Journey to the Centre of the Earth!
/ By Josh
A few years ago a report came out that, according to the folks at Google Earth, the geographical centre of the world was in Çorum, Turkey! And when we began planning our trip to Turkey we were still under the impression that we were headed for the centre of the world. Only later did we find out that this report was totally false and there isn’t really a true ‘centre of the world.’ After all, the earth is a ball. So really this was just a journey to Çorum, but it’s pretty great even without that claim to fame.
While this may have been disappointing there were plenty of other reasons to be excited for this trip. While not the geographical centre of the world, Çorum was one of the centres of the ancient world with the capital city of the Hittite Empire and numerous other ruined cities and holy sites scattered through the rocky hills and prairie. And, as nerdy as this sentence may be, Hittitology happens to be my personal favourite branch of archaeology!
As Çorum doesn’t have an airport we flew into the Black Sea city of Samsun and drove through Turkey’s beautiful northern mountain range and the province of Amasya, where we bought Amasya apples from a fruit stand on the highway. I know everyone exaggerates how good the food is in the places they go but these were ACTUALLY the best apples I’ve ever had (except for that one at Deyrul Zafaran).
Our first stop was the old castle town of Iskilip. We quickly met a friendly local who insisted he give us the full tour of the town. In the beginning the tour mostly consisted of visiting the graves of important religious teachers and a museum dedicated to them (my knowledge of the imperial family was really stretched here!). Once that was finished he took us up to the castle and through the old part of town where old ladies were squatting on the ground in little groups removing the outer green shell from freshly harvested walnuts and shops were full of cobblers, basket weavers, blacksmiths, coppersmiths, and all the best of Turkey’s old-world tradesmen. It was actually amazing to be there, and, thanks to our local connection, we were able to spend loads of time watching, chatting, and drinking tea with these masters of disappearing trades.
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The most interesting interaction we had was with a coppersmith who was refinishing the inner lining on a large kazan, a large copper pot used to make a special local dish. He said we were free to take pictures but, as he continued to work over the glowing jet of flame, made clear that he didn’t want us to publish the pictures anywhere (I was crying inside at this point as the picture I took of this guy is my best photo to date by a long shot). But it was really his reasoning that was interesting. He recognized how decades of charcoal smoke-stained walls and blackened skin, heaps of old metal and tools, thick soot and grime would look in the eyes of the wider world and didn’t want that to damage the image of his beloved country. Turkey is an amazing country with incredible diversity. Some places are absolutely state of the art and completely modern while others have barely been affected by the changes of the past century. Living in the ultra-nationalistic heartland of the country, this man’s first response was to make sure the reputation of the country was protected and people didn’t see Turkey as backward.
We were invited by a number of people to stay in Iskilip for the weekend to try Iskilip Dolması; the most famous local dish made in the giant copper kazan pots over a fire for 12 hours. September is wedding season and Friday afternoon is when the weddings tend to begin so Iskilip Dolması was going to be in plenty. Unfortunately, our flight was for the same hour as all the weddings, so we begrudgingly declined. I guess we’ll just have to go back!
The next day we met a few other craftsmen in the town (as well as a barber with a partridge in a TV) before heading south to find the ruined Behramşah Complex and Kalehisar, a jagged peak in the otherwise low rolling hills of southern Çorum.
Now it turns out that cell reception in this part of the country is terrible and Google Maps was almost completely useless even when we did have reception. Between navigation and some rather crazy dirt roads, finding the ruins took a couple hours longer than expected but it was worth it anyways. The complex consists of a ruined Caravanserai, Turkish Bath, and a number of graves. The roof of the Caravanserai is absolutely terrifying with quite a few sections of the roof collapsed and a number of others on the verge of collapse! Someone had left a bottle of Coke on the roof so I moved it to a low spot to keep it out of the pictures. Apparently there was a hole there covered by the grass and the bottle slipped though, fell 15 feet to the rocks inside, and exploded below!
That night we went to Ali Paşa Hamamı, a Turkish Bath in the city centre of Çorum, for a scrub. The hamam was one of the best that we’ve been to yet. While much of it was original anything that was restored was done in keeping with original styles and designs, and was the best maintained Turkish Bath that I’ve been to. I think the main factor is that the hamam is still a much more normal thing for people in this region. It was the busiest Turkish Bath I’ve been to at any given time of day. We also saw three other baths in the province all of which were well maintained and busy. If you happen to go to Çorum this is probably your best chance to visit a high quality, yet totally non-touristic Turkish Bath!
The next morning we set off early to see a Roman era dam that was being excavated just on the edge of the tiny village of Örükaya. Later we were met by the mayor who told us about the dig and the hopes they as a village had that it would soon bring in some much needed tourist money. We went back into the village with him to have tea with him and another local. Örükaya, like most remote farming villages, is shrinking and losing all their young people who leave looking for better jobs, education, and a more comfortable lifestyle. Örükaya, like most villages in this region facing the same issue, is ringed by abandoned houses in varying stages of collapse as the neglected mudbrick slowly melts.
I think we easily romanticize the “living off the land” lifestyle without realizing how hard it really is. You can see it in how early a shepherd looks old, or how ancient a woman of sixty will look if she’s spent her whole life hauling wood and water, planting crops, making cheese, weaving and sewing. While the mountain air is better than the city air, the cooking fire fills the house with smoke. I sincerely hope this project brings new life and opportunity to this beautiful place!
While we knew there was way too much to ever hope to see in one trip to Çorum we had to visit at least one of the major Hittite sites! So after the Roman Dam and a few rounds of tea we went to the nearby Hittite excavations of Alacahöyük and the Hittite era dam that has been in use for around 3300 years! The dam was closed but a local had given us a tip and we found the gap in the fence to take a look around. The rule in Turkey seems to be that if you don’t have to climb the fence then you can feel free to go in.
(Please don’t do this with anything military related, you’ll probably be in jail for awhile if you do!)
After a rather poor sleep back in the city that night (there was a wedding being hosted at our hotel that went into the night. Once it ended I assume they started cleaning up though it just sounded like they were rolling metal tubes down the stairs) we went north to the rather stunning Kapılıkaya (meaning rock with a door). While it looks like a door in the rock it’s actually a roughly cube shaped tomb carved out of the mountainside with a sort of porch in front of it. To get to it we were yet again forced to put that scratch insurance to the test as we drove down tiny dirt roads overgrown with blackberries and the odd boulder jutting into our path. As you can see it was an absolutely astounding sight!
Somehow another four-day trip had flown by us and it was time to start finishing up. We went into the city to visit a friend, bought some of the famous Çorum leblebi (roasted chickpeas) as gifts for when we got back to Istanbul and made our way back to Samsun. We had a few minutes to spare before our flight so we headed to the beach to check out some boats I had seen pulled onto the sand when we first landed. Just as we got there the storm clouds that had been threatening all day turned and twisted into fantastical shapes putting on an awesome farewell show to wrap up our trip!