visit) offered to meet her at the airport, a godsend. I sent him off with a set of keys, then took Libby on her morning walk, planning to do some editing and writing before I headed up to school for the open house (my writing has taken a back seat lately). Just as I reached our  building, I was hit with a devastating realization: My keys were still in the apartment. ARAUGHHH!!! This had been my greatest fear since moving in, as I had no landlord.


Libby and I had enjoyed our FLAT walk along the Bosphorous.

All was not lost, though, since I’d anticipated this very dilemma. I’d had an extra set of keys made to leave with the guards up at the school. I’d explained to them in my shaky Turkish that I might need them if I got locked out. Thankful that for once I’d thought ahead, I forged on. It meant a serious uphill climb and a wasted hour, but at least I’d have time to change for the open house. Heck, I told myself, it was good exercise and a gorgeous morning.

No hope of climbing to my fourth floor balcony (the white one)

I huffed and puffed up the final stairway to the guard station, where I explained my plight as best I could. The two guards on duty hunted high and low for the key I’d left there, but it to no avail. “Anahtar yok.” No key. Didn’t they understand? I reminded them that I  had left my key there, and I had to meet with parents in less than two hours. I was looking mighty scruffy in dirty jeans, a t-shirt, sneakers, and bed hair. Would I dare appear to parents like this? Would they balk at trusting their teens to such an airhead? I found someone to translate for me and learned that the guards had passed the key along to the housing supervisor. Unfortunately, she wasn’t on campus, and she wasn’t answering her phone. Sigh…

I decided to climb up to my office to get a little work done (another 99 stairs), but I couldn’t find my reading glasses. This was NOT my day.

I finally got through to Elvan (the housing supervisor), who found someone to retreive the key from her office. My compatriot Reagan took pity on me and kindly drove me home to change. Though there was no time for a shower, at least I was able to don nicer clothes and sort out my hair.

Open house went fine, thanks to my charming translator Irmak—less than half of the parents spoke English.

When I returned home, David and Sally were already lounging in the living room. It felt great to collapse and chat with them for a while and leave the morning’s trials behind.

My living room, where David and Sally awaited me.

My upstairs neighbor, Füsün, had invited us all up for coffee, so we shook ourselves awake to head up. We’d had no idea what a treat we were in for. Füsün’s apartment is two stories—both with breathtaking views of the Bosphorous. We chatted on her rooftop terrace over Turkish coffee, prepared by her charming mother Şukran (from Izmir). I was tickled to meet my new neighbors and look forward to good times with them.

Oh—my doorbell just rang: Füsün’s mother had come down with a tray of three dishes of walnut-sprinkled vanilla pudding. Sadly, David is back at Koç and Sally is visiting our friend Cemile. Guess I’ll have to eat them all myself…


A neighborhood cat supervising the neighborhood from the safety of a car roof..