Dispatch from Turkey and Jordan: This ancient ground

May 29, 2007

In a series of dispatches produced by Research/Penn State magazine, Josh Ambrose, a recent Penn State graduate from the Department of English in the College of Liberal Arts, writes from the Middle East while exploring soils of ancient and modern civilizations. Ambrose and five classmates will spend four weeks traveling Turkey and Jordan with Kate Butler, senior lecturer in soil science. Stay tuned for dispatches as Ambrose discovers and describes the relationship between soils and society.

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Dispatch 1: Urgup, Turkey

This morning, a raspy call to prayer sobbed into the night from the nearby spindle of a minaret. I squinted into the pre-dawn darkness of Urgup, Turkey. I listened, still half-asleep. Then, with the filmy hotel curtain blowing in on a curiously still, dry gust of air, I closed my tired eyes again.

I had left my fiance of two weeks less than 24 hours earlier and joined my five other classmates at the JFK airport. A graduating senior, this trip to the Middle East will be the last academic experience of my undergraduate career. And what a trip it will be! My classmates and I are part of Soils 497H -- a Penn State class that set out to explore the interrelationship between the types of soil that we live on and the different kinds of civilizations that arise and develop on top of them.

As such, our three and a half week trip will spend time on a wide variety of agricultural and historical sites throughout Turkey and Jordan, exploring the questions and answers that we find, both ancient and modern. We are being led by Dr. Kate Butler, senior lecturer in soil science, who taught the first spring semester-long portion of the class. Despite its close link with the soils and agricultural departments, the class is interdisciplinary. (My own major and Schreyer Honors thesis was done through the English department.) Needless to say, my classmates in my literature courses looked at me oddly whenever I mentioned my soils class and trip.

After leaving JFK around 4:30 p.m., I opened up the complimentary newspaper copy the flight attendant gave me. News about Turkey's mass protests over recent elections was a few pages in, accompanied by another story about the Turkish and Jordanian-born conspirators recently arrested for plotting to assault Fort Dix. Seated exactly in the middle of my seven-chair-wide row, I knew instantly that this trip had the potential to confront my cultural stereotypes and open my international vision like no other trip I had ever taken.

Halfway through the flight, my good friend Jessica came up to share about the Turkish musician she was sitting beside, several aisles back.

"He's a nudist! And got married in a tree -- what a hippie!" she stage-whispered. Yes, stereotypes would be quickly shattered. Jessica returned to her seat and I returned to my book with amusement as we continued our flight of over ten hours and nearly 4,000 miles. The rest of the class was scattered throughout the plane as we flew into a timezone that was literally "tomorrow." My classmates are surprisingly well-traveled. The six of us have collectively traveled to almost 30 countries, from Argentina to Germany, Peru to Syria.

After touching down and taking a quick nap sprawled across sticky airport chairs in Istanbul, Turkey, we boarded a more spacious commuter plane for Kayseri, Turkey. We landed in the smaller city another hour and a half later, our mouths dropping open at the sight of the snow-capped mountain towering above the terracotta-capped buildings of Kayseri. Our first guide, a previous acquaintance of Dr. Butler's, was waiting for us. We immediately boarded a van and drove through fields of young wheat and small grapevines to our hotel in nearby Urgup.

Once we arrived and drank our welcoming cups of Turkish tea and coffee, we wanted to hit the sack -- but couldn't do that yet. With a seven hour time difference from America, it was only hours after noon. If we were going to successfully acclimate to the time difference, we had to brace our sleep-deprived bodies for another few hours. To combat our exhaustion, it was decided that we would go on a hike through the nearby Red Valley -- the famous Cappidocia region.

Eerily similar to the Badlands of America's midwest, the stone and compacted-dirt piles of the valley were scattered in every direction, as far as the eye could see. Consuming thoughts of sleep quickly left our minds as we pulled out cameras and began our three-hour hike. A valley that used to be a lake, the rock piles had been formed from dust and ash from the nearby mountains -- once continuously active volcanoes -- millions of years ago.

Wind and water erosion had since left the rock piles we now saw in every direction. They were first inhabitated some 4,000 years ago by the ancient Hittites, who began carving caves into their wide pillars for storage and habitation. According to our guide, it was after the Romans and during the Byzantium period that the area reached its peak habitation, with persecuted Christians seeking refuge from neighboring, hostile Arab tribes around the second century CE. Some of their hollowed-out dwellings reached depths of seven stories in depth. We are scheduled to take a closer look at the most impressive of these cave dwellings later in the week.

On our hike, we rushed from outcropping to outcropping on the valley rim before walking down into the actual trough below. The red earth, we were told, was from iron sedimentation, yellow soil from sulphurous sedimentation, the white and tan ground bleached of all mineral depositation. In more recent times, the area was home to some of the most fertile vineyards and fields of this area of Turkey. Locals kept enormous flocks of pigeons in the caves and gathered their guano to fertilize the soil. Combined with carefully managed irrigation, this led to a continuous, assured harvest. Yet, within the last generation, this time-honored practice has taken a fatal hit, due to the increased availability of commercial fertilizers and migration to the cities. Although farmers once achieved a higher quality yield from the guano, the guaranteed quantity of fertilizer-supplemented potatoes has won out. Similar to the farming situation in many parts of rural India, this has now led to a troubling cycle of deep debt to government subsidies and a decline in single family agrarian holdings in the area.

Yet, in the last generation, this time-honored practice has taken a significant hit, due to the increased availability of commercial fertilizers and migration to the cities.

Thankfully, due in no small part to a rise in tourism and a near-disastrous overdose of fertilization, the old ways are being explored and cultivated once again. The landscape that we now explored as the sun fell was largely empty of current habitation. To many of us, it was nothing like anything we had ever seen or heard of before, a completely novel experience. We returned to our hotel that night quiet and awed. Already, the long, cramped plane ride had been worth it. We turned in to bed as the first nighttime call to prayer rang out throughout the neighborhood and a Turkish-overdubbed "Shrek" played on TV.

I am writing this now from a small cafe in Urgup after a full 14 hours of sleep. We have most of the day off to get fully used to the time difference and the bright, piercing heat. Overhead, fans are swiftly turning and a mix of Eastern and Western pop tunes are playing in an amusing juxtaposition of styles. It's always amusing to hear "My Humps" followed by a sitar melody! My time is up now, but I hope to have more updates and pictures coming soon....

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See additional photos accompanying the first dispatch at http://www.rps.psu.edu/undergrad/ambrose1.html online.

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  • IMAGE: Julien Apack

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