Once around the circle…

Hello again. Welcome back. I know. It’s been a while.

I’m sitting on my balcony as darkness falls. A chill glass of white from a neighbourhood winery sits to hand. The distant clouds are frosted in pink, the nearer hills shading to bronze; following a week under the shroud of a smokey haze, it’s lovely to breathe clear air and see down the valley again. The crickets have begun their nightly chorus – the rhythmic song of late summer that lulled me to sleep my first nights here.

It was a year ago this weekend that I left behind my home in Ontario. I’ve come round the calendar, marking the changes and learning the rhythms of this new home. I’ve seen the summer orchards shade to bronze and copper, watched as winter crept down from the peaks and watched it retreat again, drank in the scent of orchards in blossom, marvelled as clusters of fruit appeared among the rows.  It was peach season when I arrived and it’s peach season again; each day’s offering bigger and juicier than the day before. Berries, apricots and cherries have had their day, now root vegetables and field tomatoes are crowding the stalls. Cabbages and pumpkins ripen in the fields, the trees are burdened with still-green apples.

Summer is far from over here in the Okanagan – but I’ll be heading off in the morning to spend the remaining weeks of the season in Turkey.  After a year of exploring and learning a new place, it’s time to return to a familiar one. The dig at Zincirli opened at the beginning of August and I’ve had word that lovely objects have emerged from the soil and are waiting to be drawn. I’m eager to reconnect with friends – it’s been nearly two years! – and I’m wondering how the sleepy little village of Fevzipaşa has fared meanwhile. I’m awash in thoughts of steaming tea in tulip glasses, tiny cups of morning espresso, late night conversations in a windy courtyard and early mornings awakening to a somewhat-less-than-melodious call to prayer. Adventure – of a sort – awaits.


If you’ve been following this blog previously, you have an idea of what’s to come. If you’re new here – you may want to take a look at this early post to catch up on what I’m up to. Old friend or new – I hope you’ll come along!

Over the hill

A weekend on the dig always presents a dilemma. Go or stay? After rising at 4:30 a.m. and working all day for six days straight, the inclination is just to stay put and catch up on sleep. But you’re in Turkey! There is so much to see and do and taste – you can’t just curl up in the courtyard and do nothing!

That’s certainly how I’ve felt in past years, but as the seasons accumulate, I begin to see why it’s the veterans who opt for napping. Still, It appears there are ways to do both: catch up on sleep and still find time for adventure.

The Zincirli excavation is located on the plain between two mountain ranges. We live in the village of Fevzipaşa – a fifteen minute drive into the foothills to the west. For years now I’ve been tantalized by tales of the open-air restaurants of Hasan Beyli , a village further along the same road but across the mountain pass that rises above us. That same pass through the Amanus Mountains is what determined the location of ancient Sam’al and why we’re here in the first place. Over the week’s conversations I discovered that Benedetta – one of our Italian ceramic specialists – was also determined to visit the famed village, so we began to plot.

By week’s end we had recruited companions, but no transport. We started with the impression that we could hike – there is a trail – but that illusion was quickly dispelled when the suggestion elicited outright laughter. When we put the question to our camp director, Nergis, at breakfast, she turned to Faruk, a Zincirli local who helps out with logistics. He was free for the day and offered to drive us. Of course, that presented a new challenge in that none of the four of us spoke Turkish and Faruk speaks little English (and no Italian or German)  but we all packed our version of a Turkish dictionary and set off.

Earlier this summer my son posted this passage about his travels in Palestine, which I’m excerpting here because it perfectly describes our trip; it appears that road engineering shares a common aesthetic throughout the region. Sorry, the passage is unedited; I left in the expletive because, well, it’s accurately descriptive!

The roads here go up and down through valleys with switchbacks and corners that are shit-your-pants narrow. I was thinking, very naively, at one point that it was weird to have a one-lane, one-way road going up the side of the valley because they would surely have to have another one going down. The truck barreling down the hill towards us snapped me right out of that musing. The edges of the switchbacks tend to be barrier-free; I assume this is done in consideration of providing some of the best possible uncluttered views of the valleys.”

Half way up the snaking road to Hasan Beyli, I suddenly knew exactly what Rylan was describing. I was grateful to Faruk for his careful driving, although I believe it was partly in response to my white-knuckled grip on the armrest that he took the stomach-churning corners so cautiously, chuckling wickedly all the same. The view of the valley was spectacular but, gazing back from the heights, we agreed that we likely never would have completed the climb on foot.

The meal was all that was promised: crisp-skinned, freshly prepared trout (you sometimes get to pick the fish destined for your plate, but we had called ahead and were spared that trauma.) We ate under a spreading plane tree with a channel of cool, babbling water at our feet – a rustic setting, but charming. The moment we had crossed the pass, the temperature had dropped and the air was pleasantly humid. We – Bene, Eva, Kate and I – passed various dictionaries around the table and made stumbling attempts at conversation with Faruk, who responded good-naturedly, correcting our Turkish pronunciation and offering alternative phrasing. We were all a little exhilarated by our success – and how much we learned in a short span. After lunch and çay, Faruk told us there was an “eski kale” – old castle – further up the road; would we like to see it? Of course we would!

Savranda castle dates from the Crusader era but the site goes back to Roman times. The walls and entrance tower are partly preserved, but the rest is overgrown and tumbled across the mountain slope. We clambered about the ruins for an hour or more, posed for pictures and drank in the lovely scenery – misty distant peaks and a turquoise jewel of a reservoir below.  One might well imagine a Roman soldier standing guard on the heights and wondering how he had so offended the gods as to be posted to such a forsaken pass in the middle of nowhere. I hope he was consoled by the sheer beauty of the vista as he kept watch.

Eventually, we had to come down from the mountain. We brought a hitch-hiker: a cicada sat in the back window, buzzing in frustration most of the way back. For a while, we all just assumed the speakers in the car were malfunctioning. I, for one, was relieved to reach the relatively level streets of Fevzipaşa once more – with time to catch a nap before dinner!

Puzzling pieces

It’s Friday afternoon. I’m sitting out under the pines on a perfect Fevzi Paşa summer afternoon, enjoying a pleasant breeze. The morning started with our weekly tel tour: our chance to get caught up on the week’s developments on the site. Each Friday this season we’ve also been treated to a lecture by a member of the staff. My personal archaeological education is gradually advancing; I’m putting the pieces together bit by bit.

It seems to me that pretty well sums up our days here: assembling the pieces. Our lecture today reiterated just that. As each square is excavated, centimetre by centimetre, the descending levels reveal a chronology. Layers and levels alone don’t tell the story though, because later activity can intrude on earlier – pits, ploughs, looting –  and confuse the narrative. Pottery finds, small objects, biological remains, textual fragments – all these tell their own tales and can be compared from square to square or to similar sites to confirm the dating sequence. Each adds a piece to the picture of ancient Sam’al – not only the physical layout of the city, but as well how the people of that time and place may have gone about their lives.

Perhaps in your travels you’ve visited a historical or archaeological site – somewhere the work had been relatively complete. You’ve strolled among the reconstructed walls, admired the neatly displayed artifacts and found it easy to imagine an ancient existence.

It’s not like that here.

For the newcomer, a newly excavated square may seem to be a meaningless jumble of stones. If you stopped by, you’d find yourself asking why you’d turned off the road to take a look. After five seasons, I am finding it easier to make sense of, but that is also a function of the depth of the existing excavation. When a square supervisor says that a line of tumbled stones is a wall…I can see it now and can anticipate that in the following week it will be further defined. More often though, the supervisor may point to a feature that they think may be a wall and will turn out not to go anywhere, or to veer off in an unexpected direction or not belong to that building – or time period – at all. Just the same, day after day and year by year, ancient Sam’al emerges ,answering some questions and raising more.

My first season here at Zincirli in 2008 was a heady time. Two significant artifacts – a funerary stele and a pictorial orthostat – were discovered within a few days of each other. Nothing so spectacular has emerged since, but I’ve learned that it isn’t just the splashy discoveries that advance understanding of the site – it’s the thousands of seemingly insignificant pieces gradually accumulating. Each afternoon in the workroom with my nose to my art board, I’m privy to lively discussions amongst the staff as they puzzle out just what the day’s finds may mean. It’s frustrating and confusing – and for me, a little exhilarating – as they exchange theories, compare findings, discuss academic articles and argue conclusions. I don’t always get it – but it never fails to be interesting.

But right now? It’s Friday afternoon and the weekend. Turkish coffee and friends are waiting in the shade of the plane tree in the square on a perfect Fevzi Paşa afternoon.

Katmer and Kahve

The call to prayer sounds well before my alarm goes off at 4:40 a.m., so I have the luxury of rolling over to catch a few more zzz’s while the echoes trail off in the wind. The sun is over the horizon by the time I make it down to breakfast, gilding the faces of the site crew gathered in the courtyard sleepily awaiting transport to the dig. The Zincirli 2013 season has begun.

We’ve eased into things over this first week with introductions and instruction, a trip to the city to register with the police and plenty of time to socialize. Afternoons over a cup of çay give way to evenings over a cold beer or two. Conversation here is always stimulating, regardless of beverage. We’re a very multicultural group: representing twenty-five universities, eleven nationalities and a broad range of studies. It’s hard to get through a day here without learning something new and unexpected.

Thursday’s trip to the ‘foreigner police’ in Gaziantep was a treat in many ways. To begin, the city is one of my favourite places. katmerArriving at the alley outside the police offices, a row of low tables  and stools was quickly assembled and our wait began with a round of katmer – a breakfast pastry comprised of a thin pancake folded into many layers over a ricotta-like cheese, fried on a sizzling griddle to golden crispness before being drenched in honey and sprinkled with ground pistachio. It’s one of my favourite sweets – in a country that excels at sweets.

There are always twists and turns to the process of registering for Turkish residency – this year’s was that they were asking for more pictures than I had with me, necessitating a visit to an instant photo shop for more. Of course, when my turn came to present myself at the upstairs office, somehow two pictures were sufficient. I now possess enough snap-shots of myself for several seasons – flattering even, if not a little retouched. Having finished with our bureaucratic obligations – later than hoped but not than was expected, we were whisked off to a local shopping mall to find lunch.

I was lucky enough to be in company with others who thought we might do better than a meal in a fast food court, so we traipsed across the street and through a park to a kebab shop. None of the five of us were fluent in Turkish, but we pooled our dictionaries and came up with gestures and vocabulary enough to order a delicious and generous meal. This was followed by a stroll back through the park to a tea garden where we enjoyed a leisurely Turkish coffee. A visit to the impressive Zeugma mosaic museum rounded out our Fourth of July which, as it turns out, happens to also be my birthday. A memorable, well-spent day it was, topped off with a freshly baked walnut cake following our evening meal.

Conversation is still bubbling up from the courtyard, not quite drowning out this weekend’s wedding drums. The musical wail of the  evening call to prayer is sounding. Ah, Saturday night in Fevzi Paşa – yet another of my favourite things!

Departures and arrivals

It’s been a sunny day here in Fevzi Pasa  – as always. Most of the senior staff have arrived; we’ve spent the day moving in and organizing. We’re all a little groggy after last night’s late arrival, but evening is approaching; there is no doubt we’ll all sleep tonight!

I managed to evade the prospect of a dreary ten hour layover in Istanbul airport when my friend Evren appeared unexpectedly. We stashed my luggage and she whisked me off to the Metro, passing through the old city at Sultanahmet. Evren has a gift that way;  she knew I’d want to see it. We crossed the Bosphorus by ferry, giving us a classic tourist’s view of the the domes and spires of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia while we sipped çay from tulip glasses. Evren has an atelier/gallery in Kadiköy, a bustling area on the Asian side of Istanbul. I toured her new facility – Işlik Kadiköy – and perused the results of this year’s artist workshops as I heard tales of her creative endeavours over the winter. There were more harrowing tales of her participation in the events of Taksim Square in recent weeks. Then it was a quick meal of ‘midye tava’ and ‘midye dolmu’ – fried and stuffed mussels  – and Evren loaded me onto the fast ferry back to the airport. She won’t be joining the dig until later in the summer, so it was wonderful to have had even a brief time with her.

Back at the airport, other Zincirli staff had staked out a sizeable share of the comfy chairs at Caffe Nerro – our traditional rendezvous point. Our flight to Gaziantep, in the south, was delayed, so there was ample time to exchange news with old friends and get acquainted with new ones. We strolled through to the domestic terminal later where there was additional time  to appreciate the much improved services in the revamped facility when our flight was delayed. We straggled off the plane, wearily collected our luggage, loaded into the vans after greeting yet more old friends and pulled into our little village in the wee hours, gratefully scattering to our various beds.

Tucked in to my usual quarters – the only resident for the first night – and listening to the ever-present shushing of wind in the pines outside my windows, it hardly felt like I’d been away. Home away from home.

Enjoying çay on the ferry