Thursday, March 10, 2016

New exhibit seeks to start filling some of Anatolian history's 'Empty Fields'

More than a century ago, botanist John Manissadjian roamed the countryside of what is now northern Turkey, collecting — and sometimes identifying for the first time — thousands of species of flowers and other plants, as well as butterflies and moths. These finds formed the core of the natural science museum he established at Anatolia College, a school for Greek and Armenian students in the Ottoman Empire.

“Manissadjian’s labour of love was such a sophisticated collection, started in the last decade of the 19th century,” says Vasif Kortun, director of research and programmes at Istanbul-based cultural institution SALT.

Sadly, within just a few decades, the museum and its collection were doomed to disappear, dispersed, along with Anatolia College’s students and professors, following the mass expulsion of Armenians from Ottoman lands in 1915.

Now, curator Marianna Hovhannisyan is working with SALT to bring some of Manissadjian’s scholarship back into focus in a new exhibition...

The challenging, deeply researched exhibitions at Istanbul cultural institution SALT are nearly always worth seeing. I previewed SALT's latest show, "Empty Fields," on view at SALT Galata in Karaköy until 5 June, for the March/April issue of Selections magazine, speaking to the exhibition curator as well as the institution's research director.

Read the rest of my exhibit preview, "Filling the Empty Fields," on Selections' website.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Uncertain future for one of world's oldest urban farms

Driving into Istanbul from Atatürk Airport, the crumbling fortifications along the Marmara Sea demarcate where the historic, pre-sprawl city begins. But though they may evoke oohs and ahhs out the window, few visitors venture back to explore the 1,500-year-old city walls on foot.

My first time walking the 6.5-kilometer length of the walls was full of surprises: homing pigeons for sale in a parking lot, spectacular (if precarious) views, a livestock market for Kurban Bayramı (Eid al-Adha) sacrifice animals. Most striking of all were the gardens: lush plots of fruits and vegetables squeezed between the walls and the modern highway that now loops outside it. Years later, urban redevelopment has transformed or rendered inaccessible many areas along the walls, but some of the market gardens (called bostan in Turkish) remain, a last vestige of an ancient urban agricultural tradition.

I've written previously about the Yedikule bostan by the city walls for The Atlantic's City Lab, and about other examples of urban agriculture in Istanbul for Culinary Backstreets and Zester Daily. A new threat to the Yedikule bostan early this year prompted me to take a deeper look at the gardens' past, present, and future.

Read my new article, "In Istanbul's Ancient Gardens, A Battle for Future Harvests," in Yale Environment 360

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Turkey's 'hidden' coast: The Black Sea

My first hints that there was something different going on in Turkey's Black Sea region came in Istanbul -- watching environmental films that depicted the rugged beauty of its remote mountains and their hardy, sometimes eccentric inhabitants, and reveling in a wealth of unfamiliar flavors at the (sadly now shuttered) "Laz meyhane" Mohti, where hamsi popped up in everything from corn bread to omelets served in the raucous music- and smoke-filled restaurant.

Visiting the region for the first time last spring, I spent a week reporting on environmental threats from dams, mines, and other development, meanwhile picking up intriguing tidbits -- the distinctive regional architecture, the melting pot of languages and cultures -- that left me wanting to return.

The two travel lists I wrote for Matador Network this month offer just a taste of what the region has to offer -- if its natural beauty and rich cultural diversity can be preserved:

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Solidarity amid strife in Turkey

It wasn’t long after the blasts tore through the crowd that the urgent cries began going out on Twitter and Facebook: “O-, O+ and A- blood needed at Numune, Hacettepe and İbni Sina hospitals!”

Next came the photographs of papers tacked to walls: lists of the names of the injured, shared online to get the word out to their family and friends.


As night fell after Turkey’s deadliest-ever terrorist attack, a dual suicide bombing targeting a peace rally organised by trade unions in the capital city of Ankara, the calls for help continued...

The killing of 103 people in the Ankara bombings of 10 October sent many in Turkey, myself included, into deep mourning. One of the few things bringing some comfort was seeing the solidarity and resilience of people coming together to protest the deaths and help those wounded in the attack and the families of those who perished.

This is a difficult moment, however, for Turkey's grassroots, which while revitalized in some ways by the Gezi Park protests of 2013 and subsequent civic organizing, is also under an increasing amount of pressure from the country's government and security forces. I wrote about some of these tensions for Equal Times, a Brussels-based news site that also published the story in Spanish and French.

Read the rest of my article, "The Renewal and Repression of Turkey's Civil Society Grassroots," on Equal Times.

Monday, November 16, 2015

From tourism to turmoil

Early November is typically a tranquil time on Lesbos, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea with some 80,000 year-round inhabitants. Residents shut the doors of their hotels, restaurants, and other businesses that predominantly serve the summer tourism market and head out to their olive groves for the annual harvest.

This year, though, there are “no vacancy” signs in English and Arabic posted on hotel doors in the main port of Mytilene and lines snaking outside travel agencies. The latter are doing a brisk business not in holiday excursions, but in ferry tickets to Athens, the next stop for the tens of thousands of refugees and migrants who have landed on the island this year en route to mainland Europe.

“It’s usually very quiet in winter, but a lot of businesses are still working even now, restaurants, mini-markets, car-rental agencies, so there’s a bit more life in the villages,” says Lesbos resident Aphrodite Vati Mariola. The beachfront hotel her family has operated since 1989 is not among them, however – they closed two weeks early after bookings went stagnant in early September, when both refugee arrivals and media coverage of the crisis increased....

Conflict in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other country is taking a devastating toll on human life and driving millions of people to leave their homes. This refugee flow is also having an impact economically and socially as in nearby countries such as Greece and Turkey as they struggle to cope with the influx. Late last month, I traveled to Lesbos to volunteer and bring back information about the conditions for refugees on this "hotspot" Greek island. I was also asked by the travel website Skift to write about how the refugee crisis is impacting the economy of this once-popular tourism destination.

Read the rest of my article, "Greek Islands Known for Tourism Continue to Feel Impact of Refugee Crisis," on Skift's website.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

A city's buried secrets

Ufuk Kocabaş spent his summers swimming, snorkeling and eventually diving around nearby Marmara Island, where his grandfather and other forebears plied the sea as sailors. At age 14, he stumbled upon his first shipwreck, littered with pieces of amphora — an ancient type of storage and transport container — and got an early lesson in proper archaeological practice.

“I took some amphora fragments [from the ship] to my sister who was studying at university,” recalls Kocabaş, now head of the Istanbul University Conservation Department. “She told me I shouldn’t have taken them from the site, that I should have left them where they were. At the time, I thought this was stupid. It’s my amphora!”

After chiding him, Kocabaş’s sister helped him identify the type of amphora he found. It dated to the seventh century, and they passed the information they’d ascertained about the shipwreck to a museum. “It was an amazing experience,” Kocabaş says. “I started to read about shipwrecks then, and haven’t stopped since.” ...

Last summer, I had the privilege to peek into Istanbul's far-distant past with Kocabaş, who helped lead the archaeological excavation that uncovered perhaps the world’s largest collection of Byzantine shipwrecks, and evidence that the city's history dates back nearly 6,000 years farther than previously believed.

My story about the work of Kocabaş' Yenikapı Shipwrecks Project, and other fascinating urban archaeological digs from Rio to Rome, was published as the September 2015 cover story of Discover, my first piece for the renowned science magazine.

Read my article, "Underground Transit Projects Reveal Secrets Buried Beneath Cities," in Discover.

My story featured on Discover's Facebook page

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

(Olive) oil vs. coal

For seven weeks in the fall of 2014, the villagers of Yirca kept watch over their olive groves day and night, warming themselves around a fire and taking turns sleeping in a small shelter. Sentinels with binoculars were stationed under the pines on a nearby hill with a sweeping view across the broad, flat valley. They were scanning for any sign of movement by the Kolin Group, the company that was seeking to expropriate this land to build and operate a 510-megawatt, coal-fired power plant.

"If the scouts saw anything, they'd get on their phones and call down, 'The bulldozers are coming!' and the people would rush to block the road leading to the groves," says Mustafa Akin. The avuncular former teacher now serves as muhtar—the elected village head—of Yirca, a tiny settlement of 400 in western Turkey, 50 miles inland from the Aegean Sea.

For a time, despite several confrontations with Kolin Group workers, the villagers' vigil was largely successful. But one night in early November, the bulldozers came back, this time accompanied by two busloads of private security guards and a "rapid expropriation" order from the government. Arguments broke out, and then scuffles. Four people were hauled off in handcuffs; others say they were beaten by the guards. Before the sun rose, 6,000 olive trees had been ripped out of the ground....

What happened that night in Yırca shocked people around Turkey, especially coming as it did just a few months after an appalling industrial disaster killed 301 coal miners in nearby Soma. But it is hardly the only place in the country where corporate interests -- particularly those related to the energy and construction sectors -- are running roughshod over nature and rural communities. Earlier this year, I traveled to Yırca to see how the villagers were faring following the loss of their olive trees, and to try and put their story into the context of the larger battles playing out across Turkey.

This reporting appeared as a feature piece in the September/October 2015 issue of Sierra magazine. For a visual snapshot of life in Yırca, visit my personal blog, where I've posted some photos from my trip.

Read my article, "The Olive and the Power Plant," online, or see it as it appeared in Sierra's September/October 2015 issue (pdf).