Lamb Intestines and Western Anatolia

The village of Eğrigöz, near Emet.

During the planning phase of the Vlad Tepes World Tour I had been congratulating myself for not being in Turkey during Ramadan, something I knew would lead to complications in terms of services, particularly in more remote areas such as where we were headed next.

I, uh, apparently didn’t do my homework well enough.

We did actually arrive in Turkey after Ramadan was over. We neglected, however, to check for other holidays. Such as Kurban Bayramı, a festival I now fondly refer to as “The Festival of Lamb Intestines”.

Intestines on the ground beside a roadside fountain near Emet.

Intestines on the ground beside a roadside fountain near Emet.

The first inkling we had that something was not entirely right was the sight of animal intestines lying in the gutter in the Fatih neighborhood of Istanbul towards the very end of our stay in the city before heading into Western Anatolia to the town of Emet. At first, we just thought maybe we were near a butcher shop or a serial killer had been mistakenly set free.

Then we saw more intestines. Damn, that’s one dedicated serial killer.

By this time we were due on the (very) long bus to Emet, so without thinking too much of it we got on board the bus for a nice little ten hour or so bus trip down through Turkey’s interior where my seatmate, despite very little English and with little patience for my translation program insisted on taking us for tea at one of the stops and otherwise being a fascinating conversationalist, by which I mean we used a lot of hand signals and exchange of passports.

Ceramics from the province. Much of the ceramic tile work in Istanbul's mosques is from this region.

Ceramics from the province. Much of the ceramic tile work in Istanbul’s mosques is from this region.

(He was returning home from Saudi Arabia, a point made by enthusiastically showing me his passport stamp – I didn’t realize it at the time, but my guess is he was returning from the Hajj, a supposition supported by his generous use of prayer beads during the trip as he struggled to avoid murdering the small child seated behind us who spent most of the trip testing my seatmate’s patience).

Towards the end of the trip – Emet was the second to last stop, so most of the passengers had already disembarked as we entered the hills engulfing Emet and its boron mine (apparently, the source for a fairly impressive percentage of the world’s boron) – the bus attendant and bus driver on one side, and my traveling companions and I on the other spent a fascinating effort in technology and language difficulties as we passed my iPad with its Turkish translation program on it.

By fascinating effort, of course I mean hysterically funny and utterly hopeless effort. As it turns out, Turkish and English are grammatically very, very different. Specifically, Turkish is agglutinative, much like German or Classical Nahuatl (Aztec, which I studied in college). Where the translation programs extant today actually do a pretty credible job of translating things like Romanian to English, Turkish to English, well, let’s just say not so much.

View from the room at the Emet Thermal Resort & Spa.

View from the room at the Emet Thermal Resort & Spa.

We spent the better part of the last two hours of the trip trading the iPad back and forth between the two groups, scratching our heads and trying to translate the most bizarre sentences I have seen this side of an H.P. Lovecraft dream sequence.

Finally, as night quickly advanced over the hills, we arrived in Emet, our staging ground for a trip to some nearby Roman ruins (these had nothing to do with Vlad Țepeș but were well-preserved, close, and the location of the world’s first stock market) and, much more importantly to me, the ruins of Eğrigöz. More about that last later.

Emet isn’t exactly a hopping, cosmopolitan part of Turkey. It is known for exactly two things; a sprawling thermal spa resort, and a boron mine. Given the general lack of hotels in an area like this, we had booked a room in the thermal spa resort (though only one of us wound up taking advantage of the facilities – I was there for adventure, and I was deeply concerned that being too comfortable might negatively impact that).

IMG_0032Hiking through Emet after dark was an interesting experience of its own, and by the time we arrived at the resort we soon realized that rumors of some resort personnel speaking English was, perhaps, a little optimistic of an interpretation. To be sure, getting checked in was no problem, but how were they going to explain to three American travelers that the four-day long Lamb Intestine Festival meant that car rentals were closed, getting a driver was next to impossible, and if we wanted to see the ruins that I had just traveled thousands of miles across the world to see with only days left in Turkey, we might have to walk.

After an hour or so of sweating bullets I bit the bullet and called the friend from Turkey who had helped us earlier with both bus tickets and resort reservations (the Internet fails when you are navigating in a world of gender segregated buses and rampant online fraud, apparently) and put her on the phone with the man at the front desk.

Finally, the next morning we had it settled: a friend of the manager was willing to loan us a car. Well, and, as it turned out, a driver (whose name we never got and whom we later discovered was a taxi driver who decided earning a couple of hundred lira to drive some Americans around wasn’t a bad few hours work).

Which is how we made our way to Çavdarhisar, a small town that is distinguished in that it sits in the middle of the ruins of Aizanoi, most lately a Roman ruin, but in earlier times also a Byzantine and, even earlier, a Greek city.

Beneath the Temple of Zeus.

Beneath the Temple of Zeus.

Aizanoi’s ruins are in remarkably good shape, and consist primarily of a mostly-intact Temple of Zeus, a stock market, public baths, the theater-stadium, a necropolis and a sanctuary to the Anatolian Earth Mother goddess Meter Steunene, which unfortunately is largely buried and undergoing excavation, so wasn’t visible for viewing.

On the way back, our new friend and driver stopped at one of the ever-present roadside fountains and saw…this. Yes, more lamb intestines. With no common language it wasn’t until later with the help of a teacher we befriended at the resort that we learned the gist of it:


From Wikipedia:

Eid al-Adha (Arabic: عيد الأضحى‎ ʿīd al-aḍḥā, “festival of the sacrifice”), also called Feast of the Sacrifice, the Major Festival, the Greater Eid, Kurban Bayram (Turkish: Kurban Bayramı; Bosnian: kurban-bajram), or Eid e Qurban (Persian: عید قربان‎), is the second of two religious holidays celebrated by Muslims worldwide each year.

It honours the willingness of Abraham (Ibrahim) to sacrifice his young first-born son Ishmael (Ismail])a as an act of submission to God’s command and his son’s acceptance to being sacrificed, before God intervened to provide Abraham with a lamb to sacrifice instead.

IMG_9791Ah-ha. That explains the lamb intestines everywhere.

Another interesting fact about this feast is that – as our Turkish friend explained to us in passable English – in Islam animals have no souls, but those animals who are sacrificed during the Feast of the Sacrifice are allowed into Heaven.

I didn’t ask the sheep we passed for their feelings on the matter; it seemed likely to be a touchy subject.

The final non-traveling day of our trip – not just in Turkey, but for the entire trip – we visited what was one of the three places I had determined to see on the trip, and the entirety of the reason for going to Turkey on this trip – the ruins of the Ottoman fortress of Eğrigöz (pronounced – as I unfortunately was to figure out only once I returned to the United States, “eh-ree-gooz” – though that explains the strange expressions I got from locals).

Surveyor's map of the fortress.  The village is on the left (west), the river on the right (east). With the exception of the western approach, sheer cliff face would discourage any thought of escape or assault.

Surveyor’s map of the fortress. The village is on the left (west), the river on the right (east). With the exception of the western approach, sheer cliff face would discourage any thought of escape or assault.

Eğrigöz (the fortress) sits adjacent a modern day village (also called Eğrigöz), perched up against the river on an incredibly steep outcropping. It is not, it should be noted, large – the entire walled area was only a couple of hundred feet probably, and as I later put together afterwards, the actual “citadel” part of it was a keep only modestly larger than Poenari Castle in Romania, Vlad Țepeș‘s prized fortress perched high in the Carpathian Mountains which we had visited the previous week.

Symbol of the Order of the Dragon, an anti-Ottoman, pro-Roman Catholic military order that Vlad's father belonged to - it is the origin of the name "Dracula", meaning "Son of the Dragon".

Symbol of the Order of the Dragon, an anti-Ottoman, pro-Roman Catholic military order that Vlad’s father belonged to – it is the origin of the name “Dracula”, meaning “Son of the Dragon”.

As a barely-minted teenager Vlad Țepeș and his younger brother Radu cel Frumos (the Handsome) were sent as hostages to their father’s good behavior, first to Edirne, the site of the Ottoman court (remember, this was still before Constantinople fell), and then later to the fortress of Eğrigöz in Western Anatolia, a common destination for hostage rulers’ children.

On arrival to Eğrigöz the value of the location was instantly obvious. Yes, it dominated the river valley it sat over, but it was also a brutally long way from Europe and any possible hope of rescue or escape. By comparison, Edirne would have been a cakewalk.

Vlad Țepeș and his brother were hostages, but they were noble hostages, and as such they were trained in academic and martial subjects with contact – it’s unclear whether at Eğrigöz, Edirne, or some other location – with the sultan’s son, Mehmed II (who would later, it should be noted, be the man who finally conquered Constantinople and moved the capital of the Ottoman Empire to Istanbul).


There is precious little beyond this that we know of those years. We know Vlad was not fond of Mehmed, though it never got so bad as to interfere with Vlad in later years working out certain political “arrangements” with Mehmed’s father, Murad.

There are, as well, stories that Mehmed and Radu the Handsome – Vlad’s younger brother – got along, um, very, very well. (Naturally, these stories are vehemently denied by Turkish historians, but given Radu’s relative obscurity and the reverence with which Mehmed II would later be held in, it seems quite plausible).

Years later, Vlad would be freed, making political arrangements with the sultan and taking his hard-won knowledge of military tactics and Turkish to great effect when his boyhood companion, Mehmed II, marched into Wallachia and tried to burn down Vlad’s realm.

Gatehouse of Eğrigöz Fortess from below. The well-preserved gatehouse is all that remains of the central keep.

Gatehouse of Eğrigöz Fortess from below. The well-preserved gatehouse is all that remains of the central keep.

So there at the end of the Vlad Tepes World Tour, we hit not the very beginning, perhaps, but very close to Vlad’s beginning.

Perhaps, too, one can argue that Eğrigöz was a psychological birth of sorts for Vlad, as it was there that he learned about the enemies – Ottomans and his brother Radu alike – that would hound him for the remainder of his life. There, too, he learned the skills that would keep him alive through three reigns until his death led to his body staying in Wallachia, but his head making one final trip to Istanbul to give testament of his death to Mehmed II.

So after four days in Emet, my traveling companions and I made our way back to Istanbul, and from there onto a plane back home.

At least until next time. After all, we never did make it to Moldova or Giurgiu…

Istanbul, The City of Cats


It isn’t difficult to understand the historical might and power of Istanbul.

I mean, look at all the cats.

Legions of calicos pace the byways of the outlying districts. Clusters of shorthairs and tabbies mob the unwary, and despite the best efforts of even the occasional grumbly old beggar, the cats know the truth of it, creeping back to the comfort of the beggar’s blanket spread there on the unforgiving pavement.

IMG_9328If ever there was a conclave of felines that rule all cat-kind, it would not be found in Bast‘s old stomping grounds of Egypt, but rather in modern Istanbul. Where Romania was the Land of Dogs with packs of strays marking out their territory in the shadows of old Târgoviște‘s statues and monuments, in Istanbul it is feline-kind that clearly hold power.

It’s hard to know what to call Istanbul, too.

I think of it now as “The City of Cats”, but it could as easily be called The City of Mosques. Mosques are, quite literally, everywhere. One or even two to a block, they attach themselves lamprey-like to factories, they loom over modern gas stations, they dominate the city’s horizon. So omnipresent are they that my traveling companions and I concocted a game – playable only in Istanbul, of course – called “Close and Count” that involved closing your eyes for twenty seconds as you rode on the metro, boat, bus, plane or whatever, then opening them and seeing how many mosques you could count in sight.

It was never, ever less than one, and the average was five to seven.


Istanbul might also be called Constantinople, the eastern capitol of the Roman Empire and bulwark against the Ottoman Empire. (Please, no more They might Be Giants-style Istanbul (Not Constantinople) jokes. For the love of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Hastur and Xipe Totec, no more…)


But even They Might Be Giants got it wrong, or at least incomplete; before Istanbul was Constantinople, it was the Greek city of Byzantium, which is its own fascinating story.

What Istanbul is not, ironically, is any direct part at all of Vlad Țepeș‘ story, kind of an odd thing to say, given that the major reason for being there was the Vlad Țepeș World Tour, my effort to retrace many of the steps of the (in)famous impaler himself.

Vlad Țepeș probably never stepped foot in the city.

For the first part of his life it was still Constantinople, but the Ottoman Empire had surrounded it, even transferring its capitol to the city of Edirne up the coast a bit on the European side of this gateway between East and West. As mentioned in earlier notes about this expedition of mine, as a teenager Vlad Țepeș was held hostage to his father’s good behavior, probably briefly at Edirne, but then later at Eğrigöz, a tiny village in modern Turkey that was an important Ottoman fortress where noble hostages were held.



(We did get to Eğrigöz, but I’ll talk more about that in the next, penultimate article in this series).

For the second part of his life it was Istanbul, after his boyhood companion – though definitely not friend – Mehmed the Conqueror finally achieved the ambition of generations of Ottoman rulers and crushed the Christian rulers of Constantinople. (Mehmed’s tomb is in modern Istanbul, in fact within walking distance of the old Fatih Seawall, a block or two from our hotel while we stayed in the city).

(Then again, perhaps one can argue that Vlad Țepeș did, in fact, make it through the city gates of Istanbul. Or rather, part of him; upon Vlad Țepeș’ death Vlad’s head was separated from his body and taken to Mehmed as proof of his old adversary’s demise).

For those unfamiliar with it, Istanbul sits astride the Bosphorus, the channel of water linking the Black Sea with the Mediterranean Sea by means of the Aegean Sea. Which is really just a complicated way of saying it was arguably the single most strategic location in the ancient Greek and Roman world, and a damned important one even today, given that it controls modern Russia‘s primary warm-water seaport access.

Monument in Asian Istanbul commemorating the conquest of Constantinople by Mehmed II.

Monument in Asian Istanbul commemorating the conquest of Constantinople by Mehmed II.

This means that Istanbul is divided into “Asian Istanbul” on the east side of the straits, “European Istanbul” on the northwest side of the straits, and “The Old City” on the southwest side of the straits separated from European Istanbul by a waterway known as The Golden Horn.



All three sections of Istanbul have their adherents and attractions, but from the point of view of one with an historical eye, the Old City has the lion’s share of the things to see. From the Fatih Seawall to the Blue Mosque, from the Hagia Sophia (which was originally an Orthodox cathedral before Mehmed converted it to a mosque upon the conquest of Constantinople) to the ancient Roman aquaduct and subterranean Basilica Cistern, from the Grand Bazaar to the Spice Bazaar to the Jeans Bazaar (yes, that last is exactly what it sounds like), the Old City is ridiculously dense with things of historical import and interest.

IMG_9538It’s also, of course, a tourist trap that can invite comparison to a cosmopolitan Disneyland where at times one can hear a dozen languages spoken in the space of a minute, and not one of them Turkish.

The Grand Bazaar itself has its own police force, its own mosque, dozens of gates, and is one of the oldest shopping centers still active in the world today.

Not only is it a gigantic, sprawling edifice on its own, but it spills out even beyond the confines of its own gates to specialized bazaars for old books (mostly just modern books, to be honest), the Spice Bazaar, even a “jeans” bazaar.

Important things I learned while in Istanbul:

  • Whenever anyone is watching, most Istanbulites I saw pretended indifference or annoyance with their feline co-inhabitants, but the moment nobody was looking I would see half of them sneak them food.
  • The Istanbul city council has no sense of fun. What were you guys thinking putting all that barbed wire blocking off the interesting parts of the Fatih Seawall fortifications? Or was it more like a challenge to see how badly one really wants to see the inside of it?
  • The Basilica Cistern is big and impressive, but really, it looked way bigger and more impressive in every documentary I’ve seen of it. Also, the documentaries conveniently don’t pan by “The Cistern Cafe” located right there on the water conveniently serving drinks.IMG_9470
  • Despite the best efforts of my traveling companions and I, our search for the best donor (Turkish form of the Greek gyro or Arabic shawarma) ultimately wound up being found in Budapest. Really. I know of a fantastic shop in Pest with literally the best donor/gyro/shawarma you will ever eat. Seriously. You will eat and then mourn the rest of your life the bland, tasteless, dust that passes for food ever after.
  • The shopkeepers of the Grand Bazaar universally appear to speak a minimum of twelve to fifteen languages. We would walk by and they’d start trying to guess your language, in the process peppering out half a dozen or so before the end.
  • As a secondary statement on the Grand Bazaar, I apparently don’t really get this whole “haggling” thing, but in the end both parties seemed to be happy as I got what I was buying for less than I would have expected to pay, and they more than they were prepared to settle for.
  • It’s true what they say about the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia; the Blue Mosque is stunning on the outside, but kind of disappointing on the inside (particularly with the forest of wires depending from the ceiling to hold up the various lights), whereas the Hagia Sophia shows its age on the outside, but it is jaw-droppingly beautiful on the inside. It also has seraphim angel depictions and, bizarrely, the burial site of the Christian commander who looted Constantinople on the crusaders’ way to the Holy Land. Like, uh, you apparently do.
  • Don’t say “um” or use the “ok” handsign in Turkey. Trust me.IMG_9555
  • The trolley announcer on the main T1 line isn’t really making a comment about “probable incidence of blasphemy”.
  • The Turkish police appear to focus their recruiting efforts on sixteen year olds. The sight of kids – and I mean it when I say “kids” – carrying military rifles is a little creepy. I mean, come on, at least have a scimitar as your primary weapon.
  • Did I mention all the stray cats already? Oh, right. Sorry.
  • The Istanbul metro system makes the Budapest, Romanian and San Francisco mass-transit systems seem like a sick joke. I think I’m in love. With a train system. How the hell did that happen?
  • It’s true what they say about ninjas in large numbers being relatively harmless.
  • The Grand Bazaar really does resemble nothing so much as Robert Aspin’s Bazaar on Deva.
  • Turkish coffee is definitely a thing, but I swear, the Turks take their tea more seriously than the English.


All in all, well worth the trip from a historical perspective and even if, as one Turkish woman told me, “The Old City isn’t really Istanbul”, since I was looking more for Constantinople I think it all more or less worked out for me.

Until the lamb intestines started appearing in the gutters, but that’s a story for the next and final article of this little series. Don’t worry. I am almost done with this and will be ready to go back to more game design material and werewolf sonnets.

Next Article: Lamb Intestines and Western Anatolia