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In August 2019 we returned to Turkey, after fourteen years, for a more encompassing holiday in the part that's variously called Western Asia or the Middle East.  There were iconic tourist places we had not seen so with a combination of flights and a rental car we hopped about the map in this very large country. 

We began, as one does, in Istanbul. 

Istanbul

 

Back in 2005 we'd spent a couple of weeks here and it was surprising how familiar the city still seemed - except that there are more competing tourists to contend with. 

The traffic in the in central Istanbul is even worse that it was fourteen years ago and our cab, that had made good progress on the expressway from the airport, was soon reduced to a crawl through the inner streets.  After coming to a virtual standstill for more than ten minutes our driver pulled over and helped us drag our bags over the last couple of blocks to our hotel. 

Back in 2005, we'd quickly realised that a cheap hotel, recommended in a travel guide book, was horrendous and would sour the whole experience, and we quickly moved up-market. So we approached the three star 'And Hotel' with some trepidation.  But our concern was unwarranted.  We had a good sized room with a nice view over the nearby Hagia Sophia; a large comfortable bed; good linen; and a good, hot, plentiful, shower. Added bonuses included an excellent breakfast, coffee on the balcony; and attentive staff. It wasn't the Intercontinental but was generally the equivalent of the more expensive place we'd been obliged to move to last time, with the bonus of a change of scenery and locale

The WiFi was fast but, as was the case everywhere we went in Turkey, a number of websites are blocked. Annoyingly these include Wikipedia. So it was often hard to confirm or deny 'facts' provided by guides about historical events, people, places (like the Basilica Cistern) and objects.  TV is also censored. From a visitor's perspective TV is not wildly entertaining anyway - mainly consisting of game shows and cheaply made 'soaps' - in Turkish.  As I noted nine years ago, notably absent, even by satellite from Europe, are programs about natural science. On the other hand Muslim Clerics, have several dedicated TV channels as do Fundamentalist/Creationist Christians. Flipping through the hundreds of channels, many of which report 'no signal', the principal change from 2010 is a big reduction in the number of channels inviting lonely men to ring in to satisfy topless and aroused... [add a girl's name here]. But there are still several, so I imagine the change is due to competition from the Internet, rather than a 'crackdown'.

Turkey is nominally secular, yet under President Erdogan religion is becoming more politically influential. While scarves and hajab are commonplace niqab and (full) burkas are less so.  In tourist areas almost anything goes and it's quite common to see two women walking together, one demurely covered and the other sleeveless and wearing a short skirt and heels.   

 

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Istanbul icons
- top left: Ayasofya, top right: The Blue Mosque both as seen from the And Hotel
- bottom left: The Blue Mosque with zoom,  bottom right - Ayasofya from the other side

 

Another advantage of the And Hotel is that it is a few steps away from the ancient (6th century) Basilica Cistern so we could easily pick a time when the crowd had died down. Once inside it doesn't matter what time it is - it's always midnight in there.

Istanbul has a number of ancient cisterns for water storage. The Basilica Cistern, is an amazing example of Roman engineering from around 550.

 

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With 336 columns supporting a vaulted ceiling The Basilica Cistern covers over 2.4 acres (almost a hectare). 
Several movies have been made here.

As we planned to be in Turkey for a couple more weeks, on the first morning we'd bought 15 day museum passes that allowed us to by-pass the long entry queues. These turned out to be both a time and mental health saving, allowing us to skip several seemingly endless entrance lines, and surprisingly, as we have usually lost money buying similar passes in other countries, they ended up saving us money too.

Yet a guy who sat down next to us, as we had coffee, insisted that tourist numbers were down. Obviously he was 'on the make' and opened the conversation with the familiar question: "Where are you from?... Mosman... Oh, I have a girlfriend who lives in Manly." [select a connection and suburb to match].  We soon divined that he was intent on luring us to his shop [the only income for his aged mother] but we were more interested in what he could tell us.

Given the enormous queue forming just down the square, waiting to get into the Ayasofya, where we had recently avoided a large crowd of people not unlike ourselves, I was just a little dubious.  Adding to the crowds of people speaking numerous European tongues, and the ever present Japanese, there are now many more Asians: Chinese; Taiwanese; Korans; Singaporeans; and Indians.

Wendy took the opportunity to ask about the men who lead small bands of veiled women and children around the sights. Were these Turkish wives? Our new friend explained that since the 1908 Turks have been allowed but one wife.  These men, 'given to uxorious excess' are not Turks but tourists from Saudi Arabia or the UAE or perhaps other Arab states like Iran or Iraq. He bemoaned the fact that there were fewer tourists like us these days - apparently these others are not great customers.

We still had surprisingly clear memories of what we'd done last time in Istanbul yet a few locations were somewhat changed.

The beautiful 'Blue Mosque', that we almost had to ourselves fourteen years ago, is now under renovation, hiding its magnificent dome, so we were very pleased to have seen it last time.

 

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The Blue Mosque 2019 (above and middle) and 2005 (bottom)

 

On the other hand, the dome of the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya), that was obscured by scaffolding last time, can now be seen again in all its glory, almost clear of scaffolding.

This time we were at last able to see the famous 33 meter diameter dome, that for much of the Current Era has been the second largest monolithic dome in the world (after the Pantheon in Rome - 43.3 m).

 

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Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) 2019

 

A church on this spot was, in effect, the first Christian church in the world, if one dates modern Christianity to its recasting, by order of Constantine I, as the new Roman religion. Burnt down twice it grew in size until the present cathedral was constructed by Justinian I commencing in 532. But the first dome was a failure and collapsed (sounds like a Sydney high-rise). A new engineer was engaged (Isidore the Younger) and his dome has lasted 1,400 years.

 

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The famous 11th and 12th Century iconography

 

I spent quite a bit of time on the images here after our 2005 visit [Read more...] so I won't repeat myself.

Both buildings are now under siege by numerous tour groups - bustling after their guides in numerous different languages.  After crowding into the corridors and galleries, necks bent back, they're off to the Topkapi Palace.

The most popular area for visitors is the Harem - the domestic part of the palace from which all were banned except the emperor's wives; concubines; prepubescent children; and servants/slaves, the males of whom were castrated, lest they sow their seed in the Emperor's exclusive domain.  Again we'd 'been here and done that' but it was worth another visit and was effectively free as we already had a comprehensive museum pass.

 

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Until 1856, when Dolmabahçe Palace completed, Topkapi Palace was the home of the Ottoman Emperors
You can also read about the extraordinarily costly Dolmabahçe Palace by following to our last trip to Istanbul [Read more...]

 

Yet we'd not been to the Archaeological Museum and Museum of the Ancient Orient. they're within the walls of the Topkapi Palace down a moderately steep cobbled road that discourages tour groups, as guides try to avoid situations that might result in infarctions among their clients on the way back. Consequently it offers relief from the madding crowds.
The interesting collection goes back to the Palaeolithic with ceramics, bronze and iron marking the milestones of technological advance over the past ten millennia. There is also a particularly large collection of Roman sarcophagi (coffins) that in pre-Christian times facilitated one's passage to the next life. Like a Tesla carrying Major Tom (!).
I'm always reminded of Byron's epic poem 'Don Juan' in Turkey as the eponymous hero is hidden by several young women in the Ottoman Sultan's seraglio (harem) and elsewhere we learn the folly of post mortem arrangements in the hope of something more:
 

What are the hopes of man? Old Egypt's King
Cheops erected the first pyramid
And largest, thinking it was just the thing
To keep his memory whole, and mummy hid;
But somebody or other rummaging,
Burglariously broke his coffin's lid:
Let not a monument give you or me hopes,
Since not a pinch of dust remains of Cheops

from Don Juan 
Lord George Gordon Byron - (1788 -1842 - romantic dead poet)

 

 

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Archaeological Museum
Top right: Sidamara Sarcophagus from Ambararasi  Roman period, 2nd half of 3rd century AD
Sidamara was an ancient city in Asia Minor (now Konya in Turkey)
Bottom left: Assyrian King Shalmaneser III
Bottom right: A winged human-headed Apkallu holding a bucket and a pine cone from Nimrud, Iraq. 883-859 BCE.
Apkallu were pre-Deluge demi-gods, sometimes described as part man and part fish, associated with human wisdom.

 

Since our visit to Armenia where Mt Ararat dominates the horizon over the capital, Yerevan [Read more...], I've become more interested in the Biblical Flood myth. Mt Ararat is not in Armenia but over the nearby border in Turkey, so commenting here is appropriate. The Apkallu above is related to this myth via the Epic of Gilgamesh (c.1800 BCE) that incorporates the earliest of four recorded middle eastern flood myths, complete with an Arc and birds carrying twigs. Some archaeologists believe that these Deluge myths stem from a massive flood, suggested by overlying mud deposits, that devastated ancient Mesopotamia including ancient Kish (see the link above), now in Azerbaijan, around 2900 BCE when it was one of the few places of civilisation on Earth. At that time the climate was warming after widespread glaciation in the north. Perhaps the 'deluge' resulted from the collapse of an ice dam in the Caucuses Mountains or overtopping of the Caspian sea.

The myth of Noah is the most recent version of these recorded Deluge myths. It seems to have been incorporated into the Jewish Torah during the Second Temple period (c.500 BCE) as it's notable that the description of the ark has similarities to the design of Solomon's Temple. And the ancient myth no doubt became familiar to Jews living in Babylon during The Exile (c. 597-537 BCE). In other changes in the biblical version, around 20 gods have been reduced to one and the flood now lasts for either 150 days (Genesis 7:24) or 40 days (Genesis 7:17), up from one week in Gilgamesh. This is first of many such biblical contradictions, suggesting multiple authors and dates of composition.

After the snake that seduces Eve (also borrowed from Gilgamesh) the Deluge is the next occasion in which the concept of one all-powerful God becomes a challenge for the Torah authors. Surely they've snuck in another evil god?  Similarly attempting to deal with the causes of a natural disaster in the context of a single god all-powerful yet caring God poses challenges. No longer can one god want to destroy these annoying humans and another want to save them - now the One God decides that his creation has failed and needs to be eradicated but in a change of heart notices that Noah's family are worth saving and relents.  He's like Shiva - destroyer and saviour in one.

In addition to Flood myth and several other elements in Genesis, many verses in Ecclesiastes are taken, sometimes almost verbatim (Eccl 9:7-9), from Gilgamesh. Elsewhere, as I've mentioned elsewhere, the Bible paraphrases ancient Egyptian prayers and myths.

Thus the ancients were just as imaginative, creative and eclectic as Tolkien and AJ Rowling, possibly more so.

For Wendy no visit to Istanbul would be complete without at least one visit to the Grand Bazaar. They have a reputation for hard bargaining - she loves that. We walked the kilometre or so there and back and Wendy came away with a new light weight leather coat at a very competitive price.

 

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The Grand Bazaar - bargaining capital of the world

 

After a brief three days in Istanbul our next stop was Cappadocia.

 


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