Iran Life – The Beating Heart Of Persia

Insofar as a nation can be said to have a heart, then the beating heart of Persia, of modern Iran, is Hafez! Khwāja Shams-ud-Dīn Muhammad Hāfez-e Shīrāzī was a Persian poet who was born in 1325 and died in 1389. A native of Shiraz, the cultural heart of Persia, he lived and died here, hardly venturing outside of the city apart from a short period in Esfahan and Yazd for health reasons related to his writings annoying the rich and powerful!

That his works have had a profound influence on the lives of Persians and modern Iranians is without doubt. His book of verse is to be found in every home of whatever status almost without exception. Modern day Iranians can and do quote his words to fit almost any situation that arises. Little is known of his life and yet the impact of his poetry in Iran and across the globe is profound. From Goethe to Thoreau to Emerson and even Friedrich Engels his influence has been immense.


Hafez was buried in the beautiful Musalla Gardens in Shiraz. The current mausoleum was constructed in the 1930s and it is a place of pilgrimage for aficionados of the word.


The books of his words are treated as a source of inspiration for the future as Iranians open them at random in the belief that whatever page they find foretells the future. As evenings draw in and the loudspeaker system begins to gently paint his poems across the night sky, young lovers can be seen in quiet corners of the gardens checking out their future together by random openings of pages of his verse. Hafez is not to be taken lightly!

When J and I arrived on our ‘pilgrimage’ the very first thing we had to do was have our future foretold by the fortune-telling budgies at the entrance. I have to tell you that the future is good, as you would expect, if you want repeat business.


As we wandered around we became aware of a certain, small party surrounding a cleric. Our enquiries established that he was the member of the all-powerful (unelected) Supreme Council that in this case oversaw the activities of the Ministry of Culture.


Being good old fashioned egalitarians we decided to push the boundaries and join the party. We were astounded to find that mixing in was no problem as we were soon engaged in lively conversation with one of the very few security aides who were escorting the council member around. When you look at the entourage of security that prevents Turkey’s PM, RTE, or the President of the US, from getting close to the people and having a grasp on reality you can understand our amazement.


As if to reinforce the importance of Hafez in the life of Iranians, in the middle of the clerics homage to the poet a guy walked up and started to spout his verses at great length. Everyone sat or stood politely and listened attentively until he was done, offered there appreciation and then carried on.

J and the interloper

You can see from the photos that we were right in there with the cleric, his wife and the security bods – amazing in this day and age! Later we rubbed shoulders in the gift shop as we bought nick-knacks together!

Alan in Okçular

Iran Life – The Kindness Of Strangers

mashad1Mashad was an experiential disaster – a depressing waste of time and air fare! It is a fast-growing, modern city of two and a half  million people close to the Afghan and Turkmenistan border. Its name means ‘Place of Martyrs’ and its raison d’être is that the 8th Shiite imam, Ali al-Reza was murdered there 1200 years ago and it has become a place of pilgrimage as a result. The shrine is, after Mecca, the most visited place on the planet for Muslims with in excess of 20 million visitors each year. It is in a state of constant expansion, and whilst the tile-work is typically Iranian and pretty gorgeous the underlying concrete is not. The oldest and most important parts of the shrine are off-limits to non-muslims and to visit any parts require women to cover themselves with a burqa and stay separate from men – great for visitors from other cultures! The first photo sums the place up for me – a conversation where she can’t look at him and he won’t look at her! If you do decide to visit the bits that are open to you you will be escorted by an ‘indoctrination squad’  from the visitor information office.

Mashad lies along the ancient Silk Road and has been home to some of the renowned Persian poets like Ferdowsi, philosophers, artists and singers. 120kms to the west of the town is the shrine and grave of the great mathematician, astronomer, engineer and poet Omar Khayyám, assuredly a place worth an uncomfortable ride in a taxi to see. Nope! The biggest attraction was the display of oriental tea pots at the tea house! Take our advice and give Mashad a miss – the turbulence on the flight to get there was far more interesting than the destination!!

at least the gardens were nice and the teapots interesting

I said that I found Mashad depressing and so perhaps I should explain – the sight of thousands of brain-dead people, particularly women, giving in to ritualistic wailing and crying as soon as they enter the shrine of a bloke who was poisoned in 818 is enough to take away my will to live! This, along with other religious pageantry is beyond me and I despair for the future for humanity whenever it crosses my path. I have no problem with personal faith – that is a crutch that anyone is entitled to hobble along with, but please respect the rights of others, including orang-utangs, to manage without having it rammed in our faces!

On a positive note, we actually left Mashad by train after a couple of days! In the restaurant car we had the misfortune to be engaged in conversation by an imam. This imam was 71 years of age (our contemporary); he has studied the holy Qur’ån in the holy city of Qom for 50 of those years – a Koranic scholar indeed! And, he was asking us (I say ‘us’, but he wouldn’t look at J, even when she forced her way into the conversation) our opinion about why the Islamic Revolution had happened – a miscalculation on his part, perhaps! We expounded on recent history; the overthrow by the British and US of the first elected democratic Iranian government of Mohammed Mossadegh (photo) and the imposition of the despotic Riza Shah.

MossadeghThis followed by the leftist revolution that ousted the shah and then its takeover/sandbagging by the Islamists and the creation of the Islamic Republic. Factual history was not his strong point – he proceeded to deliver a lecture, sans all the murdered leftists, that had me ‘requesting’ that he shut up and let the interpreter interpret! Luckily for him, and us, the train stopped for everyone who wanted to get off for prayers and we never saw him again!

I realise that this is a disjointed way to tell a story, but I want to include the following because it is relevant to the ‘kindness of strangers’ in the title.

J and I were sitting in our hotel foyer in the city of Kerman when we were engaged in conversation by a very distinguished-looking gentleman by the name of Mohammed who was in town on business. Mohammed had been a fighter pilot in the Shah’s air force, had trained in the US and had fought during the Iran-Iraq War. Our conversation ranged over many things; internal and external politics; sanctions and the death of Mohammed’s wife just a few years earlier from cancer. Sanctions had deprived his wife of the treatments/medicines she needed to have a fighting chance of survival. It was a sad and disturbing tale related with great dignity and suppressed anger – not towards the peoples of the US and its so-called allies in the ‘innernashunal communidy’, but towards the war criminals who lead those countries.

the beautiful teashop

Time flew and we were soon enough parting to get on with our day. We were visiting the delightful old bazaar and found, by chance, a wonderfully old and beautifully restored hamam that had been converted to a very popular local tea house. As we sat sipping and soaking up the atmosphere Mohammed walked in and we called him over. He ordered up tea and a water pipe and refreshing bowls of iced ‘pudding’ and more conversation flowed. He left just ahead of us and when we called the waiter over to settle up we found that our tab had been paid ‘by the gentleman who has just left’. A small kindness from someone who had, not long before, been a stranger.

tea with a gentleman – our only photo of Mohammed
iced pud
the refreshing local, iced ‘pudding’

Keep that in mind as we get this disjointed post back on track:

Compare and contrast this with the town of Shãhrud where we hopped off the train for a couple of days’ excursions to the mountains and deserts. Shãhrud is a delight of water and trees and ordinariness. It sits at the base of the mountains by the edge of the great desert and there is much to see and enjoy. I want to concentrate on our drive out into the desert. We spent quite a lot of time observing and photographing camels! There are loads of them wandering about being nice to their babies and dust bathing!

upon reflection
modern day camelboys

We eventually turned up at a gate to a compound in a deserted village and tooted our horn. A camel checked us out, followed by a herder.

. . you rang, Sir?

We were invited in to examine the stock of youngsters and then to drink tea with him and his nephew at his home. His house was a breeze block hovel; dirt floor; smoke-blackened walls; plastic carpet. We settled down and made ourselves at home.

two members of the ‘Axis of Evil’

After he had set the teapot brewing he addressed J – ‘You are not from this country’ he said, ‘you are not used to wearing that thing’, indicating her scarf. ‘Please, you are in my home, make yourself comfortable and take it off if you would prefer’.

Can you feel my emotions as I write and you read this?

We went on to discuss, at his instigation, world affairs and sanctions in particular and how he couldn’t buy barley for his camels (this has been a hard time with lower than usual rainfall this year and so less for the animals to graze – they are thin).

a few days old
the remains of a once thriving community
the two guys maintain the qanat to bring water from those mountains

What the f$%^ the US has against people with life-threatening illness and desperately poor camel herders in Iran is beyond me (and him) but we promised that we would at least blog about it, for what it is worth! All that said, what has stuck in our minds is the gentle hospitality, kindness and thoughtfulness of a camel herder and his nephew in the great desert of central Iran and the dignified widower in Kerman. May their god go with them and may barley and medicine, along with everything else, be removed from the list of embargoed goods, and may western, colonialist despotism be removed from the lives of people everywhere. Inşallah!

Alan in Okçular

Yazd – Adobe, Wind Towers, Qanats and Tesco

More from our Iran Life trip. Let’s start with a couple of general views of the old city (photos are mostly mine with a few wiki-commons and photos of photos mixed in – the interesting effect is due to using the camera in stealth mode) salvaged from the wreckage of Archers of Okçular and first posted May 2014:



Yazd is ancient and unique! It has been continuously occupied for more than 3000 years and its remote, desert location has served it well leaving it largely untouched by the ebb and flow of kings and empires. With the rise of Islam in Persia, Yazd became a refuge for Zoroastrians and by paying a levy they, their religion and their places of worship were left alone. Islam has only become dominant here in more recent times.

The city is one of the largest in the world to be built of adobe with even new constructions being clad in this durable, eye-pleasing material. Situated at the heart of the Dasht-e-Kavir desert, Yazd has thrived by the skill and ingenuity of its architects and engineers. Architects who developed the world’s first air conditioning/refrigeration system known as wind towers and engineers who created the amazing qanats, an underground system of countless hundreds of miles of canals that bring and distribute vast quantities of water from the mountain water tables. These techniques, discovered and perfected in Yazd, have been exported worldwide.

The towers are capable of drawing air down over a fountain of cooling water or drawing air through the underground qanats into the basement and then upwards to cool the entire house. They are used to keep glacial ice from the mountains and maintain subterranean water reservoirs at near freezing throughout the summer. The ‘sticks’ you can see are an ancient form of earthquake-proofing for the structures.

probably the world’s tallest wind tower at Dolatabad Gardens
underground water cistern cooled by wind towers
J with friends and wind towers

Which leads us nicely to the qanats. Developed in Persia and perfected by Yazdi engineers some 3000 years ago they consist of a series of vertical shafts connected by a gently sloping tunnel system that taps into the water tables at the base of mountains. Water is often delivered from hundreds of miles away, feeding villages and towns in a strictly controlled and regulated way that has lasted for millennia. J remembers well (pun intended) seeing these strange circles across the desert as she flew down to Persepolis for a gig just before the revolution that overthrew the Shah.


qanat tunnel – in the tunnels feeding the desert towns the flow is often prodigious

The Water Museum in Yazd will give you a great insight into the construction and sheer scale of this amazing system – even the National Museum gardens in Tehran are fed by a qanat! Here is a photo from their exhibition of a windlass being used for moving both people and spoil.


qanat-cooled canoodling room underneath our restaurant

Finally a few random pics from the two days we were in Yazd:

old door with knockers for men and women (this is true, I promise)
the ‘lady-shaped’ knocker
the ‘man-shaped’ knocker (looks like it’s got a limp to me)
OK! I admit I have a thing about knockers – this one is for tall people of either sex!
a Boffer, his squeeze and a chipped mug
sugar loaves
another stunning bathroom tile job!
still life
a very still life

Finally, finally, if they don’t do something about this it will kill off the town centre shops (taken on the road just outside Yazd)


Alan in Okçular

Iran Life – Yazd, Towers Of Silence

yazdEvery journey begins with the first step – or words to that effect. So said Confuse Us a smart Chinese guy from the Lu dynasty about 450BCE. With that in mind we took our first ‘steps’ right over a couple of mature, laid-back Istanbul street dogs of our acquaintance. As we did so we whispered a quick ‘Thanks, SDs’ for the info that gave us the push we needed to get on with this particular ‘trip-of-a-lifetime’. That said, with so much to cover, where to begin? The toss of a coin, and the ancient desert city of Yazd it is – which suits very well because it was one of our must see places.

yazd2Our young friends from Tehran, who we first met in Istanbul, met up with us here and we spent a brilliant couple of days together exploring the city. (l-r guide Feraidoon, Siavash, Bahman, Shardi and J)

Yazd has been around for a very long time – sustained and made tolerable by life-bringing qanats and cooling wind towers, of which, more later. Often referred to as the longest permanently occupied place on Earth (a claim that Damascus might dispute), there are some who say it has been occupied for more than 3000 years – others 6000. Whatever, it was and still is the beating heart of Zoroastrianism – fire worshippers who revere the four elements. These days they are not allowed to leave their dead out on the Towers of Silence for the vultures to pick-over, they are buried in concrete lined graves to avoid any contamination of the earth, air, fire or water.

Zoroastrian Fire Temple and Eternal Flame

eternal-flame-yazd_1It is claimed that this fire has burned continuously since 720CE – Zoroastrians make up a significant minority of the Iranian population at around 5-10%. They, along with Jews and Christians are recognised religious minorities who are free to carry on their faith unmolested.

Zoroastrianism was a major influence that lay at the heart of the once mighty Sasanian Empire that spread from India in the east to Egypt and Turkey in the west between 224-652CE. It was the last Iranian empire before the advent of Islam. Two of the Towers of Silence, open to tourism, can be found on the edge of the city together with the modern Zoroastrian cemetery.



At the top of the towers there is a flat area with a stone-lined pit all surrounded by a high wall to prevent contamination of earth and wind. Here the bodies were laid out for the birds of the air to consume before the bones were dissolved. All was dealt with by a dedicated ‘volunteer’ who never left the place for fear of ‘dirtying’ the elements or people outside. An early example of a ‘job for life’! It is an eerie, other-worldly place.

view from the top – the complex and modern cemetery with Yazd in the background

On the subject of religion, which looms large in this country, we learned that there are only three calls to prayer for Shi’ite Muslims (dawn, noon, dusk). The calls are gentle and pleasing on the ear (compared to the raucus, over-amplified bellowings from mosques in Turkey) but are all-pervasive and can be heard everywhere including the metro! Religious texts are plastered everywhere in towns and cities – a sort of in-your-face subliminal indoctrination.

I could go on, but let’s bring this post to a close with a view of the magnificent Amir Chakmaq Square and Mosque. More about this fascinating ancient city soon.


Alan in Okçular

ps there are still problems with WP after they made yet another version upgrade – I’d have loved to give you some links to the content but at least the photos are here. Onwards and upwards!

Iran Life

Here we go folks – this from the salvaged Archers of Okçular blog first posted in May 2014. Enjoy the trip!

To paraphrase that old despot and war criminal (gassing Kurds in Mesopotamia in 1920 the Iraqi Revolt) Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill; ‘Iran is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.’

J and I are just back from an amazing, wonderful, depressing, fascinating and stimulating trip to the Islamic Republic. The contrasts and contradictions have been profound. From the intransigent, unbending, unhearing ‘discussion’ on a train with an imam from the holy city of Qom, who has made a life-long study of the Koran, to the quiet kindness of a desperately poor desert-dwelling camel-herder and his nephew. From the ritualised wailing of thousands of pilgrims at the shrine of the murdered Imam Riza in Mashad (the shrine attracts more than 20 million pilgrims every year, second only to Mecca, and the murder happened more than 1200 years ago!), to the residents of the ‘Art House’, a shrine to dissent, anarchy and Sponge Bob ‘somewhere in Tehran’. From the insanity of Iranian drivers to the peace, beauty, camels and flowers of the great Dasht-e-Kavir desert and the northern Arborz Mountains. And from the quiet dignity of a gentleman widowed by the wicked Western sanctions that condemned his wife to death by denying her the medicines she needed to treat her cancer, this country with its monumental wonders, culture and delightful people has engraved itself on our hearts and minds. I hope that I can pass on some of what we found so that you too will want to leave your footprint in this incredible place.

iranian-beerLest I get carried away with it all (and carry you with me), I need to relate a story that was whispered to us over an intoxicating glass of ‘Islamic beer’ (non-alcoholic) that might add a little bit of perspective. It goes like this:

‘Not long ago there was this devout, god-fearing, pleasures-of-the-flesh denying imam lying contentedly on his death bed. He knew for sure that he was headed for heaven because everything that he had ever read told him so.

houriSoon enough he passed over the great divide and awoke to find himself where he had always dreamed of and longed to be. He was surrounded by beautiful, flower-filled meadows with gently flowing streams; blossom-laden trees provided dappled shade; gentle music and song filled the air; those who shared this paradise with him spoke softly, smiled often and never argued. And then there were the gorgeous, nubile houris wandering about the place – afterlife was just perfect.

Too perfect, in fact, because our pious cleric was soon pretty much bored to death with it all – déjà vu all over again because even the houris, like his newly liberated wife (who, incidentally, thought she had died and gone to heaven when he popped his clogs) failed to tickle his libido! He took to wandering about alone, muttering and arguing with himself, shunned by the other denizens of paradise.

One day, as he wandered some distant corner of perfection, he chanced across a wall with a great iron-studded door and a small window that stood ajar. Above the door was a sign that read ‘HELL’ in large red letters. From the open window the cleric could hear the sounds of great merriment, singing, music, lively discussion – arguments even. A veritable party in full swing! Drawn by the sounds he looked in through the window and was amazed by what he saw – and even more by what he didn’t see – if this was Hell then he felt cheated by being dumped in awful, boring, perfect Heaven. It was time to take action and so he rang the bell.

His call was answered by a smartly dressed door-devil sporting a shiny evening suit who explained politely that ‘No!’ he couldn’t just walk in and wander around. He’d need to go back to Heaven and apply for a visitor’s visa at the Hellian embassy. This he did and in no time at all he was back at the frontier door where he was duly stamped in for a two week visit by the unsmiling and rather bored looking immigration devil.

Our cleric had a whale of a time – he partied, laughed a lot, was treated like royalty, ate exotic food, drank finest Shiraz wine, chatted-up the girls, watched the odd raunchy stage show and generally made up for lost time. Sadly, his visit was soon over and as he left, his head ringing with cries of ‘Come and visit us again soon’ and ‘We’ll be waiting for you’, his suitcase felt as heavy as his heart.

Back in heaven he was soon bored out of his brain with the mind-numbing routine of the perfect afterlife. He longed to be back in Hell partying with the best of them. So it was that he went back to the Hellian embassy where he applied for permanent residency. The smiling and very charming diplomatic devil asked him if he was sure because such permits were one-way, there would be no going back if he changed his mind. Fuelled by the memories of his two weeks of holiday the imam signed on the dotted line, picked up his documents and headed for the doorway to Hell – he was happy and smiling and felt as if he were walking on air! Ahead lay a new afterlife that was one to die for.

At the entrance to Hell the door-devil examined his documents, smiled, closed the great iron-studded door with a clang and ushered him through the body scanner and into Hell proper. As he stepped through he was met by a wall of noise, wailing and gnashing of teeth. Devils with pitchforks and cattle-prods were tormenting people at every turn  and the smell of burning, tortured flesh was everywhere. As our cleric recoiled from the reality that confronted him, he turned to the devil aghast – ‘What is this place? When I was here before everything looked wonderful to me. I so wanted to be here.’

‘Ah!’ smiled the devil, ‘when you were here before you were a tourist. Now you live here!’

koh-i-noordiamondThe moral? There are more facets to exploring another culture that on the Koh-i-Noor diamond – always look under the bed and behind the curtain! We’ll do our best to offer more than just amazing mosques, incredible columns, scintillating ceilings and the like – although there will be plenty of those!

Next post the story begins. Welcome to ‘Iran Life’.

Alan in Okçular

Further Up The Creek

Los Llanos – Venezuela

Last post I’d rambled on about various trips of a lifetime, one of which included Venezuela, and that got me digging out some of the photos from that little foray. Clicking through them revived memories of sights and smells, particularly from our exploration of Los Llanos (Loz Yanos) with naturalist and all-round nut-case Roger Manrique aka ‘Croc Roger’. Now, this blog is supposed to be about living in Turkey but as our trip started here I decided to stretch a point and share some moments with you.


Los Llanos is a vast, semi-flat wetland area in Barinas Province. It’s criss-crossed by countless rivers that all feed into the mighty Orinoco River. Crossing one of the numerous bridges en-route to our base I was surprised (although I shouldn’t have been as the largest known oil reserves in the world are here) to be driving by a Venezuelan Navy base.

Due to flooding in the wet season all of the roads are raised up on dykes that have been constructed by digging out along each side. This means that during the dry part of the year great pools remain that attract the wildlife from all around. Observing at close quarters is ridiculously easy and when you add in river trips to seek out everything from anaconda to caiman to electric eels to iguana to piranha to giant river otters to pink dolphins to . .

three different Ibis in one shot

What follows is a glimpse of what is in store for those intrepid wanderers who don’t take the plunge like Roger and stay sensible and fairly dry with fingers and toes tucked well in! Meet Pepe, an orphan Giant River Otter that was adopted by a local – he’s loving and inquisitive; fishing piranha for supper; getting wrapped around a male anaconda; three different coloured ibis in one shot and sunsets to die for!

Roger catches young male Anaconda
Roger shows Anaconda’s teeth
Anaconda demonstrates use of teeth!
J demonstrates her skill at snake charming
Emerald Kingfisher
Howler Monkeys (they really do!)
J with ‘Pepe’ a young Giant River Otter
Piranha – this time . .
I get to eat you for supper!
. . as the sun goes down
. . the Iguana come out
as handsome a vulture as I’ve ever seen
domesticated bliss!
a fishing eagle
Anteater at dusk
beautiful reflections on water

Alan, once upon a time up the Orinoco without a paddle!

Yet Another ‘Trip of a Lifetime’

J and I love the odd ‘trip-of-a-lifetime’ every now and again! Since moving here to Turkey we’ve wandered off on the Trans-Mongolian Railway from Moscow to Beijing; (salvaged from Archers of Okçular first posted February 2014)


With many, many, many days spent rocking across the steppes in a daze (I never realised there were so many different types/flavours of vodka) there would come times when one needed a shower. Our babushka would hold up five fingers, snatch the dollars and direct you into her cubicle where sat one of these . .


Your $5 bought you the contents of the samovar, a bit of rubber hose for the tap and a squat over the drain-hole in the corner – oh, and she kept guard in the entrance way and held your soap if required!

We’ve taken in the Panama Jazz Festival for no better reason than the delightful local pianist Danilo Perez invited us. We were also treated to passes that admitted us to everything (including many a meal). Danilo is the founder and the festival supports young musicians from poor circumstances with tuition, instruments and scholarships to Berkeley School of Music. Add to the glorious music some wonderful exploration trips along the canal and to beaches and islands and the vultures at sunset and you have a perfect encore.

our son Ben, sound engineer of choice for many big names and venues, at the board in the beautiful old National Opera House in Panama City – on stage are some of the young and very talented musicians enjoying their very own gig

From Panama we wandered across to take in some of the revolutionary and ecological joys of Venezuela. In Caracas we met with Chavistas and the amazing Presidential Guards from Chavez’ old regiment who reversed the US instigated coup against him in days! In Merida up in the Andes we rode to the top of the longest and highest cable-car in the world whilst stubbornly refusing the available oxygen bottle and we got an OAP discount into the bargain! Then we found local field biologist, guide and artist Roger crocroger1Manrique aka Croc Roger who led us exploring the backwaters of the mighty Orinoco River where we wrestled with Anacondas and Iguanas (this is true), fished piranha for dinner (this is also true) and saw and photographed more wildlife than you could believe existed! We also spent a few days on the tropical paradise islands of Los Roques where, amongst other things, I was able to ogle the amazing creations that plastic surgeons can achieve in exchange for a lot of dosh – you are left wondering what keeps them up!

. . and now? We are in the early stages of organising a tour of the Glories of Persia – we are (visas and other things being equal) going to be wandering around in Iran for 16 days in April. We’ll be using as much local transport, buses, trains and the like as we can in order to be in contact with ‘ordinary’ Iranians.

Originally we’d hoped to travel by train from Istanbul to Tehran but I think a Turkish Airlines flight is going to simplify the bureaucracy. Then it’s off to places like Esfahan; Shiraz; Bam; Yadz and even Mashad way over in the east of the country before wandering back to Tehran via the Aborz Mountains just south of the Caspian Sea. So much history and culture and food and people to learn about before we get too cranky and creaky – wish us luck with officialdom!

Alan in Okçular

Konya – Sahip Ata – Life After Death

dervisThere’s a lot more to Konya than Whirling Dervishes, the Mevlana Museum and the haunting sound of the ney. Konya has been around for a while and in that time it has hosted everyone from Neolithic hunter-gatherers and Hittites, to various Greeks, Romans and Persians. And then the Seljuk Turks rolled in and had their day before getting rolled up by the marauding Mongol hordes around 1243.

Anatolian_Seljuk_SultanateThe Seljuk Sultanate of Rum (as in Rome and not Capt. Morgan) was a pretty successful set up in its day. Covering much of present day Anatolia it traded across the Mediterranean basin and Middle East. It was powerful and wealthy enough to battle the Crusaders and foster art and architecture on the grand scale and Konya was its principle city for much of its existence.

So, where is this leading? J and I had been to the fabulous Neolithic site at Çatalhöyük and so a visit to Konya’s Archaeological Museum to see some of the stuff that had been excavated was a must. The museum is not far from the centre and is in the type of area that we love to wander around – a bit run down and lived in!

As we got close to the museum we were delighted to discover one of the unsung treasures of Konya – the restored Sahib Ata Camii and medrese. Named for one of the greatest builders of the Seljuk Turkish Empire; the Vezir Sahip-I Ata Fahrettin Ali.

Once this was a vast complex but only parts have survived to present times. What remains of the mosque is now simple and beautiful and lives on in everyday use. A fabulous restoration of the monumental gate with its stunning minaret and the medrese took place during 2006-7 with the medrese serving as a museum of Seljuk arts. The hamam and tekke or dervish hall are undergoing restoration.

There is no better way to show you the worth and wonder of this place than to show you some before and after pictures – it’s one for your bucket list! First, a couple from the archive of that amazing woman Gertrude Bell:

the complex and that part of Konya as it was in Bell’s time
the monumental entrance and minaret before . .
. . and after
inside the medrese before
. . and after
the turbe of Sahip Ata and his family before restoration . .
. and after
medrese dome

There is a collection of beautiful artifacts that will delight your eye . .

. . doors, and . .
carpets, and . .
beautiful, illuminated Qur’an’s
the minaret that stands by the monumental entrance and much more

Finally, a link to a 3D view around the Monumental Entrance to the Sahip Ata Camii and website in English.

Alan Fenn, Okçular


sadJ and I went off wandering again this past week – the Prime Directive was to visit Çatalhöyük near Konya and then tuck in a few other goodies as time and circumstance allowed. We both thought that the on-going excavation of this astonishing Bronze Age settlement was brilliant. I, for one, was fired up and set about trying to transfer that fire into a blog post that just might convey something of what we had seen. I was minutes away from posting when everything vanished; text, photos – the lot. There was nothing on the server where you would have expected the last auto-save to be and the auto back-up on my computer was blank! I have never experienced anything like it. Disheartened was not the word!

Anyway, enough of all that – let’s see if I can’t recapture at least some of that enthusiasm.

catalhoyuk-mound_1Picture, if you can, the vast flatlands of central Anatolia, dry and brown after the burning heat of summer. This land is the ‘breadbasket’ of Turkey, in some ways similar to the North American prairie or the steppes of Ukraine. Out of this flatness a mound some 21 metres high rises, topped by two alien structures – this is Çatalhöyük, the site of one the oldest human settlements yet discovered.

Now, let your imagination run loose because the area around Çatalhöyük was not always as you see it today. Let your mind drift back in time for 9000 years and you will be looking out over a landscape that is green and lush with forest; a river and waterways criss-cross that land and great meres or pools are dotted around. The rivers and pools and forest are alive with wildlife and the forest and meadows yield fruit and berries and roots and grain of every description. For the wandering hunter-gatherers of the time this was paradise – a cornucopia, and so they broke with tradition and hung around for a while.

Çatalhöyük circa 7000 BCE – artist’s impression (my photos of paintings)


Gradually their simple, temporary shelters were replaced by more permanent mud brick and timber structures. That what they were doing was a whole new experience in DIY might be gathered from the ‘interesting’ design of their homes – windows and doors were yet to make an appearance! Access was through a hole in the flat roof using a type of ladder. Access and egress to the settlement was via external ladders and I guess that with ladders hauled up a sense of security was gained from the unknown things that go bump in the night and just might be lurking out there!

Çatalhöyük’s houses were built against each other and there were no streets or alleyways; perhaps the rooftops provided thoroughfares and ‘plazas’ for gatherings and work. The life of a house appears to have been around eighty years after which they were part demolished and a new house built on the site using the old as a foundation. Over the course of around 1500-2000 years the mound as we see it today grew up.

Çatalhöyük – reconstructed house used to test ideas and theories about life 9000 years ago

The dead were buried under the floor of the houses and covered by a small, flat raised mound which may also have been used for sleeping on. Why? No one knows. That the dead were respected is evident from the nature of the burials, particularly those of children.

Çatalhöyük – child burial, note bracelets and beads

What are believed to be shrines of some sort have been excavated and effigies of bulls and bulls’ horns form an integral part of a religion of some sort.

digital reconstruction of a shrine

Art played a significant role in the lives of these people with houses decorated and elaborate figures sculpted, many in the form of a female. It was once believed that worship of the female or some Earth Goddess was prevalent but this has changed as excavations and research has opened up new avenues. Today it is believed that men and women ranked equally in status and the lack of ‘public buildings’ points towards a more ‘socialistic’ or communal way of life with full sharing of the fruits of the community’s labour the norm.

7000 year-old hand prints

‘Enough of this history!’ I hear you say, so let me add a bit about our visit to Çatalhöyük. Excavations go on for about two and a half months each summer and, much as we would have liked to see this underway, there is no way J and I are going to do the ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen (and women)’ bit! We prefer the cooler, tourist-free days, and so it was that we had the whole site to ourselves. There is no entrance fee and as nobody is allowed to wander the site unescorted we had our very own guardian/guide, Mustafa, to show us around – he was a mine of information and to make the most of him you would need reasonable Turkish.

J with our personal guardian/guide Mustafa

James Melaart discovered Çatalhöyük in 1958 and carried out excavations between 1961 and 1965 before controversy closed the dig down. In that time he uncovered a relatively huge area of some 160 buildings. Work began again in 1993 under the direction of Ian Hodder. In the 25 years between the methods and techniques of archaeology have developed hugely. Hodder and his multi-disciplinary team has taken 20 years to painstakingly excavate just a few houses. The results have opened up the Neolithic/Bronze Age world in astonishing detail. Finds from Çatalhöyük are so significant that the majority are housed in Ankara with just a few in Konya Archaeological Museum. What follows are a few photographic impressions – don’t let the apparent ‘sepia’ tint turn you off – you are looking at one of the oldest and best preserved ‘cities’ ever discovered. Let your imagination go walk-about.

 painstaking attention to detail
earliest known fragments of cloth
Melaart’s earlier excavations
your first glimpse of the excavations – at this level you are looking back 7000 years!
excavations have continued at Melaart’s original dig – down to bed-rock through 18 levels (9000 years)
decoration on the original plaster wall of a house

. . and finally, the figure that has come to symbolise everything that Çatalhöyük has come to represent . .


. . once thought to represent an Earth or Mother Goddess its meaning has been obscured by more recent studies. That said, nothing can take away the power of this figure from a lost world that is slowly emerging from the mists of time. A link to a recent Mail Online article about the world’s oldest painting.

Alan in Okçular

Encounters and Coincidence

“A certain man once lost a diamond cuff-link in the wide blue sea, and twenty years later, on the exact day, a Friday apparently, he was eating a large fish – but there was no diamond inside. That’s what I like about coincidence.”
― Vladimir Nabokov, Laughter in the Dark

(rescued from Archers of Okçular first posted October 2013)

Jazz-musician-John-SurmanJ and I wandered off to İstanbul last Friday. We were going to meet up with saxophonist John Surmanwho was doing a solo gig at the İstanbul Jazz Festival – JS is family and we don’t get to meet up as often as we’d like. This time around his schedule was more relaxed than is usual with these things and we were able to go for some essential shopping around the musical instrument makers’ places of business at the top of Tünel for odds and sods and, perhaps, a new ‘toy’ or bit of serious gear.

First stop was for a zurna, that quintessential Middle Eastern horn, with its most distinctive sound. We’d stopped by a particular shop three or four years earlier with Jack Dejohnette‘s ‘Ripple Effect’ group and Brazilian multi-instrumentalist Marlui Miranda who had been delighted to get her hands on her very own zurna.

‘Ripple Effect’ Jack on drums, JS in reflection (2nd/3rd from r) Marlui extreme right (JazzItalia photo)

Moving on, we were looking for a particular type of reed for some obscure horn JS had acquired some years earlier – we found some in the atelier/atelye/workshop of a saz and kemençe maker Oktay Üst. Turns out that Oktay is not just a master craftsman in wood, he is also a maestro of the kemençe with an international reputation.

KemenceJS acquired a mey, Oktay launched into a mini-concert and there was hardly a dry eye in the house. Why? because people like Oktay are a dying breed – makers and players of musical instruments are being fast superseded by cheap, mass produced plastic and that should be worth a tear from any lover of artistry.

As an aside, it is amazing what happens when the craftsmen/sellers/shopkeepers realise that they are dealing with someone who can really play these things – rather than someone who wants a wall or table decoration. 30-40% discounts are given and extra reeds thrown in without being asked for. Before you get any ideas, you’ll need to know which end to blow into and demonstrate a bit more than the equivalent of ‘chopsticks’! Above left you can see a zurna, two meys, a kemençe and a cd all by Oktay.

js au
JS and Oktay Üst – two Maestros

So, moving on. We had just left Oktay’s place when we were accosted by three young people who appeared to be trying to flog us a cd of some sort.

jsWe could not have been more wrong – JS suddenly spotted that the cd they were ‘offering’ was one of his and an encounter and a coincidence came together. It turned out that these folks had come from Tehran, Iran for a visit to friends and specifically because their jazz idol John Surman was performing at the festival. They had bought their cd locally as they are not available back home and they just happened to be walking down this particular street as JS came out of Oktay’s place – a Close Encounter of the Coincidental Kind and a perfect chance to get an autograph!

We were able to enjoy a little time with them and then meet up later at the concert which, I have to say, was yet another virtuoso performance that ended with JS playing an encore of jazzed-up folk tunes whilst wandering around the auditorium. To those who don’t know John’s stuff I’d say ‘You really don’t know what you are missing’. His output over the years has been prolific and varied – from jazz to choral to brass to . . well, you name it. (his website is here) J and I are lucky enough to have several class musicians in the family, it means we get to be at some of the best gigs around, not only that, I can’t remember the last time we had to pay! How cool is that?

To finish off here are a few photos:


sound check with the mighty baritone sax
JS, J, sound engineer Paul (in red) and the Tehran Fan Club

Finally, here’s maestro-usta Oktay Üst performing:

Alan in Okçular