28 February 2012

Castle Hunting: Kyrenia

The scene is the Eastern mediterranean at the twilight of the fifteenth century. Venice has just captured Cyprus from the diminished, paltry Frankish lords. The fictional Othello won't be governor for a century. Crusader kings had owned the island for three hundred years, since Richard the Lionheart passed through on his way to Jerusalem. It is a lonely, isolated place.
The empire of Venice is at its zenith. With 3,300 ships and forty thousand men, they have come to own the Mediterranean. Their annexation of the island went smoothly, work has begun on expanding the old Lusignan castles. The most ambitious of these fortifications is at Kyrenia, in the north. The new walls are to be several times thicker than the old ones, the seaside walls outfitted with massive cannon stations. The navy is king, the large wars are fought at sea.
But curiously, the real work is done on the inland side, where a three level gunning system has been devised to engage troops on land. Why is Venice afraid of the interior?
Kyrenia has been a castle town since the 7th century, and likely had Hellenistic and Roman fortifications near the important harbor before that. The Lusignan overlords that ruled Cyprus for much of the middle ages built a number of impressive castles on the island, but most of them were situated on mountaintops away from the water - military architecture at the time was all about height advantage, and the locations had been chosen before the advent of real gunpowder warfare. The Frankish knights did build a sizable stronghold in Kyrenia, utilizing some of the earlier walls. Garrisoning troops was the primary focus of their fortress, though, and evidence suggests that the fortifications were rather ordinary, with the basic wall and tower formation of the time.
The Venetians rebuilt Kyrenia at a time when gunpowder and sailcloth won wars, and tower height had little to do with defensibility. Kyrenia's walls were expanded and thickened. Significantly, the towers were actually lowered, echoing a shift that would come to define the last three centuries of the castle age.
High towers were a problem for three reasons. Firstly, the new, more sophisticated cannons caused more damage when fired horizontally - firing downwards limited their effect and made them inaccurate. Secondly, the new guns were much larger and heavier, meaning that it was difficult to install them at the top of narrow, soaring towers. Thirdly, and most importantly, large towers made big targets, and the new artillery was powerful enough to knock them down - falling rock and crumbling walls posed a mortal threat to the castle defenders below.
Inland castles were also developing thick walls, but seafront castles needed to be even sturdier. On land, it took a lot of effort to move cannons from place to place. Also, the artillery had to be set up and dug in within range of the defense's own guns, which were already situated and prepared. Naval advancements and large fleets meant that a formidable amount of ready firepower could be brought right to the castle's doorstep in a matter of minutes.
Kyrenia's walls were built thick enough to withstand the most powerful guns of the day, and were also brought to the water's edge on three sides, so that the sea formed a natural moat. Huge batteries of cannon were installed. Long, broad ramps were set up in the courtyard so that guns could be moved efficiently and wheeled up to the battlements.
The Venetian empire was among the richest in Europe, with revenue from far reaching trade and taxes collected from some of the wealthiest cities of the Mediterranean. Venice also had a unique problem - it had come to control a large area of coastline, but had few men to defend its new territory. With a small population and so much manpower invested in its navy, technology and firepower were even more important. When the castle came under attack, it would almost certainly be from a much larger force of men.
And over the narrow straight, ever present in the minds of the Venetians, was just such a force. The Ottoman empire's navy, at the time, was much less powerful than its European counterparts. But the army was huge, and was beginning to flex its muscles.
Walking around Kyrenia is a sunny and relaxing experience. It's not thrilling; the walls are square and wide, there's no real keep, the corners are sturdy, nothing much stands out. Beautiful views over the sea and the harbor are more engrossing than the defenses. A blunt stronghold, built too late for fanciful touches, Kyrenia can feel like one giant brick of sandstone.
The interesting parts mostly pre-date the Venetian expansion. Some arched rooms from the Lusignan castle remain. Dungeons and storerooms are worth a quick look. A deep cistern, still full of water, sits in the middle of the courtyard. Roman columns and capitals lie around listlessly. There's a popular cafe, some shady trees, a shipwreck museum.
Near the entrance, a small, low passageway leads to one of the most fascinating features. The chapel of St. George sits almost completely swallowed up by the walls, only its domed roof sticking up into the sunlight. Built by the Byzantines, it was outside the original castle - saved by the Venetians, and now almost completely hidden, it's reminiscent of a cave.
In the end, the Venetians only lasted about eighty years on Cyprus. In 1571, the Ottoman army marched into Kyrenia and took the town and castle without firing a single shot. Having just ransacked Limassol and massacred 20,000 men, the Turks never even considered attacking Kyrenia from the water, where their ships would be at a disadvantage. Too far away from Venice, with too few men, the castle had become stranded - all the firepower was essentially useless against the 60,000-strong Ottoman invasion, especially coming by land. The three-tiered gunning system along that inner side was never tested - Kyrenia remained under the Sultanate until the British came in 1878.

Ye Olde Girne

We spoke a little too soon when we said "we haven't really left Turkey." While technically Turkish since the occupation of 1974, Northern Cyprus has very much its own flavor. This was readily apparent in Girne (Turkish for Kyrenia). The harbor town, only a two hour ferry from Turkey, feels central Mediterranean and, dare I say, Greek. Looking up at this old white Church against the deep blue sky, thinking of Greece felt almost too obvious. But that Turkish-Greek mix is to be expected here in Cyprus. What surprised us in Girne was that it all came with a heaping side of British.
The sharply dressed touts outside the main square's cafes felt familiarly Turkish, but when we saw a big chalkboard sign that read: Pork Steak, Pork Chops, Pork Shish, Ham Salad, With Glass of Wine is Free! we knew we weren't in Kansas anymore. Turkish Cypriots have always been more secular, but this seemed a little... extreme? Efes beer in frosted pint glasses topped the mid-day tables. Suddenly, we realized we could understand every conversation around us. But this is the off-season? As it turns out, Girne is home to the largest British ex-pat community in Cyprus. Brits have been coming here since the end of World War II, when soldiers and civil servants decided it would be a wonderful place to retire.
Even more intriguing, Cyprus was under British rule from 1878 - 1960. During this period, road systems were developed (drive on the left, wheel on the right) and children were taught English in schools. So, essentially, in Girne we get to stroll in the Mediterranean sun until it sets behind a mountain range topped by an ancient Hellenic castle. Then, we move inside to Fisherman's Inn for some Turkish beer, wine and pistachios and have fluent sorrow-laced conversations with the old Cypriot bar keep. He tells us about the home town he left behind in the south and the Vietnamese love of his life; about the time he was mugged in London and how there are more Cypriots in that English city than there are on this entire island.
They say that once a foreigner lands in Girne, they never leave to see anywhere else in the North. This is the sort of phrase that usually turns us off from a place, translating in our minds to "tourist town." After one day, we found ourselves asking our hotel for a few extra nights, proving the theory true. Still, I think the reason for its accuracy is twofold. There is the sleepy seaside seduction laced with all the aforementioned technicolor. But there's also the lack of readily available options for exploring without a car.
The bumper-to-bumper traffic in town, half necessary and half a parade of souped up cars in for the weekend from the capital, didn't make us excited to rent a car. Neither did the prospect of driving on the opposite side of the road around particularly aggressive drivers. Add to that the legalities involved with getting into any sort of trouble in a territory unrecognized by the world aside from Turkey and you have a lot of bus rides. One of these truly retro buses, imported before 1974, took us out to Famagusta. Much to our chagrin, we then had to take a taxi the 7 kilometers to Ancient Salamis. St. Hilarion Castle, which we can see in the distance, was impossible for us to get to, let alone the relatively untouched coast of the Karpas Peninsula.
In lovely, curious Girne, this hardly made us feel trapped. We jumped head first into the local culture, other than wisely avoiding sun-soaked afternoon alcohol consumption. The most popular place to eat is definitely Niazi's, which has a large restaurant and an adjacent take-out joint. Like almost all of the Turkish-Cypriots in Girne, the restaurant is a transplant from Limassol in the south. Grilled meat is the specialty. So, while foreigners give in to their coastal cravings for (imported or farmed) seafood, locals dig in to some shish.
If the smell of grilling meat didn't take us back to our days in Turkey than the sight and sound of nard playing sure did. If there was a place to set up a table in the sun, there was a nard game going on. Younger locals played over drinks at the harborside cafes. All establishments have the game on hand, often in a pile next to the menus. One evening, as the sun went down and it became immediately cold, a foursome of men in suits sat down near us. They were immediately provided a nard board, blankets to drape over their shoulders and heat lamps, dragged out from inside. A British man next to us tried to engage the waiter in a chat about rugby.
British, Turkish, Cypriot, German tourist - the great equalizer is always soccer. Our last night in Girne, the entire town was tuned in to a match between two Turkish teams. At Six Brothers Restaurant, our waiter asked if we would like to sit next to each other so that we could both see the television. We declined, but wound up staring past each other at the scene around us anyway. Everyone was rapt. The restaurant (no one was actually eating) was divided into sides. At the very last minute, a game-winning shot was made and the crowd erupted in cheers. I wouldn't be surprised if the jubilation caused all the boats in the harbor to rock in the still, night water just a bit.

27 February 2012

Kyrenia Harbor

Sometime around the year 300 BC, a trading ship sank off the coast of Cyprus. Barely a mile from the city-kingdom of Kyrenia, it went down with wine amphorae from Rhodes and Samos, millstones from the island of Kos and several thousand almonds (found perfectly preserved in jars). The ship may have been sunk by pirates, by bad weather or simply because it was old - there were many repairs made to the hull.
The wreck is interesting mostly because of its age - it's the oldest recovered shipwreck in the world - and completeness. For Kyrenians, though, it is a symbol of the city's ancient connection to the greater world.
Today the "medieval harbor" is much sleepier and less used than it once was. There are still a few fishing vessels along the piers, but there are more pleasure craft and a large number of tour boats. Closed off on one side by the massive Kyrenia castle, and along the seaward side by a long breakwater, the marina has an intimate, cozy feel. Its water is shallow, the pace is slow. The waterside is lined with restaurants and bars. A sunny promenade stretches along the breakwater and young couples sit on the riprap to kiss or watch the sunset.
The harbor was only recently re-enclosed, though. The British opened the port to the sea at the end of the 19th century, which allowed for deeper ships to enter but wrecked many of the local boats. It was the latest turn of fortune for the marina, which has had a history of highs and lows.
The ancient city of Kyrenia was an important one, a major stop along the flourishing east-west trading routes of the Mediterranean. The closest Cypriot port to Anatolia, it served as a gateway between the island and the mainland for centuries. Trading routes at the time favored short hops between ports instead of long distance sailing - ships like the one found here were too small for real open water journeys. Sailors preferred to navigate along the coast or among islands, making landfall at night. It's probable that the ship's crew ate their meals on land, and would have slept there too. Harbors of the time were important shelters as well as trading points.
Sitting at the junction between Anatolia, Greece and Babylonia, Cyprus helped to link the west with eastern cities like Aleppo and Jerusalem. In fact, analysis of the shipwreck's wood suggests that it was built in Syria, though most of its cargo was Grecian and it may have traveled as far as Venice.
The ancient port, where the shipwrecked boat was headed, was once sited in a cove just east of the castle and medieval harbor. Strangely, this pretty little crescent is the one part of Kyrenia that hasn't been built up - the water is bordered only by grass and brownish sand, the land around it makes a natural amphitheater. Standing here, looking in just the right direction, one might think they'd come across someplace really wild.
The present harbor dates to the middle ages, when the Frankish Lusignans decided it was more easily defended than its predecessor. Under Ottoman rule, Kyrenia and its port foundered. Forbidden from conducting trade with lands to the west or east, the district capital was reduced to small necessities trading with the Turkish mainland. Adding to the town's medieval decline was the advent of larger, more seaworthy ships and improved navigation. It was no longer necessary to travel primarily in coastal waters, and trading ships began to bypass Cyprus on their way to and from the East.
By the time the British arrived in 1878, Kyrenia was little more than a fishing village, and the harbor was home to only a few small caïques.
The fishing industry has returned a little, but the truth is that the northern coast of Cyprus has always had rather poor fishing. There aren't enough nutrients in the water to support a large native stock - for years, most of Cyprus's seafood has been imported. In the old days, fishing was very much a subsistence lifestyle. Tourism has taken over as the primary seafaring industry, and a lot of boats were being spruced up before the high season rush.
We were warned by a few Girne locals not to eat at any of the waterside places - one man named Tunay, who we met at the Fisherman's Inn, was also adamant that we avoid all sea bream and sea bass. "Those are the farmed fish," he told us. "You want real fish, from the sea." While it's true that the quality of the port restaurants is a little lower than some of the inland spots and the prices are higher, I think the locals are more offended by the tourists than by the food.And it's hard to pass up the atmosphere of the evening harbor, the lights and old buildings, the boats quietly creaking. The small ring of old inns and warehouses is just high enough to block out all the recent, squared-off development that spreads away from the water. It's easy enough to have a drink or a few plates of meze - and the place isn't unusually touristy by Mediterranean standards.
One can see the salvaged remains of the Kyrenia shipwreck in the "Shipwreck Museum," located in the castle. Also on display are several of the amphorae and stone mills, as well as a small percentage of those nine thousand preserved almonds.
Another place one can see the ship's image is on the Cypriot euro coins, on the .10, .20 and .50 cent pieces.

Ancient Salamis

Here we are in Cyprus, the back of our necks sunburnt from an afternoon at Salamis. It's our first, true "ancient ruins" experience aside from the Coliseum in Rome. Unlike that famous site, Salamis doesn't strike you so much as a piece of something that used to be whole. You are struck much more by what has survived than has vanished. A big reason for this is that the archeological findings span more than one era and because the ancient city itself remained wildly important through different historical periods. So, there isn't just one picture of Salamis to recreate but an entire, super long history to collect glimpses of.
The columns alone are a collage of eras. The Byzantines rebuilt the city using pieces that were already there, placing Greek and Roman pillars next to each other without much of an eye for detail. Most of the more 'complete' excavations comes from the Roman era. So, you've got your baths and 44-person latrine, with flushing pipes and arm rests. There's the aqueduct and gymnasium and, of course, the enormous theater that used to seat 15, 000 people. During this time, at around the 1st century BC, Salamis is said to have had a population of a quarter of a million people. Even still, it was hardly its heyday.
It's believed that Salamis was founded by Trojan War hero Teucer and was an important point in the trade route between Greece and Asia by the 12th century BC. Shortly thereafter, the Myceneans introduced the concepts of kingship and city-states to Cyprus and Salamis become one of the first seven city-kingdoms. The Dark Ages in surrounding Greece, Turkey and Egypt led to a sort of black-out for Cyprus. The island had little to no contact with the rest of the world for two centuries and its inhabitants gathered together in the city-kingdoms, especially Salamis.
During the Archaic era, Salamis was large and thriving. They minted their own currency (the first place to do so in Cyprus) and maintained diplomatic relations with the ruling Persians. That is until they became oppressive and Onesilos of Salamis staged a large, unsuccessful revolt - the first in Cyprus' history. The battle took place on both land and sea. The first successful fight for independence in Cyprus also took place in Salamis, led by the city's most famous son, Evagoras I. He's widely recognized as "the patriot king," (even though, ironically, he introduced the Greek alphabet, which wound up replacing the native Cypriot language).
Then came the Hellenic Era, just the very beginning of what we usually think of as "ancient" history. Salamis served as Alexander the Great's ruling outpost in Cyprus and, as a lot of the rest of the island struggled, the city was well taken care of. Large structures were funded and Salamis became the unofficial capital of Hellenistic Cyprus. During the Roman era, Paphos was declared the official capital, but Salamis remained the commercial center.
Salamis' second most famous son is the apostle Barnabas who, along with Peter, introduced Christianity to the island. The Byzantines named the city an archbishopric (as well as handing it back the title of capital and renaming it Constantia). The largest basilica in Cyprus was built there, of which there are some remains. However, nature took its course and pummeled the city with a left right blow of earthquakes and tidal waves. The port became silted up and everything of worth moved one door over, so to speak, to Famagusta.
Excavations of the site began in the 1950s, but ended abruptly with the Turkish invasion of 1974. Most people believe that there is still so much left to be unearthed, uncovered in the dunes. For now, it's like a jigsaw puzzle without the box. Not sure of the picture you're aiming for or how many pieces there are in total, it's just a few finished corners and clumps of detail.
Local children climb around, posing with the decapitated statues that line the courtyard of the Gymnasium. A trio of German tourists who were a lot more informed than we were at the time, searched out specific sites (the fish market, the Roman villa) that weren't much more than a few stones. Lizards, as ancient as anything else there, darted around our feet as we walked around the large, grassy area. The Temple of Zeus, the best preserved mosaic on the site, the colonnaded avenue, marble slabs with beautiful designs still intact - we saw it all. As we searched out a particular mosaic, a couple of men poked at high grass looking for mushrooms.

25 February 2012

Çiğ Köfte

We always run out of time. At the end of every country, we are left with a list of things that we didn't get around to or couldn't find. When we left Turkey, one of the things on that list was "try çiğ köfte."
Well, luckily, we haven't really left Turkey. Cyprus is a divided land, with an independent republic in the south and a Turkish-controlled semi-state in the north. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is only recognized by Turkey, and is essentially a militarily occupied chunk of the island (locals might tell you a different story). For us that means familiar tastes and sounds, and another chance to try çiğ köfte.
This man runs a shop that sells only one dish.
Literally translated to "raw meatball," çiğ köfte is a southern Turkish specialty that is popular everywhere. Mounds of the stuff sit in takeout windows in Istanbul, men push carts of it around the streets. In theory, çiğ köfte is made from raw ground beef, kneaded into a paste with a heavy mix of spices, onion and ground bulgur. In practice, couscous or whole bulgur is usually substituted for the meat. It's increasingly difficult to find the traditional variety, which was fine with us.
In the town of Kyrenia, on the northern coast, the Öztürk brothers have a veritable monopoly on quality vegetarian köfte.
The chef wanted us to know, right away, that his wares were made with couscous. "Vegetarian," he said. "No meat," he added for emphasis. He seemed surprised that we'd come in. A man who was eating helped us with a few of the particulars, pointing out the "spice sauce" and the "no spice sauce."
There was no menu, just a choice between a ration of köfte or a köfte wrapped up in flatbread. We chose one of each.
The paste is smushed into little patties and served with parsley, lettuce and tomato. It's spicy in a low-grade, smoky and fruity way. Apparently, there are some fifteen different spices in the recipe. Even more fruity and slightly more fiery, the "hot sauce" was thick and sweet.
Included with the meal were little cups of ayran, a salted, drinkable yoghurt that's ubiquitous in lunch spots all over Turkey (and Northern Cyprus). It's not something I'd drink by itself, but it's great for cooling a spice-burnt tongue.
So, a coincidence - I just learned that a çiğ köfte place opened about a month ago on our old block in New York. So, if you're near East 9th street between 1st and Avenue A, you can try this out for yourself.

Things Turkish People Like

The Turkish Flag and Atatürk. Every country likes their flag and their most revered leader. But, in Turkey, it's easy to spot. The bright red flag flew everywhere. This one, pictured, was stenciled onto a car. Mustafa Kemel's photo hung on walls in establishments. He is the father of Modern Turkey, "Atatürk," and devotion to him is so strong that it is actually illegal to say anything negative about the man.
Branded Wet Naps. For most businesses in Turkey, giving customers wet naps isn't just a service - it's promotional. These branded packages, filled with napkins doused in lemony cleaner, are given before and after a meal. Sometimes, yet again, on the way out. We have quite a collection.
Nuts, Seeds and Chickpeas. Here, at a meyhane, men drank tea and Efes beer and snacked on pumpkin seeds. The click click click of shelling is heard all over the place. Beer is always accompanied by a bowl of nuts, sometimes salted peanuts, sometimes small, soft, tasty Turkish pistachios. My favorite is the "Koktyl" mix of almonds, peanuts, pistachios and dried, crunchy chickpeas.Gravestones with Hats. On the Gelibolu Peninsula, these markers were designed to look like they were wearing helmets. In Istanbul, we stumbled upon an old cemetery with gravestones topped with turbans and fezes fashioned out of the stone.LinkMale Hair Salons. Since women traditionally keep their hair covered it's up to men to keep the art of hair sculpture alive. And boy do they. There's a salon on every block and they do not lack for business. Teenagers go for mohawk-type hairdos with fancy designs shaved into the side. They gel their hair up in the front, down in the back, to one side or another. Older men go for a less ostentatious, neat styling - usually some version of a short cropped bowl cut meticulously blown out.
Simits. These wildly popular snacks are available all over the place. Having taste-tested, we've decided that the one sold by men who balance a stack on their head are the best. The ones sold in stores or cafes are the worst. All are covered in fragrant, roasted sesame seeds - sometimes applied with a delicately sweet egg white wash. They taste a lot like a bagel and it's become popular in Istanbul to eat them sliced with cream cheese.
These Shoe-Shine Stands. There were a lot of shoe-shines and they all used these stands. Really cool.
Bargaining and Touting. I know I've mentioned this in a lot of other posts, but touting and bargaining are a real part of day to day life. What's nice about both practices here is the congeniality with which they're done. It is simply how business runs and you never get the sense that anyone's really trying to rip anyone else off.

24 February 2012

Do You Know the Mussel Man?

In Istanbul, food is absolutely everywhere. Pushed up against store-front windows are casserole dishes filled with prepared foods, hazir yemekli, vegetable dishes and sauteed meats. In cooled glass boxes sit skewered meatballs and marinating meat, raw fish set on plates with a lemon slice. Moist rice and chickpeas steam up big, glass boxes, layered like a cake with roast chicken frosting. All of this can become overwhelming and monotonous. Exciting in theory, a cuisine fatigue can set in. But then, all of a sudden, Istanbul street food offers you a surprise. Ours, was the mussel man.
We first spotted him while roving for some balik ekmek on the waterfront. A man in a trench coat stood with what looked like a newspaper covered steel drum. He waited patiently, hands in pocket, right next to this chestnut vendor. A woman walked up and handed him some money and he slid his hand under the newspaper and handed her a mussel. One mussel, which she ate clean, handed back to him and walked away. Was it raw? Cooked? Why only one? I was intrigued and, later, flipped through my photos to see if I could find evidence of his exact position on our walk. The next day, I found the same chestnut vendor but the mussel man was gone.
The fishing market felt like a likely place to find him. Between the fishing tool shops, this man sauteed up some sığır eti. Do you know the mussel man? That smells great, but I'm on a mission. Down by the fish vendors, hamsi tava crackled in big frying trays. Fresh lemon was squeezed on a plate of everything in the sea aside from mussels. No luck there.
For the next few days, my eyes were always peeled for the mussel man. Is that him?!? No, just another chestnut guy. This is how street food works - and, being from New York, I love the chase. In Istanbul, with so many people serving up the same stuff, you have to be discerning - and patient. You search out your fresh orange juice guy, your under-the- bridge sandwich dealer, that perfect simit. At night, when kebab places are lit up in a row and the doner slabs glisten and drip, it feels like a sort of red light district. So much available flesh, but I was looking for that missed connection. That little shiny shell I'd caught just one fleeting glance of.
Do you know the mussel man? No answer. Too busy delivering lunch in true Istanbul style. A meal of soup, rice, meat and salad plated and covered tightly in plastic wrap. A bag is filled with sliced bread, tied and placed on top. You eat just as you would in the restaurant itself and the bus boy comes back later for your dishware. Food, food, everywhere, on carts, on heads, in mounds. But still my mysterious mussel man had yet to be found.
Then, on a street corner in Cihangir, I saw him. Right on the main shopping drag, tucked up beside a grocer, he stood. We approached and asked for two. He pointed to Merlin and then to me, making sure we wanted one each. We nodded. He picked one up, removed its top shell, squeezed some lemon on it and handed it to Merlin - who was a little worried it may be raw. Then, I was given mine in the same fashion.
It was stuffed! We were so delightfully surprised that the man broke into a huge grin, waiting patiently (as he is so very good at) for us to eat our morsel and hand him back the bottom shell. The cooked mussel was surrounded by packed in bulgur, sweet and spicy with a heavy dose of clove. It was absolutely delicious and we wanted another immediately. But he handed us a napkin each and covered the newspaper back over his stock. We went back the next day, but he wasn't there.