Harmony at the door: The world meets Sivas (1)

June 20, 2012, Wednesday/ 17:03:00/ KATHARINE BRANNING

The past weekend the central Anatolian city of Sivas witnessed a flurry of activity rarely seen in this ancient Hittite and Seljuk stronghold and cradle to the Turkish Republic.

The city pulled out the red carpet (literally) to host guests from 40 countries to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the UNESCO world heritage program.

A place in the world called Sivas

This comprehensive event, held on June 16-17, was the vision of Sivas Governor Ali Kolat and was organized by his earnest director of tourism, Kadir Pürlü. Funded by the Promotion Fund of the Turkish Prime Ministry and sponsored by the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism, it united 40 representatives from 40 countries to the Sivas region to discover its heritage and diversity.

Taking a practical and very astute approach, Kolat did not invite academics to discuss ad infinitum the finer points of site development plans, although that was a part of the agenda. Instead, he sought to give free rein to creative media artists to record their impressions to share with others on return to their home countries. Sivas hosted editors, travel magazine writers, internet bloggers, television journalists, filmmakers and various UNESCO and Turkish Culture Ministry representatives to Sivas, who were led through a jampacked program of activities that left everyone breathless.

A push for tourism development in Sivas

Kolat’s mission was straightforward: show the riches of the region and encourage the attendees to use their persuasive voices and media outlets to spread the word about this place in the world called Sivas. Yes, they learned much about the history of the region, but they also learned you can come here and circulate easily and safely, and certainly that the famous Turkish hospitality is the finest treasure of the region.

The majority of attendees had never been to Turkey before, much less had traveled to this relatively undiscovered region. Kolat’s wager will pay off, as their eyes were opened to an alternative to the traditional tourism destinations of İstanbul and the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts. The attendees were struck by the numerous civilizations that have called this place home as they strolled through the recently renovated (2009) Archaeological Museum and then gazed upon the impressive portals of the many Seljuk medreses of the city, including the renovated 13th-century Gök Medrese. They joined in a row, hooking little fingers together, to learn the traditional Halay dances of the region. They discovered the natural beauty of the surrounding countryside, abloom in yellow and purple wildflowers on a green and brown patchwork of fields. They marveled at the varied fauna of the region, ranging from the giant kangal dog to the tiny nibbling fish in the famed therapeutic treatment pools for dermatological disorders. And this being Turkey, the culinary delights took center stage, with gözleme, fresh-whipped ayran and Sivas kebab at every turn of the plate. Arbiters from the refined cuisines of France and Japan had to concur that madimak soup, peskuten cheese and Turkish ice cream were notable taste discoveries.

The group, from countries as wide-ranging as Thailand, India, Russia, Europe and Egypt, blogged, conducted interviews for TV stations back home, shared insights, best practices, impressions, cultural connections, and many laughs. No one in Sivas will forget the presence on their streets of Sendai Shiro, a congenial Japanese sumo wrestler lookalike dressed in his traditional kimono and “geta” sandals. His smiling face was the perfect reactive barometer of the joys of discovery at every turn of the trip.

To honor global sites of cultural and natural heritage considered to be of outstanding universal value to humanity, UNESCO created the World Heritage Program in 1972. Its objective is to promote and transfer these masterpieces of humanity for future generations. There are 10 Turkish sites inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List (out of a total of 936 sites from all around the world), and 38 nominated properties on the tentative list. The Divriği Mosque and Hospital was the first Turkish monument inscribed on the list (1985) and is the only Seljuk-era monument.

The 13th-century joint mosque and hospital complex of Diviğri, built by the dynasty of the Megucukids, is renowned for its monumental architecture and the carved stone decoration of the portals.

The intricate, three-dimensional figures flow in an eddy of decorative profusion and represent a distinct style of their own. Each design on this door is unique, and there are no repetitions.

Viewing the portals is an overwhelming aesthetic and spiritual experience, akin to gazing upon the celestial blue stained-glass windows of Chartres Cathedral. Sitting like a crown on a high hill, the complex reigns over a circular valley, which holds this treasure tightly in the hands of humanity. A heritage of the world, indeed.

A plan for the future

Divriği is currently the object of an extensive site development masterplan to be put in place over the next 10 years. After the visit to the mosque and a concert of classical music used in the healing treatment for mental patients in the hospital, attendees gathered to discuss their impressions and provide feedback to the organizers. A presentation of the comprehensive development plan for Divriği allowed a better understanding of the professionalism being paid to the site management plan. German consultant Gert Hesselmann, long a veteran of European cultural tourism development, diplomatically offered wise advice, counseling the development agencies to ensure that any development goal needed to be measured and executed not in haste but with taste, and with reason and respect instead of wildcat speculation.

Harmony at the door

Mesmerized, I stared for a long time at the celebrated portal of the hospital of Divriği, commissioned by a woman. Among the profusion of design elements, I could recognize five- and six-pointed stars, strong symbols of differing faith traditions, placed together in the same galaxy. I saw round circles like mirrors, calling us to look into them to see ourselves, or were they reflecting grace back to us? I saw depictions of all the plants of nature and all the geometry of the sciences swirling together in a dizzying dance of dreams.

As I stood looking at the portal surrounded by my international colleagues, I could not help but realize that its designs, none of them repeating, were as unique as the DNA and the fingerprints of each one of us standing there.

As we posed shoulder-to-shoulder for the group photo shot in front of the portal (and this being Turkey, the family is of utmost importance), I stood beside an Iranian. We were joined for this one moment in a place of peace far from the arena of politics.

As I looked out onto that valley bowl of heritage spread wide in front of the door, I could not help but think of the eternal pulse that drives us to travel. I thought how the Sufis of the Seljuk era counsel us to separate ourselves from ourselves to find ourselves. The gift of travel provides us with this very opportunity to step out of our culture to reach for the other one, unknown.

In the end, isn’t this what travel and tourism development is all about? It is not about building luxury hotels and fancy restaurants, but rather providing people the access to big cultural incidents like the impressive portals of Divriği and to small incidents like fresh-picked mulberries offered by a local man as I strolled through the town. It is about putting people together to discover that, like the profusion of decoration on the masterpiece doors of Divriği, we, too, can stand in the doorway of our world in harmonious diversity.

*Katharine Branning is the author of a series of essays on Turkey, “Yes I would love another glass of tea” and the curator of the exhibition “Song of Stones” dedicated to Seljuk art held at the Turkish Cultural Center in New York in the fall of 2011.