Turkish Jews, Christians, Muslims, Turquoise and Tulips
A Turkish Tulip Travel Essay.
What is the distance between a lie and the truth? This question was posed to a Rabbi in Spain, hundreds of years ago. He is trying to pass a test, set in Cordoba, a test to determine whether his people will be driven out or allowed to stay in their homes.
He says, “the width of my hand,” explaining, “the truth is what I speak, lies are what I hear, the distance between my mouth and my ear is the width of my hand.” Cordoba is about a hundred kilometers from Carmona, a town in Seville province of south-western Spain
All four of my friend’s grandparents were Turkish, yet probably not a drop of Turkish blood runs through her veins. We visited her grandmother’s cousin, in Istanbul last year, his ancestors have been in Turkey for over 500 years, yet Turkish is not his first language. He speaks unaccented French and Ladino, a variety of Spanish.
At home in West Hartford, CT, we get telemarketers calling in Spanish, all the time because they assume with a name like Victoria Carmona, that my partner is Hispanic from places south.
More than 500 years ago during the Spanish inquisition, Sephardic Jews were driven out of Spain or forced to convert to Christianity, becoming conversos or the feminine form conversas.
When Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II realized there were educated, skilled craftsmen, looking fr a new home he said, “come on down.” Vicki’s ancestors joined the throngs of Muslims and Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain during the Spanish Inquisition travelling across Europe or by ship through the Mediterranean to what is modern Turkey, Bulgaria and parts of Greece. Vicki’s ancestors made their home in Ismir on the western edge of Turkey, on the Aegean Sea about the same time Christopher Columbus was discovering America.
In Ismir, we rode to the top of The Asansör (Elevator) tramway to the lookout point at sunset. Vicki grew up with stories of the Asansor. Of course the view was very different, the red tiled roofs of the balconied apartment buildings are all new since her grandparents left a hundred years ago. They left the land of blue, green and rust red buildings because World War I would have required them to fight, to leave their enclave, their insular Jewish community. Nearly a quarter of the Turkish population died in World War I so, it is good they left to live and die of old age in the United States.
Every day in Turkey, I said to myself, “Wow, who knew.”
Who knew, Turquoise came from Turkey and was originally called Turkish quarts? I think people just started to say it fast and eventually it because “Turquoise”.
Who knew? Ismir was called Smyrna in the Bible. Nearby lived the Ephesians in Ephesus, where Paul of the New Testament sent letters. Also in Turkey the Galatians and Mary, the mother of Christ’s resting place and the home where she lived out her final years.
Christians angered the local people by telling them they shouldn’t have any idols. Somewhat similar to today, this became not so much a religious battle for the souls of the people but a commercial battle for the local currency. Christians were chased into hiding by the market merchants intent on selling statues and other items to people on pilgrimages to visit local shrines to various pagan gods. There was a brisk trade in idols and the Christians, driven into caves, eventually creating whole cities in the rock, with vast defenses and creating ways to get air into the tunnels and smoke from fires out of the caves. The air is surprisingly fresh even hiking deep into the cave network of Cappadocia.
Who knew, Rumi, the great 13 century Sufi poet, is buried in Konya, Turkey. He was a disciple of Shams of Tabriz and is famous for his Love of the Divine. Today Whirling Dervishes perform for tourists but around the world, Sufi’s follow an inner practice bridging the inner world with their experience of the outer world. One of my favorite books by a Turkish author is, The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi by Elif Shafak. She has four main characters, two in the 13th century, Rumi and his teach Shams and two in modern day, a Dutch man writing a book about Rumi and Shams and an American woman, a book editor. It is beautifully written.
Apparently, Sufiism is on the rise in Turkey, with a growing number of people following the tradition. What I think is wonderful about this is that Sufis are part of Islam, the mystical part, the group that focuses on love, and letting go of the ego, of finding ways to live and let live in this world with so many different religions.
Turkey is also covered with poppies and a wide variety of tulips in the spring, when I was there. Fields of poppies along the road, growing for the pharmaceutical industry. A spectacular array of tulips surround the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia in Istambul. Until I saw them there and heard the stories, I never knew they originated in Central Asia, were the national flower of the ottoman empire and stolen by Dutch traders leading to Tulip Mania in Holland. Now tulips have domesticated us, training us to plant them everywhere around the world. I think of my trip to Turkey, when they come up around my Connecticut home in the spring.
In The Botany of Desire: A plant’s-eye view of the world, author Michael Pollan explores human impulse and its connection to the life of plants. He talks about our desire for the apple’s sweetness, the tulip’s beauty, the intoxication of marijuana and our desire to control nature by producing the perfect genetically modified potato.
Co-Evolution of Desire
Who will change, who? Look tulip’s
beauty domesticated you, Tulip War
fighters minds crazed mania
Like the bumblebee, we think
we have broken open the nectar pot
making off with the goods
We, are in control as we sow tulip bulbs
not thistles or disgusting female ginkos
A quantum leap with genetic modification
offspring gone mad, artificial, unnatural
co-evolution, a rip in the fabric of life
thinking we are the subjects
acting on passive objects
Look at a flower, learn a bee
what flames her desire, causing
a new wrinkle in the relationship
Every bulb, seed, idea you plant
you are working for the tulips
manipulating nature, a Jonny of Turkey
Yes, Turkish tulips from Central Asia
creamy, faultless, attractive flowers
driving the Dutch to madness
A new flower an absolute necessity
followed years later by a gift
a thousand new varieties and a note
sorry we snuck out under cover of night
stealing your national flower horded
forbidden to leave the Ottoman empire
Hope you like what we have done with it