Mersin and Tarsus, 2005
On Saturday, November 26, we discovered an Orthodox church in Mersin, and we visited the home town of Christianity itself, if I may so describe the city that is still called Tarsus.
To get there, Ayşe and I took the train from Ankara on Thursday evening (November 24). It was a yataklı train: literally, it was “with bed”—two beds per compartment. I actually managed to get some sleep. However, Note to Self: Don't forget the eye-shades next time, since light leaks around the door. (I improvised this time with a bandanna.)
The yataklı cars seem to be fairly new. The ride is smooth. By contrast, on the way to Athens last summer, a student and I first took a kuşetli train to Izmir: that's a train with a “couchette,” namely a four-bed compartment. (We took all four of the beds.) The train bounced severely the whole way, and I hardly slept.
The railroad to Mersin uses a canyon. At least, one can see the canyon walls when the dawn's light comes, unless the train is in one of the many tunnels. Then the vista opens up onto the agricultural land of the Mediterranean coast. The train stops, and one transfers to the local train that shuttles between Adana and Mersin. One may have to hunt for a seat amongst the men reading newspapers on their way to work.
At one stop, two middle-aged women boarded. The seat next to one man was empty, and the women asked him to move so that they could take the empty seat and his seat. There were no other empty seats, so the man just stood.
In Mersin, we walked south and found our hotel on the shore road. Our room on the seventh floor (that's seven flights up) opened onto the sea. The air was hazy, but the warmth of the sun came through, a reminder of summer pleasantness after the freezing temperatures of Ankara.
We slept a while before heading out to find lunch. We found it behind the hotel in the top-floor restaurant of a department store. We were just early enough to beat the crowds of office workers, coming to take advantage of the all-you-can-eat buffet of forty dishes. Most of these dishes happened to be vegetarian, so they were just what Ayşe and I wanted. Most of the customers were women. It seems that Turkish men want meat.
From our hotel, we could catch a minibus whose terminus was Mersin University. This was our destination for the afternoon, since Ayşe was giving a talk there. She had been invited by a fellow named H—. In the evening, he and his wife Z— took us out to the Hatay Restaurant. N— came along too; he is a student at Mersin and is our protégé so to speak: he has stayed with us a couple of times on visits to Ankara.
Hatay is the Arab part of Turkey southeast of Mersin; it joined the Turkish Republic in 1939. H— or at least his ancestors are from Hatay, and he speaks Arabic. (N— speaks Kurdish.)
A nicer Turkish restaurant will have a number of cold, mainly vegetarian dishes called mezeler (the singular is meze) to place in the middle of the table. The Hatay Restaurant was one of these nicer restaurants, with a bonus: Some of its mezeler—hummus, for example, and some sort of pickled thyme salad—were not usual for Turkey in general.
A plate of green peppers was also placed on our table. One bite was enough for me; it had me hiccuping like crazy; nobody else touched the things.
N—, Ayşe and I filled up on the numerous meatless dishes and sesame-coated flatbread. Our hosts ate from these also; then they ordered kebabs. Men at tables nearby drained bottles of rakı. We just had a bottle of wine, ourselves. The cigarette smoke had not seemed so bad when we entered, but it got worse, and I was glad to leave when the meal was over; in fact I stepped out for air while some people had an after-dinner tea.
Our original purpose in Mersin had been to attend a friend's wedding on Saturday night in Mersin. H— wanted to entertain us during that day, but was busy in the morning. So Ayşe and I headed out Saturday morning by ourselves to find the local museum. What we found first was a building with a small metal cross on top.
The building's garden gate was locked, but a passing balloon-seller told us to ring the bell. The caretaker let us in and showed us around the church. It seemed to be a modest building, as churches go. The man observed that the icons needed conservation, but that the only place where the work could be done was one of the universities in Istanbul, and the church didn't think they should send the icons away. I remarked at some seemingly Arabic writing on one of the icons; the man merely acknowledged that the writing was indeed Arabic.
The caretaker invited us across the courtyard to his office. I guess it was his office; he sat behind the desk. The priest had also come in, but he sat elsewhere. We all chatted a while. I say “We,” but the conversation was in Turkish, so I didn't say much or follow everything.
Above the desk were three portraits. On the left was the Patriarch—not the Patriarch of Constantinople, but the Patriarch of Antioch, although he actually lived in Damascus. After searching the web, I infer that this man was Ignatius IV, and the church in Mersin was Archangels Church, belonging to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East.
There is a Syriac Orthodox Church, which also claims to be the successor of the original Antiochan church, and whose Patriarch, Ignatios Zakka I Iwas, also lives in Damascus. However, the Syriac church uses a Syriac liturgy. The priest in Mersin told us that their own liturgy was in Arabic—but also in Turkish, since not too many congregants knew Arabic any more. The priest did not know Greek.
The portrait to the right over the desk must have been of Metropolitan Paul, Archbishop of Aleppo. The central portrait, larger than the others, was of Atatürk, founder of the secular Turkish Republic.
In Republican times, the previous church building had been torn down. Our hosts showed us a postcard photograph of that building with its bell towers. Its stones had been used to construct the municipal “culture center” next door.
I didn't know about the different Antiochan sects at the time, so I could not ask about them. I did ask about the “Turkish Orthodox Church,” whose building we had stumbled on in İstanbul last spring. “That is a black mark on our history,” explained the priest. The church membership consisted of a single family, I think he said, and they had aligned themselves with the Turkish ultranationalist (read “fascist”) party.
When we decided it was time to go, the men offered us tea or coffee, but we declined. They gave us bookmarks instead, each with a Madonna and Child on it: one bookmark had an Arabic inscription; the other, Greek.
We telephoned N—, and he met us nearby, in the small museum of local antiquities from the Stone Age to the Hellenistic. Then we ate pizza at a café filled with students just out from the dershane, or “lesson-house”: that's where they learn the tricks for doing well on the university entrance exams. At the café the plate-glass windows had been slid open.
Later in the afternoon, we were picked up in a car by H—, Z—, Z—'s sister A—, and H— and Z—'s little boy. The three women and the boy sat in back; I was placed up front with H—, who drove us to Tarsus.
In Tarsus, H— stopped frequently to ask directions, belying a certain foolish stereotype about men.
Tarsus is a city of two hundred thousand souls. At its entrance is the so-called “Cleopatra's Gate,” a remnant of a Byzantine wall. The Tarsus museum is bigger than Mersin's; we had been told this by the curator in Mersin. However, the Tarsus museum was officially closed for renovation; at least, the woman at the entrance said she had no tickets. When she learned we had come from Mersin to see the museum, she let us in to look around. Some workers were installing lights there.
There is a Church of St Paul in Tarsus. The church is now a museum, although perhaps it is used occasionally for its original purpose. The building seems to be no more than a couple of centuries old. Its interior paintings include naturalistic landscapes, with Jesus and the Evangelists on the ceiling. A variety store across the street is called St Paulus Shop.
Not far out of town is a sort of waterfall with a tea-garden next to it. We sat there for a while before visiting “St Paul's Well”. What this well has to do with the founder of Christianity is not clear; but you can draw water from the well, and next to it are some small excavations of old buildings, covered by glass. A picture of the saint is posted nearby, along with a biography in English only. (At the ticket-booth is posted a Turkish newspaper article about Paul.) The officials of Tarsus are probably happy to take advantage of whatever Christian tourist potential there is; but they may be independently proud to have produced the founder of the forerunner to Islam. Signs about town say things like “Let's clean up Tarsus; guests are coming!”
Not far from the well is the city-block-sized excavation of a basalt Roman road. We couldn't enter, but the look through the chain-link fence was impressive. By this time, darkness would come soon, and we all had weddings to go to in the evening.
First, H— wanted to visit Eshab-ı Kehf. It turned out to be some kilometers out of town. H— stopped several times on the way to make sure we were on the right road. Originally, the place was a cave in a hillside. Now a mosque has been built next to it. It is one of those caves where people slept for centuries. Another such cave is in Ephesus: There, seven Christians and their dog sought refuge from persecutors; then they slept so long that, when they awoke, the Empire itself had become Christian. The Ephesus cave is a holy site for Muslims. The Mersin cave seems to be more elaborately so, but I don't know of any Christian connexion. Signs in Turkish tell you how you should pray for maximum effect. We arrived after dark, but there was a group of young men who visited the cave and then prayed at the door of the mosque, as one of them chanted the appropriate Arabic words.
There was a toll road nearby that could take us back to Mersin, only we didn't know where the entrance was. A trinket-seller near the mosque described a secret entrance to the road, but H— couldn't find it; so we just returned to Mersin via Tarsus as we had come.
Much of the trip, H— allowed a CD to play over and over. In one song were the words “Ave maria”; in another, “Your love will kill me!” A web search tells me that the songs are from Notre Dame de Paris.
Ayşe and I got back to our hotel, put on our nice clothes, and headed around the corner to the hall where the wedding banquet was. It turned out that the wedding itself had already taken place in California; but the mother of the Turkish bride just had to put on an affair for her friends and family. Members of the local folklore society came out in colorful costume from head to foot to dance ecstatically in a circle, clicking wooden spoons together the while; they were men and women, mixed. After that, the groom's parents and another pair of his relatives did a Scottish dance to the sound of ersatz bagpipes. The uncle or cousin or whoever he was wore a kilt. (I had thought the groom was simply English, but it seems I was wrong. In any case, he and his parents had lived in the US for a long time.)
A bus the next day got us to Ankara before dark. On the journey, I read from Collingwood's New Leviathan (1942). His four examples of barbarism are the Bogomils, the Saracens, the Turks, and the Germans.
Text originally composed Tuesday, November 29, 2005.