Erol and Erdem Kalaycioglu work in a tiny split level workshop in the impoverished Tarlabasi neighborhood, the gentrification process of the city is now at their doorstep, the building next door now disappeared and the ugly sounds of construction drowning out the genteel sounds of craftsmen at work, Erol hobbles around making tea while Erdem works a lathe, they specialize in the baglama and Mardin kemence, with three strings and distinctive round bowl known in the Arab world as the rehbab, the neighborhood is home to many musicians that ply their trade around the mayhanes and bars of Takism and the brothers do a good trade in repairs.
A customer enquires after a baglama, the price is accepted without negotiation and a credit card is produced, unable to deal with the transaction themselves they rely on a neighbor who can but sadly the card is declined and the customer leaves empty handed, Erol slurps his tea clearly disappointed.
As the urban regeneration inches closer the brothers Atelier is facing an uncertain future, almost half a century of artistry and tradition will no doubt be pushed into the suburbs and slip by wayside, in a world of shopping malls and hipster coffee joints it’s a battle few are left to fight.
A funny thing happened to me on the way to the Nabatean Place of High Sacrifice, stop me if you’ve heard this one, it’s a delicate tale and one I can’t help but share.
My journey to the beautiful caravan city of Petra sandwiched between the seas Red and Dead had started in the other great caravan city of Damascus, much of this excursion has already been related in the pages:
So here I am, slurping tea with a Bedouin women named Basma, she offered me another but I respectfully declined, it was already my third, I need to get up to the place of high sacrifice before closing time I explained, she looked disappointed, an excuse she had clearly heard before, what I mean before closing time it was my last day and the sun was going down, am pretty sure the business of sacrifice is quite flexible but the golden glow of the suns dying rays would not wait, and, as is always the case with places of high sacrifice it was located on the top of a mountain, I thanked Basma as she stoked her fire and strode off along the Wadi.
I followed the rock cut sandstone steps along an escarpment as it weaved around the base of the mountain, I picked up the pace taking long strides, every so often looking over my shoulder at the view and diminishing sun, it wasn’t steep and had I not been racing would have made a pleasant walk, I passed a few people heading down but pretty much it seemed the mountain was mine.
Hot and sweaty I reached the summit; a pair of pert obelisks were perched on the plateau a testament to long past craftsmanship and worship, curiously it would be much later I would learn of the deities being tributes to the Gods of both strength but also water and fertility, how one may go about paying tribute to those Gods I was soon to learn.
I pranced around the ancient alter for a while enjoying the solitude, then just as I was scrambling down from another somewhat perilous vantage point an old Bedouin woman appeared and offered me tea, as interesting as sacrificial ceremony maybe I much prefer a cuppa and a chat.
A blackened pot was sitting on a pile of flaming kindling, the tea was rancid and I drank while keeping an eye out for chance to tip it away, my host was perhaps not as old as I first thought, her face weather worn, she was a widow she told me and lived in a village the other side of the wadi, she rolled a cigarette and puffed happily, I asked what it was she was smoking but my Arabic was not efficient enough to identify the herbs which she told me she picked on the mountain, I took some pictures and she played me a tune on a metal flute, so far, in my world that is, all quite normal.
The sun was almost finished for the day and my genial host suggested she show me the quick way down the mountain, we kicked dust over the embers of the fire and set off, after no more than a few meters she told me to wait, she stressed I should wait where I was and she dashed behind some bushes, Juniper probably, she reappeared seconds later smoothing down her dress, no explanations necessary I thought and we moved on.
Wait, wait she said again, we had only been walking a few minutes, she ducked behind a bush but hardly out of my peripheral vision, I looked skyward to be sure as she dealt with the clearly urgent need, we continued, the route now becoming trickier, clambering over rocks and sliding down clefts in the mountainside, nimble as a goat she hopped and danced from rock to rock, I fumbled and dithered and did my best to keep up, once again she pulled up sharply and this time didn’t bother with modesty and just dropped to her haunches and peed freely, And I do mean freely, not since a mad Friday night in Piccadilly had I seen such wantonness, this is the Middle East and whilst many are hardly religious issues of modesty are rigorous, I was both bemused and amused, we continued, our pace was almost frantic, she deftly dealing with the terrain but me struggling to keep up, she had edged away from me and as I cupped my camera and slid down a gulley she was waiting for me, squatting, dress hitched up and in full flow, how, I marveled, could she produce such quantity, and, I admit, for a few brief seconds I couldn’t help myself but marvel, I mean, what the… she shot me a look, this time I had not looked away and felt for a moment as though I had been caught red handed, she just said yallah and we carried on our way, as if nothing had happened, this was the last time she performed, since that what it seemed to be, the image though is hard to shake off and one that no doubt al-Uzza, Nabatean God of water and fertility would approve, she did though have one more thing to show me.
She took my hand and lead me then into a cave hidden behind some overhanging greenery, I felt pretty sure that if things turned nasty I could handle the old girl, inside the cave she stepped away from me, she looked directly into my eyes, oh God I thought, how is my British politeness going to get me out of this, after an uncomfortable pause that may have lasted several seconds she pointed to the paintings etched into the wall, faded pastel shades of prehistoric art, was there an image of a snake, I wasn’t paying attention, lovely I declared and we exited the cave.
Not enough is written of the risks to white men traveling alone in the Middle East and I have enough stories to fill a book, My Gay Adventures in the Middle East has long been a working title, do feel free to encourage me.
Back in Wadi Farasa we said our goodbyes, just a few words and formal as you’d expect, I really do not know what just happened are probably the only words going through my mind, I slipped her a few diners for the tea anyway.
Please do visit my website, most of the images are available to purchase as prints:
Like all boys own adventures it has to start with a map, though in this case not a crumpled piece sepia parchment rolled up and tied with a ribbon, no, this was a modern day adventure and by that I don’t mean the map was provided by Google and illuminated on an ipad either, the map was meticulously marked out using the condiments on the table of the Crown Plaza hotel in the Jordanian capital Amman.
A few weeks before Christmas and the hotel lobby was forest of red and silver tinsel, the rain was pouring outside and with Jingle Bells on a loop it seemed more like a Croydon Arndale centre than the Middle East, a stones through from the Holy land, I was sitting with Matthew Teller, a modern day adventurer himself and as it happened author of the Rough Guide to Jordan, he had just returned from the Nabatean kingdom of Petra and had trekked far from the madding crowd and was now passing on his advice; and here he said pushing the tall silver salt cellar to just between the coffee cups is the Zib Faroun, you are kidding I chuckled, the Pharaohs Penis I said translating the Arabic into English, this I wanted to see, we went over the map again and when I thought I had it clear in my mind the waitress cleared it all away, should you need any help Matthew said call this guy, a Bedouin, he lives in a cave near snake monument, I scribbled the number in my note book and we headed back into the pouring rain.
Perhaps not exactly the Holy Grail but a quest it was; two hundred years and four months after the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt rediscovered the rose-red city I set out through the Bab as Siq (Gate of the Siq) in search of the Pharaohs Penis and other lesser known angles on one of the worlds most iconic treasures.
Petra is vast; most visitors it seems don’t get much further than the iconic façade of the Treasury but venture beyond, sit and talk with the Bedouin, climb the mountains and follow the antique trails deep into the rocky landscape and seek adventure.
Have you seen the Pharaoh’s penis I asked and old Bedouin selling trinkets in cave just below the tomb of a Roman governor named poetically Sextius Florentinus, indeed he had the old Bedouin replied then quickly produced what amounted to a Roman dirty postcard, a clay medallion depicting a scene graphic enough to demand parental guidance, I declined the purchase, the Zib Faroun I asked again, oh its far he said and pointed across the wadi, I clambered down the rocky steps and headed out into the desert and there on the dusty trail leading to Snake Monument was the lone column, it wasn’t as far as the old Bedouin had implied, and, well not that impressive either, just a way marker in Jordan’s extraordinarily long history but as they say its not the destination but the quest that’s important.