Jodhpur and Astonished Bewilderment

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Jodhpur, a city in the state of Rajasthan, was a highlight of my 1.5-month-long trip to India. Jodhpur and its people delighted and astonished me, right up until the final hour before departing. This is about that final hour.

The morning of my departure from Jodhpur, I was rushing to grab my luggage from my hotel in an effort to catch a bus to the next town. I was taking a familiar route through the “Blue City” and passing through familiar streets. But this time, something caught my eye. Or rather, the absence of “something” caught my eye. Real estate and living space were valuable in this historical, touristy part of the city; where there weren’t commercial and residential buildings, there were temples and shrines galore. Yet here was a space, a gap in the urban sprawl, with no low rises or spires piercing upward.

Even more puzzling, stone steps beckoned up to this negative space, as if to a pedestal–but evidently with nothing on display. So, somewhat automatically and unconsciously, I ascended the stone steps, not expecting anything at all. And I gasped out loud.

Beneath my feet opened up a yawning, massive trench, so deep that its darkened bottom could not be discerned from my vantage point, its vastness so shocking that I experienced vertigo. The sound of flowing water, which I had not even registered before, rushed into my ears. Streams poured out from innumerable spouts–some animal-shaped, some seeming to seep from the rock itself–trickling down along dozens of dizzying stories of exquisitely carved tiered levels and stairs and collecting into a pool at the bottom of the trench. This pool sat at the base of a massive, monumental stone archway several stories tall. The stone at the bottom of the structure was dark with discoloration, giving the impression that the watery opening in the earth continued into infinite blackness.

I once described being “surprised” in Thailand, but surprise connotes that you have at least a minimal level of expectation of events to come, which are then contradicted by reality. Here, I could not say I experienced surprise–bewilderment would be more accurate, as I had no reference point for what I was looking at, no expectation for what it could be. Taking in the entire monumental sight of it, in that moment, the only corresponding image my mind could muster was to a Legend of Zelda video game I played as a child–which says something about the mysterious and mystical aura of the place. There was no signage, was no one around to inquire, and my guidebook had made no mention of this massive architectural trench.

Of course, I did not give up, but began exploring, walking along the edge and descending as far down as I could go without being fearful of falling in. My exploration revealed some clues. An old sign requested visitors to “remove shoes,” suggesting religious significance. Yet the place was in a state of abandonment, the grounds were too gravely and dirty to possibly walk on barefoot (even by local standards). At the same time, the water and the structure were not actively dilapidated or polluted with refuse–this fact being quite remarkable as all other negative spaces in the city were filled in with makeshift landfills.

My exploration yielded few answers, just more extreme bewilderment–and twinges of fear, as the deeper I descended into the trench, the more I felt that the inexorably flowing water and vertiginous depths were drawing me down into their subterranean maws. I climbed out and eventually caught my bus, leaving Jodhpur without solving the bewildering architectural mystery. In fact, I did not find what I had seen until long after leaving India and returning to the U.S., when I spotted an article in one of my social media newsfeeds.

Of course, many readers will have known, without my exhaustive narrative, that I had stumbled onto a bawdi, a “stepwell.” They have a long history in India serving dual purposes as water storage and sites of worship, but today they are neglected and under-appreciated in all their functions, even tourism. As photographer Victoria Lautman said, “They could be next to a shopping mall or at a popular tourist spot, and you wouldn’t know about them.”

It is truly unfortunate that stepwells are undervalued by locals, that they are falling into neglect and disrepair, that many visitors leave Jodhpur and India without experiencing the awesomeness of a stepwell. But the one small upside is that, for now, stepwells are capable of truly astonishing and bewildering those who are fortunate to stumble onto them.

Light in New York City

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One of the first things I noticed after moving to New York was the light. Light is, typically, an amorphous and shapeless phenomenon. It might bathe you in its glow, cast long blurry shadows, blind you with its glare, or scorch you with its heat–but nevertheless it generally maintains a formless, fuzzy quality. In New York City, there is no such fuzziness: here, the light travels through a linear forest of skyscrapers getting progressively more bisected into sharp angles, rectangles, polygons, and shapes of all sorts which are cast in sharp relief onto the structure walls. Alternatively, the light from the setting sun may strike a series of windows, which in turn reflect the light back onto a building across the street, ad infinitum, casting a melange of jewel-like projections onto the structure walls around you.

I love these architectural-atmospheric interactions because they enliven even the most blase of buildings, turning them into scintillating canvases or real-life abstract palettes like something out of “The Dot and the Line.” In such an ironic and acerbic city, it’s a sincere little joy that I can latch onto in the late afternoons.

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Whispers of history

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In the older neighborhoods of Istanbul, one often finds these heavy doors, tightly locked and decorated with crosses or Hebrew inscriptions. But no matter how many times you circle the walls, there is no church or synagogue in sight, only a an enigmatic wall enclosing an apparently abandoned lot.

I always feel a bit spooked by it, like I’ve seen a ghost or a corpse. When did these churches close up and bolt their doors? What was the community like that used to sustain these places of worship? Where did those people go, and where are they now? What kind of property dispute might still be going on for the land behind those walls?

Doorways, inscriptions, fountains, walls, fragments… Istanbul is replete with whispers of past history that are not audible on a cursory visit. Being able to hear them, as haunting as they are sometimes, has been one of the most rewarding parts of living here.

3 Places in Istanbul You’ve Never Been To

Below are three places I’ve recently visited during my wanderings through Istanbul: Aynalıkavak Palace, the Crimean Memorial Church, and the Zulfaris Synagogue Museum. There is no connection between them besides the fact that I had never heard about them in any guidebook or visited them on any tour: I stumbled upon or passed by them by chance, and happened to be pleased with what I found. Maybe you will be, too.

1. Aynalıkavak Palace

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There are few places in Istanbul where one can hear only the sounds of birds chirping and the hush of wind through the leaves. I was pleased to find Aynalıkavak Palace is one of those peaceful places.

Surprising to say, but Ottoman-era palaces in Istanbul are pretty much a dime a dozen. There are particularly famous ones, like Dolmabahçe, which were an obvious choice to become museums in their post-imperial lives because something made them famous (in the case of Dolmabahçe, it’s the place where Mustafa Kemal Atatürk spent his last days). But not all were that lucky. After the end of the empire, the palaces no longer served a purpose and they faced different fates–some of them became museums, some of them were converted into hotels or convention centrers (like Çırağan Palace), some of them sold to the highest bidder, and probably some of them are now gone. It would be an interesting historical exercise to survey the fates of various Ottoman palaces and what became of them over the decades after the end of the empire.

Anyway, Aynalıkavak is one of the lucky ones–it is an early 17th-century Ottoman palace-turned-museum in the Hasköy neighborhood of Istanbul, near Kasımpaşa. The building itself is a pavilion-style structure with a graceful sloping roof, topped with a dome. As I’ve mentioned, many of the structures we associate with the Ottomans are actually Byzantine designs (including Topkapı Palace) so it’s fascinating to see purely Ottoman architecture. The interior is gorgeously preserved and tastefully decorated with beautiful silk divans, inlaid-pearl furniture, chandeliers, stained glass, marble, and of course the eponymous mirrors (“Ayna” means “mirror” in Turkish). The basement floor is a museum of Turkish classical instruments.

In the backyard is a garden with a little tea shop next to a fountain and pond overlooking the lustrous Golden Horn and an expansive view of the Fatih and Balat neighborhoods–St Stephan’s Church is directly across from the palace grounds. Unfortunately, the palace’s view of said Golden Horn is almost entirely blocked by an old abandoned shipyard, an ugly development I’m sure Sultan Selim III, who restored the pavilion to its current glory and whose instrument collection is housed there, would disapprove of.

2. Christ Church (Crimean Memorial Church)

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Normally I try to be tactful, but I won’t mince words here. Tophane (the intervening neighborhood between Karaköy and Cihangir, named for the historical Tophane-i Amire structure nearby) is not a fun place. It’s a place where people can get death threats from their neighbors for throwing parties (true story). Last year during Ramadan, some locals attacked diners who happened to be eating lunch in the neighborhood. And remember those reports of pro-government gangs wielding knives and chasing down Gezi protesters? That happened in Tophane.

But during a typical day there’s no harm in strolling through Tophane, particularly because this neighborhood contains another one of those rare places of peaceful urban respite. Uphill from the waterfront and tram stop is the active Crimean Memorial Church, an Anglican church built in memory of British soldiers who perished in the Crimean War–you can read the whole story behind its history and design here.

When I visited, the building was almost entirely invisible behind the swells of nearby apartment buildings and a dense camouflage of tree covering. This makes it hard to catch a decent glimpse of the handsome Neo-Gothic stone facade. However, the upshot of its seclusion is that upon passing through the iron gate and stepping into the grounds, you feel you are in a different world. Inside the church there is a stone baptismal font, long stone inscriptions loquaciously honoring various British dignitaries, and a huge organ. On the grounds surrounding the church birds sing, cats wander, a bizarre gaggle of geese meander around with an odd sense of purpose, and groundskeepers and church clergy murmur in indistinct foreign tongues.

3. The Jewish Museum in Zulfaris Synagogue

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You would be forgiven for not knowing there was either a Jewish history museum or a synagogue in central Karaköy, down the hill from Galata Tower. I myself did not know, until one of my former professors came to town. She pointed out a nondescript salmon-colored edifice (see top left photo) and explained that the entrance to the museum is through an alley around back. I returned to the indicated spot during museum operating hours and was pleased to find she was right. The much more attractive front face of the museum (see bottom left photo) is hidden behind a high wall, a guard desk, and a metal detector–the museum keeps a low profile and tight security, I assume, due to a regrettable history of terror attacks against synagogues in Istanbul.

The Jewish Museum is housed in Zulfaris Synagogue, built sometime around 1671 and an active place of worship until being converted into a museum in 2001. The museum has three floors–the bottom contains ethnographical displays. The second, main synagogue floor (see photo on right) has a mixture of chronological and topical information about the presence and influence of Jewish peoples in the Ottoman Empire and Turkish Republic. With the stained glass window, chandeliers, starry ceiling, and Ark, you also get a sense of the beauty of the synagogue itself. The third floor, which is a balcony area overlooking the main floor, contains info-panels going in-depth about some topic of Turkish-Jewish life and history.

The exhibits are informative and up to date with recent research and relevant artifacts. The displays are in Turkish and English, and the English translations are, mercifully, excellently grammatical and comprehensible (an issue in every Turkish museum I’ve been to). It was also striking, and a bit refreshing, how positively the museum regards the influence of Ottomans and Turks on Jews. It is easy to get caught up in the recent decades of populist anti-Semitism in Turkey and not recognize the positive contributions Turkish groups and individuals have made, from Ottoman sultans welcoming Jews during the anti-Semitic pogroms in Europe to Turkish diplomats furnishing Jews with Turkish ID cards during the Second World War (thereby protecting them from harm because Turkey was neutral). I also learned the extensive impact of Jewish families, commerce, and culture on the Karaköy neighborhood, and the next chance I get, I plan to take a walking tour through the area to find Jewish places of interest in Karaköy and Galata.

Istanbul Daytrips: Churches of Fatih

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Fatih, I realized this weekend, is the most underappreciated part of the city.

Meaning “conqueror” after Fatih Mehmet who conquered Constantinople in 1453, Fatih is the part of Turkey that coincides with the historic peninsula, from the Golden Horn waterfront to the Sea of Marmara. It subsumes Sultanahmet and Eminönü, two of the most touristic portions of the city. Yet these districts are just tiny slivers of the vast culturally, spiritually, and historically fertile space encompassed within Fatih’s borders. As you can see below, a visitor can easily spend the better part of a day just visiting old sites of Christian worship, not to mention the striking Fener Lise, Valens Aqueduct, the Theodosian Wall, the Palace of the Porphyrogenitus, the neighborhoods full of centuries-old wooden Ottoman houses, and of course many mosques, tombs, and markets.

Unfortunately, Fatih, for whatever mysterious reasons, was never integrated into the usual tourist circuits; it lacks touristic amenities like hotels, ATMs, and maps, so sightseers tend not to plunge into its admittedly labyrinthine depths. Also working against Fatih among the local is its distinct reputation as one of the most religious-conservative parts of European Istanbul. Most foreign residents and even some native Istanbullites tend to avoid or deride it and its inhabitants, who are often associated with beards and baggy shalvar pants for men, face- and body-obscuring black gowns for the women, and poor-villager lifestyles.

This reputation and the associated assumptions are a shame for many reasons, not least of which is the great cultural wealth and history in Fatih. During Byzantine times this area was one of the centers of life and commerce. After the conquest of 1453 it was one of the first areas developed by the city’s new Turkish rulers. These later Ottoman developments, such as the Fatih and Selim mosque complexes, are well known. Less renowned are the older churches and other architectural artifacts of Christian power and influence. In fact, the Ecumenical Patriarchate–the seat of the Eastern Orthodox church and the residence of the Patriarch of the Orthodox Christian faith–is in Fener, a waterfront neighborhood of Fatih. But that is just the tip of the iceberg.

So in honor of Easter, try this Christian-themed Istanbul day trip and reach your own conclusions. Maybe you’ll even find the defunct dilapidated churchyard (not listed here) now being used as a goat pen. In the list below, the historical Byzantine/Christian name of the site is given first, with the later Ottoman/Turkish appellation in parentheses. For those who attempt this scavenger hunt, my recommendation would be to start at the north end of the district, in Fatih Square next to the aqueduct, and zigzag your way down toward the Golden Horn–this way you avoid climbing uphill and at the end can relax on the grassy, sunny waterfront at the end of your walking tour.

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Freewheeling Reports: Prague

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This past December, I had one motivation: get out of Turkey and get to somewhere that celebrated my kind of Christmas.

Of course, Turkey has a Christmas, of sorts. Noel bayram is celebrated as a New Year’s festival. Mall Santas, lights, and decorations show up everywhere. Many families decorate trees and exchange gifts on January 1, which is referred to as “Christmas,” but it’s all completely secular. In fact, our boss at work didn’t know that Christmas is a religious holiday until we pointed it out to her.

Normally I wouldn’t really care either way–I’ve never been particularly fond of Christmas.  But this was my first time away from home during the holidays, and the awareness that all the friends and family I cared about in the States were celebrating together made me feel especially far away and, yes, even homesick. Plus I was weatherworn, sick to death of administrative struggles at work, and just plain exhausted. The seeming inaccuracy and sacrilege of of mixing up Christmas and New Year’s Day… it was the last straw. I had to get away.

Prague was the obvious choice not just because it’s culturally Catholic (my brand of Christianity, for whatever reasons) but also  because, when I was younger, my father traveled through Central Europe for work and always brought back stories about how utterly beautiful this city is. And he was right. It was perfectly charming and just the right amount of Christmas therapy. I came upon a wondrous and confusing Christmas exhibition/craft fair in the basement of Bethlehem Church, feasted my eyes on nativity scenes and Christmas trees galore, explored Christmas stalls and markets in all the major plazas, saw lots of paintings of Jesus in the museums, and on a rainy night in the New Town stumbled upon a group of carolers singing and playing music under the Charles Bridge.

There were non-yuletide-themed activities as well: art museums, drinking copious amounts of tea and reading books in cafes when my body got too frozen, shopping, and a nifty Hall of Mirrors on Petrin Hill. I finally found a pair of hiking boots I love, and in the Shakespeare & Son’s Bookstore, I came upon a copy of Carnet de Voyage, the only Craig Thompson novel I hadn’t read (plus I was traveling solo, so reading his travel comic about traveling alone was perfect). I drank hot wine for the first time, ate street food including a foot-long crepe, listened to holiday concerts in Old Town Square, people-watched, and generally felt great surrounded by so much beauty and history. I studied European history and knew about the Defenestration of Prague, the burning of Jan Huss, the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia–but I had never been in the place where all three things had happened. (It’s rather surprising to realize how many historically significant acts of violence–defenestrations, burnings, beheadings, hangings, bombings, etc.–have happened just in the Old Town Square alone.)

At one point, I was walking around the outside of St. Vitus Cathedral, gazing at the intricacies of its facade along with hundreds of other tourists, when I heard singing. A procession dressed like the holy family–Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and a pair of angels–appeared from around a corner. They processed, singing, to the steps of the church, followed by a flock of camera-snapped tourists, and struck up an entire nativity play on the threshold of the Cathedral. I didn’t understand the Czech words, but I didn’t have to–I knew the story by heart from years of masses, Catholic schooling. In fact, I thought of all the times I had heard the story of Jesus’s birth, from my hometown in the Midwest to here in Prague, I began to cry. Even though I was here, so many degrees of separation away from where I started my journey in this weird confusing life, this story and this day (Christmas) was always there. I’m not religious, but I was struck by the power of my memories, and the power humanity has to create meaning and connect connect ourselves intensely to ourselves and each other through that meaning.

Basically, everything felt spontaneous and magical. I had an extra bit of luck: the entire IST-PRG flight was spent chatting (more like engaging in vigorous political/philosophical debate) with my Turkish seatmate, who upon landing introduced me to his girlfriend, a current Erasmus student in Prague. She eventually invited me to her friends’ Christmas Eve dinner party, organized by a friendly and vivacious group of Peruvian students and expats. Besides my Turkish friends and the Peruvian hosts, there were guests from Macedonia, Romania, Singapore, and me from America. Eating turkey and speaking Spanish among others who were far away from “home” somehow made me feel right at home. And as an English teacher, the meeting made me shiver with pride at some points: there is a lot wrong with the global spread of English but international, cross-cultural gatherings like this would never happen (or at least, be a lot less likely) without a shared language. Also, it made me realize–don’t balk from talking to folks on airplanes! You never know who you’ll meet and where it where lead.

In conclusion: Prague, folks! Go there! Belated happy holiday and check below for a photo essay.

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