Stories from Afyon
/ By Josh
Over the past while I’ve found myself in Afyon a number of times. Often I’m just passing through to other places like the Phrygian Way hiking trail or some other city further into central Turkey and I don’t end up staying too long. Even though I’m only popping in occasionally, Afyon has been a place surprisingly full of great sights and fascinating characters.
As I’ve gone multiple times, I’ve gotten to know a handful of people and explore deeper every time. Now, when I’m there, I have to make a few stops to see friends before heading out again. One of the most striking things I’ve noticed about the people of Afyon is just how much happier they are. Maybe it’s the fact that the prices seem to be locked in at 1990’s rates, or maybe its all that poppyseed paste in the food. Whatever it is, they seem far more content on average than anywhere else I’ve been, making for a very enjoyable place to keep coming back to!
The city’s full name is Afyonkarahisar which means “Opium Black Fortress” and it’s a city famous for three main things: a castle, sausages, and opium. Since it wasn’t lunch time and opium wasn’t really on our list of things to try we decided to make the trek up through Afyon’s old neighborhood and above to the high winding paths that lead to the city’s castle where the city’s “Black Fortress” part of its name comes from.
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The path from the inhabited part of the city up to the castle was quite steep and on a hot afternoon it turned out to be more than many people had bargained for. We struggled to keep straight faces as people of all ages sat panting, sweat streaming down their faces as they tried to convince their significant others that they should just give up. The path was lined with bushes covered in little prayer ties, most likely people praying that they would be put out of their misery.
The view from the top really was incredible, so Sean and I celebrated by eating a strange mini-melon thing that a guy on the street had given us. I was skeptical that a melon picked when it’s the size of an avocado could possibly be any good but after trying the strange little fruit, it turned out I was right. Rather than tasting like a delicious honeydew it was like eating a tough, dry, cucumber. Seemed like a waste of a melon to me.
Wandering through the city we came across a little shop full of models of famous and local mosques. Through an exuberant neighbor we were introduced to the builder of the little mosques, a quiet, somber man who reservedly gave answers to the questions the neighbor asked on our behalf. He had built models of around 70 mosques to date but had to stop as he had run out of room for them all in his tiny little space with it’s cracked windows and crowded shelves.
I love this picture; it really feels like something of a summary of a particular type of man that you meet all over the country. His chosen hobby, the style of his beard, his dress, and the political flag behind him all speak to a deeply religious character. Even the mosques he chose to build speaks volumes. One of the mosques he built was a simple mosque from the town of Iskilip in Çorum where a religious leader was executed for maintaining his religious dress when it was made illegal during the era of forced westernization (this was in the years shortly after the republic was formed in the 1920’s). This builder of miniature mosques wanted his pious heroes and the old mosques that his people had built to be remembered and celebrated.
From the ceiling was hanging a passage from the Hadith reading “Whoever builds a mosque for Allah, be it large or small, Allah will build for him a house in paradise” shedding some light on the motive behind his hobby of many decades.
As you may have noticed, we tend to visit a lot of Turkish Baths on our trips and we even do reviews of them (something that started more as a joke than anything else) and as Afyon is home to a pair of historic Turkish Baths we naturally stopped in for a visit. This may go down as the most extreme Turkish Bath experience I’ve ever had. The place itself was decent though not great. The scrub and massage, however, were borderline brutal. My breaking point was when he was crushing the tendons in the arch of my foot, and I can’t imagine a rough face massage ever being enjoyable. Granted, Turkish Bath massages are not meant to be relaxing, they’re meant to be…. Good for you I suppose? And this was in no way relaxing.
In Afyon I came across a shop in the old quarter not far below the castle that sold cushions for traditional floor seating (these cushions are made of foam whereas the traditional ones are stuffed with reeds from the nearby Eber Lake, a place I REALLY want to get to one day). I’d been wanting to get some made for my balcony, so we popped in to inquire about prices.
A while back I wrote a post about some of Istanbul’s traditional quilters, where we talked about their work, and the cultural changes driving their trade to the brink of extinction. When we talked about the future of this type of ornate quilt making, they said they didn’t know of any new apprentices or even anyone who did the work under the age of fifty. In other words, they predicted that they were the last generation to take up the craft.
Inside the shop it was clear that they did more than just cushions. Colourful quilts were stacked on shelves from floor to ceiling, bolts of fabric covered with pink teddy bears were piled next to traditional Turkish patterns of red blue and gold. What made this shop unique though was that the guy working there looked like he couldn’t be over thirty.
The prices being great for a set of cushions I put in an order and, over the course of a couple more visits, chatted with him about his work and the way that this industry is changing. One of the most striking things for me while we chatted was just how many people were coming into the shop to place orders even till long after dark when nearly all the other shops in the area had closed down.
When I asked how he managed to stay so busy while in Istanbul many quilters and cushion makers were beginning to close down, he explained how they’ve had to adapt over the years. When his grandfather started the business fifty years ago, they just made quilts and as the market shrunk they’ve started doing other bedding related trades like my cushion set, sheet sets, mattresses, pillows, blankets, and even baby hammocks.
He keeps so busy in fact that he stays late most nights to keep up with demand and much of the hand stitching for the ornate quilts is now done by local women at home. It’s great to see that these beautiful, brightly coloured shops are finding a way to stay alive in a modernizing world that gets further and further away from handmade goods.
After a trip to hike the Phrygian Way we picked up my cushion set so that, in addition to all our hiking gear, we now had three unwieldy mattress rolls to carry with us into the bus station. After the incredible dust of the Phrygian Way, our unkempt appearance, heavy bags, and bulky cushions made us quite the sight. The lady at the bus terminal security laughed and asked us where we were immigrating to.
In between trips to getting my cushion set, I made an exciting discovery. Most people wouldn’t have found it quite as exciting as I did, but this was something I had been trying to find for a few years now. Turkey’s felt makers have become hard to find as they, like many traditional craftsmen, dwindle as demand for their product shrinks. Apparently, there are only ten or so felt producers left in the country and four of them are in Afyon!
First of all, what is a felt maker? Felt makers, or Keçeci in Turkish, take raw wool and process it into dense sheets that are then used for all sorts of things like a Sufis hat, traditional shepherd cloaks, mats, slippers, and clothing. The first step in the process is to take the raw wool and run it through an ancient looking, dust covered machine to make it even and fluffy. Turns out the Keçeci that I had met actually supply my cushion/quilt making friend up the road with wool and cotton for the blankets he makes.
The second step is to lay out a great long pile of the wool and add to it by shaking clumps of wool back and forth it with large forks. The prongs of the fork pull and stretch the strands together so that they bond better. The wool is wetted and covered in a sheet then rolled and tied tight. The roll is then placed into a deafeningly loud machine that rotates the log and squeezes it over and over again for many hours until the fibres bond into dense sheets. This process was once done by dragging the roll through fields behind a horse, and for smaller projects they could be stomped on for a couple of hours.
One of the most iconic items produced by the craftsmen I met here in Afyon is the Kepenek. The kepenek is a heavy felt cloak used to keep shepherds warm and dry both while they’re out walking with the flocks and when they lie down in the often damp grass. It serves as coat, tent, and sleeping bag all in one piece.
Like my friend the cushion maker up the road, these guys all manage to keep busy as they fill orders from around the country and the occasional local dropping in wanting wool stuffing for a pillow, or some felt for this or that. I was shocked to learn that they sell about 1000 kepenek on average every year! It’s encouraging to see an exception to general trend of dying trades and traditions.
By the time I found them they were already winding down for the day so I missed getting to watch the bulk of the work they do but they were happy to have me come back any time so they could show me more of their work. I’m curious to see if there’s a more artistic side to this work as well.
While I think I’ve seen all the real sights that the city of Afyon has to offer, eaten most of its local dishes, and soaked in the hot springs a bit, I really hope I end up there a few more times at least to see more of the old city and people who still work their crafts in an ever modernizing world.