Friday, June 5, 2009

Cappadocia -- Cities with Armenian Roots

We began our trip to Western Armenia by arriving in the city of Kayseri at 8:50 a.m. We were met by our guide for the next two weeks - Marineh, and driver - Vartan. They drove for 2 days from Armenia to meet us. Loading our luggage and tired bodies into a comfortable 15 passenger van (no spare room for another body, by the way), we started our tour by driving around the city of Kayseri. Kayseri (historical Caeserea) had a significant population of Armenians before 1915, although most evidence of their existence has been eliminated by present day Turks.

Our first stop was the church of St. Gregory the Illuminator, in the old part of Kayseri where Armenians lived before the 1915 massacre. This beautiful church is used rarely because it is in such a stage of disrepair. More important, with the exception of a handful at best, few Armenians remain in this city that was once populated by many Armenians. The Church underwent some renovations in the mid-1990's in anticipation of the 1700th Anniversary of Erebuni (historic Armenia). But, renovation has stopped, and sadly this church is crumbling before our eyes. As is tradition, a Turkish flag flew over the sanctuary.

The area is known to have been the home of the patron saint of Christianity in Armenia, St. Gregory the Illuminator (link leads to interesting article on Armenian Christian history - see section on St. Gregory).

St. Gregory, born in Armenia to the Parthian King Anak, grew up in the Kayseri area. After marrying a Christian Armenian and having two sons, Gregory eventually returned to Armenia, where he joined the service of King Tiridates III, the son of King Khosrov, who was killed years earlier by Gregory's father Anak. King Tiridates persecuted Gregory 1) because he was spreading the word of Christ and creating converts, and 2) because he learned that Gregory was the son of his father's assassin. St. Gregory was imprisoned by King Tiridates for 13 years, during which time King Tiridates murdered Christian converts. Gregory was kept alive by the King's sister, Santoukht, who secretly delivered food to him in the deep pit in which he was imprisoned. The King became afflicted with lyconthropy (a form of schizophrenia that causes one to believe he is a werewolf). Gregory was summoned to heal King Tiridates; doing so, he was released and the King, his wife and family were converted to Christianity. This conversion resulted in Armenia becoming the first state to adopt Christianity as its national religion, in 301 AD.

After being released from his prison, St. Gregory had a vision of a great light representing Christ descending onto the location on which the beautiful Etchmidazin Church now serves as the Holy Mother See of the Armenian Church. Thus, the area of Kayseri has great significance to Armenians.

We then stopped briefly at another remnant of an Armenian Church that sits between two modern buildings -- this complex is now a Turkish School. The only portion remaining is the center part of the church with its pointed dome ceiling -- an obvious example of a classic Armenian architecture dating back to before the 12th Century AD.

We drove on to Nevshehir, which is Harold's father's ancestral home. The town has little to comment on - but, we stopped for a few minutes so that Harold could take pictures and reflect a moment on his family history.

Next, we visited the famous Cave Churches of Goreme, and the stunning landscape around that area which was the result of thousands of years of erosion. Early Christians worshiped in these cave structures, and left frescoes and earlier remnants of Christian worship. We were guided through the caves, which existed on several levels of the hillside, by a Turkish man who, coincidentally also was a "carpet wholesaler". No more carpets for this gang!

Multiple mosquito bites later, we stopped for lunch in the village at a restaurant recommended by none other than our Turkish caves guide, where we ate chicken or beef stew made in clay pots. No raves for that meal -- except -- the highlight of the meal - as dreadfully tired as we were - was the fantastic bread that came to our tables right out of the ovens.

We then drove to the nearby city of Urgup. By that time all of us were asleep on our feet - having had little to no sleep the night before. Our hotel was really lovely, and we relaxed in our rooms, ate an early dinner (another buffet that was not notable), and crashed dead asleep.

On Thursday morning we started a little later, at 11 a.m., and drove a few hours to the city of Nigde. Nigde has nothing of redeeming value except that it is a modest sized modern city. However, on our way to the city center, approximately 5 miles from the city, we stopped to visit a cave basillica that had been built into a small mountainside. Unblemished by hords of tourists like Goreme, we found deep pits where large clay vessels had been buried (and still existed), rooms decorated with frescoes, and shallow graves, where monks and Christians had worshiped in secret during the early years of Christianity. Well worth the detour.

In Nigde, we roamed around the City streets visiting the bazaar that resembled a swap meet in downtown Hollywood, had a delicious kebab lunch with the best frest yogurt we had eaten yet, enjoyed delicious "Dondurma" (ice-cream) from a local street vendor, bought incredibly tasty roasted fistiki (pistacios), and relaxed before dinner. Dinner at the hotel was awful, except for the ice cream for dessert - imagine, 10 days with no ice cream, and there we were eating it like we were in Italy scarfing down gelato 3 times a day!

The next day (Friday), we left Nigde and drove for about 5 hours south to historic Aintab (Gazianteb). We stopped at a roadside stop about 1 hour from Gazianteb for a picnic lunch of the freshest, tastiest tomatoes, white cheese, fresh bread, and cucumbers. For dessert we ate sweet watermelon. We then drove to Gazianteb, were we checked into our hotel.

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