Caravan Across Turkey

/ By Josh

As you may be aware, I’ve been doing a fair amount of traveling over the past couple of years, most of the time leaving my wife and kids at home to fight for survival in the big city without me. Even though they’ve done just fine without me, we figured it was due time for the four of us to go out as a family, get the kids out of the city, and explore together.

But how do you stay on the road for an extended period of time with a kid (Malakai) who can’t handle the constant change of hotel-hopping or another little guy (Titus) who still naps most days? So for the sake of our boys and an ability to travel widely we thought we’d experiment and do some RVing.

RV Wide Open Road Ankara

RVs, motorhomes, or caravans, while somewhat popular in the far west of Turkey, are pretty rare in the east and so we were taking a bit of a gamble knowing full well that there would be very few campsites and we’d probably be staying in all sorts of places. We made use of riverbanks, truck stops, seemingly deserted country lanes, friend’s yards, and a couple campsites as well.

While the RV did us well by weaving through Istanbul’s insane traffic, trundling up mountain roads, sleeping the four of us with room to spare, and doing all that in relative comfort, it was no match for morning sickness!

We had planned and booked all this before we found out my wife Jamie was pregnant so we were set to be on the road right when the morning sickness was raging. We tried to push through but it just wasn’t working and if I’d tried to make a pregnant woman stay in that small hot box on wheels any longer than I did, there may have been a mutiny.

Breakfast in Divriği Sivas
Breakfast in Divriği

And so our trip had to be cut short. Thankfully we still managed to pack a lot of great stuff into our reduced time, and because there was so much I thought I’d trim things down and just share a few of the more interesting episodes from our time on the road.

 

Episode 1:

Malatya in the Yayla

According to the dictionary the Turkish word ‘Yayla’ means plateau or tableland. In my experience I’ve only ever heard Yayla used to describe alpine country and none of the yayla that I’ve been to or seen have been particularly flat.

Malatya Yayla Tarla Mountain View
A small plot of tobacco high in the mountains

One of the big highlights from our time in Malatya was visiting friends in the far-from-flat yayla near Doğanşehir. As a normal car wouldn’t survive the trip up we woke up early one morning to get the tractor ready for the rough, two hour ride up the mountains to where Aylin’s grandfather had a house, a handful of plots of land, and summer grazing lands for the animals.

Tractor to Yayla Malatya
While taking a tractor up a dusty mountain road is far from the most comfortable ride it is a sure sign that you’re on your way to some place special

Cresting a final ridge we got our first glimpse of the house, barns, tents, and the fields of tobacco and vegetables nestled among the steep, dry slopes. Within minutes Malakai and Titus were playing with the other kids and checking out the animals. Jamie and I got introduced to the crowd of relatives who had gathered from all over the country and Europe for the holiday and I made my pitiful attempt at remembering everyone’s name. As the occasion was Kurban Bayramı (the Muslim feast of sacrifice) there was, of course, a goat being butchered and most of the visiting went on in the midst of chopping, cutting, cleaning, cooking, or waving branches over the meat to keep the flies off.

Kids in Mud Malatya Yayla
Our city boys lost no time in catching up on getting as muddy as they could

Kids Yayla Malatya Wheelbarrow

At one point one of the women came back to the gathering with the goat head which made me rather worried that it might end up being on the menu than evening! I was spared and the head just sat there next to the couch for the day to keep us company.

Titus Kangal Malatya
This pup is meant to grow up to be a wolf hunter with a giant spiked collar. For now it’s pretty cute though.

While the kids were checking out animals and getting muddy I went to see the fields and the spring that waters them. Despite being high in the dry, stony mountains there was a plentiful spring of ice cold water that, in the spring season, comes bursting out of a cave up on the hillside like a geyser. There’s so much water there that it supplies not only this patch in the yayla but the town as well. While it was hot outside, the cave was kept quite cold by the icy waters that rushed through it. The cave runs back into the mountain for a few hundred metres of twisting stalagmite and stalactite filled tunnel, ending at a small pool of frigid water. Apparently this is also where all the flies and moths go to escape the heat of the day; unfortunately I ate a good number before realizing that I needed to breathe through my nose.

Yaylay garden Malatya
A patch of garden in the mountains where all their produce for the summer comes from. Bread, on the other hand, gets brought up in giant sacks, 25 loaves at a time.
Malatya Yayla Stable Mountains
A stable overlooking the valley. On the left you can see one of the stone walled tents that people stay in during the summer as they are breezier than the house.

That evening as we made the trip back down the mountain our sun-kissed, muddy, and exhausted boys somehow managed to fall asleep on the hard dusty floor of the trailer despite the incredibly jarring ride. They were so deeply asleep they didn’t notice when we put them on beds made of great sacks of mountain tea that we had picked earlier in the day and only woke up when we finally got out of the mountains.

Malatya Yayla Tractor Kids
They’ll fall asleep on a dirty bouncing sheet of steel but good luck getting them to bed.

 

Episode 2:

Divriği and the road to Sivas

Divriği Kız Köprüsü Sivas
Maidens Bridge on the left and a much newer bridge on the right still used by the mining company trains

Leaving Malatya we went north to Divriği, a town tucked in the brutal mountains of eastern Sivas, to visit the Great Mosque and adjoining hospital (Ulu Camii and Turan Melek Darüşşifa) that I had heard so much about. While it is certainly built in the Seljuk style with its peaked domes and obsessive attention to doorways the rest remains comparatively unadorned, but its extreme level and quality of ornamentation and grand scale make it truly unique even among the great buildings of its time.

 Divrigi Ulu Camii Sivas
This view of the hospital entrance was as much as I was able to see myself.

However, it was closed and after trying all my tricks to get into closed places, the best I could manage was looking from a distance while the security guard took my camera and got some pictures for me. Apparently there’s some major restoration work going on and the company doing it is German which explained the unwillingness to bend rules.

Divriği Ulu Camii ve Darüşşifa Mosque Door

Divriği Ulu Camii ve Darüşşifa Mosque Door

Divriği Ulu Camii Door Sivas
The stonework was absolutely exquisite. Next time I’ll have to see it with my own eyes…

Leaving Divriği a bit disappointed we took a small winding mountain road to Sivas rather than the main route hoping to see more of the strangely jagged mountains. The drive was magnificent even if it was a bit slow in a heavy RV. The iron rich mountains look as if a volcanic eruption that froze mid-way with sharp crags and violent twists in the rust stained rock. I would highly recommend that anyone passing through here take the Divriği – Zara road if possible.

1289 Divriği Kız Köprüsü Mountains
The mountains around Divriği
Kesik Köprüsü Sivas
Kesik Köprüsü, a bridge just outside of the city of Sivas where we spend a night.

 

Episode 3:

Sultanhanı

Sultanhanı is a small town in the  west of Aksaray centered on a Seljuk-era Caravanserai (think fortified inn for caravans) that had once been a part of the network that connected the Seljuk capitol of Konya with the east and the Silk Road.

Aksaray Sultanhani
The main entrance to Sultanhanı, a 13th century caravanserai

While this Caravanserai takes no more than 45 minutes to see, my favorite part of Sultanhanı was its surprising Turkish rug industry.

Kayseri Sultanhan
The kiosk masjid in Sultanhanı’s twin caravanserai in Kayseri

While looking around the Caravanserai, I met Menderes, a local rug dealer, and went back to his shop to talk rugs for what turned out to be nearly four hours!

I grew up with Turkish rugs in my house and have always loved them for the beauty they add to space and appreciated them as art. But speaking with Menderes I gained a whole new appreciation for the subtlety of the craft and the many facets of the art: its styles, its foibles, and its endless possibilities. His passion was infectious!

A few generations ago there was a master rug maker who, like a good master of any trade, also taught many people in the town the craft which is why now, many years later, so many locals are trained at least to some degree in weaving or repairing rugs. Menderes was no exception though he uses his knowledge to buy and sell rather than produce. He travels around the country visiting remote villages to buy products from the source, something he says often feels more like a being a tourist than working.

While the different sorts of rugs were beautiful and the diversity fascinating the most interesting part of our conversation was learning how the shifting cultural landscape of Turkey is affecting not only the industry but also the art.

Weaving is traditionally a cottage industry where people, usually women, use their otherwise spare time industriously to make some extra money or decorate their home. Some of the items Menderes showed me were incredibly crooked. Apparently they had been made crooked on purpose as curtains for a crooked window or crooked room in the old stone or mud brick houses. Another item he had was a massive brown sack, beautifully embroidered with colourful geometrical patterns. The sack was once used to store grain in a home before they replaced it with a plastic tub. If the sack is going to sit in the house why not decorate it?

While the craft of rug and tapestry weaving is by no means disappearing, Menderes pointed out a number of unusual styles that will probably disappear within a generation. The problem with some of these more complicated and unique styles of rugs is that they require a great deal more skill and experience. The skill would often come from in-house training, from mother to daughter, etc. and requires a lot of time. Today however, with girls attending school, the time to learn the craft well enough to produce such unique pieces is lacking.

Tuz Gölü Salt Lake Ankara Aksaray Konya
Central Turkey’s great Salt Lake

The market itself also has a major role to play in the evolution of this industry. With local tastes leaning further and further away from traditional styles the vast majority of these products are being shipped to the West where tapestries are far less popular and so profits from these labour intensive pieces are quite low so interest in making them dwindles.

Combine low earnings with the fact that the television is more entertaining than the loom and it’s easy to see why the art is no longer being passed on to the next generation like it used to.

While the factors that are leading to the death of this art are not all negative (girls receiving an education and being afforded other options in life is, of course, a very important thing after all!) it is always sad to see the disappearance of such a beautiful art form.

Tuz Golu Salt Lake Konya Aksaray Ankara
Strange purple bushes on the edge of the salt flats

While there’s certainly a whole lot more to it I’m not trying to write an essay on the effects on the art of rug making in the context of a modernizing Turkey. That being said it’s our hope to go back to Aksaray in the winter during the weaving season and try to get a fuller understanding of the process in these rural areas and hopefully document a piece of this craft and its attempt to adapt to the changing context.

Bolu Yedigöller Milli Parkı
One of our last stops on the way home was the stunning Seven Lakes National Park
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