Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Li Na and the whale shark

A couple of days ago Li Na won the Australian Open.  This is her third appearance in the final and her first win.  Many people are happy for her.  She is, of course, an excellent tennis player, having won the French Open previously.  She is tenacious, independent-spirited, gracious and has a humorous side.  The Chinese are very proud of her.  She also projects a very positive image of modern day China. 

Today, however, newspapers post bloody images of whale sharks being slaughtered in Zhejiang.  Huge shark fins are hacked off to make shark fin soup.  Skins are used as leather.  Liver oils processed into supplements and beauty products. It is estimated 600 whale sharks are butchered there just in one factory each year.  How long will it be before the docile and majestic animal is extinct?

I saw whale sharks in person for the first time at the Atlanta Aquarium in 2010 and was mesmerized. I had to go back again the following day to see them again, and I was still mesmerized, spending hours there.  A whale shark is a type of shark, but it is very different from killers such as the great white, or tiger.  It is huge, and can be as long as 40 feet.  But it eats algae and small fish, krill, ...  It presents no danger to humans other than its size.  In that sense it is more like a whale, hence the name.  It is also called butanding. It is a vulnerable species.  Many countries, including Philippines, India and Taiwan has banned the fishing of whale shark for commercial purposes.   Putting them in a aquarium is cruel enough.  Now they are being butchered in the hundreds.  

Such is the ugly side of modern China. 

Friday, January 24, 2014

Spice Bazaar

 My wife and I had a lot of fun at the Spice Bazaar (Misir Carsisi, Egyptian Bazaar).  It is right next to the New Mosque.  There is much more than spices.  We found all kinds of dried apricots, figs, olives, hazel nuts, pistachios, curries, peppers, vine leaves, soaps, teas, cinnamon, sun dried tomatoes, fish, sheep’s feet, and much more.   

We have been eating dried apricots all our lives.  In Turkey, we learned that there are also sun dried apricots that are much darker and often misshapen, but are actually much more moist and sweet.  Now we find the bright orange dried apricots much less attractive.  

We had a similar experience with dried figs.  We have always liked dried figs, which are pressed into a regular shape and packed like sardines.  But we discovered in Turkey that some dried figs can be look misshapen but are actually soft, moist and quite sweet.  

The Spice Bazaar is just a lot of fun. In fact, I found it more interesting than the Grand Bazaar, which is bigger and more famous.  Perhaps it is because the Spice Bazaar is more about things that you eat, while the Grand Bazaar seems to be more about things that you wear. 

Sunday, January 19, 2014


At a small road side cafe in central Turkey, a beautiful dried poppy seed pod stood in a bed of poppy seeds.  The poppy pod, of course, is the source of opium.  While the seed pod/capsule is still green, incisions are made.  The latex, a viscous fluid, that is exuded through the incisions are collected and dried. That is raw opium.  From opium, morphine are other substances are extracted. 

The poppy seeds, on the other hand, are edible and used in many foods.  For example, as spice as well as decoration on bread.  They can also be pressed for oil.  

I was told that there is a very small amount of morphine in poppy seeds.  Hence they may cause false positive results in drug tests.  

Thursday, January 16, 2014



This is a fascinating region in central Turkey.  First of all, it is full of national wonders. Some of them have been described as “fairy chimneys”, “tent rock”, or “earth pyramids”.   It is basically a think layer of soft rock covered by a thin layer of hard rock.  

In time, the rocks are eroded and washed away. Sometimes, however, a small cap of the hard rock remains and protects the soft rock below.  The result can be a cone, a pillar, or some variation of such.   

Some natural caves form in the rocks. And people started living in them. Some dug more holes.  Some found them natural hiding places.  In early Christian times, many Christians faced persecution from the Romans.  Many moved here, built churches and monasteries, and form communities.  This region remained an important part of Greek Christianity for a thousand years.  

Around 1000 AD, the Seljuk Turks moved into Anatolia. Some residents converted to Islam.  But much of the Greek-Byzantine population moved to the Ionian coast.  Today the population is basically Turkish.  

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


I have wanted to visit Ephesus for a long time, for many reasons.  It is a popular tourist attraction, an ancient Greek and Roman city in Muslim Turkey.  It has a well-preserved library and theatre.  Paul lived in Ephesus for some time.  One of his letter to the Christians in Corinth, which was included in the New Testaments as I Corinthians, was believed to be written in Ephesus.  Paul also wrote a letter to the Christians in Ephesus, probably while he was in Rome, and the letter was included in the New Testaments.  

Ephesus was famous for a temple dedicated to Artemis, a daughter of Zeus and twin sister of Apollo.  Her Roman equivalent is Diana.  Many artisans made a living making silver shrines of Artemis at the time.  Because Paul was so successful preaching the Gospel in Ephesus, the artisans felt their livelihood were threatened and became very upset.  They seized Paul’s traveling companions and rushed into the theatre.  Paul wanted to appear before the crowd, but the disciples would not let him.  Perhaps the theatre that is still standing today is where this great commotion took place?  

Ephesus was evidently quite prosperous for hundreds of years.  The people who lived, built and worshiped there probably did not anticipate that one day the good times would stop.  But they did stop.  Ephesus has been abandoned for more than a thousand years.  Many people come to stare at the ruins and try to imagine what it was like.  Some are intrigued by objects such as the ancient toilets.  Many want to preserve and perhaps even restore some of the old buildings.  But no one is talking about rebuilding the city and living there again.  

Would the same fate happen to some of the great cities today?

Sunday, January 05, 2014


Three years ago, we saw the magnificent Pergamon Altar in Berlin.  It was an altar dedicated to Zeus.  At that time, we learned that it was removed from the Pergamon acropolis and rebuilt in Berlin.  It was made of white marble and almost completely faultless.  It was so stunning that the image remained vivid in my mind, years after we have seen it.  

Hence when we came to the real Pergamon, to the south east of Troy, we were very eager to see the foundation, from which the altar was removed. Somehow, it was difficult to merge the image of the pristine white altar with the ruins at its foundations. Because the altar was rectangular, I was half expecting to see a rectangular patch of land to which my image of the altar would fit.  But it did not turn out the case.  One thing I learned on this trip is that Turkey often rely on the help of foreign archeologists and governments to excavate and preserve its numerous ruins.   

Another major building was the Temple of Athena. Judging from the size of the foundations, and what is left of the columns surrounding the temple, it must have been quite a sight.  Unfortunately, All we could see were broken pieces lying around. 

The Temple of Trajan is in better shape.  Trajan was a Roman Emperor, not a god. Like many other emperors, he liked to think of himself as a god.  Hence he ordered this temple to be built for himself. In terms of elevation, Athena’s Temple was higher than Zeus’ Altar.  But Trajan built his Temple at the highest point on the acropolis.  That’s how much he thought of himself. 

There is a great theatre on the slope immediately below Athena’s Temple.  The stage has fallen down, with pieces strewn all over the slope.  But the seats are largely intact.  I would have loved to explore it more.  But we didn’t have enough time. 

Like many other sites in Turkey, Pergamon was built by the Greeks, taken over by the Romans, ruled by the Byzantines, conquered by the Persians, and eventually overrun by the Ottoman Turks. 

Pergamon is also one of the 7 churches mentioned in the Book of Revelations. It was mentioned as a dwelling place of Satan. Some said it was a reference of the Altar dedicated to Zeus.   

Saturday, January 04, 2014


These ruins are believed to be what is left of the city Troy in the Trojan War from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.  According to archeologists, the city has been rebuilt many times. And Troy VII, dated to ~1200 BC, was Homer’s Troy.  

The epic war had fascinated us for thousands of years.  Perhaps not too many had read  Iliad and Odyssey.  But many must have heard of the heroic characters and their exploits.  Helen, the beautiful wife of a Greek king, whose face launched a thousand ships.  Paris, the prince of Troy, who seduced Helen and started the Trojan War.  Patroclus, who had killed 53 Trojan solders, who was then stunned by Apollo, wounded by Euphorbos, and finished off by Hector.  Ajax, who fought Hector to a draw. Hector, the eldest son of King Priam of Troy and brother of Paris, who also killed the Greek champion Protesilaus. Achilles, the son of a man and a goddess, who killed the Trojan hero Hector.  In turn, Achilles was killed when Paris shot him in the heel with an arrow, the only part of his body that was vulnerable - hence the term Achilles’ Heel...

Looking at the ruins, I could not help wondering where exactly  it was that these heroes fought each other.  And where they are now. 

There was, of course, this horse that the Greeks left on the beach in front of Troy, which the Trojans moved inside their city, from which Greek soldiers came out to open the gates to let in the other Greek soldiers, ... - hence the term Trojan Horse.  This one, of course, is just a recent construction. 

The war was fought not just between the Greeks and Trojans, but also among the gods.  In fact, the long conflict started when the goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite fought for the goddess Eris' golden apple, designated for the "fairest". When Paris decided to give it to Aphrodite, she made Helen fall in love with Paris, that led to the war.  Athena decided to help the Greeks, while Aphrodite and Athena's brother, the god Apollo helped the Trojans, …, with many other gods taking sides.  

The whole thing gave the impression that the Greek gods are just more powerful versions of human beings, with the same capacity for jealousy, cruelty, …, as well as love and compassion.

All these may have been more legend than history.  But in 334 BC, a real life hero Alexander took his army out of Macedonia to invade Asia.  The first town he reached was Troy.  Alexander was another name for Paris, but Alexander wasn’t much interested in Paris.  He brought sacrifices to Athena, Achilles and the Homeric heroes.   

In New Testament times, probably around 55 AD, Paul came to Troy, which was called Troas. Here Paul gave a long sermon. A young man, Eutychus, who was sitting at the window-sill fell asleep and fell to the ground, dead.  Paul went down, bent over him and holding him gently, revived him.  [Acts of the Apostles: 20:5-15].  Where exactly did this happen?

Very often, a pile of stones is just a pile of stones.  Sometimes, there are some fascinating stories behind them.  If only stones could speak, they have a lot to tell us. 

Friday, January 03, 2014

The Cats of Turkey

There are lots of cats in Turkey, particularly in Istanbul. It seems that cats has a special place in Islam.  There is a legend in which the shaytan (Satan) appeared as a rat and tried to attack Nuh’s (Noah’s) Ark by gnawing on the Ark’s boards. Allah then send a cat which went for the rat.  We saw these two getting intimate outside Hagia Sophia.  Perhaps they were play-fighting?  I was not sure. 

Then a third one joined in, creating a complicated triangle for a fleeting moment. There was a bit a tension, but the triangle was soon broken.  It was said that Muhammad was very fond of his cat Muezza.  Once upon a time, when the call for prayer was given, Muhammad found his cat sleeping on one of the sleeves. Rather than disturbing the cat, he cut off the sleeve and let him sleep. 

Outside the Blue Mosque, a young girl found a cat sunning itself on a fence.  She wanted to approach but was a little apprehensive.  It was a magical moment. 

Outside in the square, a curious one wanted to come over to investigate my camera. Another legend hold that marking on the forehead of the tabby cat was created by the Muhammad as his rested his hand on the brow of his favourite cat. 

The cats are well-fed. Outside a restaurant, some one left a pile of bones for the cat.  It didn’t care that I was poking my camera in its face. There was a legend in which a man was granted permission to enter paradise.  It turned out none of his religious duties or acts of piety had qualified him.  Eventually Allah told him it was one cold day in Bagdad, when the man saw a kitten shivering in the cold on a wall and he put the kitten under his warm coat. It was for the sake of the kitten that Allah had forgiven him.  

An old man, his back bent over by 90 degrees, gave a bunch of cats some sausages. While a black cat was eating, a white one watched, waiting for its turn. Another legend said a cat had saved Muhammad’s life.  A deadly snake had crawled into his sleeves.  A cat was called. The cat convinced the snake to show its head to that they can discuss the snake’s departure.  At that point the cat pounced on it and carried the snake off.

 At Ephesus, a cat tried to steal from a lady’s handbag, not far from the famous library.  

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom)

No trip to Istanbul will be complete without a trip to Hagia Sophia.  It is not, as some may believe, dedicated to a Saint named Sophia.  Rather, it is dedicated to the second person of the Trinity.  For almost a thousand years, it was the largest basilica. It was also thousand years older than all the other great mosques in Istanbul.  

The Hagia Sophia was actually the third church built on that spot, by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, between 532 and 537. The nave (the main sanctuary) of the church ends in an apse, in the direction of Jerusalem.  

After the Muslim conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Sultan Mehmet II converted into a mosque.  A mihrab was installed in the direction of Mecca. Since both Jerusalem and Mecca are generally to the South-East of Istanbul, with Mecca to the south of Jerusalem, hence the mihrab is slightly to the right of the apse.  Four minarets were also added outside the church.  

The Muslims removed or covered up with cement most of the original mosaic depicting people such as Jesus, Mary, saints, and other famous people. On the dome at the top of the apse, however, a mosaic of Jesus and Mary was allowed to remain. Someone said it was because both Jesus and Mary appeared in the Koran, Jesus is considered a prophet while Mary is regarded as the holiest of women.  But that still does not explain why most of the other images were destroyed except this on the apse.  However, that decision created the fascinating juxtaposition of Mary and Jesus being flanked by 2 huge Islamic Calligraphic roundels bearing the names of Allah and Mohammed. 

There are some mosaics which have been either preserved or uncovered.  One depicts Jesus, Express Zoe and one of her husbands.  Half of it is still covered in cement. I was told that restorers stopped removing the cement that covered the lower half for fear of damaging the mosaic.  

Flying buttresses support the massive walls, which in turn support the dome.  Without the buttresses, the walls would have collapsed outwards because of the weight of the huge dome.  

In the night-time, when the lights are turn on, it is another beautiful sight.