The air was vitreous, intractable, crystalline
– Patrick Leigh Fermor
From travel journal, 9/18/11: Bumped into low dormer on Mesrutiyet Street and head still throbbing despite ice pack and two Advils in taxi crossing Bosphorus at dawn. Left early, flew west and south to Nevsehir in central Anatolia. Ancient land of Hatti, a place I’d wondered about since first reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time to Keep Silence. Seemed impossible that such a place actually existed with lion-colored uplands and underground city of Derinkuyu, but here I am, after all, as if dreaming.
Golden melons grow along side of road, so ripe they burst open in the sun, spilling out their seeds; vineyards without stakes, dimrit vines splayed out on dry soil, same method as six thousand years ago. Some believe this to be geographical home of Dionysus, god of epiphany, Mount Nysa and Bronze Age kingdom of Hattusa, ancient beyond comprehension: 14th Century BC, and Hittite princes racing two-wheeled chariots down same road as this–although unpaved and no cell service–holding trumpets, spears and earthen jars, clay tablets inscribed with bulls, falcons, rams, yokes, axes, threshing flails, and the pictogram of a handsome god with tongue of fire. (Was this the son of Typhon and his “dark flickering tongues of flashing fire?”)
Spend rest of morning in hot-air balloon over southern ridge of Karadag Valley, long and jagged as a dragon’s spine. Surprised how gently hushed and safe it feels, rising slowly in desert air to 1,500 feet, only sound being the wind and creaking of Kooboo cane basket, looking down to ruined earthworks of our host. (Occasional blast of propane fires into throat of balloon to keep afloat.) I assume high altitude will make headache worse but feel surprisingly revived as we climb. What’s the myrtle freshness in the air? A waft of wild sage? Lemon balm mixed with lentisk or mastic bush?
Fragrance swells as free-form plume, carried on updraft, as if I could reach out and touch it. Later, in Göreme, I learn about pungent centaury that grows in small pink posies with yellow stamen, supposed to settle stomach and purify blood: “supports the development of courage and self-determination,” according to Dr. Bach homeopathy. I feel courage and self-determination being so elevated on a tether of hemp and drifting over a cenotaph on one of the higher mounds that’s said to conceal burial chamber of Tarhunza, Hittite king of the plaited beard.
In all there are twelve new ruins, or unruins, whatever you want to call them. Some are complete in their desuetude; others are still works in progress, not finished. One is made from stacked stones to depict a symbolic palm tree found inscribed in the tomb of an Anatolian princess. Another shows a grindstone. Another shows a mythological figure with human head and the body of a bird. We see this empty cage now corrode, where her cape of the stage once had flowed... Visions of Johanna must have played at airport (or taxi?) because it’s lodged in my head all day. The balloon catches a draft and drifts further down the valley until we’re hanging directly above an allée of fifty-foot basalt columns sprouting form a dun-colored mound, with Dylan’s persistent whine in weird desert air with shadows and fairy towers in far distance. Nothing subtle, beaten field, dirt road, rifts and clusters of greenish rock rising in hazy blue horizon. Not much left to the imagination. I take photographs with my mini Canon Elph SD770 but they come out in same banal shades of liver brown and sepia with no sense of depth, only the shadow of the balloon dragging along ground to signify scale.
The artist in this case is an Australian entrepreneur turned earth-worker who leaves his imprint, writ large, and one day hopes to girdle entire globe as singular gesture. “What I’ve tried to do is make a connected series of drawings around the earth,” he says, sounding grand but is, in person, curiously shy, reticent, enigmatic but also determined to complete his stated goal. He travels everywhere–Africa, South America, Asia, Middle East–organizing local governments and armies of helpers to build his upside-down ruins. He’s squeezed himself into a corner of the wicker gondola pointing video camera down at an amphitheater excavated out of dark basalt outcropping. It seems to me like a “loaded” sacred landscape to be messing with but he appears pretty nonchalant with no moral qualms about leaving his mark. If stretched out, the ruins measure more that four miles in length and are comprised of 10,500 tons of stone. Tourists sometimes hike all the way up to see the “ancient ruins,” he says, only to find them new, freshly excavated works.
“How do you feel about that?” I ask.
“Fine,” he says. “It’s all a learning experience.”
I enjoy the air and views of Mount Erciyes, Kayseri hills, old goat paths, olive groves, but feel ambivalent about earth art in general. Maybe it seemed radical, a significant fuck you to museum culture when Heizer and Smithson first tramped outside and made their marks in Moapa Valley and Great Salt Lake, but that was more than forty years ago. Smithson was the reason I started writing human topography in the first place, not because of Spiral Jetty, but because of the effervescent essays he published in Artforum. “When I walked on the bridge, it was as though I was walking on an enormous photograph that was made of wood and steel.” (“Monuments of Passaic,” December 1967.) That seemed significant at the time, the idea of a bridge becoming a photograph that could be walked across in blazing midday light. He also wrote about “ruins in reverse,” which I must have appropriated and used myself, repeatedly, without being conscious of origin.
I too wanted to get lost in ex-urban amnesia where meanings unraveled. When still in high school I stalked hinterlands closer to Trenton than Passaic, past the abandoned hulks of the Roebling factory, silted river, concrete swales and rusting machinery, self-consciously quoting Eliot from memory: What branches grow out of this stony rubbish? I was also reading 30s crime novels where the shamus gets whacked or slipped a mickey and loses identity until the blonde’s face looms into view like an underwater apparition. She was the kind of blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window. (Raymond Chandler.) I fantasized about being a private eye or CIA assassin. When in graduate school, I set up parameters, made mappings and wandered through library stacks. I “backward followed” strangers into blighted neighborhoods around New Haven, positioned convex mirrors along the banks of the Connecticut River, walked with blindfold into a field of corn until I’d lost all sense of direction, rowed a boat out into the Sound during a terrible thunderstorm because I’d read how Shelley or Coleridge had done same in Derwent Water.
Later, mid-divorce, I drove back and forth on Expressway making random exits and “explorations” into the lost steppes of Lake Ronkonkoma, Commack, East Yaphank, Mastic Shirley. I liked anything that had an allegorical buzz to it, especially Pilgrim’s Progress and the “Slough of Despond,” Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Borges’ Garden of Forking Paths or any narrative in which metaphor became operative.
In Smithson’s suburban Odyssey, he saw “monuments” where there were only pumping derricks, concrete abutments and an artificial crater that contained a “pale limpid pond of water.” What he didn’t mention was how he grew up in Jersey, how his family doctor was William Carlos Williams, or how his dystopian inflections derived in part from Williams’ epic Patterson “…no idea but in things–nothing but the blank faces of the houses and cylindrical trees bent, forked by preconception and accident.” I grew up in Jersey too but in leafy Princeton with neo-gothic spires and anxious students.
The campus was pure allegory, more Fitzgerald than Williams, wrapped in a golden cloud of entitlement. At 21 I transferred “back” just to study with Smithson but he’d died in a plane crash that summer while surveying sites for a new earthwork. The travelogue that began in Passaic ended in a sandy waste outside of Amarillo, a landscape much the same as this, the ochre Anatolian steppe that I’m drifting over now in benumbed silence: quilt patterns of paddocks, melon patches, prehistoric mounds and ghostly lines of Hittite fortifications that look like scratches on a glass negative.
Drive through “biscuit-colored” villages of Gulsehir, Salusaray, Nar, as landscape changes from sepia folds to brighter terraces and volcanic deposits with soft tufa yielding to erosion, past larger town of Nevşehir, ancient city of Nyssa, pastUçhisar Hill, highest point in Cappadocia, through Uçhisar to Göreme.
Leigh Fermor walked into this burning wilderness in the mid-1950s on his quest for the roots of monastic asceticism, came south through Urgüb and Göreme. “The lion-coloured uplands of Anatolia looked Biblical and gaunt,” wrote Fermor. “The road wound into a stony cordillera then sank through a tormented ravine to the little derelict town of Urgüb.” Harder basalt deposits within this tormented ravine rested on top and determined Surrealist shapes that drape below, known as peribacalari, a kind of reverse Pea-and-the-Princess action over thousands of years, from top to bottom. Some of the mounds are conical or mushroom shaped. Some, like the ones in “Love Valley”, are giant penises. “Every second cone is chambered and honeycombed till it is as hollow from peak to base as a rotten tooth,” noted Fermor.
I have lunch in darkened restaurant with stone oven, sitting on floor eating manti dumplings, kashkak, spinach gözleme and a dozen other dishes passed along by two old women serving creamy yoghurt, eggplant, lentils, chickpeas, pistachios, pine nuts, ground lamb and God knows what else I don’t know the names for.
Wander back streets of Göreme after lunch, Konak Cadde, wall of rugs, mustard-colored fountain, broken azure wagon, men selling melons and figs, skinny cow standing in shade of plum tree, corner of dovecotes chiseled out by hand, darkened by smoke, a window with twisted vines for mullions, a deep blue doorway with floral surround, hardwood panels worn by centuries of hands touching, pushing, knocking. All the doorways along Içeridere Sokak seem loaded with import, each a different story to tell, true thresholds to the domestic gods, draped with vines, stepped and arched with dentils, twisting ribs of stone, leaf or animal imprints and other threshold guardians on surrounding lintels.
A vermillion-stained door is carved with pinwheels and infinity stars, lion-shaped pendants, rosettes, zigzag molding. Some have ancient hand-shaped knockers, massive iron hinges and locks made from beaten metal, rusting and spiked. Some of the doors are faded and have been boarded shut, others open and welcoming: a woman works a rug sitting in cool interior courtyard, shady garden. I poke my head inside and say selam. Twittering giggles from a young girl with red scarf fetching water. Her grandmother sorts through mound of dried beans as rivulet gurgles into stone basin.
Walk out of Göreme into desert valley towards Urgüb down dirt path that follows a stream where terrain goes from smooth and pastoral, terraced farmland to jagged mesas rising precipitously as path weaves between cliffs through deep, shattered chasms. It is another planet, lunatic and petrified for eternity. Lunar mounds in pale volcanic rock carved with ledges, windows, deep apertures and thousands of beehive perforations for the doves that monks used to keep. Some entryways are irregular as if gouged out by a giant claw. Others have elaborate ornamentation carved around arched apertures, regal, almost Summerian in style with red markings, circles and dots, fishnet patterns, and they look prehistoric but are more recent.
Seductively worn steps cut by tenth-century monks using adze and chisel climb embankment to arched opening and church carved directly from soft tufa, painted with murals to resemble Byzantine narthex, a kind of trompe l’oeil architecture with pillars, apses and cupola that appear to be constructed from red block but just ox-blood pigment and yellow tempera skillfully scribed onto the stone.
St. Paul passed through here after his expulsion from Jerusalem, on his way to Ancyra, present-day Ankara. Early Anchorites settled as hermits in these same riotous hills and their hardships brought them closer to God. They carved out little cells and churches, painted frescoes and carried water up from the sacred streams. They grew grapes and kept doves and were brought together as a monastic community in the 4th Century when St. Basil arrived, followed by Gregory of Nazianzus and others who sought desert silence and the simplicity of cave life. Simple patterns of stylized grapes, birds, crosses, circles and checkerboards painted on ceilings and walls. Faces and eyes of saints and Christ have been scratched off in most places, an act of vandalism supposedly carried out by strict Muslims who abhorred any representation of human form, but a more compelling myth is that local maidens believed the blue eyes of these figures to contain secret aphrodisiacal powers so they scratched them out and mixed the ancient pigment into a love potion that was then slipped into the boyfriend’s wine. A secret and costly blend of ingredients went into the making of this monastic blue: badakshan or lapis lazuli, potash and indigo, perhaps a drop of tribulus thrown in.
“The air was vitreous, intractable, crystalline,” wrote Fermor, after two weeks of wandering through this labyrinth of stone. “The whole world seemed inside-out.”