“Why Kayseri?” is one of the most common questions asked to me by neighbors, students, and other Turkish friends, including residents of Kayseri. With ocean front and cosmopolitan cities like Istanbul, Izmir, and Antalya, and even a bustling capital in Ankara, my students are always curious how I ended up in what many people view as a kind of no-man’s land.
The simplest and easiest answer to this question is, “It wasn’t my choice. I chose Turkey, but not Kayseri.”
However, this comes off a little harsher than it should. Although it’s true that I had no control over where I would be placed, I’ve enjoyed my year in one of Turkey’s fastest growing cities.
Kayseri, my home for nearly 8 months now, is located in practically the geographic center of Turkey. It lies
between Turkey’s green, but bustling Western shores and the eastern wilderness beyond the mountains. What was once a sleepy backwater of 65,000 in 1950 has grown into a city approaching one million. Particularly since the Turkish government began opening up more opportunity’s for private companies in the 1980s, Kayseri now serves as one of the major industrial centers in Turkey. Economists refer to Kayseri as one of Turkey’s “Anatolian Tigers” continuing to provide a powerful surge to the Turkish economy.
The position as economic power player is not a strange one for Kayseri. Kultepe, a 4,000-year-old settlement located next to Kayseri, served as one of the major commercial settlements of the Hittite empire. Turkish historians have referred to the site as “one of the world’s first cities of free trade.” Kayseri’s location also puts it right along the Silk Road. For this reason, the city would remain an important one for the Byzantine Christians and Seljuk Muslims who would later rule. Churches, caravanserais, madrassahs, mosques, and an old fortress still stand as relics from those empires.
The city continued to rise and fall over its four-thousand year history. Kayseri holds many names including Mazarca, Eusebia, Caesarea Cappadociae, Kaisariyah, and now Kayseri in the Turkish Republic. For a long time, it remained a diverse city with a variety of Muslims and Christians living together including significant Armenian and Greek populations. However, the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the chaos that ensued would ultimately eliminate Kayseri’s ethnic diversity over time. Today, the city is well over 90% Muslim like the rest of Turkey.
Moreover, Turks identify Kayseri as one of the country’s most conservative locations. Which brings me back to the initial question: “Why Kayseri?” Many Turks would ask me if I liked Kayseri, if I found it a good place to live, and if the people were “nice there?” Imagine a foreigner coming to live in the US, and their destination is Utah or Mississippi. In the eyes of many, that’s the equivalent of my move to Kayseri.
There is no question that Kayseri is conservative, at the outset. There are only two bars in the city that I know
of (I haven’t really been looking), and the restaurants and shops are usually locked up and shut by 10pm, even on Friday and Saturday nights are usually. The cities most famous citizen is the current president of Turkey, Abdullah Gül, who belongs to Turkey’s conservative leaning Justice and Development Party.
But, living in the city, particularly at the university, has led me to see Kayseri in a different light. Yes, religion is practiced more in Kayseri than in Istanbul. However, this isn’t special to Kayseri, and in fact, most Turks I’ve met in Anatolia (Turkey’s Asian plain) have been more religious. But, they’ve also been respectful and tolerant of differences. I am occasionally asked if I’ve considered becoming a Muslim by friends, but after sharing my thoughts, we almost always move on to other topics with ease.
The other thing I’ve noticed is that students from Kayseri are as tolerant of differences as most other Turkish students . Last February, I wrote an article about Turkey’s ideological split regarding the wearing of headscarves where five students from Kayseri explained how they may have one belief, but don’t want to force it on another. For my more religiously observant students, they’re seeking equality more than conformity.
With that said, not all of Kayseri is as forward thinking. Some families and dormitories impose curfews for their daughters and female students as early as 7pm. Issues including ethnic differences and sexual orientation are certainly still taboo in many circles in this city, but I’ve yet to see how the issues in Kayseri are different from Turkey’s capital of Ankara, where I also lived. Ankara’s size and position of capital does mean more diverse groups of people live there, but the culture is extremely familiar.
In Anatolian cities like Kayseri, I’ve met extremely friendly people. People who have invited me into their homes for dinner. People who have driven me 25 miles outside the city in order to learn something about their history or their family. People who have helped me find the things I need to manage my life in the strange but increasingly modern and westernized city of Kayseri.
I think the fears of a conservative revolution emerging from Kayseri is a bit overblown. Its residents will continue to hold on to traditional values that have been apart of their lives for generations. But, Kayseri is an emerging city with plenty of room to grow. Turkey remains a youthful nation, over half the country is under 25. The students here are looking forward, and hoping to find successful careers in the global marketplace. Kayseri is ever evolving.
This is “why Kayseri” is a interesting place to be.
(For all of my photos from Kayseri and Erciyes University, check out the photo gallery.)
Every April 23, Turkey’s children take control of their nation.
Turkey’s Children’s Day (April 23) is a national holiday where children attend festivals across the country, and some students are even selected to serve as the honorary President, Prime Minister, and as members of Parliament for the day.
Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish state, declared the holiday while in the middle of the country’s war for independence. On the 23 of April, the Turkish Republic’s first Parliament convened. Ataturk entrusted the day to children to emphasize their importance in contributing to the growth and protection of the fledgling republic.
The thousands of parents and families in attendance today agreed about the day’s importance.
“Our motto is peace at home, peace in the world,” said parent Murat Dogan, “Children are like young trees. This celebration gives us the chance to inject peace into their minds. We need to bring our children up with peace. If we do this, the future will be bright.”
Fatma Akkas, a grandmother added, “This is a holy day for us because Atatuk gave our children this gift. I always take my children.”
“When I was bringing my children this morning,” said Ebru Turksanli, a mother of two, “I thought about how hard our ancestors fought for this holiday. It wasn’t easy for them to give it to us.”
Parades, dedications, and festivals fully run by children marked the event. Government officials and Turkey’s omnipresent military took in the show from the sidelines. One student was eager to share in the national themes.
“We are very thankful for Ataturk! On this day, the Turkish Parliament was formed and Ataturk declared this day, Children’s Day. This was the first and only children’s day in the world. Thank you Ataturk!”
Children’s Day celebrations are not new. They are found in at least 50 countries, although Turkey is among the few who make it a national holiday. For the participants, the day represented the culmination of months of hard work.
“I thought it was very good,” said one young performer, “We worked very hard. We practiced for nearly four months. Last month, we were dancing more than we were going to school.”
As the final flags and images were unfurled, the crowd erupted to thunderous applause. For a few hours at least, the issues of Turkey were put on hold as the eyes of a nation turned to their children.
Special thanks to Abdulfettah Açikel and Hüseyin Yılmaz for translations.
“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives…
You are now living in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace.
There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours.. You the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears. Your sons are now living in our bosom and are in peace. Having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.” Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in a letter to Australia, 1934
For Australian and New Zealanders, April 25 remains one of their most important national occasions. In Turkey, thousands of Australians visit the port of Canakkale to visit the Gallipoli Peninsula during ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) Day. They all gather for a morning service at dawn to remember the dead.
Estimates say that the Australians lost at least 86,000 men charging the steep hills on the shores of Gallipoli. The Australians were ordered to fight for the British at Gallipoli against the Ottoman Empire. The tremendous losses and injuries suffered at Gallipoli would reverberate through Australia. Gallipoli’s devastating loss helped fuel the Australian independence movements.
I had the chance to visit Gallipoli in early February, and the silence was overwhelming. The entire western
Peninsula is preserved as a national park, and the only sounds heard are the occasional hums of car and bus engines bringing visitors around the battlefield sites. The scene is in stark contrast to what the area must have felt like in 1915 when there were so many bullets flying through the air that many of them collided into each other.
The ANZAC campaign was doomed early on when the beaches they attempted to land on were far shorter and narrower than they thought. At the edge of the beaches were steep cliffs where the Turks were waiting, dug into trenches. The Australians had superior weapons, and they truly never gave up in the fight. Many tales of bravery can be found among the graves and memorials for both Australians and Turks.
One of the Australian heroes I learned about was John Simpson, a 22 year-old recruit who died under enemy fire while bringing wounded men from the front on a donkey. According to Australian historians, Simpson carried men on a donkey for about 20 days before being shot. No one knows how many he saved, some say it was up to 300 (although that number seems “mythically” high). My tour guide also mentioned that many Turkish soldiers didn’t fire on Simpson by choice because of his peaceful mission. However, he was ultimately killed in the line of duty and his grave lies along the Gallipoli coast.
Other stories told by Turks and Australians about life in the trenches included occasional days of amnesty where Turks and Australians went over the top together to gather their dead. Another story mentions Turks and Australians a singing their traditional songs to each other at night from the trenches.
Today, Turkey welcomes the hundreds of thousands of Australians and New Zealanders make the pilgrimage each year. As Ataturk said, “your sons have become our sons as well.” Turkey has remained diplomatically close to Australia since 1967.
Gallipoli’s fields are truly sacred ground for both Turks and ANZACs. In a prior post, I spoke about March 18, the day Turks remember their Gallipoli veterans. For Australians, today is a day they remember their veterans, and reflect on the costly price of war.
(For all of my photos from Gallipoli, check out the photo gallery.)
Yesterday, April 20, I found the floors of my classes littered with rose petals. I walked through campus, and found students and faculty carrying single roses in their hands.
The reason, I would come to learn, is in honor of the Prophet Muhammed’s birth. Most Muslims believe that Muhammed was born on April 20, 570 A.D. Although celebrating the Prophet’s birthday is not an official religious event in comparison to Christianity’s celebration of the birth of Christ. Many Muslims in Turkey choose to honor the day by giving out roses. The roses are distributed at mosques across the country, including on our university campus. Some roses came with a saying of the Prophet, reminding the bearer to be faithful and just.
Why a rose? The rose is a popular symbol for Muhammed. Since photographs, drawings, and other pictorial depictions of Muhammed are forbidden, popular symbols have evolved. In Turkey, the rose is a dominant symbol for love and passion (just like in many other cultures). But, the rose has also been linked to Muhammed by some of Turkey’s most famous poets. In one poem, well-respected philosopher Yunus Emre writes:
“Gül Muhammed deridür bülbül anın yarıdır
Ol gül ile ezeli cihana bile geldim”
“Rose is the scent of Muhammed and fellow of the nightingale.
Because of that rose, I came into being.”
According to lore, even Muhammed’s sweat smells like roses.
Another rose fact, many first and last names include the word rose (Gül), often for its spiritual connotations. The current president of Turkey is named Abdullah Gül, or President Rose.
Turkey has hosted many kings and empires during it’s 5,000 plus years as a cradle for human civilization. Included in its history is one of the world’s most famous conquerors, Alexander the Great. Alexander would rule an empire that spread from what is now Italy, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, and beyond. Many ancient cities in Turkey have at least one monument to King Alexander, and Alexander founded dozens of “Alexandria’s” including a coastal city in Turkey now known as “Iskenderun” (City of Alexander).
Why am I telling you all this? Well, because this week I was lucky enough to
host an sharp, young journalist whose eight month mission will be to WALK King Alexander’s journey to Babylon (Iraq). My friend, Theodore May, will start in Iskenderun where Alexander began his war with the Persian King. Babylon represents Alexanders final victory over Persia.
May’s trip, as planned, will take him through Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, and Iraq. He hopes to shoot video, photos, and report not only on Alexander’s history, but also on current political and economic issues facing the areas he visits. You’ll even be able to track May in real time through a GPS he carries, May has some great experience, spending two years in Egypt working as a journalist for foreign and local newspapers.
I was able to teach May a little about Anatolian culture, and give him a briefing about Turkey. We dined over Manti (Kayseri Ravioli) and Pastirma, two famous Kayseri foods. The next day, we were able to visit Kayseri’s old citadel and the last surviving church in Kayseri. Ofcourse, I made sure to introduce May to Turkey’s delicious Iskender Kebap (Alexander’s Kebab).
I really think May is going to do an excellent job, and whether or not you are a history buff, May’s journey will offer a unique look at the Middle East region. You can follow his journey at www.alexanderglobalpost.com. The link is also available under the “Other Bloggers in Turkey” tab on the right side of the page.
Today, our university played host to a wonderful jazz group. The New York City based “Ari Roland” Quartet was flown in by the US Embassy’s cultural affairs division. The group is currently making a tour through central and southern Turkey.
Attending cultural exchange opportunities, like this concert, are one of my favorite activities in Turkey. The musicians, Ari Roland on bass, Chris Byars and Zaid Nasser on saxophone, and Keith Balla on drums, also had nothing but love for their experiences in Turkey.
Roland made the audience burst out in applause after he said, “In most countries, it can take six months to become close friends. In Turkey, it happens in five minutes.”
The musicians played a full hour set for the audience and also devoted at least another 20 minutes for questions about jazz and their band. One student asked why the band was called, “the Ari Roland Quartet.” Roland quipped that the name changes depending on which band member makes the calls and emails.
The group really bonded with the audience during the concert. The band made
a sincere attempt to speak the language drawing smiles and cheers from the crowd. It also didn’t hurt that they turned three popular Turkish songs into jazz tunes. When the first familiar song hit the speakers, the audience responded with immediate applause.
“Jazz is a unifier in that way,” said Nasser after the concert about the decision to “jazz-ify” Turkish tunes, “We do it whenever we go to another country. The music brings people together.”
Chris Byars, the other saxophonist whose wife is a Turkish Cypriot, said the group’s next CD would even include a song from their Turkish repertoire.
At the end of the concert, the band again gave ample time to meet with anyone who wanted to speak with them. A dozen or so music students got to spend time talking shop with the band and getting some first-hand advice. On the other side, the band also received recommendations for good Turkish music.
The work of the US Embassy’s cultural programs were unknown to me before I started my Fulbright and began attending their events. Our university has played host for diplomats Q&As including with the US Ambassador to Turkey, a documentary film screening with it’s award winning director, and now a live jazz concert with real American musicians.
The act capped their performance with two short pieces. One about New York, and the other was another popular Turkish song done in jazz fashion. For a little over an hour, Turkish and American culture came into perfect harmony…well musically anyway.
(Hear a sample of the band here.)
It’s late afternoon. My bus pulls into the Gaziantep Otogar (“bus terminal”) for a 15 minute stop before moving deeper into Turkey’s “wild southeast.” Before the bus door opens, I can hear drumming and singing through my window, it sounds like a holiday parade. I get out and see a gathering of 20 people dancing and singing in a circle, while three men play traditional instruments in the center. A young man sits in an adjacent bus, waving to the celebrating crowd below before his bus pulls away.
This celebration isn’t marking a holiday, anniversary, or wedding. No, instead it marks another longstanding tradition in Turkey, the departure of another “Little Mehmet” into military service.
Turkey, a nation founded by military officers, considers mandatory military service to be every Turkish man’s ultimate responsibility to the state. The constitution says clearly, “National service is the right and duty of every Turk.” Most Turkish men will do 18 months of service, and nearly all will do some service of at least one month.
It’s no wonder why Turkey’s leads the second largest military in NATO, only behind the United States. But around 500,000 of Turkey’s 600,000+ army are conscripts like the young man from Gaziantep.
The military has always played a prominent role in Turkey and still ranks in surveys as one of the more respected institutions. For years, it’s been seen (and sees itself) as the defender of Turkish democracy and from “destabilizing” forces.
Turkey’s military has taken over four times since 1960, removing the current party in power and remaining in control until a new constitution is drafted that suits them. Unlike many states where military coups have occurred, Turkish history remains an anomaly where the military has always ultimately returned power to the people after a time.
However, the image of this “caretaker military” has come into question over the last few years as the current government investigates possible coup plots allegedly crafted by retired generals. The ruling party continues to challenge the military, claiming that it’s simply trying to bring the military under tighter control of civilian government, per European Union standards. The opposition fears this is just an excuse to weaken the one institution that has stood up to would-be authoritarian regimes. (For a detailed analysis of the current situation, view this article from the BBC)
Politics aside, the tradition of sending young men to the military remains an
important last step for many into the journey of manhood. Some parents refuse to let their daughters marry a Turk who hasn’t completed his service. In several otogars, I’ve seen Turkish twenty-somethings carried on their shouting friends’ shoulders with a Turkish flag hanging on them like a cape. The “Bon Voyage moment” is always a family affair with parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents, and any one else around to say good bye.
Today, Turkey is working toward a more professional military. Reforms have made military careers more financially attractive while many conscripts can now defer their service for several years while attending university or living abroad. Men are supposed to serve between the age of 20 and 40. New rules allow some to pay in order to serve shortened periods of service ranging from one month to one yer.
Still, the act of each man serving is important, and seen as a unifying factor between the republic and its citizens.
(Normally, I reserve most content in this blog to be about Turkish culture. However, some of you have asked me about what non-Muslims or Christians do in Turkey. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to film my neighbor Maria Iskenderoglu’s Easter celebration this weekend. I was one of TWO camera crews.)
This weekend, Maria and her husband, Orhan, celebrated another Easter in Turkey with their 5-year old daughter, Sophia Irem. Although it’s usually just the three of them, Maria makes sure Sophia has the chance to enjoy the same traditions she had as a child.
“I like being able to give my daughter American culture, and this is a little bit of American culture,” said Maria, “It’s really hard to teach her American culture [here], but I think it’s a lot easier to teach her American culture in turkey than it is Turkish culture in America.”
This Easter, a Turkish film crew joined the Iskenderoglu’s Easter celebration to learn about the holiday.
“Easter is interesting to me because I don’t know anything about it,” said the 23-year old Merve Ozkoroglu, “It may be normal to Maria’s family, but these traditions are fascinating, especially painting eggs.”
Gulsah Dogan, another student-filmmaker added, “Our friends are documenting other parts of Turkish culture around the country. But we wanted to show our class something from a different culture.”
Today, Turkey’s 98 percent Muslim population means that few Turks know about Christian holidays like Easter. Orhan said he knew very little when he married Maria seven years ago. But he says living with Maria and travelling to the U.S. has opened his perspective on the two faiths.
“The way is same, where they want to go is same. And only some different rituals, something different, that’s all, mostly same. And I was really happy when I hear those kind of things,” said Orhan about his visit to a Kansas church.
Rather than scoffing at the silliness, the students found meaning in the egg-stravaganza.
“It’s a nice celebration. Painting and looking for eggs gets everyone involved, and brings the family closer,” said Gulsah.
For Maria, she hopes that her daughter will be as open minded as the visiting students.
“I also hope that she grows up with a belief in things that her father and I both find important.”
To do that, Maria and Orhan will keep on teaching their traditions every day, together.
(Special thanks to Orhan Iskenderoglu for translations.)