Checking out Sofia

If your friend was driving to a neighboring country, what would you do? Hitchhike, of course! Dee and I cheerfully hopped into David’s aging Fiat to accompany him on his long trek to a Bulgarian wedding. We weren’t invited to the wedding, but we know how to make the most of exploring.

Once we emerged from the mire of Istanbul traffic, it was smooth sailing—to the border, at least (300 K). The Bulgarian border crossing isn’t exactly renowned for swiftness. In fact, David says he’s often spent hours there, held up by lines and paperwork. Unlike our Canadian border crossing at home, we stopped at no less than six (was it 7?) checkpoints along the road on both sides of the border. David’s car papers were scrutinized as though he were a fugitive from justice, and believe me, his water-damaged passport didn’t help either (a fly fishing mishap). Somehow we made it through all those stops in just over an hour, record time according to David.

The LAST of many checkpoints to Bulgaria

In spite of horrific roads, we arrived in Sofia around 11:00, passing “ladies of the night” as we drove the ring road to a friend’s house. Apparently these entrepreneurs service their clients on the spot—back seat bargains, I guess. Scary. Bulgaria is DEFINITELY not Turkey.

Saint Sofia, the Patron Saint of Sofia, Bulgaria

We were finally delivered to our lovely boutique hotel around 2AM, where we caught some serious Z’s. Bird songs and sunshine woke us early, though, and we were antsy to get out to explore the city. We had breakfast outside, a grilled sandwich of sausage, cheese, and cucumbers. And they even have good coffee in Bulgaria—imagine that. David and his friend would meet us later, so we were on our own. Dee suggested we walk the mile or so to the historical area of the city, and I was glad. Not only did we need the exercise, but every few blocks brought a new discovery.
First we encountered the street market, where one booth sold local wine straight from huge wooden barrels. Either bring your own jug or drink from the spigot, I guess.

This is TRULY B.Y.O.B. wine sales.

Just around the corner we discovered Sofia’s huge synagogue with its intricately sculpted façade.

Sofia Synagogue, the largest in Eastern Europe

A block further we found the Banya Bashi Mosque, a relic from the Ottoman era. Because the Turks controlled Bulgaria for over 400 years, we noticed many similarities in food, architecture, and language, but only one mosque. Behind it was a fountain, and beyond that an entrancing building under renovation, once the city’s central baths. It had intricate ceramic borders along its cornices and windows which were more than charming.

After snapping eight million photos, we headed off again towards the city center, only to be stopped by scores of people heading into a low-walled area carrying water jugs of all shapes and sizes. Hmmm… In the middle of Sofia there’s a myriad of little individual fountains, which we assumed were mineral water. I waited my turn at one of them and took a sip—HOT mineral water! Apparently Sofia, which is located at the foot of a mountain, was initially settled because of these hot springs, a clear explanation for the nearby public bath and mosque.

Sofia’s mineral fountains, open to the public…

More photos, then off again to explore the city’s wonders: the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which dominates the city from its central plaza; the Church of St. Sofia (6th century) which gave the city its name; and the picturesque Russian Church of St. Nicholas the Miracle-Maker, built in the early 1900’s.

The Nevsky Cathedral

St. Sofia Church icon

The miraculous Russian Church of St. Nicholas the Miracle-Maker

We explored a number of vendors’ booths in a nearby park, where merchandise included religious icons and antiques. Both were interesting, and the recent communist rule was evident in the selection. Heavy sculptures nearby depicted the angst of the country’s many wars and communist domination. (The city was bombed by the Allies in 1943 and 1944—that would be us.)

Trying to choose an icon (actually, there’s one in my bag, bought at St. Sofia’s)

Antiques seldom found in America

We met David and his friend Nia for lunch and a bit more sightseeing, and introduced us to the traditions of Bulgarian proms. High school seniors celebrate graduation with a gala prom, but before and after the dance they terrorize the city (somewhat) by driving around, yelling, blowing whistles, and just making spectacles of themselves. Everyone seems to accept this behavior, which goes on and on and on and…

a tame but notable parading prom car

We visited the National Gallery (in a palace screaming for renovation), revived ourselves with a cup of coffee, then Dee and I headed back to our hotel. We settled happily on our little balcony aerie with our feet up, sipping cool wine and enjoying the surrounding greenery. We all met again in town for dinner, then tried a taste of night life. We propped our eyelids up until the band arrived at 12:30, but when they hadn’t started playing at 1:00, we gave up. Sigh…
Sunday we explored a new area of the city, catching a holiday parade. Instead of Memorial Day, the Bulgarians celebrate Cyrillic Alphabet Day on May 24th.  It’s actually devoted to two saints, St. Cyril and St. Methodius, the alphabet’s creators.

Cyrillic Alphabet Day Parade Beauties

After watching the parade for a while, we visited the 14th century Church of St. Petka, where we sat in on (actually, stood in on) a service in its tiny sanctuary. The incense-laden nave held us, 7 local attendees, and a gilt-garbed priest who officiated the service holding a gleaming golden cross.

Church of St. Petka–VERY old indeed

After that we explored St. Nedelya Church, which was completely reconstructed after a 1925 bombing. There we happened on a baptism, complete with the strains of a choir from a distant loft.

St. Nedelya dome

St. Nedelya interior (baptismal service)

One more stop at the 4th century Church of St. George finished our morning explorations. After that we met Nia at the Nevsky Cathedral, and she drove us up the mountain to see the charming Boyana Church, originally constructed in the 11th century. The church’s interior is painted with incredible frescoes dating back to 1259, including hundreds of human (and heavenly) images in a total of 89 scenes, all executed by one painter and his apprentice. After being selected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, the church was closed for over 20 years for renovation, then reopened to the public in 2000. Only 10 people are allowed into the church at a time.

Boyuna Church “steeple”

Boyuna Church upper window

After touring the Boyuna Church, we relaxed over lunch, then visited a grocery store for bacon, ham, cheese, and good wine. Treasures for Turkey. On the way home, we stopped to photograph a small-town steeple appropriated by a stork family. Too cute.

Stork steeple

We didn’t get home until nearly 1 A.M. Sunday night, again collapsing into the sack, exhausted. It was a good exhausted, though, after a great weekend. So now I’ve been to Bulgaria.

A Woman’s Mosque

Turkey is in the news again, this time for a monumental step forward. It recently opened the doors to the first Turkish mosque designed by a woman, the Şakirin (shah-KEER-een) Mosque. And it’s STUNNING!
After learning about it last week, a number of us made a weekend trek to the conservative community of Üsküdar to check it out. After a good deal of help from Turks on the bus, we found it. And believe me, we were not disappointed—not at all!

The Şakirin Mosque from its entry gate

Architect Zeynep Fadillioğlu has designed many upscale homes and hotels around the world, but according to a recent BBC article, she said she cried when she was offered this particular project. Although Turkey is a secular democracy, women often still find themselves bucking traditional expectations, and Fadillioğlu was asked to open a new frontier for Turkish women. The  typical prayer area for women in most mosques is segregated or screened off at the back of the mosque. Not so in the Şakirin Mosque. In fact, the area “designated for women” is the balcony, which seems to float above the lower level, surrounding the magical glass droplet chandelier that graces the center of the dome.

Looking up the stairs to the balcony

View from the balcony

You’d have to be there to understand why my eyes filled with tears as I entered that upper level. It was the best of the best; the pinnacle of the mosque experience. Designated for the women.
Commissioned by the Şakirs, a very wealthy Arab Turkish family, the mosque was built to honor their deceased mother. It combines both modern and classical elements, incorporating fountains, light, and inviting the surrounding greenery through it’s airy glass surround. The mosque sits majestically on a hill at the edge of an ancient cemetery.

An exterior view of the mosque

After marveling at the elegant exterior design of the mosque, one enters the courtyard to see a dome-like fountain that reflects the fluted roofs surrounding it.

The fluted roof surrounding the courtyard…

…and the domed fountain that reflects its image.

As you enter the mosque itself, the first thing that catches your eye is the mihrap, the niche that indicates the direction of mecca. The Şakirin mihrap is a golden niche surrounded by a bold, turquoise tulip-shaped frame.
I was particularly taken with the mahfili, what we would consider the pulpit. Often a centerpiece in classical mosques, this one seemed to flow smoothly from the floor to the glass windows above the back wall. It was molded in what looked like a beige marble, covered with what I thought were Arabic letters. As I drew closer, though, I realized that the pattern was actually an intricate design of dried flowers, again pulling the natural world into the mosque’s interior.

A woman prays beside the mahfili, the mosque’s stylized “pupit”

A close-up of the dried floral designs gracing the mahfili

And then there’s the chandelier. Oh, my goodness! Hundreds of blown glass droplets hang from a circular flowing arrangement of Arabic lettering and clear plastic calligraphy-like designs. I can’t wait to return in the evening to see the dome and interior of this stunning mosque lit by that myriad of glass droplets.

A magical chandelier reflects both light and color inside the airy mosque.

Glass droplets hang from the swirling chandelier

Of course, there has been controversy over this new mosque. Fadillioğlu admits that she expected problems during the construction of the mosque, and she was pleased when nothing came up. Since its opening, however, a number of Islamic traditionalists have spoken out against a woman “overstepping” her position in Islamic society. Many refuse to set foot in a mosque designed by a woman, but while we were there a number of traditionally dressed worshippers prayed in the sanctuary. Many Turks applaud this progressive step and look forward to women becoming more involved in Islamic worship.

I sure do.

Designer Zeynep Fadillioğlu in her stunning Şakirin Mosque.

For more information on the mosque (and the issues that surround it), check out these web sites.

BBC Article on the Şakirin Mosque

German Web article on the mosque

Turkish web article with photos


Just what the world needs: yet another tour guide. Oh, well—my humble addition to the ranks is finally on the bookshelves—in Turkey, at least.


Here’s how it happened:
During my first year teaching in Istanbul, Tania Chandler and Jamilah Lajam introduced me to Edda Renker Weissenbacher’s fascinating tours through the back streets of Istanbul. I’d never heard of a han (an ancient inn) and never would have guessed that Constantinople once teemed with them. I was captivated by my first Edda Tour, which finished on the rooftop of the Buyuk Valide Han overlooking a stunning vista of Istanbul, the Marmara, and the Golden Horn. To top it off, as we gazed across the water at the Galata tower, the air swelled with a cacophony of muezzins chanting the Koran verses of the call to prayer. I was entranced.

Edda and friends on the roof of the Büyük Valide Han

After my second Edda tour I was struck with a thought. Why not make these tours available to anyone who visits Istanbul? At 70, Edda was unlikely to lead too many thousands along her back street tours, which meant they’d all miss out on this amazing experience. BUT—we could compile them into a book of self-guided tours. “Would you be interested in collaborating on a book of your tours, Edda?” I asked, a little worried that she might find my suggestion presumptuous.
“What a wonderful idea!” she answered brightly. “I’d love to!”

Me and Edda outside the Süleymaniye Mosque, writing partners!

Once we’d discussed some of the details of the project, I pounded out a book proposal. Then I visited Greenhouse Books to browse through Turkey guides and hopefully identify prospective publishers. My first choice was Çitlembik, an Istanbul publisher that produces a variety of books on Turkish culture and tourism in both English and Turkish. I was astonished to receive an immediate reply from director Nancy Öztürk. She was excited about the project and wanted to sign us on. HOORAY!!!

Edda at the Taş Han, where the first tour begins

Little did I realize that though Edda has a good decade on me, her energy for this project would far outweigh mine. She led me up and down the cobbled streets of Istanbul as I snapped photo after photo. Over 2,000 of them, in fact (photos, not streets). Early on, I often lost my way between the Grand Bazaar and the Egyptian Spice Bazaar, but it wasn’t long before I was very much at home on those narrow, cobbled streets.

I’m standing on the roof of the Sair Han, another spot that overlooks the city.

I drew careful maps of the tours we’d include in our book, re-routed them so they’d follow one after the other, and expanded on the descriptions that Edda provided of each of the nearly ninety sites. Four walks, hundreds of photos, and the combined efforts of two enthusiastic women. Ah, collaboration!

The Cebeci Han’s people-sized ewers

The Çuhacı Han, where goldsmiths work, with Nuru-osmaniye Mosque behind.

A gold shop window in the Çuhacı Han

The Süleymaniye Mosque

The Süleymaniye Medreses

The Istanbul University Gate

The courtyard of the Zincirli Han, within the Grand Bazaar

In June of 2007, Edda and I parted. She left Istanbul to spend the summer with her husband in Austria, and I returned to Minnesota. It took me a while to settle into a routine, but I wrote four hours a day through September, October, and even more in November. We’d promised to turn everything in by the end of November, and I flew back to Istanbul to retrace my steps, correcting the maps, shooting final photos, and finishing up interviews for mini-features of merchants and craftsmen along our routes. What an undertaking it was!

An article on Bedros Muradyan, one of 18 features in the book.

Edda was back in Istanbul that November, and we trekked, chatted, and laughed together as we finalized everything. Edda had just bought a new Mac laptop, and she was like a sponge, eager for everything I could teach her about Macs. She never ceases to amaze me—and she’s a meticulous editor, to boot.

Well, two years later, our book is finally out: Istanbul’s Bazaar Quarter: Backstreet Walking Tours. Its 182 pages are 30 more than expected, but it offers what we’d hoped: a clear, well-researched guide to the hans, mosques, and bazaars of Istanbul’s Bazaar Quarter. The book’s four self-guided tours draw its readers back through over a thousand years of this amazing city’s history.

The cascading domes of the Rüstem Paşa Mosque

Rüstem Paşa Mosque, one of the city’s most charming, is hidden near the Spice Bazaar

Whew! At last! And next week we’re celebrating with a book-signing event at the Koç School, complete with food and live music. Never a dull moment over here!
Now, back to my memoir about teaching in Istanbul…

Mount Nemrut beckons…

When I first came to Turkey, I was alerted to the possible dangers for a Western woman traveling to Eastern Turkey. Well, last weekend was my third foray into the East, and I’ve never felt more like a celebrity in my life.

Friends Stella Risi (South African), Lorna Richardson (English) and I (American) took advantage of our three-day weekend to visit the famed Mount Nemrut—the one with huge carved heads sitting atop its peak.

Me, Lorna, and Stella in Malatya (though how woud you know?)

We arrived mid-day on Friday and checked into our Malatya hotel, a VERY weak 4-stars. Like two. Oh, well. We dropped our gear and headed off to find lunch, which was thankfully a mere block from the hotel. We had Mercimek çorba (lentil soup), çoban salata (chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions), bread, and an entrée (I had köfte, grilled spiced meatballs) for about $5 each. Go figure. Food is MUCH cheaper outside Istanbul, and delicious to boot.

A favorite lunch–mercimek çorba (lentil soup), çoban salata, pide (flat bread)

Next we headed off to explore Malatya, our intent to visit the street bazaar. Within minutes we were adopted by a group of three young men eager to guide us. It took us two kilometers and a few cups of coffee to shake them off, friendly though they were. That was just the beginning. Everywhere we turned, people were chirping, “Hello!”, “Hi!”, and if more fluent, “What is your name?” or “Where are you from?” It was fun, actually. I’d say we chatted with at least six groups of people of all ages, both male and female. Tourists are rare in Malatya, especially in early May. (Stella said it was Lorna’s and my blonde hair—bless her heart. We’re both pretty white-topped, if you ask me.)

Friendly girls welcome us to their town with their limited English (…and Stella)

The highlight of our explorations was the market, where we found scrumptious dried kayısı (apricots—the area’s specialty) and a few blocks where metal workers toiled right in the street. Welders with no eye protection, copper workers pounding on pots almost bigger than themselves, and knife crafters plying their trade. Pounding and banging, drilling and sawing sounds filled the air as we walked the streets, mesmerized with the scene.

Metal workers labor on the streets of Malatya

A copper worker pounds the bottom of a copper pot

Later we discovered a vegetable market, another place filled with a cacophony of sound, and everywhere there were kayısıcı, apricot vendors with every type of apricot you could imagine, including the pits, which are much like small almonds, and nearly as good.

A peek inside the Kayisici apricot seller’s shop. ALL apricots!

Then more tea, more wandering, more chatting, and finally dinner at the Kent Lokantasi (Restaurant), where we’d been treated to tea earlier that afternoon. Delicious, cheap, and FAR too much food. Sigh…
Saturday Lorna slept in while Stella and I headed off to explore near the hotel. We discovered a railway station where learned that the train from Istanbul costs a tenth of what we’d paid for airline tickets—but it takes ten times longer (30 hours). No way!
As we wended our way back through a small residential area near the station, we encountered a woman scrubbing her carpet in the street. I snapped her photo, asking for advice on rug-cleaning. She hoses down the rug, sprinkles laundry detergent on it, and scrubs it with a long-handled brush. Then she rinses it off and hangs it out to dry overnight. Easy, she said. Right. I can just see myself scrubbing my rugs on the Devil Track Road!

THIS is how you clean a Turkish carpet.

She invited us for coffee (I expected Nescafe), produced small stools from her house, and treated us to the most delicious Turkish coffee I’ve ever tasted. As we sat, more and more neighbors joined us, all tickled to chat with the yabanci (foreign) women. Sheer delight. One of the ladies beckoned us over to a shed across the street to show us a litter of newborn kittens.

Stella and I posed with the first neighbors who joined us. The boys spoke a little English.

At noon we departed for our 22-hour tour of Nemrut. Our $60 fee included mini-bus transport (with 5 other delightful tourists, a Turkish family and two young women from Malaysia), a lunch stop, a sunset visit to the top of the mountain, lodging at the Güneş (sunshine) Hotel on the mountain, a second visit to the summit (sunrise this time), and breakfast.

The very basic but charming Güneş Otel. Romantic? Umm…

The concrete “mock rock” decor of the hotel stairway.

We had great fun getting to know each other and sharing the adventure of a frigid hotel experience (no heat), the fascination of the mountain ruins, and the camaraderie of shared wine (brought it up there), soup and bread, chicken shish, and evening games (poker and checkers).
But the amazing thing, of course, was Mount Nemrut. At the top of this 2100-meter mountain sits a collection of statues and fragments dating back to the Kommagene dynasty of 80 B.C. to 72 A.D. Overlooking the Euphrates River (Turkish name: Firat), the ruins on the mountaintop were never a community, but a shrine to the gods and to the ancestors of the dynasty.

Zeus watches over the mountains from the Western Terrace of Mount Nemrut

According to a website about Mount Nemrut, “The well-preserved colossal statues overlooking the court on the east are made of blocks of limestone and measure eight to ten meters in height. The figures are shown in a sitting position. Inscriptions identify the statues on the eastern terrace from left to right in the following order: Antiochos, the goddess Kommagene, Zeus-Oromasdes (the Graeco-Persian sky-god and supreme deity, and also the largest-sized statue), Apollo-Mithras, and Herakles-Artagnes. On either side of the divinities stood a guardian eagle and lion.

A lion guards a platform on the East Terrace

The heads of all the deities have toppled over onto ground in the intervening centuries. Their finely worked facial features are striking examples of the idealized late Hellenistic style. The gods wear Persian headgear.” (Ozduzen, Nezihi. “Mt. Nemrut National Park.” All About Turkey. 6 May 2009 <>.)

The headless, seated bodies of Nemrut’s  collosal statues

Unfortunately, the heads have fallen from their seated bodies, but they’ve been set up so that they can be admired. Perhaps these multi-ton heads will once again sit atop their bodies. It was all truly amazing, particularly as we viewed the statues in the slanting rays of the late-day sun.

Heads on the East face of the mountain—Antiocyus Theos and Zeus

Our bonus, too, was a traditional dance performance by a group of children from a nearby village, probably in honor of the May 1st holiday. Lucky us, huh? Of course, I haven’t mentioned that it was incredibly cold up there, well below zero, especially the next morning before the sun came up .WINDY!!!!

Young dancers on the terrace as the lion stands guard

They danced over a half hour in the bitter cold

They were tickled to pose with a yabanci (foreigner).

Although we didn’t get to see it, Mount Nemrut is the site of history’s first known astrological symbol, part of a lion statue which is presently being renovated (in a locked building).

Sunset over Nemrut

After breakfast we returned to Malatya and spent the afternoon exploring Eski Malatya (ancient Malatya) a small city about 11 kilometers away. There we explored the renovation of an old caravansaray and the newly-renovated Ulu Cami (mosque). Both lovely.

The newly-renoated interior of the Ulu Camii, in Eski (Old) Malatya

Peering up into the dome of the mosque

Detail of ceramic decorations in the mosque–tiles nearly 800 years old

Before we knew it, we were thronged by a herd of little boys eager to show us their village. They helped us find a restaurant, then waited outside, watching us eat our lunch of mercimek soup and coban salata—always our favorite lunch.

Rather than fend them off all afternoon, we caught a bus back to Malatya, where we meandered lazily back to our hotel, soaking in the sights and the sunshine, sampling coffee, tea, and sweets along the way.
Each time you eat a dried apricot, it probably comes from Turkey—from the area around Mount Nemrut. Imagine!

A Maiden’s Tale

I’ve always been intrigued by the Maiden’s Tower, an enchanting little “island edifice” perched near the south end of the Bosphorus.  Charming in its own right, its legends add to its mystique.

The Maiden’s Tower (Wikipedia photo)

First built in 408 B.C., the tower helped the Byzantines control the movement of Persian ships up the Bosphorus Strait. At that time Istanbul was two cities, Byzantion (on the European side) and Chrysopolis (on the Asian side). 1500 years later, the tower was converted into a fortress by a Byzantine emperor and continued to be restored and modified numerous times, with its most recent facelift in 1999.
So—the legends? Well, my favorite is the story of a sultan’s daughter born to a prophesy that she would be killed by a venomous snake on her 18th birthday. Her father had the tower built in the middle of the Bosphorus to protect his beloved child from snakes. (Thinking, no doubt, that the snakes of Asia Minor didn’t swim.) He guarded her jealously, treating her a bit like Rapunzel. On her 18th birthday the sultan redoubled his vigilance, allowing her no gifts. Choosing to celebrate this momentous birthday with her privately, though, he brought her a basket of scrumptious exotic fruits that he had specially ordered for this event. As they tasted the sumptuous fruits, one by one, a snake emerged from the basket and bit the young princess, who died instantly. The moral to the story must be “Don’t tempt fate”—or something like that. For obvious reasons (no Prince Charming in the picture), the fortress was thereafter known as the Maiden’s Tower.

The Maiden’s Tower—today

The tower has another, more historical name as well. It was long known as Leander’s Tower, named after a Greek myth about Hero and Leander. The lovely Hero was one of Aphrodite’s priestesses, and she lived in a tower at a point called Hellespont at the end of the Dardanelles (where the Sea of Marmara feeds into the Aegean). Leander lived on the other side of the strait, and every night he secretly swam across it to be with Hero, who lit a lamp in her tower each night to guide his way.

Evelyn De Morgan, Hero Awaiting the Return of Leander, 1885

It wasn’t long before Hero succumbed to Leander’s charms and allowed him to make love to her, a tryst they repeated often through the warm summer. Leander continued his nightly swim even into the long, cold nights of autumn, until one night when a violent storm blew out Hero’s lamp and lashed Leander with huge waves until he drowned. When Hero realized that Leander had died, she threw herself from the tower to rendezvous with her lover at the bottom of the sea.

William Etty, Hero and Leander, 1828 – 1829

Leander’s Tower, yes. But Maiden’s Tower?
Hmmm… Lucky Hero, who was at least able to enjoy love for a while. But then, could it have been Aphrodite who created the storm? Tough call. I still prefer the story of the sultan’s daughter—fits the moral codes of Turkey a bit better than the Greek myth.
This spring I hope to ferry out and enjoy tea in the tower’s restaurant. It’s just one of those tantalizing Istanbul experiences I’ve yet to savor.