Posts Tagged ‘anatolia’

An Unforgettable Snapshot on the Euphrates River

Thursday, August 30th, 2012

Jodi Magness holds a senior endowed chair in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She received her B.A. in archaeology and history from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and her Ph.D. in Classical archaeology from the University of Pennsylvania.

In May, Jodi lead a group of Smithsonian Journey travelers around the Ancient Worlds of Anatolia.


The Euphrates River: The name evokes images of the earliest civilizations, mighty ancient powers such as Assyria and Babylonia, and modern Middle Eastern conflicts. And here we were, driving from the town of Gaziantep in southeastern Turkey to the Euphrates River for a boat ride! I had the good fortune of accompanying The Ancient World of Anatolia, a tour of southeastern and central Turkey. As we drove, I craned my head for my first glimpse of the fabled river. Finally, we reached the river, driving along its banks until stopping at a spot where we all boarded a boat. I chose to sit with about half of the group on the boat’s roof, for the best view of the river as we made our way upstream.

I thought about how this river provided not only vital drinking water in this arid region, but also served as a main transportation artery for all of the peoples along the hundreds of miles alongside its banks. And I thought about how millennia ago, humans began to utilize the river to irrigate agricultural fields. Thanks to irrigation, farmers were able to produce surplus crops, which led to the rise of specialized crafts and industries, as not everyone had to grow food just to survive. As a result, hierarchical or stratified societies developed—that is, centralized forms of government—and with them, the need for writing to keep official records. All of these thoughts swirled through my mind as we glided along the Euphrates River. Suddenly, I realized this was a “Kodak moment.” Everyone agreed, quickly assembling on the roof of the boat for a group photo.

Smithsonian group on Euphrates River

Smithsonian Journeys group exploring the Euphrates River. Photo by author

After about an hour, we returned to the dock and disembarked.  I stepped down to the river bank and dipped my hand in, so I could say that I have touched the waters of the Euphrates River. We drove back along the river bank the way we had come, stopping for a delicious Turkish lunch at a restaurant overlooking the water. The meal began with bread served hot out of a traditional oven, followed by a delicious salad of fresh, locally grown vegetables. For the main course, I enjoyed fresh grilled trout; other members of the group chose lamb kebabs or Euphrates fish kebabs. This was one of the many highlights of our tour of southeastern and central Turkey.

Read more about Smithsonian Journeys’ Ancient Worlds of Anatolia tour here.

Exploring Anatolia with Turkish Hospitality

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

Smithsonian Study Leader Jaclyn Maxwell is part of both the History and Classics & World Religions faculty at Ohio University. She is an expert on the social and religious changes that swept the late Roman Empire, as Christianity became the dominant religion in the Mediterranean. Dr. Maxwell recently led our Ancient Worlds of Anatolia tour and shares her thoughts here:

Roadside Turkish pastries. Photo: Janet Maxwell

Roadside pastries. Photo: Janet Maxwell

Even though I’m a professor of ancient history, I found contemporary Turkish culture and society as captivating as the famous monuments and museums we visited on this trip. At its best, travel will lead to unexpected experiences and observations; new environments will draw your attention to unfamiliar aspects of ordinary, daily life.

For instance, everywhere we went, members of our group noticed the flowers. Even though we knew they must be unremarkable to the people who live there, the roadside flowers and trees were interesting to us, especially the red poppies and the flowering pomegranate trees (I had never seen a pomegranate tree before this trip, or a pistachio tree for that matter).

In the street market in Gaziantep, a few of us became fascinated with the dried vegetables hanging in bunches from the awnings. I’m sure most people there would never notice them unless they were shopping for dried vegetables, but to us, their colors and shapes were oddly captivating.

Another interesting thing that can happen while traveling is that you might begin to adopt certain local customs and tastes. That happened on this trip in a few different ways. When we stopped at gas stations for breaks during our bus rides between cities, I liked the fact that we stood outside drinking little glasses of hot tea like the Turkish workers and travelers. We also quickly became connoisseurs of the Turkish cookies, nuts and candy for sale at the gas stations. It became entirely normal for me to always have a bag of hazelnuts in my purse, ready to share them with anyone at any moment.

I also enjoyed striking up conversations with people along the way, using my limited knowledge of Turkish. Especially in Gaziantep, Sanliurfa and Adiyaman, tourists were relatively uncommon and so the locals were interested in learning about where we were from and where we were going. Despite my grammatical limitations, they were patient while I tried to understand and answer questions.

Tea break - Janet Maxwell.

Photo: Janet Maxwell

A spontaneous interaction between part of our group and a family in Cappadocia confirmed everything we had ever heard about Turkish hospitality. Six of us had stopped for an optional visit to a local winery, and we were walking down a small road to meet the bus for the next outing on the itinerary. As we passed by, a family called out to us from their front yard. They had a small fire going, with a metal plate over it that they used for cooking flat bread. A couple of women were preparing food while the other adults and children sat in some shade and talked. They were asking us to stop and share some of their food. We were going to have dinner soon, so we didn’t need anything to eat (and we were all eating more than enough on the trip!), but we wanted to be polite, so we stopped.

Being polite can be really advantageous. This family gave us the most amazing food: fresh, hot flat breads, one filled with cheese with parsley and the other with minced meat with mint. They gave us more than we needed, but we didn’t complain. It was really the best food of the entire trip, which is saying a lot. They invited us to stay for tea, and we would have loved to, but we had to meet our bus. We said thank you and goodbye, and when we returned to the bus and the rest of the group, we immediately told everyone about this wonderful family and their amazing food that they had shared with us. It was so astonishing to realize that both their kindness and their food would be considered completely ordinary in Turkey.

Packed yet? Click to learn more about traveling to Turkey with Smithsonian Journeys.

What did you learn from the locals last time you traveled? Share your story.