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    It’s been a long time since I properly updated this blog. Honestly, I have been busy (in a good way). But it’s high time I resumed things… So, here it is goes:

    Okay, I hate looking like a “tourist.” I don’t want to carry five cameras and wear white bermuda pants. I don’t want to follow the “beaten path,” eat at every Lonely Planet recommendation and then happily tread home. I love the serendipity and adventure of attempting to live like a local… But, alas, this entry is about being the ultimate tourist — or, in other words, that whenever I enter the Hagia Sophia, I feel like I am back in Istanbul in 2009 (the first time I visited) — totally struck with awe and wonder — bewildered by the history and beauty and blood — that, perhaps, the Hagia Sophia makes everyone (even Istanbul natives) a bit of a tourist — it represents a history that is long gone, a shadow but not forgotten — and this leaves us all in a state of quiet observation…

    The history is mesmerizing, yet tragic. First constructed in the 4th century, the Hagia Sophia was originally built as a wooden-roofed basilica. First under the rule of Constantine II and then Theodosius II (who caused a lot of theological problems by meeting with Nestorius in Syria!), the basilica stood until the Nika Revolt in 532. Nearly half the city was destroyed in the revolt, and the basilica was burned. And what were the riots about? Well, chariot racing factions (in the Byzantine days) more closely resembled 1920s mafia famiglias than one would imagine. Basically, the Greens and Blues (two racing teams) were embroiled in an internal dispute over murders, which spilled out into the city — like football hooliganism and mafia rivalry, all taking place in the Byzantine Hippodrome — then, the Senate took advantage of the opportunity to demand changes in taxation and other political elements — Ultimately, the basilica was burned, with only some marble blocks surviving until the present (which can still be viewed today).

    I was fascinated to learn that the riot was, in large part, quelled by a EUNUCH named Narses. He stepped right into the anarchic Hippodrome, diplomatically tried to reason with the masses …and then Justinian’s troops came in and, basically, made a bigger blood bath of the situation… By the end, it is estimated that 30,000 people were killed…

    For many reasons, Justinian was an unprecedented leader …within days of the revolt, he commissioned the reconstruction of the basilica. But, this time, it would be grander than anything ever seen before…

    In truly imperial style, Justinian demanded the finest of materials. These included columns from Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, stones from the quarries of Egypt, green marble from Thessaly, yellow stone from Syria and black stone for the Bosporus region. The building itself was an architectural wonder — the brainchild of a physicist Isidoros of Miletus and mathematician Anthemios of Thrales.

    Before the Hagia Sophia, domes were supported by heavy columns. But the architects envisioned an ingenious way to create a “floating” dome — one supported by the structure itself, without the need for columns underneath, thereby giving the building a sense of heavenly weightlessness…

    I will include more photos and stories about the Hagia Sophia tomorrow. Today, I need to work and pack because, in two days, I’m visiting the United States! So, more to come…

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    December 28th, 2010adminGreece, Nature, Religion, Village Life

    Kastraki, Greece: The early evening view from our hotel bedroom. Directly below, you can see the chickens, which the hotel matron fed every day. She was a robust, mostly friendly Greek lady, though, sometimes, she would smile as she cheated us --- ah, Greece, thank you!

    The town of Kastraki, which rests right under the Meteora Mountains. Doesn't it look perfect, like from a dream?

    A monastery for females (yay, nuns!). We talked to one of the nuns, who spoke very good English because she was a former nurse who trained in the USA. She said only "Orthodox fanatics, like me" went to the Meteora monasteries -- an adorable, self-deprecating nun with a sense of humor; fantastic!

    Peeking into a secret world

    A monk picking persimmons -- a mundane, yet quiet and beautiful moment (mostly because he did not notice me, so I could observe him in peace).

    Architectural details, up close

    ...and farther away

    As a cat fanatic, the feline presence at the monasteries really elevated the experience to a whole other level.

    Another cat photo

    Farm life in Kastraki

    Farm...

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    The village of Kastraki in Thessaly, Greece

    Beauty may be a subjective thing. Or it may be a silly thing. John Ruskin wrote that beauty exists in the most “useless things, peacocks and lilies, for instance.” I have read that beauty aligns with organic symmetry; there is geometry to flowers in bloom. I have also been told the opposite …that beauty is human vanity — our fear of natural disorder — a cowardly attempt to organize and, thereby, dominate nature. And some people measure beauty: symmetrical features, well-proportioned women, or a mathematical balance of shape and color. But I could never define it, and I doubt I ever will.

    The Holy Monastery of Varlaam, built in 1541

    Beauty, when I truly encounter it, is overwhelming. Like Meteora.

    But what is “true” beauty? I doubt there is such a thing. When I walk in certain American neighborhood, I know that they are not “beautiful” — they are ugly, charmless and common. But they strike me as beautiful, perhaps due to my memories. Or, sometimes, a man tells me that he finds a woman beautiful — and she leaves me cold (I don’t understand the appeal) — and, other times, I’m drawn to a painting or a song deemed uninspiring by another. So, maybe I should clarify the beauty of Meteora.

    Climbers almost at the top...

    The place felt unreal — like out of a landscape painting by Cézanne. We looked down upon lush meadows, absolute verdure. The land was mostly quiet, except for a quiet Greek village, Kastraki, where women cooked moussaka and pinned old skirts on clotheslines and sheeps and dogs frolicked in the open air. And, within that world, massive rock formations jutted out of the ground — these surreal, science-fiction like mountains, which once rested underwater until tectonic shifts brought them above ground. Now, they stand in the central Greek region of Thessaly, like some haunted grey palace on Mars.

    And, in this world — isolated & sublime — there was a spiritual human story. Beginning in the 9th century, ascetic monks began moving to this area. They lived in the hollows of the rock towers.

    Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron -- built in the 14th century, restored & embellished in the 15th and 16th centuries

    By the 11th century, an ascetic community had developed in Meteora. The first monastery was established, which still stands today. In the mid-14th century, a monk from Mount Athos (known as the “center of Eastern Monasticism”), Athanasios Koinovitis, brought a community of followers to Meteora. As a result, a new monastery was established.

    Close-up of section of Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron (the largest Meteora monastery today).

    The Meteora mountains are located in the Thessaly region of Greece. This area was constantly invaded by great powers, including the Romans, Byzantines and Bulgarians ( …during the medieval period, the Bulgarians did all right for themselves, okay?).

    And, centuries later, it was the Ottomans. By the 13th century, the Ottomans had advanced into the Balkans, conquering Serbia and Kosovo. They pillaged Thessaly in 1309. Then, following the victory over Constantinople (1453), the Ottomans captured Athens (1458) and, by 1500, successfully seized most of the Greek mainland. Though the battle over some islands (particularly, Crete) was a longer struggle, Greece was essentially taken by the Ottomans, and a new period in Greek history thus began.

    It was at this time — during and after Ottoman invasions — that monks ran up to their rock fortifications of Meteora.

    So, how did these monks get up to those monasteries? The answer is less obvious than expected. After climbing into the mountain region of Meteora, the monks would be hoisted up to the monasteries by roped nets, as seen in the image above.

    The crank

    Once a visitor asked the monks how often they replaced the nets. They simply replied that God tells them — in other words, when the net breaks (!). The nets were supported by a large crank, which slowly pulled up the precariously supported monks.

    Stairs were not constructed until the 1920s.

    An old style (i.e. medieval) kitchen in the Holy Monastery of Grand Meteoron.

    To return back to my meandering thoughts on beauty ….Meteora was so radiant — such a bewitching, distinct moment in my trip, which I still remember so clearly — that I’ll post photos in the next few days, including those showing the interiors of the monasteries, scenes of holy virtue and utter damnation, and a Greek monk picking persimmons from a tree… But, for now, I need to go to bed.

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    What is the story behind these Hebrew scripture tablets? Unsurprisingly, there was no information to be found, though they were placed right next to the Roman rotunda.

    In Thessaloniki, I stayed by the old Roman Rotunda — an imposing, cylindrical structure, commissioned by the Roman Emperor, Galerius. Like so many buildings in this region, the rotunda changed as did the times. With the rise of Christian Byzantium, the rotunda was converted into a Christian Church by Emperor Constantine. Lavish mosaics, all overlooking a circular sky, graced the church, which stood until the Ottoman siege. In the 16th century, the Ottomans added a minaret and refashioned the old rotunda into a mosque — the Mosque of Suleyman Hortaji Effendi.

    Pathway outside the rotunda

    And this is how the building stood until the Greeks recaptured the rotunda in the Balkan Wars. Interestingly, while it was re-christened into a church, the minaret was not destroyed. Today, it is a museum and historical monument. Some in the Greek Orthodox community want to reclaim it back as a church world, but it remains a museum for all visitors today.

    The destructed stones seem to represent more than just geological elements in waste...

    Oddly enough, when I was walking around the rotunda, I found destructed stones with Hebrew script. I wondered: Was there once a Jewish synagogue here? Unfortunately, there was no way to tell. The “helpful” tourist brochures, which detailed the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman elements of the rotunda, failed to mention the massive Hebraic slabs in the rotunda garden.

    The exterior of the rotunda, including the ubiquitous Greek graffiti.

    So, I took photos, confusedly tried to make out an idea in my mind (as to what they were for, as to who used them and looked at them), and moved on. It is moments like these that make European Jewish history particularly difficult to swallow — when one last vestige in a city like Thessaloniki, once *so* very Jewish, is not even mentioned. It’s like it was never there at all…

    I tried to think of a caption for this image. But, as I thought, I realized that the image says enough.

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    October 3rd, 2010adminImagination, Istanbul, Los Angeles, Religion

    Mosque cemetery from the Ottoman era (in Fatih)

    Cemeteries are so interesting, especially in foreign places.

    In Los Angeles, I used to live across the street from a cemetery. For years, people smoked, played music, chatted (even broke up!) on that balcony, overlooking a vast  military cemetery. The intermingling of life and death also struck me — it was a bit eerie and a bit comforting.

    Last month, in the Fatih district, I passed by an old mosque. It was early evening and families gathered for prayer, weaving their way through the cemetery. One man reached to feed a street cat, hiding behind a tombstone. And then they quietly entered the mosque.

    The ubiquitous Turkish street cat -- in this case, a baby kitten who was as equally scared of humans as it was eager for food. I'm a huge feline fan, so I'm basically in love with all the street cats and wish I could take them home.

    I took these pictures in the cemetery, directly behind the mosque. It was so very green. The place felt magical, like a fairy or unicorn lived behind the brush. Really, that’s what it was like!

    I’ve been thinking about cemeteries …how revealing they can be. Some are so stark, so direct — dirt, a simple cross and the sky. Others are ostentatious & ornate, like the absurd mausoleums of Hollywood.

    Cemeteries tell us things. The kinds of stories we, sometimes, find in coffee shops or taxi rides. But they’re more quiet ..and they’re just different …they seem to communicate something else. Cemeteries are a way to understand people — how they memorialize life, and love, and how they interpret memories. That’s another reason why I visit them. I may not know the people, yet I wish I somehow did.

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    September 15th, 2010adminBulgaria, Religion, Touristy Stuff

    The staggeringly picturesque Rila Monastery, nestled in the Rila Mountains of Bulgaria.

    Bulgaria is a land of secluded monasteries, amidst trees and atop mountains. There was a freshness to the country — a desire for pure, untainted air and water, where monastic monks worship in peace. Perhaps the best example of this is Rila Monastery, the country’s most famous monastery, in the gorgeous Rila Mountains  (2-3 hours from Sofia). Only one bus goes from Sofia metro terminal to the Rila Monastery daily, despite its popularity, which is probably a reflection on Bulgarian tourist infrastructure more than anything else.

    Passing through a mountain village on the way to the monastery.

    I went with two hostel friends. We missed the bus, which immediately pissed me off and made me think I had to spend an extra day in Sofia. However, the Brit knew some Czech — and, in a garbled Czech-Bulgarian conversation, convinced another bus driver to take us to Rila. In fact, he caught up with our missed bus and, as a result, we made it to Rila in one piece.

    Imagine living in this monastery. Imagine worshiping here. It seems that it would be easier to believe in God here than in Sofia.

    When I entered the monastery, I was immediately struck by its beauty — architectural and natural. There was a lot of brown. And white. And then, on the walls, ceilings and monastery interior, every inch of space was covered in biblical  imagery — heaven, hell, saints, Jesus, Mary, even God, with a paternal beard and knowing eyes.

    Well, I think it was God, anyway.

    And, then, you look up. It’s just mountains. And sky. One would think that this is where God lives, or Adam and Eve lives, or some holy entity, assuming one believed in any the Judeo-Christian figures at all.

    A group of nuns entered the monastery courtyard. Their somber, religious faces changed instantaneously. Their eyes grew big. They exclaimed things, quietly but with visible excitement, in their native language (I couldn’t decipher what it was).

    Orthodoxy kitsch abounded, as well. Booths sold fake iconography, all of which looked very Byzantine or Bulgarian Orthodox or gilded or special …but in an obviously fake and touristy way. The booths were popular, probably because they were cheap, too. And middle-aged European tourists, many of them Bulgarians from other towns, peered at the wares and made purchase decisions.

    The great thing about beautiful holy sites is that you don't have to follow the religion to recognize the beauty. You can just understand the appeal, from a purely human perspective. Maybe that helps us gain insight into others' faiths.

    We weren’t allowed to photograph inside the monastery. But I’ll just say that the place was covered with frescoes from the famed 19th century Bulgarian artist, Zahari Zograf. It smelled of the burning candles. I was totally overwhelmed by the barrage of images, of smells and colors and saints, all intermingling in that dense space.

    The monastery was originally founded by the hermit, St. Ivan of Rila, originally a herder who became a priest at 25 years old. Interestingly, St. Ivan was a contemporary of Boris I, the tsar who officially made Bulgaria a Christian land. So, St. Ivan was on the “first wave,” one could say, of both Christianity and hermeticism in Bulgaria. Even revered as a saint in his own time (9th century), St. Ivan was known to have a special connection with animals — wild animals approached him and birds flew into his hand. Wishing to fully immerse himself in religious devotion, he left his monastic life for the mountains. There, in the Rila Mountains, he lived in total isolation (I think, in a cave, for 15 years or something). After his death, he became the patron saint of Bulgaria. The monastery was built in the location of his hermetic dwelling in the 10th century.

    The only surviving original tower (left) of the monastery.

    As I mentioned, I went to the the monastery with two hostel buddies — Lena, from Hamburg, and some British guy, who now lives in Australia (but lived in Prague beforehand). We shared a beautiful picnic, surrounded by greenery and mountains and water. We talked about the American book, “Three Cups of Tea,” which I have never read. But it really fascinated the British guy — a story of a man who, stranded in the Pakistani mountains after a botched rock-climbing adventure, finds life-saving hospitality and graciousness from village locals. As a result, he goes back to the USA, raises money, and then builds a school in that very same Pakistani town. He continues to follow suit in other towns across Pakistan. “I can’t find that book in Britain or Australia,” he complained. “But it’s very popular in the US, right?”

    Is this St. Ivan? God? I don't know...

    Mary, baby Jesus and a million other things...

    Before you enter the monastery, you pass through a doorway that is absolutely surrounded by grotesque images of hell. Yes, out of everything: HELL. They really drive home the idea of damnation with that design decision.

    The bus back was also amusing. I sat next to a jovial, fat French woman who kept on laughing and talking about how much she loved Turkey (she came via Turkey to Bulgaria), and how the Turks were so gracious, and she grew very excited when she found out I was from San Francisco. She called to a woman, sitting in the front, “The girl is from San Francisco!” in French and they all smiled at me with some excited sense of approval. The two were dropped off at a mountain-top hotel.

    Private residential quarters.

    I saw a few more secluded monasteries and churches in my time in Bulgaria. In Plovdiv, on a hilltop by the daily produce market, I found an old monastery of some sort: medieval-looking stone floor and a stern, black-bearded (priest? what do they call them in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, anyway?), watering his plants and tending to his candles and other items. I don’t know why I tried. But, out of curiosity, I smiled at him. And he just looked at me, dead seriously for a second, and then turned away. Oh well. I just wanted to see how (and if!) he would interact with me. So, I passed by his plants, walked out the door, and genuinely felt admiration for his church’s architectural past, even if the greater interiors of its believers remain as mysterious as ever.

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    September 14th, 2010adminBulgaria, History, Religion, Touristy Stuff

    Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (Sofia, Bulgaria), named after the medieval prince who defended Rus from nasty German and Swedish invaders. He was also a clever politician who allied with a Mongol khan.

    My short visit to Bulgaria was very nice. I arrived knowing practically nothing about the country, save for a basic historical overview. And I’ve returned feeling like there’s a lot more than people give it credit for. “I really didn’t expect much from Bulgaria,” explained a touring Brit from my hostel. “Really, I thought it would be depressing post-Soviet grayness. But it’s quite lovely and, as a city, Sofia has nice, big, open spaces.”

    Though it may appear very old, even Byzantine, the Cathedral is rather new. Construction began in late 19th century. Regardless, it's still impressive.

    Of course, life wasn’t all roses, either. I saw that many people lived with very little. Jaded, chain-smoking transexual prostitutes loitered and lingered infront of my hostel. I was definitely cheated (at least by a small amount) at one restaurant. Some streets were dead empty, which was a creepy prospect at 3 am. And there was a huge population of utterly desperate gypsies, begging for change at any opportunity.

    But there were many points of interest, history and beauty. For five centuries, Bulgaria was under the yoke of the Ottoman Empire (in fact, one of the most famous Bulgarian books, titled “Under the Yoke,” depicts exactly this). As a result, the country is over 10% Muslim today — a population that includes ethnic Turks and converted Slavs. In Plovdiv (which I will describe in subsequent entries), there stands the oldest mosque in Bulgaria — the first built by the Ottomans. It’s grand, big and white inside. There is an official placard from the city of Istanbul, as well.

    But the majority of the country is Bulgarian Orthodox, their own distinct brand of Orthodoxy. I asked some teenagers, “Is Bulgaria religious?” They said, “No.” I then asked, “Are your families religious?” They smiled and said, “Oh, we go to church maybe twice a year.” Nevertheless, Bulgarians today seem to take great pride in their independence — both from Ottoman and Soviet control. Their official coinage, the lev, has a guy (I don’t know who!), holding a cross.

    The country has its own Bulgarian Orthodox Church, officially established when Tsar Boris adopted Christianity in the 9th century. The Tsar took special measures to make the religion Bulgarian, rather than Greek, in orientation. In  fact, he “expelled the Greek clergy from the country and ordered the replacing of the Greek language with the Slav-Bulgarian vernacular,” according to handy Wikipedia.

    "Oh, a grandfather," said my Bulgarian friend, who I met on the bus from Plovdiv to Istanbul. She smiled. "This," she said, is what many grandfathers in Bulgaria look like. Just like him."

    When I walked down the streets, I definitely felt the Eastern European culture. In the United States, I grew up in a neighborhood bordering a Chinese/Russian community. I grew familiar with the elderly Russian ladies on the bus, coated in heavy make-up and stiff hair, talking about life in Moscow, or their groceries, or their grandchildren. No doubt, Bulgaria is very different than Russia. But I felt the general Eastern European cultural element.

    Near the train station. Just a street. Nothing special, which, of course, makes it more interesting.

    There’s a lot more to say about Bulgaria — the people, the food, and the other city I visited, Plovdiv. But I’ll save those insights and photos for another day — tomorrow, maybe. For now, here’ s a few more photos of everyday streets…

    Street art in Sofia. I found these pieces in a neighborhood full of street art, artist's boutiques and little restaurants -- "artsy," I guess (well, kind-of). There were some aimless-looking dreadlocked dudes...

    CENTER -- Former Communist Party headquarters. Notice the Bulgarian flag on top? I have a sneaking suspicion that a massive Soviet symbol once stood on top. To the left, you can see the current parliamentary building. Behind it, there's an old Roman fortress.

    Just a pretty building.

    I was really drawn to this advertisement. It looked so outdated -- like something I would see in 1992. I wondered if it has actually BEEN there since, like, 1992. Or is the lady's power blazer and poofy hair undeniably hip in Bulgaria?

    But some parts were very nice...

    A disgusting-looking meat advertisement that, for some reason, brought a smile to my face. It's interesting when advertisements from another country do NOTHING for you. So, I think: Is the ad really bad? Or am I just from a really different culture?

    A final cathedral shot.

    I don’t think I have met anybody in the States who has gone to Bulgaria. Many expatriates in Turkey have made the trip. But it’s not so common for the average American college backpacker. Why is that? Why does everybody just go to France, Italy, Spain and Holland?

    Of course, many people go to Hungary and Croatia. Those are popular tourist destinations. But maybe there is an added level of interest and excitement in visiting a country “off the beaten path.”

    While Bulgaria was, in many ways, quiet and not very exciting, it was also a beautiful, green country with a unique history and culture. Not to mention, the food was damn good.

    So, expect more entries related to Bulgaria — including a visit to a beautiful monastery in the mountains — in the days to come!

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    August 15th, 2010adminFood, Islam, Istanbul, Religion
    Ramazan Bread

    Ramazan Bread, as seen from my bedroom window

    I worked today. During lunch break, I met with a teacher to discuss some things. So, I had a short lunch break — in fact, I rushed to a food stand, ordered my köfte sandwich for 3.5 lira (that’s $2.30) and headed to class, just as the bell rang. So, there I was, scarfing down my sandwich, shuffling my books around, and greeting new students in a frenzy. And, then, OOPS, I remembered that it is Ramazan (they say “Ramazan,” not “Ramadan,” in Turkey), all while I’m passionately devouring my sandwich. Of course, some people don’t keep Ramazan. And nobody cares if I don’t. But I felt a bit rude …because I was so involved in my sandwich. So single-mindedly devoted to eating it! But whatever. I put it away and finished it on break.

    To be honest, it’s funny I forgot! I mean, Ramazan is SO noticeable. There are posters advertising various Ramazan events all over the city — Ramazan Caz (“Ramadan Jazz”), Ramazan Osmanli History (i.e. an Ottoman ceremonial re-enactment with an actor playing Sinan, the 16th century architect!) and advertisements for Ramazan culinary specialties. One special food item is a bread, pictured above, which is chewy and pretty good.

    But the MOST noticeable — and, honestly, most annoying  — aspect of Ramazan is the A.M. activity. Often, I am woken up by a devastatingly loud drum procession (one drum, a few men, and a few stray dogs), accompanied by a baritone man’s voice, hollering something in Turkish, at 3:30 am. The drumming is meant to wake people up for breakfast before sunrise — like a “last call” at the bar (yes, I know that was a really un-Islamic reference). Then, I’m woken up AGAIN at like 4:20 am, as the muezzin delivers the call to prayer (an hour earlier than usual). It’s very hot this summer — the hottest in the last 20 years in Istanbul — so, I sleep with my windows open. Unfortunately, I hear the muezzin loud and clear. And the drumming loud and clear. And don’t even get me started on the gypsies’ roosters, which often hobble down my alley, and wake me up at ungodly hours. So, in conclusion, I wake up a few times every night.

    But, despite all this, I’m still much more energetic than many of my students. They are running all day on zero food or water. I mean, Jews just fast for one day (Yom Kippur) and water is allowed. And I honestly don’t know if Christians ever fast all. In short, this is pretty hardcore. Especially in the grueling heat. And especially in a modern city, with full work days and the demands of the office.

    Now, off to eating more food …and not keeping Ramazan.

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