Ruins of Aphrodisias, (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

Photo EssayIf you visit Turkey–and hey, who doesn’t love visiting increasingly intolerant authoritarian dictatorships?–it’s definitely worth strolling the nicely overgrowing ruins of Aphrodisias (Ἀφροδισιάς), a place originally erected in honor of a local cult’s goddess of fertility who has come to be known most widely as Aphrodite, goddess of love.

Ruins of Aphrodisias, (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

Lots of different areas had their own interpretations and names for her: Cytherea, Cypris, Acidalia, Cerigo, Ourania, Artemis and Ashtart among them. “Aphrodite” is Greek, “Lady of Ephesus” Anatolian, and “Venus” is Roman, but they’re all basically the same cult image, reinterpreted and adapted for local and/or religious purposes usually involving fertility. Continue reading



Photo EssayHagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey - (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

Spiritually speaking, I’m fairly described as an atheist anarcho-Buddhist, and I didn’t want to go stand in line to look at the Hagia Sophia, one of the oldest and largest monuments to monotheism and feuding totalitarian religious dogma in the world. But F. really wanted to go, and I didn’t have any better plans for the gray and rainy day.

Birds outside the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey - (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

There was a long lemming line to get in, and surly money tenders at the ticket booth. There was a tacky gift shop where you could buy overpriced jewelry and bric-a-brac. There was a lot of scaffolding, and ropes marking off all the places you could not go. Christian mosaics and art battled with prominent Muslim signage and messaging.

Partially intact Christian mural at the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey - (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

But if I just put all of the history and religion out of mind, the Hagia Sophia was a pretty amazing work of architecture, with impressive beauty and some fascinating stone work.

Looking upward from the floor of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey - (c) 2016 Brian Awehali


“Have you heard of Fazıl Say?,” she asked, with the obscenely picturesque Istanbul skyline behind her. We were, all of us, at a rooftop bar/restaurant, eating and drinking raki when I asked about Turkish musicians I should know about. I admitted I hadn’t heard of him.

“He’s a genius,” she said. “But he was punished for insulting Islam.”

Say, I now know, is a pianist and composer who’s garnered wide acclaim for his work. One of his first big international breakthroughs came in 1997, with “Black Earth,” a piano piece which fused his own considerable compositional skills with motifs from Turkish folk music and experimental techniques most identified with John Cage (whose own work was deeply influenced by Buddhist philosophy and practice):

Say is also apparently a Turkish atheist who made the rare choice to actually admit that fact in public, and who further confirmed his “infidel” status in several (re)tweets referencing the 11th-century Persian poet Omar Khayyam poking fun of an Islamic view of the afterlife, and by posting his own joke on Twitter about a local muezzin’s azan (muezzin‘s are the people who sing the azan, or call to prayer, that goes out over Islamic cities, towns and villages five times a day.):

“Muezzin 22 saniyede okudu akşam ezanını yahu. Prestissimmo con fuco!!! Ne acelen var? Sevgili? Rakı masası? ” ( The muezzin has recited the evening azan in 22 seconds. [Early, with fire]!!! What’s the rush? Lover? Raki binge?)

Those landed him in legal trouble when the government prosecuted him for insulting Islam and offending Muslims and handed down a 10-month jail sentence, which was suspended on the condition that Say engage in no further blasphemous speech or action.

You might imagine that anyone secure in their religious belief wouldn’t worry what an “unbeliever” posts on a largely inane social media platform like Twitter, since that believer could rest easy knowing they were right and the non-believer was wrong.

But that’s not how totalitarian monotheistic religious thought works — be it Muslim, Christian or Buddhist, in Turkey, the U.S., Myanmar or elsewhere — when it’s being exploited for cynical political purposes.

“Here in Turkey, we have been going through a hard period, as the ruling class oppresses the masses while trying to gain power by misusing religion,” said Say, in a 2013 speech to the 38th Congress of the International Federation for Human Rights.


Galata Bridge and Blue Mosque at night, (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

Photo EssayAccording to F., you can safely skip the much-recommended Turkish baths (hamam) in Suleymaniye. Besides the fact that they’ll cost you a minimum of 90 Turkish lira (about $45 right now), with scrub-downs or special treatments costing extra, the environment’s not particularly interesting. It’s a tourist trap. Other, less touristy hamams might be better.

I didn’t try it out, but I take her word for it, and recommend getting yourself instead to a Korean spa when and if you’re in Korea (or a Koreatown in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, New Jersey, Dallas, or Plano, Texas), get the chance, and have about $25 (for up to 24 hours of spa time!)

Eminönü (Istanbul) roasted chestnut vendor at night, (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

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Photo EssayI laughed sympathetically as I watched this scene from the ferry I took from Kasımpaşa to Eminönü. The two younger women in these pictures really wanted to throw rocks into the Bosphorus. They weren’t harming anything, except maybe the chances of the couple of people fishing from the dock, who actually caught a nice-sized fish immediately after these women were chastised by the ticket-taker for the ferry.

1. “Is it OK?”

Muslim mother and her children in Kasimpasa, Istanbul, (c) 2016 Brian Awehali


2. “Yeah, I think it’s OK. Let’s throw rocks in the Bosphorus over here….”

Muslim mother and her children in Kasimpasa, Istanbul, (c) 2016 Brian Awehali


3. “I guess it wasn’t OK.”

Muslim woman and her children in Kasimpasa, Istanbul, (c) 2016 Brian Awehali


Photo Essay

View of Eminonu, Istanbul, from the water. (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

There are several sites almost every tourist in Istanbul visits, even if they’re the type of tourist who prefers to be called a “traveler.” Here’s a photographic whirl through some of these sites.

The Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Carsii)

Tourist at The Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Carsii), (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

Woman at Blue Mosque, (c) 2016 Brian AwehaliOnce you take your shoes off and give them to your appropriately covered partner to carry in her backpack, you can walk through and appreciate the 400-year-old Blue Mosque‘s majestic lapiz lazuli-lined interior design, or the sight of Muslims from all parts of the world coming to appreciate its grandeur and feel closer to their god. Ceiling of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, (c) 2016 Brian AwehaliThough it’s not the point of the place, it’s amazing how much personal style can be expressed in the modest yet highly varied dress of Muslim women.

Or, if you’re like the guy in the picture above, maybe you can get just the right selfie or check your text messages while you’re in one of the planet’s most venerated places of worship.

Tourists at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, (c) 2016 Brian Awehali


The Grand & Spice Bazaars (Kapali & Mısır Çarşısı)

The Grand & Spice Bazaars (Kapali & Mısır Çarşısı), (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

Aphrodisiacs at The Grand & Spice Bazaars (Kapali & Mısır Çarşısı), (c) 2016 Brian AwehaliHere, and especially at the Grand Bazaar, or Kapali Çarşı(since 1461!), both in the vicinity of the old walled city of Constantinople, vendors will aggressively try to fish foreigners in by using some stock phrases in what they guess to be your native tongue.

One vendor, hearing I was an American from California, immediately warned me about how bad and dangerous the marijuana is in İstanbul, and seemed to be saying, if I understood correctly, that a friend of his had bought some that had been laced with something that caused his heart to stop. I do not think marijuana has ever stopped someone’s heart function. It’s more likely that his friend smoked a synthetic drug called bonzai that’s been growing in popularity among Turkish youth, and which apparently bears some resemblance to cannabis, if something synthetic and something natural that produce entirely different results can be said to resemble each other. Local media have widely reported on a growing epidemic among youth, and about a rash of Bonzai-related hospitalizations and “schizophrenic-type behavior,” but it’s almost impossible, anywhere, to separate scientific fact from drug hysteria and moral panic when it comes to popular media coverage. I couldn’t even find out what bonzai is made of, so it could be lots of different things being peddled under the same name. It could be complete crap distributed by the government itself to promote drug hysteria, and that’s not garden variety, unsubstantiated conspiracy theorist paranoia, either: The U.S. government poisoned lots of its own people during Prohibition.

Returning to the spice bazaar: There was a dizzying array of spice-specific shops, of course. One of the more varied shops offered lokum (“Turkish Delight”) and, among other things, “Viagra Tea” (below, center), and a product called “Aprodisiaque,” which I avoided, on grounds that its logo depicted an absurdly turgid monkey who’d obviously have no blood left for brain activity.

Teas at The Grand & Spice Bazaars (Kapali & Mısır Çarşısı), (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

Yet another shop was offering a deal for bundles of decent-looking counterfeit U.S. dollars and Chinese yuan: only 5Turkish lira symbol 8x10px.png!

Play money at The Grand & Spice Bazaars (Kapali & Mısır Çarşısı), (c) 2016 Brian Awehali


The Galata Bridge

Muslim women in Nike footwear on the Galata Bridge, Istanbul, (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

“Just Do It!” (shoe): These three women were actually looking at a woman photographing them, out of frame to the left. If you take pictures on the Galata Bridge, especially at the golden hour, you immediately feel like a lemming or herd animal, because it seems like every other person walking on it is also taking pictures.

Anti-Israel graffiti in Istanbul, (c) 2016 Brian Awehali
Istanbul is one of the most popular destinations for visitors from all over the world, but consider the findings of a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center (Hurriyet Daily News, Nov. 8, 2014), showing that 73% of Turks dislike both the U.S. and Russia, though Israel is the country Turks hate most, at 86%. 75% dislike Iran; 70% dislike NATO; 66% dislike the EU, though the report also notes that 53% of Turks want Turkey to join it. The country Turks like most, at just 26%, according to the Pew poll, is Saudi Arabia, though over half of those polled also expressed dislike for it. Turkish dislike of others is broadly distributed: 85% of those polled held a negative opinion of al-Qaeda and Hezbollah; 80% disliked Hamas. 53% of Muslims polled (Turkey is 98% Muslim) said “suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilian targets are never justified.”

The Pew report included a humorous side note about how their polling confirmed the motto, “the Turk has no friend but the Turk.”

“It is hard to find any country or organization the Turkish people really like, except, of course, Turkey itself,” the report noted. “According to our spring 2012 poll, 78% of Turks said they had a favorable view of their country.”

Polls like these seem as obfuscating as they are illuminating, though. If someone asked you “Do you like China?” would you answer thinking of the Chinese people, the Chinese government, Chinese businesses or all three?  And in terms of the U.S., would your answer vary depending on whether you were thinking of the people on the coasts or the people in the Midwestern or Southern states? The government and its policies? Democratic or Republican President/Congress? Currently at war or presently in-between armed conflicts? What’s really meant by the category of “a country” in polls like these?

Despite hordes of tourists and travelers, there’s still local life happening on the Galata Bridge, of course, as in the photo below of a couple arguing on the lower level of the bridge. I didn’t realize the woman had seen me taking this until I zoomed in and saw her resentful look. This image doesn’t adequately capture how striking she was, because the man’s shadow obscures it.

Couple arguing in the lower level of the Galata Bridge in Istanbul, (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

That’s the Galata Tower in the lower left of the picture, where panoramic views of the city can be taken in, and where, around 1630, an Ottoman named Hezarfen Ahmet Çelebi reportedly flew 6km, from Europe to Asia, using artificial wings. Upon completing this momentous flight, he was given a sack of gold coins by then-Sultan Murad IV, who said “This is a scary man. He is capable of doing anything he wishes. It is not right to keep such people,” before banishing Çelebi to Algeria, where he died.




Photo Essay

Alley in the Galatasaray neighborhood of Istanbul at night. (c) 2015 Brian Awehali

Istanbul at night. (c) 2015 Brian Awehali

The beauty of a landscape resides in its melancholy.
— Ahmet Rasim

Walking the backstreets of Beyoğlu my second night in Istanbul, I admired how a city of more than ten million people could still feel so intimate. At night, it’s an intimacy created partly by the alchemy of old, compressed space and low streetlight, the brushing of shoulders with strangers on narrow stone sidewalks, and the sauntering of many semi-feral cats.

Narrow street in Galatasaray neighborhood of Istanbul. (c) 2015 Brian Awehali

Cats are an interesting symbol of İstanbul, capable as they are of both intimacy and extreme violence. A day earlier, I’d listened to the serendipitous duet of a furious shrieking cat-fight and the Islamic call to prayer that envelops the city five times each day (Allah is Most Great, Allah is Most Great / There is no god but Allah).

Beginning after 10pm, groups of mostly boys and men in Turkish flag-draped cars began driving through these same streets honking, yelling, and blasting their music. Many of them were hanging out of the windows, pumping their arms in the air. Not speaking Turkish, I don’t know what they were on about, but one local told me it was the tail-end of that day’s “fascist rally,” and that they were driving through the neighborhood of Beyoğlu because it was the historic site of “the resistance.” Another local explained that they were “military.”

These vehicular displays of bellicose patriotic youth have continued nightly.