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Tucked away in the farthest eastern reaches of Turkey, in an area only recently opened to outsiders thanks to the long-standing enmity between Turks and Armenians, lies the medieval ghost city of Ani.

Evocative, remote, and wind-battered, Ani has crumbled both within the threshold and before the doorstep of Armenia for almost 1,000 years. Once a Middle Eastern city to rival Baghdad, Ani was a crossroads for trade and cultural exchange which was so plagued with earthquakes that it was abandoned sometime before 1100 AD. "The City of 1,000 Churches" as it was once called is now a barren collection of ruins, many still unexcavated, wildflowers, and deep bitterness. For this was once an Armenian city, and it's a fact that is a great source of pain to the people there. Sadly, in their anger, they have opened a rock mining operation directly across the river dividing the city from Armenia and, as a result, their relentless dynamiting of the cliffs is bringing the ruins down at an unprecedented rate. Here they lie, during their fall. For this entry, I will let the photos speak for themselves:

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(A classic Armenian Church circa 800 AD, built in the round)
To Dust They Shall ReturnCollapse )
The drive was long, but I knew we were getting closer as the elevation increased to make my skull throb and the temperatures drop. Outside there was snow and lava fields as far as the eye could see, all born from that great, Biblical volcano, Mount Ararat.

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Fire on the Mountain, Gunfire in the HillsCollapse )
Van is a strange city. Nestled between snowcapped mountains on one side and the vast Lake Van on the other, it feels as though it's set into a hidden corner of the world. Despite its size, there are virtually no recognizable brands, the population is almost completely Kurdish, as is the food, and when you're here everyone knows you're an outsider. We were the only tourists we saw, and it's a shame because there is a deep history here.

The city dates back to 1300 BC when it was a Urartian town based around the Rock of Van, which I stand atop here:

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Famous Cats and Frigid WatersCollapse )
From Diyarbakir we ventured further into Kurdistan en route to an area about which the only thing my Lonely Planet guidebook has to say is: "Travel to this region is not advisable."

Literally. That's it.

According to the U.S. State Department, the Hakkari region of Turkey is fraught with PKK, kidnappers, random shootings, land mines and roadside bombs. It's a nasty, politically contentious place. And a place that also holds some of Turkey's (and the World's) most ancient and enigmatic sites, one of which is the ancient Armenian Church on misty Adkamar Island on Lake Van:

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Ancient Castles, Bombed Roads, & Fields of Poppies and Land MinesCollapse )

Part 8, Turkey 2011: Diyarbakir is Burning

Diyarbakir is a metropolis unlike any other I've ever encountered. Regarded as the capital of Kurdistan and spoken of as a dangerous place to be, even by others in Eastern Turkey, it's a place that is at once remarkably homogenous (almost exclusively Kurdish, you would be hard-pressed to find any foreign settlers or tourists here) and yet is culturally fascinating, perhaps for that very fact.

Most striking about Diyarbakir is that it's a place where the Kurds, though heavily repressed in Turkey, have flourished.

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(A gentleman in the stately traditional dress of the Kurds)

Beauty, Tragedy, and Leaving a City in FlamesCollapse )
It almost didn't happen.

At the last minute, the evening before our private guide was due to pick us up at Nemrut Dag to take us into Kurdistan, our agent in Istanbul called to say the guide, Mehmet, had fallen gravely ill at the last minute. Sean was considerably more panicked than I, suffering an acute dose of Stranger-in-a-Strange-Land syndrome, stuck in backwoods Turkey along the border of Syria with not an English speaker or group of tourists with whom to hitchhike in sight. I, on the other hand, had faith that the agency would come through. They were, by all accounts, quite reputable and even if they didn't, the boundless generosity of the people would see to it that we would survive, even if it meant roughing it and forgetting Kurdistan.

Fortunately, at the last minute our agency found a man willing to drive all the way from Van and take us deep into the remote East. Armed with few words and a wry smile, at first it seemed that Remzi loathed us (and everyone else for that matter) for this unplanned sojourn. But, as I settled into the back of his little hybrid Toyota and surveyed the endearingly vintage tourist literature about Van, I began to relax, assured we were in the capable hands of a native Kurd who knew his homeland well. Well, I relaxed until he began careening down the highway at 120 MPH into oncoming traffic. Such is the style of drivers on Turkish highways -- mercurial beings in-and-of themselves which transform from asphalt to dirt, four-lane to no-lane with no rhyme or reason.

He was rushing to ensure we made the ferry on time. One that would take us across the Euphrates and into the East:

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(on the boat!)

Time Traveling in MesopotamiaCollapse )
Leaving Urfa, we delved ever eastward into a landscape that ranged from desert to vaguely alpine (right down to snowcapped peaks of the Atlas mountains)

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Ancient Egomaniacs and Modern Paparazzi Amid the Volcanic Atlas MountainsCollapse )
From Cappadocia we embarked on the long drive out of Western Turkey and into the East where Westerners rarely tread. Our first stop was mere miles from the Syrian border in Harran. Famous for being the home of the prophet Abraham, its beehive dwellings and for being a top contender for the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the world, it's impressive to say the least.

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Camels, Holy Carp, Bedouin Beauties, & One Epic MiscommunicationCollapse )
Before I delve into Kurdistan, this is perhaps the most appropriate place to show you guys the video documentary (though largely un-narrated)we made which covers everything in Turkey up to Kurdistan (which is it's own video, I will post it after the rest of the journal entries are complete).

Perhaps nothing captures all we experienced better than this. From the ancient roads of Ephesus, to much of the Whirling Dervish ceremony (filmed secretly), to dancing and singing with the lively Yunuz and our hike through the Rose Valley of Cappadocia, it's all laid out better than words can ever describe.

NOTE: For those who want to skip the exceptionally long segment on the Dervishes (it's a rather solemn ceremony which may not be everyone's cup of tea, though the song, music, and the ultimate crescendo of the whirling ceremony was pretty entrancing for me), you can pick back up the rest of the action, and my favorite part of the video at 23:45. Enjoy!

Video footage, Photography, and Editing: Sean
Video footage, Photography, and Music: Me!
The night had been incredible, after spending the twilight hours with the village women and children in Urgup, we went on our own to see the Mevlanas (A Sufi branch of Islam) perform the Sema Ceremony (you probably know it better as the whirling dervishes) in a Medieval caravansari (more on those later). I can only recall one other time in my life in which I have felt so moved -- I couldn't suppress the tears from the opening call to prayer. Whether is was the beauty of the song, the music from the Sufi orchestra, or the bliss on the faces of the dervishes, I don't know, but it shifted something buried deep within me.

With one hand facing the heavens to receive God's love and the other facing earth to distribute it among mankind, the Sufis whirl themselves into a state of divine ecstasy, their hats representing the tomb of the ego now vanquished:

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(Image source unknown, personal photography was not permitted, though we do have video which will be my next post)

Hiking Remote Valleys, Dancing in the Sun, & Making FriendsCollapse )