Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Göbekli Tepe

Göbekli Tepe sits among low rolling hills a couple of kilometers outside of Şanlıurfa. You can see a village in the distance, but the site feels remote and desolate. You park your car in a small lot near a pair of resting camels. Despite a couple of Turkish-German-English explanatory signs, there is little real tourist infrastructure and no one to charge admission.

Fifteen years ago, Göbekli Tepe was unknown. Fifteen years from now, it may well be more famous than Stonehenge. If only we'd come before National Geographic's June 2011 cover story, we could've said we'd come before it was cool.

Göbekli Tepe is the achievement of nobody-knows-how-many Neolithic people who built, tore down, and rebuilt the site over centuries, until the whole area was deliberately buried in sand and forgotten 10,000 years ago.

Perspective note: nearby Şanlıurfa is believed by the faithful to have been the hometown of the biblical Abraham. Going by the oldest estimates for Abraham's year of birth, at that time well over half as much time had passed since Göbekli Tepe's abandonment as now. And that's since the site's abandonment, not its original construction.

Göbekli Tepe is over twice as old as some religious scholars maintain the world is.

Not being an expert, I can't say much about the site's significance. I recommend you read the National Geographic article, or Newsweek's article, or the shorter but to-the-point The First Post FAQ. But I do know that archeologists believe they've just begun to scratch the surface of the site, and there is much more hidden underground.

To be honest, there isn't a huge amount to see at the site right now. We thought it was well worth the trip, but mostly for the historical significance and the desolate otherworldly atmosphere. But this is a site to watch.

Sunday, August 28, 2011


We were told Şanlıurfa would be a religious, buttoned-down city. Jenna expected to be made to feel uncomfortable if she didn't cover her head and arms.

As it happens, Urfa's true face is much mellower. Plenty of women are dressed modestly and wear headscarves, but plenty of women go about with their hair uncovered, and we never felt uncomfortable. The one sign of religious piety we noted was that we never saw an establishment openly selling alcohol.

Urfa is, as might be expected in southern Turkey, a very old city. It's heavily associated with the biblical Abraham, although the sites there are chiefly associated with aspects of his life story that won't be found in the Judeo-Christian Book of Genesis.

The highlight for travelers is the pool of sacred fish in the courtyard of the Mosque of Halil-ur-Rahman. According to legend an ancient king tried to burn Abraham alive, but God intervened, transformed the fire into water, and the coals into fish. You can buy plates of fish food for one lira each. A popular place to bring families.

The cave where Job lived while undergoing his tribulations is on the outskirts of town (to be honest, it's surrounded by Turkish suburban sprawl). There's a complex of religious buildings built at the site now, set up to receive busloads of religious pilgrims. After taking off your shoes, you descend into the small room where Job is said to have lived; it is courteous to leave a small donation.

Like Gaziantep which we visited before it, and Hatay after it, Urfa has a large, bustling bazaar. Somehow the bazaar seems less touristy than Antep's does (in places), despite the fact that more tourists, domestic and foreign, visit Urfa. Urfa's bazaar is more compact than Antep's, but that doesn't mean it's small. It's a maze of narrow streets and covered passageways, quite easy to lose yourself in. (By contrast, Antep's bazaar seems much more delineated by major roads, although it too has narrow streets.) The bazaar we would find in Hatay would follow a similar pattern.

The oldest thing near Urfa is older than the Bible, older than Job, older even than Abraham. But I'll devote a separate post to Göbekli Tepe.

Friday, August 26, 2011


Gaziantep's an old city, a very old city. It's got a huge historic bazaar and a castle on a hill and plenty of picturesque old mosques.

It's also a new and growing city. As tourists, in town for only two days, we only saw the occasional hint that old Antep, the city that our Lonely Planet told us about, is not the complete picture. One hint was the modern, crowded tram line that we crossed paths with once or twice. We didn't take it, because it didn't take us anywhere we wanted to go. It was of no use to us. We're tourists, you see, and the tram was built for people who live there.

(Aside: Gaziantep was historically known just as Antep, which is still how most people refer to the city. During the Turkish War of Independence, in 1920-21, Antep was besieged by French forces and held out nearly a year before surrendering. In commemoration, in the 1970s Antep's name was officially expanded to Gaziantep, or 'Brave Antep'.)

So, while I acknowledge that we never saw the bulk of the city that over a million people live and work in, the parts of Antep that we did see are bustling and fascinating.

First, the food.

Turks acknowledge Antep as the local baklava capital. You can hardly walk for five minutes in the city center without passing a couple of baklava stores, and what they sell is incredibly sweet and contains perhaps twice the pistachio content of baklava elsewhere. Don't be put off by the amount of green in your baklava; it's supposed to look like that and it's delicious.

Now that you've got yourself a sugar high, what's next?

The bazaar has its touristy sections, it is true, but it goes on for blocks and blocks and on the whole is geared more towards locals than tourists. The spice shops that you walk past smell wonderful. They're the real thing, not just something put out to impress travelers.

You know you're visiting the real deal when a bit later you walk past a creepy array of torsos.

Our pre-arrival trawl for information told us that the archeology museum in Antep was a must-see for the Roman mosaics, but they were soon to move all mosaics to a new museum located in Parts Unspecified. We arrived at the old museum to find that this was indeed the case, and all the mosaics had been moved to a new location several kilometers away.

We stuck around the old museum for a time, just to see what was left of the collection. To be sure, it was certainly in a transitional phase, and the guy at the front desk seemed almost apologetic that we'd paid admission to see a dimly lit half-empty hall undergoing renovation. That said, it still houses an impressive display of Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine artifacts. What especially interested me by the exhibit of ancient coins were displays showing exactly what the coins were worth; I don't remember exactly but it was along the lines of 'In 200 BC ten drachma could buy one head of cattle OR a slave's wages for three months OR forty jugs of wine'.

You also learned the interesting fact that, at one point in Anatolian history, it took three years of a schoolteacher's wages to buy a house. Assuming that schoolteacher then owned the house free and clear, I suspect that's more than three years of a schoolteacher's wages would buy nowadays.

Afterwards, we took public transit to see the new museum, located well outside of the tourist center of town, near the train station. The museum is somewhat inconvenient to get to, but it is big and beautiful and gorgeous. It is entirely given over to mosaics, most of them from the nearby ruins of the Roman city of Zeugma, now largely underwater due to hydroelectric dam construction.

The mosaics are beautiful, generally following such common Roman themes as Oceanus and Tethys. Then there's the Gypsy Girl.

The Gypsy Girl is famous. Unearthed only in the late 1990s, she's become a symbol of Antep and she's kept in her own room at the museum.

As you can see, she is a fragment of a much larger mosaic. I think that has worked in her favor. I suspect she wouldn't be half as beguiling if her entire face were still intact. Her fragmentation has effectively shrouded her in veils, making her all the more intriguing.

That said, there's a theory that she is actually Alexander the Great, which would presumably be more clearly seen if her/his full form and original context were intact. Whether that makes her/him more or less intriguing is for you to decide.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon

As he explains in the Afterword, Michael Chabon originally intended to call this novel Jews With Swords. That would have been a perfectly accurate title, although he is perhaps correct that readers would then have jumped to the conclusion that it was a broad ethnic comedy. Rather, it is... a somewhat more sophisticated ethnic comedy, perhaps?

It's the tenth century A.D. and we're in that part of the world that would, over a thousand years later, become modern-day Iran, Azerbaijan, and Russia. Our story focuses on two street-smart bandits and swindlers, the Jews With Swords of the almost-title (although to be precise, one prefers to wield an enormous Viking battleaxe instead), who fall in with a hunted fugitive from the Khazar royal family. The throne of an empire is decided.

This is practically the very definition of 'swashbuckling'. It was originally a 15-part serial running in the New York Times Magazine. It also comes with illustrations by Gary Gianni, who also does the Prince Valiant comic. The overall effect is of a nineteenth-century swashbuckler. But the language is modern, if the prose densely purple.

I brought it as it seemed appropriate, as we're traveling in the old heart of the Byzantine Empire, if not on the frontier where the action is set. The novel is short, although Chabon's prose isn't as quick a read as some authors. I enjoyed it while it lasted, although it might have been better drawn out in serial form.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Turkey: First Observations

My wife and I are now in Turkey, where we came to receive training in the form of the four-week intensive CELTA course. In the weeks before the CELTA starts next month, we are traveling around Turkey as tourists.

For my wife this country has special significance; her ancestors on her mother’s side were Armenians who were forced to leave Mousa Dagh, in southern Turkey, in extremely dire circumstances. She is the first member of her family to return to Turkey, and we will be visiting the Mousa Dagh area shortly (with a watchful eye on the Syrian political situation, of course).


We spent Monday stumbling sleep-deprived around the sights of old Istanbul. The Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and the exterior of the Haghia Sophia (the interior is closed on Mondays, the day we were there).

Of course I’d obviously known before that Istanbul / Constantinople has one heck of a high density of historic sights, but I didn’t really feel it until we were just outside a tram station on Divan Yolu Cad, saw a large and beautiful mosque, used the guidebook to identify it as Nuruosmaniye Camii, and realized that the guidebook said nothing else about it, because this beautiful historic building near the old city center just wasn’t quite beautiful and historic enough to make the cut. Gorgeous old mosques are a dime a dozen in Istanbul.

A Broad Generalization.

I will now run the risk of making an extremely broad generalization about Islam, now that I am in my third Islamic country.


There are a lot of cats in Muslim countries, and the street cats appear to have somewhat better lives than stray cats elsewhere. My wife and I were immediately greeted by a friendly little cat as we entered Sultanahmet Square in historic Istanbul, and we continued to see cats, often surprisingly clean, well-fed, and approachable, throughout Sultanahmet and the grounds of Topkapi Palace. The touristy town of Goreme in Cappadocia is full of cats. Sometimes we saw ones that looked genuinely hungry. More common were cats like the little guy who meowed for food and love at the tea garden in Goreme. He appeared uncommonly well-groomed for a street cat, despite the manager’s insistence that we shouldn’t hold him because he had fleas (at least we think he said this; neither of us is good at understanding Turkish).

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to hold for Gaziantep, as every cat we’ve seen here has been a rather pathetic looking stray.


If I may make another sweeping generalization, East Asia is not so great at coming up with decent sweets. Korea’s got a traditional sweet cookie called yaggwa that I rather like, and Taiwanese shaved ice is excellent, and some southeast Asian nations do some very interesting things with coconut milk, but on the whole nobody’s claiming that any East Asian country is leading the world when it comes to sweet snacks and desserts. In fact, the region is pretty lackluster.

Contrast with West Asia. Actually, the whole cultural area that stretches from Greece on its western end to India on its east is awash in higher-quality sweet desserts than any other part of the world. And Turkey has given me uncomfortable sugar rushes every day I've been here. Baklava is the worst offender; even the cheap shop in the otogar (bus terminal) in Istanbul was unfairly good, and now we are in Gaziantep, known throughout Turkey as the home of baklava, where you pass baklava shops on practically every street. (Edit: OK, the same is true in Sanliurfa.) The most mediocre baklava I've had in Turkey is better than the best baklava I've had outside of Turkey.

It's not just the baklava. Turks are better at tasty sweet things than people of any other country I've visited. We stopped at a roadside cafe on our way back from hiking outside of Goreme in Cappadocia, and we got these ordinary-looking ice cream treats from a freezer (not traditional gooey Turkish ice cream, but simple 'convenience store' fare), and despite trying different things we both agreed that they were far better than shabby factory-made ice cream treats had any right to be.

I'm convinced that we Westerners learned the art of sweet things from Near Eastern people. They're still better at it than we are.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

100 Essential Things You Didn't Know You Didn't Know by John D. Barrow

Note to all Monty Hall Problem fanatics who found this page through a search engine: My interpretation of the problem begins several paragraphs down. Please do not get bored and wander elsewhere while I'm going on about virtual monkeys.

John D. Barrow, professor of mathematics at Cambridge, has presented us laypeople with 100 Essential Things You Didn't Know You Didn't Know: Math Explains Your World.

This book is, happily, not dumbed down. He doesn’t presuppose you know calculus, but some of the 100 chapters are heavy with equations. If equations cause your eyes to fog over, you can skip past them; if they really and truly bug you, the chapters are short and you can always move on to the next one, but bear in mind that equations encode objective reality and becoming comfortable with them is one way to show respect to the universe.

I will admit my eyes fog over at the sight of long equations. This may be a factor in the unhappy fact that, despite having something of a natural aptitude for math, I crashed and burned in college calculus. I am not proud of this and I hope to overcome my foggy-mindedness.

Chapter 3 was a particular favorite of mine. We’ve all heard that with a million monkeys typing away at a million typewriters, eventually we’d get the works of Shakespeare. Only with the advent of modern supercomputers and the virtual monkeys contained therein could we actually put this to the test.

The Monkey Shakespeare Simulator Project eventually produced 10^35 pages of random typing. If you don’t have a good sense of how many pages 10^35 is, don’t worry; that only means you’re human. Human brains didn’t evolve to easily conceive of such numbers.

They checked the output against the collected works of Shakespeare, and the most substantive match was a 24-character string from Henry IV, Part 2: “RUMOUR. Open your ears;”

Then it quickly descends back into gibberish.

It’s not something that Babbage’s book deals with, but I couldn’t help but wonder what if they hadn’t limited themselves to Shakespeare (and in a case-sensitive fashion, at that). There must have been longer strings of legible English (or Spanish, French, pinyin Mandarin, etc.) in that 10^35 pages, particularly if you’re willing to overlook the occasional misspelling. What nuggets of wisdom are in there? I know the answer: none, because it’s just random typing. But if you can dredge a sufficiently auspicious longer string from the nonsense, think of the cult you could found around it.

But that's not what I want to write about today. I want to write about the topic of chapter 30, which Barrow titled "I Do Not Believe It!".

The chapter is about one of the most contentious and controversial word problems in mathematics. Although Barrow doesn't use the name, there's a good chance you know it as the "Monty Hall Problem". It's controversial because (apparently) most people find the correct answer to be so counter-intuitive and so obviously wrong that they can not accept it. Some of these people are highly educated in mathematics and consider themselves experts on probability, and they have carried on heated arguments online to argue against what is actually the correct answer.

But not me. Ever since I came across the Monty Hall Problem, I have never understood why the incorrect answer is meant to be the intuitive one. The right answer seems correct to me. It feels correct, all the way down to my bones.

I appear to be in a minority of one. Everybody else, including Barrow, thinks the wrong answer seems more correct.

I see two possibilities here:

a). I am mentally bizarre.

b). Something about the way I was originally introduced to the problem makes the right answer seem intuitive, and I have subconsciously been approaching the problem in that same way ever since.

I choose to believe b). Before I explain why, let me describe the infamous problem for everyone's edification. Since I slapped John D. Barrow's name at the top of this post, this will sound more like his representation of the problem than the most common representation, but it's in my own words.


A game show host has presented me with three identical closed boxes. There is a prize inside one of the boxes. The game show host knows which box it's in. The other two are empty. I randomly choose one of the boxes. Possibility that I am correct: 1/3.

Now the game show host opens up one of the two boxes I didn't pick. It's empty. Now there are only two boxes. I have a choice: I can stay with my original pick, or I can switch to the other remaining box.

Is it to my advantage to switch boxes?

Plausible Wrong Answer #1: No, it is not to your advantage. The prize could have been in any of the three boxes, so no matter which box you pick the probability is still 1/3.

Plausible Wrong Answer #2: No, it is not to your advantage. There is a 50/50 chance of the prize being in either of the two remaining boxes, so the odds are the same either way.

Plausible Wrong Answer #3: No, it is not to your advantage. Word problems are useless, simplified caricatures of reality and you won't get any benefit from working them out.

Actual Correct Answer: Yes, you should switch to the other unopened box. There is a 2/3 chance that the prize is in there.

At this point the audience explodes in an uproar, and Dr. Theodore Q. Figglebottom, Professor of Mathematics, proceeds to spend the next couple of hours ranting on the Internet about how everybody who thinks I should switch boxes is an uneducated fool who doesn't understand probability.

From my point of view, the Professor Figglebottoms of the world (and there are many of them) are so intent on proving themselves correct that they're missing two very important points:

1. The game show host knows which box has the prize.

2. The game show host was always going to open an empty box.

If the game show host had the same limited knowledge as me, and there was a 1 in 3 chance that he was going to wreck the whole game by opening the prize box himself, then the answer would be much different. Then there would indeed be a 50/50 chance my box had the prize, and a 50/50 chance the other box had the prize.

But he knew.

Had I chosen correctly at the beginning, then I'm just unlucky and making the best choice of action is going to lose me the game. But in the more likely event that I chose wrongly at the beginning, switching boxes now will guarantee my victory.

The game show host consolidated both of my "roads not taken" into one and gave me a guarantee against the bad outcome that would have awaited me at the end of one of those roads. Of course, I'll still lose if I chose right at the beginning, but that's why it's a game show and not a "free money" show.

And that seems intuitively obvious to me. I don't recall exactly under what circumstances I first came across the Monty Hall Problem, but I do know that the above interpretation has always been central to my understanding of it, so it was probably part of how it was originally presented to me. It's not that I'm weird; it's that in this particular problem I was innoculated early on from emphasizing the wrong part.