The Masters of Stone

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Truthfully, I’m not a sculptor but there is no word for stonemason in my Turkish/English  dictionary.  Actually, I’m not even really a stonemason in the modern understanding of the word.  I don’t pour foundations or lay block or mix mortar or work with concrete at all if I can help it and in the present day American economic system, that’s what the job of stone mason is all about:  mixing and using “mud”.  I realize it’s only a theory and there’s a good chance I’m wrong.  Indeed, when I try to explain this to people back home, some people look at me like I’m crazy.  But I believe that the force of gravity should  be the primary bonding mechanism for truly great stonework.  Mortar and concrete are cheap substitutes for good old fashion hard skilled labor.  In a way, this issue goes to the heart of the fundamental problem with the entire economic system.   The goal of capitalism is an idealized notion of the concept of economic efficiency.  Instead of paying humans to do the work of carving stone and moving stone and carefully fitting stone together.  We pay machines and use lots of fossil fuel energy to pulverize stone and then add chemical bonding agents.  That way the “stone” can be poured or sloppily glued together and a lot fewer humans have to be employed in the process.  The long term cost is in the pollution and the collapsing structures as mortar gives way to gravity.  But capitalism is built upon the principle of ignoring the long term cost for the sake of short term gain.  Do it now, do it the easy way, get your money and then get out.  As I wander now among the  2500 year old ruins of the Roman Empire, I bow my head to the masters who have gone before me.  If only I lived in a world where creations such as these were still economically possible…

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The journey by bus from Istanbul takes about six hours.  During the last two hours the bus follows the length of the Gallipoli peninsula until we finally cross the straights of the Dardanelles on a ferry and reach the nice little sea side city of Canakkale.  If you are a student of history, you may be aware that one of the most important battles of World War I was fought in these parts.  Over a hundred thousand young men lost their lives as pawns of greedy politicians who wanted to expand their empires.  The Ottomans won this particular battle and thereby retained the independence of the nation now known as Turkey.  But ultimately, they lost the war and the rest of their former empire was carved up and divided by the victors (England and France).  Some people would suggest that much of the problems in the Middle East today derive from the Europeans’ successful conquest or colonization of the region now known as the Middle East during World War I.  But I don’t know about any of that, Im just a stonemason.  These days, you can go on a tour of the battlefields of Gallipoli and visit the monuments to those unfortunate men who were the victims of that particular manifestation of the human psychosis.  I, however, decide not to do that.  I’m not traveling to learn about war.  I’m here to see the stones.

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I get off the bus by the ferry dock and find myself in the center of activity for this small city.  There’s a nice seaside walkway lined with restaurants, cafes, shops and a bunch of hotels.  The big fancy hotels are obviously beyond my price range but after wandering around a bit, I find a nice little local Pension.  Turkish/English dictionary in hand, I go inside to find out about a room.  It takes some charades and several bursts of laughter from the manager and a man in the lobby.  But he does show me a decent room and it only costs 30 lira (15 bucks).  Bingo, I have my home for the evening.

I eat a good meal in a restaurant on a side street and then spend the evening in a seaside cafe watching people.  The next morning, I awake early and go on a quest.  The ruins of the ancient city of Troy are near here and if I can just find the right minibus, I can go there.    I do find the right minibus and it’s only a 20 minute ride but the ruins are somewhat disappointing.  Yeah sure, they have their historical value.  I’ve read the Iliad and I know that man’s insanity towards man goes way back in time.  It is kind of interesting to wander among the rock piles and imagine the grand events that occurred here so many thousand years ago.  And the silly wooden horse at the entrance is good for a laugh.  But most of the ruins are indeed ruins thanks to a series of earthquakes over the centuries.  A few walls are intact and there is evidence of some fine craftsmanship way back then but the overall experience is far from mind boggling.  I have myself a pleasant morning and continue on my merry way.

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The next stop on my agenda is the ancient city of Pergamum near the modern small town of Bergama.  But getting there is not particularly easy.  Back in Canakkale, I check out of the Pension and go to the bus ticket office near the port.  There’s no direct bus to Bergama but the bus to Izmir will drop me off on the highway outside of Bergama from where it’s a two mile walk to town.  Not so easy with my big pack in the dark but certainly not impossible.  There’s an Australian traveler on the same bus as me and we are dumped off together on the side of the highway.  As it turns out  though, we don’t have to walk because a taxi is there to offer us a ride.  The Aussie has a reservation at a hotel beyond my budget but fortunately for me, the taxi driver “knows a guy”.  I meet “‘the guy” when we arrive in town and he speaks a fair bit of English.  Sure enough, he  shows me to a nice little pension that only costs 30 lira. I’m the only guest but the place is run by a friendly Turkish family that welcomes me with a nice warm cup of apple tea.  I have found myself  another temporary home.

The next morning I am completely bamboozled, flabbergasted, overwhelmed and awed.  Wow!  Is about all I can say.  I eat breakfast at a tiny restaurant and go walking around town.  I intend to visit the ruins at some point but I’m in no hurry.  After yesterday’s let down at Troy, I’m not expecting much.  It’s just something to do as I make my way along the coast towards Egypt and Jordan.  But then, as I’m walking through the old part of town, I see something.   Off in the distance on a hilltop, I see what looks like a massive stone structure.  Like metal to a magnet, I am drawn in its direction.  I wend my way up the steep cobblestone pathways to the edge of town.  I cross a field and reach a fence.  I climb the fence and find a road.  The road goes up the mountain and I follow it.  An hour later I reach the entrance to the ruins of the Acropolis.  Funny thing is, there’s a cable car there and a couple small groups of tourists.  How about that, there’s a much easier way to get here.  I buy a juice from a stand and pay my entrance fee.  I enter…

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I should describe the ruins but there are not enough adjectives to articulate my amazement at what I see.  2000 – 2500 year old stonework, most of it dry laid (without mortar) and still standing to this day.  How good were the stonemasons back then.  So good!  Way better than me.  And there must have been thousands of them to do all this work.  I am so very humbled.  Perhaps it’s time to put away my stone hammers and chisels and start baking cookies.

The Acropolis of Pergamum is only the beginning.  After that, I continue on to the Asclepion.  Then I go south to Ephesus, which is considered Turkey’s great wonder of the world.  After Ephesus, I go to Aphrodisias which is even more wonderful than the great wonder.  After that there is Hierapolis and then Laodicia.  In seven days, I visit six sights and all of them are incredible.  I take hundreds of photos.  I touch the stones with my fingers.  I sit on the stones with my ass.  I climb on the stones with my feet and I hug the stones with both arms.  I walk around and gaze and stare and wonder and dream.  I’m in stone heaven.  I’m in stone paradise.  And believe it or not, I’m not even stoned.

Anyway, I won’t go on and on.  Here’s a few photos but they don’t come close to capturing the miraculousness.  If anyone knows where I can get the funding to start building stuff like this.  Please let me know.  Thanks.

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