The Seven Wonders Of The Ancient World

At some point it was getting a bit ridiculous: get up early, run to see some ruins that weren’t there, jump on a bus, connect with another bus, arrive late at the next town and then do it again. And again. This is what our itinerary was like for the better part of last week. We made the mistake of ordering a Kids Discover pamphlet titled “7 Wonders of the World” and making our kids read it as part of their homeschooling. Unfortunately, our daughter decided that we must see as many of them as possible. “We’ve seen the pyramids and the lighthouse at Alexandria and we are planning to go to Rhodes,” she said as she browsed the pamphlet, before continuing. “You know…Bodrum is not that far from Rhodes and the Temple of Artemis is right next to Ephesus, which you said we were going to anyway.” Control of our itinerary was gradually slipping away from us and into the hands of our 12-year old daughter.

The Seven Wonders of the World is a well known list of remarkable constructions of classic antiquity. Alexander the Great’s conquest of much of the known world in the 4th century BC gave Hellenic people access to the great civilizations of Egypt, Persia and Babylon and a consensus formed from such writers as Antipater of Sidon, Philon, Herodotus and Pliny the Elder. The seven ancient wonders are the Great Pyramid at Giza (Egypt), The Hanging Gardens of Babylon (Iraq), The Lighthouse at Alexandria (Egypt), the Temple of Artemis (Turkey), the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus (Turkey), the Statue of Zeus at Olympia (Greece), and the Colossus of Rhodes (Greece). Ironically, five of the seven wonders were celebrations of Greek or Hellenic culture (all except the Great Pyramid and Hanging Gardens) yet these days five of the seven are in Muslim lands (all except the Statue of Zeus and the Colossus of Rhodes).

The thing that you have to remember about the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World is that, with the exception of the Great Pyramids, they are gone. The Hanging Gardens, Alexandria Lighthouse and Colossus of Rhodes were toppled by an earthquake and fire did in the Statue of Zeus and the Temple of Artemis. There are a handful of other lists like the Seven Modern Wonders or the Seven Natural Wonders and even the recent internet vote for the New Seven Wonders, but we focused on the ancient list because it dovetailed so nicely with our itinerary. In Egypt, the Pyramids and the Lighthouse at Alexandria were easy to get to because they are near large cities. At Alexandria, we visited the site and our kids touched some of older stones of the Quaitbay Castle, allegedly from the Lighthouse. Having also touched the Great Pyramid, our daughter was now on a quest to touch at least a part of them all. (I should mention that we have no intention of going to Iraq to look for or touch the Hanging Gardens; six out of seven will have to do)

We arrived at the Rhodes harbor via ferry from Marmaris. After checking into our hotel, we went to the old harbor entrance that was supposedly the site of the Colossus and saw nothing but a small fortification and lighthouse. The Colossus was a copper statue of Helios, the sun god and was built in 226 BC. It was about 110 feet high and only stood for 60 years. We looked for pieces of copper in the shallow water; we’d later learned that the copper ruins lay around for almost 900 years before invading Arab armies looted it and sold the copper pieces to a Syrian merchant. We left Rhodes by the same route and made our way back to Marmaris, Turkey so that we could catch the last bus to Bodrum, the location of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. We arrived at our Bodrum hotel at around 9:00 pm and went right to sleep. We woke up early the next morning and marched over to the ruins of the Mausoleum. The site was predictably unimpressive and had a couple dozen column pieces scattered about the site. The structure was built in 351 BC for King Mausolus, which is where we get our name for mausoleum. There is a beautiful marble frieze from the mausoleum that, like many antiquities, sits in the British Museum. After the initial fire, crusaders looted the site to use for other purposes.

After 45 minutes at the site, we picked up our bags and jumped on the first of two buses to Selcuk, the site of the Temple of Artemis. At Selcuk, while rolling our bags away from the bus station and towards our hostel, we caught a glimpse of the lone remaining column from the ruined site. Checking my watch with my daughter, we realized that we had seen 3 of the 7 wonders within a 24 hour period. The site was also unimpressive but we had to visit so the kids could touch the remaining column. The temple was built in 550 BC and may have been the most beautiful of all the wonders. We headed back to the hostel so that we could get much needed naps. Five down and one to go. Within the next few weeks we’ll be visiting the site of the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, the site of the first Olympic games. That is unless our daughter gets control of our itinerary again.


Hiking The Wrong Direction On The Lycian Way

Everything sounded perfect in the guidebook. Spectacular scenery, historic ruins, affordable inns spaced at comfortable intervals with clearly marked footpaths, a trail rating of “easy,” and a simple description of how to get to the trailhead. Based on this, we extended our trip in Turkey a few days to allow sufficient time to trek a portion of the Lycian Way. The Lycian Way is a long-distance footpath in southwestern Turkey that follows the Mediterranean for 500 kilometers from Fethiye to Antalya around the coast of ancient Lycia. The Sunday Times has listed it as one of the world’s top ten walks.

In the end, everything on our trek went well, but getting to the trailhead caused some consternation. Our first indication of difficulty was when we checked into our Fethiye guesthouse, told the owner about our plans and he said, “Why would you do it that way? It’s much easier if you do it the other direction. How will you get to Alinca?” I showed him our guidebook that described Alinca as a short taxi ride from Esen. “But that’s 30 kilometers and I don’t think you can even find a taxi in Esen.” Given that he organized treks himself, I chalked his protestation up to self-interest and retained faith in the guidebook. We planned to leave our bags in Fethiye, visit Kas for a few days, take a bus to Esen, somehow get to Alinca and then walk back to Fethiye. In Kas we asked several people if we could get a taxi from Esen to Alinca and everyone said no. I Googled other travel blogs to see if anyone had done it and found one blogger who had done it, albeit with much waiting and difficulty. With all this uncertainty, we decided to charter a taxi from Kas to sidestep the whole Esen taxi question.

On day one, our Taxi driver dropped us off for a 15-minute visit to Xanthos, a UNESCO world heritage site and the ancient Lycian capital. Lycia was a region in Anatolia in what are now the provinces of Antalya and Mugla on the southern coast of Turkey. It was a federation of ancient cities in the region and later a province of Rome. The Lycian League was the first federation in the world with democratic principles and it later influenced the United States Constitution. The city ruins were empty, except for the grazing sheep in the amphitheater, and we quickly walked the site. We were interested to read that Roman senator Brutus (one of Julius Caesar’s assassins) conquered Xanthos and having all just watched HBO’s Rome series, the image of actor Tobias Menzies stayed in our minds. Our driver honked the horn a few times and we jumped in the taxi to Alinca.

After a bit of searching we found the trail marker and started our first day of hiking. We followed mule trails over limestone and granite rocks, through olive and pine trees, while keeping the Mediterranean on our left. The trail is well-marked with red-and-white painted trail markers hastily swiped over large stones (see image). In places where there is some doubt as to where the trail goes, the wrong fork is marked with a red “X.” While the trail was rated “easy” by our guidebook, I’d say it was moderate; anytime you have to use your hands, I think your rating slides into the moderate category. We’d heard that this was Turkey’s first long-distance footpath and it was indeed beautiful. The large granite cliffs and boulders reminded us of Yosemite back in northern California. Within the first couple hours we passed by some grazing goats, one of which was in a tree -- four feet off the ground – munching leaves and small branches. After about four hours of hiking we descended upon the small village of Kabak, where we would spend the night. We asked directions from some men working on leveling a road. Their dog was a large Sheppard with a giant spiked-collar. The metal spiked collar is the traditional collar worn by Turkish Shepherd dogs while guarding their herds and the collars protect the dog and aid in fighting against wolves and bears. Every blacksmith has his own style; this one had six 8-inch spikes radiating from the dog’s neck. We quietly slipped past and found a pension in Kabak.

The second day we rose early, had the traditional Turkish breakfast of olive, cheese, bread, tomatoes, and cucumber, and starting climbing the trail amongst olive groves and stone fences. Every so often we saw a tortoise slowly making its way across the trail. We climbed to a ridge and followed it most of the way to Faralya. The views of the Mediterranean were stunning. We saw the Greek Island of Rhodes off in the distance as well as the picture perfect bay of OluDeniz. After only four hours, we arrived in Faralya and checked into George House hostel. From there, we had some lunch and then climbed a trail a couple hundred meters straight down into Butterfly Valley to see the beach. The trail was extremely narrow and steep and at three or four sections a rope was needed to negotiate the trail. We made it down in about an hour and – because the beach was closed off that day -- we hiked right back up. From the top we congratulated ourselves and admired the granite cliffs and turquoise Mediterranean Sea.

The hike to Faralya and then the climb down to the beach constituted a full day for us. My wife’s trendy Sketcher shoes looked nice but were not ideal for hiking over rocks and boulders. We decided to skip the third day and head straight back to Fethiye. I was anxious to let our guesthouse owner know we really enjoyed hiking the “wrong direction” on the Lycian Way.


Homeschooling: World History In A Spreadsheet

While we’re travelling, our kids can’t help but learn about history, but the sheer amount of events and their corresponding dates can be overwhelming. Does it matter that the battle of Gallipoli was in 1915? Who cares if Alexander the Great died in 322 BCE? Will it really matter if we forget that Ramses II completed the Abu Simbel temple in Southern Egypt in 1257 BCE? With all the information that we come across, it helps to be choosy; stick with the big events…the ones that shaped their time or future eras. As for how we remember these key dates and how they relate to one another, Dad has the answer: the spreadsheet.

As a retail business consultant I often create and use Excel spreadsheets that help me solve problems for my clients, so naturally when I thought about this problem, I instantly visualized the solution: a timeline in a spreadsheet. (No, I’m not kidding) Running across the top of the spreadsheet are columns for DATE, CENTURY, EVENT, PRESENT DAY COUNTRY, etc. and the rows run downward for thousands of cells. When we first started it, we stuck in family birthdays for the kids, us and their grandparents. After that, we just let our travels teach us.

Running in reverse-chronological order, here’s a sampling of some of the dates we’ve entered into the spreadsheet based on our travels:
1869 - Suez Canal Completed (Egypt)
1835 - Charles Darwin visits the Galapagos (Ecuador)
1799 - Rosetta Stone found (Egypt)
1783 - Simon Bolívar born (Venezuela)
1532 - Francisco Pizarro defeats Atahualpa at Cajamarca (Perú)
570 - Mohammed the Prophet is born in Medina (Saudi Arabia)
27 BCE - Augustus (Octavian) becomes the first Emperor of Rome (Italy)
31 BCE - Battle of Actium (Greece)

Most of the events are inspired by our travels but often the kids’ homework or a book they’ve read will trigger an entry. The Suez Canal, Galapagos, Rosetta Stone entries listed above were from our travels. My daughter’s 7th grade history book has a chapter on The Rise of Islam so we put in Mohammed’s year of birth after she finished the chapter. The Francisco Pizarro entry was put in after my son read Kim McQuarie’s The Last Days of the Incas. The Emperor Augustus and Battle of Actium dates are from all of us watching two seasons of HBO’s Rome series, which the kids have loved (see blog entry on this here) and has led to many dates in the timeline.

One thing I’ve learned from the experience is how hard it is to make a timeline; you’d think it was just a simple matter of putting one date after another. Multiple events in one year (i.e., 1492: Columbus discovers America and the Christians kick the Moors out of Spain) can be difficult to show and representing an era or dynasty (i.e., Egypt’s Middle Kingdom) is hard when the timeline is geared towards individual events. Because of the linear nature of the timeline, showing events and history by region or country is tough and grouping events within disciplines (science, arts, politics, etc.) is very tricky. (And when did they replace BC with BCE, anyway?) With all these challenges we’re not losing sight of what’s important – showing the kids how their travels relate to world history.


Homeschooling: Reading While On The Road

In addition to all the homework material that our kids have while on the road, we ask that they read a lot. I keep a record of what all of us are reading in an Excel spreadsheet (see photo) which calculates our progress; number of books, pages, words read, etc. Yeah, this is a bit nerdy but the competition has given the kids incentive to read more. In addition to the classics that they should be reading like 1984, Huck Finn, The Great Gatsby, Treasure Island, The Old Man and the Sea, etc., we are sending the books that we are reading their way – books that are set in the countries we are visiting.

There is nothing quite like reading a book while you are in the country that it’s set in. In northern Peru, Kim MacQuarie's The Last Days of The Incas brought Cajamarca to life when pretty much everything from the time of the conquest had disappeared. In southwestern Turkey, whenever we saw Lycian tombs or tortoises plodding across our path or spike-collared shephard dogs, I thought of Louis de Bernières’ Birds Without Wings. In Cairo, we sat in the café in Midaq Alley, absorbing the atmosphere made real in the eponymous book by Naguib Mahfouz.

The books we’ve read have ignited some interesting discussions within our family. In Masha Hamilton’s The Camel Bookmobile, a New York woman volunteers and brings books to remote Kenyan villages on the backs of camels in an effort to improve their literacy. Many of those villages were similar to ones we’d seen while driving across Kenya. What the protagonist learns along the way is that many of the villagers have some very good reasons to not want to learn to read and this intrigued our kids. “Why wouldn’t they want to learn to read?” asked our daughter, which started a discussion on western values. After we all finished another of Mahfouz’ novels, The Thief and the Dogs, our kids tried to understand the motivation of Said, the thief. Was he good? Are bad deeds good if they are done for the right political reasons? My son and I said “no” and my wife and daughter said “yes.” From a parent’s perspective, it’s a win just to be having this conversation with your kids.

We are now in Turkey and both kids are ready to start Birds Without Wings, a sweeping historical novel that follows the lives of the people from a typical Turkish village before, during and after WWI. From that book, we’re sure that the kids will understand why a picture of that Ataturk guy with the moustache still adorns the back wall of almost every business establishment in Turkey. Soon we’ll be on to Greece where we’ll all start on the book we found today at a paperback book exchange. We acquired Captain’s Corelli’s Mandolin, de Bernières WWII book about the Italian occupation of a Greek Island, in exchange for Midaq Alley, which my daughter just finished reading. Time to update my Excel spreadsheet.


Cold Turkey

“Next time that I come back to Turkey it’s going to be in summer,” said my wife as she turned over in her bed and pulled the wool blankets over her head. She, like myself, had been to Turkey over twenty years ago and remembers being cold the entire time she was in the country. The only time she ever warmed up during that November was while taking a Turkish bath. Now, we were in Goreme, in central Turkey’s Cappadocia region, and we were freezing our behinds off in early March. To top it all off, we’d decided that in Goreme it would be a fun and representative experience for our family to stay in a “cave hotel.”

Ordinarily, this might be a lot of fun in Cappadocia. The region is famous for its lunar landscape of caves, fairy chimneys and rock formations as well as underground cities and byzantine frescoes. Over the centuries, the local inhabitants hid in these caves as invading hordes ran across central Turkey conquering everything in their path. Christians even hid from religious persecution in these caves and have painted beautiful frescoes in many of them. At various times, Hitites, Persians, Romans, Seljuks, Ottomans and now modern day Turks have ruled this region. We walked to the nearby Goreme Open Air Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage site that displays rock-cut byzantine churches, chapels, monasteries and convents, set in the tuff landscape. Ten million years ago several types of volcanic products (ignimbrite, ash, block and ash flows, etc.) from calderas and volcanoes left several layers of tuff with amazing colors and textures. The tuff layers were later eroded by wind and water to form plateaus, valleys and various types of fairy chimneys. We walked around for close to an hour but because of the cold, we decided to head back early and I’m sure I heard my wife mutter, “When I come back here it’s going to be in summer.”

We returned to our hotel and entered our cave. The room was interesting and gave us an idea of how the locals lived, but inside it was cold, musty, dark and clammy. While inside we had permanent nasal drip and our noses never really got warm. In addition, I hit my head a few times on the low cave doorways. The ultimate insult came when I got hit in the side of the head by our portable travel clothesline -- one of the suction-cup ends gave way and like a slingshot grazed the side of my head.

By consensus we decided to cut our Cappadocia visit short and head straight for the Turkish Mediterranean in order to thaw. Istanbul had been very cold (in fact there were snow flurries the day after we left) and our cave in Goreme had been downright chilly; we were ready for some sunshine. Like my wife’s previous visit, the Turkish bath was the warmest we’d yet felt. Sometimes your enjoyment of a place has as much to do with when you visit as it does with the place itself. And sometimes your enjoyment of a place is better if your spouse isn’t complaining about the weather.


Istanbul's (Not So) Grand Bazaar

We had a full week of sightseeing planned in Istanbul -- the Blue Mosque, Turkish Baths, Aga Sofia, the Golden Horn, Topkapi Palace, the Bosporus, the Grand Bazaar – and the first day we set out for the Topkapi Palace. With me leading the way, we jumped on the Sultanahmet tram line, got off at the Topkapi stop and bought some yummy sesame bread rings from a street vendor. We checked the guidebook and asked a few people where the palace was and successfully determined where we were. Our plan to tour the famous Topkapi Palace that morning had only one hitch: the Topkapi tram stop was nowhere near the Topkapi palace.

The Topkapi tram stop is where the old Ottoman city walls protected the Sultanahmet section of Istanbul and the old, rough, brown stone blocks rise up to form imposing city walls. Unfortunately, the fortified walls are about 10 kilometers from the palace itself. From where we exited the tram the walls spread out across the grey horizon and to the south we saw the heads of several people lined up on top of the wall. My wife, benevolently ignoring my inept navigation that morning, suggested we do the Topkapi Palace another day and see what was happening at the old city walls.

As we got closer we saw a few people milling about the area with plastic bags and they intermittently stopped to clean mud off their shoes. There were no tourists or westerners and all the people appeared to be working class Turks wearing their somber, dark-colored clothing. One man was twirling a rag near a small stream and at first I thought he was cleaning his clothes in it. It turned out he too was wiping mud off his shoes with a wet rag. People were coming down from the wall and now we were close enough to tell that this was a local market. We walked through some puddles then climbed up through a muddy spiral passageway at the base of a rampart and climbed to the walkway on top of the wall.

At the top of the wall were hundreds of Turks milling about in an informal market looking at and buying used merchandise. The market was on a 25-foot wide walkway between the 50-foot high back wall and the 20-foot high front wall. From the top of the front wall Ottoman sentries had many times shot arrows or poured boiling oil on infidel invaders. There was mud everywhere on the walkway and many people wore plastic shopping bags around their shoes to keep them clean. This was clearly an illegal market for local Turks: goods were laid on blankets, ready for the merchants to grab each of the four corners and bundle and run if the local authorities came by. Against the high back wall a merchant watched over piles of used clothing and also displayed a plastic pitcher with a cheerful flower design as well as a green wall clock. A man sat on a wood chest smoking a cigarette and selling a dozen used, muddy pairs of shoes. To his right, another merchant had a hodgepodge of second-hand goods: a striped umbrella, a hair dryer, an ice pick, a trowel, a wall lamp, a calculator, a children’s Snoopy cartoon book and the item that caught my son’s eye -- an iPod wall charger. There was mud everywhere and in many places there was a layer of smashed garbage – cardboard, plastic bags, paper, socks, rags – all mixed together in a mud stew. We looked around for another 20 minutes but none of the items caught our fancy. As the others before us did, we descended and cleaned the mud off our shoes at the base of the wall.

We went to Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar two days later and it was a completely different scene. Well-heeled tourists strolled everywhere in what’s known as the world’s oldest shopping mall, while smiling merchants tried to lure them into their shops. Wares were clean and polished and with a little bit of haggling could be yours. We visited the Grand Bazaar three or four times and my wife, son and daughter bought their share of goods there. While the informal market at the Topkapi city wall was authentic and something that foreigners rarely see, there was nothing we wanted to buy there. We were enticed by the merchandise at the Grand Bazaar and we enjoyed the added benefit of not having to wipe any mud off our shoes.


Ten Reasons Why Your Family Shouldn't Take A Year Off: Reason #7 "How Would You Plan It?"

Pulling up your family’s suburban roots and heading off to tour developing countries for a year is foolish. There are lots of reasons not to do it. For example: How Would You Plan It?

Do you need a yellow fever inoculation to get into Bolivia and how long is it good for? (yes, 10 years) Do you need malaria pills in Kenya and can you buy them cheaply in Nairobi? (yes, yes) Can you take a ferry from Turkey to the Greek island of Rhodes in the winter and will you need a new Turkish visa when you return to Turkey? (yes, no) Can you enter Israel from Egypt at the Rabah and Taba border crossings? (no, yes) Can you plug your laptop into a wall socket in Peru and Tanzania? (yes, no) If you scored ten out of ten, you might not need any help, but if you’re like most of us, you’ll need some time. We started planning our trip about a year before we embarked and the amount of details to conquer is considerable.

Where would you even begin planning a year-long trip that encompasses several countries with differing languages, currencies, and requirements for entry visas, electrical voltages and tropical disease vaccinations? How could you possibly have reservations for all the hotels, trains, buses and rental cars that you will need? How will you know what your kids should be studying and where will you get the study materials? Like most big projects, the answer is to start making lists.

For many things, practical guidebooks like Lonely Planet and Rough Guides have a lot of valuable information. We have used our local library countless times to check out these books and make notes. Much of the information is on the web. Go to the State Department’s International Travel webpage for travel alerts and advisories and visa requirements for US citizens. Go the Center for Disease Control’s website for up to the minute information on which inoculations are needed in which country. Go to VoltageValet’s helpful Directory of Foreign Electrical Information to understand voltage, frequency, adapter plug and wall outlet type requirements by country. This area is particularly confusing as there are no worldwide standards. Former colonies often retain the standards of the colonizing country (i.e., Kenya has the same electrical standards as the United Kingdom) and sometimes places like overseas military bases use the standards of their controlling country instead of the surrounding region (i.e., U.S. military bases in Saudi Arabia).

With the exception of airline tickets, almost all hotel reservations can be made en route. For homeschooling requirements, education standards are usually detailed at your state’s website and on-line textbooks and web tutorials are available all over the web.

The bottom line is that there is a vast amount of detail to conquer but if you give yourself enough time, it’s all doable.


Ten Reasons Why Your Family Shouldn’t Take a Year Off: Reason #6 “How Can You Afford It?”

Pulling up your family’s suburban roots and heading off for some developing country for a year is foolish. There are lots of reasons not to do it. For example: How Can You Afford It?

The bottom line is that it’s less than you might think, but let’s be clear on one thing: If your family needs to fly first class, stay in 5-star hotels and mom and dad frequently enjoy caviar and expensive champagne, you might need to have a bank account the size of Bill Gates or Warren Buffet to be able to keep up that pace for an extended period. By traveling on the local economy – taking public transportation and paying the local price for pensions and meals whenever possible – not only do you stretch your shillings and liras, you experience more of the culture. By paying the local price – the price that any self-respecting local would pay for something like a ferry boat ride or a plate of falafel – you are forced to interact with the locals while saving money.

Not to make virtue out of financial necessity, but paying for western-style comforts in developing countries can often serve to insulate you from the culture, as well. Stay in an expensive hotel with English-speaking staff and you’ll not learn any of the local language. Take the air-conditioned tour bus and you’ll never really appreciate the local weather or the distances that you’re covering. Order a hamburger in the expensive hotel’s restaurant and you’ll miss out on that region’s cuisine.

Sometimes paying the local price can be a lot of work. While it is easier to have a tour guide and huge air-conditioned bus take you on a full day tour, you will pay five to 10 times the cost of doing it on your own. Doing it on your own can at times be frustrating as figuring out the local bus schedule or blindly negotiating the local price of a taxi isn’t always easy. Obviously if you can speak some of the local language this is easier. We had an easier time of it in South America because we all spoke Spanish. Without any of the local language, you may find yourself pantomiming a chicken laying an egg as you try to explain that you’d like eggs for breakfast.

A family of four can probably travel through most developing countries for a minimum of $100 dollars per day, excluding airfare and larger excursions like safaris, Galapagos cruises or a multi-day treks that are guided and catered. For developed countries, you’ll probably have to double that amount. Accommodation, which usually comprises 40-50% of your daily budget, is where you can save the most. You won’t be staying at a Comfort Inn or a Hilton but for $10 per person or less you can have some fairly authentic experiences: i.e., sleeping in a cave hotel in Central Turkey, staying in salt-block pension on the Bolivian altiplano or spending the night with a Nubian family on the Nile in Egypt.

The notion that tourists have “more money than time” and travelers have “more time than money” is a cliché but it helps explain the financial/temporal dichotomy of travel. With only a week in a country, you don’t have time to figure out the local shared taxi system or learn what the locals pay for a pension and meals. If you have a month to cover the same ground, there is plenty of time to do (and pay) as the locals do.


Leaving Egypt Behind

Our Cairo-Istanbul flight lasted two hours and connected two great, populous Islamic cities whose countries have most of the eastern Mediterranean coastline. Within the first few hours of our arrival in Turkey there were clear differences. In Istanbul, there were fewer head scarves and burkhas and more tight jeans and high heels. We saw virtually none of the forehead bruises that shouted “look how devout I am” and not once had we seen men rolling out prayer mats in the middle of the street to pray. The streets were cleaner and prices higher: In downtown Cairo dinner for four costs us US$9.00 at Al-Tabeh restaurant but it took a lot of effort to find a lunch in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet section for less US$50.00. Despite the surface similarities of the two countries, we felt very clearly that we’d left Egypt behind.

Many of the differences are because of one man: Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. In the wake of the Ottoman Empire collapsing during World War I, he embarked upon modernizing reforms to make Turkey a secular nation. In 1922 the Sultanate was abolished and in 1923 the capital was moved from Istanbul to Ankara. In 1924 the Caliphate was abolished, Islamic law was abolished and a constitution was adopted. That same year the fez was outlawed and women were discouraged from wearing veils. In 1925 the Islamic calendar was dropped in favor of the Western Gregorian calendar and in the following year European-type laws were adopted. The new laws ended Islamic polygamy and the common practice of divorce by renunciation. In 1928 a new Turkish alphabet, basically a modified form of Latin, was introduced and replaced Arabic. In 1933 to the Islamic call to worship was required by law to be in Turkish rather than Arabic. Within a ten year period, Ataturk had successfully instituted these reforms that made Turkey much more western and much less Arabic.

If these things weren’t enough to let us know that we’d left Egypt behind, our experience at the Gedikpasa Turkish bath left no doubt. We walked into the dark, dank and domed reception area and were given a changing room and a towel. My son and I entered the men’s area and started with a sauna, then waited on the large, heated marble slab for our Turkish masseurs. Mehmet came for my son and brought him over to the washing area and Yacush did the same for me. The bath area’s floors and walls were made of white marble which held up a large stucco dome pierced with ventilation holes. Water ran swiftly through cut-marble conduits, steam hissed from the sauna and water droplets fell at irregular intervals creating a Turkish symphony of water. Yacush started by sloshing me with a bucket of warm water, then lathered me up with soap and started to work me over with his black loofa mitt. I leaned my head back, enjoying being cleaned thoroughly and looked over and saw my son doing the same. I closed my eyes for a few minutes and my reverie was interrupted by Yacush exclaiming something in Turkish. He said it again and motioned for me to look down at my arm. There I saw long, black worm-sized strings running across my arm. At first I thought that his black loofa mitt was falling apart, but when I looked again I recognized that what I was looking at was my own dirty skin being rubbed off my body. Five weeks of travelling through desert oasises, dusty archaeological sites and dirty downtown Cairo had accumulated on me and was now being released. I heard the same exclamation from my son’s masseur and I knew he was just as dirty as I was. Afterward, my wife and daughter related similar experiences. The Gedikpasa Turkish bath was built in 1475 and we wondered how many pounds of skin and dirt have been flushed away through its beautiful, marble water canals.

It was at that moment that we knew that we’d left Egypt behind.


Finding "Midaq Alley"

We’d been here once before, but this time I wanted to get a better look. We walked through Cairo’s Khan il-Khalili’s labyrinthine market alleys and passageways, while touts and vendors, sensing that we weren’t completely sure where we were going, kept saying, “Here it is,” or “Hey, you’re back,” anything to get us to stop and look at their wares. We turned left past the spice merchant and the smell of cumin, saffron and dried hibiscus flowers filled the air. We were walking in Egypt's most famous market bazaar, searching for the eponymous location of Naguib Mahfouz’ literary masterpiece Midaq Alley.

Written by the Egyptian Nobel laureate, Midaq Alley follows the intertwining lives of impoverished people living and working in an old, narrow alley in the heart of Islamic Cairo. Although I’d heard of Mahfouz at the time of his winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988, I had until recently not read anything by him. My wife had read the Cairo Trilogy with her book club (most of whom, surprisingly, didn’t care for it) and had raved about his writing for years. At a bookstore in Luxor she bought a copy of Midaq Alley for our 19 hour bus ride from Luxor to Dahab on the Red Sea and it was there that I started the book.

In the first twenty to thirty pages of the book the characters of the alley are introduced. Kirsha is the café owner with an eye for young boys and Abbas is the barber who wants to get married. Hamida is the beautiful young woman who dreams of a better life and Um-Hamida is her adoptive mother who is a matchmaker and bath attendant. Zaita is the cripple maker, Ibrahim Faraj is the pimp and Dr. Booshy is the dentist who fits dentures at “too good to be true” prices. Husniya is the bakeress who regularly beats her husband and if anyone has problems they usually go to Radwan Husseiny for a reasonable solution. While the sum of these parts add up to an entertaining book, it is the way that Mahfouz weaves them all together that makes the story so satisfying.

When we walked by the alley previously we could not believe that this dirty, non-descript place was worthy of the attention of a great writer. We’d been on our way to shop in the famous bazaar and our guidebook mentioned its approximate location. This time, after having read the book, my son and I came back to sit at Kirsha’s café and soak up the ambience. My wife and daughter went shopping, looking for alabaster votive candle holders. (They went away to buy three but would end up buying twelve) By my reckoning, we were sitting at Ibrahim Faraj’s table, where he sat and wooed Hamida by blowing kisses upward towards her window as he exhaled hubble-bubble smoke. To our right a spice seller displayed his neat pyramidal piles of dried spices in front of his shop and to our left a dry goods vender unloaded large boxes of matches near the beginning of the alley. In front of us was a boarded-up business and I wondered if this was Abbas’ barbershop. We’d been in Egypt for over a month and had met many Egyptians but had not seen any of their private moments. After reading Midaq Alley and absorbing the details of how they seduce, fight, aspire, cheat, fret, desire and worry, it added some depth to the impressions I got from the Egyptians we encountered every day.