Monday, April 25, 2016

Touring Üsküdar

Touring Üsküdar

Touring Üsküdar
(Photo: Today's Zaman, Mehmet Yaman)

The landscape of İstanbul seems more artistic if you look from Üsküdar -- that is, of course, if you ignore the freakish buildings.
We decided to take a tour of Üsküdar in the month of Ramadan. Yahya Kemal, a famous poet, favored this part of the city because it was conquered first, praising it as follows: “Üsküdar, the city of witnesses of a magic dream / Every other city envies you…” This district hosts a number of important places that make İstanbul memorable. It welcomes its visitors via Maiden's Tower, the Aziz Mahmud Hüdai Tomb, Çamlıca and Çengelköy. It is summer time. It is hot everywhere. But still we identified a route for a tour in Üsküdar to have a better taste of the spiritual atmosphere of the city. I should tell you in advance that the tour does not include certain famous places like Kuzguncuk, Beylerbeyi, Çengelköy and Kandilli. Only the destinations within walking distance are included. Well, let's get started:

Salacak and Maiden's Tower

We have a suggestion for those who would like to see the historical peninsula. At sunset, you can break your fast in a restaurant here or on the rocks looking towards the Blue Mosque or Hagia Sophia. The azan is filling the air. It is accompanied by a nice view of Maiden's Tower and İstanbul's historical imagery. The nice thing is that here you can't see the modern skyscrapers destroying the city's skyline.
1- Rum Mehmet Pasha Mosque
Some readers may ask whether this is the right place to start an Üsküdar tour. Let me explain. We briefly pass by a mosque named after Mihrimah Sultan, Sultan Suleiman's daughter, and the Yeni Valide Mosque built by Emetullah Rabia Gülnuş Sultan, mother of Sultan Mustafa II and Ahmed III, as they are typically the first places that welcome visitors of this part of the city. Our destination is Salacak. After passing by the Şemsi Paşa Mosque, you will see the office of the marriage registry to your right. Just there, a mosque is hidden among the trees. This mosque, built by Sulatan Fatih's vizier, Rumi Mehmed, was first used in 1471. The inner part of the mosque, reflecting the characteristics of Byzantine and Ottoman architectural practices, is cozy. I should clarify one matter: There were a lot of masjids, or small mosques, before the conquest of the city, but this is the first building made in the form of a large mosque.
2- Ayazma Mosque
Ayazma is located in a neighborhood adjacent to the Şemsi Pasha Mosque. The mosque, built by Mustafa III, was first used in 1760. The Janissary Graveyard, Italian-style tiles and its magnificent atmosphere make this a special place that must be seen. As we know, Mehmet Tahir Ağa is the architect of this building. Hopefully, public authorities will pay care and attention to the building, whose architect was Mehmet Tahir Ağa, as the mosque has been under restoration for three months.
3- Aziz Mahmud Hüdayî Tomb
After passing through the hills, our next destination is the final resting place of a fairly important person: Aziz Mahmud Hüdayi, one of the spiritual leaders in the city. Born in Ankara in 1548, Hüdayi was serving as a qadi -- a member of the judiciary who settled legal disputes in Ottoman times -- in Bursa. However, he left his post to become a student of Üftade, the saint who lived in Bursa. His tomb hosts a number of visitors every day. Hüdayi, who died in Üsküdar in 1628, was buried on the grounds of his shrine. Let us recall his prayer before leaving his tomb, which is adorned with a special and famous prayer: “Those who visit me in my tomb or recite part of Quran are ours; those who love me shall not drown in the sea, shall not suffer from poverty and shall keep their faith intact.”
4- Doğancılar Park
Well, it is now time for some rest. The road will take us from the tomb to Doğancılar Park. This is like home of serenity and peace. It resembles the large room of a palace. While here, one should also visit the Nasuhi Mehmet Efendi Mosque and the tomb right across from the park. This is also a sacred place where Miraciye, an important text describing the Prophet Muhammad's ascension to Heaven, was written.
5- Karacaahmet Sultan Tomb
Karacaahmet Sultan, one of the dervishes of Hacı Bektaş Veli, is one of the spiritual leaders buried in Üsküdar. His tomb is found in a temple serving as cemevi (house of union). We should also note that the area named after him is the largest graveyard in Turkey.
6- Valide-i Atik Külliyesi (social complex)
Next we walk towards the Zeynep Kamil neighborhood. On the left-hand side, we see Şakirin Mosque, built in a modern style. The social complex appearing in front of us is the final work of Sinan the Architect. This is the old Valide Mosque, built in 1583. The construction of the building was sponsored and funded by Nurbanu Sultan, mother of Sultan Murad III. The mosque exhibits the finest examples of İznik tiles. It is also reported that Khidr -- a revered figure in Muslim and Islam-influenced areas who is believed to be described in the Quran as a righteous servant of God -- performed prayers here. The garden of the mosque is a peaceful oasis. You should have some rest under the old trees here and, during Ramadan, enjoy a glass of tea. Those who are not overtired can continue on to the Çinili Mosque as well.
7- Üsküdar Square
We descend towards the square after visiting the social complex. On our way, we commune with the historical streets of Üsküdar. We observe a number of historical artifacts and works along the road -- baths, shrines and tombs. The first significant place welcoming us to the square is the Karadavut Mosque. If you wish, you may have some rest there. I also recommend the tea houses right behind the municipal building after your iftar, or fast-breaking dinner.
8- Fethi Pasha Grove
The time for iftar is approaching. Now we have a dilemma. The Fethi Pasha Grove is the right place for those who would like to break their fast in a green area. It is located on the right-hand side in the direction of the bridge. I should note that this place has become popular as the location of the Hüseyin Avni Pasha Mansion, which recently burned down.


Monday, April 11, 2016

Day trip Cappadocia: Güzleyurt, Ihlara, Selime and Ağzıkarahan

Day trip Cappadocia: Güzleyurt, Ihlara, Selime and Ağzıkarahan

Day trip Cappadocia: Güzleyurt, Ihlara, Selime and Ağzıkarahan
Ihlara Gorge (Photo: Pat Yale)

“Not much that's definite is known about the underground cities. Some people think the Hittites built them to hide from their enemies. Some Americans have suggested the climate got colder and people lived in them to keep warm. Some think they were built so that Christians could hide from the Romans during persecution periods.”
We're standing in the entrance to the Güzleyurt Yeraltı Şehri, one of a network of so-called underground cities that thread their way through the soil of Cappadocia, and our guide is running through what little is known about them. Then the group is off, squeezing its way down a chute that leads from the upper to the lower level of this one, the only one in which archeologists have been able to identify a toilet, despite the fact that people may have spent weeks if not months at a time hiding inside these man-made underground cave labyrinths.

Lovely Güzelyurt lies on the less-visited western side of Cappadocia and it's the first main stop on one of the day tours from Göreme. As we approach the underground city, the road winds down into a beautiful wooded valley, great splashes of greenery contrasting beautifully with the honey-colored stone of the mainly abandoned houses of old Gelveri, the largely Greek town that existed here before the Greco-Turkish population exchange of 1923.

A path trails from the entrance of the underground city to the local mosque, a grand building in a walled garden that started life as a church built beside an ayazma, or sacred spring, still accessible today down a steep flight of stairs. The original church on the site dated back to 385 when it was commissioned by the Emperor Theodosius and named after Gregory of Nazianus (329-90), a local boy who had risen to become the Archbishop of Constantinople and was later canonized. The church you see today, however, is a rebuild of 1835 that was turned into a mosque after the population exchange, with the addition of a minaret over the gate. Happily, although the walls were whitewashed to conceal their frescoes the old wooden iconostasis was reused to make an attractive surround for the new mihrab while the wooden pulpit donated by Tsar Nicholas II was left in its place on a pillar.

On a tour there's not enough time to look around the rest of Güzelyurt, but staying visitors will find that it's home to several rock-cut medieval churches as well as to a more unusual rock-cut mosque. On the outskirts, the 19th-century Yüksek Kilise (High Church) perches picturesquely on a rock overlooking a lake.


Ihlara Gorge

The church-mosque and underground city may be fascinating, but the central feature of this particular tour is a walk through the middle of the spectacular Ihlara Gorge, a 14-kilometer-long canyon carved out of the rocky landscape by the Melendiz Çayı, a river that still ripples along its bottom providing a wonderfully refreshing backdrop for the walk. You can walk the entire length of the gorge in a single day without any special training, but most tours stick with a more manageable abbreviated stroll of around four kilometers along a path that is clearly laid out and well labeled.

The 400-odd steps down from the main entrance deposited us near the colorful ninth or 10th-century Ağaçaltı Kilise (Under the Tree Church), which is particularly unusual in featuring a very battered fresco of Daniel in the Lion's Den in the apse where one might more normally expect to see a figure of the Pantocrator or of Mary with Jesus. It being August, groups were queuing up to follow us into the tiny cross-shaped church cut straight out of the rock, so off we hurried to begin out walk.

I've always loved Ihlara and even today when it is far more “discovered” than when I first saw it on my own in 1992, it still retains its charm. Reclining on cushions on a platform set up in the water, glass of freshly squeezed orange juice in hand, ducks swimming past in hope of scraps of gözleme, I felt myself in heaven, a feeling only slightly dented by the over-development around Belisirma village where everyone stops for a trout lunch beside the river.

Selime Monastery

After lunch our minivan picked us up to drive to the pinprick village of Selime at the far end of the gorge, which is dominated by one of Cappadocia's biggest and most impressive rock-cut monastic complexes (the trouble with walking the entire gorge alone is that you end up here, 14 kilometers away from your car, unless you can arrange for someone to pick you up later).

The monastery, too, is a great deal more discovered than it used to be, with a ticket booth greeting visitors, where in the past you were lucky even to find the custodian (the same ticket covers admission to both the Ihlara Gorge and the Selime Monastery -- most tour prices include entry fees). Still, this is a stunning, unforgettable place where it's hard to know which is the more memorable: the steep-sided rock-cut path wide enough only to put one foot in front of the other; the huge, soot-blackened kitchen with its soaring pyramidal chimney; the lovely carved lintel over the doorway leading into a church on two stories with Romanesque-style columns: or the so-called “cathedral,” its frescoed images of stories from the Bible so soot-blackened that unless urgent restoration is carried out they will soon be lost altogether.

Across the road from the huge rock cone of Selime is a cemetery dominated by one of the conical türbes (tombs) that are scattered across the Selçuk heartlands.

Ağzıkarahan Caravanserai

On the way back to Göreme we stopped off in the village of Ağzıkara, which is home to one of the finest of the great caravanserais built by the Selçuks right the way across Anatolia. These caravanserais were prototype hotels where traveling salesmen and their animals could put up for three days with the state bearing the cost of their accommodation. Most were built as far apart from one another as a camel could comfortably walk in a day, although the one at Ağzıkara is actually quite close to the newly restored caravanserai of Tepsidelik, now converted into a restaurant.

Ağzıkarahan is a fairly typical caravanserai, its austere, almost fortress-like outside walls cheered up only by an outburst of glorious carving around the main entrance. It was commissioned in 1231 when the great Selçuk leader Alaeddin Keykubad I was ruling from Konya and completed in 1239 by which time Giyaseddin Keyhüsrev had succeeded him.
Inside, the huge courtyard is broken up by a mescid (chapel) raised up on stone stilts, the steps leading up to it almost as elaborately carved as the entrance. On one side of the courtyard a vast, high-ceilinged stable to accommodate the camels in winter is fitted with stone ledges that could serve as beds but also made it easier to unload the animals. On the other side an open-sided arched area provided stabling in summer.

Fate has not been kind to Ağzıkarahan, which attracted quite a lot of tourists until four years ago when a bypass left it high and dry. Since then, the visitors have virtually dried up. Now it is being restored. Rumor has it that it, like Tepsidelik, will be turned into a restaurant afterwards.

On our way back to Göreme we made one last photostop in front of Uçhisar Kalesi, another soaring rock cone. Back at the travel agency, we downed a reviving drink and chatted over nibbles. It had been a long day but a thoroughly satisfactory one, of that fact we were all agreed.

Pat Yale was a guest of Heritage Travel (, tel: 0384-271 2687) in Göreme.

Keywords: Cappadocia , trip

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